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Manuscriptology - An Overview

Sanskrit literature, available today, encapsulates all branches of human knowledge. But major part of this literature has not yet been published in text-critical editions due to lack of proper training in methodology. Moreover, literatures of olden days are written in a variety of scripts. Today, many scripts have become obsolete and script experts are becoming rare, which hinders the process of preparing text-critical editions. Pondering over these problems, a Workshop on Manuscriptology and Palaeography was organised to train young scholars about ancient Indian scripts such a Grantha, Newari and Sarada. Moreover, young participants were taught the art of preparing text-critical editions out of ancient manuscripts.


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The literary heritage of India dates back to nearly 4000 years. Historically the Indian literature can be divided into four periods, viz., ancient, classical, medieval and modern. While the modern literature is written in more than 20 regional languages, major part of ancient and classical literature is written in Sanskrit, partly in Prakrit also. The Sanskrit literature, which continues since hoary past, encompasses many branches of knowledge – science and arts.

In the ancient languages like Pali, Prakrit and Aprabhramsa were developed from the then spoken dialects. Before the advent of printing technology seers, poets and thinkers mainly wrote on palmleaf, brich-bark (bhurja patra) and later, on handmade papers etc. These written materials are called manuscripts, i.e., ‘handwritten’. With the process of time many scripts were developed and some of them are still in use.


The ancient most script of India is seen on the seals of Mohenjodaro and Harappa, though it is yet to be deciphered. However, the oldest script, which could be read are Brahmi and Kharosthi, found in the inscriptions of the Mauryan Emperor Asoka. The Brahmi script is the parent of several families and sub-families of scripts developed in India (North and South India) and in Southeast Asia, Tibet, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

In North India scripts of the Guptas, Vakatakas and Palas evolved from the Asokan Brahmi script. From western branch of Brahmi, scripts such as Sarada, Tibetan, Nandinagari and Devanagari evolved and the eastern branch gave birth to the Gaudi, Newari, Bengali, Oriya and Maithili scripts. In the South, the Brahmi took a rounder form which developed into the Pallava script. The Pallava script was further developed in various forms in different regions of South India on the one hand on the other it was taken to South East Asia, to be further developed into Khmer, Thai, Laotion and Indonesian scripts.

The oldest manuscripts available today are in the Gupta Brahmi script – a few examples are Gilgit Manuscripts, Bower Manuscripts and others found in Turkistan. In present day the Indian manuscripts, found in various libraries and private collectins are written in a great variety of scripts; those are Sarada, several types of Newari (Ranjana, Bhujimol, etc.), Gaudi, old Bengali, Maithili, Oriya, Nandinagari, Devanagari, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Grantha, etc.

For the last 200 years these ancient manuscripts remained a subject of study and research by Indian and Western scholars. But despite the best efforts made by them only 25% of Indian ancient and classical literature could be published. It is, therefore, a desideratum that more and more texts on various branches of Indian literature, particularly those bearing on sciences and arts, should be brought out in good text-critical editions.

A critical edition aims at the reconstruction of a text which will be nearest to the work of the original author. However, preparation of text-critical editions of old texts is a difficult work. An editor of such a text must be conversant with the methodology of textual criticism. As we are aware, Sanskrit manuscripts are written in various scripts and many of those are now obsolete. Moreover, scholars who can read scripts like Newari and Sarada have become quite rare. An editor has to take help from research assistants who can read the concerned scripts.

The IGNCA is working in this field for the last few years and making efforts to bring out text-critical editions of a number of texts. Through experience, the Centre has realized that to achieve this purpose a band of young scholars should be trained, who can methodically decipher the obsolete scripts, edit texts and interpret the contents of the texts in proper perspective.

Keeping this mission in view a "Workshop on Manuscriptology and Palaeography was organised by IGNCA in collaboration with Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeetha, New Delhi from 14th to 30th May 1994. While inaugurating the Workshop Dr. (Smt.) Kapila Vatsyayan highlighted the necessity of involving Sanskrit scholars from the present generation in the work of textual criticism and interpretation of ancient texts. Dr. Mandan Mishra, Vice Chancellor of Shri Lal Bahadur Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidypeetha, drew attention to the richness of Sanskrit literature and emphasized the necessity of bringing them to light. The scholars from different institutions of national repute participated in the Workshop. Apart from scholars and resource persons twenty-seven young Sanskrit scholars from all over India participated in the Workshop as trainee participants. Experts taught them the methodology of using first hand manuscripts material with a view to preparing critical editions of important Sanskrit and Prakrit texts. Young scholars were taught the Grantha script by Dr. H.V. Nagaraja Rao. In two groups trainees were taught Newari script by Dr. Ratna Basu and Sarada script by Pt. Satkari Mukhopadhyaya.

In the course of various panel discussions, Dr. G.C. Tripathi and Dr. Ratna Basu discussed various aspects of methodology for the preparation of text-critical editions of Sanskrit texts. Pt. Mukhopadyaya’s lecture on inherent and genetic similarity of all Indian and South east Asian scripts provided the trainee participants with an insight in the study of the scripts.

The workshop discussed the importance of manuscripts, their collection, microfilming, cataloguing and classification. The workshop highlighted the methodology of critical editing, genealogy of manuscripts and preparation of stemma, technical terms in the science of editing, selection of correct readings. Young participants were taught how to prepare critical apparatus, fixation of dates of manuscripts, decoding the dates from the colophons, origin and development of Indian scripts.

Dr. Basu taught how to decode the dates recorded in the colophons of manuscripts where the numerals are expressed in words of particular connotations (e.g. Prthvi=1, Netra=2, Rama=3, Rasa=6, Muni=7) with the help of some one hundred specimens culled from the microfilmed manuscripts in IGNCA Collection. The standardization of orthography in edited texts was discussed with illustrations from various traditions.

The Workshop paved the path for the much needed interactions amongst senior scholars to evolve a coherent methodology, and on the other hand prepared young scholars to undertake the work of text-critical editions of known and lesser known classical Sanskrit texts.


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