Endangered Archives

EAP310: The digital documentation of manuscripts in Thadrak, Tshamdrak and Nyephug Temples

Dr Karma Phuntsho, The Loden Foundation
2009 award - Major project
£44,300 for 10 months

Archival partner: National Library and Archives of Bhutan

VIEW FILES FROM THIS PROJECT

Project Overview

The temples of Tshamdrak, Neyphug and Thadrak in Bhutan hold significant collections of ancient manuscripts such as Buddhist canonical texts, religious and philosophical writings, historical and biographical literatures, which have hitherto remained unknown and inaccessible to scholars. The books are also in a precarious situation, vulnerable to damage and destruction. This project aims to preserve the collection in digital surrogates by producing tiff images for archival purposes and jpeg images for making the texts available to scholars. A comprehensive list of these temple collections will also be produced.

Thadrak, which is a couple hours climb from Thimphu, has about seventy titles of a very ecumenical composition. These include works on philosophy, language, meditation and rituals, and over 26 biographical and historical writings, many of which are either very rare or not known to scholars. There is virtually no information on the history of Thadrak although Thadrak was said to be once a thriving religious centre, and a school of Vajrakila tradition known as Phur pa mtha' brag ma is attributed to it. It is hoped that more information on the temple and its past will emerge from the project.

Neyphug monastery was founded by gter ston Ngag dbang Grags pa (1525-1599) in 1550 and has remained as the main seat of the successive incarnate lamas of Neyphug. These lamas were prominent figures in western Bhutan and the place is also well known for clay sculpture which the third incarnation started. Although a fire in 1864 gutted the main residence and destroyed many historical records, it only partially damaged the main temple and the manuscript collection remained unharmed. Neyphug holds a set of the Kanjur canon created in the seventeenth century during the time of second Neyphug lama. Books in Neyphug also include the writings of the great Tibetan 'Brug pa scholar Pad ma dKar po, of the Bhutanese historian and chief abbot rJe mKhan po Yon tan mTha yas, of the ecumenical master Byang chub brTson 'grus, of rGyal dbang Chos rje, and of Neyphug's founder Ngag dbang Grags pa. Copies of these collections are indeed rare and very useful for codicological studies. The autobiography of the founder Ngag dbang Grags pa and the account of Neyphug by the seventh incarnation Nam grol rDo rje, which seems to sparsely record the information lost to the fire in 1864, are documents of immense historical significance.

Tshamdrak temple in Chhukha district was founded by Nga dbang Grub pa (1682-1748) and has been the main seat of the successive incarnate lamas of Tshamdrak. The temple has a set of Kanjur in 98 volumes as well as a set of Tanjur in 222 volumes for which the first couple folios are written in gold. It also houses a set of 46 volume rNying ma rGyud 'bum manuscript, for which black and white copies have been reproduced by the National Library of Bhutan in 1982, and many gter ma literature including those of Sangs rgyas Gling pa, Ratna Gling pa and Pad ma Gling pa. There is also a 21 volume set of hagiographies of the 'Brug pa bKa' brgyud hierarchs. Besides being a prominent religious centre in the western Bhutan, Tshamdrak also has a reputation for its excellence in the art of drumming.

In the traditional manner, the books in these three places lie on the temple shelves, often under a layer of dust. They are mostly wrapped in cloths and sometimes bound with wood covers. Despite their long existence without proper archival facilities, the books have survived in good condition. Although some books are old and brittle, they are in a good condition for photography.

After the decline of Buddhism in Tibet and other parts of the Northern Buddhist world, the Kingdom of Bhutan has come to be seen as a unique repository of the cultural and religious wealth of the Buddhist Himalayas. With a long history and undisturbed continuity, its far flung monasteries and temples today represent a literary treasure trove that is largely unharmed and still unexplored. However, by the same token, these collections, libraries and archives have remained mostly inaccessible, their values unapprised and their existence uncharted and uninsured.

The collections in the three temples are exposed to dust, dampness, worms and even rodents. The temples do not have proper protection against fire. An accidental fire from a habitual butter lamp or incense could instantly reduce the entire library to ashes, as was the case with many Bhutanese temples. Despite their importance as community relics and as unique copies of books, the manuscripts lie in precarious situations. The whole collection could be easily lost if no effort is made to copy them. The illuminated manuscripts are also vulnerable to theft for art markets. The manuscripts in these temples are generally a few hundred years old with a few old ones most likely from 14th or 15th century and the most recent ones produced in early 20th century.

The collections at these temples hold immense literary and artistic values, and tremendous religious significance for the local community. They constitute the spiritual heart of the establishments and cannot be relocated outside the temples.

The final outcome of this project will be the preservation and reproduction of the manuscript holdings of the Thadrak, Tshamdrak and Neyphug temples in no fewer than 150,000 jpeg and tiff image files stored on external hard drives and DVDs.

The digital reproduction of these three collections will not only help us preserve the unique collections in the form of a digital backup, and thus enhance its visibility and accessibility in the domain of international scholars, but also reveal substantial information on these places which are so far not known. The project will certainly be the first attempt to explore and study these collections and assess their significance as a whole. The full story of the impact this project will have on our knowledge of the Himalayan culture, religion and history can be told only after the project is complete.

Project Outcome

The entire manuscript collections in Neyphug, Tshamdrak and Thadrak temples have been successfully digitised. Complete sets of the digital copies of these collections have been deposited with the National Library and Archives of Bhutan, the individual temple archives and with the British Library. An additional collection at another old temple, Phurdrup Gonpa, was also copied, having gained the opportunity for the manuscripts’ digitisation. In course of the project, the book shelves were also cleaned, book covers changed and the general conditions in which the original books are kept were improved. The archives of Neyphug, Tshamdra, Thadrak and Phurdrup Gonpa are sacred relics of the local communities and as such, the original manuscripts were not relocated.

Ties were also strengthened with the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs and the State Monk Body during this project. This may result in permission to photograph many more archives in the future.

In addition to the preservation of the manuscripts, the project has also helped to train between four to six monks and priests in each temple to use cameras and computers and to assist in the digitisation. These monks and priests will use their expertise to look after both the original books and the digital surrogates in the individual temple archives. A more significant impact of the project on the general public is the growth of awareness of the books and their significance. Pilgrims visiting the temple or villagers living around it are all curious about the process of photography and digitisation. The project offered many opportunities for the team to explain to the local visitors the importance of the archival collections and the efforts to preserve them.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as:

  • EAP310/1 The Manuscript Collection of Thadrak Temple
  • EAP310/2 The Manuscript Collection of Neyphug Monastery
  • EAP310/3 The Manuscript Collection of Phurdrup Gonpa
  • EAP310/4 The Manuscript Collection of Tshamdrak Monastery

The catalogue is available here.