Explore Palm Leaf Manuscripts of South Asia

The use of palm leaves for writing in South and Southeast Asia goes back to the 5th century BCE and remained prevalent in South India till the 19th century, then replaced by print.

By UNESCO Memory of the World

Entrance to the Jean Filliozat Manuscript RoomUNESCO Memory of the World

Saiva Manuscripts in Pondicherry

The Saiva Manuscripts in Pondicherry refers to the largest collection in the world of palm-leaf and paper manuscripts, in Sanskrit, Tamil, and Manipravalam text, of the Saiva Siddhanta, which concern the religion and worship of the Hindu God Shiva. Besides this core collection of Saiva texts, other branches of pre-colonial Indian learning are also well represented in this collection.

Different Sizes (Date of Text: Unknown Date of Manuscript: 18th-20th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

Hinduism Across the Indian Subcontinent

The Saiva Siddhanta religious tradition, a major current of Hinduism, spread across the Indian subcontinent and beyond, as far as Cambodia.

The Hindu God Shiva, From an Uma-Maheshvara pair (11th century) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Shiva the Destroyer

The Hindu God Shiva is one of three gods who are responsible for the creation, upkeep, and destruction of the world. Namely, Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver), and Shiva (destroyer). Shiva's role is to destroy the universe in order to re-create it. 

Sanskrit scriptures (agam) (Date of Text: Unknown Date of Manuscript: 18th-20th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

Traces Found in Ritual Traditions

Traces of the influence of the Saiva Siddhanta can be found in the ritual traditions of all the Tantric and subsequent theistic traditions in India. After a period of broad spread and wide-reaching influence, this religious tradition fell into abeyance everywhere but in Tamil-speaking South and much of that literature has been brought to Pondicherry.

Literature from the Purāṇas (10th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

A Variety of Knowledge and Cultural Forms

Besides religious texts, palm-leaf manuscripts were also used for poetry, philosophy, medicine, science, mathematics, and astrology. Palm leaf manuscripts are typically arranged in bundles that contain multiple texts - in many cases the texts may be completely unrelated to each other.

Two kinds of stylusUNESCO Memory of the World

Inscribing Palm Leaves

Whereas in North India, palm-leaves were written upon with ink, in South India and along the Eastern Coast up to and including Orissa, palm-leaves are incised with a stylus. The letters are then blackened by rubbing a cloth steeped in a mixture of oil and lamp-black across the surface of the incised leaves. Such weighted metal writing styluses come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

Devotional poems (Date of Text: 7th-8th century BCE Date of Manuscript: 18th-20th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

Copying and Re-copying

Palm leaf manuscripts were copied and re-copied manually by scribes and scholars over centuries. Sometimes scholars would include their own commentary on the original text. The evenness of the lettering, the clarity of the text and the extent of wear and tear from usage can offer clues as to whether a manuscript was copied for a library or for an individual’s personal use.

Gummed manuscript (Date of Text: Unknown Date of Manuscript: 18th-20th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

Preserving Palm-Leaf Manuscripts Over the Ages

While often more durable than paper, palm leaves still remain vulnerable to damage from improper storage, moisture, and insects.

Lemon Grass Oil (Date of Text: Unknown Date of Manuscript: 18th-20th century)UNESCO Memory of the World

Traditional Methods of Manuscript Preservation

Many traditional methods exist to preserve palm leaf manuscripts, such as the application of lemon grass oil to protect the manuscript from insects.

Preservation System (0901/1000)UNESCO Memory of the World

Palm Leaf Manuscripts Today

The historical significance of palm leaf manuscripts as a mode of knowledge transmission cannot be overstated - the collection’s diversity stands as a testament to this fact. The Pondicherry manuscripts provide much of the dwindling evidence remaining for scholars to reconstruct a chapter in the religious annals of humanity and offer insights into the wider culture of manuscript production and circulation these religious traditions emerged out of.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
UNESCO Memory of the World
UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme is an international initiative launched to safeguard the documentary heritage of humanity against collective amnesia, neglect, the ravages of time and climatic conditions, and willful and deliberate destruction.
View theme
Google apps