Palm Leaf

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Palm leaves are one of the earliest forms of writing media in the world, used for over two thousand years with the earliest known palm-leaf manuscript written in 5th century BC. [1] These manuscripts are found primarily in South and Southeast Asia, including South India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia, where they serve not only as vehicles of textual information, but also as art, protective charms, religious offerings, gifts, and objects of worship. [1] Though a large number of palm leaf manuscripts are religious texts, they also cover subjects ranging from astronomy and art and architecture, to medicine and mathematics. [2] The production of palm leaf manuscripts rose as written text came to slowly replace oral tradition around the 5th century, but rapidly declined from the 18th century onwards as handmade paper succeeded palm leaf as a writing medium. [3] Wider use of the printing press in the 19th century rendered the transcriptions almost obsolete. Palm leaf manuscripts, although no longer commonly produced, continue to play an active role in shaping contemporary history and culture and reveal important information about cultures and religions of the past.

Palm trees are native to the hot, humid climates of countries in South and Southeast Asia, primarily modern day South India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia. [1] The leaves, being common and cheap, serve as material for making fans, mats, and umbrellas in addition to writing substrate. Palm leaf manuscripts are mainly produced from two types of palms: the Palmyra and Talipot palms. The Talipot palm (Corypha umbraculifera) has broad, lengthy leaves with a thin, smooth surface. The leaves, after being treated, are soft, dry, flexible, and surprisingly durable, which make them an ideal substrate for writing. The Talipot palm is used for traditional palm leaf manuscripts and horoscopes in South India and Sri Lanka, where they are traditionally known as Ola leaves. In contrast, the Palmyra palm (Borassus flabellifer), native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, has thick and lengthy leaves that grow brittle over time despite being initially strong and flexible. [4], [1], [3] The majority of Balinese palm leaf manuscripts, referred to in Indonesia as Lontar, are written on Palmyra leaves.

Methods for preparing palm leaves vary regionally, but generally follow the same guidelines that involve a sequence of drying, burnishing, and boiling. In South India, 5-6 month old palm leaves are first collected, edge ribs removed, and then left to dry in the shade. After drying, the leaves are cut into a proper length for writing and then the surfaces are burnished, or polished, to smoothness. Two round holes, where string is passed through afterwards, are punched in the middle thirds of the leaf. The leaves are then seasoned and boiled in water or milk to soften the fiber of the leaves. They are left to dry again, buried in wet sand for up to 3 months, applied with gingelly oil to improve softness, then burnished a final time. Finally, wooden boards acting as the “covers” are placed on either side of a set of leaves to protect the integrity of the leaves. A cord is drawn through the string holes to keep the pages together. Depending on the use of the manuscript, the wooden covers can be left unadorned or decorated with elaborate carvings, inlays, or paintings. [1], [5]

Palm leaves are dried on a line in preparation for creating the manuscript.

Two methods are used to write on palm leaf. The first method involves using ink to write or draw with a bamboo pen or brush. More traditionally however, a metallic stylus is used to etch letters into the upper cuticle of the leaf. In order to enhance the contrast and legibility of the words, a paste of lampblack, which is a fine black soot used as pigment, or turmeric mixed with aromatic oils is applied to the surface of the leaf. Once the pigmented paste has settled into the grooves of the words, it is wiped off, leaving pigmented words on the leaf. [1] When oil is used, including camphor, citronella, castor, lemongrass, etc., the aromatic material doubles as an insect repellent to prolong the shelf-life of the manuscript. [5] Different methods exist to inscribe manuscripts, but traditionally the leaf is held in the left hand and moved to allow the right hand to make incisions. Text is written in a linear horizontal format on both sides of the leaf. [1], [6]

In South India in particular, scribes working under the patronage of the king or temple authorities recorded a substantial body of India’s literary and scientific tradition. Works were set down in Tamil or Sanskrit, a language used by Brahmins for teaching and learning the Veda and other religious texts. Manuscripts circulated spiritual information in Hindu and Jain temples as well as Buddhist monasteries. When texts wore out, they were copied onto fresh palm leaf and the older manuscript ritually disposed of. [2]Once completed, manuscripts were covered in red or yellow cloth and kept in boxes next to an offering table, an image of god, or place of honor. [6]

Manuscripts have served as a vehicle of religious thought for over 2,000 years. Because religious texts contained the words of god or illustrated representations of important deities, the manuscripts themselves acquired a sacred character and became objects of veneration, as signified by their placement in places of worship and distinction. [7] In certain religions, such as Buddhism or Jainism, worship requires public recitation and display of the texts themselves, a practice that exists even today in the form of jnanapuja, a practice in Jainism where manuscripts are worshipped in a temple ritual. [6]

Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā[edit]

The Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā, or the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 verses, is one of the most iconic palm leaf manuscripts in history and was produced in March 21, 1015 by a scribe named Sujātabhadra. [8] The one-thousand-year-old Sanskrit palm leaf manuscript lays down a formal introduction to Buddhist thought in the form of a dialogue between the Buddha and one of his disciples and depicts scenes from the Buddha’s life as well as other deities in richly intricate drawings. [9] The 222 palm leaf folios contain a total of 85 paintings of Buddhas, deities to whom the text is dedicated, and Bodhisattvas, people who dedicate their lives to achieving enlightenment to help other beings. [8] It was used for teaching, reading, studying, and was itself the focus of devotion and meditation. Because it contained the words of the Buddha himself, the manuscript was seen as a manifestation of the Buddha’s ideas and beliefs, and the presence of the various images of deities drawn with meticulous detail suffused the manuscript with a spiritual potency that made it an object worthy of worship and admiration. [10] Buddhist texts also served as protective amulets and were installed in shrines of Buddhist followers. [8]

Folio from Aṣṭasāhasrikā_Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom)

The materiality of the book reveals much about the centrality of the Prajñāpāramitā to Buddhist thought and culture. The wooden covers are described as “richly ornate,” the drawings exquisitely, painstakingly drawn, the gold lavishly applied. A central group of three divinities is drawn, “their elegant, svelte figures, exquisite modeling and compositional imagination represent the highest point of Nepalese manuscript illustration.” [11]The opulence and energy lavished on the text and accompanying illustrations are clear indicators of the manuscript’s pricelessness, the tremendous awe and admiration it inspired in Buddhist believers. The abundance of images as well as the richness and detail of the text and cover illustrations show that it was meant to be displayed as a symbol of worship and ritual and power. The Prajñāpāramitā was important for not only the ideas it contained, but also as a sacred relic of the religion itself. [10] The text is primarily decorated in red and yellow, colors that inspire an aura of richness and power. The binding of the pages as well as the horizontal length of the text require it to be delicately handled with both hands, possibly carried reverently with both arms outstretched when transferred from one location to the next. The friction between the cords and the holes make it easy to tear the pages, so turning each leaf requires care, caution, and great respect.

The very production of the manuscript—its ideas, illustrations, skills, and materials used—reveals much about Nepal’s role in the 11th century Buddhist world. Because palms aren’t common in the dry climate of Nepal, it is speculated that the palm leaves used to create the manuscript originated in North East India, which proves the existence of thriving communication channels and trade routes that stretched thousands of miles. [8] The production and material of the manuscript reveal the ways in which Nepal was a central part of the Buddhist world that stretched from Sri Lanka to China. The palm leaf itself played an indispensable role in shaping the Prajñāpāramitā into what it is today—the book’s shape, form, script orientation, design layout, image placement, binding style, and aging were all intimately influenced by the leaf upon which it was written. One prime example of this is the way the palm leaf substrate shapes the style of the script. Most script written on palm leaf is shaped in a circular form, so as to prevent the leaf from splitting while writing. There are no spaces between the words in the Prajñāpāramitā, which allows the stylus inscribe words at a constant pressure to minimize holes or splitting. [3]

Folio from Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā.

Through incredible circumstances, the manuscript managed to stay intact throughout time and space to come to its present residence at Cambridge University, where it was brought here from Kathmandu in 1876 by Daniel Wright, a member of the British government. [8], [12] Muslim and Hindu raiders laid waste to much of northeastern India in the 12th century, destroying Buddhist monasteries and foundations and their contents. Monks carrying palm leaf manuscripts fled to monasteries in Tibet and Nepal, where the Prajñāpāramitā resided for the next few centuries. [9] Originally written, decorated, and worshipped in 11th century Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, it’s worth considering how it came to be so divorced from its culture and historical place of origin, and the rights and power dynamics that led its acquisition by Cambridge. A digitization project has made the images of the manuscript accessible to people worldwide and has given insight into its origins. [8] The Metropolitan Museum of Art revealed an exhibition on early Buddhist manuscripts that centered around the Perfection of Wisdom.

Sinhalese life of Jesus Christ[edit]

The Sinhalese life of Jesus Christ, a Sinhalese translation of a Pali work regarding the life of Jesus Christ, was written in the 19th century in Sri Lanka and is a much younger example of a palm leaf manuscript. The manuscript was formerly held by the American Philosophical Society, who donated it to Penn libraries in the 19th century. [13]

Sinhalese life of Jesus Christ. 1800.

The manuscript itself is starkly different from the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā in both presentation and material. This particular manuscript is a translation of another work, which suggests that it is one link removed from the “original” text. The fact that it is a reproduction, rather than the authentic original, is reflected by the materiality of the manuscript. The wooden boards on either side of the palm leaves are much plainer, decorated relatively simply with a red and black lacquered pattern and the text contains no illustrations apart from a pair of dharma wheels on the first page. The length of the manuscript is quite long—more than a foot long, which suggests that it wasn’t created to be a portable book, but rather to be displayed at a humble place of worship perhaps at a local shrine or family altar. The simple design and decoration and lack of illustrations suggest that the manuscript’s purpose was more functional, rather than aesthetic as an object of worship by a smaller population. The script continues the same tradition of being shaped in a curved manner. It is evident from the lack of color and illustrations in the text that not as much energy nor money was invested into its creation in comparison to the Prajñāpāramitā.

The presence of the dharma wheels on the first page, one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism, is particularly telling, especially since the content of the book centers around the life of Jesus Christ, one of the main gods of Christianity. Written relatively recently, the contrasting yet complementary existence of these two religions within this single manuscript is evidence of the spread of Christianity in South Asia, and its integration into the culture and religion native to Sri Lanka. It’s written in Sinhalese, the language of Sri Lanka, but was translated from Pali, a language native to India that was recognized as the sacred language of Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism. [14] The dharma wheels as well as the intersecting languages in this manuscript show the intimate interchange between Buddhism, a religion that originated in South Asia, and Christianity, a religion introduced to the area by European traders in the 19th century. The book is a manifestation of the intersection between a multitude of religions, cultures, and ideologies that flourishing communication channels and increased contact with Europe facilitated in the 19th century.

Being so new, the manuscript is virtually in pristine condition, with negligible wear on the sides of the pages. Because cords run through the two holes in the page, both hands are required to flip from page to page, tenderly so, so that the friction between the cords and the page don’t tear the leaf. The leaves have grown brittle over time, and it’s easy to see how mechanical damage could easily split the leaf. The edges have slightly faded and turned darker. The grain of the palm leaf is still evident in the texture of the pages.

Sinhalese life of Jesus Christ.

Though the Sinhalese translation manuscript has lasted well through the past two centuries, preservation of manuscripts has become an increasingly important topic. The shelf life of a manuscript is normally around three to four centuries, but is shortened by mold, insect activity, and the hot, humid climates of South and Southeast Asia. [2] Advances in technology have enabled carbon dating of these manuscripts, allowing us to pinpoint the time and place of origin, as well as enabling the retrieval of written text from degraded documents. Many scholars are currently working on digital preservation projects that utilize image-processing techniques to enhance the visualization of desiccated and illegible manuscripts. [2], [3] The existence of palm leaf manuscripts has brought significant insight into the cultural, religious, political, and intellectual histories of these countries, and is an invaluable product of our history.


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