Jewels in Her Crown: Treasures of Columbia University Libraries Special Collections

Exhibition Themes > East Asian Collections > 16. Hyakumantō darani

16.  Hyakumantō darani (One million pagoda dhārāni). Kyoto, Japan: 764-770 CE. Cypress and cherry wood, (height 13.6 cm., bottom diameter 10.5 cm.) C. V. Starr East Asian Library

As a gesture of appeasement (disguised as a gesture of Buddhist piety) after a political power conflict between the monk Dōkyō (d. 772) and the aristocrat Fujiwara no Nakamaro (706-764), the Empress Shōtoku (r. 764-770) ordered the production of one million miniature wooden pagodas with copies of at least four different dhārāni (mantras or charms). These pagodas, containing the rolled-up dhārāni, were then distributed to ten major temples. Most have been destroyed or lost over time. Only the Hōryūji (a monastery temple in Ikaruga, Nara prefecture) still owns approximately 1700 of its original one hundred thousand sets. In addition it is estimated that almost as many sets are held in public and private collections. The pagodas were made of two parts: the hollow bottom portion was made of hinoki (cypress) wood, and the top seven-tiered spire of cherry wood. The dhārāni were printed, most likely by the metal-plate method and, at least tentatively, form the earliest extant examples of printed text. They are also the only known printed texts from the Nara period (710-794), and as such remain of great interest in the history of printing.

Due to the extremely fragile condition of the original pagoda a facsimile reproduction is displayed here.

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