Missionaries in Tibet

This page is linked with American Encounters with Tibetan Material Culture

Christian missionaries have been present in Tibet intermittently since the 17th century. Although the missions failed to convert Tibetans to Christianity, and had a hard time trying to settle on the Tibetan soil, they greatly contributed to the knowledge of Tibet and to the collecting of Tibetan art in the Western world.

The introduction of Christianity in Tibet

Christianity was supposedly first introduced to Tibet by a Franciscan monk, Odoric of Pordenone, who thus should have been the first Westerner to penetrate Lhasa, in 1327, where he set up a mission. In his writings, he compared Tibetan and Christian religions, arguing that they shared a head figure, monasteries, and chanting celibate monks.
Antonio de Andrade

At the beginning of the 17th century, two Portuguese Jesuit fathers, Antonio de Andrade and Manuel Marques, went from Agra (India) in 1624 on a reconnaissance trip to Tibet. They believed that there existed forgotten Christian communities in the Himalayan region. "Four months from their departure from Agra they crossed the Himalayan crest and entered Tibet, the first Europeans to do so if one does not accept Odoric's claim three centuries earlier (...). The King and Queen of Guge, in whose domain along the Upper Sutlej River they found themselves, were particularly cordial and welcomed them to the capital, Tsaparang." [1] They remained there less than a month.

In 1661, Tibet was penetrated again by European missionaries, the German Jesuit John Grueber and the Belgian Albert d'Orville. They provided the first European record of Lhasa. They were previously engaged in missions in China. Grueber completed a manuscript on Tibet inspired by father Kircher's China Illustrata, but no trace of it has ever been found.

Ippolito Desideri and Emanuel Freyre were the next Jesuits to visit Lhasa, in 1716. They aimed at converting Tibetan people to Catholicism, and first tried to convince Tibet's Mongol king, in a strategy similar to that of the Jesuits in China. Freyre stayed in Tibet until 1729, a period during which Tibet underwent war and political conflict. Desideri left Tibet in 1921. His manuscripts were not acknowledged before 1875, and were finally published in 1904.

In the 1720s, the Capuchins came to Tibet. They were permitted to build a church in 1724. A Capuchin monk, Orazio della Penna di Billi, left some manuscripts in which he claimed the conversion of a few Tibetan leaders, and reported his correspondence with the Dalai Lama. The Capuchin mission was troubled by financial problems, and was represented very sporadically, but it was well accepted by the court, mainly thanks to its medical contribution. The last members of the Capuchin mission were expelled in 1745.

There were no more missionaries in Tibet until 1844. French Lazarists Evarist Huc and Joseph Gabet traveled through the country and studied Tibetan language and Buddhist literature. They visited Lhasa in 1846. They were allowed neither to stay very long, nor to establish a church. But Huc wrote an account of his journey that was to meet great success after it was published in 1850: Souvenirs d'un voyage dans la Tartarie, le Thibet, et la Chine pendant les années 1844, 1845 et 1846. The travel account in two volumes was soon translated in many languages: English in 1851, German in 1855, and then Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Russian...

During the 19th century, many missionaries tried to travel to Tibet, but they were quite systematically expelled. In 1858, two members of the Moravian mission, Dr A.W. Heyde and Mr Pagel, succeeded in settling a little mission on the Tibetan borderland, in the Luba Valley, near Leh (Ladakh). They benefited from the help of Tempu Gergan, the owner of the land where they had settled. After his father died, Tempu Gergan's son, Sonam Gergan, was converted to Christianity and changed his name to Yoseb.

Despite the friendship of kings for limited periods of time, the antagonism between the Lamaist clergy and missionaries, in a theocratic state, finally prevailed. Even though missions have failed to make Christian converts in Tibet (unlike in Ladakh and China), through their reports, they gave access to knowledge about Tibet to the Western world for the first time, and raised the interest of merchants and later imperialists in this region of the world.

Missionary contribution to scholarship

Missionaries can be considered the first Western scholars of Tibet. They worked on Tibetan linguistics, on Tibetan history and culture, and on translations. Their travel accounts, such as Huc's, provided a broader audience with information about Tibetan culture and religion.

Desideri wrote apologetic works about the relationship between Tibetan and Christian religions.

Orazio della Penna translated into Tibetan Cardinal Bellarmine's Christian Doctrine and Thurolot's Treasure of Christian Doctrine. He also translated some Tibetan works into Italian, like History of the life and works of Shakiatuba, the restorer of Lamaism, Three roads leading to perfection, and On transmigration and prayer to God. He is the author of the first Tibetan dictionary, which contains 35,000 words in Tibetan characters.

Dr A.W. Heyde and Mr Pagel, from the Moravian mission, translated the Bible into Tibetan, with the help of Tempu Gergan, and later Sonam Gergan. This work took a few decades, accomplished by Yoseb and the Moravian missionaries, and was finally completed in 1935.

Missionaries and collectors

Some missionaries, installed in Tibet for several years, collected objects that would later constitute museum collections of Tibetan art in Western countries.

This is the case of Dr Albert Shelton, a medical missionary and explorer who spent nearly twenty years in the Tibetan borderlands at the beginning of the 20th century. His collection provided the basis for the Newark Museum's collection of Tibetan art, as it is explained on the museum's website:
"The Newark Museum's collection of Tibetan art has its origins in a group of over a thousand objects brought from Eastern Tibet between 1911 and 1920 by Dr. Albert L. Shelton, an American medical missionary. The Museum also acquired three other missionary collections from Eastern Tibet between 1928 and 1935, significantly enriching its holdings in ethnographic and ceremonial art." [2]


Dr Marx, a medical missionary from the Moravian mission, arrived in Leh in 1887. He seems to have had a scientific interest in the culture of the region where he lived: he was the author of a History of Ladakh ("Three documents relating to the History of Ladakh", published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol.LX, part I, Calcutta, 1891). He also translated the Book of the Kings of Ladakh. His collection of Tibetan art was purchased by the American Museum of Natural History in 1920. Among the objects that were part of Marx's collection are the Giant of Great Strength Mask and the Bleeding Cup.

Giant of Great Strength Mask
Tibetan Bleeding Cup

[1] John MacGregor, p. 37
[2] http://www.newarkmuseum.org/museum_default_page.aspx?id=3184

John MacGregor, Tibet - A Chronicle of Exploration, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970