Almost every youngster looking curiously at centuries old Persian and Arabic manuscripts had one question for organisers, 'is there any translation available for them?' Unfortunately the answer was usually in negative leaving the visitors bewildered as to why nobody had cared to translate them. The mystery of the contents continued to remain in their minds as they completed the tour of recent mega exhibition of Quranic manuscripts at TRC.
One of the motives of the exhibition was to make current generation aware of their glorious past and get inspired; and going by the looks of 20000 of so visitors, one feels somewhere a spark was kindled.
Organised after a gap of 37 years at such a level, the mega Quranic manuscript exhibition at TRC during Ramadan has brought to fore the treasure of knowledge in the form of rare manuscripts that otherwise remain hidden in various government and private repositories.
Aptly titled as Sheerin Qalam, the exhibition was not limited to showcasing Quranic manuscripts but showcased other masterpieces like Khawaja Azam Dedmari's manuscript on Botany, elegant calligraphic work and other artefacts.
More than a mere exhibition, the event was testimony to fact of Kashmiris being traditional art lovers. The five days exhibition witnessed a stream of visitors from all walks of life and almost from all places in the valley. The young students jostled with elderly to have a glimpse of rare Quranic manuscripts that predated both of their ages.
There was an awe in their expression when they saw a deer skin that had entire Quran written on it. One needed magnifying glass to see it. "Who did it and how they did it" was the single most asked question. The curiosity which it generated will go a long way in inspiring the similar talent of State's future.
"The exhibition received enormous response from people. Not an hour passed when we didn't receive stream of visitors," said Saleem Beg of Kashmir chapter of INTACH, one of the co-organisers of the exhibition along with J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Language, Directorates of Tourism, Libraries, Archives, Archeology and Museum and Shashvat Art Gallery, Jammu.
The Gallery, which in reality is a magnificent private museum in Jammu, last been one of the major attractions at the exhibition. People loved the story behind the rare Quranic manuscripts that they are collection of a hindu family of Jammu who have been passionately collecting and preserving them.
Suresh Abrol, the man who has painstakingly preserved these valuable manuscripts, says these are part of his grandfather Lala Rekhi Ram Abrol's collections. "He was a jeweler in the court of Maharaja Hari Singh, the last Dogra ruler, and collected many of these items. My father sought only one thing in inheritance — these ancient manuscripts and other collections. We consider them our real inheritance," he says.
The family has 250 Quranic calligraphy collections and 130 of them are on the vellum — a paper made from the skin of animal like deer, goat or camel.
At the exhibition Abrol had brought two handwritten copies of Quran — one on a four-and-a-half feet by five feet cloth, and the other on a five-feet paper and Shajrah- e-Nasab of Prophet (PBUH), which is about 24-feet-long, with pure gold illumination.
The their collection has been exhibited in Jammu but it was the first time that it was taken out of the house and brought here.
Another star attraction of the event was the oldest available manuscript of Holy Quran in Kashmir calligraphed by Fathullah Kashmiri in 1237 A.D. – 83 years before Muslims assumed political power in Kashmir.
Another 300-year-old collection Tafseer-e-Muvahib is the commentary on Holy Quran from Surah Fatiah to Surah Naas. The peculiarity of this manuscript is that it has been purchased in Kabul for 3 Tumans of Afghan currency approximately Rs 7 of Indian currency. The commentary is written in Naskh style, and the manuscript has been calligraphed in Afghan.
One of them is 'Majooma-Ilm-Ikhlaq', which is a nicely written manuscript in the Persian language in 1882 AD.
Another type of manuscript is 'Sad Pand Luqman' of Hakim Luqman, which is a Persian manuscript scribed by Peer Baksh of Punjab in Khate Nakhoon on ethics.
This manuscript written in 1870 AD is specially ornamented with gold and the borders are decorated with pictures of animals and birds.
Be it a Dua (supplication) of Zain-al-Abideen that is believed to cure ailments and help succeed in life, Asht Daat (metallic bowl) with Arabic inscriptions or dagger with ivory handle and Ahle Bait inscription, the exhibition had something for everybody to see.
The other private contributors for the exhibition were Peerzada Mohammed Ashraf and Hakeem Sameer Hamdani. The State Cultural academy has around 650 manuscripts, twenty of which were displayed in the exhibition.
Naeem Akhtar, Minister for Public Works Department and Culture who inaugurated the exhibition said the collection from the medieval period has been brought together with efforts and contribution by all the Departments and private collectors for the first time since 1981 and it will help in shedding light on our past and educating our future generations.
"The purpose of this event is to educate people about our rich culture, superior artistic abilities and our high levels of knowledge even in medieval times," Akhtar said adding that some of the collections, including a compendium on herbs and herbal trees from 'Hakeem Collection' and Diwan of Sheikh Yaqoob Sarfi are being exhibited for the first time.
Kashmir has a long history of recording history and there is ample material available in both government departments and private collections. The Shireen Qalam didn't even touch the surface of what the state has to offer in terms of valuable manuscripts. However the experts are pained at the disconnect and failure of any effort to take next step of research into these manuscripts.
"We have around 50,000 manuscripts in Kashmir spread across private collectors and various government departments. The problems is that there is no centralised data about them. Nobody knows what most of the manuscripts are about as no work has been done on them," said Beg while advocating for cataloguing, digitising and making a centralised data bank for all of these manuscripts for easy access.
There is also concern for their preservation as in many cases the custodians of these manuscripts have no knowledge to scientifically preserve them.
Some of the manuscripts are extremely rare and only of its kind in the world and many more offer insight into new realms of knowledge, waiting to be deciphered. "Every manuscript is a topic of research and it has huge story behind it. For example if we need to know what were the kind of plants- crops, fruits, herbs- that grew in Kashmir in 18th century and before, we can consult Khwaja Azam Dedmari's brilliant book on Botany of Kashmir written in around 1738 AD," said Beg.
The book is termed as one of the most valuable manuscripts which can help in wide range of research ranging from indigenous plants to Kashmir to effects of climate change. "It is only researchers who now need to come forward and retrieve this lost knowledge for the betterment of all," said Beg. "In west there is a thirst for old knowledge and they can go to any length to quench it. Unfortunately we have so much available but no takers."
Ironically Kashmir University which could have led the research into these manuscripts has remained a failure. Not a single delegation from University visited the exhibition that highlighted their apathy towards historic literature.
This manuscripts provide fascinating amount of information and can be used to bust many myths. There are many outside experts who say that Saffron cultivation in Kashmir is not older than two hundred years. In the exhibition there was a 500 year old Quranic manuscript written in Saffron ink, thus providing evidence of saffron and its products prevalent in Kashmir much more earlier. But again no researcher is coming forward to utilise this knowledge.
Beg says that one of the motives of the exhibition was to help in creating interface between a knowledge worker and custodian of these manuscripts. "The two, one who has manuscript and other who wants to study it, are isolated form each other. We want to connect them with such exhibition and we have been successful to a large extent," said Beg. "At the exhibition one main question from every visitor was, whether translation of these manuscripts is available. So people are curious and some will be definitely motivated to work in this field themselves."
The exhibition had a course on calligraphy and contemporary painting too, which expanded its ambit to invite the talent.
This event has many firsts to its credit and has raised public expectations of processing the knowledge that the collections represented by way of the translations and elaborations by eminent scholars ,both from with in and out side Kashmir.
Beg feels that the exhibition has acted as a spark among youngsters. With more such exhibitions slated to be held at district levels one hopes that the spark will ultimately lead to an era of enlightenment.