Summer 2016

I would like to take some time to introduce myself. Although I realize that I haven’t followed the exact format of blog writing that was expected, I hope I will be able to jump right in to contribute to this vibrant community.

My name is Ishani Dasgupta and I am a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania pursuing a joint PhD in South Asia Studies and Anthropology. This summer is focused on gathering some preliminary data to prepare me for my year of field research. I am going to divide my time between doing ethnographic field work and collecting particular political documents in Dharamsala and doing archival research in West Bengal.

During this summer research trip, I want to explore the concept of the Bodhisattva, as it is being applied to political martyrdom within Tibet by activists and Tibetans in exile. In the second half of my trip, I want to study historical archives to understand how anti-State protests were being formulated, in the late 18th century, by the Tibetan monastic community. This was a historical period when they were facing political disenfranchisement.

The first part of my research will be located in the headquarters of the exile community at Dharamshala. I will spend much of my time at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, to look through documents regarding self-immolations inside Tibet, and the discourse created around it in contemporary times. I will also meet with activists and source public speeches delivered by them to understand the rhetoric within which they are framing these acts of martyrdom.

The second part of my research will be in West Bengal. On account of the brilliant work by Indrani Chatterjee, I have recognized that the borders between Tibet and India were fluid, with networks of trade and political relationships that stretched from upland Tibet to the Bengal planes. She terms this region a ‘monastic geography’, where monastic estates often settled disputes and collected revenue from lowland areas, providing patronage and also helping the flow of trade. The monastic geography consists not solely of Tibetan monks, but also of Shaivite and Vaishnaivite monastic groups.

As the East India Company tried to usurp rights to land revenue, they deemed the monastic militia as bandits and disenfranchised the monastic estates from their previous politico-economic role. This led to an armed retaliation against the British. My aim is to go through the British judicial criminal archives from the period between 1750 to 1793 (when the Permanent Land Settlement Act was established) to understand both the forms of resistance employed, and the way the British administration framed these protests. I am hoping that by drawing parallels and contrasts between this historical period and the current moment, I will be able to better interpret Tibetan acts of resistance.

2 thoughts on “Summer 2016

  1. Hi Ishani!

    I am Indira Chowdhury from Bangalore and was at CASI in 2011. Thanks for posting on your most interesting project. We recently held the International Oral History Conference at our Institute where a couple of Tibetan students put up an exhibition called “Memories of Snow” – which had a lot of poems by exiled, tortured and imprisoned Tibetans. They too displayed pictures of self-immolation. The Dharmashala Museum also has a lot of photographs of martyrdom and self-immolation and the Curator there would be very helpful. I could also introduce you to Jyotsna George who works in the organization called “Students for Free Tibet” – and you could have more insights through her and her associates.

    I like Indrani’s work and know her personally. I think it is a good idea to explore the idea of monastic geographies and see what salience the idea holds for more contemporary times. I think if you explore you will see that those who came and settled in Dharmashala were first settled into houses that belonged to various people – the government took these houses for 3 years and did not return them until 30 years later. I think interesting ideas of taxation and hospitality will begin to emerge when you look at this dimension.

    You could also email me off list:


    1. Thanks for your insights Indira. I definitely will consider them. Jyotsna is a friend and so are the other SFT members, in fact my next post mentions one of them. I had lived in Dharamsala for around a year between 2014 and 2015 and I did get to meet a lot of wonderful people and hear their extraordinary story. I’ve been to the museum several times in the past and in this visit. The depth of their tragedy and the sense of loss, exile, displacement hits you starkly when you are there.
      I would be curious to read some of the poems that were exhibited at the oral history conference. Is there a link which can enable access to the same?

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