Previous Cover | Cover Exhibition | Next Cover

Guardians of the Sacred Word

Upper and lower covers from an unidentified manuscript
carved and painted wood , Tibet , circa 1200 , 11X41.5 cm

Unlike with the wax of the cire perdue bronze sculptor, or the canvas of the painter, there is a finality built into every movement of the craftsman's tool on the surface of a wooden cover. These faultlessly detailed covers remain in superb condition, a testament to the finesse of the artist who created them. Shakyamuni Buddha and the embodiments of the wisdom of his philosophy, Manjushri and Prajnaparamita, are enthroned in their celestial arches, protected by kirttimukha and rampant leogryphs. The bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya stand in their temple niches. The lower cover features a diminutive gandharva holding the stem to a veritable jungle of vegetation.

Although quintessentially Tibetan, the predominant stylistic influence in these work is eastern Indian. The temple setting often features in Pala sculpture and manuscript illuminations.1 Thrones built of celestial beasts are commonly seen in the bronze sculpture of eastern India.2 The artistic aspects of the Indian book are mostly found in the miniature painting on the inner covers and on the pages of the text. The Tibetans, however, commonly glorify the outer surface of their manuscript covers as well.

The title or even the subject of the text enclosed by these covers cannot be determined, although one is tempted to deduce that it was a text from the Prajnaparamita sutra. The goddess Prajnaparamita is depicted in an unusual form in the cover, to the immediate left of the Buddha. In place of her usual attribute of a dorje or a jewel, she brandishes a sword in her upper right hand, as does her companion Manjushri to the right of the central Buddha. As always, she holds the book of wisdom in her her upper left hand and her two principal hands rest in her lap in meditative repose. Avalokiteshvara, the compassionate bodhisattva, to the far right of the Buddha, is identified by his attributes of the rosary (mala) and the lotus flower. To the far left of the Buddha, the bodhisattva Maitreya is portrayed holding a lotus flower topped by a vase. Two stupas appear in the temple architecture that surrounds him, and in two miniature niches, tantric practitioners (mahasiddhas) are portrayed in lively postures.

These covers are accompanied by a letter written in 1912 from a certain Mr. D. Macdonald to Colonel Grant Gordon.

Yatung, Tibet
Nr. Silliguri
6th Dec. 1912

Dear Colonel Grant Gordon,

Many thanks for your letter of the 12th October 1912. I am sorry that I could not reply to it before this time as I was away from Yatung. I have been able to obtain a few Curios for you. They are somewhat expensive, but the articles are genuine and have all come from Lhasa. I am sending you the parcel, duly registered to ensure its safe arrival I hope you will find them suitable. If you don't like any of the Curios, you are at liberty to return them. The carved wooden book cover is expensive, but such covers are rare and very difficult to get. It has been brought from Lhasa itself. Trusting these Curios will meet your approval and hoping you are well, Yours sincerely,
D. Macdonald
The letter contains the 'list of Curios' from Lhasa.
One entry from this list reads 'One pair of Carved cover for sacred books - very old and rare =25-0-0 ( Indian rupees)

text and images © Rossi & Rossi

Previous Cover | Cover Exhibition | Next Cover