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The Wise Collection as Historical Source

In Tibet, the production of paintings in Tibet was usually overseen by particular people. For instance, the chief minister and then regent of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama oversaw the production of images representing his own massive four-volume commentary to the twelfth-century medical root text Four Treatises (Gyatso 2015, 24). By producing the paintings, an already comprehensive written commentary was translated into visual. In contrast to many other visual representations in Tibet that are closely tied to a textual corpus—such as wall paintings in monasteries and thangkas of all kind—the maps and drawings in the Wise Collection do not represent the illustration of a specific textual corpus. I compared the maps and drawings with texts, but rather using various texts to ‘read’ and interpret the stories in the drawings, I compared the maps and drawings with other visual representations of Tibet to get an idea of what influenced the lama’s drawing style. It has never been my aim to search for a text that could possibly be the basis for these maps and drawings. They do not replace written words. They reflect the lama’s knowledge about Tibet in a visual way and at the same time they represent a complex interpretation of Tibet. Nevertheless, visual sources (like material sources) still often are not equated as reliable historical sources with written sources, in particular in the field of Tibetan Studies. The Wise Collection has been underestimated as a historical source for a long time. Extracts of the collection have been used as illustrations or rather ‘decoration’ for specific publications. The geographer and map historian John Brian Harley stated about maps:

Among the many classes of documents regularly used by historians, maps are well known but less well understood. We could compile an anthology of statements that categorize maps not only as “slippery” (the adjective used by the distinguished historian J. H. Parry), but also as “dangerous” or “unreliable”. Historians have rendered to relegate maps—along with paintings, photographs, and other nonverbal sources—to a lower division of evidence than the written word.

(Harley 2001,34)

I hope I have demonstrated with this publication that the Wise Collection’s maps and drawings are not ‘slippery’ at all. They are—like texts— human creations full of meanings and world views hidden between their lines. If we start decoding their ‘language’ we realize that they are a construction of the reality of the societies of their time and thus represent a reliable historical source.

 
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