The script of the scriptures

Yuntai or Cloud Platform, located at the base of the Great Wall's Juyongguan section. Photos: SEWA BHATTARAI

The Great Wall of China is one of the world’s most famous landmarks, but what is less well known is the historical link between this World Heritage Site to another one 4,000km to the south in Kathmandu Valley. 

Here on the white marble Cloud Platform of the Juyongguan Section of the Great Wall 60km from Beijing, visitors come across ancient Buddhist inscriptions that tell the story of the influence of Nepal on the Yuan dynasty in the 13thcentury.

At the base of the Great Wall is an arch built in 1345 and inscribed with Buddhist sutras in six languages: Mandarin, Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongolian, Tangut and Sanskrit. Kublai Khan and his descendants had to pass under the script of the Buddhist scriptures when they visited nearby temples.

What is surprising is that the Sanskrit lines inside the arch are not in the usual Devanagari letters, but in the Ranjana script that originated in Kathmandu Valley.  

Ranjana is called ‘Lanzha’ in Mandarin, and can be found in religious monuments across Tibet and China, having travelled with the spread of Mahayana Buddhism, whose main texts including the Pragya Paramita are written in Ranjana. 

Many sects of Buddhism had already spread to China through Central and South Asia more than 2,000 years ago, but they were overlaid by Mahayana Buddhism after Princess Bhrikuti took the sect to Tibet in the 7th century from Kathmandu Valley. The practice of inscribing Buddhist scriptures in a distinctive Nepali style have been documented from this time. 

Cultural historian Satya Mohan Joshi believes that tradition began as early as the 7thcentury in China after the arrival in Beijing of Priyajiv, the ambassador of King Narendra Dev. In his book on Arniko, Joshi cites a 1,400-year-old stele inscribed with the Usnisa Vijaya Dharini Sutra in the Xi'an Museum. However, Ranjaan was not in the picture yet, and these scripts may have been the precursors of Ranjana. Ranjana started appearing in Buddhist monuments after the 12th century. 

Ranjana alphabet was derived from the Brahmi script and originally developed in Nepal in the 11th century, which is why some say it should be called the ‘Nepali script’. 

"In Nepal the Brahmi developed into the Lichhavi script and the Nepal script, which further was transformed to Ranjana," says Devdas Manandhar, a forceful proponent for the preservation of Ranjana. "The Nepal script was uniquely Nepali and has a very distinctive way of writing the vowel ‘ae’ which carried over to Ranjana.”


However, other scholars say the script originated in Bengal and transferred to Nepal along with other cultural heritage after Buddhism was overrun in northern India. Buddhist scholar Basanta Maharjan says that the Ranjana letters were beautified, and preserved by the Newars of Kathmandu Valley from where it travelled to Tibet, China and on to Korea and Japan.

"Tibet's religion and philosophy were influential not just in China but in Mongolia in the north and Kashmir in the west. The version of Ranjana found in all these places is distinctly Nepali, and that is something that we can be proud of," says Maharjan.


Nepali art and philosophy got another boost in China from Arniko, the Kathmandu architect who travelled to Beijing in the 13thcentury to help  Kublai Khan build temples and monuments with Buddhist symbolism, and leave a Nepali imprint in the ancient architecture of China, Korea and Japan.  

Satya Mohan Joshi researched Arniko in China, and is convinced it was Arniko's influence that helped spread the Ranjana script. The White Dagoba built by Arniko in Beijing in 1279 still stands today, and contains many distinct Ranjana inscriptions. The Cloud Platform at the Great Wall, which Joshi also documented in his book, was built almost a century after Arniko reached China and shows his influence. On top of the arch are Garuda, crocodiles, and other carved elements which look like they have been transplanted from Kathmandu.

The Ranjana script was used in a new golden stupa built in Beijing's Patachou as recently as 1960 to house the Buddha's tooth relic. "The prevalence of this script is an example of the enduring influence of Arniko, and the close cultural links between Nepal and China," says Joshi. 

Arniko created the White Pagoda on Kublai Khan's command, and it was then a symbol of the unification of China under Yuan dynasty. Today the Miaoying Temple museum in Beijing acknowledges his work as ‘a great symbol of cultural exchange between Nepal and China’. That Nepali art, architecture and the Ranjana script were so widespread in China are proof of this historical trans-Himalayan connection. 

Devdas Manandhar says that Ranjana is Nepal’s gift to Asia’s culture, and is still seen from Kashmir to the Great Wall of China, and in Japan. He explains: "Since the Ranjana script was associated with the Buddhist scriptures, it is always found above doors, so that you never stepped on the holy fonts.”

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