Palm leaf manuscripts at the Clark?

Published: December 7, 2012

If you thought it was surprising that the Clark owned two first editions of Mao’s Little Red Book, you will perhaps also be surprised to learn that our diverse collections also contain two palm leaf manuscripts from Southeast Asia, one containing volume III of the Mahabharata and the other containing perhaps another religious text.

Our Mahabharata palm leaf book

Palm leaf books are, quite literally, manuscript books written on the dried and prepared leaves of palm trees, a common practice in parts of Southeast Asia before the widespread use of the printing press.  Because of the somewhat delicate nature of the leaves themselves, these books were often recopied by hand onto fresh leaves as the original copy began to deteriorate, which provided a way to insure the transmission of the important material they contained.

Our Mahabharata palm leaf book, from the collection of Ward Ritchie

Our Mahabharata manuscript came to us from Ward Ritchie, the Los Angeles printer and book lover whose personal library and papers were donated to the Clark upon his death in 1996.  This volumes is relatively large (about 15 inches long and several inches wide) and is also in pretty good shape, with only some minor chipping to the edges of the leaves.

The second of our palm leaf books

The second palm leaf book in our collection is quite a bit smaller (15 inches long, but only a couple of inches wide) and is in less stellar shape.  We don’t know what text it contains, nor do we know how we came to own it!  It seems as though it has probably been at the Clark since at least the 1950s.

Because the Clark’s librarians have limited experience with non-Roman alphabets, we don’t even know for sure what languages these books are written in, though a label included with the second smaller book indicates that it is perhaps Telugu.

If you or someone you know can help us out with determining more about these books, we would be eternally grateful!


Graham Shaw on

Your first palm-leaf manuscript is in Oriya, the language of the Eastern Indian state of Orissa. The first picture is upside down by the way! Can’t tell from that what the text may be – so can’t confirm Mahabharata attribution – do you have a picture of a whole leaf’s text – preferably 1st leaf or final (for colophon)?

Graham Shaw (former Karmiole lecturer)

Becky on

Thank so you much, Graham! We have rotated the first image so that it is oriented correctly now… We don’t have a picture of an entire leaf available right now, but we will take some new photos and post them soon!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

twenty + 13 =