Blessed is the paper, reed-pen, ink-pot and ink,
blessed is the scribe; who inscribes truth.
Most historic Gurbani scriptures were written in the region of Panjab. This was part of a larger region which incorporated the entire basin of the Indus river system. This region includes the modern territories of East Panjab (India), West Panjab (Pakistan), Himachal Pradesh (India) Jammu and Kashmir (India and Pakistan) as well as portions of Sindh (Pakistan), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Pakistan), Haryana (India) and Rajasthan (India).
From collection: The Himalayan Climate and Water Atlas
Cartographer: Riccardo Pravettoni
As with other regions in South Asia, it had an extra-ordinarily rich tradition of paper-making. Sadly, this tradition had mostly ended by the mid-20th century. Handmade paper was fundamental to the development of artistic and book-making traditions. Yet, there has been no technical analysis of historical specimens or the development of a typology for categorising them. Since almost all Sikh manuscripts were all written on handmade papers, a database of Indus river basin papers would be of great benefit for the study of Sikh manuscripts. In conjunction to palaeography (study of handwriting) and textual analysis, this could shed light on the region and time period when a specific manuscript was produced.
The Initial Project
The Dhan Su Kagad project (translated as “blessed is the paper” in honour of Guru Nanak Dev Ji's verse) was conceived to fulfil this purpose by surveying a representative sample of papers from the Sikh tradition. The project began in 2018 when it was awarded the Frederick Bearman Research Grant.
The grant helped fund a research trip to Amritsar where we were privileged enough to survey the papers of over 20 Gurmukhi manuscripts. Following on from this, a selection of Gurmukhi manuscripts from UK collections were also studied and around 50 data specimens were collected in total. We chose to initially focus on the Sikh tradition due to its importance for Pothi Seva and the fact that it covers a wide time-span from the 15th to the 20th century. The survey involved recording a wide variety of physical features in order to understand how differences in tools, methods and materials.
Snippets of this research were shared in blogpost you can read here. A more in-depth overview of this research was presented at the Frederick Bearman Memorial Lecture in December 2018.
At the end of the initial project, it became clear this was a topic which required more in-depth research before we could describe papers accurately and assign them to specific regions or time periods more confidently. This has led Jasdip Singh Dhillon to commence a PhD at SOAS (University of London) in order to study this topic in further depth. This involved expanding the scope to include papers made in the entire Indus river basin region. As well as Gurmukhi manuscripts, this will include the papers of Mughal manuscripts, Pahari paintings as well as archival documents.
This project will examine how changes in papermaking reflect wider processes of historical change by linking changes in the physical features of historic papers to changes to the physical and human landscape of the Indus river basin region. As a by-product of human activity, handmade paper can be studied as an artefact in itself. Changes in colour, thickness and texture can be indicative of wider events and processes including wars, invasions and shifts in agriculture. There will be two main aims to this research:
I. Build a taxonomy of paper types to help describe paper
II. Explore the wider factors which shaped the features of these paper types
In addition to basic textual and codicological data, the following measurements are being recorded for all manuscripts and artworks selected for study.
Concentration of laid lines
Chain line patterns
Fibre appearance under a microscope
Technical categorisation of colour according to the Munsell system