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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

06/2015 manuscript  of the month

The Art of Protection

An Illuminated Magical Manuscript from Nepal

This substantial and carefully designed Sanskrit manuscript originates from Nepal and dates to 1719 CE. The colophon contains detailed information about a Buddhist layman who sponsored its production. Trailokara was a pious follower of the Doctrine who decided to have a huge collection of incantation texts written down in a single bundle, illustrated not only with beautiful miniature paintings of various deities but a group depiction of his own family as well. But what were the motivations of this householder from Kathmandu to engage in such an ambitious and no doubt costly project?

Fig. 1: Worship traces on the cover board > Enlarge

This manuscript contains 181 texts altogether and some of these are grouped under five sub-colophons referring to the Buddha, the Doctrine, the Community, the Seven Buddhas and the Five Protections. There are 150 spells (dhāraṇī), 12 praises (stotra), 12 worship manuals (sādhana) and 7 other texts included. Twelve of these are complete and extensive pieces, the longest being a 'Perfection of Wisdom' (Prajñāpāramitā) scripture stretching to 30 folios. Curiously, a few texts are incorporated twice in the bundle at different places. The most recurring tradition is that of the 'Flow of Wealth' (Vasudhārā) which appears five times in total in separate versions. It is worth noting that this manuscript contains a handful of non-Buddhist works as well, including praises of sacred places, the deity Bhīmasena, and planet Saturn.

Fig. 2: The illustrated inner side of the cover board > Enlarge

While being a rich source of Buddhist incantations, this manuscript is more than a repository of texts: it is a piece of art as well – perhaps the most beautiful one in its category. Its yellow coloured paper leaves have been marked by a balanced hand in black ink. The titles are neatly highlighted in red colour and the different texts are separated from each other by flower-like ornaments (puṣpikā). Two of the folios contain high-quality miniature paintings: one depicts a powerful Buddha, another the donor's family with Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva in the middle. The inner sides of the two wooden covers are also decorated in colour: twice three goddesses are depicted in a charming fashion.

Fig. 3: A folio with a Buddhist deity (1v) > Enlarge

Trailokara's manuscript belongs to a genre called 'Spell Collection' (Dhāraṇīsaṃgraha) of which dozens of bundles survive. The number of magical texts included in these voluminous bundles vary considerably: from about 150 to more than 350. There seems to be a core of ca. 150 texts present in all the longer compendia, however, their sequence is not completely fixed. The earliest witness of this tradition dates back to the 13th century (Cambridge MS Add. 1680.8) and probably reflects a more ancient practice.

Fig. 4: The donor's family with Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva in the middle (223v) > Enlarge

Spells have played an important role in South Asian Buddhism since at least the beginning of the Common Era and the present manuscript from the Kathmandu Valley is a good example how much esteemed and influential incantation cultures have been in the region. Trailokara's undertaking had the aspiration to gain both religious merit and worldly welfare and this resulted in an exquisite artefact, a high-end market product for a prosperous Buddhist family which served as a revered apotropaic object in their home. For modern scholars such a manuscript is a great source of information for Sanskrit spell literature and helpful for the study of the fascinating world of Newar traditions.

It is unclear how long this impressive set remained in the possession of later generations of Trailokara's family; what we do know is that in 1875 Dr. Daniel Wright, surgeon to the British Residency in Kathmandu, a collector of manuscripts, purchased this bundle and shortly afterwards it was shipped to England and deposited at the Cambridge University Library. It was first studied by the Sanskrit scholar, Cecil Bendall in 1883. After a dormant period of more than 130 years this codex was digitized and made accessible online by the Cambridge Sanskrit Manuscripts Project in 2014.

Fig. 5: A folio with floral designs and highlighted titles (220v) > Enlarge

The story of this manuscript can be traced down remarkably well thanks primarily to the comprehensive colophon on the last two folios. It informs the reader that in the reign of king Jayamahendrasiṃha Malla (1714-1722) a certain Buddhist of the Śākyabhikṣu lineage named Trailokara who belonged to the Pārāvata Mahāvihāra monastery (modern day Ituṃ Bāhā) commissioned a scribe called Patideva of the Tarumūla Mahāvihāra (modern day Sikhamu Bāhā) to produce this compendium for him and his family members, namely two wives, three sons, two daughters, a grandson and a daughter-in-law. As it is stated, the family hoped to gain merit, protection, health and welfare from the composition of this manuscript because such an object is considered to embody auspicious and apotropaic qualities. This bundle of more than two-hundred paper leaves was put between two wooden covers and meant to be kept at the donor's home. It is evident from traces of ritual substances on the top binding board that the whole book was venerated as a cultic object and it may also have been opened occasionally and read out aloud.


BENDALL, Cecil (1883): Catalogue of the Buddhist Sanskrit Manuscripts in the University Library, Cambridge: With Introductory Notices and Illustrations of the Palaeography and Chronology of Nepal and Bengal. Cambridge: University Press.

DAVIDSON, Ronald (2014): Studies in Dhāraṇī Literature III: Seeking the Parameters of a Dhāraṇī-piṭaka, the Formation of the Dhāraṇīsaṃgrahas, and the Place of the Seven Buddhas. In: R.K. Payne (ed.) Scripture: Canon: Text: Context. Essays Honoring Lewis Lancaster. Berkeley: Institute of Buddhist Studies and BDK America, Inc.: 119-180.

KIM, Jinah (2013): Receptacle of the Sacred: Illustrated Manuscripts and the Buddhist Book Cult in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Shelfmark: Cambridge University Library MS Add. 1326
Material: yellow paper, two wooden covers
Dimensions: 225 folios of 10 x 40 cm
Provenance: Kathmandu, Nepal 839 NS/1719 CE
Digital representation:

Text by Gergely Hidas