The Emergence of Colophons in South Asian Scribal Cultures
Department of Religious Studies, The University of Iowa
Department of Religious Studies, The University of Iowa
The emergence of colophons in the scribal cultures of South Asia is a relatively understudied subject in Indian epigraphy, manuscriptology, codicology and the history of the book. Although the word “colophon” is hardly ever used in the study of South Asian inscriptions, it is regularly deployed in the critical appraisal of Indic manuscripts and books. Indeed, given the dearth of historical details in the philosophical, religious and literary works of ancient and early modern India, most textual scholars deeply appreciate the presence of colophons in Indic manuscripts, and the content of colophons are reproduced in several published catalogs of Indian manuscripts. Yet it remains unclear how – under what circumstances and in what form – were the first colophons produced and introduced in South Asian inscriptions and manuscripts.
The first generation of Indological scholars borrowed the term “colophon” from European academies, adapted it to diverse Indic contexts, and subsequently popularized its usage in their scholarly writings on Indian history, literature, religion, and culture. No philosophical, political or text-critical justification was ever offered in support of the applicability of the notion of colophon in the scribal cultures of South Asia. Nevertheless, the term soon gained currency in academic discourses and textual studies. While an unspoken consensus has prevailed with regards to some of the basic constituents of Indic colophons, there were notable differences in how Indological scholars conceptualized the scope and content of colophons in their study of Indian inscriptions and manuscripts. To complicate the issue further, sometime before the 1950s, the Ministry of Scientific Research and Cultural Affairs, Government of India, issued a set of guidelines regarding the acquisition and documentation of manuscripts in India. It directed all state-owned archives and libraries to document both colophons and postcolophons of manuscripts in the descriptive catalogues of their archival collections. With the appearance of the neologism “postocolophon” in the official directive, some prominent scholars immediately endorsed the term and recalibrated their critical apparatus to identify a closing section of the textual artefact as postcolophon. However, the recent coinage of postcolophon was attractive to a restricted number of textual scholars and specialists. Neither the official directive nor the adherents of the idea of postcolophon elucidated the material, textual and/or ideational differences between colophons and postcolophons.
In most scholarly writings on Indic inscriptions and manuscripts, colophons are primarily viewed as a codicological entity that can potentially reveal significant details about the identity, authorship, composition, copying, circulation and reception of a historical work. Insofar as colophons serve as valid sources of historical information, their literal content is appreciated and analyzed in a rigorous manner. This kind of appraisal and appreciation is not reserved for the material, aesthetic and literary attributes of colophons. While some scholars do notice and acknowledge the presence of generic tendencies in the textual composition of colophons, most of them are highly critical of the literary style and poetic craft of scribes and they often disapprove of scribal innovations and textual interventions. Furthermore, while the appearance of dialectal and vernacular expressions in colophons are considered useful sources of historical information, they are simultaneously viewed as evidence of the inferior literary (and intellectual) competence of scribes. By treating scribes as inept and uninformed producers of textual material and colophons as extraneous – albeit potentially useful – appendages to textual artifacts, scholars have neglected the historical development of colophons and their overall implications for material and literary cultures in South Asia.
Against this backdrop of definitional and interpretative challenges inherent in the exploration of Indic inscriptions and manuscripts, my study reexamines the early history of colophons in the scribal cultures of South Asia. It argues that the appearance of colophons in Indic inscriptions and manuscripts constitute a significant turn in the material cultures of South Asian societies. On the basis of a critical appraisal of the content, form, style and context of the earliest colophons in the subcontinent, it reflects on how the production of colophons was integral to the material, aesthetic, literary and ideational conceptions of inscriptions and manuscripts. In its reckoning, colophons are not merely appendages to textual artifacts, they constitute a substantial cultural phenomenon which deeply affects how inscriptions and manuscripts were conceived, produced, and circulated by/among its immediate and potential audiences. To this end, my study examines the earliest instances of the appearance of colophons in Indic inscriptions and manuscripts, and it investigates how the material form, textual content, aesthetic style and ideational basis of colophons came into being, and how these elements were transformed and reified over a period of time. It thus explores the formative history of colophons in Indic inscriptions and manuscripts with the sole intention of casting colophons as a larger cultural phenomenon in the scribal cultures of South Asia.