Mysuru: In a room without an air conditioner or a dehumidifier in Mysuru, an age-old manuscript lies locked, withering and uncared for. This palm-leaf document, housed in the city’s cash-strapped Oriental Research Institute (ORI), is the original manuscript of Kautilya’s Arthashastra.

“It is just kept in a cushioned box and wrapped in a cloth," said S.A. Krishnaiah, a member of the institute’s committee. “You feel proud when you see it, but that’s quickly overcome by pain at how little it is cared for."

The Arthashastra, written in Sanskrit and dating back to the time of the Mauryan Empire, is one of the oldest books on governance, military strategy, politics, economics, justice, and the duties of rulers.

Scholars say it was composed around the second century BCE. Its author, Kautilya—also known as Chanakya— was prime minister to Chandragupta, the first of the Mauryan rulers. After the decline of the Mauryan Empire, the document was lost.

Rudrapatna Shamashastri, a Sanskrit scholar and librarian, discovered the original Arthashastra in 1905 among the mounds of palm leaf documents lying in the institute, which was founded by Mysore’s Wodeyar kings in 1891. The institute has been part of the University of Mysore from 1916, and is home to about 70,000 rare palm-leaf manuscripts.

Shamashastri transcribed the Arthashastra onto fresh palm leaves and published it in 1909. He translated it to English in 1915.

Until the re-discovery of the document, the British Raj believed India’s ideas on governance and military administration were drawn from the Greeks. The Arthashastra also dethroned Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, a 16th-century work, as the world’s oldest treatise on political philosophy.

“It has survived from the second century, but now the palm leaves are falling to pieces," said Krishnaiah.

The ORI has been strapped for funds and care for years. In 2012, the US government announced a grant of $50,000 for the upkeep of the building as the roof was leaking. The Ford Foundation donated dehumidifiers and air-conditioners, but these have fallen into disrepair.

Oriental Research Institute in Mysuru (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Oriental Research Institute in Mysuru (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“Without air-conditioning, dehumidifiers and regular coating with citronella oil, the original palm leaves on which the Arthashastrawas inscribed will be lost to us," lamented Krishnaiah.

S. Jagannath, a research scholar who has used ORI resources for decades, said there were two fires sparked by faulty wiring at the institute in 1996 and 1998. “The Arthashastra and about 70,000 other historic documents and manuscripts could have been reduced to ashes," he said.

Directors have improved infrastructure—changing the wiring, shifting the book depot, painting and dust proofing—but preserving the fragile documents was not addressed properly, say research scholars who use the institute. They say that ORI does not get enough funding to manage manuscripts, hire more experts and maintain the building.

Dr. Shivarajappa, director of ORI, said: “A lot of work has to be taken up to revive the original document of the Arthashastra. We have sent a proposal to the government for a grant of 3.5 crore. I have also asked the vice-chancellor to give ORI more staff with expertise in maintaining and documenting ancient manuscripts. I led a team of experts to Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune and learnt latest techniques to maintain old documents."

The institute gets about 5,000 visitors a year, including scholars and students from around the world.

Dr. Hemantha Kumar, vice-chancellor of the University of Mysore, said they will increase funding for ORI. “Funds have been earmarked for the Arthashastra. ORI has also been given freedom to make fresh proposals for digitalization of the Arthashastra. The size of funds allocated for ORI and especially Arthashastra is dynamic and based on the need," he said.

Prof. L.N. Swamy, senior faculty of history at the University of Mysore and a former official of the Karnataka archaeology department said the Arthashastra has been digitized and can be accessed by any scholar or student, but the original is extremely fragile. He saw it 30 years ago in the ORI. “Palm leaves have a longer life than other materials, and manuscriptologists of the past knew how to extend the lifespan. But even they recopied the documents every few decades to preserve them, just as Shamashastri did," he explained.

Krishnaiah and other scholars say the original should be saved even if there are copies. “Palm leaves can survive more than 1,000 years with or without treatment, but air-conditioners, dehumidifiers and coating with citronella oil is needed to extend their life," Krishnaiah said. “If there is anything to be done to protect the document from further deterioration, it has to start immediately and done scientifically."

M. Raghuram is a Mangaluru-based journalist who was assigned by Mint to report this story

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