When he attained enlightenment the Buddha set off for the city of learning, Varanasi, keen to share his newfound knowledge. Just outside the city he preached his first sermon at Sarnath and Buddhism was born. Along with the Buddhist temple and stupas that mark this spot, it is thus appropriate that Sarnath is also home to a Tibetan institute which aims to return to India its Buddhist heritage – thousands of Sanskrit texts detailing the teachings of the Buddha.
The Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, or CIHTS, was set up as by Nehru and the Dalai Lama a few years after China took control of Tibet in 1959, primarily to provide a centre for students of the Himalayan region – who had previously come to Tibet – to study Buddhism. In 1981 it started a restoration programme designed to reconstruct the original Sanskrit texts which had travelled to Tibet from the 7th century AD onwards.
While Buddhism flourished in its adopted home in Tibet – as well as elsewhere in Asia – it declined in India and many of these Sanskrit texts were subsequently lost. In many cases, the only extant versions are the Tibetan translations which came out of a large and well organised translation programme in Tibet, sponsored by its kings. Indian scholars such as Shantaraksita and his disciple Kamalashila, and Atisha – who revived Buddhism in Tibet after in faltered in the 10th century – travelled to Tibet and took with them the teachings of the Buddha, the canon known as Kagyur, as well as their commentaries on the canon, called Tangyur. In the 9th century the Tibetan king created a Tibetan-Sanskrit dictionary, the Mahavyutpatti, to standardise the translation of these many texts by prescribing the particular Tibetan term for each Sanskrit word. He also set rules which determined which texts should be translated and appointed an editorial board to vet each translation.
As Dr Pempa, an editor in the restoration department, explains, these efforts to control and standardise the translation into Tibetan greatly help the Institute’s programme to reconstruct the originals. Tibetan scholars work with Indian Sanskritists; the Tibetans explain the meaning of each text, in Hindi or Sanskrit, to the Indian scholars who then render it in Sanskrit. The Sanskritists use the metre to ensure that the reconstructed text matches the original exactly, or as closely as possible. Where a fragmentary Sanskrit manuscript is available, as is the case with some tantra texts where fragments have been found in Nepal, this is also used to rebuild the original. The Institute’s translation department then works to translate these texts into Hindi, and occasionally English, to make them as widely accessible as possible in India. As Dr Pempa puts it, “We want to return the generosity of the Indian scholars who first brought these texts to Tibet by bringing them back to India.”
The Institute’s library houses an extensive collection of Tibetan and Indian manuscripts, all beautifully wrapped in yellow cloth. These manuscripts are quite different from the palm-leaf manuscripts found in India. Tibet set up four main printing presses which allowed for the mass production of these manuscripts. The blocks might take several years to create but once ready they could be used to print many copies. The Tibetan ones are simply decorated with a Buddha at either end; the ones from Bengal have elaborate paintings of various gods on the wooden boards that hold the folios together and include a series of delicately drawn mandalas. Tibetan manuscripts were printed on a handmade paper which is remarkably durable – some in the library are over 200 years old. The librarian, Mr Sunaam, explains that many of these manuscripts were brought to India by Tibetan exiles fleeing the Chinese occupation in the 1960s thus providing the material needed for this restoration programme. It is thanks to them that the teachings of the Buddha have returned to their original birthplace and can once again make themselves heard in India.
For more about the CIHTS see their website here