South Asian Collection
(Book of Worship).
Maharashtra, nineteenth or
early twentieth century.
South Asia Team
The foundation of today’s South Asian Collection was laid in 1904 with the purchase of the library of German Indologist Dr. Albrecht Weber (1825-1901). Given the size of the Weber collection alongside other previously acquired items, in 1938 the Library inaugurated the Indic Project to manage and service its collection of materials from and about India. A trip to South Asia just before the United States entered the Second World War resulted in massive additional acquisitions. Various post-WW2 acquisition projects, particularly after the establishment of the Library’s field offices in New Delhi (1962) and Karachi (1965), have significantly expanded the South Asian Collection by focusing on publications in modern vernacular languages.
By the end of 2015, the South Asian Collection has grown to more than 300,000 monographs in approximately one hundred languages of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. There are more than 1,600 different journals with 67,000 issues for active and inactive titles. More than 18,000 reels of microfilm and 68,000 titles in microfiche are available. Another notable aspect is the large and ever-growing number of electronic resources and databases, such as the British Online Archives, India: Raj and Empire, and the South Asia Archive. Overall, this collection provides broad research coverage in most fields and disciplines, particularly in the areas of vernacular languages and literatures, modern history and politics, vernacular newspapers and periodicals, and government publications.
With regard to rare and special items, the South Asian Collection includes what may be the oldest intact book from South Asia in existence: a birch bark scroll in Gandhari, a language used in what is now northern Pakistan, listing the names of successive Buddhas. This scroll could be as old as 200 BCE. Due to its fragility, the scroll is preserved between glass plates in one of the Library’s vaults. It is not brought out for viewing. From the period of the British Raj, there is a collection of about 60,000 legal and commercial documents from various princely states in west and central India. Most of these documents are from the early twentieth century. The Library also has the only known complete run of the first periodical in a South Asian language: the Tamil magazine Palavita ñānapotakam (Madras, 1831-1840). This was published by the American Mission Press. The South Asian Collection has a number of their other publications, including Bibles, textbooks on secular subjects, and a large number of tracts on religion and social reform.
There are about 1,000 manuscripts in various languages. The most, by far, are in Sanskrit, followed in number by Urdu. Among the many notable items in the manuscript collection are two long scrolls of the life of Krishna in miniscule script. Another on the same theme contains numerous illustrations incised by a stylus on palm leaves. The “Crosby fragments” are paper manuscript leaves from before 1100 CE in Buddhist Sanskrit from Khotan, an abandoned oasis in western China. The collection’s name derives from Oscar Terry Crosby, the American businessman who later became Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. Crosby purchased the fragments during a journey to Central Asia in the early twentieth century. This collection’s microfilm is also available on request in the Asian Reading Room.