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Cambridge reveals oldest Sanskrit manuscript on film

The University of Cambridge has focused on what is believed to be the oldest illustrated Sanskrit manuscript highlighting stages in the life of Gautama Buddha as part of its India Unboxed series.

world Updated: Jun 14, 2017 22:14 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
The Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā or The Perfection of Wisdom In 8,000 Lines, a Sanskrit manuscript that is about 1,000 years old and features events from Buddha’s life.
The Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā or The Perfection of Wisdom In 8,000 Lines, a Sanskrit manuscript that is about 1,000 years old and features events from Buddha’s life. (University of Cambridge)

The University of Cambridge has focused on what is considered the oldest dated and illustrated Sanskrit manuscript that highlights various stages in the life of Gautama Buddha as part of its year-long India Unboxed series to mark the UK-India Year of Culture 2017.

The ancient university (founded in 1209) has a large number of India-related objects collected over the centuries in its eight museums, Botanic Garden, Centre for South Asian Studies, and the University Library.

The Sanskrit manuscript is about 1,000 years old and has one of the most famous titles in world literature — the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā or The Perfection of Wisdom In 8,000 Lines. It offers a path to enlightenment and signifies the formal introduction to Buddhist thought.

The illustrated manuscript features events from Buddha’s life - his birth, his first teaching, his death, the attack by an elephant, a monkey giving him honey, and his return to Sāmkāśya after teaching his mother in heaven.

The manuscript is revealed in a short film, part of a series of films based on singular objects in the university’s collection.

Another image from the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā or The Perfection of Wisdom In 8,000 Lines, a Sanskrit manuscript that is about 1,000 years old and features events from Buddha’s life. (University of Cambridge)

Other films will focus on topics such as why a tin of fine Indian and Ceylon tea was packed for an Antarctic expedition at the turn of the 20th century, and how a brass transit instrument was used in the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India.

Malavika Anderson, cultural programmer for the University of Cambridge Museums, said of the Sanskrit manuscript, “The many beautiful and perfectly preserved images are tiny but incredibly complex at the same time. Given that the nature of the medium, the palm leaf, places many restrictions on what an artist can do, the variety and detail in the illustrations of these manuscripts is astonishing.

“To this day, 1,000 years on, the palm leaf manuscripts are still helping to further research on the intellectual traditions, religious cults, literature and political ideas of South Asia.”

The India Unboxed programme seeks to creatively unpick the tangled relationships of the two countries, fusing historical context with contemporary perspectives, and highlighting artworks, artefacts, orchids and scientific instruments that have made their way to Cambridge over 800 years.