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Book and stylus. Click to enlarge.

Archived article from the April 2001 [vol2,no2] issue of Princely States Report

The preparation of palm-leaf documents
- Fred Pinn
- edited by David Heppell
- additional notes by Ramachandran Vaidyanadhan


The oldest extant palm-leaf document dates from the second century A.D., but the use of palm leaves as writing material was already recorded in the fifth century B.C. In Cochin (now the State of Kerala) written documents and books have been inscribed on the leaves of two species of palm tree, specially prepared for that purpose, for more than 600 years. As the veins of a palm leaf are parallel to the edge, the horizontal straight lines of the northern Indian scripts would split the leaf but the rounded Malayalam script was ideally suited to this medium; in fact it has been suggested that the roundness of the letters is an adaptation of the script to the properties of the palm leaf. The text was written with a stylus, which scratched the letters into the leaf. The leaves were cut to a uniform length and strung together by a cord passing through one or two circular holes cut in each leaf, either centrally or close to each end. This cord is long enough to allow the leaves to be sufficiently separated to be read. The "book" was completed by similarly pierced covers at the beginning and end, enabling the manuscript to be bound shut by twisting the cord around them when not in use. These covers were usually wooden, often carved, but for more valuable works covers of metal or ivory might be used. Most palm leaf manuscripts were of a religious or instructional nature, but during the period from 1837 almost to the end of the nineteenth century palm leaves were also used for fiscal documents for conveyancing of land. As these were single leaves, written on both sides, they required neither holes nor covers.

Preparation and use of the palm leaves

The earliest records of the ancient Brahmi script, from which modern Indian scripts have developed, are the rock-engraved edicts of the emperor Ashoka, dating from the third century B.C. Other important proclamations were engraved on copper but this was not a suitable material for everyday book-keeping and correspondence. Papyrus documents must have been seen by Indians in the hands of Assyrian traders whom they met when exchanging goods at the trade emporium on the island of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. The usefulness of written documents was obvious and the Brahmi script was modified from the Aramaic, but there was a need for a locally available writing material which was both inexpensive and abundant. In Kashmir birch bark served as paper until very recently, but that tree grows only above 9000 feet and there is no evidence of the export of birch bark strips to lowland India. No doubt the observation of the papyrus accounts of the merchants from Mesopotamia reminded the Indian traders of the texture of the palm leaves, and led to experimentation to adapt them for the same purpose.

The two palms used in the production of books and other documents are the talipot palm, Corypha umbraculifera, and the palmyra palm, Borassus flabellifer. For good illustrations of these palms see the following links: Corypha umbraculifera, Borassus flabellifer. Both species have large fan-shaped leaves from which are cut the individual straight strips used for writing. The talipot palm of South India and Sri Lanka has broader and stronger leaves and was the preferred species for books. It has disappeared from the wild for some reason and is now found only in cultivation. The palmyra palm was used for short notes, letters and receipts; its distribution extends from India to New Guinea and its use as a writing medium was common throughout most of its range. Although palm leaf books are no longer produced in South India they are treasured there as heirlooms, and the sons of orthodox Hindus still learn to copy sacred texts onto palm leaves.

In order to make this material suitable for permanent record, it must go through a long process of preparation which varies in detail from place to place. The leaves have first to be dried in the sun, then boiled with herbs for an hour, dried again and kept in a special press for several weeks until they are flat; in some places they may also be smoked for a couple of days and polished. They are then cut to the required size, from 10 to 20 inches long and one to two inches wide, and one or two round holes are cut into them with a special scribing tool.

Stylus. Click to enlarge.

Holder. Click to enlarge.

Scribing Compass.

Knife. Click to enlarge.

Folded Letter. Click to enlarge.

The writing process

The word "writing" in connection with the South India palm-leaf documents is a misnomer, conveying the wrong idea of the use of pen and ink. These were indeed used in birch bark books and on palm leaves in North India, but the rounded scripts of the south, such as Malayalam, Telugu and Tamil, were scratched into the surface of the leaf with a special steel-tipped stylus. Although there was an almost infinite variety in the detail of the styli, reflecting the status, wealth and taste of the owner, there were in India only two basic designs. The original design was a piece of metal about six inches long, bulbous in the middle where it rested against the hand and tapered to each end, resulting in a perfectly balanced writing instrument. The cheapest were handmade from iron while silver or brass were used for the more elaborate and expensive examples. In Sri Lanka the designs of the styli were so varied that they may have been made to individual order. The later design, which probably appeared in the early twentieth century, incorporated a knife blade which folded into the handle of the stylus; the knife attachment was used for cutting the palm leaves to the required length. Again the cost of this combination "pen-knife" was determined by the materials of which the handle was constructed: bone and wood for the common man, ivory and brass for the wealthy citizen. The cult of individuality went so far as to have the owner's name inlaid in silver on one side of the blade and a handle embellished with gold and rubies. At the other end of the scale, children learning to write could make use of the long thorns from a thorn bush.

Although the stylus may sound like a cumbersome instrument, an experienced writer could write as fast with this tool as a European with a fountain-pen. The stylus was held in the right hand and the palm leaf in the left. As the writing material was not supported by a desk or table the writer did not need to sit but was equally capable of writing while standing or even walking. When the written document was a letter the completed leaf was neatly folded up with the ends turned inwards or wound into a coil, and fastened outside with a strap of the same material. The inscribed text was usually read as it was written, but the legibility could be improved by taking a swab of lemon grass oil and wiping it over the page. The scratched letters absorb the oil and stand out as if written in ink. The writing could also be enhanced by rubbing in charcoal powder. The lemon grass oil cleaned the surface of undesirable accumulations and also helped with the general preservation of the manuscript. In addition to a supply of prepared palm leaves, a complete writing kit consisted of a stylus, a knife and the scribing compass for cutting the holes; the tools were usually kept together in a metal sheath-like holder.

Cochin palm-leaf fiscal document,
front. Click to enlarge.

Front left, showing seal A.
Click to enlarge.

Front right, showing seal B.
Click to enlarge.

Back left, showing signature of
the Dewan. Click to enlarge.

Back right, showing seal C.
Click to enlarge.

Detail of seal C. Click to enlarge.

The palm leaf fiscal documents of Cochin

These were produced in the same way as books and letters but are single unfolded leaves about 20 inches long without holes, written on both sides. They record land grants in the State of Cochin from about 1837, the date of the earliest known examples, until 1896 when they were superseded by paper documents. The greater part of both sides of the document is taken up by the description of the land but there are also the signatures of the grantor of the land and of witnesses and, embossed in romanized script, the signature of the Dewan, the state administrator or first minister. His signature indicates that the conveyancing has been duly executed and registered.

The example illustrated, from the collection of the author, measures just under 21 inches in length (53cm), tapering from 50mm in width to 35mm at the narrow end; the signature is that of T. Govinda Menon who was Dewan of Cochin from 1879 to 1889. Three circular stamps or seals are embossed into the palm-leaf document, two on the front and one on the back. Each bears a circular inscription in Malayalam within which are the emblems of the State arms: palanquin, lamp, umbrella and chank shell. The stamp to the left of the text, about 34mm in diameter [Seal A], is inscribed "Co[chin pu]ttan 2" (part of the inscription beyond the edge of the leaf is missing), indicating the amount of stamp duty in puttans, the local currency during the period of the palm-leaf documents. In this example the value is 2 puttans, but others are known with values from one to 100 puttans. A second embossed stamp [Seal B] near the right end of the document, about 40mm in diameter, is believed to be the official seal of the State Treasury. A third official seal [Seal C], on the reverse side at the end of the text, with a slightly different inscription, has not been identified. In each case the word "Cochin" in Malayalam script immediately follows the star reading clockwise. In Seal B the positions of the lamp and umbrella emblems are reversed. Before 1875 the completed documents were kept in the land registry offices in Ernakulam and Trichur and later in one of the six district offices according to where the land was located. These documents are rare because there was very little private ownership of land in nineteenth-century Cochin.

Black and white illustrations: book and stylus from Personal narrative of a mission to the south of India, by Elijah Hoole (1829); all others from The Land of Charity, a descriptive account of Travancore and its people, by Rev. Samuel Mateer (1871). Colour photography by Joyce Smith from a document in the author's collection.


Cochin cadjan fiscal document
signed on 9-6-1890 with Cochin
seal, signatures and inscription.
Click to enlarge.

Cochin cadjan used in 1885
(21-7-85) with signatures
and inscriptions. Click to enlarge.

Cadjan for land registration.
Carries English date 8-1-1883,
signatures of the official and
parties, and seal of Cochin.
Click to enlarge.

Additional notes on Cochin palm-leaf fiscals
- Ramachandran Vaidyanadhan

The people of Cochin used palm leaf (ola or cadjan) for the purpose of land registration, executing promissory notes, horoscopes, documentation of epics and medical practice. They were introduced by the Kings of Cochin State, whose seat of power was Ernakulam (to be specific it was Tripunithura, which is now a museum). At a later time Trichur also became a residence of Cochin Kings. The administrative reforms first introduced the land registrations in the provinces of Ernakulam and Trichur in the early 1800s. Col Thomas Monro initiated land survey and introduction of property tax in 1821 and the then Dewan (Prime Minister) Nanjappayya speeded up the process.

The early documents were of full length of a palm leaf—about a metre length. According to records the earliest known stamped palm leaf document was of 1837 bearing the facsimile signature of Venkita Subba Rao. The usual type of palm leaf documents used for all transactions were of 20cm in length. The width varies—4 or 5cm. The intermediary type was about 45cm in length. The main distinguishing feature of these documents are single and two holes. The two hole documents are part of larger bundles consisting of epics, family histories and other subjects. The whole bunch of leaves were supported by two wooden planks, also having two holes, through which thick twine will be passed and fastened. The single hole documents are invariably the registration documents, receipts, promissory notes and messages sent by Anchal (post).

The single leaf revenue documents issued as receipt of land registration etc. bear the steel embossed stamp similar to the stamped papers of 1896. They were also noted with English dates and several signatures. The stamp paper (palm) also bears rubber stamps of the government and endorsements to show additional registrations with dates in red or blue ink. The stamp depicts the word Cochin puttan and the centre of the stamp carries the palanquin, lamp and conch.

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