Indian manuscripts seem to be enjoying a never-before lease of attention, driven by the National Mission for Manuscripts (NMM) in New Delhi which will be four years old on February 7.
This week, the NMM-created exhibition — Sacred is the Word — on display at the Frankfurt Kunsthaus for the past two months, is being dismantled to return home. This was the first ever collection and public display of old Indian manuscripts.
The exhibits will not disappear into obscurity. They will be showcased again for a month from February 8 at the exhibition hall of the National Archives — a collection of 90 rare texts, mostly sacred from 15 repositories on a range of material from birchbark and palm leaves to textiles and copper.
This year, the NMM will also include India’s oldest surviving manuscript on UNESCO’s programme — Memory of the World — which documents the world’s textual history of the intellect. The candidate is the Buddhist compendium known as the Gilgit Manuscript. Written in ancient Sanskrit in the Sharada script (once used in J&K) between the fifth and sixth centuries common era (CE) on birchbark, they were discovered accidentally like the Dead Sea Scrolls by shepherds in 1931 in Gilgit, now in Pakistan.
They did not attract the hue and cry of Biblical texts, since those were colonial times and were buried mostly in the shelves of the National Archives.
Says Dr Sudha Gopalakrishnan, Director, NMM, “The Gilgit Manuscripts are among the oldest surviving manuscripts anywhere in the world and the oldest in India. They have unmatched significance in the area of Buddhist studies and the evolution of Sanskrit, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Tibetan literature.”
They cover wide-ranging themes like iconometry, folk tales, philosophy, medicine and topics “on life and knowledge.” Nearly two millennia later, their hour may have finally come.