A Canvas from the Past
In a country as ancient as ours, a culture enriched with traditional arts and crafts, unchanged over the centuries, coexisting with twenty-first century technology is hardly surprising. Amidst this cultural confluence, there are some crafts that have always been like that gentle, self-effacing yet proud child who refuses to take centre-stage. One such ancient yet humble craft is palm leaf writing and painting. Counted among some of the oldest known crafts of the country, palm leaves are used even today to not only write, but also paint beautiful images.
Palm leaf writing is probably the oldest form of writing in India. The Mahabharata is believed to have been dictated by Sage Vyas to Lord Ganesh, who scripted it down on palm leaf. From Vedas and manuscripts to horoscopes, this ancient method was followed not by the common populace, but only by scholars and wise men. The temples of India acted as storehouses of all such manuscripts and were customarily the centres for learning the same. It was here that the texts were copied into fresh ones as they wore out. And Odisha, the temple state, was no exception. Stories were written, poems were weaved and futures predicted, all on palm leaves. By highly revered Lipikaras.
The palm leaf manuscripts, besides portraying the thoughts of the writer, also often included detailed images to complement the writing. Of Gods and Goddesses, Devadasis, temples and elements of nature. And that is how palm leaf writing gave birth to the craft of palm leaf painting.
Preserved for Posterity
The State Museum of Odisha at Bhubaneswar is a treasure house for lovers of this art, with about 40,000 palm leaf manuscripts. Efforts have been continuously taken from the time Odisha became a separate province in 1936, to make a comprehensive list of such manuscripts. 15000 titles were noted in this list, of which 11000 are now in the State Museum. The texts in these manuscripts hold the Vedas, notes on grammar, musical text and also information on subjects like astronomy, religion, etc. These give one a glimpse into the ancient culture and history of Odisha.
Etched with Finesse
As is evident from the end result, writing on palm leaves is not an easy task. It needs a lot of skill, persistence, discipline and tutelage. Palm leaves were chosen probably because they were easily and locally available in Odisha. They are durable, eco-friendly and stronger than handmade paper. Usually, the tender leaves of the various varieties of palm leaves were chosen. The leaves were either buried under the mud or boiled in water and dried subsequently so that they get an antiseptic armour offering them protection against pest damage. They were then treated with certain highly specific ingredients before being used, to ensure they last for a long time. The colours used in writing and painting are all home-made, 100% natural products as chemicals would end up damaging the palm leaves.
Manuscripts were, and still are, often wrapped in cloth to provide protection from dust, worms, etc. This also safeguards them from the humidity in the atmosphere. Till date, wooden chests are used to store them, to protect them the ravages of climatic changes.
Owning a palm leaf picture or manuscript would be equivalent to owning a piece of a three thousand year old history. Unchanged over the centuries, this beautiful art epitomises not only culture and tradition, but also the spirit of an ancient civilization, which flourished in spite of numerous invasions and raids aimed at destroying it. While you may not be able to visit their homes and learn about the finer nuances of the craft, you have a chance to take a piece of history home, with you.