March 26, 2013

Maintaining Mongolian Manuscripts: Mildew, Mismanagement, Megalomaniacal Monks


This one doesn’t seem too important, right?

Earlier this year we pointed to the online furor over the precarious status of extensive and irreplaceable archves in the Malian city of Timbuktu. Early second-hand reports from that city’s mayor in exile had it that the city’s new museum to house and digitize the archives had been razed. It was then reported, thrillingly, that the bulk of the city’s manuscripts had been hidden or smuggled out of the city by that center’s chief archivist/superhero Abdel Kader Haidara.

Given the concern espoused over that archive, perhaps it’s worthwhile for those of with Borgesian afflictions to point others to endangered manuscripts around the world. Of interest today, the vast trove of ancient Buddhist texts currently held in the National Library of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar.

As reported by Pearly Jacob for, this archive is extensive: the number of manuscripts varies from report to report, but among the lowest estimates is 900,000 Buddhist manuscripts in Tibetan alone, making this perhaps the largest archive of Buddhist texts in the world. Firm numbers are unavailable in spite of ongoing efforts by teams of archivists. The project is just too large and supported by too little funding. The danger to these texts is nothing so dramatic as fires set my separatist malcontents, as in Mali, but the much more insidious problems of poor storage and age.

Jacob writes about the origins of the library:

The library itself was started with the personal collection of the last Bogd Khan, Mongolia’s spiritual and secular head of state, who died in 1924, three years after the communists came to power. But the charred edges of many texts are reminders of the 1930s communist purges when over 30,000 monks were executed and around 700 monasteries razed to the ground. As news of the destruction spread, faithful Buddhists across Mongolia hid artifacts and salvaged what they could from destroyed monasteries.

Hidden texts started resurfacing by the 1960s. When the Mongolia Academy of Sciences established the Department for Mongolian and Tibetan Studies in 1985, people started donating hidden family collections once they believed the texts would be preserved, recounts Gonchog, the former monk who is also a member of the Academy.

Many of those donated texts included Tibetan manuscripts salvaged during the Chinese annexation of that nation. the manuscripts vary widely, but are written in Sanskrit and Mongolian as well as Tibetan. Much of the texts are on birch bark, but others are in gold powder on black paper or stitched in silk. As library director says, the archive is simply to small to do them all justice, and the digitization process has run into difficulties with local politics. There’s more about their hurdles and plans on Ariadne here. From Jacob again:

Many texts are in poor condition and housed in less-than-adequate conditions, admits Khaidav, the library director. Space is a constraint and much the collection is stacked haphazardly in the library’s storeroom. Khaidav says the Mongolian government has funded the study and restoration of many of the ancient Mongolian texts. But until recently little was done with the Tibetan texts.

The texts had begun to be digitized, if slowly, after 1999, or 2006 depending on the source, with the help of the American-based non-profit Asian Classics Input Program, which has also set up staff in India to help digitize Sanskrit and Tibetan texts there. As Jacob mentions, funding for the ACIP operation fell through in 2008 and has resumed only this past February.

What goes unmentioned is that the ACIP was founded by the notorious Michael Roach, an American monk who teaches something akin to a church of prosperity, whose many students have accused him of gross mistreatment, whose bizarre relationship with his wife ended in divorce and lurid tragedy last year. This is akin to discovering that the Dead Sea Scrolls are being preserved by Creflo Dollar. (Don’t know Dollar? Look him up. He’s a mess.)

Roach’s involvement does not mean that the ACIP is anything less than professional—when funding is forthcoming—or doing their utmost to preserve these irreplaceable manuscripts. It simply means that broader support for the preservation of the manuscripts is even more imperative. The greater the backing for the digitization of the Mongolian archive cache, the less impact Roach himself can have on the project. After all, if defending West African manuscripts from fundamentalist arsonists can get the world’s attention, surely saving a tree bark canon from mildew and megalomaniacs deserves a few eyes and dollars.

Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.