Kashmiri Burzha: Manuscripts from India and Central Asia

The bark extensively used for writing books, manuscripts and making roofs of shrines
Silver Birch bark tree
Silver Birch bark treeAuthor

Kashmeri Burzha (birch bark) has served as the main source for the ancient Manuscripts of distant lands of India and Central Asia, Archaeologists have found number of such manuscripts which have been written on Bouj Pater, locally known as Burza pata which was supplied from Kashmir. Besides fulfilling the local manuscript needs, the locally found Burzha has also facilitated the materials for other lands too.

What is Burzha? it is a classical Kashmiri term which was used to refer paper like substance, in fact paper is also locally known as Kagaz, but the most popular term used to refer to paper has been Burzha.

Whenever my great grandfather required some paper sheet to write he would call me Beta, please fetch some burzha for me. In some cases when he would need some food item he would again call me; Son, bring a spoonful sugar but remember bring it in burzha.

Since I was a kid, had no understanding of this substance, but I was a bit familiar with the term. Whenever my great grandfather would ask for Burzha I could understand he is referring paper.

I observed it was not only my great grandfather, the other elderly people of my locality would also often use this term. I could understand Burzha has been some paper like substance which has been of multipurpose use in kashmiri society. It has been used for writing, as well for carrying bags.

Basically, these were birch sheets known here as Burza. It has been quite familiar tree in Kashmir as its bark was extensively used for writing books, manuscripts and making roofs of shrines and buildings.

These roofs were formed of wood and over the wooden loges a thick layer of birch bark was spread on its surface and finally covered with thick mud to give the final finish to mud roofed buildings in Kashmir.

Most of the buildings, walls and religious shrines built during 18th and 19th century were roofed with Burza sheets and such roofs here were known as Burza Push.

Besides its usage in constructions, it has also been used for writing purposes. The most ancient manuscripts of Kashmir were written on this material. The kashmiri pundits and Muslim Pirs would also use it for writing of their respective mantras and amulets.

Olden structures with Burzha Pash (earthen roofs)
Olden structures with Burzha Pash (earthen roofs)

It was so commonly used for different purposes that when handmade and machine made paper came into vogue, it also adopted here the same name and came to be pronounced as Burzha. This trend speaks volumes about the popularity of brich bark leaves. It was not only used locally but before the invention of the paper, birch has been exported to distant lands from Kashmir.

The research conducted by various scholars suggested that Kashmir Burzha has been major source of ancient manuscripts of India. They have found various ancient manuscripts which are written on kashmiri birch.

Lucy Zuber Buehler, a German Scholar in one of his research papers has claimed to have found one such birch bark manuscript where in early Indus script is written.

He says ‘Birch bark’, the thin peeling bark of a slender tree associated with Kashmir, has been the chief medium for early Indus writing and a major contributor to the flourishing of the country’s intellectual traditions.

Lucy Zuber Buehler, is a noted scholar on the Indus script, has been researching on Indo scripts and had discovered a bark manuscript containing the most common Indus valley signs, which has rekindled interest in the subject.

The discovery of this artifact – “consisting of a strip of what would appear to be several thin layers of bark with well-known Indus signs present on the bark manuscript is by itself of great significance. Buehler, who had worked for his thesis at the Institute of Linguistics, Historical Linguistics, University of Berne, says in his research work that many issues raised by his finding “still remain unresolved”.

Yet, if the “manuscript is not fake, then establishing the date of the strip of the birch bark would certainly lead the list of priorities which needs to be addressed in any further examination of this intriguing artefact.”

Quoting Buehler and some other scholars of this field, Dr Kalaynaraman, in his article says “Birch and Aloe Bark”- in Sanskrit ‘bhurja-patra’-, is a sheet cut out of the inner bark of the ‘bhurja’ or the ‘birch’ tree grown in the Himalayas.

 He further writes, In north India, “letters were generally written on birch-bark sheets”. Among the earliest birch-bark manuscripts so far discovered, we may count the Khotan copy of the Prakrit ‘Dhammapada (Buddhist Text)’, written in ‘Kharosthi’ characters around the 2nd or 3rd century CE.

Interestingly, he says, Kashmir was a “noted source” of the manufacturing of this material, which was also exported to Central Asia and to Punjab. “Birch bark was still being used for manuscript production as late as the 17th century,”.

The writing technique which evolved then on this “smooth, flat surface of birch-bark”, was later carried over to palm leaf and much later to paper. And the most common script used on the birch-bark manuscripts was the ‘Sarada script’, says Kalyanaraman.

One of the oldest manuscripts written in Sharda characters, dated to 6th and 7th century AD, is housed in SPS museum. It is a Buddhist manuscript and believed to have been very early discovered from a cave in Nowgam area of Gilget Baltistan region of undivided Kashmir.

Birch is a deciduous tree that has papery plates of bark. The wood is quite hard. In Kashmir, Silver Birch trees are found at a height of 9000 feet and above from sea level generally near meadows. a tree species (that generally grows in the elevation range of 3,000 to 4,200 metres (9,800 to 13,800 ft) in the Himalayas,

This kind of tree is still found on the higher reaches of the distant forests of Sonmarg, Phalgham, Shopian, Budgam and Kulgam areas.

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