Some Siddham inscriptions in China: palaeography and ritual function



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Epigraphy Paleography Siddham Sanskrit inscriptions Tomb inscriptions China Yunnan

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Jan E.M. Houben et al., « Some Siddham inscriptions in China: palaeography and ritual function », HAL-SHS : histoire, ID : 10.31696/0131-2021-3-4-76-94


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The earliest stages in the history of the study of Indian palaeography, as perceived by A.H. Dani in the Introduction to his manual Indian Palaeography (1963, 1986), were the “period of the discovery of the inscriptions and the decipherment of the scripts used in them”(from the late eighteenth century onwards), culminating in the work of James Prinsep (1799-1840), and a period when “Indian palaeography became a recognized study,” with copies of numerous inscriptions accompanied by extensive studies being published in specialized journals, but this was also a period in which the evolutionary character of Indian scripts was discovered, analysed and explored. The third period started with Georg Bühler’s Indische Palaeographie (1896), in which this “evolutionary character of Indian scripts” is accepted but there is a further analysis of their “regional and chronological variations.” Here we make a small contribution to a specific regional variant of the ancient Indian Siddham script in China. From the research of scholars such as Walter Liebenthal (1886-1982) and R.H. van Gulik (1910-1967), we know that “the study of the Sanskrit language never flourished in either China or Japan” (van Gulik 1956: 5) but that nevertheless “the Indian script – in a variety of Brāhmī called Siddham – played an important role in Far Eastern Buddhism ever since the introduction of this script into China in the 8th century CE” (ibid.). In this article we discuss and analyze a few objects which we encountered during a trip to the Yunnan province in China, in autumn 2016. As is usual, these inscriptions in Siddham have no “reporting” or “administrative” value, they do not report a remarkable political event or donation, etc. Frequently they express a prayer formula or brief text, a mantra or a dhāraṇī, which is connected to some ritual. We study here the ritual context of the object and the palaeographic connection with scripts in India.

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