The intellectual and religious traditions of South Asia as seen through the Sanskrit manuscript collections of the University Library, Cambridge

जलाद्रक्षेत्तैलाद्रक्षेद्रक्षेच्छिथिलबन्धनात् |
मूर्खहस्ते न मां दद्यादिति वदति पुस्तकम् ||

In a world that seems increasingly small, every artefact documenting the history of ancient civilisations has become part of a global heritage that needs to be carefully preserved and studied. Among such artefacts, manuscripts occupy a distinctive place in as much as they speak to us with the actual words of long-gone men and women, bringing back their beliefs, ideas and sensibilities to immediate life. In this respect, the collections of South Asian manuscripts in the Cambridge University Library are a precious resource, so far little known even to specialists. They comprise more than one thousand documents in Sanskrit and other South Asian languages, written in various scripts and on different supports, such as birch-bark, palm-leaf and paper. A small portion of them were catalogued by Cecil Bendall in the late 19th century, but the collections were enriched by new acquisitions until the 1990s. The collections include works of great rarity in different genres and on a host of subjects, from religion and philosophy to astronomy, grammar, law and poetry. Among its treasures are some of the oldest extant manuscripts from South Asia, dating from the last centuries of the first millennium C.E., which were collected in Nepal, virtually the only region of the Indian subcontinent where the climate allows their survival for more than a few centuries.

The project, funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant, will carry out an exhaustive survey of the library holdings, gathering all the basic information for each item in keeping with the current international standards for the cataloguing of ancient and medieval manuscript sources. It will collect data on the physical characteristics of the manuscripts, identify untitled works and attempt to date them on the basis of palaeographic and material features, situating them in their broader historical context. By combining traditional philological methods with advanced information technology, it will make these extraordinary documents available in various formats to the scholarly community of Sanskritists and other specialists of South-Asia as well as to the general public. All the findings obtained from the survey of the manuscripts will be collected in an extensive multimedia archive that will be searchable online through the Library’s new online digital library (http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/). A significant portion of the holdings will be digitized, and the images will be linked to the archive records.

In parallel to the survey and cataloguing, we will investigate this wealth of material through a collaborative effort with fellow Sanskritists in the U.K. and abroad, demonstrating the importance of these primary manuscript sources for the history of pre-colonial South Asia. The research findings will be presented through academic journals and other publications, as well as in two international workshops to be organised in the second and third year of the project, focusing on some of the religious and intellectual traditions that have played a key role in the Indian civilisation.

Start date: 14th November, 2011
Principal Investigator: Dr Vincenzo Vergiani
Research Associates: Dr Daniele Cuneo, Dr Camillo Formigatti