India is a vast country with a rich history and diverse civilizations. It is estimated that there are slightly more than 500,000 Sanskrit, Prakrit, Telugu, Devanagari as well as Pali language palm-leaf manuscripts. These manuscripts are in the safe custody of 215 Institutions in India and around 100,000 in other different countries.

Manuscripts in regional languages, however, do not constitute a part of this number. Hence, they are excluded. India is thus regarded as the largest collection in the whole world.

Considering India, this number is extremely low. But the oral tradition of passing on sacred wisdom was important. Books were given secondary importance. This was because without owning a big library, a person could become versatile and a pundit by constantly listening to his Guru’s teachings, memorizing, absorbing and reproducing, whenever called for.

Manuscripts of Ancient India

As a result, books were rare. Hence, they were treasured and read in gatherings of scholars only and discussed. By the end of the 19th century, there were scholars who knew by heart, a thousand hymns of the Rigveda, four thousand Sutras of Panini and three thousand verses of Amarakosha.

This, however, does not mean that books were non-existent. In fact, the terms Pustaka, as well as Grantha, were used to denote book. Pustaka is mentioned in the Arthashastra of Kautilya around 4th century BC. This was referred specifically to a book while Grantha is derived from the root ‘Grath’ meaning to bind.

What are Palm Leaves

Grantha is mentioned as back as 5th century BC. In the ancient times, bound palm leaves made a Grantha or a book. Commentaries on sacred and all secular works were preserved in palm-leaf books. In ancient India, the palm leaves which were used were called as ‘tada Patra, tala Patra or Panna.’

The leaves of the palm trees were used only after drying them thoroughly and then using them by tying the leaves together. Abundant nature provided palm-leaves ‘free’ every three months. There was a separate class of professionals who plucked and processed the leaves of the particular palm tree.

Manuscripts of Ancient India
Palm Leaves

These people did it for a nominal fee and sometimes even for free. Letters were actually inscribed on the processed and softened palm leaves with the sharp iron stylus by trained Lipikars or writers. These styluses were known as ‘Kantas.’ The scribes were, hence, always in great demand.

Paper came into use only during the reign of Ekoji. However, even after the paper came to be used as a model for recording things by way of writing, palm leaf-books were continued to be used by scholars. This was done so particularly in South India and the coastal regions.

Masi or Mela

Paper was made by hand from cellulose vegetable material along with Masi or Mela. This Masi or Mela was used as ink for the purpose of writing. These inks were available in red, black, golden as well as silver colors. As a matter of fact, palm-leaf is much more durable in a humid climate as compared to paper. Apart from this, manuscripts also existed in the form of epigraphs or rocks, revenue records etc. These provided direct information on events or processes which took place in history.

Donation of books to scholars, institutions, and students was considered a sacred duty. Siddharaj Jayasimha king of Gujarat (1094-1143 CE) appointed three hundred scribes to copy out manuscripts. Further, Siddha-Hema Vyakarna which was a famous work on Sanskrit grammar was also distributed among students. The numbers of copies distributed were 125,000.

These manuscripts are considered to be the richest collection of written documents, texts as well as scripts. These texts help us get an insight not only on the existence of different civilizations but also emphasized their survival.

These manuscripts thus provide us with first-hand information about the early civilizations. There are different types of manuscripts like for instance, they consist of different themes, textures, aesthetics, scripts, languages, calligraphies, illuminations as also illustrations.

Palm Leaf Manuscripts

Basically, a manuscript is a handwritten composition on paper, the bark of a tree, palm leaf, cloth, metal or any other such material. They reflect a true picture of the splendid ancient Indian civilization like its art, architecture, language, philosophy etc. Most of these ancient manuscripts are written in the Sanskrit language.

The Sanskrit collection of the Sarasvati Mahal is considered as the largest manuscripts of India. This work contains all the major works of Sanskrit literature starting with the Vedas. These manuscripts are available in palm leaf as well in paper form. Apart from this, there are several other such scripts in Marathi, Tamil and Telugu languages.

Manuscripts of Ancient India
Nandinagari Manuscript

During the reign of the Marathas of Thanjavur from 1675 AD to 1855AD, a number of Marathi manuscripts came to be made. These scripts include works of great saints like Ramdas and Dattatreya Mutts. Apart from this, Marathi manuscripts from various Pandits and scholars are also available. The total number of Marathi manuscripts is 3076 and all are written on palm leaves. These manuscripts also contain information on Marathi music, dance, and drama.

Manuscripts of Ancient India

The manuscripts, hence, very aptly depict the heritage, history, and culture of ancient India. These manuscripts have always been admired by the rest of the world as they have a prosperous history attached to them.

As a matter of fact, Hiuen Tsang was a great Chinese scholar-monk who was in India in the 7th century CE. He was provided assistance of twenty copyists by the king of Kashmir to copy out the books which he wanted to take with him to China. Also, the Nawab of Avwadh, in the late 18th century gifted the manuscript of the Padshahnama to King George III of England.