The House of Everything

The House of Everything

The Academy of Sanskrit Research,in Melkote,Karnataka,houses ancient manuscripts,which are slowly being digitised

The Academy of Sanskrit Research,in Melkote,Karnataka,houses ancient manuscripts,which are slowly being digitised

We arrive at the library block,half-expecting to be assailed by the dust of centuries. Instead,a faint citrus smell leads us,growing heavy with each step,into a room stacked to the ceiling with dirt-brown palm-leaf manuscripts. With its green metal shelves and lack of air-conditioning,this room at the Academy of Sanskrit Research,perched on a serene hill in Melkote,a temple town three hours by road from Bangalore,is a fount of ancient knowledge. And Bitte Gowda,a small,old man with a ready smile,has helped preserve it since 1978.

Dipping a brush in a bowl of citronella oil,a natural insect repellant that also helps keep palm leaves from crumbling,Gowda paints over each folio of a thick,wood-bound bundle that lies untied on his desk. “On an average,I cover 10 bundles a day,” he says. The oil is potent enough to give one a headache,but it has done worse. It cost a lady here her right eye,Gowda says.

“There are over 9,900 works in 5,000-plus bundles in this room. Some of the manuscripts date back 400 years and the works go back to the 6th-8th century BC. Our focus is not so much on laukika sahitya (literature for the common man) as on shastras (scriptures),” says S Kumara,the registrar. Like most residents of this town untouched by time — there are no avenues of modern entertainment here,no hotels,and only a small “mess” or two to lunch at — Kumara speaks in chaste,Brahminical Tamil and wears a vertical red line on his forehead,a sign of allegiance to Vaishnavism or Vishishtadvaita,the non-dualistic school of Vedanta philosophy founded by Ramanuja,who is said to have been exiled by a Chola king to Melkote for over a decade. “This town has always been a centre for traditional knowledge and culture. We are trying to set up a Sanskrit university here,but the authorities haven’t blessed us with their approval yet,” Kumara says.


The Academy,established by the government in 1976 to promote Sanskrit scholarship and the study of Vishishtadvaita,gets about Rs 1 crore in funding every year and is in the midst of a digitisation drive,initiated under the National Manuscript Mission in 2003. Progress has been slow,however,with only 25 per cent of the manuscripts scanned till date. Hanumantha Rao,the manuscriptologist who has helped scan and copy to CDs over 15,000 palm leaf folios,explains why. “A work is digitised only after it is published (the Academy has its own printing press),due to concerns that others might try to take credit for the work we have put in,” he says.

It is not easy to make sense of a manuscript,so publications often have long gestation periods,reasons RK Narayan,one of only two scholars at the Academy who speak English. “Often,a bundle of palm leaves will contain several works,but nowhere will it say sampurnam (the end). One has to infer from the change in meter and line continuity where one work or chapter ends and the next begins. Also,classical Sanskrit texts are famous for their slesha — that is,every subsequent reading brings out meanings that weren’t obvious in the previous reading,” he says. Once a text is copied out in full and linguistically analysed,scholars must compare it with editions of the work available in other libraries,and determine if there are important variations worthy of publication.

In an adjacent room,which houses 30,000 printed books on the Vedas,shastras,Ayurveda,astronomy,astrology and other subjects,librarian Chandrashekhar says 2,000 of them have been digitised and made available online as part of the Digital Library of India project. “We were doing well till six months ago,when the two mega-scanners donated by the Indian Institute of Science stopped working. It will cost Rs 12 lakh to buy a scanner now. The alternative is to bring new sensors from Singapore. We can afford neither,” he says.

In the musty library,the unlikely home of rare books from the early 1900s,the scanners — big,white and reminiscent of a hospital — look oddly anachronistic,as do Chandrashekhar’s Western clothes. Everyone else,including the 13 scholars who research and publish commentaries on various works,is dressed in pristine white veshtis. Even Selvanarayan,a young electrical engineer who designs software aids for teaching Sanskrit. With an MA in Sanskrit and Kannada,he has been writing code in Visual Basic for the past 10 years and has developed dozens of programs,which he plans to integrate into a basic five-year course for students of Sanskrit. Demonstrating one of them,called the Sandhi Engine,he says it works on Panini’s grammatical rules on the joining of words. Input two word — say deva (god) and aalaya (home) — and it spits out the result: devalaya (temple). “I was born in Melkote and though I studied in Bangalore,I wanted to return and contribute to the Sanskrit culture here,” the engineer says,switching effortlessly from the poetic pomp of Sanskrit to scholarly Tamil to everyday Kannada.

The scholars here are well-versed in Devanagari,Manipravala and Granthalipi,the latter two being archaic scripts that incorporate south Indian languages into Sanskrit. Narayan,named after the deity of the town,holds up for examination a folio from a Ramayana manuscript,one of the few displayed in a glass case in the palm leaf library. Crammed with text — 24 lines of it — it is carved with small,impossibly intricate letters. Typed up,the text in one folio will take up four pages,says manuscriptologist Rao. “In Devanagari,you write under a line,which makes the palm leaf susceptible to cleaving along the line. This is why Manipravala,with its rounded letters,was preferred,” Narayan says,adding,“Our ancestors thought of everything,they knew everything.”

“Everything” being the key word. With interest in traditional knowledge growing,the Academy has been seeking to reconcile ancient texts with modern science,desperate to justify to the world that Vedic India was the fountainhead of all knowledge. In the research wing,a yellow building with huge circular windows and peeling plaster,a hall upstairs bears testimony to these often contrived efforts. Arranged along the walls of the hall,inaugurated last year,are 150 posters on various sciences,annotated with obscure excerpts from the Vedas as “proof” that ancient Indians were adept at everything from designing flying vehicles to cornea grafting. Calculations on the velocity of light and exacting instructions on purification of iron crowd some of these posters; others bear more oblique references. A quotation from Kumarasambhava mentions “the creation of two sons,Agastya and Vasishtha,from one utensil”. According to Academy scholars,this is an unmistakable reference to test tube babies and IVF.

When the Academy put up a stall at the Sanskrit Book Fair held early this year in Bangalore,books on science and technology in ancient India flew off the shelves,says Anandazhvan,a researcher who was in Bangalore for the event. Narayan,whose field of research is agriculture in Vedic India,says several agricultural universities as well as the Department of Ayush have knocked on the Academy’s doors seeking collaboration. “We have 28 previously unpublished manuscripts on Ayurveda. We are looking at publishing them and planting useful herbs in our gardens,” Kumara says.

Driving back to Bangalore,we look out the window at the picturesque square tanks dotting Melkote. Like the small flight of steps easing one’s descent into the water,the Academy,too,is a place of transition from the past to the present. What lies beneath the water,though,is anybody’s guess.