Posted on May 10, 2013 by 


                                                                  Dr. P.Perumal, Conservator and Librarian (Retd)

                                                                   Sarasvati Mahal Library, Thanjavur, Tamilnadu

  In ancient days, knowledge and experience were recorded and preserved for the benefit of future generations. In India, writing was done on walls, foot-steps and pillars of temples (in the form of Inscription), metal sheets, silk and cotton cloths, wooden planks, bamboo strips, birch bark and leaves of palm tree etc. Writing on the above materials by hand is called manuscripts. Manuscripts are the form of recorded information, which are the vehicle for preservation and dissemination of knowledge to the endless generations to come. Generally Manuscripts are rare commodities written on wide range of subjects like religion, philosophy, history, literature, medicine, and science. Manuscripts can be classified on the basis materials used as Palm leaf manuscripts, Paper manuscripts etc.  Before the advent of paper, palm- leaves were mostly used for writing in South Asian countries in particular South India.

Palm leaf manuscripts

              The leaves of palm-trees were used as writing material because palm trees grew abundantly in India and South Asian countries. Palm-leaves were the cheapest and the most easily available material for writing. If well treated and carefully maintained, it has a reasonably long life and high durability. However as India and South Asian Countries are in the tropical region, the hot and humid climate conditions had an adverse effect on the durability of palm-leaves. Normally it is very difficult to preserve palm-leaf manuscripts for more than 500 years. We can preserve them for more than 500 years, if we have devices to keep constant temperature and humidity

. Palm leaf is a natural material, which are available in India and south Asian countries. Even though more than 100 varieties of Palm trees available,  only three varieties were used for writing, which are 1.Corypha umbraculifera 2. Borassus flaberllifer 3. Corypha utan

The Palm tree Corypha umbraculifra is known as Shritala or Talipot, which grows in humid coastal areas of South India, Ceylon, Malaysia, Andaman and Thailand. It is also called Talapana, Coondalpana or Talipanai. The leaves are broad and long. The Surface is smooth and thin. These leaves are more flexible than the leaves of the other types.

Borassus flabellifer is known as Palmyra. It grows in climate, comparatively dry. This type flourishes in South India. Its leaves are thick and are not longer than two feet.

The Third variety Corypha utan is known as Lontar, which grows some places in India, Burma and Thailand. Its leaves have a blend of the talipot and Palmyra. The Lontar leaves are long, broad and thick. Most of the Burmese manuscripts were written in these leaves.


            For writing on palm leaves, five-to-six-month old leaves should be collected, separated, removed the edge ribs and dried in the shadow. After drying, edges of the leaves were cut into convenient length for writing and burnished the surfaces.  Two small holes were made for passing thread to tie. The holes were put in such a way that they divide the leaves more or less in three equal parts. The burnished leaves can be used for writing on surface.

            Writing on palm leaves was done in two ways; (1) one way was to inscribe on the leaves with a stylus and other (2) one was to write with ink on leaves using bamboo pen or brush. For writing as in the first type, Palm leaves have to be seasoned before a stylus is applied thereto. Seasoning of palm leaves means softening the surface of palm leaves.  The stylus or salaka, made up of iron, steel, brass, bone, or ivory with a pointed tip was used for writing. One type of metal stylus had a pointed tip at one end and a sharp knife on the other end.

For using this stylus, the seasoned leaves duly supported, must be placed on the fingers of the left hand and inscribing in done with the right hand. The stylus rests on the thumb of the left hand and this prevents slipping.  The written leaves met with a twofold treatment for assuring the clarity of script. Turmeric water was applied on the surface of the leaves, which were sacred and therefore kept in pooja.  Mostly Ramayana and Mahabharata manuscripts were applied with turmeric paste and kept in the pooja room. Other manuscripts were applied with a mixture of vegetable juice (Cocina indica) and lamp soot (prepared using castor oil) for clarity of letters. Now-a-days lamp shoot mixed with some volatile vegetable oils like citronella oil is used for this purpose. In North India the palm leaves were written with ink by using pen or soft brush, because the North Indian scripts are in straight line form.

After writing, the leaves were arranged and strung and then placed between two soft planks of mango or bamboo. Sometimes, teakwood was also used to avoid damage by insect. To hold the manuscript in position, one end of the thread which runs over and over the manuscripts and thus binds it, is fastened to a device which forms part of a piece of palm-leaf with rib, which resembles the beak of a parrot. If the manuscript has more than 200 leaves, the thread cannot hold the leaves without damaging the leaves. Hence a small rod made up of copper or bamboo was pierced into the other hole of the manuscript.

 Paper Manuscripts

Written on paper are called Paper Manuscripts. After invention of Paper, it replaced all other writing materials. Paper is a substance of cellulose material, made from plant fibers. According to raw materials it can be classified as cotton group, baste group grass group, wood pulp group etc. In earliest days Paper was made by tedious hard process, which was called as handmade paper. Therefore most of the earlier manuscripts were written in uniform separated sheets of handmade Papers. The Paper manuscripts were written with Indian ink, which was prepared by mixing the lamp shoot gum acacia and rain water.  The pen used for writing manuscripts was made up of wood bamboo, vulture or goose quills. Mostly paper manuscripts are in loose-leaf form and very few are in the form of bound book form. Wooden planks were put on both sides as external guard and fastened with cotton or silk threads. In early days Manuscripts were covered with a cotton cloth to avoid external damages. In early days Manuscripts were decorated by ornamented letters, floral and geometric designs. The Illustrated manuscripts generally reflect some ideas or incidents of that work. Illustrated manuscripts reveal the work in illustrated form. Since Red colour itself acts as a insect repellent red line borders were drawn on most of the manuscripts. Some manuscripts edges were applied red colour and red colour thread was used.



 Preservation means any action taken to prevent or stop or retard deterioration.  It is obvious that preservation makes an attempt to maintain the object in a physical and chemical condition. It is therefore an unending process. For better Preservation, we should know basic constituents of the materials, its Character, method of preparation, factors of deterioration, proper storage preservation and restoration techniques.

 Factors of Deterioration

Manuscripts of Pam leaf and paper are organic substance. The organic materials are generally considered to be more susceptible to deterioration.  Generally the following physical, biological, and chemical agents cause deterioration, which are light, heat, moisture, fire, fungi, insects, air pollution etc.  Human error also caused damages to manuscripts.

The Ultra rays coming directly from the sun and other sources affect the cellulose bond of the paper. It makes the paper brittleness and discoloration.  Light not only affects the manuscripts directly but also indirectly it activates the chemical deterioration. Heat causes evaporation of moisture in the manuscripts, which leads to dryness, brittleness in manuscripts and alters the physical size.

Deterioration brought by biological agents is generally referred as ‘Bio deterioration”. The problem of bio deterioration is a matter of considerable significance of tropical-humid climate. The climate condition accelerates the growth and multiplication of living organisms. The common biological agents for deterioration of papers are fungus, insects and rodents. High humidity is helpful for the growth of fungus. The fungi produce enzymes, which mend the sheets one another.  The organic contents are nutrition to the living organisms. Most of the common insects affect the manuscripts are silverfish, termites, cockroaches, bookworm, booklice etc.

The impurities in the atmospheric gases such as Hydrogen sulphide, sulphur-di-oxide, carbon monoxide ozone, dust and other susceptible impurities are the main chemical factors. The chemical factors create acidity on the materials, which break the cellulose bonds, and make the paper brittle and colour changes.

 Palm leaves are cellulose fiber content materials, though which are having very good tensile strength compared to paper; it becomes very brittle due to dryness. Lignin present in palm leaves is susceptible to oxidation and hydrolysis, yielding acidic derivatives, which affect the fiber bond of the leaves. Like paper the palm leaf manuscripts too have some special problems.


Indigenous methods of Preservation:

The art of Preservation is not new. It was known from the inception of writing materials. Selection of materials, Preparation technique, and handling were carefully done for the durability of the manuscripts. In South India, palm leaf manuscripts were preserved in the houses of Pandits, temple treasuries, religious mutts and royal palaces. In the learned people’s houses, the palm-leaf manuscripts were kept in the kitchen to preserve them from the of fungus and insects. In ancient days, mostly thatched houses were built with mud walls. Due to heavy rain most of manuscripts were affected by fungus and insects. To avoid fungus and insect-attacks the palm leaf manuscripts were kept in a dangling position. The kitchen was usually warm and its smoke spreading over the manuscripts bundles. By this way they allowed to deposit smoke over the Palm leaf manuscripts. The smoke deposit would restrict absorption of moisture, which control fungus growth and insect affect. Every year after rainy season the manuscripts were cleaned and dried. Their condition was checked. Later day’s manuscripts were stored in wooden boxes, preferably camphor wood box. In Temples mostly manuscript were stored in a separate room with stone walls or a laft over the sanctum Santorum or a room in the tower  covered with a mixture of sand and calcium hydroxide powder. The four basic factors leads to deterioration, namely, dust accumulation, direct sun light, heat and humidity. To overcome these problems manuscripts were usually covered with red colour silk or cotton cloths which would control dust, light, heat and humidity. They used red colour cloth as it by its very colour acted as repellent to insects. It also explained in fact as to why red lines were drawn in front of the houses in the months of December – January. It was to avoid insects entering into houses after rainy season. This is the reason why the spine of the old volumes was bound with red colour cloth or leather in most of the Indian Libraries. Since turmeric has germicidal power, its paste or water treated with it, was applied to the leaves to prevent fungal attack. Most of the paper manuscripts in the Sarasvati Mahal Library were treated with turmeric paste.


 In ancient days people used some indigenous materials for preservation.  Some of the indigenous materials like cedar oil; neem leaves, neem seed powder, tobacco, sweet flag, camphor etc were used as insect and fungus repellent.   In the Thanjavur Sarasvati Mahal Library, a powder mixture of sweet flag (1 part), black cumin (1 part), Bark of cinnamon (1 part), pepper (1/4 part), cloves (1/4 part) and 5 to 10 gm of camphor is used as insect repellent. The mixture is made as small bundles, which are effective for six months. The development of Science and Technology paved way for better preservation techniques for the manuscripts and other cultural properties.





Physical Factors:Direct sunlight should be avoided on Book stack or other storage area by east west arrangement, fixing sun shade, curtains to window etc., Other artificial lightning can be controlled with  U.V.filter sheets. Heat and humidity can be controlled by Air conditioning the stack room. The air-conditioned stack room can be kept an ideal proportion of 21°-25° C and to 55% of relative humidity. Air conditioning is also protective measure against microorganisms, insects and dryness. But the air conditioning should be round the clock with thermo control of required heat and humidity. Otherwise the tropical climate leads to high fluctuation in heat and humidity, which deteriorate worse than ordinary condition. If we could not provide 24 hours Air conditioning we can adopt other methods to control the heat and humidity by Kash-kash screen to windows, water buckets in the corners, Humidifiers etc,          Humidity can be controlled in winter season by using Dehydrating agents like anhydrous calcium chloride, silica gel, carpet, dehumidifier; electric fan with heater can be used to maintain the required conditions. Much care should be taken for fire and flood damages.


Biological control: Climate is the main factor for the growth of fungus and insects. Maintaining the required humidity, proper light and ventilation controls them. In ancient days, Documents and manuscripts, were covered with Red or yellow cloth for the purpose of preservation. The cloth cover protects them from light, dust and humidity. The Red colour acts as insect repellent.

            Archival Materials are treated with fungicide and insecticide by fumigation method to control fungus and insects. Fumigation is a process to treat the affected documents in airtight chamber with wire mesh support by using evaporating chemicals of fungicide or insecticide. Mostly thymol is used as fungicide and Para di-chloro benzene is used as insecticide as well as fungicide. Some other chemicals like Naphthalene balls; Naphthalene bricks are used as Insect repellent.

Chemical factors: The dust accumulated over the object should be removed with fine brushes or vacuum cleaner. If the air pollution is controlled there will not be any external acidity in the paper materials. Presence of acidity can be tested with moist blue litmus paper, PH paper, PH pen, PH meter. If acidity is present in present in paper materials, it should be neutralized. The process of neutralizing the acidity is called as De- acidification.  The De-acidification process can be done in three ways, which are            a) Dry De-acidification           b) Wet De-acidification

c) Vapour De-acidification.    Only the dry de-acidification and vapour De-acidification can be done for the manuscripts. Wet de-acidification could be done only for printed book; it needs separation of sheets from binding. Only skilled staff can do this de acidification process.


            Conservation is a continuing processes for the betterment the manuscripts. Science and Technology is exploring various techniques in manuscript preservation. We have to selects suitable technique, suitable materials for manuscripts and for our climate. Manuscripts and are national wealth. It is our duty of one and all to preserve them for the use of future generation.


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