Adyar Library & Research Centre, Chennai


A review of the Adyar Library and Research Centre (Chennai, India).

The Adyar Library and Research Centre, housed within the idyllic grounds of the Theosophical Society in Chennai’s Adyar neighborhood, is a gem of a research institute, both for its scenic landscape as well as its extensive archival holdings. Stealing a glance at the lotus pond in the enclosed courtyard or the acres of flowering foliage surrounding the library, one can easily forget the bustle of one of India’s largest metropolises. Fortunately, the Adyar Library’s holdings make a trip well worth the effort. For the Sanskritist in particular, Adyar is not to be missed on a research tour of India, with its extensive collection of palm-leaf and paper manuscripts, as well as a collection of rare printed material scarcely rivaled by any institution on the Indian subcontinent.

Ed.Note: Elaine Fisher has also written a review of the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library in Chennai, India.

A smooth arrival at the library rarely presents any major logistical problems, as most rickshaw drivers in Chennai know how to find the Theosophical Society – although it may take a few tries to flag down a driver who recognizes it by its English name. When traveling by rickshaw, be sure to ask for the library entrance to the Theosophical Society; the security guard at the gate will point you in the right direction if you have arrived at the wrong entrance. For those familiar with the city, the library is reachable on foot from the Adyar Signal intersection, serviced by numerous bus routes. If you wish to remain on site for the entire day, you will need to bring a lunch or travel on foot or by rickshaw to the Adyar Signal area, as few facilities for shopping or dining are available in the library’s immediate vicinity.

Library hours of operation are 9:00 am to 4:30 pm, Tuesday through Sunday. Occasional unexpected closures occur, however, due the unique calendar of holidays observed by the Theosophical Society, which are posted on the library’s website (although not current for this calendar year). If possible, it pays to arrive promptly at 9:00 am, as staff members are most available to fill requests for manuscripts immediately following the library’s opening. Manuscripts may be requested only between 9:00 am and 11:00 am, and between 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm daily. To access the library for the first time, you will be required to purchase a membership for the price of Rs 250. A further annual fee of Rs 50 for reader privileges, or Rs 100 for borrower privileges for those residing in Chennai, will be assessed at the beginning of each calendar year. Do save your membership card for return visits to India to avoid paying for a new membership.

For those wishing to view or photograph Sanskrit manuscripts on site, manuscript catalogues must be consulted prior to arriving at the library. Astonishingly, it is often impossible to locate a copy of the library’s own catalogues within the library’s holdings. Please note, moreover, that recording the Adyar catalogue numbers for Sanskrit manuscripts from the New Catalogus Catalogorum (NCC) is not sufficient. You will need, rather, an accession number for each individual manuscript you wish to consult. These may be found only in the Adyar library’s own catalogues, and staff will generally be unable to procure these numbers if you do not provide them. If you have not recorded the accession numbers of manuscripts you wish to view at your home institution, the Adyar catalogues may currently be accessed within Chennai itself at the Sanskrit Department at the University of Madras, where an exhaustive collection of manuscript catalogues has been assembled in service of the New Catalogus Catalogorum project. Other neighboring institutions, such as the library of the Institut français de Pondichéry, also maintain holdings of Adyar catalogues. Collections do include a number of manuscripts in languages besides Sanskrit, but holdings are rather limited compared to neighboring libraries.

Once you have accessed the manuscript you wish to consult, you may take unlimited photographs at a price of Rs 10 per exposure. Staff will attend to you while photographing to record the total number of exposures taken, and are generally quite willing to facilitate you in any way possible. Upon request, they will assist in moving a table outside into the courtyard adjacent to the circulation desk to maximize access to natural sunlight, which is at a premium within the walls of the library reading room. Palm-leaf and paper manuscripts housed at Adyar are generally kept in impeccable condition, well above par as compared to neighboring archives. Damaged manuscripts are treated with a great degree of solicitousness, however, and photographing these documents may present logistical difficulties as a result. Staff will generally not permit you to handle these manuscripts independently, or to remove the rope that binds manuscript leaves together. Approach these situations with patience and caution and you should be able to obtain usable photographs of most manuscripts.

Beyond the manuscript collection itself, Adyar’s holdings of rare books are one of the lesser-known treasures of Sanskrit archival material. The library maintains numerous early editions of popular Sanskrit works, dating as early as the mid-nineteenth century, as well as works not generally known by contemporary scholars to have been published at all. Many of these volumes are printed in Grantha or Telugu scripts, released before Devanagari was adopted as the standard medium for Sanskrit editions across the subcontinent. No online catalogue has yet been launched to publicize the extent of the holdings; one must instead consult the classic card catalogues on site, located inside of the library’s reading room. Early printings of Tamil or other vernacular language works are generally not available here; one would be better served by visiting the Roja Muthiah Research Library on the nearby CPT Campus to locate rare Tamil publications. Publications of the Adyar Library and Research Centre, including the journal Brahmavidyā, are available for purchase nearby within the grounds of the Theological Society.

Most printed books may be photocopied quite expediently at a rate of Rs 2 per page. Those designated as rare publications generally cannot be photocopied, and must instead be photographed as per palm-leaf manuscripts if you wish to obtain reproductions. As of 2011, library protocol permitted the photocopying of the numerous paper transcripts of palm leaf manuscripts prepared by on-site scholars throughout the twentieth century. This policy has witnessed substantial flux over the years, however; one can save quite a bit of money on reproductions of these transcripts, or “TR volumes,” as they are called, during periods when library regulations permit their photocopying. For any photocopying request, staff will ask you to complete a worksheet detailing the exact pages required, and will complete your order in one to two business days.

Generally speaking, the experience of conducting research at the Adyar Library a delight, as staff are generally well organized, courteous, and more than willing to facilitate the research efforts of foreign scholars. For the archival experience as well as the manuscripts the library maintains, Adyar will certainly repay any Sanskritist who visits the facilities.

Elaine Fisher
Columbia University

Image: Adyar Library Reading Room [library website]


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