South Indian Treasures Discovered at Leiden University Libraries

South Indian Treasures Discovered at Leiden University Libraries

Four of the oldest dated manuscripts from South India have been discovered at Leiden University Libraries.

Four of the oldest known dated manuscripts hailing from South India have been discovered at Leiden University Libraries by Marco Franceschini (University of Bologna). The palm leaf manuscripts are part of a collection of roughly 380 bundles that were purchased in India and sent to Leiden in the late ’20s and early ’30s of the past century by the renown Dutch Orientalist Johan van Manen (1877-1943). The collection is now held at the Special Collections of Leiden University Libraries. Marco Franceschini could investigate the manuscripts thanks to a fellowship of the Scaliger Institute.

The four palm leaf manuscripts are the earliest dated manuscripts written in the Grantha script, which is the script that was used in the Tamil speaking areas of South India to write the Sanskrit language. As is generally the case with South Indian manuscripts, the text of these manuscripts was incised with an iron stylus on strips of palm leaves, in very small characters; when the writing was completed, the text was made readable by blackening it with black soot.

Palmleaf manuscripts tend to deteriorate relatively fast in the hot and humid climate of South India and under the disintegrating action of voracious insects. For this reason, South Indian palmleaf manuscripts dating as early as the 18th century are not frequently found, while those from the 17th century are extremely rare. The four Leiden manuscripts are the only known dated manuscripts written in the Grantha script belonging to the former half of the 17th century: they date to 1623, 1631, 1631/1632 and 1642 CE respectively. Palaeographic features in the writing of the four manuscripts strongly support their early dating. As for their content, the texts in these manuscripts are related to the Vedic and post-Vedic (śruti and smṛti) literary and ritualistic tradition.

Please contact the Leiden University Libraries curator for South & Southeast Asian manuscripts and printed works, Doris Jedamski, for further information on requesting and viewing the manuscripts.

Author: Marco Franceschini is a Senior assistant professor (fixed-term) at the Department of History and Cultures of the University of Bologna. His research interests are in Sanskrit literature in ancient and medieval India.