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Scribal Traditions Catalogued

Kumkum Roy

By B.N. Goswamy
Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 248, price not stated.


The Word is Sacred is a catalogue for an exhibition on Indian manuscripts that was part of the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, where India was the guest of honour. The exhibition itself was organized through collaboration amongst a number of institutions and individuals, under the aegis of the National Mission for Manuscripts. Professor B.N. Goswamy, who coordinated the entire exercise, provides a lucid, accessible introduction to both the exhibition and the more complicated histories of manuscript traditions in the subcontinent. This includes a discussion on the range of writing materials, the ways in which they were prepared, techniques of writing, and the variety of instruments used for the purpose.   While this documentation is valuable, there are explanatory devices that are invoked in a somewhat unproblematic fashion. We read, for instance, that: The coming of Islam into India, and the real threat posed by it to all early traditions, whether Hindu, Jain or Buddhist—to which it was opposed, gave further fillip to the process: more and more texts, and in larger and larger numbers, began to be committed to palm leaf … (p.51).   This glosses over the complex relationships amongst these traditions—the fact that Jaina and Buddhist traditions were often viewed as oppositional from the perspective of Vaishnavism and Shaivism, and that rulers who professed Islam also patronized projects of translation of Brahmanical texts into Persian.   Visually, the catalogue is lavish and sensuous. It is evident that the wide range of illustrations—of manuscripts, inscriptions, writing equipment, and representations of the process of writing have been carefully chosen with a view to providing insights into the rich traditions of writing. The collection begins with a terracotta figurine, apparently one of several, showing a boy writing (c. early centuries CE, from Sugh, Haryana), offering an intriguing entry point into the complexities of traditions of transmission. Also interesting is a rare, late (17th-18th century) copper plate in Tamil, which carries a prayer on one side, and representations of deities and craftspersons and their tools on the other, providing a glimpse of the interface between literate sacred traditions and non-elite groups.   Particularly fascinating is the section on tools used by scribes—including metal styli to incise letters on palm leaves, sometimes decorated with ornate handles, ink pots in a range of shapes and sizes, and elaborately decorated pen cases, reminders that writing was no ordinary matter, and transporting the reader ...

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