On display at G20, a 450-year-old manuscript of the Rigveda
The story of how a 106-year-old institute in Pune came to possess a document now deemed to be a UNESCO 'Memory of World Heritage
Starting Saturday, the two-day G20 summit in Delhi will see delegates from around the world swirl through the cultural corridor, where an exhibition of rare historical artefacts from different parts of the world is showcased. Among them is an at least 450-year-old manuscript, written on bark, and considered to be part of the Rigveda, one of the four sacred books of Hinduism.
Measuring 10.2 inches by 9.4 inches, the manuscript loaned by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) in Pune, isn't made of paper, but birch bark.
"This specific manuscript sent for the G20 exhibition is written on birch bark [which was what was used] before paper came to India. Birch trees are found in the regions of the Himalayas, and their bark was used for writing, so many birch-bark manuscripts emerged from regions like Kashmir. It is a thin layer of bark of the birch tree, and it is very fragile and delicate. We have a collection of around 800 Kashmiri manuscripts at BORI. Of them, more than 50 are written on birch bark," said Amruta Natu, assistant curator, BORI.
Rigveda is considered to be the oldest written document, older even than written texts by the Greek or Persian cultures. The Rigveda comprises hymns in praise of gods and goddesses, who are personifications of nature like the sun, wind, and water and even, Indra, considered in Hindu mythology to be the king of gods.
The manuscript on display uses the Sharda script, which was used prolifically in the regions of Kashmir till the 16th century, following which Persian and other scripts became more commonplace. However, while the script is Sharda, the language is Sanskrit.
So how did BORI, a 106-year-old institute which is a public organization registered under Act XXI 1860 (a Public Trust) in Pune to preserve rare books and manuscripts, come to possess the manuscript?
In the late 19th century, the British government started a project of procuring old Indian manuscripts from various parts of the country. Under that, they allotted funds to various presidencies. In the Bombay Presidency, many Sanskrit scholars worked to procure manuscripts.
A former Sanskrit professor at Elphinstone College, Georg Bühler, spearheaded this project. Bühler, a German scholar came to India in 1863 and, after a stint as a professor, became the education inspector of the Northern Region of Bombay Presidency (currently Gujarat). During this period, he procured thousands of manuscripts from Gujarat and Rajasthan region. He also put in a request to visit Kashmir, since it was called the 'Sharada Pitham' (seat of knowledge).
Contents, Rigveda, provenance, Kashmir
The manuscript on display has 191 folios [a folio is a sheet, in this case, made of bark, on which the writing was done]. Since its edges are brittle, to secure the edges, the curators have strip-lined them with handmade paper. The manuscript has been kept in a box, covered with leather, and cushioned from inside.
The manuscript, which is one of the oldest in our Kashmirian collection, forms part of the Rigveda manuscripts collection which has been recognized and registered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a "memory of the world heritage", Natu said, adding that this was why the institute chose to send this manuscript for the G20 exhibition.
The ‘cultural corridor’ shall also display the Magna Carta from the UK, the US Declaration of Independence, remains of a prehistoric man from Africa and other artefacts of human legacy.