The annual International Book Exhibition held in Sri Lanka from September 14 to 22 is a popular event. This is a time for all of us to reflect on the contribution made by books towards the progress of human culture. The art of writing and books, have moulded human history.
From ancient times Bhikkhus have been associated with the art of writing and the earliest printed books in the world were primarily religious works.
In the history of religious literature, Sri Lanka enjoys a prestigious position. It was in ancient Sri Lanka that the Buddha’s teachings were recorded in books for the first time.
The event took place under the royal patronage of King Vattagamini Abhaya, also known as Valagamba.
The annual Book Fair is a much-looked-forward-to event
Two thousand and forty years ago, the king convened an assembly of erudite Bhikkhus and invited them to record the Buddha’s word in book-form. The historical event took place at Aloka Vihara (Alu Vihara) in Matale.
According to traditional lore, the outcome of the sacred literary initiative was the production of an extensive series of ola-leaf books. According to some traditional sources, the ola -leaf books when heaped together, were as tall as nine elephants.
Prior to the Royal patronage of King Vattagagamini Abhaya, the Buddha’s doctrine was passed down through the oral tradition. Had that process continued, some segments of the Buddha’s dispensation would have vanished forever.
It is from Sri Lanka that the written Buddhist scriptures were sent to many parts of the world. The Chinese pilgrim Fa-Hsien came over to Sri Lanka to study and copy the written scripture from ola leaves.
While we hold the International Book Fair we have to assign a special day to remember the writing of the Buddhist doctrine on ola leaves. We can hold seminars, exhibitions and public lectures to mark the event.
This will enable even the younger generation to appreciate our achievement in preserving the Buddhist literature.
The International Book Fair will help the younger generation to have a deference for the printed word. They are fast getting alienated from books. Their lives have been dominated by electronic and digital equipment.
The world population is about seven billion. The planet earth is 4.5 billion years old. And, men have inhabited the world for about 50,000 years.
An outstanding achievement during this period people have developed their creative skills in writing. For that matter, almost all the ancient cultures had their specific forms of writing. The Egyptian civilisation which flourished on the Nile valley was one of the oldest human communities to have an advanced system of writing.
The writing material they used was papyrus, a form of reed that grew profusely. The pith of this plant was processed into writing material.
A scribe or a religious person wrote on papyrus with brush and ink.
This way, from the earliest times, priests were associated with the art of writing and the production of books.
What is noteworthy is that, the scribes put down literally and accurately, what the King (the Pharaoh) dictated.
In consequence, the ancient decrees of the Egyptian rulers had a prefatory phrase: “Thus was it said by the Great Palace (Pharaoh). So was it written down. So shall it be done.”
The rulers, evidently, were not well educated. But, the scribes had to be careful, that the Royal Decree was accurately written. Any lapse would have cost them their life.
This form of writing was called ‘hieroglyphics’ (writing done by priests). It flourished about 4,000 years ago.
In the Mesopotamian culture (The culture of the Babylonians) the writing material that was widely available was the clay. With the flooding of twin Rivers – Euphrates and Tigris – layers of clay became almost a permanent geographical feature.
The ancient people made characters in the wet-clay, with tiny chisels and dried the clay tablet in the sun. Since, the letters were formed with chisels this variety of writing was called cuneiform (chisel-made). One of the world’s oldest libraries was in Ancient Babylon – in the city of Nineveh. It included the literature of the neighbouring people as well.
In ancient Greece, the writing was done on parchments, the skin of goats and sheep.
The parchment book had two handles, one on each side. The reader unrolls the parchment and comes to the end of one line. The second line begins below the end of the first line. This system of writing was described as boustrophedon (Turning like oxen in ploughing).
The greatest contribution to the human skill of writing and book production came from ancient Chinese culture. They gave the world, mankind’s most popular writing material, paper.
They printed books, using blocks of smoothened wood. They would write the text in ink and brush, on a piece of paper and would press that wet-ink text on the surface of the smoothened wood-block surface. The text gets printed on the wood-block surface in a mirror version.
Then each character is cut, so that the surface of the letter will stand out. Then once again, the surface is inked and a blank-paper was pressed on to it. Then the proper version of the text appears on paper. This was called block-printing.
But, this had a disadvantage. For each page of a book, a separate block had to be made and that block can be used only for that book. But, the ancient Chinese got over this problem by making a block for each letter. This system is called movable type. That kind of letter can be used anywhere it is needed.
The first book to be printed in the whole of human history was Saddharmapundarika, printed by the Chinese. This way, mankind’s first printed book is a Buddhist Sutra.
Printing spread from China to various countries. In 770 A.D. Empress Shotoku of Japan had a million dharanis (prayer-charms ) printed for free distribution as an act of merit.
Guttenberg’s first book, 42-line Mainz Bible was printed in 1453.
In Sri Lanka and in many Asian regions, the widely used writing material was the ola leaf.
In the old monasteries of Sri Lanka the Bhikkhus were dedicated throughout their life-time to the writing of the sacred books.
To make ola-leaf books, the tender leaf of a palm was made use of. It was dried and cut into long strips. Words were written on it with the stylus. Then the page was brushed with soot to make the writing appear clearly.
The pages are perforated on two sides. A thread is passed through those perforations. Two covers hold the ola-leaf pages together. In most instances, these ola -leaf covers are elaborately painted with various traditional motifs.
Printing was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Dutch Governor Van Imhof in 1739. One cannot help but wonder why printing did not reach Sri Lanka from China, much earlier. Fa Shien the Chinese pilgrim records, that he was moved by seeing a paper fan offered to a shrine at Anuradhapura.
This was obviously presented by a Chinese devotee. If paper fans were brought here, one wonders why the art of printing was not introduced by the Chinese, in those early days.
Today, in Sri Lanka, printing is quite advanced and sophisticated. But, when we celebrate the annual book exhibition we must be mindful of the need to use the printed word to uplift our culture and to guide the younger generation towards higher moral values.
The writer is the Chief Incumbent of Japan Naritasan Joso Temple, The Founder, Daham Sevane Singiththo, The International Development Foundation