Recently, I've been watching this fantastic mini-series from the BBC and PBS called The Story of India. It's a gorgeously filmed documentary hosted by Michael Wood about "seeking in the present for clues to [India's] past, and in the past for clues to her future". Last night's episode featured a glance into the literary history of India, where Michael spoke about the country's deep traditions:
India's rich literary heritage was passed from generation to generation through the oral tradition, by Brahmin priests who faithfully memorized ancient texts, and inscribed on palm-leaf manuscripts. Growing and crystallizing in oral and then written form, these epics reached their final written form in the fourth or fifth century CE...a period that revived classical texts and inspired a flowering of Sanskrit literature.
These manuscripts were made by etching letters or drawings into the dried leaf with a stylus and later applying a mixture of lamp oil and soot to enhance the contrast of the text. In The Story of India, this took place painstakingly over many hours, until finally the ink was blotted away with some wool to reveal the intricate details of the work.
At a glance, these Palm Leaf tablets reminded me of the bones of a fan, without the cloth to bind the pieces together. The delicate patterns traced in the characters look poetic, contrasting neatly against the stiff palate they're embedded in. It's intriguing for an oral tradition to take on such a precise, tangible form, after existing for generations outside any physical borders.