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Gilgit Manuscripts: The lesser-known story

By Bhushan Parimoo

Adventurism runs through the veins of Parimoos as such called Parium. The outsiders, in Kashmiri called Aparium or one who does not stick at a particular place for a long time.

Later got corrupted first into Parium and thereafter Parimoo. An itch to wander has developed a trait in them. To quench unsatisfying thirst to explore, understand the varied facts of civilisation, cultures, heritage and nature, around the globe in one’s life time. At the same time east or west home is still the best syndrome draws them back to their soil of Satisar. The Gilgit province has always been dear to us for two reasons. Because of it being a melting pot of influences from Kashmir, Central Asia and China where five ethnic groups speak five different languages with 36 dialects. It was a major trade centre of the silk route. A bridge between the East and West. Facilitated trade between the ancient empires of China, India, Persia and Rome.

The other one for the Parimoos has been its association with the digging of the oldest manuscript ever found so far in Asia. The late Tara Chand Parimoo, grandfather of this writer, a revenue official, was instrumental in supervising digging out the Gilgit Manuscript in 1931. He was contemporary of the State poet Mehjoor, both joined their service as Patwaris. They were known to have started reciting Kaseedaas before the royal court. While Mahjoor got name and fame, grandfather was bugged with the Russian Revolution ideology, firmly believed sooner or later the State shall hold the reign and hence made him refuse the Jaggir of Raj Bagh, or offer for prime piece of land from Nedous.

Elders from Naupur village, about two miles west of Gilgit cantonment, one day approached him with an unusual surprising news that the boys above Naupur village who were tendering flocks said to have cleared a piece of timber from top of a small stone-covered mound.

Where under semblance of a big wooden box appeared beneath. Matter was immediately reported to his superiors and instruction received to go ahead to find what lies buried there. Instructions were carried in letter and spirit with due diligence. Little they would have anticipated that that the box contained one of the world’s oldest manuscripts which could hold the key to the exact evolution of Sanskrit, Buddhist, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Tibetan literatures. Further digging laid bare a circular chamber within the ruins of a Buddhist stupa filled with hundreds of small votive stupas and relief plaques common in Central Asia and Tibet. After further excavations, a great mass of ancient manuscripts was found packed in a wooden box. The site is said to appear to be an ancient ruin which may have been the residence of Buddhist monks. There were five wooden boxes, the fifth containing the other four, which kept all the manuscripts discovered in Gilgit, hence Gilgit manuscripts.

 Based on the palaeographical evidence, scholars agree that local Buddhist devotees compiled these texts between the fifth and sixth century AD, among the oldest in the world, and the oldest manuscript collection surviving in the subcontinent. Though some more manuscripts were discovered in the succeeding centuries, which were classified too as Gilgit manuscripts., these are of major significance in the areas of Buddhist studies and the evolution of Asian and Sanskrit Literature.  The main scripture is the Lotus Sutra which even today is an important scripture in Japan and deeply influences the cultural and political life of the country. Several researchers and scholars have attempted to transcribe the text but till date the manuscript has not been deciphered in its entirety. These manuscripts were written on the birch bark and similar to those discovered by Aurel Stein (Khotan) in Central Asia. The language of these texts is Sanskrit in the Sharda or Sharada script while the vocabulary is derived from ancient, the Buddhist form of Pali text. The Manuscript contains four sutras, the pages were approximately 23”long and 5” wide, with almost ten lines per page.

Two famous travellers, Faxian and Xuanzang traversed Gilgit according to their accounts. Gilgit, crown nest of Jamuu and Kashmir a symbol of pride Envied world over for its preserving a uninterrupted rich and varied foot prints of history on the sand of time from medieval, ancient till date. These were nominated in 2006 to be included on the UNESCO Memory of the World register, but without success. According to Jens Uwe Hartmann, the text is written probably travelled west from one of the Buddhist kingdoms along the Silk Route. They cover a wide range of themes such as iconometry, folk tales, philosophy, medicines and several related areas of life and general knowledge.   At that Sir Aurel Stein the great explorer and archaeologist of the Central Asian fame at that time was passing through Gilgit on May 31, 1931. These newly discovered manuscripts were brought to his notice. He was requested to study them, but declined saying the task must be left to the care of local experts. Perhaps Stein was too shy to handle the manuscripts after his failed fourth expedition to Chinese Turkestan where the Chinese had accused him as the plundered of their heritage and for that even dubbed his as the “most pernicious thief” of their culture and heritage. Nonetheless, Stein after reaching Srinagar two months later announced to the world about the discovery of these manuscripts in his dispatches to The Statesman and Times, London on July 28, 1931. The world was delighted by the news to draw the attention of scholars to this important find. Scores of archaeologists and scholars of fame from all parts of the world also rushed to the actual site of discovery to unravel the mysteries locked up in the box. Ironically in 1897 just 34 years before these were discovered – the Buddhist Text Society of Calcutta had published references to the Gilgit Manuscript saying that if it were ever to be found it would unravel the ancient history of several communities as it is considered to be the oldest Buddhist manuscript. 

In the meantime, Maharaja Hari Singh ordered for their safe custody at Srinagar. The manuscripts were shifted from the Gilgit to the custody of Kashmir Darbar. Maharaja entrusted to the care of his Prime Minister Raja Hari Krishen Kaul. Soon they were inspected by R.C.Kak, the famous native archaeologist. Even as Hari Krishen Kaul again requested Stein to study them he declined the offer fearing a similar condemnation he had suffered at the hands of Chinese authorities. Instead, Stein suggested that the manuscripts could be sent to Paris for study by famous French scholar Jules Bloch or he be invited to Kashmir by the Darbar to undertake their proper scientific study. This proposal was however, not accepted by Raja Hari Krishen Kaul because he considered it as “impractical” and burdensome for the “State Exchequer”. It was time about when Kashmir had been gripped by the 1931 riots against the rule of the Maharaja. For the next seven years the Gilgit Manuscripts lay forlorn in locked cupboards of the Darbar. The intervening seven years had seen a couple of Prime Ministers changed. In 1938 Gopalswamy Iyyengar was the Prime Minister. He was seized of these important manuscripts by R.C.Kak yet again as by the time he had become the Chief Secretary of the State. After due consultations, Iyyengar brought the matter into the notice of his friend and at the time Vice Chancellor of the University of Calcutta, Shyama Prasad Mukerjee and later the founder of Bhartiya Jan Sangh. Shyama Prasad suggested that the manuscripts may be entrusted to Neelanaksha Dutt for study, editing and publication. Maharaja Hari Singh agreed with the proposal and Dutt completed the task in next four years. The Gilgit Manuscripts found in 1931 were published in a series of volumes between 1939 and 1943.  The majority of the Gilgit manuscripts are now held at the Indian national archives in New Delhi, India followed by the Shri Partap Singh Museum in Srinagar, while a small collection is held at the British Library, London and Karachi Museum. Opinions vary about the date of these manuscripts as one group of scholars says that the Gilgit manuscripts were written in the second century, while the other group places them between the sixth and seventh century. In August 1938, seven years after the discovery of the texts, the archaeologist Madhusudan Kaul Shastri led a systematic excavation of the Naupur site and discovered another larger chamber at the base of the structure. The chamber contained another set of the Gilgit Manuscripts inscriptions on these bronzes “reveal that they were produced and dedicated due to the generosity and the religious zeal of a Patola Shahi. The Patola Shahis, also known as Palola Shahis, were the rulers of Gilgit and Baltistan from the late sixth to the early eighth centuries AD. These are the oldest surviving collection of religious texts in the subcontinent. With the exception of only a few scripts, all the manuscripts were written on birch bark in Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit language in the Gupta Brahmi and post-Gupta Brahmi script.The Gilgit Manuscripts deciphered thus far cover a wide range of subjects such as religion, religious rituals, philosophy, iconometry, monastic discipline, folk tales and medicine . Those discovered by Madhusudan Kaul were also later published by him and Pandit Jagadhar Zadoo under the Kashmir Sanskrit Series and Texts in 1947.The seventeen centuries old Gilgit Manuscript has been giving historians a hard time, as no one has yet been able to fully decipher it. The lamination of the manuscript by the National Archives of India some time ago has once again put the limelight back on this all-important literature concerning India, Tibet, China, Japan and other neighbouring countries. Regarding the dialectical peculiarities of the text, Prof. Dutt says that though the language of the prose portion is Sanskrit it bristles with Buddhist religious and philosophical terms and uses Prakrit language quite liberally. Suggests that the text’s versified portion is extremely confusing as it disregards the elementary canons of grammar, meter, and even vocabulary. A sweet melody seems to be language. It doesn’t use convenient forms of verbs or singular or plurals or masculine or feminine genders – all of which makes him to suspect that the author of the original text was a versatile linguist and could play around with languages and blend of traditions…

(The writer is a Jammu based columnist and Environmentalist. Feedback at [email protected])