Tag Archives: birch bark

Workshop III: Palm Leaf and Birch Bark Manuscript Workshop with Jim Canary


Mellon Sawyer co-PIs and visiting lecturers: L to R Katherine Tachau, Justin McDaniel, Richard Salomon, Tim Barrett, Paul Dilley, Jim Canary

The Mellon Sawyer Seminar reconvened February 18th [2017]  to make palm leaf manuscripts and experiment with writing on birch bark, the substrate used in the earliest known Buddhist manuscripts. Most of the day was spent at the University of Iowa Center for the Book, making a palm leaf manuscript and learning how to produce writing on the slippery surface of the talipot palm. Jim Canary, Head Conservator at the Lilly Library, Indiana University [Bloomington, IN] led us through the process of making the palm leaf manuscript and scribing on the sheets of palm, which he sourced in his travels in Cambodia and Thailand. Fellow seminar presenters Justin McDaniel [U.Penn] and Richard Salomon [U.Washington] took part in the workshop, adding their observations about manuscript use throughout the day.

We began at the beginning – watching the following video demonstrating the harvest, processing and production of palm by laymen and Buddhist monks.

This video was produced by the Traditional Palm Leaf Manuscripts Preservation Project, Rangiri Technical Centre, Dambulla (2009) on the island nation of Sri Lanka. Dambulla is north east of the city Colombo, where a number of the palm leaf manuscripts in the U.Iowa Special Collections were purchased.

Jim Canary and Justin McDaniel examine palm leaf manuscripts

palm leaf wrapped in bundles
trimming the palm leaf to match the wooden covers of the book

 The palm leaves were first trimmed to width, using a template. Two lacing holes were also punched through the palm leaf using the same temple. This worked best for the daylong workshop, but in production in southeast Asia, the palm would be assembled between its wooden covers [for books using posts instead of string for the binding] then trimmed by running a a sharp blade against the covers, and finished by burning the edges with a hot metal rod [see video]. This provides a uniform shape to all the sheets and ensures that it will fit neatly between the wooden covers once it is scribed and ready to be re-bound.

Paul Dilley punching lacing holes into palm leaf, as Katherine Tachau looks on
etching / inscribing characters into the surface of the palm leaf with a metal stylus

Palm leaf manuscripts are not written upon, but etched into. The surface of the palm is too slick for ink to adhere well to. Instead, the scribe etches/scratches into the surface of the palm using a sharp metal or bamboo stylus. This scratches away the shiny, protective, top layer of the leaf, leaving lines of almost invisibly etched writing.  Ink is then rubbed into the etched line, and wiped away, miraculously leaving only the inked writing. We used calligraphy ink, but Justin McDaniel noted [from his time as a Buddhist monk] that the ink used in Thai Buddhist manuscript production comes from the ash of the funerary pyres. Hence, the writing in the books come from human bodies!

Participants spent several hours trimming and punching their palm leaf sheets, inscribing and inking their texts and decorations into the leaves.





historical palm leaf manuscript, showing ruled lines

Covers were then assembled. These had been pre-cut, holes drilled, and painted, ready for cord to be laced through.




The holes are punched through the palm leaf and sometimes cauterized with a hot poker [like the sides after trimming] and threaded with string or cord to keep leaves together. In some traditions, the whole is not punched, but still remains part of the page layout – with a dot and circle indicating where the hole would be. This is the case with some Tibetan manuscripts produced on paper [see photo below]. Does this reference some original exemplar [on palm leaf], and demonstrate the movement and copying of certain Buddhist texts across Asia?

Palm leaf manuscript [written in Pali?] showing lacing hole [left] with square space left around it and lacing hole [right] with cord attached
Tibetan manuscript with placement of lacing hole marked with a dot and circle, but not punched through

 Kalzang Dorjee Bhutia demonstrated the proper technique for wrapping up a palm leaf manuscript.

Palm leaf manuscript held up by Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa, Jim Canary and Kalzang Dorjee Bhutia

Jim Canary then demonstrated how to cut a reed pen and use a Tibetan ink pot.

Participants also learned about preparation of birch bark for writing. The earliest known Buddhist manuscripts from Gandhara [today N. Pakistan] were written on birch bark. Visiting scholar Richard Salomon had given a lecture on these manuscripts the previous day and all were eager to test out this material with newly cut reed pens and ink. Tim Barrett had sourced the birch bark from Michigan and UICB MFA student Johan Solberg painstakingly peeled layers of the bark away to create the proper thickness, flexibility and writing surface. The trick appeared to be to work carefully and slowly and avoid areas with knots from the tree trunk. Thank you Johan!


Jim and Richard discuss birch bark manuscripts

Reed pens and ink were tested on the birch bark, which has a fine fuzzy surface that quickly absorbs the ink.


Some Tibetan manuscripts from Jim Canary’s collection.

Jim Canary and Richard Salomon examine Tibetan manuscripts from Jim’s collection


Jim Canary’s analysis of pigments used in Tibetan manuscript production, from his Mellon Sawyer lecture.

End of the day – success!

The workshop was preceded the previous day by lectures from Richard Salomon, Justin McDaniel and Jim Canary [all Mellon Sawyer lectures are recorded and available on the website] and a visit to the UI Special Collections to examine their collection of Asian manuscripts.


UI Religious Studies professors Morten Schlutter and Kendra Strand look at palm leaf books at UI Special Collections.

Justin McDaniel examines materials in UI Special Collections.

Conservators convene at the UI Conservation Lab. L to R: Gary Frost, Giselle Simon, Jim Canary.

Melissa Moreton, Mellon Sawyer Postdoctoral Fellow