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Subject guide

South Asian and Tibetan Special Collections

The South Asian and Tibetan special collections provide material pertaining to the languages, histories, philosophies, art and material cultures of the region. The focus lies on Sanskrit, Tibetan, Lepcha, and Buddhism, but the collections also hold rich visual material for educational and academic purposes in the field of archeology, art history and material culture.

The region covered comprises the entire Indian subcontinent (Nepal, Bhutan, India, Pakistan en Bangladesh), Sri Lanka and the Maldives, as well as Afghanistan, Tibet and the Himalayan regions from Pakistan and India (in particular Sikkim and Ladakh). Apart from rare books and periodicals, the collections contain manuscripts in manifold forms, block prints, photographs and slides, archives and scholarly notes, letters, drawings, maps, copper charters and an extensive collection of rubbings of inscriptions.

The majority of these collections was compiled from the mid-nineteenth century onwards and was kept (until 2010) in the library of the former Kern Institute, now part of the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS). A substantial part of it was given on loan by the Society of Friends of the Kern Institute.

Except for the small number of manuscripts that were purchased or received as donations, the Sanskrit collection consists of two major sub-collections: those of the Leiden scholars Kern and Van Manen.  Among the more recent acquisitions are ten South-Asian manuscripts in the Grantha script.

In 1883 and 1889 respectively, Professor Hendrik Kern (1833-1917) donated more than thirty palm leaf manuscripts dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth century to the Kern Library. He had collected them during his stay in Bengalen where he was affiliated with the Brahmana College and the Queen’s College in Benares, prior to his appointment as professor of Sanskrit in Leiden.

With the help of a pandit from Madras and on request of prof. J.P. Vogel, Johan van Manen (1877-1943) accumulated more than 300 palm leaf manuscripts that he sent to the Kern Institute in Leiden between 1908 and 1943. All those manuscripts are of South Indian origin and date from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. They are written in various scripts and styles covering a wide range of subjects. Later, the collection was supplemented by some 40 other manuscripts from the Van Manen bequest.

The collection includes about seventy other manuscripts of different materials and in various Indian languages, like Bengali, Tamil and Malayalam. Some of them are part of the Van Manen bequest, while the others originate from several other scholars. Some manuscripts in Sinhala from Sri Lanka can also be found in the collection of Leiden University, as well as a small collection of Indian manuscripts acquired by Robert C. Hekker (1917-1990).

The famous Tibetan collection consists of block prints and manuscripts from various sources and acquired over a longer period of time. The texts deal primarily with religious and philosophical questions pertaining to Tibetan Buddhist traditions as well as closely related subjects, such as astrology and medicine. A sizable number of block prints were printed on the specific request of scholars affiliated with Kern Institute and collected by Ronald Poelmeyer (1946-1993). More recently the University Library acquired seventeen Tibetan manuscripts from Ulan Bator (Mongolia). Since 2012 facsimile prints of two larger sub-collections enrich the collection: sNga ’gyur rgyud ’bum phyogs bsgrigs (rNying ma rgyud ’bum) and sNga ’gyur bka ma shin tu rgyas pa gsung ’bum. The majority of the block prints and manuscripts comes from the Van Manen bequest.

The collection of nearly 190 Lepcha manuscripts from Sikkim is also part of the Van Manen bequest. This collection written in the Lepcha language is by far the largest collection of its kind in the world. Digital reproductions in black-and-white of the manuscripts are available via the online catalogue (shelfmarks begin with “I.KERN 2740/L”).

At this moment, the Kern Institute photography collection comprise about 70,000 photographs and 100,000 slides. Those are both historical and modern images, for a large part related to archaeology, art and architecture, such as the collection of photographs from the Archaeological Survey of India. Other collections illustrate also insular and mainland Southeast Asia, for instance the recently received Foekema collection, or the unique collection of circa 21,800 photographs from the Archaeological Service of the Dutch East Indies and of Indonesia (Oudheidkundige Dienst in Nederlandsch-Indië / Dinas Purbakala Indonesia), the so-called OD-photographs,.

So far, over 60 % of the photographs and slides has been catalogued online, of which about 15% has an image attached to the metadata. They are available via Digital Special Collections.

The map collection of India, collected by the Kern Institute, comprises thirteen old maps (1657-1900) and about 600 modern maps from the Indian Army Map Service, furthermore the Survey of India and the National Atlas of India from the years 1960-1980. These and other maps of the region are kept in the Maps and Atlasses Collection, which has its own web page.

Many items are accessible via the online catalogue. Consult Digital Special Collections for more information, inluding collection guides, digitized catalogues, digital facsimiles, online exhibitions and snapshots. In 2016 a project has started to describe all Sanskrit manuscripts and include them in the online catalogue.