The Jain manuscripts currently in the British Library collections have a long history and were formerly held by two distinct institutions, the British Museum and the India Office Library.

Built over a period of more than two-and-a-half centuries, from the earliest acquisitions of 1753 (in the British Museum’s Sloane and Harley collections), to the latest in 2005, the collection includes works in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Hindi, Gujarati and Rajasthani and in view of its size (over 1,000 items), range of material and state of preservation, it is one of the most important outside India.

Adhai-dvipa, ‘Two and a half continents’. Painting on cloth, 18th century (British Library Or 13937).
Adhai-dvipa, ‘Two and a half continents’. Painting on cloth, 18th century (British Library Or 13937).

Most of the Jain manuscripts originally belonged in several individual collections acquired in India during the 19th century by Indologists and employees in the service of the East India Company (among them HT Colebrooke, G Bühler, W. Erskine, H. Jacobi, C Mackenzie, AC Burnell). The subject areas and literary traditions represented are numerous and diverse: canonical, ethics, ritualistic, narrative, astronomy, astrology, mathematics and music. Thirty three Jain manuscripts are now available online in Digitised Manuscripts.

Miniature of Gautamasvamin seated, in the typical Svetambara monastic dress and holding a rosary, 15th century (British Library Or 2126A).
Miniature of Gautamasvamin seated, in the typical Svetambara monastic dress and holding a rosary, 15th century (British Library Or 2126A).

The selection includes rare and valuable palm leaf manuscripts such as Or 1385B, the oldest Jain manuscript in the British Library dated 1201 CE, several Kalpasutra versions, some of them illuminated (i.e. Or 11921, Or 14262 and Or 13959), and a 15th century manuscript of the Sripala-katha (Or 2126A) and IO San 3177, which contains the manuscript used by Hermann Jacobi for his edition, translation and glossary of the Kalakacarya-Kathanakam of 1880 (at that time the only known written version of the legend). Finely illustrated, it is also an amazing example of Jain calligraphy.

Folio from the Samgrahaniratna by Sricandra in Prakrit with interlinear Gujarati commentary. The miniature depicts the Pancaparameṣṭhins on Siddhaśilā, 17th century (British Library Or 2116C).
Folio from the Samgrahaniratna by Sricandra in Prakrit with interlinear Gujarati commentary. The miniature depicts the Pancaparameṣṭhins on Siddhaśilā, 17th century (British Library Or 2116C).

Beside poetical compositions like the Adityavara-katha (Or 14290), there are cosmological treatises such as Sricandra’s Samgrahaniratna (Or 2116C) and three Adhai-dvipa (‘Two and a half continents’), illuminated diagrams representing the world inhabited by human beings according to Jain cosmology (Add Or 1812, Add Or 1814 and Or 13937).

More digitised Jain manuscripts from the British Library and other collections in the UK are available at Jainpedia: the Jain universe online.

This article first appeared on the British Library's Asian and African Studies blog.