Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Bhandarkar Institute: The fountainhead of oriental studies

As it completes 100 reclusive years of research, the reticent Bhandarkar Institute wants to talk about itself

The photograph wears its age. It was taken sometime in July 1917. There is nothing remarkable about the yellowing image itself—a lone structure standing on a rocky terrain with a hill in the background. But the story it tells is remarkable. The building is where the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) was founded on 6 July 1917 on the outskirts of Poona, as the city was called then.

In its centenary year, BORI stands in the same spot, but the geography around it has changed. Now the city is Pune, one of India’s IT and—of late—start-up hubs. Shreenand Bapat, registrar and curator in charge at BORI, points at the photograph and says, “The place was then far off from Poona. Now, Pune has caught up with it. But even now, as it sits in the heart of the city, the institute maintains a kind of detachment from the mundane flow of life outside. It still retains the mystic ambience that is so conducive to research."

Also read: ‘BORI must set new paradigms of growth for future of research’

He is right. The cacophony and chaos of Pune’s exponential growth, visible now all around BORI, have not yet intruded upon the tree-lined inner reserves of this university of “oriental knowledge" set up a century ago.

The board outside the campus on Law College Road simply says “Bhandarkar Institute". A barbed-wire fence—broken only by the arch of the main gate—backed by a small garden gives it just the right amount of distance from the road.

A cluster of buildings built in the Indo-Islamic style of architecture make up the institute. The original hall was donated by the Tatas in 1917, but all the other buildings came up later.

Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

The library, built in 1962, is the most recent structure. In the entrance to the library hangs a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, who visited the institute in 1945, as did B.R. Ambedkar. Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad have visited the institute, as well as a host of national leaders. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a great scholar of oriental studies and Sanskrit, was a member.

Strangely, even as BORI enters its 100th year, no one seems to be paying it much attention in Pune city itself. The world around BORI’s quaint campus goes about its business as it has all these years.

This is not such a bad thing, Bapat insists as he discusses the various activities BORI has planned to celebrate the centenary year. “If I read the founding fathers’ minds well, they never set out to make BORI a popular or populist body. We are actually happy with the degree of general indifference towards us because that lets us continue our work in a discreet way," he says.

The sangfroid that Bapat and his colleagues maintain is striking when compared to the ostentatious celebrations several institutes and organizations indulge in on reaching much smaller milestones.

Pune-based entrepreneur Amit Paranjape, whose interest in history led him to sign up for a membership at BORI four years ago, agrees: “BORI has always had a low-profile approach. Among researchers in oriental studies and Indology, it is world famous. I grew up around Prabhat Road in Pune close to the Bhandarkar Institute and always knew that it is something very famous in its field. But outside this particular circle of people, not many people know about it or seem interested."

There are two ways to become a member. BORI rewards scholars or prominent persons with honorary membership. And for the general public, there is the option to pay a one-time fee to become a patron, vice-patron, benefactor or life member. (The fee ranges from Rs6,000 for life membership to Rs20,000 to become a patron.)

BORI also offers overseas enthusiasts the option of becoming a “sympathiser" on payment of $1,000 or more.

Amruta Natu. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Amruta Natu. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Amruta Natu, assistant curator in charge, is happy that BORI has been around for a century, but she is happier still that it has been able to consistently maintain a high standard of work. “Some quality work was produced here even during those lean phases when we would not get good number of researchers. That is something," says Natu.

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Sir Ramkrishna Gopal Bhandarkar was among the pioneers of scientific orientology in India. He was also one of the first Indians to have graduated in history and English literature from Mumbai University in 1862 (along with Mahadev Govind Ranade, scholar, social reformer and one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress).

Proficient in English and Sanskrit, Bhandarkar was a brilliant mathematician as well, and was also interested in the study of law. But his main academic interest was in oriental studies. He taught English and Sanskrit at Elphinstone College in Mumbai (then Bombay) and became the first Indian professor of Sanskrit at Pune’s Deccan College.

Bhandarkar retired as vice-chancellor of Bombay University in 1894—he was only the second Indian to have held the post. He also attended international conferences on oriental studies in London in 1874 and in Vienna in 1886. In 1885, he was conferred a doctorate by the University of Gottingen, Germany. Other top international institutes—including the Royal Asiatic Society in London, the German Oriental Society and the American Oriental Society—honoured him with memberships.

Bhandarkar was also a social reformer, a votary of women’s education and widow marriage, and one of the founder members of Prarthana Samaj, a reformist organization. He was a strong advocate of reforms within Hinduism, and called upon Hindus to abandon the practice of untouchability.

Bhandarkar’s students and colleagues set up BORI on his 80th birthday, building an up-to-date oriental library with the aim of encouraging research into classical texts and scriptures and to act as a “bureau for literary advice and information" on all aspects of oriental studies.

A bust of R.G. Bhandarkar. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
A bust of R.G. Bhandarkar. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Natu says BORI has lived up to these objectives—even today, it is engaged in a number of research projects in Prakrit languages and classical texts and manuscripts. For instance, a team of research scientists under G.U. Thite has been compiling a dictionary of the Prakrit languages since 1988, and has so far published five volumes.

“There was a phase some two decades back when interest in oriental studies and Indology had dipped. But since the start of this millennium, there has been a renewed interest in orientology from scholars as well as people who are just curious or enthusiastic about oriental studies and Indology. This is great for the future of these faculties," says Natu.

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Bhandarkar generously donated 2,200 books from his own collection when the institute was set up. Librarian Megha Deshpande says the library, which now has 135,000 books, still maintains this original intellectual capital with great care. BORI also houses a rich repository of more than 28,000 manuscripts—again, it was the weight of Bhandarkar’s reputation that helped the institute get possession of 17,000 of these manuscripts from Deccan College in Pune.

“These 17,000 manuscripts were collected as part of the Indian Manuscript Collection Project during 1866-75. This collection was first deposited at Elphinstone College in Mumbai and was later transferred to Deccan College because Mumbai’s coastal climate posed a threat to their preservation. From Deccan College, it was moved to BORI for better preservation," says Natu.

Many of these manuscripts are so rare that BORI may be the only place to find them, says the curator. A case in point is a collection of 838 manuscripts brought from Kashmir. “These are birch bark manuscripts in the Sharada script and are an extremely valuable source of information on Kashmir’s history or histories. The situation in Kashmir would probably not have allowed this treasure to stay there," Natu asserts with understandable pride.

A Rig Veda manuscript, which is part of the collection sourced from Kashmir, is listed by Unesco under its Memory of the World programme. This is the same manuscript used by German orientologist Max Muller for his work on the Rig Veda. This, the oldest manuscript BORI has, dates back to 906 AD.

There are about 5,000 manuscripts in Prakrit languages, including a rich repository of Jain texts. “Many Jain munis (sages) visit us to access these manuscripts and study them," Natu adds.

There are rare Avesta texts that have endeared BORI to not only scholars of Zoroastrianism but to the Parsi community itself. The library includes Bhandarkar’s magisterial work Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Minor Religious Systems, which, according to Natu, is a major reference point for scholars of various religions.

“One of the greatest glories of BORI is that it has never confined itself to Hinduism or to study of Sanskrit only. There have been studies in Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism as well," says Shrikant Bahulkar, honorary secretary at BORI.

The institute is proud that in the 99 years of its existence, it has been able to produce the famous Annals of the Bhandarkar Institute for 98 years. In these annals, BORI has published many path-breaking research papers that form the basis of further research and contemporary interest in oriental studies.

These annals are also a medium for research scholars from all over the world to publish their papers, says Natu, adding that the papers published so get a rare mark of authenticity and recognition.

BORI also sends these annals to global research institutes and, in exchange, receives contemporary research papers published in international journals. The BORI library and reading room offer these journals and research papers to those interested for a very affordable fee (from Rs50 for a day to Rs1,000 for an annual subscription).

BORI is also collaborating with the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies on an international research project on the Bhagavata Purana. Throughout the year, BORI organizes lectures, seminars and conferences in the memory of great scholars. Every two years, it also organizes an All India Oriental Conference (the 2017 session will be held in Haridwar).

But the institute’s true moment of glory came in 1966, when it put out a critical edition of the Mahabharata in 19 volumes—a monumental project that had taken a whopping 48 years to complete. “This made BORI world famous among the scholars of oriental studies and Indology. The critical edition of the Mahabharata is a textual criticism and compilation of over 1,600 Mahabharata manuscripts collected from all over the world. The project created what could be called a benchmark work for the future generations of scholars keen on a critical study of the Mahabharata," says Natu.

Economist and Sanskrit scholar Bibek Debroy’s 10-volume treatise on the Mahabharata is the English translation of this critical edition, and BORI organized Debroy’s lecture on the theme “Translating the BORI Mahabharata" in September 2015 at the institute. One of the 10 volumes sits on Natu’s desk, and she fondly recalls the time Debroy spent at BORI researching for his work.

A team of researchers at BORI is now working on producing a cultural index of the Mahabharata based on the critical edition.

The institute is also very proud of the fact that it published Pandurang Vaman Kane’s History of Dharmasastra in five volumes. “It was his individual research but BORI is extremely privileged to have published it. It took Pandurang Vaman Kane 37 years to complete this research and he remains the only person to date who was awarded the Bharat Ratna exclusively for writing a book," says Bahulkar. This is also one of BORI’s best-selling publications.

And there are a few ongoing research projects—the dictionary of Prakrit languages, a revised edition of the critical edition, work on the knowledge division of the classical Marathi Vishwa Kosh (encyclopaedia), and an intensive course in Avestan language—being carried out by BORI’s in-house faculty of research scholars, says Bapat.

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While it continues to be a discreet place for quiet research, the momentousness of the 100-year-milestone is not completely lost on BORI. And so, Bapat and his colleagues have lined up a bunch of activities to mark the occasion, from a heritage walk to a series of exhibitions of select manuscripts and artefacts. True to its craft, BORI will also publish 10 new books this year.

Paranjape, the entrepreneur, who has got some of his younger friends interested in the institute, feels BORI needs to do more to reach out to the ordinary audience and concedes even this outreach in the centenary year is a big improvement over its essentially reclusive approach.

“There should be a permanent museum that showcases manuscripts, artefacts, on a regular basis, so that general visitors get interested. I agree it cannot ever be a populist body, but more people need to know about the phenomenal amount of work BORI has done over the years," Paranjape says.

One of the ways people can participate and help BORI is through donations, says Bapat. “We run the institute through internal funding, like rent from the guest house, library subscriptions and government grants, which are not very regular but which do help. Our annual budget is around Rs90 lakh, which includes salaries and upkeep of the buildings. We also get funds for specific research and language projects that we are assigned either by the government or other institutions," he says.

Natu says people are getting interested. “Our outreach has been able to involve those people who either would not bother or just did not know anything about us. The exhibitions we organize every year and heritage walks are getting greater participation. A number of schools organize conducted tours and students have shown keen interest. We are really happy about this growing interest," she says.

Coincidentally, as Natu says this, in walks Kunal Ramteke, a young student of mass communication from Chandur town in far-off Amravati district in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region. He says he has wanted to visit BORI for a long time and he is visibly excited that he has finally made it.

“I have heard great things about this institute and I am so happy I am here," Ramteke says as Natu tells him he is free to walk around and enjoy the institute unescorted. She does not say anything out loud, but her expression speaks volumes—the Bhandarkar Institute’s future is secure.

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