Kingship and Religion in Tibet

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Merkmals and Mirages: Dating (Old) Tibetan Writing



Monday 25th June



Helga Uebach (Bayerische Akademie, retired)

Palaeographic Notes: The two lHo-brag and the two rKong-po inscriptions


Old Tibetan inscriptions on stele or rock are characteristic of Old Tibetan orthography and Old Tibetan palaeography. Out of  these, however, the decisive factor is provided by Old Tibetan palaeographic “Merkmal”s, especially if there are two alleged sets of one inscription. 


It has been known that there do exist two lHo-brag inscriptions and recently a second rKong-po inscription has been discovered. I am grateful to my colleagues Katia Buffetrille, Paris and Pasang Wangdus, Lhasa for letting me have their respective photos in order to compare the palaeographic details of these inscriptions.


The text of the two lHo-brag inscriptions – as far as the left part of the cliff inscription shows, its right side is in great part encrusted with lichen or broken off – seems to be identical. Both inscriptions also show the characteristic features of Old Tibetan orthography and palaeography. Therefore it will be investigated whether they could have been carved at the same time and set up at different sites or whether there are clues allowing to decide that one is a copy  and one is the original one.


The recently discovered rKong-po stele in gTam-sñan is crumbled and its inscription being eroded in a way that it is in great part illegible. It is, however, possible to judge from a number of single letters that its writing is in accordance with Old Tibetan palaeography. The rKong-po rock inscription, too, shows the characteristics of Old Tibetan palaeography. Disregard the content, it is possible to point out palaeographic indications which allow to date it in relation to the stele inscription.



Stefan Baums (LMU)

The Paleography and Orthography of Emergent Writing Systems: A comparison of Kharoṣṭhī and Tibetan


The Tibetan  and  the  Kharoṣṭhī   writing systems are  both  adaptations  of   culturally dominant neighboring scripts (Aramaic in the Achaemenid  empire and Late Brāhmī in India and Central  Asia) to the representation of  phonetically alien languages, for administrative  as  as  well  as  for  literary  purposes.   The  early  development  and standardization of  these  two writing systems have many characteristics  in common, even though they are separated  by about one millenium in time, and the modern study of the scripts and the documents written in them faces similar problems. This paper will introduce the state of  our knowledge about the early history of  the Kharoṣṭhī script and discuss the following issues in the study of Kharoṣṭhī writing, drawing comparisons with Tibetan throughout: the identification of  individual hands by ductus and paleography; the  identification of   scribal  schools  by paleography  and  orthography;  paleographic dating  and  the  role  of   index  characters;  the  physical analysis  of   ink  and  writing supports; the use of  digital tools in the classification and analysis of  character shapes; and the study of  script standardization and orthographic systems at the interface of written and spoken language.



Amy Heller (CNRS)

Old Tibetan Handwriting and its Support: textiles, stone, metal, wood


This presentation will study a few examples of Old Tibetan handwriting which present distinctive morphology of letters due to the support on which the inscription is written. When writing on silk and linen, the actual warp and weft of the fabric can play a role in the shape of letters, due to the consistency of the ink, the dimensions of the threads of the fabric. The interpretation of inscriptions can also be affected by the cloth medium, as creases or stray threads may appear which prevent clear reading or dissimulate certain letters. Woven letters in Old Tibetan have not been documented so far to my knowledge. When writing on metal, the process of scratching letters on the surface of the metal as opposed to incised carving of letters also affects the morphology of the letters. In early goldwork where granulation was a frequent decorative technique, it is also found in some inscriptions. In one case, the same inscription was scratched on a silver plate and incised on another silver plate, which affected the shape of the letters. In seals, the letters are reversed in the metal in order to obtain an imprint; this too affects the letters. When writing on wood, potential irregularities in the wood can affect the shape of letters, as well as abrasion of letters or their dissimulation due to mud or fabric dye which contaminated the wood after the time of writing. The differences in morphology of certain letters, in comparison with dated inscriptions, such as stone stele, can potentially help to understand the chronology of the artefact.



Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer (Oxford)

Situating a Dunhuang Tantric Manuscript: IOL Tib J 321


We are now at the final proofing stage of our 400 page tome on the Thabs zhags, based on the analysis of twenty-one extant witnesses, including the Dunhuang ms. and some extremely old and unusual local Kanjur editions or fragments such as Hemis and Bathang. Our most striking findings are entirely positive. We demonstrate that the Thabs zhags descends from a unique redactorial event; that its recension is closed, not open; and that its extant tradition is not bifid, but descends from the archetype in five independent branches, with only a small degree of possible contamination. In other words, it is genuinely amenable to classic stemmatic analysis. 


The intellectual payout of all this is that we can thereby prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the first Tibetan archetype of the Thabs zhags is not one, but several copying cycles earlier than the already scribally quite corrupt  Dunhuang ms. Moreover the type, layering and density of the scribal errors already present in the Dunhuang ms might well indicate that a considerable time had elapsed between it and the first production of the archetype. The implication is that stemmatics can be applied as a genuinely useful adjunct tool in determining the dating of a text. This presentation will show stemmatic analysis can expose important aspects of the pre-history of Dunhuang manuscripts, taking us back to yet earlier versions of these text, whilst also indicating how many times they might already have been recopied before the extant Dunhuang witnesses were made.



Matthew T. Kapstein (EPHE)

Some 12th-16th Century Works Conserved in Eastern Tibet: Questions bearing on the dating and provenance of the manuscripts

With the exception of those cases in which an authentic and original scribal colophon – not one that was itself recopied by a later scribe – announces the date and place of a manuscript’s production, the dating of and ascription of provenance to Tibetan manuscripts remains an approximate art, depending largely on less direct forms of evidence. Though this situation seems ineluctable (as indeed it is in the study of other manuscript cultures), some progress may be realized by classifying and analysing more closely the varied types of evidence available, though this proves to be a challenging task. In the present communication, some of the challenges will be considered in the light of a number of manuscripts conserved at Dpal spungs monastery in the Sde dge district of Khams.



Dorji Wangchuk (Hamburg)

On Relative Dating of Tibetan Texts and Terms: Taking the typology of rig ’dzin as a case study


Anyone pursuing a study of the history of ideas within the Tibetan intellectual culture would end up trying to locate the idea in question in a specific time and space, and to determine the provenance of the pertinent texts, terms, or concepts. For a student of history of ideas, the terminus post quem or terminus ante quem of such texts and the termini technici found therein tend to be more crucial than the dating of the manuscripts as the material objects that contain them. Without being able to put a text, term, or concept into its proper temporal and spatial context, it would be hardly possible to examine and explain its history of inception, evolution, and reception. The question is how far the dating of written Tibetan works is possible in cases when they are not explicitly dated.


We do indeed have many cases where the authors or even the works themselves are dated. But in the case of many other works whose (“absolute”) dating is not possible, the only option seems to be to resort to “relative dating.” But how feasible is relative dating or determining a chronology of specific texts, terms, or concepts? In this paper, I would take up the development of the typology of rig (pa) ’dzin (pa) (vidyādhara) in the sense of a siddha or siddhi, and thereby make a modest attempt to see whether one can propose a relative chronology of the various undated textual sources and even of the key terms that express different types of vidyādhara.




Tuesday 26th June



Nathan W. Hill (SOAS)

Grammatical Change as Signifier to Date Tibetan Documents


Spelling often reflects an antiquated pronunciation and is consequently difficult to use to date documents. In contrast, grammar normally reflects the actual linguistic habits of an author. Observe the frequency with which unassailable authorities unwittingly violate proscriptive rules (such as to not split infinitives and when to use 'whom' or 'me') when writing English.


Observing the grammatical usage of Tibetan documents of known date furnish Merkmale for the personalization of undated documents. This paper will exhibit this methodology with an exploration of linguistic features that Old Tibetan versions of the Rāmāyaṇa share with the Biography of Milarepa but which are absent in inscriptions and theOld Tibetan Chronicle.



Kazushi Iwao (Kobe City University of Foreign Studies)

Dating the Manuscripts of the Annals and Chronicle in Dunhuang


There is no doubt that the Royal Annals and Old Tibetan Chronicle, the earliest Tibetan histories, were the most important works for the Old Tibetan Empire. It is also no doubt that these texts and these variants were widely prevalent through the empire. Furthermore, Geza Uray insightfully pointed out that the Royal Annals was used as a reference for dating official documents, and Takeuchi Tsuguhito further suggested the possibility that local annals were composed in each district and used as reference for local documents. Based on these points, one would assume that the extant Annals (and Chronicle) were ‘official’ copies made by local officials.


However, it is worth to note here that paper for copying all extent three versions of Annals (Pelliot tibétain 1288 + IOL Tib J 750, Or.8212. 187, Dx 12851) as well as a version of the Chronicle (P.t.1287) was the verso of scrolls of Chinese sutra. Given that new paper was produced in large quantities in Tibetan ruled Dunhuang, and that important official records such as land registries were written on new paper, one must reconsider again why such an important texts were copied on the backside of Chinese scrolls.


The aim of this paper is to examine the above question. The author first analyses the Chinese texts on the verso of the Annals and Chronicle, secondly examines the dates for the copying of these current Annals and Chronicle, and thirdly speculates by whom these extant copies were made in Dunhuang.



Brandon Dotson (LMU)

Inscribe, Transcribe, Describe: Preliminary results of the Kingship and Religion in Tibet research project’s work on dating Tibetan writing


Most of the Tibetan Dunhuang manuscripts float in time. To make a reliable description of kingship and religion during the period of the Tibetan Empire, it is necessary to use sources that are fixed in time. The first phase of the Kingship and Religion in Tibet research project has therefore been given over to searching for reliable methods for dating these floating sources. Here I shall present the methods that we have employed for describing Tibetan documents and Tibetan writing, and will share some preliminary results. I shall also explore prospects for future collaborative work on paleography and codicology.



Tsuguhito Takeuchi (Kobe City University of Foreign Studies)

Various Merkmals for Dating Old Tibetan Texts—from extratextual to textual


Various merkmals have so far been proposed for the purpose of dating Old Tibetan texts. These merkmals may be roughly divided into three types.


    1)   The extratextual (or outside texts) merkmals, such as the paper quality and the presence of particular official titles, seals and colophons, which datable by historical chronology. They are applicable to individual texts.

    2)   The semi-textual merkmals, such as the presence of particular expressions (e.g. greeting pattern 2 in letters and the dhāraṇi oṃ māṇi padme hūṃ) and book-form or codex. Their dates are induced by the examination of the texts dated by type 1 merkmals. They are applicable to a group of texts.

    3)   The textual merkmals, such as palaeographic and linguistic traits. They are induced by the examination of the texts dated by type 1 and type 2 merkmals, and are applicable more widely.


Needless to say, combinations of various merkmals help us to narrow down the possible dates of the texts. In this paper, having gone through type 1 and type 2 merkmals, I will try to explore the possibility of type 3 merkmals.



Sam van Schaik (British Library)

Manuscripts, Scribes and Rituals: An examination of PT 116


As the largest single compendium of Tibetan Chan texts, Pelliot tibetain 116 has been one of the most studied of the Dunhuang manuscripts. In this paper I examine the manuscript from the perspective of codicology and palaeology. The manuscript shows signs if heavy use, and was repaired some time after its creation, with both end-panels (now in a different hand from the rest of the manuscript) being replaced. This analysis leads to the question of the function of the manuscript. I suggest that, rather than seeing PT 116 as relating to the narrative of the debate at Samyé (as has often been the case), we should see its structure as evidence for its ritual use. Comparison with Chinese Chan literature suggests that PT 116 had a liturgical function within the ritual context of a Chan bodhisattva precepts ceremony. I conclude with some general thoughts on our understanding of the social functions of the Dunhuang manuscripts.



Agnieszka Helman-Wazny (Hamburg)

Mapping the Past: Extra-textual merkmals for dating of the Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang


This paper presents my research on the potential for historical interpretation of material features preserved in the earliest surviving Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang and proposes an interdisciplinary model for the study of manuscripts that combines the analysis of materials out of which the manuscripts are composed with a study of methods of their production. As an artifact, the manuscript is the result of a complex collaboration of many contributors and craftsmen, all of whom approach their work from different perspectives and with different aims and motivations. Understanding the collaboration and common attitudes of artists, craftsmen, monks, and ordinary people involved in the production and use of such books is crucial to understanding the body of knowledge sealed in manuscripts beyond their textual content. Another crucial aspect of this extratextual content is the interaction of the materials of which the manuscripts are composed. The aesthetic effects of this interaction define the artistic properties of the manuscripts sometimes to a greater degree than the scribe or artist.


The heterogeneous character of the knowledge sealed in manuscripts engenders multiple methodological problems for manuscript studies. The absence of obvious or widely agreed-upon methods, terminology, and standards makes manuscript studies an experimental field without clear-cut, readily applicable guidelines for the study of its objects. My paper puts forward a preliminary version of a template for the technological description of manuscript. Further, I discuss how my research using technological study of paper combined with codicological and textual information explores the possibilities for dating this material and recovering the histories of regional production and usage of writing materials in scriptoria, which are determined by the cultural background of manuscripts. With the use of overlapping typologies, a sample of manuscripts is classified into coherent groups, then related to different geographical regions. This method offers new insights into an important manuscript collection. I argue that the method of overlapping typologies has the potential to yield further insights. The technological study offers a story of the manuscript that critically supplements its content, revealing the untold details of its making.



Jacob Dalton (Berkeley)

Observations on the Relationships between the STTS-Based Sādhanas from Dunhuang

As is now fairly well known, the Dunhuang archive includes several major sādhanas based on the Yoga-tantraSarvatathāgata-tattvasaṃgraha This paper will present the relevant manuscripts and review their interrelationships. It will then turn to the question of the handwritings used in these manuscripts and what they might tell us about the manuscripts’ dates.  While the vast majority of the Mahāyoga materials from Dunhuang appear to date from the tenth century, these valuable Yoga-tantra works may reflect, in part, an earlier period of Tibetan tantric ritual practice.