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Gandhara History | Library of Congress Reveals Ancient Scroll

July 19, 2023

On Monday, the Library of Congress released a previously unpublished 2,000-year-old Buddhist manuscript that provides a window into the early years of the religion.

The ancient Buddhist area of Gandhara in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan is the scroll’s place of origin. Scholars around the world have access to only a few hundred Gandharan manuscripts, but these texts are crucial to understanding the early history of Buddhist literature. To trace the expansion of Buddhism across Asia, for instance, experts use language examination of ancient manuscripts.

The religious leader Shakyamuni Buddha (also known as Siddhartha Gautama) narrates the Gandhara text, which details the lives of the 13 Buddhas who came before him, the circumstances surrounding his own enlightenment, and the prophecy of a future Buddha. The lifespan of each Buddha is detailed, as is their family background and the impact of their teachings on subsequent generations.

A Quick Review of Buddhism

According to Jonathan Loar, a reference librarian in the Library of Congress’s Asian Division, “this is a unique item because it is very old compared to similar manuscripts and, as such, it does bring us, historically speaking, relatively close to the lifetime of the Buddha.”

The library’s scroll is almost entirely complete; just the beginning and end are lacking. Scholars have only a few more, more incomplete Gandharan scrolls.

“I wanted to find a way to share this incredibly unique item with the public,” Loar said to CNN. The Library’s conservators have done an excellent job of preserving the scroll, but it is still quite delicate.

The Library of Congress acquired the scroll from a private collector in 2003, and it is one of the most intricate and delicate items the institution has ever cared for. It took conservators a long time to figure out how to care the cigars, and they even used dry cigars to practice unrolling procedures.

The special conditions in which the text was preserved made its treatment possible.

Loar explained that this was because stupas, which are dome-shaped structures often containing Buddhist books or relics, were commonly used to bury Gandharan scrolls like the one in the Library of Congress. Manuscripts written on birch bark are especially well-preserved in the Gandharan region because of its high elevation and dry climate.

The library can now share this significant historical artifact with the public thanks to digitization, even though the manuscript itself is too fragile for display.

Read More: Gandhara Civilization | Unveiling the Legacy Buried in Time

Read More: Gandhara Symposium Paves Way for Enhanced Religious Tourism

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