'Kashmir source for birch-bark used in Indus writing'

'Kashmir source for birch-bark used in Indus writing'

A recent sensational discovery of a bark manuscript has turned the spotlight on Kashmir being a major source of ancient Indian Manuscripts.

‘Birch bark’, the thin peeling bark of a slender tree associated with Kashmir, has been the chief medium for early Indus writing and a major contributor to the flourishing of the country’s intellectual traditions, according to research by a German scholar.

Lucy Zuber Buehler, a noted scholar on the Indus script, has been researching on Indo scripts and had recently discovered a bark manuscript containing the most common Indus valley signs, which has rekindled interest in the subject.

The discovery of this artefact – “consisting of a strip of what would appear to be several thin layers of bark with well-known Indus signs present on the bark manuscript is by itself of great significance,” says Chennai-based Indology researcher, Dr S Kalyanaraman.

A former Executive of the Asian Development Bank, Manila, Dr Kalyanaraman now heads the ‘Sarasvati Research Centre’ which is decrypting the Indus script, one of his big passions.

Buehler, who had worked for his thesis at the Institute of Linguistics, Historical Linguistics, University of Berne, says in his research work that many issues raised by his finding “still remain unresolved”.

Yet, if the “manuscript is not fake, then establishing the date of the strip of the birch bark would certainly lead the list of priorities which needs to be addressed in any further examination of this intriguing artefact.”

Quoting Buehler and some other scholars in this field, Dr Kalaynaraman, in his latest article, a copy of which is with Deccan Herald, says “Birch and Aloe Bark”- in Sanskrit ‘bhurja-patra’-, is a sheet cut out of the inner bark of the ‘bhurja’ or the ‘birch’ tree grown in the Himalayas.

Earliest manuscripts

In North India, “letters were generally written on birch-bark sheets. Among the earliest birch-bark manuscripts so far discovered, we may count the Khotan copy of the Prakrit ‘Dhammapada (Buddhist Text)’, written in ‘kharosthi’ characters around the 2nd or 3rd century CE, says Kalyanaraman.

But the “majority of birch-bark’ manuscripts are dated to 15th and later centuries. This tradition of writing on birch-bark was also very popular in Assam, adds Kalyanaraman.
In the popular imagination, Indian Manuscripts usually “conjures up the idea of a hand-written document inscribed on paper or palm leaf, in Devanagiri, Tamil or Persian script, he explains.

However, the bulk of the earliest surviving manuscripts in South Asia are mainly in ‘Sanskrit’ and ‘Prakrit’ (Devanagiri script), notwithstanding the later manuscripts in Arabic and Urdu under the influence of the Islamic Sultans and Mughals, contends Kalyanaraman.

Interestingly, Kashmir was a “noted source” of the manufacture of this material, which was also exported to Central Asia and to Punjab. “Birch bark was still being used for manuscript production as late as the 17th century,” he says.

The writing technique which evolved then on this “smooth, flat surface of birch-bark”, was later carried over to palm leaf and much later to paper. And the most common script used on the birch-bark manuscripts was the ‘Sarada script’, says Kalyanaraman, citing scholars.

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