Library of Tibetan Works and Archives: Surviving Against All Odds

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One of the greatest centres of Tibetan literature and culture, in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, is the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA) in Dharamshala- a repository of some of the finest Tibetan manuscripts that made their way across the Himalayas. These manuscripts, apart from being an integral part of Tibetan culture, are also in a way a window to ancient Indian knowledge.

To discover the history of many of these manuscripts, we must travel to ancient India to the times of renowned university of Nalanda in the 5th century CE, which preserved several Sanskrit texts. Many of these manuscripts were translated into Tibetan by the scholars who visited the university. This translation was an ongoing process. In the 13th century CE, when this centre of learning was destroyed during the invasions, most of the Sanskrit manuscripts were destroyed and some of these were taken to Tibet during this time.

Library of Tibetan Works and Archives | Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, the Tibetan translations of some of these lost Sanskrit manuscripts are said to be among the most accurate translations of these texts. As a result the ancient Indian knowledge in a way was therefore preserved in monasteries in Tibet and passed on across generations.

In the modern era, in 1959, owing to the Chinese occupation of Tibet, several Tibetans migrated to India, Nepal and Bhutan. In India, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, set up his headquarters in McLeod Ganj, 10 km north of Dharamshala, and established the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. In fact, the place is known as ‘Little Lhasa’ owing to the large number of Tibetans who settled in the region over a period of time.

Fearing a threat to Tibetan culture, with several ancient texts and monasteries being destroyed in Tibet, the people, while escaping, carried with them everything that was of chief importance to Tibetan culture that they could get hold of. These included books, manuscripts, statues and paintings. These collections were so important to them that they literally guarded them above all else despite the treacherous journey across the Himalayas.

McLeod Ganj | Wikimedia Commons

Many manuscripts perished along the way while others fell prey to the unstable lives of the refugees who had tried to preserve them. The harsh long monsoon in India only added to the challenges.

While many of the manuscripts that survived were offered to the Dalai Lama, the others were kept in various monasteries in India, including the Himalayan border region and with the local people for around a decade. Finally, a need was felt to preserve these manuscripts and artefacts, and various institutions like the Sikkim Institute of Tibetology in Sikkim, the Tibet House in Delhi and the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA) were established. The foundation stone of the LTWA was laid by the Dalai Lama in 1970. The institute became functional a year later, and aimed to restore, promote and preserve Tibetan culture.

The institute then began the challenging task of expanding its collection through purchase of manuscripts and donations from individual and monastic institutions, including the office of the Dalai Lama, schools of Tibetan monasteries and from individual donors.

Manuscripts in the library | © Library of Tibetan Works and Archives

Director of LTWA Ven Geshe Lhakdor states, “Since LTWA is functional in 1971, it’s under the guidance of H.H. the Dalai Lama and support from the Ministry of Culture, Government of India has been able to procure and preserve for the present and posterity a rich collection of rare and precious manuscripts and books covering the whole range of Buddhist philosophy and psychology, medicine and astrology, art and architecture, history and literature”.

Today, the library houses around 80,000 manuscripts, books and documents, around 10,000 photographs and over 600 thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist paintings) and much more. These texts, apart from being an invaluable part of Tibetan culture, also give us a glimpse into ancient Indian texts.

Here are some of the most valuable manuscripts in the library:

Manuscript on the Ashtasahasrika Prajna-paramita: This is the oldest manuscript in the LTWA, dated to the 12-13th century CE. It is the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit text Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita (The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines.) The manuscript was obtained from Kongpo in Tibet. It comprises 300 folios written in the Tibetan UChen script, and has an illustrated cover page.

Manuscript on the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita | © Library of Tibetan Works and Archives

Tibetan Translation of Shalihotra Text: This manuscript is the Tibetan translation of the ancient Sanskrit text Shalihotra Samhita. It is a veterinarian text consisting of the examination and treatment of horses. This manuscript, written in the Tibetan U-med script, has 96 folios with many illustrations.

Biography of Padmasambhava: Another interesting manuscript in the library is the biography of Padmasambhava. Also known as Guru Rinpoche, he was a legendary Indian mystic who introduced Tantric Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th-9th century CE. The manuscript, dated to the 16th century CE, was written by Rinchen dpal in the Tibetan UChen script. It comprises 458 folios and several illustrations.

Letter Writing Samples: An interesting manuscript in the library is the one on letter-writing samples. In Tibet, letter writing has a formal protocol in terms of how the person is addressed, the use of appropriate salutations, among other things. This manuscript, comprising 24 folios, is a guidebook on how to write letters while following the protocol involved in Tibetan letter writing.

Biography of Padmasambhava | © Library of Tibetan Works and Archives

Manuscript on the Jataka-mala: This is a manuscript on the Jataka-mala or the ‘tales of the previous births of the Buddha’ in both human and animal form. The manuscript comprises 16 folios of Tibetan didactic tales with the themes of birds and animals.

Treatise on the Ashtanga Hridaya: Dated to the 15th century CE, this is a Tibetan treatise on the Sanskrit text Ashtanga Hridaya, a major literary text in Ayurveda. The manuscript contains 191 folios and was written by Buddhist scholar Namgyal Drakpa Zangpo (1395-1475).

Arya Sahasrika Prajna Paramita | © Library of Tibetan Works and Archives

Manuscript on the Tripitaka Texts: This is one of the rarest and most valuable manuscripts in the library. Dated to the 18th century CE, it was obtained from the Phug brag monastery in Western Tibet. Comprising 120 volumes in the Tibetan UChen script, it is a manuscript on the Kanjur or the Tripitaka texts (the Collection of the Words of the Buddha). It contains a compilation of 28 variant translations of the Tripitaka texts.

Manuscript on the Abhisamayalamkara: This manuscript is a detailed commentary on the Abhisamayalamkara, one of five Sanskrit Mahayana shastras which, according to Tibetan tradition, was revealed to Asanga, one of the most influential figures in Mahayana Buddhism by Maitreya (Future Buddha) around the 4th century CE. The manuscript, written in the Tibetan U-Med script, consists of 249 folios.

Arya Manjushirinama Samgiti | © Library of Tibetan Works and Archives

Commentary on the Uttaratantra Shastra: This is a detailed commentary on the Uttaratantra Shastra, a treatise on the Buddha Nature (ability to attain the state of Buddha). According to Tibetan tradition, it is one of the Five Treatises of Maitreya. The manuscript was written by Lodrö Tenpathe 7th Gaden Tripa (spiritual leader of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism).

Translation of the Bhadrakalpika Sutra: This manuscript is the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit text Bhadrakalpika Sutra, which includes the names of the 1,002 Buddhas. The manuscript has 456 folios containing numerous miniature illustrations.

LTWA Museum | © Library of Tibetan Works and Archives

While manuscripts and books are a chief part of the institute, it has an equally valuable museum, which was opened in 1974. It comprises ancient, sacred images and various types of thangkas, which are embroidered, painted, stitched and made from patchwork. One of the highlights of the museum is a magnificent, life-size bronze statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. It was commissioned by the 13th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Thupten Gyatso.

Apart from its library and museum, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives is also a prominent centre of Tibetan language and culture. But there are challenges. Situated in an earthquake-prone zone, the institute is scouting for a safer place to open a branch.

A thangka in the library | © Library of Tibetan Works and Archives

For the time being, the best way for the institute to preserve its priceless collection is through the process of digitization. It has already scanned around 20 percent of its collection, prioritizing the oldest and rarest texts and manuscripts.

Ven Geshe Lhakdor says, “We are planning to offer a set of our digitised collection to Emory University, Atlanta, and the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, Varanasi, and will soon launch the digitised version on our website so that students and researchers can access them.”

In 1991, the institute was recognised as a Centre for Tibetan Studies by the Himachal Pradesh University. The institute was also conferred with a combined status of National library, museum and archive by the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile

With its history and its precious collection, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives is a glowing testament to Tibetan culture.


Cover Image: Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons

This article is part of a five-part series on some of the great libraries of India and the incredible collections they hold. The series has been commissioned in memory of Dr G R Dalvi and Mrs Ratan G Dalvi, by their son Nitin Dalvi.