Palm-leaf manuscripts (Tamil: ஓலைச் சுவடி,Oriya: ତାଳପତ୍ର ପୋଥି,Marathi: ताडपत्री ग्रंथ,Malayalam: താളിയോല, Sinhalese: පුස්කොළ ලෙඛන, Burmese: ပေစာ; Javanese: rontal, Indonesian: lontar) are manuscripts made out of dried palm leaves. Palm leaves were used as writing materials in South Asia and in Southeast Asia dating back to the 5th century BCE, and possibly much earlier. They were used to record actual and mythical narratives. Initially knowledge was passed down orally, but after the invention of alphabets and their diffusion throughout South Asia, people eventually began to write it down in dried and smoke treated palm leaves of Palmyra palm or talipot palm.
Once written down, each document had a limited time before which the document had to be copied onto new sets of dried palm leaves.[why?] With the spreading of Indian culture to South East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines, these nations became home to collections of documents in palm leaf.
In Indonesia the palm-leaf manuscript is called lontar. The Indonesian word 'lontar' is the modern form of Old Javanese rontal. It is composed of two Old Javanese words, namely 'ron' (leaf) and 'tal' (tal tree). The word 'rontal' therefore means 'leaf of the tal tree'. The rontal tree belongs to the family of palm trees (Borassus flabellifer). Due to the shape of its leaves, which are spread like a fan, these trees are also known as 'fan trees'. The leaves of the rontal tree have always been used for many purposes, such as for the making of plaited mats, palm sugar wrappers, water scoops, ornaments, ritual tools, and writing material. Today, the art of writing in rontal still survive in Bali, performed by Balinese Brahmin as sacred duty to rewrite Hindu sacred texts.
With the introduction of printing presses in the early 19th century this cycle of copying from palm leaves came to an end. Many governments are making efforts to preserve what is left of their palm leaf documents.
The rounded or diagonal shapes of the letters of many of the scripts of southern India and Southeast Asia, such as Lontara, Javanese, Balinese, Oriya and Tamil are believed to have developed as an adaptation to writing on palm leaves, as angular letters tend to split the leaf.
Palm leaf manuscripts of Odisha have both text of scriptures, pictures of Devadasi and various mudras of Kamasutra. Some of the early discoveries of the Oriya palm leaf manuscripts include writings like Smaradipika, Ratimanjari, Pancasayaka and Anangaranga in both Oriya and Sanskrit. State Museum of Odisha at Bhubaneswar houses 40,000 palm leaf manuscripts.Most of them are written in the Oriya script, though the language is Sanskrit. The oldest manuscript here belongs to the 14th century but the text can be dated to the 2nd century.
In 1997 The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recognised the Tamil Medical Manuscript Collection as part of the Memory of the World Register. A very good example of usage of palm leaf manuscripts to store the history is a Tamil grammar book named Tolkāppiyam which was written c. 4th century. A global digitalization project led by the Tamil Heritage Foundation collects, preserves, digitizes and makes ancient palm-leaf manuscript documents available to users via the internet.
Javanese and Balinese
Many old manuscripts dated from ancient Java, Indonesia, were written on rontal palm-leaf manuscript. Manuscripts dated from 14th to 15th century Majapahit period, or even earlier, such as Arjunawiwaha, Smaradhana, Nagarakretagama, Sutasoma, are discovered in neighboring island of Bali and Lombok. This suggested that the tradition to preserving, copying and rewriting palm-leaf manuscript still continues for centuries. Other palm-leaf manuscripts such as Sundanese Carita Parahyangan, Sanghyang Siksakanda ng Karesian, and Bujangga Manik.
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Media related to Palm-leaf manuscripts at Wikimedia Commons