These books in their various forms depict the ten avatars or incarnations of the Hindu God Vishnu. Beautiful, yet enigmatic they hold many mysteries that we we have not been able to fully decode.

As Mythstories‘ core story collection was intangible most of the artefacts in the museum formed a handling collection. Only three objects were kept away from our visitors’ touch, and they were the Ola Palm books from Trivandrum in Kerala in Southern India. They are precursors of the modern literary book form and feature picture roundels hinged in the middle to flip down or up to reveal other simple pictures.

As you can see each roundel can be flipped down to reveal a line drawing of a bird or animal. Each roundel can also be flipped up to show a scene which would be considered ‘for adult eyes only’ in Modern Western Culture, and this is the reason the ola palm books were kept under glass in a secure cabinet in Mythstories museum in the Morgan Library at Wem out of sight of our younger visitors.

The books picture the Avatars of Vishnu, and a lot more besides. On the book below you can see a scene from the birth of Krishna (one of Vishnu’s avatars) depicted upon the roundel at the top right of the book.

Around the rest of the book you can see the other Avatars of Vishnu; on this book the top five and bottom five roundels display adventures of these avatars stories while the five roundels that border the inner main picture to the left depict the first five avatars of Vishnu. In descending order you can see Matsya, half man – half fish who saved the world from the flood; Kurma, the turtle avatar who provided his shell as a base to churn the sea of milk into butter in the Hindu creation story; Varaha, the boar who rescued the earth from the ocean; Narasimha, half lion – half man who defeats the Demon King Hiranyakashipu in the legend celebrated in the festival of Holi; and Vamana the dwarf avatar who in the form of a monk defeats another Demon King called Bali.

Bordering the central image on right hand side are avatars six to ten, in descending order… Parashurama, the sage with the axe which he uses to kill a king and his warriors when they began to abuse their powers; Rama, the hero of the Ramayana; Krishna, the blue skinned hero of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita; Buddha, yes of Buddhism, his stories feature also in the Hindu faith; and finally Kalki, the man with the winged horse who will appear at the end of the earth to renew the cosmos and recreate all things.

On the book below the layout is different; the scenes from the avatars’ stories are to the left and right of the central images while the ten avatars are 1 to 5 left to right at the top of the book and 6 to 10 at the bottom.

The ola palm leaves are dried and cured, stitched together and finally decorated. They are inscribed, or etched with a stylus and the indentations are filled with lamp black and gum to form raised perimeters enclosing reservoirs for natural dyes and stains which give the books their bright colours. On the more elaborate versions such as the book above the palm leaves are layered and stenciled to give greater depth and separation to the designs.

The first ola palm book in the Mythstories Collection was acquired for the museum by storytellers Helen East and Rick Wilson during a trip to India in 2008. The second, slimmed down version shown closed above, was bought and donated to the museum by museum curatorial advisor and storyteller Fiona Collins. The third book was acquired by museum trustees Geoff Hardy and Peter Roscoe during a road trip across India.