A selection from the centrepiece of the Buddhist collection - some 5,000 leaves and fragments, with around 7,000 micro-fragments from a library of originally up to 1,000 manuscripts found in caves in Bamiyan, Afghanistan - are on display in Buddhamonton in Thailand until February 2011.
The exhibition, Traces of Gandharan Buddhism - An Exhibition of Ancient Buddhist Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection, is being presented in the holy town, built by the government and people of Thailand as a shrine to commemorate 2.5 millennia of the Buddha's existence. A collaboration between Thai National Buddhist Affairs and associated Buddhist religious bodies, under the leadership of His Holiness Somdet Phra Buddhacharya, and Norwegian counterparts facilitated by the Norwegian Institute of Palaeography and Historical Philology, the exhibition is part of the celebration to honour the 84th anniversary of King Bhumibol's birth starting this year.
The manuscripts were found in caves in Bamiyan in 1993-95. Together with 60 in the British Library, the manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection have been called the 'Dead Sea Scrolls of Buddhism'. Spanning the 2nd to 7th centuries AD, they are the earliest known Buddhist scriptures and are written on palm leaf, birch bark, vellum and copper.
In his address at the handing over ceremony for the manuscripts at the University Library in Oslo, the Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, Major General Sanan Kajornprasart, said: "This exhibition in Thailand of these ancient manuscripts which date around 2,000 years provides Buddhists with an unprecedented and auspicious opportunity to pay respect to these ancient Buddhist manuscripts in reverence to the Lord Buddha. It also provides the opportunity for the Thai people to learn and gain further knowledge about Lord Buddha's teaching and historical traces of Buddhism as a whole."
The items on display largely avoided destruction during a civil war between several local war lords and the Taliban, by being taken out of the war zone. Significant parts of this heritage that remained in Afghanistan when the Taliban took power in most of the country in 1996 were earmarked for destruction, together with other Buddhist objects and monuments. The Schøyen Collection played a major role in rescuing these items for scholarship and for the common heritage of mankind. The first fragments were acquired in London in the summer of 1996, with the bulk of the material acquired from 1997 and 2000, also in London.
Martin Schøyen said: "I am proud to have played a part in preserving these important parts of Buddhist scripture so that they can now be studied by scholars and venerated by believers half a world away from where they rested for centuries, but where they came under threat of destruction. I would like in turn to acknowledge the role of Jens Braarvig and Frederik Liland of the University of Oslo for their commitment to scholarship. They have been instrumental in bringing these manuscripts to public access and attention."
Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country, with some 95% avowing this faith. The Schøyen Collection website continues to be a resource to academics and scholars, as well as to general students of world history. The Schøyen Collection routinely receives image and information requests from authors, publishers, educators and the media.
Note to Editors:
The Schøyen Collection crosses borders and unites cultures, religions and unique materials found nowhere else. The Collection, based in London and Oslo, contains over 20,000 significant manuscripts of major cultural importance and is an important part of the world’s heritage.
There is no public collection that has the Schøyen Collection’s unique array of manuscripts from all the greatest manuscript hoards, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Cairo Genizah of Hebrew MSS, The Oxyrhynchus hoard of classical papyri, The Dishna Biblical papyri, The Nag Hammadi Gnostic papyri, the Dunhuang hoard of Buddhist MSS, and many others. Nor is there one with such a variety, geographically, linguistically and textually, and of scripts and writing materials, covering so a great span of time — 5,000 years of history.
For background see Minerva, May-June 2007.