A crown jewel sits unassumingly among missionaries’ journal entries, aging photographs, handwritten letters to midlevel political officials and books neither particularly old nor rare: one of the 100 volumes of the Lhasa Kangyur, a translation of the Buddha’s teachings, that comprises half of the Tibetan Buddhist canon.
The Kangyur belongs to the “Himalayan Collection at Yale,” an exhibit at the Sterling Memorial Library that showcases a sample of the University’s vast Himalayan archives, drawing from the holdings of the Sterling Memorial Library, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Divinity School, the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the University Art Gallery, the Center for British Art and the Peabody Museum of Natural History. The display demonstrates the gap in understanding between the Western world and the Himalayas. The most telling example is the Lhasa Kanyur.
The 14th Dalai Lama had this 100-volume copy of the Kangyur printed expressly for Yale at the request of Yale’s Himalayan Collection curator Wesley Needham, who cultivated a relationship with the Dalai Lama through written correspondence in the 1940s. Needham is prominently featured in the Himalayan Collection; he made expanding and explaining the University’s Himalayan archives his life’s work.
The Kangyur arrived at Yale in February of 1950, packed in crates bound in yak skins, stitched together with rawhide. A horse caravan carried the precious texts from Lhasa to New Delhi, 1,000 miles across mountain ranges. A freight ship from Calcutta brought the volumes across the ocean to New Haven.
The pages of the Kangyur, printed in the Wylie Tibetan script and embellished with depictions of the Buddha, is often stained, either purposefully with decorative henna, or accidentally because the bright orange cloth swaddling the volume has bled artfully onto its pages. Regardless of its origin, the watercolor effect on the paper calls to mind an ancient treasure map whose edges have been seared. The Kangyur is an export of the Himalayas of the Western imagination, the remote world where temples are tucked into the sides of mountains that pierce the sky.
The Himalayan Collection shows that the East’s mythicized portrait of the West also has some grounding in truth; this picture, though, is less flattering. To share the Buddha’s teachings in America, the Dalai Lama sent Yale these hand-printed volumes carried by caravan across continents; to convert Nepalese peoples, Christian missionaries spread the word of God through brightly colored comic books telling simplified stories of Jesus’ deeds.
The two Nepali-language graphic novels on display are artifacts from the Divinity School’s Himalayan Mission Archives, the largest such collection in the world. Other artifacts in this portion of the exhibit include missionaries’ memoirs about their Himalayan campaigns with vaguely offensive titles such as “Better than the Witch Doctor.”
The Himalayan Collection makes it clear that not only literal mountains separated the peoples of the Himalayas from those of the West in the 19th century. Often Western climbers still get lost in those mountains, surprised to find themselves unprepared to ascend the Himalayan slopes.