Silk Road phrasebooks

Phrasebooks still seem to sell quite well, judging by their presence on bookshop shelves. If translation apps do eventually make them redundant, it will be the end of a tradition that goes back a long way. The Central Asian manuscript collections provide plenty of evidence that phrasebooks were popular with travellers on the Silk Road in the first millennium AD.

One Tibetan-Chinese phrasebook (found in Or.8210/S.1000 and S.2736) was obviously compiled for merchants. The phrasebook gives the Tibetan word, followed by the Chinese equivalent, all in the Tibetan script. Thus it was clearly written for travellers who knew the Tibetan language but little or nothing of Chinese. In this phrasebook, the names of goods including food, clothes, tools, weapons and armour predominate.

Or.8210/S.2736Also here are words and phrases helpful to visitors to a strange town looking for food and a bed for night, and moving on to the next destination. The phrasebook is also there for travellers who encounter problems such as illness, being robbed, or being accused of being a thief, including the essential (but perhaps not very effective) “what have I done wrong!?” Probably more useful is the translation of the title of the Tibetan emperor and other high officials in the Tibetan empire. There is also a Chinese translation of the word bonpo, in case you need the help of a ritual specialist. The author of the phrasebook had a sense of humour: the last phrase he included is “shut up!” Sometimes even an intrepid traveller needs a bit of peace and quiet.

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IOL Khot 140

It wasn’t just merchants who had to haggle at the market. Another manuscript, IOL Khot 140, is a list of goods for a Khotanese monastery in the 10th century. On the list are: coats of silk and wool, trousers, undergarments, shoes, blankets, a camel-skin pouch, a silver cup, incense and more. It is nice to think of the monks all heading off to market with this list, but the document is signed by the “receiver” (nāsākä), the Revered Ratnavṛkṣa, plus witnesses, which suggests that this is more of a receipt for an order than a shopping list. Considering the phrasebook we just looked at, it’s interesting that in this list a few items are glossed in Tibetan, suggesting that Tibetan might have become the lingua franca of the marketplace in Dunhuang by the 10th century.

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Pelliot chinois 5538

Back to phrasebooks, but staying with Khotanese, Pelliot chinois 5538 is a scroll with a series of phrases in Sanskrit and Khotanese, on the general theme of pilgrimage. Some of the phrases form conversations, like this:

And where are you going now?
I am going to China.
What business do you have in China?
I’m going to see the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī.
When are you coming back?
I’m going to China, then I’ll return.

The conversations also cover practical matters:

Do you have any provisions for the road?
I do not like my provisions.
I’ll go with one or two horses.

We don’t know whether this particular scroll (which also dates from the late 10th century) was actually used as a phrasebook – it might have just been copied out as an exercise – but most of the phrases in it are relevant to the needs of a Buddhist pilgrim travelling from India to China. The phrasebook also has some revealing snippets of conversation that suggest another interest for travellers. After some phrases regarding the arrival of a Tibetan teacher, the conversation goes in this direction:

He is dear to many women.
He goes about a lot.
He makes love.

Which suggests that gossip was another popular activity among Silk Route travellers!

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Pelliot chinois 2782

Not all Tibetan teachers were held in such low esteem by the Khotanese, as another multilingual manuscript shows (Pelliot 2782 – pictured at the top of this post). This is a letter, or a copy of a letter, written to a Tibetan lama. It’s written in the Khotanese script, as you can see in the image above, but the language turns out to be Tibetan. Presumably the writer knew Tibetan as a spoken language, but could only write the Khotanese script. Luckily for us, the Tibetan was reconstructed by Ryotai Kaneko, and published by H.W. Bailey, with an English translation. Since Bailey’s translation of the Tibetan was not very accurate, I’ve retranslated it here.

To the great teacher, the eyes of the Buddha, who sees lowly ones like us with the eyes of wisdom. Although we do not share a language, and we are not skilled in the Tibetan language of the lords of the dharma, the local rulers, please do not break your commitments. This is addressed to the great master. I respectfully enquire whether you are well, and in particular whether your precious and noble body has become fatigued. We humble ones have ridden to see the face of the Noble Mañjuśrī and are returning to [the land of] Śākya[muni], the god of gods. May we be permitted to come and make an offering to all who have seen the face of Mañjuśrī?

The letter begins with the usual polite conventions (in fact, these take up the majority of the letter) before getting to the point, a request to visit this teacher and make an offering. Like the monk whose conversations appear in the Khotanese-Sanskrit phrasebook, the writer of this letter has travelled East to visit Wutaishan, and is on his or her way back to Khotan (yes, the Khotanese did consider themselves to belong to the land of Śākyamuni).

I find something really heartening about this evidence of human beings’ ability to cross the barriers of language. OK, so maybe it was often just to buy blankets. Still I suspect that the linguistic efforts of the merchants paved the way for the communication of other things, including Buddhism. Once that has happened did the kings and emperors with their big translation projects get involved, and get the credit. That’s why its nice to have these accidentally preserved phrasebooks and multilingual lists and letters, scraps of evidence of unsung linguistic adventurers.

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Further reading

Bailey, H.W. 1964. ‘Śrī Viśa Śūra and the Ta-uang’. Asia Major (New Series) 11.1: 17–26.

Bailey, H.W. 1973. “Taklamakan Miscellany.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 36.2: 224–227. JSTOR.

KUMAMOTO Hiroshi. 1988. ‘Saiiki ryokōsha yō Sansukuritto-Kōtango kaiwa renshūchō’ 西域旅行者用サンスクリット=コ一タン語 會話練習帳. Seinan Ajia Kenkyū 西南アジア研究 28: 53–82.

Sam van Schaik. “Red Faced Barbarians, Benign Despots and Drunken Masters: Khotan as a Mirror to Tibet.” PDF here.

van Schaik, Sam and Imre Galambos, Manuscripts and Travellers: The Sino-Tibetan Documents of a Tenth-Century Buddhist Pilgrim. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012.

Thomas, F.W. and Giles, Lionel. 1948. ‘A Tibeto-Chinese Word-and-Phrase Book’. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 12.2–3: 753–769. JSTOR

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This is an expanded version of a post I wrote on the IDP blog.

Did the Buddha visit Khotan?


“The way of the Mahāyāna has been sought by the accomplished in the auspicious places where our Teacher placed his feet, such as the Vajra Seat, the Vulture’s Peak and the Shady Willow Grove of Khotan.”

At the beginning of the 10th century, a chaotic time for Tibet, the scholar Nub Sangyé Yeshé wrote these lines on the sacred places where the Buddha had taught. Two of them are well-known throughout the Buddhist world, but the third is a little more obscure. Is the Buddha really supposed to have visited the Silk Road city of Khotan? According to the Khotanese, he did indeed, and the fact that this was accepted without any need of explanation by an educated Tibetan writer like Sangyé Yeshé shows how far the Khotanese understanding of Buddhism had penetrated into Tibet at this time.

Khotan was the most important kingdom on the southern Silk Route, situated between the Taklamakan desert and the Kunlun mountain range. Two rivers coming down from the mountains brought the water that allowed cultivation of the land, also bringing down jade, the stone prized by the Chinese and the source of much of Khotan’s wealth. Khotan was thus ideally placed to take advantage of east-west trade, becoming in the process open to influences from a variety of cultures. Indigenous legends of Khotan’s early history emphasise both the country’s cultural plurality and its allegiance to Buddhism.

These legends do indeed tell of the Buddha visiting Khotan. In one version, he flies over from Vulture’s Peak to hover above the lake that covered Khotan in ancient times, before descending to rest upon a lotus throne in the middle of the lake. Other legends also brought to Khotan the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara and the protector deity Vaiśravaṇa. Re-imagining themselves as the centre of their religious world became a surprisingly consistent feature of Khotanese culture. When Aurel Stein visited Khotan at the turn of the 20th century, he noted of the Muslim Khotanese: “Pious imagination of a remarkably luxuriant growth has transplanted into the region of Khotan the tombs of the twelve Imāms of orthodox Shiite creed, together with a host of other propagators of the faith whose names are known to local legend only.”

Khotanese king & Vaisravana

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It may be true, as Stein suggested, that the people of Khotan are a gens religiosissima particularly given to pious invention, but a solid Buddhist sangha was resident in Khotan from at least the 3rd century AD. Discoveries of Khotanese manuscripts in archaeological sites in the areas once ruled by the kingdom have shown that the major Mahāyāna sutras were all known in Khotan. These were first written in their original language, then after the 5th century increasingly translated into Khotanese. The Suvarṇaprabhāśa sūtra seems to have been particularly influential, informing the notion of Khotan as a Buddhist realm under the protection of bodhisattvas and divine kings. Alongside this Buddhist material are many examples of Khotan’s literary tradition, stories on Indic themes, like the trials of Rāma, and poems on the ever-popular subjects of nature and love. One unique text, the so-called Book of Zambasta marries the Khotanese poetic tradition with Buddhist subject matters in a lengthy and wide-ranging survey of Buddhism.

During the seventh to the ninth centuries, the Tibetans were sporadically active Central Asia, fighting the Chinese Tang empire over strategically situated and highly profitable Silk Route oasis cities. The Khotanese first encountered the Tibetans in the seventh century as one among many threatening barbarian armies, enemies of the Buddhist dharma. After a brief period of Tibetan occupation in the late seventh century, Khotan was returned to Chinese rule, to be conquered again by the Tibetans at the end of the eighth century. Then, after the final fall of the Tibetan empire in the middle of the ninth century, Tibetans and Khotanese met in Silk Road towns like Dunhuang in the role of Buddhist teachers and disciples, sharing their knowledge, and translating each other’s religious texts.

And what of the “Shady Willow Grove of Khotan” (li yul lcang ra smug po) mentioned by Sangyé Yeshé? It does appear in a few other later Tibetan sources, including a pilgrims’ guide to the Khadrug temple, which includes a story of how the temple’s statues were obtained from Khotan by the Tibetan army, during the reign of Songtsen Gampo. Later, when the real location of Khotan had largely been forgotten in Tibet, the Shady Willow Grove came to be identified with one of the tantric holy sites known as pīṭha – pilgrimage sites in India associated with parts of the body. The place associated with Khotan was Gṛhadevatā, a problematic site unlocateable in India. On the divine body, Gṛhadevatā represented the anus, a rather ignominious place for the Willow Grove to end up.

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This post is drawn from my paper “Red Faced Barbarians, Benign Despots and Drunken Masters: Khotan as a Mirror to Tibet.” A pre-publication version is now up on the Author page and here.

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Tibetan text

Gnubs Sangs rgyas ye shes’s quote is from Bsam gtan mig sgron, 5–6: rgyu’i theg pa chen po’i lugs kyis kyang sngon ston pas zhabs kyis bcags pa’i rdo rje’i gdan dang/ bya rgod phung po’i ri dang/ li yul lcang ra smug po la stsogs pa bkra shis pa’i gnas dag bya ba grub par byed pas btsal lo/.

I should say that “Shady Willow Grove” is a provisional translation of lcang ra smug po, as lcang ra needn’t always refer to willow trees, and smug po literally means dark red or brown. I’d love any suggestions for alternative translations.

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The legend of the Buddha visiting Khotan is in the Prophecy of Khotan (Li yu lung bstan pa); translation and Tibetan in: Ronald E. Emmerick. Tibetan Texts Concerning Khotan. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

For a review of Khotanese literature, see also his A Guide to the Literature of Khotan. Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1992.

Aurel Stein’s quote is from p.140 of M.A. Stein, Ancient Khotan. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907.

On the pilgrim’s guide to Khadrug temple, see pp.62-4 of Per Sørensen and Guntram Hazod, in cooperation with Tsering Gyalbo, Thundering Falcon: An Inquiry into the History and Cult of Khra-`brug, Tibet’s First Buddhist Temple. Wien: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften/Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences of the Autonomous Region Tibet, 2005.

On the identification of the “Shady Willow Grove” with Gṛhadevatā, see pp.95-6 of Toni Huber, The Holy Land Reborn: Pilgrimage and the Tibetan Reinvention of Buddhist India. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008.

The image is a painted wooden panel from Khotan, possibly representing a Khotanese king (on horseback) and Vairocana.

Rama in early Tibet

The British Library exhibition on the Rāmāyaṇa has reminded me of one of the most surprising finds from the Dunhuang library cave: a group of manuscripts telling this classic Indian story in Tibetan. Most people know something of story of the Rāmāyaṇa, which tells of how King Rāma’s wife Sītā was abducted by the demon Ravāṇa and rescued with the help of the monkey king Hanumān and his army. The first Rāmāyaṇa is attributed to the poet-sage Vālmīki and is thought to date back to the middle of the first millenium BC. Since then, many other versions of the story have appeared in India and beyond, most recently in that hugely popular television series of the 1980s. Rāma was accepted into the Buddhist world as well, in a jātaka story which tells of Rāma’s banishment from the kingdom by his father.

Anyway, the Tibetan Rāmāyaṇa is found in several manuscripts from Dunhuang, which suggests that it enjoyed some popularity this area, far from India but connected to it by the trading routes we call the Silk Road. This version is a retelling of the Indian tale, though it differs in several ways from the Indian versions. It is a condensed retelling of the original story in which many episodes are drastically shortened, making it short enough, perhaps, for a travelling storyteller to relate at one sitting.

Although it is a shortened version, some parts of the Tibetan Rāmāyaṇa are not found in any of the Indian versions (at least as far as I know). An slightly odd addition to the original is the theme of letter-writing. For example, when Hanumān travels to find Sītā, he takes a love letter written by Rāma, and Sītā sends back a love letter in reply. In another episode, Rāma chides Hanumān for forgetting to correspond regularly. A crestfallen Hanumān apologizes: “I should have continually enquired by letter after your health.”

Now, I am not sure that letter-writing was a feature of ancient or medieval Indian culture (perhaps someone more knowledgeable will contest or confirm this). On the other hand, polite enquiries about the health of the addressee are indeed common among the Tibetan letters found at Dunhuang. High ranking Tibetans sent letters back and forth, sometimes containing no more than polite enquiries after the health of the recipient. This social practice explains why Hanumān committed a faux pas when he neglected to send a continual steam of letters to Rāma.

So, if it’s not Indian, where does this version of the Rāmāyaṇa story come from? Some have suggested Khotan, a great little Silk Road kingdom. It’s true that there are a couple of Khotanese manuscripts containing fragments of the stary of Rāma. However, while this Khotanese Rāmāyaṇa contains some of the same elements as the Tibetan story, it also differs from the Tibetan in many ways. There is no letter-writing in the Khotanese version, and the whole story is given a Buddhist moral at the end. The narrative of the Tibetan Rāmāyaṇa, on the other hand, shows no interest in Buddhism at all.

In fact, the Tibetan Rāmāyaṇa seems generally less moralistic than the classic version, in which Rāma and Sītā are ultimately estranged due to Rāma’s suspicion of Sītā’s infidelity. The Tibetan version has a happy ending, in which Rāma’s apology is accepted by Sītā: “They were happier than before. King Rāma, Queen Sītā, husband and wife and the sons together with a large retinue lived happily in the palace Old Earth.” In the end, one can’t help feeling that the reason for the popularity of this version of the Rāmāyaṇa was simply that it’s a great story.

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The manuscripts of the Rāmāyaṇa are: IOL Tib J 737.1 (A), IOL Tib J 737.2 (B & C), IOL Tib J 737.3 (D), Pelliot tibétain 981 (E), Pelliot tibétain 983 (F). In de Jong’s works, these manuscripts are referred to only by the letters A to F, which I have given in brackets after the shelfmarks.

1. Bailey, H.W. 1940. ‘Rāma’, (I) BSOAS 10.2 (1940): 365–376; (II) BSOAS 10.3: 559–598.
2. de Jong, J.W. 1971. ‘Un fragment de l’histoire de Rāma en tibétain’ in Études tibétaines dédiées à la mémoire de Marcelle Lalou. Paris: Librairie d’Amérique et d’Orient.
3. de Jong, J.W. 1977. The Tun-huang Manuscripts of the Tibetan Ramayana Story’, Indo-Iranian Journal 19.
4. Kapstein, Matthew. 2003. ‘The Indian Literary Identity in Tibet’, in Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, edited by Sheldon Pollock. Berkeley: University of California Press.
5. Thomas, F.W. 1929. ‘A Rāmāyaṇa Story in Tibetan from Chinese Turkestan’ in Indian Studies in Honor of Charles Rockwell Lanman: 193–212. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

1. British Library manuscript Add. MS 15296(1), from the Rāmāyaṇa exhibition at the British Library. See this site for images of the manuscript.
2. The manuscript IOL Tib J 737.2, containing part of one version of the Tibetan Rāmāyaṇa.

The red-faced men III: The red-faced women

Nomad woman

Sometimes it’s good to be wrong. It can make the questions you were asking more interesting. In the last two posts I’ve been discussing the characterization of the early Tibetans as ‘the red-faced men’. Although the Tibetan term itself (gdong dmar can) does not specify a gender, I have been using the masculine noun. My reasoning was that the term as we find it in the original Khotanese texts derived from encounters with the Tibetan army, so I came to the conclusion that the red face decoration was applied primarily by soldiers going into battle. So much for ‘the red-faced men’.

In fact, recent archaeological evidence that I have only just now become aware of (thanks to Kazushi Iwao) clearly shows that red face decoration was worn in civilian life, and by women as well as men. In 2002, the archeaologist Xu Xinguo excavated tombs in Guolimu, a village near Delingha in Qinghai Provice (Amdo), and discovered two beautifully painted coffin boards. The wooden boards, which are believed to date from the time of the Tibetan Empire, were painted with numerous scenes from everyday life, including hunting, oath-taking and funeral rites. Many of the people featured in the painting, both men and women, have faces decorated with red.

From Wenwu 2006.7 (3)

From Wenwu 2006.7 (2)

The people depicted here are probably the Azha, who were brought into the Tibetan Empire in the 7th century. But this red face painting was not just an Azha tradition; we know that it was practised in the Tibetan court itself. The Chinese Tang Annals say that Princess Wencheng, who came to marry the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century, introduced various new customs to the Tibetan court (which is portrayed by the Chinese historians, not entirely fairly, as quite uncivilized). One of her innovations was to stop the Tibetans from painting their faces red.

As the princess disliked their custom of painting their faces red, Songtsen ordered his people to put a stop to the practice, and it was no longer done. He also discarded his felt and skins, put on brocade and silk, and gradually copied Chinese civilization.

It may well be that the practice originated in the nomadic tribes of the northeast and western Tibet, and was later adapted by the Central Tibetans. Amazingly, even today a similar custom of red face painting is practised by the nomads of western Tibet. Here it is only the women who paint their faces, using a preparation made from boiled whey. The pictures here were taken by Melvyn Goldstein and Cynthia Beall, who lived with the nomads of the Changtang region for over a year from 1986-88. Goldstein and Beall observed that while nomads said that the red face makeup was used to protect the skin from sunburn, it was only used by younger women and particularly when they wanted to look good. Thus it was primarily decorative. The patterns of decoration used by these women are strikingly similar to those depicted on the ancient coffin covers.

Nomad woman applying red face makeup

So it seems that the practice of red face painting (by men and women) might have originated in Tibet’s northeast and west, and then been adopted by the early Tibetans, who later abandoned it during or after the Imperial period. Some of the western nomads, however, preserved the custom, although only among women.

And so it is simply incorrect to translate the Tibetan term gdong dmar can as ‘the red-faced men’. I should, and from now on will, use ‘the red-faced people’ or ‘the red-faced ones’. Being wrong can indeed be very interesting!

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See also
The Red-Faced Men I: warriors with painted faces
The Red-faced Men II: China or Tibet?

1. Bushell, S.W. 1880. “The Early History of Tibet: From Chinese Sources”. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1880: 435-535. [p.445]
2. China Heritage Project. 2005. “New Discoveries in Qinghai”. China Heritage Newsletter 1 (online journal).
3. Goldstein, Melvyn and Cynthia Beall. 1990. Nomads of Western Tibet: The Survival of a Way of Life. London: Serindia Publications.
4. Luo Shiping. 2006. “A Research about the Drawing on the Coffin Board of Tubo located at Guolimu, Haixi, Qinghai Province”. Wenwu 2006.7: 68-82.
5. Yong-xian Li. 2006. “Rediscussion on the Bod-Tibetan Zhemian Custom”. Bulletin of the Department of Ethnology 25: 21-39.

1. Pictures of nomad women from Goldstein and Beall 1990: 57, 89.
2. Details from the Guolimu coffin boards from Luo Shiping 2006.