Project establishment

The Gandhari Manuscript Project (GMP) was established in 2019 within the School of Languages and Cultures, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, at the University of Sydney for the purpose of conserving, photographing, studying, and publishing the Gāndhārī manuscript collection held at the Islamabad Museum, Pakistan. The project will be carried out under the terms of an agreement between the (Federal) Department of Archaeology and Museums (DOAM), Islamabad, Pakistan, and the University of Sydney, Australia. The agreement was signed by the Provost of the University of Sydney, Professor Annamarie Jagose, and the Director General of DOAM, Dr Abdul Azeem, on 20 December 2022 at the Islamabad Museum in the presence of the Secretary of the National Heritage and Culture Division, Mrs Fareena Mazhar, after receiving approval from the Cabinet of Pakistan on 2 December 2022. Both the Australian High Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan, and the Pakistan High Commission in Canberra, Australia, assisted its passage.

The Islamabad Museum Collection of Gāndhārī Buddhist Manuscripts

The Islamabad Museum Collection of Gāndhārī Buddhist manuscripts consists of birch bark scrolls and scroll fragments containing Buddhist texts in the Gāndhārī language and Kharoṣṭhī script, with the exception of one scroll that has Gāndhārī/Kharoṣṭhī on one side and Sanskrit/Brāhmī on the other. With the support of the Khyentse Foundation, these manuscripts were donated to the Islamabad Museum, Pakistan, on 26 December 2022.

Although the collection is yet to be fully conserved, a rough estimate is that it consists of at least 50 to 60 scrolls or scroll fragments, constituting the largest collection of Gāndhārī manuscripts known to date. These manuscripts are thought to have originated from northern Pakistan.

Based on a preliminary study of the palaeography and language of select manuscripts and on the results of the radiocarbon dating of samples from five manuscripts in the collection, it is likely that these texts date to between the 1st century BCE and the 2nd century CE. Some manuscripts in the collection may well fall outside this range.

The collection contains a great variety of text types that bear witness to the rich Buddhist literary culture of Gandhara, some with parallels preserved in other languages, the majority apparently without parallel. Of what has been studied so far of the manuscripts in the collection, it appears that they preserve texts from the earliest period of Buddhist literature to texts that are likely to be closer in composition to the date of the production of these manuscripts, as well as those composed somewhere in between. Representative of the early phase of Buddhist literature are a substantial portion of what in Pali is known as the Aṭṭhakavagga, “Chapter of Eights,” of the canonical Suttanipāta and a section of the monks’ saṅghādisesa/saṃghātiśeṣa/saṃghāvaśeṣa Prātimokṣa rules. Examples from later periods, most of which lack parallels, are commentaries and several verse texts, such as a biography of the Buddha, a text that refers to the famous monk Nāgasena, though apparently not a direct parallel of the Milindapañha, “Questions of King Milinda,” and an exposition on anger and its negative consequences. The collection also preserves portions of several well-known Mahāyāna texts, such as the Samādhirāja-sūtra, “Discourse on the King of Concentrations/Meditations,” Pratyutpannasaṃmukhāvasthitabuddhasamādhi-sūtra, “Discourse on the Meditation of Direct Encounter with the Buddhas of the Present,” and *Sucinti-sūtra that concerns Sucintin, the infant son of Vimalakīrti. These manuscripts provide the earliest Indic witnesses to these texts that were important in East Asia and Tibet, predating the earliest Chinese and Tibetan translations of them by many centuries. Other Mahāyāna works are without known parallels, such as a scholastic treatise that may well be in the author’s own hand. Yet another important manuscript is a monastic ledger that lists gifts given by the Kuṣāṇa king Vima Kadphises and their value. This is the first example of a monastic administrative document to have surfaced, and it is particularly significant because this important Kuṣāṇa king had not previously been recorded as supporting Buddhism.

These new manuscripts are of inestimable value to the study of the development of Buddhist thought in South Asia, the transmission of Buddhism to China, and the history of Buddhism in ancient Gandhāra (an area corresponding to present-day northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan), in South Asia more generally, and in Central Asia and China. They are also central to our study of Buddhist languages and literature, provide examples of previously unknown texts and very early copies of texts known in other languages, such as Pali, Sanskrit, and Chinese.

The housing of these Gandhari manuscripts in Pakistan at the Islamabad Museum and their conservation there sets a precedent for the reversal of the common scenario whereby such materials are taken out of their region of origin as part of the antiquities trade, resulting in a significant loss of cultural heritage. In addition, this initiative will form the basis for collaboration with Pakistani scholars and for training Pakistani students in order to promote the conservation and study of such materials and the documentation of Pakistan’s rich Buddhist heritage. 

A more comprehensive account of the texts in the collection, their date and their significance, and of the collection as a whole, will be possible once all scrolls and scroll fragments have been conserved and an initial survey has been undertaken. 

Project Phase 1:

Phase 1 of the project, which is generously funded by the Khyentse Foundation and the Dhammachai International Research Institute (DIRI), will cover the following:

  1. the conservation of the Gāndhārī manuscript collection at the Islamabad Museum, which will include augmenting the conservation facilities at the Museum and bringing to Pakistan a conservator expert in the conservation of Gāndhārī birchbark manuscript who will conserve the manuscripts and transfer conservation skills to Museum staff;
  2. build the specialised cabinets to house the conserved manuscripts;
  3. produce high-resolution colour and infrared images of the conserved manuscripts;
  4. commission the radiocarbon dating of samples from select manuscripts;
  5. support the curatorial facilities for the conserved manuscripts for the term of the Agreement;
  6. undertake an initial study and identification of the manuscripts in the collection; and
  7. produce a catalogue of the manuscripts in the collection.

Project governance

The GMP is led and advised by a group of internationally acclaimed scholars with expertise in the Buddhist literature, languages, history, art, archaeology, and epigraphy of ancient Gandhāra, and in digital humanities and museum governance and curatorship. This includes senior members of the Department of Archaeology and Museums, Islamabad, Pakistan. The GMP has the following structure and people:

Project Management Committee

  • Mark Allon (Project Manager) (University of Sydney, Australia)
  • Ian McCrabb (Project Consultant) (Prakaś/University of Sydney, Australia)
  • Jason Neelis (Project Consultant) (Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada)
  • Stephanie Majcher (Project Consultant) (Australian National University, Australia)

Advisory Board

  • Abdul Azeem (Director General, Department of Archaeology and Museums, Pakistan)  
  • Collett Cox (University of Washington, USA)
  • Paul Harrison (Stanford University, USA)
  • Jens-Uwe Hartmann (University of Munich, Germany)
  • Sydney Jay (Khyentse Foundation representative)
  • Joseph Marino (University of Washington, USA)
  • Kazunobu Matsuda (Bukkyo University, Kyoto, Japan)
  • Richard Salomon (University of Washington, USA)
  • Shakirullah Khan (Hazara University, Pakistan)
  • Abdul Samad (Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan)
  • Andrea Schlosser (University of Munich, Germany)
  • Peter Skilling (Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation, Thailand)
  • Michael Skinner (University of Hawai’i, USA)
  • Nur Sobers-Khan (Independent Researcher)
  • Ingo Strauch (University of Lausanne, Switzerland)
  • Mahmood ul-Hasan (Department of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Pakistan)
  • Ghani ur-Rahman (Taxila Institute of Asian Civilizations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Pakistan)
  • Adrian Vickers (University of Sydney, Australia)

In the Media

Manuscripts Published

  • Allon, Mark. 2019. “A Unique Gāndhārī Monastic Ledger Recording Gifts by Vima Kadphises (Studies in Gāndhārī Manucripts 2).” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 42: 1–46.
  • Harrison, Paul, Timothy Lenz and Richard Salomon. 2018. “Fragments of a Gāndhārī Manuscript of the Pratyutpannabuddhasaṃmukhāvasthitasamādhisūtra (Studies in Gāndhārī Manuscripts 1).” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 41: 117–43.
  • Salomon, Richard. 2021. “New Biographies of the Buddha in Gāndhārī (Studies in Gāndhārī Manuscripts 3).” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 44: 355–401.
  • ———. (forthcoming) “The Prātimokṣa Verses of the Seven Buddhas in a New Gandharan Manuscript.” Sōka daigaku kokusai bukkyōgaku kōtō kenkyūjo nenpō 創価大学国際仏教学高等研究所年報 Annual Report of The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Soka University (ARIRIAB).