Know Your City: Inside Pune’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, a Treasure Chest of Jain Manuscripts

In the heart of Pune city, inside the picturesque campus of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), lie thousands of ancient manuscripts that are crucial to an ongoing global project recording the living history of Jainism.

Carefully assembled by early Indology scholars, the collection of over 5,000 Jain manuscripts is an important link in the ongoing Jaina Prosopography Project undertaken by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

Dr Amruta Natu, Assistant Curator, BORI, and project supervisor, says the story of how the manuscripts found their way to BORI is interesting. In 1866, the then British government set up a special task force to collect and catalog manuscripts from each of its provinces. In the then Bombay province, which also included Gujarat, scholars like Jorge Buhler, Peter Peterson, R. G. Bhandarkar and others traveled throughout the presidency collecting manuscripts for preservation.

It was not an easy task, says Dr Natu, citing various memoirs that reveal how scholars were denied entry to many places. “They had to come back several times to convince people that the manuscripts would not be taken out of the country. In fact, it was only after the government at the time made a public domain announcement that the manuscripts were donated to the cause,” she said.

Buhler in his zeal not only traveled to the nooks and crannies of the Bombay Presidency but also traveled to many princely states of Rajasthan. It was during one of these trips that a hitherto unknown major poetic work was discovered at Bhandara in Jaisalmer. “Buhler and his companions copied this work in six days and later many references in the poem were proven to be historically accurate,” Dr. Natu said. “He had traveled to Kashmir in 1875 to collect manuscripts there.”

Jain manuscripts are among more than 17,000 manuscripts that were collected and originally stored at Elphinstone College in Mumbai. When the humid city air was found to be detrimental to the manuscripts, they were transferred to Deccan College, Pune, in 1875–77. Once the BORI was created, this valuable collection was moved there to be preserved and studied. The Shri Firodia Trust supports the collection financially.

An ancient religion that emphasizes non-violence as one of its cardinal tenets, Jainism was once confused with an offshoot of Buddhism by early Indologists. It was the seminal works of Hermann Jecobi and Buhler that proved to the world that Lord Mahavir’s Jainism was a distinct religion with an ancient and rigorous system of beliefs and philosophy.

A closer look at the Jivajivabhigamasutra

Jain manuscripts, Dr. Natu explained, were mainly stored in what are known as ‘Jnana Bhandaras’ or stores of knowledge. These were chaired by officials who acted as curators. These “bhandaras” were treasures for historians. Particularly important to students of history were its colophons, statements at the end of a book that give information about the author, where the manuscript was composed, the lineage of the monk or royal patron, the end date of the project, etc

One of the oldest manuscripts in BORI’s collection dates back to 906 CE and is titled ‘Upamitibhavaprapancha Katha’, an elaborate allegorical work believed to be the first of its kind in Indian literature. It is a narrative made up of a series of birth stories, that is, the hero of all the stories is the same person in different births.

Most of the manuscripts deal with the Agamas, Jain canonical works, accompanied by their commentaries. Prakrit and Sanskrit manuscripts exist in the collection. Some of the manuscripts are beautifully decorated with miniature art. The collection has its own share of palm leaf manuscripts as well as those written on handmade paper.

It is this collection that is now an important part of the ongoing Jaina Prosopography project at the University of London. The genesis of this work, which aims to gather more information about Jain beggars, texts and patrons, lies in the pioneering work of researcher Johanness Klatt, assistant librarian at the University of Berlin. While cataloging the library’s Jain collection, Klatt began collecting data on the individuals and lineages mentioned in the manuscripts. His work lay in the dust for centuries before being published by Professor Peter Flugel.

The two folios of the Jivajivabhigamasutra

The need arose for more systematic studies of the manuscripts and so the Jaina Prosopography project was conceived. The project aims to trace historical data on a range of individuals using references drawn from the manuscripts – from monks and nuns to royal patrons and lay worshippers.

Dr. Natu’s team at BORI is mining the extensive collection of manuscripts for the project while another team of five researchers are cataloging inscriptions on Gujarat icons and images. To date, the team has collected information on around 10,000 personalities and stumbled upon many interesting snippets, like names of cults that no longer exist.

Using interdisciplinary tools and studies, the project aims to gain insights into beggars, their lineages, their royal patrons, as well as the monk movement – ​​an ambitious project of which BORI is proud to be a part.

About Harold Hartman

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