THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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27 posts categorized "Buddhism"

18 November 2020

What’s in a name? The Sovietisation of the Mongolian language and the Challenges of Reversal

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One of the newest EAP projects to go online is EAP890, which contains two collections of Mongolian newspapers, covering the period 1936-1945.

Written in traditional Mongolian script, these newspapers offer a fascinating insight into the history of Mongolian politics and society. They also provide a Mongolian perspective on international affairs, including the dominant global event of the period: the Second World War.

What's in a name?

But beyond the content, even to the untrained eye, this collection shines a light on a key period in Mongolia’s history, as the influence of the Soviet Union intensified eastwards after the 1917 Russian revolution.

Even if you cannot read the traditional Mongolian script these newspapers are written in, a quick glance at different editions of the Ardyn Undesnii Erkh collection prompts a simple question: why did the name of this newspaper keep changing? The answer lies not in typographical errors and careless editing; it is much more profound.

The newspaper title when printed in traditional Mongolian script was always consistent (see yellow boxes below). But alongside this was a variant title written in an alternative script (see red boxes).

In the following examples from four different months in 1941, the variant titles were written differently in each edition. In February 1941, the variant title is very similar to the current Romanised transliteration. But month by month this gradually changed to something that closely resembles the modern Cyrillic spelling.

Part of newspaper title front cover
13 February 1941 (EAP890/1/1/54/3)

 

Part of newspaper title front cover
12 March 1941 (EAP890/1/1/55/4)

 

Part of newspaper title front cover
12 May 1941 (EAP890/1/1/57/2)

 

Part of newspaper title front cover
23 June 1941 (EAP890/1/1/58/6)

What is going on?

These changing titles are indicative of a pivotal period in Mongolian history.  They reveal a process of linguistic revolution, which act as an important indicator of the broader social and political changes that Mongolia experienced during the mid-20th century.

The Sovietisation of Mongolia

Situated in the heart of central Asia, Mongolia is surrounded by two global superpowers: Russia to the north and China to the south. Between the late 17th  and early 20th centuries, Mongolia was controlled by the Chinese Qing dynasty. Throughout this period, local dialects predominantly used the vertical Mongolian script, which was adapted from the Old Uyghur alphabet after Genghis Khan captured an Uyghur scribe at the beginning of the 13th century, during the formative years of the Mongol Empire.

After the fall of the Chinese Manchu dynasty in 1911, Mongolia swayed between independence and continued control by the new Republic of China, until Russian troops entered Mongolia in 1920 and defeated the Chinese army a few months later.

In 1924, the Mongolian People's Republic was established and during subsequent decades Mongolia became increasingly aligned with the recently formed Soviet Union. 

During the 1930s, Mongolia was subject to a series of brutal purges. Buddhist monasteries were destroyed and tens of thousands of people were killed. This process intensified as the world drifted towards war. Notable politicians, including Mongolian prime ministers Peljidiin Genden and Anandyn Amar were arrested and shot in the Soviet Union, accused of counterrevolutionary activity and spying for Japan.

These purges were ordered by the Soviets, but largely overseen by Khorloogiin Choibalsan - sometimes referred to as the 'Stalin of Mongolia'. Choibalsan was in Russia as a student when the 1917 Bolshevik revolution took place. He returned to Mongolia inspired by the Bolshevik cause and after Stalin came to power in Moscow, Choibalsan gradually emerged as the principal conduit for Soviet influence in Mongolia. By 1939, after the arrest of Amar, Choibalsan had become Mongolia's dominant political leader.

Extract from a newspaper including images of Joseph Stalin and Khorloogiin Choibalsan
12 March 1941 (EAP890/1/1/55/4). Pictured: Joseph Stalin (top); Khorloogiin Choibalsan (bottom right)
 
Khorloogiin Choibalsan with Soviet officials
Khorloogiin Choibalsan with Soviet military officers, 1940 (EAP264/1/2/1/10)

During the next few years, the Sovietisation of Mongolia continued unabated and part of this effort included Russifying the Mongolian language. 

Linguistic revolution

While violent purges provide stark evidence of political change, alterations to the national language were also a significant part of the Sovietisation process.

Initial attempts to unify languages within the communist sphere centred on the Latin script. A 1932 Soviet report explained that a unified script would create a system for use by the working masses, as opposed to multiple narrow systems designed for use by the ruling classes. During the late 1930s this objective continued, but Cyrillic became the preferred, unifying writing system.

The first two extracts above, from early 1941 editions of Ardyn Undesnii Erkh, represent a hangover from those initial aborted efforts to Latinise languages within the Soviet Union during the 1920s-30s and replica efforts in Mongolia. In the early 1930s, a Latin alphabet containing 24 dominant characters emerged in Mongolia. This shift was subsequently aborted and in 1937 the former Minster of Education  was prosecuted for crimes which included trying to destroy the Mongolian national script. But in early 1941, after the rise of Choibalsan, Latinisation re-emerged. And on 21 February 1941, a resolution was passed in Mongolia to approve a 42-letter Latin script. This decree was short-lived, though, as a month a later, on 25 March, Cyrillic was adopted as the preferred alternative to the traditional Mongolian script. Five years later, this change was enforced

The processes of both Latinising and Russifying the Mongolian language were neither straightforward nor definitive. The subtle and gradual alterations to both the Latin and the Cyrillic versions of the titles evident in these newspaper demonstrate this.  The task of using new alphabets to represent an existing language was subject to intense linguistic debate.

As the last national newspapers printed in traditional Mongolian script before the forceful switch to the Cyrillic script on 1 January 1946, these two newspaper collections offer an important insight into the nature of those debates and provide a potentially useful dataset to help better understand the mechanics and subtleties of this linguistic revolution.

By the time of this enforced change, Unen had already transitioned. When the final edition available in this collection was published on 31 December 1945, the only remnant of the traditional Mongolian script was the title; the rest of the newspaper was printed in Cyrillic.

Two front covers of Unen newspaper
Unen, 1 January 1942 (EAP890/1/2/1/1), left; Unen, 31 December 1945 (EAP890/1/2/45/11), right

When the Sovietisation process began, the titles were the first parts of these newspapers to change. When the process was complete, they were the last thing to remain.

Beyond communism and 21st century challenges

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of communism in Mongolia, efforts have been made to resurrect the traditional script, which is still used in the autonomous Inner Mongolian region of China. This was initially scheduled for 1994, but Cyrillic was re-confirmed as the national script by the Mongolian parliament in 1995.

Twenty years later, in February 2015, the Mongolian government passed a new law which asserted that the traditional Mongolian script, found in these two newspapers, should once again be the national script by 2025. But it may not be that simple.

As I discovered when cataloguing this project, implementing this policy requires technical change as well as political will. It had been our intention to catalogue the collection using the traditional Mongolian script that the newspapers were predominantly written in. However, while the traditional Mongolian script was added to the unicode standard in 1999, there are several design issues that remain unfixed and a lack of support for fonts required to display the script correctly. The 2025 target has provided renewed motivation to address these  issues. But it remains to be seen if and when the existing technical problems will be resolved.

For now, therefore, the titles for these collections appear in the EAP catalogue only in the modern Mongolian Cyrillic script and transliterated Latin script.

But once you get beyond the name, the digitised content is there to be explored in the traditional Mongolian script - providing a window into the past and possibly the very near future of Mongolia and the significance of its national script.

By Graham Jevon

With thanks to the EAP890 project team led by Bayasgalan Bayanbat for digitising this content, and to Eleanor Cooper with whom discussions about the language and scripts inspired this post.

Further reading

Charles Bawden, The Modern History of Mongolia, (2002).

Henry S Badsher, 'The Sovietization of Mongolia', Foreign Affairs (April 1972), pp. 545-553.

Uradyn E Bulag, Nationalism and Hybridity in Mongolia (1998).

Stephane Grivelet, 'The Latinization Attempt in Mongolia', http://acta.bibl.u-szeged.hu/16597/1/altaica_039_115-120.pdf

Stephane Grivelet, 'Reintroducing the Uighur-Mongolian Script in  Mongolia Today', Mongolian Studies, Vol. 18 (1995), pp. 49-60.

04 November 2020

New Collections Online - October 2020

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The latest set of projects to go online are truly global, spanning Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. Here's a brief summary:

EAP880 - The Palace Archives of the Buddhist Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim

The project team and two document extracts

Located near the Himilayas, where India meets China, Sikkim is one of the newest Indian states, merging with India in 1975. This project digitised the hitherto neglected royal archives of the former Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim. It contains a wealth of invaluable documents that date between 1807 and 1998. As such, this collection offers crucial insights into crucial historical events including the merger with India in 1975 and military border clashes between India and China.

This collection covers the entire spectrum of political activities, from domestic and religious issues to foreign affairs. This archive therefore offers unique and important insights into the history of this kingdom and its geopolitical significance.

While it is an archive that represents elite perspectives, the Sikkim Palace Archives is also the first collection of local origin to be made freely and universally accessible for international scholarship, presenting a perspective of events and characters as experienced from within looking out. This provides a valuable contrast to the earlier need to rely very largely on colonial sources for the history of Sikkim. The collection adds considerably to the available sources on the history and culture of Sikkim, with very little duplication of material with that available elsewhere, namely in the British Library's India Office collection, and to a lesser extent in the National Archives of India and the Sikkim State Archives.

EAP914 - Government and Church Records from the Turks and Caicos Islands

An image of the digitisation process and two digitised manuscript pages

This project digitised some of the most vulnerable and important collections located at the Turks and Caicos National Museum. It contains two sub-collections:

The government records include documents and correspondence involving the colonial secretary and despatches to the governor-in-chief. It also includes legislative and executive council records. This collection thus offers important insights into the colonial governance of the islands, which is still a British Overseas Territory.

Meanwhile, both the government and church collections contain registers of births, baptisms, marriages, burials, and wills. The church collection includes both Methodist and Anglican church records, spanning 1799-1922. These registers provide an invaluable resource for genealogists researching their family history.

EAP989 - 19th Century Bulgarian Manuscripts

Pages from three digitised manuscripts

This pilot project focused on three collections of 19th century and early 20th century manuscripts located at the Institute for Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum, within the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. It produced a detailed survey of the collections and digitised a sample of manuscripts.

These manuscripts reflect the cultural and folklore heritage of Bulgarian and Balkan areas and include hand painted texts, images, and notated songs.

EAP1144 - The Ghana Railway Corporation Archive

Three images of the project team surveying the site

The EAP1144 project team encountered an archive that was in a significant state of disrepair. One of their first tasks was to erect plastic sheets to provide immediate protection to the documents from rain water leaking through the roof.  

This pilot project resulted in a survey of the archive and the digitisation of a sample of documents. These include 68 personnel files for railway employees and two files containing correspondence.

 

28 August 2020

New Collections Online - August 2020

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August has been another busy month for EAP with newspapers, manuscripts, books, and archival documents all being made available. Here is a summary of four of the most recent EAP projects to go online:

EAP498 - Provincial Newspapers in Peru (19th -20th century)

This project digitised 176 different newspaper titles from five regions of Peru:

Across the five collections, a total of 2,133 newspaper editions have been digitised and made freely available.

Two newspaper front pages
Dona Filo, 31 Agosto 1959 (EAP498/2/8/1); El Sol de Los Andes, 4 Abril 1889 (EAP498/1/13/5).

These unique collections offer important material that will help generate new research into the history of Peru, particularly the regions outside the largest cities. The Tacna collection, for example, includes important coverage of the the area's occupation by Chile between 1880-1929.

These collections contain a wide variety of topics, including satire, labour movements, literature, and education. 

 

EAP918 - Rare Books in Grantha script from South India

The EAP918 project team digitised ten collections owned by institutions and private scholars, containing a total of 1,112 books printed in Grantha script.

Two book pages
Srīraṅkanāta Pātukācahasram: uttarapākam, EAP918/1/13 (left); Āpastampa Kruhaya Sūtram, EAP918/5/12 (right).

Grantha script has mainly being used for reading Sanskrit in South India since the 6th century, but during the 20th century it became almost obsolete. Very few people use it and very few libraries continue to hold books written in Grantha script, which include accounts of topics including astrology, astronomy, history, philosophy, rituals, language and grammar, poetry, music, yoga, and society.

This digitisation project was therefore vital to help preserve this once widely used script and to make the knowledge it contains available to a new generation of researchers.

 

EAP922 - British Indian Association Archive

The British Indian Association, founded in 1851, was one of the earliest political associations of Indian colonial subjects. It was the first political body of the nation and can challenge the Indian National Congress for the title of the Grand Old Party.

The Association was largely composed of landholders who maintained a combination of conservatism and progress in their efforts to obtain freedom for colonial India.

Spanning the period 1851-1948, this collection contains a wealth of material relating to the British Indian Association and the wider political situation in India. The collection is divided into 11 series:

Newspaper front page and Police Report front cover
Hindoo Patriot, 18 January 1892 (EAP922/1/5/11, image 24); Report on the Police Administration of Burma, 1890 (EAP922/1/10/9).

 

EAP1023 - Rare Medieval Manuscripts from Newari Settlements in Nepal

Building on the work of previous projects EAP676 and EAP790, this latest project digitised 28 collections of manuscripts located in Newār settlements in Rural Kathmandu and hill areas of Nepal.

These Hindu and Buddhist manuscripts range from the 12th-18th centuries and cover a wide range of topics including:

  • Literature
  • Medicine
  • Music
  • Rituals
  • Epic stories
  • Narratives
  • Tantra
  • Shashtra
  • Iconography
  • Glorification
  • Eulogy
  • Grammar
  • Mahatmya
  • Puja
  • Indigenous Kiranta texts.
Manuscript page
सन्ध्योपासना बिधि [Sandhyopasana Vidhi], 17th century (EAP1023/27/18, image 2)

They are written in a wide range of languages and scripts. Languages include:

  • Kiranti
  • Mara
  • Nepali
  • Newari
  • Sanskrit
  • Tibetan.

Scripts include:

  • Bengali
  • Bhujimol
  • Devanagari
  • Lepcha
  • Limbu
  • Newari
  • Proto-Bengali
  • Tibetan.

Follow us on Twitter @bl_eap to keep up-to-date with the latest new collections going online.

We will be uploading many more collections from all over the world in the coming weeks and months.

03 July 2020

New Projects Online - June 2020

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In recent weeks we have continued to put new collections online. Here is a summary of  four of the most recent projects to be made available.

EAP703 - Notary Books of Bahia, Brazil, 1664-1910

Until 1763, Bahia was the seat of the Portuguese colonial government in the Americas and a major sugar plantation economy based on African enslaved labour. Bahia received 33% of the Brazilian trade and 14.5% of the total. Being an administrative and economic centre, and until the late eighteenth century the most important port of trade in the South Atlantic, the production of documents in Bahia was intense. In Brazil, the Arquivo Público do Estado da Bahia (Bahia State Archives) is considered to be second in importance only to the National Archives in Rio de Janeiro.

This project digitised 1,329 volumes of Notary Books deposited at the Arquivo Público do Estado da Bahia. In total 306,416 pages were digitised as part of the project.

Project team digitising notary books
The EAP703 project team digitising the notary books in Bahia

The dates  for the volumes ranges from 1664 to 1910. They therefore include the first two decades of the republican and post-emancipation period. 

These documents represent perhaps the most dependable source for the study of the social and economic history of colonial and post-colonial Bahia up until the end of the 19th century. The notary books include records such as:

  • Bills of sale (for plantations, land, houses, ships, slaves, etc)
  • Wills and testaments
  • Inheritance partition
  • Power of attorney letters
  • Marriage
  • Dowry
  • Labour and business contracts
  • Children’s legitimisation papers
  • Slave manumission papers.
A notary book page
Livro de Notas do Tabelião [3 May 1680-19 Jun 1680] (EAP703/1/2/2)

 

EAP896 - Documentation of Endangered Temple Art of Tamil Nadu

EAP does not only fund the digitisation of manuscripts and documents that can be held in the hand. EAP supports digitisation of almost any at-risk historical material. The digitisation of temple art in Tamil Nadu is a prime example.

The rich cultural heritage of temple art in India is rapidly deteriorating because of vandalism, weather conditions, and practices such as burning camphor for ritual purposes. By digitising the artwork that adorns eight temples in Tamil Nadu, India, the EAP896 project team have helped preserve this art for research, enjoyment, and education.

Project Team Digitising a Temple Wall
The EAP896 project team digitising a temple wall

The drawing lines found on the temple walls represent abstract forms painted several centuries ago. In the evolution of human cognitive expressions, painting is a significant milestone. The paintings are essentially made up of lines and colours and the figures that are represented are mostly mythical.

Art on temple wall
Bodinayakkanur Zamin Palace, West Hall, North wall, top row (EAP896/1/2)

This project has resulted in a plethora of visually striking images.

 

EAP1150 - Fragile Palm Leaves Digitisation Initiative

In partnership with the Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation and the Buddhist Digital Resource Centre, this project digitised 300 Pali and vernacular manuscripts in Burmese script.

Bound palm leaf manuscript
Mhan nanḥ mahārājavaṅ tau krīḥ I (EAP1150/1/9, image 1)

Mostly created in the 18th and 19th century, these manuscripts contain approximately 1,000 discrete Buddhist texts on a variety of topics. These include:

  • Law
  • Poetry
  • Stories of the Buddha
  • Grammar
  • Religious rituals
A palm leaf manuscript
Mhan nanḥ mahārājavaṅ tau krīḥ I (EAP1150/1/9, image 15)

These manuscripts provide an invaluable primary resource for the study of Burmese and Theravada Buddhism, Pali philology, history, literature, regional codicology, pre-modern textual and scribal practices, and manuscript culture.

 

EAP1167 - Safeguarding Colonial Plantation Records of Malawi

This pilot project surveyed tea and tobacco plantation records from the colonial era in Nyasaland [Malawi]. The team located relevant records and created an inventory, which is available as an Excel spreadsheet.

A plan showing plots on a tobacco estate
Nchenga and Falls Dairy (EAP1167/1/11/1, image 1)

The team also digitised a sample of records from 13 estates (1922-1966), which are freely available to view. These include:

  • Title deeds
  • Legal agreements
  • Memoranda
  • Correspondence
  • Articles of association.

 

These four projects include a diverse range of content types and span three continents across several centuries. Combined, they aptly showcase the rich diversity of EAP projects.

Look out for even more diverse projects going online in the weeks in months ahead!

11 May 2020

New projects online - April 2020

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We have another four new projects we can share with you this month that have recently been made available online. If you didn't read last month's blog you can see it here. It features projects from Kenya, Senegal, Uganda, and the small Caribbean island of Nevis. On to this month's projects:

  • Pa'O religious and literary manuscripts from Shan State, Myanmar [EAP104]
  • records relating to the Tamil Protestant community of the Jaffna Peninsula, Sri Lanka [EAP835]
  • colonial records from the French colony of Middle Congo (Republic of the Congo) [EAP844]
  • Sanskrit and Malayalam manuscripts from monasteries in Thrissur, Kerala, India [EAP1039]

EAP104

The manuscripts digitised during this project constitute the largest and most comprehensive Pa'O literary and religious studies resource outside of Pa'O regions in Myanmar and Thailand. The original manuscripts, a mixture of parabaik (accordion folded paper manuscripts), bound scrolls, and palm-leaf manuscripts, are owned by the Pa'O Literary and Cultural Council Committee Library in Taunggyi, Shan State, Myanmar. The texts consist mainly of Pa’O interpretations of the Theravada Buddhist canon, though other particularly interesting manuscripts include those that document Pa'O dynasties and claims on important historical sites in contemporary Myanmar. There are 71 manuscripts in total, the majority of them in the Pa’O language.

Lokadippa lokavvat‘ phrekyam-600wide
Page from a manuscript - Lokadippa Lokavvat‘ Phrekyam [EAP104]

EAP835

The aim of this ‘pilot’ project was to survey the print and manuscript materials of the Tamil Protestant community of Jaffna in Sri Lanka. There is a wealth of material documenting this community and the role of missionaries from the UK and United States. The American Ceylon Mission press for example printed more than 500,000 evangelical tracts in a 17-year period leading up to 1840. Much of this is Tamil-language translations of American texts, but there are also significant amounts of material relating to Tamil epic poetry and literature, ethical treatises, pedagogical works, devotional literature, and many polemical essays on Saivism and Christian‐Saivite exchanges.


The project surveyed 10 institutional and 3 private archives. They digitised a sample of records including church record books, correspondence between Missions, lists of parishes, issues of St. John’s College Magazine, and more from 5 of these institutions. You can read the survey reports and lists on the project page, as well as see a sample of 27 records that were digitised.

Eap835-3-1-religious tract society600wide
EAP835/3/1 - Religious Tract Society

EAP844

This pilot project set out to locate and document colonial archives from the former French colony of Middle Congo, in present-day Pointe-Noire, Republic of the Congo. While archives in Brazzaville have been more widely studied, the archives in Pointe-Noire have largely been unknown and inaccessible to researchers.


Research was carried out in three main archives:

  • Archives Municipales de Pointe-Noire (integrated into the city's town hall)
  • Archives de la Préfecture de Pointe-Noire (APPN-CON)
  • Archives du Chemin de Fer Congo-Océan (ACFCO-CON)


A survey and inventory of some of the holdings are available on the project page. The survey explains the history and provenance of the archives and their collections, and should be used as the starting point for exploring them. The project team also digitised a small sample of 3 dossiers from the APPN-CON containing mostly colonial era administration documents. These feature a wide-range of topics including: the impact of WW2 in the area; smuggling networks; development of trade unions; the ‘messianic’ movements of Lassyism (Bougism); xenophobic outbreaks against Dahomean and Togolese immigrants; social life in the Loango region.


Just from this small sample alone, it’s clear that these archives may have wide research interest, especially considering the amount of material that is uncatalogued. The team also estimated an additional 2500 ‘boxes’ of archival material at APPN-CON that they were unable to survey due to the time restraints of this small project. There obviously may be much more to discover. Whilst the focus was on colonial era records the team also sampled the vast trove of postcolonial records found in the archives. APPN-CON’s archive of postcolonial documents was singled out for its “spectacular possibilities” for research. 

Eap844-600wide
Example of a document digitised for the EAP844 project

EAP1039

This pilot project produced a survey of 238 of the 800 palm leaf manuscripts held in four monasteries that constitute the Hindu monastic complex of Thrissur in Kerala, India. This collection contains rare unpublished Sanskrit and Malayalam works, especially in the field of non-dualist philosophy (Advaita-Vedānta), Kerala history and hagiography. It therefore constitutes an invaluable resource for the study of the religious and social history of Kerala in the pre-modern times. 54 of these manuscripts were digitised and are now available to view online.

Eap1039-600wide
Example of a document digitised for the EAP1039 project

27 January 2020

Buddhism on the ground

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A manuscript in Sanskrit and Newari, showing how to set up an altar. EAP790/1/1

A European scholar of Buddhism, Edward Conze, once said of Buddhist monks that "they are the only Buddhists in the true sense of the word." He went on to say that life outside of the monastery was "incompatible with the higher levels of the spiritual life." This prejudice might be less common these days, but it has influenced generations of scholarship, and limited the kinds of Buddhism that scholars have studied.

Along with thinking that monks are the only true representatives of Buddhism, there has been a tendency to see the ethical and philosophical teachings of the Buddha as "pure" Buddhism, and everything else as falling away from this ideal. So rituals, chanting, storytelling, the making of amulets and casting of spells, have often been neglected in the study of Buddhism.

This attitude has started to change in recent years, but where are we to look for a different story of Buddhism? I would suggest that some of the best resources are projects that have been funded by the Endangered Archives Programme. For example, over the last seven years, the scholar Shanker Thapa has been digitising and cataloguing the personal manuscript collections of Nepalese tantric practitioners known as Vajracharyas

The Vajracharyas are family lineages, who pass down traditions of Buddhist tantric empowerment and meditation, and services to the local community, such as rituals for protection and prosperity. The image above is from a manuscript belong to Mr Gyankar Vajracharya, who lives in Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley. It shows how to set up an altar for a ritual. Another page from the same manuscript shows the nagas, serpent spirits who live in river and lakes, and are responsible for rainfall. Buddhists have provided the service of making rain to their local communities for centuries. 

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Manuscript page showing nagas, or serpent spirits. EAP790/1/1

This manuscript, along with the others in Gyankar Vajracharya's collection, which he generously allowed to be digitised, help us to understand the repetoire of a Buddhist ritual specialist in the Kathmandu Valley. 

Another EAP project has worked with a very different group of Buddhist ritual specialists, in the Pin Valley in India, some 1000 km northwest of Kathmandu. Between 2012 and 2015 the documentary photographer Patrick Sutherland worked with these ritual specialists, called Buchen, to document their practices, their books, and the other material culture of their profession. The Buchen offer rituals for healing, protection and exorcism, and also teach Buddhism to villagers through story, music and dance.

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Thangka of the life story of Padmasambhava EAP749/2/2/2

One of the Buchen is Meme Chettan Dorje. He worked with Sutherland to document his whole collection of manuscripts, paintings, and ritual implements. As  storytellers, the Buchen use the biographies of Buddhist heroes and saints to impart religious messages to their audience.

The Tibetan painting, or thangka above shows the story of Padmasambhava, a legendary master of miracles who is said to have established Buddhism to Tibet. In Tibetan Buddhism, Padmasambhava is both an example of the state of enlightenment itself, and a culture hero. The thangka is used by Meme Chettan Dorje to tell stories for the childhood of Padmasambhava. The figure of Padmasambhava is in the middle, surrounded by illustrations of key events from his life. When telling these stories, Meme Chettan Dorje uses a metal pointer to point to specific parts of the thangka.

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A metal pointer. EAP749/2/3/8

The Buchen's storytelling is based on Tibet's rich literary tradition. This 19th-century manuscript contains one of several version of Padmasambhava's life story. The worn state of the manuscript, including the repair written with a modern pen, clearly shows that all of Meme Chettan Dorje's objects are part of a living tradition, made to be used.

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A manuscript containing the life story of Padmasambhava. EAP749/2/1/1

In traditional collections, these three objects - painting, implement and manuscript - might well end up in three different institutions, with the connections between them almost entirely erased. This collection is different because it comes out of working directly with representatives of the living tradition. Both of these two EAP collections show how it is possible to document a tradition in a way that is more true to those who practice it, whether as an insider or an outsider to the tradition itself. Whatever Edward Conze once said, there are many kinds of Buddhism and many ways of being a Buddhist. 

Further reading

  • Edward Conze, Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, originally published 1951. Modern edition: Dover Publications, 2003.
  • Shanker Thapa, Newar Buddhism: History, Scholarship and Literature, Nagarjuna Publications, 2005.
  • Patrick Sutherland, Spiti, the Forbidden Valley, Network Photographers, 2010.

Post written by Sam van Schaik, Head of the Endangered Archives Programme

04 November 2019

Rare Buddhist Sanskrit Manuscripts from Rural Kathmandu and the Hill Areas of Nepal

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Among all the ancient languages, Sanskrit excels as being used in the greatest number of written works. Sanskrit is used for mainly Hindu and Buddhist manuscripts, covering medical manuals, literature and astrological works.

Two single manuscript pages placed one above the other. Each text has rows of Sanskrit.

Example of Buddhist religious stories

Nepal is the centre of Sanskrit Buddhist manuscripts, written in a variety of Newārī scripts on tree bark, palm-leaves and paper. The manuscripts are sources of profound knowledge. Nepalese Buddhist manuscripts are the only original extant sources of Mahāyāna Buddhism and has made the study of Mahāyāna Buddhism in Sanskrit possible. The texts are rare and often in a bad state due to natural and man-made conditions. The Endangered Archives Programme has supported the digitisation of these manuscripts through several projects:  EAP676, EAP790 and EAP1023. These grants have helped the exploration and digitisation of Buddhist manuscripts held in private collections and have been the first extended attempt to made public a significant number of these privately-owned manuscripts.  Sanskrit manuscripts in Nepal are treated as sacred items having great religious value. They are not merely material objects but regarded as emanations of deities in which life is inserted through performing a ritual called Nyāsa [placing or inserting] led by Vajrācaryā priests.

Two long manuscript pages. One placed above the other. Each page has two holes roughly splitting the text into three sections. These holes are used to tie the manuscripts together.

Early example of a manuscript written on paper

EAP1023 has digitised 478 Sanskrit manuscripts in twenty-eight collections. They were written between the tenth and eighteenth centuries. They are rare and still highly valued in Newār households in Nepal. All the manuscripts were recovered from Buddhist families and the owners are all very keen to preserve them.

The types of manuscripts in this collection include: Sūtra (canonical scripture), Tantra, Kathā (stories), Vidhī (rituals) and Buddhist chronicles. Those endangered ancient and medieval specimen discuss various religious themes as well as guide to perform rituals.  

The story literature in Buddhism is divided into Jātaka tales (the previous lives of the Buddha) and Avadāna (noble deeds). This collection contains several Avadāna stories including rituals texts. Some interesting manuscripts in this collection are copies of the Sūtra of Fivefold Protection (Pañcarakṣā Sūtra). The five Sūtras are Āryamahāpratisarā, Mahāsahasrapramardinī, Mahāmāyurī, Mahāmantrāṇusārinī and Mahasitavatī.

Pañcarakṣā and Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras were widely written and recited during the medieval times in Nepal. Pañcarakṣā Sūtra is believed to bring auspicious moments and bring protection from bad planets, evil souls, calamities, diseases, effects of poisons and so on. This text has five individual Sūtras. Five individual deities are emanated from the five Sūtras, each having special powers. Their influence is highlighted in the narrative descriptions of each Sūtra. Traditionally, the Pañcarakṣā Sūtra is written in golden, silver or organic homemade black ink. This collection also has the earliest dated Nepalese paper manuscript belonging to the twelfth century. From the Buddhist viewpoint, this collection is invaluable.

A single manuscript page. Gold writing with a colourful depiction of the Buddha in the centre.

Illustrated examples of  the Pañcarakṣā with writing in gold

A single manuscript page. Gold writing with a colourful depiction of the Buddha in the centre

Two pages of a manuscript a significant corner of each page is missing an burn marks are clearly visible.

A copy of the Pañcarakṣā Sutra, there looks as if there has been fire damage to the manuscript

Written by Dr. Shanker Thapa, Professor of History at Tribhuvan University and grant holder for EAP1023, EAP790 and EAP676.

14 December 2017

A project from Bhutan

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On 17 December 1907, Ugyen Wangchuk, the first Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King), was crowned and the Kingdom of Bhutan has marked this day ever since as its National Day.

The British Library has some photographs of Ugyen Wangchuk when he was crown prince dating from 1905, which were taken by John Claude White, the Political Officer of neighbouring Sikkim. The image of him wearing the traditional Raven Crown and the order of Knight Commander of the Indian Empire is perhaps the most reproduced photograph of the ruler, but it is the one in more relaxed dress and surrounded by his family, that has, for me, more appeal.

Photograph of Ugyen Wangchuk wearing the crown and traditional Bhutanese dress.

Photo 20/(1)

Ugyen Wangchuk with his family.Photo 20/(25)

To mark this anniversary, I thought I would highlight EAP039. This project was awarded in 2005, the very first round of grants  and took place at Gangtey Gonpa. The monastery was founded in 1613 by Gyalse Pema Thinley, the grandson of the saint Pema Lingpa (1450-1521) who was the most important Buddhist born in Bhutan and who discovered the hidden texts concealed by the 8th century Indian monk Padmasambhava.

The monastery underwent major renovation, beginning in 2000 and lasting for eight years. The Endangered Archives Programme project was independent to the refurbishment of the building but ensured the safety of the important Nyingma tradition manuscripts housed at the monastery. Below are some photographs of the village, the manuscripts beautifully wrapped and stored and the monks concentrating on the digitisation project. As the location lacked a reliable electricity supply, the team worked outside when photographing these precious texts, which were a funerary tribute to the founder of Gangtey.

We wish everyone in Bhutan a very happy National Day.

Buildings of Gantey with mountains in the distance.On the road to Gantey.

Close up of a manuscript, including the title page.An example of one of the manuscripts.

Monks digitising in the courtyard of a monastery.Monks at work.

Manuscripts wrapped up in saffron coloured cloth.Bundles of manuscripts waiting to be digitised.

 

Further Reading:

Aris, M (1994) The Raven Crown Chicago: Serindia Publications