Lakṣmīdevī’s “intellectual petticoats” and the flamewar they inspired

When the English East India Company seized large swathes of the Indian subcontinent in the 18th century, they were forced to transform from “merchants” into administrators. They needed a new army of English civil servants, not only to deal with the considerable revenue that was being generated, but also to construct and preside over a system of law for “one of the most populous and litigious regions of the world”:

The pleadings in the several courts, and all important judicial transactions, are conducted in the native languages. The law which the Company’s judges are bound to administer throughout the country, is not the law of England, but that law to which the natives have long been accustomed under their former sovereigns…. These observations are sufficient to prove, that no more arduous or complicated duties of magistracy exist in the world, no qualifications more various or comprehensive can be imagined, than those which are required from every British subject who enters the seat of judgment within the limits of the Company’s empire in India.

(1805, The College of Fort William in Bengal, 3)

It was out of this need to train civil servants that the College of Fort William was born. During the half-century of its existence, the College accumulated a vast library of literature in many languages and became one of the intellectual centres of what has been referred to as the Bengali Renaissance. In particular, it collected numerous manuscripts of Sanskrit law treatises, commentaries, and digests which the English used to administer “Hindu” law.


Bookplate from Annadāmaṅgala, prathama khanḍa (1847).

Bookplate from Annadāmaṅgala, prathama khanḍa (1847). Fonds Fort William College, BULAC.


The BnF possesses a copy of one of these manuscripts, of the Bālambhaṭṭī, that was acquired from the collection of Philippe-Édouard Foucaux. As the title suggests, the work is attributed to the 18th century paṇḍit Bālambhaṭṭa. However, if we turn to the end of the manuscript, the colophon gives an entirely different title — Lakṣma or Lakṣmī — and attributes its authorship to a woman, Lakṣmīdevī.

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How to write the Basmala in Tamil?

Among the paratexts of Tamil manuscripts are prose benedictions or blessings, connected to the copyists rather than to the contents of the manuscripts. Some look more like credos than prose invocation to god(s).1

As it happens, there were also Tamil Muslim copyists, as attested by three manuscripts kept at the BnF, which show Muslim blessings.

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  1. See []

Prayer wheels on the Siberian frontier

As Russia pushed its borders eastward in the 17th century, it gained control of a vast, mountainous region in eastern Siberia, populated by Buddhist adherents and dotted with datsans, Mongolian Buddhist monasteries. Although both the Buddhists and their monasteries were officially acknowledged by and assimilated into the Empire, their existence remained a source of anxiety for both the political administration as well as the Russian Orthodox Church. Thus, in 1830, the foreign ministry sent Baron Pavel Lvovitch Schilling von Canstadt (1786-1837) to Kyakhta, an important Russian trading post on the Mongolian border, to report back on “oriental Siberia”.


Detail from "Thibet, Mongolia, and Mandchouria". 1851. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Detail from “Thibet, Mongolia, and Mandchouria“. 1851. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Schilling, having long been interested in central Asia, jumped at the opportunity. His quest for knowledge took him even further east to Subulin datsan (modern-day Tsugol), 300 leagues from Kyakhta, where he became the first Westerner to obtain a complete copy of the Kangyur, the core of the Tibetan Buddhist canon. The story of how he came to acquire these texts was told in a posthumous article in 1848, and has since been retold many times, becoming a foundational myth of European Buddhology:

When Baron Schilling de Canstadt paid a visit to the temple at Subulin, in Siberia, the Lamas were just occupied with preparing 100,000,000 copies of [a] mantra to be put into a gigantic prayer-cylinder. His offer to have the necessary number executed at St. Petersburg was most readily accepted, and in return for the 150,000,000 copies he had made, printing from rollers, and sent to them, he was presented with an edition of the Kanjur (a vast compilation of “translations of the Commandments” of the Buddha), the sheets of which amounted to about forty thousand.

(As told by Edward Heron-Allen, Necromancer to ye Sette of Old Volumes, 1931, 38)

This version of the story is somewhat distorted. According to Schilling, the monks planned to print the mantra, oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ, 100 million times. With their xylographic process, they were able to print it 250 times on one page. Schilling, with his metal type, was able to print the mantra 2500 times on a single page, and so he only needed to make 40 000 copies of that page to send to Subulin.  Moreover, the monks did not gift him the Kangyur in exchange for the copies, but in exchange for the mere promise that he would print them on his return to St. Petersburg, which he dutifully fulfilled; in fact, he sent an extra 20 000 copies in gratitude. But a few copies also made their way westward, and the BnF acquired one of these from the collection of Eugène Burnouf.

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Philippe-Édouard Foucaux in the margins

Philippe-Édouard Foucaux had a habit of coming in second place. Although he is described as the “first teacher of Tibetan in the Western world”, the way in which that “first” is qualified belies the fact that he was not the first Westerner to master the Tibetan language. That achievement is credited to the Transylvanian scholar Sándor Csoma de Kőrös (1784-8142), who travelled to Tibet, studied with a lama, and produced a grammar and dictionary of Tibetan in English, which is widely considered to be a foundational work in Tibetology. Csoma de Kőrös was so influential that there is a monument to him in Darjeeling — where he died — as well as in Tokyo, Japan, where he was declared a bodhisattva.


Plaque en hommage à Ph. Ed. Foucaux. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Plaque en hommage à Ph. Ed. Foucaux. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Foucaux, himself an armchair philologist who does not seem to have ever left Europe, studied Tibetan vicariously through the works of Csoma de Kőrös, which had made their way to Paris. Unusually, even the commemorative plaque dedicated to Foucaux, in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, is shared with Csoma de Kőrös, a man he never met.

Foucaux’s influence has waned in the century since his death, eclipsed both by his teacher — Eugène Burnouf, whose shadow looms large — and his students — such as Léon Feer, who edited the entirety of the Pali Saṃyutta Nikāya in 5 volumes. Little remains of Foucaux’s output, and even less has been written about him — apart from his obituary, there are a series of articles by Bernard le Calloc’h, who has described Foucaux as “un Angevin oublié“. At the BnF, however, there are a handful of overlooked manuscripts from his collection from which we can tease out a few more details about what he thought and who he was.

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A critical apparatus in a Bengali manuscript

A critical edition of a text will usually list variant readings on each page, in an apparatus beneath the text. Over time, scholars have developed a set of signs and conventions to refer to these variations in a compact way.


Philipp A. Maas 2006. Samādhipāda: Das erste Kapitel des Pātañjalayogaśāstra zum ersten Mal kritisch ediert. Page 7.

Philipp A. Maas 2006, Samādhipāda: Das erste Kapitel des Pātañjalayogaśāstra zum ersten Mal kritisch ediert, page 7.


For example, take this page from the first chapter of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, edited by Philipp A. Maas. The top part of the page contains the text as reconstructed by Maas. Some words are underlined with a wavy line, indicating that the reading is uncertain. Underneath, in an apparatus, he gives the variant readings from manuscripts and other printed texts. First, he indicates a line number, referring to the text above ― here the variants refer to line 12. Then, he lists each lemma ― that is, each place in the text where there is a variant reading. The first lemma here is samādhiḥ. Then he lists the sources that have this reading, by their sigla ― symbols representing manuscripts or groups of manuscripts. Finally he lists the variant readings, followed by additional sigla for manuscripts that have that variant; the first variant here is samādhin.

In Sanscrit 1397, a Bengali-script manuscript dated Śaka 1745 in the colophon (1823/1824 CE), we find a similar system for indicating variant readings. Continue reading

The long-forgotten colophon of Sanscrit 715 Mudrārākṣasa

Viśākhadatta’s Mudrārākṣasa, variously translated as “Rákshasa’s Ring”, “The Signet Ring”, or “Signet Rākṣasa”, is a unique Sanskrit drama set during the reign of Candragupta Maurya, in the 4th century BCE. As G. V. Devasthali notes, it is the only work “in the whole of Sanskrit dramatic literature [to have] a mainly political theme”1 . But beyond its historical significance, it is also simply a great story, as Dániel Balogh introduces it:

A parade of secret agents, deadly poison damsels, hidden escape tunnels and tricks within tricks serve to entertain the audience or reader, and the play is as action-packed and grave as any modern cloak-and-dagger novel.2

For more than a century, the standard version of the text that scholars use has been the 1912 critical edition of Alfred Hillebrandt. And although Hillebrandt consulted dozens of sources for his edition — including manuscripts, commentaries, and previous printed editions — the most important among these is the manuscript at the BnF: Sanscrit 715, previously shelved as Bengali 117, which he calls the Codex Parisinus.


BnF Sanscrit 715, folio 1, recto

BnF Sanscrit 715, 1r. Courtesy of the BnF.


Hillebrandt describes this as the “best preserved” manuscript that he consulted, and much of his critical text is based on it. And yet, in an article from 1885, as well as in his preface to the 1912 edition, he states that the manuscript is undated. Curiously, he does not seem to have noticed the colophon at the end, which gives the date. Now, more than a hundred years later, the TST project is pleased to present to you this long-forgotten colophon.

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  1. Devasthali, G. V. 1948. Introduction to the study of Mudrā-Rākṣasa. Bombay: Keshav Bhikaji Dhavale. p. 54. []
  2. Balogh, Dániel. 2015. A Textual and Intertextual Study of the Mudrārākṣasa. PhD Thesis. ELTE BTK, Indoeurópai Nyelvtudományi Tanszék. p. 8. []

The TST editing interface

If you are looking for the TST editor that was demonstrated at the webinar yesterday, you can find it at


TST editor screenshot


For a basic description of how to use the editor, see the GitHub repository for the project.

Here are some examples of detailed records that have been completed:

You can download any of these files and open them in the editor, to see how it works. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch! The editor is evolving as we refine our ideas about what paratexts are and how they work. The more records we have, the better we will be able to describe the variety of manuscript traditions and scribal practices of South Asia (and beyond). Looking forward to learning about the manuscripts that you are all working on!

Architecture, death, & divination

Anyone who has grown up with American horror movies will be familiar with the Indian Burial Ground trope. Typically, a family will move in to a house or a hotel, and then eerie, inexplicable things will begin to happen. The plot thickens, until even the parents — who initially refuse to believe in the supernatural — can no longer deny that the place is haunted. Finally, the cause of the haunting is revealed: the building lies on the site of an Ancient Indian Burial Ground.



Roadside marker in New York State. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


In recent years, scholars reflecting on the culture of late 20th-century America have posited that the popularity of this trope was due to the growing awareness of the atrocities committed by American colonists in the New World; the vengeful spirits of horror films reflect the guilt of a nation built upon the deaths of the First Nations people it conquered. Certainly, more recent satires of this trope seem to bring this connection to the fore.

But the fear of building a house atop the resting places of the dead is perhaps much more fundamental and widespread than this relatively recent cultural meme suggests. At the BnF, a small collection of Sanskrit manuals on architecture, or vāstuśāstra, can give us some insight into how medieval architects and their clients reckoned with the shadow of death lingering in the places where they might choose to build.

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Passing notes in the library

Whereas a scribe or an owner might annotate a manuscript directly, scholars working with manuscripts in institutions, such as the BnF, don’t usually have that luxury. But even if you could write on the manuscript, it wouldn’t be so useful, since you would need to retrieve it from storage each time you wanted to consult your notes.

But sometimes, you might come across some information that you want to pass on to future readers. If you were part of the institution, like Jean Filliozat, then you could update the institution’s own records. Here, for example, is the catalogue of Sanskrit manuscripts at the BnF, with corrections in Filliozat’s hand.


Catalogue sommaire des manuscrits sanscrits

Catalogue sommaire des manuscrits sanscrits by Antoine Cabaton, with corrections by Jean Filliozat. Courtesy of the BnF.


The corrected information would then be preserved and included in future versions of the library’s records, such as the online catalogue. But what if you were just a lowly reader, with no such authority? How might you go about “publishing” your notes on a manuscript?

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