Palm-leaf manuscripts (Talapatra grandham) 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 Borassus species (Palmyra palm) or the ola leaf (leaf of the Corypha umbraculifera 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 as the document decayed due to dampness, insect activity, mold and fragility. With the spread of Indian culture to Southeast Asian countries like as Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines, these nations became home to large collections.
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 South India and Southeast Asia, such as Telugu script, Lontara, the Javanese script, the Balinese alphabet, the Odia alphabet, the Burmese alphabet and the Tamil script 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 include scriptures, pictures of Devadasi and various mudras of the Kama Sutra. Some of the early discoveries of Odia palm leaf manuscripts include writings like Smaradipika, Ratimanjari, Pancasayaka and Anangaranga in both Odia and Sanskrit. State Museum of Odisha at Bhubaneswar houses 40,000 palm leaf manuscripts.Most of them are written in the Odia 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
In Indonesia the palm-leaf manuscript is called lontar. The Indonesian word is the modern form of Old Javanese rontal. It is composed of two Old Javanese words, namely ron "leaf" and tal "Borassus flabellifer, palmyra palm". Due to the shape of the palmyra palm's 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 texts.
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 the Arjunawiwaha, the Smaradahana, the Nagarakretagama and the Kakawin Sutasoma, were discovered on the neighboring islands of Bali and Lombok. This suggested that the tradition of preserving, copying and rewriting palm-leaf manuscripts continued for centuries. Other palm-leaf manuscripts include Sundanese language works: the Carita Parahyangan, the Sanghyang siksakanda ng karesian and the Bujangga Manik.
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Media related to Palm-leaf manuscripts at Wikimedia Commons