The tradition of Palm Leaf writing in Odisha

  • By Debi Prasanna Nanda
  • July 13 2020
  • This article tells you about the history of palm leaf writing in Odisha, compares it with South India, explores its association with Pattachitra paintings, how was the writing done on a plam leaf and how visuals were used to convey.


Palm leaf engraving occupies an important place in the gamut of handicraft treasures of Odisha. We all know that Odisha has a proud position in the country in respect of highest concentration of Palm leaf manuscripts, especially illustrated manuscripts.


Authors are Prafulla Kumar Samantaray and Debi Prasanna Nanda.


Prof. Mc. Donald and Prof HaraprasadShastri, during their visit to Puri in 1916, had witnessed lakhs of such palm leaf manuscripts. Similarly Lord Mackenzie, the Surveyor General of India was in Puri from 27.05.1819 to 13.09.1819 and he also came across a large number of manuscripts.


Large number of pictorial palm leaf manuscripts are preserved in different museums and temples of Odisha.  In Odisha the State Museum collection exceeds 50,000 in number covering about 15,000 titles which includes, both illustrated and non-illustrated manuscripts.


One cannot say with certainty the time or the place of origin of palm leaf engraving.


Long before the invention of paper and pen, palm leaf was used as a means of writing letters in the royal courts, temples and also most commonly inscribing the horoscope of every new born child in the length and breadth of Odisha.


The horoscope is prepared by a particular community known as Nayakas. They are also called as Abadhan as a mark of respect for they forecast future of the child and get it recorded in the horoscope. They are proficient in the work of etching words and figures. In almost every horoscope they record words, draw zodiac signs, record numbers and draw figures of man, umbrella etc. Normally copying the manuscripts were done by those abadhanas and sometimes by the karanas.


The tradition of Madala Panji writing, the unique chronicle of Jagannath temple where the activities, sebas, the functioning of Gajapati kings are codified by the karanasebakas of Jagannath temple in palm leaves. It is seen that the palm leaf cannot be preserved for more than 200 years, therefore it is necessary to copy the manuscripts in order to keep alive the text in the society.


The author or the copyist while writing the text in the iron stylus take immense pain for which adequate copies can’t be produced. There is a saying:

            Bhagnaprustha  katigribah

            Tulyadristih  ardhomukhah

            Dukhena  likhitam  gratham

            Putrabat  paripalayet


With much difficulty, by bending the head downwards, causing damage to waist, neck and eyes, this book is written. So it is my earnest appeal to the people to take care of this book as they take care of their own sons.


Although, at the present stage, we are not able to tell the time of origin of the art, but the sculptural depictions of palm leaf manuscripts with stylus in Parsurameswar temple, Mukteswar temple of Bhubaneswar and Sun temple of Konark indicate that this art was very popular in Odisha and its antiques can be traced at least from 6th century A.D. if not earlier. By that time the palm leaf writing was established in Odisha as remarked by the noted historian Dr. Satya Narayan Rajguru.


From among the palm leaf manuscripts the pictorial or illustrated manuscripts form a significant part. If one will minutely observe these illustrated manuscripts, he will be thoroughly convinced that this art reached it perfection and excellence in Odisha, for the Odias love their art like their life.

Pictorial palm leaf manuscripts. 


Dr. D.P Patnaik has rightly said that, “a race producing great art however does so not by his love of art, but by its love of life.”


Numerous illustrated manuscripts found from different corners of Odisha embody the rich artistic traditions of the state. Illustrations always makes a subject lively, helps in realizing the ideas behind the theme communicates it more easily than words.


These painted manuscripts have discharged a pivotal role in ancient Odia literature in helping a reader to understand and appreciate the text and the art. Insertion of paintings in Kavya (poetry), bhajan, janana, chhanda, chaupadi, chautisa enhances the popularity of the text among the readers and viewers, for it has a direct communication with the mind, which is touchstone for an artist. In the voluminous Puranas like Mahabharat, Ramayan and Bhagabat, the illustration is conspicuously absent.


Making illustrations in palm leaf were costlier to produce than the plain manuscripts. So the rich alone could afford it. Perhaps, the well-to-do people the kings, nobles and the like were the patron and sponsors of these manuscripts. Only the expert in drawing and painting were able to draw pictures on a palm leaf and paint it. Of many copyists only a handful could handle illustrations. If the poet himself is not visual artist, then he has to communicate his feelings to the hired artists, so that the artists can draw this figure and get the final approval of the author and the make necessary drawing and painting on palm leaf.


The painting style started its journey from cave walls in the primitive days, murals on the temple walls and the walls of the individuals. Special designs portrayed in different festivals, have flourished through the stylus of the ardent artists. Application of color enhanced it’s gaily and gaiety. 


We know that two varieties of materials i.e. the bhurja leaf in north India and palm leaf in south India were used as the base material on which writing was made. In states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra and Odisha in fact, all over the southern region palm leaf manuscripts were inscribed with the stylus.


How was the writing done on palm leaf?

The palm leaves collected from the palm tree were seasoned through a traditional process for its use as a manuscript. Then holes were made in middle with slender iron rod and a card inserted in the holes to hold the leaves together. So that the pages will not be disarrayed. Two pieces of flat wood are set on either side of the leaves to serve as covers. Then began the writing and drawing work.


The juice of datura leaf is applied over it to mark the line darker to save the leaf from the attacks of insects. After that the etching of drawing on stylus are made, different and distinct. On the letters of the text only black colour is used to make it more prominent , but for figures, colours are prepared  from natural ingredients like beam leaf, flame of the lamp, turmeric, vegetables and also from some natural coloured stones.


Ironically no detailed discussions are made on the topics like the preparation  of palm leaf for manuscripts purposes the engraving and drawing style, the painting system application  of dyes, it’s preservation and circulation technic etc.


The motif and style and pattern of palm leaf painting in Odisha is almost same from its beginning up to 20th century as it  has been an integral part of culture and tradition of Odisha and these paintings are recognized as the typical Odishan style.


Scholars are of the opinion that the oldest palm leaf manuscript preserved in Odisha State Museum is a copy of the poetic work, “Abhinav Gita Govinda” written by Kavi Chandra Ray Divakar Mishra, the copyist was Sri Sridhar Sharma and the copy was completed on 6th April 1494.


Among other illustrated manuscripts which were very popular in the society and their copies are preserved in Odisha State Museum are Gita Govinda by Sri Jagdeb, Bidagdha Madhab of Rupa Goswami, Amarusatak of Amarunka Usha Vilas of Shishu Shankar Das, Lavanyavati and Koti Bhramanda Sundari of Upendra Bhanja, Bidagdha Chintamani of Abhimanyu, Samnata Singhar and Rasa Kallol of Dina Krushna Das. From among the illustrated Chautisa Pothis, the Rukmini Chautisa by Nnadabai, Artatrana Chautisa by Dinakrushna Das, Kumuda Kanta Chautisa by Narayan Das and Janana Chautisa by Narenndra Nuja were very popular.


Some people believe that palm leaf etching and painting an offshoot of traditional patta painting of Odisha but in reality the fact is not true., By 6th century A.D palm leaf scribing was very popular in Odishan Society and the patta paintings has its origin from the culture of Lord Jagannath, after the construction of Jagannath Temple, Puri in the 12th century A.D.


The second point is that to draw a picture on the surface of the palm leaf on a sharp painted iron stylus is not easy, always there is apprehension of scratching or tearing up of the leaf. Hence the artists have limited freedom to draw the figures on palm leaf. It is for this reason that the side face of person is drawn instead of front face.

But in case of patta painting, the artists have unlimited freedom as he is to draw the figures on this surface of path, prepared with cloth and traditional gum with a brush. Here there is no apprehension of cutting of the cloth, then why the artist always draw the side face of a person in patta paintings.


The reason behind it is that the palm leaf engravings have influenced the patta paintings. By the time patta paintings originated, the palm leaf paintings was recognized as typical Odishan painting style to which our Pattachitra inherited  and in course of time the pattachitra became more popular for its association with the culture of Sri Jagannath and identified  itself as Odisha’s special painting. 


Therefore, it can safely be said that the palm leaf illustration can claim a superior uncommon and studious drawing and painting design and it’s appreciation in the society.


Drawing and painting were accepted as a part of life by the Odia people.


To them the best way to achieve happiness is to paint beautiful pictures. In comparison to other states, etched palm leaves are more intimately associated with the socio-religious life of the people of Odisha, the manuscripts of Bhagabat written by Jagannath Das is worshipped as Visnu (BhagabatGosain) in a special gadi in the Bhagabat Tungi, Madalapanji.


The chronicle of Sri Jagannath temple was recorded regularly on palm leaves till the seventh decade of 20th century. Invitation to marriage, birth ceremonies etc. were issued on palm leaf cards. The palm leaf is still used to prepare horoscope of each and every person of Odisha the oldest practice in Odisha.


Chintans on letters were issued through palm leaves till the end of 19th century A.D. In the past, illustrated manuscripts were given as dowry to a daughter, with the intention that the son-in-law’s family members will think the bride’s family a cultured one with sound literary background. Till the eighth decade of 20th century, in rural areas, this practice was in vogue with the substation of books in place of manuscripts.


Most commonly, the temples of the village (Brahmin village) were used as a library of palm leaf manuscript. There was one such library in Dadibaban temple at Khadial Nuapada district till independence. The ritualistic tradition of Sri Jagannath temple, this palm leaf is still in use.


On the occasion of Rukmini haranekadasi (the eleventh day of bright fort night of Jyestha) the marriage ceremony of Lord Jagannath (as Krishna) is solemnized with Rukmini (Goddess Laxmi). The dramatization of the event in the temple by the sebayats as a part of ritual, in which the tadhankaran will write the letter to Lord Jagannath stating the state on mind of Rukmini on the palm leaf and stylus provided by Bhitaracchu Mohapatra, another important sebak at the temple. This tradition is enacted in the temple every year.


Besides, in the marriage ceremony it was customary to send invitation to the bridegroom’s family inviting the groom to come for marriage. Such was the intimate relations of engraved palm leaves with Odia culture. Even today this tradition has an emphatic presence in the districts of Puri (Raghurajpur, Nayak Patna, Khaspose, Dandasahi, Balanga, Nimapada), Khurdha (Jatni), 

Ganjam, Cuttack and in Nayagarh.


The artists of these districts are still making this art as their profession.  Knowing that the people of Odisha are expert in palm leaf etching, some people from Gujarat have placed orders with this artists of Khasposa, Raghurajpur to write some join texts on palm leaves.


The ancientness, fundamentality, aesthetic appeal its long association with culture and above all the usefulness of this craft prompts one to call is a heritage craft of Odisha.

Palm leaf with images. 


It is true that palm leaves manuscripts are found in the southern states of India and also at some other places, because the oldest surviving Sanskrit manuscripts on palm leaves is “Paramesvartantra”, a Shiva Sidhant text of Hinduism of 828 A.D discovered from Nepal and now preserved in Cambridge University Library. 


When we speak of illustrated palm leaves, the concentration of such manuscripts are perhaps highest in Odisha. The palm leaf paintings of Odisha have a lot of uniqueness for which one may be inspired to call is as an indigenous art form of Odisha.


Among one thousand manuscripts of southern states merely two are illustrated and those are on the cover pages of the text and some illustration are without any relevance to the text, where as in Odisha manuscripts, the illustrations are in plenty depicting the picture of all most every story and sometimes containing the themes of one stanza of the text.


The credit of Odishan artist is that they do not draw or paint the figures half-hazardly, rather their paintings convey the true meaning of the text. Take for example the text of Amaru Satak, a single copy of the illustration of this book is preserved in Odisha State Museum.


Perhaps it is the only copy with illustration available in the entire country. The Odishan painters were able to portray the difficult sloka of Amaru with accuracy. The reader who is unable to understand the slokas can easily understand the text by looking at the picture i.e. the creativity of the Odisha’s painters in the field of palm leaf painting.


The unique characteristic of Odia painters is that they draw the side face of a person, whereas the painters of south India show the front face.


By drawing the side face the Odia artist was able to display a good view of the tresses of hair and the artist paint different kinds of hairstyles for example the Onion shaped hair bun(Usha vilasa), the majestic bun style (Juda) and twisted braid style(beni) in Lavanyavati.


Also the hair style of male are well projected in the painting of Koti Brahmanda Sundari of UpendraBhanja). The kavyas containing the life sketches of Radha Krishna, other Gods and Goddesses, the kings and queens were very popular in the well to do society. In most of the kavyas there are at least some illustrations of sexual union of the heroes and heroines of the text (VidagdhaChintamani, Lavanyabati in GeetaGovinda).


Another skill acquired by the Odia palm leaf painters are setting up a pattern in visual painting distinguishing different characters clearly. For example they create specific designs for specific persons, a drawing of a king, a hunter, the Sudama, Narada, Radha, Krishna, Rama, Sita, Balaram, Kamdeva, the heroine, the dasi, Mudusuli, the crooked women and hundreds and thousands of different characters in the paintings in the palm leaves of Odisha.


The Moghul Culture had its influence on Odias while the artist painted the figure of a Rajdoot, Yamadoot (Sarbanga Sundari, Ushavilas) in the medieval period. When Odisha was under the Moghul rule some cultural traits of Moghuls have influenced our artists to portray their figures in case of similar related characters.


On Anla Navamai day, Sri Radha of Sakhigopal temple put on Odiani dress. This type of dress ornaments are accepted as the dress style and ornaments of Odia women. In most of the figures the women wear sarees in Odia style. The costumes and poses of dancing girl depicted in Vaidehisavilas convey a true picture of Odishi dance style, perhaps adopted in the later period as the costume of Odishi dance.


The painters of Odisha developed a special pattern for their drawings which is in vogue from the 15th to 20th century without any alternation.


Certain general principles were adopted in representation of human figure like the head and face, legs, feet and the back are always in profile while the shoulder, chest and eyes are shown from the front.


The artist avoid long horizontal lines over palm leaf due to the fear of crack on the leaf. These artists always try to avoid crowed compositions. Most compositions are of single and double figures in the illustrations.


The hero figures have sharp pointed nose, long eyes, well-proportioned bodies and the women are represented with fall buxom, slender waist raised chest and heavy buttocks. The fauna drawn on palm leaves to support the text and are quite accurate and looks lively, in case of flora it is very often drawn for decorative motifs. The trees are represented through abhanga and tribhanga forms. The Chitrakavya Bandodhaya of Upendra Bhanja is a text of beauty and witty.


The artist of Odisha have developed their own indigenous style of palm leaf paintings which are much superior to their counterparts in other regions of the country. Their representations are rhythmic and expressive of complex moods, emotions and inner feelings of the characters for which they are amazingly beautiful and thoroughly convincing. This shows the vastness of the craft and the strength of our artistic bodies.


Some people believe that palm leaf etching is an offshoot of traditional patta paintings of Odisha, but in reality it claims a superior position from the point of view of its inherent uncommon preparation style, excellent art design and its broad use and appreciation in society. The ancientness fundamentality, aesthetic appeal and the usefulness of this craft prompts one to call it a heritage craft.


Long before the invention of paper and pen, palm leaf was used as a means of writing letters in the royal courts temples and most commonly inscribing the horoscopes of every new born child in the length and breadth of Odisha. The work of etching words and figures on the palm leaf was done by the ‘abadhanas’, a particular caste people who are proficient in this work. 


Normally copying the manuscripts were done by those abadhanas.  The letters are engraved on the palm leaf by an iron stylus. Then colors are applied to make it decent and distinct. The tradition of Madala Panji writing, the unique chronicle of Jagannatha temple and vast treasures of palm leaf manuscripts clearly prove that it was an ancient craft and was very popular in Odisha at least from the 6th century A.D if not earlier.


Numerous illustrated manuscripts found from different corners of Odisha embody the rich artistic tradition of the state. These painted palm leaf manuscripts have discharged a pivotal role in ancient Odia literature in helping a reader to understand the text and to appreciate the art.


Insertions of paintings in Kavya (poetry) bhajans, janana chhanda, chaupadi, chautisa enhances the popularity among the readers and viewers. This art style, starting its journey from the temple walls have flourished through the stylus of ardent artists. The application of colors enhances it’s gaily and gaiety. 


Even though some  discussion are made on the painted palm leaf manuscripts - its text artistic excellence  and the like; but ironically no discussion is made on the topics  like preparation of palm leaf for manuscripts purposes, the engraving style, way of painting, application of dyes, its preservation and circulation. It may be treated as an intellectual despair. Even today, this tradition has made its emphatic presence in the district of Puri (Raghurajpur, Nayakapatana, Dandasahi, Balanga, Nimapara), Khurdha (Jatni), Ganjam, Cuttack and Nayagarh. The artists of these districts are still making this art as their profession. 


In order to upkeep the specialty of this art form, it is  necessary to register it as the indigenous intellectual property of  Odisha, thereby illegal copying or imitation of this art can be challenged in the court of law. This way this craft of Odisha and the artists depending on this craft will be benefitted and have success in their business.


To make aware the artists and the public regarding the intellectual property right with geographical indication, is another objective of this project. We shall try hard to focus on the history, heritage, uniqueness, process of palm leaf engraving, painting, its circulation style, preservation manner identification of areas and artists involved in this craft, the availability of the raw materials through this project and seek the valued views of the learned scholars and persons having interest on the subject.




In Orissa, Palm leaf manuscripts are available mostly in Gadjata areas and Brahmana - sasans. 

It may not be an exaggeration to mention that almost all the important villages in Orissa possesses palm leaf manuscripts. It is a trait of culture and symbol of erudition to possess a palm

leaf manuscript like the Bhagvata and Ramayana which are daily read to the inmates of the house by an elderly member of the family, though this tradition is gradually losing significance.


Generally important palm leaf manuscripts are preserved in mathas, temples, palaces of rajas, bhagavatatungis or the community houses and with Zamindars, Brahmin pundits and karana families. We find large varieties of illustrated palmleaf manuscripts in different parts of Orissa. Basing on their thematic contents, these are grouped as under – 


1. Vaishnava manuscripts – Ramayana, Bhagavata, Gitagovinda and Other manuscripts based on Krishna themes.

2. Imaginary Kavyas

3. Sakta manuscripts

4. Silpasastras

5. Ragachitra

6. Chitrakavyas

7. Kamasutra

8. Tantric manuscripts

9. Manuscripts on dance and music

10. Other manuscripts



The Ramayana was translated into Oriya by Balarama Dasa in the fifteenth century. This is popularly known as Jagamohana Ramayana or Dandi Ramayana. Besides, we get several other versions of the Oriya Ramayana in Orissa. But none of these is illustrated.


The Adhyatma Ramayana of the poet Gopala is in the collection of Orissa State Museum, the Vaidehisa Vilasa of Upendra Bhanja in a private collection and portions of the illustrated Ramayana manuscripts are found in the National Museum, New Delhi, Birla Academy of Fine Arts, Calcutta, the Astutosh Museum, Calcutta, the Jagdish and Kamal Museum of the Indian Art, Hyderabad and the Alice boner Collections, Zurich all of which provide a wide variety of style and pictorial depiction and belongs to nineteenth century. We have not been able to examine it thoroughly.


The earliest Ramayana illustrations are in the National Museum, New Delhi, and can be placed in the eighteenth century basing on its style. Belonging to the present century are a few Ramayana illustrations depicting a crude style, in the collection of Berhampur University.


A few loose sheets without the text are in a private collection in a village near Purushottampur and also belong to the present century. Besides other illustrations on Ramayana, Ramabhisheka illustrations on horizontally joined palm-leaves are in the Orissa State Museum.



The first Oriya Bhagavata, composed by Jagannatha Das, appeared in fifteenth century. This became extremely popular in Orissa and its daily recital was made acceptable all over Orissa through Bhagavatatungis. For this reason Bhagavata manuscripts were in demand in hundreds and thousands and the scribes had to produce without illustrations to meet the requirement of the period. Probably this was the reason why illustrated Bhagavata manuscripts are not available otherwise they would have demanded more time and energy on the part of the scribes, either to illustrated originally or to copy.


In Orissa, we have demanded more time and energy on the part of the scribes, either to illustrate originally or to copy. In Orissa, we have two illustrated pothis, one the Bhagavata in the collections of the Orissa State Museum and the other Sachitra Bhagavata with a dated colophon belonging to the eighteenth century in the Sambalpur University. An eighteenth century illustrated Bhagavata Manuscripts is in the collection of the British Museum, London. It has most appealing colour illustrations.



The largest collection of Gita Govinda palm-leaf manuscripts is in Orissa. The Orissa State Museum has manuscripts which testify to its opulence in the land of the poet. Besides, Gita Govinda manuscripts are also in the collections of the Asutosh Museum, Calcutta National Museum, New Delhi, New Delhi, L.D. Institute, Ahmedabad, British Museum and India Office Library, London, Museum Rietberg, Switzerland and other private collections in India and abroad.


Basing on the dated colophon the earliest GitaGovinda manuscript can be placed in the seventeenth century. But style wise the manuscripts bearing the catalogue No. Ext. 44 seems earlier than the above. The illustrations are in full colour and carry unmistakable traces of early Eastern traditions. The earliest illustrated Gita Govinda is dated to the fifteenth century in Western India. The tradition of illustrating the Gita Govinda does not seem to have died down because we get illustrated Gita Govindas with pictorial renderings of the present century.


Gita Govindas illustrations are prolific not only in Orissa but in almost all the schools of paintings in India except in the South. The popularity of the theme, its mood of lyricism, romanticism and erotic flavor have inspired artists to illustrate it in all its possible renderings. Gita Govinda with its vast pictorial depictions can claim to be the most prolific Krishna kavya in India.



These are themes fabricated out of pure imagination without any root in history or epics. These kavyas are centered around the love between prince and princess, their first meetings, adventures, love, separation and final union.


These have been written profusely in the 17-18th centuries. Some of these are Usabhilasha, Lavanyavati and Chitralekh. The Orissa State Museum has about five Ushabhilasha illustrated manuscripts. An exquisitely illustrated Lavanyabati manuscript is in the collection of Abeya Subudhi of Mundamarei village in the district of Ganjam which was written by Raghunath Prusti belong to the same village.

The manuscript has been elaborately illustrated with several repetitions or extensive use of illustrative sequences because it is said that the scribe illustrator used to get his daily rations from the family of Abeya Subudhi by supplying an illustrated folio a day. Abeya Subudhi does not allow anybody either to photograph or examine the manuscripts. Identical in style with the Abeya Subudhi manuscripts are a few illustrated Lavanyavati leaves in the Alice Boner Collection, Zurich. There are a few leaves of a Chitralekha manuscripts of earlier date than the Lavanyavati in the collection of the Asutosh Museum, Calcutta.


Authors are Prafulla Kumar Samantaray & Debi Prasanna Nanda.


Prafulla Kumar Samantaray is scholar in cultural subjects of Odisha. He has served as district culture officer, Puri and retired as Deputy Director, Dept. of Culture, Government of Odisha. He has also worked as a senior fellow on the subject “Sahi Jatra: The folk festival of Puri” of Centre for Cultural Research & Training (CCRT), Govt. of India. He has written several articles & investigative write-ups for several magazines and periodicals. 


Debi Prasanna Nanda is a scholar on heritage, literature and traditional arts in Odisha. A few books have been published to his credit on the subject of Applique craft of Odisha and traditional artisans associated with Sri Jagannatha Temple in Puri. Presently he is working as a senior fellow on the subject, “Appropriation of Illustration with text in ancient Palm leaf manuscripts of Odisha” Centre for Cultural Research & Training (CCRT), Govt. of India. A number of articles on the above subjects written by him have been published. 



1. Traditional Paintings of Orissa - Dinanath Pathy

2. Descriptive Catalogue of Illustrated Manuscripts - Orissa State Museum

3. Illustrated Palmleaf Manuscripts of Orissa- Orissa State Museum

4. Chitra-Pothi- J.P Das

5. Essence of Orissan Paintings - Dinanath Pathy

6. Palm-leaf etchings of Orissa - Durga Prashad Patnaik


Pictures sent are extract of different books and Internet may be used a required as samples of the etching work on Palm leaf. eSamskriti claims no credits or copyright to pictures. 

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