Restoring a 700-Year-Old Sacred Hindu Text

While a lot Indian history was written in stone, copper plates and tree barks, the most popular medium for writing was the Palm Leaf. Words were written on to the dried leaves of palm with a stylus without splitting the leaf. Once the etching of the leaf was done, a black pigment of lampblack or turmeric was applied to enhance contrast. Being organic in nature, the palm leaf is susceptible to disintegration, especially in the humid conditions of India. The practice followed, in such circumstances was to copy the entire manuscript on to freshly treated palm leafs and destroy the old ones.

Recently scientists used Multispectral Imaging to read what is called the Archimedes Palimpsest. A medieval parchment containing 174 folios, with seven treatises by Archimedes, the book was completed by April 1229 in Constantinople. In Multispectral imaging, numerous photos of an area are taken using different wavelengths of light resulting in a digital stack of images. Various algorithms are then used to enhance particular characteristics of the imaged area, such as finding the text which was over written.

Now the scientists who worked on the Archimedes Palimpsest are using those imaging techniques to digitally restore the 700 year old Sarvamoola granthas attributed to scholar Shri Madvacharya (1238-1317). This collection of 36 works contains commentaries of Hindu scriptures and also conveys Madhavacharya’s Dvaitha Philosophy.

Madhvacharya who taught in the 13th century broke with the Upanisadic doctrine of unity of God and human soul and taught Dvaitha or dualism. He explained as figurative all passages of scripture which maintained monism and declared that Vishnu, individual souls and matter were completely distinct. Vishnu has full power over both souls and matter and saves the souls which live pure and moral lives. The Wind-God Vayu is Vishnu’s agent in the world and according to Madhva, evil souls are predestined to eternal damnation[13]

The document is difficult to handle and to read, the result of centuries of inappropriate storage techniques, botched preservation efforts and degradation due to improper handling. Each leaf of the manuscript measures 26 inches long and two inches wide, and is bound together with braided cord threaded through two holes. Heavy wooden covers sandwich the 340 palm leaves, cracked and chipped at the edges. Time and a misguided application of oil have aged the palm leaves dark brown, obscuring the Sanskrit writings.

Mukund first became involved with the project when his spiritual teacher in India brought the problem to his attention and urged him to find a solution. This became a personal goal for Mukund, who studies and teaches Hindu philosophy or “our way of life” and understood the importance of preserving the document for future scholars. The accuracy of existing printed copies of the Sarvamoola granthas is unknown

The scientists traveled to India in December 2005 to assess the document stored at a monastery-like mathas in Udupi, India. Sponsored by a grant from RIT, the team returned to the monastery in June and spent six days imaging the document using a scientific digital camera and an infrared filter to enhance the contrast between the ink and the palm leaf. Images of each palm leaf, back and front, were captured in eight to 10 sections, processed and digitally stitched together. The scientists ran the 7,900 total images through various image-processing algorithms using Adobe Photoshop and Knox’s own custom software.[Imaging Technology Restores 700-Year-Old Sacred Hindu Text via e-mail from Srijith]

Here is the picture of the original text and of the restored image.

6 thoughts on “Restoring a 700-Year-Old Sacred Hindu Text

  1. But the script certainly seems closer to malayALam than any other south Indian script currently used – atleast words like “jnAnaM” and “kathanArthaM” and something like “kadAcit” seem to be there

  2. Thanks for correcting me, JK. How very interesting – until now my understanding was that Tulu didn’t have a written script!
    I found some more info from this site: where the author says that both Tulu and Malayalam are derived from Grantha script. There are also samples of Tulu script here.
    From that link, there is direct evidence of Madhavacharya writing in Tulu.
    I quote:
    “Madhvacharya’s eight matts established in Udupi in the 13th century were centers of Tulu literature during his lifetime and thereafter. However, very little of this has survived. So it is not inconceivable (as it is claimed) that Madhvacharya himself did all his writings in the Tulu script. Other inscriptions discovered are Sanskrit mantras transliterated in Tulu script. It appears as though the Brahmins used the script mainly for this purpose.”

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