Great Libraries of India



In an age when almost anything you want to know is available at the click of a button, it is hard to imagine how important libraries have been as receptacles of ideas, cultures, faiths and thoughts, in the journey of human civilization. India too has had its share of great libraries, all of them storehouses of knowledge and wisdom. Sadly, many have been lost to strife and neglect.

Delhi-based historian R K Bhatt in his book History and Development of Libraries in India (1995) traces the early history of India’s library tradition. Historically, ancient India had a rich tradition of oral learning, especially during the Vedic period. This was a period when knowledge of the great texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and Shastras was transmitted orally from the guru (teacher) to shishya (student). While there may have been great repositories of manuscripts during the Vedic period, not much is known about them.

Some of the earliest references to the great libraries in India are of those at the great Buddhist mahaviharas or universities at Nalanda, Vikramshila and Odantapuri in Bihar. Accounts of Chinese travellers like Fa-Hien, Hieun-Tsang and I-Tsing tell us about the importance of these libraries. In fact, one of the reasons Fa-Hien visited India in 399 CE was to copy important Buddhist texts from these libraries and take them back to China.

Ruins of Nalanda
Ruins of Nalanda|Wikimedia Commons

In Western India, the Buddhist complex at Kanheri in present-day Mumbai also housed a great library, and there are references to donors providing money for its upkeep. In the South, there are references to the great library at Vijayapuri or Nagarjunakonda, which is said to have been five stories high!

Sadly, we know little of the libraries of the great dynasties like the Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas, Solankis, Paramaras and Chandellas. In the Delhi Sultanate, it was Sultan Jalaluddin Khilji (r. 1290-1296) who established the Imperial Library at Delhi, with the renowned poet Amir Khusrau as its librarian. Around the same time, the renowned Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya established a library at his Khanqah in Delhi, through public donations. Unlike the royal libraries, this was a ‘public’ library accessible to the common man.

The passion for books was a tradition continued by the Mughal rulers. Babur and Humayun were bibliophiles and great collectors of books. In fact, Emperor Humayun died when he slipped down the stairs of his library at Sher Mandal, today’s Purana Qila in Delhi.


Emperor Akbar, who could not read or write, expanded the Imperial Library by commissioning great new works such as Hamzanama, Tuttinama and the Ain-i-Akbari.

He also established a translation bureau, as a result of which great works such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Harivamsha and Atharva Veda were translated into Persian. After Emperor Akbar’s death in 1605, an inventory was made of the imperial possessions. The inventory listed 24,000 illustrated and well bound volumes of books.

With the decline of the Mughal power in the 18th century, patronage shifted to other great centres of power, in the newly emerging princely states such as Jaipur, Mysore, Rampur and Tanjore. With the advent of the British Raj, new libraries were established, many of which survive to this day.

Raza Library, Rampur

Rampur city in Uttar Pradesh, famous for its ‘Rampuri Chaku’, is also home to one of India’s finest and most valuable manuscript collections. Named after the last Nawab of Rampur, Sir Raza Ali Khan (1908-1966), the Rampur Raza Library has the finest collection of Islamic books. It has nearly 17,000 manuscripts, 60,000 printed books and 5,000 miniature paintings.


It also houses 3,000 rare specimens of Islamic calligraphy as well as valuable palm-leaf manuscripts in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.

Rampur is part of the old Rohilkhand area of Western Uttar Pradesh. Once a mass of uninhabited forests and grasslands, a large number of Rohilla Pathans from Afghanistan settled here in the 16th century CE. Rohilla refers to people from the Roh mountains in Afghanistan. Over time, the fiercely independent Afghan tribesmen carved out this land, dividing it among different warlords who were fierce mercenaries. Once a force to reckon with, it took the combined armies of the East India Company and the princely state of Awadh to invade Rohilkhand and annex its territories in 1773-1774 CE.

The only warlord to survive this rout was Faizullah Khan, who was given a small tract of land, Rampur, under the protection of the British. He went on to become the first Nawab of Rampur in 1774 CE. The same year, Faizullah Khan began a collection of rare books, which grew into what is today one of the finest libraries in the country!

Some of the most historic books in the collection include the Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi written by Ziauddin Barani, a noted scholar in the Tughlaq court around 1300 CE. This work gives us a comprehensive account of the history of the Delhi Sultanate, from the Slave Dynasty to the Tughlaqs. Not only does this manuscript gives us political history but also a glimpse into day-to-day life in the Delhi Sultanate. There are only three copies of this manuscript in the world. Another manuscript, also by Barani, is the Sahifa-i-Naat-i-Muhammadi, which describes the court of Sultan Iltutmish of Delhi. It is the only copy of its kind in the world.

The library was originally housed in one of the buildings in Rampur Fort. In 1957, the last Nawab of Rampur, Sir Raza Ali Khan, decided to create a public trust. He donated a magnificent palace called Hamid Manzil and the library was shifted here.

Sarasvati Mahal Library, Thanjavur

A decade after Nawab Faizullah Khan of Rampur began collecting valuable manuscripts, deep in the South, in the Maratha kingdom of Thanjavur, another enlightened ruler was building the foundation of a great library. The Sarasvati Mahal Library is considered the greatest legacy of Maharaja Serfoji II (1777-1832 CE) of Thanjavur or Tanjore.

The city of Thanjavur, 279 km away from Chennai, was once the capital of the medieval Cholas and it is still famous for the grand temple of Raja Raja Chola. But much of Thanjavur’s later fame came from the Maratha kings who ruled over this sliver of land between 1675 and 1855 CE.

18th century Tanjore- style painting of Sarasvati displayed in the library
18th century Tanjore- style painting of Sarasvati displayed in the library

Of the Maratha Rajas of Thanjavur, the most famous is Maharaja Serfoji, a great patron of learning and the arts. He expanded the old state library of the Nayak Kings (who ruled between 1535 and 1673 CE), transforming it into a collection of rare books from across the world. The collection comprises over 60,000 printed books and 45,000 manuscripts. It also contains 12,000 documents in the ancient Modi script that was used to write Marathi till the early 20th century.

Serfoji II's successor, Shivaji of Thanjavur, had a relatively shorter reign, from 1832 to 1855 CE. Following his death, the British refused to recognise his heir, since he was adopted, and annexed the Kingdom of Thanjavur. In the wake of this, the Sarasvati Mahal Library was largely neglected. No notable additions were made but the printing press continued publishing manuscripts under the name of ‘Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji’s Sarasvati Mahal Library’ (TMSSM Library) right up to 1980. These manuscripts are considered extremely valuable even today.

Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, Patna

While the historic libraries at Rampur and Thanjavur were established by kings, with great wealth at their disposal, Khuda Bakhsh library in Patna was a labour of love. It was started by an ordinary man who was a true bibliophile. The library was founded in 1891 by Maulvi Khuda Bakhsh, considered by the famous historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar as one of the greatest authorities on Islamic bibliography in India.

Maulvi Khuda Bakhsh was born into a distinguished family in Siwan district of Bihar in 1842. His family had served as record keepers in the Mughal administration since the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb. Khuda Bakhsh’s father, Muhammad Bakhsh, an advocate and a scholar, had amassed a valuable collection of 1,400 rare manuscripts, which he bequeathed to his son on his death bed in 1876.

Khuda Bakhsh continued his father’s passion, building up his own huge collection. He travelled extensively across India, collecting rare books which had been dispersed from various Mughal collections, after the fall of the Mughal empire in the 18th century. His fame as a scholar grew and many people happily gave him their rare manuscripts and books, hoping they would be preserved for posterity.


The British Library was willing to pay a handsome of money for Khuda Bakhsh’s collection.

But he refused, saying, "The collection is for Patna, and the gift shall be laid at the feet of the Patna public.”

Maulvi Khuda Bakhsh
Maulvi Khuda Bakhsh|Wikimedia Commons

In 1891, he opened his collection to the public as the ‘Bankipore Library’. It contained around 4,000 rare books and manuscripts and was inaugurated by the Lieutenant Governor of Bangal, Sir Charles Elliot. Later, Sir Jadunath Sarkar made extensive use of this rare collection for his research on Mughal history. Such was Khuda Bakhsh’s love for books that he spent whatever he earned on his library. He even engaged in a friendly rivalry with the Nawab of Rampur, with whom he would compete for books and manuscripts!

Sadly, Khuda Bakhsh suffered a paralytic attack and became bedridden and penniless. The Government of India had to sanction a grant of Rs 8,000 for his medical treatment and to repay his debts. He was also appointed Secretary to the library with a salary of Rs 200. Maulvi Khuda Bakhsh passed away in 1908 and was buried in the premises of his beloved library. The great institution that he built lived on and the Bankipore Library was renamed the ‘Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library’.

Today, the library contains over 21,000 manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Turkish, Hindi and Sanskrit as well as 2.5 lakh books. One of the rarest books here is the Tarikh-i-Khandan-i-Timuriya, a history of the Mughal dynasty commissioned by Emperor Akbar and the only manuscript of its kind in the world.

There are also manuscripts from the personal collections of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his daughter, Princess Jahanara, as can be seen from the seals on them. The library also has a copy of the famous English poet Lord Byron’s poem Ode to Napoleon, with two additional stanzas written in Byron’s own handwriting, as well as the original edition of Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte written by his childhood friend and personal secretary Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne. The Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Library is truly a national treasure.

Asiatic Society of Mumbai Library, Mumbai

The iconic steps of Mumbai’s ‘Town Hall’ have been the backdrop for a number of popular Bollywood films. However, few realize that these hallowed steps lead to the library of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, one of the finest libraries dating to the British colonial era. This historic library is home to some of the rarest books on diverse subjects such as history, archaeology, linguistics, geology and anthropology.

The institution has its genesis in the Literary Society of Bombay established in 1804 by a British lawyer, Sir James Mackintosh, for the promotion of ‘Oriental’ arts, sciences and literature. In 1826, it merged with the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (RAS) and became its Bombay Branch. It was in 1830 that the society moved into a wing of the iconic Town Hall building (it had made a contribution of Rs 10,000 for this purpose). Over time, the Society’s library collection grew with donations from its members. The Geographical Society of Bombay and the Anthropological Society of Bombay merged with it in 1873 and 1896, respectively, adding their own valuable collections to the library. In 1954, it became known as the ‘Asiatic Society of Bombay’.

Today, the library is home to more than 1,00,000 books, among which 15,000 are considered to be extremely rare and valuable.


The most famous among these is one of the original and richly illustrated manuscripts of Dante’s 14th century poem The Divine Comedy.

The book was donated to the Society by Mountstuart Elphinstone, governor of Bombay and President of the Society from 1819–1827. It is said that in the 1930s, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini offered the Society one million pounds for the book, an offer that was turned down by the Society.

The Asiatic Library also has rare first editions of books like Sir Walter Raleigh’s History Of The World (1736) and Captain James Cook’s Voyages To The South Pole And Around The World (1777). In addition, it has around 12,000 coins, including a rare coin of Emperor Kumaragupta of the Gupta Empire and a gold mohur of Emperor Akbar. But perhaps the most famous artefacts in its possession are relics found at the Buddhist stupa at Sopara (near Mumbai), including what are claimed to be fragments of Buddha’s bowl.

We live in times where the Internet dominates so much of everyday life and brick-and-mortar libraries are considered passé. As a result, most of these hallowed libraries are facing a sharp fall in membership and also an acute funds crunch. Beyond government recognition and support, it is important for people to recognize the importance of these repositories. We must support and save them!

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