THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

69 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

03 July 2020

New Projects Online - June 2020

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In recent weeks we have continued to put new collections online. Here is a summary of  four of the most recent projects to be made available.

EAP703 - Notary Books of Bahia, Brazil, 1664-1910

Until 1763, Bahia was the seat of the Portuguese colonial government in the Americas and a major sugar plantation economy based on African enslaved labour. Bahia received 33% of the Brazilian trade and 14.5% of the total. Being an administrative and economic centre, and until the late eighteenth century the most important port of trade in the South Atlantic, the production of documents in Bahia was intense. In Brazil, the Arquivo Público do Estado da Bahia (Bahia State Archives) is considered to be second in importance only to the National Archives in Rio de Janeiro.

This project digitised 1,329 volumes of Notary Books deposited at the Arquivo Público do Estado da Bahia. In total 306,416 pages were digitised as part of the project.

Project team digitising notary books
The EAP703 project team digitising the notary books in Bahia

The dates  for the volumes ranges from 1664 to 1910. They therefore include the first two decades of the republican and post-emancipation period. 

These documents represent perhaps the most dependable source for the study of the social and economic history of colonial and post-colonial Bahia up until the end of the 19th century. The notary books include records such as:

  • Bills of sale (for plantations, land, houses, ships, slaves, etc)
  • Wills and testaments
  • Inheritance partition
  • Power of attorney letters
  • Marriage
  • Dowry
  • Labour and business contracts
  • Children’s legitimisation papers
  • Slave manumission papers.
A notary book page
Livro de Notas do Tabelião [3 May 1680-19 Jun 1680] (EAP703/1/2/2)

 

EAP896 - Documentation of Endangered Temple Art of Tamil Nadu

EAP does not only fund the digitisation of manuscripts and documents that can be held in the hand. EAP supports digitisation of almost any at-risk historical material. The digitisation of temple art in Tamil Nadu is a prime example.

The rich cultural heritage of temple art in India is rapidly deteriorating because of vandalism, weather conditions, and practices such as burning camphor for ritual purposes. By digitising the artwork that adorns eight temples in Tamil Nadu, India, the EAP896 project team have helped preserve this art for research, enjoyment, and education.

Project Team Digitising a Temple Wall
The EAP896 project team digitising a temple wall

The drawing lines found on the temple walls represent abstract forms painted several centuries ago. In the evolution of human cognitive expressions, painting is a significant milestone. The paintings are essentially made up of lines and colours and the figures that are represented are mostly mythical.

Art on temple wall
Bodinayakkanur Zamin Palace, West Hall, North wall, top row (EAP896/1/2)

This project has resulted in a plethora of visually striking images.

 

EAP1150 - Fragile Palm Leaves Digitisation Initiative

In partnership with the Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation and the Buddhist Digital Resource Centre, this project digitised 300 Pali and vernacular manuscripts in Burmese script.

Bound palm leaf manuscript
Mhan nanḥ mahārājavaṅ tau krīḥ I (EAP1150/1/9, image 1)

Mostly created in the 18th and 19th century, these manuscripts contain approximately 1,000 discrete Buddhist texts on a variety of topics. These include:

  • Law
  • Poetry
  • Stories of the Buddha
  • Grammar
  • Religious rituals
A palm leaf manuscript
Mhan nanḥ mahārājavaṅ tau krīḥ I (EAP1150/1/9, image 15)

These manuscripts provide an invaluable primary resource for the study of Burmese and Theravada Buddhism, Pali philology, history, literature, regional codicology, pre-modern textual and scribal practices, and manuscript culture.

 

EAP1167 - Safeguarding Colonial Plantation Records of Malawi

This pilot project surveyed tea and tobacco plantation records from the colonial era in Nyasaland [Malawi]. The team located relevant records and created an inventory, which is available as an Excel spreadsheet.

A plan showing plots on a tobacco estate
Nchenga and Falls Dairy (EAP1167/1/11/1, image 1)

The team also digitised a sample of records from 13 estates (1922-1966), which are freely available to view. These include:

  • Title deeds
  • Legal agreements
  • Memoranda
  • Correspondence
  • Articles of association.

 

These four projects include a diverse range of content types and span three continents across several centuries. Combined, they aptly showcase the rich diversity of EAP projects.

Look out for even more diverse projects going online in the weeks in months ahead!

26 May 2020

New projects online - May 2020

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May has been another busy month for new EAP projects going online. Here we showcase the first four now freely available, which cover a wide range of topics and regions.

EAP810 - Siddha Medicine Manuscripts, Tamil Nadu, India

Siddha refers to the traditional medical system of Tamil Nadu, India. Although recognised by the government of India, siddha medicine has not been systematically studied, partly due to the difficulty of access to its texts, mostly in form of manuscripts, kept in libraries or held by practitioners. This project makes these vital sources of traditional medicine available for research.

A bound palm leaf manuscript
A bound palm leaf manuscript, EAP810/6/1

These palm leaf manuscripts cover a large range of subjects, including general siddha medicine and medical specialities such as acupressure, baby and mother care, eye diseases or toxicology (snake and scorpion bites; food and medicine intoxication), and socio-cultural topics rooted in the siddha tradition such as mantra, philosophy, alchemy, spirituality, and astrology.

A palm leaf manuscript page with Tamil writing
அகத்தியர் கர்ம சூத்திரம் [Akattiyar Karma Cūttiram], EAP810/6/1/image 8

EAP 931 - Indigenous Memories of Land Privatisation in Mexico

The privatization of indigenous lands—the reparto de tierras—is an epochal but poorly understood process in Mexican history. It is largely trapped in narratives of liberal nation‐building or postcolonial despoilment. Yet how did indigenous people actually experience/navigate the reparto? Was it ethnocide, or ethnogenesis? As the one complete surviving record of a state-wide Mexican reparto, the hijuelas promise historians valuable insights into a major agrarian/economic transformation and a deeper understanding of changes in indigenous notions of property, agricultural practice, ethnic rule, and identity.

The Libros de Hijuelas (“deed books” or “bequest books” in English) consist of 196 leather-bound volumes containing 75,000 documents dating from 1719‐1929, with additional copies of earlier, 16th‐ or 17th‐century documents. All the documents pertain to, or are precursors of, a centrally important historical process: the dissolution and privatisation of indigenous corporate property under 19th‐century liberal governments, in this case in the western state of Michoacán, Mexico.

These books contain:

  • Legal acts
  • Cadastral surveys
  • Village censuses
  • Hand‐tinted maps
  • Letters

Many of the letters are written by indigenous michoacanos of Purépecha (Tarascan), Nahua, Mazahua, Matzatlinca, or Otomí descent.

EAP931 team in the digitisation room
The EAP931 project team

The hijuelas collection is unique in that it presents the pre‐history and a complete account of the privatisation process across a whole state, the collection as a whole being organized according to the 16 political districts into which Michoacán was divided.

EAP938 - Diplomatic archives of Merina Kingdom, Madagascar

This project digitised the diplomatic archives of the Merina Kingdom, which dominated Madagascar during the 19th century. These documents (1861-1897) which have been part of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register since 2009 illustrate the encounter between the precolonial kingdom of Madagascar, the abolitionist and religious policies of the United Kingdom and the French territorial ambitions in the Indian Ocean.

Both quantitatively and qualitatively, these documents are a rare and perfect example of the diplomacy of a non-Western State in the nineteenth century. These documents reveal the influence the kingdom tried to obtain among different Western governments and show the connection of the Merina kingdom of Madagascar with the rest of the world, prior to the advent of colonialism.

The availability will surely herald new insights on the pre-colonial period and the construction of the colonial state.

A folder of diplomatic correspondence between European individuals and the Malagasy government, and a treaty between Madagascar and the United States of America
Correspondence between European Individuals and the Malagasy government, EAP938/1/90 (left); Treaty between Madagascar and the United States, EAP938/1/7 (right)

EAP1114 - East African Islamic texts from the library of Maalim Muhammad Idris

Maalim Muhammad IdrisThis project digitised the library of the late Zanzibari scholar Maalim Muhammad Idris (d.2012) - 123 Islamic texts dating from the late nineteenth century to the 1940s.

This collection is invaluable because it contains printed material dating from the period of transition from manuscript to print in the Arabic/Islamic tradition. Its known provenance and diverse nature gives insight into the Islamic history of East Africa.

The materials range from locally printed pamphlets to books printed in Cairo, from basic instruction to legal manuals, many with handwritten commentary by East Africa's leading scholars, as well as early locally printed Arabic-Swahili translations. The collection is a "snapshot" of an intellectual tradition in transition and a cross-section of the nascent networks of print in Islamic Africa.

A colourful page from the Qur'an
The Qur'an, EAP1114/1/13/image 8

11 May 2020

New projects online - April 2020

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We have another four new projects we can share with you this month that have recently been made available online. If you didn't read last month's blog you can see it here. It features projects from Kenya, Senegal, Uganda, and the small Caribbean island of Nevis. On to this month's projects:

  • Pa'O religious and literary manuscripts from Shan State, Myanmar [EAP104]
  • records relating to the Tamil Protestant community of the Jaffna Peninsula, Sri Lanka [EAP835]
  • colonial records from the French colony of Middle Congo (Republic of the Congo) [EAP844]
  • Sanskrit and Malayalam manuscripts from monasteries in Thrissur, Kerala, India [EAP1039]

EAP104

The manuscripts digitised during this project constitute the largest and most comprehensive Pa'O literary and religious studies resource outside of Pa'O regions in Myanmar and Thailand. The original manuscripts, a mixture of parabaik (accordion folded paper manuscripts), bound scrolls, and palm-leaf manuscripts, are owned by the Pa'O Literary and Cultural Council Committee Library in Taunggyi, Shan State, Myanmar. The texts consist mainly of Pa’O interpretations of the Theravada Buddhist canon, though other particularly interesting manuscripts include those that document Pa'O dynasties and claims on important historical sites in contemporary Myanmar. There are 71 manuscripts in total, the majority of them in the Pa’O language.

Lokadippa lokavvat‘ phrekyam-600wide
Page from a manuscript - Lokadippa Lokavvat‘ Phrekyam [EAP104]

EAP835

The aim of this ‘pilot’ project was to survey the print and manuscript materials of the Tamil Protestant community of Jaffna in Sri Lanka. There is a wealth of material documenting this community and the role of missionaries from the UK and United States. The American Ceylon Mission press for example printed more than 500,000 evangelical tracts in a 17-year period leading up to 1840. Much of this is Tamil-language translations of American texts, but there are also significant amounts of material relating to Tamil epic poetry and literature, ethical treatises, pedagogical works, devotional literature, and many polemical essays on Saivism and Christian‐Saivite exchanges.


The project surveyed 10 institutional and 3 private archives. They digitised a sample of records including church record books, correspondence between Missions, lists of parishes, issues of St. John’s College Magazine, and more from 5 of these institutions. You can read the survey reports and lists on the project page, as well as see a sample of 27 records that were digitised.

Eap835-3-1-religious tract society600wide
EAP835/3/1 - Religious Tract Society

EAP844

This pilot project set out to locate and document colonial archives from the former French colony of Middle Congo, in present-day Pointe-Noire, Republic of the Congo. While archives in Brazzaville have been more widely studied, the archives in Pointe-Noire have largely been unknown and inaccessible to researchers.


Research was carried out in three main archives:

  • Archives Municipales de Pointe-Noire (integrated into the city's town hall)
  • Archives de la Préfecture de Pointe-Noire (APPN-CON)
  • Archives du Chemin de Fer Congo-Océan (ACFCO-CON)


A survey and inventory of some of the holdings are available on the project page. The survey explains the history and provenance of the archives and their collections, and should be used as the starting point for exploring them. The project team also digitised a small sample of 3 dossiers from the APPN-CON containing mostly colonial era administration documents. These feature a wide-range of topics including: the impact of WW2 in the area; smuggling networks; development of trade unions; the ‘messianic’ movements of Lassyism (Bougism); xenophobic outbreaks against Dahomean and Togolese immigrants; social life in the Loango region.


Just from this small sample alone, it’s clear that these archives may have wide research interest, especially considering the amount of material that is uncatalogued. The team also estimated an additional 2500 ‘boxes’ of archival material at APPN-CON that they were unable to survey due to the time restraints of this small project. There obviously may be much more to discover. Whilst the focus was on colonial era records the team also sampled the vast trove of postcolonial records found in the archives. APPN-CON’s archive of postcolonial documents was singled out for its “spectacular possibilities” for research. 

Eap844-600wide
Example of a document digitised for the EAP844 project

EAP1039

This pilot project produced a survey of 238 of the 800 palm leaf manuscripts held in four monasteries that constitute the Hindu monastic complex of Thrissur in Kerala, India. This collection contains rare unpublished Sanskrit and Malayalam works, especially in the field of non-dualist philosophy (Advaita-Vedānta), Kerala history and hagiography. It therefore constitutes an invaluable resource for the study of the religious and social history of Kerala in the pre-modern times. 54 of these manuscripts were digitised and are now available to view online.

Eap1039-600wide
Example of a document digitised for the EAP1039 project

16 April 2020

New projects online - March 2020

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Four new projects have recently been made available on the EAP website that can now be viewed in full. Three of these projects are from the African continent:

Finally, we have a collection of administrative records from Nevis Island in the Caribbean [EAP794]

 

EAP617

This project digitised a collection of patient medical records from Mengo Hospital in Uganda, held at the Albert Cook Library, College of Health Sciences at Makerere University. Sir Albert Cook arrived in Uganda as a missionary doctor in 1897 and founded the Mengo Hospital shortly after. These records dating from 1897-1944 are a valuable source of information about the rich history of modern medicine in Uganda. They also show the value of preserving archives and how they can be used for research in ways other than their intended use. For example, these records are currently being used by academics to study socioeconomic history of Uganda and also missionary views of sexuality, morals and sin.

Mengo Hospital
Sample cover sheet from Mengo Hospital patient record

 

EAP794

Building on the work of pilot project EAP093, this major project digitised records from the Caribbean island of Nevis spanning three centuries of history, from 1705-1974. This collection contains a rich source of material for historians and genealogists alike. It includes:

  • Common Deed Record Books, 1707-1956 (49 volumes)
  • Court of King’s/Queen’s Bench and Common Pleas, 1705-1873 (39 volumes)
  • Supreme Court, 1874-1962 (9 volumes)
  • Other Courts, 1815-1943 (8 volumes)
  • Wills, 1763-1880 (7 volumes)
  • Ships Bonds, 1847-1867 (7 volumes)
  • Provost Marshal’s Sales, 1847-1935 (9 volumes)
  • Land Title Register Books, 1887-1922 (3 volumes)
  • Miscellaneous Records, 1840-1940 (23 volumes)
  • Maps and plans, 1888-1974 (205 individual maps/plans, or montages of plans)
Paradise Estate, Nevis
Plan of Paradise Estate in Nevis

 

EAP1042

Ajami is a modified Arabic script used for writing some African languages, including Mande languages (such as Bamanankan, Eastern Maninka, Western Mandinka (or Mandinka), Jakhanke, Jula, and Susu). These Mandinka Ajami manuscripts are particularly valuable as Ajami texts in Mande languages are some of the least documented. 

Though the project initially focused on digitising Mandinka Ajami texts they soon found many important manuscripts in other languages that help to document the preoccupations and intellectual traditions of the Mandinka people of Senegambia and beyond. This includes multilingual manuscripts written in Arabic, Mandinka, and Soninke, and a few written in Wolof and Fula.

The manuscripts cover a wide range of topics including astrology, divination, Islamic education, poetry, jurisprudence, and many other subjects.

EAP1042 manuscript page
Page from a manuscript digitised in the EAP1042 project

 

EAP1143

This pilot project produced a detailed survey of all the material held at the Nairobi Railway Museum’s archive and digitised a small sample of photographs. The sample images were taken circa 1901 before and during the construction of the Uganda railway, which runs through present day Kenya and Uganda. They depict the landscape and daily life of the region’s local inhabitants.

Kisuma crowd at P. Florence
Kisumu crowd at P. Florence

 

27 January 2020

Buddhism on the ground

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EAP790_1_1_n25 resize

A manuscript in Sanskrit and Newari, showing how to set up an altar. EAP790/1/1

A European scholar of Buddhism, Edward Conze, once said of Buddhist monks that "they are the only Buddhists in the true sense of the word." He went on to say that life outside of the monastery was "incompatible with the higher levels of the spiritual life." This prejudice might be less common these days, but it has influenced generations of scholarship, and limited the kinds of Buddhism that scholars have studied.

Along with thinking that monks are the only true representatives of Buddhism, there has been a tendency to see the ethical and philosophical teachings of the Buddha as "pure" Buddhism, and everything else as falling away from this ideal. So rituals, chanting, storytelling, the making of amulets and casting of spells, have often been neglected in the study of Buddhism.

This attitude has started to change in recent years, but where are we to look for a different story of Buddhism? I would suggest that some of the best resources are projects that have been funded by the Endangered Archives Programme. For example, over the last seven years, the scholar Shanker Thapa has been digitising and cataloguing the personal manuscript collections of Nepalese tantric practitioners known as Vajracharyas

The Vajracharyas are family lineages, who pass down traditions of Buddhist tantric empowerment and meditation, and services to the local community, such as rituals for protection and prosperity. The image above is from a manuscript belong to Mr Gyankar Vajracharya, who lives in Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley. It shows how to set up an altar for a ritual. Another page from the same manuscript shows the nagas, serpent spirits who live in river and lakes, and are responsible for rainfall. Buddhists have provided the service of making rain to their local communities for centuries. 

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Manuscript page showing nagas, or serpent spirits. EAP790/1/1

This manuscript, along with the others in Gyankar Vajracharya's collection, which he generously allowed to be digitised, help us to understand the repetoire of a Buddhist ritual specialist in the Kathmandu Valley. 

Another EAP project has worked with a very different group of Buddhist ritual specialists, in the Pin Valley in India, some 1000 km northwest of Kathmandu. Between 2012 and 2015 the documentary photographer Patrick Sutherland worked with these ritual specialists, called Buchen, to document their practices, their books, and the other material culture of their profession. The Buchen offer rituals for healing, protection and exorcism, and also teach Buddhism to villagers through story, music and dance.

EAP749_2_2_2 resize

Thangka of the life story of Padmasambhava EAP749/2/2/2

One of the Buchen is Meme Chettan Dorje. He worked with Sutherland to document his whole collection of manuscripts, paintings, and ritual implements. As  storytellers, the Buchen use the biographies of Buddhist heroes and saints to impart religious messages to their audience.

The Tibetan painting, or thangka above shows the story of Padmasambhava, a legendary master of miracles who is said to have established Buddhism to Tibet. In Tibetan Buddhism, Padmasambhava is both an example of the state of enlightenment itself, and a culture hero. The thangka is used by Meme Chettan Dorje to tell stories for the childhood of Padmasambhava. The figure of Padmasambhava is in the middle, surrounded by illustrations of key events from his life. When telling these stories, Meme Chettan Dorje uses a metal pointer to point to specific parts of the thangka.

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A metal pointer. EAP749/2/3/8

The Buchen's storytelling is based on Tibet's rich literary tradition. This 19th-century manuscript contains one of several version of Padmasambhava's life story. The worn state of the manuscript, including the repair written with a modern pen, clearly shows that all of Meme Chettan Dorje's objects are part of a living tradition, made to be used.

EAP749_2_1_1_n2 resize

A manuscript containing the life story of Padmasambhava. EAP749/2/1/1

In traditional collections, these three objects - painting, implement and manuscript - might well end up in three different institutions, with the connections between them almost entirely erased. This collection is different because it comes out of working directly with representatives of the living tradition. Both of these two EAP collections show how it is possible to document a tradition in a way that is more true to those who practice it, whether as an insider or an outsider to the tradition itself. Whatever Edward Conze once said, there are many kinds of Buddhism and many ways of being a Buddhist. 

Further reading

  • Edward Conze, Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, originally published 1951. Modern edition: Dover Publications, 2003.
  • Shanker Thapa, Newar Buddhism: History, Scholarship and Literature, Nagarjuna Publications, 2005.
  • Patrick Sutherland, Spiti, the Forbidden Valley, Network Photographers, 2010.

Post written by Sam van Schaik, Head of the Endangered Archives Programme

06 December 2019

Building Digital Archives: Tools, Techniques & Approaches - a training workshop offered by Jadavpur University, School for Cultural Texts and Records

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A man standing by a blackboard and giving a presentation

We decided to inaugurate the webpage of our project EAP1247 – Songs of the Old Madmen – with a short piece about the first concrete step towards the creation of our digital archive. Our first tangible accomplishment would not have been possible without the support of the EAP1247 grant and our local archival partner at SCTR, Jadavpur University. We are grateful to the entire team, who generously shared their knowledge and expertise during an intensive four-day training workshop. In this piece, we will discuss the structure of the training workshop and some of its outcomes -- hoping to provide some useful information and experiences for future EAP grant holders and workshop organisers.

The poster advertising the workshop

The training workshop ‘Building Digital Archives: Tools, Techniques& Approaches’ consisted of both theoretical and practical sessions. Eminent speakers presented critical topics of archival ethics and methodologies. Hands-on modules and laboratory group work provided a well-balanced preparation for the future generations of digital humanists. We recommend to future grant holders that they start their project with a training workshop with the local archival partners, to gather the necessary knowledge and familiarize with the international standards of digital archiving processes, but also to make sure that all the team members and collaborating institutions are on the same page!

Our training workshop was open and free for all local students and invited scholars. It offered the opportunity for students and scholars of other departments and institutions within and beyond Kolkata (some participants came all the way from Bangladesh) to partake in the valuable experience and extraordinary expertise of faculty staff and research fellows from the School of Cultural Texts and Records. They have been conducting digitisation projects since 2003 and have completed six projects funded by the Endangered Archives Programme. Jadavpur University has been recognized among the top 10 institutions in the world in the field of digital humanities. We feel fortunate to have worked with such a  fantastic archival partner!

The workshop started with a lecture by Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri (EAP127, EAP261) who introduced us to the past, present, and future of digital humanities at Jadavpur University, an institution that is adamant about protecting academic freedom in these challenging times of bigotry and governmental intrusion in the field of education and research. He showed successful examples (see Bichitra) and ongoing projects that transform disturbingly neglected cultural texts and vernacular manuscripts into binary code, where everything, from words to sounds, is translated, reduced to, and stored as, zeros and ones. What we found particularly inspiring was Prof. Chaudhuri’s reminder that there are no sacrosanct specifications in the realm of digital archives: one can always suggest innovations, if these worked as solutions for a particular kind of endangered material.

A woman presenting at the workshop a slide of a map is in the background

Professor Anuradha Chanda’s lecture focused on the practical challenges, limitations, and problematic issues that emerged during her fieldwork, aimed at collecting Sylheti Nagri manuscripts in Northeast India and Bangladesh (see EAP071 for her EAP project). These manuscripts are kept hidden from orthodox Islamic authorities which contain esoteric and antinomian teachings in a distinctive script of the regional Bengali variant. These little-known texts, were supposed to be written for womenfolk in a simplified alphabet, but Prof. Anuradha Chanda’s research revealed a more complex (hi)story. The historical, literary, and symbolic value that Prof. Chanda and her team attributed to the preservation of these texts triggered a response among the local community, who started a popular movement of revaluation of their cultural heritage. This incident shows that the creation of digital archives does not exist in a vacuum of social power, but rather, it is always entangled with local cultural histories and hierarchies, and it has a direct impact on the field in which it operates. Her fieldwork involved a great deal of grassroots networking, negotiation in the politics of cultural and ethno-linguistic identity in Assam, and delicate navigation through the politics of cultural texts, the local protocols of knowledge accessibility, and the oscillation between pride and stigma associated with a non-official way of being Muslim. These issues are often invisible in the ‘final product’: they are not legible through the digitised images of the preserved texts, nor through the metadata that accompanies them. However, these practical and ethical issues, that require skills to understand the local politics and the power dynamics of cultural representation, form the fundamental backbone of a digital archive of endangered cultural texts. The Sylheti Nagri manuscripts belong to the Indian and Bangladesh cultural zone – extending to the bordering regions of Burma and Southern China. This material reminds us that the circulation of cultural texts does not coincide with the rigid borders of post-colonial nation-states. The flows of cultural texts, especially when linked to folklore and oral transmission, cannot be encapsulated in the nationalist regimes of cultural heritage. This problematic issue resonated particularly well with our own EAP project, since the endangered note-books and manuscripts of old Baul songs that we are aiming to preserve, are distributed in the porous cultural area of Bengal, which is shared between two nations: India and Bangladesh. These archives will hopefully lead international actors and funding entities in the field of cultural heritage to rethink of the unrealistically nation-centric ways in which we are expected to categorize, describe, and protect endangered collections.

Professor Chanda’s interlocutors had stories to tell about each of the text secretively preserved under the thatched roof of their homes. Copying the texts was perceived as a religious action of piety. There were emotions and sentiments related to the texts. These elements of the ethnographic life of a text and its cultural history often do not make it into ancillary metadata. Digital archives and their conventional norms are always the result of difficult selections, filters and omissions. They will not tell us how the Sylheti Nagri texts are chanted, or how they were allowed to be recited only in the night, before the morning call for prayers. Metadata can and should inform us about a cultural ‘item’ – its dimensions, conditions, and the details that we can access only by touching and smelling a text, rather than merely observing it – but it is only useful as long as it is short and concise, and therefore incapable of containing the emotional and performative life of a cultural text as ‘event’.

People sitting in a circle discussing issues

In a roundtable discussion, Professor Samantak Das, Professor Parthasarathi Bhaumik, and myself (Dr. Carola Erika Lorea) discussed archival ethics and the ethics of digital archives.  Who creates digital archives and for whom? Whose knowledge is included and represented? Whose knowledge is excluded? Is everybody equally able to access this mode of knowledge representation In this session we discussed the ethical implications, the power inequalities and the issues of ownership and accessibility involved in the creation of digital archives of vernacular culture in India, a country with 500 million internet users, but with only 3% households enabled to enjoy a computer connected to the internet, and with a massive digital divide in terms of gender and urban-rural gap (I discussed some of these issues in an earlier article for Cafe Dissensus).

Gentleman presenting the slide in the background is on the topic of sound archives

Professor Amlan Das Gupta (EAP132 and EAP274), Biswadeep Chakrabarty, and Pradip Deb conducted the sessions dedicated to the creation of sound archives, the history of sound recording, and the steps in the digitisation of music (SCTR hosts one of the largest digital archives of Indian classical music in the world ). Sound archives follow the conventions outlined in the handbook of the International Association of Sound and Video Archivists (IASA), but in practice, archiving is the art of making things work with the available means (an operation that has vernacular terms like jugaar in Hindi or ‘arrangiarsi’ in Italian) in face of the frequent occurrence of incompatibility and the fast obsolescence of carriers.

Analog mediums such as gramophone records, magnetic tape, wax cylinders, Teficords, and wire recorders are playing their swan song., While digital mediums for sound recording have progressed and changed incredibly fast in the past century; they are ‘philosophically different’ from born-digital material and present a particular set of challenges and problems in the field of preservation and digitisation. Digital storing mediums such as floppy discs, compact discs, mini discs, and  VCDs, are even more prone to vulnerability and instability, especially in relation to obsolescence. What clearly emerged in this session is that digital formats and materials are the most unstable, with an expected longevity of merely five years.

Diversify and update emerged as some fundamental keywords of a responsible project of music digitisation. Diversify storage formats and venues, creating as many copies as possible and storing them in different places, clouds, and hard drives. Updating and shifting the digital archive to newer platforms and formats can be an expensive and technically challenging process: a refreshment policy should be built in all archival projects if we want them to reach the next generations. Archives, as Prof. Amlan Das Gupta reminded us, are for the future; they are producing memories. They are not the heroic deed of an individual, but rather, the result of a collaborative project, involving the skills and labour of several people, institutions, collectors, researchers, and their expected audience of users.

Hands-on and gloves-on sessions: Handling fragile material and simulating remote capture

A long bench with people either side all wearing gloves and working on bound items

Close up of a woman handling a bound volume

Afternoon sessions and the whole fourth day of the training workshop have been  dedicated to practical sessions, aimed to build the required skills to handling fragile material and conduct an EAP project, from shooting high-quality images to creating metadata. What to digitise? How to digitise? The SCTR research fellows Amritesh Biswas, Purbasha Auddy and Moumita Haldar have generously shared their past experience with handling fragile collections and digitising endangered texts in order to prepare us for the upcoming fieldwork trips in rural West Bengal, where we will be digitising old note-books of Baul songs.

Example of a portable digitisation studio with tripod, laptop and lighting

The formation of a digital humanist engaged in preservation projects involves much more than technical skills. It requires a sort of character transformation, and the adoption of a certain set of values. Whereas the collector is moved by desire and personal taste, the archivist is supposed to be neutral: s/he protects the entire collection, without being moved by subjective preference. Even though we have post-editing technologies to make images and music sound ‘better’ or ‘clearer’, none of these modifications are part of an archivist’s work: collections are to be immortalized and faithfully represented for what they are. At the same time, the protocols of digital archives require us to always use the best available technology and the highest precision at our disposal, to record or capture our material. For images of manuscripts, we want to be able to zoom in and visualize every single detail: for scripts like Bengali, Farsi, and Arabic, for example, we should keep in mind that every single dot is important, for a minuscule dot can totally change the meaning of a word. This necessity dictates the rules of photography during remote capture: set your ISO at a maximum of 200, as this reduces noise; ensure that every part of the page including the edges are in focus, and avoid mixing lights to keep color and exposure consistent, more technical details are abundantly discussed in the EAP guidelines for Remote Capture.

Some of the mottoes of digitising projects in rural fieldwork sites, which might  seem obvious,, are often threatened by the temptation to opt for something more convenient in the immediate context of fieldwork. Schedule your digitisation following the norm the worst comes first: give priority to the most endangered and vulnerable items. Start by sorting out the objects: name them, clean them, create a specific folder and the required sub-folders for each. Segregate dangerous documents infested by pests. Think about the best available methods for preventive conservation (for example, wrap your items in acid-free paper or use silica gel bags for de-humidifying). Treat your equipment carefully during remote capture: for example, turn off the Live Mode in your camera utility software, unless you need to check your live image capture, or it will damage the longevity of your DSLR camera. Produce metadata as soon as you have the original item in hand, or you will miss a lot of precious information. Become familiar with your file management and naming practices (keep in mind that the last component of a file name is always numerical). Most importantly, demystify romantic notions about the creation of digital archives!

One of the best lines during the training workshop taught us that archive sounds cool, digitise sounds lovely, but actually it involves a lot of tedious issues and a lot of labour. As a matter of fact, we faced numerous compatibility issues during the post-process, which are a typical and unavoidable struggle. As soon as we brought our new Canon 6D to the School of Cultural Texts and Records to test it during the workshop, we realized that the laptops used at SCTR, which were perfectly fine for the previous EAP projects with their Canon 5D, were not equipped with the softwares or the versions needed to work with a Canon 6D. We needed to update a plethora of things - starting from the Canon EOS Utility -, figure out a different application to open and check the images, and reinstall a new version of Adobe Lightroom CC to process and export the images in TIFF. It is advisable to resolve these issues at the very beginning of the project, instead of finding oneself stuck with serious compatibility issues in a remote countryside!

Thanking once again the Endangered Archives Programme and the School for Cultural Texts and Records for this insightful experience, we encourage the readers to stay tuned for the upcoming posts on the next steps of our project EAP1247 on the Songs of the Old Madmen.  

Jay Guru!

Carola Lorea, National University of Singapore and Siddhartha Gomez (EAP1247)

 

 

 

 

 

 

03 December 2019

Locating and Sampling Arabic and Arabic-Malayalam Manuscripts in Kerala, South India

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This initiative to locate and survey endangered archives in Kerala was awarded as a pilot project grant by the Endangered Archive Programme in May 2019. Besides surveying and contacting public and private archive owners, we intend to sample approximately 200 pages of hand-written manuscripts and rare lithographs. Some of the manuscripts constitute the written, visual facet of a living tradition of performance for religious and devotional practices. We therefore intend to sample also video and audio records of performances according to the Malabar style. Many of the texts constitute, besides devotional poetry, a rich intellectual legacy of jurisprudence, historiography, and various sciences such as medicine and even architecture. Even at this initial stage all of us involved feel as if standing on the threshold of a hidden garden full of treasures. We have already found textual material of great significance for early modern Malabar history to take us beyond the colonial archives that have been, so far, the primarily source for Kerala and Malabar historiography. We expect to find material that will reorient Malabar Māppiḷa literature and culture in the broader framework of the Arabic Cosmopolis, a term coined by Ronit Ricci in her seminal work, Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis in South and Southeast Asia (Ronit Ricci was grant holder for EAP609).

The history of Malabar and the Malayalam-speaking region is the history of contacts and networks across Asia from Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and East Africa to Southeast Asia. Pre-modern Malabar–the southwestern coastline of India including modern Kerala and Karnataka–was a central maritime junction between the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean for several centuries. Semitic and Indic religions interacted, enriching each other with various types of knowledge and cross-cultural exchanges resulting in the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity that is typical of the coastal communities across the Indian Ocean Rim. The contacts between Arabic and Malayalam are documented since the twelfth century in inscriptions and texts related to Indian Ocean trade. Some examples are Arabic inscriptions found on the West Coast of India commemorating the establishment of mosques by Muslim seafarers from as early as the twelfth century.

Our survey started in the area of Madayi, near Mount Hili (Ezhimala) that was the signifier of land for seafarers over history. Madayi is the site of a twelfth-century mosque, one of the earliest mosques in the region (the medieval structure was demolished in the 1940s giving way to a modern construction). We visited the home of Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi for surveying his impressive collection of manuscripts and rare lithographs in anticipation of a major digitization project in the future. We plan to return in late December for sampling digital copies of a small and beautifully written Burdah text, a hand-written Qur’an, and a majmūʿa manuscript that includes an extraordinary maulid composition named after Taj al-Dīn al-Hindī al-Malabārī, the famous Malayali king believed to have converted to Islam during the time of the Prophet. The story of the conversion is told in detail in the Arabic text called Qiṣṣat Shakarvatī Farmāz (1580 TAQ) and is retold in Malayalam in the Kēralōlpatti (ca. 1700, probably based on earlier oral traditions), in Portuguese in the Notisias dos Judeos de Cochim (1686), and in Syriac documents (1721 and 1871) translated by A. Mingana in 1926 (The Early Spread of Christianity in Kerala). Clearly, the archive faithfully kept by Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi in Mattool might produce textual material of significance for a wide variety of communities in Malabar and beyond.

Three people sitting in someone's home. They are looking at a manuscript and are in deep discussion.

Surveying manuscripts in Mattool; from left to right: Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi, Abdullah Anchillath, and Ophira Gamliel (photo by Dileepan Kunhimangalam)

So far, the brief survey at Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi’s archive focused on Arabic hand-written manuscripts and lithographs. Among the texts surveyed so far are fiqh (law), naḥw (grammar), qiṣṣa (story) and tārīkh (history), and qaṣīda (poetry or kavita). Some manuscripts are surprisingly broad in their regional and transregional affiliation, such as an “imitation” (takhmīs) poem composed by Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī (d. 1264) and “imitated” by Ṣadaqallāh al-Qāhirī of Kayalpaṭṭaṇam (Tamil Nadu) in 1885. There are also several majmūʿas (collections) with commentaries on Islamic literature and devotional poetry. As we were surveying the manuscripts, conversations ensued on interesting topics in relation to texts from the story of the late Sufi neighbor who mastered a jinn, to the history of the Araykkal rulers, to the medicinal expertise of Musa Musaliyār, the previous owner of one of the manuscripts, in curing mental illnesses.

Meanwhile, the news about the pilot project travelled far and wide and we were contacted by several local scholars interested in collaborating on surveying and locating more Arabic and Arabic Malayalam manuscript archives–private and public–around Calicut. By the time we complete the initial survey and the digitisation of a few selected texts, we hope to have more archive owners included in an area project, as well as team members, as clearly there is a lot of work on surveying, digitising, and installing preservation equipment in each archive. We thus started negotiating further surveys with C H Mappila Heritage Library in Calicut, with the team headed by Abdurahman Mangad, and with Dr Ajmal Mueen, whose family traces their lineage to the famous Makhdums of Ponnani.

Dr. Ajmal Mueen standing by some trees.

Dr. Ajmal Mueen (photo: Ophira Gamliel)

Bookcase piled with manuscripts and books.

The manuscript collection at Dr Ajmal Mueen’s home in Mukkam, near Calicut (photo: Ophira Gamliel)

Two men sit by a cupboard and drawers full of manuscripts. They are looking at one of them.

Abdullah Anchillath (right) and Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi (middle) examining a manuscript in November 2019 (photo: Ophira Gamliel)

Currently our team consists of Mr Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi, Mr Abdullah Anchillath, Dr Dinesan Vadakkiniyil, Mr Dileepan Kunhimangalam, and Mr Yusuf Ali for the survey in Mattool and Madayi, and Prof Shamshad Hussain K. T. and Dr Saeko Yazaki in Kondotty and Parappanangady, where we plan to video record performance of Arabic Malayalam poems and recitations of Qur’an according to the Malabari style. Mr Shiju Alex will join us for the digitisation phase of the project during the third week of December in Kondotty. Shiju, an expert on digitisation of old and rare printed books in Malayalam (see here), will guide us in the delicate art of digitization. We plan to digitise 200 pages at least during those days for evaluating the volume of the work for a major (or area) project. Finally, there is also a “shadow” team member, Dr Ines Weinrich, who advises on the Arabic manuscripts and their significance from afar, in Germany, where she is currently working on a project on maulid literature over the ages and across regions, including Kerala.

A group of people, five women four of which are looking behind them. The one man is taking a photograph.

Prof Shamshad Hussain K. T. in Kondotty during the Nercha festival, in February 2010 (photo: Ophira Gamliel)

Written by Dr Ophira Gamliel grant holder for EAP1228

04 November 2019

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

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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.

Two single manuscript pages placed one above the other. Each text has rows of Sanskrit.

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.

Two long manuscript pages. One placed above the other. Each page has two holes roughly splitting the text into three sections. These holes are used to tie the manuscripts together.

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.

A single manuscript page. Gold writing with a colourful depiction of the Buddha in the centre.

Illustrated examples of  the Pañcarakṣā with writing in gold

A single manuscript page. Gold writing with a colourful depiction of the Buddha in the centre

Two pages of a manuscript a significant corner of each page is missing an burn marks are clearly visible.

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.