Early Buddhist Manuscript Painting: The Palm-Leaf Tradition

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Early Buddhist Manuscript Painting: The Palm-Leaf Tradition

1000 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10028-0918
July 29th, 2008 - March 22nd, 2009

upper east side
(212) 535-7710
Sun-Thu 10-5:30; Fri-Sat 10-9


This installation of thirty palm-leaf folios features some of the earliest surviving Indian illuminated manuscripts dating from the tenth to the thirteenth century. It centers on one remarkable Mahayanist Buddhist text, the Ashtasahashirika Prajnaparamita Sutra ("Perfection of Wisdom"), illustrated through the Museum’s rare holdings of eastern Indian and Nepalese illuminated palm-leaf manuscripts, book-covers, initiation cards, thankas, and sculptures.


Indian illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts from this period are extremely rare, and the few that survived did so outside India, principally in the monasteries of Tibet. The painting style in these earliest surviving manuscripts reflects stylistic conventions developed in Indian temple and monastic mural painting, now almost completely lost to us. Thus these manuscript paintings provide a unique insight into Indian painting styles at the close of the first millennium A.D.Drawn from the Museum’s own holdings of illuminated palm-leaf manuscripts, the installation features many rarely seen works, including some that have never been exhibited.

Traditional Indian manuscripts consist of a series of unbound folios, prepared from treated and trimmed leaves of the palm tree, and secured between wooden covers. The folios and covers were beautifully illuminated with miniature illustrations, typically with images of the deities to whom the text was dedicated and who were evoked through the recitation of the text. Narrative themes—such as scenes from the life of the historical Buddha—occur more rarely. These manuscripts have helped transmit Indian religious thought for more than two thousand years, and from at least the tenth century served as the vehicle for preserving some of the earliest surviving paintings known from India.

On view is a series of remarkable folios from editions of theAshtasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript, depicting both the wisdom goddess Prajnaparamita herself, and Buddhist Bodhisattvas who serve as the embodiment of compassion to all living creatures, extending blessings and boons to devotees. A tenth- to eleventh-century illustrated book cover, probably painted in Nepal, depicts the goddess flanked by scenes from the life of the historical Buddha. Other highlights of the installation are two folios from a unique edition of the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamitamanuscript (ca. 1090), one of which depicts the Buddha giving safety to mariners.