Written by Sri Swami Chandrashekarendra
In the old days palm-leaf manuscripts were preserved in almost every
house. They contained the texts of the epics, the Puranas, Sthala
and so on. When the palm-leaves were in danger of being damaged, their
contents would be copied with a stylus on new leaves. The damaged
leaves would be consigned to the Kaveri or some other sacred river, or
some pond on the occasion of Patinettam Per [see next para]
The 18th day of the Tamil month of Adi (July-August) has a special
significance for the Kaveri. The river would be in spate. The swelling
waters on this day are called Patinettam Perukku or Patinettam Per.
Our forefathers went on inscribing on palm - leaves with their stylus
their hands ached. They copied old texts to be preserved for posterity.
This tradition lasted until perhaps the time of our fathers. People of
generation have thrown these precious manuscripts into the river
without making copies of them. So much so it is doubtful whether the
texts of many Puranas will ever be available to us. Not only Puranas,
also a number of sastras. However, some scholars have taken great pains
to go from place to place to collect manuscripts and preserve them in
libraries. The Sarasvati Mahal Library in Tanjavur, the Oriental
Manuscripts Library and the Adyar Library, Madras, have good collections
of manuscripts. The Theosophical Society Library, Adyar, has done
commendable work in this respect. Sarabhoji and other rulers of Tanjavur
took great trouble to collect manuscripts for the Sarasvati Mahal.
The palm-leaf is called edu in Tamil. It has two sides with a rib in
- either of the two sides after the removal of the rib is called an edu.
plantain leaf also has a rib. When it is split across the rib, each part
edu. For long the palm-leaf was our paper, nature's paper which was not
easily damaged. The letters had to be inscribed on it with a stylus.
The palm-leaves containing the text of Jnanasambandhar's Tevaram
compositions went upstream against the current of the river Vaigai and
were laid ashore. The spot where the manuscript lodged itself is called
"Tiruvedakam" ("Tiru +edu + akam"). Here the deity lord Siva is called
"Patrika Paramesvara". Nowadays the word "paper" is understood as a
newspaper, magazine, periodical, etc. "Patrika" means a magazine today.
The lord associated with the spot where the palm-leaves, nature's paper,
were laid ashore is "Patrika Paramesvara", which could be taken to mean
"the Lord the journalist". "Patra" and "Patrika" mean the same, a leaf.
the past letters were written on palm-leaves. That is why a letter also
came to be called "patra".
There is an interesting story about the Sarasvati Mahal. In olden days
worst injury an invader thought he could inflict on a country was to
down it's libraries. When the treasury is to the economy of the nation
library is to its culture; indeed the library represents its cultural
Since there was no printing press then, there would not be many [palmleaf]
copies available of works, and of some works there would be only a
single copy. To destroy the library of the nation, containing rare
would be a greater outrage than looting its treasury or dishonouring its
women. We must be proud of the fact that our sastras on policy strictly
forbid the destruction of an enemy country's treasures of knowledge and
it's places of worship, nor do they permit the dishonouring of its
When Jainas like Amarasimha lost to Hindu religious teachers in
arguement, they themselves wanted to burn their books. But great men
like our Acarya stopped them from doing so. Holding the hands of their
opponents they requested them not to destroy their books. Their attitude
was that no work must be destroyed whatever the philosophy or religious
system it upholds.
Conquerers belonging to other countries took special delight in setting
fire to the libraries of the conquered land if it was known to be
advanced. They perpetrated such outrages without reflecting for a
moment on the fact that knowledge is common to all, even such
knowledge as possessed by an enemy. They could cause anguish to the
people intellectually superior to them by destroying their books. It was
thus that during the 15-16th centuries Muslim invaders set fire to the
library in Alexandria in Egypt (it had books collected from the time of
Alexander) and the library in Constantinople (Istanbul) which had been
built up over the centuries by the Greeks and the Romans. Once old
Sangam were swept off when the sea rose - it was an act of nature. But
is due to their cultural backwardness that foreign forces destroyed the
libraries of the country they invaded.
The Sarasvati Mahal of Tanjavur was once under threat when Muslim
forces had spread all over the south and the Nawab of Carnatic had the
upper hand. For the Muslim invaders burning down the Sarasvati Mahal
library was equivalent to destroying the great temple of Tanjavur. At
time there was a Maharastrian Brahmin called Dabir Pant who was a
minister to the Maratha Raja (the Maratha rulers here belonged to
family). An idea occured to him just in time to save the library. He
the vandals: "This library has ofcourse Hindu books. But it also has
copies of Qur'an." "What? The Qur'an also?" the invaders cried. " We
won't set fire to the library in that case, "so saying they departed.
Then came to India Englishmen, Frenchmen and others. They had a thirst
for knowledge and research and were anxious to learn even from foreign
sources. The Germans came to our country and searched for palm-leaf
manuscripts to take home with whem. We must be grateful to some of
these foreigners through whose efforts a number of our sastras were
redicovered. There was, for example, Mackenzie who was surveyorgeneral
of India. He went from place to place to collect palm-leaf
manuscripts. There was at that time no speacial department to deal with
them but Mackenzie had them read by experts and took steps to have
them preserved. Mackenzie's men even came to our Matha at
Kumbakonam to gather information.
It is believed that Westerners took with them some of our science
manuscripts from the Sarasvati Mahal espeacially those pertaining to the
art of warfare. It is further claimed that Hitler made some type of
weapons and aircraft on the basis of knowledge contained in these texts.
There are palm-leaf manuscripts still with us like Bhojaraja's
Samarangana Sutra. From these we learn that we had long ago not only
"astras" to be employed with mantras but also "sastras" that were
product of science. Digests like Varahamihira's Brhatsamhita bring
together the various disciplines of our land.
Some of our ancient palm-leaf manuscripts contain texts not only of our
religious systems but also of various arts and sciences. Also the
But we have lost many of our Sthala Puranas. We must do our best to
preserve what remains and, at the same time, continue the search for
The Puranas give us instruction, in the form of engrossing stories, on
truth of the Paramatman proclaimed by the Vedas, the dharmas, and the
moral and ethical codes of conduct that they lay down. The teaching they
impart touches our very hearts. The lessons of the Puranas, the stories
noble men and women contained in them, have shaped our lives. The
Puranas have indeed served as a source of our inspiration for our people
from time immemorial. We must no longer be apathetic to them and
must make a determined effort to preserve them as a treasure. Let us
make a comparative study of puranic literature and take an integrated
view. This will be to our own benefit as well as to that of all mankind.