Some 2,000 rare Sanskrit manuscripts detailing momentous political and economic events across south Asia and written on fragile birch bark, palm leaf and paper are to form part of a major project undertaken by Cambridge University to document ancient civilisations by studying the language of the time, officially known as “linguistic archaeology”.

The documents, which belong to Cambridge University Library’s South Asian manuscript collection, will be studied individually and catalogued placing them in their broader historical context. They will also be digitised and put on the library’s new online service.

The university said the collection included “the oldest dated and illustrated Sanskrit manuscript known worldwide”.

Dr Vincenzo Vergiani of the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, who along with his colleague Dr Eivind Kahrs will study the manuscripts, described them as “an invaluable and untapped source for understanding the pre-colonial past of South Asia, and therefore its present”.

“In a world that seems increasingly small, every artefact documenting the history of ancient civilisations has become part of a global heritage to be carefully preserved and studied. Among such artefacts, manuscripts occupy a distinctive place – they speak to us with the actual words of long-gone men and women, bringing their beliefs, ideas and sensibilities to life,” he said.

Dr Vergiani explained that one reason the collection was so important was because of the age of many of the manuscripts.

“In the heat and humidity of India, materials deteriorate quickly and manuscripts needed to be copied again and again. As a result, many of the early Indian texts no longer exist,” he said.

More than half of the library’s collection of south Asian manuscripts was in Sanskrit which dominated the literary culture of pre-modern South Asia for almost three millennia.

“The word Sanskrit means refined or perfected. From a very early stage, its speakers were obsessed with handing down their sacred texts intact. Out of this developed an attention to how the language works. A grammatical tradition arose that produced, around the 4th century BC, the work of Pāṇini, an amazing intellectual achievement and arguably the beginning of linguistics worldwide, which made the language constant, stable and transmissible,” said Dr Vergiani.

The university hopes the project would help to further research on South Asia.