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How to read a Jain manuscript


Margins are interesting in Jain manuscripts. Far from being mere blank spaces around the text, they are often used to comment on it or as an area for decoration.

Margins are not compulsory so not all manuscripts have margins. Empty space is left above and below the text. On average there is about 5 centimetres of space.

If there are margins, they are often marked out by two double vertical lines on the left and right of the page.

Margins can be empty but they often contain numbers, decorations, picture captions or notes on the text.

Folio numbers can be shown in two ways:

  • a verso side with the folio number at the bottom of the right-hand margin
  • a recto can also have the folio number at the top of the left-hand margin, sometimes with an abridged form of the title of the work.

Decorations may be very elaborate, with flower motifs and patterns from nature. The most common ornamentation is a red or orange circle. Decorations can be either in the left or right margins.

Many illustrated manuscripts have the caption of the image in smaller script in the margin.

Notes in the margins of Jain manuscripts are very common.


This is a good example of the pañca-pāṭha style of using the manuscript margins for commentary. This manuscript page is from a 16th-century copy of the Ṣaṣṭi-śataka.

Pañca-pāṭha style of manuscript commentary
Image by British Library © The British Library Board

The free spaces of margins are very often where various readers of the manuscript have left some remarks. Mostly these are glosses or explanations of difficult words or passages.

Commenting on the text was so normal that Jain manuscripts have developed two specific formats where the margins are extensively used for running commentaries. These are both written in small, even minute script.

In the form known as tri-pāṭha – 'three readings' – the top and bottom marginal spaces are large and are reserved for this purpose, with the main text in the centre.

In the form known as pañca-pāṭha – 'five readings' – the main text is again in the centre but all four margins are used for the commentary. Here, the reader goes in this order:

  • top margin
  • right margin
  • left margin
  • bottom margin.

This demonstrates how space is used efficiently, not wasting any paper.

Main part of the page

The paper is often ruled so that the text is mostly written straight and looks regular and even. But, of course, there are tidy and untidy manuscripts.

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