The clear strength of the University Library's South Asian, Tibetan and Southeast Asian Department is its manuscripts, the most significant being the Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts, including the earliest dated illustrated Sanskrit manuscript in the world. The monograph collection is strong on Buddhism, and on other religions, especially Hindu, Islamic, Jain and Sikh material. In addition to material held in the South Asian, Tibetan and Southeast Asian Department, maps will be found in the Map Department, Official Publications will be found in the Rare Books Room, collections rich in Asian photographs as well as printed and manuscript sources will be found in the Royal Commonwealth Society Library, Asian language Bibles will be found in the Bible Society's Library, and music will be found in the Music Department. Indeed music is a good example where the L.E. Picken ethnomusicological collection is so very impressive in its Asian coverage.
The real expansion of the Library's South Asian collections was sparked in the 1870s when Daniel Wright, surgeon to the British Residency at Kathmandu Nepal, collected a large number of Sanskrit manuscripts on the suggestion of his brother, William Wright, Professor of Arabic in Cambridge. Daniel Wright also sent the first Tibetan block-printed books and manuscripts. The manuscripts, letters, papers and some of the books of Edward Byles Cowell, Professor of Sanskrit, were given to the University Library after his death in 1903. Professor Cecil Bendall collected Sanskrit manuscripts for the University Library from north India, Nepal and Bombay with a grant from the Worts Fund in 1884–5. His own manuscripts and some of his printed books were given between 1906 and 1934 and a collection of letters to him came to the University Library in 1961. Pali and Sinhalese manuscripts were bought from Thomas William Rhys Davids in 1874. The University Library purchased Jaina manuscripts from Professor Johann Georg Bühler in 1876–7. James Drummond Anderson, Lecturer in Bengali, left his collection of printed books, largely from Bengal and Assam, which came to the University Library in 1922. Percy MacQueen presented the University Library with a manuscript collection of folk poetry and songs in Tamil, Malayalam and Badaga in three parts between 1957 and 1961.
Rev. Claudius Buchanan on a journey through South India in 1806 collected Syriac manuscripts from Travancore and Hebrew manuscripts from Cochin. In 1805 he gave 65 volumes of early printed books from Calcutta and Serampore. Colonel Augustus Cotgrave Honner's collection of Indian manuscripts (Hindi, Panjabi, Sanskrit, Urdu, Persian and Arabic) from Lucknow in the 1860s was given to Corpus Christi College and is on deposit at the University Library. In 1726 George Lewis presented the University Library with his monumental cabinet lettered 'Bibliotheca Orientalis' including the Persian and Arabic manuscripts he collected in India. His collection contains many interesting items including two boxes of Indian playing cards. (In the University Library predominantly Persian and Arabic collections from India like Lewis's and the manuscripts of Robert Emlyn Lofft, Henry Griffin Williams, Walter Sibbald Adie, the E.E. Pote collection on deposit from King's College and Eton College, and various others, come under the Near and Middle Eastern Department, as do Syriac and Hebrew. The papers of people like Lord Crewe and Sir Samuel Hoare (both Secretaries of State for India) and Lord Mayo and Lord Hardinge (both Viceroys) are treated as western manuscripts and come under the Manuscripts Department.)