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From palm leaves to pixels: TeraGrid’s Data Capacitor supports digital preservation of ancient Hindu manuscripts 

Data Capacitor Principal Investigator: Craig A. Stewart
Funded by National Science Foundation grant number CNS-0521433

hindu-textWhen 13th-century Indian religious scholars painstakingly incised spiritual philosophies on palm fronds to preserve for future generations, they could not have imagined that a team of 21st-century scholars would one day be working with high-performance computers to further preserve and make them accessible. This is what researchers from the Center for Preservation of Ancient Manuscripts (CPAM) at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) are doing for ancient Hindu documents, the Sarvamoola Granthas.

The Sarvamoola Granthas contain the philosophical teachings of Shri Madvacharya, a proponent of the dualist Hindu philosophy, Dvaita. Madvacharya is among the most influential teachers in Hindu religious history, credited with ushering in a new spiritual age in India.

For centuries, the palm-leaf documents of the Sarvamoola Granthas were housed in Indian monasteries called Mathas. With exposure to damaging atmospheric elements, over time the leaves became brittle, discolored and difficult to read. Scholars were in danger of losing access to their content. Today, the CPAM team is working to capture the document images in a digital format, to better endure the passage of time and to once again be made readable.

“The Sarvamoola Granthas project is unique in that it uses some of the most advanced modern technology to preserve irreplaceable ancient knowledge,” says CPAM director P.R. Mukund, who leads the project along with co-director Roger Easton, distinguished researcher Ajay Pasupuleti and post-doctoral researcher Sri Priya Das. “Without digital preservation, it is very likely that more of these important documents would be lost to future scholars.”

The process of digitizing so many detailed images was no minor task, producing more than two terabytes of data, a large amount of data for historical research, and more than local facilities at RIT could easily manage. CPAM needed a quick, reliable way to move these precious data-sets to where they could be stored safely and replicated easily. They turned to TeraGrid’s Data Capacitor, a system developed by IU to temporarily store, transfer and manipulate very large data sets. Mukund worked closely with Stephen Simms, IU TeraGrid site lead and manager of the Data Capacitor project, to develop a data-management strategy

“The ability to transfer high-quality images was a daunting task that was made easy thanks to the TeraGrid and the Data Capacitor,” says Mukund. “It was the combination of having access to this state-of-the-art technology, along with the personal support we received, that allowed us to successfully manage the data.”

Using the Lustre-WAN implementation (developed by IU in collaboration with DDN, Inc), data were transferred from RIT through the New York State Education and Research Network at an achieved rate between 80 and 110 megabits per second, roughly 80 percent of the peak theoretical throughput possible on the one-gigabit connection. Once copied to the Data Capacitor, the data were backed up to two tape silos in different locations within IU’s Massive Data Storage System, to ensure the data would remain secure. 

The Sarvamoola Granthas project was one of several projects highlighted by the winning team at the Bandwidth Challenge, an annual competition testing the limits of modern supercomputers, held during the Supercomputing ’07 conference. Using the Data Capacitor, a team from IU, PSC and ORNL claimed first place.

“While most of the projects we support are in the sciences,” says Simms, “it was exciting to demonstrate how this type of technology also has very real and important applications in the humanities. This project showed the general capability of Lustre-WAN clients implemented by IU to move data rapidly and easily from an instrument outside of the TeraGrid into the TeraGrid.”



NSF GSS Codes:

Primary Field: Social Sciences (910) - Asian Studies/Civillization

Secondary Field: Communication (930) - Digital Communication and Media/Multimedia