Thor bu - Curiosia Indo-Tibetica

Textual and visual odds and ends from India, Tibet, and around.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A devil of a script

To my greatest joy yesterday I discovered some books at the bottom of my trekking backpack, books I had long forgotten about. This tends to happen if your library is spread out in about five or six places. Among them was this book, bought in Lhasa last year: Sngags bklag thabs kyi 'grel pa Mun sel sgron me, i.e. 'A commentary to "The way to recite mantras", A lamp that removes darkness'. The book was composed by two modern Tibetan scholars Byang chub 'jam dbyangs skyabs and Bsod nams rgyal and it was published from the Kan su'i mi rigs dpe skrun khang in 2005.

As it says on the tin, this book is for those desiring to know how to recite mantras properly, something that Tibetans are not notoriuos for. The authors (naturally) side with those Sa skya pa patriarchs (viz. Bsod nams rtse mo and Kun dga' rgyal mtshan) who were well-known militants of correct pronunciation. In the view of these authorities reciting mantras improperly not only renders the spell ineffective, but can also become detrimental - not only to the sādhaka but also for his descendants lay or spiritual.

While the topic is quite fascinating and some are surely in need of such a book, the work proves that Tibetans still don't get quantity for example. A Sanskrit-Tibetan glossary at the end of the volume has 'a lang ka ra' for 'alaṅkāra', 'ārtha' for 'artha'. Some of the pairs are quite puzzling: 'dwi ba' for 'zhe sdang' (*dveṣa), 'warṇa' for 'seng' (sde?). Sometimes the last syllable is missing: 'pu ru' for 'skyes bu' (*puruṣa), 'nā ya' for ''dren pa' (*nāyaka), etc. etc. etc.

But this is not what I wanted to report here. In the introductory bits dealing with general historical matters of grammar and writing in Tibet, the authors go to great lengths to list evidence for the existence of Tibetan literacy before the traditionally accepted date of Thon mi. Most of this is legendary of course, but there was one curious paragraph that caught my attention on p. 27. Thus–

'Bras spungs pho brang nas bton pa'i shing tā la'i lo ma'i thog tu khab kyis brkos pa'i srin po'i yi ge zhes pa'i dpe cha pod gcig yod pa de'i yig gzugs la brtags na dbyangs gsal mang po zhig da lta'i Bod yig dang mtshungs shing | 'on kyang rang cag rnams kyis yi ge de 'don mi shes pa dang | go don ni de bas kyang rtogs mi thub pa'i yi ge zhig 'dug [–] gong gsal gyi yig rigs de dag la zhib par brtags na Srong btsan sgam po'i sngon du Bod la Zhang zhung ngam Bon gyi yi ge zhig gnas yod snyam |

"There exists a manuscript volume obtained from the Drepung-palace inscribed with a needle on the surface of leaves of the palm-tree with the writing of the 'srin po' (*rākṣasa). If we examine the shape of these letters, many vowels and consonants are similar to the current Tibetan script. However, we are not able to read this script and know even less of its import. So, there is such a writing [as well]. If we examine meticulously the types of script listed above, we think that there was some kind of script, 'Zhangzhung' or 'Bon', before the time of Songtsen Gampo."

I cannot recall having read any reports of such a manuscript from Drepung, but it's obviously true that there must be something of the sort there. It is a complete mystery to me where they got the 'srin po'i yi ge' (*rākṣasa-script) from. The phrase 'inscribed with a needle' is significant – it probably means that the manuscript hails from South India and the needle is the 'khaṭṭikā' or stylus. Please share if you know anything about this manuscript!

PS. I just started wondering whether what they really meant was 'srin bu'i yi ge', i.e. letters [as if chewed into the leaf by] worms, cf. ghuṇākṣara.

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Anonymous Ryan Overbey said...


I am sure you already know of the Lipiśālasaṃdarśana chapter of the Lalitavistara, which has a long list of scripts. This list includes:

…devalipiṃ nāgalipiṃ yakṣalipiṃ gandharvalipiṃ kinnaralipiṃ mahoragalipiṃ asuralipiṃ garuḍalipiṃ…

Of course, making any connection between this list and real scripts would be a fool’s errand, and the episode in Lalitavistara exists mainly to demonstrate the comprehensive knowledge of the prodigious young bodhisattva.

Still, this possible attestation of *rākṣasalipi is very cool. Thanks for the post.

7:23 pm  
Blogger PDSz said...

hah, I never thought about this passage, thanks for reminding me! this could indeed be a plausible source for the authors' strange tag for this script. why srin po, I wonder...

another strange thing they say is that lanytsa is the script of gods and vartula that of men. and they also mention klu'i yi ge somewhere.

7:49 pm  
Anonymous H.I. said...

It seems to me rather unlikely that srin bu'i yi ge was meant, in view of khab kyis brkos pa'i (and the absence of anything suggesting that the letters were like srin po'i/bu'i yi ge). I haven't looked into the matter at all, but dGe 'dun Chos phel apparently refers to the srin po'i yi ge: e-text at (or ask Google...).

Quite irrelevant to the theme(s) of your post: I'm not aware of any attestation of ghūrṇākṣara; the standard expression is ghuṇākṣara (and I'd be skeptical about ghūrṇa as a variant/alternative spelling for ghuṇa; but perhaps you have attestations).

Thanks for the post!

8:48 pm  
Blogger PDSz said...

Quite right, I've just invented a google hapax. Thanks for the comment and the correction!

I think I confused this with a word in the Catuṣpīṭha (ghūrṇasandhikā) which I related to ghuṇa˚ at some point.

9:23 pm  
Blogger earlyTibet said...

I'd like to read that book, especially their other arguments for writing in Tibet pre-Thonmi Sambhota.

But this Drepung manuscript, if it looked to the authors like Tibetan, yet couldn't be read by them, is surely an Indian manuscript in the so-called 'late Gupta' style.

Lore Sander wrote a nice article about a little copper plate, inscribed in Sanskrit with the 'essence of dependent origination', found in Kashmir, and dating to the 6th-7th c. She thought it must have travelled there from north or northeast India. If you squint, it looks like Tibetan.

Similar things must also have come to Tibet, even in those early days...

4:46 pm  
Blogger PDSz said...

sorry, I left the book in Budapest. I'm sure some library has it (SOAS, Bod?)

there are many candidates for that ms. but what really made me vote with south india was the 'scratched with a needle' part. also, Tamil pa, ma, ya - if you squint - looks like their equivalent in dbu med.

then again, who knows...

7:15 pm  

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