Dr. Priyatosh Banerjee (Indian and Central Asian Scholar)

Dr. Priyatosh Banerjee (An Exponent on Indian and Central Asian Art)

Painted Wooden Covers of the Two Gilgit Manuscripts in the Sri Pratap Singh Museum (Jammu and Kashmir)

Publication - Articles & Books


These two manuscripts, along with a few others, were discovered by the late Pandit Madhusudan Kaul in the course of his brief excavation in Gilgit in 1938. Pandit Kaul published a short report on these manuscripts and other antiquities found in this excavation in the Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society, Bangalore, Vol.xxx, pp. 1-12. The manuscripts in question seem to deal with Buddhist subjects.

During my short visit to Srinagar in June 1967, I had the opportunity of studying the painted covers of two of the above manuscripts and I am thankful to Shri Jawaharlal Bhan, Curator, Sir Pratap Singh Museum, Srinagar, for his help and collaboration in this work. My Grateful thanks are also due to Dr. P.N. Pushp, Director, Library and Archives, Srinagar, for granting permission to me to write about them.

Of these manuscripts one is of palm leaf and other of birchbark, referred to below respectively as Manuscript No. I and Manuscript No.2. The Manuscript No.I consists of 54 palm leaves, 6X25 cm. In size. There are five lines of writing in black ink on each side of each leaf. The manuscript is written in northern cursive script of a stylized and conventional form (a variety of late Gupta Script), which was in wide prevalence in Gilgit and Central Asia.

The wooden covers of the manuscripts in question are painted on both the sides. Their decorations on the outer side consist of lotus scroll. The painting on the inner side of the first cover of the Manuscript No.1 seems to be of Avalokitesvara, seated cross-legged in a highly attenuated form. He is two-armed; the right hand is in vitarka-mudra (gesture of discussion) while the left had, holding the stalk of a lotus with buds, is placed on the hip. He is provided with a circular halo.

Avalokitesvara or Padmapani Lokesvara (Pl.62) is decorated with various ornaments, such as a necklace, bracelets and wristlets. The bracelets consist of a chain with a lotus design in the centre. He is glad in dhoti in red colour. His hair is gathered in bunch at the top. On the headdress is shown a jewel comparable to the ones of the Simhanada and Lokanatha figures from Mahoba (pl.xx, figures b and d, Indian Buddhist Iconography by Benoytosh Bhattacharya, Oxford, 1924). The back locks of Avalokitesvara's hair fall on both the shoulders in two streams.

The upper part of the body of the deity is bare, except having a scarf which goes across the left shoulder. The face, the upper part of the body and the legs have been painted in buff colour. The scarf is also in buff with red stripes.

Below the feet of Avalokitesvara are two devotees seated, facing each other. They have turbans on their heads and are dressed in long coats with high necks. This kind of dress seems to have been the local dress of Gilgit. The figure on the right of the deity holds a lotus, while one on the left has his hand in anjalimudra (hands joined together in devotion). The former, young in appearance and without a moustache, has tresses of hair falling on the cheek.

Over the head of Avalokitesvara is an umbrella with streamers in various colours. A horizontal band, with beads, bisects the umbrella in the middle.

The figure on the inner side of the second cover of this manuscript is that of buddha (pl.630 seated on a lotus in dhyanasana (the meditative pose in which the two legs are firmly locked with both the soles apparent). He has elongated ears and eyes. His left hand holds the hem of the garment while the right hand exhibit the Vitarkamudra. His hair is gathered at the top, forming a ushnisha. The halo around the Buddha;s head is oval with a border and is in buff colour. The face, neck, hands and legs of Buddha have also been painted in buff colour. The hair is shown in black.

As is the case with Avalokltesvara on the other cover, the figure of Buddha is also surmounted by an umbrella, with streamers, various colours, bisected by a band with circular beads in yellow. He is also attended by the same two devotees or donors and accompany the Avalokitesvara. The only difference is that here the devotee on the right of Buddha has his hands in anjali-mudra, whereas the same figure on the other cover holds a lotus. Again, while the devotee on the left of Buddha holds a lotus in his right hand and a circular object in his left hand, he is shown with an anjali-mudra as attending the Avalokitesvara on the other cover.

Manuscript No.2 is of birch-bark. The leaves are about 7.5X30 cm. In size. There are nine lines of writing in black ink on each leaf.

The figures represented on both the covers of this manuscript are of avalokitesvara, two-armed, standing on their lotus pedestals. They are shown having their right hands in abhaya-mudra, blessing a devotee, seated below with hands in anjali-mudra.

Now, Avalokitesvara (Pl.64) on the first cover of this manuscript holds a lotus(?) with his left hand which is placed on the hip. His face is shown in three fourths profile. The nose, and eye-brow are prominent, but the lips are indicated by curved lines. The eyes are slanting and outstretched (recalling in style those of certain Ajanta figures). The eye-balls are, however small. The ears are elongated and have circular rings. He is provided with such other ornaments, as a pearl necklace, and wristlets. On the head there seems to have been a crown with a side knob.

The deity is clad in a dhoti in olive green colour, with side folds. The end of the dhoti, tucked at the waist, falls perpendicularly, reaching a little below the knees. He wears a white scarf, with a red border, placed on the shoulder, going over the arms. He is provided with a vesica in yellow colour and a nimbus in green. His face and body are painted in flesh colour.

Over the head of the figure in question is an umbrella in variegated colours. On the top, is shown the Dhyani Buddha Amitabha on a full blown lotus, painted in yellow ochre colour. The Dhyani Buddha is dressed in a red robe and is provided with a circular nimbus in red and vesica in yellow ochre colour.

The devotee on the right of this figure is shown seated with a long coat and a turban on the head, he has a prominent nose; the other details are, however, obliterated.

The figure on the other cover of this manuscript is, as stated above, also of Avalokitesvara (Pl.65), who stands cross legged on a lotus pedestal. He is endowed with physical features similar to those of the deity on the first cover of this manuscript. Among the additional features, the present figure has a head-dress decorated with a string of pearls1 and on the head-dress is seated the Dhyani Buddha Amitabha, Further, he wears a short under-garment exposing the knees with prominent joints. He holds a lotus-stalk in his left had (which is not placed on the hip as in the case of the Lokesvara on the first cover of this manuscript). He has for his ornaments neckalces and wristlets but no ear-rings. His right hand is, however, shown exhibiting abhaya-mudra over the devotee exactly as his counterpart on the other cover. The devotee who has a distinctive feature and a prominent nose is dressed in a long coat the front sides of which seem to be secured by threads.

Again, as in the fashion of the deity on the first cover, Avalokitesvara is provided with a scarf, going over his shoulders and arms and a vesica in yellow ochre and a nimbus in olive green…

On the top of this cover also occurs the Dhyani Buddha Amitabha seated on a lotus. The details of his dress, etc. are the same as those of the Dhyani Buddha occurring on the first cover.

Stylistically, Avalokitesvara or Padmapani Lokesvara and Buddha figures on the covers of the Manuscript No.I may be assigned to circa 7th-8th century being allied in style to the Bodhisattvas from Fondukistan. The donor figures, both here and on the covers of the Manuscript No.2, seem to have ethnic features of Gilgit with some Central Asian affinities. Avalokitesvara has a braod and muscular chest, while the wiast is very narrow. It has certain affinities also to the figures from Dandan-Uliq (cf. The mural painting from Dandan-Uliq. Pl.29, p.60, On Ancient Central Asian Tracks by Sir Aurel Stein), The Buddha figure on the second cover of manuscript looks almost a product of Farhand-beg-yailaki and Balawaste as seen in the National Museum specimens (Stein collection, Pl. V.F. XII, 007-008, Wall Paintings from Ancient Shrines in Central Asia by F.H. Andrews). This shows a close contact between the Kashmir, Bamiyan and Central Asian Schools of art. This is natural not only because of Kashmir's geographical proximity to Central Asia but also because of the fact that Kashmir has been an important centre of Buddhism and art since an early time and many scholars and pilgrims from Kashmir went to Central Asia and China,2 some of whom translated and interpreted Buddhist texts and helped in the development of Buddhist philosophy in these lands. Likewise, it can be easily presumed that many craftsmen and artists too went to Central Asia from Kashmir to adorn the Buddhist monasteries and chapels with stucco figures and paintings. One of the features common to both the Kashmir art and the Central Asian art (especially from the places, like Domoko, Farhad-beg-yailaki, Balawaste and Dandan-Uliq on the soughern silk route in the Tarim basin) is an under-current of Gandhara influence, combined with Indian idioms. While the influence of Kashmir or Indian art-style on Central Asian art cannot be denied, there was also the possibility that at a certain time or period, the established Central Asian art traditions exerted some influence on the art of peripheral India, including Gilgit and Kashmir and this possibility is amply justified by the fact that the style of Lokesvara dn of the Buddha on the covers of the Manuscript No.I look exactly like the known Central Asian murals as noted above. The Avalokitesvara figures on the manuscript No.2 seem to represent the Kashmir style (of c. 9th century) which shows a commingling of the Western Indian (Ajanta and Ellora) and Eastern Indian (Pala) elements with the indigenous local idioms, largly based on Gandhara traditions. If we analyse the main features of these figures the Gandhara modelling is noticed in the muscular treatment of the chest and the body, as found also in certain painted figures in Bamiyan and Western Tibet3 (Pl. 66). The treatment of the eyes bespeaks Ajanta influence and the head-dress and facial expression recall similarities to certain Pala Palm-leaf manuscripts and bronze figures.4 This synthetic style which developed in Kashmir had a far reaching effect on the art of Tibet.

Regarding the influence of Kashmir art on the development of art in Western Tibet as exemplified by the Guge specimens, Professor Tucci has dealt with the theme elaborately in his monumenral work, Tibetan Painted Scrolls, Vol.I, pp. 272 ff. As stated by him, Rin c'enbzan po, born in the 10th century in one of the Western Tibet highlands, visited Kashmir several times to study Buddhism and he took seventy-five Kashmiri craftsmen with him to his country. In Tsaparang, Toling, Tabo, in every place of any importance in Western Tibet, the temples founded on Rin c'en bzan po's advice and under the patronage of the kings of Guge bear evident traces of Kashmiri craftsmen's work: bronzes, wooden portals, sculptured with a soft suppleness and a plastic relief proclaim unmistakably the county of their origin….." "On the other hand the temple of Man nan has preserved the only frescoes known today which are certainly of the Kashmiri School, the extreme northern projections of those classical traditions, which transmitted by Ajanta to Ellora inspired India's pictorial currents in the middle ages. To the Man nan frescoes may be added to those of Alchi in Ladakh, although they are later. And this is all; nothing else has come down to use of ancient Kashmiri painting….". With regard to the above remarks we are glad to note that the present paintings on the covers of the Gilgit manuscripts fill in the gap of our knwoledge of Kashmir art of this period since they are the only authentic specimens of Kashmir paintings -hitherto known, though the specimens of style as derived from them as seen in Western Tibet attracted the notice of scholars much earlier.



  1. Compare the head-dress of Lokesvara, Fig.VIII (colour plate), Chapter V. p.318, The way fo the Buddha, Publications Division, Delhi, 19. 7.
  2. The Classical Age (edited by R.C. Majumdar), p. 598 f.., Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay.
  3. Please compare the painted figure from Bamiyan, pl.XVII, Nouvelles Recherches Archeologiques a Bamiyan by J.Hackin, Paris, and the Man nan figures from Western Tibet, Artibus Asiae, Vol. VII, p. 191 f. from Man nan, especially interesting is the painting (c. 10th-11th century A.D.) (fig.9), Artibus Asiae, Vol.VII, p. 197 which shows the same muscular treatment of the body as that of the Avalokitesvara figures of the Gilgit Manuscript No.2, discussed here. A photo of this painting from Man nan copied from Geschichte Der Tibetischen Kunst (Fig.17) by S. Hummelis reproduced as Fig. 5, in the present article for comparative study. Equally interesting also is the ivory image of Avalokitesvara (Fiv.15, p.203, Artibus Asiae, vol.VII) which also offers certain similarities in modelling and drapery arrangement to thos eof the Lokesvara or avalokitesvara of the 1st cover of the manuscript No.2, from Gilgit.
  4. Compare the facial expression of Lokanatha, Fig.34 and the head-dress of Halahala and Lokesvara, Figs. VII and VIII in colour, Chapter V, the Way of the Buddha, Publications Division, Delhi. 1957.

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