- Current Faculty
- IU Bloomington
Professor György Karawas a giant in the field of Central Eurasian philology:languages, literature, and folklore. Although best known for his research and teaching in Mongolian philology, he published major works in Tibetan, Turkic, Manchu-Tungusic, and Hungarianstudies, and taught most of them as well. Nor was his expertise restricted to the distant past; he read just as carefully and wrote just as insighfully about sources on the 1921 Mongolian revolutionand the 1989 democratic movement.
Professor Kara, as he was always known to his American students, combined a kind of old-world dignity that automatically drew the respect of even the most casual Indiana students with a rare humility and open-mindedness. In fact, he came from a working-class family in Hungary; the biggest influence on his early life was his baker grandfather. Having a working-class background in socialist Hungary sometimes gave hima useful immunity from suspicion but occasionallyopened him up to uncomfortable expectations that he be an “activist” in ways defined by the regime.
He did his undergraduate education at the LorándEötvösUniversity (ELTE)in Budapest, where he studied Turkic languages with GyulaNémeth and Chinese with BarnabásCsongor. Most transformative were his Mongolian, Tibetan, and Manchu classes with Lajos Ligeti, in more ways than one. Not only did he choose Mongolian as his main field, but Professor Ligeti insisted that his students take etymologically Hungarian or Altaic surnames, and so György, born with the Croatian surname, Katulics, changed his surname to “Kara,” meaning “black” in Mongolian and Turkic languages. Together with his given name György, in the typical Hungarian order of surname first, given name after, he became Kara György or in Mongolian Khar Dorj “Black Powerbolt.”In 1957, he made his first trip to Mongolia with his colleagues Katalin Kőhalmi and AndrásRóna-Tas, and a year later he graduated and published his first academic article on Oiratdialects based on his field research in western Mongolia.
György Kara continued in his graduate studies with Professor Ligeti, receiving, in the Central European fashion, a (lower level) university doctorate or Ph.D.from ELTE (1961), then a Candidacy in Linguistic Science from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1967, and a (culminating) Doctorate of Philological Sciences from Leningrad State University in 1975. He joined the faculty at ELTE in 1958 and was promoted to Professor in 1978. Meanwhile, heserved as the head of the Department of Inner Asian Studies from 1970 on and asthe head of the Research Group for Altaic Studies of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences from 1973 on, as well as doing stints at the head of ELTE’s Department of East Asian Studies and the Oriental Institute.
Already he was writing in many languages: Hungarian of course, but also the French which Lajos Ligeti demanded all his students master, as well as English, German, and Russian. His first monograph was Chants d’un barde mongol“Songs of a Mongolian Bard” (1970),his dissertation as Candidate of Linguistic Science and based on fieldwork he had conducted in China’s Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region in 1959.For hisDoctorate of Philological Sciences, he published Knigi mongol’skikh kochevnikov“Books of the Mongolian Nomads” (1972)based on the matchless collections of manuscripts, blockprints, and documents kept in the Institute of Oriental Manuscriptsin Leningrad (or as he liked to call it “St. Leninsburg”). With Peter Ziemein Berlin, he edited manuscripts excavated in the deserts of Turpan and Dunhuang, publishing in German three volumeson the Old Uyghur renditions of Tibetan Tantric Buddhist works (1976-1978).Alongside these works of international scholarship, he produced fine translations in Hungarian ofmany masterpieces of pre-modern and 20th century Mongolian literature, as well as of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”(BardoThodol).
With Indiana University’s tradition of Mongolian studies and the prominent position of Hungarian faculty in the Central Eurasian Studies Department, it was inevitable that Professor Kara would be invited to visit Bloomington,as were many other distinguished Mongolists in Hungary. Soon after his first semester as a visiting professor at IU in 1986, the ”openness” (glasnost’) in the “Socialist Camp” turned into a whirlwind of change. In 1992 he receivedtenure at IU at the rank of full professor, while continuing to teach alternate semestersatELTE in Hungary. Eventually, as he spent more semesters at IU, he went on unpaid leave from ELTE, while still actively mentoring students in Hungary.
Studying with Professor Kara was an intensely academic, but also much more than academic, experience. He taught the full range of Altaistic courses at IU, covering disciplines of linguistics, folklore, literature, and ethnography. But what he gave his students at IU was not just an endless flow of valuable citations, insights, and critiques, but also a connection to the living traditions of Central European Mongolistics and to the disappearing world of Mongolian socialism. Professor Kara was married toShindzaa, the daughter of Mongolia’s most noted academic Yö. Rinchen, and was the brother-in-law of Jagwaral, once a member of the Mongolian Politburo. Students prized those moments when comments on the oddities of pre-classical orthographies would give way to a reminiscence about some witty sayings of his father-in-law Rinchen or the story of an old farmer he’d met in western Mongolia in 1958.
Of course,IU students also benefited from his continued scholarly productivity. As a senior scholar, his focus now was on English-language reference works that became models of erudition and elegance: an exhaustive catalogue of the Manchu and Mongolian works in the library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (2000), a revised and expanded English version of Books of the Mongolian Nomads (2005), and a dictionary of Sonom Gara’s medieval Mongolian translation of the Tibetan literary masterpiece Treasury of Aphoristic Jewels (2009). This last work was coauthored with Marta Kiripolská, a noted Mongolist herself; some timeafter the passing of Shindzaa, they married. Although his body began to weaken, his mind remained sharp to the end; his passing was a shock and a surprise to all who knew him.
György Kara was one of the world’s few scholars who could genuinely bear the title “Central Eurasianist.” He passed away in the harness, teaching almost up until his untimely demise on April 16, 2022. Losing him leaves a great void in the field. But his loss also challengesus to maintain the tradition he exemplified, one in which Central Eurasia as a field of cultural and linguistic interaction is understood through the full range of written text, spoken word, and ehtnographic fieldwork.
Christopher P. Atwood