Book and Sutra

Palm leaf manuscripts.

Palm Leaf Manuscript, Sri Lanka: E19209B

Palm Leaf Manuscript, Sri Lanka: E19209B
Photographer: Stan Florek © Australian Museum

A codex was a book as we know it that appeared first in the ancient Roman Empire in the first century of the Common Era (CE). Replacing papyrus scroll, inherited from Egyptian tradition, it became a dominant form of book by the 4th century.

Codex offered significant advantages. Unlike scroll, it allows writing on both sides of a sheet of parchment or paper and, importantly, it permits an easy and rapid access to any part of the text, especially with numbered pages and indexing. In addition, hard cover binding of individual sheets made it better protected and portable. Early Christians from the beginning favoured codex for their scriptural writings, possibly to further distance themselves from Judaism where the Torah was firmly associated with a scroll.

At the time when Romans were experimenting with codex, in far away China the first sheets of paper were made. These two inventions, combined with printing pages using a wooden block, gave us the book we know, cherish and still read today.

In India and Sri Lanka, however, a somewhat different path was taken. As early as 5th century Before the Common Era (BCE), and probably much earlier, hand written manuscripts were produced. The text was inscribed on dry palm leaves strung together in the form of a ‘book’.

Unlike Jewish and Christian scripture, Vedas - Hindu sacred ‘texts’ of knowledge and wisdom were not written (until recently) but only memorised. To help in memorising this sacred wisdom, manuals or formulas were produced in a form of sayings (aphorisms). The word sutra, derived from Sanskrit means an aphorism, and the palm leaf ‘books’ developed into a distinct literary format based on short sayings (aphorisms), strung into longer texts of formulas.

But sutra also means a thread or a line that holds things together, thoughts and ideas as well as material objects such as the sheets of palm leaf. Adopted in Latin medical jargon suere indicates stitching the edges of a wound. So, sutra was such an ideal term to apply to a ‘book’ of aphorisms, linking collective ideas as well as literally holding palm leaves strung together with a cord.

More broadly sutra indicate Hindu and Buddhist religious texts that in the form of palm leaf manuscripts helped to propagate this faith through parts of Asia in the first millennium BCE and through the many centuries of the Common Era.

Known as lontar in Bali, palm leaf manuscripts are considered the most appropriate form of preserving centuries-old tradition. They are still used as the most important sources of knowledge on religion, medicine, law, literature, social conventions, and the overall wisdom of tradition.


Torah – is a central scripture of Judaism, an equivalent of the Christian Old Testament. Written in Biblical Hebrew it is a scroll which contains five major sections (books), beginning with the Book of Genesis.

Dr Stan Florek , Database Manager
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