The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, August 13, 2000
Time Off

Rare manuscripts
By Manohar Malgonkar

A LIGHTWEIGHT news item on BBC’s radio bulletin one recent morning made me realise the value some people set on ancient manuscripts. It seemed that a notebook kept by Archimedes had been bought by some madly rich American collector for the sort of price that crazed hijackers demand as ransom money: $ 11 million.

But Archimedes? Did he not, as our schoolbooks told us, live in the second century? How could any book written 1800 years ago be still around? Most books become too fragile to handle when they’re barely a hundred years old. I myself have some books published in the early 19th century which I rarely take out because even the process of turning a page tends to fragment the paper. Well, this particular notebook of Archimedes must have pages of some indestructible material which they can no longer make, because not only are they still in the sort of state of preservation that they can be read, but it seems that, because some of them were cleaned up and reused by some one else, restoration experts are busy trying to erase the over-written pages to make the original text decipherable.

Who was this Archimedes, anyhow? Perhaps nowadays we could call him a nerd. He lived in a small city-state called Syracuse on the eastern shore of Sicily. He was an advisor to the king as a sort of military engineer, whose job was to erect fortifications around the city which would withstand the missiles of pregunpowder wars. It would seem that the King also sought his advice on other matters. One day the King called Archimedes up and said something like this:


Letters for sale
July 30, 2000

Retreat from Naulakha
July 16, 2000
The land of goats
July 2, 2000
What a tangled web !
June 25, 2000
Rivers for sale
June 4, 2000
Knowing when to stop
May 14, 2000
The lingering memory
May 7, 2000

"I’ve told the court jeweller to make for me a crown of golden leaves. We all know that the man is a crook: how will we ever know if the gold he has used is not adulterated?"

Archimedes did not have the answer, and some days later, still pondering over the problem, he decided to treat himself to a relaxing bath in the city’s indoor pool. He had hardly lowered himself into the water when he noticed how its level had risen by a few inches. And suddenly he realised that he had found the answer: specific gravity. He, Archimedes, had hit upon the principle of gravity. So overcome he was with the knowledge of his discovery that he shot out of the bath and, still naked, ran home through the city’s streets, shouting for all to hear: "Eureka!" I’ve got it!!

So, was the court jeweller exposed as a crooked operator? No one really knows. And why should they? That shout of Eureka had given the world such a jolt that nothing else really mattered – such as some petty ruler going about with a crown made of brass.

It was as though humanity itself, as represented by a sort of flying-wedge of the Greek civilisation, had been propelled into breaking a knowledge barrier and stood dazed by what it had done. The man who had piloted it through the barrier was this scholarly eccentric who was once seen running naked through the streets yelling "I’ve done it!" Archimedes. He had changed the course of history.

So it seems only right that a notebook once used by him, perhaps to remind him of what his wife had told him to buy, or with sketches of new-fangled catapults to hurl huge rocks into the enemey’s ranks and – who knows – maybe even revealing how that new crown made by the court jeweller for the king was – or was not — pure gold...should be today thought to be virtually priceless; priceless or, since it is customary that even iconic treasures have to be given a value, eleven million dollars.

Or Rs 45 crore that figure sent my thoughts racing in all directions, like unguided missiles. Archimedes lived in the second and third centuries, right? But some of our classical Sanskrit writings are infinitely older. The vedas, for instance, the world’s first literature, believed to have been in existence since at least 3,000 years before Christ was born, and at a time when there was no way that words could be written down because there was no such thing as a script. Literature had to memorized and passed on by recital — stored in people’s memories. The Greeks had not even established their civilisation till the fifth century before which time, Sanskrit literature was positively hoary — and Kautilya’s Arthashastra, already written — because by then they had worked out a way to put words on paper — or what passed for a page.

Sanskrit literature is truly ancient. That it should have been kept alive at all in the face of unimaginable odds, is to the everlasting credit of that greatly despised class, the Brahmins. They were the guardians of all literature. As a class they were, at best, lower-middle class; they eked out a living by acting as temple priests and performing rituals at ceremonies such as weddings and cremations. Those who found some rich patron were among the lucky ones.

The word for a book in Sanskrit is grantha, which means a collection which can be tied up in a bundle. The pages were thin pieces of some soft wood on which the letters could be carved out with a needle-like instrument. All they had to do to make the etched writing stand out was to rub the page with lampblack.

The homes of these priests and sometimes the temples in which they served, were the libraries. Here the wood-strips, strung together to maintain their sequence and tied up in cloth bundles, were the ‘books’. The way to preserve these books from white-ants and other termites, was to keep them suspended over kitchen fires where they got the full blast of chula smoke. I remember how a so-called expert on ancient manuscripts in a European museum to whom I showed one of my granthas, pronouncing in all seriousness: "But this volume has been rescued from a fire – see how the edges are charred with smoke." Who was I to tell a museum expert that he was wrong and that ‘smoking’ was a recognised method of making palm-leaf manuscripts insect-proof in India.

But books, particularly religious books as most Sanskrit literature rended to be, had enemies far more destructive than white ants or silver fish: religious fanatics. Just as much as temple icons, they were the primary targets of all Muslim invaders and, in the case of Goa, of Portuguese. In the Goa of the early Portuguese days, to be found in possession of a few books was your ticket to the Auto da fe, which was heretic-burning! — by the very people who made a boast of the fact that they had banned Sati, the practice of widow-burning, which was rare in Goa in any case. Ninety per cent of ancient books were destroyed by book burners. And while the keepers of the Raj did not actively burn Sanskrit books, and indeed did their best to keep the language alive by teaching it in schools and colleges, their coming changed a whole way of life. The priestly class was or a fast decline because schools were set up and the boys from the class of traders no longer went to Brahmin households to be taught to read and write and do simple accounts. Brahmins for their part, because they could read and write, became government functionaries, and Sanskrit began its final retreat.

Early in the twentieth century, some of the more enlightened maharajas sent round agents to collect surviving manuscripts from their priestly owners, so that they could be housed in proper institutions under a curator’s care. These agents actually found that thrifty housewives had been using them as kindling for years because they had just been lying around cluttering up their kitchens. Among those rescued is that much maligned book, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, in the Mysore collection. Travancore prides itself on its plays of Bhasa, and Baroda’s boast is a tome called Tatvasangraha or a compendium of high principles, by Soutarakshika. One wonders how these treasures have fared under the care of Ramarajya that replaced Indian princely rule.

P.S. Poor Archimedes. He, surely was one of the world’s greatest thinkers. But obviously he must have been too much of a visionary to have been good at his job, which was to guard his city-state, Syracuse, from an invading force by building strong fortifications. In the year 212, a Roman force took the city by storm, and a Roman soldier hacked Archimedes down in the very street through which he had run naked, shouting Eureka!