rescuing mss./NGMPP

Michael Witzel witzel at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Sun Nov 30 23:47:20 UTC 1997

<FOR THOSE interested in manuscripts>

Is there really any need to underline the necessity to preserve, "rescue"
MSS in S. Asia?

Robert Zydenbos has already given one example. They are legion. Let me
give one or two without naming names: In a certain princely state the MSS
are lying on a veranda, in the rain. In another big palace, - one with
funds! - one room of c. 10 x15 yards was filled with documents (which also
are important, not only Skt MSS!) up to 2 feet high; they all were carted
away never to be seen (some made their way into the local University).
At a certain Parsi home, the MSS described and used by Geldner were left
in a wardrobe when the family moved in the Sixties, leaving behind "some
old papers" (Avesta MSS are RARE!), etc. etc.

Of course, even copies made a 100 years ago, can be,  upon inspection,
thoroughly wormeaten. Or, to quote the late K.L. Janert: he wondered about
the unusual number of birds in a certain MSS library: they were eating the
book worms... That's ecological pest control!

I read in some Indian publication years ago that MSS libraries were
turning away people with MSS, since "we alrady have that". How can you
know whether a MS is important or not before having carefully compared it
to (non-existent critical or) half-critical editions. The MSS were then
reported to be given, habitually, to paper merchants. Or, cf. the pious
custom of offering MSS to Sarasvati (into the Ganges, thereby increasing
the land mass of Bangla Desh).

Seen from this perspective, *even* the British (French, German, etc.)
"export" of MSS during the past few centuries has proven beneficial. Such
MSS were preserved (barring some losses during WW II bombing of Berlin
etc.), were accessible internationally, and many have been studied and

I know that this is extremely unfashionable (probably colonialistic) to
say so, but even then, it is the simple *truth*. Where is the 6000 MS
collection of the Benares Pandit (Kaviraj, I believe, with *many* unique
texts) now? Or, for example, had the unique MS of the Katha Samhita not
been bought, somewhere in N. India, by a British colonel whose widow sold
it to the Berlin library, we still would not have had an edition of the
text (since the beginning of this century).  Similarly for the Paippalada
Samhita whose Kashmir birchbark MS was sent by the Maharaja to Tuebingen
more than a hundred years ago and which has been available in Facsimile
for some 90 years. (I found one copy in a private Pandit's home in
Kathmandu!  Another one was in the Rana Maharaja's Kesar Library). Where
would the Kashmir MS be today?

When we have collected and copied MSS in the past we have done exactly
what *interested* Indian kings, scholars and private individuals have done
when they ordered or bought MSS from a different corner of the
subcontinent for their libraries or for study. Nepal has quite a number of
Devanagari, Maithili, or even some S.Indian MSS. In this way, many have
survived under better conditions, in the Himalayas (see below). Or in
Tibet, Bali. Should such MSS be returned to Nalanda, etc.? The wider a
certain MS is spread in copies (or books) the better the chance to survive
the centuries.

Any filming, digitalization etc. therefore is welcome. Also by private
individuals. Ashok tells me that he has been doing so, of anything
important he sees, for decades. As have many of us, for our own work. I
have announced to publish a list in EJVS soon, and Ashok has agreed to
follow suit. *Individual* effort (and even that of the Indira Gandhi Ctr),
though, is not enough: we estimate some 30 MILLION MSS in India alone.
Poona has more than 100,000 in 5 libraries. Who knows what is hiding in
villagers' houses, -- or even in printed catalogues behind the mentioning
of a MS as "yajurveda"?

For this reason projects such as the one of UNESCO (in the Seventies), the
Indira Gandhi Center or the Nepal-German MPP are important. Incidentally,
K.L. Janert tried at Jammu and elsewhere but he did NOT succeed. However,
he got permission at Kathmandu, where the NGMPP have been filming public
and private Skt., Newari, and Tibetan MSS (also some Maithili, Old Hindi
etc.  in the whole country since 1970, -- more than 100,000 by now.

The NGMPP was difficult enough to negotiate. It took the late K.L. Janert
and W. Voigt 4 years, at least. Traditional forces were not exactly happy
that the "secrets" found in the MSS would be made available to Mlecchas.
We had to struggle with this attitude for years.

But it *has* been done. The MSS have been "rescued" for posteriority: the
original negative film and a copy (plus copyright) remain in Nepal, and
one positive copy is sent to Berlin. No "piracy" here, just "rescue".

For example, had the c. 24,000 MSS of the Archives not been filmed and had
they been at the office of the Dept. of Archaeology, they would all have
been burnt, just like the large photo collection of the Dept., in the
great Singha Durbar fire of 1973 (set by whom? - a nice story) ... That
way, I missed to get a look at an important Sharada MS on birchbark in the
Director's office: I returned one day to late...  Now, these records
could only be destroyed if Berlin and Kathmandu got bombed at the same

And these MSS (Buddhist and Hindu) are important, not only for their age.
The oldest dated one is of AD 810, if I remember correctly, and there are
many old palm leaf MSS from the 11th cent...  All together some 2400
palm leaf MSS from before c.1500 AD. - The oldest Mbh., Ram., Skanda Pur.,
Manu, Veda MSS etc. etc. are from Nepal...

If you want to use the films, however, you have to pay. (Incidentally,
less than at the British Library and other institutions in GB, where even
photocopies of books are out of reach for normal human beings. I have
simply given up on that years ago).

Simply, the Nepalese NATIONAL ARCHIVES retain the right to allow use of
the microfilms, the "copyright" if you will. And they take a (small) tax.
<Details in another posting>

Perhaps, rightly so.

For it is only at this place in the Indian subcontinent (even when
comparing some Jaina Bhandars) that, aided by the fact of having suffered
*very* few invasions, people did take such good care of their MSS that we
can now enjoy the reading of so many ANCIENT MSS / texts...


Michael Witzel                                  witzel at
phone: 1- 617 - 495 3295 (voice & messages), 496 8570, fax 617 - 496 8571

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