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Buddhist Illuminated Manuscripts

Buddhist Illuminated Manuscripts A very large number of Buddhist illuminated manuscripts from Bihar and Bengal have been traced in the libraries of Nepal and Tibet in the last 150 years. Made of palm-leaves, which explains their elongated shape, they reproduce religious texts, the most common one being the Astasahasrika Praj'aparamita. These manuscripts were copied for the sake of learning and were offered to the monastry so that it could be a part of the library. Only a few of them have any illumination. Their origins are usually unknown since only a few among them include information of historical nature in their colophons. Occasionally the names of rulers are mentioned, but the monastery where the manuscript was written, illustrated, or donated are often unknown.

We know of a number of manuscripts that have been copied and illustrated in the reigns of Ramapala, Gopala IV or Madanapala. In other words, most of the illuminated manuscripts were produced in the second half of the 11th and the 12th century AD in Bihar, where they were donated to monasteries like nalanda or vikramashila. As a matter of fact, the number of Buddhist manuscripts actually produced in Bengal is extremely limited.

The iconographic programme is usually not related to the written text. However, painted boards have also been recovered, illustrating various iconographic programmes. Since the manuscripts, which they use to protect, are usually lost, it is impossible to know the relationship that the paintings might have had with the text. The iconography of the manuscripts from Bihar are different from those of Bengal. Whereas the manuscripts from Bihar favoured depiction of the eight great events of Buddha's life, distributing them evenly at the beginning and at the end of the manuscript, those from Bengal distribute the paintings throughout the text, and even illustrate a text which is actually copied, for instance the Karandavyuhasutra. On the other hand, topics are illustrated in them which are never visible in the manuscripts from Bihar, such as scenes of worship which occupy the central field. Rare texts were copied and illustrated, like the Karandavyuhasutra just mentionned, or the Pa'chavimxatisahasrika Praj'aparamita.

It is not possible to consider the Buddhist manuscripts from Bengal without studying those from Bihar, where they originated or those painted at the same period in Nepal. Monks were great travellers and most probably carried along with them manuscripts although the richly illuminated ones were offered to a specific monastery and did not leave the library of that monastery, and were perhaps not even opened. However, a proper study of some rare well documented manuscripts allows us to draw lines of separation between a group centred on the monasteries of Bihar and another one centred on those from southeast Bangladesh. It is hence possible to try to distribute the bulk of the remaining manuscripts in these two regions or in intermediary areas.

Fig 1: Marici, Varendra Research Museum, Rajshahi

Southeast Bangladesh two known manuscripts were produced in the region of Lalmai during the reign of Harivarman who ruled towards the end of the 11th and the early part of the 12th century AD. The first one is preserved partly in private collections, partly in the Baroda State Museum and Picture Gallery (fig 1), and was donated in the 8th regnal year of this king. The second one is kept in the varendra research museum, Rajshahi, and is dated in the 19th regnal year (fig 2). The Baroda manuscript reproduces the Pa'chavingshatisahasrika Praj'aparamita instead of the usual Astasahasrika Praj'aparamita copied in the Rajshahi manuscript.

Both manuscripts contain one illumination in the centre of the folio, measuring approximately 6 cm in height and 5.5 cm in width. The Rajshahi manuscript contains only six illuminated folios at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the text, and show images of the three Tathagatas of the east, the centre, and the west, each of them on the obverse; whereas on the reverse, a Bodhisattva or female goddess related to each of them is painted.

The iconographic programme of the Baroda manuscript does not show such a clear conception, but differs clearly from the programme usually seen in Bihar: images of Buddhas, of Bodhisattvas, and scenes of worship are distributed throughout the manuscript. The intermediary margins, which are pierced for the rope binding the manuscript, are adorned with various geometric motifs which might well have been borrowed from fabrics. As to their outer margins, both manuscripts include depictions of chaityas (stupas erected on holy sites).

Fig 2: Avalokitexvara, private collection

This very same motif, erected above a trefoiled niche where various deities are painted, is preserved in the inner margins of a manuscript of the Karandavyuhasutra, now preserved in the British Library, London. As a matter of fact, the two Harivarman manuscripts share a number of features with the London manuscript, which can be dated around 1100-1125 AD. On the basis of these numerous similarities, it should be attributed to an atelier located in southeast Bangladesh. The London manuscript includes 53 (out of 63) folios, each of them containing a central illumination where a deity is depicted and whose two side margins for the rope are also illuminated with various motifs, usually a deity within a trefoiled niche drawn on the high base of a stupa.

All three manuscripts reflect the same style. The images are clearly drawn on a flat background; the colours are bright, with a dark blue or red background. White is prominently used; the faces are large with large open eyes; the deities usually sit or stand below an architectural structure or in front of a large white aura; two large trees are clearly drawn in both upper angles behind the temple. No volume but a strong feeling for the lines delineating flat surfaces characterises these paintings. Scenes of veneration are depicted which are not encountered in other schools.

Moreover, these manuscripts show deities standing within a shrine, whereas in the Bihar manuscripts, the use of the standing position is rare. The manuscripts painted in southeast Bangladesh share some stylistic features with some frescoes painted in Pagan (Bagan in Myanmar) in the 12th century. This is particularly exemplified by a single board preserved in the British Library in London, which most probably originates from the region.

North and West Bengal No monastery from north or west Bengal has been mentioned in any known manuscript. Therefore, the attribution of some illuminated texts to ateliers of the region is based either on the historical information contained in the colophon or on the recognizance brought by the stylistic study that they differ from the painted manuscripts from Bihar or from southeast Bangladesh. Thus, a manuscript donated by Soma of Paduvanva (Pandua), a contemporary of the great king Ramapala, has been attributed to the atelier of Somapura.

Through their style and iconography, manuscripts painted in north (or west) Bengal are related to the school of Bihar of late 11th and early 12th century. Similarities are also shared with Nepalese manuscripts. For instance, manuscripts from Bengal often include the depiction of the shrine within which the deity sits or stands. This is a common feature in the manuscripts from southeast Bangladesh, but is also observed in those from eastern Bihar, north Bengal, or Nepal, and occurs on a pair of boards dated in the first half of the 12th century.

Fig 3: Hevajra’s Prajva Varendra Research Museum, Rajshahi

Some, if not all, of these illuminated manuscripts might have originated from Vikramashila or any other site located in the Monghyr district of Bihar. Numerous Buddhist stone sculptures were recovered along the Ganga and are equally related to the artistic production of Magadha and North Bengal.

In addition to the manuscript donated by Soma, now preserved in London, a pair of boards preserved in Los Angeles can be attributed to an atelier located in the region. Trees are painted behind the monuments, perfectly delineated on the dark background adorned by small flowers spread at random. The flatness with which they are rendered is unknown in Bihar where the trees reflect more plasticity even though they are used with the same purpose of filling the upper angles. The architectural structure of the throne, generalised in Bihar, disappears behind the deities who lean on large cushions; the pillars sustaining the shrine can be extremely slender, as in the London manuscript. Moreover, the nervous line reminds one of the elaborate style of sculpture from north Bengal in the late 11th and 12th century.

The iconography of these paintings reflects an overwhelming presence of deities; in some cases, the illumination is even upside down in relation to the text, as it is in every second painting in a manuscript preserved in the Varendra Research Museum, which reflects extremely strong links to Bengal (fig 3). When the manuscript is closed, each male figure faces a female one, as if both were embracing each other.

Though only a very few manuscripts can be definitely ascribed to ateliers located in Bengal, it is, possible to underline the major stylistic and iconographic pecularities of two large groups centred in southeast and north Bengal. Further studies based on a comparison with stone sculptures from the respective regions, should allow attribution of manuscripts or loose leafs of unknown origins to these centres. [Claudine Bautze-Picron]

Bibliography Pratapaditya Pal and Meech-Pekarik Julia, Buddhist Book Illuminations, Paris/New York, 1988; Jeremiah P Losty, An Early Indian Manuscript of the Karandavyuhasutra, in Debala Mitra and Gouriswar Bhattacharya (ed), Studies in Art and Archaeology of Bihar-Bengal, Delhi, 1989; Claudine Bautze-Picron, "Buddhist Painting during the Reign of Harivarmadeva (end of the 11th c) in Southeast Bangladesh", Journal of Bengal Art, 4, 1999.