many words, few pictures (Was: Surgical instruments...)

Allen W Thrasher athr at LOC.GOV
Thu Jul 17 12:36:51 UTC 2008

Thoughts arising from reflecting on illustrations of surgical instruments:   The Asian Division at LOC yesterday put together a one-day display of books on S. Asian traditional medicine for a one-day Washington field trip for the 12th International Conference of the History of Science in East Asia, held at Johns Hopkins this week.  Seeing the many beautifully illustrated materia medica, and the various other striking illustrations and diagrams in the indigenous traditions that my colleagues from the Far East and Tibet could lay out, and comparing them with my offerings, I was struck by how very logocentric Ayurveda, and indeed much of Sanskritic (and Tamilian) intellectual culture is.  As I pointed out in my captions and very brief talk, there are printed illustrated flora and herbal materia medica going back to the very beginning of the European presence in India, and continuing in all languages to the present day, under auspices both private and the post-colonial national and regional governments.  But these are not the continuation of any Sanskritic tradition.  There are, I gather,  herbals from India in the Islamicate tradition based on the Greek herbals, which add some Indian plants, though as far as I know no one has studied or printed them.  Our collections have a few books on medicine from the early 20th century with very folksy illustrations in woodblocks, making me wonder if these are a continuation of some folk tradition of illustrated herbals.  But maybe that's just because the publishers, producing for a very poor and unsophisticated market (the sort that are in Dariba Kalan in Delhi nowadays), couldn't afford and didn't see the need for any but the most basically skilled illustrators.  (We have some early Marathi magazines largely concerned with introducing modern general knowledge that have similarly crude illustrations on other subjects.)

This is turn raises a very wide question:  What books or sorts of books get illustrated in India, and why?  


Allen W. Thrasher, Ph.D.
Senior Reference Librarian
Team Coordinator
South Asia Team, Asian Division
Library of Congress, Jefferson Building 150
101 Independence Ave., S.E.
Washington, DC 20540-4810
tel. 202-707-3732; fax 202-707-1724; athr at
The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Library of Congress.

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