Jain Manuscripts and their journey westward.
The British Jain manuscripts and artefacts collections represent some of the most important in the world. They are rare and unique sacred objects, of great cultural importance, and access to them through museums and website such as JAINpedia develops a strong sense of community heritage and pride.
The Jain manuscripts were brought to the UK by British officers, Indian citizens and European scholars, and have been kept in prestigious British institutions since. In the United Kingdom, they provide evidence on connections between the UK and India, between the British Empire and India in the colonial period, and bear testimony of international collaboration in the recognition of Jainism as a specific tradition and faith which is distinct from both Hinduism and Buddhism. For the Jains of today, these manuscripts are a significant part of their cultural heritage. Its study and contextualisation is a way to give Jains access to their own culture and to help them have their place in today’s society.
The tradition of creating hand-written manuscripts was held by the three main Indian religious schools of thought – Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. These manuscripts were then stored as collections in Bhandaras. In the Jain tradition, due to formal administration by the community group (sangh) such collections were in abundance and were well looked after. In India, such collections are numbered in their thousands, but also outside India, such collections are still existent.
A Jain manuscript is a text relating to any topic considered as worthy of transmission by the Jains which has been handwritten by a Jain monk, a Jain layman, or even a professional scribe who was non-Jain but was employed by Jain patrons for this work. Thus, a manuscript is a lively living? object, which provides information on social history and social networks and should be taken seriously: those who wanted the text to be copied and those who did the sometimes painful work spent a lot of time and money on this task, and had good reasons for doing so.
This might be true for all manuscripts, but has a special value in the Jain context. The Jain community has always been well organised. As a minority in the Indian environment, the Jains were always attached to their culture and its transmission. Having manuscripts copied has been one of their favourite ways for transmitting that culture. Their temple libraries are numerous and contain several rare works or precious items, carefully written, decorated or illustrated.
The Jains never had a restrictive conception of their tradition. Thus, the manuscripts they copied relate to their own scriptures, indeed, but also to other fields of knowledge and other Indian religious traditions. Jain libraries are famous for keeping Jain texts, but also Hindu and Buddhist texts, which would have been lost otherwise. This is why each collection of Jain manuscripts normally exhibits such a wide variety of texts and topics.
During the British colonial rule in India, the local populace was impressed by the British lifestyle, administrative and educational systems, which influenced the educational system in India. This led to research in several new areas of learning including manuscriptology, in which the British contribution is noteworthy. Attempts led to the recovery of many hand-written manuscripts which were first hand-listed and then subjected to preservation processes. This activity started at the beginning of the 19th century and resulted in thousands of invaluable manuscripts being saved; there is an abundance of Jain manuscripts in these collections.
British scholars thus participated in the broad movement of interest in manuscripts and especially Jain manuscripts which developed in Europe. Scholars in Germany, Austria, Italy and France built collections in their own countries. Credit for these European collections goes to famous scholars of Indology such as Hermann Jacobi, G. Bühler, C. Bendall, L.F. Pullé and others.
The work of many of these scholars and curators, and their manuscript conservation efforts, can now be seen at various institutions in the United Kingdom, including the British Library, British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Bodleian Libraries in Oxford and the Wellcome Trust – all of which are JAINpedia project partners.
Building strategic partnerships with the Libraries and Museums is of vital importance as projects such as JAINpedia promote cultural diversity and equality. Museums and Libraries need to attract a more diverse audience profile to their collections and events in order to develop basic skills and to promote lifelong learning. Museums and libraries collate diversity figures which are reported upon and the public programmes often try to build in diversity as part of their general provision and services.
For many of the communities who cannot come to the institutional collections the JAINpedia Team are currently devising a travelling exhibition to be housed temporarily in religious venues, regional museums and libraries as well as community and arts centres across the UK. The travelling exhibition has two main intentions which are to increase a general awareness in the beliefs and customs of Jainism and to highlight the work of JAINpedia by ensuring that visitors to the exhibition visit the JAINpedia and accompanying websites, displays and related activity.