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Puthi manuscript book. Before the invention of printing, books were handwritten. Copies were made based on the demand.

Most puthis were written on material that was either grey or pale yellow. This is why these manuscripts were called pandulipi in Bangla, pandu being the Bangla word for 'pale yellow' and lipi for 'writing'. Nowadays all manuscripts are called pandulipi in Bangla.

Puthi on palmleaf

Before the invention of paper, manuscripts used to be written on leather, leaves, barks, plantain leaves, palm leaves and other natural materials, processed through dipping, boiling and drying. In the process, the material turned grey or pale yellow and became resistant to insects.

When such materials grew scarce or difficult to obtain, a sort of paper made of cotton-pulp began to be used. Hemp, cotton, linseed fibre, rags etc was added to the mixture. The large sheets prepared in this way were cut to the required size, often depending on the contents of the book.

In the preparation of the cotton-pulp, lime and indigo dye, or powdered turmeric, were also mixed with the pulp. This mixture used to make paper resistant to insects, but the lime shortened its life. Indigo dye imparted a bluish tinge to the paper, turmeric turned it pale yellow or grey. Bamboo, feathers, porcupine spines, reeds etc. were used to make pens. The bark of the silk-cotton tree, lodhra tree (symplocos raccueosa), shellac, hibiscus buds, green mangosteen, myrobalan, pomegranates, charcoal, soot etc was used to prepare the ink. Sometimes, iron dust was mixed with the ink to make it bright, but tended to destroy the paper. Red ink was prepared from ripe fruits or their seeds.

The sheets of the puthi used to be tied together with a piece of string passing through all of them. Two boards would be placed at both ends. These boards as well as the sheets were occasionally decorated with different designs.

Puthis found in Bengal are either in sanskrit or Bangla, but almost all are written in old bangla script. There are at least 60,000 puthis in the collections of the university of dhaka Library, bangla academy, bangladesh national museum, Rammala Granthagar (Comilla), Maharaja Library (dinajpur), Dinabandhu Library (sylhet), varendra research museum (rajshahi) etc. The oldest puthi, written on bark, at the University of Dhaka Library, is Saradatilaka (1439).

In the past there were professionals scribes, who used to earn their livelihood by copying puthis. Most of these people had 'Sharma' as their surname, although some people with other surnames were also in the profession. At the end of the puthi, many of these scribes write their names, occasionally providing a few autobiographical details and the date of the work. For example, a scribe named Ramalochana Sarma, in Kautukaratnakara (DU-1821), the manuscript of a Sanskrit play in the Dhaka University Library collection writes iti ratnakarang pustang ramalochanasharmana/ likhitang vahuyatnena varnashuddhang tyajedvudhah (This Ratnakara is copied by Ramalochana Sarma with utmost care. The onus of correcting the spelling lies with the pundits).

Bangla puthis were often copied by Muslim scribes. A Bangla manuscript (DU-624) in the Dhaka University Library collection was copied by a Muslim scribe as the following lines reveal: abdullar putra ami saba hante hina/ haola geram jana uddeshiya china/... jei mato dekhi ami sei mato lekhi/ aparadh ksema mor gunijane dekhi/ vingsha asta maghi jana ar barashata/ tarikh asadha jana bara din haila/ seidin ei pustak lekha haila (I'm Abdullah's son, a humble man. I hail from the village of Haola. I've copied as I've seen. Excuse my negligence. The book is copied on the 12th of Asadha, in 20+8+1200 (1228) of the Maghi year' [c 1856]).

Good handwriting and the ability to copy accurately were requisite qualities of scribes. Knowledge of the language was considered an added advantage. Although scribes were supposed only to copy the puthi, some of them made some interpolations, resulting in textual variants. Some scribes cursed people who stole books: yatnena likhitang granthang yashchorayati manavah/ mata cha shukari tasya pita gardabhah (The book is written with utmost care. The mother of the man who steals it is a sow and his father a donkey). Some puthis noted the importance of books, for example, yasya hastagatang bhuyadetattasmai nivedaye/ pranatulyamidang vaksyang panditasyaiva pustakam (To the one who holds this, I say: a book is like a soul, say the wise men).

Some scribes did not use numerals to indicate the date of copying, but instead denoted the date in verse riddles. A Sanskrit puthi (DU-2360), for example, has the following verse: haripadamadhudharang vedayugmabdhichandre/ militaganitashake purnatang yati pitva The word vedayugmabdhichandre indicates the date of copying as 1724 Sakabda (1802 AD): veda means 4, yugma means 2, abdhi means 7, and chandra means 1. therefore, it was in, the book was copied. A similar example from a Bangla puthi (DU-424) is as follows: muni rasa veda shashi shake rahe san/ shekh fayjulla bhane bhabi dekha man. Here, muni means 7, rasa means 6, veda means 4, and xaxi means 1. The figures point to 1467 Sakabda (1545 AD).

The part of a puthi where the scribe provides a brief autobiography, the name of the puthi, the date of writing/copying, the name of the person who employed him in the work and for whom the copying is done, is called the colophon or puspika (literally, floret). It is generally found on the first leaf, at the end of the chapter or act, and on the last folio. The puspika on the first folio and at the end of the chapter or act contains the names of the scribe and the book. The puspika on the last folio contains the names of the author, the scribe and the book as well as the dates of writing/copying. Occasionally there is also a bhanita (preamble), a variant of puspika. This also describes the name of the book and the writer; for example, mahabharater katha amrta saman/ kashiram das kahe shune punyavan (The stories of the Mahabharata are like nectar; Kashiram Das narrates them and the devotees listen to them).

In the past, both Sanskrit and Bangla puthis reached scholars and laymen through the work of the scribes. When the printing presses were established in the eighteenth century, the profession of scribes gradually ended. Many handwritten puthis were published in book form.

The Dhaka University Library has about 30,000 puthis. Many puthis, especially those which are in a delicate condition, have been preserved on microfilm. Puthis from other collections have also been microfilmed for ease of access by scholars. [Dulal Bhowmik]