A Turk far away from home

Detail from IOL Tib J 1410

There is a sutra from the Dunhuang cave that is one of the few truly “illuminated” manuscripts from this collection; that is to say, it has small pictures of buddhas complementing the text.* As you can see from the image above, they have either been damaged, or perhaps were never completed. Anyway, these illuminations are not the most interesting thing about this manuscript. It is a copy of a Chinese sutra (the shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha) in Tibetan script. Apparently the scribe who wrote the manuscript knew spoken Chinese but not the written characters, so used the Tibetan alphabet instead.

But this was not a Tibetan. In a colophon, the scribe writes that he comes from the country of the Kyrgyz (Tibetan gir kis) though he now lives in Hexi, the province that contains Dunhuang. And another scribble on the back of the page states that though this sutra is written in TIbetan (thu pod), it was written by a Turk (‘brug). I must say I don’t understand the whole of the colophon, which seems to be a mixture of Tibetan, Turkic and Chinese words, but I detect the Turkic name Kahraman (khang re man). I could well be wrong, but let’s call him Kahraman.

Detail from IOL Tib J 1410

So why did Kahraman, born in the Kyrgyz lands, end up in Dunhuang? The Uighur Turkic empire ruled the northern steppes from the mid-8th to mid-9th century, until they were destroyed by their enemies, the Kyrgyz. From then onwards hundreds of Uighur Turks fled south across the mountains. Some settled in the Turfan region, where they established the kingdom of Qocho, and others ended up in Hexi, where they ousted the local Chinese rulers and set up a kingdom based in Ganzhou (modern Zhangye). Here, surrounded by Tibetan and Chinese Buddhists, many of the Turks learned to write in Chinese or Tibetan, and adopted Buddhism. The Uighur Turks are the ancestors of the modern Uighurs of Xinjiang province. Over the following century, the Uighurs gradually converted to Islam. However, the Uighurs of Hexi remained Buddhists, and today are considered a separate ethnic minority in China, known as the Yugur people.

If Kahraman was a Kyrgyz, he would be have been living under the rule of his tribe’s enemies, the Uighurs. I suppose this is possible, but perhaps he was not a Kyrgyz after all, but was just referring to his homeland as the land that is now ruled by the Kyrgyz.

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Kahraman seems to have had a grasp of some basic Buddhist principles. From the colophon we can see that he was familiar with the idea that copying sutras accrues merit, and that merit leads to good rebirths. His colophon lists a dozen or so Buddhist texts (mostly by their Chinese titles) that he has written, and then recited in a single day as an offering to “the buddha, the gods and nagas of the eight quarters, and the protectors of the four directions.” By the merit of this, he hopes that one day he will be able to return to his own country, and that after he dies, he will be born free of suffering, not in hell, and preferably in the god realms.

This sutra is a reminder that Tibetan was the lingua franca of Central Asia for a long time, and that it allowed people from various backgrounds to communicate with each other. It also allowed them to participate in a shared system of religious values and practices. Centuries later, the Gansu Uighurs had adopted Tibetan Buddhism (along with other aspects of Tibetan culture like sky burial) and were firmly settled in the region. It looks like Kahraman was a first-generation immigrant, adopting the new languages and customs, but still hoping to return home one day.

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A study of the manuscript IOL Tib J 1410 was published in 1927 by FW Thomas and GLM Clauson, mainly dealing with the Tibeto-Chinese phonology. Thomas’s reading of the colophon differs slightly from mine: F. W. Thomas and G. L. M. Clauson. 1927. “A Second Chinese Buddhist Text in Tibetan Characters.” J.R.A.S., April 1927, pp. 281-306, and Supplementary note, pp. 858-60.

On the Uighurs at Dunhuang, see:

Moriyasu Takao. 2000. “The Sha-chou Uighurs and the West Uighur Kingdom”. Acta Asiatica 78: 28-48.

Lilla Russell-Smith. 2005. Uygur Patronage at Dunhuang. Leiden: Brill.

And for the Uighur manuscript collections, a good summary of recent research is this online paper by Matsui Dai.

There is not much written on the Yugurs: Carl Gustav Mannerheim’s article published in 1911, “A Visit to the Sarö and Shera Yögurs” is still one of the best accounts. You can get a scan of it here.

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* Apparently the term “illuminated manuscript” can refer to manuscript embellished with decorations or colours other than black. Check out Michelle Brown’s excellent Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts (The British Library, 1994). An odd thing about the buddhas in this manuscript is that they are upside-down in relation to the text, something that has yet to be explained.

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IOL Tib J 1410 colophon:


@/:/ stag gi lo’i dbyar/ /gir kis yul du ha se to ab ‘ga den chung shi ‘gi/ /khang re man gyis/ the’u kyig shi chor lha ‘tso’i yid dam du bsngos te// [a] myi ‘da kyi bam po gcig dang/ par yang kyi bam po gcig [dang/] kwan im kyi bam po gcig dang/ ta sim kyi bam po gcig [dang/] phyogs bcu’i mtha yas bam po gcig dang/ /bkra shis bam po gcig dang/ /de ‘bur te ci’u bam po bcig dang/ / ‘da la ‘ji ci’u bam po gcig dang/ bzang po spyod pa smon lam dang/ /’thor bshags la stsogs te/ /gong nas smon pa ‘di rnams/ /yi dam du bris pa ‘di/ /gdugs gcig klag ching/ /sangs rgyas dang/ lha klu sde brgyad dang/ phyogs bzhi’i mgon po la mchod cing/ yi dam du bcas te/ /lha ‘tsho tshe lus la bsam pa thams cad grub ching yul du sngar phyin pa dang/ tshe slad ma la gar skyes kyang/ /sdug bsngal dang bral ching/ /na rag du myi rtung bar byin gyis skabs te/ lha yul du skye bar shog shig//


‘di yang de’i tshe/ thu pod yang ‘brug gis bris pa ‘o
gar song gar skyes kyang lha yul du skye bar smon no//