Reviving Assam’s ancient ink

By unravelling the science behind Assam’s ancient herbal ink ‘mahi’, researchers are planning to recreate the lost techniques of manuscript writing. They say their efforts could boost heritage tourism.

The technique involves extracting ‘mahi’ using

  • cow urine from a cocktail of fruit pulp and tree bark such as haritaki, amla, bibhitakhi or bhomora, mango and jamun — often infused with the blood of eels or catfish.
  • Rust from iron tools or nails was added for an intense black hue.


  • ‘Mahi’ was used in early and medieval Assam for writing on ‘sancipat’ (folios made of the bark of the sanci tree) manuscripts.
  • Some folios were gifted by Kumar Bhaskar Barman, the then King of Pragjyotishpura (ancient Assam) to Harshavardhana, an emperor who ruled north India from 606 to 647 C.E., a testimony to the period of use.
  • The endurance of the ink is proven by the stability of sancipat manuscripts.
  • The key factor for this long-lasting marriage between ‘mahi’ and ‘sancipat’ is the herbal concoction’s resistance to aerial oxidation and fungal attacks.
  • “One of the reasons for the manuscripts’ stability is the anti-fungal activity of the ink.
  • This is due to its raw materials, including astringent fruits and cow urine, which seems to have a protective effect on cellulosic sancipat against fungal attack in the hot and humid climate of Assam.
  • In mahi, no external stabiliser is used whereas gum Arabic is used for the purpose in iron gall ink.
  • Another interesting feature is that the pH of mahi remains neutral because of cow urine and the absence of acidic ingredients like vinegar.
  • Iron gall ink has an acidic character that leads to destruction of the manuscripts.

Source: The Hindu

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