History & Culture

What the kings read

The entrance to the Saraswathi Mahal.  

The walls of this centuries-old library resonate with stories. As you walk through it, every corner seems to come alive with the hues and aesthetics of the past. Built during the reign of the Nayaks of Thanjavur (1535-1675), an intriguing quietude and the scent of sepia-tinted publications envelopes its many rooms. Patronised by the Marathas who ruled Thanjavur (1676-1832), Saraswati Mahal is one of Asia’s oldest libraries that stands amidst the campus of Thanjavur Palace.

Among the Maratha Kings, Raja Serfoji II (1798- 1832) was an eminent scholar and after Serfoji’s death, his son Shivaji II and his daughters-in-law maintained the library. In 1918, the library was opened to the public and in 1979 various departments such as conservation, microfilm, publication, printing, book section and museum were set up.

A major part of the collection comprise Sanskrit texts. The library houses approximately 39,000 Sanskrit manuscripts and about 3,500 Tamil manuscripts with 7,000 titles. The scripts used in palm leaves are Grantha, Devanagari, Nandinagari, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Oriya . There are manuscripts and books on literature, grammar, music, dance, rare works of the Sangam age, unpublished portions of classics, astronomy, trade, medicine and more. It also houses rare maps and paintings.

Interestingly most of the medicinal works are based on medical records practised in Dhanvantri Mahal, a hospital run by Raja Serfoji and written by famous scholars like Kottaiyur, Sivakkolundu and Desikar.

The library houses 1,342 bundles of old records of the Maratha kings written in Modi Script.

Modi is the shorthand version of Marathi and was a court language then. These records are as diverse as trade negotiations to vegetable receipts.

The collection includes fiction and non-fiction. There are also books on subjects such as clothing styles in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, methods of Chinese torture, costumes and occupations in Turkey and China.

Serfoji’s collection includes 4,500 books in English, Italian, French and Danish. There are books on musical notation. In almost all his books, he has left his signature in bold along with the year of acquisition.

In the preservation section, you will find a few dedicated people at desk busy with manuscripts and a pot of oil. Citronella oil is smeared on the manuscripts to give flexibility to the leaves. To keep away the insects, an indigenous preservative consisting of a powdered mixture of sweet flag, black cumin, cloves, pepper, bark of cinnamon with camphor is used.

As you walk across to the museum, you will find one of the oldest manuscript Phalavati, a glossary of purva mimamsa sutras of Jaimini, Thiruvaimozhi Vyakyanam written in Manipravala, based on Nammalvar’s Thiruvoimozhi with the commentary by Koneri Dasyai.

A bundle of palm leaf in grantha kept in the showcase contains 24,000 slokas from

Valmiki Ramayana. Both sides of the leaves bear 30 lines in miniature grantha and is impossible to read with the naked eye. One of the biggest palm leaf manuscripts is written by Vasudeva Pillai (AD 1719) and contain seven kandas in 537 leaves and the smallest is a pocket-size edition ‘Panchapakshi Sastram’, a work on astrology. The most impressive one however, is the Shabdarth Chintamani by Chidambara Kavi, a collection of verses. If you read the verse from left to right, you read the Ramayana. If you read the same verse in reverse, you would read the Mahabharata.

Serfoji made a pilgrimage to Benaras in 1820. He commissioned his artist to draw the 64 bathing ghats from East to West on eight plates, which are also available in the library.

Though a lot of texts and manuscripts have been lost due to lack of documentation, a visit to the Saraswati Mahal reminds us of India’s knowledge resource. Serfoji arouses in the visitors a sense of pride and the need to protect and preserve our rich heritage.

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 7:24:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/What-the-kings-read/article14397085.ece

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