A review of Government Oriental Manuscripts Library, Chennai, India.
Boasting one of the largest holdings of Sanskrit manuscripts on the Indian subcontinent, the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library (GOML) in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, is an invaluable resource for Sanskritists of all specializations and scholars of the South Indian vernaculars. Unfortunately, many potential visitors have been dissuaded by the reputation the archive has garnered over the years for its bureaucracy and somewhat “improvisational” management techniques. Nevertheless, I would offer my extensive experience at the GOML, while conducting dissertation research in 2010-11, as something of a dissenting voice. With a healthy dose of patience and finesse, the GOML can provide a wealth of unstudied and truly accessible manuscript material that stands to benefit the field of Indology for many years to come—if enough researchers can be encouraged to take advantage of its resources.
Ed.Note: Elaine Fisher has also written a review of the Adyar Library and Research Centre in Chennai, India.
My dissertation work concerns the intellectual and literary sphere of early modern South India, as articulated both in Sanskrit and regional languages of South India. For this project, as with any project concerning the textual history of South India, the GOML offers a wealth of resources. Its holdings amount to nearly 50,000 Sanskrit manuscripts and significant holdings in Tamil, as well as an assortment of documents in Telugu, Marathi, Kannada, Malayalam, Urdu, Persian, and so forth. Most Sanskrit documents are South Indian palm leaf manuscript written in South Indian scripts (Grantha, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada). The remainder includes North Indian Devanagari paper manuscripts and modern paper transcripts (in a variety of scripts) of selected palm leaf manuscripts. These transcripts allow for rapid consultation of numerous obscure works and, in some cases, preserve readings from palm leaves that have been damaged beyond repair in the intervening decades.
The GOML is conveniently located at the Chepauk campus (as opposed to the Marina campus) of the University of Madras. When entering through the front gates on Walaja Road, circle around the left side of the campus past the outdoor food court until the path swerves right through a small parking lot; follow this path and turn left into a short corridor of academic buildings, until at the end of this corridor at your right you’ll find the archive with the name printed over the door. The reading room is up the stairs and to the right. The archive is open Sunday through Thursday from approximately 9:30-10 am to 5 pm.
The accession process is tailored towards the archive’s Sanskrit holdings, and requesting manuscripts in Sanskrit will undoubtedly prove the most fruitful and fulfilling dimension of your experience. The office to the rear of the reading room bears the title “Pundit’s Room,” a relic from a time when the majority of the staff were classically trained scholars, called pandits. Now the staff working there are primarily trained to locate manuscripts from within the Sanskrit collections alone. Be prepared to provide the staff with the manuscript numbers of the documents you wish to consult (beginning with either an D or an R for the Descriptive and Triennial Catalogues) and whether the manuscripts are palm leaf or paper. If your reference is drawn from the New Catalogus Catalogorum, I recommend checking the alphabetical register in advance to confirm these details before requesting (these alphabetical registers can be conveniently downloaded from archive.org along with a number of other GOML catalogues). You’ll be required to write a standard form letter to the curator requesting permission to consult the manuscripts; be prepared to supplement this with a letter of introduction from someone at your local university. After this, the pandits will attempt to retrieve your manuscript. Cross your fingers, as my experience suggests that Sanskrit manuscripts will be permanently “misplaced” around twenty percent of the time.
On occasion, staff may become frustrated or perplexed at scholars who request multiple manuscripts from different disciplines, or works in multiple languages. Should you encounter these difficulties, a short vacation from the archive will usually result in a more positive reception when you return. Nevertheless, the staff at the GOML are generally quite enthusiastic about their jobs and the collection, and will remain so provided you do not wear out your welcome.
While most Sanskrit manuscripts will be retrieved and presented to you in fairly short order (within the hour at least, not counting for lunch breaks), vernacular manuscripts are another story entirely. You may be informed you’ll need to wait or return another day to consult with a single employee proficient in the cataloguing system for that language, and in some cases these documents may eventually prove unattainable.
My experience attempting to access Marathi documents, from the MacKenzie Collection no less, should paint an accurate picture of this state of affairs. The staff member did not know about the Marathi holdings, which seem not to have been accessed in decades, but I discovered that the handlist that correlates the catalogue numbers with the shelf numbers had been lost, rendering the entire collection of manuscripts impossible to locate. As a consolation, a true rarity in Indian archives, the pandits permitted me to dig through the cabinets of vernacular manuscripts in the hopes that I might somehow find what I was looking for. As it turned out, the entire binder of paper manuscripts I hoped to access, including the earliest documentary records of the Madurai Minaksi temple, seems to be among items permanently “misplaced.”
And yet, these obstacles have proven relatively minor in comparison with some of those at the GOML’s sister archives across the subcontinent. In this respect, I cannot overstate the scholar-friendly nature of the GOML’s bureaucracy: All manuscripts are open for photographing free of charge, and are retrieved promptly with minimal bureaucratic hassle. As policies tend to vacillate periodically with changes in management, I sincerely hope that researchers will make the most of the archive’s permissive stance to preserve the content of its manuscripts for future generations. Indeed, young scholars from across South India have already started to do so. On any given day, one is quite likely to encounter a graduate student or young scholar preparing theses and critical editions based on manuscript evidence never before treated in Indological scholarship, locally or abroad.
South Asian Studies
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Image: Marathi Modi script document, volume M 30.