New Light on Old Problems: Multi-Spectral Imaging of Sanskrit Manuscripts

Earlier this year, the Society was delighted to play host to an innovative project looking at some of our Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts from the Hodgson Collection. Most of the manuscripts in this collection were acquired in Nepal by Brian Houghton Hodgson (1801?-1894) between the 1820s-1840s, and some of them are very old. Indeed, our oldest manuscript is from this collection, dating from almost a thousand years ago.

We regularly welcome scholars from all over the world to examine our manuscripts, but what made this project different was that it entailed the use of multi-spectral imaging. Multi-spectral imaging is a non-invasive method of photography where you use an enhanced light spectrum to reveal obscured or hidden text. This means it is a particularly popular way of examining manuscripts that are hard to read, or which show evidence of deleted or obscured text.

The imaging set up with one of its light settings

The project was initiated by scholars at the University of Hamburg, Prof. Harunaga Isaacson and Dr. Martin Delhey, and the main focus of the project was RAS Hodgson 35, the ‘Vanaratna Codex’ (which is listed on our online catalogue with the title Nāmasaṃgītiṭippanī = Amṛtakaṇikā). Dr Delhey spent a week with us in May along with Dr Ira Rabin, Dr Olivier Bonnerot, and Ivan Shevchuk from the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures at the University of Hamburg. Because there were so many people involved, and so much heavy equipment, the project required a great deal of preparation and planning. We were lucky that the imaging team has a huge amount of experience carrying out MSI projects on manuscripts in collections all over the world. Over the course of a week at the RAS they carried out a great deal of imaging work and materials analysis, in the hope of making invisible text appear under different spectra of light.

Meet the team: Martin Delhey, Ira Rabin, Olivier Bonnerot, and Ivan Shevchuk



Once here, the team also found time to examine a second manuscript, RAS Hodgson 34 (you can find it in our catalogue as Nāmasaṃgītiṭīkā = Gūḍhapadā). We are thrilled that the team has shared striking images of these manuscripts with us, which they agreed we could share with our readers on the blog. We look forward to the publication of their research.

A manuscript leaf under natural light with obscured and hard-to-read text




Using a different spectrum of light can make text much easier to read

As you can see, this project is an inspirational example of the way that emerging technologies can ‘shed light’ on old problems!