Explore the literary treasure in the Oriental Research Institute and Manuscript Library under the University of Kerala. An exhibition of some of the manuscripts begins on Friday

It was a discovery of epic proportions in India’s literary history. Just a year before, in 1908, the royalty of erstwhile Travancore had founded a new library department for the publication of rare and old Sanskrit manuscripts. Tharuvai-agraharam Ganapatisastri was appointed as its first curator. To expand the library’s collection, Ganapatisastri went on long trips in search of manuscripts buried in private collections. During one such visit to the Manalikkara Madom near Kanyakumari, he came across of a pile of palm-leaf bundles. Pouring over its contents, the scholar realised that he had in his hands the lost plays of Bhasa, the great dramatist of the first century BCE! Bhasa was, until then, thought to be a figment of imagination and known only through the references of his name made by later dramatists such as Kalidasa. The discovery gave back to the world 10 of Bhasa’s Sanskrit plays, which had long disappeared. More discoveries of Bhasa’s lost works followed.

A century later, the old palace library of erstwhile Travancore has now evolved into the Oriental Research Institute and Manuscript Library under the University of Kerala. It is a large treasure house of ancient palm leaf and paper manuscripts, of nearly 40,000 bundles covering 65,000 separate works. Located inside the Karyavattom campus of the University, the library is the largest of its kind in the country.

Referring to the library’s early genesis, academician and scholar Achuthsankar S. Nair says: “Sankaranatha Josier, a statesman from North Kerala and a resident scholar in the court of King Ranjit Singh in Lahore, once gifted Swati Tirunal, the composer-King of erstwhile Travancore, a rare collection of manuscripts on a range of subjects. Realising the significance of preserving such texts for posterity, the Maharaja formalised the activities of the palace granthapura. Its rapidly growing collection later became the seed resource for the manuscripts library under the Travancore University.”

Later, the library was expanded and made into a separate department by Maharaja Sri Mulam Tirunal, who also appointed Ganapatisastri as its curator. In 1966, the department was renamed as the Oriental Research Institute and Manuscripts Library.

The present library building of 1982 owes its fine vintage architecture to the aesthetics of Dr. Karan Singh. Complementing the uniqueness of the collections, Karan Singh, who was the then Minister of Education and Culture, Government of India, wanted the “valuable national heritage” to be housed in “an old palace or a building with traditional features.”

The library, in its present form, is a massive repository of all types of literature. From the illustrious epics ithihasas and the puranas to rare works on Tantra, Vastuvidya, Ayurveda, ‘Jyotisha’, ‘Ganitha’, ‘Mimamsa’, ‘Tharkka’, ‘Nyaya’, and ‘Natya’, every subject that the human mind could possibly conceive of is represented in its collections. Most texts are written on palm leaves and some on bhurja patra (birch bark), copper plates and old forms of paper.

The library’s catalogue runs endless and speaks of the importance given to reading and writing in our ancient tradition.

To preserve and protect

Time can be crushingly unfair on the manuscripts. A major part of the work done at the library is in caring for the manuscript folios. Periodic fumigation is done to protect the manuscripts from fungus and insects. The application of lemon grass oil keeps the palm leaves supple and prevents them from crumbling. In olden days, in the absence of such modern methods of care, the palm leaf manuscripts had a life scale. “They lasted for about 300 years or so, during which time scribes would copy them on fresh material. This means that the texts of what we have today are copies, which are old, but dated later than the original,” explains Shaji who has been associated with the library for a long time as manuscript assistant. “Copying is an inexact science. If the scribe did not understand a word, it would be left blank or worse, changed. Such lacunae in the text tell us whether we are looking at the original work or not,” he adds.

Connect to the past

The library offers free service for the preservation of manuscripts. “We have a programme, funded by the National Mission for Manuscripts, where we offer preservation and restoration care for manuscripts that are with private collections. Anyone owning old manuscripts can avail themselves of this facility by contacting us. We also give expert help in establishing the identity of old texts,” explains K. G. Sreelekha, who currently heads the research institute and the manuscript library.

Every year the Oriental Research Institute brings out the Journal of Manuscript Studies, a bilingual research journal in Sanskrit and English, and Pracheena Kairali in Malayalam on the cultural and linguistic history of Kerala. In addition, the institute has been periodically publishing edited versions of old and rare manuscript texts. The library is frequented by scholars and students of Indology and many other curious visitors from across the world seeking a point of contact with the ancient past.

Exhibition of manuscripts

The manuscripts library and its astonishing wealth of material are open to the public. The grandeur of the collection is something to be seen. From Friday (December 20) the In a few days time the library will be exhibiting its choicest of collections for the public in an effort to raise awareness for these timeless resources. It is a unique opportunity, a chance to walk between the large wooden shelves overflowing with rare and antique texts that hold centuries of wisdom and whatever that remains of it. The exhibition is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and concludes on February 20, 2014.

Literary gems

Among the library’s eclectic collections are…

The oldest bhasha vyakhyanam of Kautilya’s Arthasastra

The rare Arya-manju-srimoola-kalpa, an ancient Buddhist Sanskrit text written in Newari script using ink

Chitra Ramayanam, in which scenes of the Ramayana are carved in detail using stylus on palm-leaf

The 300-year-old Samudrika Lakshanam text with its dense writing packed into the tiniest of spaces

The satirical play Mattavilasa-prahasana of the 7th century, which is still a part of the Koodiyattam repertoire

The texts span different languages, including Burmese and Indonesian. The scripts range from the pan-Indian Brahmi, Devanagari, and Grantha, to the more regional Vattezhuthu, and Kolezhuthu.