Nils Martin Receives 2023 KF Award for Outstanding PhD Dissertation in Buddhist Studies

This year’s Khyentse Foundation Award for Outstanding PhD Dissertation in Buddhist Studies for Europe goes to Nils Martin of the East Asian Civilizations Research Centre (CRCAO) in Paris, France.

Martin’s dissertation, “The Wanla Group of Monuments: 14th-Century Tibetan Buddhist Murals in Ladakh,” prepared at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE) in Paris and defended in March 2022, is a masterful contribution to the history of art and of Buddhism in the Western Himalayas. It further provides a model of interdisciplinary research on painted monuments, combining an excellent command of iconography and stylistic conventions with archaeometric analysis, epigraphy, and a firsthand assessment of literary sources in classical Tibetan. As such, it represents an outstanding contribution to Buddhist studies.

Nils Martin’s thesis viva, 2022. From left: Charles Ramble, Charlotte Schmid, Nils Martin, Christian Luczanits, Emmanuelle Delqué-Količ, Matthew Kapstein. Photo courtesy Katia Thomas.

This imposing four-volume dissertation totaling over 1,450 pages is the result of 9 years of extensive research during which Martin, previously trained in art history at the prestigious École du Louvre in Paris, gained a solid knowledge of Buddhist studies and literary Tibetan and thoroughly documented some dozen sites—some of them endangered—during a sustained campaign of repeated, long-term fieldwork. Having dated the sites to the 14th and early 15th centuries and established their relative chronology—backed by a large sample of carbon-14 datings—he proposes that these monuments represent a coherent group built by a network of artists and patrons, presenting an iconography influenced by the eclectic teachings the Drigung Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. In so doing, Martin also makes an important contribution to the understanding of a rather obscure page in the history of Ladakh. More broadly, the work contributes to renewing our current understanding of the importance of the Western Himalayas and of their connectedness to other regions of the Buddhist world. Martin, who is collaborating with prominent scholars working on the region, has already published extensive results that stem from his research on Ladakhi art and epigraphy. He is further encouraged to prepare his dissertation for publication as a monograph, to make his results more widely available and stimulate discussion in the field.

Documentation of the ceiling of a gateway-stupa, Nyoma, Ladakh, 2015. Photo courtesy Quentin Devers.

This dissertation serves as a powerful reminder of the value of the kind of empirical research championed by Martin’s alma mater the EPHE and, especially, the continued relevance of extensive and painstaking documentary work in breaking new ground in Buddhist studies. It also illustrates the great merit and potential of interdisciplinary approaches in the study of Buddhism in general and of Buddhist art in particular. KF’s dissertation committee panel therefore wishes to express its warm congratulations on this remarkable study.

“I am extremely honored and grateful to receive this award from the distinguished Khyentse Foundation. I would like to express my special thanks to the members of the jury for carefully examining my application and eventually selecting my dissertation, even more so since it lies outside the historic field of textual studies.

“This award comes as a significant recognition of research developed over a decade under the patient, insightful guidance of my supervisor Charles Ramble and my co-advisor Christian Luczanits, and along with the continuous support of my colleagues, friends, and family. It will contribute to publishing it in a form that can be more easily accessed by everyone, including the caretakers of the monuments it considers. At a threshold in my life, it also gives me confidence to pursue my career in academia.”

— Nils Martin

We wish Nils all the best for his future endeavours in Buddhist studies. For full information, see the KF awards page.