One of the oldest and rarest books in Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum goes digital

Oct 11, 2017, 11:36 IST | Benita Fernando

One of the oldest and rarest books in the collection of Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum - Philippus Baldaeus' 1672 travelogue of the Indian subcontinent - is set to go digital

Father Philippus Baldaeus is a name that history remembers as one of the earliest European missionaries in Sri Lanka, who went on to make an ethnological study of Tamils in the island. His travels in the subcontinent in the mid-1600s resulted in an important piece of work, titled 'A True and Exact Description of the most Celebrated East-India Coasts of Malabar and Coromandel; as also of the Isle of Ceylon'. The book is a rare find, and one, in fact, that the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum has had as part of its collection.

A portrait of Philippus Baldaeus. Pic courtesy/The Atlas of Mutual Heritage/Koninklijke Bibliotheek

Just last week, the book caught the attention of the Guido Tielman, the consul general of Netherlands, on a special visit to the museum. He even read out the Dutch dedication from the book, which exists as two volumes – one in Dutch, printed in 1672 in Amsterdam, and another, an English translation that was printed in London in 1703. The 211-page Dutch volume is about 38.5 cm and 26.2 cm in length and width. The two volumes, which were restored by the museum in the early 2000s through the conservation lab, are now undergoing a process of digitisation and will be soon made available for researchers.

A rare tome
Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, managing trustee and honorary director of Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, said that the museum has a rare collection of books and has been continuously adding to it. "The library's collection is a great resource for researchers, but we cannot allow access to the books as they are old and fragile. They have undergone extensive restoration work, and, through digitisation, will be accessible to researchers and readers," she explained.

The book was restored by a team of conservators, which Mehta said, is a laborious process, for each leaf needs to be handled with care. The digitisation of the book, being undertaken by the curatorial and conservation teams, follows guidelines and uses software provided by the Ministry of Culture. While the book is currently also available on www.archive.org, the fact that Mumbai boasts of this tome is worth noting as well.

Exquisite sketches
When Baldaeus wrote the book, he had intended it as an accurate account of the Malabar and Coromandel coast, against previous, 'misleading' reports of the 'exotic' colonies. Baldaeus had a profound interest in Hinduism and its pantheon of gods, and wrote in great detail about the ten avatars of Vishnu. There are detailed accounts from the 'city of Goa, increasing every year in riches and traffic', and how there is scarcely anything of interest in Bazain, or present-day Vasai.

The book is also illustrated with exquisite sketches and maps documenting more than just the Dutch presence in the subcontinent. As he travelled across the coastline of India and Ceylon, Baldaeus observed the art, architecture and landscape, all of which are illustrated in the two volumes. The English volume, in particular, has land and sea views of the Bombay Fort in the opening pages. It also contains detailed illustrations of the Vishnu's avatars.

His journey to the Indian subcontinent
Philippus Baldaeus, born in 1632, was orphaned at the age of four, and was raised by his grandfather in Delft, South Holland. He went into the service of the Dutch East India Company, leaving in 1654 with his wife for Batavia, Dutch East Indies (present-day Jakarta). Baldaeus later served in Jaffna and Point de Galle.

A portrait of Philippus Baldaeus. Pic courtesy/The Atlas of Mutual Heritage/Koninklijke Bibliotheek
A portrait of Philippus Baldaeus. Pic courtesy/The Atlas of Mutual Heritage/Koninklijke Bibliotheek

His parish comprised the entire coastal area of Sri Lanka, and he was knowledgeable in Sanskrit, Portuguese, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English, French, Italian and Tamil. During 1665-1666, Baldaeus returned to the Netherlands, where he settled as a preacher in Geervliet, south of Rotterdam. He completed his most famous book there, and passed away soon after, at the age of 39.

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