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ARCHAEOLOGICAL SOURCES: ANCIENT PALM LEAF MANUSCRIPTS
Paper: An Invention Which Changed the World
Paper was invented in China approximately around 3rd Century BC. Advents in paper technology led to increase of its use and by 4th Century it replaced bamboo strips as standard writing material in China.
In India, traditional writing materials and methods continued to be used for many centuries. Ancient Indian Manuscripts were often made with palm leaves. They were known as Talapatra in Sanskrit and Olai in Tamil.
How Ancient Manuscripts were made
- Biological Name: Corypho Umbraculifera
- Known as Tali in both Sanskrit and Tamil
- Biological Name: Borassus Flabelliformis
- Known as Tala in Sanskrit and as Panai in Tamil
The Talipot leaf is larger, thinner and more flexible and durable than that of the Palmyra. The Talipot measures 90*8-9 cm and the Palmyra measures 50*3-4 cm.
Manufacturing the Script
Selected leaves were cut in the right shapes and sizes. Then it was pierced in one, two or three places (on the left, middle and right top). A string was then wound around the leaves. One end of the string was tied to a small object like a shell or a wooden peg or a button to prevent it from slipping out of the holes. The covers of the manuscripts were made of wood, dry palm petioles or in rare cases, of ivory.
Writing On the Palm Leaves
The writer engraved letters on the leaf with a Stylus (a pointed pen like object). The leaf was then smeared with soot or powdered charcoal with vegetable juice so that the black mixture filled the grooves and the writing was easy to read. The letters ran parallel to the length of the leaves.
In some cases where the leaf was very long or the text was in verse, the words were written in two or three columns.
If there was a commentary, it was usually written above and below or sometimes around the text. Page numbers were often given in the right margin.
STORAGE OF MANUSCRIPTS
The manuscripts have to be stored very carefully as they were vulnerable to many natural hazards such as heat, insects, water, fungus, dust and fire as well as the danger of destruction by human hands. Scribes kept the manuscript tradition alive by repeatedly making copies of old ones.
This vibrant tradition started declining around the 19th Century with the coming of the printing press.
TREATING AND PRESERVING OLD MANUSCRIPTS
Manuscripts are fumigated or treated with insecticides like thymol, chloromate solution, formaldehyde, phosphene gas or ethylene oxide. They are cleaned using solvents such as water detergents or ethyl alcohol.
Any split, broken or damaged portion are repaired by using special thin paper and a water soluble mixture including small quantities of polyvinyl acetate and methyl cellulose. Once the repairs are complete the leaves are oiled to be made flexible and polished gently with a soft and dry cloth.
The discovery, preservation and care of ancient manuscripts are crucial parts of preservation of historical heritage. There are still thousands of manuscripts in various parts the subcontinent whose contents have not yet been studied or published.
It is impossible to estimate how many have been destroyed and how many are waiting to be discovered.