Passing of Tibetan Typesetting Pioneer and Official Biographer of the Dalai Lama Mourned
The renowned scholar of Tibetan language and literature, politician, and author Narkyi Ngawang Dhondup, official biographer of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a former foreign secretary of the Central Tibetan Administration, and the “father of the modern Tibetan-language typewriter,” died at his home in New Delhi last week at the age of 86, succumbing to a respiratory illness.
A student of the esteemed Tibetan scholar Gedun Choephel, Dhondup, who died on 13 February, wrote many books and articles on Tibetan language and culture, including on Gedun Choephel’s theory of the origin of Tibetan writing. He pursued advanced studies in Tibetan history, literature, and linguistics, and in Buddhist religion and philosophy, in Tibet, India, and the US. He was also a professor at the University of Western Michigan, and at the University of Tokyo.
Prof. Kungo Narkyi Ngawang Dhondup was born on 6 September 1931 in Tzethang, central Tibet. From 1942–8, he studied at the Academic Institute (Tzelobdra) at Potala Palace in Lhasa. From 1948–52, Dhondup served as a staff member of the Secretary Council of the Tibetan Government at Potala Palace, and between 1952 and 1957, studied at the National Minority Institute (NMI) in Beijing, where he also taught Tibetan and participated in the Tibetan translation of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. In 1957, he was elected as a member of the Government Reform Committee in Lhahsa and became mayor of the city in 1958. On 10 March 1959, Dhondup was involved in the Tibetan Uprising at Norbulingka and later that year escaped to India. There he joined the Tibetan government-in-exile and became a staff member of the foreign affairs division, working on Chinese documents and helping to translate the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights into Tibetan.
After going into exile, Dhondup held many roles at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, with the office of the Dalai Lama, and the Central Tibetan Administration. In later years, he also taught at universities in Japan and the US. From 1960–2, he was the first general secretary of the first session of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, the highest legislative body of the Central Tibetan Administration, and served as the general secretary of the Department of Information and International Relations from 1960–8. He also worked as assistant director of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts from 1963–5.
Known as “Father of the Tibetan Typewriter”, Dhondup developed a typewriter for typing Tibetan script at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in 1967. The typewriter was finally manufactured in 1976 by Remington Rand Ltd. in Kolkata. From 1971–8, Dhondup served as the general secretary of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, where he also taught the Tibetan language to foreign students, which remains one of the library’s major programs. In 1971, he helped compile the Political History of Tibet in Tibetan.
Dhondup received an MA in Linguistics and Anthropology from Western Michigan University in 1980, and in 2009 was awarded an honorary doctorate by the same university. He spent four years compiling the Modern English – Tibetan Dictionary initiated in 1981 with Prof. Melvin Goldstein, chair of the Department of Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio. From 1984–2004, he was the official biographer of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and from 2005 onwards acted as a consultant for Tibetan language and literature in the Private Office of the Dalai Lama.
As a mark of respect, the Central Tibetan Administration closed its offices on 16 February and a prayer ceremony was held in Dhondup’s honor in Dharamsala. In a Facebook post, the Tibetan Youth Congress expressed thoughts and prayers for Dhondup’s family, noting: “We are deeply saddened to hear the news of his demise. He was a revolutionary figure in our community and movement and a good old friend of TYC. May his soul Rest In Peace. Om Mani Padme Hum.” (Tibetan Youth Congress Facebook)
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