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Published: Saturday November 16, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday November 16, 2013 MYT 9:08:52 AM

Treasure trove of ancient manuscripts in Thanjavur, India

A popular heritage site: The entrance to the Thanjai Big Temple. – Photos by S. MATHANA AMARIS FIONA

A popular heritage site: The entrance to the Thanjai Big Temple. – Photos by S. MATHANA AMARIS FIONA

In the city of Thanjavur in India, priceless palm-leaf manuscripts are preserved.

SARASVATI Mahal Library in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, one of the few medieval libraries in the world, might take a back seat in a traveller’s itinerary in preference to the famous Unesco World Heritage site Thanjai Big Temple.

Though the library is in the vicinity of the palace and near the temple, many visitors may dismiss it as a place not worth visiting as it is old and dull-looking. My parents, uncle and I would have given it a miss if not for the recommendations by our Indian relatives and friends.

With its rare collection of centuries-old palm leaf manuscripts and reference books covering a wide range of topics – science, astrology, indigenous medicine, music, language, literature, philosophy, art and architecture – comprising over 60,000 volumes, Sarasvati Mahal Library is a treasure trove.

Before the advent of paper, some of the notable ancient writing materials of the world were papyrus in Egypt, animal skin in Arab and palm leaf in Asia.

Palm leaf manuscripts.
Palm-leaf manuscripts.

India is well-known for palm-leaf manuscripts (olai chodi in Tamil). Palm-leaf manuscripts are made of dried palm leaves which served as nature’s easily available writing medium in India for knowledge to be passed down in written form until printing technology came into the picture in the 19th century.

Dried palm leaves were pressed flat and letters were inscribed from left to right. Holes were made to string the palm leaves together. Indian kings and temple authorities ensured that the oldest manuscripts were ritually disposed of only after they had been copied onto new palm leaves.

Some scholars made great effort to travel from place to place to collect these valuable manuscripts to preserve in libraries. Maharaja Serfoji II (AD1798-1832) was an avid collector of books; apparently he owned about 4,500 books in English, French and Latin. The library was named after the King when the Government of Madras took possession of it in 1918.

The whole place was lit up during the visit of the library’s conservator and librarian Dr P. Perumal, 59. When he invited us to his office and unearthed the treasures of the library, not only was I stunned by his knowledge of ancient Indian history and literature but also his expertise on old Tamil and Sanskrit writings and other languages of the sub-continent.

Palm-leaf manuscripts neatly displayed in the cabinets.
Palm-leaf manuscripts neatly displayed in the cabinets.

The library is divided into five sections – Publication, Manuscript, Reference Book, Conservation and Reprography. Perumal took us on a conducted tour of the library and gave us insights on palm leaf manuscripts.

Books and manuscripts are displayed in countless rows of wooden cabinets. A plethora of law books and other reading materials are also displayed here.

Next, our host took us to the reprography section and demonstrated how the manuscripts are recorded on microfilm using special equipment and lighting. A selected article can be enlarged for better clarity using a projector.

The microfilming unit was established in 1980 to preserve and store books and manuscripts. We were intrigued to see an employee busily copying from a palm leaf to a book, with the aid of a magnifying glass. The translated manuscripts edited by pundits are then published as books. So far, the library has published over 535 books in five languages.

The library has a vast store of manuscripts in Sanskrit, Tamil, Telegu and Marathi. The Sanskrit Manuscript collection exceeds 37,000 items, which are in palm leaf and paper form comprising works on music, dance, ayurvedic medicine and architecture.

Among the many unique manuscripts is a text called Sabdartha Chintamani. In this text, one can read the story of Ramayana when reading from left to right, and the story of Krishna when reading from right to left. How incredible! The Tamil Manuscript section comprises more than 7,500 titles on literature and medicine. All are in palm-leaf form comprising Sangam, Saiva, Vaishnava and Jain works, poetry and unpublished portions of classics. Besides manuscripts, the library also houses more than 1,200 bundles of Modi documents. (Modi is an ancient script in Marathi used to record political and administrative documents.)

A mixture of Citronella oil and lamp soot is used to polish the palm-leaf to make the letters clearer.
A mixture of citronella oil and lamp soot is used to polish the palm-leaf to make the letters clearer.

We were dumbfounded as the librarian described the Herculean task involved in preparing and preserving them. He demonstrated how writing was done using a complicated-looking metallic pen with a sharp point; the other end was used as a cutter.

Perumal explained it doubles up as a pen and a knife which we call “pen-knife” today. He further explained that there is no punctuation mark in the olai chodi manuscripts and hence, the need for training in understanding the writings for correct translations.

The cleaning process looked as cumbersome as the writing. An ingeniously prepared insect repellent mixture is used to clean the cupboards containing manuscripts. The palm leaves are cleaned periodically using citronella oil which gives the flexibility to the leaves and acts as an insect repellent as well; the leaves are then polished using a mixture of lamp soot and citronella oil which make the letters appear clear and sharp.

Perumal engaged us in a thought-provoking conversation. He threw us a question: “Why was it that, in the olden days, the spine (of books) was red?”

We looked at each other blankly.

“It is because the colour red repels insects. Our ancestors knew that, and placed the manuscripts bound in red cloth and stored them in tree bark which acts as natural insect repellent and prevents dust and light penetration,” he said.

Dr Perumal demostrates the writing technique using an 'olden days pen'.
Dr P. Perumal demonstrates the writing technique using an ‘olden day pen’.

He then posed another question: “Why did our elders place the religious book on a 90° book stand?

“This is because a book can only bend to a maximum angle of 90° and the spine gets damaged over time if we force it open beyond that.”

We were amazed when Perumal showed us the foldable book stand which was made in ancient days from a single plank (sikhu palagai and nganga bidam) without any joints or nails.

He also showed us an old Indian map dated 1480 and pointed to Adam’s Bridge which suggests that India and Ceylon were connected, at one time. Ancient maps, almanacs, dictionaries, a pictorial Bible printed in 1791 and many more rare manuscripts are the prized possessions of the library. The Last Days Of Bishop Heber, House Of Law, Malabar-English Dual Dictionary, and Views Of Country Seats are some of the notable titles.

The reference book section has more than 65,000 books in English, Tamil, Sanskrit, Marathi, Hindi and Telegu. There are also books published in the 18th century, the oldest manuscript of the 11th century, and an early palm-leaf manuscript dated AD1432.

Perumal showed us gold-tinted pictures of Palace Darbar – a truly painstaking effort in recording the palace events in pictorial form! Books and manuscripts aside, the library itself features beautiful wood, paper, glass and canvas paintings.

Sarasvati Mahal Library has, over time, transformed from an institution preserving books and manuscripts into a research centre in various disciplines. The library is open daily from 10am to 5.30pm except Wednesday, the second Saturday of the month and public holidays.

Later in the evening, we walked over to the Thanjai Big Temple (aka Brihadeeswara Temple) which towers over the bustling city. Built in AD1010 by Raja Raja Chola I, this temple is one of the world’s first granite temples and also the largest temple in India. It was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1987.

The temple boasts extraordinarily grand architecture. At 66m, the vimana (sanctum tower) is one of the tallest in the world. The kalash (apex of the bulbous structure of the temple) which weighs around 70,000kg is an architectural masterpiece.

Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple consists of six tiers. The temple reflects the power and wealth of the Chola dynasty and was the site for royal ceremonies. The 1,000-year-old temple held its millennial celebration in September 2010.

As we walked into the temple, we were greeted by a big statue of Nandi (bull) on the way to the sanctum sanctorum measuring 4.9m long by 4m high. It is widely believed that the shadow of the gopuram (main tower) cannot be seen on the ground. The temple during sunset is a beautiful sight to behold!

We noticed the beautiful sculptures and inscriptions on the compound walls of the temple. The axial and symmetrical geometry of the temple layout proves the intricacy of the workmanship. The temple complex consists of a pillared complex and small enclosures with mural paintings. The decorations on the outer walls are continued inside with the 108 poses of the bharata-natyam copied by Shiva.

We joined the crowd making its way to the main temple where pooja (prayers) were taking place. The main temple comprises the mandapa (assembly hall) and sub-shrines. An image of Lord Shiva resides in the karuvarai (innermost sanctum).

From afar, amidst the huge crowd, we observed a huge Lingam stone which symbolises the Lord Shiva. Only priests are allowed to enter this chamber. We queued up to receive the blessed vibuthi (holy ash) from the priests.

We spent the rest of the evening at the temple’s brindavanam (garden), savouring homemade kolkata (an Indian delicacy) and enjoying the breeze.

Tags / Keywords: Travel, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, Sarasvati Mahal Library, Thanjai Big Temple, Brihadeeswara Temple, India

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