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Sanskrit's former glory revived online

Bijoy AK | July 24, 2003 11:22 IST

Online efforts to revive the glory of this ancient Indian language are gaining momentum

It's a case of marrying the old and the new, as modern technology attempts to revive the popularity of a 6000-year-old language. Keying the word 'Sanskrit' in any search engine, lovers of this ancient language will be delighted at the volume of information available online. And foreign sites dedicated to Sanskrit are aplenty.

"Sanskrit is to be written or pronounced as Samskrutam," says Suddhatma, who teaches the language at the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam based in Stroudsburg, USA. "All ancient scriptures and classical literature is written in Sanskrit. And those who are interested in this subject will definitely seek the help of the Web because it's a powerful medium."

G�rard Huet, a Frenchman and computer professional, developed the first ever Sanskrit-French dictionary on the Internet. A renowned Sanskrit activist, his love for Indian culture and heritage lured him to this language. He has developed computational linguistics tools for Sanskrit, and uses the site as a demo, and to get feedback and form collaborations.

He talks about the Net's potential: "The language is ancient, but it has such an important corpus of Indian heritage that it will withstand any challenges; even if the traditional way of learning it is now dwindling in India. The Web will help in providing easier access to the sources of wisdom and knowledge, written in this language."

Huet hopes that in the not too distant future Sanskrit will get the same kind of facility as Perseus offers Latin and Greek - a fully tagged hypertext reference corpus.

Jiten, a UK-based Indian who set up Srioma site that aims to popularise Sanskrit, says: "We need a common language. Sanskrit, once the language of the people from present day Afghanistan to Kanayakumari, is ideal given our culture and history." According to Jiten, making unread and un-translated Sanskrit works available online will definitely widen the scope of the language universally.

"The Web has been of enormous help in reaching a massive audience and at the same time making communication simpler," says Govinda Yelagalawadi of Samskrita Bharati, an all-India organisation with branches in USA.

"Making Sanskrit texts available online has created an awareness of this great language. Digitalisation will help in preserving manuscripts of great work," points out Yelagalawadi. Samskrita Bharati is thinking of using features like multimedia tools, cartoon strips, online lessons and student communities to popularise the language.

So, how relevant is Sanskrit today? Huet replies: "How relevant is Internet in this Kali Yuga? Let us not be too arrogant with technology, please."

"Relevance of something depends upon its usefulness. Sanskrit is rich with applicable information," explains Sudhatma. "Sanskrit covers almost all practical subjects, whether it is tool manufacturing, medicine preparation or astronomical research."

Jiten, who holds a degree in computer science, points to the potential of Sanskrit as the most advanced computer language: "NASA and many research firms have been looking at it as a possible computer language since its syntax is perfect and leaves little room for error."

"Sanskrit is like a timeless work by a great artist. Present day regional languages borrow more than 80 per cent words from Sanskrit. It is significant in this Internet age, just as it was useful earlier," adds Yelagalawadi.

Jiten reveals some of his future plans: " will have free Sanskrit-English email, news and discussion groups. There will be scholarships given to students and adoption of villages that use the language as their medium." He welcomes all suggestions on new words and Sanskrit translations of popular folk songs from other Indian languages.

Huet, who has just returned from the 12th World Sanskrit Conference in Helsinki, plans to enlist the help of various Sanskrit scholars, which could lead to the Sanskrit Perseus idea: "This is a long term project in computational linguistics and Indology, rather than an effort to popularise Sanskrit."

Samskrita Bharati plans to make the site more interactive by having discussion groups, providing responses to queries, digitising vast works of Sanskrit literature and providing online help for people wishing to learn the language. "To learn, the best way is to proactively use the language," suggests Yelagalawadi.

But the language also faces a challenge on the Web, since optical character recognition (OCR) software that turns Devanagari (the script used for Sanskrit) text into digital information is not commercially available.

But here is something to cheer about. According to a recent New York Times report, The Center of Excellence in Document Analysis and Recognition based in New York, in association with Indian Statistical Institute, has developed a script-recognition tool in an attempt to create an international standard for software that can recognise Devanagari.

The software can separate lines and individual characters written in the script. It then offers an on-screen transliteration into Roman characters for proofreading. With optical character recognition technology, Sanskrit documents can be transformed into digital text that can be viewed on computer monitors using existing Devanagari screen fonts.

"Sanskrit manuscripts are in many forms - palm leaves, granthi script - and OCR may not be the best solution for preservation," points out Huet. "We may also just take pictures to preserve fragile manuscripts, and change them into text formats using OCR."

Today's youth constitute a major portion of the Internet community. Jiten expects this section to become ambassadors of the language once implements some of their plans. "English will then take its peripheral place in the scheme of our life as it does in the rest of the world," he predicts.

Huet is hopeful that the youth are the ones who will continue and perfect the work that is being done. According to Yelagalawadi, Sanskrit has now shed its image of an ancient and tough language: "The cross-section of people who attend the classes and camps organised show that an increasing number of children and youth are taking interest." He adds, "We would like the youth to give Sanskrit a chance. We are sure they will get a positive experience of learning a language that holds the key to understanding their culture and heritage."

"Ever since I first mooted this project about six years ago, I have had very encouraging feedback. The popularity of our spiritual teachings, religious insights and scientific perceptions is growing worldwide," says Jiten.

He plans to include stories, shlokas, precepts and Vedic maths presented in the audio-visual mode to make learning an enriching experience. Jiten says optimistically: "If the portal can achieve 80 per cent of my vision, then the devotees of Sanskrit will take over." 


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