By Bharath

Any other year, a visit to St. Joseph’s college, Irinjalakkuda, Kerala on a Monday afternoon would’ve guaranteed the typical hustle and bustle and a range of voices cutting through the air. But being the “pandemic year”, 2020 has been different. The stillness of the afternoon has engulfed the college. 

The only contradiction seems to be a rather engaged laboratory and just a handful of students and teachers walking through the hallway. “University lab exams are happening this whole week. And then the college gets ‘officially’ closed,” explains Litty Chako, the Head of the Department of the Malayalam department, as she makes her way towards the manuscript preservation lab. 

Chako has been teaching at the college for nearly 20 years now and has been the HoD for over 17 of those. She’s also a part of the National Cadet Corps (NCC) wing of the Indian Army as a commissioned officer in the rank of Lieutenant since 2006.  

She has done extensive research on topics related to history, culture and languages and it was her passion and curiosity on these subjects that set a chain of events in motion, bringing her eventually to a place like this, surrounded by manuscripts.  

How it Started……

Chako takes a trip down memory lane and stops in 2012. While visiting a church in Chalakudy, supposedly established in around 600 A.D, she found a bunch of old palm-leaf manuscripts in a storage space – decaying and nearly ruined, with age and neglect. She sought the permission of the church authorities to take them along with her to study further. 

“Although I had been involved in a project on inscriptions a year or so before, I hardly knew anything about manuscript preservation at that stage,” Chako says. “I was just curious to know what was in them.” 

Moreover, people tend to think ancient manuscripts might reveal a treasure or something of the sorts, so that made it easier for her to take them along for further research, she adds with a chuckle. 

She brought the manuscripts to the college and kept them in the NCC room – the only place she could work freely in. Along with some of the students, initial dusting and cleaning were performed on them. Chako knew from her (limited) research in the last couple of years that lemongrass oil was used principally for the chemical treatment of manuscripts. Yet, she wasn’t sure how to exactly go about that.  

She contacted a Father (Priest) at the Ernakulam Diocese whom she knew had a fairly good idea about manuscripts and their maintenance. He gave her tips on the methods to be used, but also warned about the high costs she was likely to incur going forward. 

And thus Chako, along with some of her students, brushed and cleaned those manuscripts – nearly 6,000 of them including old official documents of the church – using lemongrass oil. But she couldn’t digitise them due to the absence of a good DSLR camera. 

How it Evolved……

For the next few years, Chako pursued her interest in manuscripts and kept trying to get funding for their chemical treatment-preservation work, especially to acquire a camera for digitisation. 

In 2018, she came to know from one of her colleagues in another department, about a B. Voc (Bachelor of Vocational Education) course they were applying for. As there was scope to include one more from their college, Chako added “Manuscript Preservation” to the BA Malayalam course structure and submitted a proposal.

While she had only focused on palm-leaf preservation until then, her research had helped gain knowledge on methods used in paper manuscript preservation too – like the use of Japanese tissue paper. 

Her visits to many old traditional homes (Mana or Tharavadu) in and around Thrissur district had helped Chako significantly in learning preservation techniques for palm-leaf manuscripts. She noticed that they also used lemongrass oil traditionally for preserving the documents and learnt of some other practices like wrapping the manuscripts with certain type of clothes to keep insects away. 

“I attended an online class conducted by Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur in which I observed the technique of adding a mixture of some herbs along with the manuscripts to prevent termite-infestation. There is an array of such nuanced methods.”  

The B. Voc course was approved in the same year with the first batch also enrolled soon after. The course, titled as ‘B. Voc in Malayalam and Manuscript Management’, also has the distinction of being an inter-disciplinary course, Chako says. The core academic team consists of Chako herself, Dr. Sharrel Rebello from the Microbiology and Forensic Science department and Dr. E.M. Aneesh from the Zoology department. Sreedev, a research scholar, assists them with the photography requirements and the team also has Dr. N.R. Mangalambal from the Mathematics Department. Besides them, Abimol Jose, who was appointed as part of the UGC funding scheme, has been assisting in the lab work.

One of the key figures to have shown a keen interest in their research and efforts on manuscript preservation, while also playing an advisory role for them, is the writer and historian Manu S. Pillai. 

Chako with lab technician, Elsa Devassy

When the Going Got Tough – Kerala Floods

The year 2018 also proved to be a major turning point for Chako and her team due to an unforgettable, yet devastating event – the Kerala floods. The catastrophic floods that year took thousands of lives and wreaked immense havoc and irreversible damage across the state. One of the aftermaths of the disaster was the loss of lakhs of paper documents and certificates, many of them irreplaceable. 

“I salvaged my important documents and certificates despite the lower part of my house getting flooded, but not everyone was as lucky,” Chako recalls. 

By this time, they had a fair understanding of chemical treatment and preservation techniques used for paper manuscripts through online videos, courses and conversations with experts in the field. Yet, they still didn’t have the hands-on experience to confidently start performing the process in their lab. 

“That year, I tried and tested some of the methods on my books and documents that were dampened and ruined in the floods.”  2019 came around, and Kerala was hit with floods again. And this time, Chako says, they were better equipped than before! “We had a decent sum released from the UGC by then and a lab with the required apparatus set up as well,” she adds.

With everyone’s encouragement and backing, Chako and her team spread a WhatsApp message that the manuscript preservation team at St. Joseph’s will be accepting academic certificates ruined during the floods, and work on restoring them. The message spread like wildfire. Although the vocational course had their second batch of students by then, she was still apprehensive about how effective the treatment on paper documents would be. 

Chako’s uncertainty was misplaced though. While they were bombarded with requests from people to work on ruined certificates, their staff and students lived up to the expectations. They also received great support from the other departments in the college, who shared the heavy workload. 

“Almost 80,000 certificates were chemically treated by us and returned by the end of it. We did it without taking any money, completely relying on the UGC funds allotted for the course,” she says proudly. “Of course, it was impossible to completely reverse the damage done to those documents. Our objective was to salvage them as much as possible and to digitise them in a manner for all practical purposes,” she adds. 

The team visited schools and other places to teach the chemical treatment steps to them as well. The college even started getting requests from government offices during this time, with numerous newspapers covering their service and achievement.  The uniqueness of a course, a department or an institution doing such systematic chemical treatment and preservation of manuscripts, that too in a service-oriented manner, came into recognition and earned them much appreciation since this event, Chako says.

Search for Sangama Grama Madhavan’s Legacy

In the year 2005, Chako recalls, during an international seminar held by the Mathematics department of St. Joseph’s college, an attending academician from England came to them with an inquiry. He wanted to visit the birthplace and the ancestral home of the renowned medieval-period mathematician and astronomer Sangamagrama Madhavan (AD 1340 – 1425). He knew that the place was located at Irinjalakkuda, Thrissur itself, but didn’t have any more information. 

But they couldn’t help him out as very little was known to them about Madhavan at that point of time. “It was embarrassing indeed because Madhavan was/is considered to be the founder of the Kerala school of astronomy and mathematics,” Chako says. “Our ignorance and neglect of such regional historical figures have become so normalised too sadly.”

A recreated image of Madhavan

But in 2016, when he revisited Kerala and contacted them again for the same purpose, Chako and her colleagues were better equipped to help him out in his request. They got in touch with Madhavan’s descendants and arranged for a visit to his Tharavadu.   

Chako has faced a lot of roadblocks and rejections over the years in her tireless pursuit of finding valuable manuscripts, and it wasn’t any different in this case either. “The first time we visited Madhavan’s ancestral home in Kallettumkara, Aloor Panchayat, Irinjalakkuda in 2016, we were met with doubt and felt unwelcomed by the folks there,” she recalls. It took a word of recommendation from a local councillor for them to have a more elaborate visit. 

Being the history enthusiast she was, Chako’s curiosity was piqued and she dug deeper into the life and work of Madhavan. She learnt that he was known to have compiled eight important works in all, of which only one – Venvaroham (Computation of the True Moon) – has been published and is available right now.

Recently, Chako, Dr. Mangalambal and Dr. Aneesh, who have been collaborating since 2016-2017 on the project, Interdisciplinary project on Sangama Grama Madhava and His contributions, managed to procure unpublished manuscripts of Lagnaprakaranam, another one of Madhavan’s notable works. 

“Once I’m done with their cleaning and digitisation, I could spend more time reading through the texts and trying to decipher them. It’s not going to be easy though,” she says.

When you foray into a field like manuscript research and preservation, the challenges come in all forms and sizes, Chako muses. And because studying antiques is closely associated with exploring our history and culture, there is a tendency for some to religionise and regionalise the customs, people and places, and gravely misinterpret their research and work. 

“I have had my credentials questioned, especially during my research on Madhavan, because of my identity.” 

Ironically, someone who had questioned her at first about the “hijacking of Hindu manuscripts”, came around later and helped her get in touch with the Prof. K.V. Sharma Research Foundation in Adyar, Chennai. This has proved quite instrumental in their project on Madhavan as she obtained a copy of Venvaroham in its published format from there. 

As with most ancient manuscripts they’ve come across, decoding Lagnaprakaranam has proven to be demanding too, Chako says, particularly due to the challenge of working out the script used. “There are eight chapters in all, but without completing any of them completely, or all of them even, this can’t be published.”

One of Madhavan’s works she had previously inspected at the lab, fortunately, contained the author’s information in its 13th Shloka, Chako recalls. In Lagnaprakaranam, there was no such “page” that came to their aid, yet they managed to do so by identifying certain patterns, terms and symbols that they could connect to Madhavan’s works.

 “For one, it used Mangala Shlokam writingstyle which was typical of his works. But more importantly, while going through the text I found written in one chapter, ’Lagnaprakarane Sapthamodyayam’, meaning – ‘The Seventh chapter in Lagnaprakaranam’.” 


There has been a more modern school of thought that some of the popular theories in the fields of astronomy and mathematics, supposed to have come from the West, were quite possibly first formulated by Madhavan, Chako notes. Venvaroham was said to be written with several corrections by Madhavan on certain theories in Aryabhata’s Arybhatiyam, the fifth century Magnum Opus on astronomy and one of the most authoritative ancient texts on the subject. 

But the lack of evidence – the unavailability of most of his original works’ manuscripts – doesn’t help to establish how significant his contribution was in these fields, Chako says. It’s worth noting though, she adds, that many scientific scholars in the centuries after Madhavan’s time, attributed several theorems to his name in their works. 

Several scientific theories said to have been proposed by Madhavan first, but not credited to him in any form, have been renamed in present times to acknowledge his contribution. Madhava – Gregory series, Madhava – Leibniz series and Madhava – Newton series are a few of them.  “It’s hard enough to know where to place the two manuscripts we have, in a timeline of his works,” Chako says. The only way to bring attention convincingly to a figure like Madhavan would be to seek out more manuscripts containing his work, according to her.

More about manuscripts, preservation and treatment process in Chapter 2….

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By Bharath