Palm-leaf manuscripts of Orissa are called pothis, the word ‘pothi’ being derived from the Sanskrit ‘pustaka’ or book. Pothi denotes a pile of
palm-leaves with writings on them, strung on a cord through pre-bored holes in the centre and protected by a pair of wooden covers at the top
and the bottom of the pile. In Orissa all writing was done on pothis till about the end of the 19th century. The State thus possessed a large
number of such palm-leaf manuscripts. The extremely fragile nature of the material, however, aggravated by physical and climatic conditions and
the lack of proper storage and preservation against heat, humidity and insects, has been responsible for the loss of the early pothis of Orissa.
Added to this was a strange custom-old pothis had to be rewritten on new leaves while the old ones were consigned to the river.
A large number of pothis, however, can be found in the villages of Orissa even today. Many families keep a collection of pothis near
the household deities and offer prayers to these, though these are never opened or read. In many villages, there are ‘libraries’ of pothis in
community houses, and religious texts are read from these pothis morning and evening as a daily ritual.
The great hoard of pothis came to the notice of English scholars almost immediately after the British occupation of Orissa in 1803.
Andrew Sterling, the then Persian Secretary to Government, refers to his collection of pothis in 1804. In 1859’ in the Journal of the Asiatic
Society of Bengal in which he mentioned that Sanskrit and ‘Uriya’ manuscripts were available in Bhubaneswar and its suburbs and drew attention
to them. Colonel Colin Mackenzie collected some pothis from the Ganjam and Koraput Districts, and these were preserved in the Oriental
Manuscripts Library in Madras.
John Beams, who was Collector, Balasore and later Commissioner, Orissa Division, wrote an article on the Oriya kavya or long
episodical poem, Rasakallol (Indian Antiquary, Vol. I, 1871), based on a palm-leaf manuscripts. This was the first publication to introduce
English readers to Oriya literature. A list of 107 Oriya writers and their works, and of 47 manuscripts of undetermined authorship, prepared on
the basis of palm-leaf manuscripts, was appended to W.H. Hunter’s Orissa Vol. II published in 1872. Rajendra Lal Mitra published ‘Notices of
Manuscripts Preserved in the Asiatic Society, Bengal before AD 1898,’ in which he referred to many manuscripts collected from Orissa. As a
matter of fact, both Hunter and Mitra sought to write the history of Orissa on the basis of a palm-leaf manuscript-the Madala Panji-from the
Jagannath Temple in Puri. M.M. Chakravarty also collected a number of pothis and his study of these manuscripts was published in the Journal of
the Asiatic Society in 1897-98 under the title ‘Notes on the Language and Literature of Orissa.’
The search of Oriya pothis continued and Haraprasad Shastri wrote in 1915: ‘In the District of Puri, there are 32 sasanas or villages
granted to Brahmins in perpetuity by the Hindu Rajas of Orissa. In 1908, I went there with Professor Arthur A. MacDonell and we calculated that
the number of palm-leaf manuscripts
(for all Orissa manuscripts are written on palm-leaf with a stylus) in these sasanas is nearly two lakhs. The Gopavardhana Math alone contains
more than two thousand manuscripts.”
With the establishment of the Bihar and Orissa Research Society, systematic attempts were made to collect these manuscripts. After
the creation of the separate province of Orissa, a number of pandits were engaged to search for manuscripts in different parts of Orissa and the
adjoining feudatory States. They noticed nearly 15000 manuscripts are preserved in the manuscripts gallery of the Orissa State Museum,
Collection of manuscripts was one of the important activities of the Ravenshaw College Museum at Cuttack (established in 1932),
later converted into the Orissa Provincial Museum and yet later called the Orissa State Museum. The Prachi Samiti of Cuttack, the Baripada
Museum of Mayurbhanj and the Raghunandan Library of Puri also put together valuable collections of pothis. In 1950, a separate section for
manuscripts was opened in the Orissa State Museum, now the largest repository of Oriya pothis. Other fine collections of Oriya pothis can be
found in the Utkal University Library, Bhubaneswar, the Oriya Department of Vishwa Bharati, Shantiniketan, the Berhampur University Library,
Berhampur and in the Aurobindo Sangrahalay, Udaypur.
Though a large number of palm-leaf manuscripts can be found in Orissa, both in institutions and in private collections, the number of
chitra-pothis or pothis with illustrations in not very considerable. Only certain types of manuscripts (mostly kavyas) were being illustrated.
While ordinary pothis were of interest to Oriya readers and museums in Orissa because of their artistic value, chitra-pothis were sought after by
collectors and museums outside Orissa too. Thus, many museums in India have some chitra-pothis from Orissa in their collection. The National
Museum, New Delhi, in particular, has a very fine and representative collection of such pothis. Many chitra-pothis have found their way to
museums and private collections abroad. The chitra-pothis of Orissa are thus scattered, and access to private collections is difficult. In Orissa,
chitra-pothis lie buried among other pothis in village community sheds and family hoards. Besides, chitra-pothis have been split up and pages
from the same manuscript can be found at different places in India and abroad. Many of the illustrations are also moth-eaten and damaged.
Unfortunately, it is rare to come across a complete chitra-pothi in good condition.
Hunter was the first to bring the illustrations of the Oriya chitra-pothi to public notice when he reproduced ‘Three pages of an illustrated
palm-leaf book in the Uriya character’ in his Orissa in 1872. These were from the Gita Govinda in his personal collection. In R.D. Banerjee’s
History of Orissa (1930), a colour reproduction of the ‘Battle scene with Ravana from an old palm-leaf Ramayana manuscripts, Orissa’ had been
given in the frontispiece.
A study of the art of the chitra-pothi was made for the first time by O.C. Gangoly when he wrote about an illustrated manuscript of the Bhagavata
from Orissa in 1938. it was, however, Stella Kramrisch’s article on the illustrated Amarushataka in the Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental
Art in 1940 which drew attention to a new style of miniature art in India. She had mentioned the palm-leaf illustration in R.D. Banerjee’s book
and had added that few illustrated manuscripts or incised palm-leaves from Orissa were known. It was only in 1952 that O.C. Gangoly published
the complete text of a chitra-pothi, Dasapoi, with reproduction of the illustrations.
Since then much work has been done on illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts of Orissa. Jeremiah P. Losty’s Krishna, a Hindu Vision of God,
published in 1980, makes a study of the three ‘most beautiful’ illustrated Oriya palm-leaf manuscripts out of a dozen in the British Library
collection. Joanna Williams, Eberhard Fischer and Dinanath Pathy have written a number of books and articles on the subject. A large number of
chitra-pothis, no doubt, are lost and the ones that are now preserved represent only a small fraction of the illustrated manuscripts that were
executed. The availability of chitra-pothis, however, must be considered miraculously significant, when one rues the almost complete absence
of old miniature paintings on cloth from Orissa.
Orissa had established its own school of miniature paintings in the traditional pata-chitra made by the Chitrakar caste of people. These paintings
depicted religious subjects and were mainly done to be used in rituals and for selling to pilgrims. The new school of palm-leaf illustrations,
which flourished in the golden age of mediaeval Oriya literature, was, however, secular in character and the artists of this school were not drawn
from a particular caste. Despite its many similarities with the pata-chitra, palm-leaf art developed its own rulers and conventions and stood out
as a distinct school. Orissan palm-leaf art is also distinct from the Nepalese, Pala and Jain miniature paintings on palm-leaf, and thus deserves a
special study. This book seeks to provide an introduction to this art form against the background of Orissa’s palm-leaf tradition.
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