FIVE THOUSAND YEARS. Five million documents. But most of India’s ancient manuscripts, still extant—the world's largest such collection—are lying forgotten, neglected, in a state of decay; only one million have been catalogued and given a permanent address.
The other documents, carrying a wealth of information on how our ancestors lived and worked, their history and their science and medicine, are invaluable in their potential for India's intellectual empowerment. And the National Mission for Manuscripts (NMM) is racing against time to unearth and save them.
The Mission, a Department of Culture project, is a census of India's heritage, its emissaries literally knocking on doors across the country, asking, requesting, imploring people to ferret out that little piece of history between the cracks in the floor.
The Missionaries—10,000 of them, many with MA degrees in literature, in Sanskrit, in history—have fanned out across 183 districts in 12 states on a discovery of India. Visiting mouldy institutions, old libraries, obscure villages to catalogue, in 2005, an estimated 250,000 manuscripts, recording details such as the nature of material, script, language, subject, location, number of pages…
All this is forgotten history, and quite possibly a lot of ancient knowledge buried in its sleepy recesses. One manuscript reveals the secrets of metal casting, another discusses the principles of aerodynamics and flight, centuries before Leonardo da Vinci doodled flying machines in his notebook. There are texts on battle strategies and religion, on herbs and healing and millennia-old recipes, on astrology and Vastushastra. Works of fiction too.
In Patan, Gujarat, resear-chers found a 10th century text in the leaky attic of a hut hundreds of years old, now home to the local dhobi. The crumbling pieces of paper contained the earliest known treatise on Charvaka philosophy, a traditional Indian belief system that emphasised agnosticism and rejected the afterlife.
In Patan, Gujarat, a 10th century Charvaka text was found in the leaky attic of a dhobi. The researchers retrieved it in the nick of time. A small gompa in Ladakh yielded 13 volumes of an ancient code of conduct for Buddhist monks. A 13th century copper leaf surfaced in Manipur, with detailed advice for a newly-married couple on how to run a household. Another Manipuri manuscript is devoted to predicting seismic activity and earthquakes.
Rummaging through a private collection in Srinagar, researcher T.N. Janjoo came upon the Vanaspati Kosh, a fairly unique herbal dictionary going back to the ninth century. It records the names of curative herbs, their qualities, the type of soil needed to nurture them, and the medicines each herb can yield. “It is massive and will take a lot of time to fully decipher,” says Janjoo.
What's the Mission's larger aim? Says Sudha Gopalakrishnan, director, NMM: “The idea is to reintegrate our lost knowledge… the information we collect will not just end up as so many museum pieces; we intend to use the knowledge.” Gopalakrishnan points out that renowned cardiologist Dr M.S. Valiathan has been working on connecting India's medical heritage with Western medicine. The NMM is a useful resource for him.
The biggest obstacles in India's Great Manuscript Hunt are, ironically, ordinary people. NMM researchers have met with resistance in temples and mutts, and homes. Some manuscripts are considered sacred, others are not shared, and jealously guarded from a world that must not know their secrets.
Researchers say that a general distrust of the government also comes in the way. Possessors worry government agencies may impound their prized manuscripts if they bring them to public view. “In some cases,” says Gopalakrishnan, “they prefer jal samarpan (immersing the manuscripts in a holy river).”
While what has been found is absorbing enough and has whetted the appetite for manuscripts yet undiscovered, NMM functionaries worry about that which may be lost to posterity. Undertaking fieldwork in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, the Mission team came across an old hutment on the verge of demolition. Amid the rubble, they chanced upon a bundle of 30 manuscripts.
Researcher Mridula Pandit managed to retrieve them in the nick of time. But think of what may have been lost if Pandit had been only a few hours late. Clearly time is running out for the Mission in its dogged fight to retrieve and preserve India's precious papyrus heritage.