Two Hindustani Manuscripts at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library

Guest researcher Dr Manjiri Thakoor writes on the making of the Mahabharata, and discusses the characteristics of the 'Adi Parva' and 'Rama Vijaya' held at the Rylands.

A post by guest researcher Dr Manjiri Thakoor, Adjunct lecturer at Sir J J School of Art, Mumbai.

As a post-doctoral researcher of Ancient Indian Culture, I was thrilled to come across a resourceful collection of Hindustani manuscripts at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library. Upon arriving at the Rylands I was awestruck, not only with the collection itself, but also with the cooperation and helpfulness of the staff, particularly Dr John Hodgson, Dr Zsófia Buda, and Nicole McNeill. Once settled in at the library, the folios were brought to me on a soft pillow, and I opened the first to reveal the beautiful manuscript.

Folio of the First book of Mahabharata ‘Adi Parva’ and Story of Vigour ‘Rama Vijaya’

Adi in Sanskrit means ‘first’. There are many versions of this magnum opus epic in the Indian subcontinent. The verses were originally recited and later written. While the Sage Vyasa is known as the original composer of Mahabharata, in the following centuries the popularity of these stories resulted in hundreds of written and illustrated versions of the Epic. This blog is specially curated to throw light on the making of the Adi Parva and Rama Vijaya and I am going to discuss their characteristic features with reference to two different sets: one set of loose folios (Adi Parva), the other put together in binding (Rama Vijaya).

A painted image of Ganesha (in the centre) with the consorts Ridhi and Sidhi on either side. Above and below the image is a thick border decorated with flowers and leaves. On the left and right sides is a thin red border.
Figure 1.  Ganesha with consorts Riddhi & Siddhi in Rama Vijaya. (Marathi MS 3, folio 1v)

In India every new beginning is associated with the worship of Lord Ganesha (the elephant head god). It is said that the epic of Mahabharata was written down by Ganesha upon the composition of Sage Vyasa.

Here is the painting of the four-armed Ganesha holding His weapons in the two rear hands, a plate of sweets with a mouse on top of it in another hand, while the fourth hand rests on His stomach (Fig. 1). He is flanked by two consorts Riddhi and Siddhi (meaning Wisdom and Power to attainment respectively) holding flying whisks.

An open book. The left page has a painted image and the right page has some light handwriting, likely in pencil.
Figure 2. Miniature at the beginning of the bound volume of the Rama Vijaya by Sridhara. (Marathi MS 3)

The figures show the Deccan Maratha influence on their clothing (a long nine-yard sari) and jewellery (a peculiar pearl nose pin resting on the upper lip). Despite the limited colours used here, the artist made no compromise with the quality of the work and continued to render as many details as possible with a very thin brush.

The reason for this limitation of colours is due to their natural origin. The colours were made at home with natural pigments. Yellow or Indian yellow, as we see here, is obtained from minerals or plants, and green is often made by a mixture of yellow, blue, and red from the soil or by a mixture of turmeric and other substances. These three colours were frequently used and were also considered to be holy when the turmeric was used.

Characteristic Features of the MSS Adi Parva

A page containing two lines of Sanskrit text surrounded by a thin red border and a thick yellow border.
Figure 3. ADI PARVA – The First section of the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, in Marathi. 153 x 302 mm, oblong on paper. Around 1780 CE. (Marathi MS 1)

Marathi MS 1 is in the form of loose folios. Each page is written on the obverse and reverse sides with black ink, and on both the sides there are thick bright yellow borders and thin red lines (both the colours having been naturally prepared).

The set of loose folios is dated to c. 1780 (Fig. 3). Entirely handwritten with rather crude writing and with very few illustrations, it provokes questions but offers very few answers. To begin with, this set was written in Marathi and is from Maharashtra. Though the original Adi Parva is in Sanskrit as mentioned earlier, this copy contains many versions written over an extensive period of time.

The drawings and the yellow borders

The style of writing and art belongs to the eighteenth-century Maratha Dynasty period. At this time, the recital of the verses from Ramayana and Mahabharata was very popular. The verses were written in many Brahmin families as part of their tradition. Not every family belonged to the artistic community, hence why the text often dominated the manuscripts. However, in a few cases we can see the writer taking the initiative to render some line drawings, which often resulted in crude sketches, which only the family would able to be interpret and not the public. Below are two examples of the line drawings showing a four-armed deity (Vishnu?) with their face in profile.

A line drawing of Vishnu with thick yellow borders on the left and right sides.
Figure 4. The crude line drawing of the Four-Armed God – Vishnu. (Marathi MS 1)
A line drawing of Vishnu with thick yellow borders on the left and right sides.
Figure 5. Another drawing of the Four-Armed God (Vishnu). The line drawings are not very fine, and figures are not proportionate. (Marathi MS 1)

The above figures (Figs. 4 and 5) have no sophisticated rendering at all. They are probably meant to be there for symbolic reasons, to indicate the auspicious text. Appearing more like a sketch, they belong to the Deccan style of art, which emphasises thick lines and plump bodies.

The drawings on many of the folios are extremely crude yet interesting as they belong to the typical folk nature of art practices; mostly subtle geometric patterns and floral forms, not following any particular symmetry or repetition (Fig. 6).

The significance of the borders needs to be understood in the ancient Indian context. The two specific colours, yellow and red, are symbolic in Indian rituals. Entirely natural, these colours are considered as holy colours; those of turmeric and kumkum, the composition of specific soil (tapioca) and turmeric, are considered as very auspicious powders and hence are used in every ritual by both men and women.

A page containing Sanskrit writing surrounded by a thick yellow border with black floral decorations.
Fig. 6. Yellow and red borders with floral patterns. (Marathi MS 1)

The collection of Hindustani manuscripts at the Rylands is a prodigious collection indeed, showcasing the knowledge and aesthetics of the ancient culture. I sincerely thank the entire team at the for having given this precious experience to me. The library has made all possible efforts to protect and store these manuscripts in wonderful infrastructure under the supervision of experts.

Dr Manjiri Thakoor

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