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South Asian Manuscript Collection

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Origins and Strengths of a Distinct Collection

  • Penn Libraries holds more than 3,000 manuscripts from South Asia, making it one of the largest collections of its kind in the Americas. Predominantly Indic in provenance, the manuscripts are chiefly Sanskrit works written in Devanāgarī script. Though generally informed by traditional Hindu learning, the collection nevertheless remains thematically comprehensive and contains significant Buddhist and Jain texts. (Note: this collection is often referred to as the Collection of Indic Manuscripts.)

  • Manuscript Overview

    Clockwise from top right: Sāmudrika, guide for a palm reader; painted wood covering for Buddhist Kammavācā; four illustrations from a Mahābhārata; an illuminated border from a Mahābhārata; cover page of Prauḍhamanoramā; two leaves from Aśvāyurveda.      

  • History
  • Though the Library had acquired a few Indic manuscripts in the early 20th century, the bulk of Penn's collection was purchased between 1930 and 1935 under the direction of Professor W. Norman Brown. Having begun conversations regarding manuscript acquisition with Provost Josiah Penniman in 1927, Brown was granted $1000 (worth more than $15,000 in 2020) in donations to begin building a collection that could serve broadly in both instruction and research. Narayana Shastri Khiste, Brown's former teacher and the manuscript curator at the Sarasvati Bhavan in Benares, negotiated large purchases from learned families in the region. India's Antiquities Act of 1972 would render the export of such acquisitions nearly impossible today. 

    The numbers assigned to the majority of these manuscripts in the 1930s are retained today as item numbers 1-2876 within UPenn Ms. Coll. 390: Collection of Indic Manuscripts, ca. 1505-1850. Additional manuscripts acquired since the between the 1930s and 2010 by gift or purchase are largely cataloged with numbers greater than 2876. From 2010 onwards, newly acquired indic manuscripts as well as some re-cataloged older acquisitions have been given the shelfmark "Ms. Indic" - this new series now contains over 50 manuscripts and will continue to grow.

  • Kālakācaryakatha

    A page from the Kālakācaryakatha, an important text for the Śvetāmbara Jains. It was the first illustrated manuscript Brown had seen; he purchased it in 1922 for $7 (roughly $100 today) while in Benares, and subsequently gifted it to Penn upon his death.

  • Overview
  • Norman Brown succeeded in building a broad collection that represents nearly all genres of traditional learning in South Asia – religious texts, courtly literature, poetics, philosophy, grammar, law, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. More than 95% of the holdings are composed in Sanskrit, though Prakrit/Pali, Hindi, Marathi, and Bangla are well represented, and more than a dozen other languages are included. 

  • Diagrams

    Various diagrams speak to a diversity of themes, including astrology, esoteric religion, medicine, and poetry. Clockwise from top right: Pātasāha ke Nāma Ūpariramalapṛśnaṃ; Pravacanasāroddhārasūtra; Kāmaratna; Camatkāracintāmaṇi; Citrabandhakāvya (Rāmamālā Library 888); & Rasaratna.

  • Though spanning from the 16th century into the 20th, the majority of the collection is from the 18th and 19th centuries. A number of the manuscripts are composed on palm leaf, however most are on paper, with some examples retaining the pothi format. A significant number of the manuscripts contain illustration, much of it vividly colored and some illuminated with gold leaf. 

  • Pothi

    These examples demonstrate how paper manuscripts (bottom row) mimicked the pothi style of palm leaf (top), with unnecessary voids and elongated sheets. Top: Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā; bottom left: Tithitattva; bottom right: Uttarajjhayaṇa.

  • Digitization
  • In 2014, Penn Libraries was awarded a grant from the Division of Preservation and Access of the National Endowment for the Humanities, intended for digitization and new cataloging of the South Asian manuscripts. Nearly the entire collection is now openly available online at Penn in Hand. Additionally, Penn has collaborated on digitization projects with archives in South Asia, most notably the Rāmamālā Library in Comilla, Bangladesh. Nearly one hundred high resolution facsimiles from that project are now included in the digital collection. Our goal is to continue broadening manuscript access using this collaborative model.  

  • Horoscope Scroll

    Complete digitization of an 11.3 meter Horoscope Roll, including planets, celestial beings, and zodiacal signs.


    Information for Researchers

    Manuscripts are cataloged individually in the library's online catalog, Franklin (browse records here, sorted by date, oldest to newest). Manuscripts may be requested and consulted in the Kislak Center Reading Room.

    Digital facsimiles are available for nearly all South Asian manuscripts. Links to digital facsimiles are provided within catalog records, and digital images may also be viewed through the Penn in Hand or OPenn digital repositories.

  • Bibliography and References
  • The Indic manuscripts acquired by Norman Brown in the first major period of collecting are listed in H.I. Poleman, A Census of Indic Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1938).

    More than 95% of Penn's Indic manuscripts were re-catalogued between 2014 and 2017 by Benjamin Fleming for the purposes of digitization. For an account of this process see Fleming, "Digitizing the University of Pennsylvania's Indic Manuscripts," Manuscript Studies 3.2 (Fall 2018), 470-486.

    For further information about the collection see:

    David Nelson, "The Penniman-Gribbel Collection of Sanskrit Manuscripts" in The Penn Library Collections at 250: From Franklin to the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Library, 2000), 203-217.

    Stephan Levitt, "The Library’s Indic Manuscript Collection," University of Pennsylvania Library Chronicle 40, no. 2 (1976),151-162. [This article provides information on Ms. Coll. 390 items 2877 to 2997 which were acquired by the university not through Brown's original project]

    Stephan Levitt, "New manuscripts from the collection of W. Norman Brown added to the Indic manuscript collection of the Library of the University of Pennsylvania" Manuscripta Orientalia. Vol. 7, no. 3 (Sept. 2001).

    Benjamin Fleming, "The Materiality of South Asian Manuscripts from the University of Pennsylvania MS. coll. 390 and the Rāmamālā Library in Bangladesh.” Manuscript Studies 1.1: 28-51.

    For information on some of the Indic manuscripts at the Penn Museum see Stephan Levitt, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Indic and Greater Indic Manuscripts in the Collection of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1980). 

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