What is an ola?

Our last few posts in this blog have focused on the medical objects in Casey Wood’s collections, about 200 items in all. Casey Wood also collected around the same number of palm leaf manuscripts, or ‘olas’, many of which are in the Osler library and the Rare Books Department at McGill.

What is an ‘ola’? Andreas Nell published a short article on this subject, entitled ‘Ceylon (Sinhalese) Ola or Book Manuscripts on Early Medicines and How They Were Made’ in the Ceylon Observer Annual of 1932. Casey Wood added his thoughts in an unpublished piece entitled simply ‘Medical Olas’. Taken together, these two pieces provide an in-depth description of the complex processes of making these beautiful books.

The palm leaves used to make the ola are either the Talipat palm (Corypha umbrculifera) or, usually in the north of Sri Lanka, the Palmyra (Borassus flabellifer).

Talipot palm in the Royal Botanical Garden, Peradeniya

Talipot palm in the Royal Botanical Garden, Peradeniya

As Nell notes, the unfinished book is called the karakola and is usually used for children who are learning to write with the blunt stylus (ulkatuwa). The finished product is the puskola. Casey Wood explains how the palm leaves are prepared, dried, and stored:

The material used is not the mature leaf, but is taken from the unopened spathe containing the immature fronds. After due preparation it appears as a hard, tough strip resembling papyrus. The strips are exposed to the dew for three nights, after which point they become supple.

When there is no immediate demand, the strips are tidily rolled into reels measuring 12 inches or more across and put into storage for later completion of the process. Where there is immediate demand the process is completed without storage. A short length of the hard trunk of the Areca palm is planed and polished very smooth, fastened horizontally about two or three feet from the ground to two adjoining areca nut trees or posts in the monastery yard. The ola strip is placed across the smooth cylindrical bar, the stalk-end weighed by a heavy stone, which is pulled up and down to smoothen and polish the leaf. The leaf is then turned over and the process continues on the smooth areca nut trunk.

The stripes are then cut into the required lengths, depending on the directions of the scribe. After cutting into the required sizes, binding into piles is usual: and for this the olas are perforated. The two perforations are exactly mid-way between the long sides; the position between the ends is determined by an ancient rule given in a Sanskrit quatrain.

The next step, the binding, is ‘a sort of filling’. Two flat boards, slightly larger than the ola page are perforated to correspond to the holes in the ola; two smooth pegs are fastened into the holes in the board on the inner side; on these projecting pegs, the olas are strung in an even pile, the pack then being closed by the other board being placed over the pegs and the whole tied with string. The edges of the book olas are singed with a hot iron to clear them of stray fibres and the firm, compact bundle is stored away in a book-cupboard. If known, the correct number of pages were made up and numbered at this stage.

As Nell explains, not only the space between the perforations, but also the width of the book has been set at the standard width (two and a quarter inches) since ancient time. The length of the book is variable, as is the number of pages it includes. The largest ola manuscript in the Casey Wood collection contains over seven hundred leaves.

Copy of the Yogaratnakaraya made in 1710, Osler Library

Copy of the Yogaratnakaraya made in 1710, Osler Library

Once the palm leaves have been prepared and marked in other with letters of the Sinhala alphabet, they can be made into the finished product, being sandwiched between two boards known as ‘kamba’.

The painted kamba boards and ola cords

The painted kamba boards and ola cords

Casey Wood describes the packaging of the ola:

The ola book is a beautiful object, the button or medallion attached to the cord can be an old coin, or cut out of crystal, carved ebony, ironwood, or another beautiful wood, or engraved horn, ivory, silver, copper or brass; rarely of gold or silver or studded with gems. The cord is long because according to an old Sanskrit sloka, it has to be passed around the book a certain number of times: ten strings at top, five in the middle, three and three and pairs across. The material of the cord is cotton or fibres of the wild hemp, Niyanda, in Sinhalese (Sansevieria Zeylanica), sometimes called bowstring hemp. The fibres are not bleached but are dyed, again according to very specific rules: four strands plaited, of which two are white, one is blue and one red. The blue dye is from indigo and the red of Pattingi, or the sappanwood of the Caesalpinia sappan, a complicated process described in old Sinhalese craftsmen’s books. If war or other causes interfered with the import of indigo, both strands were red.

Now comes the time to write in the ola. The writing must be scratched into the surface of the palm leaf using a sharp stylus, an instrument between six and eight inches in length, the parts and proportions of which are also determined by custom:

The stylus had a sharp pointed lower end made of steel. One edge of the upper-most part called the Chatra, was a sharp blade or saw, used for trimming the ola or cutting of a piece of it. The body of the stylus was damascened with gold, silver, brass or copper…

The top part, called the Chatra (umbrella), resembles the Talipat leaf when used as an umbrella. The Patra (leaf) is the flat part like a lead and was generally decorated, the nala (pipe) was a tube-like part, generally ribbed or beaded, and the ganda (knob) was always a smooth, round part.

Two styli from the Casey Wood collection

Two styli from the Casey Wood collection

Three eighteenth-century styli in the Kandy National Museum

Three eighteenth-century styli in the Kandy National Museum

As Casey Wood notes, the best examples of writing produced with these instruments were extremely beautiful and often compared to a string of pearls. He explains how the scribes achieved this effect:

If left-handed, the scribe had a notch cut in his left thumbnail to rest the stylus at that angle, and used the stylus in scratching the decorations and letters. For long pages and regular work, the ola was rested on a board or table, but for any short lines or an occasional writing the leaf could be held in the fingers of the left hand. To make the writing stand out clearly, the ola was rubbed all over with a mixture of resin oil and lamp-black, which sank into the scratchings, the excess being wiped away with a clean cloth. The oil was previously made from a resin called dummella, by a process now little understood.

A medical ola in the Osler library, showing text and mandala diagrams

A medical ola in the Osler library, showing text and mandala diagrams

As well as the text, the olas often contain diagrams. More about those in the next post.





2 responses to “What is an ola?”

  1. Pauline Challoner says:

    I have found what appears to be an Ola. It’s very simple and doesn’t really match the description as to size (it’s only 4,5 x 20,5 cm) and the binding holes are very small. Aldo, written by two different hands maybe and some of the leaves have been cut to fit at one End.
    Can sens photos if interested.
    Octobre 22

  2. annawinterbottom says:

    Hi Pauline, Yes a photo would be interesting. Sometimes the sizes do vary. Where did you find it? Thanks, Anna

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