uniaktuell The online magazine of the University of Bern

uniaktuell from 2015

An eminent visitor from Mongolia

The Mongolian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lundeg Purevsuren, visited the Institute for the Science of Religions at the University of Bern accompanied by the Mongolian ambassador. He was interested in the Mongolian studies course and a unique collection.

Nathalie Matter

He had wanted to come last year but it hadn’t worked out until now: the Mongolian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lundeg Purevsuren, visited the Institute for the Science of Religions at the University of Bern on 3 March. He and the Mongolian ambassador, Vaanchig Purevdorj, were welcomed by Rector Martin Täuber and the Institute’s Co-Director, Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz.

A Bernese success story

The Institute for the Science of Religions at the University of Bern is the only institute in Switzerland to offer Tibetan and Mongolian studies as a course under the name “Central Asian Studies”. Bern’s Mongolian studies research work is internationally famous. For example, Bern was the leading house in a project to research the Mongolian Buddhist canon, together with the Russian Academy of Sciences, the State University of St. Petersburg and the University in Ulan-Ude. Its successes also include the funding of more than 1.1 million Swiss francs acquired from the Swiss National Science Foundation, an unusually high amount for the humanities. There is also financial assistance from the Mongolian government, which is funding an international project that Bern is involved in. A significant private collection of Buddhist texts from Mongolia was also made available to the Institute for the Science of Religions for systematic recording.

Valuable writings

And now the government visit: the institute was absolutely thrilled that the Minster of Foreign Affairs was able to come to Bern just before talks with the UNO Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. First of all the visitors were shown select Buddhist manuscripts and wood engravings as well as secular texts, such as a dictionary in four languages (Mongolian, Manchurian, Tibetan and Chinese) from Mongolia in a seminar room. They came from the collection, which is unique throughout Europe, belonging to Richard Ernst, a chemist, Nobel laureate and honorary doctor at the University of Bern. His collection includes roughly 850 texts from the early 17th century to the early 20th century. They were often hidden by nomads during the Communist ban on religion and were retrieved once again after the fall of Communism in 1990 and recirculated. The texts are mainly written in Tibetan, only about 200 of them are in Mongolian. The sheer numbers of Tibetan texts show that Tibetan also dominated as the language of the liturgy and replaced Mongolian in the monasteries and temples in the 18th century in Mongolia for reasons that have not been examined until now. The manuscripts and engravings are now being catalogued at the Institute for the Science of Religions.

“It is an honour for us to present our courses and research to you,” said Rector Martin Täuber at the welcome event. He is proud that Bern is the only Swiss university to teach Mongolian and is able to work with such precious artefacts. As a gift he presented the Minister of Foreign Affairs with a giant Toblerone, among other things, at the end of the day the institute is situated in the former Tobler chocolate factory, Unitolber today. Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz, who specialises in Tibet and Mongolia’s religious and cultural history, reported on the development of Mongolian studies in Bern, which was a success right from the start: “When I started teaching Mongolian in 1999, I was surprised about the students’ keen interest”. The number of doctoral candidates is also pleasing. Kollmar-Paulenz introduced the Richard Ernst collection, which even includes previously unknown Buddhist texts.

Preserving Mongolian culture

The Mongolian government was aware of Bern’s work on the Mongol Empire. The Minister of Foreign Affairs once again emphasised his interest in this: “I have always wanted to come here.” It is very important to his government to also support Mongolian studies outside Mongolia if possible. As there are not very many Mongolian people, Mongolia is the most sparsely populated independent state in the world with just three million inhabitants, it is extremely important to preserve the Mongolian culture. Which is why he was interested in meeting the students. The Minister of Foreign Affairs and ambassador were then correspondingly informed by students and doctoral candidates about their research projects. Despite a tight time schedule, the visitors sat down together with the Rector and members of the institute for a lively discussion over tea. The fact that the Minister of Foreign Affairs then said goodbye individually to every single person was totally in keeping with the informal and joyful encounter.