This fragment of the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra is an early example of the tradition of writing fine manuscripts in metallic ink on dark blue background, which spread across East Asia sometime around the 8th century.
Where is it from?
This is one of tens of thousands of manuscripts and paintings discovered in a sealed-up cave within a larger Buddhist cave complex outside the town of Dunhuang in northwestern China. It was among the material brought back from Dunhuang and other sites along the eastern Silk Road by the explorer Aurel Stein in 1907. It contains part of a Buddhist sūtra was found with a similar but smaller fragment containing part of a poetic verse known as a gāthā.
Why is its colour significant?
Most of the Buddhist manuscripts from Dunhuang are written on paper dyed with a yellow pigment that had water-repellent and insecticidal properties. The indigo-dyed paper and gold ink of this manuscript, and the other small fragment it was found with, make them unusual survivals from this site. This combination of metallic inks and dark blue or purple backgrounds grew in popularity in China from the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) onwards. It flourished in Korea and Japan around the same time and can also be found in other cultural traditions beyond East Asia. The use of such precious pigments was generally reserved for the finest manuscripts and clearly reflects the value and importance attributed to such texts at the time.
- Article by:
- Ms Jana Igunma, San San May, Burkhard Quessel
- Buddhism, Illuminated texts
British Library curators Melodie Doumy, Jana Igunma, San San May and Burkhard Quessel explore some of the illuminated and illustrated Buddhist manuscripts in the Library's collection.