In Memoriam: Dr Isrun Engelhardt (1941–2022)

Isrun Engelhardt (photo: Emanuel Engelhardt)

With the passing of Isrun Engelhardt (née Schwartz) colleagues in Tibetan studies have lost a devoted historian and independent researcher of more than thirty years’ standing. She will be remembered for her articles on the Capuchin missions to Tibet, the 1938-1939 Schäfer expedition to Lhasa, the Tibetan Melong newspaper and “the Buddha from Space”. Equally, colleagues and friends will greatly miss Isrun’s kindness and constant readiness to share information, and to assist colleagues with her great investigative skills.

Isrun was born in Arnsdorf in the foothills of the Riesengebirge Mountains. In the 1950s she moved with her parents and siblings to Icking, south of Munich, and continued to be based there for the rest of her life. She passed away at her beloved home in Icking on 2 March 2022 after a long struggle with cancer.

Isrun came from a scholarly family and was a distant relative of the German sociologist Max Weber. From her youth onwards she struggled with severe health problems but never allowed these to restrict her in following her passions: historical research and mountaineering.

In 1974 Isrun earned her doctorate at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Her thesis carries the title Mission und Politik in Byzanz. Ein Beitrag zur Strukturanalyse byzantinischer Mission zur Zeit Justins und Justinians, and discusses the politics of the Byzantine missionary enterprise in the sixth century AD. In the course of her studies, she met her future husband Hans Dietrich Engelhardt who later became Professor of Sociology and Social Work at the Hochschule München. Their son Emanuel was born in 1979.

Since there were few employment opportunities for Byzantine scholars, Isrun at first worked as a career advisor for high school and university graduates. After Emanuel’s birth she worked at a children’s library as a volunteer. In 1986/1987 she undertook professional librarianship training in Frankfurt.

Meanwhile, her research interests began to shift towards the Himalayan region.  With her husband, also an enthusiastic mountaineer, she went on her first trekking tour to Nepal in 1973. They were impressed by the kindness and religious devotion of the Tibetan refugees whom they met and, as a result, became interested in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. They therefore seized the opportunity to visit Ladakh when it was opened to foreign tourism after 1974. Several more visits and trekking tours followed, and in 1994 Isrun went on her first trip to central Tibet. These personal encounters with the peoples of the Himalayan borderlands and the Tibetan diaspora led Isrun to resume her academic career with some four years studying Tibetan at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn in the early 1990s.

Isrun taking part in an interview, Dharamsala, 1997. Photo: Bianca Horlemann

Since Isrun had already established her academic credentials with her doctorate, she never felt the need to register for a further degree in Tibetan Studies. However, she received a research grant from the prestigious Gerda Henkel Foundation for a project on the 1938-1939 German expedition to Tibet led by Ernst Schäfer, showing how it was caught in the crossfire between politics and scientific research. The fruits of her work include the beautifully produced edited publication Tibet in 1938-1939 (2007), which highlights the photographs taken by expedition members in Sikkim and Lhasa.

Isrun was often called to distinguish between “fact and fiction” regarding the expedition’s links with the Nazi administration as well as the alleged esoteric aspects of its work. In this regard, one of her most notable contributions was her 2017 article on the provenance of the “Buddha from Space”, a statue which had apparently been fashioned out of metal deriving from a meteorite. Numerous press articles and blogposts suggested that the statue had been taken from Tibet by the Schäfer expedition in 1939. Isrun convincingly argued that the statue had most probably been designed and made for the eccentric Russian orientalist and artist Nikolai Roerich (1874-1947).

Alongside her work on the Schäfer expedition, Isrun took particular pleasure in the history of the Melong (Yul phyogs so so’i gsar ‘gyur me long), the monthly newspaper published from Kalimpong between 1925 and 1963 by Gegen Dorje Tharchin (1890-1976). In a series of articles, she drew out the distinctive characteristics of the paper and its editor, including its reporting of international news, its innovative use of cartoons and Tharchin’s “one-man war against Mao”. The Melong provides valuable insights on a range of topics linked to 20th century Tibet and Isrun readily shared these with other researchers.

Isrun was the most encouraging of colleagues, taking as much pleasure in other people’s discoveries as her own. Perhaps her most outstanding characteristic was her generosity in sharing source materials, often going far out of her way to make them available to individual researchers as well as the wider scholarly community. Among many other examples, she contributed to the Tharchin Collection at Columbia University’s Starr Library, using her own funds to purchase photograph albums from the Tharchin family and delivering them to New York in person. Similarly, she worked hard to collect copies of the Himalayan Times, which was published in Kalimpong, for the period 1947 and 1963: these are now available online through the University of Heidelberg.

Isrun kept in touch with her colleagues and friends through an extensive e-mail correspondence and – above all – through her participation in conferences and workshops. She took part in all the IATS conferences from the Seventh Seminar in Schloss Seggau (Austria) in 1995 until the 14th Seminar conference in Bergen (Norway) in 2016. In addition, she participated in many colloquia organised by the International Association for Ladakh Studies (IALS) as well as other more specialist workshops. Her final visit to India was in 2015 for a conference in Kalimpong on “Transcultural Encounters in the Himalayan Borderlands”. On the same occasion, she took the opportunity to make a side visit to Bhutan.

In Kalimpong with Trine Brox and Miriam Koktvedgaard Zeitzen. 2015. Photo Markus Viehbeck

Isrun was always excellent company, and her conference contributions were unfailingly insightful, often drawing out fresh angles from previously neglected or undiscovered materials. However, many of us will remember her most fondly from her presence at some evening gathering – glass of wine at hand – following a long day’s academic discussion in Gangtok, Ulaanbaatar, Kalimpong, Oxford or Pistoia.

Isrun’s academic legacy includes a long list of high-quality scholarly publications. More than that, her colleagues and friends will remember her personal qualities with warmth and gratitude.

Bianca Horlemann and John Bray


  • (1974). Mission und Politik in Byzanz. Ein Beitrag zur Strukcturanalyse byzantischer Mission zur Zeit Justins und Justinians (Miscellanea Byzantian Monacensia 19). Munich: Institut für Bynzantinistik und Neugriechische Philologie der Universität München.
  • (2007) (ed.), Tibet in 1938-1939. Photographs from the Ernst Schäfer Expedition to Tibet. Chicago: Serindia.
  • (2017). Un mythe occultiste démasqué – les prétendus liens entre le Tibet et le National-socialisme. Saint-Genis-Laval: Akbrieia.

Articles and book chapters

  • (1999) “Zur Ent-fremdung des Europäers: Gastfreundschaft und Abbau von Fremdheit in den Beziehungen von Tibetern und Europäern im 18. Jahrhundert.” In Aneignung und Selbstbehauptung: Antworten auf die europäische Expansion, ed. byDietmar Rothermund. München: Oldenbourg, 183-202.
  • (2001) “Perlen, Pelze und Pistolen: Facetten des Geschenkaustausches zwischen Tibetern und Europäern vorwiegend im 18. Jahrhundert.” In Tractata Tibetica et Mongolica. Festschrift für Klaus Sagaster zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. by Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz and Christian Peter. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 85-102.
  • (2002) “The Closing of the Gates: Tibetan-European Relations at the End of the Eighteenth Century.” In Tibet, Past and Present: Tibetan studies 1: PIATS 2000: Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the Ninth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Leiden 2000, ed. by Henk Blezer and Abel Zadoks. Leiden: Brill, 229-45.
  • (2003) “The Ernst-Schaefer-Tibet-Expedition (1938-1939): New Light on the Political History of Tibet in the First Half of the 20th Century.”In Tibet and Her Neighbours: A History, ed. by Alex McKay, London: Edition Hansjörg Mayer, 187-230.
  • (2004) “Tibetan Triangle: German, Tibetan and British Relations in the Context of Ernst Schäfer’s Expedition, 1938-1939.” Asiatische Studien 58/1, 57-114.
  • (2005) “Between Tolerance and Dogmatism: Tibetan Reactions to the Capuchin Missionaries in Lhasa, 1707-1745.” Zentralasiatische Studien (ZAS) 34, 55-97.
  • (2005) “Schäfer, Ernst.” In Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB) Band 22, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 2005, S. 503-504.  [Online-Version]; URL:
  • (2007) “Tibet in 1938–1939: The Ernst Schäfer Expedition to Tibet.”In Tibet in 1938-1939: Photographs from the Ernst Schäfer Expedition to Tibet, ed. by Isrun Engelhardt, Chicago: Serindia, 11-61.
  • (2008). “Mishandled Mail: The Strange Case of the Reting Regent’s Letters to Hitler.” Zentralasiatische Studien (ZAS) 37 (2008), 77-106.
  • (2009) “Nazis of Tibet: A Twentieth Century Myth.”In Images of Tibet in the 19th and 20th Centuries, ed. by Monica Esposito. Paris: EFEO, 63-96.
  • (2009) “Die Ernst Schäfer Tibetexpedition 1938–1939.” In Brennpunkt Tibet März, ed. by Klemens Ludwig.
  • (2009) “Tibet und der Nationalsozialismus: Fakten und Fiktionen.” In Tibet und Buddhismus 3.
  • (2010) “Tharchin’s Melong.” In Hartmut Walravens (ed.), The First Tibetan Serial: August Hermann Francke’s La-dvags-kyi-ag-bâr (1904 – 1907): Facsimile of a Unique Set in the Archives of the Evangelische Brüderunität, Herrnhut. Neuerwerbungen der Ostasienabteilung. Sonderheft 22. Berlin: Staatsbibliothek, 1-22 (separate pagination).
  • (2011). “Praise for Sikkim from 1938: Sikkim in Original Quotes by the Ernst Schäfer Expedition.” In Buddhist Himalaya: Studies in Religion, History and Culture. Volume II: The Sikkim Papers, ed by Anna Balicki-Denjongpa & Alex McKay. Gangtok: Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, 191-206.
  • (2011) “Reflections in The Tibet Mirror:News of the World, 1937-1946.” In Mapping the Modern in Tibet, ed. by Gray Tuttle. Andiast: IITBS, 205-64.
  • (2012) “Tharchin’s One Man War with Mao.”In Studies on the History and Literature of Tibet and the Himalaya, ed. by Robert Vitali. Kathmandu: Vajra Publications, 2012, 183-209.
  • (2013) “The Holy City of Lhasa: Dream and Destination for Sven Hedin and Ernst Schäfer.” In Nordic Ideology between Religion and Scholarship, ed. by Horst Junginger and Andreas Åkerlund. Frankfurt/M: Peter Lang, 207-24.
  • (2013) “Tharchin’s Tibet Mirror: A Christian Oriented Newspaper?” In Historical and Philological Studies of China’s Western Regions 6, edited by Shen Weirong. Beijing: Science Press, 129-55.
  • (2015). “Italian Capuchins as the First Western Healers in Lhasa, 1707-1945.” In In Tibetan and Himalayan Healing. An Anthology for Anthony Aris, ed. by Charles Ramble and Ulrike Roesler. Kathmandu: Vajra Books, 195-210.
  • (2017) “The Strange Case of the ‘Buddha from Space’.” In Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines 42, October 2017, 39-67.
  • (2018). “The Quip as the Whip: Political Cartoons in the Melong.” In Cahiers du Mirror, ed. Françoise Wang-Toutain and Marie Preziosi. Paris: Collège de France, 41-57.
  • (2019) “L’évolution de l’image du Tibet dans la pensée et les écrits de Nicolas Roerich: d’une spiritualité exaltée à un chamanisme dépravé.” In Autour de Nicolas Roerich: art, ésotérisme, orientalisme et politique, ed. by Dany Savelli. Slavica Occitania 48, 201-37.
  • (2020) “An Indigenous Tibetan Name for Mount Everest?” In On a Day of a Month of the Fire Bird Year. Festschrift for Peter Schwieger on the occasion of his 65th birthday, ed. by Jeannine Bischoff et al. Bhairahawa: Lumbini International Research Institute, 245-64.

In Memoriam: Tsuguhito Takeuchi (1951–2021)

Tsuguhito Takeuchi, a linguist, philologist, and an eminent and leading scholar in the field of Old Tibetan Studies, passed away on Saturday, 3 April 2021, at home after a two-year-long struggle against an illness. For many years, he was one of the central figures of the IATS seminars and, from 2013 onward, served as the Japanese representative on its advisory board.

He was born in Amagasaki, Hyogo, in 1951 as the second son—the elder son had prematurely passed away—of the 19th head priest at a Buddhist temple, Josen-Ji. His father was Professor Shoko Takeuchi, a renowned scholar of Buddhist studies. Takeuchi was raised in an academic atmosphere wherein his father’s colleagues and students often gathered and discussed Buddhist studies in his home. However, having entered Kyoto University, he chose linguistics, which was a relatively new academic field at the time.

In 1978, after initial training in linguistics by Professor Tatsuo Nishida, a renowned linguist of Sino-Tibetan languages, particularly for the decipherment of Tangut script, Takeuchi completed his master’s thesis on the sentence structure of the modern Tibetan language. He analysed the spoken words of his teacher, Professor Tshul-khrims skal-bzang, by using the most advanced contemporary theory of case grammar. His thesis was first published in 1990 as an article in Asian Languages and General Linguistics, the Festschrift for Professor Nishida, and then translated into English in 2016: ‘The Function of Auxiliary Verbs in Tibetan Predicates and their Historical Development’. He was an outstanding and pioneering student in the field of linguistics, which was not yet popular at Kyoto University.

In August 1978, he conducted his first linguistic field research on the Dingri dialect in Jawalakhel, Nepal. Dingri is close to Zur tsho, where his teacher Professor Tshul khrims skal bzang was born. However, Professor Tshul khrims skal bzang was educated at the Sera Monastery in Lhasa from when he was 10 years old and thus spoke the so-called ‘Central Tibetan dialect’.

In Nepal, on the way to field research, 1978

In July 1979, after spending a month at the University of Texas as a graduate student of the Fulbright Orientation Program, he studied linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania for a year. He then decided to move to Indiana University, where Professor Helmut Hoffmann was teaching, to learn the Tibetan language. Unfortunately, Professor Hoffmann retired six months later for reasons of ill-health. Nevertheless, Takeuchi continued to study under Professor Cristopher Beckwith, who sparked his lifelong research interest in Old Tibetan Studies.

Takeuchi took Professor Beckwith’s Old Tibetan class and embarked on a philological study of Old Tibetan documents. They read parts of the Old Tibetan Annals, parts of the Chronicle, the Samye Inscription, and the Prophecy on the Decline of Buddhism in Khotan, among other texts. Professor Beckwith remembers that Takeuchi was a brilliant student, very cheerful and kind, and always very helpful towards his teacher.

In 1982, as a doctoral student at Indiana University, Takeuchi made an outstanding debut in the 3rd IATS seminar held at Columbia University with a paper entitled ‘A Passage from the Shih chi in the Old Tibetan Chronicle’. He had found a passage in the Old Tibetan Chronicle that was an adaptation from the Chinese historical record Shiji, with which he was familiar from his childhood days.

In this way, during his days at Indiana University, he met excellent teachers and lifelong friends: Professor Beckwith; Professor Thubten Jigme Norbu, who was the Dalai Lama’s older brother; Professor Dan Martin; and Professor Elliot Sperling, among others.

Takeuchi’s research method was simple and straightforward: collect all related documents and analyse the text as a whole. He disliked ad hoc reading and interpretation, and always tried to collect parallel and similar expressions as far as possible. This is probably the most basic way to read a text in the absence of good dictionaries. Nevertheless, in reality, it was a tremendously challenging job simply because many Old Tibetan manuscripts remained unpublished at the time. He was also never satisfied with the edited text and sometimes said, ‘I only believe the original manuscript that I see with my naked eyes’. He regarded manuscripts not only as textual media but also in material terms, such as in terms of the shape of paper and the size, and thickness of wood. He spared no pains to go everywhere to see the original manuscripts, including London, Paris, Helsinki, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Xinjiang. His hands-on approach led him to many unpublished and uncatalogued manuscripts.

He then collected 55 contracts from many Old Tibetan manuscripts worldwide and finished his Ph.D. dissertation. It was published in 1995 as a monograph titled Old Tibetan Contracts from Central Asia, one of the essential works in Old Tibetan Studies until the present day.

He continued to catalogue the Old Tibetan manuscripts: Choix de documents tibétains conservés à la Bibliothèque Nationale, Tome III in 1990 and Tome IV in 2001, Old Tibetan Manuscripts from East Turkestan in the Stein Collection of the British Library, 3 vols. in 1997–98, Old Tibetan Inscriptions in 2009, Old Tibetan Texts in the Stein Collection Or. 8210 in 2012, and Tibetan Texts from Khara-khoto in the Stein Collection of the British Library in 2016. This was detail-oriented work, or ‘slave-work’ as he liked to put it. However, he achieved it through persistent efforts. Using his sincere efforts, his smile and his friendliness as leverage, he built the trust of librarians and scholars, who allowed him to enter the stacks where many unpublished manuscripts were kept. He checked these manuscripts one by one, read them, sometimes corrected the numbering, and even found lost manuscripts.

Field research on rock inscriptions in Ladakh, 1988

Regarding his academic career, immediately after returning from the United States to Japan he was first appointed as a full-time lecturer at Kinki University in 1984. He then moved to the Kyoto University of Education in 1988 and to the Kobe City University of Foreign Studies in 1997, where he stayed until his retirement in 2017 at the age of 65. He was also appointed as the director of the International Office in 2009 and the director of the Research Institute in 2011 and served as the dean of the graduate school during 2011–2013.

He was also eager to cultivate the next generation of Old Tibetan scholars, and launched a private class for reading Old Tibetan texts in 1998. It was held once a week, sometimes once a month, in his office at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies until his retirement in 2017. The first text we read together was Old Tibetan Chronicle, which he had read along with Professor Beckwith at Indiana University. Then, we read many and various texts with him: official documents of the Old Tibetan Empire such as Pelliot tibétain 1089, private letters, Khotanese prophecies, divination texts, etc. He shared many things with us, including the reading skill required for Old Tibetan texts and the gossip of Tibetologists.

His private class was not only the reading group but also an academic salon. We freely discussed numerous topics in a relaxed mood and an informal setting. We discussed numerous new projects, some of which became a reality, such as the Old Tibetan Documents Online project; the publication of some catalogues; and the organisation of several conferences, including the 57th Conference of the Japanese Association for Tibetan Studies, the 17th Himalayan Languages Symposium, the Third International Seminar of Young Tibetologists, theInternational Seminar on Tibetan Languages and Historical Documents, and several Old Tibetan panels in the IATS seminar. We also proposed new ideas, which were eventually published as individual papers. Through discussions with him, we learned how to develop a logical argument and to write an academic paper.

At Andiast in Switzerland, on the workshop “Secular law and order in the Tibetan Highland,” 2014

Unquestionably, Takeuchi opened a new path in Old Tibetan Studies and was a crucial person in Tibetan scholarship in Japan. With his outstanding contributions and a brilliant legacy, he remained cheerful, kind and helpful to young scholars just as he had been in his university days. Everybody who met Takeuchi knows that he loved joking, drinking with friends, and watching football. He always said that he could bring good weather with him wherever he was, and he proved it repeatedly. We respect him as a great scholar and generous teacher and also loved him as a person. We will remember his shining smile whenever we have a drink or look up at the blue sky.

At Munich in Germany with Prof. Helga Uebach, 2012

Kazushi Iwao

Ai Nishida