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Studying the Cultural Heritage of the People of Asia

An article from the Newsletter of the International Institute for Asian Studies (Leiden, The Netherlands)

by Dr. G John Samuel
Director for Research Programmes
Institute for Asian Studies at Chennai

Editor's note:
The Institute of Asian Studies in Madras, India, is a joint venture launched by a few scholars from India and Japan and its main aim is to promote academic research on the cultural facets of Asian countries. One of its main objectives is the quest for perception of Asian literature and culture as a unified and composite whole, transcending geogra phical, linguistic, and cultural barriers.

By Dr. G. J. Samuel

Egged on by intellectual curiosity, many eminent scholars from Western Europe, the former Soviet states, and the United States have made invaluable contributions to Oriental culture. Similarly, laden with emotional as well as intellectual involvement, few Asian scholars have also devoted themselves heart and soul to Asian Studies. Yet, the area of studies covered so far is not considerable and much more remains to be done. This is brought home to us by the ignorance that prevails in the world of scholarship about the similarities and diversities that exist among the Asian cultures. Only a few Asian works are available in translations in the various languages of the people of Asia. The paucity of reference material is another limitation to scholars who pursue Asiatic researches. Moreover, there are only a few centres of study which are devoted to the study of Asian cultures in depth. The Institute of Asian Studies in Madras has been established with a view to overcoming the existing limitations and to pooling together the s cattered resource persons and materials available in various countries so as to enable our academics to carry out research on various aspects of the cultural heritage of the people of Asia in a very systematic way.


The Institute proposes to introduce the teaching of all important Asian languages and literatures sequentially. Translations of great works (literary, philosophical, theological and so forth) will also be undertaken by this Institute. Promoting comparative studies in Asian literature and of the philosophical works of Asian countries will be one of the important activities of the Institute. It is proposed to establish a strong faculty of archaeology which should engage in undertaking the much needed explorations in various parts of Asia and also serve as an up-to- date information centre of all archaeological works in Asia.

One of the main faculties of the Institute, namely the faculty of Manuscriptology, is designed in such a way that its programmes include collections of all unpublished materials available on palm-leaf and other manuscripts and preserving them from further decay and disintegration. This vital part of the Institute will be engaged in protecting the cultural treasures of the people of Asia from decay and deterioration and publishing them with detailed editorial notes and critical commentaries.

Steps will be taken for the preparation of all reference materials and classification of the data available for all kinds of research on Asian culture. The Institute will collaborate with other research centres and universities of international reputation which are engaged in research on Asian culture in a wider perspective. The Institute will embrace all modern aids to research and keep academic research in step with the development in current technology. Apart from its programmes pertaining to the preparation of reference materials, the Institute conducts language teaching programmes and PhD programmes. It organizes a number of seminars, conferences, and workshops at the national as well as international level. Above all recognizing that informed independent research scholars are the life-blood of the various projects the Institute undertakes, it gives sound training to young scholars and helps them to work with dedication and a full sense of commitment. The Institute in short is designed as an international academic centr e for cross-cultural studies and it invites scholars of good academic repute from various countries interested in Asian culture and enable them to conduct their own research on Asian languages, cultures and literatures under one roof.

This non-profit research centre was registered as an autonomous Society in 1982 and it is governed by a team of members in the capacity of the Board of Governors. Eminent personalities from various walk of life - judiciary, education, government, culture - who evince a keen interest in Asian culture, language, and literature form the Boar d of Governors which is headed by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer.

The Institute plans to start separate departments for all the Asian languages in due course. At present it has nine faculties which are engaged in various academic programmes. The language faculties have the following four components:

  • language instruction
  • translation
  • preparation of reference material
  • comparative studies

Language instruction is in English and it is given in three stages namely:

  • introductory courses;
  • advanced courses; and
  • special courses in language, literature and culture.

Translation being an important mode of cultural transmission, the Institute has a number of programmes which are designed to translate Asian classics from one language into another to enable a mutual flow of ideas from one linguistic community into another. During the initial stages literary classics with a universal perspective and relevance in the important languages in Asia are being accepted for translation.

To begin with, the reference works prepared by the Institute will be in English, including:

  • encyclopaedias of literature
  • encyclopaedias of art
  • encyclopaedias of culture
  • encyclopaedias of folklore
  • multilingual dictionaries
  • descriptive catalogues of manuscripts
  • archaeological atlases
  • descriptive surveys of folk culture
  • encyclopaedias of place names

Such works prepared with a wider Asian perspective will form basic source material not only for cross-cultural studies but also for the students of comparative studies and researchers in the respective individual languages.

The following nine departments have been founded so far. With the shifting of the Institute to its permanent premises in March 1996, eight more departments will be opened, so that its activities will be expanded to more areas. Moreover, collaboration with a few Japanese, American, and German universities will start in the next academic year. The departments are:

Tamil Studies

Kannada Studies

Telugu Studies



Folklore Studies


Japanese Studies

Publications Division


Tamil Studies

The Department of Tamil Studies is engaged in the preparation of reference materials in English on various aspects of the linguistic, literary, and cultural heritage of the Tamil- speaking community of South India and of the Tamils spread all over the world. One of the main projects of this department is an Encyclopaedia of Tamil Literature in abo ut 10 volumes. The Institute has already published the first three volumes of this important work. In addition to this, this Department is engaged in the preparation of teaching materials which will assist foreign scholars to learn the Tamil language in a systematic way. It is also engaged in the preparation of concordances to few Tamil texts. The Department of Tamil Studies offers courses in Tamil language both at the introductory and advanced levels. It has exchange programmes with several universities in addition to Ph.D. programmes in which a number of scholars are working on certain aspects of Tamil literature and culture. This Department is funded mainly by the Government of Ta mil Nadu.

Kannada Studies

The Department of Kannada Studies is engaged in the preparation of a multi-volume Multilingual Dictionary of Kannada-Kannada- Tamil-English- Japanese. The first volume of this work has already come out and the remaining three volumes are expected to be released in the foreseeable future.

Telugu Studies

The Department of Telugu Studies is engaged in the preparation of a five- volume History of Telugu Literature and a six-volume Encyclopaedia of the Telugu Literature in English. In addition, the Department is conducting teaching programmes similar to that of the Department of Kannada Studies and it is engaged in several projects pertaining to palm -leaf manuscripts.

Japanese Studies

The Department of Japanese Studies is engaged in the preparation of teaching materials pertaining to Japanese language in addition to the Japanese courses conducted at various levels. The Departments of Telugu Studies, Kannada Studies, and Japanese Studies, are funded by the Governments of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and several Japanese founda tions and individuals respectively.


The Department of Manuscriptology is one of the most important components of this Institute. It is engaged in the collection, preservation and publication of rare texts which are available on fragile palm-leaf and other manuscripts. A tentative survey made by this Department pertaining to the palm-leaf manuscripts available in the Tamil language shows that 21% of manuscripts have been published and 79% of them still remain unpublished. These unpublished materials, which are written in a fragile, organic, medium namely palm-leaf, are disintegrating due to human negligence and natural calamities. The Department of Manuscriptology is engaged in launching projects which are aimed at preser ving the cultural treasures of the people of the southern part of India from decay and disintegration. The academic programmes of this Department will gradually be expanded to the rare manuscripts available in other parts of Asia. There is a good palm-leaf manuscripts library at the Department with large numbers of rare, unpublished work which t he Institute is planning to publish one by one with English translation.

This Department is also launching a project on the works available in manuscripts dealing with traditional science. One of the main projects of this Department is the preparation of a detailed Descriptive Catalogue of Palm-leaf Manuscripts in Tamil in about 25 volumes, each consisting of two parts. The first four volumes in eight parts have alre ady been published.

The Department of Manuscriptology has also conducted a seminar on the palm-leaf manuscripts available in various Indian languages. The proceedings of this seminar will be published. The Department periodically conducts workshops with a view to imparting training for young scholars in reading and editing the manuscripts.

Folklore and Buddhism

The Department of Folklore is engaged in the documentation of the folk materials which are disappearing in the wake of urbanization and industrialization. It is actively involved in the publication of a five-volume Encyclopaedia of the Folk Culture of Tamil Nadu and another five-volume Encyclopaedia of the Folk Culture of Karnataka.

The first volume of the latter work has already been released and the preparation of the subsequent volumes is making good progress . There are a number of project
spertaining to ball ads , triball or as well as the interaction between ecology and folk culture .

The Department of Buddhism of the Institute plays an important role in tracing the cultural similarities that exist among the various Asian countries. It is also interested in studying the trade routes as well as the routes which Buddhist monks travelled to various countries of Asia carrying in their person the individual and uni que cultural treasures of the various linguistic communities of Asia. This Department is also engaged in exploring ancient Buddhist remains in various parts of Asia. It has prepared an Archaeological Atlas of the Antique remains of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu. It has also published an interesting book on Buddhism namely Buddhism in Tamil Nadu - A New Perspective. The Department has organized two seminars, one on Buddhist themes in modern Indian Literatures and one on Tamil Buddhism, the latter in collaboration with the University of Uppsala, Sweden. The proceedings of the seminars have been published in two volumes. The Department is contemplating some projects connected with the excavation of some of the important Buddhist sites. We are sure that the results of these excavations will enrich our knowledge of Asian culture and history.


The biannual journal issued by the Institute under the name The Journal of the Institute of Asian Studies has played a vital role in pooling together the expertise of various scholars scattered all over the world who are interested in Asian studies. Started in 1983, 24 number of this journal have been released containing large num bers of research papers on various aspects of Asian culture.

The Publications Division of the Institute of Asian Studies has been responsible for many books on the cultural heritage of the people of India, especially those of South India. A list of publications can be obtained from the Institute.

Institute of Asian Studies
Chemmancherry, Sholinganallur P.O.
Chennai 600 119 India

Phone (Office)496-1662, 496-0831
(Residence) 496-0085

Fax: 91-44-496-0959


Dr. G John Samuel is the Director for Research Programmes of the Institute for Asian Studies at Chennai.

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