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2,000-Year-Old Buddhist Scroll from Ancient Gandhara Digitized by Library of Congress

(The following is a post by Jonathan Loar, South Asia reference librarian, Asian Division. An adapted version of this post is on the Library of Congress Blog. Click here to read the press release.)

In late 2003, the Library of Congress acquired a scroll written about two thousand years ago in Gandhara, an ancient Buddhist region located in what is today the northern border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This birch bark scroll, or the “Gandhara scroll” as it is known around the Library of Congress, is one of the world’s oldest Buddhist manuscripts. Radiocarbon dating places its creation roughly between the first century BCE and first century CE, and consequently, it provides an outstanding specimen of the newly rediscovered Buddhist literature in the Gandhari language.

There are only a couple of hundred Gandharan manuscripts currently known to scholars worldwide. These manuscripts are not only the oldest of any Buddhist tradition, but they are also the oldest manuscripts from the broader South Asian region in existence. The study of this literature gives great insight into the early history and development of Buddhism.

In January 2019, coordinated efforts by the Digital Scan Center, Conservation Division, and Asian Division led to the scroll’s digitization. The link to the digital scroll is available through its catalog record.

Recto and verso of the Gandhara scroll’s main fragments. The digitized scroll reflects the number, orientation, and order of the fragments upon its unrolling, treatment, and preservation in glass casing. The three smaller pieces should be rotated 180 degrees in order to read the scroll. Upon finishing the recto, the scribe would have flipped the scroll vertically to continue writing on the back. Gandhara scroll, Library of Congress, Asian Division.

More than two thousand years ago, Gandhara was a major cultural crossroads between Greek, Iranian, and Indian traditions. The region was under the rule of numerous kings and dynasties, including Alexander the Great (mid-4th century BCE), the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (mid-3rd century BCE), and the Kushan emperor Kanishka I (mid-2nd century CE). It was during this latter period between the reigns of Ashoka and Kanishka I that Gandhara became a major seat of Buddhist art, architecture and learning. One of the region’s most notable characteristics is the Hellenistic style of its Buddhist sculpture, including figures of the Buddha with wavy hair, defined facial features, and contoured robes reminiscent of Greco-Roman deities. Several centuries later, Gandhara also served as the bridge that fostered the transmission of Buddhism from its South Asian homeland to Central Asia and China along the Silk Road.

One important element in Buddhism’s transmission across regions was the composition and study of sacred texts, which, in Gandhara, often took the medium of bark from birch trees. Gandharan scrolls were typically buried in terracotta jars and interred in a stupa, a dome-shaped structure often containing Buddhist texts or relics. The Library’s scroll retains 75-80% of the original text, missing only its very beginning and very end. Its preservation owes in part to the region’s high altitude and dry climate. The completeness of the scroll makes it rather noteworthy because many other Gandharan manuscripts known to scholars are more fragmentary. However, the lack of a colophon at the end means that the exact names of the text and its scribe remain unknown.

The scroll is written in Gandhari, a derivative of the classical Indian language Sanskrit in the Indo-Aryan branch of languages. Its script is Kharoshthi, which is thought have its origins in Aramaic. Kharoshthi reads from top to bottom and right to left, and this latter point differentiates it from Brahmi and other Indic scripts.

With regard to its content, the Library’s Gandhara scroll has been called the Bahubuddha Sutra, or “The Many Buddhas Sutra,” in the scholarship of the University of Washington’s Dr. Richard Salomon, one of the world’s leading experts on Gandharan Buddhism and the Gandhari language. Dr. Salomon explains that the likely identification of this scroll as the Bahubuddha Sutra stems from its similarity to a Sanskrit text of the same name found in the much larger Mahavastu, or “Great Story,” a biography of the Buddha and his past lives. Locating a very early attestation of the Bahubuddha Sutra in the Gandhari language thus sheds new light on the formative period of Buddhist literature. And this scroll—possibly as old as the first century BCE—brings us remarkably close, historically speaking, to the Buddha’s lifetime around the 6th and 5th century BCE.

Recto and verso of the Gandhara scroll’s over 100 smaller fragments. Gandhara scroll, Library of Congress, Asian Division.

Many people are probably familiar with the story of Siddhartha Gautama, who reached enlightenment underneath the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya in eastern India and became the Buddha. Various Buddhist traditions, including the very early Mahayana tradition of ancient Gandhara, also refer to previous buddhas whose lives stretch across a cosmic understanding of history, eons and eons before the birth of Siddhartha Gautama. This Gandharan scroll is narrated in the voice of the Buddha summarizing very brief biographies of 13 buddhas who came before him, followed by his birth and enlightenment, and ending with the prediction of the future buddha, Maitreya. The biographies contain other information, too, such as how long each buddha lived, what social class he was born into, how long his teachings endured, and how each predicted the eventual appearance of Siddhartha Gautama as the Buddha. Notably, the lifespans of the buddhas decrease over time, from the billions and billions of years in the uncountable eon of the life of the first buddha Dipankara to the 80 years of Siddhartha Gautama. The notion of multiple buddhas is found throughout Buddhist literature, but the early instance of this system outlined in the Library’s Gandhara scroll adds clarity to how it developed over time.

In November 2018, Dr. Salomon gave a lecture in the Asian Reading Room on the Library’s Gandhara scroll. This lecture provides a much more detailed and engaging description of the scroll, and it is available online as a webcast. A study of the scroll is also part of his 2018 publication on the ancient Buddhist literature of Gandhara in translation.

The Gandhara scroll as it arrived to the Library of Congress in an ordinary pen case. Gandhara scroll, Library of Congress, Asian Division. Photo by Holly Krueger.

The Gandhara scroll in its folded and untreated state in the Library’s Conservation lab. Gandhara scroll, Library of Congress, Asian Division. Photo by Holly Krueger.

With regard to conservation, it is safe to say that the Gandhara scroll is one of the most complicated and fragile items ever treated at the Library of Congress. The scroll arrived folded and packed in an ordinary pen case, accompanied by a handwritten note: “Extremely fragile, do not open unless necessary.” It took several years of thought and planning to devise a treatment strategy. A memorable anecdote from this time period is that the conservator practiced her unrolling technique on a dried-up cigar—an item that only approximates the difficulty of working with a compacted birch bark scroll.

With assistance from a conservator at the British Library who had worked on similarly ancient materials, the treatment plan was put into action: gradual humidification over a few days, careful unrolling by hand with precision tools on a sheet of inert glass, followed by placing another sheet of glass on top once the scroll was completely unrolled and sealing the edges. The six larger fragments with the majority of the text were placed inside one glass housing, while another was used for the more than 100 smaller fragments, some with only parts of a single syllable. Both glass housings were then placed in specially constructed drop-spine boxes designed to protect the scroll from damage caused by vibration.

For those interested in learning more about the conservation of the Gandhara scroll, please see the article by former Head of Paper Conservation Holly Krueger, ‘Conservation of the Library of Congress’ Gandhara Scroll: A Collaborative Process,’ which was published in “The Book and Paper Group Annual” in 2008.

Conservators are using gold-handled dental tools, an eye surgery tool and an array of treatment-specific, handmade light glass weights. Photo by Yasmeen Khan.

Both conservators are using delicate gold-handled dental tools and bamboo lifters they made specifically for this treatment. Photo by Yasmeen Khan.

Glass housing, shock-absorbing foam, sturdy boxes—all of these contribute to the scroll’s long-term preservation. But even in its well-preserved state, the physical scroll is too fragile for public display. This is the reason for the excitement behind its new digital reincarnation, a format in which this truly unique item can be shared with a global audience.

And for readers interested in learning more about Buddhism in Gandhara, the Library of Congress has an immense collection of books, journals, and much more! For example, one could begin with a book on the region’s archaeology, art, and texts. Or one could try their hand at learning to read and write the Kharoshthi script. Or one could search the Library’s online catalog with the phrase “Gandharan Buddhist texts” for scholarly works on Gandharan Buddhism. For help navigating these resources, just submit your question online through Ask-a-Librarian.

Conservation staff assisting in turning the Gandhara scroll during its digitization in January 2019. Photo by Jonathan Loar.

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