A small board above the entrance modestly announces the library’s official name: Government Oriental Manuscript Library. “The collection has a fascinating history,” says curator Dr. S. Vasanthi, thrusting an aged brochure into my hand. The paper says the manuscripts, copper plates and palm leaves came from private collections of Colonel Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821), Dr. Leyden and C.P. Brown, and adds sketches of how they came upon the treasures.
Fascinated by oriental languages, Mackenzie, an engineering cadet of the East India Company collected everything oriental — maps, coins, manuscripts and inscriptions. He was Surveyor-General of India (explains how he kept adding to his treasures) and when he died in Calcutta in 1821, the East India Company bought the collection, grouped it into three, sent one to London, one to Calcutta and the third to Madras. These were manuscripts of works in literature, history, philosophy and science — written in south Indian and Oriental languages and of Kaifiyats and inscriptions belonging to different periods, evidently unearthed in little-known places.
The GOML sitting quietly among tall avenue trees now has more than 70,000 manuscripts in Indian/Arabic/Persian languages filling the shelves on either side of the narrow aisles, some spilling out on to the floor. What is remarkable – apart from what the library holds in terms of knowledge – is the fact that scholars are on hand to disseminate what the manuscripts contain. A trained group works to preserve the palm-leaf and paper manuscripts.