A Treasure Trove of Palmleaf Manuscripts

Kerala University’s Kariavattom campus houses an enviable collection of palmleaf manuscripts - about 40,000 manuscript bundles comprising 65,000 works

Published: 21st February 2014 08:49 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st February 2014 08:54 AM   |  A+A-

The scent of lemon grass is subtle but prevalent in the air as one enters the lobby of the building that houses the Oriental Research Institute and Manuscripts Library of the Kerala University in its Kariavattom campus. But it is a scent not out of place; the essence of lemon grass is, after all, central to what they at the department do – preserve ancient palmleaf manuscripts for all time.

The department has an enviable collection of palmleaf manuscripts – staff members say about 40,000 manuscript bundles comprising 65,000 works.

The collection of these 40,000 odd treasures is the result of the work of decades, some having been donated by the erstwhile Travancore royal family, others from private collections in various ‘illams’ and ‘manas’ and yet others received ‘on loan’ from individuals.

“The ones we get on loan,” says Sree Remya, manuscripts assistant who is also an alumnus of the department, “are taken by us to transliterate before returning them. The period of loan would depend upon the size of the manuscript and can take years. Sometimes, a generation would have passed by the time we would have been done with it.”

The manuscript library traces its beginnings back to 1908, when it was started on the orders of Sri Moolam Thirunal to publish the royal collections, and also unearth those in the private libraries of ancient families. It started functioning in the Lakshmi Vilasam Bungalow with Sanskrit scholar T Ganapathi Sastri as curator. Later it became the Manuscripts Library under the University of Travancore – as is testified by the tall narrow shelves the ‘granthas’ are kept in now which bear the letters ‘University of Travancore’ on them. Later, when the University of Kerala came into existence, the library was part of the oriental languages department.

The present building, its architecture typical of Kerala, dates back to 1982.

“It was a result of former Union Minister Karan Singh asking to construct a traditional style building for the manuscripts,” says P L Shaji, who worked at the manuscript library for over 30 years. And so, still today the building stands, a contrast to the other modern concrete structures on the campus, recalling a forgotten era.

Unlike the Central Archives in the fort area, which also holds a large collection of palm-leaf manuscripts but mostly government orders and other official documents, the Manuscripts Library of the University houses palmleaves that cover a number of subjects – literature, philosophy, astronomy, astrology, military science, toxicology and cuisine, to name a few.

A hint of these may be seen immediately as one enters the library on the right where a glass case holds works such as the ‘Nalacharitham’, ‘Kuchelavrttam Vanchipaattu’, ‘Ananthapuravarnanam’, ‘Sivapuranam Kilipaattu’, ‘Ramacaritham’ (in ‘Vattezhuttu’ script) and works of the 14th century including the Kannassa Bhagvatham and Kannassa Ramayanam.

“We also have the full text of the 14th century grammar treatise ‘Leelathilakom’ which sets the rules for ‘Manipravalam’, the literary style,” said Remya.

The manuscripts the staff like to point out to visitors in particular include a two-and-a-half foot long ‘grantha’ on ‘jyotisam’ and an another inch-long one on ‘vaidyam’, the “longest and smallest manuscripts of the lot”, as Shaji put it. A copy of the ‘Skandapurana’ has the distinction of the bundle having the most number of leaves – 611. And the oldest of the collection is one on ‘Tantrasastra’ that dates back to 1521, says Shaji.

It is with the same pride that he points out the handwritten notes of Ulloor and Vallathol. But the prize possession of the library are the poems of Bhasa, the first century Sanskrit playwright, whose works had been lost for centuries.

“In a monumental find, Ganapati Sastrigal came upon them in 1912 in a namboothiri home, Manalikkara Madom, in present-day Kanyakumari district,” said Shaji. It was this contribution that led to Sastri being conferred a degree of ‘Doctor of Philosophy’ by Tubingen University, Germany. This certificate too is on display at the library.

Sastri, who scoured the state for palmleaf manuscripts, is responsible for many of the library’s most interesting collections including a few from other states. There are works in scripts like Grantha, Nandinagiri and Oriya, apart from Vattezhuthu and Kolezhuttu. The ‘Chitrabharatam’ and ‘Chitra Ramayanam’ are the Indian epics told in pictures; the script accompanying them is English, the language, however, is Indonesian.

The maintenance of such an extensive collection is, obviously, not the work of a day. The old palm-leaf manuscripts, some of them in very real danger of crumbling at a touch, must regularly be treated with a mixture of lemon-grass oil, isopropane and, in some cases, carbon powder to make the letters visible.

“It is a time consuming process and would probably take us a whole year to treat all the manuscripts in one go,” said Remya.”Once the manuscripts are treated with this mixture, they should be good for another three years.”

Works that have been transliterated over the years are also being published by the University for sale. Apart from transliteration, the manuscripts are also being preserved through an on-going digitisation project, according K G Sreelekha, professor and head of the department.

The department has also a programme funded by the National Mission for Manuscripts where it takes up restoration works of manuscripts in private collections.

“Anyone who wants their old manuscripts restored or identified can approach the department,” says Shaji, who is at present working for the project.

For the past two months, the department had opened its manuscripts library to the public through an exhibition that concluded on Thursday. Even at other times, access to the library can be obtained by the permission of the department head. For details contact : 0471-2308421.

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