This rare manuscript is a visual interpretation of the male body, surrounded by Sanskrit extracts from 'Bhāvaprakāśa' by Bhāvamiśra (fl. ca. 1650–1690), a 17th-century Ayurvedic work that is still used in Ayurvedic medical colleges today.
It's not clear who the intended audience for the manuscript would have been, but Dominik Wujastyk, who carried out extensive research on the manuscript, suggests that there are clues in its condition and the manner of its creation.
The work is a likely collaboration between an Ayurvedic physician, Tibetan artists and a calligrapher, all based in Kathmandu, Nepal.
The painting is flat and shows no signs of having been rolled up, so it may have been intended for display, but the freshness of the colours suggests limited exposure to daylight. Perhaps it hung on the wall in a royal physician's examining room, or maybe it was used for teaching?
Open eyes suggest life
One intriguing question is whether the artist was painting a corpse (as with other anatomical illustrations) or a living person. The open eyes and the style of the figure calls to mind the ‘body maps’ used to show Tibetan bloodletting and moxibustion points, and these are relevant only to living bodies. Yet the anatomical details are clearly the results of dissecting a dead body.
Illustrations are rare in Sanskrit tradition, but they are more common in Nepali and Tibetan texts, so to have such a striking illustration at the centre of the work may be another example of how this is a unique interpretation of Ayurveda.
A written reminder
Captivating as the painting is, those of us who can't read Sanskrit are missing out on the interaction between word and image offered by the surrounding texts.
All the texts are from chapter three of the ‘Bhāvaprakāśa’. Fortunately, Dominik Wujastyk provides detailed transcriptions, and translations of the texts into English. He notes that the poor quality of the original transcriptions – 20 or more errors in each passage – mean it would have been impossible to understand them without prior knowledge of the original.
It also suggests that the calligrapher was unfamiliar with Sanskrit and would have had to work closely with the physician. There are nine texts in all, as well as labels written on the different parts of the body. The labels are not in Sanskrit, but in Bhasa, a vernacular derivative of Sanskrit, perhaps more familiar to some of the creators.
Whoever owned the painting probably used it as an aide-memoire for his practice. The original texts are in verse (another aide memoire?), but the line divisions in the painting don’t reflect the verse structure.
The brushes, ropes and grooves of the body
Even in translation, the language of the texts is poetic. 'Text A' outlines the content of the rest of the chapter, and contains a beautiful survey of the landscape of the body: