Scroll depicting early life of Buddha goes on display for first time

Burmese manuscript is among 120 items at British Library exhibition exploring Buddhism

A vibrantly coloured 19th-century Burmese illustrated manuscript has gone on public display for the first time as part of a major exhibition exploring Buddhism.

The British Library is putting more than 120 items on display for a show, opening to the public on Friday, which spans 20 countries over 2,000 years.

They include silk scrolls of sutras, painted wall hangings and delicate scriptures written on tree bark, gold plates and palm leaves.

The majority of items are from the library’s abundant collection of Buddhist material. This includes the Burmese scroll, which is 7.6 metres long and shows scenes from the early life of the Buddha Amitabha.

Jana Igunma, the lead curator, said: “We have so many absolutely breathtaking Buddhist manuscripts in our collection and we change them frequently in our Treasures gallery.

“But there is just not enough space. It would take us hundreds of years to display everything that is beautiful.”
Igunma hopes the show will encourage people to find out more about Buddhism. “It is something which can sound very distant and people usually have in mind a Buddha figure sitting in meditation, but there is much more to it,” she said.

“We want to show the diversity of all the different traditions and the different cultural influences and different aspects of Buddhist practice.”

Other objects include a copy of the Lotus Sutra in a lavishly decorated scroll, written in gold and silver ink, and a Chinese illustrated manuscript of the Guanyin Sutra, which dates from the 9th-10th centuries and has a rare early depiction of a woman giving birth.

The show also shines a light on mindfulness, with an early morning meditation session in the library for visitors who want to fully prepare themselves for the exhibition.

“Meditation has become mainstream,” Igunma said. “You don’t have to be Buddhist or religious, these are practices that are open to everyone.”

Buddhism is at the British Library from 25 October to 23 February