The Society recently embarked on a project to digitize its collection of palm leaf manuscripts, in a partnership with The Internet Archive sponsored by the Kahle/Austin Foundation.
The Society’s historic collections include several hundred palm leaf manuscripts, in several languages, originating from across South and South-East Asia. While most are from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a few are much older, with our oldest palm leaf manuscript dating back to the 12th or 13th century AD. We are delighted that this important collection is being digitized, and there are already 50 manuscripts viewable in their entirety online at the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/royalasiaticsociety
Our largest collection of palm leaf manuscripts is the Whish Collection, which comprises around 200 manuscripts collected by Charles Matthew Whish (1794-1833) in south India in the early nineteenth century. Whish was fascinated by Vedic philosophy and classical literature, the study of grammar and philology, and the history of mathematics and astronomy, and the collection reflects his interests (for more information see blog posts by Kathy Lazenbatt here and here). After his premature death at the age of 38, his collection came into the possession of his brother, J.L. Whish, who donated it to the Royal Asiatic Society in 1836. Around 50 of the Whish manuscripts have already been completely digitized, and we look forward to the rest of the collection being made available online over the coming months.
Digitization of collections is particularly relevant to the Society, considering that many of our holdings originate from Asia and are meaningful for people across Asia, and around the world, who may never have the opportunity to visit us in person. We know that there is significant research interest in the Whish Collection manuscripts, and we hope that making them available online will make it easier for scholars to study them: particularly those based in India and Kerala, where many of the manuscripts come from. Most of the manuscripts are written in Sanskrit language and Grantha script, though there are also some in Malayalam and other languages. The Whish Collection constitutes challenging, specialist, material, produced in a learned, intellectually sophisticated culture – the environment which inspired Charles Whish. We hope that by making the manuscripts more accessible, it will help to enable and inspire new research and engagement with these texts.
Once the Whish manuscripts are all digitized, we hope to be able to digitize palm leaf manuscripts from other RAS collections, including the Tod Collection, Hodgson Collection, and the large number of Pali manuscripts from our Burmese collection. These manuscripts will gradually become available on the Internet Archive during the course of the project, so keep an eye on the Royal Asiatic Society’s collections page at the Internet Archive to be kept up-to-date with new additions.
The Society launched its own Digital Library earlier this year, which is available at http://royalasiaticcollections.org/. We look forward to making the digitized palm leaf manuscripts available on our own site in due course.
We would like to thank the wonderful staff of the Internet Archive, and the Kahle/Austin Foundation, for their enthusiasm, generosity, and commitment in making this important venture possible. The Society is also indebted to Kathy Lazenbatt, who created the detailed metadata which describes the large and complex Whish Collection.