Meherjirana Library in The Hindu

The Hindu of today has carried an article that I wrote on the Meherjirana Library Conference of January 2013:

A small-town wonder


The Meherjirana Library in Gujarat is one of the most important centres in the world for the study of Zoroastrianism and Parsi history. Dinyar Patel takes a peek into its illustrious past and what it stands for today.

I never saw such a fine collection in a small town,” declared the French orientalist James Darmesteter after surveying the First Dastoor Meherjirana Library in Navsari, Gujarat, in 1887. Nearly 140 years after it first opened its doors, the Meherjirana Library remains one of the most important centres in the world for the study of Zoroastrianism and Parsi history. And it continues to draw visitors from far and wide. Earlier this month, from January 12-15, the library hosted about a hundred people — including scholars from the US, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan — for a special conference to celebrate some very important changes here.

Unlike many other institutions in India, the Meherjirana Library has eagerly embraced a programme of modernisation and document conservation. In recent years, it has received funding and support from various trusts and organisations, including UNESCO, INTACH, and the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, something that has in turn helped rekindle global academic interest in its collections. It has cooperated with a team from the University of Salamanca in Spain to digitise some of its most important Zoroastrian manuscripts. The conference built upon these international networks by bringing together both veteran researchers at the library, such as Dasturji Firoze M. Kotwal, the most learned scholar-priest in the Parsi community, and first-time visitors to Navsari like the novelist Amitav Ghosh.

For the Parsi community, Navsari has long been a bastion of religious knowledge and training, a town known reverentially as the dharamni tekri (“summit of the religion”). According to tradition, one 16 century Parsi priest, Meherji Rana, so greatly impressed Akbar that the Mughal emperor invited him back to his court in Fatehpur Sikri. From him sprang a priestly line (currently in its 17 generation) that both produced and collected a vast trove of knowledge on Zoroastrianism and other religions — a collection that was finally put into a formal library in 1874. The oldest manuscript in this collection dates from 1323 AD; there are also several Mughal sanads and firmans.

Many of these treasures were on display at the conference. Reza Huseini, an Afghan national and MA candidate in history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, pored over firmans from Akbar’s court, pointing out a note written by the vizier Abu’l Fazl. “It is so exciting to hold in my own hands actual documents from the Mughal era,” he commented. “These firmans show that the Parsis enjoyed special relations with the Mughals from the time of Akbar down through Aurangzeb.”

The conference also provided scholars an opportunity to survey the rich Parsi heritage of Navsari that exists beyond the library’s walls. “Navsari was a revelation,” stated Amitav Ghosh, who visited the birthplace of the industrialist Jamsetji N. Tata and the family house of Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, the 19 century opium baron and philanthropist. “It was amazing to see how this small town has played such an important part in the life of Indian Parsis — and how, through them, it became a crucible also of trade and industry.” On the conference’s last evening, attendees were invited into the ancestral homes of several local Parsis, where they examined family heirlooms and portraits and listened to family stories.

One of the conference’s chief goals was to promote such interaction between scholars and the Navsari community. “A number of famous scholars have been through the Meherjirana Library and generations of scholarship have been produced as a result,” commented Dan Sheffield, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton and one of the conference’s organisers. “However, very little awareness of that scholarship exists in Navsari.” Sheffield first thought of ways to bridge this gap while spending five months at the library in 2008 for his dissertation research.

An equally important challenge — something openly acknowledged by library officials, visiting scholars, and Navsari residents alike — is sustaining future restoration work and facility improvement. Many manuscripts and rare volumes are still badly damaged and are awaiting conservation. There is still no constant climate control at the library, something rendered even more difficult by Navsari’s spotty power supply. Monique Vajifdar, a paper conservator based in South Africa, stressed that the Meherjirana Library needed to build up its own in-house talent for conservation and repair rather than relying on outside or foreign expertise. “The library is at a crossroads, with wonderful resources which we have to preserve for the future,” she remarked. “What has been achieved here is truly remarkable but there is a long way to go.”

Dinyar Patel is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Harvard University.

Meherjirana Library website:

Meherjirana Library Conference


Tomorrow is an important day in Navsari: the inauguration of an international conference on Zoroastrian and Parsi studies, “Celebrating a Treasure: 140 Years at the First Dastoor Meherjirana Library,” held at the Meherjirana Library in Tarota Bazaar. The conference will last until 15 January and will include some of the world’s leading authorities on Zoroastrianism. It has been a pleasure for me to serve as one of the organizers of this conference.

The First Dastoor Meherjirana Library has been serving the people of Navsari as well as the Parsi and scholarly community since 1874. The library is named after one of the most significant figures in the history of the Parsi community, Dastur Meherji Rana (b. 1534), a Parsi priest who visited the court of the Emperor Akbar in Fatehpur Sikri from 1578-79, who, according to tradition, represented the Zoroastrian faith in the inter-religious dialogue at the Mughal Court.

According to the Mughal historian Badaʼuni, the Zoroastrians at the court impressed Akbar so much that he ordered Abu’l Fazl, his vizier, to keep a sacred fire burning day and night. Upon his return to Navsari, Meherji Rana was honored with the title of vada dastur (high priest). The hereditary line of Meherjirana priests—who, over the centuries, amassed a vast collection of Zoroastrian manuscripts and books—continues to this day.

The Library now holds this family collection in addition to other valuable material, making it one of the most important research libraries in the world for the study of Zoroastrianism and Parsi history, as well as the history of Gujarat and western India. A selection of the library’s most important manuscripts, some of which are more than six hundred years old, will be on exhibition during the conference.

In the past ten years, the UNESCO Parsi Zoroastrian Project (Parzor) and the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust have assisted with the refurbishment of the library, the restoration of manuscripts and rare books, and the construction of a new annexe.

In order to celebrate the international importance of this institution, the trustees of the Library and Parzor decided to organize a major conference focusing on Zoroastrian and Parsi studies.

The conference has been designed with two purposes in mind. First, we aim to familiarize international scholars with the resources of the Library. Secondly, we desire to promote interaction between these scholars and the local Navsari community, which has been a cradle of so much Parsi tradition and history over the centuries.

The conference will bring together some of the world’s leading scholars of Zoroastrian studies as well as several Zoroastrian high priests, providing a unique confluence of academic and priestly knowledge. On the evening of 12 January, Dr. Dasturji Firoze M. Kotwal, the most respected scholar-priest in the Parsi community, will deliver an inaugural lecture.

Amitav Ghosh, the acclaimed novelist whose most recent work, River of Smoke, features a Parsi protagonist, will deliver a special plenary address on the morning of 14 January.

A range of scholars from India and abroad—including professors and researchers from Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, the School of Oriental and African Studies (London), Free University of Berlin, Waseda University (Tokyo), Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the universities of Delhi and Mumbai—will feature on panel discussions.

These panels will focus on themes such as Parsi history in Gujarat and Mumbai, Parsis in modern India, Parsi rituals and traditions, study of the Avesta (the Zoroastrian holy text), and Zoroastrian manuscripts. Reflecting our commitment to the Navsari community and the broad promotion of knowledge beyond academia, scholars will tailor their presentations to a general audience.

In order to take full advantage of the richness of our surroundings in Navsari, the conference will feature several staples of Parsi culture: a Parsi Gujarati natak performed by Yazdi Karanjia’s troupe from neighboring Surat, demonstrations and exhibits of Parsi embroidery and textiles, and, of course, hearty Parsi cuisine.

The conference is being supported through the generosity of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and Mr. Nusli Wadia.

To learn more about the conference, please see our website.

Saving Parsi Heritage

An abandoned Parsi house in Udvada, now overgrown with vines.

Note: The following article was printed in the Navroze 2012 number of Jame-Jamshed.

Do Parsis lack a proper sense of history? It is a question that I have often wondered while traveling and conducting research across India in the past fourteen months. Our history and culture is as rich as that of any other community in India, yet we have, at least for the past few decades, not been very good stewards of them. A number of our libraries and institutions are badly run. There are whole collections of valuable books and related items that are gathering dust in Godrej cabinets—or worse yet, in the open air. Many of the old Parsi wads in our ancestral towns and villages are deserted and decayed. Our holiest site, the Iranshah Atash Behram, lies amidst houses of great historical and architectural value, many of which are abandoned and garbage-strewn.

This is not how advanced, educated communities are supposed to act. We can rely on no excuses such as poverty and lack of resources—indeed, it is becoming increasingly difficult across the rest of Indian society to employ these excuses. Institutions such as the BPP or Tata charities cannot provide all the necessary help or solutions. The responsibility for what is wrong—and the responsibility for making it right—rests firmly on each of our shoulders. We collectively need to do a much better job on protecting and preserving our past.

We have lost—and and are continuing to lose—far too much. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Parsis turned out a prolific amount of books and journals, ran dozens of newspapers and magazines, and supported a number of literary and educational societies. We had satirical journals like Parsi/Hindi Punch, filled with comics that poked fun of both British and Indians; serious newssheets like Sanj Vartaman, where Mahatma Gandhi figured amongst contributors; and societies like the Gayan Uttejak Mandli, which contributed toward the Parsis’ reputation as aficionados of Western music.  Scant records of these survive. In many other societies, they would be preserved and treasured.

There are a number of institutions and people doing their bit to help. The K.R. Cama Institute has employed INTACH to preserve many of its priceless manuscripts and other holdings. Homi Dhalla of the World Zarathushti Cultural Foundation has, among other activities, helped rescue Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy’s home in Navsari and establish the Zoroastrian Information Centre in Udvada. Along with preservation architects, he is hoping to turn Dadabhai Naoroji’s family house in Navsari’s Katrak Wad, which was nearly leveled by developers some years ago, into a proper memorial and museum. Shernaz Cama’s Parzor Foundation has, for years, labored to bring international attention to Parsi culture and has helped make the Meherjirana Library one of the jewels of our community.

These institutions and people need our active help and support. Yet I have been disappointed at how many Parsis display apathy and disinterest toward efforts to help preserve their culture. At the 2010 North American Congress in Houston, for example, I—perhaps too enthusiastically—showed a relatively affluent audience a check I had made out to Parzor for US$300, about one percent of my annual salary, and stated that if others who were far wealthier than I could do the same, then we as a community could truly do some good work with regard to protecting our heritage. If I remember correctly, my appeal generated a grand total of two checks—both for amounts much less than $300.

Let us begin with an obvious way to help protect our history. Many Parsi households have collections of old, rare Gujarati books on Parsi culture and the Zoroastrian religion, copies of old newspapers, and family trees. I have spoken with individuals who even have handwritten papers and letters of ancestors who were administrators in princely states, actors in Parsi theater, and merchants in East Asian trading outposts. Unfortunately, since many Parsis in my generation have limited or no Gujarati reading skills, they are considered of diminished value and are often rubbished. More than one elderly Parsi has offered me priceless Gujarati texts, telling me, “if somebody does not take this, my children will surely throw them away.”

For God’s sake, do not throw away such material. Old books, papers, letters, and other articles are of infinite value to historians such as me and, more importantly, future generations of Parsis and non-Parsis who will want to know about our rich past. Due to inexcusable carelessness and negligence, we have already lost papers of eminent Parsis such as Dinshaw Wacha and B.M. Malabari, personal items belonging to Dadabhai Naoroji, and the stories of countless other Parsis who have contributed toward both the community and India. We cannot afford to repeat these mistakes again.

Parzor is keen to collect artifacts of our heritage. I would like to highlight some recent donors to Parzor’s growing collection. Freny Ginwalla of Ahmedabad has donated handwritten hakim recipes—antidotes for afflictions ranging from dizziness to cholera—penned by a relative in Rangoon in 1925.  Meher Medora, also of Ahmedabad, has given a Vakil family album. Banoo Merchant of Mhow arranged for around 15 thick volumes of Parsi Avaz to be shipped to me in Bombay—these will also be donated to Parzor. Freny Sethna of Juhu is donating several volumes of Stree Bodh, a journal from the late 19th century meant to promote female education, that were lovingly preserved by her mother.

These individuals’ actions are to be commended—and emulated. If you or others are

unable or unwilling to keep similar items in your own family collections, I implore to please contact Parzor or other organizations and make a donation. You will do a great favor to your community.

Contact Dr. Shernaz Cama of Parzor at, 9810007717 or 011-2411-4794, or write to her at C-53 Anand Niketan, New Delhi 110021. 

India’s Troubled Archives and Libraries

India's history is literally rotting away in libraries and archives across the country.

The New York TimesIndia Ink has just recently published four pieces that I have written on the state of libraries and archives in India:

I: In India, History Literally Rots Away

II: Repairing the Damage at India’s National Archives

III: How Did Things Get This Bad?

IV: The Parsis, Once India’s Curators, Now Shrug as History Rots

For a country that is legitimately proud of its rich civilization, India can be remarkably callous about how it treats its history. Archives and libraries are, of course, only one aspect of what is in danger: one only has to visit other historical and archaeological sites in India to see how much heritage is being lost or is at perilous risk. It is hardly an understatement to say that, unless the Indian government gets serious about properly funding and staffing public archives and libraries, vast records of Indian history will literally turn to dust in the next few decades.

The problems associated with Indian archives are old. In the 1860s, the British Indian government became disturbed by the fact that Company records were rotting away and set up a special records commission. Allan Octavian Hume, who later went on to found the Indian National Congress, participated in committee proceedings. In 1871, he noted that, “Year by year the records are decaying; and unless some measures be adopted, it will, before very long, be found that, like the defunct Commission, the subjects of their investigations have dissolved themselves.” He urged the immediate publication of as much material as possible. Over 140 years later, as the historian S.R. Mehrotra remarked with disappointment, we face the same imperative: if conditions in Indian archives and libraries do not improve, then the only way to save important records will be to publish, photograph, or scan  them. A much cheaper and efficient method would be, of course, to improve the conditions at libraries and archives.

The idea for this series grew out of conversations I have had with other scholars, both Indian and non-Indian, while researching at the National Archives of India in Delhi during the past year. Over lunches and teas, we would trade stories of our experiences in various libraries and archives across the country. As I have mentioned in my article series, the sorry state of many of these institutions, and the destruction that is going on within them, is an open secret amongst scholars. However, due to the very real fear of institutional or staff retribution, we scholars mostly stay quiet and keep our complaints and observations to ourselves.


In order for Indian archives and libraries to change, this attitude has to change as well. As scholars, we have a responsibility not only to craft history out of our sources, but also to make sure that those sources survive to be used by future generations. If we only go to archives and libraries to fetch out information for our own personal use—and shut out the egregious practices that are going on around us—then we fail in this responsibility. There is still a real risk in speaking out, but, over the past year, I have heard many admirable stories about scholars who have protested against bad practices and bad policies. In many cases, they have succeeded in getting change instituted—something that benefits all of us. In the Maharashtra State Archives, one Indian Ph.D. candidate from a British university alerted the director that staff were retrieving bound 19th century newspaper volumes by flinging them off 15 foot-high shelves. In the West Bengal State Archives, a British Ph.D. candidate helped reverse the institution’s policy against using laptops (see more below).

It is my earnest hope that this series prompts some discussion, both amongst scholars and within the Indian government, about why so many archives and libraries are in terrible condition, and what can be done to change this sad state of affairs. Below are just a few suggestions on what needs to change:

  • Climate control: It is high time that 21st century India move beyond having libraries and archives that are open to the elements. Many British-era institutions remain in structures that have been hardly modernized or improved since they were built. Enclosed, climate-controlled structures will greatly cut down on weather, insect, and animal damage, leave alone providing more comfortable working conditions for scholars and staff.
  • Reevaluation of preservation policies: Methods of preservation in Indian archives, especially those involving the process of lamination, have often been disastrous. I have seen whole series of records at the National Archives, Maharashtra State Archives, and elsewhere that are now barely legible due to lamination. Lamination not only cuts down significantly on readability; the material also warps, discolors, and becomes brittle over time. The R.C. Dutt Papers at the National Archives are a travesty: on top of being laminated, these papers were bound into volumes (and occasionally bound out of order). I have been disturbed to hear staff in the National Archives talk about the same methods of preservation for the Dadabhai Naoroji Papers and have submitted a memo to the director strongly cautioning against this.
  • Staff training: Archives and libraries continue to function largely on the backs of “peons” or “boys.” These individuals, while doing vital work such as retrieving files and cleaning premises (in addition to making tea and doing countless other errands for staff), are given shockingly little training by their superiors. Steven Wilkinson, a professor of political science at Yale, observes that, “Not much of an effort is made to educate the lower-ranking staff on the importance of the documents and their careful handling.” I have seen this first hand: Dadabhai Naoroji’s letters scattered on a dirty floor so that a “peon” could find the specific files I requested. Superior officers need to be held accountable for training and monitoring the staff under them. As Wilkinson continues, it is very nice to be served namkeen and chai at your desk, but this “demonstrates something about the archival culture.” The bottom halves of staff hierarchies need to become invested in the mission of the archives.
  • A meritocratic culture: A professor at the University of Mumbai recounted how the university’s Kalina library benefited from a diligent assistant librarian who was keen on digitizing and better preserving some of the institution’s oldest holdings. She took the initiative to purchase equipment and develop long-term plans for the library. What was the reward for her initiative? The University of Mumbai’s head librarian demoted this assistant librarian to a third-rate college in the suburbs: her diligence and motivation were upsetting work patterns and was considered a nuisance. Such stories are not uncommon. In both public and private institutions, initiative and hard work need to be rewarded: these should be the factors for promotion rather than age or personal grudges.
  • Recruitment of qualified staff members: It is a miracle that, in spite of abysmally low pay scales and maddening bureaucracy, state-run archives and libraries retain so many qualified and dedicated staff members. There needs to be more of them, especially at the top. This requires a degree of bureaucratic reform and autonomy which the government is probably unprepared to allow. Hiring at government institutions is a centralized bureaucratic affair, oftentimes with an unhealthy dose of political interference. A deputy director at the National Archives recently informed me that it can take up to a year for a prospective employee’s file to make its way back to his desk from the central public services authorities. India produces no shortage of highly qualified historians, archivists, and curators. It is no mystery why so many of these individuals flee abroad to institutions that are better run, more meritocratic, properly funded, and not beholden to a sclerotic government bureaucracy.

The last few steps will contribute to perhaps the biggest required change in Indian archives and libraries: a change in mentality toward facilitating free research. As one Ph.D. candidate from the University of Chicago noted, neither institutions nor the government of India encourage an atmosphere of open inquiry for researchers. Foreign scholars must have their projects vetted by bureaucrats before they travel to India on research visas. All too often, institutes go out of their way to deny scholars, whether they are Indian or non-Indian, access to materials. Many librarians and staff members treat their institutions as personal fiefdoms and act as gatekeepers and regulators of information. This is a long distance from the model practiced elsewhere: that of librarians and administrators encouraging and facilitating free research. The Right to Information Act is changing the way things are working in Indian institutions. Let us hope that this also changes the way that many librarians and archivists understand their job responsibilities.

A volume of the Times of India from the 1870s, now reduced to shreds.


In the course of my research for this article series, I have visited and heard about several excellent institutions, as well as several disastrous ones. Here is some information about libraries of which India should be proud:

  • Forbes Gujarati Sabha: This small library in Juhu in Bombay contains a treasure-trove of Gujarati books and periodicals. Forbes is actively taking steps to preserve its material: aside from constructing a special chamber to mitigate the high acid content of Indian paper used in books from the 19th and early 20th centuries, they have digitized a large number of books and journals. One of Forbes’ trustees is Deepak Mehta, who had several decades’ experience in the Library of Congress’ India operations. Murali Ranganathan, a Mumbai-based independent researcher, is correct to describe Forbes as “easily the most excellent collection of Gujarati 19th century periodical material and books in Mumbai. The new air-conditioned premises, he adds, “are a cut apart from the library atmosphere of Mumbai.”
  • Institut de Chandernagor: This library, located in the former French possession of Chandernagore just north of Calcutta, has around 18,000 volumes, including rare French works. The institute includes Chandernagore-Pondicherry correspondence, which sheds light on French Indian trade in the 18th century. This correspondence has now been digitized and copies are available to scholars for a fee. Its director, Rila Mukherjee, is also a professor of history at the University of Hyderabad. “While I agree with you about the sad state of affairs in Indian libraries and archives,” Mukherjee recently wrote to me, “I should also point out that the small libraries and archives are already making the change.”
  • Sabarmati Ashram Library: As I mentioned in my article series, this library in Ahmedabad, the primary repository of Mahatma Gandhi’s papers, has kept its holdings in a sealed, temperature-controlled environment. They have also digitized their collection, which includes letters to Gandhi (not included in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi series). Scholars can use a comprehensive computer index of the holdings, access the scans, as well as purchase copies for a nominal fee, inside the library. I have used the library twice and have found staff members to be exceedingly helpful, friendly, and knowledgeable.

There are many other excellent institutions across India. Sadly, most of the feedback I received was regarding libraries and archives that are in terrible condition. Three of the most egregious cases of neglect and destruction are outlined below:

  • Patiala State Archives:  In January 2003, The Tribune of Chandigarh reported (here and here) how the government of Punjab took all of the archival records out of its premises—including material from the Khalsa durbar; eight princely states including Patiala, Kapurthala, and Faridkot; Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU); and around 35,000 books—packed them into tractor trailers, and dumped them into buildings at the Punjabi University. As a result, countless documents were damaged and a meticulously organized collection was literally scattered to the wind. Papers slipped out of their files and material was exposed to moist weather and possibly termites. Apparently, the task of organizing just the princely state papers had taken 33 years—in the span of two weeks, this multi-decade effort was completely undone. “The labour of years in cataloguing the records has thus gone [to] waste due to the criminal negligence of a few officials,” The Tribune noted. This hasty move prompted condemnation from the Indian Council of Historical Research. The motive behind the move was to vacate the archives’ premises—Rajindra Kothi, a heritage structure—for an art exhibit. However, the Punjab government subsequently decided to convert Rajindra Kothi into a heritage hotel. Shilpi Rajpal, a doctoral candidate at the University of Delhi, visited the archives in 2011 and reported that they are now located in a government building. The files were still—eight years after their hasty transfer—unorganized. One helpful staff member, Rajpal notes, did help her sift through the bundles in order to find the files she wanted to consult.
  • Tamil Nadu State Archives:  Getting access appears to be a particular headache at this institution. Foreign scholars are required to present proof that they have been permitted to access records at the National Archives of India in the last six months; otherwise, they must present a “certificate of proof,” indicating that the government of India has approved their research project. A legal historian from the United States reported waiting two weeks for permission to consult 18th century manuscript records; ultimately, he was only given permission to access printed materials.  One scholar from the United Kingdom reported that conditions in the archives have deteriorated in the past five years, with many files having gone missing. One of his colleagues had to hand out small bribes in order to get files. Monsoons present another hazard. One Ph.D. candidate from the United States reported having visited the archives in October-November 2005 while completing his M.Phil from Delhi: he found the compound “routinely flooded during the monsoon season. Sometimes, this meant that the archives were closed entirely, and sometimes open for a more limited period during the day.” After one particularly rainy day, he noticed staff members hanging a clothesline on the archives’ verandah in order to dry out soaked archival documents.
  •  West Bengal State Archives: There was not enough room in my article series to highlight all of the shocking stories about this institution. This is particularly saddening: one scholar from a Southeast Asian nation argued that the WBSA is one of the most important archives for the study of India and the Straits Settlements. “The materials are gold!” he remarked. “There must be a global effort to preserve or at least digitize these materials swiftly as a fire would destroy one of the greatest repositories of 18th-19th century historical materials in the world.” For the moment, conditions are dismal. As one Ph.D. candidate from the United States expressed it, “you can literally see the silver worms crawling through [the documents].” Faridah Zaman, a Ph.D. candidate from Cambridge, notes that the indexes list whether documents have sustained damage by water, rats, or white ants, and that sometimes all three categories have been ticked off. Zaman visited the Writers Building branch, which houses 20th century documents, and noted that it took a week-and-a-half to just get permission to use the archives since the director was sick and only he could affix his signature. While waiting for her permission to come through, Zaman took out her laptop, immediately causing panic among the staff since laptops were not allowed on the premises. She stood her ground and, after some communication amongst staff members, was told that the director (presumably from his sickbed?) had now allowed the use of laptops, though only when consulting pre-1947 material. So here is one small victory: scholars no longer have to write out everything in hand. When Zaman visited the Shakespeare Sarani unit of the WBSA, however, an assistant director told her that she could still not use her laptop here.

So much for archival institutions. Many of our colleagues face an even greater challenge: working in non-traditional archival collections such as those in small temples, government offices, and medical institutions. The problems here can be legion. In the 1990s, Steven Wilkinson saw documents from the Uttar Pradesh Secretariat (Sachivalaya) library in Lucknow that had been dumped and burned outside. The library included rare books, gazettes, settlement reports, and other printed materials that Wilkinson had been unable to locate elsewhere. In 2008, Shilpi Rajpal became the first scholar in eight years to get access to this library. She found the remainder of the library’s holdings packed up in bundles, waiting for disposal. Rajpal, who is writing a dissertation on mental asylums in northern India, also had great difficulty convincing administrators in these institutions to let her consult their records.


With some rare exceptions, Indian libraries and archives have placed very little information online about their holdings, policies, or even contact details. India is a long, long way away from having something like the United Kingdom’s Access to Archives, a comprehensive website that lists specific holdings of many institutions in the country. But concerned scholars have been filling in the gap. A team of Indian academics have started Archive and Access, which features articles on specific archives as well particular challenges, such as the difficulty of accessing post-independence material. SAGAR, a South Asian graduate student journal run from the University of Texas, Austin, features helpful “archive reviews” on its website. The University of Chicago’s Digital South Asian Library operates the Libraries and Archives in South Asia Wiki, which has a comprehensive list of most institutions of interest to scholars. Recently, the American Historical Association started a similar wiki for India; the AHA has been encouraging historians to contribute.

I will be contributing my bit to this online presence. In upcoming weeks, I will be adding to this website some guides to institutions with which I am familiar, such as the National Archives of India, Maharashtra State Archives, and smaller institutions such as Mumbai’s K.R. Cama Oriental Institute and the library of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet. These guides will be kept open access and can be incorporated into wikis. I encourage other scholars to message me with further information about particular institutions: I will be happy to post your observations and insights.

Stay tuned.