Heritage of Indian manuscript tradition

National Museum is a treasure for manuscripts and ancient written records. Handwritten manuscript numbering 14,000 from various provinces were acquired by the National Museum

May 02, 2019 06:04 pm | Updated 06:04 pm IST



The world is passing through a revolution in the field of documentation in terms of decoding and digitisation of ancient manuscript, data sharing and data mining. Whenever the technology is upgraded, the documented data has to be updated with the compatible mode of technology. This is a continuous and vulnerable process, a sigh of relief is that the ancient record is documented technologically through scanning, photography, videography and data entered in the meta-data form. Before discovering all these methods, the sermon of Emperor Ashoka was inscribed on rocks known as Rock Edicts. Further, the art and science of scripting found different modes of expression such as, inscriptions on clay tablet, stone, copper plate, palm-leaf, handmade paper, bark and wood carrier. All of them are in the form of manuscript written in different languages. They are all preserved in their original form in Museums and Manuscript libraries and also in situ. They are also found today in digital form for further understanding.

National Museum is a treasure for Manuscripts and ancient written records. The replica of Girnar Rock Edict is placed in the prime place to view and know the creative genius of Indian scribes. The major, minor rock edicts and pillar edicts of Ashoka found across India are in the languages of Bramhi, Prakrit, Greek and Kharoshti, which are earliest written documents.

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Handwritten manuscript from various provinces were acquired by National Museum. The collection of manuscripts numbering 14,000 are in various languages such as Pali, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian, Arabic, Chinese, Burmese and Tibetan. They also display the holy scriptures covering different faiths: Vedic, Puranic, Buddhist, Jaina, Islamic, Sikh and Christian spanning from 7th to 20th century. Rajasthani, Maithili, Awadhi, Braj, and Bundeli dialect texts and other regional literary texts also find their place in collections. Among them more than 1000 are illustrated manuscripts. Another interesting feature of this collection is that many of the manuscripts are rare and often bear royal seals and signatures of Emperors, authenticating originality. Some of the folios of the illustrated manuscripts from the collection are displayed in the gallery of the museum. These are invaluable sources of information on the heritage of manuscript in general and illustrated manuscripts in particular.

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The antiquity of palm-leaf manuscript goes back to the early centuries of Christian era. These texts have been preserved in various manuscript libraries such as Bhandarkars in Pune, Gayakwad Oriental Library in Baroda, Oriental Research Institute in Mysore, Sarasvathi Mahal Library Tanjavur, Rare Manuscript Library Cambridge, The British Library London and many more national and international libraries. Ten years back it was difficult to access the manuscripts in the libraries. Today, most of these ancient manuscripts are found in digital form and can be accessed from your own place and time. In the year 2003, our then prime minister Sri Atal Bihari Vajapeyi, understanding the immediate need of digitising the ancient scriptures and documenting them from private and public collections, established the National Mission for Manuscripts. Till date, the Mission is able to digitise 43 lakhs of Manuscripts. Still the work is going on and it shows the strength of Indian knowledge sources and the picture of education in India.

Today, we are tolerating with the remarks like ‘illiterate, uneducated and uncivilized society’, instead we should be proud to owe such stupendous heritage of knowledge system with more than five million ancient manuscripts, making India the largest repository of manuscript wealth in the world. The National Manuscript Mission from the campus of IGNCA Delhi, with a single mission of documenting uncared and neglected manuscripts scattered in every nook and corners of Indian states is helping to safeguard manuscript heritage of India. It’s wondering, how the staggering number of five million manuscripts were created!.

When the oral transmission of knowledge system began to experience the threat of discontinuity, the palm-leaf manuscripts have revolutionised the sphere of preserving oral traditions of several millennia. The earliest fragments of the sacred manuscript goes back to the sixth century BC. The facility extended to texts, commentaries, manuals and literature during medieval times. This tradition influenced the domain of writing till the innovation of handmade paper and printing press in India.

Pala rulers of Bengal and Bihar were the first to initiate the tradition of illustrating the palm-leaf Buddhist scriptures. In the tenth century, the Buddhist illustrated palm-leaf manuscript tradition evolved as potential idiom, in its visual and textual dynamics.

A rare illustrated Buddhist text Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita, Perfection of wisdom, is an ancient scholastic text found in Indian and Chinese Buddhist literature. The text is a personified adulation of the Goddess ‘Prajna’ is a profound example of illustrated palm-leaf text, where the colour scheme relied heavily on the well-defined Ajantan colour pallet. The folios of this text are exhibited in the Gallery of National Museum and British Museum London.

The vibrant Jaina tradition of illustrated manuscript evolved later than Pala school in western India in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The Jaina Bhandaras, the libraries patronised by the mercantile communities of the region served as a repository of illustrated Jaina Manuscripts like Kalpa Sutra Kalkacharya Katha, Yashodhara charita, Adipurana, Mahapurana, Chorapancha Shikha. In Karnataka Jaina Dhavala illustrated Manuscripts were produced at the Jaina centre Shravanabelagola and Gerusoppa under the patronage of Hoysala rulers. The three separate, large size illustrated manuscript known as Dhavala, Jaya Dhavala and Maha Dhavala with distinct artistic features are preserved in Moodabidri Jaina Matha and they are the earliest examples for South Indian illustrated manuscript tradition. National Museum has Kalpasutra and Sangrahanisutra illustrated manuscripts belonging to 14th -15th centuries in collection.

A rare manuscript of Holy Quran belonging to 12th century, is well preserved in Manuscript Section of National Museum and an illustrated sacred text, Guru Granth Sahib, is an important manuscript in the National Museum collections. So also colourful folios of Bhagavata, Ramayana and Devi Mahatmya of different schools and styles find their place here. Apart from these sacred texts, Babarnama, the earliest illustrated text in this series, illustrated Rasamanjari, Gitagovinda, Rasikapriya, Ragamala series and other illustrated manuscripts are part of National Museum Manuscript collections.

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Oriental Research Institute, Mysore, in its collection has an extra-ordinary manuscript in terms of the merit of text, calligraphy, colourful illustration and of large size.

Sri Tatvanidhi is a prolific work compiled in nine independent illustrated manuscript texts: Shaktinidhi, Vishnunidhi, Shivanidhi, Brahmanidhi, Grahanidhi, Vaishnavanidhi, Saivanidhi, Agamanidhi, and Kautukanidhi.

(This is the last of the five part series on the collections at National Museum, New Delhi)

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