[INDOLOGY] Orality and memory culture in the transmission of the Vedas: video clips / intended public: students in Indology ...

Dominik Wujastyk wujastyk at gmail.com
Mon Dec 8 13:38:54 UTC 2014

On 8 December 2014 at 10:01, C.A. Formigatti <caf57 at cam.ac.uk> wrote:

​[citing D Bhattacharya]​

>  Two more points. The pedagogic need and oral transmission both
>> contributed to the >phenomenon. Secondly their continuance in India was
>> most probably caused by both scarcity >and perishability of the normal
>> Indian paper that is palm leaf in late medieval India and >earlier,
>> perhaps, any leaf which was less durable. Birchbark was expensive for the
>> village >scholar.
> Are we really sure that palm leaf was scarce "in late medieval India and
> earlier, perhaps, any leaf which was less durable," or that "Birchbark was
> expensive for the village scholar"? Do we have reliable quantitative data
> about this topic? And if these materials were that scarce, how can we
> account for the many millions of South Asian manuscripts that have come
> down to us? (I will not deal again here with the topic of the number of
> South Asian manuscripts still extant, it would be too long). Moreover,
> since these materials are so perishable, we simply cannot know more about
> the number of manuscripts circulating in early and medieval South Asia, and
> therefore I would be again very cautious in making any statement about the
> primarily oral character of South Asian culture. It seems to me that it
> would be more fruitful to try and ask the question differently: to which
> extent oral and written culture were concurring and intertwined in early
> and Medieval South Asia? Was the oral transmission of texts at some point
> crystallized and reserved for certain types of texts (for instance, the
> Vedic corpus and grammatical suutras)?

​This point of Prof. Bhattacharya struck me immediately too.  Palm leaf is
more durable than paper, at least when treated (oiled) in the traditional
manner and stored reasonably well.  The worst writing material is
machine-made bleached paper​, that started to be used for some Indian MSS
in the early 19th century.  That deteriorates very quickly, and the
examples in libraries today are normally brown and crisp round the edges
and extremely brittle.  By contrast, some palm-leaf manuscripts 1000 years
old are almost as good as the day they were made (Wellcome MSS Indic ε.1,
ε.2, for example).  Of course some palm-leaf MSS are in very poor shape
too.  But the older writing supports used in S. Asia were sometimes more
durable than later ones.  Birch bark is an exception.

Dominik Wujastyk

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