Stacked end to end, all the shelves at the National Archives of India (NAI) would stretch up to 45km. That is almost the length of Delhi. Luckily for us though, India’s rich historical heritage is not strewn across the Capital’s dusty Ring Road but stored in climate-controlled rooms within the monolith structure that is the National Archives of India. Built by Edwin Lutyens, for the express purpose of preserving Imperial India’s heritage, the erstwhile Imperial Records Department, rechristened the National Archives of India after Independence, continues to be a permanent home for the subcontinent’s past. As its website states, the ‘NAI is the repository of non-current records of the Government of India and holds them in trust for the use of administrators and scholars’.

At a recently concluded exhibition to celebrate its quasquicentennial anniversary, the NAI brought out some of its prized possessions, which, according to Rajmani, assistant director of exhibitions and publications, “is only the tip of the iceberg”. He adds, “Every year there are thousands of new additions to the archives but since it is our 125th year we decided to showcase some of the best from our collections.” On display were treasures such as Mahatma Gandhi’s marksheet from Kathiawar Public School, Rajkot, dated January 23, 1888; a note from the newly formed Government of Pakistan to the Government of India about the division of the archives, dated February 17, 1948; a letter from the island of St Helena in the Atlantic conveying the news of the demise of Napoleon Bonaparte, dated May 10, 1821; and a paper from the court of Feroz Shah Tughlaq, dated October 19, 1352, the oldest document in the archives.

“We acquire any government record that is more than 25 years old and with a certain historical value. There are many non-governmental documents as well, donated by families and other organisations,” says Rajmani. To determine what makes it into the NAI, archivists go through every page of the documents submitted and assess its historical or cultural value, if any. He adds, “The archives are the backbone of any country and our job is to preserve it for research scholars, administrators and our people. This is the resting place of these records.”

The Private Papers section holds pride of place at NAI. Says Rajmani, “In this section, you will find photographs, musical instruments, memorabilia, etc. We have items associated with some of the biggest names in the history of the country — CP Ramanujam, Sarojini Naidu, Mahadevi Verma, Govind Ballabh Pant, Mulk Raj Anand and hundreds of others.”

The largest repository of archival material in South Asia, the NAI has, in the past few years, tried to revamp itself by loosening the bureaucratic red tape and going digital. “In archives the world over, just like for us, the main problem is the sheer volume of the collections. Without a robust indexing and cataloguing system, it’s like searching for a needle in a haystack,” says Sanjay Garg, deputy director, NAI. “We have recently launched our own system for this and close to 1,800 documents have been digitised so far.”

The NAI is also set to launch a system through which researchers can search and order a copy of a document online. Plans for offering remote assistance are also afoot. This would mean that a researcher who currently has to travel to Delhi to access the archives, can soon access the information from any part of the world for a nominal charge.

Notwithstanding the new developments, the archivists see NAI surviving the test of time. As Rajmani, sitting next to one of the record rooms filled with thousands of files says, “It’s a simple thing. If we don’t take care of the archives, the future generations won’t spare us.” It’s no less than a Herculean task. Consider the sheer numbers and you will know how much of what makes India lies in the vaults of the trusty NAI.

At last count, the archives are home to 38,75,332 files; 64,221 volumes; 1,10,332 maps and cartographic items; 3,601 Bills assented to by the President(s) of India; 1,065 treaties and 2,442 rare manuscripts.