A Preliminary Survey of Some Early Buddhist Manuscripts Recently Acquired by the British Library

By Salomon, Richard | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, April-June 1997 | Go to article overview

A Preliminary Survey of Some Early Buddhist Manuscripts Recently Acquired by the British Library


Salomon, Richard, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


1. Introduction; general description of the manuscripts

The Oriental and India Office Collections of the British Library have recently acquired, with the assistance of an anonymous benefactor, a substantial collection of early Buddhist texts written on birch-bark scrolls in the Gandhari or Northwestern Prakrit language and the Kharosthi script. The original provenance of the manuscripts is not known, but may be Afghanistan, in view of certain resemblances (discussed below) to other materials previously found there.

The manuscripts comprise thirteen rolls of birch bark which had been removed from their original container. According to verbal reports, they were originally found inside one of a group of five large clay pots, each bearing a Kharosthi dedicatory inscription, which have also been acquired by the Library. The bark rolls are extremely fragile and, in fact, had already been seriously damaged, in that substantial portions of one vertical edge of most of the manuscripts had been destroyed. When acquired by the Library, the scrolls were still in their original rolled-up state, and the exceedingly delicate task of unrolling them was successfully carried out by the conservation staff of the British Library. This has now made it possible to prepare preliminary photographs of the manuscripts, an example which is shown in figure 1, and to conduct a provisional survey of their contents.

The scrolls proved to consist of birch-bark strips, typically about five to nine inches in width, on which the texts were written in black ink. The long scrolls were built up out of shorter strips, apparently around twelve to eighteen inches long, which were overlapped and glued together, as shown by blank spaces in several fragments in which the original strips have separated. The scrolls were reinforced by a thread sewn along both margins. In a few cases traces of the original thread are preserved, and in many places the needle holes along the margins are still visible.

Typically, the scribes began writing at the top of the recto, continued to the bottom of the recto, and then reversed the scroll both from top to bottom and from front to back and continued writing from the bottom edge of the verso back to the top of the scroll. This means that the texts both began and ended at the top of the scroll, which would be on the outside when it was rolled up from the bottom. But this is precisely the part of the scroll that is most subject to wear and tear, especially in the case of a fragile material like birch bark, which becomes extremely brittle when it dries out. The unfortunate result is that, but for one fragmentary exception, we do not have the beginning or end of any scroll, or the label or colophon that might have accompanied it. Virtually all the surviving material, in other words, is from the middle and bottom of the original scrolls. This situation is apparently not due to damage inflicted since they were recently rediscovered, but probably reflects their already imperfect condition when they were interred in antiquity (as discussed in part 2). The surviving sections of the scrolls range in length from mere fragments of a few lines or even a few letters to substantial, though still incomplete, portions of complete scrolls. The longest intact section of a single scroll is about eighty-four inches long.

For all these reasons, the condition of the manuscripts is only fair at best, and often much worse than that. All are incomplete, and many are mere fragments. Moreover, in most cases the delicate surface of the bark is peeled, faded, discolored, or otherwise damaged, so that it can be difficult or, not infrequently, nearly impossible to decipher the texts. Even where the texts are more or less legible, they contain, almost without exception, frequent and sizable lacunae.

2. Constitution, disposition, and affiliation of the manuscripts

It has already become clear in the course of the preliminary cataloguing of the manuscripts that the original thirteen rolls do not all constitute single texts or scrolls. …

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