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History on palm leaves and paper

Caleb Simmons of the University of Arizona wanted authentic material for his doctoral dissertation on Kohala Rahasyam (logic behind theory of Carnatic music). Mahmood Koora of Leiden University, The Netherlands, was looking for ancient works on Indian art. Internet search and consultations with friendly scholars gave them the same direction: Climb the narrow steps of the imposing building at the back of the Madras University campus in Chennai and in the airy rooms on the first floor you will find an Ali Baba's cave of palm-leaves and printed books on those topics. Overwhelmed by what he discovered in its shelves and glass cases Simmons wrote in the visitors' book: “One of the best manuscript libraries in the world.”

A small board above the entrance modestly announces the library's official name: Government Oriental Manuscript Library. “The collection has a fascinating history,” says curator Dr. S. Vasanthi, thrusting an aged brochure into my hand. The paper says the manuscripts, copper plates and palm leaves came from private collections of Colonel Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821), Dr. Leyden and C.P. Brown, and adds sketches of how they came upon the treasures.

Fascinated by oriental languages, Mackenzie, an engineering cadet of the East India Company collected everything oriental — maps, coins, manuscripts and inscriptions. He was Surveyor-General of India (explains how he kept adding to his treasures) and when he died in Calcutta in 1821, the East India Company bought the collection, grouped it into three, sent one to London, one to Calcutta and the third to Madras. These were manuscripts of works in literature, history, philosophy and science — written in south Indian and Oriental languages and of Kaifiyats and inscriptions belonging to different periods, evidently unearthed in little-known places.

C.P. Brown's treasure-box contained Sanskrit and Telugu works. In 1837, he chanced upon manuscripts in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada at the India Office Library in London, and was told they belonged to one Dr. Leydon, linguist and traveller who was in India from 1803-1811. Brown, who was in the Indian Civil Service, moved officialdom and managed to bring Leydon's Indian acquisition to their original home in 1855. The three collections were transferred to Presidency College, the library opened in 1869, and Mr. Pickford, Professor of Sanskrit at Presidency, was hand-picked to catalogue the assemblage, prepare a system to publish the manuscripts and acquire transcriptions from everywhere.

The GOML sitting quietly among tall avenue trees now has more than 70,000 manuscripts in Indian/Arabic/Persian languages filling the shelves on either side of the narrow aisles, some spilling out on to the floor. What is remarkable – apart from what the library holds in terms of knowledge – is the fact that scholars are on hand to disseminate what the manuscripts contain. A trained group works to preserve the palm-leaf and paper manuscripts.

“Most of our visitors are university students who come to do reference work,” said Geethalakshmi, Sanskrit pundit. “Others include Siddha, Ayurveda experts, and central government doctors.” Publication of manuscripts in book-form is an ongoing project. “We transcribe material from palm leaves, edit and publish them. We bring out a bulletin once-in-six-months, descriptive catalogues annually and others triennially. We have scanning and photo-copying facilities. The collection of palm leaves on Siddha and Ayurveda medical systems is priceless.”

So are the Telugu Bharathamu and the Ramayana, said Rupkala, Telugu pundit. These are part of the 700 palm-leaf/2000 paper manuscripts she is in-charge of. Apart from overseas visitors, scholars from Tirupathi Devasthanam come looking for information about temples, she said. PhD scholars do project work or research in languages, some arrive to read Anwarnama, a versified history of Arcot in Telugu by Venkatakrishnamachari.

It is the Urdu section that holds my attention today. The enthusiastic Urdu scholar pulls out book after book insisting that I read the prefaces. “You won't be disappointed,” he assures me. I'm soon absorbed in the English versions of Unani Tuhfahe-Khani (Unani medicine); Ruqa'at-i-Walajahi-Nawah, a bundle of 1000 letters addressed by officials and responded to by Muhammad Ali Walajah – riveting details of his administration including public welfare, arts and crafts, military organisation, forts, gardening, drought/famine relief; Bahar-e-Azamjahi, a book on Muslim saints/savants; Waqi-at-e-dzfari (scholar descendant of Aurangazeb) which has invaluable information about 12th/13th century India. The author describes the lives of the “inhabitants” of Madras, their habits and manners, the climate, his meeting with the Nawab Walajah II. This is the oldest manuscript in this section. Sawanihat-e-Mumtaz gives a descriptive account of the turbulent period in the history of South India when the Walajahi family ruled over the Carnatic. “It's based on a Persian Ms,” said the scholar. “No other copy of this work is known.”

A library with scholars to interpret the works, wah!

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 1:32:25 AM |

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