This extraordinary collection consists of birch bark scrolls and scroll fragments containing Buddhist texts in the Gandhari language and Kharoshthi script that date from approximately the 1st century BCE to the 2nd century CE. Although the collection is yet to be fully conserved, a rough estimate is that it consists of at least 50 to 60 scrolls or scroll fragments, constituting the largest collection of Gandhari birch scrolls known to date. The manuscripts, which are thought to have originated from northern Pakistan, are of inestimable value to the study of the development of Buddhist thought in South Asia; the transmission of Buddhism to China; the history of Buddhism in ancient Gandhara, in South Asia more generally, and in Central Asia and China; and to the study of Buddhist languages and literature. Indeed, these and similar manuscript finds have been referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls of Buddhism.
The collection preserves a great variety of text types that bear witness to the rich Buddhist literary culture of Gandhara, an area corresponding to present-day northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. Examples of texts from the earliest period of Buddhist literature are a Gandhari version of what in Pali is known as the “Chapter of Eights” (Aṭṭhakavagga), which forms a part of the canonical Suttanipāta, and a section of the monks’ disciplinary (prātimokṣa) rules. Well represented are texts that date to later periods, many of which lack parallels. Among the latter are commentaries and a number of previously unknown verse texts such as a biography of the Buddha, a text that refers to the famous monk Nagasena (though apparently not a direct parallel of the “Questions of King Milinda” [Milindapañha]), another that describes the final period of the Buddha’s life and his death, and an exposition of anger and its negative consequences.
Also well represented are important Mahayana sutras like the “Discourse on the King of Concentrations/Meditations” (Samādhirāja-sūtra), the “Discourse on the Meditation of Direct Encounter with the Buddhas of the Present” (Pratyutpannabuddhasaṃmukhāvasthitasamādhi-sūtra), and the Sucinti-sūtra, which concerns Sucintin, the infant son of Vimalakirti. These manuscripts provide the earliest Indic witnesses to these texts that were important in East Asia and Tibet, predating the earliest Chinese and Tibetan translations of them by many centuries. Other Mahayana works are without known parallels, such as a scholastic treatise that may well be in the author’s own hand. Yet another important manuscript is a monastic ledger that lists gifts given by the Kushan king Vima Kadphises and their value. This is the first example of a monastic administrative document to have surfaced, and it is particularly significant because this important Kushan king had not previously been recorded as supporting Buddhism.
The conservation, photography, study, and publication of the manuscripts in the collection will be undertaken by the Gandhari Manuscript Project (GMP). This initiative is headed by Mark Allon, University of Sydney, and includes an international team of scholars with expertise in the Buddhist literature, languages, history, art, archaeology, and epigraphy of ancient Gandhara, as well as in digital humanities and museum governance and curatorship. The Project is covered by an agreement between the Department of Archaeology and Museums (DOAM), Pakistan, and the University of Sydney, which was signed by the Director General of DOAM, Dr. Abdul Azeem, on December 20, 2022 at the Islamabad Museum in the presence of the Secretary of the National Heritage and Culture Division, Mrs. Fareena Mazhar. Both the Australian High Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan, and the Pakistan High Commission in Canberra, Australia, assisted its passage.
The Islamabad Museum Gandhari manuscript collection is, in fact, one of several such collections to have surfaced since the early 1990s. These other manuscript collections, all of which must originate from Pakistan or Afghanistan, have found their way onto the antiquities market, with some being donated to major public institutions such as the British Library and others ending up in private collections in Europe, Japan, the USA, and Pakistan. The Islamabad Museum collection is unique in that it has found a permanent home in a major public institution in Pakistan. This agreement sets a precedent for the reversal of the common scenario whereby such materials are taken out of the region as part of the antiquities trade, resulting in a great loss of cultural heritage to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The housing of these Gandhari manuscripts at the Islamabad Museum and their conservation there will form the basis for collaboration with Pakistani scholars and for training Pakistani students in order to promote the conservation and study of such materials and the documentation of Pakistan’s rich Buddhist heritage.
It is expected that this pioneering large-scale Gandhari manuscript restoration, training, and research project will require substantial funding in the coming years. Read more about the Gandhari Manuscript Project.