Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Fragments of the Testament of BA from Dunhuang

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Fragments of the Testament of BA from Dunhuang

Article excerpt


Tibetan historical literature may be conveniently divided into two groups. The first group comprises the Tibetan historical texts recovered from the library cave at Dunhuang, dating from the Tibetan occupation of Dunhuang in the late eighth century to the sealing of the cave in the early eleventh century. (1) Foremost among this group are the royal records known as the Old Tibetan Annals and the Old Tibetan Chronicle. The second and much more substantial group comprises the histories preserved in Tibet in manuscripts and printed books, dating from the eleventh century through to the twentieth-century histories composed by Tibetan scholars still working in the traditional idiom. (2)

It so happens that there is almost no chronological overlap between these two groups. This must be understood in light of the period of disruption that ensued after the collapse of the Tibetan dynasty and the empire that it had ruled over in the mid-ninth century. During this "period of fragmentation" (sil bu'i dus) as it is traditionally known, many of the records of the imperial period seem to have been lost. (3)

Although some of the historical works from the second group are traditionally considered to have been preserved from the Tibetan imperial period, and thus might be counted as having survived through the period of fragmentation, modern historians have not been able to date them to any earlier than the eleventh century. Even the surviving history that is usually considered to be the earliest, the Testament of Ba, is of uncertain provenance. The Testament of Ba presents itself as a royal discourse (bka' mchid), and the core of the historical narrative is the story of the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet during the reign of the king Khri srong lde btsan (c. 754-797). These events are supposed to have been recorded by one of the figures at the king's court, Dba' Gsal snang. Though often thought to contain elements stemming from the imperial period, it has previously been thought to date back to the eleventh century at the earliest. (4)

The only convincing evidence for the existence of the Testament of Ba before the eleventh century would be its appearance in the first group of historical works, those from the Dunhuang cave. Its presence there would show that these two eras of historical literature do overlap, and that there was significant continuity through the period of fragmentation. It is the purpose of this article to announce the discovery of two fragments of the Testament of Ba in the Dunhuang manuscript collections. The fragments were identified by the authors while cataloging the sequence of Chinese Dunhuang manuscripts originally kept in the British Museum. While it was known that this sequence also contained some Tibetan manuscripts, not all of them had been identified. Thus these particular fragments had gone unnoticed for nearly a century.


The fragments comprise two manuscripts: Or.8210/S.9498(A) and Or.8210/S.13683(C). The first of these is the larger part, being 9.4 cm in height and 24.0 cm in width at the top, reduced to 6.4 cm in width at the bottom. The recto side contains six lines of Tibetan, written in black ink with red guidelines, while the verso is blank. The smaller fragment, Or.8210/S.13683(C), is 2.5 cm in height and 14.2 cm in width. It contains only one short line of text, but it can clearly be placed at the bottom of the larger fragment, as part of that fragment's sixth line of text. (5) A blank space and straight bottom edge after the sixth line suggests that this was a page in the traditional Tibetan pecha (dpe cha) format. The writing on the fragments is in dbu can script containing most of the archaic orthographic features found in the Dunhuang manuscripts, including the inverse gi gu, the da drag, the upper hook on the a chung, and the ya btags under the ma. The handwriting is very accomplished, and clearly the work of a practiced scribe. …

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