Joining hands to save manuscripts:

Basgo is a unique example how local efforts are crucial in protecting and caring for manuscripts. Basgo is a small town near Leh. Here, a large number of manuscripts written over centuries were stored at a local monastery. Sometime in course of its history, they were seized by the local ruler who staked them away in Basgo palace. They were poorly maintained, a number of them being torn and surviving folios being all mixed up.

The residents of the town took it upon themselves to sort out these thousands of folios. National Mission for Manuscripts and Central Institute for Buddhist Studies (the Mission's MRC) lent full support to the effort by providing trained documenters and conservators. Every day, 8-10 volunteers worked on a rotational basis up to 10 hours a day sorting and arranging them. Each bach of volunteers takes a week off from their respective jobs to work on the manuscripts. A description of the sorting process will give us an idea of the mammoth proportions of the task. The folios are first divided into two groups—those written on black handmade paper with metallic ink (gold, silver, bronze) and those on white handmade paper written with red or black ink. What further complicates the process is that the size of script / folio may vary amongst different copies of the same volume. So, while it is relatively easy to sort individual folios, it becomes increasing difficult to match a set of folios to a particular set of manuscripts. Despite the difficulties, some sets of manuscripts have already been sorted and returned to their original home, the Basgo gompa. (photo from KR, Aug 05)

Manuscript tradition in Majuli:

Majuli Islands in Jorhat district of Assam is a nerve centre of Vaishnavism. This is evident in its full glory in the Satriya culture. There are about 22 Satras in Majuli, all established by followers of Sri Sankaradeva. Each Satra has a collection of manuscripts and the total number of manuscripts in Majuli is estimated to be around 4000. They are mostly written on Sanchipat (bark of Agaru tree) and deal in themes like religion, medicine, astrology. Some of the most important ones are Charit–Puthi, a biographical text on saints and Puranas in Dakhimpat Satra, Hasti Vidyarnava, a treatise on elephants in Auniati Satra. Many are believed to be original texts written by Shankaradeva nad Madhabdeva.

These objects are also objects of Vaishnav bhakti. The head priest in a Satra worships the manuscripts twice everyday—one hour each in morning and evening. What is remarkable is that in the main temple complex, it is the manuscript and not the idols of gods which is the object of veneration! The head priest bows his head to the manuscript in obeisance, unwraps it and begins to read. It is customary to read the manuscript in the light of a mustard lamp. The priest marks the place where he has finished reading for the day and wraps it up. The manuscript which is worshipped is a copy of the original which is rarely taken out in public. (photo in KR Feb 2006)

Survey in Unnao :

The District Coordinator in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, Dr. Mridula Pandit organised the Survey between 29 November 2005 and 3 December 2005, all with 48surveyore, many volunteers and 3 jeeps! Through A series of public outreach programmes including a district event with the District Magistrate as the guest of honour as well as a street play, word spread in the district about the impending Survey. Two members of the Mission went to Unnao to train the surveyors and interact with people in the area.

Dr. Pandit had the surveyors start everyday from the designated headquarters for the Survey, the District Library and report to her at least twice a day. Surveyors and volunteers were given NMM caps for easy identification. The District Magistrate also supported the effort and provided some vehicles to facilitate the movement of surveyors around from one block to the next. Dr. Pandit recounts, “I also went along the surveyors around the district. On one occasion we came across an old mud house about to be demolished. We saw about 30 manuscripts that had carelessly been thrown into a garbage bin nearby. We promptly retrieved those and the owners of the house were quite happy to give them to us.” In the end, about 25,000 manuscripts were found and about 3,000 datasheets filled. To thank the older members of the community who had taken part in the Survey, she gave them certificates and shawls.

Other priceless finds were the one quintal Mahabharata and 10 meter long Quran!

Discovery of a script!

During the National Survey in Barak Valley of Assam, the surveyors came across a few manuscripts and printed books in an unknown and unique script. This script is little known to the residents of the area and not known at all beyond the valley. Investigations revealed that this script is Sylheti Nagari also known as Jalalavadi Nagari. It is a combination of Devanagari script, Bengali alphabets, Persian-Arabic phonology or words. It was mainly used by Muslins in Sylhet, Cachar and parts of Myonseng and Tripura in the medieval period. Texts which are known to have been written in Sylheti Nagari include biographical sketched of hazrat Muhammad and stories from Puranas such as Harivamsa by Bhavananda.