Tashi Rabgais was a prominent scholar, historian and one of Ladakh’s great intellectuals. Despite all his achievements, he was always humble and down-to-earth. He had great command over Ladakhi language and Buddhist studies. He has written numerous books and research papers including The History of Ladakh called the Mirror which Illuminates All. His contribution to the study of Ladakhi culture is immense and innumerable. He worked closely with many national and international researchers, scholars and students. In many ways, he served as a bridge between ancient and contemporary study of Ladakh.
Tashi Rabgais was born in the Tukchu family in Serthi (Sakti) village of Leh district in 1927. He completed his initial education from a Primary School in Chemde village and secondary education from Tyndale Biscoe School, Srinagar. Later, he completed B.Sc. degree from Sri Pratap College, Srinagar.
Tashi Rabgais started his career as the Personal Assistant to Ladakh’s first Deputy Minister in the J&K Govt., the 19th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, from 1953 to 1958. He then worked as an Assistant Editor/Cultural Officer in Gangtok, Sikkim. After this, he served as the In charge for Ladakhi Programmes on Radio Kashmir, Srinagar from 1960 to 1962. Then in 1963, he was appointed Lecturer in the department of Buddhist studies at Delhi University. In 1964, he was appointed Secretary of Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) and worked there for the next seven years. At the same time he also worked as Information Officer, J&K Government from 1964 to 1982. In 1986, he was appointed Education Officer at Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG). In the 1990s, Tashi Rabgais represented J&K state as a member of the Sahitya Academy, New Delhi and as an Advisor to the Ministry of Culture’s North Zone Cultural Association, Government of India. He was also one of the founding members of the International Association for Ladakh Studies (IALS). He has a Chair in the name of Gyalwa Lungchen Rabjam at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, Leh in recognition of his services to Buddhist studies.
He started several newsletters such as Yargyas Kongphel and Tendel Sargyur in Ladakhi language. He authored five books including Natir Puja (1961, play translated from English to Ladakhi), History of Ladakh from early times to 1947 in Ladakhi, and a translation of Ancient Futures to Ladakhi, He curated a collection of 127 Ladakhi folk songs, which was published by J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages in 1970. Similarly, a collection of articles in English titled, ‘Ladakh Tradition and Change’ was published in 2004. In addition, he published a collection of 115 original songs written in Ladakhi, which was titled ’Jig-rten Kuntu Gawey Lu in 2007. In 2003, he published the first edition of a play titled Zosgar Tus kyi Melon, where the characters are all wild animals and the story talks about the problems faced by wildlife. In 2003, he wrote a book called Mangs kyi Ringlugs on democracy, In 2009, he wrote a book titled Sustainable Spirituality in Buddhism. In addition to all this, he has made immense contribution towards developing text books in Ladakhi for schools in the region.
Tashi Rabgais had great love for Ladakhi culture and his contribution for preserving culture, language and literature was appreciated by government and non government organisations. In view of his contribution towards preserving Ladakhi language and culture, the J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages conferred him with the Robe of Honour in 1971. In 1999, he was awarded the Bhasha Samman by Sahitya Akademi for his multiple achievements. He was also honoured with the Dogra Rattan award in 2007 by the Council for Promotion of Dogri Language, Culture and History, Jammu and Voice of Millions, New Delhi. He was conferred with the State Award for Literature by the J&K Government in 2008. The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), Leh honoured him with the second Ladakh dPal-rNgams Award in 2017 for his exceptional contribution in enriching Ladakhi language, literature and culture. Over the years he was felicitated by several local and national organisations.
My association with Tashi Rabgais goes back to 2010 when we invited him to inaugurate the office of the Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation (HCHF) at Lonpo House in Leh’s old town. Speaking on the occasion, Tashi Rabgais emphasised the value of preserving and promoting various cultural activities for the betterment of society. He was also the patron of the International Association for Ladakh Studies (IALS) and I used to visit him often. Each time, I was impressed and inspired by his wisdom, advice and sense of humour. One day, some of us went to meet him for an interview and he kept telling us “Aap Watan Tumare Hawale Hain Sathiyon” (the nation is now your responsibility). Later, he explained that he has done what he could in his lifetime for Ladakh’s culture and literature and now it’s the responsibility of the present generation to carry that work forward.
In 2019, we invited him for the inaugural function of 19th IALS conference held in Leh where he was felicitated. As the patron of IALS, he delivered a speech, which may have been one of his last public speeches for an international audience. In his speech, he recalled his experience working with various scholars and the contribution of IALS to different fields of Ladakh studies.
Tashi Rabgais passed away on 28 October, 2020 in Leh. His passing is a great loss not only for Ladakh but also for the larger Himalayan region and the world of research. This was well articulated by former president of IALS, John Bray in his condolence message. He said, “More than anyone else that I know, Tashi Rabgais would have qualified for the title of ‘scholar sage’, deep in his scholarship, broad in his wisdom, and all the time full of humour.” We have lost a champion of Ladakhi culture and a treasure house of knowledge. He remains an inspiration for us to take pride in our identity.
Text by Dr. Sonam Wangchok
Photograph by Sonam Gyatso
Dr. Sonam Wangchok is President of International Association for Ladakh Studies and Founder of Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation