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Deccan Herald » Sunday Herald » Detailed Story
Preserving voices from the past
SHRUBA MUKHERJEE writes about the National Mission for Manuscripts which has taken upon itself the task of preserving and documenting rare, though neglected, manuscripts that would otherwise be lost forever.
One more wave and years of wisdom would have been washed away.

The washerman, who discovered the collection of eminent Sanskrit author Bhasa’s plays wrapped in a cloth bundle at a riverside in Kerala, did not have the slightest clue about the treasure he had saved for posterity. Nor could the pan-shop owner in Himachal Pradesh imagine that manuscripts of Sri Krishna Charita, written by famous Awadhi poet Bihari in the 18th century, had remained tucked in a corner of his small shop for years.

Till date there are about five million manuscripts dispersed in a local temple or mosque, in a big library or state archive, in the private collection of a nawab or in the small home of a villager.

Today, thousands of manuscripts that lie neglected in institutions and homes across India – said to be the largest repository of manuscript wealth in the world – are in urgent need of conservation.

The National Mission for Manuscripts was launched in February 2003 by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Government of India, to save this extremely valuable but less visible aspect of our cultural inheritance.

An ambitious five-year project, the mission seeks not merely to locate, catalogue and preserve India’s manuscripts, but also to enhance access, spread awareness and encourage their use for educational and research purposes.

The mission has established an extensive network of Manuscript Resource Centres (MRC), Manuscript Conservation Centres (MCC) and Manuscript Partner Centres (MPC) from among existing institutions around the country. Through this network and a team of dedicated volunteers, the mission seeks to locate every manuscript in India and document it. MRCs document their own collections and conduct surveys for collections in and around their areas/districts. MPCs mainly look after the documentation of their own collections and MCCs look after conservation of manuscripts, which is both preventive and curative in nature.

Upgrading the skills of volunteers is achieved through intensive two-to-three-week manuscriptology and paleography workshops.

Ancient processes

In the classical sense, the term ‘manuscript’ refers to a document handwritten by an author. The material of the manuscript can be the bark of trees, pulp of plant material that has been dried in the form of thin sheets, traditional handmade paper or thin sheets of paper manufactured in modern paper factories.

The palm leaf, which seemed to be the most popular writing material in ancient India, was subjected to a process of treatment to make it suitable for writing. Mature fresh leaves were first dried and then boiled in water and again dried in shade. The surfaces of the leaves were made smooth by rubbing them with a burnishing stone.

The oldest well-preserved palm leaf manuscript is that of Dhavala, preserved in Jain Bhandar, Mudbidri. The manuscript contains 1478 leaves written in ink in old Kannada of about 9th century A.D.

Next in order of availability and importance comes the bhurja-patra, which is the inner bark of the bhurja tree, biologically known as Baetula utiles. The earliest available manuscript in birch bark is the Prakrt Dhammapada of 2nd or 3rd century A.D.

The most popular material for manuscripts in the north-eastern part of India is the sancipat or samucipat. The aguru or aloe tree is called sanchi in Assam and its bark sancipat. The sheets of saci are interspersed with a layer of wood, giving an impression that the writing is on the board itself.

The paper manuscript in India is usually oblong or square and mostly kept in loose sheets. Scrolls are rare, though British Museum has a scroll of Bhagavata-Purana with colour illustrations. The Tanjore Sarasvati Mahal library has acquired a miniature manuscript of Bhagavadgita.

Besides leaf and bark, metals like copper, gold, silver, brass, bronze, iron and tin and non-metals like stone, bricks, pots, ivory, cotton and wood were used as materials for manuscripts. Leather, though a popular material in western Asia, Egypt and Europe, was very rare in India due to scarce availability.

The contents of writings on copper plates or tamra-patra are invariably legal documents, land grants and the like. The earliest available copper plate is the Sohagaura plate discovered in Gorakhpur dating back to 320 B.C.

A set of ivory sheets has been discovered in Orissa on which Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda is engraved. Even conch shells and tortoise shells were used as writing materials as mantras written on these have been discovered in Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh.

While kantaka or loha-kantaka, a rod made of iron of about 10-30 cm in length and with the thickness of a pencil was used for incising on palm leaves, the quill of porcupine or bamboo twig was popular for writing on birch bark.

The ordinary variety of ink or masi was prepared by mixing powdered charcoal with gum and some sticky substance like sugar dissolved in water. Coloured inks prepared from silajit, dhaturasa and other herbal juice were also in vogue as revealed by the existence of a number of paper manuscripts with miniature paintings – Gitagovinda, Sivamahima-stotra and Caura-Panchashika. The oldest known are the Devibhagavata miniatures.

Rare manuscripts

Some of the MRCs like Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune; Oriental Research Institute, Mysore; Department of Manuscriptology, Kannada University, Hampi; Oriental Research Institute, Sri Venkateshwar University, Tirupati; Rampur Raza Library, Rampur; Khuda Baksh Oriental Public Library, Patna, Bihar are treasure troves of rare manuscripts.

For instance, the Bhandarkar Oriental Institute has copies of a Farsi translation of Bhagavadgita and Yogavasishtha made by Dara Shikoh 340 years ago, a copy of Vishnu Purana translated into Persian by a Kashmiri Pandit and a manuscript relating to horse-breeding written by Qazi Hasan Iftakhan 390 years ago.

Oriental Research Institute, Mysore has published nearly 200 titles, the most notable of these being the publication of the first-ever complete text of Kautilya’s Arthashastra written in the 4th century B.C. Apart from this, there are important texts like Navaratnamani-mahatma (a work on gemology), Tantrasara-sangraha (work on sculptures and architecture) and Vaidyashastra-dipika (an ayurvedic text).

The Orissa collections are unique as these contain rare manuscripts with shapes of garlands, fish, fan, sword and even rat and parrot-shaped ones along with 400 illustrated manuscripts of coloured and monochrome variety. Priceless manuscripts have also been recently found by volunteers in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, including a one-quintal Mahabharata and a ten-metre-long Koran.

As Director of the mission Dr Sudha Gopalakrishnan says, the aim of her volunteers is not to take away the manuscripts, but to preserve them in their original place and include them in the national database so that “we can keep track of our heritage.”

The mission also keeps track of Indian manuscripts in about 77 libraries outside India like Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark; Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; Royal Asiatic Society and British Library, London and Universitas Bibliothek, Berlin, where major collections of manuscripts of Indian origin exist.

Challenges aplenty

According to Assistant Director of the mission Dr Dilip Kumar Rana, India’s manuscripts, spread all over the country and abroad, are composed in different Indian languages such as Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Urdu, Persian and different regional Indian languages and are written in different scripts such as Brahmi, Sarada, Modi, Newari, Grantha and the like.

Given India’s immense linguistic diversity and sophistication, many documents are inaccessible because there is little knowledge of the languages and scripts used. One of the major challenges is that of a dwindling number of scholars who can read, decipher, translate, take up research into and interpret such manuscripts.

As most of India’s manuscripts are in extremely poor condition, the mission’s strategy for conservation is of utmost importance. In addition to the work done by the MCCs, the mission has also released guidelines for manuscript conservation as well as a document on the mission standards for manuscript conservation. At present, the mission is creating a central team of conservators who will assess the state of conservation laboratories at the MCCs and other institutions to standardise conditions and materials, and render training and other kinds of assistance.

The mission will set up a National Manuscripts Library in the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, the national nodal agency of the mission. The library would contain digital resources, books and donated manuscripts with state-of-the-art facilities for teachers, students, researchers and interested persons.

In 1868, Whitley Stokes, Secretary to the Council of the Governor-General, wrote on the true state of affairs for manuscripts: “The climate and the white ants of India are awful destroyers of manuscripts. The old race of Sastris is dying out; the younger natives are losing their interest in the study and it is safe to say that in another generation, unless the Government bestirs itself at once, much of value that is now procurable will have disappeared for ever.”

What was said 134 years ago is perhaps even more true today!

The National Mission for Manuscripts has state units/Manuscript Conservation Centres all over the country. The mission headquarters at 5, Man Singh Road, New Delhi-110001 or can also be contacted. The mission workers will not take away the manuscript, but guide the owner about its conservation and include it in the mission database.
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