Research in South Asian Studies

page scan of an Indic manuscript from Houghton Library's collectionWhat is South Asian Studies?

South Asian Studies is concerned with the study of cultures, histories, languages, and literatures of South Asia, which includes modern India, Pakistan, Tibet, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. South Asia is home to more than a billion people and some of the world’s most fascinating and important civilizations. Its influence has extended historically from Central, East, and Southeast Asia to Europe and North America, which today have vibrant South Asian diasporas. 

Why choose South Asian Studies?

The study of South Asia is an important area of academic inquiry, especially in recent decades, as the region emerges as a global cultural, economic, and political power. For undergraduate students, a concentration in South Asian Studies develops a critical understanding of South Asia in terms of culture, language, history, and literature. For graduate students, the department offers programs of study leading to the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree. Graduate work is tailored to individual interests and doctoral students are expected to ground their work in primary language materials and participate in broadly interdisciplinary studies of South Asian languages, histories, and cultures.


Image: Harvard University, Houghton Library, GEN MS Indic 4.  
Image Source: digital scan of Aniṭkārikāḥ: manuscript, after 1600

South Asian Languages and Literatures at Harvard

photo of Harvard Oriental Series volumes on bookshelf, with link to HOLLIS recordThe Department of South Asian Studies builds upon more than a century of distinguished scholarship in the study of South Asia, most recently under the auspices of the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies. On July 1, 2011, a broader Department of South Asian Studies was launched, drawing faculty from Sanskrit and Indian Studies as well as faculty from across the humanities and interpretive social sciences. The new Department strengthens and broadens the intellectual profile of its predecessor, preserving its long-standing strengths while expanding its resources for the study and teaching of South Asia, broadly conceived. 

The beginnings of South Asian Studies at Harvard


Scholars at Harvard first exhibited a curricular interest in South Asia in the late 19th century, offering courses in Sanskrit as early as 1872. Before the mid-20th century, the field of "Oriental Languages" at Harvard grew to encompass Urdu, among other South Asian languages. In addition to teaching, the faculty engaged in the philological and historical analysis of Asian literary texts. The full germination of South Asian studies at Harvard began in 1903 with a Wales Chair in Sanskrit offered to Charles Rockwell Lanman, who presided over what was formerly known as the Department of Indo-Iranian Languages. Around that time, the department became known as the Department of Indic Philology, and over the years it changed names twice more, to the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies in 1951 and finally to the Department of South Asian Studies in 2010. Studies of Iranian language and civilization moved to the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. The department enrolls undergraduates and graduate students, many at the doctoral level. The department boasts eight named chairs and several faculty members with appointments in fields including music, philosophy, anthropology, religion, and history, among others; it publishes the Harvard Oriental Series, an 80-plus-volume collection of text editions, translations, and studies of major texts in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. In 2018, Lakshmi Mittal and his family gave a gift of $25 million to Harvard South Asia Institute (LMSAI), an endowed research institute that now bears the name of this generous donor.

Sanskrit Library, Widener Library, Room A


This room, which triples as a seminar-style classroom and meeting space, contains about 1,000 printed volumes and nearly 1,500 manuscripts of Brahmanical, Jaina, and Buddhist works in Sanskrit, Pakrit, and Pali respectively. Many of these books came from the same benefactors who helped to build the Sanskrit collection in the circulating stacks within Widener Library.


Image: Snapshot of volumes on bookshelves in Widener Library, depicting publications in the series: Harvard University. 1891. Harvard Oriental Series. Boston, Mass., U.S.A.: Published for Harvard University by Ginn & Co. Newer editions, 1996 (v. 51) - present are cataloged individually, and are retrievable in HOLLIS by series heading, "Harvard Oriental Series" and are available through Harvard University Press.