Last year I began a project to create an inventory and digital sample of manuscripts from the Rāmamālā Library in Comilla, Bangladesh, sponsored by the British Library’s Endangered Archive Programme and co-sponsored by Penn Libraries’ Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies (SIMS). My team and I created an inventory of close to 9,000 manuscript titles, assessed the condition of the manuscripts, and took a small digital sample (about 1%) that will all find their way into open access websites at the Endangered Archive Programme, the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts, OPenn, and Penn in Hand. The initial stage of data collection was completed between January and May, 2014, and currently I have returned to Bangladesh to work with local scholars to complete the catalog record and initiate the final stages of data absorption into the British Library and Penn systems.
My current work involves cataloging manuscripts using a remote desktop link-up to my work computer in 501 (Special Collections Processing Center) and working closely with Sanskrit and Bangla specialist Himadri Debnath of Dhaka University, examining digital images of the 1% of Rāmamālā manuscripts in depth, and deriving essential details of content and provenance. Much of this information is unique to the Comilla district such as names of scribes, names of owners of family libraries, lists of local deities, dates from as early as the mid-18th century, lists of local medicinal materials, ritual diagrams, scribal “doodles”, and much more.
A copy of the Rucistava (RLMS 1523, 1883-1892 A.D.) offers up a number of interesting features. The work is a relatively well known Sanskrit hymn (stava) taken from the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa and dedicated to the god of creation Prajāpati. In practice, it also serves as a kind of protective amulet when recited, helping to insulate the reciter’s children and grandchildren from misfortune and to improve their health and well being. The work contains many regional spellings that are different from “normative” Sanskrit. For instance, “ya” often becomes “ja” (e.g., yadi becomes jadi), consonants like “ca” are often doubled, becoming “cca”, along with particular spellings of words drawn from regional and/or pre-modern usage (e.g., duḥkha becomes duḥkṣa, grantha becomes grahanta, gardabha becomes gardhava).
Finally, what I found particularly interesting was the manner in which the manuscript ends: with a curse. At the end of the colophon (folio 3v), it warns of misfortune, in the form of therimorphic transformation, that will befall anyone who attempts to steal the manuscript. The colophon reads:
duḥkṣena likhitaṃ grahantaṃ jaḥ ccaure niyate jadi sūkari tasya mā ca pitā tasya ca gardhavaḥ //
“If whatever thief steals this manuscript, written with such effort, then his mother turns into a pig and his father a donkey.”
My first, rather humorous, response to reading this proclamation, which serves as a kind of preventative curse, was to reflect upon the nature of digital manuscripts: Does the curse apply to the dissemination of photographic images of the manuscript as electronic files? Would the Creative Commons Agreement protect me from the prophetic force of the incantation? I concluded, and reassured the superstitious side of my brain, that my parents are resting firm in their anthropomorphic bodies yet still: the intent and power of the curse likely applies to the physical manuscript, which remains safely in Comilla, even as digital copies can be consulted from anywhere in the world.
These types of curses or what might better be called “predictive insults” are sometimes found on manuscripts, although this was one of the first I have encountered with respect to the theft of manuscripts. I did find one parallel curse cited from a manuscript in neighboring Tripura, a district of India situated about 5 km away from Comilla. I have, however, encountered them more often on Indic land-grant inscriptions (often written on copper plates), where such curses typically are in reference to those who breach the terms of the grant rather than in reference to the physical theft of the copper-plate or other inscriptions describing the grant itself (Fleming 2010, 238). While the intent of Caitanyacaranadeva Śarmman’s stern colophon may not have been to write copyright, the scribe’s words certainly do resonate with contemporary concepts of intellectual property and ownership and help remind us how precious these manuscripts and their contents were to those producing them, just as they are to us who now help preserve them.