Sānchi Puthi - The Assamese Manuscripts

In Assam the word 'manuscript' is almost inextricably bound up with Sankaradeva and his Neo Vaisnavite Movement. The manuscripts were the vehicle for the transmission of the tenets and ideals of this religio - cultural Movement and it was primarily due to Sankaradeva and his successors that the manuscripts of this land could attain the status of such an vibrant, effective and prestigious media. The Master himself wrote all his compositions like Ghoshas, Padas, Borgeets, Nats and Bhatimas on these manuscripts and this in itself makes them sacred and objects worthy of veneration.

'sanchi puthi' or sanchi book

The Assamese manuscripts are made out of various materials such as:

Besides, tender bamboo slice, leaves of grass similar to māduri grass (scripus tegaths), bhuja leaf, bamboo pieces etc were also used, but sānchipāt and tulāpāt were largely used. It is stated in the Kathā Guru Carita that Sankaradeva used tulāpāt while painting for his play Cihna Yātrā.

Because the primary media is sanchi bark, the manuscripts have come to be known as 'sanchi puthi', or 'sanchi book'. Tulapat, having ginned cotton as the chief component, is used for inferior documents, manuscripts, for letters, for private correspondence, etc. They are long lasting, however. The process of preparation of the sanchi writing material, is a long and involved one, and the following stages form part of it:

  1. curing
  2. seasoning
  3. polishing the raw slices

These aspects are covered in details by Edward Gait in his History of Assam.

Thicker leaves are used for covers. Wooden pieces are also used. There were always some spare leaves or pages to record changes of ownership, or other important events in the life of the owner or his family. These additional leaves were known as 'beti-pat' or 'betu-pat', or attendant leaves. The whole manuscript was wrapped up again in a piece of cloth, or enclosed in a wooden box. These boxes were again colored and painted with appropriate pictures.

The Materials Used in Writing

The writing materials included:

About The Ink

Black ink used for writing and painting was of a very fast color, and was as deep as Chinese black. Chief characteristic of the ink is its tenacity to slippery and glossy surfaces. It is also water proof and does not easily fade, even after long exposure. This ink was made of very peculiar ingredients, the formula of which is known to men of older school. The main ingredient of this ink is silikhā (terminalia citrina).

A few fruits of this variety along with ashes of the cooking pot, ashes of Barā-rice, cow-urine, mango-bark, etc are boiled in a big cauldron. The boiled liquid is then kept in a clay-pot, exposed to dew for a few nights with a non-porous basin below it. The water which turns black by this time percolates through the earthen bowl and drops into the non-porous basin as very fine and deep black ink. Some people add iron or iron sulphate to it while others put in other ingredients.

Problems of Preservation

Assam had innumerable manuscripts but the vagaries of nature (tropical climate, natural calamities), ignorance of the people, attacks by pests and rodents, theft and also foreign invasions (eg the Burmese invasion) had a pernicious effect on them.

Manuscripts are open to threat chiefly by dust, light and mites. In the past, manuscripts were kept in wooden boxes placed over the fire-side or in wooden/bamboo ceilings, believing that fire, smoke and heat kept them unaffected by ants and mites.

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