Article: Henry Thomas Colebrooke and the Jain tradition

Contributed by Nalini Balbir

Colebrooke's manuscripts at the British Library

Bust of the eminent Sanskrit scholar Henry Thomas Colebrooke. While in India working for the East India Company, Colebrooke developed an interest in Sanskrit and then in wider intellectual and cultural life in India.

Bust of Colebrooke
Image by unknown © public domain

Colebrooke originally gave the manuscripts and other items he had gathered during his period in the subcontinent to the India Office Library shortly after his return from India. The impact of this extensive collection was very important in the development of Indological scholarship in Europe. The holdings of the India Office Library were absorbed into the British Library in 1982. Even though the Jain manuscripts were not identified as Jain at the time of donation, they comprise a large part of the Colebrooke Collection.

On 15 April 1819 Colebrooke officially presented his collection of Indian manuscripts to the India Office Library of the British government via the East India Company (see, for example, Rocher and Rocher 2012: 139). The gift amounted to 2,479 items and Colebrooke continued to borrow them for his research. The famous sculpture of Colebrooke by Francis Chantrey was executed at the proposal of the East India Company directors as a gesture of gratitude and was to be placed in the library.

The India Office Library collections are today housed in the British Library building at 96 Euston Road, London. Chantrey's bust can be seen at the entrance of the reading room of the Asia and Pacific Collections, as they are known today. The presence of this vast manuscript collection 'brought about a shift in venues for western Indological research' (Rocher and Rocher 2012: 145), prompting scholars to visit London instead of the French National Library, as they had used to do till then.

Colebrooke's Jain manuscripts

This handwritten list of Jain manuscripts is among the India Office Library's collection of Colebrooke's papers, which he donated to it in 1819. In Devanāgarī script, the list enumerates 27 items, some with English translations alongside. Now in the holdi

List of Colebrooke's Jain manuscripts
Image by unknown © British Library Board

Jain manuscripts form quite a large proportion of what Colebrooke collected and at that point they were among the first to be available outside India in any public library. The mass arrival of Jain manuscripts in Western Europe happened much later, from the 1870s onwards.

Colebrooke's Jain manuscripts were obviously not identified as such in the preliminary categorisation done when the collection was donated to the India Office Library (see, for example Rocher 2012: 139–140). They probably come under the general heading of 'MSS. of all kinds'.

They include an important selection of canonical and non-canonical Sanskrit and Prakrit works, as well as an interesting set of texts written in Gujarati. Among noteworthy items are manuscripts of the:

  • Kalpa-sūtra dated V.S. 1614, with the shelfmark I.O. San. 1638, which served as the basis of Colebrooke's 'Observations on the Sect of Jains'
  • Saṃgrahaṇī-ratna, a famous cosmological treatise in Prakrit, which has the shelfmark I.O. San. 1553B.

Colebrooke specifically wrote about both these manuscripts in his 1807 article. He described the Kalpa-sūtra manuscript as 'The most ancient copy in my possession and the oldest one which I have seen, [and which] is dated in 1614 Saṃvat: it is nearly 250 years old'. (1807: 313 note).

It is fortunate that there is a surviving list, albeit incomplete, of Colebrooke's Jain manuscripts in the form of a folio present in the India Office Library collection. The manuscript I.O. San. 1530 (E) lists 27 titles in Devanāgarī script, accompanied by the number of pages in 22 cases. They correspond to manuscripts that are available today.

Jain manuscripts in the Colebrooke Collection, as listed in I.O. San. 1530 (E)


British Library shelfmark

Catalogue number in Balbir et al. (2006)

Summary of contents


I.O. San. 1530 (B)


Prakrit version of the Kālaka story by Dharmaprabha-sūri


I.O. San. 1603 (A)


Ritual to be followed at the ultimate hour of fasting unto death


I.O. San. 1596 (D)


Narrative poem in Gujarati


I.O. San. 1354 (D)


Prakrit treatise on daily monastic routine


I.O. San. 1354 (C)


Gujarati story based on the Mahā-niśītha-sūtra, a Śvetāmbara book on atonements and confession


I.O. San. 1530 (H)


Hymn to the 24 Jinas


I.O. San. 1558 (A)


Liturgy for repentance


I.O. San. 1166


Narrative poem in Gujarati


I.O. San. 1553 (D)


Brief treatise on living beings


I.O. San. 862 (B)


Gujarati commentary on a Prakrit treatise dealing with rules relating to mendicants' alms-search


I.O. San. 1363 (C)


Gujarati explanation of a narrative text on Mount Shatrunjaya


I.O. San. 1363 (D)


Seventh Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara Jain canon


I.O. San. 862 (A)


Sanskrit commentary on the ritual of homage to Jain temples, called the caitya-vandana


I.O. San. 1558 (B)


Liturgical text on the six duties – ṣaḍ-āvaśyaka – with Prakrit and Sanskrit hymns or formulas and Gujarati commentary


I.O. San. 1596 (B)


Narrative poem in Gujarati on the first Jina's marriage


I.O. San. 1609 (B)


Narrative poem in Gujarati


I.O. San. 1571 (B)


A Gujarati version of the Story of Kālaka


I.O. San. 1561b


Narrative poem in Gujarati


I.O. San. 1524


Sixth Aṅga of the Śvetāmbara Jain canon, which is here called Meghakumāra-caritra


I.O. San. 1363 (A)


Collection of Prakrit profane poetry


I.O. San. 1015


One of the Mūla-sūtras of the Śvetāmbara Jain canon


I.O. San. 1399


Gujarati commentary on the Samādhi-tantra, a Digambara work

Ṣaṭdravyapancāsikā-bhagnapatra 1

Fifty Stanzas on the Six Substances, with one mutilated page

This list is valuable but does not exhaust all the Jain manuscripts in Colebrooke's collection. These manuscripts have been described in the following catalogues:

  • Catalogue of the Sanskrit and Prakrit Manuscripts of the India Office (vol. 2) by A. B. Keith
  • Catalogue of the Gujarati and Rajasthani Manuscripts in the India Office Library by J. F. Blumhardt, (revised and enlarged by A. Master, Oxford University Press, 1954).
  • Catalogue of the Jaina Manuscripts at the British Library by Balbir, Sheth, Tripathi (2006).

Many of the Gujarati manuscripts were therefore known to M. D. Desai, author of the encyclopaedic work Jain Gūrjar Kavio, and he has quoted substantial extracts from these manuscripts.

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