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Modern imaging reveals ancient text

22 Sep 2006

US scientists are exploiting specialist imaging technologies to preserve a 700-year-old manuscript that contains the essence of Hindu philosophy.

Hindu writings dating back to the 13th century have been imaged and then preserved on silicon wafers by a team of researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The collection of 36 works -- which originally were written on 340 palm leaves sandwiched between heavy wooden covers -- contains commentaries on sacred Hindu scriptures, and conveys the scholar Dvaita's philosophy of the meaning of life and the role of God.

The ancient document has suffered from poor storage and handling, which has aged the palm leaves dark brown and obscured the original Sanskrit writings. "It is literally crumbling to dust," says PR Mukund, a professor of electrical engineering at RIT. "The book will never be opened again unless there is a compelling reason to do so."

Mukund first became involved with the project when the problem was highlighted by his spiritual teacher in India. Finding a solution became a personal goal for Mukund, who studies and teaches Hindu philosophy and understood the importance of preserving the document for future scholars.

Mukund teamed up with his RIT colleague Roger Easton, who had worked on a project to image the Dead Sea Scrolls. The two scientists, together with Mukund's student Ajay Pasupuleti, spent six days in Udupi, India, imaging the document using a scientific digital camera that was equipped with an infrared filter to enhance the contrast between the ink and the palm leaf.

Images of the palm leaves, which each measured 26 inches long and 2 inches wide, were captured in eight to ten sections, producing some 7900 images. The images were then processed and digitally stitched together, before passing through other image-processing algorithms to improve the image quality.

Etching the sacred writings on silicon wafers was Pasupuleti's idea. The process, called aluminum metallization, transfers an image to a wafer by creating a negative of the image and depositing metal on the silicon surface.

According to Pasupuleti, each wafer can hold the image of three leaves, which means that more than 100 wafers are needed to store the entire manuscript. Silicon wafers are both fire- and waterproof, and readable with the use of a magnifying glass. The processed images will also be stored electronically and in print format.

Mukund and Pasupuleti will return to India at the end of November to give printed and electronic versions of the writings to the monastery in Udupi. "We feel we were blessed to have this opportunity to do this," says Mukund. "It was a fantastic and profoundly spiritual experience."

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