Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Pali Language Collections

Durga slaying the buffalo demon
The Goddess Durgā slaying the buffalo demon, illustration from a manuscript of the Devīmāhātmya / Or. 13733

An outstanding source of different materials in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Pali language from South Asia and beyond covering a vast range of subject areas.

About the collection

Our collections include about 10,800 Sanskrit and Pali manuscripts from pre-modern and modern periods and 1,700 Pali manuscripts. We also hold over 3,500 Sanskrit and Gandhari manuscript fragments from North-Western India and Central Asia in Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts dating from the 1st to 11th centuries AD.

Manuscripts

The manuscript collections stem from the British Museum and India Office Libraries and owe their early growth to the activities of the first patrons of Indology studies who served in South Asia as employees of the East India Company. They include some of the earliest known Buddhist manuscripts (the Gandhari birch bark scrolls, Or. 14915) and the earliest datable Sanskrit manuscript (Or. 6403-04).

The Stein and Hoernle manuscripts comprise Buddhist canonical literature from the 4th to the 10th centuries, from Dunhuang, Khadalik and other Silk Road oases. 

Hindu manuscripts covering philosophy, theology, literature, law, science, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, and medicine date from the 10th century or earlier (Or. 3568). Beside we hold a collection of about 600 Vedic manuscripts including accented versions and ritual texts.

A very wide range of different regional scripts in use over the centuries across the Indian Subcontinent is represented in these collections.

Books and periodicals

Our collections include about 60,000 printed books, mostly in Sanskrit and Prakrit, 450 of which were printed before 1850. 

We have 2,900 Pali books in Sinhalese and South-East Asian scripts, as well as in Devanagari and Roman, including a large proportion of nissaya (exegetical literature) in Burmese script. They form an important source for the study of Theravāda Buddhism. 1,500 of the Pali books belong to the Hugh Nevill collection, many with Sinhalese commentaries. The collection is particularly strong on monograph series and 'Vernacular tracts' published between 1867 and 1947 (under the Indian Press and Registration of Books Act) by various South Asian presses such as Nirnaya Sagara and Chowkhamba. They include limited-edition publications in Grantha and other South and North Indian scripts.


What is available online?

  • A selection of fully digitised Jain manuscripts from the British Library collections is available online at Jainpedia.org

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Reference sources listed below are available in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room.

Printed books acquired before 1984 are listed in card and microfiche catalogues also available in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room.


Further information

Catalogues and reference works on manuscripts

Catalogues of printed books

  • Haas, E., Bendall, C., and Barnett, L. D. Catalogue of Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit Printed Books in the British Museum and A supplementary catalogue of Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit Printed Books in the British Museum, London, 1876-1928 (2+2 vols.) – available as pdf files online:  Haas (1876)Bendall (1876-1893)Barnett (1892-1906)Barnett (1906-1928).
  • Natha, P., Chaudhuri, J.B. and Napier, C.F. Catalogue of the Library of the India Office, vol. 2, part 1: Sanskrit books London, 1938-57 (4 vols.) available online
  • This is complemented by the card catalogue of the India Office Library Sanskrit books (1933-1967) which is available in copy flow (bound volumes) in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room
  • Raper, T.C.H., ed., and O'Keefe, M.J.C., (rev.) Catalogue of the Pali printed books in the India Office Library, London, 1983

    How to guides

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    How to search the India Office Records for baptisms, marriages and burials

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