India’s history of Paper manufacturing

Photo: Aaron Burden-Unsplash

Even with all the electronic gizmo in this 21st century, imagine the world without the thing that we call ‘paper’! Well, you can do that actually fairly accurately if you are familiar with the society of India till the 11th century, or, for example of Germany till the 14th century.

Here we will restrict ourselves to the Indian subcontinent only. Of the many epoch-making changes that the Indian society witnessed following its increasing contact with the Islamic civilization from the 10th century, the one that, to my mind, had the deepest impact on almost all aspects of life was the introduction of paper manufacturing.

‘A new important craft that was now introduced was the manufacture of paper,’ writes India’s foremost medieval historian Prof. Irfan Habib in his seminal work Economic History of Medieval India, 1200-1500, ‘which was bound to affect many branches of economic and social life’. Indeed, it is hard to overstate its impact on life.

Searching the roots

In brief, all evidences suggest that paper was first developed by the Chinese, and after experimentations over hundreds of years, they had developed a fairly stable method of producing paper by the 4th century CE, replacing silk as the post popular material to write on. Surprisingly, however, the know-how remained within the Chinese till as late as the 8th century CE.

Referring to Arabic historical narratives, Prof. Habib, writes that Chinese prisoners captured in the battle of Talas in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for the first time divulged the technique to the Islamic world in 751CE. And, as any history of paper manufacturing will tell you, the science took quantum leaps in the Arabic world, over the next few hundred years, resulting in the production of numerous varieties of paper, such as Baghdadi, Dowlatabadi, Samarkandi, Solsan, Talhi, Jafari so on and so forth.

There is enough evidence to suggest that paper was introduced to the Indian subcontinent for the first time by the Arabs when they captured Sindh, in present-day Pakistan, in the eighth century. Some suggestions have been made that paper was already in use in India before the advent of the Arabs in Sindh.

Evidences in excavations

Some historians have quoted from Sanskrit lexicons written by the Chinese, such as I-tsing, of eighth century, two words ‘Kakali’ and ‘Saya’ meaning paper, to prove their point. Prof. Habib, however, makes the decisive argument that these words seem to have been coined by the Chinese Sanskrit scholars themselves, for there is no evidence of these being ever used in any Indian Sanskrit text of the time or before.

Excavations of sites in Mansura, Sindh, destroyed in 1030CE, have yielded a large number of Arabic manuscripts written on paper. In a dazzling example of India’s syncretic society, the earliest surviving manuscripts to be written on paper in proper mainland India, in 1223-24, were Sanskrit texts in Gujarat.

Paper arrived in Delhi from Sindh with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate, i.e. in the early 13th century. And the first proper paper industry in the subcontinent was founded another two hundred years down the line, in Kashmir, by Sultan Zainul Abedin, who ruled between 1418 and 1470. Finally it reached southern India only after the fall of the Vijaynagara kingdom in the first half of the 15th century.

One of the most important effects of the spread of paper manufacturing across India was the nose-diving of the cost of book-production, which in turn accelerated the dissemination of the most important element in the progress of any civilization: knowledge.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)