The art of writing

Amal Chatterjee
10 min readJan 21, 2017
Source : Google photo

Man has from ancient times been known to write. He wrote about his life, his exploits, history, about war, about the wild life, his food, his clothes, his dwellings, his hunting and on everything one could imagine. The writing was invented by man for a solid reason. It was called posterity. People wrote because they wanted to leave something behind for others to know and follow. It could be a record of financial dealings, a record of taxes collected or a record of war. It could be record of genealogy so that people could know who descended from who and reigned as monarch for how long. Records were kept to detail the construction of massive projects like the pyramids or cities.

But the ancient man was just as anxious to write something about him except that he did not have paper and pen and did not have the alphabets so how did he go about writing? At first the primitive man who was not so primitive as you and I may suggest judging from his art and history he left behind in the caves of France or in sacred sites in Australia wrote using the means available to him namely the cave walls as writing surface and paint made from natural colors and minerals or plants.

He made exquisite paintings of animals, people, plants and recorded history in pictures since no system of writing as we know it today had developed. The native Americans used this method of writing using pictorials on animal hides recording wars, famine, invasion of whites, hunting scenes, their gods and demons, their daily lives, their arts and craft, in short a complete narrative in pictures of their life and history. Others like the Mayas and Incas had developed a system of writings using hieroglyphs and chiseled it on stones for eternity but also on barks and other medium. It took a long time for people to understand what they meant but slowly the symbols were deciphered so now experts and scholars can read them and are astonished at the wealth of information they get from these records.

Earlier the Egyptians had started recording their history in the hieroglyphs on stone and on animal hides, later parchments and later still on paper made from papyrus reeds. The Egyptians were masters at this art and scribes were employed to record anything and everything to suit the whims of the kings and also destroyed some writings because the new pharaoh wanted history to be rewritten so the phrase ‘history is written by victors” was born. The study of the evolution of writing is a very interesting topic because it shows the sheer ingenuity of man to develop a system that suited his purpose at the time. It could be the cuneiform writings of the ancient Sumerians that you can still see in some museums and see for the first time the Hammurabi codes chiseled in stone that has survived thousands of years of ravages of time and destruction due to warfare.

Before the paper was invented, people used clay tablets, flat board of wood or stone to write on. These baked tablets of clay in cuneiform show a wealth of information on how much and what was traded, giving a marvelous insight into the system that prevailed so long ago. So you can see an evolution in writing from the ancient times into what it has become today. Slowly and steadily the form and method as well as the medium evolved to reach the sophistication that exists today but it surely took a very long time if you count in years the time it took for the man to start writing but a very short time if you consider how long the mankind has been evolving from Lucy to the present time.

The Jews at the time of Moses and even before had started to write their Torahs and religious texts on paper using their own form of writing that persists even today and has little changed but Moses at one time used stones to chisel on God’s words as commandments because he too was thinking of posterity and to leave behind something more durable than paper or parchment. The Egyptians although had developed the paper also saw durability in stone so decorated the inner walls of the tombs with a written records chiseled into it although they also used bright paints to write their story as well because they knew that the pigments would be preserved in the desert heat and deep underground chambers cut into the stones where no daylight ever reaches.

The Jewish writings and Aramaic language that Jesus spoke lead the way to systematic recordings of the teachings of Jesus as has been found in Dead sea scrolls found at Qumran and pieces of gospel found in Egypt clearly showing the sophistication of Aramaic as a language that the scribes used to write so beautifully on parchments. The written language was clearly evolving and reaching its peak of sophistication long before Latin and Greek writings evolved in pre Roman period that gave rise to the modern alphabets that we use today. By the time of Jesus, all the writings were done either on parchment because of its durability or on hand made paper that can still be found in some museums in Israel or in England and it was done by scribes who wrote in beautiful handwriting called calligraphy using ink made from soot or burned ivory powder and even vegetable dyes. There was no printing press in those days although I will write about a system of printing in Tibet that still exists today a bit later in this article.

The Romans took the Latin as their language and left behind a treasure trove of papyrus or parchment scrolls on which they recorded everything of interest to them. They patronized the scribes lavishly to write and copy from other languages books, documents or other materials to furnish their libraries just like the Egyptians before them and left behind valuable records that we can still read. But the Romans were master builders just like the Egyptians so they too recorded their history in stone because stone is more durable than anything else. You can see these arches and ruins all over Europe and the Mediterranean where even the date of certain event is written if you can read the Roman system of writing them like LXCMMM etc. The numerals that we use today came partly from Arabic and from ancient Hindu scriptures that invented zero as O with the decimal system so the Roman way of writing date became gradually obsolete.

If you study the history of writing and its development over a long period, you will know that education was strictly limited to a few people so the vast majority of the population was kept out of education. The education was meant for the elites only who were the rulers and the decision makers so they felt no need for mass education and printing books for everyone like today. Besides there were no printing presses so everything was hand written meticulously by scribes who practically became blind straining their eyes to write books or copying them from other sources in lamp lights. The fact that they made thousands of such hand written books to fill the library shelves in Alexandria or Taxila or Nalanda speaks volumes of their tenacity, hard work even if the Romans and later the Moslems saw it fit to destroy such valuable depository of knowledge out of religious zeal and fanaticism.

Source : Google photo

The Chinese too developed calligraphy as a form of art and copied from other languages to develop their store of knowledge. The Arabs later wrote their books by hand and used extensive calligraphy to illustrate their books and the Koran itself but found stone as a good medium to use calligraphy on using Koranic texts. You can see this on the front of the main door of Taj Mahal or around Qutub Minar in Delhi. Harun al Rashid, the famous Khalifa of ancient Baghdad was a patron of scribes whom he gave salaries in gold and fine clothes of silk who worked for him to write books to fill his library. He encouraged translation into Arabic any book of value that a traveler brought with him in other languages like Greek, Latin and even Sanskrit to develop his treasure trove of knowledge.

Then came the modern age of printing when moving types were developed in Germany and the ancestor of modern printing press was born resulting in the mass production of books that lead to mass education of people in many parts of the world. But let me go back a bit now and write about a system that ancient Tibetans developed to make mass printing of their religious texts available.

This was done and still is done by carving the texts onto a flat wooden tablet painstakingly with absolute perfection and then using this tablet to stamp the text onto paper or parchment. The beauty of this system is that the carved wooden tablet is very durable and can be re used again and again so over the long period of time they have accumulated thousands of these tablets that can be found in their library today and can be printed from it. They also use calligraphy to write on cloth or paper using brushes like the Chinese.

The old Sanskrit texts were written on palm leaves some of which have survived the ravages of time but palm leaf is never a good substitute for parchment or paper. May be the ancients did not know how to make paper or use parchment like the Romans or the Native Americans although I doubt it. The fact is that the palm leaf texts that are found today are not thousands of years old but rather copies of the originals that became very fragile. I have seen these palm leaf writings stored in appalling conditions in some temples in South India that are deteriorating rapidly and may soon be lost if not copied. Some temples have their history chiseled on the walls in ancient scripts that few can read but it is all there nicely preserved unlike the modest palm leaf. The Angkoreans took the stone chiseling to new heights when they recorded the entire story of Mahabharata in galleries around the AngKor Wat temple in Siem Reap in what is known as the bas relief which is the same technique the ancient Egyptians used but AngKor is unique since no such monument exists anywhere else in the World. The story of Maha Bharata in India existed only on palm leaves that later developed into what it is today in finely printed form. In a civilization as sophisticated as the ancient India when flying machines and rockets were used in the war of Mahabharata, it is hard to imagine that they did not have paper or printing press and if they did, there is no trace left except some hand written Sanskrit scripts on palm leaves. I think the Egyptians and the Romans were smart enough to record their story in stone that still endures. Angkor by comparison is not that old but still gives a very good example of what endures and what does not.

Now I come to the part where I want to write about beautiful handwriting called calligraphy that is vanishing slowly but definitely. Now practically no one writes a book or anything by hand. The days of hand written book and artfully decorated pages are gone and no one I know knows or practices calligraphy. Students scribble notes in classrooms in bad hand writing that becomes a habit that they carry on like the doctors but in general good flowing handwriting in cursive is now as rare as hen’s tooth.

We were told in high school to always learn to write beautifully and very legibly so that the examiners would not have a hard time deciphering what we wrote as answers .Our exams were a test of this skill but now the exams are multiple choices where you just tick the square. A good teacher gives a good example by writing beautifully on the blackboard but how many teachers you know can do that? A student who does not write beautifully does the same when he becomes a teacher later on. The schools do not emphasize enough the importance of good hand writing so I was very appreciative of the teacher in India who taught our children how to write beautifully by practical methods. She would hold the finger of the child to show how to make equal spacing between words.

But now a days it is the keyboard like this one that does the writing and the dictionary at the bottom bar keeps an eye on what you are writing. It warns of spelling or spacing mistakes and offers to correct it. It would have taken me longer to write this article by hand beautifully and legibly but I am not writing for a classroom teacher. I am using the technology to write and instantly post my writing to a blog site so that thousands can read it in many parts of the world. So the technology is changing the way we write and how we disseminate the writing. I do not know anyone who writes letters by hand using aerogramme anymore because it is so obsolete and time consuming. Now it is e mail and instant messaging that can even include colored photos you take with your digital camera and upload and send to the end of the world in an instant.

Still I feel that there is a place for calligraphy and beautiful writing in the modern world where it will never get obsolete. May be I am old fashioned.