Duke University has received a grant from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme to digitize and preserve a trove of ancient religious manuscripts related to Bön, the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet.
Once digitized, the manuscripts will be made freely available online through the British Library, giving scholars around the world access to an important archive of religious texts that were previously accessible only by traveling to a monastery in a remote part of the Indian Himalayas.
The Menri Monastery, located near the village of Dolanji in the Northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, possesses the world’s largest collection of manuscripts relating to Bön. Most of these materials were rescued from ancient monasteries in Tibet before they were destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
The collection includes some 129 pechas, or traditional Tibetan books, comprising more than 62,000 pages of text. A pecha consists of loose leaves of handmade paper wrapped in cloth, placed between wooden boards, and secured with a belt. Also included are some 479 handmade colorfully-illustrated initiation cards, or tsakli, which are employed in various rituals and contain significant amounts of text.
As the name suggests, the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme aims to preserve archival material that is in danger of disappearing, particularly in countries where resources and opportunities to preserve such material are lacking or limited. The Bön manuscripts are an excellent case in point, according to Edward Proctor, the principal investigator for the project. Proctor is Duke’s librarian for South and Southeast Asia. He also works to develop the South Asian Studies collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library through a cooperative arrangement with Duke.
“The Bön manuscripts are subject to a variety of perils,” said Proctor. “They are currently housed in a building that is neither air-conditioned nor humidity-controlled. Having so many unique materials in one location means that a single disaster, such as a massive mudslide or earthquake (not an infrequent occurrence in this area), could quickly extinguish the records of this ancient tradition.”
The Bön manuscripts cover a wide range of subjects, including history, grammar, poetry, rules of monastic discipline, rituals, astronomy, medicine, musical scores, biographies of prominent Bön teachers, and practical instruction manuals for the creation and consecration of paintings, sculptures, mandalas, ritual offerings, reliquaries, amulets, and talismans.
Proctor first traveled to the Menri Monastery in 2009 on a Pilot Project grant from the British Library to investigate the scope and condition of the Bön manuscripts and the feasibility of digitizing them. He will return later this fall and winter to oversee their digitization, which will be carried out by monastery staff. Proctor will provide training in digitization techniques and offer guidance on best practices in archival management. Once the project is complete, the digitization equipment funded by the British Library will remain at the monastery for the future use of the Bön monks.
According to Proctor, this digitization project is essential to the efforts of Bön monks and nuns to preserve their unique culture, as well as the efforts of scholars elsewhere to understand the early cultural and intellectual history of Central Asia.
“These unique documents already escaped destruction once, during the excesses of the Cultural Revolution,” said Proctor. “But there is still a risk that they could disappear. Just last year, a fire in an 18th-century temple in Bhutan reduced its entire manuscript collection to ashes. Tragically, the temple’s collection had been proposed to be digitized as part of a Major Project grant. Thanks to this grant from the Endangered Archives Programme, it will now be possible to ensure the long-term survival of the Bön manuscripts in Menri Monastery.”
To learn more about the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, visit their website.