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The foundation of today’s South Asian collection was laid in 1904 with the purchase the library of German Indologist Dr. Albrecht Weber (1825-1901). Given the size of the Weber collection alongside other previously acquired items, in 1938 the Library inaugurated the Indic Project to manage and service its collection of materials from and about India. A trip to South Asia just before the United States entered the Second World War resulted in massive additional acquisitions. Various post-WW2 acquisition projects, particularly after the establishment of the Library’s field offices in New Delhi (1962) and Karachi (1965), have significantly expanded the South Asian collection by focusing on publications in modern vernacular languages.
By the end of 2019, the South Asian collection has grown to more than 300,000 bibliographic records for books and 6,900 bibliographic records for serials in approximately one hundred languages of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Another notable aspect is the large and ever-growing number of electronic resources and databases, some of which are accessible only onsite at the Library of Congress. Overall, this collection provides broad research coverage in most fields and disciplines, particularly in the areas of vernacular languages and literatures, modern history and politics, vernacular newspapers and periodicals, and government publications.
With regard to rare and special items, there are about 1,700 items in the South Asian Rare Book Collection, including about 1,000 manuscripts in various languages. The vast majority of manuscripts are in Sanskrit, followed in number by Urdu. There are about 470 manuscripts in the “Indo-Aryan Ms.” Series, most of which are in Sanskrit from the nineteenth century. There are 74 manuscripts plus over 20 loose sheets in the Naqvi Collection, ranging from the eighteenth to twentieth century, primarily in Urdu and a single manuscript in Sanskrit. A curious item in this collection is a versified exchange between Shāzādi Nūrjahān̲ Begam and Navvāb Āṣaf al-Daulah. The few pages of this item include a few couplets of poetry in two different hands. There is no date but according to the reign of Āṣaf al-Daulah we can surmise it is from the mid- to late-eighteenth century.Additional Naqvi manuscripts in Persian and Arabic dating back to the eleventh century are accessible in the African and Middle Eastern Division. Three notable manuscripts in Urdu are illuminated manuscripts of Siḥr al-bayān, a mas̲navī of the Indian Urdu and Persian poet Mīr Ḥasan. This fantastical Urdu poetic epic is a story of forbidden love between a prince and princess, complete with fairies and other mythological creatures. The three versions in the Asian Division include chronographs from approximately the later eighteenth century, 1900, and 1912.
One of the top treasures is a birch bark scroll from ancient Gandhara (modern-day northern areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan), which may be as old as the 1st century BCE. The scroll is written in the Gandhari language and contains one of the Buddha’s teachings about buddhas of past, present, and future eons. In 2019, the scroll was digitized and made available online.
Among other notable items in the manuscript collection are two long scrolls of the life of Krishna in miniscule script, one of which is a nineteenth-century scroll measuring more than 50-feet long. Another manuscript on the same theme is from eighteenth-century Orissa and contains numerous illustrations by a stylus on palm leaves. The “Crosby fragments” are paper manuscript leaves from before 1100 CE in Buddhist Sanskrit from Khotan, an abandoned oasis in western China. The collection’s name derives from Oscar Terry Crosby, the American businessman who later became Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. Crosby purchased the fragments during a journey to Central Asia in the early twentieth century. This collection’s microfilm is also available on request in the Asian Reading Room. From the period of the British Raj, there is a collection of about 60,000 handwritten legal and commercial documents from various princely states in western and central India. Most of these documents are from the early twentieth century.
The Library also has the only known complete run of the first periodical in a South Asian language: the Tamil magazine Palavita ñānapotakam (Madras, 1831-1840). This was published by the American Mission Press. Other items in the South Asian Rare Book Collection include Bibles in various languages from early missionary presses, textbooks on secular subjects, and a large number of tracts on religion and society during the nineteenth century.