History of the department

The Department of Oriental Languages and Cultures was created in 1971, when the Faculty of Arts at the University of Lausanne was divided according to department. But Sanskrit was already being taught at Unil as far back as 1903 by the German linguist Hans Schacht. After an interruption between 1933 and 1945, the teaching of Sanskrit resumed with the arrival of Constantin Regamey, who held a doctorate in Indian Philology and Comparative Grammar of Indo-European Languages from the University of Warsaw. From 1949, C. Regamey held an “ad personam” chair of Oriental and Slavic languages. The University of Lausanne has therefore a considerable debt to Prof. Regamey as far as Oriental Studies are concerned.


In 1968, the Swiss National Science Foundation created a Chair in Buddhist Philology for Jacques May, who had been one of Prof. Regamey’s students and had returned from a long sojourn in Japan. When Prof. Regamey retired in 1977, the Orientalist half of his position was converted into a part-time professorship dedicated to the study of Sanskrit and Indology. In 1977, this chair was attributed to Heinz Zimmermann (who got his PhD from the University of Basel). A full professorship (6 hours) was created in 1981.

After Prof. Zimmermann’s untimely demise in 1986, Johannes Bronkhorst, PhD from the Universities of Poona (India) and Leiden (the Netherlands), took his chair over a year later. The Tibetan language, which had been periodically taught by Profs Regamey, May and Zimmermann, was officially introduced in 1989, when Tom Tillemans became privat-docent. Prof. May retired in 1992. A full professorship of Buddhist Studies was subsequently created, to which Tom Tillemans acceded, following in the footsteps of his teacher. Both Profs Johannes Bronkhorst and Tom Tillemans retired in 2011.

Two new Professorships have been created thereafter, giving the Department a new direction. Prof. Ingo Strauch (PhD from the Freie Universität Berlin) holds the Chair of Sanskrit and Buddhist Studies, while Prof. Blain Auer (PhD from Harvard University) holds the brand new Chair of Urdu and Islam in South Asia, both since August 2012.

Mrs Maria Bürgi-Kyriadis introduced the study of modern Hinduism in 1978. Her course, as a privat docent, was continued from 1987 onwards by Prof. Maya Burger, Doctor of Indian Anthropology (Unil), who also introduced Hindi courses. From 1995 to 2009, Maya Burger held the Chair of the History of Religions in the Interfaculty Department of the same name. Since 2009, she is Professor in Indian Studies, Hindi and History of Religions at the Department of South Asian Studies. Optional until 2011, Hindi has now become a full part of the studies of the Department and can be chosen as a main field, like Sanskrit, among the programs of the Faculty. Hindi is taught by Prof. Maya Burger and Dr Nicola Pozza, senior lecturer at the Department since 2009 and previously a student of the Department.  

Besides these main topics, Buddhism of Eastern Asia (mainly Japan) has also been taught from 1993 onwards when Jérôme Ducor (PhD from the University of Geneva) was nominated privat docent. Tibetan studies received additional support from Cristina Scherrer-Schaub (PhD from the University of Lausanne). Dr Scherrer-Schaub has since enjoyed several years as professor at EPHE in Paris and part-time professor of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies in Lausanne.
The Buddhist languages of India (Sanskrit and Pali) and Iran (Khotanese) have also been taught at the Department ever since Giotto Canevascini (PhD from the University of Hamburg) was nominated privat docent, until 2011 when he retired.


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