Palm-leaf manuscripts are scripts prepared out of dried palm leaves. Palm leaves were employed as writing materials in Southeast Asia and South Asia recording back to 1800 BCE.
Their use originated in South Asia and evolved elsewhere, as texts on smoke treated and dried palm leaves of Borassus species or the Ola leaf.
How did the Palm-leaf manuscript function in history?
The text in palm leaf manuscripts was written with a knife pen on boxy cut and preserved palm leaf sheets; colourings were then utilized to the surface and washed off, leaving the ink in the engraved grooves. Each layer had a hole through which a string could pass, and with these, the sheets were joined together with a rope to bind like a book. A palm leaf text thus produced would typically last between a few decades and about 750 years before it decayed due to insects, humidity, fragility, and bold. Therefore the document had to be reproduced onto new sets of dried palm leaves.
One of the earliest palm leaf manuscripts of a comprehensive monograph is a Sanskrit Shaivism text from early 800 CE, discovered in Nepal, now preserved at the Cambridge University Library. The Spitzer Manuscript is a compilation of palm leaf pieces found in Kizil Caves, China. They are recorded to about the 2nd-century CE and are the earliest known philosophical manuscript in Sanskrit. China had preserved Sanskrit’s work from the 2nd Century CE.
The single sheet of palm leaf was called Parna or Patra in Sanskrit. The tool, when ready to write was called Tada-Patra. The great 5th-century CE Indian script called the Bower Manuscript found in Chinese Turkestan, was written on birch-bark sheets shaped in the form of dried palm leaves. It was written in Brahmi Script.
In India, temples often served as centers where ancient documents were used for education and where the texts were mimicked when they wore out. In the Southern part of India, temples and related mutts served custodial functions. Thousands of manuscripts on Hindu philosophy, grammar, poetry, and other subjects were recorded, multiplied, and stored inside the temples. Epigraphical and archeological evidence shows the presence of libraries called Sarasvati-Bhandara, attached to Hindu temples. No wonder Hinduism survived for over 6000 years. Palm leaf manuscripts were also preserved inside Buddhist monasteries and Jain temples.
With the spread and growth of Indian culture to Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Thailand, these nations also became home to extensive collections. Archaeologists have discovered palm-leaf manuscripts called Lontar in dedicated stone libraries at Hindu temples in Bali Indonesia and 10th-century Cambodian temples such as Banteay Srei and Angkor Wat.
Regional Distinctions in Palm-leaf manuscript
Bali and Java: In Bali, the palm-leaf script is called lontar. The Indonesian word is the present form of Old Javanese rontal. It comprises two Old Javanese words, namely ron “leaf” and tal “Borassus flabellifer, palmyra palm.” Due to the form of the palmyra palm’s leaves, which are spread similar to a fan, these trees are also known as “fan trees.” The leaves of the rontal tree have always been employed for various purposes, such as for the making of palm sugar wrappers, water scoops, plaited mats, ritual tools, ornaments, and writing material. Today, the art of writing in rontal still persists in Bali, conducted by Balinese Brahmin as a sacred duty to rewrite Indic Hindu texts.
Odisha: Palm leaf scripts of Odisha include pictures of Devadasi (a female artist), scriptures, and many mudras of the Kama Sutra (bang bang book). Some of the oldest discoveries of Odia palm leaf manuscripts include writings like Ratimanjari, Smaradipika, Pancasayaka, and Anangaranga in both regional language Odia and Sanskrit. State Museum of Odisha at Bhubaneswar preserves 40,000 palm leaf manuscripts. Most of them are composed in the Odia script, though the language is Sanskrit.
With the evolution of printing presses in the 1800s, the cycle of copying from palm leaves almost came to an end. Many states are making efforts to protect what is left of their palm leaf documents.