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Historical Atlas of Tibet (Review)

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Karl E. Ryavec. 2015.
A Historical Atlas of Tibet
Berkeley: University of Chicago Press
ISBN 9780226732442

Karl Ryavec’s book is a remarkable addition to the study of Tibet; more a cartographic history in fact than a historical atlas. For what Ryavec manages to do, far more than simply to present historical information in a series of maps, is to offer a new kind of history of the Tibetan plateau, a new way of understanding the landscape and the people who inhabit it.

Ryavec’s achievement is to present a basic factual narrative of Tibetan history in words, while at the same time plotting the implications of this history within an implied three-dimensional geographic and topographic space. In this way, the reader grasps the important developments of Tibetan political and religious history in terms of physical distance as much as of intellectual breadth.

For instance, if we look simply at the expansion of Lhasa (insets of maps 13, 16, 29 and 35), we can see very clearly the dramatic changes that occurred during the Ganden Phodrang period (1642-1951), initiated by the “Great” Fifth Dalai Lama Lozang Gyatsho (1617-1682). Reading these maps as visual intelligence, showing the adaptations to, and relationships between, the political and the religious, we can also observe the shifting sands of affiliation. The Gelukpa control over Tibet, manifested architecturally in the construction of the Potala on the Marpo Ri (in the northeastern quarter of Lhasa) during the second half of the seventeenth century, also manifested in the building and appropriation of monasteries by the Gelukpa. Thus, even within the environs of Lhasa, we can see for instance that the Rato monastery (seat of the Rato reincarnations) not only switched allegiance from Kadampa to Gelukpa during the Pakmodrupa (1354-1642) period, but is also here listed as a “new construction.” During the Ganden Phodrang period it is shown as an established monastery. As we see a microhistory of this one monastery, but in the narrative context, we begin to ask questions about the process of such switchings of allegiance, about how the Geluk monastery of Rato itself grew in parallel with the importance of the Rato tulku in the local and religious polities. These questions, of course, are not ones that an atlas will answer, but they come more readily to mind perhaps – or at least come to mind in more explicit shapes – from within a scalar, graphic form, than from within a linear, verbal form.

Answers to such questions can be discovered and interrogated from other sources, and I think that Ryavec’s project could have done more to point the reader to scholarship from which more detailed histories might be gleaned. Such scholarship might be familiar to some readers, but the lack of such a bibliography emphasizes how sometimes the target audience for the book is not really made clear. Tibetologists will read the data, I suspect, in very different ways from those who are unfamiliar with Tibetan political and religious history. The texts that accompany the maps provide a clear and elegant historical overview, but they may not present the depth of material required by someone familiar with Tibet. That said, the book’s primary focus is of course not to give a written history, but a history through maps, and in this regard it is a most valuable contribution.

Ryavec’s specific aim with his atlas is “to map the historical growth and spread of Tibetan civilization across the Tibetan Plateau and bordering hill regions, from prehistorical times to the annexation of the Tibetan state by China in the 1950s.” [5] This is a very tall order, and elsewhere in the book he points out that, having spent twenty years on this project, he would have liked another twenty years to go deeper and to produce more maps to show different aspects of Tibetan history. Nonetheless, the enthusiasm with which other Tibetologists have clearly greeted the individual maps as he produced them reveals how very important this book, even in its current form, is.

This is clearly an excellent resource for every scholar of Tibet and Inner Asia, and the author is to be congratulated for his focus and determination in producing such a series of elegant and usable maps. I would, however, have liked a gazetteer of every monastery and fortress and town, with Wylie transcription, so that they could be found easily in successive maps. As a Mongolist, notwithstanding that Mongolia is not on the Tibetan Plateau, I would have very much appreciated a more detailed cartographical account of the development of Tibetan Buddhism northwards. In a perfect world, geared to my wishes, Map 43 (“Important Tibeto-Mongol monasteries founded during the Qing period”) could have been adapted to show the gradual elimination of Buddhism during the “Great Repression” of the late 1930s. These are minor concerns, though, and personal ones, and I hope very much that the author does indeed intend to continue editing, and increasing the number of, these maps, perhaps moving them online at some point. Indeed, it can be used very profitably alongside such online resources as the Tibet Himalaya Digital Library ( and the Tibetan Buddhism Resource Center (

There are so many ways to approach the movement of history, and of the people and landscapes that effect its movement. Karl Ryavec’s magnificent atlas, the first to present Tibet as the focus of historical study, encourages us to look at Tibet – and, by extension, the shifting polities of Inner Asia as a whole – in a new way, to formulate new questions and to interrogate and challenge the old answers.

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