National Mission for Manuscripts

Gita govinda (fish shaped), 18th cent., Orissa State Museum, Bhubaneswar

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.


This early phase of cataloguing by the Orientalists took place amidst a fervent phase of institution building (the establishment of the Benarus Sanskrit College, the universities in the three Presidencies and Oriental Research Institutes among others) and the rise of Western education in India. As colonial policy began to veer away from any veneration of aspects of their subjects' culture and languages, an interest in regional languages such as Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil and Telugu among others began to emerge among the socio-religious reformers whose rhetoric is dotted with many references to the greatness of India's traditional learning and literature as found in manuscripts.


Meanwhile, European Indologists had begun to undertake landmark translations of ancient and medieval literary and scientific works based on manuscripts they had found. F. Max Muller's translation of the Rigveda in 1849 was one such landmark. Another was the release of Theodore Aufrecht's Catalogus Catalogorum (“Catalogue of Catalogues”) in the years 1891-1903 of Sanskrit manuscripts that was compiled with considerable personal effort and expense. Around this time, Patna based antique collector Khuda Bakhsh and the Nawab of Rampur were engrossed in outbidding each other for a number of manuscripts and other works of art. Their collections form the bulk of the collections of Rampur Raza Library and Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library.


While a number of efforts were on at the Oriental Research Institutes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries including the publication of the Arthashastra by the great librarian of the Mysore institute, R. Shama Shastri, Madras University undertook the publication of the New Catalogus Catalogorum in 1937 and reached the letter ‘bh'. The project was suspended after the publication of the first fourteen volumes. The National Mission for Manuscripts revived the programme in 2003.

By the time of India's Independence, there were a number of medieval and more modern institutions that had large holdings of rare and often unpublished manuscripts. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India was aware of the intellectual heritage of India and in his magnum opus The Discovery of India , he wrote “One of our major misfortunes is that we have lost so much of the world's ancient literature-in Greece, in India and elsewhere… Probably an organised search for old manuscripts in the libraries of religious institutions, monasteries and private persons would yield rich results. That, and the critical examination of these manuscripts and, where considered desirable, their publication and translation, are among the many things we have to do in India when we succeed in breaking through our shackles and can function for ourselves.” So involved was he that he took a personal interest in ensuring that the Gilgit manuscripts, to date India's oldest manuscripts from the sixth century A.D., were brought from Kashmir to the National Archives of India to be preserved for posterity.
In the first decade after Independence, a number of state-sponsored efforts were made to catalogue and tap India's manuscript heritage. The Sanskrit Commission was set up and in their Report in 1956-7, they recommended that the Government should establish a Central Manuscript Survey which should undertake the “search, survey, collection, cataloguing and publication of manuscripts…and that, for this purpose it should have in its Central and Regional Branches qualified personnel experienced in Manuscript and editorial work and conversant with the local scripts and conditions”. While a number of efforts, often independent and unconnected to similar efforts elsewhere, were made to catalogue large manuscript collections, the situation was less than ideal in many institutions. The incipient conservation initiatives in India focussed mostly on art and buildings. Apart from the Arts and Antiquities Act in 1972 where manuscripts are mentioned as one of a number of art objects and antiquities, no legislation was put in place to safeguard manuscripts. Manuscripts, therefore, were neglected and largely in very poor condition in various institutions and homes around the country even as scholarship that could use them continued to dwindle.
In the early 1980s, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts took some steps towards rectifying the situation and carefully catalogued and micro-filmed about 100,000 important manuscripts around the country. Still, a major undertaking focused on manuscript conservation and documentation was missing.
It was under the Tenth Five Year Plan that a sweeping initiative was announced. The Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Government of India, established the National Mission for Manuscripts in February 2003 as an ambitious five year project with the specific objectives of locating, documenting, conserving and disseminating the knowledge content of India's manuscripts.

Working with specially identified Manuscript Resource Centres (MRC-s) and Manuscript Conservation Centres (MCC-s) in states all over the country, the Mission collects data on manuscripts located in a variety of places, from universities and libraries to temples, mathas, madrasas, monasteries and private collections. It also brings manuscripts and the knowledge they house to the public through lectures, seminars, publications and specially designed programmes for school children and university students. A number of other programmes are designed to promote manuscript conservation, manuscript digitization and scholarship through manuscript studies workshops.