Conservation of manuscripts

Anil Paba
World Heritage Week is celebrated every year from November 19th to 25th by the United Nations Educational and Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The main objective of celebrating “World heritage Week” is to raise awareness and educate the general public about the importance of their own traditions, cultures and importance of saving and preserving them.

World Heritage Week

India possesses a rich and enormous cultural heritage of manuscripts since the ancient period. India probably has the largest number of manuscripts in the world. Manuscripts collection are scattered in several places allover India like Archives, Universities, Temples, Mathas, Mosques, Churches, Jain Bhandaras ,etc., particularly, all the major libraries and museums of India have a fairly large collection of manuscripts and other documents in their possession. In the absence of any kind of thorough and intensive census it is difficult to guess the total number of manuscripts preserved therein. Mostly, these manuscripts and documents are either on palm-leaf and birch-bark. As an example the National Museum has a total collection of twelve thousand manuscripts and one thousand documents which is quite a problem to maintain. Mysore Oriental Library is a world-renowned with a collection of more than 70,000 manuscripts and 40,000 rare books. One of them is Arthashastra. The Arthashastra, an ancient account of state craft and military strategy, written by Koutilya (Chanakya) dates back to 3rd century BCE. Rampur Raza Library has a remarkable collection of 17000 manuscripts including 175 illustrated ones, 205 palm-leaf manuscripts, 5000 miniature paintings, 3000 specimen of Islamic calligraphy and 75000 old rare printed books . Khuda Bakhsh Library, Patna has over 7000 manuscripts in Arabic obtained from distant corner of the Islamic worlds including parts of Europe and same is the case with other Indian Libraries and Museums. The decipherment of old scripts, their translation, microfilming, Xeroxing or photography etc need technical knowledge. Unfortunately, very few persons are available now a day. Similar is the case with technical assistance regarding conservation and preservation of this material. There are only few laboratories in our country for this purpose. No doubt, the National Museum has a conservation laboratory of its own since the year 1957 and the conservation laboratories of the Rampur Raza Library is one of the best laboratory in India in the field of conservation and restoration of manuscripts and other art objects. For conservation of unattended manuscripts of Ladakh and North-East, The National Mission for Manuscripts has set up special field laboratories in both the region in collaboration with the National Research Laboratory for conservation of Cultural Property (NRLC), Lucknow. Even though the manuscripts have specific problems which need to be adequately solved not on theoretical basis but in practice also.
Most of the manuscripts which are housed in libraries and museums are, as usual either hand written or illustrated. Some of these are on palm -leaf, whereas a bulk of them is on paper. We are facing today a complex problem since the materials used are complex. Naturally their deterioration also differs and accordingly methods used cannot be generalized. Whereas, some of the problems of the manuscripts and documents in libraries and museums have been duly solved yet a few of them still need to be investigated in detail.
The preservation of manuscripts and documents and their protection against damage occurs due to climatic conditions. Insects, fire and human beings are particularly difficult problems. The problems of fire and human beings are mostly common to all countries but humidity and high temperature, dust, insects and climate problems which create particular difficulties for librarians differ from country to country. A part from climatic reasons, there are variety of insects species such as cockroaches (Dictyoptera), beetles (Coleoptera), silverfish (Thansanura) , Book-lics (Psocoptera), termites (Isoptera)s and other paper destroying insects generally thrive and quickly multiply in warm climates. Fire, damp, dust, light, heat and polluted air are another destructive factors. Excess of light and heat, especially in a tropical country like ours is highly damaging for old and rare materials. Such materials are likely to decay rapidly if continuously exposed to direct light and hot winds.
To overcome all these problems, manuscripts should be kept in comparatively dry atmosphere, and if possible the temperature of the rooms where manuscripts are kept should be controlled artificially to keep it cool or the manuscripts have been kept in steel and wooden almirah after wrapping them in acid free paper. Intensity of illumination on the manuscripts in storage area is adequate. Neptahelene bricks are kept as insect repellent on the shelves of the almirah. For circulation of fresh air and removal of stagnant air pockets, air circulators, fans and exhaust fan are used. To achieve optimum relative humidity, silica gel can also be used. As an obvious protection against fire no combustible material should be used where Manuscripts are kept particularly, in libraries and building should be erected at a safe distance from others. As an additional precaution, automatic fire extinguishing apparatus must be installed in sufficient number to meet an emergency. The vacuum cleaner, electric fumigation chamber and other electrical accessories have made manual work of cleaning and dusting more easy and efficient. Unfortunately 99% of the libraries cannot afford to purchase these vacuum cleaners for their use. Air conditioning can solve many problems of preservation of old and rare materials. For purchase of all these equipments funds are needed. The existing government facilities are not sufficient and not easily available. Suitable steps must be taken in this respect immediately.
A more effective and recently evolved process of manuscripts or old documents is by lamination as it has been found to be the most satisfactory and economical method of repairing brittle and damaged manuscripts. Is lamination safe for birch-bark and for palm leaf? The traditional Indian technique of wrapping the manuscripts in a square piece of coloured cloth, usually red or yellow, has much value to recommend it. This practice not only saves manuscripts from physical damage due to handling, but also protects them from dust, insects and light. It is much better if the custodians adopt the latest scientific techniques of preservation rather than traditional methods which are not quite adequate.
Archival documents and manuscripts are the most precious cultural heritage bequeathed to us. It is our moral duty to find a solution to the several problems that confront us so that we can save this priceless material for the posterity. For this what we need is impassionate zeal, missionary spirit and sincere and honest effort to meet the problems. Only then we can usher in a new era in the sphere of conservation of documents and manuscripts.
(The author is a heritage volunteer associated with INTACH)