Birch bark scrolls, dating back to the 1st century CE, making them among the oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts in the world.
The twenty-nine birch bark scrolls from the ancient region of Gandhāra (extending in present day northern Pakistan and Afghanistan) are among the oldest surviving Buddhist manuscripts. They are in Gāndhārī in the Kharoṣṭhī script. Gāndhārī is a language related to Sanskrit and Pāli which was used in the area from the 3rd century BCE to the 5th century CE. Written in black ink with a reed pen, the scrolls are made of sections of bark glued together to form long strips.
Why are they important?
These scrolls contain texts from the Buddhist religious tradition in a wide variety of genres and styles: poetical compositions with commentaries, such as the Dharmapada, but also Avadānas, didactic stories focusing on karma which describe how present life conditions are the result of actions performed in previous lives. This collection provides a unique glimpse in the contents of a Buddhist monastic library of the 1st century.
The kingdom of Gandhāra, was at the crossroads of cultures (Indian, Central Asian, Iranian, Greek and Roman) and was the gateway through which Buddhism was transmitted from India to East Asia. The various cultural influences present in the area contributed between the 1st and the 5th century CE to the rise of a distinctive style of Buddhist figurative art.
- Article by:
- T H Barrett
- Buddhism, Sacred texts
The Buddhist ‘canon’ is vast, complex and difficult to define. Here Professor Tim Barrett outlines some of the key works for the different branches of Buddhism.