In Memoriam: Corneille Jest (1930-2019)

The members of CEH sadly announce the death of Corneille Jest, founding member of our research unit.

C. Jest, Tarap (1963)
Corneille Jest with children in Tarap, 1963 (C. Jest personal archives, CEH).

Corneille Jest passed away on 23 January 2019 in the Paris area at the age of 88.

Born in Strasbourg on 12 February 1930, Corneille Jest, a social anthropologist and specialist in Tibetan-speaking populations of the upper Himalayan chain, died at the age of 88 on 23 January 2019 in the Paris region on the same day that CNRS’s “French Himalaya team”, which he had helped to set up, questioned its integration into a larger team.

C. Jest was a great advocator of multidisciplinarity insofar as all those involved―social anthropologists, geographers, agronomists, botanists, zoologists, etc.― had to be ready and willing to do fieldwork. He was trained by Charles Parain (1893-1984), an ethno-historian and specialist of rural societies, and by André Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1986), a French anthropologist, archaeologist, prehistorian, and specialist in the anthropology of techniques and parietal art, within the framework of the Centre de formation et de recherche ethnologique (CFRE), which had been founded by the latter in 1944. Through an agreement between this organisation and CNRS, C. Jest was recruited by the latter in 1956 on a probationary period. Having gained tenure, he was to spend his entire career at CNRS.

In 1960 he defended a postgraduate thesis at the Sorbonne on the historical and techno-linguistic study of Haut-Lévezou, a micro-region in the Aveyron département where he had family relations. He pursued his research in this region, conducting enquiries on behalf of the Department’s Economic Action Committee in early 1963 about rural depopulation and the transformation of agricultural activities, before teaming up with Georges Henri Rivière (1897–1985), founder and chief curator of the Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (MNATP), as coordinators of an RCP (Recherche Coopérative sur Programme : Cooperative Research Programme) on the Aubrac, a mountain area located on the border between the Aveyron, Cantal and Lozère départements, which has its own specific agricultural practices and techniques (summer pastures), and has been affected by major socio-economic transformations. The two men were destined to get along. Like their mutual friend, A. Leroi-Gourhan, they both regarded the museum setting and the activities (including the collection of objects) associated with it as the place for pursuing their vocation and anthropology.

In 1964, though he had already visited the Himalayas several times―first in Kalimpong in 1953,[1] then in Nepal which he had discovered in 1960 with the Tibetologist David Snellgrove, C. Jest used his experience of the Aubrac to launch the idea of an RCP in Nepal. Once again, he was appointed head of the assignment, and yet again reported back to a museum director, Jacques Millot, of the Musée de l’Homme.

RCP 65 “Study of Nepalese regions” was launched in 1965 during the “Aubrac” survey; it gathered together social anthropologists, agronomists and geographers. Another RCP, 253, “Ecology and geology of the central Himalayas”, took over from it in 1971. Focusing on a larger geographical area to include Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim, from then on it also welcomed geologists and botanists. Between these two RCPs there was a certain amount of overlap in terms of their agendas, but also of their contributors and disciplines. C. Jest hired researchers who had started their research in the Aubrac and who, like Philippe Sagant, became specialists of Nepal, or else, he invited researchers involved in his Himalayan investigations, such as the ecologist Jean-François Dobremez, to contribute to his research on the plateaus in central France.

The research strategy of the two RCPs was similar to some extent, especially regarding the importance given to visual anthropology and to documentary filmmaking thanks to the ties that were established at the end of the 1950s between C. Jest and the filmmaker Jean-Dominique Lajoux. The two men who had made several films together in Aveyron in 1959–1960 continued to work together in the Himalayan valleys. They made five films between 1965 and 1970: Tarap, la vallée aux chevaux excellents, Ma-cig la mère, peinture d’une thangka tibétaine, dByar ston, la fête du milieu de l’été, in Tarap valley in Dolpo, a region in northern Nepal inhabited by Buddhist and Tibetan-speaking communities, but also Seto Matsyendranath devoted to the eponymous festival at which the statue of this deity leaves its temple every year to be carried through the streets of the old city of Kathmandu, or else sPre-lo l’année du singe, a ceremony which brings to life every twelve years in the valley of Kali Gandaki the four tutelary deities of the founding clans of the Thakali.

In addition to films, C. Jest brought back from his different field trips to the Himalayas numerous photographs, sound recordings, but also hundreds of objects that he left to the Musée de l’Homme, place du Trocadéro, as well as samples of plants, insects and minerals, which he particularly entrusted to the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle de Paris; collections that bear witness to an encyclopaedic and museographic approach combining registers which nowadays would be distinct from each other. Whether on the Aubrac plateaus or in the Himalayan valleys, he adopted the same anthropological approach.

In 1972 C. Jest defended, again under A. Leroi-Gourhan’s supervision, a doctoral thesis at the Université Paris V entitled “Tarap, la Vallée aux chevaux excellents : communauté tibétaine du nord-ouest du Népal” and published in 1975 by CNRS Éditions under the title Dolpo : communautés de langue tibétaine au Népal; an epic monograph, divided into 27 chapters ranging from “Dolpo, pays cache” and the four valleys within it that have an “oral tradition, music and games”, an encyclopaedic and meticulous piece of work in which―in the words of Sophie Houdart and Sylvaine Camelin (L’Ethnologie, 2018)―“the concern with showcasing outweighs the desire to be understood”. The author explains this on p. 383: he deliberately rejected a global approach.

In addition to the high valleys in the north of the great range―C. Jest’s privileged place for fieldwork―he also carried out research in the Kathmandu Valley. From the 1960s onwards, he became involved, in his capacity as consultant for UNESCO, in the first projects aimed at conserving the cultural heritage of Nepal and of the Kathmandu Valley. From 1979, he took part in the multidisciplinary project “Versant” centred on Salme, a village in the middle mountains of central Nepal, and launched by the Groupement de REcherches COordonnées (GRECO) No.12–Himalaya-Karakorum which had taken over from RCP 253 in 1978; then from 1985–1995 in research carried out in two districts of western Nepal, Gulmi and Arkha Khanci by the joint CNRS and INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique) “Himalaya team”.

Outside Nepal, C. Jest conducted research in Bhutan, which he visited in 1980, 1981 and 1984, then every year between 1991 and 1999, but also in Tibet (1980, 1982, 1985, 1990, 2000, 2003, 2004). He also visited Ladakh (1975, 1976) on two occasions, shortly after the region had been partially opened to foreigners, Mongolia (1985, 1992, 1994, 1998), Pakistan (1979, 1982, 1990) and many countries in Southeast Asia (Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand).Like his books and articles, the photographic, audio-visual and sound archives, as well as the collections of objects and herbaria he leaves behind for future generations, bear witness to a life spent roaming round the Himalayas and its borderlands, from Pakistan to Bhutan, from central Tibet and the high regions of Tibetan culture in Nepal to the Terai plain, not to mention the Kathmandu Valley and its temples. These archive collections also show the great diversity of his interests: agriculture, trade and livestock farming, manufacturing and processing techniques, rituals, games, oral tradition, painting and architecture, etc. By Pascale Dollfus (CNRS, Centre for Himalayan Studies)


[1] C. Jest’s first two “Himalayan” publications of (1954 and 1961) are therefore devoted to the Lepcha of Kalimpong district.


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6 Responses

  1. David Templeman says:

    I am saddened by the news of the passing of Cornielle Jest. I never met him but have a story…..in 1969 while in Dolpo I met a Bon Lama with whom I wanted to talk about Bon teachings. He was utterly disinterested and only wanted to show me his beautiful French-made jacket inside which was Corneille’s name tag. He was so very pleased and proud to have this memento of his encounter with the maitre and I have a lovely photo of him, his jacket and myself outside his meditation hut. I will gladly send it to anyone interested. Vale Corneille.

  2. Corneille JEST dans les souvenirs de Bernadette VASSEUX. Entretiens réalisé par Binod Khakurel Baudelaire 27 janvier 2019:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IM2ynLMLJZ8

  3. Amy Heller says:

    Merci Stéphane and Thank you David : I am sure his wife would love to see the photo and if you send it to me at amy.heller@bluewin.ch I will transmit to his wife and to the family.
    Merci Pascale de cette nécrologie empreinte de méthodologies de recherches et liens parmi les chercheurs et l’interdisciplinarité. Grand plaisir de lire. For those it may interest: I visited Tarap and Kagar Lhakhang in June 2018 where Corneille’s photo of Kagar Rinpoche still remains on the altar, every day, appreciated by the grandson-lama, his wife and their family and descendents. The Aura of the work and life, the work-cum-residence of Corneille in Tarap in 1960-1961 is far from forgotten. Butter lamps (marme) were lit to honour his passing in January 2019.

  4. maheshwar joshi says:

    I owe my affiliation to CNRS, UPR 299 to Dr. Corneille Jest, the founder of this great institution of Himalayan studies. He was a great motivator, and a very friendly scholar dedicated to the Himalayan studies. It was he who cultivated my interest in water studies as early as 1995, and inspired me to study traditional water management in Central Himalaya. Since then I have working on a book on water related issues in Uttarakhand. In this regard, I have gained immensely from my association with the members of the UPR 299. For some or the other reason I could not complete this book which I wanted to dedicate to Dr. Corneille Jest in person. For me as a practicing Hindu, Dr. Corneille Jest is now a pitṛi (deceased ancestor), and I earnestly seek his blessings to enable me to complete
    the book under reference sooner than later. Dr. Corneille Jest livesin all of us who are committed to the Himalayan studies.
    I join his family and friends in mourning his death and pray God to rest his soul in eternal peace in the heavenly abode.

    I am thankful to the editorial board of the Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, particularly, Dr. Jean Luc Achard, for allowing me to dedicate my paper titled ‘Material culture as proxy for language: the Himalayan evidence’ (no. 48, Avril 2019, issue) to the fond memory of svargīya Dr. Corneille Jest.

    Ram nām satya hai (The name of Almighty is the ultimate truth).

    Maheshwar P. Joshi

  5. Corneille Jest had a decisive influence on my research and career. He advised me early on when I worked in Ladakh and never ceased to give me information and assistance later on. He was very generous and straightforward, qualities I really admired. He inspired me with his gift of connecting people as well as his deep love for the Himalayan populations. Hats off to a great pioneer and kind mentor.
    Om mani padme hum hri

  6. Gillian Tan says:

    I first met Corneille Jest in 2010 when I gave a seminar paper at the Centre d’etudes Himalayennes as a postdoctoral student. I was immediately struck by his keen enthusiasm for my research on pastoralists of eastern Tibet (Kham) and his subsequent energy in collating a special issue, with Joseph Bonnemaire, on Himalayan pastoralists, of which I was part. As a researcher just starting in my career, it was an inspiration to be involved in this energy and to witness how—despite being retired—he continued to care not only about Himalayan research but also about fostering a new generation of scholars. It is without doubt his generosity that will stay with me as I continue to pursue my thinking and learning of the Himalayan region. It is also with some regret that I did not keep in better touch after I left Paris and returned to Australia. All things remain connected, however, as I could now be involved in future research in Himalayan Nepal; while I may not meet up with him to discuss this project and ask his advice, his legacy lives on in his works and in the Centre d’etudes Himalayennes. For this, I am most thankful.

    Gillian G. Tan
    Anthropology
    School of Humanities and Social Sciences
    Deakin University
    Geelong, Australia

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