Special collections: South & Inner Asian manuscripts and rare books


The Bodleian Library has acquired manuscripts from South Asia since the early years of its re-establishment by Sir Thomas Bodley. The first South Asian acquisitions came in a series of gifts given by Archbishop William Laud between 1635 and 1640. They consist of a Telegu almanac for the year 1632 A.D. (MS. Laud Or. Rolls e. 1) and a set of 18 Rāgamāla paintings illustrating the mood and sentiment behind the traditional forms of Indian music (MS. Laud Or. 149).

The modest South East Asian collections were also formed from donations by the library's early, great benefactors.

History and scope of the collections

South Asia

Sanskrit manuscripts

The Bodleian Library holds some 8,700 Sanskrit manuscripts, the largest known collection of Sanskrit manuscripts outside the Indian sub-continent. The first Sanskrit manuscript acquired by the Bodleian was an astrological work, the Garland of Jewels on Astrology (Skt. Jyotiṣaratnamālā) by Śrīpati. Copied in 1644, it belonged to John Ken, an East India merchant, who sold it to the Library in 1666.

19th century

The core collection is built on manuscripts from three sources. The first Boden Professor, Horace Wilson, appointed in 1832, sold his considerable personal library of 627 manuscripts to the Bodleian Library for £500 in 1842. In 1845, Sir William Walker presented the Library with some 100 Sanskrit manuscripts (with a few in Gujarati and Hindi), which had been collected by his father, General Alexander Walker, while a political resident in Baroda. In 1849, a further 160 manuscripts were purchased for £350 from Dr. WH Mill, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge, which he had collected whilst he was Principal of Bishop’s College, Calcutta. There, three collections led Professor Max Mûller in 1856 to describe the Bodleian’s Sanskrit manuscript holdings as the second best in Europe, surpassed only by those of the East India Company.

This core collection is described in a 2-volume catalogue with a supplement: the first volume by Theodor Aufrecht, who held the Professorial Chair of Sanskrit at Edinburgh, and the second by Professor Moriz Winternitz and Mr Arthur Berriedale Keith, who was also later to be elected to the Chair of Sanskrit at Edinburgh.

20th century

In 1909, the largest single collection of Sanskrit manuscripts ever to come to the Bodleian was donated by the Prime Minister of Nepal, the Maharajah Sir Chandra Shum Shere. Numbering over 6000 manuscripts, it more than doubled the library’s collection of unique Sanskrit texts and covers every branch of Sanskrit literature. The published catalogue of the Chandra Shum Shere Collection is still in progress, under the general editorship of Jonathan Katz.

In 1927, the library’s Sanskrit manuscript collection was further enriched when the Indian Institute Library, which had been founded by the Boden Professor of Sanskrit, Sir Monier Monier-Williams, came under Bodleian management. In addition to a small number of manuscripts purchased in 1886, the Indian Institute Library manuscript collection consisted of collections presented by Sir Monier-Williams, the Reverend SC Malan and Major JS Law. Sir Monier-Williams’ collection contained a valuable series of Jaina manuscripts procured in 1877–1878 through the agency of Professor Georg Bühler. The Indian Institute collections were catalogued by AB Keith in 1903, but this publication does not include the 368 texts, mainly in Sanskrit, acquired by Sir Marc Aurel Stein during his visits to Kashmir between 1888 and 1905. This collection, including some rare birch bark items, was handed over as a deposit to the curators of the Indian Institute in May 1911 and was bequeathed to the Indian Institute in his will. A handlist of the items was published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1912.

Manuscripts in other Indic languages

The Bodleian has also collected manuscripts in other Indic languages, though holdings are small in relation to the Sanskrit collections: some 200 Hindi manuscripts and just over 100 manuscripts in Tamil, Prakrit, Marathi and Pali respectively.

The Bodleian’s Prakrit collection was catalogued by Professor AB Keith in 1911, but his catalogue does not include those Prakrit manuscripts which came with the Chandra Shum Shere Collection. A manuscript handlist of Pali manuscripts was prepared in 1880 by Dr. Oscar Frankfurter (David Reading Room: shelfmark Z6605.P26 BOD 1880 [Cat. BOD.]). A more recent handlist has been published in the Pali Text Society Journal, but there is as yet no full descriptive catalogue. The Reverend Dr George Uglow Pope prepared a catalogue of Dravidian language manuscripts, including those in Tamil, which unfortunately never reached publication, though a manuscript draft survives (David Reading Room: shelfmark Z6605.T3 CAT [Cat.][Fol.]).

Mughal paintings

The Bodleian has one of the most important collections of Mughal paintings in the world, thanks to two 19th-century benefactors.

The first collection of Mughal paintings came as part of the bequest of the antiquary and bibliophile Francis Douce in 1834 and the Library’s holdings were augmented a few years later by paintings from the manuscript collection of the diplomat Sir Gore Ouseley. Mughal paintings and other fine manuscripts from his library were presented to the Library in 1859 by Mr J.B. Elliot, a Bengal civil servant who had purchased them after the diplomat’s death in 1844. The outstanding item from Sir Gore’s collection is the Bahāristān manuscript of 1595, which was prepared for the Emperor Akbar and illustrated by leading artists of the time.

Early printed books in Indic languages

The Bodleian Library has a rich collection of 19th century Indic language lithographs and printed books. Many of the rarest 19th-century publications come from the collection of the Indian Institute Library. The Institute’s library collection was amalgamated with that of the Bodleian in 1968.

Professor Monier-Williams' library of over 1000 books on classical Indian language and culture, with a strong emphasis on Sanskrit publications, was donated to the Indian Institute shortly its opening. The rich 19th-century Hindi language and literature research collection is built on a core of about 250 books donated by the publisher Naval Kishore of Lucknow to the Indian Institute at the time of its foundation in the 1880s. These represented the current productions of this famous press. Combined with a large selection of the output of 19th century mission presses, as well as other indigenous presses, they are an important resource for research.


The Bodleian has only a handful of Mongolian manuscripts. They include:

  • part of a primer of Mongolian conversation, dated 1787;
  • a copy of a Buddhist canonical composition, comprising the Sanskrit text together with Tibetan and Mongolian versions; and
  • letters and a volume of letters and papers in Mongolian, Bengali and Tibetan.

The library’s earliest examples of Mongolian printing are a number of blockprints from the 18th century produced in Peking. They contain Buddhist Sutras, among them the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. One of the library’s two editions of the Heart Sutra was printed c. 1712. A small number of prints from the 19th century contain trilingual texts – Chinese, with Manchu and Mongolian translations. The Backhouse Collection contains several Mongolian translations of Manchu texts. The library also has a small collection of blockprints from Peking of Mongolian translations of Tibetan Buddhist texts, with or without the original Tibetan.

The spread of missionary activity in Central Asia during the 19th century led to the translation and publication of various parts of the Bible in Mongolian. The Bodleian Library has editions published in St Petersburg (1819, 1827 etc.), London (1846) and Peking (1872). It also holds many of the early grammars, dictionaries and studies published on the language and literature of the Mongols, which appeared in England, France, Germany, Russia and elsewhere.


The principal collections of the Bodleian’s Tibetan manuscript holdings came to the library in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

This started in 1806 with items bought from Samuel Turner, who has been sent on a mission to the Panchen Lama in 1785. In 1885, the Bodleian purchased a large number of manuscripts and xylographs from the Bavarian civil servant Emil Schlagintweit. These had been collected by Emil’s elder brothers, Hermann, Adolph and Robert in the Indian Himalayas between 1855 and 1857.

Also in 1885, the Indian Institute, whose library became part of the Bodleian in 1927, received several Tibetan texts from the Rev. Solomon C. Malan. Malan was a close friend of the Hungarian scholar and traveller Alexander Csoma de Körös, his first Tibetan teacher, and many of Malan’s Tibetan texts were given to him by Csoma himself.

The third collection of importance was donated to the Bodleian by the Government of India in 1905. It consisted of more than 100 items that Lt. Col. A. Waddell had acquired whilst acting as chief medical officer for the Younghusband Expedition to Central Tibet.

A basic catalogue of Tibetan manuscripts in the Schlagintweit collection was prepared for the Bodleian by E. Schlagintweit in 1895 (David Reading Room: shelfmark Z6605.T5 BOD 1885 [Cat. BOD.]). A preliminary descriptive catalogue of Tibetan manuscripts was prepared by John E. Stapleton Driver c.1970, but no published catalogue of the Tibetan manuscripts exists at present.

Papers and collections of Tibet scholars

The Bodleian also holds the personal papers of five scholars who devoted their academic careers wholly or partly to the study of Tibet.

The earliest collection contains the correspondence, papers, diaries and family photographs of Brian H. Hodgson (1800–1894), member of the Indian Civil Service, and regard by some as the founder of Himalayan and Tibetan linguistics.

The private papers of Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943), comprising letters, notebooks, field and personal diaries came to the Indian Institute in Oxford under the bequest of Stein in 1943. The British Library, however, holds Stein materials from his Central Asian expeditions (most notably the Tibetan manuscripts).

In 1965, the Bodleian obtained the papers of Walter Y. Evans-Wentz (1878–1965) best known for his translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1927), along with several Tibetan manuscripts from his private collection.

The most recent scholarly papers to come to the Bodleian are of Michael V. Aris (1946–1999), which came to the library in 2001, and those of his long-standing mentor and friend Hugh E. Richardson (d. 2000), which were given to the library soon afterwards by the executors of the Richardson estate. 

See also