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'Sanchipat' - An Exquisite Heritage of Assam

04 Jul,2023 05:37 PM, by: Anushthatri Sharma
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In the bygone era, when the paper was yet to grace the lands of Assam, manuscripts were lovingly inscribed upon the delicate canvas of tree bark. The timeless art of crafting Sanchipat, the cherished writing sheets, is shrouded in the mystique of antiquity. Let us delve into the intricate process, where the bark of the Sanchi tree (Aquilariasinensis) takes on a new life, immortalizing the wisdom and artistry of ancient Assam.


The journey begins by carefully selecting a Sanchi tree of mature age, boasting a girth of about 30 to 50 inches, and a growth spanning nearly fifteen or sixteen years. Such distinguished trees are favored, as their resilience wards off the ravages of mites and other insidious insects. With deft precision, the collector wields a sharp, pointed knife, marking a designated area on the tree trunk, akin to the delicate removal of bark from a tender Banana tree. Gradually, the collector peels away the bark, mindful of preserving its integrity, transforming it into pliable strips fit for the creation of revered manuscripts. These strips are then attentively rolled, ensuring the inner, white part remains protected, and left to bask in the sun's gentle embrace for several days, allowing nature's kiss to bestow them with strength and resilience.

Once the bark has been sufficiently dried, it undergoes a profound transformation, as it is submerged in water for a span of three to four days. Emerging from this watery immersion, the bark is cut into smaller, manageable pieces, and once again left to dry under the sun. It is now time for the delicate refinement process to commence, facilitated by a special knife known as Jon Kotari. This unique blade, resembling a crescent moon, finds its purpose on a robust wooden block, skillfully coaxing the outer, scaly layer of the bark to yield. The meticulous process is repeated on the inner, white portion, extracting a glue-like substance that enhances the bark's texture. Each side is carefully polished using a burnt brick, and lovingly rubbed until a smooth surface is achieved.

To prepare for the final stage of this enchanting metamorphosis, a paste is concocted, blending the vibrant hues of Haital (yellow arsenic), maṭimah (black gram), and bel atha (bel glue). This amalgamation, lovingly applied to both sides of the bark, infuses it with a captivating allure. Once again, the bark undergoes a diligent drying process, followed by gentle caresses from a traditional tool called 'ghilaguti,' which further refines its surface. A final touch of finesse is bestowed by the skilled hands of artisans, using a koṅch, ensuring the bark's transformation into a canvas of sublime elegance. At long last, the arduous journey culminates, and the strips stand resplendent, ready to embrace the ink of poets and the strokes of artists.

Abundant in the verdant landscapes of Assam, the graceful Sanchi tree, also known as Aloe, not only bestows its bark for the creation of Sanchipat but yields precious oil from its tender heartwood. This oil, renowned for its quality, has long been cherished and exported to the Western regions of Asia. However, when it comes to the noble pursuit of manuscript writing and illustration, the Sanchi tree's bark takes center stage. Even Sir Edward Gait, the eminent British historian, in his renowned work, "A History of Assam," paid homage to this age-old craft. He eloquently recounts, "A tree is chosen, having grown for approximately fifteen or sixteen years, with a girth of 30 to 50 inches, measured four feet from the ground. The bark is meticulously stripped in elongated sections, ranging from 6 to 18 feet in length and 3 to 27 inches in breadth. These precious strips, carefully rolled with the inner, white side embraced, bask under the sun's warm gaze for numerous days. Then, by hand and with gentle strokes upon a sturdy surface, the outer, scaly layer is tenderly removed. In the embrace of dew-filled nights, the outer layer, known as 'nikari,' is shed, revealing the essence of the bark. Trimmed into manageable fragments, measuring 9 to 27 inches in length and 3 to 18 inches in width, they are immersed in cold water, extracting any remaining impurities. A skilled hand then adroitly scrapes the surface smooth with a knife, inviting the sun's caress for half an hour, and gently polishing it with a piece of burnt brick. The bark, now transformed to the hues of golden yellow with a paste derived from the phaseous radius and tinged with yellow arsenic, undergoes another cycle of sun drying. And thus, the strips are lovingly rubbed, akin to marble's sublime texture. Finally, the journey reaches its pinnacle, and the strips stand adorned, ready to embrace the whispers of quills and the strokes of artistic genius."

Within the Sanchipat, lies a profound essence, possessing qualities that draw seekers of knowledge and artisans alike. Its bitterness and pungency, a testament to its distinctive character, beckon discerning minds to inscribe their thoughts upon its noble surface. Remarkably lightweight, yet fortified with strength, it offers no resistance to the nib of the pen, eagerly accepting the wisdom it seeks to preserve. And in moments of peril, it stands resolute, displaying its remarkable resistance to fire, safeguarding the wisdom entrusted to its care.

In the heartlands of Assam, where ancient traditions intertwine with nature's bounty, the art of Sanchipat stands as a testament to the ingenuity and reverence of its people. Like a symphony of words and images, written upon the bark's tender embrace, this cherished heritage unfolds, inviting us to appreciate the sublime beauty of this distinctive Assamese treasure.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Critical Script or its editor.

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