Friday, 2 August 2013

Not Orville and Wilbur

MS Add.1688, f. 19v (detail). Representation of the goddess Mayūrī from an 11th-century manuscript of the Pañcarakṣā, bought by Daniel Wright in 1873-6.
The manuscript has been catalogued and digitised for the Sanskrit Manuscripts Project and is available at 

In the world in general mention of the Wright Brothers brings to mind the pioneers of controlled powered manned flight, Orville and Wilbur Wright. In the Sanskrit world, the Wright Brothers suggest instead the beginnings of one of the most important Sanskrit manuscript collections in the world.

Cambridge University Library’s South Asian collections grew in the 1870s when one brother Daniel Wright, surgeon to the British Residency at Kathmandu, Nepal from 1866 to 1876, collected a large number of Sanskrit manuscripts on the suggestion of his brother in Cambridge, William Wright, Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic from 1870. Their father had worked for the East India Company and William was born in Nepal. William Wright donated many Islamic manuscripts to the Library and arranged the purchase of a significant Syriac collection.

The first Sanskrit manuscripts were commissioned copies, transcripts of early manuscripts. It was only as the project progressed that it became clear that buying manuscripts of an early date that would be taken out of use when modern copies were made was the way forward. Many purchases were made through Pandit Gunanand of the Residency, with whom Daniel Wright wrote a history of Nepal (Cambridge, 1877).

We have a price list in Daniel Wright’s hand (classmark ULIB 7/1/4) showing that MS Add. 1585–1677 were purchased for £429/11/-. The famous illustrated Perfection of Wisdom (MS Add. 1643) dated 1015 cost £25! The same list shows that Daniel Wright was also sending unbound Tibetan block-printed books and Tibetan manuscripts.

South Asian manuscripts in Cambridge University Library comprise more than one thousand documents in Sanskrit and other South Asian languages, written in various scripts on different materials, such as birch-bark, palm-leaf and paper. Many have wooden covers, some lavishly illustrated. On some there are traces of offerings made in religious ceremonies: rice, sandalwood dust and red and yellow powders. The Buddhist manuscripts were catalogued by Cecil Bendall in the late 19th century (Cambridge, 1883). What Daniel Wright collected is much wider than the Buddhist core of the collection and includes works of great rarity in different genres and on a host of subjects. Among them are some of the oldest extant manuscripts from South Asia, dating from the last centuries of the first millennium CE, collected in Nepal, the only region of the Indian subcontinent where the climate allows their survival for more than a few centuries.

This collection is now being worked on by the Sanskrit Manuscripts Project which began in November 2011, funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant. The manuscripts will be catalogued and many will be digitised. Results will be collected in a multimedia archive and the records will be searchable online through the Library’s online digital library: Many are already available.

This in turn is sparking a collaborative effort with Sanskritists in the UK and abroad. Research findings will be presented through academic journals and other publications, as well as in international workshops focusing on some of the religious and intellectual traditions that have played a key role in South Asian civilisation.

For more information, see the Sanskrit Manuscripts Project webpage, which has details of current work and associated events.

Craig Jamieson
South Asian, Tibetan and Southeast Asian Department, Cambridge University Library

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