Deep inside the catacombs of one of the oldest Benedictine monasteries in Bangalore, is a huge, cavernous hall stacked with rows upon rows of books, illustrations and manuscripts. A legend above the door-less arch reads, “Here the Dead speak“ It is of course in Latin but the English translation is equally emotive.
The Latin maxim may well serve to describe the hundred and odd years old Oriental Research Institute (ORI), just a stone's throw from the Mysore University Vice-Chancellor's office building, Crawford Hall. The ORI is an extraordinary treasure trove of some 35,000 extremely rare books, 16,000 palm leaf manuscripts and more than 18,000 paper manuscripts, in Sanskrit and Kannada, all of which continue to entice the serious scholar, student and even contemplative passers-by to delve deep into the esoteric rubrics and canons of Indian philosophy.
It's hard not to miss the ORI with its ochre-red domed roofs and the impression that it gives of being door-less. One of the early editions of the 'Indian Engineering' which critically reviewed many of the buildings that were constructed in honour of some visiting English royalty and more often lesser royalty, makes this snide remark about the ORI…, “…a promiscuous jumbling of semi-circular arches, Ionic and Corinthian columns with imitation Hindu architecture...”
Yet in spite of the 'promiscuous' blending of architectural styles, the Oriental Research Institute, which came under the administration of the Mysore University in 1916, came under the gaze of scholars worldwide with the discovery of an original copy of Kautilya's 'Arthashastra', the classic 400-year old 4th Century C.E. palm-leaf manuscript by the ORI's first librarian, Rudrapatnam Shama Sastry.
The story of this discovery makes interesting reading. It is believed Shama Sastry was going through several cloth bound bundles of palm-leaf manuscripts when he came upon what turned out to be the Arthashastra. The manuscript was in Sanskrit written in the Grantha script and it was also discovered that it was the copy of the original Kautilya magnum opus and had been gifted to the then fledgling ORI by a scholar from Tanjore who remains unidentified to this day. Shama Sastry copied the manuscript and ORI published it in 1909. Arthashastra's publication led to paradigm changes in the study of ancient treaties as till then Niccolo Machiavelli's 15th-century work, The Prince, was believed to be one of the oldest authentic texts on the subject. Shama Sastry went on to become an Indologist of great repute.
Kautilya's Arthasastra is just one of the 50,000 odd rare treasures that are housed under the red-ochre domes of the ORI even though a few thousand have gone to the libraries of the Kannada and Sanskrit departments of the Mysore University. The establishment of the Oriental Research Institute as a repository of hoary tomes was due to the foresight of Maharaja Chamaraja Wadiyar, who was himself an erudite scholar.
Chamaraja Wadiyar first 'organised' the Oriental Library as it was known, in 1891 in a part of the Maharaja's College. In 1897, the fledgling library was shifted to the newly constructed Jubilee Hall ( the present location of the ORI). The Jubilee Hall was itself built to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne! Indeed there are a great many heritage structures that owe their existence to the arrival or knighting of some English royalty!
With a treasure trove of some 50,000 rare books, palm leaf manuscripts and diverse documents, there is bound to trepidation and even skepticism that mere mortals will not be allowed to tread the hallowed halls. But that is unfounded and all that one has to do is meet the director of ORI or the head of the department of Sanskrit of Mysore University and presto! One is free to do astral travelling without a map into the esoteric world of illustrated masterpiece written by another enlightened king, Mummadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar, Sritattvanidhi. The Sritattvanidhi is in nine volumes or Nidhis: Shaktinidhi, Vishnunidhi, Shivanidhi, Brahmanidhi, Grahanidhi, Vaishnavanidhi, Saivanidhi, Agamanidhi and Kauthukanidhi. So far three volumes have been translated into Kannada and English and published by UoM.
Right from its inception the ORI has been fortunate to have scholars like Kasturi Rangachar, Prof. D.L. Narasimhachar and Prof. T.N.Shrikantayya (Tee.Nam.Shri.), B.M. Srikantayya, Prof. C.R. Reddy, Prof. M. Hiriyanna, and N. Ramanujacharya at its helm and it is due to the untiring efforts of these stalwarts that ORI is one of the preeminent research centres for Indology in the country.