South Asian Manuscripts

A small number of Sanskrit manuscripts and albums of Mughal paintings and calligraphy, from the Bodleian's extensive South Asian collection.

Consisting of approximately 9,000 manuscripts, the Bodleian Libraries house the largest known collection of Sanskrit and Prakrit manuscripts outside of the Indian sub-continent. This collection has been developing since the 17th century, when the first South Asian books were donated to the Library by Archbishop William Laud in 1635-40. The first Sanskrit manuscript acquired by the Bodleian was an astrological work, the Garland of Jewels on Astrology (Skt. Jyotiṣaratnamālā) by Śrīpati copied in 1644, which belonged to John Ken, an East India merchant, who sold it to the Library in 1666.

In the 19th century, the Bodleian collection of Sanskrit manuscripts grew thanks to several individuals. The first Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford, Horace Hayman Wilson, sold his considerable personal library of 627 manuscripts to the Bodleian for £500 in 1842. In 1845, Sir William Walker presented the Library with around a hundred Sanskrit manuscripts, which had been collected by his father, General Alexander Walker, while a political resident in Baroda. In 1849, a further 160 manuscripts were purchased for £350 from Dr. W.H. Mill, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge, collected by him whilst he was Principal of Bishop’s College, Calcutta. The richness of these three collections led Professor Friedrich Max Müller in 1856 to describe the Bodleian’s Sanskrit manuscript holdings as the second best in Europe, surpassed only by those of the East India Company.

Around this period, G.U. Pope compiled a handwritten catalogue of manuscripts in Dravidian languages kept in the Bodleian, chiefly Tamil manuscripts, but also a few in Malayalam and Kannada languages. Thanks to two nineteenth-century benefactors, the Bodleian also hosts one of the most important collections of Mughal paintings in the world. The first collection of Mughal paintings came as part of the bequest of the antiquary and bibliophile Francis Douce in 1834. The Library’s holdings were augmented a few years later by paintings from the manuscript collection of the diplomat Sir Gore Ouseley, when in 1859 Mr J.B. Elliot, a Bengal civil servant who had purchased them after the diplomat’s death in 1844, presented to the Bodleian Mughal paintings and other fine manuscripts from Ouseley’s library.

However, it was in the 20th century that Bodleian’s collection of Sanskrit manuscripts took the shape that we know now. With a marvellous act of generosity, in 1909 the Prime Minister of Nepal, the Maharajah Sir Chandra Shum Shere, donated more than 6000 manuscripts to the library. This collection of manuscripts covers every branch of Sanskrit literature and includes also manuscripts in other South Asian languages, such as Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, Panjabi, Kashmiri, and Nepali. It has a unique value, for it belonged formerly to a Pandit active in Varanasi and thus provides the opportunity to study the composition of the library of a nineteenth-century Indian intellectual in detail.

Thanks to Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862–1943) another relevant collection of Sanskrit manuscripts reached the Bodleian in the first decades of the same century. During his visits to Kashmir between 1888 and 1905, the celebrated Hungarian-born explorer and scholar acquired several manuscripts of important Sanskrit texts, including some rare birch bark items. In May 1911, Stein decided to hand over the manuscripts as a deposit to the Curators of the Indian Institute. Subsequently, in his will he bequeathed them to the Indian Institute. The Bodleian collections continued to grow when the Indian Institute Library – founded by the then Boden Professor of Sanskrit, Sir Monier Monier-Williams – became part of the Bodleian.

Most recently, the Library’s collection has been enriched by the donation of more than sixty Jain manuscripts belonging to the late Simon Digby (1932–2010).

These vast manuscript collections are described only in part. Out of the ca. 9,000 manuscripts, less than half are described in printed catalogues, while the great majority of the rest is briefly identified in handwritten lists, where only basic information is available. Moreover, there are still several hundreds of manuscripts known only through their shelfmark and the content of which is still completely unknown. Accordingly, an effort is underway to fill this gap and the first manuscripts that will be described belong to these uncharted sections.

This text is adapted from Formigatti, Camillo Alessio. A Sanskrit Treasury: A Compendium of Literature from the Clay Sanskrit Library, Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2019, pp. 24–26.