The Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project (NGMPP) was founded in 1970 under an agreement between His Majesty's Government of Nepal and the German Oriental Society, and was financed by the German Research Council (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft). The Project was established to preserve Nepal's extraordinary wealth of old manuscripts, blockprints and historical documents on microfilm. The text material encompasses the various branches of Hindu and Buddhist literature, and is thus of significance far beyond the boundaries of Nepal. Many of the manuscripts, in some cases close to a thousand years old, are heavily damaged or on the point of disintegrating. A number of the manuscripts filmed represent the oldest, or even the only preserved copy of a work.
The conservation of manuscripts and block prints on microfilm by the NGMPP serves two purposes. First, by locating, filming and making available microfilms of previously unknown or inaccessible texts, the Project contributes considerably to broadening our knowledge of Sanskrit, Tibetan, Nepalese and Newari literature. It makes possible the creation of new critical editions of texts, faciliates research into textual transmission and manuscript analysis, and furthers scholarly investigation into the subjects dealt with in the texts, namely, religious rituals, philosophy, art history, poetry, drama, architecture, medicine, law and so on. The unusual breadth of the historical documents that have been microfilmed is revolutionizing our understanding of the economic and social history of Nepal.
Nepal, situated between the North Indian plains and the Tibetan plateau, has for centuries received the influences of its neighbours. It has acted as middleman in a corridor of brisk trading relations and has served as a place of refuge for individuals and their valuables in times of political unrest and upheaval. On the other hand, Nepal has been protected by its being peripheral to India and Tibet, so that not only its own very notable autonomous culture but also significant portions of the adjacent cultures have been able to survive relatively intact within its boundaries. Its geographical placement and its comparatively favourable climatic conditions have resulted in the fact that Nepal today possesses some of the oldest and most unique products of written culture in South and Central Asia.
Among the approximately 180,000 manuscripts that have been microfilmed by the NGMPP are found the oldest preserved manuscript of a Vedic text (dating from the 11th century), the oldest preserved Pali manuscript, and a manuscript of the Skanda Purana which is possibly the oldest dated Nepalese manuscript (810 AD). Equally important among the microfilmed material are tantric texts no longer extant in India, philosophical texts previously known to exist only in fragmentary form, rare Tibetan Buddhist canons, and a wealth of other valuable materials written in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Newari, Nepali, Hindi and Avadhi.
Microfilming makes possible the preservation of manuscripts and the texts they contain, and allows the originals to remain with their owners and caretakers. Many of the manuscripts filmed by the NGMPP are the property of individuals living in the diverse regions of Nepal. Other manuscripts are located in Nepalese libraries which, for various reasons, are unable to provide optimal conditions for their conservation or restoration. Many Tibetan manuscripts and block prints filmed by the NGMPP are housed in monasteries in the northern mountains and valleys of Nepal which can only be reached after days of strenuous travel by horse or foot. Due to the filming activities of the NGMPP over the past 30 years in the permanent microfilm stations and on expeditions, all these manuscripts are now centralized in the National Archives of Nepal as microfilms, thus providing scholars and interested individuals world-wide with easy access to the texts.
The original microfilm and one copy of it are stored in Nepal. A further copy of every film has been sent to the German Oriental Society, which has forwarded it on permanent loan to the State Library in Berlin. Thanks to a generous grant from the German Foreign Office, a "Microfilm Building" designed for the storage of the films has been erected on the grounds of the National Archives in Kathmandu. By now, the National Archives houses the world's largest microfilm collection of South Asian manuscripts.
The importance of thirty-one years of filming activities of the NGMPP cannot be overstated. Many of the more fragile manuscripts have, since their filming, seriously deteriorated, and others have been devoured by insects or gnawed beyond recognition by rats. In 1989, a fire at the famous monastery of Tengboche in Khumbu burned the monastery's library to ashes, completely destroying unique manuscripts that had been brought from Tibet. Fortunately, these rare manuscripts (185 texts, 15,766 folios) had been photographed by the NGMPP just a few months prior to the fire, and remain preserved on microfilm for future generations.