Surviving time

Tamarind paste, mud burial or klih : these preserved manuscripts

 
By T V Jayan
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Surviving time

-- Over thousands of years, the written word from ancient India has outlived man, moth and moisture, thanks to the ingenious ways followed by our ancestors in preparing writing materials. From the little-known Sancha Vidya of Himachal Pradesh to the Ola tradition prevalent across southern India and beyond, to the Buddhist scriptures in Arunachal Pradesh -- traditions in manuscript conservation are as diverse as the scripts they were used for. In the past 5000 years, India has produced a large body of cultural and historical work, both oral and written, which was transmitted down the generations. The vast corpus of the written word that emerged found expression in various languages and scripts and was inscribed on different kinds of materials like birch bark, palm leaf, cloth, wood, stone and paper.

These documents, now precious treasures, are scattered in libraries, archives, temples, monasteries, Jain granthabhandaras (storehouses of texts) and are also part of private collections, both within India and abroad. Indian manuscripts reveal the country's composite heritage over the centuries. Composed in languages like Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit and Persian as well as several vernacular languages of the country, they are inscribed in a variety of scripts, from Brahmi to Sarada, Modi, Newari and Grantha.

However, given India's immense linguistic diversity and sophistication, many documents are inaccessible as there is little knowledge now of many of the languages and scripts used.

To map this unknown and fragmented intellectual heritage, which covers branches of learning ranging from traditional medicines to astronomy, philosophy and metaphysics, the government of India set up a National Mission for Manuscripts (nmm) in 2003. At the outset, nmm estimated that there might something like 5 million Indian manuscripts to be unearthed. "Two years on, we feel that it could be anything between 30 to 50 million," says nmm mission director Sudha Gopalakrishnan. Indeed, a five-day pilot survey in November-December 2004, undertaken in 53 districts of three states -- Bihar, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh -- threw up as many as 7 lakh manuscripts. Encouraged by this, the mission now plans to cover the entire country by 2008. To gauge the primacy of this initiative, one only has to look at some of the surprise finds from the nmm survey. These include a copy of the epic Mahabharata, weighing 100 kilogrammes, a 10-metre long scroll of the holy Quran and a copy of 12 th century poet Jayadeva's Geeta Govinda, etched on ivory.

Preventive conservation As much as the writings, the techniques employed in making and preserving these manuscripts in ancient India are a part of our heritage and reflect the inventiveness and resourcefulness of these ancient crafts. Sanchi Paat, a manuscript-making method indigenous to Majuli islands in Assam, is unique -- from the scroll making process to the special ink that ensured the writing didn't fade away or was eaten by insects. "This concept of preventive conservation has been a hallmark of most Indian manuscript-making processes," says Anupam Sah, a heritage conservation strategist with the Indian Council of Conservation Institutes ( icci ), a unit of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.

Another interesting facet is the Indian tradition of using herbs and other natural products against the activity of bio-organisms. "These were apparently non-toxic and effective," says K K Gupta at the National Museum, New Delhi. Some of the natural materials had well-established properties of eradicating micro-organisms. The neem tree, for instance, produces several substances that act as insecticidals and repellants. Nicotine is an alkaloid obtained from some plants such as tobacco and has strong insect-repelling properties. The pyrethrum plant also contains several active substances that are toxic to insects.

Similarly, the people of the Monpa and Sherdukpan tribes in the Tawang and West Kameng districts of Arunachal Pradesh, use a handmade paper that's prepared from the local shrub shugu sheng. This paper, unlike the modern factory-made paper, is tough and does not get torn or destroyed due to factors like moisture, according to M Maltesh, assistant librarian with Arunachal University. The ink used here for writing is also specially prepared by mixing carbon shoot (from pinewood) with castor sugar, gum, roasted barley and water. The ink is kept for a week before being used. "The complex array of processes they used to make the paper rendered it alkaline, making it durable for centuries. What they used have turned out to be some of the finest preservation processes. It is now scientifically established that paper made through the alkaline process lasts longer than that made using acids," observes Sah. Even other methods, like Kadata of medieval Karnataka, palm leaf writing and Sancha Vidya, used natural preservatives and curing agents from local herbs while making materials for manuscripts.

Farewell traditions?
These manuscripts that have lasted centuries now face a new threat from an unexpected quarter -- that of the zealous conservator. Modern Western technology is the preferred recourse now for preserving ancient texts. But these techniques of storage, air-conditioning and chemical treatment are not always suitable. In particular, many tropical countries face a dilemma, says O P Agrawal, doyen of art conservation and director general, icci . As he puts it in a recent paper, Appropriate Indian technology for the conservation of museum collections , "There are various traditional techniques which could take care, yet are not used because modern techniques are considered to be superior or because traditional techniques have been forgotten and are not known to curators."

It was to bridge this knowledge gap that a Manuscripts Week was organised by nmm in February, 2005 in New Delhi. The event also brought together practitioners of these vital yet dying crafts.

According to Sah, these techniques continue to be relevant in today's world. They can be of use even beyond the field of manuscript preservation, in industries such as textiles and food processing, which require appropriate dyes, colouring agents and preservatives. On a similar note, Gopalakrishnan stresses the need not just to document these techniques, but to continue further research into them and keep them alive by using them wherever possible.

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