How Sri Lankans Are Preserving History, One Manuscript At a Time


Poongulaly Balagobalan


KALVIYANKADU, SRI LANKA — Ratnasabapathy Ponnaiah slides between wooden cupboards in his home, plucking bottles of ground herbs and natural oils from the racks.
With bottles in hand, he sits at a table and opens a large book, turning the pages to reveal herbal remedies, notes on diseases and diagrams of plants. Some pages are in his handwriting. Others have been printed.
The information in the book was once available in greater detail, with more precise information, says Ponnaiah, an ayurvedic physician who practices a centuries-old form of traditional herbal medicine and healing still popular in Sri Lanka.
For more than a dozen generations, families like Ponnaiah’s passed down the secrets of their practices on dried palmyrah leaf manuscripts.
In his home in Kalviyankadu, Ponnaiah had 50 bundles of manuscripts, each containing 50 to 75 individual documents which collectively addressed specific types of ayurvedic treatment. One bundle held instructions for treating broken bones and fractures; another addressed heart-related ailments. There was a separate bundle for blood disorders.
Those manuscripts were his most prized possessions.

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Ratnasabapathy Ponnaiah, a physician who practices a traditional form of herbal medicine called ayurveda, examines remedies at Siddha Ayurvedic Dispensary in Kalviyankadu.
Poongulaly Balagobalan, GPJ Sri Lanka

But in October 1995, the military conflict in northern Sri Lanka worsened as the Sri Lankan army lay siege to the city of Jaffna, close to where Ponnaiah lives. For 50 days, thousands of troops attacked the city with heavy artillery and tanks. With the force encroaching, Ponnaiah and his family fled, taking only what they could gather quickly – clothes, cash and jewelry. When they returned six months later, their home had been ransacked and damaged from mortar shelling.
“The first thing I looked at was this room,” Ponnaiah says, turning to the space in which he runs his practice. “This is where I had kept the manuscripts that I considered my assets.”
But when he entered that room, he found the manuscripts torched and scattered among broken cupboards. A single cupboard stood undamaged. Inside, there were three bundles of around 45 manuscripts each.
“The army set fire to all the manuscripts in a room, either knowing or not knowing the value of the manuscripts,” he says.
Researchers estimate that hundreds of thousands of palmyrah leaf manuscripts were lost in Jaffna district.
Most families in Jaffna had their own manuscript collections, containing family records, personal horoscopes, astrology charts and land ownership deeds, says Selliah Krishnarajah, a professor of history at the University of Jaffna. But manuscripts also contained communal information, including details about Hindu religious practices, myths and prayers, laws and legal documents of Jaffna, historical records and folk literature and poetry.
They’re not easily made.
To be used for manuscripts, palmyrah leaves must first be boiled to remove their outer fibrous layers. After drying in the sun, the leaves are cut into one size. Natural oils are rubbed onto the leaves to condition them before text can be written with a specially-made iron stylus and black ink. The entire process can take about 10 to 15 days.
Manuscripts are entrusted to one family and handed down from generation to generation, says Krishnarajah. Often, there is only one copy of a manuscript made.
But while many were lost, thousands of manuscripts were also unearthed as people began to rebuild after the war. Some were damaged, Krishnarajah says. But others appeared in good condition, sparking a desire to ensure the manuscripts – and the information they hold – are never lost again.
In a small office in Kokuvil, Jaffna, Aarthiya Sathiyamoorthy dips a brush into a cleaning solution of local herbs and spices. She dabs it gently on the manuscript, wiping away any emerging dirt with a cotton ball.
Sathiyamoorthy is a field researcher working with the Noolaham Foundation, an online digital library, to preserve Sri Lanka’s Tamil language documents through digitization. The organization sent members from village to village to collect manuscripts from families, temples and libraries in 2005.
The manuscripts are usually in poor condition, with various types of mold, fungus and thick layers of dirt, says Sathiyamoorthy. Some manuscripts are cleaned in a couple of hours, while others need days of preparation before they are ready to be digitized. And before the cleaning can even begin, the team often has to persuade the owners to part with it.
But their work has paid off.

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T. Koyilaar Sivasaamy has written about 30 manuscripts containing the history and legends of Kannaki Amman, a Hindu deity. He plans to donate them to the Kannaki Amman temple in Vattappalai to share stories of the goddess with present and future generations of his village.
Poongulaly Balagobalan, GPJ Sri Lanka
In early 2018, a team of five members, including Sathiyamoorthy, began work on digitizing the manuscripts. Thirty-five thousand manuscripts from Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts were collected that year and around 30,000 digitized, Sathiyamoorthy says. Among the discoveries were Hindu religious myths and legends, details of witchcraft and little-known folk stories.
“Our team handles the manuscripts very carefully since these manuscripts have been protected for more than 200 years,” she says.
With funding from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, the foundation launched the Manuscripts Archive project in 2018 to collect, digitize and provide online access to the palmyrah manuscripts held privately by families and small groups in Jaffna.
Sathiyamoorthy says they have plans to extend their work to the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. As their work grows, she hopes that more people will actively bring their manuscripts for digitization and preservation.
In Mullaitivu district, about 115 kilometres (about 71 miles) from Jaffna, an 85-year-old retired paddy farmer is also working to preserve manuscripts – particularly those containing Hindu religious texts.
In 2009, heavy bombing during the final stage of the war forced T. Koyilaar Sivasaamy and his family to leave their home in Puthukkudiyiruppu. They fled to different areas seeking safety before finally settling in a refugee camp in Vavuniya, an area in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.
Sivasaamy estimates that he lost about 150 manuscripts containing stories of Kannaki Amman and other Hindu deities, verses of praise written to the deities, and myths and legends about their various acts, as well as family horoscopes and land records. Some were his own while others were collected from relatives and villagers.
Since his return to his village in 2012, Sivasaamy has worked to replace the lost manuscripts and preserve any that remain in his village. He has collected about 20 manuscripts from families in his village, many of them family documents such as horoscopes, which he has cleaned and returned or, at their request, stored safely in his own home.
In 2016, he began to write new manuscripts containing the history and legends of Kannaki Amman from memory, pulling from various texts recalled by the priests whose temples he visits. He has written about 30 manuscripts and hopes to complete the work by end of the year.
He says he will donate the manuscripts to the Kannaki Amman temple in the small town of Vattappalai to ensure present and future generations of his village know the stories of the goddess.
“No matter how much we grow, can we change the sun that rises? Likewise, all these manuscripts are something saturated within us,” he says. “We cannot say this is old and put it aside.”
Josephine Anthony, GPJ, translated this article from Tamil.

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