THE CULT OF THE BOOK

Though images of the Buddha have played a significant role in Buddhist devotional practices, in Sri Lanka anyway, from the very beginning, the primary focus of Buddhist cultic practice has been the reliquary monument (stupa). This dome-shaped edifice, sometimes hundreds of feet in diameter and height, is believed to contain some portion of the Buddha's own corporeal body, saved from his funeral pyre and passed down through lineages of devoted kings into the present. These relics are kept in tiny caskets (karanduwa), themselves shaped like stupas, which in turn may be interred within the towering monuments; three nineteenth century karanduwas are exhibited here. The most important of the Island's stupas have been systematized variously as the eight or sixteen great places; Ms. #47, itself devoted to the fine-points of Buddhist practice, contains largely non-representational paintings of the sixteen great places on its inner covers.

The book in some sense is a stupa; both contain bits of the Buddha's "body," the former spiritual (dharmakaya) and the latter corporeal (rupakaya). Little surprise, then, that the book itself has become, like a stupa, an object of cultic significance. The book itself is treated with reverence. It is invoked and worshipped, employed in ceremonial and carefully preserved and used. The presentation of books from donor to recipient (often a monk at the time of ordination, or at the death of a teacher, or on the occasion of some important holiday) was a cause for festival and procession; kings honored special manuscripts in the same way. Among some Buddhists in Sri Lanka, the book itself literally became the Buddha-relic; fine manuscripts inscribed on leaves of gold or copper were actually deposited within stupas.

The cultic significance of the physical object, though largely unobservable in contemporary Sri Lankan book culture, survived well into the twentieth century despite the displacement of the palm leaf manuscript form. Fine binding in tooled leather was the rule for early printed Sinhala and Pali codices, which were presented to monastic libraries by wealthy patrons, complete with festival and procession. A collection of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Buddhist codices is included here by way of illustration.