Manuscripts under the microscope


What I like about working with manuscripts is that there are so many different ways to approach them. You can read the texts written on them (and sometimes that’s as far as you get) but you can also look at their shape and size, how they were put together, how the writing is laid out on the page (codicology) and the style of the writing itself (palaeography). You can get into their materiality, feel the rough and smooth sides of a page, their coarse and fine fibres, the subtle patterns of laid and chain lines. If you’re lucky, you can find out who wrote them, who owned them and how they were used, who repaired and re-used them, and so on.

I like to think this isn’t just the idle curiosity of somebody who’s spent too much time around books. While most studies of the early Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang and other Central Asian sites are focussed on the texts, there’s a lot more we can find out from the physicality of the thing itself. Sure, we can discover what a text is about by reading it and comparing it with other texts. But there are a lot of things we won’t know, like who made the manuscript, who used it, and what it was used for. If we can get some kind of answers to those questions about the manuscript, our understanding of the text will be enriched. Or to put it another way, if we want to know the meaning of a text, we should look at how it was used.

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A few years ago I started working with Agnieszka Helman-Wazny, a scientist specializing in the study of Tibetan and Central Asian paper. Agnieszka’s speciality is the microscopic analysis of paper fibres. She also looks at the patterns left on the paper by the process of making paper (such as the fine pattern of ‘laid lines’) and other aspects of the technology of papermaking. Gradually we developed a plan to bring the results of her analysis of the paper in the Tibetan manuscripts from Central Asia with the work I had done in the palaeography of the manuscripts, and of course the contents of the texts as well. We selected a group of fifty manuscripts, put everything we could find out about them into a table, and looked at the patterns that emerged.

One of the most interesting results was this: those manuscripts that had been brought to Dunhuang from Tibet itself, were made in quite different ways from those that were made locally at Dunhuang. Though our sample was limited, this opens up the possibility of ‘fingerprinting’ a manuscript to find out where it was made.

It looks like the manuscripts made in Dunhuang and other Central Asian areas inhabited by the Tibetans during the 8th and 9th centuries were made with rag paper, which is probably mainly recycled textiles. The technical apparatus of papermaking was a mould made from a sieve made from bamboo or reeds arranged on a wooden frame, which leaves the tell-tale pattern of laid lines on the finished paper. The advantage of this kind of mould is that you can lift out the piece of paper and leave it to dry while you begin to make another one. On the other hand, in places like Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal, the method to this day is to use a wooden frame with a cloth backing stretched across it. With this kind of mould the paper cannot be removed until dry, so the paper dries on the frame. This is obviously a slower method, and the paper produced this way does not have the laid lines characteristic of the sieve method.

DaphneTwo manuscripts, letters that we already thought may have been originated from Tibet, did turn out to have been made on a woven mould. Also, they were not made of rag paper, like the locally produced Central Asian manuscripts, but paper made from the Daphne or Edgeworthia plants, which grow along the Himalayas. As well as these letters, a sutra manuscript written in the archaic ‘square style’ also turned out to be composed of Daphne fibres.

Then there are the big Perfection of Wisdom manuscripts that were brought to Dunhuang to be used as models by the local scribes who had been ordered by the Tibetan emperor to produce copies. The Perfection of Wisdom manuscripts made in Dunhuang are composed of rag paper made on a sieve mould, like other locally made manuscripts. But those that were brought in are composed of Paper Mulberry (Broussonetia) fibres and were made on a woven mould. Paper Mulberry is not native to Central Tibet, but it is found in Eastern Tibet, so perhaps these Perfection of Wisdom manuscripts were produced in the Eastern regions of the Tibetan Empire, before being brought to Dunhuang. This would give us a triangle of geographic locations to which we can assign the manuscripts: Central Asia, Central Tibet and Eastern Tibet.

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Though I can’t put the article in which we published our results on this site, I am going to make it briefly available for download here. Of course, the 50 manuscripts that we studied are a tiny proportion of the Central Asian manuscripts in Tibetan, so more work needs to be done to confirm what we have suggested. As well as using these results to pin down the geographical origin of early Tibetan manuscripts we can also say a bit more about what ‘Tibetan paper’ means in this early period. If we can begin to speak of a type of paper with specifically Tibetan characteristics, it is a paper composed of Daphne or Edgeworthia (from Central Tibet) or Paper Mulberry (from Eastern Tibet), made on a woven mould — a technology that continues to the present day.

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Helman-Wazny, Agnieszka and Sam van Schaik. 2013. “Witnesses for Tibetan Craftsmanship: Bringing Together Paper Analysis, Palaeography and Codicology in the Examination of the Earliest Tibetan Manuscripts.” Archaeometry 55.4: 707–741. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4754.2012.00687.x

Iwao, Kazushi (forthcoming). “On the Tibetan Śatasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā sūtra from Dunhuang.” In Scribes, texts, and rituals in early Tibet and Dunhuang (eds. B. Dotson, K. Iwao and T. Takeuchi). Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag.


1. Paper mulberry (Broussonetia sp.) fibres stained with Herzberg stain, found in IOL Tib J 1560.

2. A large-size ‘floating’ mould, constructed with a wooden frame and attached woven textile, placed in water (a stream) in Gyantse, c. 1910–1920. Photo 1112/2 (139), © The British Library

3. The flower of the Daphne plant.

4. Sheets of paper left to dry on individual moulds on the mountain slope near Tawang, Arunchal Pradesh, 1914. MSS Eur/F157 (324), © The British Library.

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Final Notes

Paper made from the Daphne and Edgeworthia species  is shog shing or dung lo ma in Tibetan. There is also a Tibetan paper made from the roots of both the Stellera chamaejasme species (re lcag pa in Tibetan) and, more seldom, Euphorbia fisheriana (re lcag gi rtsa ba in Tibetan). It has been suggested that re lcag pa is the “original” Tibetan paper. Though we did not find any of this paper in our study, finds from Tibet itself may help to confirm whether it was produced during the Tibetan imperial period or later. Also, it is hard not to oversimplify this complex research, and I had better clarify here (as we did in the article) that the rag paper in the Dunhuang manuscripts was also often made with the addition of Paper Mulberry and/or Hemp. Agnieszka Helman-Wazny’s continuing work on the Chinese manuscripts from Central Asia will no doubt add much more to our knowledge of Central Asian papermaking.

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Blood writing

There is something compelling about the idea of a text written in blood. The 20th century Chinese writer Lu Xun once said “Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood.” Here the phrase “written in blood” is metaphorical — Lu Xun was talking about the killing of student protesters — but resonates with Chinese history, as China does actually have a tradition of writing in blood. The tradition was especially present in Buddhism and the earliest surviving examples we have are from the Dunhuang manuscript collections. For example, there is a booklet containing the Diamond Sutra (S.5451) with the following colophon (as translated by Lionel Giles):

Copied by an old man of 83, who pricked his own hand to draw blood [to write with], on the 2nd day of the 2nd moon of bingyan, the 3rd year of Tianyu [27 Feb. 906].

Using one’s own blood to write Buddhist sutras is an ascetic practice, that can be included in along with other, more drastic ascetic practices that were practiced in China over the centuries, including slicing off parts of one’s flesh, burning oneself with incense, burning off a finger, or even complete self-immolation (on which, see the book by James Benn in the references). Much later, in the 17th century, a Chinese writer defended the practice of blood writing against its detractors:

Those disciples of “crazy wisdom” (kuanghui 狂慧) belittle it [blood-writing] as [involving] “corporeality” (youxiang 有相). But among the root causes of beginningless birth and death, none is deeper than the very perception of the body (shenjian 身見)… This [practice of blood-writing] is called paying reverence to the Correct Dharma; it is also called using the Dharma to make offering to Buddha. The Lotus and Śuramgama [sutras] have profound praise for incinerating one’s limbs and fingers, as well as the merits from burning incense [into one’s body]. The practices of severing the limb of afflictions and burning the body of ignorance are situated precisely in this very flesh and blood.

So, what about Tibet? It is my impression that this kind of extreme ascetic practice in general, and blood writing in particular, is historically less common among Tibetan than Chinese Buddhists. The manuscript pictured above (IOL Tib J 308) therefore strikes me as an exception. It certainly looks like it is written in blood: the colour is reddish-brown, and appears to congeal in some places. In fact, it looks much more like blood than the writing in the book by the 83-year-old man, which looks like ordinary ink. In that case, perhaps, the old man just added a few drops of blood to the inkwell.


Recently, I had the chance to have the ink in this Tibetan manuscript examined by Renate Noller, a specialist in pigment identification at the Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und -prüfung. Her results are yet to be published, but this particular ink turned out to have a very high iron content. Now, there are inks made with iron (in the West, iron gall ink was particularly popular, and was used, for example, by Leonardo da Vinci in all his manuscripts), but that tends to darken with time to a browny-black, and lacks the clotted quality of this manuscript. If you look closely, you can see that the scribe was dipping his pen very frequently, that the ink went down very thickly and then ran out after a couple of letters.

The text that is (perhaps) written in blood in IOL Tib J 308 is the Sutra of Aparimitayus, a very popular text in Tibet, on the visualisation and the mantra of a deity representing long life and rebirth in a pure land. In the 840s thousands of scrolls of this sutra were written at Dunhuang at the behest of the Tibetan emperor, to ensure his long life through the religious merit generated by copying the sutra. This manuscript is not one of those, and to judge from its archaic orthography and “square” style, may be even older than them. Still, the motivation for copying the sutra is probably the same. If it was written in blood, this act would have given a greater value to the act of copying of the sutra, and thus to the merit generated by doing so.

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James Baskind. 2007. “Mortification Practices in the Obaku School“, in Essays on East Asian Religion and Culture, edited by Christian Wittern and Shi Lishan, Kyoto.

James Benn. 2007. Burning for the Buddha. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

John Kieschnick. 2000. “Blood Writing in Chinese Buddhism.” JIABS 23.2: 177–194.

John Kieschnick. 2002. The impact of Buddhism on Chinese material culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jimmy Y. Yu. 2007. “Bodies of Sanctity: Ascetic Practices in Late Imperial China“. Dissertation prospectus, Princeton University. (Source of the 17th century passage above.)

Jimmy Y. Yu. 2012. Sanctity and Self-Inflicted Violence in Chinese Religions. New York: Oxford University Press.

The Abbot, or Ironing out History’s Wrinkles

Picking through a manuscript collection piece by piece can be painstaking work, but it’s rarely boring. I never cease to be amazed by the mere fact that these ancient things were written, used and reused by very different people who held them in their hands in a very different place and time.  And then there are the occasional magical moments, when you come across something really fascinating that nobody else has noticed before.

This happened to me a few months ago when I was compiling a catalogue with Kazushi Iwao. We were sifting painstakingly through the main series of Chinese manuscripts in the British Library, to see whether there were any Tibetan manuscripts in there that had been overlooked.  We came across something that looked sort of familiar… Something about Rasa (the old name of Lhasa) … something about a Brahmin called Ananta.

Aha! The penny dropped. This was part of the story of how Buddhism was introduced to Tibet by the tsenpo Tri Song Detsen. It looked very similar to the version of that story in an important and early Buddhist history called  The Testament of Ba. A quick check of that text revealed that yes, this was a fragment of the Testament of Ba.

Now this was exciting (to us at least) because nobody knows when the Testament of Ba was written. Though everyone agrees that it’s an early history, the oldest manuscript that’s been found is from the 12th or 13th century (this version is called the Dba’ bzhed). The fragment we’d found could well be from the 9th century, taking us to only a short while after the actual reign of Tri Song Detsen.

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The fragment tells the story of how the abbot Śāntarakṣita was invited to Tibet by Tri Song Detsen. This was the first stage of the tsenpo’s adoption of Buddhism, overturning the anti-Buddhist policies of his ministers. But when the abbot arrived in Lhasa, Tri Song Detsen had second thoughts, and was worried that this foreigner might be bringing black magic or spirits with him. So the abbot was confined to the Jokhang temple, and interviewed by a minister.

Since the abbot didn’t speak Tibetan, an interpreter had to be found. After a search, a fellow called Ananta was discovered. He was in Tibet because his father had been convicted of a serious crime in Kashmir and had been exiled. So Ananta became the interpreter as the abbot was questioned for three months about his doctrines. Eventually the minister assured Tri Song Detsen that the abbot posed no threat, and he was allowed to begin his task of establishing Buddhism in Tibet.

Now I don’t know about you, but that story doesn’t seem the most auspicious starting-point for Buddhism in Tibet. Later historians didn’t think so either. Even the oldest version of the Testament of Ba changes the language slightly, so that instead of the abbot being confined in the Jokhang (the Tibetan word bcugs is the same used in legal documents for imprisonment) he’s politely “asked to stay” there.

In later versions of the Testament (like the Sba bzhed), the suspicions about the abbot are placed in the minds of the ministers, instead of the Tri Song Detsen himself. This absolves the tsenpo from harbouring bad thoughts about the saintly abbot. This more polite version was the one used by the historian Butön in his famous history of Buddhism. He also dropped the figure of Ananta, with his shady past, from this part of the narrative. And some other historians simply ignored the whole interrogation-of-the-abbot episode.

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Personally, I like the early version of the story, and probably for the same reason that the Tibetan Buddhist historians were uncomfortable with it. It has wrinkles in it that get in the way a seamless narrative of the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet by glorious kings, monks and yogins. It seems more like a record of what “really happened” than a pious story meant to inspire the faithful. You might not agree, and I’m sure that this preference down to my own cultural conditioning. But perhaps you’ll agree that our little manuscript discovery has helped us to see how this particular wrinkle was gradually smoothed out by generations of historians. Which is quite interesting whether you prefer your history wrinkled or smooth.

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1. Sam van Schaik and Kazushi Iwao. “Fragments of the Testament of Ba from Dunhuang”. Journal of the American Oriental Society 128.3 (2008 [2009]): 477–487.
2. Pasang Wangdu and Hildegard Diemberger. 2000. The Royal Narrative Concerning the Bringing of Buddha’s Doctrine to Tibet. Wien: Verlag der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

1. Statue of Śāntarakṣita. Photograph by Matthieu Ricard, (c) Getty Images (click on image for link).
2. The two fragments together: Or.8210/S.9498(A) and Or.8210/S.13683(C).

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Update: Transcriptions of the fragments are now available on the OTDO website here and here. And the images of the fragments, along with the other fragments that they were glued together with, can be seen on the IDP website here and here.

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Pasang Wangdu and Hildegard Diemberger’s translation of the Dba’ bzhed

The mKhan po sent a messenger to prostrate in front of the bTsan po and to inquire about whether he should meet him immediately. [He was] asked: “Please, stay at Pe har for a while.” The bTsan po suspected that there could be some black magic and evil spirits (phra men) from lHo bal [in the doctrine of the mKhan po]” Then [the bTsan po] ordered Zhang blon chen po sBrang rGya sbra (sgra) legs gzigs, Seng ‘go lHa lung gzigs and ‘Ba’ Sang shi, “You three ministers, go to Ra sa Pe har (vihāra) to meet A tsa rya Bo dhi sa twa and prostrate in front of him. Then investigate whether I need to suspect the presence of black magic and evil spirits from lHo bal or not.” The three arrived at Ra sa Pe har (= vihāra). There was no translator. So, in six market-places it was ordered that each chief merchant (tshong dpon) had to search for a translator from Kashmir (Kha che) or Yang le. In the lHa sa market three people were found, namely, two Kashmiri lHa byin brothers and the Kashmiri A nan ta. The two lHa byin brothers were unable to act as translators except for some language of trade. As far as A nan ta is concerned: he was the son of the Brahman sKyes bzang who had commited a serious crime and had been sent into exile in Tibet because according to the law of lHo bal Kashmir (lHo bal kha che) Brahmans could not be executed. [A nan ta] had studied the Brahman sacred scriptures (gtsug lag), grammar (sgra) and medicine, and was therefore able to translate the language of the doctrine.

(Pasang and Diemberger 2000: p.43-45)

A Prayer for Tibet


A Mystery

So, there’s this manuscript from Dunhuang with a prayer for the protection of Tibet. That was the first thing to pique my interest. Prayers and rituals for protecting Tibet from foreign invasions are common enough from the time the Mongols were sending armies into Tibet in the 13th century. Rituals to repel enemy armies were usually performed by tantric practioners from the Nyingma school, like the famous Sokdokpa, whose name in fact means “Mongol-Repeller”. But this prayer is much earlier than those.

Bod KhamsUnlike those Mongol-repelling rituals, this Dunhuang prayer is not very tantric. It does invoke local protectors and spirits, but no tantric Buddhist deities. It was written, according to the colophon, by a certain Bandé Paltsek, who I am inclined to identify with the famous translator Kawa Paltsek. There’s nothing in the prayer to suggest that it couldn’t have been written by Paltsek during the late eighth or early ninth century.

So that’s interesting too. But here’s the really intriguing thing: every time the word “Tibet” (bod khams) appears in this manuscript, it has been defaced. And not just randomly but in a rather specific way. The “o” in bod has been rubbed out, and various bits of khams have been rubbed away, but never the whole word.

I have been puzzled by this strange defacement for a while, and I still can’t find a satisfactory answer for it. I do think it was done before the closing of the cave in the early 11th century (though this could also be debated). Is this censorship? Was the idea of “Tibet” troublesome to an ancient reader of the manuscript? That reader could well have been one of the local Chinese who helped to oust the Tibetans from Dunhuang in 848, or a later descendent.

Then again, perhaps the reader was not quite so sensitive as to be offended by the very word “Tibet” but feared the power of the prayer, or the talismanic force of the manuscript containing the prayer. Taking out bits of the word “Tibet” might confuse the great beings invoked in the prayer, who would no longer know who they were supposed to be protecting.

Or was the reason less hostile than I am supposing? Perhaps the reader only meant to amend the manuscript. One of the regions near Dunhuang was known as Dekham (bde khams). Taking the “o” out of bod and replacing it with an “e” would give us this name. This could be an unfinished attempt to direct the prayer to a local region, perhaps after the fall of the Tibetan empire and a unified “Tibet”. But if so, why did the reader also deface khams, which could just be left as it is?

No, I am not quite convinced by any of these solutions, and so dear reader, I leave the question open to you. And here, restored and rendered imperfectly into English, is Paltsek’s prayer for the protection of Tibet.

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A Prayer for Tibet

Conquerors and your entourage – in order to expel Tibet’s obstacles, please come to this heavenly mansion. By the power of the Teacher’s blessings and compassion and our own faith, supreme divine substances sufficient to fill the sky are presented in their fullness. By the power of the qualities of the Sugatas and our own virtue, please pacify this region, and clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offering to the bodhisattvas on the Very Joyous and Stainless levels and the others – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh sons and your sublime entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By the compassion and blessings of the Noble Ones, please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings for the Noble Arhats: The Mahāsthavira retinue, Bharadvāja and the others – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh great ones worthy of offerings, please consider your commitment to obey. By the compassion and blessings of the Noble Ones, please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings for the gods of the form realms: from the great king Brahma to the gods of the Brahma heaven – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh gods of the Brahma heaven, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the gods of the desire realm: from the great gods of Paranirmitavaśavartin to the lord of the gods Indra – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh gods of the desire realm, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the four great kings: Dhṛtarāṣṭa and the others – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh four great kings and your entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the ten local protectors: Wangpo Dorjé and the rest – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh guardians and your entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the nāgas: the eight classes of nāgas and so on – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh eight classes of nāgas and your entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the protectors of the temple: those who guard the stūpas of Jambudvīpa – Pāñcika and so on – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh protectors and your entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the spirits (jungpo) of the ten directions – the king of the spirits, lord of the demons (dön), and the entourage of demons of the intermediate directions – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh spirits and your entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The chapter summarizing the offerings is complete. It is Bandé Paltsek’s chapter on offerings.

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A note on the name of Tibet

Here I have taken bod khams to mean “Tibet” in general. Another early example of this is seen in the prayers for the founding of the Dega Yutsal temple (PT 16, 33r4; note that here the happiness of Tibet is down to the king and ministers, not the Buddhas and deities). Thus I take bod khams to mean something like “the realm of Tibet” in the same way as bod yul does later. But I have seen it suggested that these are really two words, bod meaning central Tibet and khams meaning, well, Kham, eastern Tibet. In which case we should translate the term as “central and eastern Tibet”. I’m not sure where that leaves western Tibet, however, and I am still happy to assume that bod khams is just “Tibet”.

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1. On the attempts to repel the Mongol menace with magic in the 13th century, see Luciano Petech’s Central Tibet and the Mongols (Rome: Is.M.E.O., 1990), pages 13, 17, 18.

2. On the prayers for Dega Yutsel, see Matthew Kapstein’s recent article “The Treaty Temple of the Turquoise Grove, in Buddhism Between Tibet and China (ed. Matthew Kapstein, Boston: Wisdom, 2009).

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Tibetan Text (IOL Tib J 374)

The manuscript in question comprises a mere three folios, numbered 1 (gcig) to 3 (gsum). It’s not yet been digitized, I’m afraid, hence my own fuzzy photographs above. Initially, I thought the pages of the prayer were both scrambled and incomplete. Then I realized that the only problem was that the prayer was followed in the manuscript by another short (and this time, certainly tantric) prayer. The last folio has the end of our prayer on one side, and the short tantric prayer on the other, but unlike the other folios, it has been numbered on the verso, so that it looks like the little tantric prayer is on the recto, not the verso. If we just turn over this last folio, then everything falls into place nicely. Though it does seem to be incomplete at the beginning (the first page begins with the syllables dgongs shig, which look like the end of a verse), we can’t be missing much, as it begins with the offering to the buddhas themselves, surely the top of the hierarchy of protectors invoked here. The haphazard numbered of the manuscript seems to have been done by a later reader, perhaps the same person responsible for the defacement.

$/ /dgongs shIg//rgyal ba’I ‘khor bcas rnams//b[o]d kh[ams] kyi ni bgegs gzhil phyir//gzal yas khang ‘dIr gshegs su gsol//ston pa’I thugs rje byin rlabs dang//bdag cag gi ni dad pa’I mthus//nam ka ‘i mtha’ dag ma lus par//lha rdzas mchog gis bkang ste mchod//bder gshegs che ba’I yon tan dang//bdag cag gi ni dge ba’I mthus//yul phyogs su ni zhI ba dang//b[o]d khams bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

byang chub sems dpa’ rnams la mchod pa’//rab dag [=dga’] drI myed la bstsogs/pa’//rab tu mthu’ brten bskyabs gsol te//bla myed mchod pa ‘dI phul bas//sras kyIs dam pa’I ‘khor bcas kyis//stun kyi dam tshIgs rje dgongs ste//’phags pa’I thugs rje byin rlabs gyIs//b[o]d khams bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

‘phags pa dgra bcom ba rnams la mchod pa’//gnas brtan chen po ‘khor bcas ste//ba ra dwa tsa las btsogs la//rab tu bthu’ brten bskyabs gsol ste//bla myed mchod pa ‘di phul bas//sbyIn gnas chen po ‘khor bcas kyIs//stun kyi dam tshIgs rje dgongs/ste/’phags pa’I thugs rje byin rlabs kyis//b[o]d [khams] bgegs rnams gzhIl du gsol//

gzugs khams kyi lha rnams la mchod pa’//tshangs pa’I rgyal po chen po nas//tshangs rIs kyIs ni lha rnams la//rab tu bthu’ brten bskyabs gsol ste//bla myed mchod ‘dI phul bas tshang rIs kyi ni lha rnams kyIs//stun kyi dam tshigs rje dgongs zhing khyed kyI thugs rje byin rlabs kyis//b[o]d [khams] bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

‘dod khams kyI lha rnams la mchod pa’//gzhan ‘phrul dbang gi lha chen nas//brgya ‘byin lha’I bdang po la//rab tu bthu’ brten bskyabs gsol ste//bla myed mchod pa ‘dI phul bas//’dod khams kyi ni lha rnams kyis//stun kyI dam tshIgs brje dgongs ste//khyed kyi thugs rje byin rla[b]s kyis//b[o]d [kham]s bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

rgyal chen rIgs bzhI la mchod pa’//yul ‘khor srung nI las bstsogs la//rab tu mthu’ brten bskya+bs+ gsol ste// +bla myed ched pa ‘di phul bas//+ rgyal chen rIgs zhI ‘khor bcas kyIs//stun kyI dam tshigs rje dgongs shing//khyed kyi thugs rje byi[n] rla+b+s kyIs//b[o]d khams bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

phyogs skyong bcu la mchod//dbang po rdo rje las stsogs la//rab tu mthu’ brten skyabs gsol ste//bla myed pa ‘dI ‘bul bas//mgon po ‘khor bcas thams cad gyIs//stun gyI dam tshIgs rje dgongs ste//khyed gyI thugs rje byIn rlabs gyIs//b[o]d [khams] bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

lha klu sde brgyad la mcho+d+ pa’//lha klu sde brgyad las btsogs la//rab tu mthu’ brten skyabs gsol ste//bla mted mchod ‘dI ‘bul bas//lha klu sde brgyad ‘khor bcas gyis//stun dam tshIgs rje dgongs ste//khyed gyi thugs rje byin rlabs gyis//b[o]d khams bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

gtsug lag khang gI srungs ma la mchod pa’//’dzam gling mchod brten bsrungs mdzad cIng//span tsa ka ni las btsogs la//rab tu mthu’ brten//skyabs gsol ste//bla myed mchod pa ‘dI phul pas//srungs ma ‘khor bcas thams cad gyis//stun gyi dam tshigs rje dgong ste//khyed gyi thugs rje byin rlabs gyis//b[o]d [khams] bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

phyogs bcu ‘byung po rnams la mchod pa’//’byung po rgyal po gdon gyi bdag//phyogs mtshams gdon gyi tshogs bcas la//rab tu mthu’ brten skyabs gsol ste//bla myed mchod pa ‘di phul bas//’byung po ‘khor bcas thams cad gyis//stun gyi dam tshigs rje dgongs zhIng khyed gyI thugs rje byin rlabs gyIs bdag cad gi bsam sgrub mdzad//

//$//mchod pa bsdus pa’I le’u rdzogs s+ho//dge slong dpal brtsegs gyi mchod pa’I le’u lags+ho//://:

Two Tibetologists

Thomas & Tucci

A few years ago I came across this photograph in the archives of the British Library. It is a portrait of two early European scholars of Tibet: F.W. Thomas and Giuseppe Tucci. It was taken in 1955 by Tucci’s photographer and partner Francesca Bonardi. Before I saw the photo I wasn’t aware that these two knew each other, or that Thomas had ever travelled to Italy. The meeting of these very different personalities is a rather intriguing event.

Guiseppe Tucci (1894-1984) was arguably the foremost non-Tibetan scholar of Tibetan history and culture (such types are still known by the ungainly neologism Tibetologist, which like the similarly ugly Buddhologist is a term likely to cause faint mirth in the uninitiated) in the first half of the twentieth century.

tucciTucci was a natural linguist, learning Hebrew and Latin in his childhood, before turning to Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese. Tucci was an explorer, making several expeditions to Western Tibet in the 30s, where he collected the materials (manuscripts, paintings and statues) for his scholarly work. And Tucci was a prolific writer. Among his many publications the Indo-Tibetica series and the two huge volumes of Tibetan Painted Scrolls are still essential reading.

In early life Tucci was a supporter of Mussolini and the philosophy of fascism, and in 1937 he was sent by the Italian Government to Japan, to strengthen cultural ties between Japan and Italy. Here he lectured and published extensively on Zen, spiritual liberation, and the art of war. After his return to Italy and the defeat of Mussolini, Tucci abandoned this vein of work, and his interest in fascist philosophy and Zen, returning to Tibetan studies.

In the mid 50s, when the photograph with Thomas was taken, Tucci had just made two expeditions to Nepal and was about to embark of on series of archaeological digs in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. He was also very active in public life, one of his achievements being the founding of the Istituto italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente (IsMEO) in Rome. Several brief biographies are available online (see the references below).

*  *  *

The career of Frederick William Thomas (1867-1956) was, in contrast, conducted in the universities and libraries of England. He was a student of classics, and then a fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge at the end of the 19th century and a professor at Balliol College, Oxford in the 30s. These two Oxbridge stints bookended his job as librarian for the India Office Library, where he worked for thirty years. It was here, where he had the responsibility of sorting through the thousands of Tibetan manuscripts brought back from Central Asia by Aurel Stein, that Thomas found the raw materials for his most important scholarly work.

banburyThomas had little interest in the Buddhist materials from Dunhuang, and his work focused on early Tibetan history (letters, military communiqués and the like) and folklore. Most of this work was put together and published by Thomas after he retired to a cottage in Oxfordshire, where he worked in a damp and chilly study (at least he complained often in his letters that it was so). Here he put together his great 4-volume series of historical texts Tibetan Literary Texts and Documents from Chinese Turkestan, collected narrative texts in Ancient folk-literature from North-Eastern Tibet, and a study of the extinct Nam language (his equally pioneering work on the Zhangzhung language still remains unpublished).

The photo with Tucci was taken the year before Thomas’s death. According to the Dictionary of National Biography:

To his last years Thomas retained the lean and athletic figure of the strenuous sportsman. His manner was keen and affable, and he enjoyed speaking in learned company. He celebrated his retirement by undertaking a tour of India in 1938 which would have taxed the strength and energies of the most intrepid traveller. He retained the full scope of his great intellectual powers to the end, although deafness at the last diminished his social enjoyment.

*  *  *

Tucci is still, no doubt, the preëminent scholar of his time, but those of us interested in the early history and culture of Tibet still owe Thomas a great debt. It is a pity that his works are so difficult to find, apart from in the major libraries. As an attempt to make Thomas’s work more available, I’ve been trying to get his major unpublished and out-of-print catalogues up on the IDP website. You can see his work on the documents about Dunhuang from vol.II of Tibetan literary texts and documents here, and his unpublished card catalogue slips of the Tibetan manuscripts Aurel Stein found in the Tangut/Mongolian regions of Etsingol and Kharakhoto here.

I see these two figures in quite different settings: Tucci striding across the dry and desolately beautiful landscapes of Western Tibet, Thomas bent over his desk in damp, verdant Oxfordshire. Tucci, the scholar “in the field”, Thomas the “armchair scholar”. One thing they had in common was that they both published their major works before 1959, when when the Tibetan diaspora changed forever the relationship between Westerners and Tibetans, and the nature of scholarship on Tibet.

*  *  *

stamp(The stamp and postmark from the envelope containing the photograph, marked October 1956. On the back of the photo, Francesca Bonardi wrote: “Con tanti cari auguri dal Prof. Tucci e da.”)

*  *  *

Some online resources:

See also:
Gustavo Benavide. 1995. “Guiseppe Tucci, or Buddhology in the Age of Fascism” In Donald. S. Lopez (ed.), Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism Under Colonialism. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Buddhism and Bön III: what is yungdrung?

Those who translate Buddhist texts from Tibetan into English sometimes talk in nostalgic terms of our forbears who laboured to translate the vast corpus of Sanskrit Buddhist literature into Tibetan. In contrast to the chaotic scene today, where nobody can agree on a standard English word to translate any given Tibetan term, Tibetan translators worked under a top-down system in which royal edicts decreed the correct Tibetan word to be used for every Buddhist Sanskrit term. The result was the admirably coherent and consistent canons of Tibetan Buddhism, undoubtedly one of the wonders of the Buddhist world.

When we look at the Dunhuang manuscripts however, the situation seems rather less coherent, and a bit closer to the chaos of our times. The coherence of the Tibetan canons was the result of a process, centuries long, of rethinking translation practices, revising earlier translations, and weeding out dubious texts. This process is visible in all its messiness in the Dunhuang manuscripts, and one of the ways it reveals itself to us is the many different ways a single Tibetan word is used in Buddhist translations.

One of the problems for the early translators was what to do with certain important and powerful words that came from the pre-Buddhist culture of Tibet. In some ways it was clearly beneficial to use these words, so as to give them a new, Buddhist resonance. But they came with a lot of baggage. The same problems face translators nowadays when we contemplate using Christian words like ‘hell’ and ‘sin’ to translate Buddhist concepts.

One of the most powerful and resonant words in pre-Buddhist Tibet was yungdrung (g.yung drung). It was a the key terms for the old royal religion, the mythological backdrop to the kingly lineage of the Tibetan Empire. For example, the inscription of the tomb of Trisong Detsen has the line: “In accord with the eternal (yungdrung) customs (tsuglag), the Emperor and Divine Son Trisong Detsen was made the ruler of men.” I discussed how to translate that term tsuglag in an earlier post. Here, as you no doubt noticed, I have translated yungdrung here as “eternal”. Eternity seems to be the general meaning of yungdrung in the early religion. In addition, the word was associated with the ancient Indo-European swastika design, which in Tibet was the graphic symbol of the eternal.

So, what did the early Buddhist writers and translators do with this term? Many of them just attached it to the word “dharma” (i.e. Buddhism), no doubt in an attempt to transfer its prestige from the earlier religion to Buddhism. Thus we see “the eternal dharma” (g.yung drung chos) in many Dunhuang manuscripts. Translators of Chinese Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan used it to translate nirvana. Translators of Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures used it to translate the Sanskrit samyak, meaning “correct” or “perfect”, as well as various Sanskrit terms meaning “eternal”. This messy scene begins to look more like the chaos that bedevils contemporary translation efforts..

Later standardizations of translation practice in Tibet fixed yungdrung as the translation of just one Sanskrit word, sanātana, meaning “eternal”. This Sanskrit word doesn’t appear very often in Buddhist texts, where the Sanskrit word nityā is prefered, and the latter was translated by a different Tibetan term (rtag pa). So yungdrung was almost written out of Buddhist translations, but its story doesn’t end there. From the 11th century it became a central concept of the later Bon tradition, so that the later Bon tradition itself came to be known as ‘Yungdrung Bon’. There is much more to tell, but the full realization of those developments comes later than the Dunhuang manuscripts, where yungdrung is still in the process of being redefined by the Buddhists.

*  *  *

IOL Tib J 339 2rLet’s look at just one Dunhuang manuscript, in which the attempt to redefine yungdrung in the Buddhist context is unusually clear. The manuscript (IOL Tib J 339) is a the prayer with interlinear notes. One line of the prayer is an homage to “correct yungdrung” and the notes go on to spell out the difference between correct and incorrect yungdrung. I’ll translate the note here:

“Yungdrung” comprises correct yungdrung and incorrect yungdrung. Of these, incorrect yungdrung itself comprises the yungdrung of words and the yungdrung of substances. The yungdrung of words means all of the names drawn from yungdrung. The yungdrung of substances means the yungdrung of substances. Even if this yungdrung, it is still incorrect yungdrung.

Correct yungdrung means the following: when you remain as the Bhagavan Vairocana and his entourage of bodhisattvas, you take in the meaning of the unborn nature of phenomena. Then you are not endowed with birth or death. When the yungdrung of the lifespan is accepted as the [nature of] the deity, this is correct yungdrung.

The definition of incorrect yungdrung is strikingly unhelpful here: “the yungdrung of substances means the yungdrung of substances(!)”. Fortunately the definition of correct yungdrung is better. It means freedom from the constraints of birth and death, and is linked to the lifespan, so we could translate it either as “eternity” or, considering the emphasis on lifespan, “immortality”.

IOL Tib J 339 2rHere we see a Buddhist re-reading of immortality as the unborn nature of the meditation deity. ‘True’ immortality is not a long life, but the realization that transcends birth and death. I wonder if the incorrect yungdrung here refers to Chinese (especially Daoist) practices of securing long life or immortality, particularly the teachings (“the yungdrung of words”) and alchemical experiments (“yungdrung of substances”)? After all, in the previous post on this manuscript it emerged that the definition of incorrect tsuglag was aimed at Chinese practices of astrology.

*  *  *

In any case, perhaps we translators can take heart. The coherence of the Tibetan corpus of translations was the end result of a process of centuries. Take a slice out of that process (like 9th-10th century Dunhuang) and it sometimes looks as messy as the contemporary scene.

*  *  *

1. Karmay, Samten. ‘A General Introduction to the History and Doctrines of Bon.’ In The Arrow and the Spindle. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point. 104-156.
2. Stein, R.A. 1983. ‘Tibetica Antiqua I: Les deux vocabulaires des traductions indo-tibetaines et sino-tibetaines dans les manuscrits Touen-Houang.’ Bulletin de l’Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient LXXII: 149-236.

Tibetan text
* g.yung drung yang dag la’ gus par phyag ‘tshal lo *
[1] g.yung drung la yang <yang> dag pa’i g.yung dang yang dag pa ma yin ba’i g.yung drung ngo/ de la yang dag pa ma yIn pa’I g.yung drung la yang/ tshIg gi g.yung drung dang rdzas gi g.yung drung ngo/ tshig gi g.yung drung shes pya ba nI/ g.yung drung [2] las dra[ng]s pa’i mying thams cad la bya/ rdzas gi g.yung drung nI rdzas gi g.yung drung la bya’o/ de yang nI g.yung drung yIn na yang yang dag pa’i g.yung drung ma yIn/ de la g.yung drung yang yIn la/ yang dag pa <ma> yin ba nI/ [3] bcom ldan ‘das dpal rnam par snang mdzad ‘khor pyang chub sems dpa’ rnams kyis bskor cing bzhugs pa de ni chos rnams gyI chos skye ba myed pa’i don thugs su chud pas skye shi myi mnga’/ sku tshe g.yung drung [4] lha du bzhes nas/ g.yung +drung+ yang dag ces bya’o/

Also in this series
Buddhism and Bon I: the religion of the gods
Buddhism and Bon II: what is tsuglag?

The Olapati

In the last post I looked at the connections between the ‘new’ schools of Tibetan Buddhism (nowadays the Kagyü, Sakya and Gelug) the Dunhuang manuscripts. I tried to show that there is a shared heritage in the sutras translated in the early period, and the sutric contemplations on topics like impermanence and karma.

Could there by any traces among the Dunhuang manuscripts of the ‘new’ tantric lineages that flooded into Tibet from the late 10th century onward? The library cave at Dunhuang was closed up at the beginning of the 11th century, so it seems unlikely, but just possible that we might be able to catch a trace of the ‘new’ lineages. What’s more, I think I have found one.

This trace is connected to the new lineages of Sakya, which derive a number of Indic siddha traditions. One of those siddhas was the famous Virūpa, the source for the transmission of the ‘path and fruit’ or Lamdré practices. Another was Virūpa’s disciple Kāṇha (also known by an number of other names, but we’ll stick to the shortest one), who is the source of another set of esoteric practices. Kāṇha was a Hindu yogin from South India, who often got into arguments with Buddhists, and was converted to Buddhism by Virūpa.

As with most of the great siddhas, there is a funny story about Kāṇha. He is said to have converted a king by taking advantage of the king’s attachment to his many queens. First Kāṇha spent some time with the queens. Then when the queens explained what had happened to the king, the king declared: “He must be killed!” Kāṇha waited for the king’s troops outside the queen’s palace. When the soldiers arrived, Kāṇha back inside. As soon as the troops followed him inside, Kāṇha appeared outside. When both the inside and outside of the palace were completely filled by the troops, Kāṇha sent forth magical emanations outnumbering the king’s troops. The king realized that Kāṇha was a siddha and bowed at his feet.

Stories aside, we don’t really have firm dates for Kāṇha. We know the lineage between Kāṇha and the great Tibetan translator Drogmi contained three people, and Drogmi was born just before the year 1000. So Kāṇha was probably teaching some time in the mid-10th century, if the traditional lineages are correct. This is just where a bit of contemporary evidence, like a Dunhuang manuscript for example, would come in handy.

Kāṇha’s most famous teaching is known by the (apparently) Sanskrit name Olapati. As a text, the Olapati the is quite mysterious. Nobody really knows what the name means (though if you’re interested, see the guesses at the end of this post). And while the Sakyapas practiced an oral instruction on the Olapati known as The Complete Path of Inner Heat they didn’t preserve the Olapati itself in their collections. But the Olapati does seem to have survived. According to two modern scholars of the Lamdré, Cyrus Strearns and Ronald Davidson, the Olapati is to be identified with a canonical text called The Four Stages attributed to a certain Kṛṣṇa (another name for Kāṇha).

Now the Dunhuang scroll Pelliot tibétain 849 contains a list of tantras. As I mentioned in a previous post, the list includes the Guhyagarbha tantra. It also includes an Olipati tantra (the spelling is slightly different, but that is true for almost all of the Sanskrit titles listed in this scroll). When I first saw this Sakya text in the list of tantras I was very surprised. None of the previous studies of this scroll had connected this title with Kāṇha’s text. Could they be one and the same?

The possibility seems less remote when we remember that Pelliot tibétain 849 dates to the end of the 10th century, and contains the notes taken down by a local from a passing Indian tantric master. This Indian master, Devaputra by name, had travelled via Tibet to China on a pilgrimage to Wutaishan, and was on his way back to India when he stopped at Dunhuang. A local called Dro Könchogpal worked with the Indian master on (among other things) a bilingual list of important tantras.

Is this Olipati tantra in our Dunhuang scroll really Kāṇha’s teaching? I think probably it is. The name is unusual enough, and may come from Kāṇha’s South Indian background. The fact that it is called a tantra in the scroll is not really problematic. The local Tibetan who wrote the scroll was not very accurate, and may have assumed he was writing down the names of tantras, when other instructional texts were being listed as well. Or Kāṇha’s teaching may have taken on the status of a tantra in some circles. So here is a siddha’s teaching that came to Central Tibet in the mid-11th century, but was known in distant Dunhuang (if only by name) half a century earlier. And that seems to confirm the traditional Sakya accounts of both Kāṇha’s dates and teachings.

To conclude on the theme of the previous post, when we see the (to later eyes, thoroughly Nyingma) Guhyagarbha tantra together with the (very Sakya) Olapati in the same list, it is a welcome reminder that sectarian divisions and rarely as fundamental as they might seem. History might seem an arcane pursuit sometimes, but it can be a useful way cutting through such divisions.

*  *  *


1. Davidson, Ronald. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. New York: Columbia University Press [on the Olapati: pp.200-201]
2. Hackin, Josef. 1924. Formulaire sanscrit-tibétain du Xe siécle. Librairie orientaliste Paul Geunthner, Paris. [On Pelliot tibétain 849]
3. Kapstein, Matthew. 2006 “New Light on an Old Friend: PT 849 Reconsidered”. In Tibetan Buddhist Literature and Praxis: Studies in its Formative Period 900-1400. Leiden: Brill
4. Stearns, Cyrus. 2001. Luminous Lives. Boston: Wisdom Publications. [on the Yellow Book: pp.32-35]

Tibetan texts
1. Dhongthog Rinpoche, T.G. 1976. A History of the Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism. New Delhi: Paljor Publications.
2. Nag po spyod pa (Kṛṣṇācaryā, alias Kāṇha). Gtum mo lam rdzogs [The Complete Path of Inner Heat]. In Sa skya Lam ‘bras Literature Series vol.11 pp.445-457.
3. Nag po pa (Kṛṣṇa, alias Kṛṣṇācaryā, alias Kāṇha). Rim pa bzhi po [The Four Stages]. Q.2168.

Statue of Kāṇha, from the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin. From the 2007 exhibition Klöster öffnen ihre Schatzkammern.

And a note…
…on the name Olapati:

  • Matthew Kapstein (2006: p.20) wrote on the name Olipati, from Pelliot tibétain 849: “Oli (perhaps < Skt. āvalī) occurs in the formation of certain technical terms of haṭhayoga, e.g., vajrolimudrā, referring to the yogic practice of sexual congress. A possible interpretation might therefore be *(Vajr)olipaddhatitantra.”
  • Ronald Davidson (2005: 200-201) links the name Olapati to the canonical Tibetan text The Four Stages (Rim pa bzhi pa, Q.2168). He points out that ola survives in the (reconstructed?) Sankrit title to the autocommentary on the The Four Stages, which is Olacatustustaya-vibhaṅga (Tibetan Rim pa bzhi’i rnam par ‘bzhed pa, T.1460). Here ola is equivalent to rim pa, “stage”, while instead of pati we have the standard Sanskrit catuḥ for “four” (bzhi pa).

And another note (added on February 13th)…

The South Indian languages provide plenty of possibilities for all the elements under consideration here, ola, oli and pati. Though I am not any kind of expert in these languages, the possibility is too interesting to ignore, so I am going to speculate, based on Burrow and Emeneau’s A Dravidian Etymological Dictionary and the Cologne Online Tamil Lexicon (

Since there is no equivalent for the Tibetan bzhi po “the four” in ola/oli/pati, I wonder if the Tibetan name is not a direct translation of Olapati, but rather a descriptive name for the text? In that case, we can look a little more widely for meaning of the name Olapati:

First, ola/oli:

  1. First of all, in many South Indian dialects ōla (or ōlai or ōle) means a page or a book, by extension from the ola palm leaves that are used to make books.
  2. The Tamil noun oli can refer to any sound, to speech or more specifically, to the “loud or audible recitation of a mantra.”
  3. The verbal root oli– or olap– can mean to wash or cleanse in Tamil.
  4. In various South Indian dialects, both oḷa and oḷi have meaning of secrecy and concealment.

Now, pati/patti:

  1. We have the Tamil and Malayam verb pati, “to be imprinted, indented.” Considering that writing on Indian palm leaves is a form of imprinting or indentation, could ōla-pati mean “impressed on palm leaves”?
  2. We have the Tamil verb paṭi, meaning “to practise, habituate oneself to,” which would combine well with some of the meanings of ola/oli attested above, as well as Kapstein’s interpretation of oli.
  3. There is a Tamil noun paṭi, meaning “a step, stair, rung of a ladder, stirrup, grade, rank…” This would be a clear equivalent to the Tibetan rim pa, “stage” and could be combined with some of the meanins of ola/oli above.
  4. And finally, several dictionaries give patti as an equivalent for Sanskrit bhakti, meaning devotion, religious observance and so on. This could be combined with the meaning of oḷa/oīi above to mean “secret” or “hidden” religious observance. Bhakti is particularly associated with deity cults like that of Śīva, which ties in nicely with Kāṇha’s status as a former Śaiva yogin.

In any case, since I have not taken the morphology of these terms into account, I can hardly suggest a best reading here, but if anyone with a knowledge of South Indian languages reads this, I’d be most grateful for any thoughts.