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Past to the future

Enthusiasts are digitising manuscripts, artefacts and relics for easy access

Velany Fernandes | September 29, 2003 12:48 IST

My fourth grade teacher told me to place an old electronic gadget, clippings from fashion or food magazines and a few odds and ends in a plastic box. This, she said, would be my time capsule. Centuries later, when a more evolved being searches for relics of ancient civilisations, this would be a prize find.

Webmasters today are crafting virtual time capsules.

The recital of the Rig Veda, prehistoric rock art, the Quran and many other Indian cultural treasures are encased in electronic formats and stored on Web sites. You can view three-dimensional images of the township at Harappa, read ancient Tamil literary works or browse through Indian paintings from different eras.

If the original manuscripts are disfigured or lost, their essence will be preserved in a digitised format. But the process of transposing these relics from the real to the virtual world isn't easy.

It took John B Hare, the Webmaster of Sacred-Texts.com, nine months to put up a Rig Veda translation.

John explains the procedure of putting an ancient text online:

  • I either buy a used copy or find a library edition of the book.
  • I scan each page with a flatbed scanner and convert it into a draft using optical character recognition software.
  •  I proofread this raw text using a spellchecker with a custom dictionary for each text.
  • Then I produce it for the Web using software tools I've written.

Vikas Kamat, Webmaster of Kamat.com, uses a "low-tech approach". Pictures are sent via post and scanned manually.

Though the process is tedious, the passion of these Webmasters is undiminished. Avinash Sathaye's personal site offers  'Sanskrit Goodies'. His love for Sanskrit and a longing to share the knowledge keeps him going. For John it is his passion for books.

Kirk Wortman, Webmaster of Sanskrit Texts & Stotras, attributes his zest to the belief that "Vedic literature has the ultimate answers to all the questions and problems of mankind."

The rewards of digitising ancient treasures are many.

These easily accessible works could help relive age-old customs like the oral tradition of literature, which can be experienced through sound files of the Vedas or the Quran.

Digitised scriptures could foster religious tolerance. John believes that by offering the sacred texts of various religions on his site he can "help people understand each other through their scriptures".

People can effortlessly explore ancient art and texts. That which was only available in libraries or museums can be accessed from home or office. This could develop an appreciation of native and international cultures.

Reading the original texts can clear doubts about any of the Indian scriptures -- be it Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh or Zoroastrian.

Says Avinash, "It is important that people are able to see for themselves what is written! If original texts are available in an electronic form with quick searchable access, this is possible."

However the accuracy of digitised texts cannot be guaranteed. Kirk says, "We cannot be absolutely certain of the purity of the printed source we use. Only an oral tradition maintained by strictly trained Vedic pandits can preserve these ancient texts in their pure form."

John endeavours to keep the texts on his site as accurate as possible, by inviting readers to point out mistakes, if any.

Even if the digitised texts are free of mistakes, the lifespan of such efforts is doubtful. Says Kirk, "Computer files and their associated software are dynamic and ever changing and will probably not be around 100, 200, or 300 years from now."

Vikas points out that different sites use different formats to store texts and images. This could limit the possibility of digitised relics serving as time capsules.

He says, "Since there is no standardised way to store Indian documents, the older documents will become unreadable as new formats emerge. The need for standardisation is important for perpetual access."

Digitised texts, artefacts and relics may not take on the role of a time capsule. But they help us explore our roots. These virtual museums and libraries could, as Avinash believes, "provide a much greater understanding and appreciation of our heritage" and spark a surfer's interest in the forgotten chapters of cultural history.



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