Fol 86v East roundel: Lotus and Paeony

fol 86v east quadrant marked[150 words… or 2300 words – your choice]

PLEASE NOTE: The folio is referred to in this article by the original foliation published on Yale University’s bibliotecapleyades site.  The Beinecke Library site now gives the same diagram the foliation  “folio 85v and 86r” (Image scan 1006231) – note added 24/02/2016.


The East roundel offers no equivalent for the North’s inset map. To European eyes, little in it is intelligible or imbued with any particular meaning, save that it appears to contain towers of some kind, and represent roads of some sort. It meaning is all but invisible, even by comparison with the North roundel.

Its basic reference is, then, simply to its position as marking the map’s the easternmost point, and in the end that is enough for our present needs. What follows in this post is a deeper discussion of how its various elements and motifs accord with conventions in imagery for this region it describes: how the roundel’s composition appeals directly to conventions and habits of that same region’s culture and  history.

As I read it the route does not continue on past the Tarim basin and that ‘stone tower’ which marked the border of China, as mentioned in the ancient and later medieval sources, but instead now the route turns  southward (as it appears to skirt the edge of this ‘east’ marker in fol.86v)

That the road does not extend to the very easter limit and its coast is indicated by there being shown, still further to the east, of some high flat land where the sun is shown rising, and by the inclusion of a valley pparently leading onward towards the east, but which the road is depicted by-passing.

In earlier times,  if one could not pass far beyond Dunhuang  the only route southward was via one of the few exits at the great basin’s western side.

Details follow of that route and how its imagery and history find their correspondence in the way this East roundel is formed, with mention of certain other imagery in ms Beinecke 408.

Readers whose interest is chiefly in other aspects of the manuscript may prefer to stop here. I’m afraid this is a very long post.


The map (below) shows the routes around and through the Taklamakan and Dunhuang, including passage past the border of China as far as  Chang’an, a  former capital of China. But the sites along the route are sites of Buddhist pilgrimage as they were in the 8thC AD, when the northern region was known chiefly  for its Buddhist monasteries and scriptures.

By the seventh century AD, the Tarim basin’s eastern side  – the border that had , in still earlier times, divided  Indo-Greek  Kushans from the Xiongnu  – was held, very firmly, in Chinese hands. Passage in either direction was subject to individual permissions, not readily provided ~ as the story of the renowned Buddhist pilgrim  Xuansang (Hsuan-tsang) describes.

What had earlier been the Kushan lands had passed four centuries before to the [Indo-] Sassanids of Persia (3rdC AD) and were soon to fall to the newly unified and highly militaristic Arab tribes. At that time, relations between Persia and China were cordial.

It is from before the advent of Islam, and from the same roads  shown in the map above that many of the closest parallels are found for imagery in sections of  ms Beinecke 408.  The East emblem roundel’s design is a case in point.

It appears to me that its underlying theme is the corresponding sense of ‘East’ borne by the  lotus-flower to the west of the Chinese border and by the paeony to those influenced by the Chinese.

The close parallel associations for the two flowers, and the great mass of cultural and religious significance attached to each make them mutually relevant to the form given this roundel as ‘East’ marker and the region to which it refers again provides parallels for the roundel’s style and construction.


The ‘East’ roundel: Lotus and Paeony

The design is formed of three elements.

(i) two circuits of  solid ‘walls’;

(ii)  the radiant fringe [radii and dots) about the annulus;

(iii)  ‘hook’-like forms around the innermost oval.

1. The ‘boundary’.

The basic design as a form of lotus-border  is still to be seen in an old Buddhist complex at Bamiyan, on the next stage of the road below the Tarim. When the images of living creatures are removed, we are left with the same basic design that forms the foundation of the Voynich ‘East’ roundel, though where the Buddhist painting show out-turned ‘petal’ elements, the roundel in f.86v shows them turned inwards, signifying an enclosed and near-impassible perimeter.






For the original drawings of the Bamiyan ceiling, see

Takayasu Higuchi and Gina Barnes, ‘Bamiyan: Buddhist Cave Temples in Afghanistan’, World Archaeology, Vol. 27, No. 2, Buddhist Archaeology (Oct., 1995), pp. 282-302. (p.295)

Another difference between this classic Buddhist design and that in the East roundel on folio 86v is the alteration of the circular centre to an oval.  I rather think this has two levels of significance: first, to refer to the form of the Tarim itself, and secondly to evoke the form of the Paeony, which served as conscious equivalent in some regions for the Indian lotus. So closely were those two flowers  associated in Serindian imagery, and indeed throughout the Buddhist Himalayas, that one finds the outer petals of both are there  stylised in near-identical form, with Tibetan Buddhist imagery very consciously representing each in terms of the other.  (see link)

I’ll come back to the Paeony element, but first return to the culture of the Tarim, Bactria and Afghanistan when Buddhism flourished there during the early centuries AD.


From the Tarim to the mouth of the Indus, there was then a notable culture of philosophical and artistic synthesis which is marked most clearly by a  Greco-Egyptian (Hellenistic) influence melded with early Buddhist imagery in the region of Gandhara. As both Manichaeism and members of the Church of the East were pressed further eastwards along the silk roads, a further fusion occurs between imagery of the Buddhist, Manichaeian and Nestorian Christian tradition.  In parallel, before the advent  of Islam, the region passed from rule by the Indo-Greeks and Bactrians, to the Kushans, and Sassanids. As I’ve found, and described in separating the various iconographic strata in Beinecke 408, a  similar fusion informs the manuscript’s imagery, but overall the oldest stratum appears to me to derive from the Hellenistic (Egypto-Greek).

For any detailed discussion of how the various influences affect art produced through the centuries near the Tarim basin, specialists in the various fields need to be involved. Most agree that we find Ghandaran style (Buddhist-Hellenistic) from somewhere in the range of the  2ndC BC or 1st-2ndC AD, fading by the 3rdC AD.

The Manichaen-Nestorian-Buddhist-Greek synthesis develops later and lasts longer, but here the documentary evidence is more specialised again.  One collection of ‘silk roads’ writings demonstrate the range and nature of Manichaean influence.  The work is published as  Gnosis on the Silk Road.

In my opinion, the greater part of the material in the Voynich manuscript requires a date no later than about the 3rdC AD, save for those additions already specified in earlier posts.

In that same complex at Bamiyan there is  (or was before the recent foreign invasions) a number paintings ascribed to Mani, a copy of whose ‘picture book’ was retained in Ghazni to at least 1092 AD.

Begram has already been mentioned in regard to the Greco-Egyptian culture surviving in the same region during the early centuries AD.

Bamiyan, Ghazni and Begram (Bagram) are shown on the map below.

The Bamiyan ceiling  (like so many images and motifs  in the Voynich manuscript) reflects the  mingled culture of Buddhism with late-classical civilization in the east.  Stylistically, that way of forming the boundary is maintained in an approach to patterning blank areas that we find as  Mehindi (henna painting for ceremonial occasions – see picture below, left) and to a form of fabric-painting known as Kalamkari (example below, right).  The former is most authentically maintained  in the north (e.g. in Rajasthan), while the latter was until recently practiced almost exclusively by Tamil-speaking castes of the Malabar and Coromandel coasts in southern India. These regions have a very long history of cultural and religious connection, both having seen the early interaction of Buddhism and Greco-‘Roman’ culture, and in both Nestorian influence appeared very early as far as we know.  Both also maintained use of Indian’s original, Dravidian, languages.  Such customary approach to filling a blank area with non-angular and meaningful line may possibly explain the unusual sensitivity shown to patternation in folio 86v.  But the last is speculation, no more prescient than any other.


kalamkari work








2. The surrounding ‘fringe’: a line-and-dot edging.

‘Line and dot’ edging is not, in itself, unusual.  it appears even in western manuscripts by the Carolingian period, and is routinely seen in many monochrome media – metal work, ceramics, ivory and woodwork.

However, when the dotted line appears in Chinese maps, it is an indicator for ‘path’ – a convention later taken up by Fra Mauro.  In this case, though, I see its lines and dots as allusion to the lotus, for we see it in that way on folio 86v, where the flower is that of the sun’s movement towards rebirth in the east.   (see  earlier post).

While on this point, I’d like to stop to compare the way the ‘river roads’ and the platelet motif are echoed by earlier art of the same regions in the north-east.  Here, for example:

Greek, Kushan and Buddhist style. Compare the elements below the angels to the way fol. 86v shows the lotus’ bed and the ‘paradise’ rivers.

Buddhist associations for the lotus, as seat of the Buddha, imply light dawning in a higher sense, and this evidently appealed strongly to eastern Manichaeism as a ‘religion of light’. We hear of an edict issued in 1368, when the Chinese Emperor banned a Manichaean sect known as the ‘White Lotus’.

Within the Tarim,we find remnants of Niya fabrics and works of Buddhist religious art in which this sort of synthesis is reflected. Where the Asian influence predominates over the Indian or Greek, works are described as   Serindian in style.


More direct connection of the northern region with Egypt predates even the  Macedonian period. Evidence is uncontrovertable that  a  ‘lapis lazuli road’ operated from the third millenium BC at least from Afghanistan to Mesopotamia and then – perhaps then by intermediaries –  to Egypt.

3. Hooks and Oval

The shift from the concentric circles of pure Buddhist style in the Bamiyan ceiling to an oval within a circle further north on the same road may be a conscious modification to more exactly specify the Tarim as the map’s East limit at the very border of China, land of the Paeony.

  Adeeply Buddhist culture had been established about the Tarim basin, co-existing with the Manichaean and Nestorian, until certain catastrophic events of about the 9th-10thC AD.

The Tarim itself is roughly oval in shape, but in the botanical section (as shown in treating folio 33v), we see the same oval form and hooks –  typically how the ripe pod of the Paeony appears.

There are two types of paeony: the tree paeony and the herbaceous type.

Paeony pod and seedsThe ‘hook’ forms drawb about the centre of the flowers in folio 33v, and again in the East roundel of folio 86v might be taken as reference to the seed-pod’s white border (visible in the picture at right)  but considering the motif in folio 86v by comparison with its appearance in fol.33v, I do not think I can be too assertive on that point. We may be dealing here with contemporary significance – religious or cultural – rather than with superficial form.

I am as certain as I can be that the images on folio 33v represent mayapple and paeony*, and equally that no other flower than the Paeony was considered in the east an equivalent for the Buddha’s lotus (Nelumbo)/  of the identification: no other flower was considered equivalent to that sacred flower.

*the palmately peltate leaves and emphasis on the root suggest P. emodi is referenced.


But here on folio 86v, the ‘hooks’ appear to sprout from the seeds. Perhaps adding that detail was a custom of earlier times, clearly maintaining distinction between the sacred flowers otherwise so similarly depicted. Certainly in later, and more consciously literal imagery, the terminal ‘hook’ on paeony petals is often accentuated.

However, by reference to some fairly arcane lore of North Africa, where manichaeism was once widely established, and a linguistic similarity between terms for the ‘ant’ and the ‘prophet’ in some near eastern languages.  (sorry… 🙂 ), I’m inclined to see the line of dots as reference to those ‘ants’ who travelled the desert road, gathered up their nectar of learning, and carried the treasures back to their caves around the border of the Tarim basin.

Paeony flowers’ attraction for ants is proverbial; ants infest the flowers even when the buds are unopened – though ‘infest’ is surely the wrong term to use, since (as the west has recently come to know), these ants are essential for the flower’s ability to open, the plant even producing a nectar external to the flower to attract their help.   ( see illustration here).

As usual, what the west finally comes to accept, the older world has often known for millennia – so too, the role of ants in opening the Paeony was (I suspect) well known to people in earlier Asia.  In this beautiful work uncovered in the old Chinese capital of Chang’An (Xian), it is being taken as a metaphor for the difficulty of opening China (the land of the paeony) to the doctrine of Compassion.

Opening the lotus/peony- bringing the doctrine of Compassion into China. Image recovered at the site of Chang’an (Xian). 8th-9thC AD

For the Chinese, the paeony was, and  is,  the signifier for the East point; of Spring; of the land of China and (by the seventh century AD) the emperor.

By the 9thC AD, Buddhists, Nestorians and Manichaeans were all present within China although it is said that where Nestorians were classed with Buddhists, Manichaeism was instead considered a form of Taoism [Daoism].

Uyghur presence in the Tarim basin is thought to have begun from about the 9thC.

Pilgrimage and commerce

Pilgrimage and commerce went hand-in-hand in earlier times. As China gradually opened to the rest of the world ( to ‘the outer barbarians’ as the Chinese records have it), these old Buddhist roads became what are now referred to as ‘silk roads’. The purpose for which the basic map on fol.86v was made being (probably) that trade in luxury goods and botanicals indicated by the rest of the manuscript, we must suppose the route follows them.

Map below shows goods from the region,  compiled from early Chinese records. The orange dots and arrows indicate a possible route to suit information in fol.86v so far. The goods shown include precious ones, such as lapis lazuli, rock crystal and the greenish milky nephrite jade for which Khotan, in the southern part of the basin was famed.(For later centuries see e.g. Kovalev’s article.)

jade paeonies. courtesy ‘wiki’

[More on Khotan Jade; and a post on the Miseroni of Milan, and works made in jade for Rudolf II that are supposed their work]

Of course, the paeony also had medicinal uses ~ described here.

My  point here is not that folio 86v – exclusive of the minimap and later additions – was first ‘made by Buddhists’ or first made in the Tarim ~ though it may have been ~  but rather that from this area,  from the Tarim to the Indus’ gulf, one constantly encounters explanations for, and parallels to the manuscript’s imagery. The effect is to show that details and forms which appear  completely  ‘unique’ or ‘inventive’ – and even bizarre –  against a backdrop of medieval western art, are found here to be perfectly at home, and even as set conventions.

Catastrophe came  upon the Tarim basin in the late ninth and tenth centuries.  Buddhist paintings there recorded its progress.

wall painting, Dunhuang

Among these demons, one carries a fire-lance, said to represent a gun, while another holds a fire-ball which is accepted as representing a grenade. The Buddha’s gesture here signifies a plea for divine aid under trials which cannot be endured else. Those books and paintings recovered by Aurel Stein had been walled up at this time.

A similar rescue of some Tibetan books and artefacts was attempted recently, during the Chinese appropriation of Tibet. Since then the  Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have been systematically emptied, their artefacts sold by China’s various agents at derisory prices and chiefly to western individual buyers.  One can scarcely think of a more efficient way to destroy a people’s 2300 year history.

Another mural of the 8th-10thC AD tells the reader that certain camel-riding peoples bring only destruction (signified by the flame and bowl), while others – horse-riding Asians – provide a more stable and welcoming environment. (Some have suggested that the bowl and flame represent incense).

The bird in the drawing is a crow, whose nesting was proverbially the sign of a stable and peaceful home, but which – without its nest – signified  much the same as the ‘peregrino’ did in the west- that is, the alien, the refugee, the disenfranchised, and the pilgrim.

One might compare the pairing of those two motifs  in the mural to this pairing of bird and bowl-of-flame on folio fol.1v of the manuscript, although its significance has not been determined. It may signify the route overland itself, by a kind of visual pun. Montecorvino, for example, wrote in 1305  “per terram Cothay Imperatoris aquilonarium Tartarorum est via brevior et securior” echoing the latin ‘aquila’ and ‘tartarus’.

Eastern style and thought are reflected in folios other than the botanical section and  fol.86v but in showing the next example I do not mean to imply that no other traditional costume provided women with such a hat and a flower. Only that the detail in that section (the bathy-) section is not incompatible with the culture of the Tarim.







… The route now towards the south, and the sea-roads…


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