Alexander William Macdonald (1923-2018)

A pioneering figure in Himalayan Studies passed away on 4th February 2018. Born in Scotland in 1923, Alexander William Macdonald enlisted in the army at the age of 17 and discovered Asia during the war: he learnt Nepali from Gurkha soldiers, fought alongside Buddhists in Burma, as well as learnt French in Phnom Penh.
His interest in Southeast Asia and the work of the Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient led him to France in 1949 where he followed the teachings of Paul Lévy, Louis Renou, Louis Hambis, Paul Mus whose work particularly influenced him, and then those of Rolf Stein at the Collège de France which focused on the Gesar epic. His vast classical and textual knowledge of Asia was rooted in this. Ethnology did not lag behind: Macdonald studied with Claude Lévi-Strauss, Louis Dumont (whose courses he taught), and at the Musée de l’Homme. Though he could have taught in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies, he chose to settle in France and joined the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) in 1951. His first works in the 1950s bear the mark of his interest in South and South-East Asia and are based on textual sources or second-hand documents, since fieldwork in Southeast Asia proved impossible.
It was in Kalimpong that he carried out his first field enquiries in 1958 and 1959, during a critical period in Tibet’s history. Macdonald actively took part in the Rockefeller programme, which enabled several Tibetan monks and scholars to come to the West, including three who came to France; this had a considerable impact on Tibetan studies. Macdonald’s stay in Kalimpong was noteworthy in more than one way: he met a Khampa bard, Bstan ’dzin ’phrin las, an exceptional though illiterate person with whom for many months he recorded the Gesar epic and “Tales of the corpse”, improving—thanks to this bard—his knowledge of Tibetan (by means of the Nepali he had learnt during the war!); but it was also during this stay that he met Nepalese jhānkri healers in Darjeeling, prompting him to write a foundational article in 1962 on Nepalese “shamanism”. In 1961 he went on a fieldtrip to Nepal to study Nepali wandering minstrels (Gaine) and recorded a large corpus of songs on which, after his return, he worked with Mireille Helffer regarding the musical aspects (1968). This was a pioneering era for field studies in Nepal.
These defining moments of his discovery of Asia, occasioned by his war experience, along with his classical textual and ethnological training explain the very broad perspective and the continual shift back and forth between past and present that he adopted in all his works and in his teaching at Paris Nanterre University. For him, the Himalayas were to be studied across boundaries, as a frontier world characterized by a “shifting and very varied” substratum subjected to influences both from India, and from Tibet and China, a vision inculcated by his masters, and in particular Paul Mus. His attention was particularly drawn to what he called “Buddha-isation”, namely the processes by which Buddhism, and more specifically Tibetan Buddhism, imposes itself, a process of a “conversion of places” that precedes the conversion of men and is accompanied by a “subjugation of local deities”. The ambition to combine the textual with what was then called popular practices is to be found throughout his work which explores certain recurring patterns, such as the “conversion of places”, “creative dismemberment”, the maṇḍala concept or issues relating to the dissemination of specific motifs, for example in folk tales. Macdonald emphasised the oral transmission of texts and was fascinated by the creativity of each “storyteller”, attaching great importance to the personal weight of a life course and leaving his named interlocutors to speak in several of his works. He described ethnology as a “nasty form of bartering” and the importance he placed on personal relationships in fieldwork enquiries is evident in the book he produced in collaboration with Sangs rgyas bstan ’dzin, a Sherpa lama he met in 1967 in Junbesi, Nepal, in one of those “frontier” areas where “Buddha-isation” had left its mark. Written in Tibetan and in keeping with Tibetan genres (a history of Buddhism in Sherpa country, a history of clans and the “autobiography”, rnam-thar, of Sang rgyas bstan ’dzin, founder of a monastery in Junbesi), the book (1971) was distributed in Sherpa country. Macdonald was to come back to the making and content of this book in several of his articles.
“A book is only alive if it is commented on”, he used to say and that’s what he practised in his teaching at Nanterre University from 1970 onwards, often asking provocative questions and exploring ramifications that puzzled novices or stimulated their curiosity, emphasizing the importance of the text, even among students about to embark on the ethnological study of oral tribal societies. Macdonald introduced Himalayan Asia to university studies of ethnology within the new Department of Ethnology created at Nanterre by Eric de Dampierre in a spirit of openness to all regions of the world. E. de Dampierre prompted his involvement, from 1967-1968 onwards, in creating the Laboratoire d’Ethnologie et de Sociologie Comparative, which is affiliated to CNRS, and where Macdonald spent his entire career. He also taught at Berkeley in California and in Hong Kong in the 1980s.

Thanks to a project launched by Ernest Gellner, Macdonald founded the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu in 1972 and defended the idea of teaching Tibetan. He contributed to the birth of Kailash, a Journal of Himalayan Studies. He was one of the founders of the International Association of Tibetan Studies in 1979 and helped edit JIABS (Journal of the International Association for Buddhist Studies). He founded and directed the Haute Asie book series at the “Société d’ethnologie” created by Eric de Dampierre at Nanterre, where in 1997 Samten Karmay and Philippe Sagant published a book as a tribute to him (Les habitants du Toit du monde, see illustration above), which reflects the importance of the links he had established with a number of researchers, Tibetologists and anthropologists, and where we find the greater part of his bibliography. The lecture-cum-seminar he expertly ran at Nanterre until the end of the 1980s was a meeting place where novices and their elders held discussions, sometimes over a drink. Macdonald cultivated one-to-one relationships with those who wished to benefit from his vast culture and atypical personality, the fruit of a life of research that had begun during the war and had prompted him to cross several borders, urging people to break down the barriers that divided Himalayan regions.

Translated by Bernadette Sellers (CEH).

Cite this blog post
Gisèle Krauskopff (2018, April 7). Alexander William Macdonald (1923-2018). The Himalayas and beyond. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from

Gisèle Krauskopff

Directeure de Recherches émérite, CNRS (LESC, CNRS-Université de Paris-Nanterre

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