August Hermann Francke – The Moravian Tibetologist

Dr. Etee Bahadur
The Moravians or Evagelische Bruderu-nitat became an independent Christian group in 1727. The main centre of their missionary activities used to be Herrnhut. The Moravian Archives is located in this small German town and are a treasure house of information on the history of missionary work.
However, this article today is not an attempt to write on the history of the missions.
A.H. Francke (1870-1930) was one of the greatest missionary scholars of the Moravian church to work in the Himalayas. Francke’s scholarly interest emerged from his career as a Moravian missionary. He is best known for his research in languages, history and archaeology of Ladakh and Lahaul. Francke arrived in Leh,,the capital of Ladakh in 1896, by this time the Himalayan Mission had been in existence for over forty years, the first Himalayan mission being formed in 1856 at Kyelang by August Wilhem Hyde(1817-1833) and Edward Pagell.
Francke settled down with his wife, Anna TheoDora Weiz (Dora) to regular mission work in Leh by 1897.Francke originally was a primary school teacher at a Moravian training college and had an aptitude for the languages.His first task was to begin learning the local language. Dora had some knowledge of the area of Ladakh, as the usual norm of the mission board, was to influence the marriage partners of the missionaries, her sister had been married to Dr. Karl Marx. Francke soon settled down to regular mission work which included preaching every Sunday, teaching English and arithmetic at the mission school everyday and taking reading lessons twice a week among other things. He had by now also begun the translation of the Bible stories into Ladakhi dialect with the help of local assistants.In 1899 he moved to a new mission station at Khalatse with his family. As in Leh he took on his duties and held regular Ladakhi sermons on Sunday, which were a laborious task due to the complexities of the local dialect. Francke’s motive was to find the best medium to express the Christian teachings to the local people.
Historically Ladakh shares a common heritage with Tibet, the spoken language being close to Tibetan. The founders of the mission had therefore begun translations in a simplified form of classical Tibetan Chos Skad and not the colloquial Phal Skal.Francke also began his studies by concentrating on the Chos Skad which was used in the Church,but soon realized that a knowledge of this language was not sufficient enough for him to communicate with the local people as Classical Tibetan, he felt was inappropriate for everyday use.
The idea of using the lithographic mission Press at Leh made him begin a monthly newspaper, called La dwags Kyi ag bar (Ladakh Newspaper, 1904-1910). It was the first Tibetan- language paper printed in the Himalayas. Francke hoped the newspaper would provide people to read on topics which were not necessary religious, as most Tibetan books were associated with Buddhism he hoped to popularize a concept of non-Buddhist writing. Hence he wrote books in the cursive Tibetan and not in Uchen script which was used in the writing of religious books. He believed that once people became accustomed to the newspaper they would be more receptive to the Moravian mission and their Christian publications. The paper had four quarto-sized sheets arranged in columns and was divided into three main sections., with news of Ladakh and other regions. The second part of the paper consisted of local Ladakhi text and included a series of extracts from the La Dvags rgyal Rabs, the Ladakhi Chronicles which had been studied by Dr. Karl Marx. The third part of the paper was Evangelistic. The main problem however was of the distribution of the paper, in a mountainous area with poor postal services. The sale of papers began to be done to the representatives of the villages at the Leh Bazaar, and soon it reached the remote villages of Ladakh.
Frankes’s linguistic research led him into the study of oral literature of Ladakh. Folksongs and proverbs as we are aware, are an important source of any local language. TheKesar Saga , Francke believed broadened his vocabulary as it is known in different versions across Tibet and Mongolia and also gives an insight of the local religious belief systems. The researches led to the publication of the Ladakhi versions of the Kesar saga first in Helinsinki, and in Bombay and Calcutta. His research into local culture prompted comparisons between Ladakh and Europe and raised the question of which aspect of Ladakhi tradition were compatible with Christianity as he had objected to certain Buddhist customs and was not in support of the worship of local spirits as it was incompatible with Christianity.Non Buddhist texts and popular folk songs interested him and he published over a dozen of short publications on topics ranging from rock inscriptions to music and folk songs. His missionary journeys also, gave him the opportunity to satisfy his archaeological interests and rock inscriptions which were a source of his historical researches. A History of Western Tibetwas published in 1907 and the Antiquities of Indian Tibet was published in two volumes, in 1914 and 1926 by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
(The author teaches at the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia)