The 1,000-year-old manuscript and the stories it tells


One of the greatest treasures of Cambridge University Library is a Buddhist manuscript that was produced in Kathmandu exactly 1,000 years ago. The exquisitely-illustrated Perfection of Wisdom is still revealing fresh secrets.


When Sujātabhadra picked up his reed pen and put his name to the manuscript, he was part of a rich network of scholarship, culture, belief and trade
Camillo Formigatti

One thousand years ago, a scribe called Sujātabhadra put his name to a manuscript known as the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight-Thousand Stanzas (Skt. Aṣṭasahāsrikā Prajñāparamitā).  Sujātabhadra was a skilled craftsman working in or around Kathmandu – a city that has been one of the hubs of the Buddhist world from around 500 CE right up until the present day.

The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight-Thousand Stanzas is written in Sanskrit, one the of the world’s most ancient languages, using both sides of 222 oblong sheets made from palm leaf (the first missing sheet has been replaced with a paper sheet).  Each leaf is punctured by a pair of neat holes, a reminder that the palm leaf pages were originally bound together with cords passing through these holes.  The entire palm leaf manuscript is held between richly ornate wooden covers.

Today the fabulous manuscript that would have taken Sujātabhadra and fellow craftsman many months — perhaps even a year — to complete is held by the Manuscripts Room at Cambridge University Library. Over the past 140 years, it has been studied by some of the foremost specialists of the medieval Buddhist world.  

A digitisation project has now made the manuscript accessible online to scholars worldwide and has revealed fresh evidence about the origins of some of the earliest Buddhist texts.

The presence of the Perfection of Wisdom, safe in the temperature-controlled environment of one of the world’s greatest libraries, many thousands of miles from its birthplace, is especially poignant at a time when the people of Nepal are struggling to survive in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake.

Buddhist texts are more than scriptures: they are sacred objects in themselves. Many manuscripts were used as protective amulets and installed in shrines and altars in the home of Buddhist followers. Examples include numerous manuscripts of the Five Protections (Skt. Pañcarakṣā), a corpus of scriptures that includes spells, enumerations of benefits and ritual instructions for use, particularly sacred in Nepal.

Manuscripts produced in Nepal, Tibet and Central Asia during the period from the 5th until the 19th century are evidence of the thriving ‘cult of the book’ that was the subject of a recent exhibition at Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

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Image:Folio 13 verso, a representation of the goddess Prajñāpāramitā
Cambridge University Library

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


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