Mathias Fermer’s dissertation project considered a network of monasteries in southern Central Tibet (Lhokha) in the 14th and 15th centuries during the hegemony of the Rlangs-Phag-mo-gru-pa (r. 1354–ca. 1480)­. In the larger VISCOM context, the project provided insights into medieval monasteries as institutions that disseminated Buddhist discourse and practice throughout various layers of society.

Since the administrative documents of most monasteries are lost or remain inaccessible, historical studies of Tibetan monastic communities must make use of various genres of historical and religious literature, combining these with ethnographic data whenever possible. In pioneering studies like this one, such sources must be laboriously gathered and examined. New evidence can also be gained through close cooperation with Tibetan-language scholars hailing from the region. Such cooperation is also essential for processing new materials.

Hagiographies (Tib. rnam-thar, lit. “liberated [performance/s]”) turned out to be a rich source for investigating monastic and sectarian group belonging. Analysis of rnam-thar texts allowed the tracking of the activities of Buddhist teachers in the region and revealed how monastic members operated in a wider network of different religious orders and (trans-)regional rulers. These sources also shed light on Tibetan ideals of spiritual learning and the entire range of Buddhist scholastic and contemplative practices, while comparative considerations demonstrated commonalities of the rnam-thar genre with Christian and Islamic hagiographies studied in other VISCOM project parts. Analyses were assisted by the production of a digital corpus with historical and semantic mark-up (see Sakya Research Centre). These resources permitted underlying networks of regional teacher-student encounters and preceptor-patron relation-ships to be traced. In the larger comparative setting, the outcome of
Fermer’s microhistorical analysis placed the specific role of Tibetan Buddhist teachers (Tib. bla-ma; Skt. guru) in their communities into sharper relief, particularly with regard to the transmission of esoteric knowledge and the foundation and sustenance of religious communities (into which Tibetan teachers are believed to return in successive incarnations).

Supplementing textual sources with ethnographic data, Fermer was also able to show how monasteries of the Lhokha region, in particular those of the Sakya order, became established in close interplay with the regional court of the Yar-rgyab family, authorised by the central Phag-mo-gru-pa court. In the 14th and 15th centuries, this family go­verned a fertile region comprising 150 km along the southern bank of the gTsang-po river. Geographic and toponymic information obtained in the field allowed the historical mapping of the monastic landscape as it emerged with the rise of Yar-rgyab family in the late 14th century.


  • 2018 (with Tsering Drongshar) "དཔལ་ལྡན་ས་སྐྱ་པའི་གདུང་རབས་ཡིག་རྙིང་ཁག་གི་ངོ་སྤྲོད། [Introduction to the genealogical literature of the Sakyapa]" Cho Dung Karpo Sakya Literary Magazine 14, 33-59. Pdf download here
  • 2017 "Putting Yar rgyab on the Map." In: Volker Caumanns and Marta Sernesi (eds.), Fifteenth Century Tibet: Cultural Blossoming and Political Unrest. LIRI Seminar Proceedings Series. Nepal: Lumbini International Research Institute, 63-96. (doi: 10.1553/0x0038c0ea). Pdf download at epub.oeaw
  • 2016 "Mural Paintings of the Sakya Founding Masters with Two Hevajra Lineages." In: David Jackson, A Tibetan Artistic Genius and His Tradition: Khyentse Chenmo of Gongkar. New York: Rubin Museum of Art, 105-119 (chapter 4b). Online version at Issuu
  • 2016 "Yeshe Tendzin, a Twentieth-Century Painter from Gongkar." In: David Jackson, A Tibetan Artistic Genius and His Tradition: Khyentse Chenmo of Gongkar. New York: Rubin Museum of Art, 284-301 (chapter 12). Online version at Issuu
  • 2016 "Among Teachers and Monastic Enclaves: An Inquiry into the Buddhist Learning of Medieval Tibet." In: Eirik Hovden, Christina Lutter and Walter Pohl (eds.), Meanings of Community across Medieval Eurasia. Leiden: Brill, 417-450. (doi: 10.1163/9789004315693_019). Pdf download at Brill Online
  • 2014 "Tibetische Meister und ihr »befreites Wirken«: Auf Spurensuche monastischer Gemeinschaften in den Lebensgeschichten des mittelalterlichen Tibet." Historicum 31, 34-39. Pdf download at epub.OAW

Digital Projects