On display at G20, a 450-year-old manuscript of the Rigveda - Hindustan Times
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On display at G20, a 450-year-old manuscript of the Rigveda

Sep 08, 2023 08:38 PM IST

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.

The 450-year-old manuscript of the Rigveda(HT File) PREMIUM
The 450-year-old manuscript of the Rigveda(HT File)

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).

Starting Saturday, the two-day G20 summit in Delhi will see delegates from around the world swirl through the cultural corridor(ANI Pic Service/Anindya)
Starting Saturday, the two-day G20 summit in Delhi will see delegates from around the world swirl through the cultural corridor(ANI Pic Service/Anindya)

"Accordingly, after getting the permission from British government, Bühler went to Kashmir in 1875-76 where he visited various parts of Kashmir. He procured around 800 manuscripts which are now in the possession of the BORI; it is the largest collection of manuscripts outside Kashmir. Initially, they were with the Elphinstone College, Bombay but after some time, the British government realised that the climate of Bombay was not good. To preserve the manuscripts, they transferred their collection to Pune to Deccan College in 1878. When BORI was founded in 1917, expressly for the purpose of the preservation of old and rare manuscripts in the country, it officially requested the British government to transfer all the manuscripts --- from Bombay and other parts of the country to BORI. In 1922, these manuscripts were brought to Bhandarkar Institute, Pune," said Natu whose doctoral thesis was on George Bühler's contribution to Indology.

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.

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