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24 July 2014

Tangut Manuscripts from St Petersburg

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We have another wonderful guest blog, this time by Sam Van Schaik, International Dunhuang Project Research and HE Manager. Sam is also based at the British Library and sits just along the corridor from EAP. His blog is all about the historical context for EAP140 material.

 

The Tangut kingdom is one of the great lost civilisations of Asia. The kingdom, also known as Westen Xia, came to prominence in the 11th century and flourished until the early 13th century, when it was crushed by the armies of Genghis Khan. In that brief span, the Tanguts invented a new script, translated thousands of texts into their language, and pioneered the use of print technology, including moveable type.

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Stupas at the northwest corner of Kharakhoto, taken in October 2008. (c) International Dunhuang Project.

Until the beginning of the 20th century the Tanguts were only known through a few scattered references in historical texts. That changed with the excavation of the ancient ruined city of Kharakhoto by the Russian explorer Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov (1863-1935). During two visits to the site in 1908 and 1909, Kozlov discovered thousands of ancient manuscripts in Chinese, Tibetan, and an unknown language that would later be identified as Tangut. Along with other artefacts, including beautiful paintings on silk, Kozlov’s discoveries were taken back to St Petersburg, and are now housed in the Hermitage and the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

There are over eight thousand Tangut manuscripts and block printed books from Kharakhoto in the St Petersburg collection. Most of these are Buddhist texts, found when Kozlov was excavating a stupa (a Buddhist reliquary), dating from the 12th and early 13th centuries. The Tangut state was located between China and Tibet, and was influenced equally by these two great Buddhist cultures. Thus the manuscripts contain texts from China, including the literature of the Chan and Huayan schools, and from Tibet, mainly tantric Buddhist practices from India that had only recently arrived in Tibet.

It is a testament to the commitment of the Tangut emperors to Buddhism that the whole of the canon of Buddhist sutras (scriptures recording the words of the Buddha) were translated into Tangut by the 12th century. As we see from the Kharakhoto collections, many of these sutras were copied by hand and printed in expensive editions on fine paper. The Tibetan tantric texts were translated in the late 12th and early 13th centuries due to the increasing influence of Tibetan Buddhists at the Tangut court.

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A copy of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā sūtra in concertina format. Tang.334/201 EAP140/1/35

A project under the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP140) has now digitized a significant portion of the Tangut manuscript collections at the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts, St Petersburg. These are manuscripts of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā sūtra, "The Great Sutra of the Perfection of Wisdom", the most numerous single text in the collection. Just like in Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, this massive text was copied extensively for the religious merit thought to accrue from copying scripture.

These copies of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā sūtra are now available on the EAP website and will also be made available on the websites of the International Dunhuang Project. The high-quality colour images of these manuscripts make it possible to appreciate the variety of writing styles and book formats used in the Tangut kingdom. Book forms include concertina manuscripts like the one pictured above, and scrolls (see below).

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A scroll with a blue cloth cover. Tang.335/2.

The technology of woodblock printing was being used in China and Central Asia from the 7th century, and the production of both printed books and manuscripts continued in the following centuries. Though printing was a well-established technique in the Tangut kingdom, the great majority of these copies of the Mahāprajñāpāramitā sūtra were written by hand. Many of the manuscripts also have a block-printed frontispiece showing a scene of the Buddha teaching, an interesting combination of print and manuscript technologies. The fact that the same print is attached to many of the manuscripts suggests that they were produced around the same time. The Buddhist dynasties of China and Tibet sponsored major projects of copying the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, and it is likely that the Tangut emperors wanted to show that they could do the same.

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A block-printed illustration, the frontispiece to a Mahāprajñāpāramitā sūtra. Tang.334/204  EAP140/1/38

17 July 2014

New online collections – July 2014 – EAP now has over two million images!

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Last month five collections have gone up online EAP001, EAP038, EAP051, EAP117 and EAP458. These collections come from Iran, Cameroon, Indonesia and finally two from India. I am happy to say that with these new additions our online collections have grown to over two million images!

EAP001 was, as its number suggests, our first ever project. It was a pilot project which was interested in photography in Iran at the turn of the 19th century. It located photographic material from the 19th and early 20th century which was being kept in precarious conditions or in family collections. The project copied a sample of items and located many more for future possible digitisation projects.

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EAP038 surveyed and digitised pre-1947 Telugu printed materials in India. It located books and periodicals published during the 19th and first half of the 20th century which had been written in the Telugu language in South India. The first stirrings of cultural and religious renaissance were felt in the Telugu speaking districts of Madras Presidency under the British rule. Expressions of social and cultural interaction between the East and the West can be seen in Telugu print culture. From the revival of medical knowledge to various forms of literary genres such as classical Prabandha, Ithihasa and Puranic tradition and Panchangas [from 1860s] and Satakas and also western forms like novels, short stories, poems and drama.

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EAP051 aimed to preserve records which are written in Bamum script. This is an indigenous African writing system, from the Cameroon Grassfields. The project digitised collections of the Bamum Palace Archive, It also acquired relevant material in danger throughout the Bamum Kingdom and beyond, this material was digitised and deposited at the Bamum Palace Archives.

One book chronicles the arrival of the first German military officer and trader. Other books are devoted to the founding of the kingdom, to a new Bamum religion (fusing Christianity, Islam, and traditional beliefs), to other topics such as traditional medicine. One family’s collection included early Bamum script on banana leaves. Another collection is particularly important, containing thousands of documents on family and kingdom history, transcripts of speeches given by the Bamum King in the early twentieth century, commentaries on Islam and magic, and many beautiful maps of the Bamum Kingdom with place names and geographic features identified in the indigenous Bamum script.

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EAP117 digitised rare ancient manuscripts and artefacts from the 14th to the 20th century in Kerinca on the highlands of the Sumatra in Indonesia. The project digitised 65 private collections that contain information about an area of which little knowledge exists. The records held in private collections are often open to physical danger or degradation; this project helped ensure that the information contained in these rare documents is preserved and made available to a wide audience.

 

 

 

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The final project, EAP458, digitised records containing information about the Tamil region in India.

The documents are scattered in the homes of Tamil villagers. This material will open a new avenue of analysis at the level of micro-history of rural India, a field for which there is a lack of research material. The project liaised with record holders to survey and digitise their materials, aiding both in the preservation and dissemination of these important documents.

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Check back next month to see what else has been added!

You can also keep up to date with any new collections by joining our Facebook group.

06 July 2014

Homage to a Monk-Archivist

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We have another wonderful guest blog this month, this time by Hans Berger who was involved with EAP177 and EAP326, two wonderful photographic projects from Laos. I will let him tell you all about the person who was the inspiration behind it all...

Pha Khamchan Virachitta Maha Thela (1920-2007)

Theravada monk and abbot, collector of Buddhist photographs of Laos

Portrait of Pha Khamchan by Hans Georg Berger_1996Portrait of Pha Khamchan by Hans Georg Berger 1996

From the 7th-9th July, Buddhist monks and laypeople of Luang Prabang in Northern Laos commemorate Pha Khamchan Virachitta Maha Thela, a highly venerated abbot who passed away seven years ago, and who has been the key figure in a research project of the British Library's Endangered Archives Programme in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Pha Khamchan collected Buddhist Photographs of Laos for over 70 years and saved them during difficult times. In 2006, he agreed to a project of digitisation that now makes a unique body of Lao Buddhist photographs available for research, both inside and outside  Laos. With photographer Hans Georg Berger, he created the Buddhist Archive of Photography in Luang Prabang that now holds more than 35.000 historic photographs and related documents.

Pha Khamchan and his monastic community in 1996

Pha Khamchan and his monastic community in 1996

The digitised photographs are available through the EAP website and at the National Library of Laos. The originals are kept in Luang Prabang.

Buddhist ceremonies take place at Vat Saen Sukharam, a historic monastery of the World Heritage Town of Luang Prabang. Led by Pha One Keo Kittibhaddo, these ceremonies are organised by Pha Khamchan's disciple, Pha Buavan Punnasaro.

Buddhist celebration_Luang PrabangCommemoration of Pha Khamchan at the Buddhist Archive of Photography in 2010.

The people of Luang Prabang honour a monk whose conduct and spiritual teaching has been exemplary, as was his profound knowledge of the ancient Lao culture and of its unique traditions and festivals which form the Lao identity.

 

Do have a look at the fascinating film A  Theravada Vision that shows Hans Berger and the monks preserving the photographic archive.

 

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www.hansgeorgberger.de

www.ananthabooks.com