the-south-asian.com August 2004
Culture & History
- PIECING TOGETHER FRAGMENTS OF HISTORY
The almost seventeen centuries old Gilgit Manuscript has been giving historians a hard time, as no one has yet been able to fully decipher it. The lamination of the manuscript by the National Archives of India sometime ago has once again put the limelight back on this all-important literature concerning India, Tibet, China, Japan and other neighbouring countries.
Sometime ago when the National Archives of India (NAI) laminated 3,366 pages and many fragments of the Gilgit Manuscript, literary circles of the world were euphoric.
And there was good reason for cheer. The almost seventeen centuries old Gilgit Manuscript has been giving historians a hard time, as no one has yet been able to fully decipher it. The process of lamination and preservation has once again put the limelight back on this all-important literature concerning India, Tibet, China, Japan and other neighbouring countries.
In fact in 1897 - 34 years before it was discovered - the Buddhist Text Society of Calcutta had published references to the Gilgit Manuscript saying that if it were ever to be found it would unravel the ancient history of several communities as it is considered to be the oldest Buddhist manuscript.
But how did India come to possess it? The story began some sixty years ago when a group of cattle grazers unearthed a box in the region of Gilgit [now part of Pakistan occupied Kashmir] in the then undivided Jammu & Kashmir state. Little did they realize that the box contained one of the world's oldest manuscripts which could hold the key to the exact evolution of Sanskrit, Buddhist, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Tibetan literatures. Gilgit was then the major trade centre on the Silk Route.
For the cattle grazers, unearthing of this box was of no significance. The manuscript was hurriedly taken to the chambers of the erstwhile Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir and the international media published special supplements to tell the world that history was in the making. Editorials said that it was world property and should be well protected and preserved by the Maharaja. It was also suggested that a combined international team of scholars be constituted to decipher it. Leading Buddhist scholars from all parts of the world also rushed to Gilgit to unravel the mysteries locked up in the box.
Known as the Gilgit Manuscript, or more appropriately the Naupur Manuscript [after the village where it was found in], the authoritative work is now under the possession of the National Archives of India. Airlifted under special instructions from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, during the 1948 Indo-Pak conflict, the manuscript recently found a new lease to life when NAI laminated a number of its pages.
Opinions vary about the date of this manuscript. One branch of scholars says it was written in the second century AD., while another puts the date at somewhere between the sixth and seventh centuries.
That the manuscript has at all survived is partly attributed to the fact it has been written on bhoj patra (bark of the bhoj tree) which doesn't decay or decompose and partly because of the near-freezing temperatures of the Gilgit region where it was buried like a 'time capsule'.
Originally written in Pali text, the Gilgit Manuscript contains four sutras, with each leaf between ten and twelve feet in length and five feet in width. The main scripture is the Lotus Sutra which even today is an important scripture in Japan and deeply influences the cultural and political life of the country. Several researchers and scholars have attempted to transcribe the text but till date the manuscript has not been deciphered in its entirety.
Says Prof. Lokesh Chandra, renowned Buddhist scholar and director of International Academy of Indian Culture, who has put in several years of research on the manuscript," It will probably take another 50 years to understand it completely. Scholars from Germany, Japan and Korea are currently trying to decipher the text as sporadic translations in Sanskrit and Chinese have helped them get some idea of the missing links in the original texts."
The Gilgit Manuscript contains the texts on Vinay Vastu, the treatise on monastic discipline. There are texts on Ayurvedic medicines like Anna Panna Vidhi and Bhaisajya Guru Sutra. There are references to iconometry, folk tales, philosophy and culinary skills. It also has a chronological list of the various Buddhist Shahi kings of Gilgit.
Experts say that a Buddhist monk, Narendrayasa of the Northern Tshi dynasty translated it into Chinese in 557 A.D. But there is no trace of that now. Of the incomplete translations, one was made by Shih-sien-kun of the Sun dynasty in 420-479 A.D. Around the same period a third translation was done by Ngan-She-Kao.
From the different incomplete Chinese translations available it is evident that the original sutra of the manuscript was in existence even before 2nd century A.D. But in view of the fact that the earlier translations were of a shorter text, it may be inferred that the sutra in its original form was shorter.
According to Prof. Lokesh Chandra who has done a serialisation of the text, the Gilgit Manuscript has references of the three Buddhist Synods [meeting of religious heads]. This suggests a date sometime around or after the time of Emperor Kanishka. According to the Sanskrit texts, the third Synod was held during Kanishka's reign.
Some reference of the script and description of the sutras can also be found in an eight-volume serialisation of the manuscript done by Prof. Nalinaksha Dutt in the 50s. His work suggests that verses in the text are composed in Sanskrit and Prakrit languages. The vocabulary is derived from ancient Buddhist texts in Prakrit.
Prof. Dutt's work also suggests that the grammatical inflexions are indiscriminately applied for the sake of metre and melody of verses. There are Sanskrit words with Prakrit inflexions and Prakrit words with Sanskrit inflexions. And often, there are Pali words with correct inflexions, but in the garb of Sanskrit.
Regarding the dialectical peculiarities of the text, Dutt says that though the language of the prose portion is Sanskrit it bristles with Buddhist religious and philosophical terms and uses Prakrit language quite liberally.
Prof. Dutt also suggests that the text's versified portion is extremely confusing as it disregards the elementary canons of grammar, meter, and even vocabulary. A sweet melody seems to be its chief aim and for this it sacrifices every essential condition of a language. It doesn't use convenient forms of verbs or singulars or plurals or masculine or feminine genders - all of which makes Prof. Dutt suspect that the author of the original text was a versatile linguist and could play around with languages and blend them together.
Though the grammatical and literature aspects of the text are gradually becoming more of historical interest in the contemporary world, what is of interest is the social relevance of some of the sutras mentioned in the manuscript. Experts feel that when the full text is deciphered a common thread will be found in the language and people of countries like India China, Japan, Thailand, Tibet and Korea which would have the potential of altering the very geo-political map of the region.
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