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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

05/2014 manuscript  of the month

A Multi-volume Manuscript of the Mongolian Buddhist Canon

The first edition of the Kanjur (the Mongolian Buddhist canon) to have survived to this day includes a total of 883 works and was prepared in manuscript form in 1628–1629 under the last khan of Mongolia, Ligdan (1588–1634). Nowadays, the only complete, 113-volume manuscript of Ligdan’s Kanjur is kept at the library of St Petersburg University in Russia. Despite its long history of research, this voluminous manuscript still leaves some questions unanswered. When and where was it written? Why is its structure so different from the blockprint edition of Mongolian Buddhist canon compiled in the 18th century?

Fig. 1: The Mongolian Kanjur manuscript. The first (“ga”) volume of
Daśasāhasrikā–prajñāpāramitā–sūtra). © St Petersburg University > Enlarge

The reception of Buddhist canonical works by the Mongols started under the Mongolian Yuan dynasty, which ruled over China from 1280 to 1368. After the fall of the dynasty, translation activities among the Mongols declined for almost two centuries, recommencing with renewed vigour under Altan Khan of the Tümed Mongols (1508–1582). According to some Mongolian sources, the work of compiling the entire Kanjur was completed under Altan’s grandson, Namudai Secen Khan (1586–1607). Unfortunately, this version has not survived the course of time. The next edition of the manuscript was prepared under Ligdan in the years 1628–1629. Within this short period, a relatively small team of translators managed to translate the entire 883 works compounding the Mongolian Kanjur, which seems to be next to impossible. Today, we know that Ligdan Khan’s redaction committee made extensive use of earlier translations. Later on, this collection became the basis of yet another edition of the Mongolian Kanjur – a blockprint this time – made in Beijing in 1718–1720 under the auspices of the Chinese Emperor Kangxi (1654–1722).

In accordance with Mongolian historiographical tradition, the final product of the translation and editorial work carried out under Ligdan Khan was a luxury manuscript written in gold on a blue background. It was therefore called the Golden Kanjur. Only a small number of volumes from this edition have survived, and these are currently preserved at the library of the Academy of Social Sciences of Inner Mongolia in Hohhot, China. A number of plain, or ‘black’, copies were written together with the Golden Kanjur or later on, during the 17th century. Some fragments of these exemplars are preserved in libraries in Europe, Mongolia and China, but the only complete – and probably the oldest – ‘black’ manuscript of Ligdan Khan’s Kanjur is kept at the St Petersburg State University Library. This was discovered in Inner Mongolia in 1892 by the brilliant Russian scholar Alexei M. Pozdneev (1856–1920). Taking part in a scientific expedition, in the city of Kalgan located near the Great Wall of China on the former main route from China to Mongolia, he happened to meet a postmaster called N. Gomboev. Gomboev informed the scholar that he had recently acquired a complete manuscript edition of the Mongolian Kanjur and was prepared to give it to St Petersburg University on the condition that his three sons could study there for free and the University would pay for his daughter’s education in the city of Irkutsk. After some negotiation, St Petersburg University purchased the voluminous manuscript from him for 4,500 roubles.

Fig. 2: The Mongolian Kanjur manuscript. The front page of the volume “pa”, Eldeb (Sūtra) section. © St Petersburg State University > Enlarge

The Kanjur manuscript kept in St Petersburg consists of 113 chapters in pothi format (i.e. separate paper leaves of an oblong shape) bound in 100 bundles or physical volumes. Each bundle is enclosed between two wooden boards and fastened with a string. The bundles each contain one or two chapters of text and have dingy red fabric tags pinned to one of their wooden bars (see fig. 1). The tags contain information about the section of the canon, the volume number in the whole Kanjur and in the section, and the total number of pages in the volume.

The Kanjur manuscript is divided into ten sections according to the tags on the bundles. The order of the sections and the works in them does not strictly correspond to any known edition of the Tibetan Buddhist canon. Coupled with the considerable number of duplications that exist, which are different Mongolian translations of the same Tibetan works for the most part, this fact initially caused scholars to assume that the manuscript was actually a draft version compiled rather haphazardly. It was only by comparing it with the Golden Kanjur that researchers discovered that the order of the sections and works was characteristic of Ligdan Khan’s version of the Kanjur in general.

A uniform text layout can be seen in each volume of the manuscript. The names of sections and volume numbers are stated on the front pages of the volumes (see fig. 2, for example). The majority of the titles are mentioned in Sanskrit and Tibetan first (transcribed/transliterated with Mongolian letters) and then in Mongolian. The titles or the initial lines of the texts are written in or in some cases highlighted with red ink (see fig. 3). At the end of the works, one can find paragraphs (colophons) containing information about the patron and the committee engaged in translating the Kanjur.

Fig. 3: The Mongolian Kanjur manuscript. Fol. 1v of the volume “pa”, Eldeb (Sūtra) section. © St Petersburg State University > Enlarge

The 113-volume manuscript is written on Chinese paper glued in two layers. This good-quality paper is composed of long fibres of paper mulberry and bamboo. The size of the folios is 68.5 x 23.5 cm. The text was written with a reed pen (calamus) using black Chinese ink inside a frame (57.5 x 15.5 cm) outlined by a black line. The number of the volume marked with a Tibetan letter, a marginal title denoting the section of the Kanjur, and the pagination in Mongolian are indicated outside the frame on the recto sides of the folios (see fig. 3).

The 113 volumes of the St Petersburg Kanjur collection demonstrate a variety of different handwriting styles. In some cases, even a single text in a volume was written by several scribes. Nevertheless, all the hands have the same handwriting style characteristic of manuscripts produced in the first half of the 17th century in Southern Mongolia. The bulk of the manuscript’s orthographical peculiarities are also characteristic of this particular period.

In sum, analysis of the text and appearance of the St Petersburg manuscript has shown that it was written in the first half of the 17th century in Southern Mongolia and is the earliest ‘black’ copy of the Mongolian Kanjur to have survived. We can also suggest that Ligdan Khan’s redaction committee not only made extensive use of the earlier translations, but also relied on the order of works set by the earlier Mongolian translators. This would explain why the structure of the St Petersburg manuscript is different from the blockprint edition of the Mongolian Buddhist canon modelled on one of the Tibetan editions.


ALEKSEEV, Kirill / TURANSKAYA, Anna (2013): “An overview of the Altan Kanjur kept at the Library of the Academy of Social Sciences of Inner Mongolia”. In: Asiatische Studien / Études Asiatiques, LXVII (3), 755–782.

HEISSIG, Walther (1957): “Zur Entstehungsgeschichte der Mongolischen Kandjur-Redaktion der Ligdan Khan-Zeit (1628–1629)”. In: Studia Altaica. Festschrift für Nikolaus Poppe zum 60. Geburtstag am 8. August 1957. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz [Ural-Altaische Bibliothek, 5], 71–87.

HEISSIG, Walther (1962): “Beiträge zur Ubersetzungsgeschichte des mongolischen buddhistischen Kanons”. In: Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen. Philologisch-historische Klasse, Dritte Folge, Nr. 50. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

HEISSIG, Walther (1973): “Zur Organisation der Kandjur-Übersetzung unter Ligdan-Khan (1628–1629)”. In: Zentralasiatische Studien 7, 477–501.

KASYANENKO, Zoya K. (1993): Katalog peterburgskogo rukopisnogo 'Gandzhura'. Sostavleniye, vvedeniye, transliteraciya i ukazateli. Bibliotheca Buddhika XXXIX [Pamyatniki pis’mennosti Vostoka CII] . Moskva: Nauka.

KOLLMAR-PAULENZ, Karenina (2002): “The Transmission of the Mongolian Kanjur: A Preliminary Report”. In: Helmut Eimer and David Germano (eds.): The Many Canons of Tibetan Buddhism. Leiden: Brill, 151–176.

USPENSKY, Vladimir L. (1997): “The Tibetan Equivalents to the Titles of the Texts in the St. Petersburg Manuscript of Mongolian Kanjur: A Reconstructed Catalogue”. In: Helmut Eimer (ed.): Transmission of the Tibetan Canon. Papers Presented at a Panel of the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Graz 1995. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 113–176.

St Petersburg University Library, Oriental Department
Shelfmark: Ms. Mong. 1-113
Material: 113 volumes, Chinese paper
Dimensions: 68.5 x 23.5 (62 x 20) cm
Provenance: Inner Mongolia (China), first half of the 17th century.

Text by Kirill Alekseev
© : Images reproduced with kind permission of St. Petersburg State University.