Wednesday, 4 April 2012


            Thanjavur has been renowned as a great center of Art, Culture and Literature for more than ten centuries. Successive generations of the Cholas, Nayaks and Maratha rulers have contributed and enriched the cultural greatness. Thanjavur is well known throughout the world for its Brahadeeswar Temple, magnificent Palace and the Sarasvati Mahal Library.  The Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji's Sarasvati Mahal Library is one among the few medieval libraries exist in the world. It is an unbounded repository of culture and inexhaustible treasure house of knowledge built up by the successive dynasties of Nayaks and Marathas of Thanjavur. It contains very rare and valuable collection of manuscripts, books, maps and paintings on all aspects of Arts, Culture and Literature. The encyclopedia of Britannica in its survey of Libraries of World mentions this as "the most remarkable Library in India".

           During the reign of Nayaks of Thanjavur (1535-1675), the Library was formed and developed in the name of Sarasvati Bhandar. The Maratha rulers who ruled Thanjavur (1676-1832) has patronized and developed the royal palace Library. Among the Maratha Kings, Raja Serfoji II (1798- 1832) was an eminent scholar in many branches of learning. With great enthusiasm he took special steps for the enrichment of the Library. After Serfoji, his son Shivaji II and his daughter-in-laws maintained
         After the death of last Maratha queen, the Library was made as public Library in 1918 under the Charitable Endowment Act. After the visit of our former Prime Minister Mrs.Indira Gandhi, Government of India has constituted a three-member committee under the chairmanship of Dr.S.R.Ranganathan. Accordingly to the report in 1983, the Library was declared as an Institution of National importance and made it as a Registered Society with ex-officio members of Central and State Governments, nominated Scholars, Members from the Royal family.

            This library has richest collection of manuscripts that truly reflective of the history and culture of India. In addition to this and over the passage of time, the library has also gained possession of manuscript collections formerly maintained by pandits and their patrons living in and around Thanjavur. The manuscripts are available both on palm leaf and paper. These are written in Sanskrit, Tamil, Marathi and Telugu and deal with a wide range of subjects Apart from Manuscripts this library has rare books, paintings, drawings, artifacts etc.,
Sanskrit Manuscript collection:
            A majority of the manuscripts in the library numbering thirty nine thousand are in Sanskrit. These manuscripts are written in Grantham, Devanagari, Nandinagari, Tikalari and Telugu scripts. Some of the outstanding Sanskrit works, unique to this library deserve a special mention. Amongst these, some of the most valuable ones are rare lexicons, the grammar of a rare dialect called Bhandira Bhasha, a play written by King Krishnadevaraya title Jambavatiparinaya, poetess Ramabhdramba’s biographical poem on her patron King Raghunatha Nayak, a work on temple architecture and Viswakarmiyavastu Sastra on construction of houses respectively may also be found here. Two texts in this section which show the scholar’s mastery of the language and grammar are Shabdartha Chintamani and the Kathatrayi of Chidamabarakavi. In Shabdartha Chintamani, the poet uses several rare techniques of writing. Reading the stanza from left to right, we find ourselves reading Ramayana and reading the same stanza from right to left, we come across the story of Krishna. His other work Kathatrai narrates stories from Ramayana and Bhagavatam. This library has a large number of manuscripts on music and dance, ayurveda medicine architecture and manuscripts on Kshetramahatmiyas, the puranic accounts of the sanctity and legends attached to great shines and sacred villages and towns found in the Cauvery delta.
Tamil Manuscripts:
            The Tamil Manuscript Section comprises of the rare works belonging to the Imperial Chola period are written in manipravala style. The medical manuscripts written by the Tamil scholars like Kottaiyur Sivakolundu Desikar were based on the process made in the Dhanvantri Mahal Hospital. Sivarahasyam, which was written during Serfoji II, is one of the oldest Tamil Manuscripts; Kumbakona-p-puranam and Sarabhendra Bhoopala Kuravanji are the notable manuscripts. The 18th century "Kambaramayanam" palm leaf manuscripts with 537 leaves and seven khandas is also a typical one.  Some Sthala Purana manuscripts give historical information’s about temples and places.
Marathi Manuscripts
            The Marathi Paper Manuscripts collected during the reign of Marathas of Thanjavur i.e from 1676 to 1855 A.D are preserved in this Library. Marathi Manuscripts from Pandits, Mutts and Scholars were received as donation and preserved. They are classified into many subjects like Philosophy, Literature, Drama, Music, Lexicon, Medicine, Science etc., The Marathi Manuscripts in palm leaf are written in Telugu script. They deal with Marathi dramas. The works composed by the poets of Thanjavur are unique to Marathi literature. Dasabodham by Bhaktha Ramadas, commentary on the Bhagavad gita by Amber Hussain, a Muslim Poet, Several manuscripts related to music, dance and drama are available in this library.
Telugu Manuscripts:
            The Telugu Manuscript section has manuscripts on Padya Kavyas, Dvipada Kavyas, Satakas, Yakshaganas, Astrology, Medical etc., are there in this section. The works of Nannaiya, Tikkanna, Bodanna, Krishnadevaraya, Vijayaraghava Nayak are also available. There is the most valuable collection of manuscripts particularly relating to the Southern School of Telugu literature.

Modi documents:
            Modi is a type of script used for writing the Marathi court language during the Maratha rulers of Maharashtra as well as Thanjavur. They are all paper manuscripts. Letter correspondences, orders, daily accounts, diaries, petitions etc., were written in Modi script. There are 1300 Bundles of Modi documents in the Library, Thanjavur.
Documents related to French-Maratha correspondence and Royal correspondences during 18th century are available in polished handmade papers with gold and silver spray works. There are the rare and important documents. Selected Modi documents are transcribed and translated for publication. These are the only indigenous source materials for the history of the Marathas of Thanjavur.

      Along with manuscripts, the library also has rare printed books.The Book collection of this Library started by the King Serfoji II. He himself collected nearly 4500 books in English, French, Latin, Italian etc., from foreign countries. Later books were added to this Library since 1918 A.D., Now, the Reference Books section has more than 65,000 books in English, Tamil, Sanskrit, Marathi, Hindi, Telugu and other Indian languages.
       Raja Serfoji enriched this library by collecting not only manuscripts but also Books, Illustrated Manuscripts, Drawings, Atlases and Maps, Lithographic engravings, etc., Because of his multi-focal attraction he collected a large number of books in European languages. Now this Library has 3830 English books, 421 French books, 108 German books 35 Danish books and few books in Dutch, Greek, Latin languages. Serfoji has autographed all the books in his collection. These books mostly printed in London, Edinburgh, Paris and the year printing spanned from 1696 to 1830. These books dealt with all disciplines.
             It has the richest collection on European languages and literatures, Medical Sciences, Chemistry, Astronomy Geography, Explorations and Voyages, English Almanacs, Periodicals, Encyclopaedias etc., This collection has some rare and first editions of highly valued books.

        Raja Serfoji II was born on 24-9-1777 and had his education under the guidance of Danish missionary father Schwartz. He was a scholar in English, French, Germany, Sanskrit, Tamil and Marathi languages. He came to power in 1798, In 1799, He had a treaty with the British. According to the treaty the British appointed Collector for administration; he diverted his activities for the development of art and culture till his death in 8th March 1832.
         In India most of the Palace Libraries were destroyed due to war. The famous King Tippu Sultan had a Library, after the war with Tippu in 1799 the books were taken away by the British.  Before removing the books, a catalogue was prepared by Charles Stewart, a professor of Cambridge University. A copy of the Tippu Sultan’s Library catalogue is available in this library. The Catalogue has information about “Memoirs of Hyder Ali khan and Tippu Sultan.  It seems that Raja Serfoji’s decision of making accord with British administrators helped to preserve this treasure house of knowledge.
        Serfoji enriched the collection of this Library through various literary activities. He himself was author of quite a number of works in Sanskrit and Marathi. These manuscripts are preserved in this Library. He encouraged great Pandits in all branches of learning. The Pandits well versed in Dharmasastra were appointed as Judges in his court of Justice. The Pandits compiled A legal vade macum entitled “Vyavahara Prakasa” from various smiriti texts for daily use in the conduct of administration and Justice.

Travel to Banaras
        Raja Serfoji made a pilgrimage to Banaras in 1820. He took 300 people along with him, which includes Pandits, copyists, artists and others. He employed Pandits to collect, buys and copy a vast number of works in Sanskrit from all the renowned centers of Sanskrit learning in the North and other areas. He commissioned his artist to draw the views of sixty-four bathing ghats of Banaras from East to West of the river Ganges in eight plates which is available in this Library.
Printing Press
        The Maratha kings started Chat trams for catering and other physical needs of the pilgrims. Raja Serfoji started School attached to the most of the Chat trams under his control and imparted free education to village Children. For the use of little Children, Serfoji ordered that the English books like Aesop’s fables to translate into simple Indian languages. He started the first printing press in 1805 in Thanjavur with Devanagari Script called “Navavidya KalasalaVarnayantra” for producing copies of all great works in languages for wider use and circulation among public.  The Journal entitled “Indian Antiquary” vol.1 Published in 1872 mentions that the Serfoji’s printing press was the earliest printing press, which was started for Devanagari script printing in whole south India. The Types and Blocks were prepared using soft stone and hard wood. Even today the library preserves some of the books printed in press.
 Dhanvantri Mahal:
             Raja Serfoji was running an Institution in Thanjavur called Dhanvantri Mahal. He devoted himself for the progress of research in Ayurvda, Siddha, and USANi in the Dhanvantri Mahal. Recipes of medicinal preparations were recorded in Manuscript form in 18 volumes. These manuscripts are embodied in the series of words named Sarabendra Vaidyamuraigal. Besides basic research on many ailments, excellent work had been done on disease like Cancer, Polio, Diabetes and Tuberculosis by this institution in Ayurveda and Siddha field.  The Library has published some in the Series.
        There was an Ophthalmic section in that Institution, which maintained the case history sheets for each patients with picture of the diseased eye, date of admission, types of treatment given and condition during discharge. The case history sheets reveal that free treatment was given to public and some amount was also given during discharge of the patients.

Musical Notation
         Raja Serfoji was a great composer and a musician and had left several musical compositions in Indian languages as well as in English. He collected nearly 150 musical notation books and more than thirty hand-written Indian musical notation copies are preserved in the library. Even now some of his compositions are performed
Member of Royal Asiatic Society
            The British has given high regard to the King Serfoji II. He was included as a Honorary member of Royal Asiatic society of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1827 there were only four foreign dignitaries who were honorary members in the society, they are:-
           1. His Royal Highness the Duke Oeorleans
           2. His majesty the King of Oude
           3. His Royal Highness Abbas mirza, Prince Royal of Persia
           4. His Highness the Rajah of Tanjore.
              Raja Serfoji’s multi-focal knowledge, and recognition and good relationship of the British administrators cause him to collect more books and manuscripts.

View of a visitor:
            Thomas Robinson who accompanied Bishop Heber to meet Raja Serfoji on 30th March 1826 written in the book “the last days of Bishop Heber as,” The Bishop paid a private visit to the Rajah, who received us in his library, a noble room with three rows of pillars, and handsomely furnished in the English style. On one side there are portraits of the Mahratta dynasty from Shahjee and Sivajee, ten bookcases containing a very fair collection of French, English, German, Greek, and Latin Books, and two others of Maharatta and Sanskrit manuscripts. In the adjoining room has an air pump, an electrifying machine, an ivory skeleton, astronomical instruments, and several cases of books, many of which are on the subject of medicine, which was for some years his favorite study. He showed us his valuable collection of coins, paintings of flowers and natural history, with each of which he seemed to have considerable acquaintance, particularly with the medicinal virtues of plants in his hortus sick’s. When we took our leave his Minister showed us a noble statue of the Rajah by Flaxman . . . His stables contain several fine English horses; but that of which he is most justly proud, as the rarest curiosity of an Indian Court, is an English printing press, worked by native Christians, in which they struck off a sentence in Mahratta in the Bishop’s presence in honor of his visit.
             Some are Dr.Johnson’s Dictionary (5th edition, 1784 A.D.) in two volumes, A Pictorial Bible of 1791, Antoine Alaurent Lavoisier’s Elements of Chemistry, first edition of Fourcroy’s major work the General system of Chemical Knowledge in Eleven volumes, George Buffons 36 volumes of Natural History of the Earth (1749-1785).

Books on Travels History:
            Books on Travels and Voyages give historical facts and records of that period. This library has many books on travels. Robert Perivale’s book “ An account of the Island of Ceylon” Containing its History, Geography, Natural History, with the manners and Customs of its various Inhabitants. George, Viscount Valentia’s Voyages and Travels to India Ceylon, the Red Sea, Abyssinia and Egypt in the years 1802 to 1806 gives historical accounts of various places and status of administration. We could know the Tanjore palace description from this book. Some other  books give historical facts on India are
v  The Travels of Ibn Batuta,2vols tr by Lee Samuel B. D, London, 1829
v  A Voyage in the Indian Ocean and to Bengal 2 v. by Grnadpre,L.D, London,1803
v  Travels from England to India 2 v. of Major John Taylor, London, 1799
v  Army during the Mahratha War of 1817-1819 by Blacker Valentine, London,1821
v  Memoirs of the operations of the British Army in India during 1817-1819
v  A Narrative of the Campaign in India by Dirom , London,1793
v  The History of Hindustan, 2v by Dow Alexander, London, 1770
v  A History of Hindustan from the death of Akbar to the reign of Aurangazib 
v  A View of the Taj Mahal at the city of Agra, London,1798
v  Journals of the Sieges of the Madras Army in 1817-19 by Lake Edward, London, 1825.
v  Consideration of the policy of renewing exclusive privileges of East India company,1812
v  History o the Religious institutions founded by British  in Calcutta, Lushington Charles,1824
v  Sketch of political History of India from Pitts Bill 1784 to the present date 1811
v  Indian Antiquities or the history of Hindustan, 7 v, Marsh Herbert,1794
v  History of British India, 6v,Mill James, London,1826
v  A Narrative o th Mahratta Army by Moor Edward
v  A History of the Military transactions of the British Nation in Industan 2v by Robert Orme,London,1798 etc.,

Maps and Atlases:
     The Atlases and Maps collected by the Raja Serfoji are extraordinary important, which are preserved in the library. These Maps dealt with ancient History, Geographical details, Sea routes, Political divisions and their boundaries.  The Maps were made with the compilation of land survey. In the Maps printed in 18th and 19th century, we can see the name of India as “Hindoostan” or the Mogul Empire” Australia as New Holland, Japan as Nippon etc,
v  The Oldest printed book available in this Library is an Atlas, which was printed in the years 1692, 1693 and 1696. The Atlas consists78 plates with Description in French languages The Maps having both descriptions of the countries and navigational directions
v  An interesting and rare map of India of size 112x106 cms is available in the Library. The title and other details are “A Map of Hindoostan or the Moghul Empire” from the latest authority inscribed to Sir Joseph banks Bart, president of Royal Society which was produced by Mr. J. Rennel, a pioneer in Map making on 1st Jan 1788. In this map the coastal Tamilnadu and some portions extended up to Ongole in Andhra Pradesh are referred as the region of Carnatic. Hence the music flourished in this area has been called as Carnatic Music. It is significant to note that this map indicates Adams Bridge, which connects India and Ceylon. Maclean in his Glossary of Madras Presidency Gazetteers (Vol. III pate 5) mentioned that the bridge was used for foot traffic till 1480 A.D.  Later it was damaged by the breach.
v  Collection of maps and plans to accompanying to History of the military transactions of the British Nation in Indoostan by Robert Orme,1862, which depicts the military transactions of the British and Ancient Plans of the Forts.
v  Maps of the world showing the tracks and discoveries of captain cook, drawn for the best authorities by P.J. Russell, London, 1811. This Atlas consists 29 plates
v  Maps of the world from the latest discourses by R.Wilkinson, London 1796, which consists 48 plates. This atlas have an accurate maps of Hindoostan and an account maps of southern provinces of Hindoostan showing the territories ceded  Tippoo Sahib
v  A New maps of world with captain Cooks tracts by Lauri Whittle, London, 1800
v  Maps of the world by John Carry, Engineer, London,1801
v  The world from the Discourses and Observations made in the largest Voyages and Travels
v  An Atlas to Guthrie’s Geographical Grammar
v  The Chronology and History Of the world by John Blair, London, 1814
v  The Small British Atlas: maps to countries of England and Wales by John Racquet, 1764.
v  Geographia Classica: Gography of the ancients as contained in Greek and Latin classics by Hermon Moll, Geographer, 1721. The maps were drawn on the basis of the Classics by Justin,Homer, Hyodoties, Xerophon, Caeser, Lucan about Roman Empire, Egypt, Expedition of Alexander the Great,
Notable Maps:

v  Map of the Dominions of Mysoor at the death of Chick Deo Raj Wadeyar in 1704 by Lieut Co. Mackenzie, London, Longman, 1810
v  Sketch showing the different roads through the Peninsula of India under the presidency of Fort St. George.
v  Map Illustrative of the History of the life and times of HyderAlly Khan and his descendants; exhibiting the utmost extent of the Mysore dominions under that family and the principal places connected with the transactions of that period to 1799. This map laid down from the late surveyor of Mysore liet. Col. wilks.

 Pictures and Drawings:
          Serfoji collected many pictorial books on the views of scenarios, towns, temples, country sides, fort and battle, rivers etc. Some of the notable pictorial books are costumes of various countries, view of Burma, view of Mysore, Himalayan views, Chinese punishments etc.,
             A notable and interesting pictorial book available in the Library is "Human Physiognomy pictures". It is a series of Lithographic drawings by Charles-Le-Brun, a noted French Artist, it is a Illustrative drawing of relation between human face with beast and birds face. Another 48 pictures of Oriental scenarios of Hindoostan by Daniel brothers are also available in the Library.

Other collections:

            Besides books and manuscripts, this library possesses beautifully decorated Thanjavur style paintings on wood, canvas, glass and about five thousand folios of illustrated paper paintings such as Gaja sastra, Aswa Sastra, Mythological pictures, botanical specimen paintings, military costumes, Chitra Ramayana etc., The library also has a rich collections of miniature manuscripts, miniature paintings and manuscripts of micrographic writings. One such manuscript is Shivaprapancharatna stotram. Each letter in this work is made up of the microscopic term ‘Shiva Shiva’. It feature is an excellent calligraphy.

Manuscripts Catalogue:
        Even though the Library originated in 16th Century, the earliest catalogue available in the Library belongs to Raja Serfoji’s Period. The Catalogue for Palm leaf manuscripts was prepared in Palm leaf form and that of paper manuscripts in Paper form, The Palm leaf manuscript catalogues are three bundles in Telugu Script. The Palm leaf manuscript catalogue preparation work was started in 1801. The Later in 1840 and 1857, catalogues were prepared by the orders of Shivaji II and the then Thanjavur District Collector Mr. Forbes. In 1871, by the order of the Governor General, Dr. A. C. Burnell prepared catalogue for Sanskrit manuscripts and published in two volumes in 1879 and 1880 printed at London.  From 1920 Descriptive catalogue preparation has been started and 62 volumes of catalogues were prepared for Manuscripts.. A catalogue for his book collection was also prepared in 1830. Under 27 Subject headings and the titles one arranged in alphabetically under each subjects.
            One of the aims of the Library is to publish the rare and unpublished manuscripts into printed book form. The Pandits of Sanskrit, Marathi, Telugu and Tamil are undertaking editing job for publication.  Apart from them, Guest Editors are also appointed to undertake some specialized works. Expert in that field evaluates the edited manuscripts and then it will be taken for publication. So far this library has published 535 books from the manuscripts
This Library manuscripts and books are national wealth. It is our duty of one and all to preserve them for the use of future generation.


  1. Sir, I am delighted to see a very useful article on the main sources pertaining to Sarasvathi Mahal Library. This will be of much useful not only to public but also to the scholars. I expect many more articles. With best wishes, B. Jambulingam

  2. Hi,

    We have several palm leaf manuscripts in Tamil, Sinhalese, Malayalam, and Balinese in our private collection. We are in the process of digitizing them. In the meantime, is there any source on how to properly conserve these valuable documents? Also, we have several மடக்கெழுத்தாணி and other types of styluses. Is there any documentation on the history of the various types, how they are used and the origin of these instruments?



    1. please send your mail address, I will send some articles on palm leaf conservation

    2. Hi,

      Sorry for this late response. My email address is We also have a Balinese manuscript that is badly warped. It is very stiff and hence it will be damaged if we try to flatten the leaves. How would you go about conserving this? We would like to digitize this using a scanner, but we are afraid of cracking the leaves. Once we establish an exchange of email addressees, I'll sent you my postal address to receive your articles if they are not digital...



    3. BTW, I can send you digital images of the manuscripts we have already processed. It would be helpful if we can all identify the contents as I think it would prove to be very interesting...

  3. நண்பர் பெருமாளின் கட்டுரை நல்ல விதமாக அமைந்துள்ளது. என்னுடைய என்ற முகவரியில் சுவடியியல் தொடர்பான செய்திகள் இடம்பெற்றிருக்கின்றன. இவற்றினைக் கண்டும் பயன்பெறலாம்.
    More information for Manuscritology see
    Dr,M.K. Kovaimani
    Head, Department of Palmleaf Manuscripts,
    Tamil University, Thanjavur - 613 010.

  4. தயவு செய்து தங்களின் தமிழ் நூல்களின் பட்டியல் ஒன்றை அனுப்பி வைக்கவும்.,ஆயுள் வேத உபதேசங்கள் என்ற புத்தகம் கிடைக்குமா?

  5. நூலகம் அய்யா பிருகு முனிவர் புத்தகம் என்ன உள்ளது என்று கூற முடியுமா இருந்தால் எனக்கு Mail அனுப்பவும் நன்றி

  6. want copy of janana sagaram by bogar

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. sir i have your palm leaf copy. please help by sending the palm leaf manuscripts for reading and research. my email id is

  9. Thank you for sharing this detailed post and enlighting us with the various cultural and historical places to visit in Thanjavur . It is helpful as I am planning a vacation soon.

  10. Thanks a million for such a informative blog.
    If we come to this library can we see these eye case sheets u have written about ?

  11. Its sea of knowledge....अप्रतिमच म्हणाव असं

  12. Its sea of knowledge....अप्रतिमच म्हणाव असं

  13. hii.. IM sry to not use tamil here...
    anyways thank you soooo much for such a detailed information about thanjai saraswathi mahal library.. being in thanjavur i dint know all this great work sir..!! I'm studying 10th.It is very useful for my tamil project .

  14. Hello sir, I am a big fan of cholas.I am searching for the inscription with the name of vandhiyathevan in the big temple.can you please help me in this...

  15. Hello sir, I am a big fan of cholas.I am searching for the inscription with the name of vandhiyathevan in the big temple.can you please help me in this...

  16. Sir, Could you give me authentic details about Thanjai nayak rulers. I am writing a book on Nayak rulers.

    Their role in promoting or sabotaging Tamil and Tamils.
    War with Madurai, Senji Nayaks.
    Caste equations.
    Settling Andhra people in Tamil country.

  17. Sir,
    I need the book of agama sastra in Tamil edition pls send my e-mail ID is
    prabhavpt71 thanks

  18. Dear Dr. Perumal
    Thank you for this very interesting information. I've also watched your talk on utube about the fascinating subject of palm-leaf mss. Apparently in Cambridge University library archives, there's a palm-leaf document which they claim is a 1000 years old. Perhaps this is only a copy as you have said, because of the perishability of palm-leaves after about 500 years? Would you be kind enough to contact me on:
    with all good wishes
    Sarah Knight

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