Tamil Nadu

On a mission to preserve manuscripts for posterity

A manuscript being digitised by the Department of Archaeology in Chennai.

A manuscript being digitised by the Department of Archaeology in Chennai.   | Photo Credit: HAND-OUT-EMAIL

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₹60 lakh sanctioned for first phase of State Manuscript Mission

A reader familiar with Tamil scholar U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer’s autobiography, En Sarithiram, will be aware of the countless palm leaf manuscripts on siddha medicine, astrology and various other subjects he had come across during his expedition in the State. Since he was only interested in printing and publishing ancient literary works, manuscripts on other subjects remained uncollected or unpublished.

Seeking to preserve these invaluable manuscripts for posterity, Minister for Tamil Official Language and Tamil Culture K. Pandiarajan had, in the Assembly, announced the setting up of a State Manuscript Mission, the preliminary work on which has begun. The government has sanctioned ₹60 lakh for the first phase of the three-year mission, and the Department of Archaeology has prepared a list of universities and other educational institutions, religious institutions like maths, research institutes and individuals in possession of such manuscripts.

To be digitised

“We are planning to digitise these manuscripts before preserving them. We appeal to the owners of the manuscripts to hand them over to us. If they cannot afford to part with them, they could allow us to make copies of the manuscripts. In return, we will not only give them digitised copies, but also preserve the manuscripts by treating them in natural chemicals,” said T. Udhayachandran, Principal Secretary and Commissioner, Department of Archaeology. Though manuscripts could have been saved through periodical preservation processes, priceless works had been destroyed due to climate change, fungal infection and termites, he noted. “Damaged manuscripts were either burnt or thrown into rivers without making copies of the text. Foreign scholars, who knew the value of manuscripts, collected them and took them to their own countries,” Mr. Udhayachandran said.

The mission will publish the contents of manuscripts hitherto unknown to the public and create metadata. The work will be undertaken by classifying the districts of the State into five regions. “But the biggest challenge is to identify adequate number of people who can read and edit manuscripts. We are planning to rope in retired employees of the Archaeology Department for the mission,” Mr. Udhayachandran said.

The department has already held a meeting with experts on the subject, one of whom is P. Perumal, former conservator of the Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur. “These manuscripts may spring a surprise like excavations in Keezhadi [have done]. Even unpublished literary works may be found among the manuscripts on medicine. But the priority is to preserve them since their life-span is only 500 years,” Mr. Perumal said.

He pointed out that a minimum of 10,000 manuscripts were in the possession of individuals and institutions in the southern districts, and many minor literary works (Sittrilakkiyankal) remained unpublished.

Professor V. Arasu, former head of the Tamil Department at the University of Madras, said that while 70% of the manuscripts were on medicine, a study of the manuscripts of the revenue administration of the Vijayanagara kings will shed light on the social history of that era. “We need to analyse these manuscripts scientifically. They should be cross-checked to avoid duplication and text variation before they are published as a standard edition. The project provides a treasure trove for Oriental studies,” he said.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 6:04:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/on-a-mission-to-preserve-manuscripts-for-posterity/article30091190.ece

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