last month
next month

Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

07/2012 manuscript  of the month

The Rare Case of a User-Friendly Tamil Manuscript

Tamil manuscripts of commentaries on, for example, grammatical treatises or literary texts, are presenting a challenge to the reader. As a rule, Tamil manuscripts are written in some sort of scriptio continua: there is no separation of words, and punctuation is minimal. In the case of a commentary (Tamil urai), another difficulty is the split-up of the root-text (Tamil mūlam or pāṭam) into small sections, each such section being followed by explanations. If a reader wants to look up a specific passage in the commentary, he will have difficulty in finding it quickly while browsing pages which are uniformly filled with characters. Did a Tamil scribe ever think of the usability of a commentary for future readers and provided solutions to improve it?

fig.1: Tirumurukāṟṟuppaṭaikkup Parimēlaḻakiyar Uraipāṭam, BNF Indien 66, title page

At least, there was one such copyist in the first half of the 19th century, as shown by a palm-leaf manuscript of the text and commentary of the Tirumurukāṟṟuppaṭai, which according to its title page is attributed to Parimēlaḻakiyar (fig. 1; Vinson 1867: 21 dates the manuscript to ca. 1830). This manuscript, which was once part of the private collection of Édouard Ariel (1818–1854), a colonial administrator in Pondicherry, was bequeathed by him to the Société Asiatique in Paris and now belongs to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

The Tirumurukāṟṟuppaṭai (“The sacred guide towards Muruku”) was probably composed in the 7th century. It is a poem consisting of 317 verses focussed on the devotion of Murukaṉ, a major Hindu god in the Tamil region. The importance of this text is evinced by the large number of extant manuscripts as well as numerous commentaries.

The manuscript from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France is quite exceptional because it does not present the usual format, as described above. It is written in scriptio continua, but the root-text and the commentary are clearly separated, each having been assigned a particular area on the pages. The title of the work reflects this, as it is not simply worded “commentary (urai) of the Tirumurukāṟṟuppaṭai,” but rather “commentary (and) text (urai-pāṭam) of the Tirumurukāṟṟuppaṭai”, as indicated on the title page (fig. 1). Given the date of this manuscript, one may ask oneself whether the copyist was influenced by the printed editions of classical Tamil texts that started to be published in that period where new and clearer ways of presenting texts on a page were adopted.

fig.2: BNF Indien 66, first folio unnumbered, recto

In the present manuscript, except for the first page (fig. 2) - which is not the text with proper commentary as it contains a blessing (in the left margin) and two stanzas added later - the pages are indeed divided into two parts (fig. 3): the commented text may be found on the left side, whereas the commentary is on the right side. Moreover, curly brackets are used on both sides to indicate precisely to which part of the text each portion of the commentary corresponds.

A further facilitation for the user would have been to arrange the root-text metrically, i.e. one verse per line (for instance, on the recto of folio 10, only in lines 3 and 6 does the beginning of the line match the beginning of a verse, see fig. 3), but this was unfeasible in the present case because the commentary of a verse, at times, overlaps with words from the previous and next verse.

fig.3: BNF Indien 66, folio 10, recto

Regarding the commentary itself, the title page (fig. 1) attributes it to Parimēlaḻakiyar whereas we know of a commentary by Parimēlaḻakar (13th century?), otherwise known as commentator of other classical Tamil texts. This commentary by Parimēlaḻakar on the Tirumurukāṟṟuppaṭai was published at least twice and is extant, according to the most recent survey, in only one manuscript (U. V. Swaminatha Iyer Library, Chennai, acc. no. 1072). Several scholars considered it as apocryphal. As a matter of fact, the commentaries by Parimēlaḻakiyar from Paris and Parimēlaḻakar from Chennai do not provide the same text. One has to conclude either that Parimēlaḻakiyar and Parimēlaḻakar are not the same person, or that both commentaries are of a later date and have been apocryphally attributed to the renowned commentator Parimēlaḻakar.

The Paris manuscript attests to the care the copyist (or the person commissioning the copy) took for the reader. In the present state of knowledge about Tamil manuscripts, we are not able to determine whether this is truly an isolated case, but among the 17 manuscripts with commentaries on the Tirumurukāṟṟuppaṭai which are at our disposal, the Paris manuscript is the only one that separates the text and the commentary from one another in such a particular way. Even nowadays a reader is quite grateful to the thoughtful and considerate copyist.

ROSNY, Léon de (1869): “La bibliothèque tamoule de M. Ariel, de Pondichéry”, in: Variétés orientales, 2nd ed., Paris: Maisonneuve, pp. 177–224.
VINSON, Julien (1867): Manuscrits tamouls, [Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale].

Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Indien 66
Palm-leaf, 36,5 x 3 cm
36 folios (title page; 1 folio unnumbered; 34 folios with original numbering from 1 to 34)
Tamil Nadu (India), ca. 1830

Text by Emmanuel Francis
© for all images: Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF).