Recalling the life of Ladakh scholar A.H. Francke on his 150th birth anniversary

By John Bray

The 150th birth anniversary of August Hermann Francke (1870-1930) falls on 5 November this year. In the light of more recent research, it is important to read Francke’s work critically. Nevertheless, there is no question of his status as a founding father of modern scholarship on Ladakh. With this short essay I present the main details of his life in order to put his contribution to Ladakh studies into context.

Francke was born in Gnadenfrei, in what was then south-east Germany, now part of Poland. From his childhood he was brought up as a member of the Moravian Church (Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine). He was trained as a primary school teacher and taught at a boarding school for children of missionary parents before himself being called to the Moravian mission field in Ladakh.  In 1896 he arrived in Leh. The following year he married Theodora (‘Dora’) Weiz, who had been sent from Germany to join him. Dora was herself the daughter of a missionary to South Africa. They had three children, all born in India.

Francke and his family c. 1908.¹

Francke’s career as a full-time missionary was relatively short. He served in Leh for three years, before setting up a new mission at Khalatse in 1899. He was based there until 1906 and then moved to Kyelang in Lahul, now part in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. In 1908, he and his family had to return home to Germany because of Dora’s ill-health.

Those early years in India laid the foundations of Francke’s future career as a scholar. An earlier missionary, Heinrich August Jäschke (1817-1883) had translated most of the new Testament into a simple form of literary Tibetan, as well as preparing a Tibetan-English Dictionary (1881). Together with his German and Ladakhi colleagues, Francke was part of a team that began work on the translation of the Old Testament. At the same time, he was keen to promote the study of the spoken languages of the region. Working with local Christians, he prepared versions of the Gospel of St Mark in colloquial Ladakhi as well as the three languages of Lahul: Bunan, Tinan and Manchad.

The La dwags kyi ag bar

Francke’s linguistic researches led him to the study of Ladakhi folksongs and then to the Kesar epic. At the same time, he became interested in the history of Ladakh, drawing on the La dwags rgyal rabs (the royal chronicles of Ladakh), as well as rock inscriptions and oral history. Starting in the 1890s, he published a series of scholarly papers with learned societies in India, Britain, Germany and Finland. He also brought out local publications from the mission press in Leh, including the La dwags kyi ag bar, a monthly newspaper that was written in the Tibetan script in a colloquial style of language to make it as widely accessible as possible. In 1907, he published A History of Western Tibet, the first English-language history of the region.

These publications brought him to the attention of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), a British-Indian government department based in Simla. In 1909, Francke returned to India for just over a year, leaving his family in German, and undertook a pioneering archaeological research expedition to the Himalayan regions of Kinnaur, Spiti and Ladakh. Francke’s assignment with the ASI led to the publication of his two-volume Antiquities of Indian Tibet (1914, 1926)

The cover of a pamphlet published by Francke in 1911, illustrating his adventures while researching Tibetan and Ladakhi history.³

After returning to Germany in 1910, Francke spent three years at his home in Germany, writing up his historical researches and at the same time continuing with the Tibetan translation of the Bible in association with the London-based British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS).

This combination of interests led him to undertake what proved to be his final journey to India in 1914. This time, instead of travelling by sea, he went overland via Russia and Chinese Turkestan (now Xinjiang). His intention was to travel via Ladakh to where he would study the Lhasa dialect of Tibetan. However, his timing proved to be particularly unfortunate. While still in Chinese territory, he heard distant rumours of the outbreak of the war but guessed that Germany and Britain would be fighting together against Russia. It was only when he arrived in Leh in September 1914 that he discovered that the two countries were on opposite sides, and that he was now officially classified as an enemy alien. To his chagrin, he was sent to an internment camp in Ahmednagar, before being repatriated to Germany via Holland in 1916. He then served as an interpreter at a camp for Indian prisoners of war in Romania before himself being imprisoned a second time at the end of the war.

Francke at the internment camp in 1915, from a sketch by his Hungarian fellow internee Labay.⁴

Francke spent much of the final decade of his life in Berlin where he became the University’s first professor of Tibetan in 1925. In these years, he continued the same combination of interests as before, publishing scholarly articles on Ladakhi history, while continuing work on the translation of the Old Testament in association with the Ladakhi Christian minister and scholar Joseph Gergan (1878-1946). He also resumed his connections with scholars in Britain and India. The second volume of Antiquities of Indian Tibet, which had been delayed by the many disruptions of the First World War, finally appeared in 1926. This volume includes a translation of the La dwags rgyal rabs, and may be Francke’s single most important contribution to the scholarship of Ladakh

Sadly, Francke’s scholarly career was cut short when he was suddenly taken ill in early 1930: he died in Berlin’s Charité Hospital, still aged only 59. At his death he left several projects unfinished. These included the projected third and fourth volumes of Antiquities of Indian Tibet, which he was working on with the retired Indian Civil Service officer H. Lee Shuttleworth. He also planned the publication of the texts of a series of Ladakhi marriage songs, a task that was finally accomplished under the editorship of Elena De Rossi Filibeck in 2018. At the same time, he was still studying the collection of archaeological artefacts that he had gathered in Xinjiang in 1914: this collection is at the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich and has still not been fully evaluated.

Francke’s papers are scattered across a number of archives, notably at the State Library in Berlin and the Leipzig University Library. Hartmut Walravens & Manfred Taube (1992) have prepared an invaluable bibliography of Francke’s publications and unpublished papers. More recently, the French scholar Jonathan Guyon Le Bouffy has been working on a project to put as much as possible of Francke’s work online.

Francke’s contemporaries valued him not only for his scholarship but also for his personal warmth and a sense of humour that still comes across in his numerous publications. This warmth extended to his Ladakhi colleagues whom he regarded as his friends, and not merely as disciples or informants. Considering the difficulties under which he worked, his output was extraordinary. There is still much to be learnt from his legacy.

¹ Courtesy of Martin Klingner.
² Courtesy of Herrnhut Museum für Völkerkunde.
³ Source: Francke (1911). Tibetische Geschichtsforschung und was man dabei erleben kann. Herrnhut: Verlag der Missionsbuchhandlung.
⁴ Source: Francke (1921). Durch Zentralasien in die indische Gefangenschaft. Herrnhut: Verlag der Missionsbuchhandlung.

Select bibliography

Bray, John. 2008. “August Hermann Francke’s Letters from Ladakh 1896-1906. The Making of a Missionary Scholar.” Tibet Journal 33, No.1, pp. 3-28.

______. 2015. “A.H. Francke’s Last Visit to Ladakh: History, Archaeology and the First World War”. Zentralasiatische Studien 44, pp. 147-178.

______. 2019. “Ladakhi Knowledge and Western Learning: A.H. Francke’s Teachers, Guides and Friends in the Western Himalaya.” In Perspectives of Tibetan Culture. A Small Garland of Forget-me-nots Offered to Elena De Rossi Filibeck. Edited by M. Clemente, O. Nalesini & F. Venturi.  Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines 51, pp. 39-72.

De Rossi Filibeck, Elena (Ed.) 2018. Manuscripts of “Tibetan Marriage Songs” from Ladakh. August Hermann Francke’s Legacy in the Tucci Collection, Rome.  With an essay by John Bray. Serie Orientale Roma. New Series 11. Rome: Scienze e Lettere.

Francke, A.H. 1905-1941. A Lower Ladakhi Version of the Kesar Saga. With an introduction by Suniti Kumar Chatterji. Calcutta: Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal.

Francke, A.H. 1907. A History of Western Tibet. London: S.W. Partridge.

Francke, A.H. 1914, 1926. The Antiquities of Indian Tibet. 2 vols. Calcutta: Archaeological Survey of India.

Guyon Le Bouffy, Jonathan. Database Project on A.H. Francke.

Walravens, Hartmut & Taube, Manfred. 1992. August Hermann Francke und die Westhimalaya Mission der Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine. Mit einem Beitrag von Michael Hahn. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.