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Manuscript Art in the Medieval Era: Pala Dynasty's Influence

Updated: Mar 23

In the contemporary age, book illustration is widely recognized as complementary to written content. However, this crucial aspect of interior book design is not a novel concept exclusively associated with modern publishing practices; instead, it has been employed since the medieval era in India between the 7th and 15th centuries. Although an ancient manuscript held by London's Commonwealth Library and the British Museum was initially considered India's oldest manuscript, historians later confirmed that it was composed in 1427 and 1464 and merely served as a duplicate copy of "Kalpasutra." In fact, Indian historians discovered that the original version of Kalpasutra existed as western India's earliest manuscript, dating back to 1127; unfortunately, this historic tome arrived damaged. It appears that during those times (1427-1464), someone created a copy to preserve its original counterpart.

Candi Sewu, A Buddhist Monastery, Indonesia
Candi Sewu, A Buddhist Monastery, Indonesia

 Historians state that the Gupta dynasty's emergence aimed to revive Buddhist culture and the ancient caste system in Hinduism. However, a new culture arose, known as Shaivite, which comprised a Hindu community that worshiped Lord Shiva as the almighty creator. By the fifth century, Buddhism's influence had dwindled, but it took over five to six decades for its impact to fade across India entirely because lofty things take time to demolish. Generosity was vital in Buddhism, where anyone could be initiated, and all were welcomed into Buddhist monasteries with equal rights to learn about Buddhism irrespective of their caste. The principal strength of Buddhism lay in royal generosity and donations from individuals used towards developing monasteries and inspiring others on the path of spiritualism without hindrance from any caste hierarchy. This fundamental tenet allowed Buddhism to exist for centuries without losing its importance.

In the eighth century, Eastern Indian people embraced a robust democratic manner of Buddhist culture. They sought an end to anarchy under the Shashanka dynasty by choosing Gopala (a popular figure among native royalty) as their ruler, who empowered Buddhism in Eastern India. Consequently, Bengal saw the establishment of the Pala dynasty during the early Eighth century, which dominated eastern India for twelve decades until its decline began gradually. According to Khalimpur copper plate inscription records, Gopala was Vapyata's son - a professional warrior.

Within the confines of Buddhism, other spiritual communities such as Jain and Vaishnava found solace. Though primarily a spiritual entity, the Jain community also emphasized material morality, fulfilling societal duties and promoting communal progress to ensure prosperity. Additionally, like Buddhism, the Jain community aspired to achieve Self-realization. On the other hand, Vaishnava society was formed around devotion and simplicity.

Maitreya and scenes from the Buddha's life. Ancient manuscript
Maitreya and scenes from the Buddha's life. Folios were probably from the Pala period under Ramapala, considered the last great ruler of the Pala dynasty.

For a considerable amount of time, I have endeavored to provide a historical context that will serve as the foundation for my subsequent discussion on Manuscript Art in the Medieval Era; as previously mentioned, the Pala dynasty's propagation of Buddhism was integral in fostering prosperity across various domains. With their support, numerous Buddhist monasteries and shanghas were established throughout eastern India, with Nalanda Mahavihara serving as a pioneering institution for the Buddhist community in this region. These centers served as hubs for education, culture, and art - reaching unparalleled heights that became emblematic of Indian culture. This period of unprecedented affluence culminated in 1608 and left historians astounded. Regrettably, due to unfavorable climatic conditions and repeated attacks by encroaching enemies, it was impossible to sustain such glorious fame for Buddhism in eastern India - ultimately resulting in the loss of countless valuable ancient manuscripts and artworks that could have otherwise served as evidence today. 

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