From palm-leaf manuscripts hundreds of thousands years ago to digital books – it has been a long journey. But, still there’s a lot to learn from the palm-leaf writing as well, observes Uma Krishnaswami.
Along a Eurocentric historical timeline, Gutenberg and the printing press mark the point of origin of the object we know today as a book. But the book as a concept was around centuries before Gutenberg. In South and Southeast Asia, the origins of the palm leaf manuscript tradition are so ancient, they are impossible to pin down. The earliest extant manuscripts date to the 10th century, but some of those refer to still earlier pieces, which were rewritten before being consigned to sacred rivers. These cycles of rewriting old texts persisted into the nineteenth century, when many factors, including the availability of printed paper books and the privileging of English education over multiple traditional systems, rendered obsolete the job of the manuscript scribe.
Hundred and thousand palm leaf manuscripts have survived into our time. Their contents include sales records, land ownership deeds, illustrated stories, mythic tales, and scriptures from many regions and belief-systems.
I had the opportunity recently to play a small role in the journey of one such manuscript. Thought to be a couple of centuries old, it is a Valmiki Ramayana in the Vaishnava tradition. The scribe is unknown. This is because the 546-page manuscript, inscribed in a delicate hand, is missing the colophon pages that sometimes reveal the scribe’s name.
The manuscript had been in my father’s family for generations. On my father’s death, my mother decided to donate it to the manuscript library housed at the Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Viswa Mahavidyalaya in Enathur, near Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. There, we witnessed a process of cleaning and preservation that took two days. It involved carefully brushing dust away, and cleansing each leaf with a solution of neem oil, lemongrass oil, and camphor. A collections assistant checked the pagination and order. Several leaves were upside down. Five or six pages had been damaged around the edges, or eaten by silverfish. But of the hundreds of leaves, the lettering on most was sharp and clear. We got to keep digital images, taken leaf by leaf. The library got to keep our Valmiki Ramayana. In all, it seemed a fair trade.
I am a writer of children’s books. I was born in the century of the internal combustion engine. Now, I live and write in the digital age. I use a laptop for my work. My books get published in e-formats and paper, both hardcover and soft. In holding this ancient work in my hands, giving it over to people who promise it their best care and diligence, I find myself thinking what meaning I can draw from all this.
The English word “book” may derive from the German “buch” which means “beech.” It is possibly named for the tree on which ancient runes were once carved. The Tamil word “olai” which means, simply, palm leaf, is the name for a palm leaf manuscript as well. It seems we name these objects, containing abstractions of thought, by referring to their earthly, physical origins. Something about books and manuscripts keeps us linked both to our own bodies and to the planet. As Ursula Le Guin says, “The rhythms of words are bodily rhythms.”
That said, the more I stay grounded in my consciousness, the more I am aware of being me, the less I can immerse myself in my text. Here too, the palm-leaf manuscript has something to say. Each page of the Ramayana is written on a single leaf of the palmyra palm. The leaves were soaked in water, softened, then dried and buried for some time before being written on. The scribe used a pointed stylus to scratch the letters into the leaf, steadying it by positioning it in a notch cut into the index fingernail of his left hand.
The scribe, we learn from manuscripts that detail the creation of these works, was also required to sit in the kukutasana, a crouching yoga asana that strengthens while it demands. Try holding this asana for five minutes; if you’re unpractised, your muscles will scream in protest. Think about holding it for hours while inscribing letters no more than a centimetre wide and high, in equidistant lines while leaving perfectly rounded margins around two perforations.
Discipline, commitment, and craft all come together here. They ought to come together in the writing life. In a piece of writing, what I may want is beside the point. It may even get in the way. The question to ask is, What does the work require of me?
An intriguing element of our manuscript is the presence of margin notes. Some appear to be citations, references to earlier texts. Then there is the oddly touching one that translates roughly to “forgive the irregularity of this line but there is a flaw in the leaf.” Like smoke from cooking fires in ancient cave dwellings, it seems to connect me across centuries to the person whose hand wrote those words.
So there’s the paradox. I can and should try to excise my controlling mind from my work. But if I don't leave something of my genuine self in the pages, the work will not connect to readers. This is the ineffable quality we call “voice.” That little bit of marginalia has voice.
Most often, the scribe writing these manuscripts was a scholar of the work being transcribed. He may have committed it to memory. While copying the contents of a fraying or insect-tunnelled palm-leaf manuscript bundle, he might add notes about other versions, or coda and footnotes interpreting the text.
Finally, the Ramayana speaks about inventiveness and cultural fusion. The Tamil script lacks certain consonants that Sanskrit possesses, e.g., the aspirant “kh” and “dh” and “tth.” What evolved to fill this gap comes from a southern variant of Brahmi. It’s a fusion script, grantha lipi. It’s thought to be related to South-east Asian scripts such as Mon, Lao, Khmer, and Thai. What do I draw from this? Change calls for nimbleness. When you need to fill a gap, you use the materials at hand and you take that leap.
When I write, I ignore at my peril the writers who came before me. We’re bound by history, with all its conflicts and contradictions. As a writer, I must also be a student, willing to study the work of those in my field, now and from the earliest times. I tell my students that if they want to write in a particular form—a picture book, a poem, a novel for young readers—they must prepare themselves to read a hundred examples as they craft their own. It’s only upon listening to a conversation that you understand how your voice might fit.
Right now, we’re in an age of leaping. Some argue that the codex book, that old standby that fills my shelves, is under siege. Conferences and think tanks are documenting, questioning, examining this progression we’re living through. The palm leaf Ramayana reminds me that change has been weathered before, and will be again. Story, however, will continue. People will always need it, and some of us will always be driven to write it.
(Uma Krishnaswami is the author of over a dozen books for children, from picture books (Monsoon, Chachaji’s Cup, and The Happiest Tree: A Yoga Story), through novels for young readers (Naming Maya, and The Grand Plan to Fix Everything). Uma currently has books under contract with Atheneum, Lee & Low, and Groundwood Books. She lives and writes in northwest New Mexico, and is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA programme in Writing for Children and Young Adults.)
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