One of two major Sanskrit epics of Ancient India, the Mahābhārata tells the tale of a dynastic struggle between two sets of cousins for control of the Bharata kingdom in central India. One of the longest poems ever written, eclipsed only by the Gesar Epic of Tibet, it is said to have been composed between 900 and 400BCE by the sage Vyasa, although, in reality, it is likely to have been created by a number of individuals. To Hindus, it is important in terms of both dharma (moral law) and history (itihasa), as its themes are often didactic. This scroll dates to 1795CE and was donated to Edinburgh University in 1821 by Colonel Walker of Bowland. It is 13.5cm wide and 72m long, all housed in a wooden case, wound around rollers and turned by a key in the side. It has 78 miniatures of varying sizes. All of the illustrations are in the late Mughul or Kangra style, with gold backgrounds and floral patterning in red, white and gold, as well as green leaves and blue diamond-shaped designs. The text itself is dense, tiny, and underpinned with yet more gold leaf decorations.
Photographically, this represented a series of challenges. In the first place, the length alone meant that many images would need to be taken and subsequently stitched together, preliminary work revealed that close to 475 distinct images would need to be taken and all stitched together generating a single huge image (5 stitched images resulted in a the file size of 400MB in tiff format). While the IIIF integration supports the serving of tiled jpg2000s or pyramidal TIFF files for delivery, the sheer mass of the single image file required considerable processing power for the initial composition. Added to this, the Victorian housing causes the scroll to sag, and is difficult to keep perfectly steady. In conjunction with conservator Emily Hick, a thin platform was made to be carefully inserted underneath the scroll to provide the necessary stability. Finally, one of the most significant imaging challenges was the gold: each movement causes the light to reflect in a different way, making the stitching of images very slow work.>
Though we often talk about the way in which objects were made originally, we very rarely discuss how those physical objects come to be digitally presented online. This is all the more relevant in an object like the Mahābhārata Scroll as, at 78 meters long, it is simply too extensive to even try to capture in a single image, especially to get the level of resolution required to make it a valuable online resource. The video available below, the Mahābhārata Digitisation Project is presented by those involved in the project, from academics, to conservators, photographers, and digital developers.
In the case of the Mahābhārata Scroll the Digital Imaging Unit from the University of Edinburgh has also given us an insight into their process as Susan Pettigrew and Scott Renton wrote up a discussion of the way in which they eventually captured and stitched together the images and then approached displaying these online.