Reviving Assam’s ancient ink

‘Mahi’ has a protective effect on manuscripts because of its anti-fungal properties

March 19, 2017 11:10 pm | Updated 11:36 pm IST - Kolkata

A file photo of a manuscript stored at Auniati Satra museum at Majuli in Assam.

A file photo of a manuscript stored at Auniati Satra museum at Majuli in Assam.

By unravelling the science behind Assam’s ancient herbal ink ‘mahi’, researchers are planning to recreate the lost techniques of manuscript writing. They say their efforts could boost heritage tourism.

The technique involves extracting ‘mahi’ using cow urine from a cocktail of fruit pulp and tree bark such as haritaki, amla, bibhitakhi or bhomora, mango and jamun — often infused with the blood of eels or catfish. Rust from iron tools or nails was added for an intense black hue.

‘Mahi’ was used in early and medieval Assam for writing on ‘sancipat’ (folios made of the bark of the sanci tree) manuscripts. Some folios were gifted by Kumar Bhaskar Barman, the then King of Pragjyotishpura (ancient Assam) to Harshavardhana, an emperor who ruled north India from 606 to 647 C.E., a testimony to the period of use.

The endurance of the ink is proven by the stability of sancipat manuscripts. The key factor for this long-lasting marriage between ‘mahi’ and ‘sancipat’ is the herbal concoction’s resistance to aerial oxidation and fungal attacks.

“One of the reasons for the manuscripts’ stability is the anti-fungal activity of the ink. This is due to its raw materials, including astringent fruits and cow urine, which seems to have a protective effect on cellulosic sancipat against fungal attack in the hot and humid climate of Assam,” said Robin Kumar Dutta, Professor, Department of Chemical Sciences, Tezpur University.

No loss of text

In contrast, some formulations of acidic iron gall ink — which was in use at the same time in Europe — can render documents illegible by causing loss of text, bleeding and fading due to ink corrosion.

Professor Dutta believes the study of ancient ink and paint may help retrieve useful information regarding traditional practices. “Efforts are on to recreate these heritage tokens (sancipat and mahi) in lab conditions and upscale them. They can be used as tourism marketing tools. For tourists who visit Egypt or Europe, papyrus scrolls are popular. Similarly, we are working towards the idea that mahi and sancipat can become popular tokens. In addition, for locals, there is an emotional attachment to a piece of heritage,” Professor Dutta explained.

Professor Dutta and his colleagues Barsha R. Goswami, Monoj K. Das, Pranjal P. Das, Tapas Medhi, Anand Ramteke and Simanta Hazarika (Gauhati University) published a report on scientific assays of ‘mahi’ in Current Science last month.

The major phytochemical constituents in ‘mahi’ have been identified as phenolic acids, flavonoids and tannins and their complexes with iron. Though there are several recorded recipes for ‘mahi’ formulation, one commonality exists for all: the season during which it is concocted.

“It is only prepared (in natural settings) in the winter season. The low temperature and dry conditions in winter ensure minimum exposure of the mixture to microbes and heat, which may decompose the dyes during the long time needed for extraction,” Professor Dutta noted.

“In mahi, no external stabiliser is used whereas gum Arabic is used for the purpose in iron gall ink. Another interesting feature is that the pH of mahi remains neutral because of cow urine and the absence of acidic ingredients like vinegar. Iron gall ink has an acidic character that leads to destruction of the manuscripts,” he said.

The study was carried out using a sample of ‘mahi’ obtained from M.M. Bora of Dhing in Assam.

Mr. Bora is a practitioner of the manuscript-writing tradition on sancipat and fresh samples of mahi were prepared under his supervision.

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