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Manuscript Collections for South Asia

General Collections

The Rare Book & Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania houses a number of significant collections of manuscripts related to the history and study of South Asian religion, history, language, art, literature, medicine, and other facets of its rich and diverse culture. In addition to its extensive collection of Indic-language manuscripts (see below) are several other collections. For instance, we find items such as the work by Balthazar Solvyns entitled, A Collection of Two Hundred and Fifty Coloured Etchings Descriptive of the Manners, Customs and Dresses of the Hindoos, from 1799 (Ms. Coll. 524). There is also the Indo-Persian manuscript, The Illustrated Book about Makers of Glassware, and a Description of Their Tools, circa 1820 (Ms. Coll. 525). Several of these valuable manuscripts are currently featured in projects hosted by other institutions, such as the Early Immigration Collection of the South Asian American Digital Archive.

Manuscript Collections Relating to the Colonial History of India

Penn has an important collection of manuscripts and documents relating to the British East India Company and governance in South Asia. Foremost among these collections are 25 boxes of the Macartney Papers (Ms. Coll. 624), a collection of letters and documents that belonged to Lord George Macartney during his time as governor of Madras (1780-1786). In addition, the Rare Book & Manuscript Library holds a series of manuscripts on 18th- and 19th-century East India politics collected by the historian Holden Furber (Professor, South Asia Studies at Penn from 1948 to 1973). For an essay about the Macartney Papers by Holden Furber, click here.

The manuscript collections for South Asia are rounded out by additional travel narratives, ships logs, letters, and material on the military history of the East India Company (including the sieges of Seringapatnam and Bharatpur). In addition, Penn holds a series of 19th- and 20th-century photograph albums of Indian landscapes and city life, as well as rare prints and drawings of Indian scenes, buildings, and everyday life.

Indic Manuscripts

The University of Pennsylvania possesses a collection of approximately 3,050 Indic-language manuscripts, the largest in the Western hemisphere. The preponderance of the collection comprises ancient and medieval texts, the majority of which were copied in the Colonial era, although some copies and texts date from the Mughal era. The material is largely from India, but some items are from Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal, and Tibet. An assessment and description of the collection and its history up to January 2000 by David N. Nelson can be found here. The bulk of the collection is classified under the call number of Ms. Coll. 390, but the library continues to acquire additional manuscripts, which are cataloged with a call number beginning "Ms. Indic."

The Rare Book & Manuscript Library is in the process of cataloging the entire collection online; records for Indic manuscripts that have been re-cataloged appear both in Franklin and WorldCat; the new records offer vernacular scripts for authors and titles and new access points, such as subjects and genres. Just over 200 of the library's Indic-language manuscripts have been digitized, and full facsimiles have been made available on the Web site, Penn in Hand. For an older list of some of our manuscripts in electronic format, click here.

The initial collection, which totaled about 850 in 1934, was obtained through the efforts and donations of a number of people and research funds. In 1930 the University's Provost, Dr. Josiah Penniman, along with Mr. John Gribbel and Dr. Charles W. Burr, gave money to purchase Indic manuscripts for the university. Between 1934 and 1938 other manuscripts were acquired through money obtained from the Faculty Research Fund and the Cotton Fund, as well as from donations. Most of these purchases were overseen by W. Norman Brown, professor of Sanskrit, through his contact, Narayana Shastri Khiste, a Maharashtran Brahmin living in Varāṇasī. Most of the collection, 2899 manuscripts in all, were included in a catalog published in 1938 by the American Oriental Society and compiled by H. I. Poleman: A Census of Indic Manuscripts in the United States and Canada. This catalog has been the primary face of Penn's collection of manuscripts outside of the University of Pennsylvania even into the digital age. It has remained a valuable resource, despite its numerous inaccuracies and omissions, for the information it provides about the manuscripts (including titles, authors, dates, language, and scripts). In addition to the Poleman catalog, a set of microfiche for the entire collection of manuscripts was created: The University of Pennsylvania Indic Manuscripts (Microfiche 965). Photography and microfiche preparation for the project were completed under the auspices of the Institute for Advanced Studies of World Religions in the 1970s.

Most of the manuscripts are written in Sanskrit and are primarily connected to Hinduism (including Vedic antecedents). In addition to Sanskrit, manuscripts are written in a variety of vernacular and regional languages; they include Awadhi, Braj, Classical Tamil, Hindi, and Nepali. There are also more than 100 manuscripts from Jaina and especially Buddhist traditions (they include both canonical and non-canonical sources), as well as a handful from other traditions such Sikhism and Islam. Such non-Hindu works are written in a several languages, including Pali, Jain Maharashtri Prakrit, Sinhalese, Urdu, Panjabi, Burmese, Thai, Cambodian, Java, and Tibetan. While Devanagari is the most prevalent script employed in the collection, other scripts--such as Tamil, Grantha, Sinhala, Telugu, Bengali, Gurmukhi, Nasta'līq, Burmese, Java, Thai, and Tibetan--can also be found. The majority of manuscripts were copied on Indian-made stocks of paper, with some written on a variety of European stocks (identifiable through watermarks) from the colonial period. About 100 manuscripts from both South and Southeast Asia are written on palm leaf. The oldest manuscript in the collection is on Indian-made paper from the second half of the 16th century, although most date from the 18th and 19th centuries, very typical of South Asian manuscript collections because of the humidity and climate. Such conditions cause the relatively rapid decay of paper and palm leaf such that older documents are comparatively rare.