In India, Marking the Paper Trail of History

Dilipkumar Rana, left, a Sanskrit scholar and manuscript hunter, examines a 17th-century document with New Delhi temple manager Jaipal Jain.
Dilipkumar Rana, left, a Sanskrit scholar and manuscript hunter, examines a 17th-century document with New Delhi temple manager Jaipal Jain. (By Rama Lakshmi For The Washington Post)
By Rama Lakshmi
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 20, 2005

NEW DELHI -- In the walled quarters of the old city, a Sanskrit language scholar walks purposefully along the packed, narrow and twisting alleyways, jostling past rows of jewelry shoppers, cycle rickshaws, bullock carts and beggars.

When he comes upon an old temple with an ornately carved doorway, he stops, sweating profusely in the sweltering sun.

"Do you have any ancient handwritten manuscripts here?" Dilipkumar Rana, the scholar, asks in a whisper. The stunned temple manager nods. "The government is doing a survey of old manuscripts," Rana says.

"But I have very few left now," says Jaipal Jain, the 61-year-old temple manager. "I threw many old manuscripts into the river last year."

"Why?" Rana asks anxiously.

"I had put them in the attic. Last year during the monsoon, the ceiling leaked. And the water destroyed many of the manuscripts," Jain says, sighing. "White ants attacked some others."

And so it goes, as India's 30,000 manuscript hunters fan out across the country, seeking the nation's heritage in old temples, madrassas, mosques, monasteries, libraries and homes.

Launched two years ago, the National Mission for Manuscripts is a five-year project to catalogue for the first time India's ancient documentary wealth and ensure that basic conservation practices are followed to halt their rapid decay. Officials say that India is the largest repository of manuscripts in the world, with an estimated 5 million texts in hundreds of languages.

Linguistic scholars and history students involved in this adventurous hunt for ancient volumes use not only expertise but also social skills, coaxing and cultural sensitivity to gain access to manuscripts.

After Rana takes off his shoes and washes his hands, he prays at the shrine. Then Jain leads him to the temple's dimly lighted manuscript room. He opens a creaky steel cupboard and reveals rows of old texts, bundled in yellow cotton cloth. Rana squats on the ground and cautiously holds some pages up to the window light to examine the writing.

"It is in Prakrit language," he says, referring to a popular dialect of classical Sanskrit, no longer spoken. "The period is early 1600s. It prescribes a model code of living for Jain monks," a religious order that arose along with Buddhism in the 6th century B.C.

The manuscript project's officials say the nationwide survey will open a window to India's ancient knowledge systems: religion, astronomy, astrology, art, architecture, science, literature, philosophy and mathematics.

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