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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

01/2016 manuscript  of the month

Long Live the King (and His Manuscripts)!

A story of rituals and power from medieval Kathmandu

Early manuscripts containing Sanskrit texts sometimes provide us with details about how they were made, but generally tell us very little about their use after copying. Although it is not always easy to gather this sort of diachronic information directly from such manuscripts, there are cases in which they can disclose more particulars about their backgrounds to anyone who looks at them closely enough. A medieval manuscript from the National Archives of Kathmandu, which shows clear traces of its being used throughout the centuries, is an intriguing case in point. What exactly does it tell us about the long life it enjoyed once it was copied?

The manuscript in question is known by the siglum NAK 1-1075 and consists of 289 palm-leaf folios transmitting eight works that deal mainly with devotional practices addressed to the god Śiva and with the religious duties of the god’s devotees. The inner part of the wooden front cover refers to this specific content, depicting what is known as liṅga adoration, i.e. the adoration of the god Śiva represented iconically in the cylindrical oblong artefacts portrayed in the image (see Fig. 1). The eight texts found in the manuscript are commonly known to scholars as the Śivadharma Corpus and are often found together in Nepalese multiple-text manuscripts. The manuscript belongs to an early and rich tradition of writing, existing specimens of which stem from the 9th to the 20th century.

Fig. 1: wooden cover, front side; scenes of liṅga adoration > Enlarge

Thanks to its final colophon revealing the date of its production, we know exactly where to locate our manuscript within this broad span of time. The scribe – who refers to himself as ‘the distinguished [man] called Rāma’ (Fig. 2 and 3) – states the end-date of the copying in a short poetical composition of his in which he sings the praises of King Rudradeva over four śārdūlavikrīḍita (‘play of the tiger’) stanzas; the king is ‘Rudra, like Rudra unrivalled, pursuing the only wealth that is the welfare and opulence of others’, the writer declares. The period of Rudradeva’s reign was c. 1167–1175, while the manuscript was penned ‘in the expired Nepalese year named “ether–planet–hand”, in the month of Pauṣa on the 15th lunar day in the bright [fortnight], on the day of the sun, when the king [was] the celebrated Rudradeva, who has obscured the rays of the moon through the breaking forth of [his] fame’. This turns out to be 4 January 1170. The short poem composed for the king and placed at the end of the manuscript makes it possible to surmise a direct connection with Rudradeva or the royal family, the members of which may have sponsored the production of the manuscript.

Fig. 2: fol. 290r, conclusion of the Dharmaputrikā, the last work in the Śivadharma Corpus, and a poem celebrating King Rudradeva > Enlarge

Fig. 3: fol. 290v, conclusion of the poem celebrating King Rudradeva at the end of the manuscript > Enlarge

The destiny of this manuscript from the Śivadharma Corpus was certainly not to lie unused in an archive after that day in January in 1170. We can see this from its very first folio, the recto side of which displays a table of contents listing the works contained in the manuscript and written by a different hand than the one that copied the texts (Fig. 4). This table of contents, which was added later, states the titles, the number of leaves and chapters, as well as a short version of the incipit of each work. We therefore know that the manuscript was still in use centuries after its production, as somebody felt the need to index and record its contents in order to find a desired work in the manuscript easily – and possibly even to avoid losing any of it. At least one of the uses that this manuscript actually saw can also be identified, however, and it is equally possible to pinpoint a time in history when this object was still in active use.

Fig. 4: fol. 1r, table of contents > Enlarge

On fol. 254v (see Fig. 5), it is possible to detect another colophon recording a much later date. This attests that the manuscript was read during a public recitation that lasted eleven days and ended in the ‘year 772, on the full-moon day of the bright [fortnight] in the [month of] Kārttika, under the asterism of the Aśvin’ (November 1651, in the reign of King Pratāpamalla of Kathmandu). The manuscript was therefore still being used at that late date, 482 years after its completion, in the ritual readings that are more than once prescribed by the texts of the Śivadharma Corpus, especially the Śivadharmottara (one of the earliest works in this corpus), and that are also attested in similar records found in other Nepalese manuscripts.

Fig. 5: fol. 254v, colophon attesting the public reading of the manuscript while King Pratāpamalla of Kathmandu was in power > Enlarge

The colophons in our manuscript thus testify to the strong connection existing between its production and use and the monarchical power. It is most likely to have been composed at the behest of Rudradeva – one of the rather obscure Ṭhākurī kings – in the second half of the twelfth century and was still being used for ritual recitations up to the reign of Pratāpamalla, if not longer (r. 1641–1674); his period of rule marks one of the highlights in the history of the Malla dynasty. The idea of the manuscript having a ritual function also aimed at celebrating the monarchs who sponsored it is highlighted by the paintings decorating the inner sides of both of the original wooden covers, which were most likely added when the manuscript was produced. These represent activities that are largely endorsed by the works of the Śivadharma Corpus, namely the adoration of the liṅga (Fig. 1) and the worship of deities in their iconic forms (Fig. 6). According to the doctrine expounded in the Śivadharmottara, Śiva and the manuscript transmitting ‘his’ knowledge (śivajñāna) are actually one and the same thing, so worshipping one automatically means worshipping the other as well.

The great attention devoted to the ritual use of manuscripts may be a key not only to the study of this specific object, but to the understanding of two basic features of the many similar manuscripts in the Śivadharma Corpus in medieval Nepal: their abundance, counting on more than sixty specimens according to a rough estimate, and their being constantly arranged in multiple-text manuscripts, in which the order given to the works may reflect the prescribed sequence in which the texts were supposed to be read during the ritual. As the final stanza of the Śivadharmottara reads: ‘Where the King listens to the Śivadharma uninterruptedly, there will always be prosperity for all sentient beings’. The rulers of Nepal seem to have taken this advice seriously and put it into practice by granting their support to the emergence and growth of this corpus of texts.

Fig. 6: wooden cover, rear side; scenes of worship involving various deities > Enlarge


DE SIMINI, Florinda (forth.): ‘Śivadharma Manuscripts from Nepal and the Making of a Śaiva Corpus’. Michael Friedrich (ed.), One-Volume Libraries: Composite and Multiple-text Manuscripts. Berlin, De Gruyter.

PETECH, Luciano (1984): Mediaeval History of Nepal (c. 750–1482). Rome, Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente (Is.Me.O). Serie Orientale Roma vol. LIV (first edition: 1958).

National Archives of Kathmandu
Shelf mark: 1-1075. Nepalese–German Manuscript Preservation Project, reel no. B 7/3
Material: palm leaf. 289 fols. 2 string-holes, 6 lines on a page
Dimensions: 58 x 6 cm
Provenance: Nepal; 4 January 1170

Text by Florinda De Simini
© for all fig.: The National Archives (Kathmandu)
Reference note:
Florinda De Simini, “Long Live the King (and His Manuscripts)!”
In: Andreas Janke (Ed.): Manuscript of the Month 2016.01, SFB 950: Hamburg,