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1,464 books, 74 years and counting: How the world’s largest Encyclopaedic Sanskrit Dictionary is taking shape

The current torchbearers of the Encyclopaedic Sanskrit Dictionary project is a team of about 22 faculty and researchers of Sanskrit, who are now working towards publishing the 36th volume of the dictionary, consisting of the first alphabet ' अ ' .

It took 25 years for these scholars to complete the word extraction process from around 1,464 books to generate one crore reference slips. (Express photo by Pavan Khengre)

After several years, the doors of the scriptorium and the editorial room of the prestigious Encyclopaedic Sanskrit Dictionary at Pune’s Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute in Pune were opened for students and the general public. The year of completion of this gigantic dictionary project, which commenced in 1948, remains unknown. But the final word count is estimated to touch 20 lakh and would be the world’s largest dictionary of Sanskrit.

The Project

Linguist and Sanskrit Professor SM Katre, founder of India’s oldest Department of Modern Linguistics in Deccan College, conceived this unique project in 1948 and served as the dictionary’s first General Editor. It was later developed by Prof. AM Ghatage. The project is a classic example of painstaking, patient and relentless efforts of the Sanskrit exponents for the last seven decades.

The current torchbearers of the Encyclopaedic Sanskrit Dictionary project is a team of about 22 faculty and researchers of Sanskrit, who are now working towards publishing the 36th volume of the dictionary, consisting of the first alphabet ‘ अ ‘ .

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Between 1948 – 1973, around 40 scholars read through 1,464 books spread across 62 knowledge disciplines – starting from the Rigveda (approximately 1400 B.C.) to Hāsyārṇava(1850 A.D.) – in search of words that could be added to this unique dictionary.

They covered subjects like the Vedas, Darśana, Sahitya, Dharmaśāstra, Vedānga, Vyakarana, Tantra, Epics, Mathematics, Architecture, Alchemy, Medicine, Veterinary Science, Agriculture, Music, Inscriptions, In-door games, warfare, polity, anthology along with subject-specific dictionaries and lexicons.

The founder of India’s oldest Department of Modern Linguistics in Deccan College, conceived this unique project in 1948 and served as the dictionary’s first General Editor. (Express photo by Pavan Khengre)

In the non-digital era, these scholars noted details of every new word onto small paper reference slips. They mentioned details like the book title, context in which the word was used, its grammatical category (noun/verb etc.), citation, commentary, reference, exact abbreviation, and date of the text. It was signed off by the creator of the slip and its verifier.

It took 25 years for these scholars to complete the word extraction process from around 1,464 books to generate one crore reference slips. All these paper slips have been well preserved, alphabetically, in one of the rarest scriptorium – the soul of the dictionary – inside over 3,057 specially-designed metal drawers. They have also been scanned and preserved digitally.

Word-by-word

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While this dictionary contains words in alphabetical order, it follows historic principles in stating the meaning. In addition to the word meaning, the dictionary also provides additional information, references, and context of the respective word used in a particular literature. That is why, it is an encyclopaedic dictionary wherein words have been arranged according to the chronological order of their references appearing in the text.

For example, the word beginning with the letter ‘ अ ‘, like agni, will have all the citations from Sanskrit texts starting with Ṛgveda and the references from the texts following Ṛgveda, chronologically arranged. This helps a reader to understand the historical development of the meaning of the word.

“Sometimes, a word can have anywhere between 20 to 25 meanings as it varies depending on the context of use and books. Once the maximum possible meanings are found, the first draft, called an article, is published. This is then proof-read and sent to the General Editor for his first review. Upon finalising, the article of one word is readied and sent to the press. It is once again proof-read by the scholars and the General Editor, before it is finalised as a dictionary entry.” said Sarika Mishra, an Editorial Assistant on the Project.

Publications

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While the first volume took three years to be published in 1976, technological intervention and an exclusive software with a font named KoshaSHRI have quickened the process.

The 35 volumes published so far contain about 1.25 lakh vocables (word). (Express photo by Pavan Khengre)

“Now, we are able to publish a volume in little over a year. Approximately 4,000 words are incorporated in a volume,” said Onkar Joshi, also an Editorial Assistant of the Project.

In case of any missing information observed in the reference slips, the scholars re-read/scan the 1,464 books, now digitised, effectively making it a double reading of voluminous Mahabharata (18 Parvans), Vedas and alike.

” We can now use the software to easily scan through the books. In the past, this used to be done manually and would be time consuming,” Onkar added.

Since 1976, a total of 6,056 pages of words starting with the first alphabet ‘ अ ‘ have been published in 35 volumes.

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” Alphabet ‘ अ ‘ has the maximum words and we have published 35 volumes consisting of words starting from this alphabet. Work on the 36th volume is underway,” said Sanhita Joshi, also an Editorial Assistant of the Project.

Unique and the largest dictionary

Pro Vice-Chancellor Professor Prasad Joshi is the ninth General Editor, and third from the family after his father and uncle, to work in this project.

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“This job is a minute-to-minute and day-to-day job,” said Prof Joshi, who has been in-charge of the project since 2017.

Asked if there is any other language in the world that has such a rich and vast vocabulary, he said, “Possibly, the English language dictionary based on historical principles, which took nearly 100 years to be completed, will come close. But the Sanskrit dictionary has wider scope.”

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For comparison, the Oxford English dictionary, with 20 volumes and 2,91,500 word entries so far, remains among the most popularly used dictionaries. The Woordenboek Der Nederlandsche Taal (WNT) is another large monolingual dictionary in Dutch. It contains 4.5 lakh words in 17 volumes.

The Encyclopaedic Sanskrit Dictionary, once ready, will be three times larger. The 35 volumes published so far contain about 1.25 lakh vocables (word).

Though there are 46 alphabets in Sanskrit language and several more decades of work lay ahead towards completion of this project, it is estimated that in the end, it will be a dictionary with a total vocabulary of 20 lakh words.

Future

Prof Joshi’s team is the crucial link between the past and the future, and has a big responsibility to keep Sanskrit alive. But there is a real shortfall of Sanskrit linguists.

“Overall, language studies have remained on the backfoot. We need readers for the vast volumes of scriptures and literary works lying unread,” he said.

But young scholars such as Bhav Sharma, Editorial Assistant and Project’s Secretary, are now reaching out to the public aimed to inspire a few.

“We need to showcase to the students the efforts and processes required for dictionary-making. We are planning student-centric activities in the near future so that there is hands-on learning,” said Sharma.

Presently, all the published volumes remain accessible in hard copy format.

The college administration is working aggressively towards making digital copies available within a year.

The Project, KoshaSHRI, under which the website for online access of the Dictionary will be made, also consists of a customised software which is presently under testing and development.

This will speed up the process of Dictionary making in the coming years.

First published on: 25-09-2022 at 09:15:52 pm
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