It was on bits of tree bark that the Ahoms, under whom a 600-year-old dynasty flourished in Assam, communicated in the 13th century. These “tree-bark” manuscripts, called Sanchipaat, were made through intricate, laborious procedures, and had a variety of information on diverse topics: wildlife, medicine, rituals and legends of Assam’s longest ruling dynasty, all written by hand.
Over centuries, the Sanchipaat has lived on: in private collections of old families, in the Satras (or the neo-Vaishnavite monasteries) of Majuli, Nalbari and Barpeta, and in libraries and museums.
But many have disappeared too. At times due to a lack of proper conservation efforts, and sometimes because of a lack of awareness. In the past, there have been instances when hundreds of manuscripts were dunked into rivers in different parts of Assam.
“One incident happened a few years ago in Nagaon — and local boys had to swim to retrieve hundreds of these manuscripts floating around the river,” said Jayanta Sarma of the Heritage Conservation Society of Assam (HeCSA). He explained how in the olden days, manuscripts were stored in kitchen ceilings (called dhuasaangs or smoke roofs), right above wooden choolahs (chimneys).
“The idea was to preserve them with heat and smoke. Thus several surviving manuscripts would have burnt edges, which superstitious people considered bad omens. They would then dispose them in water bodies,” he said.
In November 2017, HeCSA, a group of 10-12 conservationists who are undertaking projects to preserve the history of the state, approached the National Mission for Manuscripts (NMM). The NMM is an initiative started in 2003 under the Ministry of Culture for scientific management of the manuscripts. On December 8, the state inaugurated a manuscript conservation centre that is based out of two rooms in the KK Handique Govt. Sanskrit College in Guwahati. While this is not the first attempt by NMM (two other centres were earlier established — one of which eventually closed — in the Guwahati University and in Guru Charan College, Silchar), it is arguably the first professional conservation laboratory for such manuscripts.
“Conservation, restoration digitisation and documentation — the centre will cover all aspects,” said Avinibesh Sharma, one of the chief conservators and a document specialist at the lab.
In July, he and Tirtha Kumar Sarma (the lab’s other conservator), underwent specialised manuscript training in Nainital under the Himalayan Society for Heritage and Art Conservation. In the two-month programme under noted art conservator Anupam Sah, and paper conservator Lalit Pathak, the two learned different methods of manuscript conservation.
“There are two types of conservation: curative and preventive. We are doing both. In places like Assam, the weather is humid — so manuscripts require even more care, maintenance at least every five years,” Sharma said.
Apart from Sachipaat, the centre will also conserve the other kind of manuscript found in Assam: the Tulapaat. Less enduring, these manuscripts were made by pressing cotton and used for less important documents such as official orders, private letters, etc.
Among the special preservation steps is one that uses a special Japanese tissue paper to ensconce the manuscript, and it is then put in an acid-proof box that is made in Italy.
“We are also using sophisticated equipment: handheld digital microscopes, infrared light (for illustrated manuscripts), UV fluorescent light (as a non-destructive examination technique) etc,” said Sharma. The Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies has a huge collection of both Sanchipaat and Tulapaat from the 13th century. “Unfortunately, despite efforts, many are on the path to getting ruined,” said Sharma, adding, “This is part of our heritage, our identity.”
The centre, which is now fully functional, is not an archive. “We will not be storing manuscripts here, it is a treatment centre,” said Sarma from HeCSA, adding that the public, religious institutes, families are welcome to get their manuscripts fixed at the centre. “They give us the manuscript, we treat it following proper scientific norms and we give it back.”
In the three days it has been functioning, the centre has already received manuscripts from private collections as well as the Madhupur Satra from Cooch Behar.