Comprehensive report of National Seminar on Cataloguing, editing and Publication of Ancient Indian Manuscripts on Science and Technology March 26 – 28 2019

Samskriti Foundation’s National Seminar on Cataloguing, editing and Publication of Ancient Indian Manuscripts on Science and Technology was held from 26th to 28th of March 2019 , at ISKCON’s Bengaluru location at Harekrishna Hill – funded by the National Mission for Manuscripts, New Delhi and supported by ISKCON , Bengaluru.

The Indian Scientific heritage has been extremely productive. India has one of the largest collections of Scientific manuscripts of any civilization in the world. The presently available published Scientific texts, which are in contemporary use, represent less than 2% of the Scientific literature that is available in the form of manuscripts. However, presently, there is no functioning workflow / ecosystem to identify, verify the manuscript names, authors, content and such details of manuscripts that deal with Science and Technology. The exploration of and engagement with the vast unmined content that comprises India’s heritage in Science and Technology can only happen when basic technology driven methods and processes are in place.

The Seminar’s primary intent was to focus on building a viable and functioning ecosystem to evolve intelligent and scalable technology driven methods to accelerate the understanding and dissemination of India’s heritage that currently lie locked and remain inaccessible – a loss not only to India but veritably, to all of humanity.

The 3 day seminar successfully brought together on a common platform – researchers, manuscriptologists, academics, technology practitioners and related experts to engage in delightful multi-disciplinary interactions and discussions. The aim of the seminar was to present and explore the state of art addressing the “manuscript interpretation ecosystem” – to evolve a deeper and broader understanding of the problems in this area, the efforts required to unearth the treasures of the ancient Indian manuscripts – and to disseminate it to an multidisciplinary audience. One of the stated aims of the seminar was to demonstrate the dire need to unearth and train a new breed of persons who are ‘scientist-manuscriptologists’.

Inaugurated by the Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Culture , Shri Pranav Khullar, and with inaugural speeches by Dr. H.P Khincha (premier scientist, Indian Institute of Science and ex-VC of the Vishveshvariah Technology University), Shri R. Manjunath (Philanthropist) and by Samskriti Foundation’s President, Dr. M.A.Lakshmithathachar, the Seminar had an auspicious beginning.

The deep dive Academic Sessions spread over two days was a veritable feast of knowledge, not to mention the lively and interactive Q&A sessions. Every presentation was thought provoking and added to highlight the multidimensional nature of the problem and brought valued nuance to the understanding of the efforts being made to address the barriers – the barriers of accessibility, language and domain and a realisation of the urgent need of methods to address them.

Organised in multiple thematic sessions and thoughtfully curated by Samskriti Foundation’s Dr. M.A Alwar, the various sessions addressed Medical Sciences (a discussion on Siddha manuscripts, a presentation of efforts in using AI techniques to encode Ayurvedic Knowledge served to highlight the rich possibilities in digitally using traditional knowledge ), manuscripts on Astronomy and Mathematics (discussions on the Parashara Tantram, a critical study of the Veda Gargya Jyotisha, the understanding of the various number systems in ancient india), a discussion on the use of meemamsa techniques in algorithm development, focus on manuscripts to historiography (shipping technologies, astronomy and similar). Dr. M.D Srinivas’s masterful summary on the current understanding of where we stand in manuscripts related to S&T served to baseline the problem being addressed. Dr. Yoganand gave a “ground” level summary of the actual state of manuscript digitization and the problems that remain in accessing the current digitized content.

The theme on applying information technology to understand and de-cipher manuscripts was well appreciated – the vedavaapi software ecosystem being developed to access sanskrit related software and their application to tools to decipher and interpret manuscripts,Dr. Ravikiran’s use of cutting edge Machine learning to leverage crowd-sourced text extraction was many agreed, a significant breakthrough poised to accelerate knowledge capture from manuscripts.Demonstrations of software developed by Vedavaapi ( Dr. Sai Susarla’s Shastra Maps and the overall API ecosystem) , Samskriti Foundation’s knowledge tree , Dr.P. Ramanujachar’s Veda/Vedanga knowledge browser were the highlight of various interactive sessions.

A cost-effective technique of preservation of manuscripts using plastination was presented by Dr. Shyamsundar. Discussion on the state of Agricultural manuscripts by Dr. Neeraj Sharma, adaptation of pattern poetry (steganography) to manuscript readings
by Dr. Shankar Jayaraman, the demonstrated practical use of Rasa-Ratnakara by Dr. Gopikrishna to formulate medicines and to successfully use them in treatment was an exemplar of the traditional riches and served to highlight the tantalizing possibilities that lie hidden in the manuscripts. The technical sessions were rounded out by a Panel Discussion chaired by Dr. Vijayaraghavan ex-Special Secretary of the PMO – where he gave pointed responses to the discussion by the Panelists and the possible course of action needed to address the problems discussed in the Seminar and the solutions proposed by Samskriti Foundation.

The Valedictory Session had the inimitable Shri Mohandas Pai give a rousing talk on the larger civilizational discourse and its implications to our traditional knowledge ecosystem. The Secretary of the Central Sahitya Academy, Dr. K Sreenivasa Rao acknowledged the role that Government institutions needed to play in the ecosystem and promised support to the efforts emanating from the Seminar. Concluding the Seminar Dr. Lakshmithathachar contextualized the discussions of the Seminar to the overall larger civilizational journey and brought to end an enthralling first-of-its kind Seminar.