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A treasure trove

Print edition : Mar 11, 2005 T+T-
At the U.V. Swaminatha Iyer Library, in Chennai.-N. BALAJI

At the U.V. Swaminatha Iyer Library, in Chennai.-N. BALAJI

The hundreds of palm leaf manuscripts gathered by U.V. Swaminatha Iyer from nooks and corners of Tamil Nadu have been stored in the Mahamahopadhyaya Dr. U.V. Swaminatha Iyer Library, at Besant Nagar in Chennai. Functioning since 1943, a year after Swaminatha Iyer died, the library is a fitting memorial to this relentless researcher. Besides the palm leaf manuscripts, many of them yet to be transcribed, it has a number of books used by the scholar, transcribed literary works in his own handwriting, the notes he prepared for the various publications, copies of books published by him, and so on.

About 3,000 palm leaf manuscripts are categorised into three sections: transcribed and published manuscripts, transcribed but unpublished works, manuscripts of about 450 literary works that are yet to be transcribed. Many of the unused manuscripts relate to the Ayurvedic and Siddha systems of medicine. The library has about 27,000 books, including 190 published by it. Its curator M.V. Pasupathi said that the library possessed a large number of works that one could not find elsewhere. Eighteen Puranas in Tamil, are among the preserved books.

Sixty-one palm leaf manuscripts relating to Sangam literature are available in the library. It is also credited with being the only library in the world with the palm leaf manuscripts relating to Silappathikaram and Thirukkural.

Dr. V.C. Kulandai Swamy, former Vice-Chancellor of Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi, and the chairperson of the library's Governing Council, said that the most appropriate tribute that could be paid to Swaminatha Iyer was to complete the challenging work he undertook to unearth the literary treasures in the form of palm leaf manuscripts. He said it was the vast corpus of Sangam literature that earned for Tamil the status of a classical language, and there were more Sangam works yet to be printed and published. He said that there was still scope for research on the various aspects of Sangam literature.

According to Kulandai Swamy, the Swaminatha Iyer Library was a " great treasure", particularly for scholars doing research in Tamil. The material available would be of immense value to further research the books already published. For instance, he said, the Pondicherry Centre of Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, a French research organisation, has undertaken a project to compare all the available versions of a literary work, identify the version that could be the closest to the original and print that version. This would be of great help to researchers, who otherwise would have to choose between many versions of the same work.

Kulandai Swamy also said that considering the fragile nature of palm leaf manuscripts there was an urgent need to preserve them using modern technology and also store the material in compact discs for posterity. He said that on an average 100 research scholars made use of the library every year. He said the Governing Council had sent a proposal to the State government on the need to modernise the library's infrastructure. "We want to make a humble beginning and then proceed further," Kulandai Swamy said.