Inside the hidden chamber

April 20, 2014

Inside the hidden chamber

On July 24, 1931 India’s oldest English newspaper The Statesman announced an extraordinary discovery in the subcontinent -- the oldest Buddhist scripts in the world had been unearthed in Naupur, a village adjacent to modern day Gilgit in northern Pakistan.

The newspaper quoted the famous archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein, who confirmed that one fine morning a local cattle grazer who took his animals to graze in Naupur saw "a piece of timber sticking out on the top of a small stone-covered mound". Made curious by the stamped clay tablets he found near the mound, the boy started to uncover the structure but he stopped when he mistook the wooden beams of the structure for a grave.

Next morning, a different group of villagers continued digging, pulled out the wooden beams and entered through the hole into a hidden chamber. The wooden chamber was filled with hundreds of votive stupas, relief plaques and, above all, the precious scripts better known in history as the Gilgit Manuscripts.

Sir Aurel Stein saw them in the tehsildar’s office on his way back from an archaeological mission in Central Asia.

Naupur, locally known as Napur and Napura, is a village within the limits of the present day Gilgit city. The village is situated on the southwestern mountain slopes of Gilgit. Today, Naupur is easily accessible. However, back in the1930s, only a narrow path led to the valley. A road fit for motorised traffic goes to the village,which is inhabited by a sizeable population.

It hardly takes 20 minutes to get to Naupur from the city. One can easily hire a taxi from Gilgit. It is worthwhile to get a local guide because once you reach the Naupur rivulet (locally called ShukoGah) you need the guide to take you along the narrow track above the Naupur valley that leads up to a plateau carved out from the rivulet.

In olden times, the plateau was used, largely due to its strategic location and height, as a guarding post to defend Gilgit against attackers from any side.

Further towards the western edge of the plateau are heaps of debris that once buried the famous Gilgit Manuscripts. Since then these hillocks have been scratched by illegal diggers many times in search of treasures.

In August 1938, seven years after the discovery of the texts, the archaeologist Madhusudan Kaul Shastri led a systematic excavation of the Naupur site and discovered another larger chamber at the base of the structure. The chamber contained another set of the Gilgit Manuscripts along with votive objects and probably Buddhist cult bronzes.

According to renowned scholar Karl Jettmar, inscriptions on these bronzes "reveal that they were produced and dedicated due to the generosity and the religious zeal of a Patola Shahi". The Patola Shahis, also known as Palola Shahis, were the rulers of Gilgit and Baltistan from the late sixth to the early eighth centuries AD.

Shortly after, Kaul Shastri and his team outlined the specifications of the second group of manuscripts and other finds from the site including the hand painted covers of two manuscripts.

In the third phase, the well-known Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci secured another small group of the manuscripts in 1956. Obtaining them from a street vendor in Rawalpindi, he presented them to the Karachi museum.

Roughly 60 manuscripts and 17 Avadnas emerging from Naupur are of unmatched significance in Buddhist studies. These are the oldest surviving collection of religious texts in the subcontinent. Based on the paleographical evidence, scholars agree that local Buddhist devotees compiled these texts between the fifth and sixth century AD. With the exception of only a few scripts, all the manuscripts were written on birch bark in Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit language in the Gupta Brahmi and post-Gupta Brahmi script.

The birch bark that does not decay or decompose and the cool climate of the area helped the manuscripts survive till the day of their discovery in the 20th century. The Gilgit Manuscripts deciphered thus far cover a wide range of subjects such as religion, religious rituals, philosophy, iconometry, monastic discipline, folk tales, medicine and culinary art.

The manuscripts contain sutras from the Buddhist canon, the Samghata Sutra, Samadhiraja Sutra, Saddharma Pundarika Sutra, and Bhaisajyaguru Sutra.The Samadhiraja Sutra is one of the important Mahayana canonical texts, which are collectively called Navadharma. The Saddharma Pundarika Sutra, popularly known as Lotus Sutra, figures prominently in the Gilgit Manuscripts and scholars agree it was the most venerated sutra of the Buddhists from the Gilgit area.

Very little is known in Pakistan about Naupur and the precious religious texts emerging from the site. Outside Pakistan, however, these texts have received extraordinary attention in the area of research on the evolution of Buddhist religious literature and history of Buddhism.

Even though the bulk of texts from the manuscripts still remains to be edited and published, credit goes to Professor Nalinaksha Dutt who was the first in bringing some of these texts to light in his four volumes of Gilgit Manuscripts published between 1939-1959. He was followed by other scholars that edited and translated selected texts and published philological analyses of the manuscripts in various languages.

There are also scholars whose studies go beyond the literary and grammatical aspects of the Gilgit Manuscripts. These studies provide invaluable information about the social fabric and Buddhism as religion practiced in Gilgit and as far as Khotan in China.

In one such study, Gerard Fussman (published in 2004-2005) has found that the structure at Naupur was perhaps "the living quarters of some local Buddhist teachers".

Until that time scholars agreed that the Naupur structure was a stupa, 40 feet tall and 20 feet wide at the base. The manuscripts were especially prepared for a certain ritual and buried here after performance of the ritual. Later, the king, maybe some monks or the people of the area, constructed a large stupa on site.

Based on Fussman’s narrative some scholars suggest that the Gilgit Manuscripts were basically the property of a residential monastery at Naupur, which perhaps had a library.

One can gauge the immense significance of the Gilgit Manuscripts from an ever-growing interest of researchers and scholars. Adam Miller’s 2013 study of the Purva Yoga Parivarttatext of Gilgit Manuscripts in Canada is one example in this regard. Besides translation of the script, Miller also sheds light on the historical context of the Patola Shahi Dynasty of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Presently major portions of Gilgit Manuscripts are in India and some fragments remain in possession of the British Library and the Department of Archaeology in Karachi. Both the manuscripts and the Naupur site carry huge scope for local and international scholars, researchers and practicing Buddhists, yet no attention is given to these treasures of cultural heritage in Pakistan. Even the local population in Gilgit seems to be oblivious of the importance of Naupur.

Besides the systematic excavation and research, the Naupur site is endangered, due to illegal excavation and stealing. The Gilgit-Baltistan Archaeology Department has deputed local guards on site but there is a dire need to protect this precious cultural asset.

One way to protect Naupur is to establish a world class institute or a research centre -- to study world religions or cultural and linguistic diversity of Pakistan.

Inside the hidden chamber