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From Palm leaves to Computers - ancient medical scripts turn digital

The idea of cataloguing India's medical manuscripts was born at a seminar organised by the National Mission for Manuscripts and hosted by FRLHT in 2006.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jun 30, 2016, 10.34 AM IST
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Bhushan Patwardhan, a professor at the Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences in Savitribai Phule Pune University, hailed the effort but said the manuscripts have to be studied to understand if they are still relevant.
Bhushan Patwardhan, a professor at the Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences in Savitribai Phule Pune University, hailed the effort but said the manuscripts have to be studied to understand if they are still relevant.
BENGALURU: Thousands of ancient medical manuscripts, including several written on palm leaves centuries ago, are now available at the click of a button thanks to a decadelong effort by researchers at Bengaluru's TransDisciplinary University (TDU).

A list of 10,000 medical manuscripts out of 17,009 that have been digitally catalogued was made public earlier this month by the university, which is run by the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions Trust cofounded by Sam Pitroda, a former adviser to the prime minister on public information infrastructure and innovation.

One can now digitally find writings by Akattiyar, considered the founder of the Siddha medicine system, or 17th century works by Persian physician Nur-ud-Din Muhammad Abd'Ullah at TDU's digital repository. The university is considering how these works can be made accessible over the internet.

Akattiyar original works are at Tamil Nadu's Institute of Asian Studies and Abd'Ullah's in Bihar's Khuda Baksh Oriental Public Library.

The idea of cataloguing India's medical manuscripts was born at a seminar organised by the National Mission for Manuscripts and hosted by FRLHT in 2006. "There are an estimated one lakh medical manuscripts but nobody really knows. They are lying in public and private collections, not just in and around India but also in Europe and the United States," TDU vice-chancellor Darshan Shankar said. "The exercise of cataloguing manuscripts gained momentum 2008 onward. And this is just step one." A manuscript management system allows access to these texts-written on palm leaf, paper or birch bark--many of which are scattered across India.

"The software is hosted on a local server at the university. We are working out technicalities of making it public. In the meantime, anyone interested can visit the university to use it," said MA Alwar, a Sanskrit scholar who is a member of the cataloguing team. The team had a shoestring budget in the form of a Rs 15-lakh grant from the Union Health Ministry. "By 1920, there were nearly 200 catalogues but it wasn't thematic. So no one knew where medical manuscripts were. We used catalogues available in institutional repositories. In other cases, we travelled extensively. For example, an ancient manuscript was found in a remote Kerala house," Alwar said.

Bhushan Patwardhan, a professor at the Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences in Savitribai Phule Pune University, hailed the effort but said the manuscripts have to be studied to understand if they are still relevant. "They may or may not stand in today's test but they are a good source of knowledge base," he said.

TDU is now trying to convince the Union government to fund digitisation of manuscripts. "Discounting repetition, only 10-15 per cent of the manuscripts would be valuable. To ascertain this, manuscripts need to be digitised, deciphered with domain expertise, translated and then published," Alwar said.
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