Written records were always considered a good method of preserving knowledge for the benefit of future generations. The earliest historical records could be found inscribed on material such as clay, metal tablets, and stone.
With languages becoming more developed and complex as time went on, our ancestors realised that a more convenient medium was needed for written records. As a result, many South and East Asian countries such as India, Myanmar, Thailand, and, of course, Sri Lanka, began to use dried, old palmyrah leaves to make palm leaf manuscripts for the purpose of writing.
In Sri Lanka, these palms leaf manuscripts are also called ola leaf books. Art Historian Ganga Rajinee Dissanayake, told Roar Media that the word ola is derived from the Tamil word olai which means palm leaf. In Sinhalese, these books are called puskola poth and the Sri Sumangala Dictionary of the Sinhala language states that the word puskola potha literally means ‘blank paper on which nothing has been written.’
Soon after the ola leaf books were introduced, they became the preferred medium of ancient Sri Lankan writers and scribes, swiftly replacing the stone and rock inscriptions of the earlier days. Until the Portuguese introduced the printing press to Sri Lanka, this was the widely used medium of writing and recording history.
Ola Leaf Books: How They Came To Be And Where They Are Now
“It is difficult to pinpoint the exact time period when ola leaf books came into use as a writing medium in Sri Lanka,” said Dissanayake, “but archaeologists and historians believe that the writing of the Buddhist Tripitaka—454 years after Lord Buddha attained enlightenment—was one of the earliest occasions. Some believe that the writing tradition may have been brought down by Buddhist monks from India.”
Right now, there are 75,000 ola leaf books written in Sinhalese currently in the possession of various individuals and institutions. Most of these books were written in the 18th and 19th centuries A.D.
Ola leaf books older than the 18th century are rare to find, and only four of these books, belonging to the era of the Kotte and Gampola kingdoms, have been found so far.
As of now, the four oldest ola leaf books date back to the era of the Dambadeniya kingdom in the 13th century A.D. These books are; the Chulla Wagaya, which can be found in the National Museum of Colombo, the Visuddhimagga Tikawa, kept at the library of the Peradeniya University, the first edition of the Saratthadeepani, available at the library of the British National Museum, and the second edition of the Saratthadeepani, which can be found in the library of the Paris National Museum.
The Art Of Making Ola Leaf Books
The process which goes into making ola leaf books suitable for writing is rather complex and time-consuming, and there are many steps which need to be followed to ensure that these books lasted for a long time, thus fulfilling their true purpose.
Marking Of The Palmyrah Trees
The first step in the procedure was the marking of the palmyrah trees to be used in the production. However, all parts of the tree were not be used in this process; it is only the shoots of the palmyrah tree which were used. The chosen trees were about 15-20 years of age, and every year a pair of shoots was cut from these trees.
It is only one species of palmyrah tree which is used to make ola leaf books—the talipot palm (Corypha umbraculifera linn).
Cutting Of The Palmyrah Shoots
When the shoots matured, a bamboo frame-like structure was used to prevent these young leaves from falling off. More importantly, these structures prevented the leaves from becoming too large, as large leaves made the process more difficult than it already was. Usually, palmyrah shoots which were about a month or two old were used to make ola leaf books, but the time taken for the shoots to mature depended on climatic factors.
Palmyrah leaves which were suitably matured and ready for cutting were usually around 12-18 feet in length. Traditionally, Buddhist monks performed a ceremony where they cleaned the surrounding area of the palmyrah trees from which the shoots were cut, reciting a gatha, and presenting offerings. It is with the utmost care that this process is done.
Removal Of The Inner Twigs Of The Palmyrah Leaves And The Drying Process
After the palmyrah shoots were cut, they were wiped with a clean cloth. Then using a sharp knife, the inner twigs of the palmyrah shoots were carefully removed. When these twigs are removed, the shoots were then left to dry. After the drying, the leaves were placed on top of each other and rolled together.
In Sinhalese, the process of making these rolls is known as wattu sakaseema. This step had to be done with great care to make sure that the preservative used in the next step was applied evenly over the leaves.
Boiling in preservative and redrying
The rolls of palmyrah leaves were then boiled with a preservative liquid to increase their longevity and to make the leaves easier to write on. The preservative used was made with pineapple and papaya leaves, tender papaya fruits, herbs, and various other ingredients. Usually, the palmyrah leaves were seasoned after a few hours of boiling, but in some instances, it takes a few days for the leaves to season.
It is also necessary to unroll these leaves and dry them once again after they were been boiled. This step is a bit tedious, because the leaves had to be dried several times, and this process had to be done carefully as the palmyrah leaves could become discoloured immediately if not.
Afterwards, a small weight was tied to one end of these dried palmyrah leaves. They were then placed on a piece of wood and smoothened out. In Sinhalese, this process was known as thal kola madeema. After this process was complete, these leaves were once again rolled up into wattu and stored in a safe place until they needed to be used.
Making The Ola Leaves Look Presentable
The first step that takes place when an ola leaf book was needed for writing, was the cutting of these dried, treated leaves. The leaves were cut into various sizes using a cutting mould. A metal skewer was then used to make single or double holes on one side of the cut leaves. After these holes were made, heat was applied to the edges of the mould using a tool called a patthula. The purpose of this action was to make these leaves look neater.
Writing On The Ola Leaves
The stylus was the writing tool used to write on ola leaf books, and the tip of the stylus had to be shaped properly to make the writing process easier. Traditionally, a blessing was written at the beginning and at the end of an ola leaf book. The date and the writer’s name too were written on the first or the last page of the book.
The Final Step
Once the writer had finished writing in the ola leaf book, the pages of the book were blacked out in order to make the writing more visible. This process was known as kalu madeema in Sinhalese. Dorana oil, charcoal, kurakkan or resin were used for this process, and it was believed that these natural materials helped to preserve the books for longer. Ordinarily, for the purpose of preservation, these books had to be blacked out in this manner at least once a year.
Ola leaf books which were fashioned in this manner had covers made of wood, animal skin, ivory, and even metal. These covers were also decorated with beautiful engravings and motifs, and some even had pearls and gems embedded into them.
The process of making these little books, though difficult and time-consuming, was a very intricate and fascinating craft. Right now, it is a process which is not widely practised by many people—apart from Buddhist monks and a handful of historians. They are a treasured part of our culture and history, so it is fortunate that many of the oldest and the most valuable ones have been carefully stored and preserved.
*Research by Dharani Weerasinghe
Featured image courtesy michaelbackmanltd.com