Treasures from the Bodleian Libraries Indian Collection

Treasures from the Bodleian Libraries Indian Collection
Treasures from the Bodleian Libraries Indian Collection

The Bodleian Libraries, the world famous research hub of Oxford University, houses the world's largest known collection of Sanskrit manuscripts outside the Indian subcontinent, consisting of approximately 8,700 items. A leading Indologist charged with this wealth of information writes exclusively for 'India Investment Journal' on the treasures that will mark the UK-India Year of Culture 2017 celebrations. The first Sanskrit manuscript acquired by the Bodleian was an astrological work, the Jyoti aratnam l 'Garland of Jewels on Astrology' by r pati. It was copied in 1644 and was given to the Library by John Ken, an East India merchant, in 1666. It is uncanny to think that now this manuscript is 350 years old, but when it was acquired by the library it was a 'new manuscript', having been written only 22 years earlier!

The next big step in the life of the Sanskrit manuscript collection took place in the 19th century, when the first Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford, Horace Hayman Wilson, sold his considerable personal library of 627 manuscripts to the Bodleian for £500 in 1842. Wilson's passion for Sanskrit literature led him to translate K lid sa's Meghad ta ('The Cloud Messenger') into English for the first time. His version of this classic Sanskrit poem was printed in 1813 in Calcutta and a copy of this book is available in the Bodleian for readers to consult. Another witness for the dawn of Sanskrit studies in Great Britain is a manuscript of Sir William Jones' translation of the Abhijñ na kuntala ('The Recognition of Shakuntala') by K lid sa, dated 1788. This manuscript is the working copy of the first translation of a Sanskrit drama into English. The richness of the collection led Professor Max Müller in 1856 to describe the Bodleian's Sanskrit manuscript holdings as the second best in Europe, surpassed only by those of the East India Company. It was, however, in the 20th century that Bodleian's collection of Sanskrit manuscripts took the shape that we know now. In 1909 a marvellous act of generosity by the Prime Minister of Nepal, the Maharajah Sir Chandra Shum Shere, brought more than 6,000 manuscripts to the library. This collection of unique Sanskrit texts covers every branch of Sanskrit literature. The collection also grew when the University of Oxford's Indian Institute Library became part of the Bodleian in 1927, and most recently the Library's collection of Jain manuscripts has been enriched by the donation of more than 60 manuscripts belonging to the late Simon Digby (1932-2010). While strolling between the shelves where all these manuscripts are kept, one's attention is drawn to a large wooden box, proudly sitting between the greyish modern boxes used to protect all other manuscripts. The sturdy box resembles a relic from a bygone era and once you open it, you realize that the vessel fits perfectly the content, for it contains one of the oldest Sanskrit manuscripts in the Bodleian: the so-called Bower manuscript. Recovered from the ruins of a Buddhist site near Kucha in Afghanistan, close to the main group of caves of the Min-Oi of Qum Tura, it was presented to Major-General H. Bower by a Turkic treasure-seeker, while he was on a confidential mission from the Government of India in quest of the murderer of a certain Mr Dalgleish in 1890. The manuscript is written on birch-bark in an early Indian script that allows us to date it to the 6th century CE. It is a very important witness of the Indian medical knowledge, transmitting several recipes for the preparation of different types of medical remedies. Separated from its companions and safely kept in a strong-room is another treasure of the Library: The Bakhshali manuscript, an important mathematical treasure which includes the first use of zero. The antiquity of the mathematical works contained in the Bakhshali manuscript is tied to a controversial debate about the reciprocal influence of South Asian and Greek mathematics. One of the curious features of the computation used in the Bakhshali manuscript is that approximations are all done in exact rational arithmetic; one impressive feature is that there are hundreds of zeros in it. Unfortunately, both the dating of the manuscript as well as the dating of the works is still open to debate: due to style of the handwriting, the manuscript is dated 8th-12th century, a very wide range! Needless to say, Indian scholars assign the works to a very early date, while some Western scholars disagree, assigning the works to a very late date. A somewhat younger “star manuscript” that found its way to Oxford is the Shikshapatri. Composed in 1826 by Sahajananda Swami (Lord Swaminarayan), a reforming Hindu leader, this sacred book provides moral and spiritual guidance for everyday life in 212 Sanskrit verses. It is read, heard and venerated daily by Swaminarayan followers. It is believed that Sahajananda Swami himself gave this manuscript to the Governor of Bombay, Sir John Malcolm, to promote understanding between cultures. Usually on display in the Treasures Gallery of the Bodleian's Weston Library, it is occasionally moved to a small display dedicated on the occasion of the veneration of this sacred book by the Swaminarayan community. Two darshans are already scheduled for January 2017. On 24 February 2017, the wealth of Sanskrit literature preserved in the Bodleian's manuscripts will be presented in a lecture performance. Indian classical literature, dance and music all share an understanding that art is about creating emotional states such as love, laughter and horror in the minds and hearts of the audience. I will explore the language of love in the medieval Indian text 'The Ocean of the Rivers of Story' and Dr Menaka PP Bora, Affiliated Artist at the Bodleian Libraries, will present its expression through gestures in dance. All are welcome to experience how through dance and gestures the sentiment of love leaps from the silent page of manuscripts to enter the heart of the public. Camillo A. Formigatti is the John Clay Sanskrit Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford [bodleian.ox.ac.uk/weston/finding-resources/guides/southasia]. He studied Indology and Sanskrit as a secondary when he was studying Classics at the Università Statale in Milan. He has a doctorate in Indology from the University of Hamburg.

Related Stories

No stories found.

Podcast

No stories found.

Defence bulletin

No stories found.

The power of the quad

No stories found.

Videos

No stories found.

Women Leaders

No stories found.
India Global Business
www.indiaglobalbusiness.com