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One of the most beguiling things I found while in India was palm leaf “books,” made from thin strips of dried palm leaves and threaded together to fold up accordion-style. Copies of this ancient tradition have been made into tourist souvenirs, but the early versions that we saw in museum collections are stunning. We also watched as monastery monks leafed through their own palm leaf texts while chanting.

Usually dealing with topics of a spiritual nature, these miniature commemorations pack a lot of power in the painstaking detail of the images as well as their compact and concentrated form.


Palm leaf books at Spituk Monastery in Ladakh

So it was with delight that I read Holland Cotter’s New York Times review of a small new show at the Met, “Early Buddhist Manuscript Painting: The Palm-Leaf Tradition.”

Here’s an excerpt:

Such practical features — size, resilience, portability — help explain why a similar form of palm-leaf art, the illustrated book, was popular in India between the 10th and 13th centuries. And they suggest why such books and their illustrations have survived into the present, while painting in more perishable media has not.

Even these books, though, are rarities. Of the huge numbers that must have once existed, only a fraction remain…Just under three inches high, it’s packed with detail. Each figure is dressed, as if for a hot summer day, in beaded see-through attire. The disciple, her skin a mango gold, smiles up at her savior while he makes a coy gesture with his hands as if playing a game of shadow puppets for her amusement.

All the palm-leaf manuscripts we know of are religious books, transcriptions of Buddhist scriptures, or sutras. A few sutras were favorites, and by far the most frequently copied one was “Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita,” or “Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses.”

Said to have been written — or spoken — by the Buddha himself, it was more likely compiled over centuries. Like many texts generated by an ardently proselytizing faith, it simultaneously had its head in the clouds and was down to earth.

On the one hand, the sutra defines wisdom as a transcendent consciousness, a state of ego-erasure so profound that the reality of emptiness as the ultimate fact of life becomes clear. To reach this understanding was the goal of monastic practice. It was to gain Buddha-level knowledge, which was the knowledge you needed to gain before you could do the one thing worth doing, which was to help others in need.

Balanced against this high-minded goal was another. “Perfection of Wisdom” also implied that a smart devotee might use the sutra as a kind of existential survival kit, a magical talisman. With its help you could ward off illness, accidents and other material harm. And you could acquire things: money, a spouse, an extra cow, healthy children, and lots of them.

So palm-leaf manuscripts, like most art, had multiple uses. They circulated spiritual information. They functioned as protective charms. They served as religious offerings, gifts from which karmic returns were expected. And they became objects of worship.

Prajnaparamita was not only a form of wisdom, but also a female deity who had roots in ancient goddess worship and was identified with the Buddha’s mother. The sutra itself explains that if the Buddha is kind enough to give you a book like this, you should “revere, adore and worship it with flowers, incense, unguents, parasols, banners, bells, flags and rows of lamps all around.”

A sheet from the palm-leaf book “Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita” (“Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Verses”), includes a tiny painting of a female disciple playing a game with a bodhisattva, a being who embodies perfect wisdom and love. The religious books, which originated in northeastern India, are transcriptions of Buddhist scriptures, or sutras.

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