Folio 13 verso, a representation of the goddess Prajñāpāramitā

One of the greatest treasures of Cambridge University Library is a Buddhist manuscript that was produced in Kathmandu exactly 1,000 years ago. The exquisitely-illustrated Perfection of Wisdom is still revealing fresh secrets.

When Sujātabhadra picked up his reed pen and put his name to the manuscript, he was part of a rich network of scholarship, culture, belief and trade

Camillo Formigatti

One thousand years ago, a scribe called Sujātabhadra put his name to a manuscript known as the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight-Thousand Stanzas (Skt. Aṣṭasahāsrikā Prajñāparamitā).  Sujātabhadra was a skilled craftsman working in or around Kathmandu – a city that has been one of the hubs of the Buddhist world from around 500 CE right up until the present day.

The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight-Thousand Stanzas is written in Sanskrit, one the of the world’s most ancient languages, using both sides of 222 oblong sheets made from palm leaf (the first missing sheet has been replaced with a paper sheet).  Each leaf is punctured by a pair of neat holes, a reminder that the palm leaf pages were originally bound together with cords passing through these holes.  The entire palm leaf manuscript is held between richly ornate wooden covers.

Today the fabulous manuscript that would have taken Sujātabhadra and fellow craftsman many months — perhaps even a year — to complete is held by the Manuscripts Room at Cambridge University Library. Over the past 140 years, it has been studied by some of the foremost specialists of the medieval Buddhist world.  

A digitisation project has now made the manuscript accessible online to scholars worldwide and has revealed fresh evidence about the origins of some of the earliest Buddhist texts.

The presence of the Perfection of Wisdom, safe in the temperature-controlled environment of one of the world’s greatest libraries, many thousands of miles from its birthplace, is especially poignant at a time when the people of Nepal are struggling to survive in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake.

Buddhist texts are more than scriptures: they are sacred objects in themselves. Many manuscripts were used as protective amulets and installed in shrines and altars in the home of Buddhist followers. Examples include numerous manuscripts of the Five Protections (Skt. Pañcarakṣā), a corpus of scriptures that includes spells, enumerations of benefits and ritual instructions for use, particularly sacred in Nepal.

Manuscripts produced in Nepal, Tibet and Central Asia during the period from the 5th until the 19th century are evidence of the thriving ‘cult of the book’ that was the subject of a recent exhibition at Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

The Perfection of Wisdom is also an important historical document that provides valuable information about the dynastic history of medieval Nepal. Its textual content and illustrations, and the skills and materials that went into its production, reveal the ways in which Nepal was one of the most important hubs within a Buddhist world that spanned from Sri Lanka to China.

The text is lavishly illustrated by a total of 85 miniature paintings: each one is an exquisite representation of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (beings who resolve to achieve Buddhahood in order to help other sentient beings) – including the historical Buddha Śākyamuni and Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future. The figures represented in the miniatures include also the embodied Perfection of Wisdom goddess (Prajñāparamitā) herself on the Vulture Peak Mountain near Rājagṛha, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Māgadha, in today’s Bihar state.

The settings in which these deities are depicted are drawn in meticulous detail. The Bodhisattva Lokanātha, surrounded by White and Green Tārās, is shown in front of the Svayambhu stupa in Kathmandu – a shrine sacred for Nepalese and Tibetan Buddhists, damaged in the recent earthquake. The places depicted in the miniatures represent a kind of map of Buddhist lands and sacred sites, from Sri Lanka to Indonesia and from South India to China.

The Perfection of Wisdom is one of the world’s oldest illuminated Buddhist manuscripts and the second oldest illuminated manuscript in Cambridge University Library. Its survival – and its passage through time and space – is little short of miraculous.

Without the efforts of a certain Karunavajra, quite probably a Buddhist lay believer, it would have been destroyed in 1138 — in that period the governors challenged the king in a struggle for power over the Kathmandu Valley. 

“We know that Karunavajra saved the manuscript because he added a note in verse form,” said Dr Camillo Formigatti of the Sanskrit Manuscripts Project. “He states that he rescued the ‘Perfection of Wisdom, incomparable Mother of the Omniscient’ from falling into the hands of unbelievers who were most probably people of Brahmanical affiliation.”

Cambridge University Library acquired the manuscript in 1876. It was purchased for the Library by Dr Daniel Wright, a civil servant working for the British government in Kathmandu.

“From the second half of the 19th century, western institutions were hugely interested in the orient - and museums and libraries were busy building collections of everything eastern,” said Dr Hildegard Diemberger of the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit. “Colonial administrators were almost literally given ‘shopping lists’ of manuscripts to acquire in the course of their travels.”

Scholars are able to pinpoint with remarkable precision the date that Sujātabhadra recorded his name as scribe in the ‘colophon’ (details about the publication of a book).

“Using tables that convert the dates used by Nepalese scribes into the calendar we use today, we can see that Sujātabhadra added his name and the place where he completed the manuscript on 31 March, 1015. The study of mathematics, astrology and astronomy were central aspects of ancient and medieval South Asian culture, and time reckoning was very accurate — both the lunar and the solar calendar were employed,” said Formigatti.

A thousand years on from its production, the manuscript is still yielding secrets. In the course of digitising the manuscript in 2014, Formigatti identified 12 of the final verses to be the only surviving witness of the Sanskrit original of the Ripening of the Victory Banner (Skt. Vajradhvajapariṇāmanā), a short hymn hitherto considered to have survived only in its Tibetan translation. The popularity of this hymn is borne out by the fact that the Tibetan version of the text is also found in manuscript fragments found in Dunhuang, a city-state along the Silk Route in China.

The production of this precious manuscript is evidence not only of the thriving communication channels that existed across the 11th century Buddhist world but also of a well-established network of trade routes. The leaves used to make the writing surface came from palm trees. Palms do not flourish in the dry climate of Nepal: it’s thought that palm leaves would have come from North East India.

“The University Library’s manuscript of Perfection of Wisdom shows us that ten centuries ago Nepal, which westerners often perceive as ‘remote’ and ‘isolated’, had flourishing connections stretching many thousands of miles,” said Formigatti.

“When Sujātabhadra picked up his reed pen and put his name to the manuscript, he was part of a rich network of scholarship, culture, belief and trade. Buddhist manuscripts and texts travelled huge distances. From the fertile plains of Northern India, they crossed the Himalayan range through Nepal and Tibet, reaching the barren landscapes of Central Asia and the city-states along the Silk Route in China, finally arriving in Japan.

“The Perfection of Wisdom is perhaps the most representative textual witness of the Buddhist cult of the book, and this manuscript written, decorated and worshipped in 11th century Nepal, is one of the finest specimens of Buddhist book culture still extant.”

Inset image top – Folio 123 verso, a representation of a famous caitya (Buddhist reliquary), called Sri Kanaka-caitya, in the city of Peshawar in today's Pakistan. Credit: Cambridge University Library Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Inset image bottom – Folio 14 recto, a representation of the Bodhisattva Lokanātha in front of Svayambhunath in Kathmandu. Credit: Cambridge University Library Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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