Keeper of ancient palm-leaf inscriptions

Dr. V.S. Krishna Library on the Andhra University campus stands apart from many for its collection of rare books and ancient manuscripts and palm-leaf inscriptions

November 26, 2022 09:47 am | Updated 04:31 pm IST - VISKHAPATNAM

Centuries old palm-leaf inscriptions at Dr. V.S. Krishna Library in Andhra University in Visakhapatnam.K.R Deepak

Centuries old palm-leaf inscriptions at Dr. V.S. Krishna Library in Andhra University in Visakhapatnam.K.R Deepak | Photo Credit: K.R. Deepak

Peering over a magnifying glass trying to read the inscriptions on a small piece of palm leaf, which looks delicate and brittle, one cannot but wonder how the inscriptions were made centuries ago when pen, ink and paper were yet to be invented.

It would also make one ponder as to how the entire Valmiki Ramayana or the Vyasa’s epic Mahabharatha, or for that matter a discourse on Skanda Purana, was inscribed on hundreds of such palm leaves that are not wider than an inch or two, and think how much time it would have taken for the writer to complete the task.

Invaluable artefacts

To get a feel of such an antique exhibit, one should visit the Dr V.S. Krishna Library at Andhra University here, which is home to about 2,660 bundles of such palm-leaf inscriptions.

Constituted by the Madras Act of 1926, Andhra University is not only the oldest university in the residual state of Andhra Pradesh, post bifurcation, but is also one of the oldest public universities in the country.

Seeded and groomed by eminent Vice-Chancellors such as Dr. C.R. Reddy, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Dr. V.S. Krishna, this university has carved a legacy amidst many tall and standing public institutions in the country.

But one of its unique features on the campus is the Dr. V.S. Krishna Library which was instituted within one year of the university’s establishment. Today, it stands apart from many for its collection of rare books and ancient manuscripts and palm-leaf inscriptions.

It is one of the few institutions in the country to boast of such a collection of centuries-old inscriptions on palm leaves.

Probably, only a few universities and institutions, such as Madras University, Calcutta University, BHU and Asiatic Society, Kolkata, have such a collection, said chief librarian Dr. P. Venkateswarlu.

The authorities say that a few of the palm-leaf inscriptions in the University may date back to the eighth or ninth century. We have not done any carbon dating, but experts and earlier librarians say that they are ancient and were donated to the university by various maharajas and kings of the yesteryears for safe preservation, said Dr. Venkateswarlu.

The subjects are varied, apart from the two epics, there are discourses inscribed on various Vedic subjects such as ‘Agama’ (cosmology/philosophy), ‘Alankarasastra’ (science of figure of speech), ‘Aranyaka’ (ritual sacrifices), ‘Itihasa’ (historical events) and ‘Jyotisha’ (astrology).

The inscriptions also belong to various scripts of Tamil, Sanskrit, Devanagari and Grantha.

How is it made?

According to senior librarians, inscribing on palm leaves was a painful process. First, the leaves of palmyra trees were cut into rectangular shapes and then dried and smoke-treated.

To make an etched inscription, the writer had to etch on the leaves using a knife pen, to make an etched inscription. Then, charcoal powder or ink made of jaggery and myrobalan juice was used on the surface and later wiped off to leave the colour in the etched grooves.

The pressure on the knife pen should have been uniform and without errors. Once completed, a hole was drilled neatly in the centre of the leaves to enable a strong string to pass through and bind the leaves to two wooden sticks fastened at both ends. The process itself makes them an artefact, said Dr. Venkateswarlu.

Preservation technique

Such manuscripts may exist in many places, but preserving them is a task for the university. Once in a while, they are taken out of the room where they are preserved, treated with neem oil and again carefully wrapped in a soft cotton cloth, and kept back in airtight cupboards. The idea is that they should attract minimum moisture, said a senior library technician.

Digitisation project

Based on the directives of the Union Government, AU is in the process of digitising all the palm-leaf inscriptions. We have received funding of about ₹23 lakhs under RUSA (Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan) for this purpose, and we have already completed digitising about 1,491 inscription bundles. The work is on for the remaining of them, said Dr. Venkateswarlu.

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