Prayer wheels on the Siberian frontier

As Russia pushed its borders eastward in the 17th century, it gained control of a vast, mountainous region in eastern Siberia, populated by Buddhist adherents and dotted with datsans, Mongolian Buddhist monasteries. Although both the Buddhists and their monasteries were officially acknowledged by and assimilated into the Empire, their existence remained a source of anxiety for both the political administration as well as the Russian Orthodox Church. Thus, in 1830, the foreign ministry sent Baron Pavel Lvovitch Schilling von Canstadt (1786-1837) to Kyakhta, an important Russian trading post on the Mongolian border, to report back on “oriental Siberia”.


Detail from "Thibet, Mongolia, and Mandchouria". 1851. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Detail from “Thibet, Mongolia, and Mandchouria“. 1851. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Schilling, having long been interested in central Asia, jumped at the opportunity. His quest for knowledge took him even further east to Subulin datsan (modern-day Tsugol), 300 leagues from Kyakhta, where he became the first Westerner to obtain a complete copy of the Kangyur, the core of the Tibetan Buddhist canon. The story of how he came to acquire these texts was told in a posthumous article in 1848, and has since been retold many times, becoming a foundational myth of European Buddhology:

When Baron Schilling de Canstadt paid a visit to the temple at Subulin, in Siberia, the Lamas were just occupied with preparing 100,000,000 copies of [a] mantra to be put into a gigantic prayer-cylinder. His offer to have the necessary number executed at St. Petersburg was most readily accepted, and in return for the 150,000,000 copies he had made, printing from rollers, and sent to them, he was presented with an edition of the Kanjur (a vast compilation of “translations of the Commandments” of the Buddha), the sheets of which amounted to about forty thousand.

(As told by Edward Heron-Allen, Necromancer to ye Sette of Old Volumes, 1931, 38)

This version of the story is somewhat distorted. According to Schilling, the monks planned to print the mantra, oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ, 100 million times. With their xylographic process, they were able to print it 250 times on one page. Schilling, with his metal type, was able to print the mantra 2500 times on a single page, and so he only needed to make 40 000 copies of that page to send to Subulin.  Moreover, the monks did not gift him the Kangyur in exchange for the copies, but in exchange for the mere promise that he would print them on his return to St. Petersburg, which he dutifully fulfilled; in fact, he sent an extra 20 000 copies in gratitude. But a few copies also made their way westward, and the BnF acquired one of these from the collection of Eugène Burnouf.

Although the nomadic Buryat people, who inhabit this area, speak a Mongolian dialect, they generally used Tibetan for their Buddhist scholarly and devotional practices. In fact, it was not uncommon in this period for their lamas to be illiterate in Mongolian. It is not surprising, then, that their prayer wheels were filled with copies of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ written in Tibetan script. For Mongolians, reading, writing, learning, and even printing Tibetan were devotional acts with a long history.


Xylograph of oṃ maṇipadme huṃ taken from a prayer wheel. Schlagintweit 1863, 120bis. Courtesy of the University of Heidelberg.

Xylograph of the mantra oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ taken from a Tibetan prayer wheel. Schlagintweit 1863, 120bis. Courtesy of the University of Heidelberg.


Filling their prayer wheel with 100 million iterations of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ would bring enormous merit to the monks at Subulin, but it was also prohibitively expensive to produce using xylography — that is, carving the text into a block of wood, which is then used to print on paper. Schilling — an engineer most famous for the invention of the electromagnetic telegraph — had been experimenting with movable type in Tibetan script, and was able to squeeze the entire mantra onto a metal punch about a centimetre wide, greatly reducing the amount of paper needed to print the text.


Sanscrit 1100 Oṃ maṇipadme huṃ. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 1100 Oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ. Printed by Schilling von Canstadt in 1835. 660 x 230 mm. Courtesy of the BnF.


Schilling’s pages are very neatly printed and thoughtfully designed. The text is in red ink, which was apparently 108 times more auspicious than black. This was also a gesture of reciprocity on Schilling’s part, since the Kangyur that he was gifted was also printed in red. Each page is laid out in a grid, 61 repetitions wide and 41 repetitions tall. This would technically result in 2501 mantras per page, except that the first mantra has been replaced by the triple ཡིག་མགོ་ yig mgo sign (༅༅།), which is traditionally used to mark the beginning of a text.1


Sanscrit 1100, detail, showing the triple yig ngo. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 1100, detail, showing the triple yig mgo. Courtesy of the BnF.


This page layout is ingenious. 2501 is a semiprime number ― it is the product of exactly two prime numbers, 41 and 61. This means that there is no other way to lay out a grid of 2501 other than as a table of 41×61 or 61×412 (Of course, he could have opted to print a single line 2501 repetitions long). This does not seem to be merely a happy accident; Schilling — who, on top of everything else, devised cryptographic ciphers for the use of Russian “diplomats”3 ― was surely a skilled mathematician. Perhaps he took inspiration from his work creating code tables.

But despite the extraordinary care that he put into designing a grid containing exactly 2500 repetitions of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ, he ended up adding an additional repetition to each page anyway, in the form of a watermark.4


Sanscrit 1100, watermark. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 1100, watermark. Courtesy of the BnF.


Schilling seemed quite proud of this achievement — he wrote, J’avais fait fabriquer du papier dont la marque au lieu du nom du fabricant reproduisit la formule : Om mani padme houm, en gros charactères (“I had paper made whose mark, instead of the name of the producer, reproduced the phrase: oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ, in large characters.”) Did the monks notice the watermark before they installed the papers into their prayer wheel? It is heartening to imagine them at Subulin, by the Oron river, receiving even more copies than they had expected, each with an additional repetition of the mantra, and realizing that their trust in the stranger was not misplaced.5


Eugène Burnouf’s copies

During a 1835-1836 tour of western Europe to demonstrate his telegraph apparatus,6 Schilling donated a number of manuscripts to the Société asiatique in Paris, and also had a copy of the index to the Kangyur that he had made in Kyakhta sent to them. However, the BnF prints of the oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ do not appear in the list of Tibetan or Mongolian manuscripts that he donated. Rather, it seems that Eugène Burnouf acquired them separately. The copies which are kept at the BnF come wrapped in laid paper, with a note in what looks to be Burnouf’s hand.


Sanscrit 1100, wrapper. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 1100, wrapper. Courtesy of the BnF.


The note reads:

Om manipadme hum

Formule célèbre chez les Buddhistes du Tibet, imprim[ée] par ordre du B.on Schilling de Canstadt à l’usage des sujets russes qui suivent la religion de Buddha et répétée 5000 fois sur quatre bandes de papier. Fait à St Petersbourg, en 1835.

(Sanscrit 1100, note affixed to wrapper)

Famous phrase among the Buddhists of Tibet, printed by order of Baron Schilling von Canstadt, for the use of Russian subjects who follow the religion of the Buddha, and repeated 5000 times7 on four strips of paper. Made in St. Petersburg in 1835.

The mystery of how Burnouf came into possession of these pages — by 1854, only three of the four remained — is perhaps not so difficult to solve. After Schilling’s death, Otto von Böhtlingk found 100 copies of it among his papers. When Böhtlingk published Schilling’s account of Subulin in the Bulletin de la Classe historico-philologique de l’Académie impériale des sciences de St.-Pétersbourg in 1848, he bundled the copies, as a “curiosity”, together with that issue of the journal.


Bulletin de la Classe historico-philologique de l'Académie impériale des sciences de St.-Pétersbourg, vol. 5, 1848. Courtesy of HathiTrust.

Bulletin de la Classe historico-philologique de l’Académie impériale des sciences de St.-Pétersbourg, vol. 5, 1848. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Courtesy of HathiTrust.


If not from the Bulletin, then Burnouf could have obtained the prints from Schilling himself, when he came to Paris. They had known each other, at least by reputation, for at least several years prior to Schilling’s trip. August Wilhelm von Schlegel8 had written to Burnouf in 1834, relating Schilling’s praise of Burnouf and even including a French translation of an excerpt from one of Schilling’s letters describing his acquisition of the Kangyur. Interestingly, in the excerpted letter, Schilling does not mention the prayer wheel at all; instead, he attributes his success to his knowledge of the Tibetan language:

Vous connaissez la défiance et la jalousie des Lamas pour ce qui concerne leur religion, et les difficultés qu’éprouvent les intrus pour se procurer le moindre petit traité ; vous serez donc bien étonné d’apprendre que j’ai été très heureux dans mes investigations. Mes faibles connaissances en tibétain ont beaucoup étonné nos Lamas mongols ; elles m’ont procuré accès à leurs trésors religieux et littéraires. Ces bons et hospitaliers nomades ont eu la bonhomie de me prendre pour une incarnation et m’ont rendu des honneurs presque divins. Vous sentez bien que je n’ai rien fait pour les désabuser et que j’ai tâché de jouer mon rôle de mon mieux.

(Choix de lettres d’Eugène Burnouf 1825-1852, 1891, 509)

You are familiar with the suspicion and jealousy that the lamas have for that which concerns their religion, and the difficulties that outsiders face in getting a hold of even the most minor work; you will thus be surprised to learn that I have been very lucky in my search. My passing familiarity with Tibetan took our Mongolian lamas by surprise; it granted me access to their religious and literary treasures. These good and hospitable nomads had the bonhomie to take me for a reincarnation [of a religious figure] and honoured me almost like a god. You can tell that I did nothing to disabuse them of this and that I took it upon myself to play my role to the best of my ability.

In reply, Burnouf wrote back, quelle riche moisson (“what a rich harvest”)! For Burnouf, as for Schilling, what mattered most was their own pursuit of knowledge; the naive beliefs of the Mongolians were of little import. Schilling writes as if he had gotten one over on the lamas, but in retrospect, they may not have been quite so naive.9 When they understood that Schilling was able to read Tibetan, if only poorly, they seized the opportunity to spread the Buddha’s words westward; they knew that Schilling would not treat the Kangyur as a mere object of curiosity, that he was interested and willing to put in the effort to read the text. And although he boasts that he was merely “playing the role”, he really did take it seriously, as can be seen in the care he took to design, print, and send the copies of the oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ.

The posthumous 1848 article mentioned previously also includes a similar story about Schilling being taken for a khubilgan, or incarnation.10 There, he further relates that, one year before his arrival, a lama had prophesied a foreign Buddhist convert would arrive, and that he was destined to spread Buddhism to the Occident. Schilling scoffed at their superstitions, but he managed to fulfill his destiny anyway.

While Buddhism slowly spread through western Europe, the “Russian subjects” of the Buddhist faith did not fare as well. Whatever Schilling reported back to the Empire did not seem to assuage their fears; printing was forbidden in all datsans by 1889,11 and, by the 1940s, under Stalin, every datsan in Siberia had been closed down or destroyed.12


Suggested citation


Li, Charles. 2021. “Prayer wheels on the Siberian frontier.” Texts Surrounding Texts: Satellite Stanzas, Prefaces and Colophons in South-Indian Manuscripts (Paris BnF and Hamburg Stabi collections). 3 April.

Charles Li

Charles is the resident postdoctoral researcher at the TST project in Paris.

More Posts - Website

  1. Also known as bir ɣa in Mongolian; see Wallace 2019, 67 for an example. []
  2. Cf. the Arecibo message broadcast into space, which is similarly laid out. Further numerological trivia: 41 and 61 are consecutive centred square numbers. []
  3. Bauer 2011, 28. Semiprime numbers would later become essential for cryptography, albeit for different reasons. []
  4. Having demonstrated such precise calculations in the page layout, did he, in his zeal to impress the monks, end up committing an off-by-one error? []
  5. The datsan was reopened in 1990; could the large prayer wheel at the present site be an echo of the one Schilling encountered? []
  6. Conversely, Nicholas I maintained strict control over information about Schilling’s telegraph within Russia itself. []
  7. This number is incorrect; as mentioned previously, each sheet has 2500 repetitions. []
  8. Schlegel had, earlier, written some Sanskrit ślokas in praise of Schilling. []
  9. Perhaps more can be learned of the monks’ own perspective from a manuscript describing the construction of the datsan (Vostrikov 2006, trans. Gupta, 198n). []
  10. The newly-reopened datsan at Subulin (Tsugol) retains the legend that the “fourth khubilgan… Gandzhira Gegen has occasionally taken refuge in this datsan” (Bělka 1994, 99). This is certainly not a reference to Schilling, but to Danzan Norboev (1887-1935), an important religious and political figure who died under mysterious circumstances in Leningrad (Andreyev 2003, 359).  Yet another story relates that Schilling had brought his electromagnetic telegraph with him, and that demonstrating it “assisted him not a little to obtain many of the more interesting works.” []
  11. Uspensky 2010, 435. []
  12. Bernstein 2002, 2 & 10. []

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Charles Li (April 3, 2021). Prayer wheels on the Siberian frontier. Texts Surrounding Texts. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from

Charles Li

Charles is the resident postdoctoral researcher at the TST project in Paris.

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1 Response

  1. Camillo says:

    Very interesting post, thanks Charlie!

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