For hundreds of years, when they were not cherishing the summer or cursing the winter, Kashmiris have been writing, stacking up the libraries, and documenting the world around them. The books they wrote give us a peep into the history of their times. For us, these books and manuscripts recreate that era in vivid detail, complete with geography, flora, fauna, customs in addition to political structure.
Most of the times attention is grabbed by Kalhana's Rajtarangini, the famed historical book, but a lot more literature has remained unaccounted for, and worst, undiscovered.
Call it callousness of officials, educational institutes and seats of learning, even now thousands of old books and manuscripts have remained undocumented, leave alone deciphering them. Facing vagaries of time and ignorance from their owners, these manuscripts are dying slowly. Number of manuscripts were destroyed in floods and fire incidents and the tragic part is, at times we don't even know what knowledge they contained.
One of the biggest myths about these books and manuscripts is that they mostly cover religion and sufism, but in reality the treasure is much more diverse.
"Just name a topic and one can find material covering it in these old manuscripts and books," says Mohammed Saleem Beg State Convener INTACH that recently organised a five-day workshop on 'Preventive Conservation of Manuscripts' at SPS Museum in collaboration with Department of Archives, Archaeology, and Museums J&K and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) New Delhi.
Beg said that the collection is a huge treasure waiting to be explored and benefited from. "From medicine to botany to zoology to chemistry and everything else, there is writings on everything. We get to know what kind of plants grew during that era and what kind of animals were present," said Beigh. "There is a large collection on Tibbi Nabvi, (Islamic medicine) and Kashmiris seem to have worked a lot on the subject along with other field of medicine."
A peep little deeper and one can find the manuscripts dealing with other fields like chemistry, astronomy, philosophy, political science, earth science etc. There can be even more fascinating work, whose existence can be revealed once we discover them.
From earliest times, Kashmir has been known as Sharda Peeth, the seat of learning. Not only was one of the most celebrated works on various subjects composed here but Kashmiris were also master copyists and calligraphers. According to historians, export of books particularly to Central Asia and other regions was also an important trade in Kashmir.
These manuscripts can easily compete with their global counterparts. In fact India's oldest manuscripts, Gilgit manuscripts, dating back to sixth century AD are from the state, though they were taken to New Delhi and are currently stored at National Archives of India.
"Kashmiris have amassed huge books right from important figures of Islam to brilliant mind of Ibn e Sina, Alberuni and Hakim Luqman. The list goes on," said Mohammed Ishaq Lone, a scholar who did his Phd on the manuscripts. "Our Shrines, mosques and private collection is extremely rich too. Even today we can benefit from those books and manuscripts. Our old writers used to document everything. For example we have Zalzala nama, which has documented all important earthquakes that shook Kashmir. This can be important book for earth sciences. Similar work in on floods or other aspects and science."
"In old times the writers once copying the work would end up becoming scholars themselves as they were exposed to huge repository of knowledge," said Ishaq.
The knowledge sector grew with every king and rule. One can find a seamless transition from one language to another. During the Muslim rule and, the quality and quantity of writing in Arabic and Persian language reached newer heights.
"A host of royal libraries established by different Sultans from the 15th century onwards, ensured the need for producing copies of books that were considered to be an essential part of the civilized worlds," said Beg.
Beg said numerous mediaeval historians have written about these royal libraries which contained thousand of hand written manuscripts. These include books on religion and theology, including Holy Quran, work of secular nature like Shah nameh, Dewan-i-Hafiz, Gulistaan, Bostaan, philosophical, scientific and literary works as well as various histories dealing not only with Kashmir but also the wider Muslim world.
The State Archives has registered about 45,000 manuscripts out of which around 20,000 are in private possession. Department of Libraries and research also has a treasure of 5824 manuscripts in various languages and scripts like Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Balti, Hindi, Sharda, and Kashmiri, which is considered to be one of the richest manuscripts collection in South Asia. JKAACL has about 1000 manuscripts, out of which 600 manuscripts fall in the category of rarest of rare. These include writings on religion, medicine, history, music. There are also some diaries and travelogues.
"As of now we do not know the exact number of manuscripts and books which we possess. Some experts claims that the number is as high as 75000, but there has been no definite work done in this regard. But one thing we surely know is that the condition of most of these manuscripts is very bad," said Beg.
The views are echoed by other experts too, who paint gloomy picture of entire situation.
Ishaq feels that if nothing is done, we may lose these manuscripts for ever. "According to my estimate we have lost ten times the number of manuscripts which we currently have. It is hard to digest but this is the tragedy," said Ishaq, who recently completed his PhD thesis on Oriental Resource in Srinagar; Survey and documentation from Kashmir University. "We have lost them to floods, fire and even looting and destruction. Pandits used to have huge collection of manuscripts which got destroyed in the aftermath 1990's."
In some cases some people have disposed off their manuscripts in Hindi, Sanskrit or Persian, by not recognising their value.
"It is a race against time to save these manuscripts. I can safely say that not even a single manuscript or historic book is safe in Kashmir. We saw what floods did to this rich heritage at our elite organisations like SPS museum and Academy, leave aside the damage to private collections," said Ishaq.
It took Ishaq around seven years to complete his PhD and during the course of his research he got the opportunity to visit some of the best private collections in Srinagar. "My research was limited to Srinagar and here alone I found 15000 manuscripts and books and out of them I could only document around 1200 manuscripts. There are thousands more which I could not check due to limitation of my study," said Ishaq. "Then there are other districts too where there are plenty of manuscripts. One can imagine how many manuscripts there are present in Kashmir."
Experts blame government and ignorance of owners for the mess. "A person who has these manuscripts doesn't know how to keep them safe. Its condition deteriorates withe every passing day and one cannot save it by locking inside an almirahs. There are methods to preserve them and here nobody knows it," said Ishaq.
At times even a slight intervention can make a huge difference. "Every part of a manuscript or book is precious and needs to be handled with care. Everything has to be different, be it binding, use of polythene for cover, repair of torn paper, dusting, treatment to infestation and so on," said Jeetender Chauhan, a conservator who taught government officials and private collector about art of conservation at Srinagar recently. "Sometimes it needs a minimal investment and clever use of household items to preserve them. These small measures increase the shelf life of book by decades."
Although the State has ancient manuscripts in various departments but there is no post for a conservator. "We have our heritage and cultural legacy associated with these manuscripts. Without them we don't have any identity," said Noor Jehan a research scholar pursuing Phd in Art and Conservation. "But unfortunately no museum, academy, research library has any professional post of conservator. It is a science and government refuses to acknowledge it."
Department of Gazetteer which has huge collection of old documents doesn't even have a librarian. In other museums and departments, the people trusted with job of preserving manuscripts don't have the required skill and end up increasing the damage while being in charge of their preservation.
Of late government has been nudged to take some steps and there is talk of a conservation policy. But there is fear that the policy will take years to come to fruition given the usual red Tapism.
The workshop by INTACH received tremendous response as people are willing to learn and help preserve the rich heritage. "I didn't know that these manuscripts have to be stored in such a way or how simple household items like rice starch and gluten free flour can be used to treat them. Even binding the old books and manuscripts is different," said Prof S M Shafi, former librarian of Iqbal Library, who has a private collection of around 60 manuscripts and 600 old books. "I was always worried how to safeguard them but by listening few tips from experts I am confident of preserving or safely storing these precious items. I know almost all private collectors want to preserve their collection but they don't have any training."
INTACH in the meanwhile has decided to open a small conservation laboratory at their Srinagar office. "We have trained some people here, and people outside are also willing to help. So we are making a small beginning to at least arrest the deterioration and damage to the manuscripts," said Beg.