The Hyakumantō darani or ‘One Million Pagoda Dharani’ are the oldest extant examples of printing in Japan and one of the earliest in the world. The eighth century Japanese chronicle the Shoku Nihongi records that they were printed between 764 and 770 on the orders of Empress Shōtoku as an act of atonement and reconciliation following the suppression of the Emi Rebellion led by Fujiwara no Nakamaro in 764.
The word dharani comes from Sanskrit and means a charm or prayer which could be used to ward off evil. The Million Charms include four short texts from the Sanskrit Vimala-nirbhasa-sutra (Japanese Mukujōkō-kyō) – the Konpon, Sōrin, Jishin’in and Rokudo. Each of the charms was printed on a small strip of paper and placed in a miniature wooden pagoda. The pagodas, which were originally painted white, were then distributed among the ten leading Buddhist temples in Western Japan.
There is still debate among scholars as to how the charms were printed. Since surviving charms do not show the wear and tear that might be expected from wooden blocks, it was widely believed that they must have been printed with metal plates. However, recent microscopic analysis has detected the impressions of wood grain on some of the texts suggesting that woodblocks may indeed have been used. Woodblock-printing was the predominant printing technology through East Asia for over a millennium.
The Hyakumantō darani were long thought to be the world’s oldest surviving printed items but in 1966 a similar dharani was discovered in a stone pagoda at Pulguksa Temple in Korea. Although it is undated it is believed to date from some time before 751 when the stone pagoda was completed.
- Article by:
- The British Library
Did you know the Diamond Sutra, the world's earliest dated printed book, is in the British Library? Discover this and other landmarks of printing in the Library's collections.