Art & Culture

Looking for ancient manuscripts in India: Where to begin?

Rohini Bakshi
Rohini BakshiMay 25, 2017 | 16:15

Looking for ancient manuscripts in India: Where to begin?

Recently, I had an opportunity to view a 500-year-old manuscript of Kalidāsa’s Raghuvaṃśa. The intensity of the care surrounding its preservation and use was awe-inspiring.

On a separate trip to the Royal Asiatic Society, London, an Indian student commented "Thank God these manuscripts are here. If they were in India they would have been destroyed ages ago."

That upset me, and made me think about the state of manuscripts back home. Unfortunately, the overwhelming image "manuscript" evoked was a dingy, dusty library back room, with piles of unsorted papers and parchment. The kind where Kauṭilya’s Arthaśāstra was “discovered” for the “first” time in 1909.


Credit for that chance discovery goes to Sanskrit scholar and librarian of the Oriental Research Institute, Mysore - Rudrapatna Shamasastry. That story always makes me wonder how many other monumental ancient gems are buried under piles of decaying palm leaf and birch bark somewhere.

Photo courtesy: NAMAMI.

Most certainly there are problems. Conversations with students, scholars and librarians who work with manuscripts threw up the expected. Poor funding and a lack of cultural consciousness came out at the top of the list. Libraries need money for air conditioning and dehumidifiers. For special receptacles. To train people. For material. To acquire manuscripts.

But more than that, says Rama Budihal, Bangalore-based engineer - “In India, we don't care about history, because we have too much of it.”

India has an estimated five million ancient manuscripts - written on palm leaf, birch bark, metal, cloth, even gold and silver. But who knows where they are? Who cares? And if one did care, where does one begin to look for them?

Conversely, if I had a manuscript and wanted to give it to a reliable authority, who would I approach? I get asked this ever so often on Twitter – and till now I had no answer.


As it turns out, there are multiple seats of learning which house and care for ancient manuscripts. The so-called "oriental" institutes of research, universities, private collectors, temples, erstwhile royal families, guilds of craftsmen, and even public libraries.

Still, as a researcher or even just a lover of ancient literature, medicine, maths, astrology… where would one start?

Dr Jason Birch, post-doctoral researcher in yoga at SOAS has been trudging around India in search for manuscripts since 2004. As you read this, he is making his way from one city to another in the summer heat, in search of undiscovered, unpublished manuscripts to inform his research.

I asked Jason for his advice. “The New Catalogus Catalogorum (catalogue of catalogues) at Madras University is the most important one to start with,” he says. R Shamasastry undertook its publication in 1937 and reached the letter "bh". The project was suspended after the publication of the first fourteen volumes, but was recently revived. (see below)

Jason then studies the catalogues of individual libraries, visits the libraries and requests access to the manuscripts. The reception he receives varies from library to library. Some librarians are extremely helpful, while others obstinately refuse to help.


Sometimes there are administrative and logistical road blocks. A photocopier that doesn’t work. Sometimes, it becomes prohibitively expensive to obtain copies. Librarians hard-pressed for funds try to make up short falls by charging exorbitantly. In 2010 Jason was asked for Rs. 1.2 lakh for a set of folios – which he couldn’t afford, and had to restart his search.

In his field of study, Jason offers heartfelt thanks to Shri ML Gharote (1931-2005) of the Lonavla Yoga Institute, who has done the most valuable work in finding unpublished manuscripts on yoga over the last 30 years. He also wrote a catalogue of yoga manuscripts, which Jason says will be valued for many generations.

Photo courtesy: NAMAMI.

What then are some of the outstanding repositories of manuscripts in India?

In no way meaning to grade their excellence, scholars would go to the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute at Pune. Or they might go to the Oriental Research Institute, University of Mysore whose aim it is to collect, preserve, collate, edit and publish rare Sanskrit and Kannada manuscripts. The Banaras Hindu University is said to have an impressive collection, part of which I could access through my own college library.

Under the University of Kerala’s oriental research department comes the manuscript library at Kariavattom, which was recently in the news for an impressive exhibition. Of the 65,000 manuscripts on display, the oldest was from the mid-16th century.

The jewel in the crown is often considered to be the Saraswati Mahal library at Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. Then there is the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the Ganganath Jha Kendriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth in Allahabad; and collaborations – like the Nepal German Manuscript Preservation Project and its continuation, the Cataloguing Project. Not to forget the French Institute at Pondicherry, which holds predominantly Śaiva manuscripts.

Are these institutions networked somehow? Do they share best practice? Is there an apex body? A co-ordinator?

It was at this stage that I was introduced to Dr Nrusingha Charan Kar who heads NAMAMI, India’s National Mission for Manuscripts set up in 2003 by ministry of culture, GoI and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

Dr Kar is an unsung hero in the field of manuscript preservation. Although his areas of interest are Sanskrit Grammar and Sanskrit Linguistics (and, of course, Manuscriptology and Palaeography) – his prime focus has been on training individuals in procuring, preserving and digitising ancient manuscripts around the country. While conducting workshops, he teaches different ancient Indian scripts like Brahmi, Sharada, Grantha, Karani Oriya and Bengali. Sanskrit is written in all these scripts.

NAMAMI has a fourfold mission – to survey, conserve, document and digitise Indian manuscripts. “The Mission has collected information of about 40 lakh manuscripts and created “Kritisampada", a National Database of Manuscripts,” says Dr Kar.

“The Mission digitises manuscripts and keeps them organisation-wise. The data are further classified subject, script, language, state, district and material-wise.”

The mission has also established a national network of institutions and manuscript repositories, including Manuscript Resource Centres (MRC-s), Manuscript Conservation Centres (MCC-s), Manuscript Partner Centres (MPC-s) and Manuscript Conservation Partner Centres (MCPC-s), spread across the nation. One of the mission’s remarkable achievements has been to rejuvenate the one-time suspended New Catalogus Catalogorum at Madras University, which now stands at 36 volumes.

But the most satisfying for Dr Kar have been the training workshops. A combination of traditional and modern techniques are taught to volunteers. Courses vary from a few weeks to a couple of months. Advanced courses are longer. Anyone can apply, and learn how to help with the preservation of ancient manuscripts.

Dr Kar was reluctant to comment on funding, but he did say that lack of cultural sensitivity meant that manuscripts were not a very high priority in general. Some details for NAMAMI can be found here. That the official government website has a link to NAMAMI which opens an unrelated page draws a sigh from him. He sends me the correct link

I cannot think of a more fruitful way to spend a few weeks. Living everyday with the literary works of our ancient scholars. Learning how to read manuscripts, how to restore them, how to protect them.

Every year I meet affluent Indian parents who have hired expensive consultants to ensure that their sons and daughters get into prime (and massively expensive) universities abroad.

The big search is always to find a "unique" non-profit engagement to demonstrate the young adult’s commitment to the community, to give his/her application an edge. Parents, you don’t need a consultant for this. The opportunity is right here under your nose. Go for it!

I’d like to thank my teacher Dr James Mallinson, senior lecturer in Sanskrit and Classical Indian Studies, SOAS, for introducing me to Dr Nrusingha Kar, and connecting me to Dr Jason Birch.

(To learn more about manuscripts and to volunteer for a course, visit http://www.namami.gov.in/.)

Last updated: May 25, 2017 | 16:15
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