A learned king and his library

From Vedic texts and Puranic literature to erotic treatises, poetic works and court
records, the Maharaja Serfoji Saraswati Mahal Library in Thanjavur, is a truly
outstanding repository of ancient manuscripts and rare books

Temple procession featuring an image of Shiva
Temple procession featuring an image of Shiva.
Thanjavur; early 19th century

My library
Was dukedom large enough.
Shakespeare, The Tempest

THe mere mention of the name Thanjavur — Tanjore, till not many years ago — conjures up images of the great Brihadishwara temple in that city, one of the noblest monuments in all of India, and the crowning glory of the Chola kings, who once ruled over a vast empire in the southern peninsula of our land. It might have been in a dream that Rajaraja Chola first saw a vision of the temple, but it took 130,000 tonnes of solid granite to build it. The sheer scale of the temple complex is colossal: the vimana or the temple tower rises 216 feet above the sanctum; the sculpted Nandi bull, who sits looking expectantly at Shiva, his Lord and that of the Chola kings, measures 16 feet in length and 13 feet in height; 600 persons form the staff that serves the Lord in one capacity or another.

There was reason in its own days to celebrate the building of the great temple, and undoubtedly it was reason enough in 2010 to celebrate 1000 years of its completion. Achievements, and occasions, such as these are not common.

Portrait of Serfoji II, Ruler of Thanjavur
Portrait of Serfoji II, Ruler of Thanjavur. Thanjavur; early 19th century

But, speaking of Thanjavur, there is something else in that city — not a monument but an institution — that needs both to be recalled and celebrated: the Saraswati Mahal Library. Spoken of sometimes as "the most remarkable library in India", the place is a truly outstanding repository of ancient manuscripts and rare books. Ranging from Sanskrit and Tamil to Telugu and Marathi, and written on palm-leaf, paper, or metal, the works cover an enormous span of themes and subjects: from Vedic texts and Puranic literature to erotic treatises and poetic works and court records. Everything figures in it: philosophy, literature, drama, music, lexicography, medicine, science.

Gaja shastra, ashva shastra, pakshi shastra, shakuna shastra — treatises relating to elephants and horses and birds and omens — stand at one end of the spectrum, and the likes of the Upanishads and the Ramayana and the Mahabharata at the other. It is not only versions of and commentaries on classical works but also entirely original texts, like Chidambara Kavi’s Kathatrayi, a poetic tour de force in which each shloka can be interpreted in three different ways to narrate an incident in three different works like the two epics and the Bhagavata Purana. There is a whole world out here, rich beyond comparison, capable of containing and nourishing the spirit.

At last count, the library had in its collection something like 49,000 manuscripts out of which 25,000 are on palm-leaf and the rest on paper. Close to 70,000 printed books apart, the library has a remarkable collection of records kept in Modi — the shorthand variant of Devanagri that was in wide use once for taking down business and court records, especially those in Marathi — which run into something like 1200 bundles. Among these are to be found documents relating to French-Maratha correspondence and other royal correspondence from the 18th century as also records of transactions like the one going back to 1741, which mentions the ruler’s confirmation of the grant of Karaikal and 47 other villages in lieu of the settlement of a loan of 40,000 chakram (approximately Rs 1.6 million) from the governor of ‘prosperous Pondicherry’, M. Dumas. Clearly, there are riches in these bundles here which are not easy to parallel.

The history of the library is in itself of absorbing interest. After the sun had set on the Chola dynasty, the kingdom became with time a province of the great Vijayanagar empire, whose rulers installed their deputies (or nayaks) to govern the lands, the ‘deputies’ turning later into Nayak kings, who founded a dynasty of their own in Thanjavur in the middle of the 16th century. But a century and a quarter later, in 1674, the Nayak power was supplanted by that of the Marathas. It is to the Nayaks and the Marathas that the library owes its existence and its growth.

The Nayaks, following widespread royal precedents, created their own Saraswati Bhandara: a repository of learning, invoking the goddess Saraswati, in the form of texts and illustrated manuscripts. But it was under the Marathas really that the library grew dramatically, the name most intimately associated with it being that of Serfoji II (reigned 1798-1832), that remarkable ruler, whose name the library now bears, being called the "Maharaja Serfoji Saraswati Mahal Library". Serfoji’s (also named sometimes as Sarabhoji) is a name that reverberates throughout Thanjavur, and the story of his own development is most unusual. Neglected on account of politics in his childhood years, and nearly deprived of his succession rights, he came under the tutelage of Rev. Schwartz, a Danish missionary, something that determined the course of his interests, perhaps of his life. Traditional learning apart, the young man was exposed to, and took to, western culture like almost no other royal of his own times.

A polymath and a bibliophile, he avidly studied European culture and became fluent in European languages: Latin, English, French, Italian among them. Sanskrit and other learning was, of course, a part of his whole being, and interesting accounts of his pilgrimage to Benares are told: not only did he take with him then a vast entourage of advisers and pundits — some 3000 persons — but he kept collecting manuscripts on the way, returning with close to 4,000 of them which he placed in the Saraswati Mahal. Serfoji’s curiosity seems to have been endless. He is known to have taken interest in the development of medicine, both Indian and European — something for which he founded the Dhanvantari Mahal, naming if after ‘the physician of the gods’ — he seems to have practiced medicine, especially cataract surgery, himself. One of the most interesting documents in the library --- discovered by a distinguished Indian ophthalmologist only in 2003 — relates in fact to the eye operations the king performed personally, each patient’s record meticulously kept in English, complete with finely made drawings of the patient’s eyes. One is not surprised, in view of all this, that Bishop Heber, a sharp observer who travelled in south India early in the 19th century, wrote with great enthusiasm about Serfoji’s many accomplishments, including his ability to quote extensively from European classics, and remarked, "I have seen many crowned heads, but not one whose deportment was more princely".

In so many ways, the library that I have been writing about is a creation, and a celebration, of that uncommon prince.