Sunday, 19 October 2014

Kollam in Cambridge: a ninth century Indian document and its nineteenth century rediscovery

In pre-modern South Asia, important legal documents were inscribed onto copper sheets; known as copper plate grants, these are one of the main sources for medieval Indian history. The Kollam plates record endowments and privileges awarded in 849 CE to an Eastern (Syrian) Christian church at the port of the same name in Kerala and are among the most fascinating medieval grant documents from South Asia.

Europeans had known of the existence of the Kollam plates since the sixteenth century, but for a few centuries their whereabouts remained unknown, until they were rediscovered in the Cochin Fort in 1806. It is in this context that Claudius Buchanan, a Cambridge alumnus and Vice-Provost of Fort William College in Calcutta, commissioned a set of copper printing plates to produce prints of what he termed “the Christian tablets of Malabar”. In the pre-photographic era prints were one of the main means of disseminating epigraphic records or other historical documents. While the Kollam plates have recently been studied within an Indian Ocean context, in the nineteenth century missionaries and scholars like Buchanan sought in them evidence for the history of Indian Christianity and the potential for expanded missionary activity in the sub-continent.

Buchanan’s are the earliest reproductions of this important document and sets of prints were circulated to Indian ‘pandits’ and “learned societies in Asia and Europe” in an effort to decipher the main text of the grant.

You can view these incredible copper plates in a free exhibition, Kollam in Cambridge, in the entrance hall of Cambridge University Library until 8th November 2014, where Buchanan's plates are complemented by informative banners produced by De Montfort University and the British Museum.

More information about the copper plates from Kollam, and their value to historians of early and medieval Indian history, is available on the project website: .   The project was led by De Montfort University in collaboration with The British Museum and was funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (grant number AH/I025948/1).

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