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Early Buddhist Manuscript Painting

The Palm-Leaf Tradition

July 29, 2008–March 22, 2009

A vast body of Indian religious texts was recorded and transmitted through the palm-leaf manuscript. This humble form of the book, at once fragile and resilient, has provided a vehicle for Indian religious thought for more than two thousand years and served as a medium for preserving some of the earliest surviving paintings known from India. Drawn from the Museum's own holdings, this installation of thirty folios features some of the earliest surviving illuminated palm-leaf manuscripts, dating from the tenth to the thirteenth century, including some that have never been exhibited.

The traditional Indian manuscript consists of a series of unbound folios prepared from the treated and trimmed leaves of the talipot and palmyra palm trees. The text was either inscribed or painted directly on the folio. In northern and eastern India it was customary to write on the leaf in ink applied with a reed pen or brush, as evidenced by the works on view in the exhibition. The loose folios were secured by a binding cord threaded through holes in each folio and around a pair of wooden covers that held the folios firmly together and protected them from damage. The manuscript was then wrapped in a cloth for storage in the monastic library.

From at least the tenth century, these manuscripts were also beautifully illuminated, typically with images of the deities to whom the text was dedicated and who were evoked through its recitation. Narrative themes such as scenes from the life of the historical Buddha occur more rarely. It is assumed that the painting style in these earliest surviving manuscripts reflects conventions developed in Indian temple and monastic mural painting, now almost completely lost. Thus these manuscript paintings provide a unique insight into Indian painting at the close of the first millennium A.D.

Early in their history the manuscripts themselves came to acquire a sacred character, becoming objects of veneration in their own right. The worship of books of wisdom (jnanapuja) assumed an important role in temple ritual. The public recitation and worship of texts, as well as the display of the manuscript itself, still forms an important part of Buddhist and Jain worship.

This exhibition centers on one remarkable Mahayanist Buddhist text, the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita sutra (Perfection of Wisdom), illustrated through the Museum's rare holdings of eastern Indian and Nepalese illuminated palm-leaf manuscripts, book covers, and associated tankas and sculptures.