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A Visual History of a Hidden Exploration of Mid-nineteenth-century Tibet: The British Library’s Wise Collection

Diana Lange

The Wise Collection: A Search for Traces

In the year 1857, a travelling lama from Lhasa came to the Kullu district of the Western Himalaya, and hearing of the Indian Mutiny was afraid to proceed further. Major William Edmund Hay, who was the British Political Officer responsible for that district and who had visited the Western Tibetan borderlands a few years earlier, engaged the lama to draw and to describe for him ‘many very interesting ceremonies in use in Llassa [Lhasa]’ (Horne 1873, 28). William Howard Russell, a former special correspondent of The Times of London, visited Shimla in July 1858 and mentioned in his diary that ‘Major Hay, formerly resident at Kulu, is here on his way home, with a very curious and valuable collection of Thibetan drawings,. . .’ (Russell 1860, 136).

In the late 1960s—more than 100 years later—the former British Indian diplomat and Tibetologist Hugh Richardson noticed a collection of drawings in the India Office Library. These were catalogued as the ‘Wise Albums’, but the circumstances of the origin of this collection were unrecorded. A typewritten note dated in 1967 stated that the drawings appeared to be by a Tibetan artist, probably a lama, who had contact with Europeans, and that they appeared to have been commissioned by the writer of the accompanying explanatory texts. The drawings were dated between 1844 and 1862, while the bindings were dated late nineteenth century and inscribed with the name ‘Wise’. In a letter of August 1967 to Richardson, Averil Thompson from the India Office Library wrote: ‘Now that you have said that the drawings are of value, and not just rather pleasing curiosities, I will make a determined search for Wise and let you know the details’.1 This was the start of the long search for ‘Wise’, who was finally identified in the late 1990s as Thomas Alexander Wise (1802-1889), a Scottish polymath and collector who served in the Indian Medical Service in Bengal in the first half of the nineteenth century.2 It can be said with confidence that while the collection was named after Wise, he was not the one who commissioned the drawings. Several scholars who undertook research on the Wise Collection in the past all attempted without success to trace the origin of the collection. In the late 1990s the historian and Tibetologist Michael Aris dealt with the Wise Collection, again without being able to trace its origins, and I picked up this research baton from among what he called his ‘projects in progress’ at the time of his death in 1999.

In 2009,1 looked through the originals for the first time during a visit to the British Library in London, and at that point I decided to work on the collection. I was overwhelmed by the quality and the quantity of the material. Michael Aris noted that the Wise Collection ‘may represent the most ambitious pictorial survey of Tibetan topography and culture ever attempted by a local artist’ (Aris 1992). This ambition is reflected in 55 drawings, drawn with black ink and water colours on both European and Asian paper. These are divided into 6 large picture maps—drawn on 27 sheets—and 28 accompanying drawings. The six picture maps cover the areas of Lhasa, the traditional Tibetan provinces U and Tsang, Western Tibet, the Ladakh Indus Valley, and the Zangskar Valley in the Western Himalayas. Placed side by side, five of these maps add up to a 15-m-long panorama showing the west-east route between Leh in Ladakh and Lhasa in Central Tibet, and the north-south route leading from Lhasa southwards to Bhutan and today’s Arunachal Pradesh in north-eastern India. Places on the panorama map are numbered consecutively in Arabic numerals from Lhasa westward and southward. Tibetan numerals, found mainly on the back of the drawings, mark the order of the sheets. The 28 related drawings are detailed illustrations of selected monasteries, monastic rituals, wedding ceremonies, ethnic groups, and other topics. Most of them relate to places shown on the maps. Altogether there are more than 900 numbered annotations on the maps and drawings. Explanatory notes referring to these numbers were written in English on separate sheets of paper. Some drawings have additional labels in Tibetan and English.3 Other drawings have no captions or explanatory texts. Full keys exist only for the picture maps of the Ladakh Indus Valley and the Zangskar Valley and for most of the accompanying drawings. Most of the picture maps of U in Central Tibet are labelled with captions in Tibetan; English captions dominate on the maps of Western Tibet. The maps of Lhasa and Tsang are accompanied by neither captions nor explanatory texts.

Trained in the field of Tibetan studies and having visited many places in Tibet and the Himalayas, I was familiar with most of the content in the maps and drawings. To start with, I focused on the stories in the maps and drawings, countless little details. Toby Lester, in presenting his research on the ‘Waldseemiiller map’, the map that gave America its name, stated: ‘The map draws you in, reveals itself in stages, and doesn’t let go’ (Lester 2009, xxi). This certainly proved true for me and the maps and drawings of the Wise Collection. Some of them reveal themselves more easily than others. In some cases, it was relatively easy to ‘read’ the illustrations

A Visual History of an Exploration of Tibet 45 and to understand what they represented and meant. The English and Tibetan captions and English explanatory notes were helpful keys in this process. Nevertheless, full keys existed for only a few maps and for most of the accompanying drawings. Thus, some depictions were difficult or even impossible to ‘read’.4 When I started my research, I thought I knew where I was going. But the longer I studied the material and the deeper I understood the collection as a whole, more new questions emerged. I grew increasingly interested in the story of the maps and drawings, and I wanted to understand more than just the maps and illustrations. I sought to find out about the milieu in which they were drawn, and how and why they came into being.

In 2016, after years of research, I finally found a vital piece of the entire ‘Wise puzzle’: the name of the man who commissioned the drawings. It was William Edmund Hay. One hundred and fifty years after the drawings were commissioned by Hay and created by the Tibetan lama, I was able to add this fundamental piece of information to what was known about the Wise Collection. This was the missing link in a chain connecting the lama to Thomas Alexander Wise, who later acquired the drawings from Hay before donating them to the India Office Library (now part of the British Library) in London.

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