Material, age, format and script of the manuscripts
In the absence of the printing press, in around the 9th century CE, the tradition of handwriting manuscripts came into being. In terms of the media, manuscripts can be described in three types: palm-leaf, paper, and cloth.
- Palm-leaf Manuscripts Before the advent of the paper and whilst paper was not easily available in India, manuscripts were handwritten on palm-leaves. Such manuscripts written between the 9th century and 16th century are extant in India. The oldest extant volume is dated to the 9th century.
- Paper Manuscripts When paper became easily available, it started replacing the palm-leaf as media for handwriting manuscripts. The oldest such volume dated 1178 and titled “Jineshvariya Kathakosh” is extant in a collection in Patan, in Gujarat.
- Cloth Manuscripts Handwritten volumes on cloth are seen in various forms such as rolls, folded (tippana) or sheets. A full volume in page form and written on a single sheet of cloth is extant in India.
The oldest Jain manuscripts written on palm leaf go back to the 12th-13th centuries. Those on paper from the 13th-14th century onwards. Manuscripts continued to be written by hand even when printed books came into existence. Therefore there are manuscripts dating from the beginning of the 20th century, for instance. The majority of available Jain manuscripts, however, were copied between the 15th and the 18th centuries.
The word “manuscript” refers to the object. But in several cases more than one text is found under a single cover: a manuscript can contain a group of texts relating to the same topic or different topics (various prayers put together to form a prayer book, various stories put together to make a collection, etc.). Thus one manuscript can correspond to several catalogue entries.
The standard size of a Jain paper manuscript is 10 x 25 cms. However, all sizes are available from miniature manuscripts to almost gigantic ones. There are also different types of format, especially when a main work is accompanied by a commentary. In such cases, the commentary can be written in between the lines, in smaller script, or in the upper, lower, left and right margins. Such formats are typical of Jain manuscripts and are well represented in the British collections as well.
Jain manuscripts have been written in a large variety of scripts, depending on their region of origin. The majority of them come from Western India (modern Gujarat or Rajasthan), North India (Delhi, Uttar Pradesh) and Central India (Madhya Pradesh). They are written in a variety of Devanagari script, called Jain Nagari. Those which come from Eastern India may also be written in Bengali script. Those coming from South India use South Indian scripts used for Tamil and Kannara. Persian script is occasionally used in the case of a Jain work translated into Persian.