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Guardian of the Flame Sri Lanka Manuscripts Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections

Collection Profile

Few students of Buddhism or scholars of Sri Lankan culture would expect to find primary sources relating to their work in Arizona, but thanks to a Phoenix physician the largest publicly accessible collection of Sinhalese palm-leaf manuscripts in the Western Hemisphere now resides at Arizona State University (ASU).

The donor of the Guardian of the Flame Collection became entranced by Sri Lankan art as a result of gifts he received from his father, a Sri Lankan national. He subsequently built a large collection of artistic works as well as hundreds of manuscripts acquired for their beauty, but he was unable to read all the manuscript texts. The donor contacted faculty at the ASU Center for Asian Studies, the Herberger College of Fine Arts, and the Department of Religious Studies to explore the potential for building curricula in Sri Lankan and South Asian studies. His plan was to donate materials from his collections to spark interest and investment in teaching students about Sri Lanka and Buddhism.

The Guardian of the Flame Sri Lanka Manuscripts Collection consists of 390 individual manuscripts comprised of palm leaves stacked upon each other, placed between wooden boards, and tied together with string and buttons or coins. Some wooden boards are ornate, displaying intricate design, carving and/or painting techniques. Writing is applied to the palm leaves by embossing them with a specially designed stylus, then rubbing lampblack into the resulting relief.

Most texts are written in the hand of one individual, and some of the texts are written in multiple languages. The majority of the collection is written in Pali, the traditional language of Theravada Buddhist monasteries, and presented in Sinhalese or Sanskrit script. Some of the texts present freehand illustrations.

The texts are predominantly Theravada Buddhist religious texts, but some texts present medicinal or astrological information. The textual content originates from as early as the third century AD, although these copies of the texts date from 1700 to 1910. The texts were transcribed by Buddhist monks, who received spiritual honor for copying and thus disseminating the words of the Buddha and his disciples. As a result certain texts are repeatedly presented in several manuscript objects.

Since the initial gift of manuscripts in 2005, ASU faculty in Fine Arts and Religious Studies have collaborated with University Libraries staff to engage scholars with the requisite language skills who can assist ASU with preliminary identification and cataloging of the materials. This collaboration has precipitated two guest lectures at ASU, class presentations, and an international scholar's consultation entitled "Buddhist Objects: Knowledge, Ritual and Art" hosted by ASU in October 2006. There, several visiting scholars examined the collection for the first time and confirmed the exceptional research value of these materials. A preliminary catalog has been produced from the scholars' descriptions, and it will be encoded for Internet access using the international standard. Conservation and selective translation and digitization will be conducted over the next several years.

Collection Profile and Overview: Robert P. Spindler
Illustrations: Brian Davis, Chris Thompson

More About This Collection

A scholar's consultation Web site is available at:

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