On Privileges: the Kollam Plates at the Cambridge University Library

On 1-2 October Dr. Vincenzo Vergiani attended a seminar on the Kollam Plates at the British Museum, organised by Dr Elizabeth Lambourn (Principal Investigator, Reader in South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies, De Montfort University) and Dr Roberta Tomber (Co-Investigator, British Museum) of the AHRC Research Network ‘Routes, Networks and Communities in the Medieval Indian Ocean’.

These copper plates draw their name from Kollam, an ancient port town on the coast of Kerala, and are also known as the Sthanu Ravi Plates, after the local ruler under whom they were issued (ca. 849 CE). They award trade privileges to two merchant associations, the Manigramam, an indigenous south Indian group, and the Anjuvanam, probably representing West Asian interests, who were associated to an eastern Christian church at Kollam. The documents are mainly written in Tamil in the Vaṭṭeḷuttu script, but they also bear 11 names in Arabic, in the Kufic script, 10 names in Middle Persian-Pahlavi, and a four names in Judaeo-Persian, of individuals who probably witnessed the grant on behalf of the larger groups. The names are not autograph signatures per se but rather group testimonials.

The University Library in Cambridge holds a set of brass plates reproducing the text of the original Kollam Plates in reverse, to be used for printing (ms Oo.1.14). These were commissioned in 1805 in Cochin on the initiative of the Scottish missionary Claudius Buchanan and were later used to produce a set of prints, also held in the University Library. Apart from their obvious historical interest, the importance of the Cambridge plates lies in the fact that they preserve a more complete text of the ancient document, without the gaps occurring in the originals, which must have suffered damage in the course of the 19th century. As the Cambridge plates are a unique item in the University Library collections, they will be included in the online catalogue of the Sanskrit Manuscript collections even though, strictly speaking, they are inscriptions rather than manuscripts.