ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Digitising Endangered Village Archives

The Sundarbans Case

Preservation of local records, rare Bengali manuscripts and copies of vernacular papers and little known local magazines, held in private collections and individual homes of villagers, becomes important, if we want rare insights into the past of the Sundarbans and understand it in all its variety. 

Archives[1] are wonderful resources but often underused and underappreciated. Important for academic research, they also offer an opportunity for anyone to rediscover the past in all its variety. Archives can open up new sources of unexpected insights for individuals, local communities, historians and researchers with special interests. But they also need protection and care. How do archivists balance their dual responsibility of caring for their collections and also making them more accessible to the public? How can academic researchers help them do both? How can entrepreneurs and those  involved with creative, cultural and heritage sectors help archives “get out there” without risking the collections?

During my year-long field research in the Sundarbans (UNESCO World Heritage Site and Tiger Reserve) in 2012-13, I discovered a variety of puthis (medieval Bengali manuscripts) and 19th century zaminadri records held in private collections, museums and individual homes of villagers. The owners of these archives and personal collections were finding it difficult to preserve these invaluable records due to the cost of conservation and the lack of institutional and technical support from the government.

Puthis kept in the Ramchandra Chakraborty Museum

Urgency to Preserve Local Archives in Sundarbans

On my return to the metropolis, Kolkata, I drew attention of the director of West Bengal State Archives to these magnificent treasures. The archive officials did not find my proposal for conservation of the endangered family archives worthy and advised me to persuade my university to fund their digitisation. They cited bureaucratic hassles and red tapism as hurdles in undertaking this type of exercise. Public apathy to rescue these endangered village archives and failure to recognise the importance of these colonial and pre-colonial records were some problems involved in the preservation of these records

From an economic standpoint, the justification of spending money to restore archival records seems unreasonable to our policy makers, educationists and state planners. Nonetheless, such expenditure can be made meaningful if these are regarded as tangible heritage and a repository of culture and history. The digitisation and preservation of endangered archival material is of utmost importance in a tropical environment, where the hot and humid climate has an adverse impact on records that are largely hand written or printed on paper. The records kept in the Sundarbans are also susceptible to tropical cyclones and a rise in sea level, threatening their survival. Hence, these archival records need immediate attention.

During information gathering in Hoter village, my interlocutors described the challenges they faced in preserving these records in the face of extreme weather conditions prevailing in the delta region. Parimal Charkraborty who collects family puthis from all over Bengal and preserves these in his home museum (Dr Ramachadra Chakraborty Memorial Heritage Museum) explained that to preserve these pre-colonial records one should possess antiquarian knowledge and have huge funds in order to disinfect the chronicles and increase their shelf life.

Puthi manuscripts kept in the Sundarban Anchalik Sangrayshala (Regional Museum)

The coastal district of the Bay of Bengal has been underrepresented in regional history writing. The people inhabiting the delta are scheduled caste fisherman, woodcutters, sea farers and honey collectors (dalits), who have occupied the margins of the Bengali samaj (society) from pre-colonial times. Their history, culture and economic life should be studied and documented like that of any other society in India. Hence digitisation of records becomes urgent, before we loose the micro details of their social and cultural life.

More than seventy private local archives and museums are under severe financial stress and on the verge of destruction due to lack of preservation and state support in the Sunderbans. Many of the archives are located in remote islands, which are frequented by cyclones and tropical storms.

The Aila cyclone flood during 2009 caused a major tragedy in the Sundarbans and damaged many private home archives. I interviewed poet Mukunda Gayen who lives in Dayapur village, Gosaba. He lost his entire collection of poems, short stories and magazines during the cyclone. Yearly, several tropical storms damage houses, settlements and blow away thatched roofs, damaging life and property. The heavy monsoon rain further endangers the local archives kept in poor houses.

Hamilton Estate Papers

During my research, I also discovered the rich zamindari records kept in the Hamilton Bungalow in Gosaba. The records date back to 1909 when Sir Daniel Mackinnon Hamilton (1860-1939), a Scotsman, shipping magnet and philanthropist (shareholder of the Mackinnon and Mackenzy shipping company) bought 9,000 acres of land to launch his co-operative model of village development. He envisaged Gosaba as an agricultural (and educational) co-operative, and Rabindranath Tagore was influenced by his ideas. In a 1930 letter to Sir Daniel, Tagore wrote:

I have not much faith in politicians when the problem is vast needing a complete vision of the future of a country like India entangled in difficulties that are enormous. These specialists have the habit of isolating politics from the large context of national life and the psychology of the people and of the period. They put all their emphasis upon law and order, something which is external and superficial and ignore the vital needs of the spirit of the nation…’ (Dutta and Robinson, p.382).

The Hamilton estate papers contain annual reports of rural development in Gosaba. The collection has many important files related to agriculture, education and settlements. There are many other files that contain Daniel Hamilton’s philosophy for Gosaba, his correspondences with poet Rabindranath Tagore and maps and sketches of the Hamilton bungalow. It has more than forty thousand pages of typed correspondence, hand written letters, petitions, litigation files, agriculture department files, education department files, maps of Gosaba, sale deeds, land records, photographs and miscellaneous entries on expenditure incurred on embankment constructions, wages of employees, balance sheet of the Jamini rice mill, Rural Reconstruction Institute, Gosaba Co-operative Bhandar and so on. Each of these records present a history of the co-operative movement started by Sir Daniel Hamilton in Gosaba and the caste and religious dynamics among the bhadralok gentry and the peasantry/tenants in Gosaba.

These archives were ignored after Hamilton’s death in 1939, but the manager of the Hamilton Charitable Trust, Sudanshu Bushan Mazundar, kept these records in Gosaba. In the last decade, the Trust has been taken over by the government of West Bengal, with the deputy commissioner of South 24 Parganas as its chairman. Since then due to utter neglect and lack of managerial staff, the records have been collecting dust and degenerating. Majority of these records are already in a very poor state and need urgent restoration.

These records are important to understand the political and social life in the Sundarbans during the early twentieth century and in exploring the peasant movement like the taibhaga, bhagchasi and handor andolan that rocked the Bengali hinterland during the 1940 and 1950s and lay the seed for the Naxal movement and the rise of the Republican Socialist Party (RSP) in the Sundarbans coastal belt.

Sundarban Ancholik Sanggrahasala

I discovered another enthusiast Hamen Majundar in Baruipur, who is a former MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) and the chairman of the Sundarban Ancholik Sanggrahasala (regional museum). Established in 1979, the museum has a exclusive collection of archaeological, anthropological, zoological and historical objects discovered in the Sundarbans. This museum contains many artefacts that are of regional significance.

Puthi records in the archives 

The significance of this regional museum lies in the fact that it contains sculptures created by Hamen Majundar based on narratives and speeches given by Bengali nationalists during the freedom struggle. I will share an example of the sculpture of Unnoti Devi, or Mother Goddess of prosperity, that will illustrate the importance of the collection for historians and the wider research community. The sculpture sheds light on Bengali nationalism and anti-colonial right-wing movement during the late 19th century.

Hamen Majundar created the sculpture in the early 1980s, after he discovered the description of Unnoti Devi in a speech delivered by Indian nationalist and playwright Madan Mohan Bose. During his Baruipur speech of 1869, Bose describes gracefully the facets of the goddess, personifying the “Bongo Mata” and “Bharat Mata” as created by Bengali nationalists later.

The sculpture is one of the most important collections of the museum. It presents an interesting facet of the nationalist movement. The original speech of Madan Mohan Bose is today difficult to locate in any public library in India. However, the museum display has brought to light an important historical event and the earliest description of Bharat Mata much before Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar’s pioneering narration.

Noteworthy Beginning

Agencies like the National Manuscript Mission has failed to digitise these endangered family archives of littoral Bengal. There are very few institutions in India that are interested in these collections, which present the subaltern history of small communities who live away from the metropolis. A number of private archives and museums in the Sundarbans have collection of rare books, vernacular periodicals, magazines, books and invaluable epics and dramas like the Mangal Kabya, and hymns and verses written in Bengali. I discovered a copy of a Bengali Bible printed in 1843. It is kept in Ksithis Vishals museum in Canning, a former port town in South 24 Parganas. Only three copies of the Bible are available all over India.

Sapan Kumar Mandal, a faculty member of the comparative literature department, Jadavpur University has digitised a compilation of rare books discovered in the Sundarbans with the help of the British Library Endangered Archives Programme Pilot Project Grant (EAP). Nonetheless, a lot remains to be done. It is a small but noteworthy beginning of the digitisation programme. These are minuscule private attempts to rescue the great intellectual tradition of written literature available in the Sundarbans.

The region was once infamous for Burmese Mog raids and lawlessness, and was locally known as moger mulluk (an anarchic state). Later the Portuguese pirates made the mangrove forest and backwaters their refuge. But the Sundarbans have a history dating back to second century B.C. Excavations done by local archaeologist like Krishnokali Mandal and the Archaeological Survey of India prove this point. Its rich social history is entombed in the local archives. The need of the hour is digitise the colonial and pre-colonial texts and manuscripts  in order to preserve them.

Archival of Street Literature

In West Bengal there are hundreds of “popular books”—street literature targeted at the common, semi-literate and non-metropolitan public—that exist alongside elite publications. They are marketed through  humble bookshops, but more often than not through hawkers on roads, buses and trains, and in stalls and village haats (temporary weekly markets). But “street literature” has never been collected or archived, and seldom studied. In fact, it is totally ignored in formal literary and academic circles.

The material covers such varied subjects as religion, folk culture, local history, popular literature, politics, poetry, monologues, instructions on traditional rural pursuits such as agriculture, fishing, honey collection and animal farming, instruction on technical occupations such as repairing machinery and appliances, citizen's rights, law, government procedure, public hygiene and social reform.

Shaktipada Nath, a small poet from Sunderbans, showed me the first volume of the literary magazine Slate he published from Gosaba in 1973. But he had to discontinue it for a long time due to financial reasons.  Also poet Supobitra Pradhan published a vernacular newspaper titled Lobanakto from Gosaba until it came to a halt few years back due to financial constrains.

These books, local newspapers, newsletters and small magazines published through freelance and private initiative are of unique sociological interest, illustrating a changing society, culture and economy of Bengal at a popular level. The paper and printing of these books is poor and readily deteriorates, especially given the hot humid tropical climate. Reprints and new editions may appear, but each issue has a very short market life as well as a short shelf life. Single copies of these are available sometimes in remote locations.

The state must also pay attention to the street and village vernacular literature, copies of which are held mostly by individuals, families and in private collections. The Centre for the Studies in Social Sciences (CSSS), Kolkata, has made a good beginning in the north-east and eastern India by digitising rare endangered manuscripts like the Sylethi Nagri script of East Bengal and Assam among others. We need a national enterprise to digitise our treasured archival heritage.


[1] This research has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013)/ERC Grant Agreement 284053, for the project Coastal Frontiers: Water, Power, and the Boundaries of South Asia, led by Dr Sunil Amrith as Principal Investigator and Dr Debojyoti Das as Post- Doctoral Research Associate.


  1. Alapan Bandopadhyay and Anup Matilal eds, (2003): “The Philosopher's Stone: Speeches and Writings of Sir Daniel Hamilton”, Sir Daniel Hamilton Estate Trust, Kolkata.
  2. H G  Rowinson (1945): “The Gosaba Experiment”, The Spectator, p.9.
  3. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson (1997): “Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore”, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  4. Rajib Banu ed, (2012):  “Pratna-Ithas o Silpa Charcha”, (A unique collection of selected essays on archaeology, history and culture of India and Bangladesh with special reference to South Bengal), Kolkata.
  5. Soumen Dutta (2010): “Sir Daniel o Goshabaar Akkhan” (Sir Daniel and the history of Goshaba in Bengali), Kolkata: Soumen Dutta-Mitra Ghosh publishers’ Ltd.
  6. Web link
  7. Web link
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