The Mission

The National Mission for Manuscripts was established in February 2003, by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Government of India. 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. These manuscripts lie scattered across the country and beyond, in numerous institutions as well as private collections, often unattended and undocumented. The National Mission for Manuscripts aims to locate, document, preserve and render these accessible—to connect India's past with its future, its memory with its aspirations.

Engaging with the Past: A Brief History

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. Several Company officers developed a fascination with various aspects of Indian civilization including languages, philosophy, art and architecture. The early issues of the Royal Asiatic Journal in the early nineteenth century fully reflect this curiosity in all things Indian.

Among the many unusual men who formed the first group of Orientalists in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, who systematically studied and reflected on various aspects of the Indian sub-continent's civilization, were the famous philologist and founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal William Jones, scholar of Telugu C. P. Brown, traveller and Eastern language scholar John Leyden, the first Surveyor-General of India Colin Mackenzie, Sanskrit scholar Charles Wilkins, the translator of numerous Sanskrit works H. H. Wilson and the multi-faceted Orientalist H. T. Colebrook. These great scholars all 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. Many of their personal collections are deposited at the India Office Library and elsewhere in Britain as well as in institutions in India.

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 (Ibid). While the Company did not grant the funds, catalogues were already being prepared by the Orientalists.tes