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Indian Manuscripts

History | 8-13 yrs | Video, Animation

Indian literature dates back to the courts of monarchs over 5000 years ago. Back then literature was not in the form of written texts as we know it today, but in the form of oral poetry, song, and verse. Classical Indian languages were warehouses of ancient wisdom that were stocked by folklore imagination. The literature of ancient India was based in inquiry into questions about life, death and nature. Even mathematics, astronomy, cosmology and science were keenly inspected. The act of passing down knowledge took place in the gurukuls (schools) of the monarchs of Indian antiquity and is known as the oral tradition.


The body of shared knowledge was passed down from generation to generation in an oral tradition that remained unbroken for centuries, nay- millennia. In fact until quite recently literature reached its audience through performance and experience, which is how even people who do not know how to read and write are very informed about their own culture.

In the oral tradition before written language, long texts of histories and ideas were memorised and passed down from mouth to ear. Each text would use a mnemonic system (an auditory learning aid) to help the memoriser remember such a large volume of knowledge. Every generation made their additions to the body of work but no modifications were made to original texts simply because it would mean changing the tune of the song.


Writing played a very important role in the knowledge based societies of ancient times. Documenting became a necessity as civilised life became more complex. Writing was a convenient way of transmitting information and a reliable means of keeping historical records. The representation of language in a textual medium dates at around 4000 BC.

The long texts that were transmitted orally gradually began to be recorded on copper plates, birch, palm leaves, and even paper. The oral tradition continued to be a means of learning the Vedas but has been passed down to us through a large collection of manuscripts.

Sanskrit has no native script because it was spoken in a purely oral society. When it was written the scripts used by regional scribes were used and therefore virtually all major writing systems have been used to create Sanskrit manuscripts. Also, many original Sanskrit texts were translated into many different Indian languages as this tradition of documenting the existing oral tradition was considered essential to propagating knowledge and language.

One of the oldest bodies of text in the world are the Vedas that were created between 1500 – 500 BC. During that time the language of the street was called Vedic. The Vedas are written in Classical Sanskrit, a complex form of Vedic. Around the 4th century a grammarian known as Panini wrote a book called Panniyam, which contained 3,959 linguistic rules. This transformed Classical Sanskrit into what is called Modern Sanskrit.


India is said to have the largest collection of manuscripts in the world scattered all across the country. Indian manuscripts were written in a variety of languages and scripts that have survived till today. These are in the Grantha, Devanagiri, Nandinagiri, and Telegu scripts and multiple languages. The heritage and history of India is well documented in these treasures.

There is a big difference in the way we store information in the digital age and how the people of ancient India did it. A palm leaf was the most common form of paper. The center rib of a palm frond was removed leaving two strips. The strips were pressed flat and trimmed to one size before being smoothed down by sandpaper.

Scribes would use a sharp instrument to actually carve the writing into the surface of the leaf. The nearly invisible text was made visible by covering the leaf with a black pigment like carbon black. After the leaf was cleaned, the residue remained in these scratches and made the writing visible.

The scribes would delicately write on both sides of the strip of palm leaf. These pages were then bound together by a string either at one end of the strip so it could fan out, or read like a book as we do now. The front and back cover of the manuscript would always be a hard material in order for protection. These covers were most often adorned and sometimes even made of precious materials such as ivory.


Recording and documenting history and culture was not restricted to the Indian subcontinent. The ancient Egyptians were using a similar technique on papyrus and the Mesopotamians as well. During the rise of Christianity around 400 AD, manuscripts began to feature small images and colourful decoration that would illustrate the text. A text with miniature paintings along with illustrations that framed the text in a box is known as an illuminated manuscript.

This tradition came to India by 800 AD. Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions of illuminated manuscripts exist in various parts of India. However it became the dominant style of creating manuscripts during the Mughal period. Akbar the great was by far the biggest patron of illuminated manuscripts in India. He had studied painting himself in his youth and had inherited his father’s library. After he moved his capital to Fatehpur Sikri he set up a school dedicated to miniature painting under the tutelage of Persian master artists.

This style soon spread to the surrounding Hindu courts and the Hindu epics of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, smaller fables and fairy tales began to find themselves in this format in all languages and scripts.

The people of the Indian subcontinent have historically been a culture of knowledge. Thousands of texts and illuminated manuscripts have survived to this day. It is proof that whether in the midst of war or prosperity, kings and scholars worked to preserve the culture and histories of their people. So the next time you write a note, imagine who might find it years from now.


  • There are scores of scripts that originated in the Indian subcontinent. Can you find out which ones are still used today? Hint: You might find more than one language that uses the same script.
  • Learn how to write your name in 3 different scripts you don’t already know.
  • Write a report about what you read in the style of an illuminated manuscript. Have a small picture in one corner and place your text around it.