Conserve Indigenous Knowledge
Sri Lanka

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Ola Leaf Writing in Sri Lanka

Ola Leaf WritingPalm leaf manuscripts remained as the dominant writing material throughout South Asian countries dating back to the 5th century BC. to 20 century A.D., Palm leaf manuscripts commonly known as Ola Leaf writing prepared using traditional technological process incorporated with cultural practices, The tender leaves of Palmyra Palm (Borassus flabelliformis) utilizing for thois purpose.

In ancient Sri Lanka Palm leaf manuscript tradition was use to document the traditional knowledge and know how available with the ancient society including Traditional medicine, rituals, religion, culture, indigenous technology, health traditions and so on. Sri Lanka and most of the countries in South Asia equipped with a widely spread manuscript culture, exceeding limits of a mere writing material. These palm leaf manuscripts are invaluable source containing a great deal of indigenous knowledge and wisdom, which were acquired by our ancestors within thousands of years as a result of experiments and experiences.

Large amount of information related to traditional medicine, cultural practices, astrology, agriculture , ancient technology can be found by studding these Palm leaf manuscripts still available in Sri Lanka. At present due to several factors such as humidity, termites, rats, and human activities such as negligence, selling to foreigners as antiques and aesthetic objects these manuscripts are perished very quickly and the Writing on palm leaf manuscripts and associated traditional technological and cultural activities will be completely disappeared in near future.

Due to the above facts Writing on palm leaf manuscripts and associated traditional technological and cultural activities will be completely disappeared in near future. In Sri Lanka most of the indigenous knowledge and suitable practices written in these Palm leaf manuscripts is a valuable resources for the modern development of the nation. In order to safeguard this ancient tradition of palm leaf manuscript writing it is necessary to revitalize this ancient tradition by disseminating the technical know-how of producing such manuscripts and also by redefining its potential uses in the contemporary society.

In the island of Sri Lanka the long-established practices and traditional knowledge of indigenous communities which in the earliest times was preserved through verbal communication.

During the latter part of the 1st Century BC. Buddhist monks passed on the Dhamma – teaching of the Buddha through oral tradition on talipot palm leaves, popularly known as ola leaves, This is the first recorded event where ola leaves had been used for writing. While the native physicians put down their numerous prescriptions and indigenous curing procedures on ola leaves to preserve and protect them from extinction and to be use by generation to generation.

Even today this traditional art of writing is preserved by indigenous astrologers in rural areas of Sri for casting of horoscopes. Numerous charts and astrological signs are also drawn on it along with details of the person concerned.

The talipot (Corypha Umbraculifera Linn) is belong to the Palmy Family growing to a height of around 80 feet with a lifespan of between 60 to 100 years. The leaves for writing are taken from an Opened leaf buds are use for writing.

Ola Leaf WritingThe leaves are cut and leaf segments are then separated and the mid-rib is removed. Then these leaves are rolled up and dipped in water in a copper container and boiled gradually with unripe papaya pulp and pineapple leaves to soften the talipot leaf fibre making it flexible and sun dried for six days and finally left outside for three nights to catch the dew.

These processed ola leaves are stored in the kitchen where the wood smoke adds to the durability of processed leaves. The polishing is done by pulling the strips back and forth on a smooth cylinder of areca nut. This is done until a satin finish is obtained.

The instrument used for writing on the ola leaf is a stylus known as the panhinda. The material used to turn out the stylus varies from brass and copper to silver and gold. Their handles are elaborately carved using traditional motifs and designs. The writing is incised on the leaf with a steel point in the stylus.

In the early days the technique of writing on ola leaves was practised mainly in Buddhist temples. The monks used this method to document vital information which needed to be preserved for posterity. Once the writing was over, the written text was bound to form into a book.

At present, these manuscripts are perished very quickly due to number of environmental factors and human activities. Writing on palm leaf manuscripts and associated traditional technological and cultural activities will be completely disappeared very soon. It can be estimated that approximately 1000,000 palm leaf manuscripts are extant now from millions of manuscripts written at the past. Unfortunately, manuscripts which were venerated in the past are sold to foreigners as antiques and aesthetic objects and become their properties. On the other hand, Palm leaf manuscripts are deteriorated mainly as a result of humidity, activities of termites and rats and negligence. In order to safeguard this ancient tradition of palm leaf manuscript writing it is necessary to revitalize this ancient tradition by disseminating the technical know-how of producing such manuscripts and also by redefining its potential uses in the contemporary society.

Designing a project for dissemination of technical know how of producing palm leaf manuscripts and by doing that inculcating procedures of preserving them and using them for contemporary uses within the national development process, has become a nationally interested issue now.