Where the Word is God: Preserving ‘akshara samskruti’ for posterity

Sri Dharmasthala Culture Research Foundation, a treasure trove of ancient wisdom, is home to 7,800 manuscripts, comprising paper, palm leaves, scrolls, illuminated writings in gold, silver, and copper, bamboo strips, and inscriptions on stone.

ByDr Asha Krishnaswamy

Published Jul 10, 2024 | 4:05 PM Updated Jul 10, 2024 | 4:05 PM

An inkpot on display at the Sri Dharmasthala Culture Research Foundation in Dakshina Kannada's Dharmasthala. (Supplied)

The term, ‘declutter’, is widely used in both rural and urban India. It is recommended to trash away anything left untouched for a year.

However, this does not — and ought not — apply to priceless, rare antique texts written on metal, paper, or palm leaves.

If you want to preserve the ‘old gold’ but are still constrained to do so, what will you do? Here’s a solution. Send them to the Sri Dharmasthala Culture Research Foundation.

The precious knowledge will be safe in the original and digital forms for the present and posterity. This is the true way to preserve history and culture.

The Foundation, located at Dharmasthala in Dakshina Kannada, a coastal Karnataka district, is a treasure trove of rarest manuscripts, specifically palm leaf bundles.

The collection was an earlier part of the Manjusha Museum established by Veerendra Heggade, the Dharmadhikari of Sri Kshetra Dharmasthala, in 1988. In 2018, it became a separate entity.

Housed in a building spread over 6,500 sq. ft, the centre caters mostly to researchers.

The centre takes pride in its nearly 7,800 manuscripts, comprising paper, palm leaves, scrolls, illuminated writings in gold, silver, and copper, bamboo strips, and inscriptions on stone, among others.

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A blast from Oriental past

The oriental knowledge-related volumes are also available. Vedas, Upanishads, Tantra-Mantra, Aagama, astrology, grammar, dictionary, poetry, drama, history, mathematics, Koopashastra, Soopashastra, Naadi Shastra, Ashwa Shastra, Vaidya Shastras, Shaiva, Veerashaiva, and Jainology-related books are in good numbers.

Dr Veerendra Heggade at the Centre. (Sourced)

Dr Veerendra Heggade at the Centre. (Sourced)

They are found in Kannada, Tulu, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Nandinagari, Devanagari (Sanskrit), and Marathi. A well-prepared index helps in browsing for books.

Palm leaves are of two types: Thaale (Borassus) and Srithaale (Corthy). While palm leaf is said to have a lifespan of 1000 years, 19th-century poetry, shastras, and ephemeris — kavya, shastra granthas, and panchangas — are well-preserved. To be more specific, nearly 5,078 such works are available at the Prathistana.

One eye-catching work preserved here is a Ramayana volume etched on long palm leaves with a dimension of 85×5 cm.

Wrapped in colourful silk, it has a special place at the Foundation. It has a wooden cover (shield) that has medicinal value. Mahaveera Ashtaka of poet Bhagachandra and Ekibhava Stotra of Vadiraja are in Devanagari.

A Ramayana in Malayalam is scribbled on an ivory plaque.

Basaveshwara Purana, authored by Shankaradhya of Kanchi, an unpublished work, has found its way into the Prathistana. The work has golden motifs. Pampa’s Aadipurana, Poojyapada’s medical book, and Moolasthamba Mahapurana on palm leaves are very artistic.

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Epics in Tulu

It is rare to get to see the Ramayana and Mahabharata written in Tulu. The only available handwritten Ramayana verse in Tulu is at this Foundation. Its origins can be traced back to the 16th century. It was found at the Vitla Palace in Dakshina Kannada.

Two types of palm-leaf manuscripts are displayed at the Prathistana: Thaale (Borassus) andSrithaale (Corthy) (Supplied).

Two types of palm-leaf manuscripts are displayed at the Prathistana: Thaale (Borassus) and Srithaale (Corthy) (Supplied).

The Tulu translation of the Mahabharata found here dates back to the 15th century.

Another form of writing medium from yestercentury found here is paper. History tracks the usage of paper to the 14th century in Karnataka. The gypsum-coated unique papers used for old scriptures were found in Kashgar, in present-day China.

Manuscripts on paper are categorised into two: Swadesh (manufactured in India) and foreign. In the 18th century, smooth foreign papers came into vogue. The local papers were manufactured by grinding wet cotton cloth pieces. These papers are categorised as kori (handmade paper).

Authors and scribes used to write literary works on such papers, while kings used to get their charters and messages written on them. Foreign papers or those manufactured in factories used to be blue in shade and thin. It was named Blue Booklets.

Pale white paper used to be the base for manufacturing blue papers. It is said that a manuscript written using plant-based ink can be preserved for no less than six centuries.

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Gita, Quran, and more!

Handmade, white, and blue paper manuscripts are scientifically preserved here. The paper-based manuscripts – 1471 in total– have made it to this centre. The colourful Dashavathara illustrations in one of the Bhagavad Gita manuscripts are elegantly artistic.

An exhibit at the foundation. (Sourced)

An exhibit at the foundation. (Sourced)

A copy of the Holy Quran is on blue paper and is also with the Foundation.

Parchment, untanned pelts of animals, was used as the base for writing. One such Bengali writing dates back to 1795.

Even Arabic language manuscripts, such as the Bhaktamar stotra penned in Sanskrit by Manatunga Acharya (7th century) on ebony, are safely stored here.

The Sharda script was used for writing in Sanskrit in Kashmir and the surrounding regions. The script is a branch of Brahmi that was in practice nearly 1200 years ago. Heggade handpicked the copies of Arthavaveda written in the Sharda script on Bhoj leaves. Bhurja or Bhojpatra trees are widely seen in the Himalayan range.

Another attraction of the Foundation is the lithography section. Inscriptions on flat stones need expertise to read. It also has a collection of old Kannada newspapers. Additionally, the handwritten copies of many well-known authors, along with their signatures, are showcased.

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Tools that sharpened writing 

The plus point of the Foundation is the meticulous manner in which the manuscripts are cleaned and conserved. Every page or palm leaf gets disinfected using thymol tablets. Heggade himself had designed the fumigation chamber.

Tools used for writing exhibited at the Prathistana. (Sourced)

Tools used for writing exhibited at the Prathistana. (Sourced)

Manuscripts are kept for four days in a dimly-lit chamber, at a particular temperature. Once removed, each page gets cleaned again with citronella oil and wrapped in high-quality red or yellow cotton clothes.

This process is so good that many religious institutions have given away their collections to the centre. And some have even requested the center’s specialised skills to preserve their collection.

The writing instrument section is interesting even for a casual visitor. It is unimaginable for the present generation to think of writing without a pen or pencil, ink, or a keyboard.

But at the Prathistana, one can see a variety of sharp metal writing instruments that have no ink flow channel. Reeds with sharp styluses to carve on palm leaves and metal are worth noticing.

Another writing tool displayed is a quill with sharp tips. There used to be a time when tamarind seeds and charcoal powder were used as ink. One can see 55 accounts from 1715!

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Sights set on authenticity 

“Collection, conservation, preservation, and utilisation are taking place here, thanks to the passion of Dr Veerendra Heggade. Everything here is planned by him. Even the National Mission of Manuscripts is appreciative of our conservation work,” Dr SR Vijnaraja, Director of the Prathistana, said.

Vijnaraja, who has spent his lifetime reading the manuscripts, said the process of collecting, reading, and deciphering them is a challenge. Piecing together broken or ripped-dim papers or leaves on which invaluable information is written is a time-consuming process.

Vijnaraja, who studied Manuscriptology, is assisted by Dr Pavan, a young research associate, and six other staff.

“When we get a copy of a manuscript, it gets tallied with the original to check its authenticity. There was a practice of copying an original text by employing scores of scribes. While doing so, mistakes and omissions have taken place,” he explained.

“Hence, cross-verification with authentic sources is essential. The Foundation has already scientifically treated nearly 2,000 manuscripts held by individuals in the Dakshina Kannada, and Udupi in Karnataka, and Kasaragod in Kerala,” Vijnaraja added.

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One for the future

Heggade is always happy to direct people who love reading and writing to the research centre. “Our ancestors wrote their experiences and knowledge in manuscripts. We must preserve the akshara samskruti (writing culture). Those who are finding it tough to manage old manuscripts are welcome to donate them to the centre,” he said.

The process of scanning and computerizing the manuscripts is underway. Once the manuscripts are donated to the foundation, the original owners won’t get them back. India’s rich legacy is being preserved for the future.

(Dr Asha Krishnaswamy is a Bengaluru-based journalist. Edited by Majnu Babu).

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