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How to read a Jain manuscript

Non-numeral page numbers

As a rule, in palm-leaf Jain manuscripts the numbering system uses letters and syllables as numbers. A few paper manuscripts also do this.

In the system of 'letter-numerals', each number or digit from 1 to 10 is represented by a different letter. The number 20 is represented by a particular letter, which is different from those used for 30, 40 and so on. The number 100 has its own letter, while 200 has another letter, 300 its particular letter and so on up to 400.

The highest letter-numeral in this system represents 400. This is probably because this numbering is found only in manuscripts and there is no example with pages numbered beyond 499.

Numbers with more than one digit, such as 34 or 258, are represented by two or three of these letters placed one above the other. There are variants in the forms of individual numbers used (Kapadia 1937; Appendix III and IV).

A few paper manuscripts on JAINpedia use this system of 'letter-numerals', such as:

The use of this system in a paper manuscript dates its period of production to the 15th century, making it a relatively old manuscript.

Page of a manuscript in Devanāgarī

Looking at an example page from a manuscript, the viewer can see that there are distinct parts of the layout. There are also standardised elements that can be used to explore each page more deeply.

Beginning of a manuscript

The writing in red at the top left is an auspicious phrase at the start of text. The figure of a Jina or a god is also often used as an auspicious opening. Featuring the first Jina Ṛṣabha, this page is from an 18th-century copy of the Bhaktāmara-stotra

Auspicious phrase and picture
Image by British Library © The British Library Board

The beginning of a Jain manuscript is more or less standardised and consists of an:

The auspicious sign is conventionally transcribed as //§O//. Although scholars have discussed the original sign, its meaning has not yet been explained satisfactorily.

The invocation phrase pays homage to a specific Jina or the Jinas.

The Hindu gods Gaṇeśa or Sarasvatī are often invoked too. Jains respect them as sources of inspiration and protection for creative and intellectual work.

The invocation is generally in Sanskrit, and follows the formula ‘Oṃ namo Vardhamānāya’ or ‘Oṃ namo Gaṇeśāya’. This means, ‘Om homage to Vardhamāna!’ or ‘Om homage to Gaṇeśa!’

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