Ulaanbaatar’s treasure trove of rare Buddhist manuscripts

Scholars believe it to be the world’s largest treasury of ancient Buddhist texts. The sheer immensity of the collection held in the National Library of Mongolia has prevented a proper tally to date.

The National Library, located in a stout Soviet-era neoclassical building in downtown Ulaanbaatar, is estimated to contain over a million scholarly and religious Buddhist works. Besides original works from Mongolia, the library has rare copies of the early Tibetan Buddhist canon—sacred contemporary records of the Buddha’s oral teachings, called the Kangyur, and commentaries and treatises on the teachings of the Buddha, the Tengyur.

I was literally speechless when I first visited the storage vaults of the National Library of Mongolia to follow up on whispers I had heard of a priceless collection of Buddhist manuscripts tucked away and barely spoken of. The dim lit passage of shelves upon shelves stockpiled with manuscripts bound in colourful cloth, broke the gloom with an aura of warmth and an almost palpable ambience of sacredness. This collection had been locked away for many years as the Library was short on funds to understand what the collection was worth and to try and study and preserve them. The Mongolian government had funded some preservation work and many rare treasures had been identified. But hundreds and thousands more were yet to be identified, work that is now fitfully progressing thanks to foreign assistance.

This was my latest pice for Eurasianet.org. The full story can be viewed on their website here.

Meanwhile here are a few extra photos from the days spent at the library.

130208_IMG_8761With limited storage space, many bundles of texts are placed in makeshift shelves in the Library’s store room.130208_IMG_8783Less than 70 percent of the texts have been studied and catalogued. The new label shows this volume has been registered.130208_IMG_8811A staff worker shows damaged parchment. Many of the texts are in a fragile state and in danger of further damage.130208_IMG_8826The Tibetan script of this wooden block print is transliterated word for word into Latin script and stored in a data base as part of a recent cataloguing project launched by U.S non-profit, Asian Classic Input Project (ACIP)

130208_IMG_8847The Soviet-era National Library of Ulaanbaatar houses one of the largest singles collection of Buddhist texts in the world

A volume of Tibetan sutras awaits it's turn to be studued and catalogued.A volume of Tibetan sutras awaits it’s turn to be studied and catalogued.

IMG_8746_7D_130207A collection of Sanskrit verses of the 1-2 A.D. Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna inscribed on birch bark is one of the most precious collections of the Museum.IMG_8761_7D_130207A professional photographer is called in as part of a renewed effort to keep proper records of precious sutras that have been identified and registered.   130208_IMG_8792A staff worker shows the charred edges of a block printed collection of sutras rescued from a monastery destroyed during the communist purges of the 1930’s.