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Asian Collections: Library of Congress, An Illustrated Guide

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Manuscript Book on History of Castes in India.
Lt. Col. James Skinner, "Manuscript Book on History of Castes in India." Son of a Scottish military adventurer and a woman of the Indian martial nobility, James Skinner (1778-1841) became a famous soldier with his private regiment Skinner's Horse, which still continues in the Indian Army. He was a fluent writer in Persian, the prestige language of India in his day, and composed his "Kitab-i tasrih al-aqvam" (History of the Origin and Distinguishing Marks of the Different Castes of India), given by James S. Collins of Pennsylvania to the Rosenwald Collection. The castes presented here are Khattris, nobles who converted from Hinduism to Islam and who function as lawyers and judges. This particular Khattri seems comfortable and benevolent, and is blessed with a son or student fiercely attentive to his dictation. The style is of the Company School, paintings made by local artists combining Mogul traditions with a minute realism to record people and natural history for staff members of the British East India Company which was taking over India. (Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division)

The title of a slim, nineteenth century volume in the Library's collection of Indian books almost shouts out to be noticed--Was the Ramayana Copied from Homer? by Kashinath Trimbak Telang, Senior Fellow at Elphinstone College and Advocate at H.M.'s High Court in Bombay. The yellowing pages contain Telang's indignant but scholarly rebuttal to the German Indologist, Dr. Albrecht Weber, whom he accused of suggesting that the Indian epic, the Ramayana, "is nothing more than a Buddhist saga dovetailed to the Homeric story of the Trojan War." The book, inscribed "To Professor Weber, with the author's compliments," is part of Weber's Indological library, the first major purchase of books about the Indian subcontinent by the Library of Congress in 1904. Weber's terse, handwritten comments in the margins, not always complimentary, are perhaps as interesting as the text itself.

The possibility of classical Greek influences on Indian culture was one of the great issues that captivated nineteenth-century European scholars of India. Western interest in India's past started with the work of the Jesuits and was carried forward by Europeans working for the East India Company in the eighteenth century. The founding of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784 marked the beginning of a sustained scholarly effort to understand India's complex civilization and languages. The first President of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Sir William Jones, or "Oriental Jones" as he was sometimes called, spurred European interest in India when he found that Sanskrit was related to Latin and Greek. Today, the chief languages of Europe, including English, and the languages of the Indian subcontinent are all classified as part of the Indo-European family of languages. Translations of classical Indian works by French and German scholars in the nineteenth century influenced the founding of the German Romantic movement in the nineteenth century as well as the Transcendentalist movement in the United States.

The purchase of the Weber collection of over four thousand books and pamphlets in 1904 laid the foundation for the Library's extensive holdings on southern Asia. The Weber collection includes texts in Sanskrit of India's sacred Hindu works--the Vedas, Brahmanas, and Upanisads--as well as the stories of the Puranas and the great epics in the Mahabharata and the Ramayaa. The Weber collection also contains material in other Indian languages; Indian works on music, science, history, geography, and grammar; and most of the writings on India by nineteenth-century European scholars. In addition, there are a number of Weber's notebooks with his handwritten transcriptions of rare Indian texts for his pioneering critical editions.

A Gurkha Piper.
A Gurkha Piper
. This illustration, taken from Maj. Donovan Jackson's India's Army, a 1942 handbook with the histories of the British colonial regiments in India, shows a pipe major from the 8th Gurkha Rifles. Soon after the British began recruiting Gurkhas in 1814, these hill people from Nepal earned a reputation, which remains with them today, as being tough professional soldiers. Headquartered in Assam, the 8th Regiment saw service in many campaigns, including Burma during the nineteenth century, Tibet during the British invasion of 1905, and France and the Middle East during World War I. After independence, the 8th Gurkhas became part of India's new army. (Southern Asian Collection, Asian Division)

It was not until 1938, however, that the Library began to develop the southern Asian collection systematically, thanks to a grant from the Carnegie Corporation. A Sanskritist with a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Horace Poleman, was brought into the Library to head "Project F--Development of Indic Studies," which in 1942 became a permanent section of what is today's Asian Division. During a field trip to India and Southeast Asia in 1938, Poleman reinforced and expanded the Library's relationships with universities, museums, and government publishers. He obtained microfilms of rare manuscripts, as well as pamphlets, recordings of Indian music, and movies of traditional ceremonies of the Malabar coast. The music and movies can be found in the Library's Music Division and the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division.

Besides being the home of Hinduism, South Asia is also the birthplace of Buddhism. (The Buddha was born in what is today part of southern Nepal.) The Theravada Buddhist tradition spread to Ceylon and from there to mainland Southeast Asia, where it largely replaced earlier Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist sects. The Mahayana tradition moved northward into Tibet and along the Silk Road to China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.

The southern Asian collection holds some unique remnants of Buddhism's journey along remote settlements on the southern fringe of Sinkiang's Taklamakan Desert. The "Crosby Khotan fragments" contain parts of Buddhist texts as well as illustrations of the Buddha and bodhisattvas. During a 1903 journey to Central Asia, Oscar Terry Crosby, an American who later became Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, purchased this bundle of manuscripts in the oasis town of Khotan, famous for its jade and carpets. Following in the footsteps of the explorers Sven Hedin and Sir Aurel Stein, Crosby found local Khotan businessmen well aware of the demand for Silk Road antiquities in the West and not above manufacturing them to satisfy the demand. One of the Library's Khotan fragments is, in fact, a fake done in a script invented by a local entrepreneur.

Krishna Subdues Kaliya (Hindi text)

Krishna Subdues Kaliya. One of Krishna's many heroic deeds, as recorded in the Bhagavatapurana, was the taming of the many-headed cobra Kaliya, who was poisoning the Yamuna River. This late Mogul miniature is from a Hindi version of the text (left), probably 18th century, given by the art collector and dealer Kirkor Minassian. Krishna is shown first arriving on the scene in a chariot and being greeted by a local man. In a second view, having tamed the cobra, Krishna appears to the man's wonder in his real essence as the god Vishnu, with four arms, seated peacefully on the beast. (Southern Asian Collection, Asian Division)

Krishna Subdues Kaliya (Mogul miniature illustration)

A number of magnificent early books reflecting the West's fascination with India can be found in the Library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division. These include such beautiful works as the Daniell brothers' massive volumes of aquatints of Indian views and the earliest work on Indian flora, Hendrik van Reede tot Drakestein's Hortus Indicus Malabaricus of 1686. The William M. Carpenter collection in the Prints and Photographs Division also holds valuable early twentieth-century photos of India.

Seventeenth-Century Portuguese Manuscript Map of Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
Seventeenth-Century Portuguese Manuscript Map of Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
. This manuscript map is found in a volume of drawings of cities, ports, and other sites made during the brief Portuguese occupation of Ceylon from 1597 to 1658. The work is thought to have been done around 1650. (Geography and Map Division)

Vinustavarajastotra. This tiny illustration, 1.5 inches square, to the "Vinustavaraja," a hymn to Vishnu found in the great Indian epic the Mahabharata, shows the archer Arjuna, his great-uncle and foster father Bhishma, and his comrade Krishna, who is manifested as the god Vishnu of whom he was an incarnation. Arjuna was obliged by the warrior code to kill his foster father in battle. Mortally wounded, Bhishma delayed his death for several months by supernatural powers, while lying pierced by arrows. Refreshed by a stream of water that Arjuna drew from the earth with an arrow, he spent the interim teaching Arjuna the duties of kingship and religion. Finally, after reciting this hymn, he merged into Vishnu. Nineteenth-century paper manuscript, from North India, possibly Kangra. (Southern Asian Collection, Asian Division)

Jaina Kalpasutra
"Jaina Kalpasutra." The mother of Mahavira, the Jaina religion's savior, sees a series of dreams telling her she is to bear a truly great man. In gouache and gold paint, this 1452 manuscript is from Gujarat in western India. This scripture from the Kalpasutra tells the story of Mahavira and previous Jinas, "victors," who came to the world to teach it the right path. (Southern Asian Collection, Asian Division)

Queen Nagamati asks her new parrot who is more beautiful.
Queen Nagamati rashly asks her new parrot who is more beautiful, she or his former owner Princess Padmavati of Sri Lanka. Naturally, she gets a displeasing answer. In his poetic romance Padmavata, the sixteenth-century Muslim mystic poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi, employed the two-centuries-old historical story of Padmavati, the consort of the Rana of Chitor, a Hindu king defeated by the truths of Sufism (Muslim mysticism). This manuscript of the poem dates from 1750 and was created in North India. (Southern Asian Collection, Asian Division)

Nepalese Manuscript.
Nepalese Manuscript.
This manuscript from Nepal, in Newari and Sanskrit, dating from around 1900, contains a number of miscellaneous prayers and spells with illustrations on a long strip of stiff paper folded into a compact book. In addition to being a basis for the writing and painting, the yellow background may also be an insect repellent containing arsenic. Represented here are deities of the planets, who are propitiated to prevent the bad things their position in a horoscorpe may threaten. In the Indian system, there are nine planets, the seven visible ones plus the two "nodes" of the moon. Lunar and solar eclipses occur at the points of the moon's orbit. (Southern Asian Collection, Asian Division)

HOME  Preface  Introduction  The World of Asian Books  Chinese Beginnings  Tales from the Yunnan Woods  The Diplomat and the Dalai Lama  From the Steppes of Central Asia  The Japanese World  Korean Classics  Homer on the Ganges  White Whales and Bugis Book  Barangays, Friars, and "The Mild Sway of Justice"  The Theravada Tradition  The Southern Mandarins  Modern Asia  East Asia  Inner Asia  South Asia  Southeast Asia and the Pacific  Epilog  Publications on the Asian Collections

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( November 15, 2010 )
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