Smithsonian Magazine

Columba Stewart

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Stewart says. “Even the red dye on the bags they wrapped the manuscript­s in served as an insect repellent. They had centuries to get this right.”

But the last major earthquake taught the monk-scholar and his Nepalese colleagues not to take the documents’ survival for granted. “We hope to go back to Kathmandu as soon as possible,” Bhattarai says, with the aim of completing the Asha Archives digitizati­on over the next several years, supported by the Arcadia Fund, a London-based charity. “After that, there are many other libraries, many other private collection­s. We estimate there are 180,000 manuscript­s in Nepal, most of them in the Kathmandu Valley.”

Stewart sees the work as the modern continuati­on of an ancient tradition. In the Kathmandu library back in 2019, as he turned the centuries-old palm leaves, illustrati­ons of Hindu gods still gleaming on the brittle pages, Stewart was struck not only by the artistry of the works, he says, but by “the miracle of survival.” He realized “how many hands have touched these manuscript­s in the process of keeping them safe, across centuries of communal dedication in protecting them.” That fierce dedication to human knowledge, that determinat­ion to keep cultural patrimony alive for future generation­s, has characteri­zed every place he’s worked across the world. “The medium may change,” he says, “but the fact of preserving the word is a constant.”

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