One of the Oldest Buddhist Manuscripts Has Been Digitized & Put Online: Explore the Gandhara Scroll

Bud­dhism goes way back — so far back, in fact, that we’re still exam­in­ing impor­tant evi­dence of just how far back it goes. Take the exhib­it above, which may look like noth­ing more than a col­lec­tion of fad­ed scraps with writ­ing on them. In fact, they’re pieces of the labo­ri­ous­ly and care­ful­ly unrolled and scanned Gand­hara Scroll, which, hav­ing orig­i­nal­ly been writ­ten about two mil­len­nia ago, ranks as one of the old­est Bud­dhist man­u­scripts cur­rent­ly known. You can read the scrol­l’s sto­ry at the blog of the Library of Con­gress, the insti­tu­tion that pos­sess­es it and only last year was able to put it online for all to see.

“The scroll orig­i­nat­ed in Gand­hara, an ancient Bud­dhist kind­gom locat­ed in what is today the north­ern bor­der areas of Afghanistan and Pak­istan,” writes the Library’s Neely Tuck­er. “Sur­viv­ing man­u­scripts from the Gand­ha­ran realm are rare; only a few hun­dred are known to still exist.” That realm “was under the rule of numer­ous kings and dynas­ties, includ­ing Alexan­der the Great, the Mau­ryan emper­or Ashoka and the Kushan emper­or Kan­ish­ka I,” and for a time “became a major seat of Bud­dhist art, archi­tec­ture and learn­ing. One of the region’s most notable char­ac­ter­is­tics is the Hel­lenis­tic style of its Bud­dhist sculp­tures, includ­ing fig­ures of the Bud­dha with wavy hair, defined facial fea­tures, and con­toured robes rem­i­nis­cent of Gre­co-Roman deities.”

Writ­ten in the Gand­hari vari­ant of San­skrit, the “Bahubud­dha Sutra” or “Many Bud­dhas Sutra,” as this scroll has been called, con­sti­tutes part of “the much larg­er Mahavas­tu, or ‘Great Sto­ry,’ a biog­ra­phy of the Bud­dha and his past lives.” Here Tuck­er draws from the schol­ar­ship of Richard G. Salomon, emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of San­skrit and Bud­dhist stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton, anoth­er insti­tu­tion that holds a piece of the Gand­ha­ran Bud­dhist texts. Many more reside at the British Library, which acquired them in 1994. The Library of Con­gress bought its Gand­hara Scroll from a British deal­er more recent­ly, in 2003, and it arrived in what Tuck­er describes as “an ordi­nary pen case, accom­pa­nied by a hand­writ­ten note: ‘Extreme­ly frag­ile, do not open unless nec­es­sary.’ ”

So began “sev­er­al years of thought and plan­ning to devise a treat­ment strat­e­gy,” an effort that at one point saw the Library’s con­ser­va­tor prac­tic­ing “her unrolling tech­nique on a dried-up cig­ar — an item that only approx­i­mates the dif­fi­cul­ty of work­ing with a com­pact­ed birch bark scroll.” Then came “grad­ual humid­i­fi­ca­tion over a few days, care­ful unrolling by hand with pre­ci­sion tools on a sheet of inert glass, fol­lowed by plac­ing anoth­er sheet of glass on top once the scroll was com­plete­ly unrolled,” a “dra­mat­ic and silent affair” described in greater detail by Atlas Obscu­ra’s Sab­ri­na Imbler.

The result was six large frag­ments and more than 100 small­er ones, togeth­er con­sti­tut­ing rough­ly 80 per­cent of the scrol­l’s orig­i­nal text. You can see all those frag­ments of the Gand­hara Scroll, scanned in high res­o­lu­tion, at the Library of Con­gress’ web site. This will nat­u­ral­ly be a more edi­fy­ing expe­ri­ence if, like Salomon, you hap­pen to be able to read Gand­hari. Even if you can’t, there’s some­thing to be felt in the expe­ri­ence of sim­ply behold­ing a 2,000 year old text com­posed on birch bark through the dig­i­tal medi­um on which we do most of our read­ing here in the 21st cen­tu­ry — where inter­est in Bud­dhism shows no signs of wan­ing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Breath­tak­ing­ly-Detailed Tibetan Book Print­ed 40 Years Before the Guten­berg Bible

The World’s Largest Col­lec­tion of Tibetan Bud­dhist Lit­er­a­ture Now Online

2,000-Year-Old Man­u­script of the Ten Com­mand­ments Gets Dig­i­tized: See/Download “Nash Papyrus” in High Res­o­lu­tion

Google Dig­i­tizes Ancient Copies of the Ten Com­mand­ments and Gen­e­sis

Google Puts The Dead Sea Scrolls Online (in Super High Res­o­lu­tion)

Archae­ol­o­gists Think They’ve Dis­cov­ered the Old­est Greek Copy of Homer’s Odyssey: 13 Vers­es on a Clay Tablet

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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