By Published: June 24, 2021

With the help of a new scholar, the Center for Asian Studies is launching a program that looks to educate students about this politically fraught region

The University of Colorado Boulder is one of the top research programs in the country in Tibet and Himalayan Studies, but ­undergraduate students have been unable to pursue a directed course of study in that field—but scholars are working to change that.

On Sept. 28, 2020, the department received an Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Languages (UISFL) grant from the U.S. Department of Education for the next two years. The grant supports efforts in the Center for Asian Studies to create a new certificate program in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies. With the expansion of the curriculum, a new instructor position opened, which led new Asian Studies instructor Tenzin Tsepak to the University of Colorado Boulder.

Tenzin Tsepak

At the top of the page: Gate of Prayers, Tibet. Photo by Daniele Salutari on UnsplashAbove: Tenzin Tsepak during his dissertation research at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamshala, India. 

Tsepak will instruct a set of new courses, including: Introduction to Tibetan Civilization (ASIA 1700), Encounters: Tibet, the Himalayas and the West (ASIA 4300) and Tibetan language courses.

Tsepak is currently finishing his doctoral studies in the department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.

“I taught a lot of courses related to Tibet here at Indiana University,” Tsepak said. “For the past two years, I taught ‘Intro to India’ through the India studies program here and then I also included a module on the Himalayan mountainous region, north and northeastern India. Whenever I get a chance, I like to talk about the Himalayan and Tibetan connection.”

From 2015 to 2021, Tsepak, who is originally from the region, taught a range of Tibetan studies from linguistics to history. His research and forthcoming articles have granted him various awards, scholarships and fellowships. The grants helped him travel to the Himalayan region in South Asia and India to directly connect with Tibetan scholars and research materials.

 “I go (traveled) to all these different monasteries, look into their archives, see what’s related to my research... I try my best to learn as much as I can and get in touch with the Tibetan academic lineage and learn from their local? scholars. I’m trying my best to combine these two academic traditions (Western and Tibetan) in my work.”

Tsepak was born in India and attended different schools in the country, one of which was established by the Dalai Lama. He then received his bachelor's degree in English literature at Loyola College and master’s at Madras Christian College, both in Chennai, India.   

Tim Oakes, who directs the Center for Asian Studies, said Tsepak’s expertise complements that of other faculty. “We look for someone whose work is capable of transcending their specific disciplinary training so that they can speak to the broader area studies aspects that we’re committed to building here at CU Boulder,” Oakes said.

Tsepak’s classes will allow students to “transcend the borders” and learn about traditional and contemporary Tibetan civilizations, culture and the relationship between Tibet and the West.

In Introduction to Tibetan Civilizations, the class will explore various cultural components. The topics range from geography, demographics and pre-Buddhist cultures and traditions.

"In Tsepak, we saw someone well-versed in transcultural Tibetan studies; his perspective as a member of the South Asian Tibetan diaspora, who initially studied in South India prior to earning his PhD at Indiana will be a valuable contribution to our program," Oakes said.

He (Tsepak) is committed to understanding this region in a way that transcends the many borders that separate and divide it.”

"Tibet and the Himalayas have long captured the imagination and fascination of the West," Tsepak said. In Encounters: Tibet, the Himalayas and the West, the course examines the history of encounters and interactions between Tibet, the Himalayas, and the West. Topics include early European knowledge about Tibet, historical accounts of various European missionaries, travelers, and merchants from the medieval to the early modern period, the construction of the myth of “Shangri-La,” and Tibetan ideas of the West and Western civilization.

CU Boulder is one of the top research programs in the country in Tibet and Himalayan Studies due to the work of Professors Emily Yeh of geography, Holly Gayley of religious studies and Carole McGranahan of anthropology. Through the efforts of the professors and scholars, CAS partnered with the Tibet Himalaya Initiative to promote research, teaching and engagement on Tibet and the Himalayas.

“It’s a very important culture, language and literature. I wish there were more programs in Western academia that focused on Tibet. The Boulder program is one of the few in the world,” Tsepak said. “I spend a lot of time making the topic interesting and teaching it is a very rewarding job. I feel lucky to have this experience.”

The certificate in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies has not been formally established by the center. The department will submit the certificate proposal early in the fall, and Oakes estimates its approval and implementation by the middle of 2022. Students who enroll in Tsepak’s courses and other affiliated classes this fall will earn credit towards completing the certificate.

More information on Tibetan & Himalayan Studies and Tsepak’s courses is available on the Center for Asian Studies’ website.