Endangered archives blog

News about the projects saving vulnerable material from around the world

04 November 2019

Rare Buddhist Sanskrit Manuscripts from Rural Kathmandu and the Hill Areas of Nepal

Among all the ancient languages, Sanskrit excels as being used in the greatest number of written works. Sanskrit is used for mainly Hindu and Buddhist manuscripts, covering medical manuals, literature and astrological works.

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Example of Buddhist religious stories

Nepal is the centre of Sanskrit Buddhist manuscripts, written in a variety of Newārī scripts on tree bark, palm-leaves and paper. The manuscripts are sources of profound knowledge. Nepalese Buddhist manuscripts are the only original extant sources of Mahāyāna Buddhism and has made the study of Mahāyāna Buddhism in Sanskrit possible. The texts are rare and often in a bad state due to natural and man-made conditions. The Endangered Archives Programme has supported the digitisation of these manuscripts through several projects:  EAP676, EAP790 and EAP1023. These grants have helped the exploration and digitisation of Buddhist manuscripts held in private collections and have been the first extended attempt to made public a significant number of these privately-owned manuscripts.  Sanskrit manuscripts in Nepal are treated as sacred items having great religious value. They are not merely material objects but regarded as emanations of deities in which life is inserted through performing a ritual called Nyāsa [placing or inserting] led by Vajrācaryā priests.

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Early example of a manuscript written on paper

EAP1023 has digitised 478 Sanskrit manuscripts in twenty-eight collections. They were written between the tenth and eighteenth centuries. They are rare and still highly valued in Newār households in Nepal. All the manuscripts were recovered from Buddhist families and the owners are all very keen to preserve them.

The types of manuscripts in this collection include: Sūtra (canonical scripture), Tantra, Kathā (stories), Vidhī (rituals) and Buddhist chronicles. Those endangered ancient and medieval specimen discuss various religious themes as well as guide to perform rituals.  

The story literature in Buddhism is divided into Jātaka tales (the previous lives of the Buddha) and Avadāna (noble deeds). This collection contains several Avadāna stories including rituals texts. Some interesting manuscripts in this collection are copies of the Sūtra of Fivefold Protection (Pañcarakṣā Sūtra). The five Sūtras are Āryamahāpratisarā, Mahāsahasrapramardinī, Mahāmāyurī, Mahāmantrāṇusārinī and Mahasitavatī.

Pañcarakṣā and Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras were widely written and recited during the medieval times in Nepal. Pañcarakṣā Sūtra is believed to bring auspicious moments and bring protection from bad planets, evil souls, calamities, diseases, effects of poisons and so on. This text has five individual Sūtras. Five individual deities are emanated from the five Sūtras, each having special powers. Their influence is highlighted in the narrative descriptions of each Sūtra. Traditionally, the Pañcarakṣā Sūtra is written in golden, silver or organic homemade black ink. This collection also has the earliest dated Nepalese paper manuscript belonging to the twelfth century. From the Buddhist viewpoint, this collection is invaluable.

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Illustrated examples of  the Pañcarakṣā with writing in gold

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A copy of the Pañcarakṣā Sutra, there looks as if there has been fire damage to the manuscript

Written by Dr. Shanker Thapa, Professor of History at Tribhuvan University and grant holder for EAP1023, EAP790 and EAP676.

24 October 2019

The hour is approaching!

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The deadline for applications for the next round of EAP grants is fast approaching! Midday GMT on Monday 11th November. We look forward to receiving a rich and diverse inbox to sift though.

 

Do read the Guidelines for Applicants https://eap.bl.uk/sites/default/files/2019%20Guidance%20for%20applicants%20for%20website%20Sept2019.pdf before filling in your application forms. You might find the blogs about our webinars useful as well. We did a webinar in November 2018 in English https://blogs.bl.uk/endangeredarchives/2019/07/applicant-webinar-nov18.html and during the summer we put on webinars in Arabic, French and Spanish https://blogs.bl.uk/endangeredarchives/2019/07/webinars.html. It is also a good idea to ensure you and your host institution are familiar with the standard grant terms and conditions https://eap.bl.uk/sites/default/files/EAP%20Grant%20Terms%20%26%20Conditions%20template%20July%202019%20for%20website_1.pdf

 

If you can’t find the answers to your questions in any of those links, do get in touch. But remember – you can’t stop the clock!

 

Written by Ruth Hansford

EAP Grants Manager

17 September 2019

Preserving pious print - the Maalim Muhammad Idris Collection, Zanzibar.

EAP1114 digitised a collection of print and manuscript Islamic material deriving from the collection of the late imam and teacher, Maalim Muhammad Idris – known locally as Maalim Idris. As a collector, Maalim  Idris himself was concerned that the Muslim intellectual and scriptural heritage of Zanzibar – and the wider Swahili coast – was deteriorating to the point of being lost. The result would be, according to him, new generations unable to access their heritage, whether from the point of view of historical interest or for religious learning. Maalim Idris was also very aware of the irony that while Zanzibar as a world heritage site was being lauded for its outstanding architecture, its actual history in the form of books, manuscripts and papers were of less concern to international conservation efforts.

The team around the digitisation studio
The end of EAP1114 was marked with a workshop held in Zanzibar on July 2-3rd. Here, scholars and stakeholders shared their experiences from very similar situations in Harar (Ethiopia), Lamu (Kenya), and northern Mozambique (Cabo Delgado and Nampula provinces.) Some of the collections presented at the workshop were previously part of EAP projects, including EAP466 (Riyadha Manuscript Collection, Lamu) and EAP602 (Audio Recordings, Sherif Harar City Museum). These collections have very different biographies, being both organic results of a particular mosque, or the results of deliberate efforts to preserve textual material. Some are still part of functional institutions, while others are today mainly kept as heritage. The EAP PowerPoint presentation at the workshop
Over the two days, participants discussed the challenges to, and possibilities for, a more integrated view of heritage that also includes the Muslim traditions of the region. Here, we would like to share some of the insights from our discussions, and point to a number of recommendations garnered from our deliberations. The audience sitting and listening to the presentation.

A regional tradition – a regional approach

The traditional Islamic scholarly centres – from Harar in the north to Ilha de Mozambique in the south – are very much part of the same tradition. The collections hold numerous copies of the same texts, including legal, linguistic and devotional materials. There are, of course, also notable differences, which indicate the evolution of specific, local traditions, often formulated in ajami (local languages in Arabic writing). But texts are also tied to practice. Teaching styles, ritual performance and localized understandings of the faith, can all be discerned from the texts a given community collected or produced. Any conservation effort – physical or digital – should take this into account. These collections, as a whole, are testimony to the Eastern African style of collection, conservation, teaching and knowledge production. However, they are also how people live and practice their religion.

The collections also face much of the same challenges. Climatic challenges include high humidity, fungus and insects, dust and flooding. In some areas, notably Lamu, there have been security concerns, with raids by the Somali al-Shabab on more than one occasion. In others, notably northern Mozambique but also elsewhere, there is a significant ideological challenge, due to the rise of Wahhabi-oriented groups that see little or no value in the “superstitions” of the past. A challenge common to all the collections is the inability of traditional custodians (mosques, individuals or community groups) to provide adequate security for the collections – let alone proper conservation. In some instances, collaboration with national institutions (archives, museums) is well-established and functioning–such as Lamu; in other cases–Zanzibar–less so. Even in the best of scenarios, the capacity of national institutions is limited, and often dependent on donor projects to preserve their own collections. Several workshop participants noted that inheritance issues; lack of institutional plans for transmission from one generation to the next and; the lack of resources makes the situation even more perilous. The rise of new teaching methods (online academies, modern PDF format textbooks) have also proved a challenge to the conservation of paper material). Finally, the illegal purchasing of manuscripts erodes the material.

What can be done on a regional level?

While we readily find commonalities among collections and the challenges they face, a regional approach to addressing these is harder to achieve. National institutions work within their own domestic strategies, and local custodians within their own resource- or sociopolitical limitations. However, below are some steps that may ensure a better prospect for this rich heritage:

The creation of an archival map

Even in historical centres like the Lamu and Zanzibar archipelagoes, there is to date no integrated overview of Islamic scriptural heritage under private ownership (i.e. mosques, families or with individuals). So, our knowledge of what actually exists, is fragmentary at best. The Zanzibar Institute of Archives and Records are currently starting an “archival mapping” process in the archipelago.

Improved partnerships between private custodians and branches of state institutions

Given that mosques and traditional teaching institutions remain custodians of much of this material, they are also subject to the challenges of poor funding, generational transitions and the rise of “new Ulama”. This can be mitigated through collaboration with local branches of national heritage institutions, whereby material may be deposited for conservation and safekeeping when needed. This may in itself also raise awareness of the value of the material qua heritage, and as such mitigate the ideological issues.

Material having arrived and is in piles waiting to be sorted.

Conservation efforts – digital and physical

The benefits of digitizing local endangered collections are numerous. In addition, to saving–at least in some format–materials that would otherwise be lost, digitization projects like the EAP raise the profile of such collections especially amongst local stakeholders. Ideally, they also improve access not only for the international scholarly community but for those living in the locales where they reside.  However, there are also downsides. Digitising is an option that provides access and raises awareness, but it does not solve the longer-term questions of the lives of collections. Digitising should not be confused with conservation, as digital images are really only proxies that do nothing to preserve the original material. Furthermore, while the digital format theoretically provides greater access by members of the local community, internet access and bandwidth continue to be issues. The latter may be solved by providing low-res solutions such as apps for smartphones that can allow easy access via local wifi. The former, however as many participants pointed out, continues to be an issue that cannot be addressed by digitization alone. They thus advocated for the need to begin to couple conservation efforts with digital preservation.

Two team members wearing Team EAP1114 Zanzibar T Shirts  looking at a laptop

Awareness-raising – suggestions

The link between text and performance is one potential avenue for awareness-raising. Texts like the Mawlid Barzanji or the Qasidat al-Burda are found in all locations, but are performed with slight variations. Placing these variations on display is one way of raising awareness also on the performative aspect. This could be both live and on platforms like YouTube etc. Workshops should be held that include relevant regional heritage institutions (archives and museums) and custodians. Such short courses might focus on the training of local custodians (religious leaders, family members) in some of the most basic and low cost elements of textual conservation such as cleaning and pest remediation.

EAP1114 team

Salum Suleiman, Director, Zanzibar Institute of Archives and Records; Omar Shehe Khamis, Head of Oral History Unit,  Zanzibar Institute of Archives and Records; Saleh Muhammed Idris, Comorian Association, Zanzibar; Hassan Muhammad Kawo, PhD Candidate, Addis Abeba University/University of Cape Town; Chapane Mutiua, PhD Candidate; Eduardo Mondlane University/Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, Hamburg University; Aydaroos Muhsin Jamal al-Layl, Former participant on EAP466 and MA Candidate, Nairobi University; Ahmed Yaqoub Almaazmi, PhD Candidate, Princeton University; Hemed Ali Al Ruwehy, Chief Engineer, Bergen University Library; Scott Reese, Professor, Northern Arizona University; Anne K. Bang, Professor, University of Bergen