The inimitable aroma of lemongrass oil fills the air as you step into the Oriental Research Institute and Manuscripts Library on the Kariyavattom campus of the University of Kerala. Inside, close to 65,000 palm-leaf manuscripts, some dating back to 1300 AD, are arranged neatly in wooden compartments. If not for the lemongrass oil, which prevents them from crumbling and the careful preservation techniques employed by the few staffers here, half of these would have been destroyed by now.
Now, the Library is offering its preservation services to the public, as part of an outreach programme formulated by the National Mission for Manuscripts. Those who have palm-leaf manuscripts at their home can now approach the library for help in conserving these for posterity.
“For the past two years, we have been running a programme wherein some of our trained staff members visit houses that have vast collections of manuscripts and restore these using our standard techniques, all of it free. But due to paucity of staff, we are not able to reach every part of the State. By this new programme, people can bring in their manuscripts here and we will do the restoration work and also provide training on preservation techniques,” says K.G. Sreelekha, Head of the Manuscript Library.
Over these two years, they have helped restore long-forgotten collections at various ‘tharavads’ across Kerala. P.L. Shaji, conservator and cataloguer at the library, says he found huge collections concentrated in Kottayam, Kasaragod and Thrissur regions. Though most of the manuscripts found at homes were literary texts, rare texts on Ayurveda and astrology were found from ‘vaidyar illams’.
“Once we finish the restoration work at a house, the people there usually would like to know the contents and its importance. It is a time- consuming exercise,” says Mr. Shaji.
The library has been regularly transcribing the contents of the manuscripts and publishing them in book form, as these have only a maximum lifespan of 500-700 years, depending on the quality of the palm leaf and the conservation method. But one of the challenges is finding the original text or nearest to original (known as autograph), out of many manuscripts of the same text.
For information on restoration and conservation, contact – 0471- 2308421.