Maintaining a library and preserving books are not easy tasks. Dr. Perumal of the Saraswathi Mahal Library, Thanjavur, explains.

"If you see a silver fish on a wall, you can be sure there is fungus. The silver fish is our scientific monitor of conditions."

(First of a three-part series on conservation.)

Those who have their own little libraries at home know how difficult it is to maintain books, and how heart rending it is when books are attacked by book lice. And if it's tough to take care of a few hundred books, imagine what it would be like if one were responsible for the welfare of 49,000 manuscripts and 65,000 books. That's the responsibility which rests on the shoulders of Dr. Perumal, Conservator and Librarian of the Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur. With a Bachelor's degree in Physics and a Masters in Library Science, Perumal joined the library in 1980, and was trained for six months at the National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Property, in Lucknow. He later studied paper and book conservation techniques at Kyoto and Tokyo museums, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and 15 libraries in the U.K., including those at Cambridge and Oxford Universities.

"To keep book lice and insects at bay, fungus formation has to be prevented. Four factors have to be controlled, to prevent fungus formation - dust, light, heat and humidity," Perumal says. "If you see a silver fish on a wall, you can be sure there is fungus there. The silver fish is our scientific monitor of conditions."

Science behind traditions

Perumal's search for the best ways to preserve books and manuscripts, not only led to a Ph.D. in manuscript conservation, but helped him understand the science behind our traditions. Incidentally, he is the only one in South India who has a Ph.D. in manuscript conservation.

"What's the science behind our traditions," I ask him. "There's a lot. I'll just give you a glimpse. Palm leaf manuscripts used to be wrapped in red cloth, because the colour red is an insect repellent. In many old houses, there would be a broad red band on the floor, running along the length of the wall, because insects tend to keep close to walls, and they would be put off by the red colour. For our kolams we use kaavi, which acts as a repellent," he explains.

He says manuscripts and books would be dusted before Saraswathi puja, in order to air them before the rains. During Bhogi, fungus affected manuscripts would be cast into the fire, after a copy had been made.

Palm leaf writing began in South India and spread to Indonesia, Thailand, Ceylon and Burma. The juice of the Dhandhura leaves and kosina indica (kovai in Tamil) was mixed with lamp soot, and applied on manuscripts. This served two purposes - it highlighted the writing, and also repelled insects, because kosina indica is bitter and dhandhura is mildly poisonous.

Carefully maintained

What would they do during the monsoons? "If people had palm leaf manuscripts at home during the monsoon, they would put them on a wooden plank, which would be suspended from ropes in the kitchen. The warmth from the kitchen fire would keep away fungus. And the plank doubled as a school bag. They'd just pick up the plank by the ropes, and walk off to school!"

"Temples were often used to store manuscripts too. The place in the temple where manuscripts were stored was called pattana mandapam. In North India this room was called grantha samadhi. The Chidambaram temple once had such a storage place," Perumal observes.

Has he seen a pattana mandapam anywhere? "Yes. In Thirupoonthuruti. When the temple was renovated, the temple authorities discovered a pattana mandapam in the second tier of the gopuram. The manuscripts had been completely covered with a mixture of fine sand and chunam. Unfortunately, in the process of setting up the scaffolding during the renovation, many of the manuscripts were damaged. I retrieved the rest and they are now in our library. They are 150-year-old manuscripts that contain temple accounts."

How does he preserve the manuscripts in the Saraswathi Mahal Library? He coats both sides of every manuscript with citronella oil, periodically. He still follows the traditional method followed by Kuppa Bhatta, who was in charge of the library in 1882. From Kuppa Bhatta's notes, also preserved at the library, we learn that he would powder vasambu (acrous calumus), pepper, cloves, black cummin and cinnamon and put a teaspoon of this powder and a piece of camphor, in a thin cloth. Two such pieces of cloth would be kept in each cupboard.

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