Raghuram Ashok and his cousin Sreenivasa S.L., both Bangalore-based photographers, were intrigued by the thought of a 16th century transcription of the Sampoorna Ramayana resting just 130km from their city.
Three months ago, when they first visited the Academy of Sanskrit Research in Melkote—a temple town in Karnataka and a historical centre of Sanskrit learning—the resident scholars weren’t particularly welcoming. But persistent inquiries and several trips later, they’re now working on a self-initiated documentary project on the academy’s archives.
With more than 6,000 manuscripts in its fold, and 10,000 bodies of work spanning epic literature, general science, history and literature, the archives only whet the photographers’ interest further.
Established in 1977 and currently headed by Professor Bhashyam Swami, a retired Sanskrit scholar from the University of Mysore, the academy has been striving to collect, preserve and catalogue ancient manuscripts. A recent survey by the Institute of Asian Studies in Chennai reports that about 100,000 palm-leaf manuscripts have survived in south India alone, and several others are scattered across the globe.
Centuries of oral culture are contained in these manuscripts, etched by scribes using a metallic stylus and when done, applying soot over the letters for readability. Since they were written on organic materials, the manuscripts were elaborately rewritten from time to time to preserve the content.
So drawn are Ashok and Sreenivasa by their project that their work has now gone beyond photography. “We suggested setting up a website (www.sanskrit academy.org) and a blog so that the academy could network with software companies and academic and research institutions,” says Ashok.
The academy runs with funding from the state government and a couple of software companies in Bangalore which are also keen on building software tools to aid the archiving work. The academy uses indigenous methods to preserve the now brittle leaves—from brushing the leaves with lemon-grass oil to using peacock feathers and snakeskin to keep away pests and rodents—but needs more funding to develop its infrastructure. Earlier, digitizing comprised photographing and then using a negative reader but large-format scanners have now made the job easier. Apart from its archive, the academy also runs a Sanskrit language school and a publication division.
While a bulk of the manuscripts in the academy’s possession came from the royal family of Mysore, Prof. Swami has been active in reaching out to families which possess manuscripts.
For Ashok, one of the most intriguing aspects of the academy’s archiving work is the classification process. Many scholars work in tandem to classify, complete and translate the manuscripts. But it is an exacting process—as Ashok points out, it was the norm for scribes to intersperse an epic with a riddle or two, or break into a culinary treatise. “The scribes didn’t stop writing during a session; if they wanted a break, they just switched their content.”
If a single palm leaf can have as many as three different chains of thought, what the academy’s shelves and folders hold are more than historical documents. They’re maps of the ancient mind.
Photographs by Raghuram Ashok & Sreenivasa S.L.