A Word on the “Wise Collection” by Rupert Simmington

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“Major William Edmund Hay is a largely forgotten figure, known only for being the first Assistant Commissioner of Kulu and the first European resident of Naggar Castle.¹ It was only three years ago when Hay’s greatest achievement came to light, with the publication of a book by Dr Diana Lange, of the Institute of Asian and African Studies at Humboldt University, Berlin. An Atlas of the Himalayas by a 19th Century Tibetan Lama – A Journey of Discovery, is an extraordinary tale concerning a portfolio of maps and drawings that were first noticed in the 1960’s, by Hugh Richardson, a highly respected Tibetologist, and former Diplomat, who discovered them in the library of India House. Richardson was intrigued by what he saw and quickly realised that this was more than simply a Victorian curiosity.

This unique collection baffled oriental scholars for more than thirty years, who tried without success to identify where it had come from and who had compiled it. The hand painted pictorial maps depict two overland routes from Tibet to India, the east-west route from Lhasa to Ladakh, and the north-south route from Bhutan to Lhasa. The drawings depict monasteries, ceremonies, and other activities, and these were accompanied by twenty four sheets of notes, handwritten in English, which provided explanations and other information concerning the illustrations depicted in the drawings. The only clue was a type-written note, stating that the drawings were believed to have been made by a Tibetan artist, probably a Lama who mixed with Europeans and that they were probably commissioned by the author of the explanatory notes that accompanied them. The bindings were late 19th century and inscribed with the name “Wise” and as a result, it became known as the “Wise Albums”. 

One of the paintings (ca. 1857-58) from the Wise Collecion. It shows the palanquin of Devi Tripura of Nagar along with her retinue and dancers at the Shari Jach or Fair.
(Wise Collection, British Library)

The mystery surrounding this unique collection appeared to be solved in the late 1990’s, when it was proposed that it had been the property of Dr Thomas Alexander Wise, a Scottish physician and collector of antiquities who had worked in India in the middle of the 19th century. In 1885, shortly before his death, Dr Wise donated his collection of eastern antiquities to a college in Dundee, which included a few items from Tibet, and based on this evidence all the leading experts concluded that he had compiled the “Wise Albums”. 

Dr Lange’s research, which began in 2009, carried out in a manner worthy of Scotland Yard’s finest, revealed an article written by Charles Horne,² published in 1873, in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Lange’s discovery of this somewhat obscure paper which described various methods of disposing of dead bodies in Lhasa and Tibet, provided her with irrefutable proof that Major Hay had engaged the services of a Tibetan Lama who arrived in Lahoul in 1857, when India was in the grip of the Sepoy Mutiny. 

Horne states in his paper that Major Hay commissioned the Lama to produce a series of drawings depicting cultural and religious Tibetan ceremonies and customs, one of which was the manner in which they disposed of the dead. Horne’s paper, which compared these methods to those used in Persia and ancient Greece, included two detailed drawings made by the Lama who he described as being an accomplished draughtsman, which Dr Lange immediately recognised as the work of the artist responsible for the “Wise Collection”. One can only imagine the excitement she must have felt when she discovered Horne’s paper in 2016, but there is no doubt that it was the key to unlocking the mystery surrounding this unique collection. Dr Lange’s research demonstrated that although Dr Wise had commissioned the bindings that were inscribed with his name, he had merely acquired the collection from Major Hay and that it was Hay, not Wise, who had written the notes.     

It is difficult to know what inducement the Lama was offered, but it is highly unlikely that money played any part. Hay had travelled extensively throughout Lahoul and Spiti,³ where the majority of the people were Buddhists and his knowledge of local customs and culture, would have enabled him to connect with the Lama on many different levels. Without wishing to diminish the part played by the Tibetan Lama, it should be stressed that Hay commissioned the work, and his explanatory notes demonstrate that he directed the artist to produce a visual account of his journeys, as a way of presenting Tibetan culture, as well as the routes used by pilgrims and traders. 

During the course of her research, Dr Lange discovered that Hay had served in Afghanistan during the First Anglo-Afghan War where he spent some of his time collecting fossils and ancient coins. While others were writing about their military exploits, Hay wrote a letter to the Asiatic Society in Bengal, which was published in their Journal in 1840, describing coins that he had discovered at the ruins in Bamiyan, a rather peculiar event considering the bloody nature of the conflict. Hay was certainly an eccentric in an age when there were many, and like most eccentrics he was completely hopeless when it came to money. We know from letters that Dr Lange discovered that Hay lost his coin and fossil collection that he acquired in Afghanistan and that he was forced to sell coins and other items that he collected later.

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Dr Lange was unable to discover when Wise acquired Hay’s collection, but it must have been after Horne wrote his paper, because that was based on some of the contents that Hay had obviously given him access to. It remains a mystery why the Major never published anything, as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, known to have an extensive knowledge of Tibet, one would have expected him to have written something. Hay resigned from the Society, which implies that his relationship with them was not a good one. Dr Lange has suggested that they were keen to obtain Hay’s collection, but were unwilling to pay for it, and if Hay was pressed for funds, this would not have sat well with him.    

A view of the Nagar Castle, 1985. (Rupert Simmington)
Nagar Castle, ca. 1869. A watercolor painting by Alfred Harcourt. (British Library)

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to experience Naggar Castle before it was refurbished, when it was still much the same as it was in Hay’s day. While Indian tourists, quite rightly, take great pride in its ancient past, in light of Dr Diana Lange’s research, Major William Edmund Hay, can now rightly claim a place in its history, since it was here, at Naggar Castle, in 1857, when he and the Tibetan Lama, created the most comprehensive visual account of Tibetan culture the world had ever seen.”

Rupert Simmington
Personal Communication
14 August 2023

Notes

[1] William Hay allegedly bought the Nagar Castle from the Raja of Kulu in exchange for a gun.

[2] Horne also wrote about a chased copper ‘lota’ (vase) from the second century AD which Hay had discovered in 1857 hidden in a hollow of the eighth-century Gandhola Monastery, Kyelang. The vase now known as the ‘Kulu Vase’, and presently at the British Museum, is considered one of the earliest examples of Indian metal craftsmanship.

[3] Hay, William Edmund. 1850. “Report on the Valley of Spiti; and facts collected with a view to a Future Revenue Settlement.” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, v. 19.

Other published works of Hay are:

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  • 1840. “Account of Coins found at Bameean.” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, v. 9.
  • 1841. “Note by Captain Hay, on a Bird, native of Eastern Islands, undescribed (?) in a Letter to the Editor.” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, v. 10.
  • 1859. “Notes on the Kiang of Tibet (Equus Kiang).” Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, v. 27.
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