ENGAGING WITH THE PAST
India’s manuscripts have for centuries captured the imagination of the world. As early as the seventh century Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang took back hundreds of manuscripts from India. Later in the late eighteenth century, the Nawab of Awadh gifted a superb illuminated manuscript of the Padshahnama to King George III of England. Today, it is considered one of the finest pieces in the Royal Collection. When the English East India Company first came to India, they acknowledged the sub-continent as the bearer of a great and rich civilization that abounded in intellectual and artistic endeavour. Great scholars took an avid interest in many facets of the culture of the sub-continent as found in the vast treasure of handwritten manuscripts on a variety of materials including palm leaf, paper, cloth and even gold and silver.
THE EARLY PHASE OF CATALOGUING
As early as 1803, the idea of a “catalogue of all most useful Indian works now in existence with an abstract of their contents” was put to the Asiatic Society (as quoted in M. L. Saini “Manuscript Literature in Indian Languages” in ILA Bulletin , 5.1, Jan-Mar 1969, pp 6-21). Four years later, H. T. Colebrook as the Society's fourth president appealed to the Government to set aside an additional grant of five or six thousand rupees per annum to undertake such a catalogue. This early phase of cataloguing by the Orientalists took place amidst a fervent phase of institution building (the establishment of the Benarus Sanskrit College, the universities in the three Presidencies and Oriental Research Institutes among others) and the rise of Western education in India.
NEW CATALOGUS CATALOGORUM
Meanwhile, European Indologists had begun to undertake landmark translations of ancient and medieval literary and scientific works based on manuscripts they had found. F. Max Muller's translation of the Rigveda in 1849 was one such landmark. Another was the release of Theodore Aufrecht's Catalogus Catalogorum (“Catalogue of Catalogues”) in the years 1891-1903 of Sanskrit manuscripts that was compiled with considerable personal effort and expense. the great librarian of the Mysore institute, R. Shama Shastri, Madras University undertook the publication of the New Catalogus Catalogorum in 1937 and reached the letter ‘bh'. The project was suspended after the publication of the first fourteen volumes
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India was aware of the intellectual heritage of India took a personal interest in ensuring that the Gilgit manuscripts, to date India's oldest manuscripts from the sixth century A.D., were brought from Kashmir to the National Archives of India to be preserved for posterity.
The National Mission for Manuscripts
The Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Government of India, established the National Mission for Manuscripts in February 2003 as an ambitious project with the specific objectives of locating, documenting, conserving and disseminating the knowledge content of India's manuscripts. A unique project in its programme and mandate, the Mission seeks to unearth and preserve the vast manuscript wealth of India. India possesses an estimate of five million manuscripts, probably the largest collection in the world. These cover a variety of themes, textures and aesthetics, scripts, languages, calligraphies, illuminations and illustrations. Together, they constitute the ‘memory' of India's history, heritage and thought.
The National Mission for Manuscripts revived the New Catalogus Catalogorum programme in 2003 with Madras University. Till date thirty six volumes have been published.
Working with specially identified Manuscript Resource Centres (MRC-s) and Manuscript Conservation Centres (MCC-s) in states all over the country, the Mission collects data on manuscripts located in a variety of places, from universities and libraries to temples, mathas, madrasas, monasteries and private collections.
For more information please visit http://www.namami.gov.in