Sarasvati Mahal Library: Thanjavur’s 500-year-old collection of rare books and palm leaf manuscripts

Sarasvati Mahal Library: Thanjavur’s 500-year-old collection of rare books & palm leaf manuscripts

The medieval library is one of the oldest in Asia & has a collection of over 49,000 manuscripts

Sarasvati Mahal Library: Thanjavur’s 500-year-old collection of rare books and palm leaf manuscripts 30stades

Within the maze-like Thanjavur Maratha Palace Complex in Tamil Nadu is a medieval-era library set up by the Nayak Kings of Tanjore who ruled the region from 1535 to 1674. The Sarasvati (or Saraswathi) Mahal Library, also called Maharaja Serfoji’s Saraswathi Mahal Library, is one of the oldest libraries in Asia. 

With a collection of over 49,000 manuscripts in palm leaf and paper written in Tamil, Hindi, English, Telugu, Marathi, and other languages, the royal library was set up for kings and royal family members. 

In 1675, the Marathas captured Thanjavur but continued to promote local art, culture and the collection of the library. As a result, it is now a rich repository of culture and knowledge built by successive dynasties of Nayaks and the Marathas of Thanjavur.

Among the Maratha Kings, the most notable contribution to the library was made by Serfoji II (1798–1832), a scholar, philosopher, and humanist. With a keen interest in reading and books, he took the services of many learned scholars to collect, buy and copy a large number of works from the renowned centres of Sanskrit learning in north India and other areas. The library’s collection also includes maps and paintings on many aspects of art, culture and literature.

Also Read: Kolkata Little Magazine Library: one-man effort to preserve rare books & periodicals

Nearly 39,300 of the manuscripts are in Sanskrit and 3,500 in Tamil.

The 3,076 transcripts in Marathi include the hierarchy of the Saints of Maharashtra of Sri Ramadas and Dattatreya Mutts. The Marathi manuscripts are mostly on paper while the 846 Telugu manuscripts are on palm leaf. Apart from these, the library is also home to 22 Persian and Urdu manuscripts belonging to the 19th century.

King Serfoji II, the Maratha king of Tanjavur (reign1798-1832), expanded the library. Pic: Wikipedia 30stades
King Serfoji II, the Maratha king of Tanjavur (reign17981832), expanded the library. Pic: Wikipedia

The library includes 1342 bundles of Maratha Raj records written in the Modi script (fast script of Devanagari) of the Marathi language. These records provide information on the political, cultural and social administration of the Maratha Kings of Thanjavur.

The rare collection of the library includes the Madras Almanack printed in 1807, the notes of Bishop Heber on Serfoji II, the globe used by Serfoji, ancient world maps, the correspondence between William Torin of London (who purchased a lot of books for Serfoji II) and the Sarasvati Mahal Library and the town planning documents of Thanjavur including the underground drainage system, the freshwater supply ducting system. 

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The oldest printed book available at the Sarasvati Mahal Library is an atlas printed in the years 1692, 1693 and 1696. 

It contains 78 plates with descriptions in French. The maps provide descriptions of the countries as well as navigational directions. 

King Serfoji II, the Maratha king of Tanjavur (reign1798-1832), expanded the library. Pic: Wikipedia 30stades
An artwork at the Sarasvati Mahal Library. Pic: Flickr

Since 1918, the library has been under the state of Tamil Nadu. A museum within the library provides a glimpse of ancient manuscripts, illustrated manuscripts, atlases, Thanjavur paper and canvas paintings, portraits, charts and many other materials. Prince Shrimant Tulajendra Rajah Bhosle also donated many antique items which were used by royalty in the bygone centuries. The medieval library is a living testimony to India’s rich cultural heritage and the need to preserve the same.

Also Read: Mumbai’s David Sassoon Library: A Baghdadi Jew’s contribution to the Maximum City’s architecture & reading culture

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