Ancient Texts and Manuscripts
First Online: May 01, 2004
Introdution by Dr. Jyotsna Kamat
It is estimated that there are 500,000 and slightly more Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali palm-leaf manuscripts, in safe custody of 215 Institutions in India and about another 100,000 in other different countries. Regional Language mss. do not form part of these, which run into millions.
For an ancient and vast country like India this number is far too less. But the oral tradition of passing on, sacred lore was important. Books became of secondary importance. Without possessing a big library, a person could become versatile and a pundit by constantly listening to his Guru's teachings, memorising, absorbing and reproducing, whenever called for. Books were rare, treasured and read in gatherings of scholars and discussed. As late as 19th century, there were scholars who knew by heart, a thousand hymns of the Rigveda, four thousand Sutras of Panini and three thousand verses of Amarakosha. A scholar used to be a walking library.
But this does not mean that books were non-existant. Terms Pustaka and Grantha are used to denote book. Pustaka is mentioned in the Arthashastra of Kautilya (4th century BC) and refers specifically a book. Grantha is derived from the root Grath which means to bind. Grantha is mentioned as back as 5th century BC. Bound palm leaves made a Grantha, (book) in olden times. Commentaries on sacred and all secular works were preserved in palm-leaf books. Even long after paper made its appearance, palm leaf-books were used by scholars, particularly in South India and the coastal regions. Palm-leaf is much more durable in humid climate than paper. Bountiful nature provided palm-leaves 'free' every three months. A class of professionals who plucked and processed the leaves of the particular plam tree, did it for nominal fee or free for mathas and agraharas which had libraries of texts on various subjects. Scholars frequented these places.
Letters were actually inscribed on the processed and softened plam leaves with sharp iron stilus by trained lipikars (writers). These stilus were known as kantas. The scribes were in great demand. Hiuen Tsang the great Chinese scholar-monk who was in India in the 7th century CE, was provided assistance of twenty copyists by the king of Kashmir to copy out the books, he wanted to take with him to China.
Donation of books to scholars, institutions and students was considered a sacred duty. Siddharaj Jayasimha king of Gujarat (1094-1143 CE) appointed three hundred scribes to copy out manuscripts and also of Siddha-Hema Vyakarna, a famous work on Sanskrit grammar for distribution among students. The number of copies distributed was 1,25,000.
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