THE IMPERIAL CODEX

These fine manuscripts - note the lacquered covers, the lovely calligraphy, the perfectly matched leaves - suggest the material trappings of the form: the thing was appreciated quite apart from the knowledge it purveyed. But books became a focus of such lavish attention only because they were valued as books. Ms. #9 contains a 13th c. poetic masterpiece every bit as beautiful as the manuscript itself; Ms. #3 contains Buddhist sermons believed to have magical efficacy, recited throughout Sri Lanka for centuries. The significance of the text motivated all efforts to make the book beautiful. The British introduction of moveable-type printing, papermaking and codex bookbinding had a mixed impact on indigenous traditions of learning and material culture. On one hand, these innovations were welcome revolutions. Suddenly, important texts could be disseminated on a scale that could keep up with demand. Between about 1860 and 1960, huge numbers of arcane products of Sri Lankan scholasticism, formerly preserved in specialized Buddhist monastic libraries and scriptoria, were published in full runs and sold. Exhibited here are codex runs from the 1890's of the same text that graces Ms. #9. It is worth noting that the appreciation of fine bookmaking carried over into an appreciation of fine codex binding.

But the birth of the Sri Lankan codex was the death of the palm leaf manuscript. The economic and monastic institutions that formerly kept the tradition going simply disappeared; manuscripts no longer needed to be produced nor read, obviating the need for the lacquerers and carvers and growers and cutters and scribes formerly in high demand. The care with which a manuscript must be made and read and kept became a nuisance; the flexibility of the book form (more leaves can always be added) became a liability and basis for suspicion. The once-widespread skills of making and reading palm leaf manuscripts have become virtually extinct in the 20th century, apart from handfuls of families which still preserve and practice ancestral healing traditions. Worse, white ants, bookworms, mold, mice, heat, floods, social upheavals and a severe paper shortage during the 1960's, during which booksellers' stocks were most lucratively sold by the kilo, have made the codices sometimes rarer than the manuscripts they supposedly replaced! Now not only the book form, but the very knowledge it preserved for millennia, is in danger of disappearing forever. Facing the problem which led to the invention of book culture in the first place, Buddhists sponsored a large project to re-inscribe printed texts onto palm leaves, illustrated in this 1984 photograph, currently underway at the very Sri Lankan temple where the first palm leaf manuscripts were made 2100 years ago. The modern book in palm leaf manuscript format exhibited here was published in homage to this book form by contemporary book artist Barbara Tetenbaum, in collaboration with the Whitman Books Arts Program and with funding from the President's Hewlett-Mellon fund (August, 1995). It contains a translation of the same text seen in Ms. #3.