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A Palm-leaf Manuscript,
a report on the archeology of books

A special essay by Don Pady, 2012 KAC archivist
Don Pady is a member of District 1, Topeka

scripting detail, palm-leaf manuscript

During the academic year of 1969/1970, my father, Dr. Stuart Pady, earned a sabbatical leave from Kansas State University where he was head of the Botany and Plant Pathology departments. During that year he joined the faculty of the Sri Venkateswara Oriental Research Institute in Tirupati, southern India. My mother also went with him, and while there she visited various churches and women's groups in that city. She became acquainted with K.S. Ramamwrti, the Curator of the Research Institutes's Library, and was fascinated with the large appearance of palm-leaf manuscripts in this collection. The Curator sold a manuscript to my mother, who later gave it to me.

Don Pady presents the manuscript to KAC board members[Don presented the manuscript at the April 7, 2012, board meeting in Wichita. Photos are by Tracy Million Simmons. Select a photo to view the larger version.]

This palm-leaf manuscript, or Pothi, which is between 200 - 400 years old, contains the first five books of a 13th-century translation of the Ramayana. Extant copies of this format, very scarce in western-world libraries, are found in large numbers in southern India and Myanmar (Burma). The oblong talipo palm leaves are perforated with two holes drilled or punched for iron rods to hold the numbered leaves in order. The text of the Ramayana is cut into the palm leaves with a sharp-edged writing stylus. To add contrast and to enhance readability, the incised palm leaves are then rubbed with lampblack or some other dark pigment, thus filling the finely-cut grooves of the letters and exposing the delicately-formed words.

The palm leaves were then threaded with cords calledsutra—from which derives the English-language medical word, suture. In this case, two long iron rods hold the leaves between two strips of wood for protection. Board members enjoy holding the manuscriptThese delicate palm leaves, which become very brittle if not periodically moistened, are frequently rubbed with lemon oil to preserve their flexibility. Although paper was available in India since the 10th-century A.D., but at a very high cost, palm leaves provided an essential substitute for paper. The term "leaves" of a modern-day book may have come down from a time when palm leaves were widely used as a writing surface. Indeed Pliny, referring to Egypt, said that men first wrote on the leaves of palm trees. Perhaps he made this fact an example of one of the first types of books.

The subject of the Ramayana probably originatePalm-leaf manuscript, bound at left edged before 1000 B.C. and assumed its present form around 500 B.C. —although additions might have been added as late as 50 B.C. The basic story of this epic tale is thought to be the work of a single poet, Valmiki. This text consists of the first five books, and contains 24,000 couplets or slokas—a metrical form ascribed to Valmiki, who originally wrote in Sanskrit in or near Kosala, the country ruled by the race of Ikshvaku in Ayodhya or Oudh. Due to the tremendous popularity of the story, it has been widely translated into the vernacular, and this palm-leaf manuscript is a free translation into the Telugu dialect by the 13th-century writer, Bhaskara. The major events of the Bhaskara Ramayana are as follows:

Chapter 1: Bala Kanda

This chapter tells of the birth and childhood of the hero, Prince Rama.

Chapter 2: Ayodhya Kanda


Ayodhya is the capital of Prince Rama's father's kingdom, and this chapter tells of the prince's activities.

Chapter 3: Aranya Kanda


Aranya means forest. Prince Rama is asked to go and live in the forest. His father had three wives, and one wanted her son to be crowned king. The king, Rama's father, wanted his son out of the way, but Rama did not want to be king, anyway. So Rama lived in the forest 14 years. Rama's wife, Sita, was kidnapped by Ravana.

Chapter 4: Kishkindha Kanda

Kishkindha Kanda is the place where the monkeys lived. After his wife, Sita, was kidnapped, Rama made friends with the monkeys to find out where his wife was. They told him his wife was in Lanka (Ceylon) ... now Sri Lanka.

Chapter 5: Sundara Kanda


Sundara means beautiful. HANUMAN, chief of the monkeys, was the greatest devotee of Rama, and said he would bring Rama's wife back to him. It then became possible for Hanuman to go to Lanka across the water. Rama then got news of his wife's activities from the monkeys, so he planned to cross the water to get his wife.

Although chapters 6 and 7 are lacking in my manuscript, Chapter 6: Yuddha Kanda [Yudda means war]

Rama goes to Lanka and finds Sita, then makes war against Ravana and kills him. He finally brings back his wife and becomes King.


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