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Tibetan archives of the Himalayan region: an unexpected treasure



by Charles Ramble, Directeur d’études à EPHE.

Several Chinese propaganda publications of the 1960s contain photographs of happy Tibetans around bonfires of legal and administrative documents. Although these documents have been symbols of social and economic oppression, they also offered a window on the daily lives and hardships of ordinary villagers – windows that have been effectively closed forever by these acts of immolation. More recently, the immense value of this kind of sources for our knowledge of the social history of Tibetan societies has been demonstrated by the discovery of archival collections in the Himalayan regions on the borders of the Autonomous Region of Tibet. These collections, which belong to temples, private houses and village communities, show a variety of documents such as wills, contracts, legal affairs and even codes of local law. This presentation aims to show that the difficulties in obtaining and deciphering these documents, dating mainly from the period from the 17th to 19th centuries, are abundantly rewarded by the fascinating picture they offer of the life of “people without history”.