Started in 1850, the Mohammedan Public Library has manuscripts and books that are more than a century old

The crowded racks at Mohammedan Public Library in Triplicane are a treasure-trove of books — from a yellowing, 100-year-old copy of H.D. Love’s Vestiges of Old Madras to a July 1883 copy of The Lancet magazine whose weary pages leave a fine layer dust on your fingers. Started in the late 1840s, this library has books that date back 400 years.

Earlier called ‘Kutub Khana-e-Mufeed Am Ahl-i-Islam’, it was set up by Dr. Edward Balfour (after whom Balfour Road is named), who, in 1849, called prominent Muslims in Madras and expressed the need to have a library. The last Nawab of Carnatic, Nawab Ghulam Ghouse Khan gave a one-time contribution of Rs.700 and Rs. 35 every month for the library’s maintenance. Its current president is the Prince of Arcot, Nawab Mohammed Abdul Ali.

“While it did exist much before 1850, we have entered this year in our official records,” says librarian Tameemur Rahman. The library was started on Triplicane High Road and continues to be there. This building used to be an Indo-Saracenic structure but it was demolished in 1994 and rebuilt in 2005.”

A house on Wallajah Road was rented for Rs. 9 and a caretaker was hired for a salary of Rs.10 a month. The library was gifted with 240 Arabic and Persian books by the King of Egypt shortly after it opened. And within four months, the library had 1,500 books. “We have catalogued over 50,000 books and there are many more to go,” says Tameemur, “Our collection of rare books include a manuscript of the Ramayana written in Persian with miniatures of Rama and Sita. We also have the Bible of Barnabas and other Persian, Urdu and Arabic manuscripts that are about 300 or 400 years old. We have books from London, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey.”

The oldest book on the racks is a 1640 manuscript by Persian poet Amir Khusrau. “We’ve preserved some 700 Arabic, Persian and Urdu books so far through photo lamination,” Tameemur adds. Lawrence of Arabia

A research and reference library, it has books across genres; music, history, anthropology, medicine, literature, mathematics and so on. “We have rare books on Greek medicine that aren’t available to the public anymore,” says Tameemur. “Edward Balfour’s books on midwifery are also part of our collection. But I guess a lot of the books are on Islamic heritage and culture. We have even preserved all our records till date.”

An old copy of Ain-i-Akbari by H. Blochmann and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream occupy the same row. “We were earlier called the Madras Muslim Public Library,” he says, “And when the city became Chennai, we changed the name to Mohammedan Public Library.”

Mohammedan Public Library is located on the 3rd Floor, No. 1, Triplicane High Road, Triplicane.