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The Saraswati Mahal Library at Tanjore

As a collector, I take pride in the things I collect. Through my sources – ebay & shops all over the world, I am proud to note that I have about 25 manuscripts.

The Maratha king Serfoji II had just a few more than me.

Only about 49000 more.


Including books the collection consists of 81000 literary works that is housed in the Sarawati Mahal Library.

Aptly named “Saraswati” after the Goddess of Learning and Knowledge – this library in Tanjore is a scholar’s delight.

Some of the painted manuscripts are available for viewing under glass cabinets in the museum hall. And a book published about these is available for sale. Don’t get it – it creates an insatiable lust to see more and more – and the suffering of not seeing more will leave you sleepless – so don’t.

Now government sponsored, this institution is extremely well run – just like the IITs and IIMs (that have produced the leaders of global organisations like Pichai, Nadella and 100s more in Fortune 500 firms).

So if the institutions are producing above-average results and are being so well run as I have personally witnessed across the board – I have no idea why the Indian government’s reputation is sullied, mostly by the Indian urban elite & expatriate community – who probably have never stepped out of the comfort zone of 5-star hotels and luxury cars into the real India. And of course the media – a community of bashers who have an agenda.

Seeing what I do on the ground, I am impressed by the governance at the ground level.


Well I walked in un-announced to the chief librarian. Who holds a doctorate in Vedic Hinduism. Who has a staff of 4 scholars – some doctorates in Tamil, Sanskrit, Marathi and other subjects related to the collection. After a brief introduction, he arranged a guided tour of the library inner spaces where the general public is not allowed.

What I saw there was he impressive part.

Staff, were just going about their jobs.

One had a stack of ancient palm leaf mansucripts on his table. And using a special brush he was diligently painting each leaf of an ancient palm-leaf manuscript with lemon-grass oil to protect it from insect infestation. Every leaf. Both sides. Thousands of manuscripts! Every year.

When I’d acquired a set about a decade ago I remember the tedious task of cleaning the pieces. Unbelievably boring task. And the half an hour that it took me to clean it felt like a year. Would not wish that upon an enemy. And yet here this man was, doing this with dedication and discipline. Every corner – every millimeter. Every page. Did he have some calling that I did not? Maybe he felt the sense of purpose?

Then in another room I saw the digitisation of the manuscripts in process.

Each leaf of the palm leaf manuscript was scanned.

Then the scan was read by a scholar – which was difficult enough as scripts evolve and the script of the past is not legible to all. The scholar would then transcribe it on paper.

This transcription is then typed out on a digital document – Word maybe – in the current-day local language.

And finally, this is saved and some are translated into any language necessary (not necessarily English – it could be Japanese or Devanagri (Hindi)).

Here are some pictures of the impressive work undertaken.

That I was allowed to take photos in a no-photography zone is a gesture of goodwill – so there are no photos of the actual manuscripts.

I came away heartened and happy.

And missed my library days at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai.

Someday, once I get to renew my lease on life for another 100 years, I’ll go back and study some more.


August 2022

Jaina Mishra

One comment on “The Saraswati Mahal Library at Tanjore

  1. Pingback: Tanjore Diaries | The Art Blog by WOVENSOULS.COM

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This entry was posted on August 18, 2022 by in Articles about Travel, MUSEUM WALKS and tagged , , , , , .



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