Wednesday, 10 August 2011

From the Taklamakan, with Love

A post from the first of July in EARLY TIBET by Sam van Schayk

Most of the archeological discoveries from Central Asia now in British museums and libraries were brought here by the explorer Marc Aurel Stein in the early 20th century. But not all of them. Others made their way through the hands of collectors like the George Macartney, the British consul stationed in Kashgar during the same period. Some manuscripts were sent to scholars like Rudolf Hoernle (who was based in Calcutta) in the hopes that they might be able to decipher the strange scripts found therein.

Multiple provenance of this sort — found in large manuscript collections all over the world — can be a headache for those who look after these collections, but it can also provide some nice surprises, when one comes across “new” manuscripts that have been in the collection a long time without finding their proper place. Here’s an example that I encountered recently: a bundle of manuscripts with this note attached to them:

On the headed notepaper of the School of Oriental Studies (the ancestor of the current School of Oriental and African Studies) an early to mid 20th century scrawl says “Brought to Sir George Macartney – by natives in Kashgar. Tibetan inventories.” So we’d expect these finds to date from the time when Macartney was stationed in Kashgar, in the late 19th and early 20th century. Macartney was caught up in, and to some extent stoking, the fire of the “manuscript fever” that swept the world at this time, with explorers from the USA, Europe, Russia and Japan all descending upon the Taklamakan desert.

This manuscript fever had a competitive edge, and Macartney was attempting to outdo his Russian counterpart who was buying up manuscripts from local treasure seekers. So, this particular bundle seems to date back to that time. And the manuscripts? What you see at the top of this post is an envelope of very fragmentary manuscripts written in Central Asian Brahmi. They could be Sanskrit, or perhaps Khotanese, but I’ll leave that aside for now. We also have two wooden documents, written in Tibetan, which looked like this when they were taken out of the bundle:

And on the other side:

So, we now have another person in the story; but who was this R. Corder? By 1967 George Macartney was long gone. Had Corder bought these Tibetan slips from Macartney a long time ago before passing them on to the School of Oriental Studies? I have no idea, but perhaps this is related to the most puzzling thing in the bundle, a couple of photos from a 1960s photobooth:

Is this old fellow, his clothes already old-fashioned in the 1960s, the mysterious R. Corder? Why else would these photographs be in the manuscript bundle? He certainly seems amused by the whole business. Now that we’ve come all the way to a 1960s photobooth, let’s go back to the Tibetan empire and these wooden documents. Such documents (which we often call “woodslips”) were the way the Tibetan military machine communicated across its desert forts and watchtowers. Cheap to produce, and good from quick messages, the woodslip was the telegraph (or reaching for a more contemporary analogy, the SMS) of its day.

Like the telegraph (and SMS) this medium encouraged its users to write in short pithy sentences, leaving out anything that could be easily dispensed with. This fact, along with the military jargon and the foreign words that the soldiers often used, makes the woodslips quite difficult to read. If you know the woodslips that were dug out of the desert by Aurel Stein, this one at least is unusually complete and clearly written. (You can see the others by searching for the prefix “IOL Tib N” on the IDP database.) Judging by the writing style and content, I’m fairly certain it’s genuine.

I can’t claim to have deciphered it though, and I’d love to hear some suggestions. It looks like a message (‘drul) asking for a decision (tag chod) about “provisions for the Tibetans (bod) and provisions for the Khotanese (li).” This makes sense, as the Tibetan army units stationed around Khotan included Khotanese attendants. In fact, each unit stationed in a fort would comprise two or three Tibetan soldiers and one or two Khotanese attendants (see Takeuchi’s article below).

The message seems to be addressed to a place called An tse, which was somewhere in Khotan. That works, for if this woodslip was found in the Khotan region by a treasure seeker, it would not have been far to travel to Kashgar, where Macartney bought it. On the other side of the slip, I see the words “butter” and “wood”, giving us an idea of what the writer of this woodslip was asking for.

The message seems to be incomplete, so it may have continued on another slip; that hole that you can see on the right could be used to string several slips together (in fact it is thought that the earliest Tibetan imperial records may all have come in this form, before they switched to paper — see Uebach’s paper below). On the other hand, it might be incomplete because it was never finished, and never sent to its destination. That would account for its unusually good condition: woodslips were often scraped and reused, or just snapped in two after they had been read (in the watchtowers, some were turned into makeshift knives, spoons and other implements).

If the message itself is mundane, I find the clear and fresh quality of the object itself quite engaging. It makes you realize that this really is something that was written when Tibet was an imperial power in Central Asia, by a soldier who probably had no idea that this power would crumble within a few decades. And because of the circuitous route that the object took to get to the British Library, this is the first time it this message has been read since that era. The bundling of the woodslips with official notes from another time and place (“Finsbury Circus, E.C.2″) also highlights this contrast. With such disjunctions of time and place, even reading requests for butter and wood can be quite exciting, don’t you think?

* * *


Tsuguhito Takeuchi. 2004. “The Tibetan Military System and its Activities from Khotan to Lop Nor.” In The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, edited by Susan Whitfield. Chicago: Serindia. 50-56. (Note that the whole thing can be read on Google Books.)

Helga Uebach. 2008. “From Red Tally to Yellow Paper — The official introduction of paper in Tibetan administration in 744/745.” Revue d’Etudes tibétaines 14: 57-70.

* All photographs by Rachel Roberts.

No comments: