Punjabi 5: scripture written on burnished, handmade paper
To celebrate South Asian Heritage Month this series will be exploring items from the collections related to South Asian Heritage. The first post in this series, is written by conservator Solange Masher, from our Collection Care Team.
In the Library Collection is a manuscript known as Punjabi 5. It is one of the oldest known copies of The Sri Guru Granth Sahib. This is not simply a book, but an object regarded by those of the Sikh faith as the embodiment of their eleventh Guru. The book is a body: we could describe each page as a limb and the spine is really the backbone. In temples where copies of The Guru Granth Sahib Ji normally reside, it is treated as a living person and has its own room. Many acts of respect take place in the handling of The Guru Granth Sahib, like being covered with beautiful cloths called rumalas. An attendant would also wave a decorative fan, called a chauri, over it to purify the area before reading the scripture.
This Guru Granth Sahib has ended up in a different environment to those of its creators and those who would still venerate it. Therefore, it is an extremely sensitive matter to know how to treat it with respect in the library setting. The Guru Granth Sahib is stored in our most secure area along with the most valuable manuscripts in the collection and access to readers is restricted. The Library is keen to discover how to provide future access, in a safe and respectful manner. Contacts have been made over the years with Sikh communities and specialists to gain understanding and occasionally facilitate encounters with the Guru Granth Sahib Ji. These individuals have also advised and demonstrated on how to let the book rest and be more comfortable on the shelf.
The manuscript will require some conservation treatment before being handled or displayed. However, investigations over the best approach, research and respect for the manuscript has meant that work has not yet been carried out. This restraint in the face of many options is a guiding principle of the field of Conservation.
The style of binding is original and representative of the region, with chevron-woven endbands and wooden blocks adhered to the spine to support the sewing and keep it immovable. The boards and flap are covered with red morocco leather. There are clues about the journey and life of this Guru Granth Sahib residing in the pages: pressed insects; blossoms, plant fragments; hair and threads. Hand – daubed yellow swastikas, a sign of good fortune, adorn some pages.
As a Book Conservator, when I first heard about this Collection item it chimed with something I felt about manuscripts; that there is a connection with them we can experience which is greater than the meaning of just the words. It was exciting to hear that this idea about books played a part in a religious belief originating in the same country as my ancestors, from India.