Precious manuscripts in Sanksrit and its derivatives, Pali and the Prakrits, are soon to be preserved for posterity with the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) launching an e-library and commencing on a major digitization process of its treasure trove in Indology.
Unperturbed by the tumult of Pune’s dramatically changing landscape, the institute, named after legendary Indologist Ramkrishna Gopal Bhandarkar, was set-up in 1917 and remains a fixture of the city’s historic-cultural fabric and a veritable researchers’ paradise.
Its venerated walls house one of South Asia’s largest and most invaluable agglomeration of rare manuscripts.
“The move to digitise rare books had begun in earnest since September last year. The institute has formed a three-member committee to examine the institute’s repository of 1.35 lakh books and 28,000 manuscripts,” said Dr. Shreenand Bapat, registrar and curator-in-charge, BORI.
While a Zeutschel high-resolution German scanner has been specially procured by the institute at the cost of Rs. 15 lakh, the restoration promises to be a painstaking and laborious process and promises to stretch on for the better part of five years.
The scanning process, according to Dr. Bapat, poses particular challenges owing to the age of the manuscripts, some of which are more than a millennium old.
“A team of four researchers are working on this project comprising of Prof. Shrikant Bahulkar, Dr. Maitreyee Deshpande and their two assistants. Each day, around 4,000 pages of the manuscripts which have to be digitised and pass it on to an IT company in Mumbai specializing in digitization,” he informed, adding that almost 12 lakh images of pages have to be digitized.
At present, around 12,000 manuscripts and books – the rarest of the rare – have been scanned.
The Government of Bombay State had first begun a pan-Indian manuscript collection project in the mid-1860s under which eminent scholars like R.G. Bhandarkar and German Indologists Johann Georg Buhler and Lorenz Franz Kielhorn among others collected several thousand manuscripts.
This treasure trove, which is to be digitized, was first deposited at Mumbai’s Elphinstone College, from whence it was moved to Pune’s Deccan College for better preservation facilities.
There were permanently housed in 1918 in BORI with Lord Willingdon [Major Freeman-Thomas], the then Governor of the Bombay Presidency and the first president of institute, authorizing for the valuable government collection to be transferred there.
Among the notable publications that have emerged from this grand collection is a critical 19-volume edition of The Mahabharata, collated with copious critical material, out of nearly 1260 old manuscripts.
Apart from the ageing process, the manuscripts have also fallen prey to petty political bickering, most notoriously in 2004, when the institute was shaken by the vandalism committed by the pro-Maratha Sambhaji Brigade, protesting against American scholar’s James Laine’s book on King Shivaji. Several manuscripts were destroyed while Dr. Bahulkar was manhandled by Brigade activists for allegedly explaining the meaning of Sanskrit references to Prof. Laine.
The move to build a metadata has always been mired in financial stress, and while baby steps were taken since 2011, the digitization process gained momentum only recently after the Centre approved of a revised budget outlay for the same.
In 2003, the National Mission for Manuscripts (NAMAMI) had selected BORI as one of the 32 manuscripts’ resource and conservation centres across the country.