Did you know that some of the oldest known manuscripts of the Rig Veda are kept at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune? These manuscripts are so valuable that they are a part of UNESCO's 'Memory of the World Register', which lists some of the world's most important documents.
These are the same manuscripts referred to by German scholar Max Mueller, who first translated the Vedas into English. But this fabulous treasure is just a small part of a much larger treasure trove – of more than 28,000 manuscripts painstakingly collected from the far corners of the subcontinent. But what are they doing in Pune?
The story of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute or BORI is incomplete without the story of Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar, pioneer and scholar of Oriental studies in India, after whom it is named.
Born on 6th July, 1837, in Malvan in Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra, Bhandarkar schooled in Ratnagiri and studied at Elphinstone College in Bombay. Proficient in English, History and Sanskrit, he was among the first batch of Indian graduates from Bombay University, along with renowned jurist and reformer Mahadev Govind Ranade, in 1862.
Apart from being an academician and scholar – he retired as Vice-Chancellor of Bombay University in 1894 – Bhandarkar was also a founder-member of the Prarthana Samaj, an organisation which challenged the most rigid and orthodox practices and insisted on revitalizing Hinduism from within.
After working for some time as a headmaster in government schools in Hyderabad (Sind) and Ratnagiri, Bhandarkar joined Elphinstone College as a Professor of Sanskrit in 1868, a position vacated by Professor Johann Georg Bühler, a scholar of ancient Indian languages and law. In 1881, he joined Deccan College in Pune as a Professor of Oriental Languages after Franz Kielhorn, a German Indologist, retired.
But even Bhandarkar could never have imagined how his predecessors would transform his life. From 1868 to 1880, Bühler and Kielhorn were involved in a programme started by the Government of India for the discovery and preservation of Sanskrit manuscripts in India. The programme – the Manuscript Collection Project – attracted worldwide attention as scholars around the world were interested in studying Indian thoughts, ideas and concepts to understand the country’s rich cultural and literary legacy.
Starting from the Bombay Presidency, with modest funding, the two German scholars went on to reach out to individuals and institutions across India, including individuals in the princely states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajputana, Delhi and even Kashmir. The Maharajas, after much deliberation, agreed to give them access to their rich collections and make a list for public access. It was a Herculean task.
Many viewed the programme with suspicion, and conspiracy theories abounded.
Some shastris, for instance, feared that the British government wanted to end all ancient Indian literature by throwing the manuscripts into the sea! Others suspected that they would be taken away to Europe forever, for examination and study – and they were not far off the mark. The India Office Library (now held by the British Library) offered to serve as a storehouse for the collection.
Not to upset either the group in London or those in India, the British government issued a statement saying that the manuscripts would remain in India. If foreign scholars wanted to see them, copies could be made or originals sent on loan on a temporary basis, only to be returned later.
The programme was a considerable success, with about 4,000 manuscripts acquired in the first phase.
Taking the work forward, Bhandarkar was not only involved in the manuscripts’ day-to-day care but also helped make the treasure trove an ever-growing collection.
He was so engrossed in the project that he even went on month-long trips to visit the most influential of people as well as the remotest of places to examine manuscripts. His surveys, once in a while, also received special requests like the one from Professor Williem Caland, a Dutch Indologist in Utrecht, who wanted to locate copies of Baudhyanasrautasutra, a late Vedic text, as he was working on its translation. Bhandarkar found scholars in Dhar, Gwalior and Ujjain who lent their manuscripts to him to be sent to the Netherlands.
He also attended multiple conferences to promote the collection, the most important being the International Congress of Orientalists held in Vienna in 1886. His efforts led to the collection multiplying three-fold, and it became famous across the world. This made Bhandarkar a known name in international circles.
Soon, the rooms in Deccan College, where the manuscripts were stored, were overflowing and there were concerns about the protection and preservation of such a large collection. The answer came in 1915 when a group of admirers of Bhandarkar formed a committee and decided to found an oriental research institute named in his honour, for his 80th birthday, two years hence.
When they shared their idea with Bhandarkar, he was so delighted that he decided to gift the institute his personal collection of about 2,500 books and bound volumes of journals. When this came to the attention of W H Sharp, Director of Public Instruction of the Government of Bombay, he promised to turn over the entire Sanskrit manuscript collection too, to the newly formed institute, provided they agreed to carry on its administration efficiently and provide a fire-proof hall.
Encouraged, the committee bought 10 acres of land in Poona, but were soon out of funds for the fire-proof hall. However, help was at hand. Prominent Parsi industrialists Sir Dorab and Sir Ratan Tata, in Bombay, decided to donate the hall as a memorial to their father, J N Tata. The Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute was formally established on 6th July, 1917, with a library that possessed over 17,000 manuscripts.
The oldest palm-leaf manuscript in the institute’s collection is the Upamitibhavaprapañcakatha. Written by Siddharsi circa 906 CE, it is an educational story of the Jains. Some of the other valuable books/manuscripts are copies of the Farsi translation of the Gita commissioned by Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh, and a copy of the Vishnu Purana translated into Persian by a Kashmiri Pandit.
Another important collection from Kashmir is the set of 838 birch-bark manuscripts written in the old Sharada script. These manuscripts iterate the existence of Shaivism and Jainism in the region along with its history. There's also the paper manuscript, Chikitsasarasangraha of Vangasena, dating back to 1320 CE. This helps us establish that paper was being used in India as early as the 14th century.
The library with its tremendous collection has also hosted stalwarts like Mahatma Gandhi, who visited in 1945, B R Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad.
Today, the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute’s catalog boasts around 135,000 books and more than 28,000 manuscripts that cover a wide variety of subjects, scripts and languages. It is an institution of repute among Indologists and orientalists the world over, and a national treasure.
All photos courtesy: https://borilib.com