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Portion of the Kharosthi Fragments:
A Gandhari version of the Rhinoceros Sutra (Khargavisana-sutra)
Kushan era, 1st century CE
Ink on birch bark paper

Images courtesy of the British Library / University of Washington Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project (copyright reserved).

These fragments of a Buddhist manuscript, composed in the Gandhari (Prakit) language using the Kharosthi script, are written on scrolls made of birch bark. Known as the British Library Kharosthi Fragments, they are believed to date to the first century CE, which would make them the oldest known surviving Buddhist texts. They were found in a clay pot, most likely somewhere in eastern Afghanistan in what was once known as the Gandhara region (the exact location of where they were found is, unfortunately, unknown).

As the Internet site for the British Library/University of Washington Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project explains, Gandhara was one of the main centers of Buddhist art and culture during the first centuries of the Common Era. During this time, the region was under Saka domination, and there is every reason to believe that Saka patronage was an important factor in the creation of this body of Gandharan Buddhist literature. The texts make references to the "Great Satrap Jihonika" and to "Commander Aspavarman," both Saka rulers of the Gandhara region in the early part of the first century.

The fragments found survive from twenty or more originally separate scrolls, ranging in size from a few words to several hundred lines of writing (See full view). The portion reproduced here is a section from the "Rhinoceros Sutra;" other kinds of texts, including canonical sutras and commentaries, technical and scholastic texts, and "avadanas," or edifying Buddhist legends, many of which have no parallels in the previously known Buddhist literatures.

For more information on the British Library/University of Washington Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project, please visit their web site: