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Two pages of Braj book with illustrations on both pages showing Hindu god Krishna and other figures captioned with text in Devanagari script.
Illustrated scenes from the life of the Hindu deity Krishna in the Braj-language work titled “Brajacaritra,” published in 1896. Left (Image 16). Right (Image 17). South Asian collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

Now Online: South Asian Digital Collection

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(The following is a post by Jonathan Loar, South Asia reference specialist, Asian Division.)

The South Asian Digital Collection (SADC) is the new online home for the Library’s digitized books, serials, and manuscripts related to the histories and cultures of South Asian countries (i.e., Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka). The creation of SADC will provide easy access to a variety of digitized materials held in various divisions at the Library of Congress, and it will lay the foundation for more South Asian digital projects in the years ahead.

For its public release, the SADC brings together 900 books from the 19th and 20th centuries, selected issues of a couple of serials (e.g., “Bengal Hurkaru”), and about a dozen manuscripts, including the Library’s 2,000-year-old Gandhara scroll and a 53-foot illustrated scroll of the Bhagavata Purana, an important Hindu sacred work. All items in this digital collection are freely accessible online, and many were scanned between 10 and 15 years ago as part of the Library’s ongoing digitization efforts. When browsing the collection, users can filter items in their search results according to date of publication, subject, and language (e.g., Hindi, Tamil, Gujarati, English, French). Many books in English have full-text searching, too.

Below are short synopses of some of the collection’s research strengths given the slate of items available at launch: colonialism in South Asia, vernacular literature, religion and philosophy, grammar and linguistics, the Rebellion of 1857, and travel accounts by European and American authors. For questions about South Asian materials at the Library of Congress, please feel welcome to contact the Asian Division’s South Asian reference staff through Ask a Librarian.

Single page of book with color illustration showing two soldiers in white, blue, and red dress with muskets and shields.
Illustration titled “Sindian Foot Soldiers in their War Dress” from Henry Pottinger’s “Travels in Beloochistan and Sinde.” London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1816. Library of Congress General Collections.

Colonialism in South Asia: The South Asian Digital Collection contains many primary sources for the study of colonial history, such as the British East India Company’s 1845 statement on the case of the deposed Pratap Singh, the Raja of Satara, and a synopsis of the project to divert the Periyar River in the Madras Presidency in the late 19th century. There are also a number of books on regional wars, military expeditions, and colonial administrations. Using this digital collection, one can follow British activity in the northwestern region of Sindh with digital access to Henry Pottinger’s “Travels in Beloochistan and Sinde” (1816); James Burnes’ “A Narrative of a visit to the court of Sinde” (1839); General W.F.P. Napier’s “The History of General Charles Napier’s Conquest of Scinde” (1857); George Buist’s book of corrections to Napier’s work (1857); and Richard Burton’s two-volume “Sind Revisited” (1877).

Two pages of Urdu paper manuscript with color illustration showing four figures carrying two figures on platform on left and text in Perso-Arabic script on right.
Illustration from the Urdu manuscript “Mas̲navī siḥr al-bayān.” [India]: [publisher not identified], [1890]. Left (Image 57). Right (Image 56). South Asian Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.
Vernacular Literature: Some of the digital collection’s more unique offerings are works in South Asian languages. Consider “Vīravinoda” (1890), a two-volume Hindi publication by Kaviraj Shyamaldas, who was court poet during the reign of Maharana Sajjan Singh (r. 1874-1884) in the princely state of Mewar. The king commissioned Shyamaldas to write the complete history of the Sisodia Rajputs of Mewar, the dynasty that had ruled the city of Udaipur and its surrounding areas since the 14th century. With biographies of rulers alongside statistical and administrative information on the state, “Vīravinoda” is an important work of vernacular history during the height of British colonialism. “Slavery,” or “Gulāmagirī” (1873), is a key treatise in Marathi by Jyotirao Phule (1827-1890), an anti-caste social reformer and activist in colonial India. Notably, Phule dedicates this work to the “good people of the United States” and expresses his hope that the struggle to end slavery in the U.S. would inspire a similar eradication of caste-based oppression in India. Students of Urdu literature will be interested in two illustrated manuscripts of the famed poet Mir Hasan’s “Sihr al-Bayan,” a long poem of the mas̲navī genre on the adventure-filled love story of Prince Benazir and Princess Badr-i Munir. One of the Library’s manuscripts was created around 1890, while the other dates to circa 1912.

Single page of Sinhala book with verse numbers and text in Sinhala script.
First page of Hikkaduve Sumangala Thera and Don Andris de Silva Batuwantudawa’s Sinhalese work “The Mahawansa: From first to thirty-sixth chapter,” Colombo, F. Luker, acting government printer, Ceylon, 1883. South Asian collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

Religion and Philosophy: There are many works on South Asian religious traditions in this digital collection, such as “Brajacaritra” (1896), an illustrated lithograph in the Braj language on the exploits of the Hindu god Krishna. One will also find the Sinhala translation of the Buddhist chronicle “Mahawansa,” the first volume of which was published in 1877 and the second in 1883. While the “Mahawansa” was originally composed in Pali around the 5th century CE, this Sinhala translation expanded its readership beyond the Buddhist clergy at a time of robust public discourse on religion and society in British Ceylon.

For those interested in South Asian American history, the collection contains some works of late 19th/early 20th-century Hindu religious figures who engaged American audiences, including Swami Vivekananda and Swami Abhedananda, as well as “The Chicago Prashnottar,” a book of questions and answers on Jainism at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Please note that this digital collection has some works by European and North American authors reflecting antiquated interpretations from more than a century ago (e.g., William Ward’s “A View of the History, Literature, and Religion of the Hindoos,” 1863). While rife with orientalist representations, these works can provide historical insight into the Western understandings, for example, of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Grammar and Linguistics: In the early 19th century, Christian missionaries in India were very active in translating and publishing works intended to assist their learning of vernacular languages. Two such examples in this digital collection are “A Grammar of the Telinga Language” (1814), the first Telugu grammar printed in colonial India, and “Rudiments of Tamŭḷ grammar” (1821), the first printed work to present the Tamil language in both its colloquial and literary registers. Historians of South Asian print history will also be interested in early dictionaries of Tamil and Sindhi. The collection also has works related to a major subject of 19th-century Indology, namely, the Indo-European family of languages and the study of linguistic origins. Regarding the latter, see Graves Champney Haughton’s “A short inquiry into the nature of language” (1832), which focuses on the meanings of Sanskrit prepositions in comparison with Greek and Latin equivalents.

Rebellion of 1857: With far-reaching consequences in the history of British India, the Rebellion of 1857 is a well-represented subject in the South Asian Digital Collection. This includes books published immediately after the rebellion, such as David Urquhart’s “The Rebellion in India, the Wondrous Tale of the Greased Cartridges” (1857) and Mowbray Thomson’s “The Story of Cawnpore” (1859), an account of one of the only British soldiers to survive from the city’s siege. In addition, one will find several English-language novels and plays that used the Rebellion of 1857 as the setting for tales of British heroism and romance: “On the Face of the Waters” (1896), “Jessie Brown, or the Relief of Lucknow” (1858), “The Drums of Oude” (1918), “Lady of Cawnpore: A Romance” (1891), and “In the Heart of the Storm: A Tale of Modern Chivalry” (1891). These may prove useful for researchers examining the memory of the rebellion in British and American literature alongside the use of orientalist and racist tropes in their narratives.

Pierre Sonnerat, “Voyage aux Indes Orientales et a la Chine.” Paris: L’auteur, 1782. Left (Image 329). Right (Image 330). Library of Congress General Collections.

Travel Accounts: One of this digital collection’s travel accounts is the two-volume work of French naturalist Pierre Sonnerat, “Voyage aux Indes Orientales et a la Chine” or “Journey to the East Indies and China” (1782). The first volume is notable for its descriptions of India and Hinduism along with illustrations of many Hindu deities. A more romantic perspective comes in the form of German-Dutch traveler Jacob Haffner’s “Reize in eenen palanquin,” or “Journey in a Palanquin” (1820). Haafner’s fascination with Orissa and the Coromandel Coast in eastern India is matched by his criticism of colonialism in general and the British in particular.

Travel writing also contains exoticized and racialized depictions of South Asian peoples and traditions. Consider the works by American reverends like Caleb Wright’s “India and Its Inhabitants” (1850) and William Butler’s “The Land of the Veda” (1895). Neither would be taken at face value by today’s standards of scholarship, but researchers will nonetheless find them useful for understanding how American audiences became acquainted with India through popular literature over a century ago.

Questions about the South Asian Digital Collection or materials related to South Asia at the Library of Congress? Contact reference staff through Ask a Librarian.

A previous version of this blog post incorrectly identified a Tamil dictionary in the “Grammar and Linguistics” section as Malayalam.

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