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Saturday, October 27, 2001

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A monumental heritage

SARASWATHI B.T.

The charm of Mysore lies in its quiet atmosphere, far from the maddening haste of metropolitan cities. The majestic old buildings and heritage sites take you on a historical journey.

One such site is the Oriental Research Institute (ORI). It was started in 1891 on instructions from H. H. Sri Chamaraja Wodeyar, the then Maharaja of Mysore State. It was earlier called the Oriental Library and its aim was to collect, edit and publish rare manuscripts in both Sanskrit and Kannada. It was the first public library in Mysore city for research and editing of manuscripts. The prime focus was on Indology (the study of India and its people).

The institute publishes an annual journal called Mysore Orientalist. Its most famous publications include Kautilya's Arthashastra edited by Dr. R. Shamashastri, (which brought international fame to the institute)and Sri Tattvanidhi, a compilation of Slokas by H. H. Krishna Raja Wodeyar III.

Looking at the ORI library was like turning the clock back to the wealth of knowledge that Indian civilisation produced. The library features rare collections such as the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics by James Hastings, A Vedic Concordance by Bloomfield and Critical editions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Seeing the manuscripts on palm leaves maintained in a serial order was a rare treat to the eyes. The composition of manuscripts is that they are basically palm leaves cut to a standard size of 15 cm by 3.5 cm. The brittle palm leaf is softened sometimes by scrubbing a liquid-paste made of ragi and is later used for writing purposes. The ORI houses 33,000 such manuscripts.

In the ORI there is a strong correlation between antiquity and modernity. Manuscripts are organic materials that run the risk of decay and are prone to be destroyed by silver fish. Thus there is an immediate need to preserve and restore them for future generations. Lemon grass oil when applied on manuscripts. acts like a pesticide. It also injects natural fluidity into the brittle palm leaves and also accelerates the drying process so that the text is not lost.

A conventional method followed to preserve manuscripts was to convert them into microfilm. But the problem was that a "micro film reader" equipment was necessary to study the text that these microfilms contained. Another disadvantage with micro films was that the text could not be manipulated.

Hence the concern for digitisation of these manuscripts. Now through scanning, the image of the manuscripts is put on to the computer. Once on the computer, there are several software that can be used to put together the disjointed pieces of manuscripts and to fill in the missing text. In this manner the manuscripts are restored and enhanced giving them a final form. These can be converted into CDs and can also be put on the Internet.

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