24 June 2010

Aother Siddhaṃ Manuscript of the Heart Sūtra

Vinod alerted me to another Siddhaṃ manuscript of the Heart Sūtra on Wikimedia (a sister site to Wikipedia for uploading out of copyright images). He thinks it may be Sogdian. We don't know much about it as the source simply uploaded it and cannot say much about it's provenance.

The hand is quite rough and inconsistent - not very beautiful. There is a great deal of variability between letters. I'm not sure whether to criticise the wavey lines as they may have been induced by the medium - birchbark does this I think. Reading through the text there are a number of corruptions and omissions. But we should not be surprised by this as it is common. And given that the scribe was a sloppy writer it is not a stretch to think they were a sloppy copyist as well. There is what looks like an explanation of the mantra (perhaps pronunciation instructions?) in another script which I cannot identify at the end.

One of the features of the writing is that the pen is held close to vertical. This gives the syllables a 'blocky' feel with heavy horizontal lines. Another distinctive feature is that words are separated by a dot - this is not quite like the Tibetan tsheg which separates syllables, but not an Indian practice either.

The akṣara heads are simply a horizontal line which is typical of manuscript Siddhaṃ - the elaborate wavy lines on Japanese Siddhaṃ appear to be an Asian innovation.

A long ā diacritic moves diagonally up and and away from the head, rather than either vertically or curving downwards. (see image right)

If you are used to contemporary Asian Siddhaṃ then some of the letter forms might appear unusual. I've cut out some of the interesting akṣara and labelled them. The ca is similar to Tibetan forms (which are more closely related to their progenitors than either Siddhaṃ or Devanāgarī). The ṇa is like nothing I've seen before and I only know it from the context. Ta (here with the ā diacritic) is more like a modern bha, whereas the bha is closer to the Lantsa bha (again I think this is an earlier form preserved). Note that sa and śa are very similar. In fact sa looks like a Devanāgarī bha and śa like a Devanāgarī sa.

I think this text demonstrates how difficult it can be to move from the clean lines and tidy arrangement of contemporary Siddhaṃ calligraphy to the manuscript tradition. I can more or less read this text as long as I have a Sanskrit Heart Sūtra handy to fill in the gaps. But I have seen a lot worse than this!

If anyone has more information about this manuscript - such as where and when it is from then I would love to hear from you.

Note 29.11.12. I have reason to believe that this ms. is the one referred to by Edward Conze in the notes to his critical edition of the Heart Sutra: Conze (1948: 49), and Conze (1967: 154) Ms. Nm/Cg.
Bibliothèque Nationale [de France] 62 no.139. Pelliot Sogdien. 
The text is the same as that published in Benveniste, Émile. Textes sogdiens. 1940; the image file name includes the text "Pel.sogd". I can't find the image or the record for it on the BNF site, so I've written to them for confirmation, but I'm fairly certain.

The ms. dates from ca. 1800, and is written in the Sogdiana form of Siddhaṃ. It was found in Dunhuang by French Sinologist Paul Pelliot in 1910.</


  1. One thing to remember, from what I understand is that writing in south Asia was never seen to be as important as the spoken word. Highly calligraphic Siddham seems to be primarily an east Asian thing where writing and the beauty of a script is valued. I could of course be wrong in a Buddhist context, but looking at Kharoṣṭhī (which the Ghandaran texts were written), you can see that there was no real care taken to produce beautiful letters (this is why I am not keen on Kharoṣṭhī, it looks rough and unpolished).

    So this unpolished, rough form of the Heart Sutra appears to me to have been written to get the information out, rather than produce an exquisitely beautiful text.

  2. Hi Barry.

    I have not forgotten about the Indian attitude to texts and indeed have often written about it. I have also often written about the reasons that East Asian calligraphy is generally better. Personally I don't like Kharoṣṭhī because the letters all look so similar!

    This manuscript appears to be from Central Asia, not from India. It was most likely written 6 or 7 centuries after the Kharoṣṭḥī texts you mention. Times change and this is why most Mahāyāna texts mention that reading, reciting or WRITING a text will produce huge amounts merit.

    In fact there was rather neat and tidy writing, even beautiful writing in India. Yes a lot of manuscripts are careless, but not all. And there were decorative scripts as well. Don't forget that the words themselves were considered sacred. Greg Schopen has written about the Mahāyāna cult of the book - where the physical text of a sūtra was worshipped in place of the stūpa.

    My guess is that this text was churned out by a barely literate roadside charm seller as protection for merchants setting off on the long and dangerous journey across the Taklamakan Desert. Sogdian merchants were familiar figures in the markets of Changan. It was probably cheap and considered a talisman more than a text. I'd also hazard a guess (based on the kinds of errors and omissions) that neither the person writing it, nor the person buying it would have been able to read it - hence also the commentary on the mantra at the end in a different script, explaining I would guess how to pronounce the mantra.

  3. Well, I never said there was *no* tidy, neat, or beautiful writing in India, nor that there weren't decorative scripts in India, but OK. You see, I've seen manuscripts from all over India so yes, I know.

    Either way, you're probably right. It's a lot like tourist trinkets today that are cheaply made. Not meant for devotional purposes but to make a buck.

  4. This manuscript appears to be written in Sharada, not Siddham. Notice the slanted virama written at the headstroke. Also, the various aksharas you cut and labelled are very Sharada-like, esp. the NNA and TA. This might help to explain why the letters do not look quite like Siddham. The similarities are understandable, however, as Siddham likely developed from the Sharada branch of Brahmi scripts.