By Bharath

Continued from Preserving the Past – Chapter 1

Understanding the Ancient Scripts

The Malayalam scholar in Chako gained something much more valuable than just the art of preservation through her extensive work on manuscripts over the years – insight into the evolution of the language and its scripts. “Besides, to understand these scripts more, it’s essential to study the manuscripts that were written before the technology of printing was introduced in the land.”

In comparison to many other ancient scripts across the country, these Malayalam scripts still don’t have any form of a structured and documented guide that can be used for decoding texts, Chako observes. Vattezhuthu more or less had become redundant with the advent of Kolezhuthu, the former’s metamorphosed form, and other scripts. 

Her academic duties, including the additional responsibility of being HOD, makes it practically impossible for Chako to study thoroughly each manuscript that comes to their lab for treatment and preservation. Yet, certain texts pique her curiosity from time to time (the research on Madhavan being the foremost) and she does spend a fair deal of time on them. 

While several stone inscriptions in Vattezhuthu script have been discovered, texts written entirely using the same are incredibly rare to find, Chako says. Most of the older manuscripts they receive are written in Kolezhuthu script. The writing, or inscription rather, was done using a metal “pen” called Narayam. These texts didn’t have full stops to indicate the end of a sentence and. the sentences were ruled by the rhythmic patterns that were part of the language back then, written as a mixture of poem and prose. The Malayalam linguist in Chako may very well have an edge over a historian or even someone who specialises in Manuscriptology hence. 

Chako also noticed the use of a cross sign to indicate corrections in the text, a recurring pattern in several manuscripts. These are important pointers that could help form a rulebook for the ancient scripts, that are so unexplored and under-deciphered. 

“We also received some manuscripts here which had records of crimes and their respective punishments back in those times, something that quite fascinated me,” Chako recalls. A text she was going through once, explained the customs of marriage and living together in a particular era. “Makes you wonder how the society back then perceived certain things differently than what our assumptions might suggest,” she adds.

The epigraphist and historian M.R. Raghava Warrier and Dr. N. Sam, a scholar and renowned researcher in Manuscriptology, were a couple of those who had guided them in the learning process during the early stages, Chako says. 

But she feels that the pool of scholars is shrinking with each generation, and whatever efforts and interest they could put in on the subject, have to be done in this day and age.

Physicality of the Manuscripts

“Compared to paper manuscripts, the palm-leaf texts which are usually older by many centuries, appear less faded out,” says Chako. “There isn’t the risk of ink getting spread like on paper also. But, on the downside, the leaves become brittle over time and most of the manuscripts become susceptible to crumble and may get damaged.” 

The use of lemongrass oil is an old and common method but inarguably one of the most effective techniques, according to her. The disinfectant property of the essential oil helps kill the microorganisms present in the manuscripts, most of which reach their lab ’soiled’ and untreated. Before the use of paper became a prevalent practice in the 19th century, palm leaf was the traditional material used almost everywhere for writing. 

Many of the palm-leaf manuscripts were arranged with two wooden frames on either side, appearing like a book cover. The leaves or “pages” in such a manuscript were held together by threads running through holes made in each of the leaves. 

One of the first details to catch Chako’s eye during her foray into studying manuscripts was, how the principal information like, what a particular text was about, who authored it and when, were etched on the first leaflet (and in some cases, the last) of a text. In some manuscripts, the wooden frames, which were usually carved after a text was written, had inscriptions containing those details. 

A sort of signature, with a seal, was often found on these manuscripts, Chako says. Similarly, one side of the leaflets had “page numbers” inscribed on them, she notes, raising the point of how interesting the number system in Vattezhuthu was, which continued to be in use in later scripts.  

“Since the edges of a leaflet were the likeliest to get damaged first, that made the job of identifying the sequence and rearranging the leaflets more difficult.” 

Chako has also noticed that the leaflet with those specifics had more chances to get lost or ruined over time, which was why they often couldn’t determine even the basic details without deciphering a particular text. Having those details intact becomes even more important as the scientific way of determining the “age” of a manuscript – through DNA barcoding – is complex and quite expensive. Using that technique on every manuscript they receive is out of the question, she says. 

“This one has Chatur Grantham inscribed on it, which indicates that it is a collection of four texts,” Chako explains, showing one of the palm-leaf manuscripts on the table. “The visibility of the text on the palm leaves before and after the treatment process is pretty remarkable.” 

Preservation & Treatment Process

The first task as they get a manuscript at the lab is to untie the threads and work on each page separately, on both sides, Chako says. For one, the leaflets have dust, termites, fungus and other microorganisms that can only be cleaned gingerly, taking one at a time. And more often than not, the pages are never in the right sequence and have to be sorted out. 

“Ideally, they should be. But at some point, during the lifetime of a manuscript, someone who possessed it might have rearranged and shuffled the pages carelessly,” she adds. 

The leaflets are first thoroughly brushed and cleaned off the dust, insects and other particles on them. And then, each leaflet is given a smooth coating of the lemongrass oil solvent and set aside to dry. 

While this seems to be a simple two-step procedure theoretically, the effort and the time that goes into this is quite considerable. Adding a pinch of activated charcoal (Umikkari) to the lemongrass oil is a simple, yet effective, hack they sometimes use if the text still appears vague after performing the usual steps. 

“Before the idea of starting a course came about, and the lab, the equipment and the staff were assembled, I used to do this for hours on end, staying back in the NCC room, along with a few who would help me out,” Chako recalls. 

The treatment process for a palm-leaf manuscript is less tedious than for a paper manuscript. With paper, there are risks of them getting torn or becoming damp and the ink getting spread. The texts that used squid ink in the olden times faced lesser issues of ink-spread, she explains. 

Restoring hundreds and thousands of certificates and documents in 2018-2019 gave them a lot of insight into the preservation of paper manuscripts, Chako says. The lab is well-equipped right now for the same, and paper documents are waiting to be worked on currently as well. Techniques like “ink fixing” have been touched upon by them a few times, albeit not in an elaborate manner. 

But for Chako and her team, including the students, the work doesn’t just start and end at the lab either. They have been in touch with several places involved in similar work, like the Oriental Research Institute at Mysore, which despite having a huge manuscript preservation library hasn’t forayed into learning the different preservation methods. She plans on conducting visits consistently basis in future, to expose the students to a wide range of manuscripts, learn newer preservation techniques and also impart their knowledge. 

Pushing on Amidst Challenges

While the search for manuscripts hasn’t been a walk in the park over the years, their persuasiveness and genuine enthusiasm have paid off too, Chako says. Although they weren’t able to find any of Madhavan’s original works from his ancestral house, they found more than 25 other ancient manuscripts of valuable content there and several from a place called Kunnathoor Padinjaredathu Mana.

Since the time she started seeking out manuscripts both for her research and for the course, Chako came to realise how complex and taxing the act of long-term preservation can be. 

“It isn’t as simple as merely storing them away in an air-conditioned room, like many assume. The preservation process has to be consistent and uniform. Many of the manuscripts we treat and return, wouldn’t even be in the same condition a couple of years later.”

This is why digitisation has become so much more important now, Chako reckons. Embalming and locking away a small manuscript with just a handful of palm-leaflets for preservation may not be a big deal, but, “It becomes practically impossible to perform these steps for several hundred manuscripts regularly, considering the limited space and facilities we have.”

Another challenge is the lack of archaeological interest and awareness, Chako feels. She recalls an incident from several years ago when she came to know of the renovation work to be carried out in a church nearby. Knowing the importance of the antique wall paintings there, Chako got in touch with the authorities, who paid no heed to her suggestion of working around the art to preserve it. 

From the research or linguistic point of view, the major obstacle they face is when it comes to decoding or decrypting the text. Contrary to what many may think, there isn’t a great deal of funding for research and resurgence of regional languages and ancient scripts, she says. 

“I submitted a project proposal to the Endangered Archives Program (EAP) of the British Library for manuscript preservation. The response on that has been delayed due to the challenges posed by the Covid pandemic, but I’m hoping for positive news soon,” Chako adds. 

If it does get through, then it would also provide the library with the license to publish the content of the manuscripts on their website. She does wonder whether this could ruffle some feathers here though. After all, she feels that political influence and interferences are the major roadblocks faced in fields like history, archaeology and the study of manuscripts in our country.

For a country that has such a rich cultural history, and is seemingly driven by a desire to explore the past, there is a grave dearth of preservation centres as a whole, Chako notes. There are places like The National Mission for Manuscripts, Delhi, which focusses on the collection and conservation of manuscripts. In Kerala, the Oriental Research Institute and Manuscript Library under Kerala University at Kariavattom, Thiruvananthapuram and the Calicut University Manuscript Library at Thenhipalam, Malappuram are two of the main ones. Nevertheless, such centres are still few and lack the support they truly deserve, especially on a regional level, says Chako. 

The Past, the Present & the Future

The significance of the work done at their lab may not be so apparent to everyone, Chako thinks, unless one delves into the details. The manuscripts they receive at the lab are chemically treated, “repaired and recovered”, digitised for future reference and returned to their original owners. It’s this angle of service they offer that distinguishes them from similar centres more than the nature of the course or research technicalities. 

There are several interesting requests they have received over the years. One such notable request, Chako muses, was from someone who read a newspaper report on their work, rang them up and said he wanted to preserve a paper which had Mahatma Gandhi’s autograph on it, gifted to his grandfather way back. However, he never visited their lab citing some inconvenience and she couldn’t get to see the “antique item”. 

Since their early phase, and especially since their reputation grew after the efforts during the floods, they have received several official requests to chemically treat and recover important documents, Chako says. Recently, they took up the task of treating several property documents from a bank, a work they were paid for too.

But unlike such institutions that can afford to pay, they don’t demand payment for preservation done for smaller places and personal collections, she makes it clear.

“And that’s why it’s important to get such paid work. To keep our course – the lab and the research – running efficiently even after our UGC grant runs out, we need to look ahead.”

While their main focus has always been the research and preservation work on manuscripts, there have been other innovative ideas that have sprung up alongside. Like, their latest lab research on developing a possible chemical compound, which can make the process of chemical treatment and fumigation easier, and singular. The technicians have isolated and cultured the microorganisms from the manuscripts, and with the help of the Microbiology department, have been working on it. Such a compound, if developed, can revolutionise the concept of manuscript preservation in libraries and archive centres, Chako adds excitedly. 

Also, they have contacted people like Namita Jaspal – an expert in photography preservation – to teach them more nuanced techniques in film and photograph preservation, due to multiple requests they’ve had from people regarding that. 

While the idea of catching hold of ancient manuscripts and reading through them sounds exciting enough, it’s an extremely strenuous and time-consuming process, Chako says, adding that due to the unexplored aspects of the old scripts, it becomes an almost impossible task too at times. 

“And hence I stress the point, deeper research into understanding the scripts and devising online fonts for the same seems the only way in the long run. Until then, we’ll have to keep on preserving and digitising the manuscripts we get, hoping to crack them in future.”

By Bharath