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Varanasi, Jain Cosmology, Mica Portraits, and the 2,000-Year-Old Gandhara Scroll: More Highlights of South Asian Materials from the Library’s International Collections Facebook Page

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(The following post is by Jonathan Loar, South Asia Reference Specialist, Asian Division)

Back in December 2021, we revisited some content related to South Asia on the Library of Congress International Collections Facebook page. That post featured, for example, a calligram of the Hindu god Hanuman and a manuscript in Sanskrit and Newari with beautiful illustrations of the planets of Hindu astrology. This month, the jaunt through the archives continues with some items from the Prints & Photographs Division, Geography & Map Division, and the Asian Division’s South Asian Rare Book Collection.

Remember that you can follow the Library of Congress International Collections on Facebook to learn more about the wide range of materials accessible in the African & Middle Eastern, Asian, European, and Hispanic reading rooms. And feel welcome to reach out to us on Ask a Librarian if you’re curious to learn more about the Library’s collections.

Photograph of the city of Varanasi with temples, people, and boats on water.
Benares. Rajah Potia Temple.” Zurich: Photoglob Company, ca. 1890-1910. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Varanasi, also known as Benares or Banaras, is a metropolis, commercial center, and place of Hindu pilgrimage that straddles the shores of the sacred Ganges River in northern India. For Hindus, the Ganges is not an ordinary river but rather the manifestation of the goddess Ganga, whose waters are central to a number of religious rituals. Many Hindus, for example, travel to Varanasi to immerse their loved one’s ashes in the Ganges so that the soul of the deceased person will attain liberation, or moksha. Another name for Varanasi is Kashi, which stems from the Sanskrit verb kash, “to shine.” In this city of light, another important ritual happens every evening, as locals and visitors gather on the ghats—the stone steps leading down into the river—for arati, a devotional ritual that uses small lamps to make offerings of light to the goddess. Enjoy this scene of Varanasi with its iconic ghats, Hindu temples, and a riverboat ride on the Ganges. You can view and download this color photochrom created by the Photoglob Co. in Zurich, circa 1890-1910, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. (Originally posted on October 7, 2020).

Cloth map of Jain diagram with concentric circles and illustrations of water and land.
[Manuṣyaloka, map of the world of man, according to Jain cosmological traditions].” [189-?]. Library of Congress Geography & Map Division.
Geography and cosmology merge in this late 19th-century Jain map from northern India. Jainism is one of the major religions of ancient India, with historical origins in the teachings of Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha, around the sixth century BCE. The Jain worldview divides the universe into three regions into which beings are born and reborn: the upper realms of the heavens; the middle domain of humans, animals, and plants; and the lower realms made up of multiple hells. This map depicts the middle realm of manushyaloka (the human realm). Continents are illustrated as three concentric circles surrounded by ring-shaped oceans filled with swimmers and fish, rivers and lakes, and mountain ranges. Pavilions in each of the four corners represent celestial guardians watching over the human world. At the center of the map is the continent known as Jambudvipa (island of the rose apple tree), one of the ancient names of the South Asian region. And at the continent’s center is Mount Meru, the sacred center of the universe in Jain, as well as Hindu and Buddhist, cosmologies. Get a closer look at this map of the Jain manushyaloka in its digital form, which is available online through the Library’s Geography & Map Division. (Originally posted on June 21, 2020).

Four small portraits of two women on left and two men on right in colorful dress.
Collage of Hindu portraits on mica. Top row labeled “dancing woman” and “house servant.” Bottom row labeled “cook’s wife” and “dancing woman’s husband.” 19th century. South Asian Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

South Asian art encompasses diverse traditions. Painting on sheets of mica, a transparent mineral, is a technique originating from regions in eastern and southern India. Historically, this style focused on scenes of rural life and lively bazaars but also portrayed musicians, dancing girls, street acrobats, and snake-charmers—all reflecting different castes and occupations from 19th-century India. Most mica paintings were created on commission and sold to colonial officials and tourists, who purchased them as souvenirs. The Library’s set of twelve mica paintings depicts the household of a Hindu prince and princess and features fine details of traditional dress and jewelry. (Originally posted on June 29, 2017).

Digitized image of birch bark manuscript against plain black background.
Image from the Library’s digitized Gandhara scroll that dates between the 1st century BC and AD 1st century. South Asian Rare Book Collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

NEW ONLINE: The Library of Congress has digitized one of the world’s oldest Buddhist manuscripts: a 2,000-year-old birch bark scroll from the ancient Buddhist region of Gandhara (today’s northern border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan). You can view the digitized scroll online. The scroll, which is written in the Gandhari language in the Kharoshthi script, is an important Buddhist text describing multiple buddhas of the past, present, and future. It is also one of the most difficult and complicated items ever treated by the Library’s team of conservators. To read more about the Library’s Gandhara scroll, its content, and its conservation, check out the newly published blog on 4 Corners. (Originally posted on July 29, 2019).

Photograph of Richard Salomon pointing to powerpoint slide during presentation at Library of Congress.
Dr. Richard Salomon (University of Washington) during his talk on the Gandhara scroll at the Library of Congress on November 15, 2018.

From the Asian Division, see Richard Salomon discuss the Library’s 2000-year-old birch bark scroll from the ancient Buddhist region of Gandhara in “One Buddha, Fifteen Buddhas, One Thousand Buddhas.” In case you missed it: The Library recently digitized the scroll, which is now viewable online ( (Originally posted on July 30, 2019).

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  1. heritage of india and varanasi

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