From the Archives: The Mystery of the Provenance of the Sinhalese Olas

October 22, 2013

This is how the elaborate writing of Sinhalese olas has been described. The sharp stylus of brass or iron, covered in silver or copper, rests in a notch of the thumbnail of the scribe. He scratches first the inscription and then covers the leaf in ink made from oil and lampblack. Wiping off the excess ink, the letters appear as a perfect string of pearls.


These beautiful "books" consist of indigenous script written on immature Talipot palm leaves that are cut to a uniform 2 ¼ inches in width. The leaves are steeped in cold water, brought slowly to a boil and then laid in the sun for 3 days; then they are arranged beneath the moon to bathe in the dew of three damp nights. Then after, a young monk pulls the leaves up and down along the length of a smooth, cylindrical nut palm branch until it is polished.

The painted and decorated wood covers, the red, white and blue plaited cords, the medallions, the knots, the inscriptions and the width and length are prescribed by customs that are centuries old.


The way in which the leaves are perforated and how the cords are to be wrapped around the ola follow traditional norm.

One of ours was translated in part a few years ago by a relative of a library staff member who could read the Pali Sinhalese. He reported that the first two leaves of the ola contain the recipe for "King Devil Oil," but that the following leaves (most of the text) are instructions for administering the oil to the patient, including the chants that should be recited during treatment. The whole document, including the recipe, is written in rhyming poetry. It was probably meant to be chanted or sung, and the spacing of the words, as well as decorative flourishes at the end of the lines, indicate the pace at which the words were to be chanted."

What is the provenance of these treasures? How did they come to our Archives? There is a cloth tag hanging on the cording of one, stating that it was presented by Casey A. Wood, M.D., but to whom it doesn't say. We believe that he may have given them to New York, ophthalmologist, John Weeks, M.D., but we can't be sure. Weeks moved to Portland in 1924 to be near his daughter and son-in-law, our own Frank Mount, M.D. He also donated $100,000 to assist in the construction of our first library building: The Old Library/Auditorium, completed in 1939.

The only clue to their provenance is a book in the Library with an inscription from Wood to Weeks. So we know that they knew each other, most probably because they were both ophthalmologists and perhaps shared an affinity for history.

Wood spent years collecting olas for McGill University in Montreal, traveling extensively in India and Ceylon, as well as in the West Indies studying indigenous medicine. Many precious olas now reside in the Library of the Medical Faculty at McGill, except for these three.

If you would like to read more about Sinhalese olas, Casey Wood, "man of the world", wrote a great article about medical olas from stunning Srinagar Kashmir, which was published in the Annals of Medical History, V8 1926.

Karen Lea Anderson Peterson, Archivist – Assistant Professor ~ OHSU Historical Collections & Archives