Among the materials used for books in ancient India, Palm leaf seems to be the ancient one. The word “Patra” used for materials directly denotes Tālapatra -Palm “Leaf” and not Bhūrja patra since the word patra in the compound doesn’t mentions any leaf, but the bark. Buddhist canonical works employ the term “Paṇṇa” which is clearer. Lather the usage of term “Patra” was expanded to include other materials like Bhūrja patra, Tāmra Patra etc..
The terms used in Rāyapaseṇiya sūtta, a Jain work of 4th BCE, seems to be related with palm leaf.
VARIETIES OF PALM TREES
As per our ancient texts, the palm trees are classified into two viz Kharatāla and śrītāla. In Tamil they are mentioned as Tālippaṉai and Nuṅguppaṉai. Kharatāla’s leaves are narrower, thick and yellowish in colour whereas the other is broader, thin and light brown in colour.
The botanical terms of the varities of Palm trees are 1. Corypha umbraculifera 2. Corypha Faliera and 3. Borassus Flabellifera. The Kharatāla is identified with Borassus and the śrītāla with Corypha.
Mature fresh leaves are first dried and then boiled in water and again dried in shade. The surfaces of the leaves are made smooth by rubbing them with a burnishing stone. They are cut into required sizes.
Two round holes are punched on the middle points of both halves of the leaves. A traditional verse is seen in this regard.
आयामेन चतुर्भागं त्रिभागं पुनरेव च।
उभयोः सूत्रमध्येन तथा कुर्याच्छिद्रलक्षणम्।।
A thread of the same length of palm leaf is folded into three and unfolded. Again folded in four and unfolded. The leaf is punched between the creases.
Two wooden boards of the same size as the leaves and with similar holes are put on either side of the set of leaves. A cotton thread will pass through the hole including the boards and the bundle is wound round and bound by the same cord. This cord will ensure the order of the leaves.
The length of the leaves varies from about 4 cms to 90 cms and the breadth varies from 2.5 cms to 8 cms.
Letters will be incised on palm leaves with a stylus. Some specimens are available where palm leaves were written with ink.
Palm leaf was in use at least since about 5th BCE. Buddhist Jātakas and Jain suttas give clear evidences of the usage of palm leaves. Arthaśāstra also mentions the use.
Palm leaves were being used as late as the middle of 20th CE. There are so many instances where palm leaves where used in the recent times too.
SOME EARLY SPECIMENS
1.The earliest palm leaf manuscript is found in Turfan collection. They were the fragments of a drama, Sārīputtappakaraṇa by Aśvaghoṣa, whose date is 2nd CE
2. The godfrey collection from kashkar has some manuscripts dated as 4th
3.The Hory uzi monatery, Japan has two manuscripts Prajñā pāramita hṛdaya sūtra and Uṣṇīṣa vijayadhāriṇi belonging to the 6th The origin of the manuscripts are from central India.
4.The Durbar library of Kathmandu has a copy of Skāndapurāṇa of the 7th
5.The Cambridge university has a copy of parameśvara tantra dated as 858 CE.
6.The Bhandarkar Oriental manuscript library, Pune has a copy of Upamiti Bhāva prakāśa which is dated as 905 CE.
7.The Jain Bhāṇḍār at mudbidri has dhavala manuscripts and dated as 9th
8.A copy of Amarakośa ṭīkā in the mysore oriental manuscript library is dated as 1130 CE.
- Longest manuscript
The oriental Research Institute, Mysore has two manuscripts of 120 cms.
- Smallest manuscript
The same library has a copy of Devī bhāgavata with the size 4 x 2 cms.
- Leaves of the manuscript cut to give the appearance of a śivaliṅga is found in GOML, Chennai
4.Leaves are tied in the form of beads and strung into a rosary is found from Kerala University oriental manuscript library, Tiruvanantapuram.
Thus the usage of manuscripts is available in our country.