When I lived in St. Augustine, FL, I regularly attended the monthly antique dealer meetings, partly because I enjoyed the people and the food and partly because I enjoyed the Show and Tell portion of the meeting. Each dealer was encouraged to bring something from his/her antique shop that would be of interest to the other dealers, and we would try to guess what it was. This was my first encounter of a Palm Leaf Book, brought by another book dealer.
A bit later I wanted to learn more about the books and asked members of the Bibliophilegroup.com mailing list to tell me more about them only to find that most of them didn’t know much about them either but they suggested that I search the web – so most of what I’m telling you today about the books today can be found by doing a Google search. The following is a summary of what I learned – there are also a number of photos available on line.http://www.arcavigraha.com/lontar.htm and http://www.swu.ac.th/hu/lib-sci/ifla99/books.html
In brief: palm leaf books are manuscripts printed on palm leaves and have been a part of the culture in India, Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia. The leaves, after being flattened and polished smooth with sand (or boiled in water or milk to make them strong depending on the type of tree used), are strung on cords, bound in boards and often ornamented with gold or ivory. The size varies with leaf strips ranging from approximately 16-36 inches long and 1 ½ – 3 inches in width. The leaves are inscribed with a stylus and then filled with ink made from charcoal and oil so the words are visible.
There are a few variations as to the exact leaf used (including lai-lan tree leaf, lontar palm leaves, talipot palm, palmyra tree) and some variance as to the source of the ink but the look of the items were as similar as our books are similar. Even after paper began to be used, the format remained the same! The manuscripts can last for 600 years and have been made since Roman times. Thousands of the books are now in monasteries and museums.
Of course, some of the books are illustrated, some are for children, some are religious in content, some recorded the law, and some were literature. Isn’t it amazing that the desire to record our thoughts and messages has been consistent through the ages? Our connections to other cultures can be read on cave walls and palm leaves. There are currently 2 listed F/S on abebooks.com – $700 and $125.
I’ll bet that there were good writers and illustrators then as well as those who weren’t so talented! I wonder if it was all that hard to get published? Were there some poor ‘wanna be’ writers walking around Bali trying to find someone to sell him some boiled talipot palm to record his story? Did the preparers of the special leaves control the market? I would have thought that the religious groups would have done the most of the work but I don’t really know. We only know about what has survived over the ages and that isn’t necessarily all that was popular at the time!
You may also be interested to know that craft (or art) people have web sites with directions for making palm leaf type books:http://members.aol.com/leefamily6874503/palmbook.html
Sources: CoOL (Conservation on Line), Arca Vigraha.com and Kathy Stice at Preservation Fact Sheet, Washington.edu. and miscellaneous others.
Respectfully submitted by
Note: Two photo examples shown are from: http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/Paper-exhibit/palmleaf.html (Cornell University) http://faculty.luther.edu/~martinka/art43/daily/2nd/day11.html (Luther College, Iowa)