The previous article on Buddhist manuscript textiles focused on manuscript wrappers, bags and textile book covers from mainland Southeast Asia which came to light during the curation of an exhibition on Buddhism at the British Library (25 October 2019 – 23 February 2020). The manuscript traditions of South and East Asia are equally diverse as one can see in the above mentioned exhibition. Although the nature and production of manuscripts in South and East Asia is in many aspects different from that in Southeast Asia, manuscript textiles here were also frequently reused or repurposed pieces of cloth. However, textiles directly attached to manuscripts were often custom-made for a particular manuscript or an entire set of manuscripts; silk being the preferred material. The commission of an elaborately decorated or illuminated manuscript counts as an act of merit in all Buddhist cultures.

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A manuscript wrapper made from silk velvet, silk damask and embroidered silk for a paper manuscript. Nepal, 1683 (date of the manuscript) and 19th century (textile). © British Library, Or.11124

Shown above is an embroidered Thangka hanging that was repurposed to be used as a manuscript wrapper for a paper manuscript containing a fine calligraphic copy in gold ink of the Pancharaksha, a ritual text for the invocation of Five Protections, with illustrations of five protective goddesses. The country of origin of the cloth is not known; the different types of silk used to make the Thangka may originate from different countries or regions. The frame of the Thangka is made from brown coloured silk velvet. Historically, China and Iraq were among the first and most important producers of silk velvet, but Uzbekistan has also long been famous for the production of silk velvet. At the top, there is a veil in three layers which is made from blue and green silk damask. At the centre is a beautiful, mandala-shaped floral design embroidered in blue and white tones on bright red tabby weave silk. The actual manuscript is about two centuries older than the cloth, and it is not known whether the manuscript originally had another wrapper which deteriorated and had to replaced, or whether the manuscript had no wrapper at all.

More frequently, manuscript wrappers were custom-made for a particular manuscript to add meritorious value to the manuscript and to protect it from damage. The cloth was often sewn together combining a simpler, but stronger inner layer with a more valuable outer layer made of plain silk, silk damask or brocade.

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Initiation and ritual texts in a paper pothi manuscript with a custom-made silk wrapper with brocade application. Tibet, early 19th century. © British Library, Or.14685

The Tibetan manuscript shown above contains initiation and ritual texts with 27 illustrations and diagrams. It is made from paper in the pothi format that resembles the long oblong shape of palm leaf manuscripts in the South Asian and Southeast Asian manuscript traditions. The manuscript is wrapped in a square-shaped silk wrapper made from a red coloured inner layer and a yellow coloured outer layer. In one corner a beautifully designed application was added which was made from a small patch of hand-woven silk brocade in red, purple, white, blue and yellow tones, with embroidered edges. Attached to this corner of the cloth is a ribbon sewn from silk brocade with a Chinese coin attached to it at the end. Two other corners of the cloth also have a ribbon attached. To wrap up the manuscript, the cloth is laid out in diamond shape with the inner red layer facing up. The manuscript is placed in the middle of the wrapper, and the one corner without a ribbon is folded over the manuscript. Then the two corners on the left and right side are folded over the manuscript and tied together with the ribbons attached to those corners of the cloth. Finally, the corner with the silk brocade application is wrapped around the manuscript and the ribbon with the attached coin wound around the bundle several times, and the coin is pushed under the ribbon.

The manuscript wrapper mentioned above is one of a few examples where the smell of an object has its own story to tell. This piece of cloth has stains and quite a strong smell from butter lamps which are used on Buddhist altars. It can be assumed that the manuscript was used frequently, and the wrapper served its purpose of protecting the manuscript very well indeed.

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Silk veil attached to the title page of a volume of the Tibetan Buddhist canon, Kanjur. Containing the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in 8,000 Verses. Southern Central Tibet, 18th century. © British Library, Tib.I.232

Tibetan manuscripts containing sacred Buddhist literature often have decorative sheets as title pages, which are typically framed or illuminated and veiled with plain silk, silk damask or brocade. Many Tibetan Buddhist scriptures were written down on paper specially treated with indigo or black lacquer, and the title was written elegantly in silver or gold script (dbu can) against the dark background.

The image above depicts the title page of a volume of the Tibetan Buddhist canon, Kanjur, containing the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in 8,000 Verses. The title page is made from multi-layered, indigo-dyed paper. A veil made from four layers of silk in yellow, red, green and blue colours protects the title that is written in gold ink. The top layer in yellow colour is decorated with a sewn-on piece of intricately hand-woven silk brocade depicting stylised lotuses and figures of mythical animals as shown in the close-up image of a part of the veil below.

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Detail of a four-layered veil with silk brocade attached to the title page of a volume of the Tibetan Buddhist canon, Kanjur. Southern Central Tibet, 18th century. © British Library, Tib.I.232

Another feature of Tibetan pothi manuscripts are shelf flaps which are usually attached on the left side of the first text folio. Similar to the veil on the title page, the shelf flap consists of several layers of silk. The example below has four layers in the colours yellow, red, green and blue. The yellow layer of silk damask bears information about the content of the manuscript. The shelf flap fulfils an important function: when the manuscript is placed on the shelf or in a cabinet in a temple library, only the shelf flap with the information on the manuscript’s content is visible and enables the quick identification of the manuscript.

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Shelf flap made of silk and silk damask attached on the left side of a volume of the Tibetan Buddhist canon, Kanjur. Southern Central Tibet, 18th century. © British Library, Tib.I.232

Not all Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts are equipped with multi-layered veils, brocades or shelf flaps. Presented below is a volume containing a text which summarises the contents of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras of the Tibetan canon. The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras are very popular in the Mahayana tradition and highlight the insight into the empty nature of all phenomena. The illustrations on the title page depict on the left Shakyamuni Buddha in his earth-touching gesture (bhumisparsha mudra) and Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara on the right. The red coloured veil in tabby weave stretches the whole length of the title page to cover both the title and illustrations when closed.

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Paper pothi manuscript containing a text in Tibetan with the title Ratnaguṇasaṃcayagāthā, with a silk veil attached to the title page. Tibet, 14th century. © British Library, Or.16445

Not only Buddhist canonical scriptures could be equipped with a veil on the title page, but also extra-canonical texts. The manuscript below contains a text that describes the experiences encountered in the state between death and rebirth (bardo). In the West it became famously known as the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”. The text is often read near the bed of a deceased person to guide them through the various stages of the after-death experience and to support their spiritual liberation. The title page and pages where a new chapter begins are illustrated with various deities that are said to appear to the individual during the bardo. Attached to the pages with illustrations are silk veils in red colour, hand-woven with a chequered pattern to protect the title in gold ink and painted figures of wrathful deities. Generally, veils attached to the title page or chapter pages can have different colours; a popular type of veil is dyed yellow, red and green.

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Chapter page with silk veil of a manuscript containing the text Bar do thos grol in Tibetan language. Tibet, 18th century. British Library, © Or.15190

Buddhist texts in Tibetan language are not only found in Tibet, but also Bhutan, Mongolia and neighbouring regions. Manuscripts made in Mongolia towards the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century, for example, are usually protected by front and back covers made from multi-layered paper that was left in plain cream-white colour which is similar to the Tibetan tradition of making manuscripts. Occasionally, however, the covers were decorated each with a piece of cloth that was wrapped around the cover and then sewn together at the back of the cover. The example below shows the front cover of a well-known text in Tibetan language, the Vajracchedika Sutra (Diamond Cutter Sutra). It is decorated with a piece of printed cotton cloth with a floral design in red, yellow and brown colours.

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Front cover decorated with printed cotton of a manuscript containing the Dorjzoduba Sutra, Mongolia, 1890-1920. Held by the Dambadarjaa Monastery, Ulaanbaatar, EAP529/1/13

Some of the earliest extant manuscript textiles were found at the beginning of the 20th century by Sir Aurel Stein and his team in a library cave at Dunhuang in northwest China. The cave had been sealed for about a thousand years, which resulted in the 40,000 or so manuscripts and books contained in the cave remaining in relatively good condition.

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Silk fragment found in the library cave at Dunhuang Mogao, northwest China, 9th or 10th century. © British Library, Or.8210/S.13895 A recto

The small silk fragment above (size 8×4 cm) may have belonged to a miniature paper scroll containing a Sutra or another protective text. In this case, the piece of red coloured silk could have been attached to the back of the scroll as a scroll backing or as a cover. Miniature scrolls containing popular protective Sutras were often carried along on travels or brought back from pilgrimages as protective amulets. The silk fragment has seams at the top and bottom, and it appears as if it had been embroidered, or a pattern had been woven in for decoration, although this is not clearly visible due to the fragmented and fragile condition of the item.

Another rare manuscript textile discovered at the library cave in Dunhuang is a painted scroll cover belonging to a 21-metre long paper scroll (shown below).

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Painted silk cover of a paper scroll containing six Buddhist texts in Khotanese and Sanskrit languages in Brahmi script. Dunhuang Mogao, northwest China, dated 943 CE. © British Library, IOL Khot.S.46

The scroll contains a small collection of Mahayana Sutras and incantations written in ink on paper using the Khotanese and Sanskrit languages. The ancient kingdom of Khotan was located on the Silk Road (Xinjiang, northwest China) and was one of the main centres of Buddhism until the 11th century. This scroll was commissioned by a Buddhist patron requesting long life for himself and his family. To the scroll belongs a piece of silk that served as the scroll cover when the scroll was closed. A fine painting on the silk shows a pair of birds, possibly swan geese, standing on lotus flowers. In their beaks they are holding budding branches. This particular motif is frequently mentioned in Dunhuang literature and is also found on silk brocade book covers of the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) (see Vainker, 2004, pp.128-129).

Paper scrolls and bound books with silk covers were particularly popular in the manuscript traditions of the regions and countries in the east of East Asia. The upcoming second part of this article will look at manuscript textiles from China, Korea and Japan.

To see Buddhist manuscript textiles as well as textile artefacts and colourful paintings on silk visit the Buddhism exhibition at the British Library which will be open until 23 February 2020.

By Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections, British Library

Special thanks to Burkhard Quessel, Lead Curator of Tibetan Collections, Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator of Persian and Turcic Collections, and Liz Rose, Textile Conservator, all at the British Library, for their invaluable advice and support.

Further reading and references

Eric Boudot and Chris Buckley, The roots of Asian weaving: The He Haiyan collection of textiles and looms from Southwest China (Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2015

Elizabeth Hunter and Carl Norman, Painted silk Sutra wrapper IOL.MSS.Khot.S.46 (retrieved 03.01.2020)

Liz Rose, Assessment and conservation of Buddhist textiles for a major exhibition (In: Arts of Asia, January-February 2020)

Liz Rose, Video: The removal of linen backed paper from a silk scroll cover (retrieved 03.01.2020)

Ursula Sims-Williams, A Buddhist sutra and illustrated cover (retrieved 10.01.2020)

Shelagh Vainker, Chinese silk. A cultural history (London: British Museum, 2004)