What is a Jain manuscript?

Materials

Two materials are normally used for Jain manuscripts – palm leaf and paper. Cloth was used for items such as large paintings or covers.

Long, slim leaves from palm trees provided a smooth writing surface that was readily available. Early scribes wrote on both sides of the leaf so numbering the pages was important. One or more holes were cut in each leaf so that strings could tie together all the pages of a text in the right order.

As paper became more common in the late medieval period, it tended to replace palm leaf as the favoured material for copying texts. But paper manuscripts kept the style and format developed to work with early materials.

Palm leaf

This rare example of a palm-leaf page from western India has a central hole through which string was passed to keep the pages together. It also has double folio numbering, with letters in the left margin and a number in the right.

Palm-leaf page
Image by British Library © The British Library Board

This is the standard material for manuscripts created in south India, where the trees that provide the leaves are common. These trees are Corypha umbraculifera and Borassus flabellifer. After they have been treated, the leaves are smooth and can absorb ink.

In western India, such as Gujarat and Rajasthan, palm leaf is used in manuscripts dating from the 12th to 14th centuries.

The format of palm-leaf manuscripts is striking. The folios are long and narrow, usually 20 to 50 centimetres long and from 3 to 5 centimetres wide. In the centre there is a hole into which a cord or string is inserted. The cord is used to keep all the folios together.

Paper

Manufactured paper entered India in the 13th century along with the Muslims. It was made of vegetable fibres from cotton, wood, bamboo and so on.

Paper became the regular material used for Jain manuscripts from western India from the 14th century onwards. It demonstrates a large range of colours – cream, yellow, ochre, light brown and grey – but not the white of contemporary paper.

Earlier paper manuscripts are sometimes long and narrow like their palm-leaf predecessors, but later on they tended to become broader. The standard size is 26 by 11 centimetres but there are many variations.

The traditional paper is often brittle by now if it has not been preserved properly.

In the 19th and 20th centuries European paper was sometimes used in manuscript copies that were prepared in India at the request of Western scholars.

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