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Palm Leaves

Buddha Mind - get one, be one.


scratch - library


The development of the scriptures as an oral form for so many centuries was partly due to an Indian preferrence for this style of transmission as much as it was to the shortage of a writing material suitable for such a voluminous work. With the Mauryan expansion southwards during the fourth to third centuries BCE came the development of the southern talipot palm (corypha umbraculifera) as a 'mass produced' material for writing. The palm leaf manuscript unleashed tremendous potential and was a focus for the exploration of techniques and trends not only of scriptural study and learning itself but also of calligraphy, painting, metalwork and carving. Being able to produce a tangible, permanent record of a scripture also manifested levels of social prestige as objects reveal things about their owners and makers both during and long after their lives. This tended to have a two-edged effect - on the one hand there was sponsorship for scholarly works, on the other there was an inclination to promote 'popular' (cult) trends.
The form of a palm leaf manuscript was fairly quickly established and remains a consistent, shared, universal style: leaves, a hole in each, are stacked and bound into covers (of varying materials) with cord(s) over which the leaves are flipped.
Making a manuscript was no easy matter. Typically, the leaves were cut from the tree, boiled and then smoothed out, dried, stacked, cut to size, polished, hole punched and burnished - all this before any writing even began. The prepared leaves were then scratched / incised with styluses (the stylus, and its manufacture, was an important artistic craft in its own right). The incised lines and letters were then 'inked' - rubbed with powdered graphite or other minerals (or charcoal) - and when the leaves were again polished the letters appeared in a bold black or blue. As is seen in fine books today, manuscripts of a high quality sometimes include dividers of uninked leaves to protect fine work.


Different periods and different cultures produced their own distinctive rendering of the palm leaf style. Burmese manuscripts are often lacquered with the base tending to be cloth or other fine natural fibres. Wooden covers would still commonly be used for their strength in protecting the fragile lacquer. Tibet and much of ancient Central Asia lacked a ready supply of palm leaves and often substituted birchbark and later, paper In Sri Lanka, two types of palm leaf are seen used in manuscripts - tal kola, a small but heavy (durable) leaf, and pus kola, a broad and long but thin (fragile) leaf. The palm leaf itself has remained the essential requirement of a book.

composite folded
The greatest limitation of the natural leaf is its size. Various examples of composite work can be found but the difficulty that begins to arise with anything too complex is apparent.With the advent of paper - about 5thC CE - the first development was the scroll but this gave way to the folding-leaf style book which was a precursor to the modern, bound book. It is still popular today with long sheets folded into a concertina shape with pages being glued on as necessary. Even with a modern book we talk of a page as a 'leaf' - 'leafing through the book'.
Other difficulties include reproduction - everything is done by hand; lengthy base material production; limited seasonal material 'harvesting'; relatively thick 'pages' make for quite large volumes and on account of this storage of major works like the Ti-pitika are a significant matter - see 'library' thumbnail above. When considering all this it is amazing to contemplate the huge volumes of work that were transcribed onto palm leaves. More wonderous still is the number of these delicate pages that has survived. Even so - time to develop other materials.