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Pattra Leaf

Tibet fights to preserve culture through protection of ancient scriptures

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An institute has been established in Tibet to preserve ancient texts written on the leaves of plants, known as pattra-leaf scriptures.  Originally from ancient India, these cultural relics are immensely valuable to the research of Buddhism, but also shed light on everything from poetry and literature, to astronomy and civil codes.

Most ancient pattra-leaf sutra manuscripts came from India between the 8th and 14th centuries, when Buddhists wrote scriptures in Sanskrit with stencil pens on pattra leaves because of the light and wear-resistant qualities of the leaves.  These scriptures have been a key part of exchanges between ancient India and traditional Tibetan culture and Tibet is known to have one of the world’s largest and most complete collections of Buddhist scriptures.  Among the more than 1000 pattra-leaf texts preserved in Tibet, many are unique and rare copies.

“Pattra-leaf sutras have a long history. And as a cultural heritage they have great potential, because there are so many mysteries to be solved. I think the institute will greatly help us with our studies of early Tibetan culture and the history of Buddhism,” said Tsewang Gyurme, researcher at the newly formed Pattra-Leaf Sutra Preservation Institute.

In order to keep the original scripts intact, researchers have put together several catalogues and archives by photocopying over 6,000 manuscripts and the new institute is planning to arrange academic exchange programs with those in other countries, a move to share the mysteries of the pattra leaf writings.

Since 2006, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the China Tibetology Research Center and the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region have collaborated to protect the pattra-leaf scriptures.  While it is certainly a positive move to see China assisting in the preservation of Tibetan texts, Chinese news reports relating to the preservation of the texts are full of government propaganda.  As Chinese news website, CCTV.com stated: “China has exerted great efforts to preserve the culture of Tibet, ranging from Tibetan Buddhism to folk customs”.

Sadly, this is not the case at all.  Since 1949, the Chinese government has destroyed over 6,000 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and shrines, Tibetan people face imprisonment for owning, waving or flying their national flag, the Tibetan language is being made redundant in all sectors, and secondary education is now conducted in Mandarin. The practices and traditional institutions of Buddhism, which is a central component of Tibetan life, are strictly curtailed and any reference or images of the Dalai Lama are banned.  In 2007, a regulation was introduced, according to which all incarnate lamas or tulkus must have state approval.

In light of the devastating suppression of Tibet’s cultural heritage, news of efforts to preserve these important ancient texts is refreshingly positive.

By April Holloway

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