South indian incised mss

Dr Dominik Wujastyk d.wujastyk at
Mon Feb 5 15:48:15 EST 1996

The Oriental Institute library in Mysore uses an oil of unknown composition to
lubricate its palm-leaf MSS.  Unknown, that is, to the library authorities.  A
Mysore family has supplied the oil for many generations, and everyone assumes
that it is the right stuff. 

It is probably made of Neem oil, a common source of oil for MS treatment, which
is also an important insecticide.

The libraries of IAS and GOML in Madras use Neem oil.  Trivandrum also used to,
but has recently (last two years) taken to adding liberal quantities of
turpentine.  This is justified as being an insecticide.  But the staff who have
to do the work hate it, finding the fumes unpleasant and intoxicating, and I
would have thought it introduced a serious fire risk.  I am trying -- very
diplomatically -- to suggest changes to this practice in Trivandrum.

It has been my experience that all these libraries don't think twice about
applying lamp-black to make incised MSS legible.  To them it is a simple matter
of making the MS readable.  I have a great deal of sympathy with this point of
view.  But this is an issue which exercises Western librarians and
conservationists, since it introduces a change in the MS that is probably
irreversible (the reversibility of any change made to an object being conserved
is a canonical rule of contemporary conservation practice).

It is a pleasing sight to watch a staff member of one of these libraries
painting MS leaves with oil, and then bundling them up into wonderfully unctuous
packages for shelving.  Very messy and appealing.


Dominik Wujastyk

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