In India, Marking the Paper Trail of History
30,000 Help Catalogue Manuscripts
By Rama Lakshmi
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 20, 2005; C01
NEW DELHI -- In the walled quarters of the old city, a Sanskrit language scholar walks purposefully along the packed, narrow and twisting alleyways, jostling past rows of jewelry shoppers, cycle rickshaws, bullock carts and beggars.
When he comes upon an old temple with an ornately carved doorway, he stops, sweating profusely in the sweltering sun.
"Do you have any ancient handwritten manuscripts here?" Dilipkumar Rana, the scholar, asks in a whisper. The stunned temple manager nods. "The government is doing a survey of old manuscripts," Rana says.
"But I have very few left now," says Jaipal Jain, the 61-year-old temple manager. "I threw many old manuscripts into the river last year."
"Why?" Rana asks anxiously.
"I had put them in the attic. Last year during the monsoon, the ceiling leaked. And the water destroyed many of the manuscripts," Jain says, sighing. "White ants attacked some others."
And so it goes, as India's 30,000 manuscript hunters fan out across the country, seeking the nation's heritage in old temples, madrassas, mosques, monasteries, libraries and homes.
Launched two years ago, the National Mission for Manuscripts is a five-year project to catalogue for the first time India's ancient documentary wealth and ensure that basic conservation practices are followed to halt their rapid decay. Officials say that India is the largest repository of manuscripts in the world, with an estimated 5 million texts in hundreds of languages.
Linguistic scholars and history students involved in this adventurous hunt for ancient volumes use not only expertise but also social skills, coaxing and cultural sensitivity to gain access to manuscripts.
After Rana takes off his shoes and washes his hands, he prays at the shrine. Then Jain leads him to the temple's dimly lighted manuscript room. He opens a creaky steel cupboard and reveals rows of old texts, bundled in yellow cotton cloth. Rana squats on the ground and cautiously holds some pages up to the window light to examine the writing.
"It is in Prakrit language," he says, referring to a popular dialect of classical Sanskrit, no longer spoken. "The period is early 1600s. It prescribes a model code of living for Jain monks," a religious order that arose along with Buddhism in the 6th century B.C.
The manuscript project's officials say the nationwide survey will open a window to India's ancient knowledge systems: religion, astronomy, astrology, art, architecture, science, literature, philosophy and mathematics.
"We are creating a manuscript map of India. The survey will present new facets to our intellectual heritage," says Sudha Gopalakrishnan, chief of the National Mission for Manuscripts. The project will not take the volumes from their owners but merely document what is available and help in conservation. "The key abstracts of all the ancient knowledge found in our manuscripts will be available digitally for the world to see," Gopalakrishnan says.
Art historians are eagerly watching this massive cataloguing process, hoping for new clues to India's past.
"What we find will answer many nagging doubts about our knowledge tradition," says Lokesh Chandra, an art historian and manuscript scholar. "For example, we came very close to modern mathematics in the 8th century. But what happened after that? Why was there a hiatus in the evolution of ideas in India? How did we miss the bus to the future?"
In the 18th century, some European scholars began translating ancient Sanskrit and Buddhist manuscripts and made them accessible to the world. Many valuable manuscripts were taken out of the country and are now in European libraries and private collections.
Chandra says unearthing the manuscripts will also forge national pride for India's 4,000-year-old history and will "give us a psychological boost for future advances."
The oldest manuscripts that India possesses are a set of 6th-century Buddhist texts that were found buried in the hills of Kashmir about 60 years ago. In the last two years, the surveyors have found rare ancient Sanskrit and Arabic treatises on such subjects as diabetes, astrophysics, interpretation of dreams, surgical instruments, concepts of time and the art of war. A 400-year-old handwritten Koran was also found in a locket measuring three inches.
But Gopalakrishnan says manuscripts are being lost at an alarming rate because of neglect and ignorance. Most ancient manuscripts, found on paper, palm leaves, birch bark, cloth, wood and stone, are languishing because of improper care in this humid, tropical and dusty country.
"By the time we find them, they are moth-eaten, edges falling apart, attacked by fungus," says Ritu Jain, a conservator with the manuscript project. She recently discovered a yellowing and brittle 18th-century Arabic manuscript on a traditional Islamic healing procedure in a dusty, cobweb-filled corner of a college library in New Delhi.
"I shudder in pain when I hold them," she says. "Some pages are so fragile that they just become powder in our hands."
The manuscript mission also trains librarians, private collectors and temple priests in conservation, advising them to keep the documents wrapped in starch-free cotton and in a space free of dust and moisture. Basic training is also given in chemical conservation. But few homes and temples handle the religious manuscripts with reverence and ritual purity. Some also follow indigenous methods of preservation such as using margosa leaves, clove and black pepper.
On a recent morning, an Arabic scholar at the mission office received a letter from a New Delhi resident, Afzal-ur-Rahman, who wanted his decaying ancestral collection of Arabic literature examined by experts.
Later, as a scholar leafed through the frayed, fungus-infected pages of a book about the nuances of Arabic grammar, Rahman, 61, spoke of his great-grandfather, whose literary work was honored by a Mughal king in the early 1800s.
"I am emotionally attached to these manuscripts," he says. "It is a family heirloom. I never let anyone touch it. But it contains knowledge that must be shared with the world."
© 2005 The Washington Post Company