Asian Voice (London)
February 22, 2003

Digital Heritage

Dr.Narayanan Kannan is an environmental Chemist with a difference. While he is not teaching as an Associate Professor at the University of Kiel in Germany, he spends his time as the Director of the Tamil Heritage Foundation, travelling round the world preserving ancient Indian manuscripts.

He presented a paper at the Tamil Internet 2001 Conference organised by International Forum for IT in Malaysia, which explained that old manuscripts in palm leaves could be digitally preserved through modern technology. The President of the Malaysian Indian Congress, Dato Seri Sami Vellu was so impressed that he immediately offered $10,000 to Karman to start the Tamil Heritage Foundation.

"We have two different activities. First, we travel extensively over India to digitalise old collections that are withering away so we can preserve them for posterity. We leave the manuscript with the owner, but just take away a digital copy," he explained. "The other aspect is to bring back those elements of India's heritage that have been taken away during our colonial past. This same technology offers us a method to take books back from countries like Britain or Germany by digital imaging."

Kannan, who is visiting London, has met officials of the British Library to discuss how they could digitalise their catalogued Tamil collection. "No one had ever asked the British library before us for access to digitalise books from an Indian language. Initially, they were surprised, but after meeting our team of scholars, they became convinced we were genuine," he laughed.

During his travels in India, Kannan discovered clay tablets written in an ancient brahmi script that has not yet been deciphered. "This was a startling discovery since clay tablets are more peculiar to the Mesopotian civilisations, and relatively unknown in India. The tablets are discovered accidentally while digging for a fertiliser factory and are estimated to be from the time of the Buddha. Unfortunately, none of the scholars we met could decipher the script," he said. Kannan has now approached IT experts in Silicon Valley who have promised to create an algorithm that could finally unravel the mystery. Indian IT seems to have beome all pervading nowadays.

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