Until about a century ago, the palm leaf manuscript was the standard type of book in the state of Orissa in eastern India. These manuscripts consisted of a series of leaves that were strung together and on which was written a text.
The palm leaves would first be prepared, cut into long rectangular strips. Next, scribes would engrave the text in Sanskrit (the classical language of India) or Oriya (the vernacular language of Orissa) into the stiff leaf using an etching tool. After etching, lampblack would be spread over the surface and then wiped away, leaving the etched areas-the text-colored black.
If the text was intended to be illustrated, the scribe would leave spaces for the pictures which would be subsequently etched in by an artist. After the lampblack was applied, a line drawing would result. Occasionally, additional color would be painted onto the surface of the leaf, enlivening the picture. When all the leaves were prepared, a hole or holes were cut in the leaves and they were strung together. A wooden cover, often painted, was added to protect the leaves, producing the finished manuscript. Commonly illustrated texts of this type included local variants of the Hindu religious epics.
In the twentieth century, palm leaf manuscripts were no longer used for books. However, pictures continued to be etched into palm leaves, to be sold to pilgrims or collectors or tourists. The format of the finished object changed from a series of folios strung together such that they could be turned page by page, to a series of leaves sewn together to form a vertically oriented rectangle on which the etched picture appears. Ink came to at least partially replace lampblack but the resultant picture was produced in the same way: first etching, then smearing with ink, then wiping away ink to reveal the line drawing.
The themes of the drawings continue to be predominantly religious, although erotic themes can also be easily found. A majority of the religious themes relate to the Vaishnava religion. Typical images are Krishna embracing his sweetheart Radha; Krishna and his brother Balarama; and scenes from the Ramayana, the epic which recounts the deeds of the god Rama. Non-Vaishnava religious images include depictions of Sarasvati, goddess of wisdom. Palm leaf etchings are most common in areas near Vaishnava pilgrimage sites, such as the famous Jagannath temple in Puri.
For More Information
Das, J.P. and Joanna Williams. (1991). Palm-Leaf Miniatures: The Art of Raghunath Prusti of Orissa. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.
Patnaik, Durga Prashad. (1989). Palm-Leaf Etchings of Orissa. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.
Williams, Joanna. (1996). The Two-Headed Deer: Illustrations of the Ramayana in Orissa. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Copyright © 2001 Kalarte Gallery and Bernard Cesarone
View pictures of palm leaf etchings.