Kathmandu: Asa Safoo Kuthi, or the Asha Archives, might be a stone’s throw away from the bustling chowk of Asan but it feels a world apart. The library is located on an inconspicuous street, near the Raktakali temple. A new visitor is bound to feel a mild sense of accomplishment at having finally located the library, after going through several trials and tribulations at the labyrinthine gallis. Once inside the library’s quiet rooms, however, the rewards will be great—thousands of books, manuscripts, and historical documents await to be explored.
Upon entering the offices of what looks like a well-maintained building, the few but friendly staff make sure that the visitors, consisting of researchers, locals, and the curious, feel at home. Among the staff is Sharad Kasa, the good-humored librarian who, if you ask him, narrates a brief history of Asa Archives, perhaps the only Nepal Bhasa library in Nepal.
The Asa Archives is a public library specializing in Nepal Bhasa manuscripts, literature, and other historical documents. The story of the institution is also a story of many political and cultural upheavals Nepal has witnessed over the decades—something that is worth ‘mulling over’, as Kasa likes to put it.
The library, in its current structure, was officially inaugurated on December 7, 1987, by Professor Yujiro Hayashi, the then Executive Director of the Toyota Foundation of Japan.
The Asa Archives is named after Asa Man Singh Kansakar (1916-1990), father of the late Prem Bahadur Kansakar, who was a prominent Nepali Congress politician. Before Nepal saw democracy in February 1951, Kansakar was in Kolkata studying Farsi on a state-sponsored scholarship.
The tale of Cwasa Pasa (which literally means ‘pen friend’), a publication house adjoining the library building, acts as a preamble to the story of Asha Archives. Sensing it was difficult to return to Nepal amid a precarious political situation that eventually saw the fall of the Rana regime, Kansakar established the Dharmodaya Sabha to publish Nepal Bhasa newspapers in Kolkata and acted as its editor under a pseudonym. He also wanted to create a community of Nepal Bhasa writers in Kolkata and established Cwasa Pasa in 1950 around April/May just before the advent of democracy in Nepal.
After the dawn of democracy, Kansakar returned to Nepal, had rifts with BP Koirala, left his old party to start his own, and eventually left politics altogether. In what could be called the second inning of his life, he started teaching and indulging himself in literature and arts. He was a teacher at Padmodaya School till 1985 and also taught Nepal Bhasa at the Campus of International Languages in Kathmandu. Kasa, the librarian, also says that he started the first public library, the Pradipta Pustakalaya, in 1946.
Kansakar wasn’t particularly happy with how Nepal Bhasa was developing. He knew there were many stories, poems, mythologies in Nepal Bhasa but the language hadn’t yet seen a novel. So, he asked author Dhooswan Sayami to write one. Sayami was slightly reluctant but he agreed anyway and wrote the first modern novel in Nepal Bhasa—“Misa”, meaning a woman.
For now, the Asha Archives sustains better than most public libraries in the valley. The community, scholars, academic and philanthropic institutions, among others, have helped the Archive to be what it is.
The novel was published in the number of several hundred and ran out of stock in around a year. Any reader who wanted to get hold of the copy went to Cwasa Pasa, the publisher. Kansakar was entertained that the stock disappeared in the market so soon but also realized a problem—that general readers most probably weren’t able to read other Nepal Bhasa books either. He wanted to create a ‘Literary Temple’ where people could come and read books they wanted. He started collecting books from different authors.
But the literary sanctuary that he had in mind needed to diversify further, which he realized when he was taking a walk one morning around Basantapur. When he saw handwritten manuscripts being sold to foreigners, he realized that there should be a diverse collection of handwritten manuscripts in Nepal, too.
But the story of the Archive isn’t complete without the mentioning of foreigners who took a keen interest in the cultures and languages of Nepal. One of such foreigners was Ian Alsop, an American researcher who was then exploring the differences between Buddhism in the Kathmandu Valley and Buddhism in Tibet. Prem Bahadur Kansakar took him under him as a student. Both the teacher and student, however, were unaware that they shared another interest besides the study of Nepali cultures. They were both in their own rights avid collectors. In fact, Kansakar is known widely for his collection of postage stamps and currencies.
One day, when Kansakar was going through his collection of handwritten manuscripts, Alsop asked what they were for. Kansakar confessed his dream of building a literary sanctuary. Alsop, the American, then took him to where he lived, showed him his own collections, and gifted Kansakar almost 500 handwritten manuscripts as guru dakshina.
But like all literary and artistic pursuits, especially when it comes to building non-profit institutions, money poses a deterrent. After a series of negotiation and exchange of letters, the Toyota Foundation of Japan, which was then working to conserve heritages in the South Asian region, agreed to give the institution a grant to construct a building for the library on the condition that it should be based in the local vicinity.
Digitizing the Archive
When a Japanese boy called Shucho Takaoka read in a local newspaper that the annual Sanja festival that locals observed there closely resembled the Seto Machindranath festival in Kathmandu, he packed his bags to see it for himself. He was immediately hooked and started learning Sanskrit and Nepal Bhasa.
As he started getting consistently engaged with the Valley’s culture and consequently with the library, he realized the need to digitize the documents that were housed in it. It was then, in his leadership, that about 7000 documents archived in the library were digitized in 1987.
Kasa, the librarian, likes to call it the first phase of digitization. The second phase, he says, is currently being conducted through a close partnership with the Centre for Studies of Manuscript Cultures at Hamburg University under the project “Preserving the Written Heritage of Nepal”. Dr. Bidur Bhattarai, who is based in Hamburg, Germany, is the Project Coordinator for the project which started in 2018 and will run till 2022.
Kasa shared an interesting anecdote about Shucho Takaoka and his zeal for Nepal Bhasa and the cultures of the valley. Takaoka, upon completing the “first phase” of digitization, was still worried about the conservation of those documents which are usually very fragile and prone to destruction. “He was worried about fungus developing on these documents because of humidity, which is why he shipped a special kind of wood from Japan to build compartments and an enclosure,” he said. When one enters the wood-covered enclosure, one can’t help but smell a distinct scent coming off the wood.
Another recent preservation effort has been that of palm leaf land grant documents. A team of experts from Turkey, Japan, and the UK preserved about 1200 such fragile documents in a span of three years. The documents which were previously stored in used camera reel boxes are now safely stored in temperature-monitored rooms after proper cataloging.
The management of the Archives is looked after by a 16 member Board of Trustees which was once chaired by the late Padma Ratna Tuladhar. The daily operations are looked after by a standing committee consisting of the chairman, treasurer, librarian, representative of Cwasa Pasa, and selected members of the Board. It is financially afloat thanks to the interest earned from an endowment fund deposited in Nepali banks, and other fees and donations.
Kasa, the librarian, isn’t too keen about the idea of the library partnering with the government. “We’ve tried to do that before with Kathmandu Metropolitan City,” he says. “But we think the complex paperwork that will be required coupled with numerous committees that will subsequently form to oversee operations will hurt more than help.”
For now, Prem Bahadur Kansakar’s brainchild sustains better than most public libraries in the valley. The community, scholars, academic and philanthropic institutions, among others, have helped the Archive to be what it is. But as Nepalis gradually become disenchanted with the culture and language of the valley, Kasa sees the usual modus operandi continuing, where foreigners are more interested in these remnants of history and knowledge than Nepalis themselves.