Like the codex in Europe, so the palm leaf manuscript in the Indic world admitted limitless variation; it was a focus for traditions and trends not only of learning itself but also of calligraphy, painting, metalwork, carving and papermaking. Books manifested levels of prestige, and as objects reveal things about their owners and makers long after history forgot their very names. Different periods and different cultures produced their own distinctive traditions: Burmese manuscripts are sometimes so heavily lacquered that the palm leaf itself is lost altogether; Tibetans and many ancient Central Asians, lacking a ready supply of palm leaves, substituted paper or birchbark. But the form itself remained fixed, shared, universal: leaves which are flipped forward, bound into covers with cords.

In Sri Lanka, where both types of palm leaf used in manuscripts - tal kola, a small, but especially heavy leaf, and pus kola, a broad and long but thin leaf - grow in abundance, the palm leaf itself has remained the sine qua non of a book. Making a Sri Lankan palm leaf manuscript was no easy matter. Typically, the leaves were cut from the tree, boiled and then smoothed out, dried, stacked, cut to size, polished, punched and burnished before writing even began. The prepared leaves - exhibited are examples of tal kola and pus kola - were then incised with styluses such as these (the stylus, like the manuscript, was an important canvas for artistic craft in its own right). The incised letters were then "inked", rubbed with powdered graphite or other minerals, or even charcoal; when the leaves were polished the letters appeared in a bold black or blue. Ms. #48 (see appendix), generally illustrative of fine book-making at its best, includes sections of uninked leaves.

The British, who were fascinated with Sri Lankan foliage in general and palm trees in particular, showed virtually no interest - at least so far as their representations go - in traditional book culture. However carefully manuscripts were acquired for Western libraries and studied and edited by Western scholars, travelogues and ethnographies and boxed sets of stereo views might make one question whether Sri Lankans had any tradition of higher learning at all.