Detail from the Lotus Sutra

Illuminated Buddhist Manuscripts

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.

Buddhist texts were produced for different purposes in Buddhist monasteries and at the royal and local courts. They were used as teaching materials and supports for ritual practice: as handbooks for the monks, but also to be read or recited to the lay people during religious ceremonies. As sacred objects in themselves, they were often made as commemorative offerings in honour of a deceased individual. The production of elaborately decorated and illuminated manuscripts – and sponsoring their creation – was regarded as a great act of merit.

The British Library holds a wealth of illuminated and illustrated Buddhist manuscripts, which are unified in their veneration of the Buddha and his sacred teachings, but also display regional variations in their style of design and use of materials. This article outlines the features of Buddhist illuminated manuscripts from three traditions: the Mahāyāna tradition in East Asia, Theravāda tradition in Southeast Asia and the Tibetan tradition.

Mahāyāna tradition in East Asia

With the spread of Buddhism to China, Korea and Japan, where the Mahāyāna tradition gained a particularly important following, the copying and propagation of sūtras in Chinese characters became a meritorious act. For centuries, people from all walks of life have been engaged in the commissioning of Buddhist sūtras, whether they were ordinary Buddhist devotees, belonged to monastic circles or gravitated around the court. Key Mahāyāna scriptures like the Lotus and Diamond Sūtras even call for their own distribution and reproduction.

Paper was the medium used in East Asia, where several sheets were joined together to form scrolls, folded concertinas or booklets, and thread-bound albums. Early material found in the so-called Mogao Library Cave, near Dunhuang in Western China, reveals that some decorative copies made use of a range of paper dyes, as a support for the elegant calligraphy of the scribe. Carbon ink was the most common, but a few fragments such as that of the Great Parinirvāṇa Sūtra, show that gold or silver ink could also be paired with dark blue or purple paper to create a striking effect. By the end of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), this technique was commonly adopted for Buddhist sūtras in China, as well as Korea and Japan. The combination of text and illustrations, which perhaps facilitated reading and understanding to those who were illiterate or semiliterate, was also already popular back then.

Chinese Buddhist sutra on indigo-dyed paper

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.

Fragment of the Great Parinirvāṇa Sūtra. Gold pigment on indigo-dyed paper, dated to 9th to 10th centuries.

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The British Library holds several illuminated manuscripts from Dunhuang, mainly dated to the 9th and 10th centuries, where the Buddhist images accompanying the scriptures were first drawn by hand in black ink and painted in with colour pigments. Pictures often appeared to precede or follow the sūtra, or they could be displayed alongside it, either by being placed in a band above the text or by being inserted inside it. These conventions in terms of layout seem to have remained in practice throughout later periods and in other East Asian countries. In the small booklet of the Guanyin Sūtra, based on Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sūtra, each page is divided into a lower and an upper register that respectively contain columns of text and vivid scenes depicting the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, known as Guanyin in Chinese, rescuing people in distress.

Booklet of the Avalokitesvara Sutra

The diminutive size and format of the booklet probably made it portable and easy to consult. It is also illustrated with colourful scenes, laid in the upper part of each folio, above the columns of text. This visual narrative, by complementing the written content of the sūtra, would have been particularly useful to those who were illiterate or semiliterate.

Booklet of the Guanyin Sūtra. Manuscript scroll, ink and colour on paper. Dated to 10th century.

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Such illuminated Buddhist books seem to have co-existed with illustrated printed ones from fairly early on, as attested by the British Library’s copy of the Diamond Sūtra dated to 868. Even with the development of colour printing, special and luxurious manuscript copies of important Mahāyāna sūtras were still regularly created at the behest of noble or royal patrons, sometimes as part of large sets of the entire Buddhist canon. This was also the case in Korea, as exemplified by the beautiful concertina manuscript of Chapter 25 of the Flower Garland Sūtra, which was transcribed in gold pigment on white paper around the late 14th century. Its exquisite painted frontispiece represents the historical Buddha preaching to an assembly of bodhisattvas and monks. The scene, enclosed in a frame decorated with Buddhist symbols, is set within a mountainous landscape covered with trees and has a beautiful shimmering quality. The front and back covers are decorated with four large flowers painted in gold on blue paper.

The Garland Sutra

Flower Garland Sutra, Or 7377

Concertina of volume 32 of Chapter 25 of the Flower Garland Sūtra. Manuscript, gold ink on white paper. Dated to the end of the 14th century.

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A similar art form could be observed in Japan. To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the death of his grandfather-in-law, the Emperor Go-Mizunoo (1596–1680) commissioned twenty-eight manuscripts of the Lotus Sūtra to be presented to the Nikko Shrine upon completion in 1636. The British Library’s lavishly decorated and finely crafted copy of Chapter 8 originally belonged to this set and is written in gold on indigo-dyed paper.

Japanese Lotus Sutra

Japanese Lotus Sutra

Chapter 8 of the Lotus Sūtra. Manuscript, gold pigment on indigo-dyed paper. Commissioned as part of a set by Emperor Go-Mizunoo and presented to the Togoshu Shrine in Nikko, Japan. Dated to 1636.

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Another highlight is a magnificent Chinese album dated to the 18th to 19th centuries contains two key Mahāyāna sūtras, the Heart Sūtra and the Diamond Sūtra, respectively written in silver and gold ink. Unfortunately, we do not know who commissioned it. Each page of text alternates with an image painted on a dried fig or Bodhi tree leaf, which is mounted onto the dark blue and yellow folios of the book. There are thirty illustrations in total, representing various religious scenes, including Buddhist saints, priests and protectors.

Sutras with illustrations on fig leaves

Sutras with illustrations on fig leaves, Add MS 11746, f001r

This illustrated manuscript from China contains the Heart Sūtra and the Diamond Sūtra, with illustrations painted on a leaves of the ficus religiosa, or Bodhi tree.

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Theravāda tradition in Southeast Asia

In the Theravāda tradition of Sri Lanka and mainland Southeast Asia, extracts from the Pāli canon, particularly the Buddha’s Birth Tales (Jātakas, contained in the Sutta Piṭaka), were commonly reproduced.

The most frequently used material to record Buddhist scriptures in the Theravāda tradition was the palm leaf. Large fan-shaped leaves from either the palmyra (Borassus flabellifer) or the talipot palm (Corypha umbraculifera) were cut into a long rectangular shape, soaked in a herbal mixture, then dried or smoked, sanded down, pressed and finally rubbed with plant oil. The leaves of manuscripts are usually between 45 to 60 cm long and 4 to 6 cm wide. Text is incised on the leaves and sometimes there are also small drawings decorating the text. The incised writing was made visible by the application of various mixtures of lamp black (a pigment made from carbon) and plant oils (such as turmeric) chosen for their insect repellent qualities. Other materials used for inking were mixtures of bean plant juice and oil, bile, pulverized burnt candlenut and coconut oil. The inking was then wiped off, leaving the black in the incisions only. Direct application of paints and ink by brush and pen was also used in some cases. In the Thai and Mon traditions in Thailand, palm leaves were occasionally gilded or silvered before the text was written on, whereas in Sri Lanka, Gaduma (Trema Orientalis) charcoal powder was used, mixed with Dummala (resinous) oil and Kakuna (Kakoona Zeylanika) oil.


Atthakatha, Or 6603 258, fblefv

Palm leaf manuscript in Pāli and Sinhalese language containing Buddhist commentaries (aṭṭhakathā) and instructions (nissāya). The covers are illustrated with sacred Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka, including Buddha’s footprint at Adam’s Peak, the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, and Dambulla Rock Cave. Sri Lanka, dated 1756 (covers 1853).

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Wooden or bamboo boards to protect palm-leaf manuscripts were often beautifully carved or decorated for aesthetic reasons, or to add value. Such covers could be lacquered in red or black, and embellished with gold leaf, mirror glass, or mother-of-pearl inlay. Wooden or ivory covers were carved with ornaments representing flowers and foliage, deities (devas) or animals. In Sri Lanka wooden covers were often painted in bright colours, showing scenes from the Life of Buddha, the Jātakas, Buddhist symbols or floral ornaments. Some Sinhalese palm leaf manuscripts have silver covers with fine embossed decorations, or in rare cases the entire manuscript was made from silver sheets in the shape of palm leaves.

Unique to the Burmese tradition are manuscripts made from stiffened cloth, ivory sheets, gold, silver, or other metals in the shape of palm leaves. Stiffened cloth manuscript leaves were made from even strips of cloth from disposed monks’ robes. Thick layers of lacquer or gilded decorations were applied directly on the strips, but also on the wooden cover boards.

Collection of rules for Buddhist nuns

This Pāli text, inscribed on lacquered and gilded palm leaf, contains a list of rules for the disciplines of monks and nuns.

Bhikkhu Pāṭimokkha and Bhikkhunī Pāṭimokkha (code of monastic discipline for monks and nuns), part of the Vinaya Piṭaka, in Pāli language in Burmese square script. The lacquered and gilded sheets with delicate ornaments were made from palm leaves, with wooden covers. Burma, 19th century.

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Another popular type of manuscript in the Burmese tradition is the parabaik manuscript, which is made of specially prepared paper produced from the bark of a tree in the mulberry family. The sturdy paper is neatly folded into accordion pleats and trimmed at the top and bottom. The longest parabaik manuscripts could have up to sixty-four folds. Common subjects for illustration were the Jātaka stories, the Life of Buddha, Buddhist cosmology, royal donations and court scenes etc. The main colours were yellow (made from hsedan/yellow orpiment), blue (made from mainai/indigo), green (made from a mixture of orpiment and indigo), and red (made from hinthapada/vermilion) and black (made from soot of crude oil or charcoal). Gold ink was used to touch up the head of Buddha and the costumes of royals in court manuscripts.

In the Thai tradition, paper folding books made from mulberry paper are called samut khoi. Often they contain extracts from the Tipiṭaka that are used for chanting or recitation at Buddhist ceremonies, specifically funerals and commemoration services, but also treatises on medicine and well-being, Buddhist law and morality and amulet making (yantra). Popular subjects for illustrated folding books in Thailand were the Ten Great Qualities of the Buddha (Mahābuddhaguṇa), often illustrated with scenes from the last ten Jātakas, as well as the story of the monk Phra Mālai.

Mahabuddhaguna and other Buddhist texts

Mahābuddhagunā and other Buddhist texts

Scenes from the Vidhurapaṇḍita Jātaka to illustrate the virtue of truthfulness, one of the Ten Great Qualities of a Buddha (Mahābuddhaguṇa). Folding book containing extracts from the Tipiṭaka for recitation in Pāli language in Khmer script. Thailand, 18th century.

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Many followers of Buddhism believe that merit can be gained in a number of ways. One of them is commissioning and donating a manuscript, a manuscript wrapper, a chest to store manuscripts or a manuscript ribbon (sazigyo) to Buddhist monasteries. Manuscript wrappers could be made of silk or cotton, a storage chest or cabinet was often made of gilded and decorated wood and the manuscript ribbons were often handwoven, some adorned with geometric patterns or Buddhist symbols or text. There are many types of sazigyo in the Burmese tradition. A sazigyo is read from left to right. The text on most sazigyo recorded the names of the donors, their titles and distinctions, and their deeds of merit. The donors could choose to add their pious aspirations.

Manuscript chest

Lacquered and gilt manuscript box from Northern Thailand

Wooden manuscript box for a folding book; decorated with gilt, lacquer and glass inlay, 19th century, Northern Thailand.

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Tibetan tradition

Tibetan books traditionally come in the form of narrow long strips of paper which are sometimes wrapped in a piece of cloth or simply held together by two wooden boards secured with a leather strap. This format is known as the pothi format, which has its origins in the palm leave manuscripts that are popular in South Asia. The pothi travelled with Buddhism to Central and East Asia and is commonly used for both manuscripts and texts printed from wooden blocks in Tibet.

From the 13th century onwards, Tibetan Buddhists started printing from wooden blocks onto paper. These prints would often contain woodcut images of deities or of respected teachers that bear a relation to the contents of the text.

Although miniatures in block prints were originally monochrome they were occasionally coloured in manually.

The Narthang print of the Tenjur

14310a RGYUD 1, The Narthang print of the Tenjur, f001v

Volume of a high quality print of the Tibetan canon produced in Narthang, Central Tibet,which has been enriched with hand coloured miniatures and added multicoloured silk ‘curtains’.

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Illustrated manuscripts range from fairly simple to extensively ornamented books, which were often commissioned by rich donors and were considered as a means of accumulating spiritual merit. Sometimes, larger motifs required a larger format than the traditional pothi format. In this case several leaves were combined to form a larger sheet. Such texts would have been written by accomplished calligraphers and have specially prepared title pages consisting of multiple layers of black polished or dark-blue indigo dyed paper. The title and the words of the first page could be written in gold, silver or other precious substances, sometimes in raised letters. The pages would be further decorated with precious stones like turquoise and corals, and multi-coloured silk curtains and miniatures would be added by respected artists. These artists did not necessarily remain anonymous and there are illustrated manuscripts where the artist has even added his name in tiny letters on the page. Often the production of such high-quality manuscripts were a part of the rituals which are carried out after the death of a person to accumulate merit on behalf of the deceased. The image below shows the title page of a prestigious manuscript copy of the Tibetan Buddhist canon; it runs to 111 volumes and was completed in 1712 in the monastery of Shelkar in south-western Tibet. Two miniatures of the Buddha are painted in gold on a red ground.

A volume of the Shelkar Kanjur

Volume of the Shelkar Kanjur, f001av

Title folio of the first volume of the sūtra section of the Buddhist canon from Shelkar.

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Sometimes, high quality manuscripts were produced to honour the memory of a highly respected teacher who had recently passed away, such as this leaf, which was commissioned by the sister of the Tibetan ruler after the death of her spiritual teacher (depicted on the left).

Collected Tantras of the Ancient Tradition

Collected Tantras of the Ancient Tradition, Or 15217, volume 1, f1v. The miniatures in the individual volumes show a portrait of Katog Rigdzin Tsewang Norbu (1698–1755) who was one of the most eminent Lamas of the School of the Ancients during his time.

Nyingma Gyud-bum title page, manuscript of the collected Tantras of the Old School (Nyingma).

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  • Ms Jana Igunma
  • After graduating from Humboldt University Berlin with a Master's degree in Southeast Asian History and Comparative Education in 1996 Jana worked in various research and cataloguing projects at Humboldt University Berlin, Westfälische Wilhems-University Münster, and Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.

    In 2003 she received a Master's degree in Library and Information Science at Humboldt University Berlin and went on to specialise in the history of Thai and Lao manuscripts and manuscript art. She started working at the British Library as curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections in 2004 and has since been involved in various digitisation projects and exhibitions. As a result of her research interests she has published articles and book chapters in print and online publications. She is also a member of the Southeast Asia Library Group, the Association of Southeast Asian Studies in the UK, and the European Association of Southeast Asian Studies.

  • San San May
  • San San May is Curator of Burmese collections at the British Library. She received her BSc degree from Rangoon Arts and Science University, followed by postgraduate degrees in Library and Information Science from Rangoon Arts and Science University and the University of the Philippines. She worked in the Universities’ Central Library in Burma and the School of Oriental and African Studies Library in London before joining the British Library in 2000.

  • Burkhard Quessel
  • Burkhard Quessel holds a Master degree in Buddhist Studies, Tibetan and Sanskrit from University of Hamburg, Germany. Since 1998 he has been the curator of the Tibetan collections at the British Library.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.