Endangered Archives

EAP790: The Melvin Seiden Award: Digital documentation of endangered medieval manuscripts in individual and Vihāra collections from various Newār settlements in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal

Dr Shanker Thapa, Tribhuvan University
2015 award - Major project
£23,260 for 12 months

Archival partner: National Archives of Nepal

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Project Overview

Nepal is the home of Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts and significant collections of Hindu manuscripts also exist, especially of the Smarta tradition. Newar people living in small medieval towns have contributed enormously to the development of literary culture in Nepal, with manuscript culture being a part of Newar religious lives. The manuscripts are called ‘Thyasaphu’ in vernacular Newārī. They are not merely handwritten texts, but an object of veneration - special worships, rituals and recitations were also designed for religious texts. The Buddhist Vajracharyas and Shakyas, and Hindu Karmacharyas from the Newar communities, were directly concerned with manuscript writing, recitation and performing rituals.

Nepal has preserved Sanskrit manuscripts intact for about 1300 years. The history of manuscriptology of Nepal attests that manuscripts arrived in Nepal from Northern India from the seventh century onwards. The Muslim invasion in the twelfth century accelerated the flow. The manuscripts were written in local Bhujimol, Ranjana, Kumol, Pracalit Newārī , and Bengali scripts. Two types of manuscripts are in existence: those that originated in Northern India, and indigenous Newar manuscripts written in Nepal.

After completion of the earlier pilot project EAP676, the team continued the work surveying manuscripts in Newār settlements and also Vihāra collections in Newar communities where manuscript culture still exists. Most of them are poor condition. People voluntarily turned up to allow their manuscripts to be surveyed and preliminary data recorded.

In spite of the manuscripts’ importance, few are aware of their literary heritage and little attention has been paid to preserve and disseminate the manuscripts despite their religious and historical significance. Newar families still own manuscripts but unfortunately, most of the precious manuscripts are left to decay and are often now in poor condition. An inability to read scripts and the language, or meagre knowledge of the subject matter, restricted people from reading these medieval manuscripts. At the same time, manuscripts have been sold in the illegal market as commodities. The lack of awareness and absence of attention of concerned authorities on the scattered collections left them on the verge of collapse. They are endangered heritages that require immediate attention.

In addition, original manuscripts are often reworked adding miniatures of deities and giving the appearance of an older manuscript for personal benefit. In some cases texts written on birch bark are also deleted for paintings. It certainly deprives later generations of ancient wisdom contained in the old texts.

The project hopes to preserve medieval manuscripts through surveying individual and Vihara or temple and community collections, and recording preliminary data for each text. Approximately 700-800 manuscripts will be digitised, about 40,000 to 50,000 folios. The manuscript owners will receive training to help them preserve the originals, and the digitised manuscripts will be made available for academic purposes.

The Melvin Seiden Award has been awarded to preserve these collections of endangered medieval manuscripts, a field of particular interest to the donor and in light of the increased nature of the manuscripts’ endangerment following the tragic circumstances of the 2015 earthquake and the loss of much of Nepal’s cultural heritage.

Project Outcome

The main focus of the project was to digitise rare medieval Sanskrit manuscripts as well as rescue those threatened by the earthquake of 2015. In total the project were able to digitise 21 separate collections consisting of 687 manuscripts and 28050 folios. These included religious manuscripts related to Buddhism and Hinduism, literary works, medical texts, records of events, and other secular texts. These are important records for Buddhist and Hindu Newars to perform religious duties and also for scholars of Newar Buddhism, Vajrayana rituals, Hinduism, the Vajracharya priests and practitioners and others. Throughout the project workshops and programmes were organised to train staff and local stakeholders, including those from the Newar community, to search, catalogue and digitise the manuscripts.