Though the systematic survey of manuscripts, their collection and preservation, and also cataloguing has been going on since the establishment of the East India Company’s rule in India, the importance of manuscripts, their storing and listing were not totally unknown in classical and medieval India. Since manuscripts were the sole medium for the transmission of knowledge, the house of every teacher was a veritable library of manuscripts. The architects and masters of music also had their own collections. Manuscripts were collected by the rulers of different states, including the Mughal emperors, and religious institutions, including monasteries (mathas) of different sects and the Jain bhandaras. The Jain munis played a significant role in the area of collecting and preserving the manuscripts of various shastras – Jain, Brahmanical and Buddhist.

The credit of compiling the earliest known catalogue in India goes to the Jain community. So far as our information goes, the earliest catalogue of manuscripts was compiled under the title, Brihattipanika, as early as Vikrama Samvat 1440 (1383 C.E.) by a Jain monk, whose name is unfortunately not known. TheBrihattipanik, covers some manuscripts in the collections of several places such as Patan, Cambey and Bharauch. It furnishes data of authors’ names, period of writing and grantha-parimana (the extent of each text). The manuscript of this catalogue is still preserved in the Shaninatha Bhandara. Next in line is the celebrated name of the monastic Kavindracharya of Varanasi (Kashi), on whom the title of ‘Sarvavidyanidhana’was conferred by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Kavindracharya flourished in the 17th century and built up a considerable collection of manuscripts. He compiled his subject-wise classified catalogue of 2192 manuscripts between 1628 and 1688 C.E.

That innumerable manuscripts on poetical literature were collected and preserved by the compilers of Sanskrit anthologies and their patrons, since at least the 9th century C.E. is well borne out by glancing through some of the published anthologies. Mention may be made of Vidyakara’s Subhashitaratnakosha (11th cent. C.E.; excerpts from 223 poets), Shridharadasa’s Saduktikarnamrita (13th cent. C.E.), Sharngadhara’sSharngadharapaddhati (1363 C.E.; 292 poets), Vallabhadeva’s Subhashitavali (15th century C.E.; 380 poets) Rupagosvamin’s Padyavali (16th century C.E.; 133 poets), et al.

Collecting manuscripts from various regions and traditions and collating them for the purpose of fixing a text in a particular time and space or writing commentaries upon them were not unknown practices in ancient and medieval India. A commentary on the Narayanopanishad ascribed to Shankaracharya states that there are various text traditions of the Upanishad. Nilakantha, the commentator on the Mahabharata states that he collated manuscripts acquired from different regions and selected the best readings on the basis of these manuscripts.

Since the late medieval period, the emperors of Delhi and rulers of different states all over India showed keen interest in collecting and preserving manuscripts. Among the independent rulers, Tipu Sultan of Mysore (18th cent. C.E.) built up a library of oriental manuscripts in Arabic, Persian and Hindustani languages. After his defeat and death, while fighting with the British forces, his library was taken over by the British. The manuscripts from Tipu’s library were studied and catalogued by General Charles Stewart; the Catalogue was published from Cambridge (A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oriental Library of the Late Tipu Sultan of Mysore……Cambridge: University Press, 1809). Native rulers under the umbrella of the East India Company and subsequently of the British Government, too collected manuscripts and built up libraries. Enlightened rulers of Travancore, Cochin and Mysore are celebrated names in this field. The Travancore Palace Library collection was started by Maharaja Vishakham Tirunal (1880-1885). The manuscripts collected and preserved in this Library were subsequently catalogued by eminent traditional Sanskrit scholars, such as K. Sambasiva Sastri and K. Mahadeva Sastri, and a catalogue in eight volumes was published (A Descriptive Catalogue of the Sanskrit Manuscripts in H.H. the Maharajah’s Palace Library, Trivandrum, Trivandrum: V.V. Press Branch, 1937-38). In this connection, it should be mentioned that another important collection of Sanskrit manuscripts was built up by the Government of Travancore in the Curator’s Office Library and a catalogue in ten volumes was edited by K. Sambasiva Sastri, K. Mahadeva Sastri, P.K. Narayana Pillai and L.A. Ravi Verma (A Descriptive Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts in the Curator’s Office Library, Trivandrum, V.V. Press Branch, 1937-1941).

Rulers of Bikaner and Jodhpur also collected manuscripts which have been, however, documented at a much later date. The contribution of the Dogra rulers of Jammu and Kashmir in this field is also noteworthy.

It is to be noted that the manuscript collections in India, to be described in the following lines, have a vast range of language coverage, viz. Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, almost all regional languages, Arabic, Persian, Tibetan, Zend, Pahlavi, et al.

The British rulers who took upon themselves the cause of education and of patronizing Indian traditional knowledge systems, directed their attention towards the Indian literary heritage preserved in the manuscripts. Since the inception of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, in 1785, the systematic search, survey, collection and documentation of manuscripts were started. Several government collections gradually came into existence in Calcutta, Varanasi, Pune and Madras.

So far as our information goes, the credit of compiling the first catalogue of Indian manuscripts in India goes to Dr. Nicholas, chief surgeon in the General Hospital in Surat, who compiled a 15 page list of manuscripts between 1788 and 1795. This list describes, besides Sanskrit, a few Zend, Pahlavi, Persian and Arabic works. However, one must note that James Fraser also published, from London, in 1742, a brief catalogue of some Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic manuscripts, but we do not have any knowledge as to whether this catalogue was compiled in India, or that the manuscripts described therein did exist in India, till that time. It is recorded that Sir William Jones and Lady Jones acquired some Sanskrit, Prakrit and other Oriental manuscripts from India, which were presented to the Royal Society in London (later on handed over to the India Office Library), in 1792. Sir Charles Wilkins, the first English translator of the Bhagavadgita (published 1785), prepared a catalogue of this collection which was published in the Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London (1798, p. 593 and 1799, p. 335).

One early catalogue by an Indian pundit deserves mention here. It was a 149 page catalogue, i.e classified alphabetical lists of three thousand manuscripts in the holdings of the College of Fort William, Library College of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Benaras Sanskrit College. The Catalogue was compiled by Pandit Ramagovinda Tarkaratna under the instructions of James Princep. It described manuscripts in Sanskrit, Bengali, Kannada, Marathi, etc.(Suchipatram. Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1838). The long Sanskrit sub-title of the Catalogue is quite interesting.

Now let us shift our focus to more recent times - the history of survey and cataloguing of Indic manuscripts in India in the 19th and 20th centuries. Extensive survey of and searches for manuscripts were carried on by Indian and European experts in various regions of the country, particularly in Bengal, western, central and northern regions. In the western region, G. Buhler, F. Kielhorn, Peter Peterson, R.G. Bhandarkar, S.R. Bhandarkar were the pioneers in the field. Their tour reports contain, inter alia, numerous descriptions of manuscripts. A few of these reports deserve to be mentioned here:

  1. Report of Georg Buhler’s tour in Southern Maratha in search of Sanskrit manuscripts for the Govt. of Bombay, 12th Feb. 1867, contains the description of 200 mss. (Pub. in ZDMG);
  2. Detailed Report of a tour (by G. Buhler) in search of Sanskrit mss. made in Kashmir, Rajputana and Central India (Pub. in two parts, 1877)
  3. F. Keilhorn published the Supplementary Catalogue of Sanskrit Works in the Saraswati Bhandaram Library of the Maharaja of Mysore in 1874.
  4. His two lists of Sanskrit Manuscripts purchased for the Govt. of Bombay, during the years 1877/78, 1879/80 (Pub. 1881) are very important.
  5.  A Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts existing in the Central Provinces; prepared by order of E. Willmot, edited by F. Kielhorn (Pub. Nagpur: Govt. Book Depot, 1874)

The Deccan College of Poona gradually developed a veritable repository of Indic manuscripts. The preliminary cataloguing of the Deccan College was done by G. Buhler and F. Kielhorn, as for example:

  1. Three lists of Mss. in the Deccan College and the Elphinston College collections by G. Buhler (Pub. 1874/1875).
  2. Peter Peterson’s Report of operations in search of Sanskrit Manuscripts in the Bombay circle: Four Reports – 1883, 1884, 1887, 1894 (Pub. in book form in 1899).
  3. R.G. Bhandarkar, Report to K.M. Chatfield, Poona as regards the search of Sanskrit Manuscripts (1880).
  4. R.G. Bhandarkar, List of Sanskrit Manuscripts in private libraries in the Bombay Presidency (1883).
  5. R.G. Bhandarkar. Another Report on Sanskrit Manuscripts in the Bombay Presidency, 1881-1901.
  6. A Catalogue of the Collections of Manuscripts deposited in the Deccan College, Poona, from 1868 to 1884, compiled by S.R. Bhandarkar (Pub. Bombay: Govt. Central Press, 1888).
  7. Reports on search of Sanskrit Manuscripts through Central India, Central Provinces and Rajputana by S.R. Bhandarkar during 1904 and 1905.
  8. Report on Sanskrit Manuscripts in six private libraries in the Delhi District by Kashinath Kunte (1882).

Now we propose to divert our attention to the eastern zone. Raja Rajendralala Mitra and Mm. Haraprasada Sastri are the most celebrated names in the field of search, survey and cataloguing of manuscripts in the eastern zone. We have already mentioned the earliest catalogue of manuscripts from Calcutta (i.e. Ramagovinda Tarkaratna’s Suchipatram, 1838). Rajendralala Mitra started working in this field in the early second half of the 19th century.

  1. Mitra published as early as 1877, A Descriptive Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts in the Library of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Part-1: Grammar (Pub. Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press).
  2. B. H. Hodgson of the British Residency in Kathmandu (Nepal) brought a collection of Manuscripts of Sanskrit Buddhist Literature which he presented to the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Mitra compiled a detailed descriptive work on this collection, under the title, The Sanskrit Buddhist Literature of Nepal(Pub. Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1882).
  3. Most outstanding work of Raja Rajendralala Mitra is the Notices of Sanskrit Manuscripts (deposited in the Library of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta or in other collections). First series: Vols. 1-11. Published under order of Govt. of Bengal (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1871-1895). On the demise of Rajendralala Mitra, Mm. Haraprasada Sastri took up the Project and published the Second series in four volumes (1898-1911)

The whole set has been reprinted by Sharada Prakashan, Delhi, with biographical sketches of both the scholars by Satkari Mukhopadhyaya (1990). Raja Rajendralala Mitra’s other important contributions are:

  1. Catalogues of Sanskrit Manuscripts existing in Oudh (1872-1883);
  2. Report on Sanskrit Manuscripts in native libraries in Bengal (1875).
  3. Descriptive Catalogue of Sanskrit manuscripts in the Libraries of Asiatic Society of Bengal (1877);
  4. A Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts in the Library of H.H. the Maharaja of Bikaner (1880).
  5. Mm. Haraprasada Sastri compiled A Catalogue of palm-leaf and selected paper manuscripts belonging to the Durbar Library of Nepal, 2 vols. (Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1905-1915). This Catalogue has been re-printed in Germany (as Supplement vol. 31, under the series, Verzeichnis des Orientalischen Handschriften in Deutschland; Stattgart, 1889)
  6. The Asiatic Society (earlier known as Asiatic Society of Bengal) started compiling and publishing excellent descriptive catalogues of Sanskrit, vernacular and Arabic, Persian and Urdu manuscripts preserved under the Society’s care since the last quarter of the 19th century. Mitra’s first catalogue, published in 1877 was followed by a long series of catalogues of manuscripts. The catalogues published by the Society are the best specimens of descriptive cataloguing in India. The first volume in this series appeared as early as 1895 (the volume number was changed and the contents revised later on). The Series continued till recently. The Sanskrit manuscripts have been described in 14 volumes, the latest having been published in 1887. Scholars such as Mm. Haraprasada Sastri, Hrishikesh Sastri, Sivachandra Guin, Nilamani Chakravarti, Bhavabhuti Vidyaratna, Ashutosh Tarkatirtha, Nanigopal Banerji, Jogendranath Gupta, Narendra Chandra Vedantatirtha, Chintaharan Chakravarti, Satyaranjan Banerji, et al. have been the compilers and editors of different volumes. Besides, the Society has brought out quite a few volumes of catalogues of Rajasthani, Bengali, Assamese, Tibetan, Arabic, Persian and Urdu manuscripts.

Government Sanskrit College in Kolkata has been, since its inception, a rich repository of Sanskrit manuscripts. It published a series of catalogues in ten volumes between 1895 and 1909, and started publishing a revised series since 1956.

In the southern region of the country, the most important and rich repository of manuscripts is the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library in Chennai. The nucleus of the vast collection of manuscripts in this Library is formed by three collections of Colonel Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821), Dr. Leyden and C.P. Brown (1798-1855). Mackenzie took his collection to Calcutta and went on adding to it till his death in 1821. This collection was examined by H.H. Wilson, the then Secretary to the Asiatic Society, who compiled a descriptive catalogue of the collection which was published by the Society in Calcutta in 1828. Subsequently a part of this collection was brought to Madras by the East India Company. Dr. Leyden collected some manuscripts between 1803 and 1811 which were deposited in the India House Library of London. C.P. Brown noticed this collection in 1837 and thanks to his efforts it was brought to India. Brown’s own collection of Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu manuscripts, which was presented to the East India Company was brought to India in 1855. All these three collections were first deposited in the College Library, Madras and then shifted to the Government Oriental Manuscript Library (GOML) when it was founded in 1869. The collection grew rapidly during the last 140 years. The present holding of Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Urdu, Arabic, Persian, Sinhalese and other manuscripts comprises 72,000 manuscripts. The first catalogue of manuscripts in the Madras Mackenzie collection was compiled by Gustav Opert in 1878. Since then, almost a hundred volumes of catalogues have been published by the Library.

Next to GOML, Chennai, mention must be made of the Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji’s Saraswati Mahal Library. The Nayaka and Maratha rulers of Thanjavur had always been great patrons of art and literature. The Library was first conceived by the Nayaka kings (1535-1676) and further developed by the Maratha kings (1676-1855). It was known as the Royal Palace Library of Tanjore. The first Index of Sanskrit manuscripts was prepared by Arthur Coke Burnell (Pub. A Classified Index to Sanskrit Manuscripts in the Palace at Tanjore. London: Truebner, 1880). In 1918, the Royal family made it a public library which became known as Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji’s Saraswati Mahal Library. The Library possesses very valuable and some very rare manuscripts collected since the medieval period including some in Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and Modi. Between 1928 and 1952, twenty seven volumes of descriptive catalogues (29 vols. Sanskrit, 3 vols. Tamil, 4 vols. Marathi, 2 vols. Telugu and 1 vol. Modi) have been published.

The former princely State of Mysore, now Karnataka, too has a rich heritage of manuscripts in government and private collections. Tipu Sultan’s collection has already been mentioned. The first known catalogue from Mysore is the Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts in several private collections in Mysore and Coorg, compiled by Lewis Rice (Pub. Bangalore: Mysore Govt. Press, 1884). This was followed by the Catalogue of Sanskrit works in the Saraswati Bhandaram Library described above. The richest repository of Manuscripts in the state is the Oriental Research Institute, now under the University of Mysore. The Library was established by Chamaraja Wodeyar, the then Maharaja of Mysore, in 1891, then named as the Government Oriental Library, and later on renamed as the Oriental Research Institute in 1916. The manuscripts preserved in the Institute have been collected during the last one hundred years from different parts of the State. The collection is rich in Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Tulu as well as manuscripts of other languages. One of the valuable manuscripts in this collection is the illustrated encyclopaedic work, Shritattvanidhi, the first volume of which has been published by the Institute. Manuscripts on Visistadvaita and Dvaita philosophy and Shaiva Agamas (both Siddhanta Shaiva and Virashaiva) are unique treasures of this Library. The Institute has published Descriptive Catalogue of Sanskrit manuscripts in 16 volumes (1978-1990). Besides, the Institute has to its credit more than two hundred works, most published for the first time, edited from the manuscripts preserved in the Institute.

The Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute of Pune possesses one of the most important and valuable collections of manuscripts in India. The total number of manuscripts in this collection is estimated at 28,000. The collection has a long and interesting history. In 1868 the then Government of Bombay Presidency appointed Georg Buhler and F. Kielhorn to search for and collect manuscripts from the Presidency and other areas. The work was continued by other scholars such as R.G. Bhandarkar, Peter Peterson, Kathawate, S.R. Bhandarkar, K.B. Pathak and V.S. Ghate till 1915. The scholars mentioned above prepared and published reports on their activities and acquisitions from time to time, some of which have been detailed above. The manuscripts had been initially deposited in the Elphinstone College of Bombay, and subsequently the whole collection was shifted to the Deccan College, Pune in 1878. When the Bhandarkar Oriental Institute of Pune was established, the collection of some 20,000 manuscripts, known as the Government Collection was shifted to the Institute and placed under the supervision of Prof. P.K. Gode, the first curator. In due course about 8,000 were added to this collection. Cataloguing of the manuscripts was undertaken in early 19th century by various professors and curators and the first volume of the Descriptive Catalogue appeared in 1916. Until 1957, 19 volumes of subject-wise classified catalogues had been published by the Institute.

In Kerala, the biggest collection of manuscripts is housed in the Oriental Manuscripts Library and Research Institute in which earlier collections of Sanskrit and Malayalam manuscripts have been merged. The uniqueness of this collection lies in the works on continued literary compositions of Kerala, Musicology, Performing arts such as Kathakali and Kutiyattam, etc.

The writer of these lines is aware of the fact he has only touched the tip of the iceberg, as it were. He looks forward to an opportunity to describe the history of survey and cataloguing of manuscripts in other places, particularly Jain Bhandaras, Libraries of Arabic, Persian and Urdu manuscripts, and the microfilm projects of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts covering important manuscript collections in India and abroad