Kathmandu, April 1: When we think of heritage, the first things that pop up in our mind may be that of old buildings, temples, artefacts or perhaps festivals and celebrations. Rarely does paper fall within our perception of what heritage is.
It is not grand, it is not monumental, it does not stand before the world making a strident statement. Paper is meek, subtle and silent but it is still an important heritage – a document heritage. “Buildings are important but isn’t it equally important to know how they were built?” asked Rajju Hada, archivist at the National Archives of Nepal. “The temple you see in your community or the rest house you pass by on the street. Who built it? What materials were used? How much did it cost and who paid for everything? These are the things papers tell us,” she said. “Documents chronicle the story of historical monuments which is why they need to be preserved.”
The history of record keeping in Nepal began with the beginning of unified Nepal. After conquering the Kathmandu Valley, King Prithvi Narayan Shah ordered his soldiers to collect all handwritten documents from the temples, trusts and royal residences of Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur as well as from Gorkha and Nuwakot and put them in the worship room of the Hanumandhoka Palace. Girvan Yuddha Bikram Shah, Prithvi Narayan’s great-grandson, turned this collection into a functional library by issuing an edict for its maintenance on August 28, 1812, Friday, appointing Kedar Nath Jha of Kathmandu as the Pustak Chitai Tahabildar (archive in-charge) and provisioning an annual budget of Rs. 125 for the collection’s upkeep.
In 1847, Jung Bahadur Rana acquired this collection and transferred it to the Jaisi room of his Thapathali Palace. In 1896, Bir Shumsher took custody of these records and moved them to the Durbar High School. But the school was not equipped to handle them and, as a result, many documents got misplaced and stolen too. So, in 1900, he moved them to Ghantaghar and opened the Bir Library. Bir Library was later moved to Ramshah Path and transformed into the National Archives in 1967.
Archives’ archive Today the Archives houses approximately 50,000 documents. Among them, 35,000 manuscripts are written on different types of paper, leaves and tree bark. There are documents written with gold and silver ink as well in many languages including Sanskrit, Nepal Bhasa, Nepali, Maithili, Hindi, Awadhi and Tibetan. Additionally, there are several copper plates (Tamrapatra) and around 3,000 rubbings of inscriptions. There is also a large collection of government records and national newspapers and about 20,000 printed books. The National Archives also keeps a collection of 6,000,000 folios.
The oldest manuscript present in the Archives is the Dasabhumiswar which dates back to the fifth century AD. Similarly, it also has the oldest extant version of the Skandapurana in the country produced in 810 AD. The oldest written legal code in Nepal promulgated by Jayasthiti Malla in 1380 is also stored here. Another important item is the ninth-century Nisvasatattvasamhita, the oldest known surviving palm-leaf manuscript of the Tantric tradition, which has been inscribed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Memory of the World Register for its “world significance and outstanding universal value.” The Archives also has the Mani Kabum, the only known text to mention Nepali Princess Bhrikuti’s marriage to Tibetan Emperor Srongtsen Gampo.
Precautions for preservation Without diving into the complicated processes involved, the National Archives has the ability to fumigate, laminate, repair and bind documents based on the requirement and package them in non-acetic boxes.
Hada further explained that all the materials in the Archives’ possession were kept in climate-controlled chambers. In these chambers, the level of light is kept under 50 lux to prevent decolourisation, the temperature is kept between 18 to 24 degrees Celsius to prevent chemical reaction and insect activity and relative humidity is maintained between 55 to 65 per cent to prevent both drying and mould growth.
The Archives also used to carry out microfilming – creating copies of physical documents on special photographic films for long-term storage. According to the Archives’ microfilmist Jyoti Neupane, microfilming began here in 1970 with the start of the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project (NGMPP) and the first documents microfilmed were the copies of the Gorkhapatra, The Rising Nepal’s sister publication, present with the National Archives.
“The project continued for 31 years,” Neupane informed, expressing that it was a golden period for document archiving in the country. “Under the project, teams of experts went district-to-district, village-to-village, door-to-door collecting and microfilming texts.” “We have not been able to work at that pace since.” After the end of the NGMPP, the Archives stopped actively seeking out documents. For the past few years, it has stopped microfilming altogether. “Photographic reels are hard to get now because the world has gone digital,” Neupane said.
Can’t the National Archives go digital too then? “No,” he answered. “Because international experts believe that digital may not be as appropriate for archiving as reels were.” The microfilms were made for storage and were designed to be long-lasting – up to 500 years. “Digital may not be as durable.”
So, instead of producing new ones, the Archives is focused on preserving the microfilms it already has and making secondary copies of its content to prevent loss of records.
Challenges galore A lack of reel is not the only challenge hindering the principal archive’s work. It also faces a chronic lack of manpower. People don’t apply for vacancies the Archives calls, several officials at the institution shared.
Also, as the body set up to manage, protect and preserve the nation’s archival documents, the Archives Preservation Act 1989 requires government and non-government offices to transfer to it all documents older than 25 years that are deemed to hold national significance, copies or pictures of all kinds of inscriptions, each postage stamp and money order form with first cancellation mark and new publication of aerogramme or postcard. They are also required to provide the Archives with all documents in written, audio, visual or any other format that are considered important for the country even if they are not older than 25 years. “But not all offices follow this rule,” Hada said.
Ironically, this daily itself illustrates Hada’s point. As a national newspaper and as a state-owned publication, the Gorkhapatra Corporation is legally required to forward the daily copy of The Rising Nepal to the National Archives for its record. However, according to the latter agency, it does not receive it. This paper is also not easily available in the market for the Archives to purchase on its own.
The decade-long Maoist conflict also inflicted huge losses. “Countless one-of-a-kind documents present with the Himalayan monasteries were stolen or destroyed during the insurgency,” Neupane said. “Under the NGMPP, we believe we had microfilmed about 60 per cent of such documents but the 40 per cent we had not are now lost forever.” The loss of even a single script is a tragedy, noted Hada, because they provide a window into the lives of our ancestors, they hold knowledge vital to the present (the National Archives has old papers recording the tax paid by the residents of Kalapani and Lipulek to Kathmandu, strengthening Nepal’s claim to the territory) and “because documents are heritage too,” Hada said.