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Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Manuscript from the Yarlung Museum, Tsethang, TAR.
by Eva Allinger

December 27, 2006

This Manuscript was on display from 19 August to 26 November 2006 during "Tibet - Klöster öffnen ihre Schatzkammern", an exhibition at Villa Hügel, Essen. It is catalogued as No. 26, pp. 219-225.

Further images of this manuscript are available in the exhibition catalogue, "Tibet - Klöster öffnen ihre Schatzkammern". A list of these illustrations is found at the bottom of the article, below.

Click here to see the feature of this exhibition in

Fig. 1
This manuscript was previously in Keru Lhakhang monastery, Yarlung valley. It is written in ink on palm-leaves and consisting of 139 leaves it has seven lines per page divided into three sections divided by decorative bands of color. It is written in gauḍīya script. 

There are three miniatures per page at the beginning and end of the manuscript, on leaves 1v, 2r, 138v and 139r. Its wooden covers measure 58 cm by 7 cm and are decorated with scenic depictions on the interior and decorative paintings on the exterior (see catalogue, figs 26a and 26b; p. 220-221).

A colophon on folio 139v mentions the donor and king Sūrapāla. The manuscript was written in his second year of reign:

deyadharmo yaṃ pravaramahāyānayāyinyāḥ paramopāsikāyā mahā-paṇḍita-śrī aśokamātur māryurākāyā yad atra puṇyaṃ tad bhavatv ācāryopādhyāyamātāpitṛ-pūrvaṅgamaṃ kṛtvā sakalasatvarāśer anuttara-jñāna-phalāvaptaya iti// //param-eśvara-parama-bhaṭṭārakaparamasaugata-mahārājadhirāja- śrīmatsūrapāladevakalyāṇavijayarājye samvat 2 agrahaṇadine [sic für agrahāyaṇadine ] 3

This is the pious gift of the great lay devotee Māryurākā, mother of the great Paṇḍita Śrī Aśoka [1], a loyal devotee of the Mahāyāna. Whatever merit occurs from this gift, may it further all beings, above all the teachers and the parents, to obtain the fruit of highest insight. (In the) Year 2, third day in the month Agrahāyaṇa of the successful and victorious reign of the highest Lord, the most Venerable, the great worshipper of Buddha, the king among kings, the famous Sūrapāla-deva.

The mentioned king Sūrapāla can only be the second one with this name, a sovereign of a short reign between Vigrahapāla III and Rāmapāla, i.e. about the late 11th cent. Sūrapāla I reigned for twelve years after Mahendrapāla (15 years of reign) and before Gopāla II (4 years of reign) in the 9th cent. No illustrated manuscripts of this period are known. On stylistic grounds, a 9th cent. origin for this manuscript must be excluded. Sūrapāla II was so far only known as the son of Vigrahapāla III from a passage in the Rāmacarita (I, v. 28) by Sandhyākara Nandin [2]

This manuscript is not only valuable due to its colophon, but also because it is one of the very few completely preserved Indian Buddhist manuscripts: the illustrations and text are complete and the original covers are preserved. The illustrations of the text and the covers form an iconographic and stylistic unit. The manuscript is also exceptional for the quality of the painting.

The paintings on the interior of the covers.
The inside of both covers are divided into three sections. The upper cover has in its centre of the middle section a Prajñāpāramitā. She is yellow and forms the dharmacakramudrā in front of her chest. Above both of her shoulders is visible a lotus with a book. She is flanked by two green deities, the one to the right Jāṅguli holding a black serpent in her left hand, and the deity to her left, Mahāmāyūrī with a golden peacock feather in her right hand.

A green Vajrapāṇi is visible in the left field's center. He holds in his right hand a vajra. Above both shoulders is an utpala visible - one seen from above, the other in its profile. To his left sits a dark blue Krodha, Yamāntaka with horrent hair, wide open red eyes and wearing around his waste a tiger skin. His right hand forms the tarjanimudrā and with his left he holds a hammer with vajra tops (mudgara). To the right of Vajrapāṇi sits a deity with his hands raised towards him forming the añjalimudrā.

A red Avalokiteśvara is visible in the centre of the right field. He has six arms with his two major forming the dharmacakramudrā in front of his breast, the right upper hand holds a mālā and the lower forms the varadamudrā. With his two left hands he holds a lotus and a kamaṇḍalu. To the left of Avalokiteśvara sits the red Hayagrīva with hairs horrent and a third additional eye. His right arm points upwards and his left hand holds a gadā attached to a sling. Two additional deities, to the right of Avalokiteśvara and to the left of Hayagrīva, have raised their hands in añjalimudrā and turn to the center of the picture.

>Vajrapāṇi and Avalokiteśvara are placed opposite each other as lords of the Vajra- and Lotus-family. They flank Prajñāpāramitā representing as the mother of all Buddhas the Buddha-family.

On the bottom cover, in the central field of the cover, the Buddha is shown in the midst of eight monks; his hands form the dharmacakramudrā in front of his chest. The two major figures of the sections on the side, Maitreya and Avalokiteśvara, depicted in three-quarter profile are placed at the outer most edge of the picture. Both form the dharmacakramudrā in front of their chests.

The white Avalokiteśvara holds a lotus above his left shoulder. Among his entourage are four persons characterised through appearance and attributes and thereby identify him as Avalokiteśvara Khasarpaṇa. To his feet sits a red Hayagrīva holding his right foot. Behind Hayagrīva sits a yellow Sudhanakūmara, his hands raised in añjali-mudrā and carrying a book. Behind him sits the green Tārā. She holds her right hand in a vitarkamudrā and with her left an utpala. In the row above one can recognize to the right the yellow Bhṛkuṭī. She is endowed with a third eye, holds with her right hand a tridaṇḍa and shows with her second right hand the typical gesture of grasping a vase, but this is not visible in the picture. With her left lower hand she holds a mālā and the fourth hand is raised.

The yellow Maitreya in the right field wears a crown with a stūpa in its centre. (see catalogue illustration fig 26e, p 224). At his feet sits a dark blue Krodha holding his left leg. The other five peaceful deities can not be identified, though it appears they have the mere function of attendant deities. They differ in their body colours but do not show any other identifying characteristics.

The miniatures on the pages of the book
A preaching Buddha is depicted in the center of page 1v. Avalokiteśvara Lokanātha is in the field to his right, holding a lotus with his left hand and with a yellow Maitreya to his left holding a mālā with his right hand and a Nāgakeśara twig with a kamaṇḍalu atop in his left. This arrangement corresponds to the one on the lower cover of the book.

The presentations on page 2r correspond to the central group on the upper cover: a Prajñāpāramitā in the center, to her right sits a green Jāṅgulī with a black snake and to her left Mahāmāyūrī with a peacock feather. She is represented here in her yellow appearance.

Only female deities are depicted on pages 138 and 139. In the central section of page 138v Vasudharā can be recognized. She holds in her left a vase with ears of corn. The remaining representations show the five Prajñās of the Tathāgatas. To the left on page 138 the white Locanā with one eye is visible on a lotus flower and to the right the blue Māmakī with a vajra on a lotus flower. (fig. 1 above and catalogue, fig 26c, p. 222) On page 139 from left to right are present the red Paṇḍarā with a red lotus, the yellow Vajradhātvīśvarī with a jewel on a lotus and the green Tārā with an utpala. The five Prajñās are shown in their in-dividual form, i.e. not together with the Tathāgatās but as the female representations of the five Buddha families. It might be that the preference shown for female deities in this manuscript is due to the influence of the female donor, "the great lay devotee Māryurākā, mother of the great Paṇḍita Śrī Aśoka."

Four manuscripts dating from within 70 years before and after the reign of Sūrapāla can be drawn on for an iconographic and stylistic comparison:

Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā from Nayapāla's 15. year of reign,[3]
Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā from the 15. year of reign of Vigrahapāla, son of Naya-pāla, [4]
Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā from the 15. year of reign of Rāmapāla, son of Virgra-hapāla, [5] and
Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā from Rāmapāla's 39. year of reign.[6]

A comparison of the depictions of the various deities in these manuscripts and the Tsethang manuscipt shows that many depictions in all these manuscripts do not tally with the description given in the Sādhanamālā. This suggests that a strong mutual influence in the transmission of pictures and text must have existed at this time, and that the rules of the Sādhanamālā were less important than these influences.

For stylistic comparison it is especially interesting that according to the colophons of the first three manuscripts in the list above, they were produced in Nalanda. Many parallels in the set up of the pictures as well as in the formation of the figures allow us to conclude that the miniatures of the Tsethang manuscript were also likely produced in Nalanda.

images © Kulturstiftung Ruhr; text © Eva Allinger

Further illustrations can be seen in the exhibition catalogue "Tibet - Klöster öffnen ihre Schatzkammern", Kulturstiftung Ruhr Essen, Villa Hügel 2006, where the German version of this article is published, Entry no. 26, p. 219 ff:

26a. Manuscript closed p. 220
26b. Manuscript open, showing pages 1b, 2a, p. 221
26c. Locan with one eye, detail of folio 138v, p. 222
26e. right side of interior of bottom cover, p. 224


Bautze-Picron, Claudine, 1998, The Art of Eastern India in the Collection of the Museum für Indische Kunst, Berlin. Stone & Terracotta Sculptures. Dietrich Reimer Verlag, Berlin.

Bhattacharyya, B.T. ed., 1925 und 1928, Sādhanamālā, B.T. Gaekwad's Oriental Series, Baroda, vol. XXVI und XLI.

Huntington, Susan L. and John C. Huntington, 1990, Leaves from the Bodhi Tree: The Art of Pāla India (8th-12th centuries) and its International Legacy. The Dayton Art Institute in Association with the University of Washington Press, Seattle and London.

Leidy, Denise Patry, 1994, Treasures of Asian Art. The Asia Society's Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection. With a contribution by Sherman E.Lee. Abbeville Press, New York London Paris.

Losty, J.P., 1990, The "Vredenburg Manuscript in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Makaranda, Essays in Honour of Dr. James C. Harle, ed. By Claudine Bautze-Picron: 189-199. Delhi.

Nandi, Sandhyākara, Rāmacarita, a historical record, ed. by Mahamahopadhaya Haraprasad Sastri, New Delhi, Bhartiya Publ. House 1973.

Pal, Pratapaditya, 1993, Indian Painting A Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection, Volume I 1000-1700. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


1. Paṇḍita Aśoka is the author of texts from the epistemological tradition. So far there are no definite informations about when he lifed.

2. For dating the Pāla rulers I do not give any absolute dates. I follow Gouriswar Bhattacharya's "Genealogy of the Pāla Dynastie (8th - 12th century)", published in Bautze-Picron, Claudine, 1998, The Art of Eastern India in the Collection of the Museum für Indische Kunst, Berlin. Stone & Terracotta Sculptures. Dietrich Reimer Verlag, Berlin.

3. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art holds two leaves with illustrations, M.72.1.2ab, Pal 1993, 56 f.

4. 201 leaves, four of which are with illustrations and complete text, holds the Asia Society, New York, Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection 1987.1, Huntington, Susan L. and John C. Huntington, 1990. Leaves from the Bodhi Tree: The Art of Pāla India (8th-12th centuries) and its International Legacy. The Dayton Art Institute in Association with the University of Washington Press, Seattle and London: Catalogue No. 58, 185-189 and Leidy, Denise Patry 1994: Treasures of Asian Art. The Asia Society's Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection. With a contribution by Sherman E.Lee. Abbeville Press, New York London Paris. pp.66-69.

5. 188 leaves, six with illustrations and complete text, are with the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Dr. F. Hoernle collection (Sansk.a7R). No complete documentation is available, only individual research.

6. Seven leaves, six of them with illustrations, are with the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, collection E. Vredenburg, I.S. 4-10,1958, Losty 1990; 195 ff.

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