From India to Nepal, from Nepal to France: the tribulations of the manuscript of the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, India, 11th century

Translated by Liz Carey Libbrecht.

One of the jewels of the heritage collections of the Collège de France Institute of Indian Studies, an 11th-century Buddhist manuscript illustrated by paintings of rare beauty, showed very worrying signs of deterioration. Restoration financed by the Collège de France in 2013 saved this exceptional work and restored its original splendour.

Thanks to the patronage of the Fondation de l’Orangerie for the digitization of heritage collections, the manuscript has been digitized in high definition. Although the palm-leaves still need to be rearranged before they can be put online, the painted wooden covers can already be admired on the Collège de France’s digital library platform Salamandre.

A gift from Nepal to the French Republic

This work belongs to the collection of Sanskrit manuscripts of the Institute of Indian Studies Library (http://www.college-de-france.fr/site/etudes-indiennes/index.htm). Although the library is dedicated to the acquisition of the most recent publications on the pre-Islamic Indian world, it also preserves works of art (see here) and about a hundred manuscripts in the different ancient languages of South and South-East Asia.

The oldest of these, dating from the eleventh century, is the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines (Aṣṭasāhasrikā-Prajñāpāramitā), gifted to the French Republic in 1898 by the Kingdom of Nepal, represented by the Prime Minister Deb Shum Sher. The manuscript was handed to Sylvain Lévi, professor of the Collège de France from 1894 to 1935, by Chandra Shum Sher, Deb Shum Sher’s brother and Mahârâja and future prime minister who would be one of the benefactors of the Institute of Indian Studies when it was founded several years later.

Chandra Shum Sher and his family

An exceptional manuscript

Although older copies of the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines have since been discovered in Gandhāra (present-day Pakistan), the eleventh century is still a very early date for a manuscript of this type, characteristic of South Asia. The text is written on palm leaves, bound with strings passing through holes drilled in the leaves, and protected by wooden covers.

This Sanskrit manuscript came to Nepal following the spread of Mahāyāna (or ‘Great Vehicle’) Buddhism, perhaps with the late 12-century migration of Indian monks who fled the raids of the Ghorid sultans in northern India. It was however created in the north-east of India, in one of the great monastic workshops, then under the protection of the Pāla rulers (8th-12th century).

The Pāla dynasty’s art was an important source of inspiration for all of northern India and Nepal, and consequently for Himalayan art. Yet pāla painting is known to us today only through manuscripts such as this one. Although the leaves are not historiated, paintings of great finesse are still present on the wooden covers.

One of the wooden covers bears the representation of the five transcendental Buddhas of Great Vehicle Buddhism, each characterized by a colour and a symbolic gesture (mudrā), and associated with a virtue and a cardinal direction. They are accompanied by four female figures personify the Perfections of Wisdom.

Buddhas and Prajnaparamita

The other wooden cover, on which the decoration is structured in nine small panels, bears representations of a selection of the Buddha’s previous lives, on the theme of renunciation. In several episodes, the future Buddha’s compassion pushes him to the ultimate renunciation, going so far as to sacrifice his own life for the benefit of others.

Past lives of the Buddha

The text of the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines is one of the founding works of Mahāyāna, the form in which Buddhism would spread in East Asia. Composed at the dawn of our era, it developed new concepts: the perfection of wisdom as a path to salvation, and the doctrine of vacuity. The circulation of manuscripts was one of the main ways in which this doctrine spread, first in Sanskrit, then in Tibetan and Chinese translations of the text.

Restoration of an endangered work

Manuscript before restoration

Few eleventh-century manuscripts on palm leaves survived in the Indian climate and it is likely that this document would have disappeared by now had it remained in its native land. Although its stay in Nepal allowed it to be preserved, the manuscript showed signs of serious damage from that period: palm leaves stuck together due to episodic flooding, galleries of xylophagous insects, mud deposits, and soiled wooden covers. Moreover, the change of environment to the dry air of our French libraries caused the dehydrated leaves to crumble when they were handled.

The library of the Institute of Indian Studies, with the support of the Collège de France’s Documentary Networks and Partnerships Division, commissioned an expert assessment of the deterioration and then contacted several restorers. After examining the various protocols proposed, the manuscript was entrusted to the workshop of Marie Messager, a graphic art restorer, in partnership with Émilie Masse, a specialist in painting on wood.

One by one, each of the 203 palm leaves, softened and flattened by humidification, was cleaned and consolidated with Japanese paper impregnated with cellulose ether and set with wheat starch glue. The leaves were peeled apart, and the fragments that had ripped off and stuck to the next palm leaf were removed and set back in their original position. Missing text was thus recovered.

After several preliminary tests with various solvents (gum, white spirits, acetone, ethanol, water, saliva), human saliva rinsed with distilled water was chosen to clean the wooden covers because it combines effective action by enzymes with an almost neutral pH. Areas of the pictorial layer that had lifted were fixed with sturgeon glue.

This delicate, lengthy and costly process restored the former radiance of the paintings, revealing many previously invisible details of landscape, architecture, characters, and textile designs, as well as various strata of the pictorial layer.

A custom-made, chemically neutral packaging was designed, so that the manuscript could be handled safely using a system that separates the wooden covers from the palm leaves.

Enhancing the value of heritage collections

With this restoration, a pioneering project in the development of the Collège de France libraries’ heritage collections, a methodology was established for the treatment of the very specific medium of South and South-East Asian manuscripts. The restorations that followed and those that are planned reflect the diversity of the Collège de France collections:

  • other manuscripts on palm leaves, dealing with Buddhist philosophy, as well as Hindu texts or collections of tales (Institute of Indian Studies);
  • more recent texts on Nepalese paper, the pigments of which are currently being analysed (Institute of Indian Studies);
  • thanks to the patronage of the Wisdom for the East Foundation, the Institute of Advanced Chinese Studies will restore an important 17th century manuscript bearing the first Mongolian translation of a Buddhist sūtra;
  • on a more unusual medium, the oracular bone inscriptions (2nd millennium BCE) from the Institute of Advanced Chinese Studies were restored in 2016 with the support of the Muséum national d’Histoire Naturelle;
  • works of art have also been restored, such as the bust of Ernest Renan (Assyriology Library), a wooden architectural piece from Nepal (Institute of Indian Studies), and the globe of Elie de Baumont (Archives Department).

Thanks to the patronage of the Fondation de l’Orangerie, the Perfection of Wisdom manuscript has been digitized by a specialized company. The painted wooden covers can already be admired on Salamandre within the corpus of manuscripts in the Sylvain Lévi Collection (found here), as well as other documents on various media, from the archives and the various Collège de France libraries.

In addition to this Perfection of Wisdom manuscript, several other manuscripts from the Sylvain Lévi collection have been restored and put online since 2017.

Caroline Riberaigua, Research Engineer, CNRS UMS 2409 Documentation Centre of the Institute of Civilizations of the Collège de France

Pour citer cet article : Caroline Riberaigua, "From India to Nepal, from Nepal to France: the tribulations of the manuscript of the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, India, 11th century," in Colligere, 13/12/2021, https://archibibscdf.hypotheses.org/10032. Consulté le 21/01/2022.

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  1. 03/01/2022

    […] From India to Nepal, from Nepal to France: the tribulations of the manuscript of the Perfection of W…, par Caroline Riberaigua, sur Colligere, le carnet des bibliothèques et archives du Collège de France. […]

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