Sub-project Sanskrit Studies

In the Margins of the Text: Annotated Manuscripts from Northern India and Nepal

Principal investigator: Prof Dr Harunaga Isaacson

Research associate: Camillo A. Formigatti, MA


Sanskrit manuscript culture

The number of extant Sanskrit manuscripts, preserved in libraries of institutions in South Asia and throughout the world or in private collections, mainly in India and Nepal, is not known. The most conservative estimate is around 2 million, while some place the number no lower than 5 million. These manuscripts are for the most part written on birch-bark, palm-leaf or paper; the last became the most common medium in most parts of the subcontinent after the introduction of large-scale manufacture of paper in India in the fifteenth century (except in South-India, where palm-leaf remained popular almost until modern times).

Largely due to a climate which, in the greater part of the region, is not exactly conducive to the long life of any of these materials, the vast majority of this enormous number is not older than some three or four centuries. But there is no doubt that a manuscript culture was widely prevalent throughout the Indic cultural world since, at the latest, the beginning of the Common Era, as recent finds in Afghanistan, for instance, have also shown.

From hastily written notes for a student's own use, to beautifully calligraphed copies belonging to monastic library collections, and manuscripts prepared and illustrated with precious materials with the generation of religious merit as the main motive behind their production, an incredible wealth of variety of manuscripts in Sanskrit and other Indo-Aryan languages testifies to one of the world's longest-lasting and richest manuscript cultures.

A virtually unstudied aspect of variance in Sanskrit manuscripts is the presence or not, and form and content, if present, of marginal and/or interlinear annotation to the text copied. Such annotation can, however, in some cases bring us as close as we can get to direct access to the thought processes of active participants in premodern Sanskritic cultures as they go about the business of producing, studying, and interpreting texts: in short the transmission and preservation of a vital part of a still living culture. The aim of this project is to investigate such marginal and interlinear annotation in Sanskrit manuscripts from Northern India and Nepal of works in a range of genres. The annotation in a selection of individual manuscripts will be transcribed and studied in detail, a classification of different types of annotation will be made, and the relationship between this material and commentatorial literature will be investigated.

The selection of works of which manuscripts are to be examined includes philosophical and religious works, as well as poems, and includes specimens written on birch-bark and on palm-leaf, though the majority will be paper. The study of marginal and interlinear annotation will help to clarify various elements of the dynamics of text-transformation (for instance the process by which originally marginal material is added into the 'main text' in subsequent copies). It will also shed important light on the 'working methods' of both producers and users of manuscripts in the Sanskritic cultural traditions.