Thursday, May 08, 2008

Tamil Palm Leaf Manuscript

I have an old RA / Friend who is from Chennai State in India. He is a really great guy, and I enjoy catching up with him when I get time. (He keeps offering for us to come to his parents house in India for a visit. I very much hope to take him up on that sometime later in life.)

During one of our more recent catch-ups, we got to talking about Tamil, the language his family speaks in India. He showed me some of the Tamil characters, and I was blown away. The alphabet is just about the coolest looking alphabet I've ever seen. It's all a bunch of curly cues, and dots and coils. I was so interested by the letters he was writing for me that I went and did some research on it. It turns out, the alphabet was largely influenced by the fact that it was written on palm leaves. The scribes during the time would carve the letters into a palm leaf, and then rub the whole leaf with charcoal. The charcoal would collect in the areas where they had carved the letters, and when the rubbed away the excess charcoal, the characters would stand out on the leaf.

The printing press arrived in India in the 19th century, so they stopped writing their manuscripts on palm leaves right around then, but the alphabet remains much the same as it was. Meaning that Tamil is still the coolest looking alphabet I've ever seen.

I found a few images of the characters in the alphabet, and I was going to write about it and post those pictures, but time got the best of me.

Fast-forward to a few days ago. I saw Lionel on campus and invited him to a little cookout picnic I was hosting for our current RA staff. He couldn't come, but said that he was going to come by later to give me something. Sure enough, we got back from the cookout and Lionel showed up with a small plastic sleeve with some weird looking thing inside of it. He handed me the sleeve, and out slid an original Tamil Palm Leaf Manuscript. I couldn't believe it. This thing has to be at least 200 years old, and I'm holding it in my hand. 42 pages of palm leaves straight up full of the coolest looking characters I've ever seen.

I have no idea what it says, and Lionel said that he can't read it. He is able to read contemporary Tamil, but the characters on these leaves are different from the contemporary Tamil characters, so he isn't able to read it. I'm eager to find out what this manuscript is and hopefully some of the people at U Chicago will be able to help me when I get there. Until then, and since I don't imagine any of my Blog readers are able to read 200 year old Tamil, I figured I'd just throw up some pictures of the leaves. You can go here to see all the pictures I took of the manuscript if you're interested.

Here is the manuscript in the sleeve, as Lionel gave it to me.

I believe this is the front of the manuscript, out of the sleeve.

Here is a close-up of the characters on the front of the manuscript.

Here is a picture of the reverse side of the third leaf. Almost every page of the manuscript looks like this, chalk full of characters.

And here you can see the manuscript is not quite finished. The letters here have not yet been filled with the charcoal... I wonder if the manuscript is complete.


selva said...


It is amazing to see Tamil palm script. I am a Tamil and live in Atlanta. I would love to know if I can get these palm scripts.

Please contact me at


Joshua said...

Hey Selva, sorry but I'm going to hang onto the manuscripts because they were a gift from a friend. I plan on trying to devote some of my time in my graduate program to discovering what the translation may be, but if you are able to read it and can tell me what some of it says, I would be grateful.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joshua,

I also have one and I can speak Tamil (but alas can not read or write well). Mine isnt as nice as yours, but nonetheless, quite impressive. It contains 5 leaves printed on both ends. I suggest you send scans to the following site:

They preserve and do research on these. I have been meaning to send mine for while, but never got around. Do let us know what you find...



humbaa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anil Yavagal said...

Hi Joshua,
Nice to see the palm leaf manuscripts. We deal with manuscripts every single day. We @ NanoArk Corp, archive and preserve rare manuscripts on silicon wafers using an advanced fabrication process called Photolithography which is cost effective. The images which are etched this way can last for hundreds of years. Please find more information on our website,
Please let me know if you wish to permanently archive your manuscripts as well as point us to someone whom you know, who can support and sponsor our cause.

Thanks a ton,

Anonymous said...

I will not ask for them. But I will request you to please digitize and keep a digital copy of the palm leaf manuscripts so they may be deciphered/translated by some one in the future.

If you can send me a digital copy of them I can ave them translated and sent out to you.


Dinesh Ramoo said...

The script is the Grantha alphabet used to write Sanskrit in the Tamil country. The image with the title is not clear but I can make out the words "Shi" and "Jaya" (Auspicious and Victorious) so it may be some religious sutra. I can make out some words in 3R such as "smayamaana mukang bhoja" "mayiprasaadapravanag" "mayoorodaarabhashanam".

Dinesh Ramoo said...

The string is also wrapped around in a prescribed manner to prevent the book from getting damaged. First the string is wrapped ten times round the book and then twice across, thrice around then, twice across, and another three times over.

Unknown said...

HI Sir,
Iam in Memphis, Tennessee, did you have explored the palm leafs, or digitized the leaf , iam trying touch base with saraswathi mahal library in Thanjavur , South india , they are having tons of Palm leaf messages stored in there library , if you are willing to share the digitized copy , just let me know