Cambridge University is going to do a project on rare ancient Sanskrit manuscripts. Some 2,000 ancient and rare Sanskrit manuscripts detailing momentous political and economic events across south Asia and written on fragile birch bark, palm leaf and paper are to form part of a major project undertaken by Cambridge University to document ancient civilizations by studying the language of the time, officially known as “linguistic archaeology”.
The documents, which belong to Cambridge University Library’s South Asian manuscript collection, will be studied individually and catalogued placing them in their broader historical context. They will also be digitised and put on the library’s new online service.
The university said the collection included “the oldest dated and illustrated Sanskrit manuscript known worldwide”.
Dr Vincenzo Vergiani of the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, who along with his colleague Dr Eivind Kahrs will study the manuscripts, described them as “an invaluable and untapped source for understanding the pre-colonial past of South Asia, and therefore its present”.
In the heat and humidity of India, materials deteriorate quickly and manuscripts needed to be copied again and again. As a result, many of the early Indian texts no longer exist. More than half of the library’s collection of south Asian manuscripts was in Sanskrit which dominated the literary culture of pre-modern South Asia for almost three millennia.
The word Sanskrit means refined or perfected. From a very early stage, its speakers were obsessed with handing down their sacred texts intact. Out of this developed an attention to how the language works. A grammatical tradition arose that produced, around the 4th century BC, the work of Pāṇini, an amazing intellectual achievement and arguably the beginning of linguistics worldwide, which made the language constant, stable and transmissible.