Palm Leaf Manuscript

View of palm leaf manuscript from the fore-edge against a black background.  View of palm leaf manuscript with individual pages extended on the string binding.

In these days of computers, online full-text databases, and almost instant everything, it is easy to forget that the spread of information was not always so immediate. Palm leaf manuscripts are an example of the efforts that sometimes went into the preservation and spread of knowledge. Palm leaves were among the first writing materials to be used, and some sources say that Sanskrit was first written on this material more than 6,000 years ago.

Many of these documents are Buddhist religious texts, though other subjects are also found. Palm leaf manuscripts originate predominantly from the southern and south-eastern areas of Asia, including India, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos. The cultural variety in these areas is reflected in the various techniques of preparing the palm leaves and writing on them. Generally, however, the first step is to divide each palm leaf into two pieces by cutting out the rib that runs down the center. The leaves are pressed flat, trimmed, and sanded smooth. The leaves are held in one hand and inscribed with lettering from left to right by using a needle-like instrument that actually cuts into the surface of the leaf. The result is nearly invisible, but the writing is made clearer by covering the leaf with soot or other pigment, sometimes mixed with oil. When the leaf is cleaned of the excess pigment, the dark residue remains behind in the scratches carved into the surface. The leaves may be decorated with gilding or illustrations. They are made into "books" by stringing them together through holes in the leaves. Sometimes, the leaves are connected at only one point so that the book can be fanned out for reading. Otherwise, they are connected through two holes like the one shown here. Often, the "book" is covered with panels of wood, ivory, or other hard material. This material may be left unadorned or elaborately decorated with carving, inlays, painting, or precious stones.

Each leaf of the palm leaf manuscript shown here has text on both sides, seven lines of text on each. Some text has been pigmented, and some has not. The leaves are bound with string through two holes in each leaf, with a plain wooden panel on each end. Little else is known about this particular manuscript, which came to the University of Southern Mississippi with the Sam E. Woods Collection. The word "Pali" is marked on the outside of the manuscript. This may refer to a religious text in general or to the language used in the texts of Theravada Buddhism. However, it is suspected that the particular language used in this palm leaf book is Tamil or Malayalam from the Madras area of India.

To view the palm leaf manuscript, visit Room 305 in McCain Library. The item is found in the Sam E. Woods Collection (M1). For more information about the item, call the Special Collections Reading Room at 601.266.4345 or email. To see more Items of the Month, click here.

Closeup of the text of a leaf of the book. The page is in Tamil or Malayalam.

For more information about palm leaf books:

Schuyler, Montgomery, Jr. "Notes on the Making of Palm-Leaf Manuscripts in Siam." Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 29 (1908), pp. 281-283.

Titley, Norah M. "An Illustrated Sinhalese Palm-Leaf Manuscript." The British Museum Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3/4 (Spring, 1963), pp. 86-88.

Davis,T. A. and Dennis V. Johnson. "Current Utilization and Further Development of the Palmyra Palm (Borassus flabellifer L., Arecaceae) in Tamil Nadu State, India." Economic Botany, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1987), pp. 247-266.

Appendix on the official web site of Aluvihara Rock Cave Temple of Matale, Sri Lanka. 

Swift Family Collection of Palm Leaf Manuscripts held at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

The Fragile Palm Leaves Foundation

For more information about the languages and literature of Asia:

American Oriental Society

Pali Text Society

Text for this "Item of the Month" prepared by Diane DeCesare Ross.