Sanskrit Manuscript Collections Outside India with Special Reference to Ayurveda

By Dominik Wujastyk, University of Alberta

Although there are good collections of Sanskrit manuscripts outside India, they are small in number compared with the great collections of India. A library in Europe will be proud if it has more than a few hundred Sanskrit manuscripts. Five thousand manuscripts would count as a huge collection. But in India, even a single family might have this number of manuscripts, and many manuscript libraries in Pune, Bhubaneswar, Thanjavur, Jodhpur, Thiruvanantapuram, Mysore, and elsewhere have collections ten times the size of any foreign collection. And although there are some particularly rare and interesting Sanskrit manuscripts outside India, like the Bower Manuscript (which was also discovered, and probably written outside India), these are a tiny group compared to the extremely valuable manuscripts to be found in collections like the National Museum of Delhi, the L.D. Institute in Ahmedabad, and elsewhere. The true treasures are in India.

One reason that European collections can seem to be especially important is that they are sometimes very well catalogued, like the British Library and India Office collections. Also, the manuscripts themselves are relatively easy to gain access to, so they have been used by scholars, and this makes them even more famous and prominent. Nowadays, too, international libraries are beginning to put some of their Sanskrit manuscripts on the web, and that gives them a high profile.  The Sarasvati Mahal Library in Thanjavur has also done this, and their website is a really excellent example in this regard. In what follows, I present some key resources for scholars, librarians and manuscript curators in India who are interested in finding out what Ayurvedic manuscripts are available outside India. This material was put together rapidly, and does not claim to be comprehensive.

Large Sanskrit Manuscript Collections Outside India

There are approximately 30,000 Sanskrit manuscripts in Britain, and about the same number in other countries of Europe (France, Germany, Italy, etc.).

Great Britain

In 1990, I published an article surveying the ayurvedic manuscripts in the UK. One update to this information concerns the Wellcome Library. Volume II of the Hand list of Sanskrit and Prakrit Manuscripts was published in 1998. Also, the library now has a website which also displays digital images of selected manuscripts, including some Sanskrit ayurvedic manuscripts. See from where catalogues can be purchased, and images viewed.

Another update concerns the British Library, which in recent years has acquired some extremely early fragmentsof Mah¯ay ¯ayan Buddhist manuscripts from Pakistan and nearby. These have been studied byProf. Richard Solomon, University of Washington, Seattle, and the results published by the British Library. One particularly famous medical Sanskrit manuscript in England is part of the “Bower Manuscript”, which is today kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford (that is the main university library of Oxford).

The Bower Manuscript

Hoernle, A. F. Rudolf (ed.) (1893–1912).

The Bower Manuscript: Facsimile Leaves, Nagari Transcript, Romanised Transliteration and English Translation with Notes . No. 22 in New Imperial Series. Calcutta: Government of India and under the patronage of the Bengali Government, Archaeological Survey of India. 

Amongst the oldest surviving manuscripts from India in ‘book’ form is the group of medical texts included in the Bower Manuscript, dating from the first half of the sixth century AD. (Hoernle (1893–1912) dated the parts of the Bower Manuscript to the late fourth or early fifth century, but more re-cent work by Dani(1986, 148–51) and especially Sander(1987) presents convincing evidence for the somewhat later date.) Today, the manuscript is known after its former owner, the British lieutenant (later colonel) who bought it early in 1890. The full details of this exciting story, which included a trans-Karakorum chase for a murderer, were recounted by Bower in the Royal Geographical Society’s journal (Bower,1895, 240). But perhaps it should be called the ‘Ya´somitra Manuscript’ since it seems originally to have been owned by a senior Buddhist monk of this name who lived in a monastery near the old Silk Route trading stop of Kuqa. I have translated a chapter from this manuscript in my book The Roots of  Ayurveda (Wujastyk ,2001).

Other countries

The best general guide for Sanskrit manuscripts in other countries of Europe and North America is Pearson, J. D. (1971). Oriental Manuscripts in Europe and North America: a Survey. Inter Documentation Company. See also the addendum “Oriental manuscripts”, in, South Asian Bibliography: a Handbook and Guide, compiled by the South Asia Library Group (Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester, 1979). The bibliography of catalogues by Biswas, mentioned above, also gives a good idea of what manuscripts are available in different countries, although Pearson’s guide is more descriptive. A useful history of ayurvedic studies in Europe is given in an appendix of the book by Zysk (1996).


The main collection of Sanskrit manuscripts in France is in the Biblioth`equeNational [NationalLibrary], Paris. This is especially interesting for Ayurveda, because part of the collection was put together by Palmyr Cordier in about 1900, during his time at Chandernagore (French enclave near Calcutta). He was a very serious scholar, and a special student of the doctor and historian Gustave Li´etard. Cordier’s manuscripts have been described by Fillioza (1934). All the main publications of Lietard and Cordier, with a big historical introduction on the study of ayurvedic history in France, was published by Rosu (1989).


There are several important collections of Sanskrit manuscripts in Germany. The best known are in Berlin (National Library) and in T¨ubingen (University Library). There is also a collection in Munich, which was catalogued by the historian of Indian medicine Jolly (1912). Because all the collections of Sanskrit manuscripts were moved about and muddled up during the War, the Sanskrit manuscripts in Germany have all been re-catalogued in a big series of catalogues edited by Janert (1962-). It is best to consult these catalogues, as the manuscripts may not be where the pre-War catalogues say they were.


A fine collection in Florence was catalogued by Aufrecht. I think there are several hundred mss in this collection.

The Netherlands (Holland)

There is a collection of several hundred palm-leaf manuscripts and some paper manuscripts at the Kern Institute in Leiden. There is a handlist, based on Raghavan’s 1954 list, but I do not have details.

United States

There is a survey of Sanskrit manuscripts in the North America by Poleman (1938). This is now a little out of date, and not always accurate, but it is still valuable. David Pingree has written catalogues of the Sanskrit manuscripts in the libraries of Harvard University (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) and the University of Columbia (New York). These are not published yet. I have written descriptions of the 27 ayurvedic manuscripts at Harvard, which will appear with Pingree’s catalogue when it is published. There is a substantial collection of perhaps about 3500 Sanskrit manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. About 15 or 20 years ago, this collection was filmed and published as a collection on microfiche. Some of these manuscripts have been displayed on the university’s website

This is a collection of digitized Sanskrit manuscripts from the Penn Library collections. It includes links to Persian and other S. Asian manuscripts. The site was formerly hosted on the main library website, but by 2004 it had been moved to the “old site” web address above, and is no longer maintained.