Dr. AMY HELLER Institut für Religionswissenschaft, Universität Bern

What is your current research interest? What lies ahead?

My research spans Tibetan archaeology, history and philology to contemporary Tibetan art, principally concentrating on 10thto 15thcentury Buddhist art from Western Tibet and the Western Himalayas. I am presently working on 11thto early 12thcentury historical and religious inscriptions in the monastic complex of Alchi, Ladakh and the neighbouring monasteries of Mangyu and Sumda which allow chronological reassessment of this important group of ancient Ladakhi monasteries.

How did you get to where you are right now?

While I studied art history at Barnard College, Columbia University (1969-1973), I followed a course in Buddhism. This sparked my interest in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, leading me to enroll in the National Institute of Oriental Languages, Paris (1978-1980). Due to my motivation for research, I was encouraged by my professors to simultaneously enroll in La Sorbonne, in the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes to study Tibetan history and philology (IVesection) and Tibetan religions (Vesection). During the writing of my doctoral thesis at the IVesection, I taught at Yale College and worked at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale. I then organized an exhibition at Yale University Art Gallery (1982) and Beinecke Library (1992). Subsequently, I worked on exhibitions with Musée Guimet, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Ethnography Museum of the University of Zurich as well as on a catalogue of the Himalayan collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. I pursued research in the Tibetan studies team of the CNRS/Paris as well as in numerous private collections, notably the Abegg Foundation Riggisberg BE. Due to my extensive travel in Tibet and the Himalayas to document my research, I was sensitized to conservation issues faced by Tibetan monasteries concerning the deterioration of architecture as well as manuscripts and mural paintings. In 2004-2006, the Swiss government mandated me to supervise an architectural conservation project in Lhasa. After an invitation from the Sapienza University of Rome to teach on Tibetan art while studying 11thcentury illuminated Buddhist manuscripts in the IsIAO /Tucci archive, from 2007-2103 I taught courses on Tibetan art and archaeology for undergraduates as well as graduate seminars at the Center for Tibetan Studies, Sichuan University. This prompted Professor Karenina Kollmar-Paulenz to propose that I hold the first seminar ever offered at a Swiss university on Tibetan art and architecture at the Institute of Religious Studies and Central Asia at the University of Bern in autumn 2017. I have maintained the affiliation with University of Bern as well as the Tibet studies team of the Centre for Research on the Civilizations of East Asia (CRCAO), Paris.

What was your motivation for your choice of study?

In the aftermath of the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, many Tibetans fled to Nepal and India, bringing with them family heirlooms of Tibetan paintings and sculptures as well as historical documents. This lead some museums and collectors to actively start to acquire these types of art. When I started my studies in 1969, the discipline of Tibetan art was limited to very few museums and private collections. It was my hope to contribute to the development of awareness and the appreciation of Tibetan historical and cultural heritage through my research and lectures. 

Amy Heller reading and copying mural inscriptions thanks to Yvon Heller holding the flashlight. Alchi Dukhang, July 2017, photo by Peter van Ham.
Amy Heller reading and copying mural inscriptions thanks to Yvon Heller holding the flashlight. Alchi Dukhang, July 2017, photo by Peter van Ham.

What fascinates you about your professional activities?

My work has a fascinating diversity, combining teaching, research in collections and in-situ in Tibetan and Himalayan temples, the exploration of remote villages and archaeological sites, visual documentation by photography, and writing to make these discoveries available to the general public and to scholars. 

For example, in 2000, at the request of villagers in Dolpo at the border of Nepal and Tibet, I participated in the opening of a library, hidden to prevent theft, which revealed more than 600 volumes of Buddhist manuscripts spanning the late 11thto 16thcentury, mostly Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) texts. Thanks to some sixty volumes with historical prefaces explaining the commission of the manuscripts to the Nesar Temple, more than one hundred other volumes have illuminations of the scenes of the life of the Buddha and donors. These illuminations inform us about the local donors, their costumes and their Buddhist rituals, while the dedications tell us about the systems of patronage and donation. Some illuminations reflect the ancient manuscripts of Western Tibet, others reflect the sophisticated Newar aesthetic of Kathmandu and all these highly diverse tendencies reached Dolpo where they were highly appreciated. By studying these texts and examining the styles of the manuscript illuminations, I was able to shed light on the history of this remote Tibetan enclave which contributed to the spread of Buddhism in the Himalayas and its artistic legacy. The manuscripts, sculptures and mural paintings discovered in Dolpo are the concrete expression of the complex economic, political, artistic and religious interactions between the people of Dolpo and their neighbours in India, Nepal, and Tibet, accessible to English-language readers since the 2009 publication of my book Hidden Treasures of the Himalayas, Tibetan manuscripts, paintings and sculptures of Dolpo (Serindia Publications, 2009).

What is your special expertise?

In addition to aesthetic and iconographic aspects of Tibetan art, I have consistently worked to situate art and archaeological artefacts in context via the inscriptions in Tibetan language which accompany the works of art, textiles or artefacts in gold or silver. Thanks to these inscriptions, the icons may in fact provide vital historical testimony in addition to their cultural significance.