THE Rāmamālā Library, located in Comilla and supported by the Mahesh Trust, contains two small rooms of paper and palm-leaf manuscriptsin Sanskrit and Bangla. This extensive collection contains a wealth of written and illustrated materials preserving the cultural heritage and history of Bangladesh. At present, however, the manuscripts are exposed to direct sunlight, insects and rats, and some have been damaged by water from its leaking roof. Many have been wrapped in old newspapers since the 1930s, harmful to them. Even scholars recognizing the importance of the collection do not know what exactly is contained within the thousands of dust-laden manuscripts piled upon the shelves.
With the aim of conserving the library and its manuscripts, a team of Bengali and foreign scholars recently inaugurated the Rāmamālā Library Project. This international project involves scholars from the Bangla Academy, University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago and University of Toronto. The project is centered, however, in Comilla. It aims to preserve the library itself, working together with the library staff, local officials, students and scholars, as well as with local workforce (carpenters, etc.). We have no intention of removing manuscripts from the library; we have been working, rather, to protect the manuscripts and make improvements to their environment. Our efforts began on January 16, but ten days later we were ordered to stop by the Bangladesh government. We have since met with the Secretary of Culture, Ranjit Kumar Biswas, and he was positive of our efforts, but we still await the government's official “nod” before work resumes. This article is intended to clarify the project's objectives as well as give the background about the history and condition of this important collection.
The Rāmamālā Library Project is a small pilot project sponsored by the British Library's Endangered Archive Programme, with additional support from the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Religious Studies and the Schoenberg Center for Manuscript Studies. The core team consists of myself, Saymon Zakaria, Thibaut d'Hubert and Ayesha Irani. I am a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where I serve as cataloguer of Indic manuscripts at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Saymon Zakaria from the Bangla Academy is a well-known folklorist and writer from Bangladesh. We have begun working together in Comilla and started to arrange repairs, examine and inventory manuscripts. We organized a workshop with Prof. Dulal Bhaumik of Dhaka University, who trained students from Dhaka University and the Rāmamālā hostel to help. Prof. d'Hubert from the University of Chicago and Prof. Irani from the University of Toronto will travel to Bangladesh later this year, if the project is allowed to continue.
Manuscripts in the Rāmamālā Library were collected in the early twentieth century by the founder of the Mahesh Charitable Trust, Maheścandra Bhattācārya, and its founding librarian, Śrī Rāsmohan Cakravartī. Many of the manuscripts were donated by local families who gave up their household libraries on the eve of the British colonial period for the sake of preserving them. The known contents of the library include works of literature, poetics, philosophy, grammar, medicine, astrology and theatre.
Despite early efforts by various scholars, the full scope of the collection remains unknown. Our project will fix this. No manuscript will ever leave the library and we will improve their current condition through reinforced shelving, curtains to reduce direct sunlight, and protection from water and crumbling ceilings, which have already damaged a number of manuscripts. Even in our first days of work, we succeeded in protecting some of the most endangered materials by removing them from newspaper, disentangling piles, and wrapping manuscripts in cotton. If allowed to continue, we will fully assess their condition and the care needed for their continued survival. The grant from the Endangered Archive Programme supports this assessment and lays the groundwork for future funding. In order to do this we needto create a complete inventory of contents and provide a small sample of digitized manuscripts (about 3% of the collection) to help promote their significance.
Too many archives and libraries have been lost to weather, disasters and the ravages of time. Conservation is critical to prevent further damage. I have recently visited the manuscript section of the Dhaka University Library and seen the positive results of a sustained conservation effort. My hope is that we could one day have a similar set-up at the Rāmamālā Library. Digital preservation is also promising, since it allows for multiple copies to be kept in different places—in a manner more protected from the elements than print or microfilm. Dhaka University Library's microfilm of part of the Rāmamālā collection, for instance, is unreadable due to deterioration. We will create a small sample of digitized manuscripts from Rāmamālā, and copies would be held by the Mahesh Charitable Trust and other institutions of Bangladesh, as well as by the British Library and the University of Pennsylvania. All images would be placed under a Creative Commons License agreement (similar to Wikipedia images) that gives the Mahesh Charitable Trust full copyright jurisdiction over the images. Other institutions would promote the collection through their own publicly-accessible digital archives. The Creative Commons License agreement also ensures that the Mahesh Charitable Trust and Rāmamālā Library would be credited in every digital manuscript preserved, promoting the Library and the Trust. Digitization will draw international attention to the collection and to the rich cultural and intellectual heritage of Bangladesh.
It is urgent to begin the initial steps to preserve these unique works. We seek only the well-being of the Rāmamālā Library and its manuscripts. We hope that the Government of Bangladesh and Ministry of Culture will see fit to allow us to continue our efforts to help preserve, maintain and promote one of Bangladesh's premier collections of manuscripts, which lay fast-rotting on the shelves. Many works will be lost entirely within a few years if nothing is done.
Benjamin Fleming is Visiting Scholar, Department of Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania