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The Materials used in Ancient Manuscripts

In the preceding discussion, I acknowledged that most of the earliest manuscripts from eastern India were destroyed due to unfavorable climates and enemy attacks. Nonetheless, some of these precious relics are still preserved in various institutions, such as the National Museum of Delhi, the Indian Museum of Calcutta, and Bharat Kala Bhavan in Varanasi.

In this episode, I will elucidate the materials used in ancient manuscripts and their structural variances based on spiritual communities and locations. Undeniably, we are astounded by the artistic sensibility that parallels modernism evident in these oldest manuscripts. Notably, Indian art never adhered to forms that align with the external aspect of an object. In my prior discussion concerning Indian painting grammar, I explained how Indian art has always endeavored to reform the outer world through its artistic vision and why artists from India have pursued such a path.

We must identify the critical factors of manuscript art that pertain to its materials. Firstly, we note that all ancient manuscripts were written in black ink. The ink was prepared by collecting black soot formed from fire and holding a metal plate over a flame until the soot accumulated below it. Subsequently, they delicately mixed oil with the soot to create collyrium, used as an eyewash to enhance one's appearance. Once oil had been added, it was transformed into liquid writing ink and applied onto paper using reed pens. This process resulted in exquisite calligraphy featuring square fonts on both sides of the paper - left and right - resembling engraved text on parchment. Reading these texts clearly without distractions requires knowledge of Sanskrit language proficiency.

In this context, the term "paper" was erroneously employed to refer to a palm leaf or Palmyra leaf used as a medium for writing. Below is an illustration of a manuscript composed in the Shaivism [1] language on such a palm leaf.

Pārameśvara Tantra. Palm-leaf, sanskrit.
Pārameśvara Tantra. Palm-leaf, sanskrit. Nepal 828 CE

In the eastern region of India, a type of paper known as "Teret" was utilized for writing. Although cotton paper from Nepal was also available, Teret paper gained popularity due to its durability. The papers were sized horizontally and divided into several pieces with a width of 90 centimeters and a height of 7 ½ centimeters. The writing was done along the lengthwise row, with each paper containing a minimum of five and a maximum of seven rows. Manuscripts without illustrations were written, leaving a small gap at the edge for bookbinding purposes. In contrast, manuscripts with illustrations had square blank spaces reserved for them before being completed by an artist separately.

The process involved in creating these manuscripts is evidenced to be arduous through various descriptions, such as broken shoulders, strained throats, despondent faces, and clenched palms, all indicative of the difficulty faced during this task. It is, therefore, imperative that each manuscript be treated with utmost care so as to preserve its dignity and value.

Two holes on either side of a vast space were used to thread yarn. Some of these holes were in the middle and used to bind the manuscript. Each manuscript had instructions for the users on how to maintain it, things to do and avoid, etc. In some of the oldest manuscripts, writing was done on both the front and back sides of the pages.

Each embellished page of the manuscripts typically contained three paintings, one positioned in the center and the other adorning both edges. However, on occasion, a single large-sized painting could be observed occupying either the middle or both sides of the manuscript. Some exquisite ornamental decorations were also depicted within blank spaces on the concluding pages. Illustrations were likewise featured on both sides of the cover pages as required. Sadly, many of these earliest manuscript covers have deteriorated due to their reverence and subsequent exposure to water, sandalwood, decaying flowers, and minimum pigment layers. Presented below is an ancient illustrated Kalpa Sutra manuscript[2]. 

Kalpasutra, an ancient jain manuscript
Kalpasutra, an ancient jain manuscript

The ornamentation under observation is crafted with various hues derived from distinct sources. The yellow pigment is extracted from natural turmeric, the blue shade is obtained from stones, and the red is created by combining iron oxide with stone dust. White is achieved through the use of lime, while black ink results from soot produced by fire lamps, as previously mentioned. Upon scrutinizing these manuscripts closely, one can discern that those originating in eastern India and Nepal are inscribed in an intense black hue; however, Jain scriptures exhibit areas where this darkness has been diluted to gray tones to maintain harmony with accompanying illustrations.



 1. Shaivism is one of the major traditions within Hinduism that reveres Shiva as the Supreme Being. The followers of Shaivism are called "Shaivites" or "Saivites". It is one of the largest sects that believe Shiva — worshipped as a creator and destroyer of worlds — is the supreme god over all. The Shaiva have many sub-traditions, ranging from devotional dualistic theism, such as Shaiva Siddhanta, to yoga-oriented monistic non-theism, such as Kashmiri Shaivism. It considers both the Vedas and the Agama texts as important sources of theology. The origin of Shaivism may be traced to the conception of Rudra in the Rig Veda.

2. The Kalpa Sūtra (Sanskrit: कल्पसूत्र) is a Jain text containing the biographies of the Jain Tirthankaras, notably Parshvanatha and Mahavira. It is traditionally ascribed to Bhadrabahu, placing it in the 4th century BCE. It was probably put to writing only after 980 or 993 years after the Nirvana(Moksha) of Mahavira.


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