Pañcarakṣā sūtra


Books have been a major part of human life since ancient times. They have enabled people to learn new things, tell stories and histories and share knowledge and information. They have long been a source of one’s imagination, entertainment, and creativity, way before transportation and communication were readily available.

Brief History on Books

Its origin may be as old as the early practice of reading and writing. Clay tablets, bones, shells, stones, wood, leather, cloth, and papyrus sheets were all used to write on in the past. The earliest books were codex (handwritten books made of sheets of vellum, papyrus, and other materials), which were eventually replaced by block prints and then printing machines.

Books today rarely have a physical existence, thanks to the invention of digital scanning and ebooks. Hundreds of thousands of books have already been digitized to make them available online on a variety of applications.  Users may now download any ebooks of any genre to read on their wireless devices such as iPad, smartphone, or kindle. These devices are lightweight and easily portable, allowing users to read whenever and wherever they like.

Nepalese Book History

Nepalese has used a variety of writing materials throughout history. The texts inscribed on stone slabs, copper plates, palm leaves, and birch bark are just a few examples found at Nepali Museums like the National Museum, Patan Museum, and Bhaktapur Palace Museum, etc.

Nepal began employing paper as a writing medium after the 10th CE. Papers such as Haritalika (yellow paper), Nilpatra (blue-black paper), and common handmade white paper were used to write chronicles, official correspondences,  religious scriptures, and so on.

One of the earliest manuscripts of Nepal is a manuscript of the Suśrutasamhitā (an ancient text on medicine and surgery) dating back to 878 CE, housed at the Keshar Library in Kathmandu. Similarly, other old manuscripts from Nepal include the Skanda Purāṇa (Hindu religious text) from 811 CE, which is preserved at the National Archives in Kathmandu, and the fragments of the Pārameśvaratantra (manuscript related to Shaivism) from 829 CE located at Cambridge, UK. Some of the older books are the Swayambhu Purana (a book on the origin and development of Kathmandu valley), and Gopālarājavamśāvalī (oldest chronicles of the Nepalese monarchs).

Worshipping of Books 

Nepal has had a long tradition of worshiping and paying reverence to the books. The custom of venerating books continues, whether they be general textbooks or religious books. Apart from that, Nepalese reveres them, even if they are accidentally dropped or trampled. Licking one’s fingers while flipping the pages of a book was likewise prohibited. The elders used to warn that such behavior would desecrate books and result in the accumulation of bad karma. However, there may be a scientific basis behind such a warning.

Previously, papers used to be treated with very toxic poisons such as haritalika (a deadly poison) to protect them from insects and rodents. Similarly, flipping pages with damp fingers deteriorated the paper over time. As a result, to avoid poisoning, and protect books from deterioration such practice may have been devised. A similar former practice of employing concentrated arsenic to evade insects and vermin were documented in Europe.

Aside from these customs, there are times when students and the general people alike worship books on the occasion of Saraswati (a Hindu goddess of knowledge and wisdom) Puja. They worship their religious books, textbooks, and exercise books, as well as school supplies such as pen or pencil, musical instruments, and so on. It is a practice that has continued to this day.

Dhāraṇīs and their personification in Buddhism

Nepalese society has always regarded religious books with high esteem. Since the past, various Buddhist, as well as Hindu books and manuscripts, are studied and practiced to accumulate merit. People also believe that such books and manuscripts serve as a vessel for both the deities and the text.

Over time, a whole new set of protective texts emerged. Rather than traditional Buddhist orthodox content, these texts were inspired by specific elements of Brahmanical text. Mantras (sacred verses) and lengthy incantations, in particular, were employed to compose these texts, which came to be known as dhāraṇīs (Dharanis)

As these dhāraṇīs gained popularity, they went through similar processes of development and rewriting. Between the third to fourth centuries, a new scriptural interpretation approaches named Mantranaya, (Method of Mantras), developed within the Buddhist tradition. It emphasized the effectiveness of mantras and dhāraṇīs for protection, healing as well as enlightenment. As a result, they became an important part of Buddhist practice. They were personified with their own distinct iconography and venerated as deities.

In the 11th CE, Nepal devised a unique iconographic technique for illustrating texts, which was later replicated in India. This iconographic system for illustrating Buddhist manuscripts became more standardized and streamlined in Nepal by the beginning of the 12th CE, rendering a book as a physical and visual indicator of its content.

Some of the personified Buddhist scripts are Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā sūtra, Pañcarakṣā sūtra and Kāraṇḍavyūha sūtra. These are a few examples of religious books which are venerated by local people regularly.

Pañcarakṣā Sūtra (Pancha Rakcha Sutra)

Pañcarakṣā sūtra is the collection of the five sūtras (teachings) of the five rakṣā (protectresses). They explicate how each goddess may protect the practitioner from various diseases, sicknesses, calamities, and personal misfortunes. They are a group of five female deities that are the personifications of five early Buddhist texts. The earliest dates from the 4th CE.

The earliest evidence for the texts grouped as the “five great dhāraṇīs” comes from Tibetan catalogues of 800 CE. These scriptures contain spells, benefits, and ritual instructions. These deities are either portrayed individually or in a group and sometimes in Pañcarakṣā mandala.

According to Brian H. Hodgson (a British diplomat from 19th CE),  the book of Pañcarakṣā  was even used to swear Buddhists upon by the court of law during the Malla and early Shah dynasties of Nepal.

Pañcarakṣā (Pancha Rakcha)
Five goddesses
Five goddesses, from a Pañcarakṣā manuscript. Nepal; 1280 – 90. Palm leaf. Mr. and Mrs. James Singer Collection. Source: Navin Kumar Gallery

According to Niṣpannayogāvalī (Buddhist book of Iconography) and Dharma-samgraha (a Sanskrit glossary of Buddhist technical terms) (section 5), Pañcarakṣā is five female protectors. In Nepal, they are worshipped as the personification of five dharanis. These protectors are named as

  1. Mahā-Pratisarā
  2. Mahā-Māyūrī
  3. Mahā-Sāhasrapramardanī
  4. Mahā-Mantrānusāriṇī
  5. Mahā-Śītavatī 

Each has a distinct purpose directed towards accomplishing worldly welfare and happiness. They are also to prevent natural disasters and heal snake bites, overcome fear, and prevent disease and epidemics. The five deities are also correlated to the five senses (Pancha Skandha) and the Five Dhyani Buddha. A set of 13 deity mandala, 42 deity mandala, and 56 deity mandala are devoted to these protectresses.

Pancha Raksha is worshipped individually as well as a group of five protectresses in countries such as Tibet, China, Japan, Bhutan, and others. Depending on the local practice, system, and teaching, they are sometimes worshipped by the same name or different names, functions, and attributes.

Great teachers and translators as well as traditions have described them in different forms and attributes. These descriptions may have been the result of the visualization and lineage of great teachers.

Due to their popularity in Nepalese society, they are actively illustrated in numerous manuscripts. These illustrations serve as a personified symbolism of the text. The first illustration of these deities dates back to the mid-eleventh century (Cambridge University Library).

However, because of variation in illustration, description, and practice, there could arise some difficulties in identifying these deities with a specific sutra.

Mahā-Pratisarā (Maha Pratisara)
Mahāpratisarā from Vajranet blogspot

She protects her devotees from sin, disease, and evils. Generally, she is portrayed in the center direction. According to the Niṣpannayogāvalī, she is yellow in color with four faces, and twelve arms, sitting in Vajraparyaṅkasana (Vajra asana). Her principal face is yellow, whereas her rest three faces are white, blue, and red from right to left.

To her right, she extends six arms holding various implements; a jewel, a wheel, a Vajra, an arrow, a sword and displays the Varada-mudrā (top to bottom). Similarly, on her left, another six arms extended hold implements; a Vajra, a noose, a trident, a bow, an axe, and a conch shell.

However, according to the Sādhanamālā (a group of texts that provides comprehensive directions for visualization and performing rituals). She has four faces and eight arms. She carries implements such as a sword, a wheel (Chakra), a trident (Triśūla), and an arrow, on her right arms, whereas an axe (Paraśu), a bow, a noose, and a Vajra on her left ones.

As the iconography for the Pancha Rakcha varies depending on the teaching, the referenced image differs from the iconography described in Niṣpannayogāvalī and Sādhanamālā. Here she is portrayed as yellow in color with four faces and eight arms. She is seated in Vajra-asana on a lotus throne.

Her principal face is yellow in color here as well. To her right, she has a red face, while to her left, she has a blue and white faces. She is depicted with three eyes on each face of infuriated expression.

Her primary right arm is raised against her chest bearing a wheel, while her other arms are carrying implements such as a Vajra, an arrow, and a sword from top to bottom. Similarly, on her left arms, she is carrying another set of implements such as a trident, a bow, an axe, and a noose (top to bottom).

She is dressed in silk and a billowing green scarf and adorned with gold crowns, earrings, necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and anklets.

Mahā-Māyūrī (Maha Mayuri)
Mahāmāyūrī from Vajranet Blogspot

She is the protector against snake bites/poison. She is generally depicted with three faces and eight arms residing in the North direction and green in color.

However, according to Sādhanamālā she is described as yellow-colored. Her principal face is green with her right being white and left being blue.

On her eight hands, she displays various implements and gestures. The right side holds Varada-mudra, a sword, Vajra, and a jewel whereas the left ones hold a bowl, a vase, a bell, and a flower.

In the image, she is portrayed as 3 faced, eight-armed, and is seated on a lotus throne in Vajra asana. Her central face is green with blue and white to the right and left respectively. All the faces have three eyes and scowls. Her primary right hand is extended in the Varada-mudra, with a sword, an arrow, and peacock feathers on the rest of the hands. While on the left ones starting at the top, she holds a monk in a bowl, a bow, a parasol, and a vase.

Her ensemble is made of silk and a swirling green scarf. She is clad in gold crowns, earrings, necklaces, armlets, bracelets, and anklets.

Mahā Sāhasrapramardanī (Maha Sahasrapramardani)
Mahāsāhasrapramardanī from Vajranet blogspot

Residing in the East, she is said to protect her followers from evil spirits. According to the Niṣpannayogāvalī, she is white in color, four-faced, and ten armed.

Her principal face is white, whereas her faces from right to left are blue, yellow, and green. On her five extended arms, she holds implements and gestures like the eight-spoked wheel on a lotus, the Varada-mudrā, a goad, an arrow, and a sword. While on her five extended left arms, she holds the Tarjanī-mudrā (gesture of warning), implements like the Vajra, a noose, a bow, and a noose.

She is depicted here as described in the Niṣpannayogāvalī text. The main variation is that on her left arm, she holds a noose and an axe along with other implements and gestures such as a bow, a vajra, and a Tarjanī-mudrā.

Here she is seated in ardhaparyaṅkasana or Lalitāsana (posture of royal ease).

Mahā-Mantrānusāriṇī (Maha Mantranusarini)
Mahāmantrānusāriṇī from Vajranet blogspot.

According to the Niṣpannayogāvalī, she is blue in color with three faces and twelve arms, sitting in Vajraparyaṅkasana.

Her principal face is blue with her right as white and her left as red. With principal hands, she forms the Dharmācakra-mudrā (the wheel of Dharma) whereas with her other pair of hands she forms the Samādhi-mudrā (posture of meditation). Her remaining four right hands are holding the Vajra, an arrow, a Varada, and an Abhaya mudrā (gesture of fearlessness). Similarly, the left hands are holding the Tarjanī mudra with the noose, a bow, a jewel, and the vase.

She is portrayed in the image as described in the Niṣpannayogāvalī. One of the added details is the three eyes in each face. She, like the other protectresses, is also dressed in silk and billowing green scarf and ornate with various gold jewelry.

Mahā-Śītavatī (Maha Sitavati)
Mahāśītavatī from Vajranet blogspot.

This protectress residing in the west direction is the protector from poisonous plants, animals, and insects.

In the Niṣpannayogāvalī, she is described as red in color with three faces and eight arms, sitting in Ardhaparyaṅkasana. From left to right, her faces are white, red, and blue. She displays the Abhaya-mudrā with her principal right hand and the rest carry the implements like an arrow, a Vajra, and a sword. Her principal left arm holds the noose while gesturing a Tarjanī-mudra and her remaining arms hold a bow, a jewel banner, and a manuscript against the chest.

In the Sādhanamālā she is described as a six-armed goddess and green in color.

In the image, she is depicted as she is described in the Niṣpannayogāvalī. Some of the added features are: each of her faces has three eyes, and she is also carrying a flower stalk while performing the Abhaya-mudra. Her principal left arm is holding a manuscript, followed by other implements and gestures such as with her other extended arms, she is carrying the noose while performing the Tarjanī-mudra, the bow, and the jewel banner (bottom to top).

Like other protectresses, she is also dressed in silk and a billowing green scarf and adorned with various jewelry.


Feature Photo: Manuscript cover with illustration of Dhāraṇīs (combination of sacred syllabus and teaching)Source: The Art Institute of Chicago,,, Scribd



Author: Meena Lama

I am an enthusiast of art, culture, heritage and history.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Post

Seto Bhairab aka Swett Bhairab
Seto Bhairab aka Swett Bhairab is set against the Basantapur Palace wall but not very well visible behind the wooden screen. A snarling ten-foot-high gilded head of Seto Bhairab is the fierce manifestation terrifying and blood swilling aspect of Lord Shiva, one of the most revered deities of Nepal, sacred to Hindus and Buddhists alike. Bhairab is invoked in prayers to destroy enemies.


Recent Posts

Scroll Up