Anusha Parthasarathy sifts through treasured palm leaves and copper plates at the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library and Research Centre

Even inside the Madras University campus, no one seems to know about the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library and Research Centre. But behind the tall façade of the University library, between mounds of sand and construction material is a sign that points to an arch and from there on, up the stairs is a library that began in 1869 mainly out of the private collections of three men.

Teakwood cabinets, card drawers, tall arches and wooden-glass doors with brass handles — the library wears its history on its sleeve. Right next to the curator R. Chandramohan’s office is a Pandit’s Room, a reminder of a time when the staff who worked at the library were scholars or pandits. The storage facility has rows and rows of teakwood planks with dark manuscripts inside.

Colonel Colin Mackenzie came to India in 1783 as a part of the Cadet of Engineers that the East India Company in Madras recruited. An ardent interest in mathematics and languages led him to collect a large number of manuscripts, coins, maps, inscriptions and so on. These described in great detail the culture, behaviour, history, customs and religion of that time.

“He was appointed as the Surveyor-General of the company as well,” says Chandramohan. “He got some of his staff to travel all over the country, especially the south, to gather these scripts. And when he moved to Calcutta, he took his collection along with him.” Mackenzie collected manuscripts until he died in 1821.

This collection was purchased by the East India Company in 1821 for 10,000 pounds. “It was divided into three parts. One was retained in London, another was sent to the National Library in Calcutta and one was sent to Madras,” says Chandramohan.

Apart from Mackenzie’s books were Dr. Lyden’s (he was a linguist and traveller) collection of manuscripts in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada and C.P. Brown’s collection of paper manuscripts in Sanskrit and Telugu which were brought here in 1855. The library, an amalgamation of these collections began as a part of the Presidency College, Madras. In 1870, a certain Pickford was asked to create a catalogue for them. “You could call him the first librarian,” says Chandramohan. He worked in the college as a Professor of Sanskrit. He was even asked to add to the collection and purchase scripts whenever he came across them. Hence, the collection grew.

Importance of manuscripts

“For a long time people didn’t understand the importance of these manuscripts,” says Chandramohan “The library didn’t have a permanent address and kept shifting, from the Secretariat to the Museum until it came to the Madras University campus in 1936. In 1942, during World War II, the scripts were transferred to Tirupati as there was an imminent danger of bombing. When the war was over, they were brought back here.”

Now, the library has about 72,315 manuscripts, most of them written on palm leaf but some on copper plates, Kadidam, barks of Bhurja tree, leather and other material as well. Of these about 49,000 manuscripts are in Sanskrit, while Tamil manuscripts number close to 16,000. Other languages include Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Urdu and Persian. The library also has about 22,887 books for reference.

“During the formation of states after Independence, about 7,000 manuscripts in Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam were moved from here to their respective states,” Chandramohan adds. “Now, this library is a research-oriented one. A lot of PhD students and foreigners studying languages come here for reference. We don’t lend any of our material because they’re too valuable.”

The oldest manuscript in the library is the 450-year-old medicinal book, Agathiyam. There are some shaped as lingams too. The library even has a script that has remained unidentified since its discovery. “A lot of the works here are primary sources of information and are unpublished. We have manuscripts across 19 subjects like literature, drama, poetry, Siddha, Unani, Ayurveda, architecture and more,” he says.

The library also preserves its collection through chemical and manual methods. “The life of a manuscript is anywhere between 200 to 300 years after which it begins to decay. These scripts we have are copies of originals that were written more than 1,000 years ago. Scribes would copy down texts so that the information isn’t destroyed,” says Chandramohan.

Digitisation plans

The Government has now granted the library Rs. 5 crore for modernisation and digitisation of content. “We’ve already digitised 1,862 Siddha manuscripts and are working on the rest,” he says. On whether the collection of manuscripts has grown in recent times, Chandramohan shakes his head. “There are individuals with their private collections who consider it a treasure and do not want to part with it. What we ask of them is to allow us to train them in matters of conservation and restoration of these manuscripts so that they don’t decay and the information is not lost.”

If you are in the possession of an old manuscript that you’d like to conserve or restore, you can contact the library at 044 25365130.