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21 posts categorized "Burmese"

17 February 2017

Kammavaca: Burmese Buddhist ordination manuscripts

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Kammavaca is a Pali term describing an assemblage of passages from the Tipitaka –  the Theravada Buddhist canon –  that relate to ordination, the bestowing of robes, and other rituals of monastic life. A Kammavaca is a highly ornamental type of manuscript usually commissioned by lay members of society as a work of merit, to be presented to monasteries when a son enters the Buddhist Order as a novice or becomes ordained as a monk. The novitiation ceremony of a Buddhist monk is an important family ritual, the main purpose being to gain merit for their future life. A novice may remain a monk for as long as he wishes, whether for one week or one season of lent or even for life, and he may undergo the initiation ceremony as many times as he likes. The most important Kammavaca were prepared for the upasampada (higher ordination), the ritual for the ordination of a Buddhist monk. 

British Library, Add. 15289, f. 1v, top outer leaf  noc
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script on gilded and lacquered palm leaf, 18th century. The outer leaf, shown above, has eight octagonal panels with lotus patterns within circles, while the leaf below shows the beginning of the ordination text (upasampada), flanked by similar larger lotus patterns. British Library, Add. 15289, f.1.  noc

Kammavaca manuscripts are written on a variety of materials, primarily on palm leaf but also on stiffened cloth, or gold, silver, metal or ivory sheets in the shape of palm leaf. Thickly applied lacquer or gilded decoration appears on the leaves themselves and also on the cover boards. The Pali text is written in black lacquer in ornate Burmese characters known as ‘tamarind-seed’ script, also refered to as ‘square’ script, which differs from the usual round Burmese writing. Some attractive and unusual Kammavaca may be made from discarded monastic robes thickly covered with black lacquer, with inlaid mother-of-pearl letters.

British Library, Or. 12010H, f.1v  noc
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script on ivory, 18th century. The outer leaf shown at the top is lacquered and gilded with birds and lotuses in octagonal panels, while  the opening leaf of the ordination section (upasampada) shown below has black lacquered text and gilded lotus patterns. British Library, Or. 12010H, f. 1r  noc

In the 12th century, the Sihala Ordination was introduced into Burma by Chappaṭa who had studied the canon and commentaries in Sri Lanka. In the 15th century, Sri Lanka was again turned to as the source of orthodoxy, and in 1476, twenty two disciples and chosen bhikkhus (monks) were sent in two ships to the island. They were duly ordained by the Mahavihara monks at the consecrated sima or ordination hall on the Kalyani River, near Colombo. Upon the return of these monks, King Dhammaceti (1471-1492) built the Kalyani Sima in Pegu (Bago), to which bhikkhus from neighbouring countries came to receive ordination.

Two types of ordination ceremonies are held in sima: ordination for novices (Pabbajja), and ordination for monks (Upasampada). To become a novice, the follower has to recite the Ten Precepts as well as the Three Refuges for a monk.  In order to become a monk, the Sangha or monastic community will perform the Upasampada ordination on fulfillment of the five conditions: Perfection of a person, Perfection of an assembly, Perfection of the Sima, Perfection of the motion, and Perfection of the Kammavaca. The most senior monk will lead the assembly for the newly-ordained monk, while selected monks will recite the Kammavaca taking great care with articulation and pronunciation.

British Library, Or. 12010E, front board  noc
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, written on palm leaf, 19th century. Shown at the top is the binding board, with lacquered and gilt lotuses in roundels; below is the text written in black lacquer on a red lacquer ground. British Library, Or. 12010E, f. 1r  noc

British Library, Or. 13896, f. 1r  noc
British Library, Or. 13896, f. 16r  noc
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, written on metal gilded and lacquered in red, 19th century. British Library, Or. 13896, f. 1v  noc

The outer sides of the first and last leaves of the Kammavaca manuscript shown above (Or. 13896) have unusual and fine decoration in gold and red of scenes from the Buddha’s life. At the top, Prince Siddhartha cuts off his hair with his sword, the symbolic gesture of the renunciation, and Sakka, the king of the celestial abodes, receives it, while on the right devas present a robe and alms bowl to Prince Siddhartha. On the final leaf shown in the middle, when Prince Siddhartha becomes a monk, Sakka plays the harp to show Siddhartha the way to the Middle Path, and devas come to pay respects. The outer margins of text leaves are decorated with deva.

British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1v, outer front board   noc
British Library, Or. 12010A, inner front board with donor's name  noc
Or 12010A
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, lacquered cloth, with gilded and lacquered boards, 19th century. British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1r.  noc

The leaves of this manuscript (Or. 12010A) consist of cloth thickly covered with lacquer to provide a rigid surface, which is then gilded with background decoration of floral sprigs. In the margins are depicted kneeling deva or celestial figures with their hands clasped in reverence for the Kammavaca text. The text leaves are stored between a pair of bevelled binding boards, red on the inside, and lacquered and gilt on the outside, with devas within panels. A Burmese inscription on the inside of the top board of this Kammavaca records that the manuscript was a pious gift of lay devotee U Tha Hsan and his wife Ma Lun.

The manuscript contains the following Kammavaca texts: Upasampada  (Official Act for the conferment of the Higher Ordination), Kathinadussadana (Official Act for the holding of the Kathina ceremony), Ticivarena-avippavasa (text for the investiture of a monk with the three robes), Sima-sammannita (Official Act for the Agreement of boundary limits), Thera-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon the seniority of theras), Nama-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon a name), Vihara-kappa-bhumi-sammuti (text of the dedication of a Vihara), Kuṭi-vatthu-sammuti (Official Act to search and agree upon a site for a hut), Nissaya-muti-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon relaxation of the requisites). 

The leaves of the various Kammavaca manuscripts illustrated in this post range are made of various materials including palm leaf, ivory, metal and lacquered cloth, and range in size from 50 to 60 cm in length, and from 10 to 15 cm in width. The outer sides of the first and final leaves of the Kammavaca are usually decorated with panels of birds, lotus, flower and leaf designs, devas, figures of the Buddha and geometric patterns. The leaves have two holes in them in which small bamboo sticks are usually inserted in order to hold the leaves together, and the leaves are bound between decorated binding boards. Kammavaca were usually wrapped in woven or silk wrappers, and secured with a woven ribbon and placed in a gilded box.

Further reading:
To Cin Khui, The Kalyani Inscriptions erected by King Dhammaceti at Pegu in 1476 A.D. Rangoon: Superintendent, Government Printing, 1892.
Sao Htun Hmat Win, The initiation of novicehood and the ordination of monkhood in the Burmese Buddhist culture. Rangoon: Department  of Religious Affairs, 1986.

San San May, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

01 July 2016

The Sixteen Sacred Lands of Buddhism

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Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was brought up to become a king, but he left his life of great comfort after encountering the ‘four signs’: an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and an ascetic. After six years of hardship, working to find the right spiritual path, he attained his ‘Great Enlightenment’, and became the Buddha. During the following forty-five years of his mission until he passed into Mahaparinirvana (the state of reaching the end of suffering) at the age of eighty, the Buddha walked widely throughout the northern districts of India, delivering his teachings to the bhikkhus (Buddhist monks) and laity in the places that he visited. The sixteen lands where he spent time during his long ministry can often be found illustrated in Buddhist cosmology manuscripts. In this post we present nine such Burmese manuscripts held in the British Library, all illustrated in the Mandalay style and dating from the mid-19th century.  Eight are written on paper in folding-book (parabaik) format and these have all been digitised, and one is written on palmleaf.

Shown below is a depiction of the sixteen sacred lands in a Burmese folding-book paper manuscript, Or. 14004. The Buddha is seated in Bhumisparsa mudra (earth-touching posture) on a throne under the Bodhi tree at the centre. Around him are depicted the sixteen lands, with indications of the distances between the centre and each of these regions, varying from one day to two months of travel. The sixteen lands are labelled (clockwise from the top) Mithila, Sankassa, Jetuttara, Takkasila, Savatti, Kosambi, Kalinga, Mudu, Koliya, Kapilavastu, Campa, Varanasi, Rajagaha, Vesali, Pataliputta, and Pava.

The sixteen sacred lands, in a Burmese Buddhist cosmology folding book manuscript, 19th c. British Library, Or.14004, f.28. Noc

A similar illustration is shown below, drawn across four separate leaves of a Burmese palmleaf manuscript, Add. 17699A:


Sixteen Sacred Lands, illustrated Burmese palmleaf manuscript, 19th c. British Library, Add.17699A, ff. 83-86 Noc

Described below are the Sixteen Sacred Lands in the order in which they were visited by the Buddha.

Jetuttara: Prince Vessantara (the Bodhisatta) was born in the capital city of Jetuttara.
Kalinga: When a severe drought occurred in the neighbouring kingdom of Kalinga, Vessantara fulfilled the Brahmins’ wish and presented his auspicious elephant.
Takkasila: This was the capital city of the Gandhara kingdom. Kings, Brahmins and other rich families sent their sons to Takkasila, a center of learning.  
Varanasi: The Buddha went from Bodh Gaya to Isipatana, Varanasi, about five weeks after his enlightenment and spent the first rainy season there. The ordination of Yasa and his fifty-four friends took place during this retreat. The Buddha and his disciples travelled from place to place and taught his Dhamma. He spent a great part of his life at Varanasi preaching to the people.

The Buddha at Varanasi in a Burmese manuscript. British Library, Or. 14553, f. 4 Noc

Rajagaha: During the time of the Buddha, the capital of the Kingdom of Magadha was ruled by King Bimbisara and later his son Ajatasattu. When the Buddha visited King Bimbisara in Rajagaha, Bimbisara offered his Bamboo Grove (Veluvana) to the Buddha and His disciples. The Buddha spent three rainy seasons (2nd, 3rd, and 4th) in this monastery.

The Buddha at Rajagaha in a Burmese manuscript. British Library, Or. 4762, f. 13. Noc

Vesali: While the Buddha was staying at Rajagaha he informed King Bimbisara that he would pay a visit to Vesali. The king prepared a road for the Buddha. At the request of the Licchavi princes, the rulers of Vesali, the Buddha and his disciples went to Vesali and recited the Ratana Sutta discourse to purify the city, which was afflicted by plague.

The Buddha at Vesali in a Burmese manuscript, from the Henry Burney collection. British Library, Or. 14298, f. 1. Noc

Savatti: The Buddha accepted Anathapindika’s invitation to visit Savatti, the capital of Kosala. Here the novice Rahula received his higher ordination at the Jetavana monastery, which was donated to the Buddha by Anathapindika, a great merchant at Savatti. The Buddha spent twenty-five years in Savatti where he delivered many sermons.

The Buddha at Savatti, in a Burmese manuscript. British Library, Or 14405, f. 55. Noc

Sankassa: The Buddha descended to Sankassa from Tavatimsa accompanied by devas and brahmas. People of the city paid their homage to the Buddha.

The Buddha descending to Sankassa in a Burmese manuscript from the Henry Burney collection. British Library, Or.14297, f.44. Noc

Kosambi: The Buddha resided at the Ghosita Monastery in Kosambi and delivered his teachings to five hundred ascetics. The monastery was built by a rich man, Ghosita, for the Buddha and his disciples. While the Buddha was staying there, a dispute arose between some monks, and the Buddha departed alone from Kosambi.

The Buddha at Kosambi, in a Burmese manuscript. British Library, Or.14823, f.31. Noc

Kapilavastu: Siddhartha Gautama was raised and lived in Kapilavastu, the capital of the Sakya country, until the age of 29 when he renounced worldly life. After he attained enlightenment and became the Buddha he visited many places to preach the Dharma. He went back to Kapilavastu at the invitation of his father Suddhodana, and in the fifth year he visited his father again who was very ill. After his father’s death, his foster mother, Mahapajapati Gotami, who desired to be ordained, requested the Buddha to ordain her as a Bhikkhuni. Although the Buddha initially declined, with the intercession of Ananda, he later granted this wish.

The Buddha at Kapilavastu, in a Burmese manuscript. British Library, Or. 5757, f. 29. Noc

Koliya: When a quarrel arose between Kapilavastu and Koliya regarding the right to the waters of the river Rohini, the Buddha delivered a sermon of peace and advised them to live in harmony. The two rulers ended the long quarrel between them and peace was restored, and young men from both tribes entered Buddhist orders.
Mithila: The Buddha stayed at Mithila and preached the Makhadeva and Brahmayu suttas. Vasitthi, a theri (nun), entered the Order after listening to his teaching.
Campa: The Buddha with a large company of bhikkhus went to Campa on several occasions and dwelt there on the banks of the Gaggara, a lotus pond.
Pattaliputta: When Gautama Buddha and his disciples visited many villages near the Ganges River they passed through Pataliputta, the new capital of Magadha, built by King Ajatasattu, the second of the Magadha kings.
Mudu:  Mudu is listed in the diagram as one of the sixteen sacred lands, but little is known about it.
Pava: When the Buddha came to Pava, a city of the Mallas near Kusinara, and stayed in a mango grove, Cunda, the blacksmith invited the Buddha and his disciples to a meal. After the meal Buddha fell ill on his way to Kusinara on the same day. The Buddha gave his last teaching to the monks as he took a rest under the Sal trees. Then he entered Mahaparinirvana (reaching the end of suffering). 

The Buddha in Mahaparinirvana (reaching the end of suffering) at Pava. British Library, Or. 14298, f.18. Noc

The body of the Buddha was taken by the Malla kings for cremation. The sacred relics of the Buddha were divided and enshrined in stupas.

Further reading:
Bimala Churn Law. Geography of Early Buddhism. New Delhi: Bhartiya Publishing House, 1973.

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

03 June 2016

Exploring Thai art: Doris Duke

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In December 2004, the British Library acquired a small number of Thai and Burmese manuscripts, wooden manuscript boards, manuscript chests and cabinets, as well as paintings, from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. Doris Duke (1912-1993) assembled one of the finest collections of Thai and Burmese art outside Southeast Asia, which upon her death was passed to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The Foundation donated Doris Duke’s Art Collection to various museums in the United States and to three British institutions: the British Library, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Kaiden Kazanjian Studios 1925
Doris Duke ca. 1925. Photograph by Kaiden Kazanjian Studios. Courtesy of Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

Doris Duke, born in 1912, was the only child of James Buchanan Duke and Nanaline Holt Inman. She inherited at the young age of twelve a substantial part of her father’s fortune, which was based on tobacco and hydropower production. Doris Duke pursued a variety of interests which included travelling the world and collecting art. When she went on a round-the-world honeymoon with her first husband, James H. R. Cromwell, in 1935 she visited Egypt, the Near East, India, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan and Europe. The cultures of the Near East, South and Southeast Asia sparked Doris Duke’s life-long passion for Southeast Asian and Islamic arts. One of Doris Duke’s first great art projects was the construction of Shangri La, her residence in Honolulu that was inspired by Islamic art, in the late 1930s.

After several trips to Thailand and Burma, Doris Duke established the Foundation for Southeast Asian Art and Culture in 1961. With the help of agents, the curator of the Foundation, F. D. de Bérenx, began to buy extensively Southeast Asian art and antiques of all types, including manuscript cabinets and manuscripts, Thai furniture and ceramics, Sino-Thai porcelains, wood, stone, bronze and ivory sculptures, and complete Thai houses. After a short period of time the Foundation had formed one of the largest and most important collections of Thai and Burmese art, furniture and decorative objects outside Southeast Asia, all stored at Shangri La.

Northern Thai wooden manuscript box, decorated with red and black lacquer, gold and mirror-glass-inlay (19th century). Gift from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. British Library, Foster 1056 Noc

Inspired by meetings with Jim Thompson and visits to his traditional Thai residence in Bangkok, Doris Duke’s idea was to re-create and furnish an entire Thai village in Hawai’i, complete with a replica of a Thai royal pavilion, which she intended to open to the public for educational purposes, stressing the decorative and minor art works rather than archaeology and the major arts. Numerous drawings of the proposed village site and plans for the buildings that were to be constructed were made, but the acquisition of a site that fulfilled all of Doris Duke’s requirements proved difficult. In 1965 a fire at Shangri La destroyed five Thai houses. Doris Duke then considered Duke Farms in Hillsborough, New Jersey, as a possible site for the Thai village, and by 1972 all of the 2,000 Southeast Asian items had been shipped to New Jersey. Part of the collection was finally put on display in the Coach Barn and opened to the public in December 1972. Although her dream of a Thai village was never fulfilled, Doris Duke continued to acquire Thai and other Southeast Asian art works up until her death in 1993.  

Vessantara Add Or 5582
19th century painting on linen from central Thailand, showing a scene from the Vessantara Jataka. Gift from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. British Library, Add.Or.5582 Noc

In 2001, shortly after Forrest McGill, Chief Curator at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, had viewed the collection at Duke Farms, the Coach Barn was flooded and the moisture affected several of the larger collection items. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation decided then to donate museum-quality items from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection to institutions where her collection could be displayed and made accessible to the general public, with the Asian Art Museum and the Walters Art Museum receiving the first of these gifts.

The late Dr Henry Ginsburg, former Curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections at the British Library, helped to negotiate the distribution of selected items to institutions in the UK. At the time, he commented: “Along with a number of Thai and Burmese manuscripts, the Library’s acquisitions include a group of elaborately decorated manuscript cabinets dating from the 18th and 19th century. Such cabinets were not previously represented in any British collections; the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation now means the British Library has the finest examples in the country, together with those donated to the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum.”

Thai cabinet hr
Wooden manuscript cabinet from central Thailand, with carved decorations of Kinnari in lacquer and gilt (19th century). Gift from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. British Library, Foster 1058 Noc

The bequest to the British Library included two wooden manuscript cabinets decorated with gilt and lacquer from Thailand, as well as a Northern Thai manuscript box with gilt, lacquer and glass inlay. Two gilded and lacquered manuscript chests and one manuscript box came from Burma. In addition to the manuscript furniture the donation included Thai paintings showing scenes from the Vessantara Jataka, a very rare Burmese ivory manuscript, a Shan manuscript from Burma, and a Northern Thai palm leaf manuscript with lacquered covers decorated in mother-of-pearl inlay, as well as four Shan manuscript covers with lacquer, gilt and glass inlay decoration.

Wooden manuscript board with black and red lacquer decorations as well as mother-of-pearl inlay, belonging to a Northern Thai Buddhist palm leaf manuscript dated 1851. Gift from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. British Library, Or.16077 Noc

Particularly the rare pieces of Thai and Burmese furniture reflect not only how manuscripts were traditionally kept in Southeast Asia, but they are also outstanding examples of Southeast Asian lacquer art. In Thailand, unique lacquer and gilded designs were often applied on wooden furniture, doors and window panels of Buddhist monasteries or royal palaces. The technique consists of applying to the wooden panel several coats of black lacquer, a resin from a tree in the sumac family growing in mainland Southeast Asia. The drawing is then traced, and with a yellow-gummy paint the parts which have to remain black are covered in all their smallest details. The next process is to give a thin coat of lacquer over the surface, and when it is semi-dry, gold leaf is applied over the whole surface. After about twenty hours the work is washed with water to detach the gummy-paint in order to let the remaining gold design appear in all its details. Hence this art is called "lai rot nam" in Thai - designs washed with water. Of course, the beauty of the lacquer work depends first upon a perfect design and afterwards a perfect execution which the artist himself must carry out.

Detail from a large wooden manuscript cabinet from central Thailand showing a scene from the Mahosadha Jataka, one of the last Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha. The filigrane gold and lacquer decoration made in “lai rot nam” technique is of outstanding quality (19th century). Gift from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. British Library, Foster 1057 Noc

The art of lacquer reached its peak in the Ayutthaya kingdom in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Later the capital of Thailand moved to Thonburi, and then to Bangkok in 1782. The art of lacquer continued to follow the achievements and styles of earlier times, though other influences, particularly Chinese flower and landscape designs, became more pronounced.

Further reading:
About Doris Duke. Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
Doris Duke’s Shangri La – architecture, landscape and Islamic art. Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.
Emerald Cities - Arts of Siam and Burma: Conserving the Collection. Asian Art Museum San Francisco.
Falkenstein, Michelle, A trove of treasures in a barn. The New York Times, October 19, 2003
Tingley, Nancy, Doris Duke. The Southeast Asian Art Collection. New York, 2003

Previous blog posts in this series:

Exploring Thai art: James Low (3 Feb 2016)

Exploring Thai art: Karl Siegfried Döhring (5 Nov 2015)


Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Ccownwork

14 April 2016

A gold letter from Bali

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Currently on display in the exhibition case just outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room in the British Library at St Pancras is a small letter from Bali, written entirely on a sheet of gold.  The letter was sent in 1768 from two princes of Bali – Kanjeng Kyai Angrurah Jambe of Badung (site of the present-day capital Denpasar) and Kyai Angrurah Agung of Mengwi – to Johannes Vos, the Dutch Governor of Semarang, on the north coast of Java.  In the letter, the princes affirm their everlasting friendship with the Dutch, and agree not to allow any enemies of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to pass through their territory without an official pass from the Company. The manuscript, Egerton 765, has just been digitised and can be read here.

Balinese letter on gold, 1768. Egerton 765, f.1r  noc

The letter’s shelfmark, Egerton 765, links it to Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater, who on his death in 1829 bequeathed his collection of manuscripts to the British Museum together with a legacy for purchasing additions to the collection. Our little Balinese letter has in fact no direct connection with Francis Egerton himself, for it was acquired after Egerton’s death through his bequest. According to departmental records, on 4 December 1839 the MS was offered to Sir Frederic Madden, Keeper of the Department of Manuscripts at the British Museum, by one J. Sams of Darlington and Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn, London.  Mr Sams wrote that he “having sometime ago met with a curious Eastern MS., written on a sheet of Gold - & thinking a specimen or two of such an object, would be interesting, & desirable in our national repository, he writes a line to Sir F.M., as the respected Principal of the MS department, to mention that he gave for this scarce, & curious article, five pounds, without the case, which cost him some four shillings, - & that, if Sir F. please, it shall be the property of the Museum, at the price J.S. paid for it.” There is no further information on how J. Sams acquired the letter.

The letter is written in Balinese language and script, with the text incised with a thin stylus on both sides of the sheet of gold, with six lines on the front and five lines on the reverse.  Although the small size of the letter forms and the reflective nature of the gold sheet make the letter hard to read, the Dutch scholar J. Kats persevered, and in 1929 published the entire text in Balinese script with Dutch translation (Kats 1929). The little letter is well-travelled: as well as having been on public display at the British Library in London, it was shown in New York in 1990 at the ‘Court Arts of  Indonesia’ exhibition, and also in Rotterdam in 1993 (Jessup 1990: 30-31, 236-7).  In 1991 it travelled back to Indonesia for the exhibition ‘Golden Letters: writing traditions of Indonesia’, and was displayed at the National Library of Indonesia in Jakarta and at the Palace of Yogyakarta (Gallop & Arps 1991: 104).

Measuring 5.5 cm high and 24 cm wide, in its proportions the letter emulates a piece of palm leaf, the standard writing material throughout Southeast Asia before the wide availability of paper, and still the main medium for sacred texts in Bali today.  The use of gold as a writing material has a long tradition in Southeast Asia.  The National Museum in Jakarta has examples of Buddhist texts in Sanskrit from the 10th century inscribed on gold strips similar in size to the Balinese letter, and comparable Buddhist gold inscriptions are known from Burma.

BL Or.5340A-B (1)
Pali Buddhist text from Burma, written on a strip of gold. British Library, Or. 5340  noc

Gold was also used for diplomatic letters, and its use can be interpreted as honouring the recipient while also emphasising the status of the sender. Perhaps the most exceptional example known today is a Burmese letter on gold from King Alaungphaya sent to George II of Great Britain in 1756. Dating from just a decade earlier than our Balinese letter, the Burmese epistle is however immeasurably grander: not only was it written on a sheet of gold, but each end was studded with a row of 12 rubies, and a gold impression of the king’s seal was affixed to the letter, which was then rolled and placed within an ivory receptacle for delivery. King George was of German origin, and he prized this letter enough to send it back to his ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ in home town of Hanover, where it is still held today in the Gottfried Willem Leibniz Library.  Recently, with the support of the British Library, this letter was inscribed on the UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ Register.

Burmese gold
Burmese letter on gold from King Alaungmintaya to King George II, 1756. Copyright Gottfried Willem Leibniz Library, Hanover.

Hanover Leibniz Burmese seal
Detail of the Burmese letter showing the king's seal stamped in gold, with the row of rubies at the beginning of the letter. Copyright Gottfried Willem Leibniz Library, Hanover.

Further reading

J. Kats, Een Balische brief van 1768 aan den Gouveneur van Java’s Noordkust. Festbundel uitgegeven door het Koninklijk Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen bij gelegenheid van zijn 150 jarig bestaan, 1778-1928. Vol. I, pp. 291-6. Weltevreden, 1929.
Helen Ibbitson Jessup, Court arts of Indonesia.  New York: The Asia Society, 1990.
Annabel Teh Gallop with Bernard Arps, Golden letters: writing traditions of Indonesia.  Surat emas: budaya tulis di Indonesia.  London: British Library; Jakarta: Yayasan Lontar, 1991.
Jacques P. Leider, King Alaungmintaya’s Golden Letter to King George II (7 May 1756): the story of an exceptional manuscript and the failure of a diplomatic overture. Hannover: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek, 2009.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

25 March 2016

“A bar of pure gold”: Shan Buddhist manuscripts

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The highlights among the Shan manuscripts held at the British Library are some Buddhist folding books whose beauty will catch anyone’s eye. At first sight, each of them actually looks like a bar of pure gold – and this was certainly the intention of the craftsmen who produced these books. However, the idea of pure gold rather refers in a figurative sense to the purity and the moral value of the sacred texts contained in these manuscripts. To followers of Theravada Buddhism, Buddha’s teachings (Dhamma) are worth much more than just gold.

Buddha’s Dhamma is not just regarded as a doctrine: it is the wisdom, moral philosophy, and truth as propounded by Gautama Buddha, the most recent Buddha, in his discourses; Buddha’s interpretation of the order of the world or immanent, eternal, uncreated law of the universe. The Buddha is the discoverer - by means of Enlightenment - of this universal law, in which rational and ethical elements are combined.  

Buddhadanadipani pathama tvai, Shan Buddhist manual on the perfection of generosity, volume 1 only, dated 1911. Gold on red lacquer covers and edges. Soren Egerod collection. British Library, Or.15350.  noc

Although the Tipitaka, the actual collection of primary texts in Pali language, forms the doctrinal foundation of Theravada Buddhism, the complete body of classical Theravada texts consists of the Tipitaka together with extra-canonical texts (commentaries, chronicles, sub-commentaries etc.) However, complete collections of the Tipitaka in manuscript form are very rare, and extra-canonical texts were often added only locally. Usually, Buddhist kings requested and commissioned the compilation of as complete as possible Tipitaka collections in order to donate them to newly established temples, or to give them as gifts to Buddhist communities even outside their kingdom.
A common practice in Shan Buddhist culture was that selected texts, short extracts or translations from the Tipitaka were combined in one folding book (pap tup) for the purpose of teaching, giving sermons or chanting. Such folding books could be commissioned by individuals or families as offerings to Buddhist temples, and often they were commemorative volumes in order to make merit on behalf of a deceased family member. For aesthetic reasons and to add value and prestige to these manuscripts, their covers could be embellished in various ways. Covers made from several layers of thick paper could be lacquered and gilded, with added lacquer high relief ornaments and coloured mirror-glass inlay. In rare cases of very prestigious royal manuscripts, jewels could be inlaid in relief-moulded and gilt lacquer. Ornaments frequently used for the decoration of such covers were flowers, plants and foliage, as well as flame-like and hourglass-like designs. Commemorative gilt folding books are known in Shan language as lik ho, i.e. recitation texts or the texts composed in a typical form of Shan poetry for reading out loud to members of audience at ceremonies.
Sangkhara bhajani kyam, Shan manuscript dated 1916. British Library, Or.16079, front cover   noc

Embossed gold covers studded with multi-coloured pieces of mirror glass and lavish floral decoration in high relief protect this paper folding book, which probably is a copy of an older manuscript, made in a Shan community in in the area of "Muang Lakon Pa Kham" in Northern Thailand. It contains a sermon on aspects of the Abhidhamma and meditation in Shan language, with some sections in Pali. This manuscript was bequeathed to the British Library from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.

Decorative ornaments drawn in the same black ink as with which the Shan text is written. British Library, Or.16079, f.259  noc

Small decorative elements drawn in ink are sometimes inserted to separate sections of text. Usually this is just a small floral or geometric shape, but in rare cases such decorative illustrations can take up to a quarter of a folio. The illustration above resembles flowery ornaments which can also be found carved on wooden elements of Shan and Northern Thai temples.

Buddhanussati, Shan manuscript dated 1885. British Library, Or.12040, front cover  noc

The folding book above with embossed gold covers with red, green, blue and silver coloured mirror glass inlay contains a text on recollections of the Buddha, explaining mindfulness with the Buddha’s virtues as objects. This is the first of ten kinds of recollection (anussati), which help to give faith and encouragement to practising Buddhists before taking up the more arduous task of vipassana meditation.

Nemi jat to kri vatthu, Shan manuscript dated 1913. Soren Egerod collection. British Library, Or.15353, cover and f. 1.  noc

A folding book containing the Nemi Jataka, one of the Last Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha, has red lacquered covers with added gold leaf which has worn off due to frequent handling. This less elaborate technique of cover decoration is certainly the most recurring method used for making lik ho. The front cover is followed by the first folio, which bears the title and the first section of the text. However, when folded up, a large book like the one shown above with 185 folds has the shape of an impressive huge gold bar.

Anagatavan arimitayya vatthu (Anagatavamsa), manuscript dated 1893 in Shan and Pali. British Library, Or.14572, front cover.  noc

The Anagatavamsa is an important extra-canonical text on the coming Buddha, Buddha Metteyya, which is said to date back to the 12th-13th centuries. To create a bar-like shape of a book, the paper which is relatively tough must be folded up very carefully in an absolutely even manner. The book must then be pressed evenly before the lacquer and eventually the gold and multi-coloured mirror glass inlay decorations can be added. The creation of such a stunning piece of art required great care and much time. Folding books like the one shown above, weighing over 2 kg, are the pride of every collection of Shan Buddhist manuscripts.

Further reading:

Jotika Khur-Yearn, Richness of Buddhist texts in Shan manuscripts. Seven Shan versions of Satipa hĀna Sutta. In: Contemporary Buddhism, vol. 10,1, pp. 85-90.
Jotika Khur-Yearn, Shan manuscripts collections outside the Shan State. Preservation and cataloguing. In: SEALG Newsletter, 40/2008, pp. 12-16
Rhys Davids, T. W. and William Stede (eds.), Pali-English dictionary. Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1999
Terwiel, Barend J. with the assistance of Chaichuen Khamdaengyodtai, Shan manuscripts part 1. VOHD vol. 39,1. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2003


Jana Igunma, Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian  ccownwork

17 March 2016

Buddhist rebirth in different planes of existence

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Kamma is a Pali word and it covers all kinds of intentional actions, whether mental (mano kamma), verbal (vaci kamma) or physical (kaya kamma). The Buddhist doctrine “Paticcasamuppada” is demonstrative of the process of kamma. It tells us that we all are responsible for our actions, and that most of our present conditions are the result of our actions in the past, and that present actions will determine our future condition. Every action produces an effect, and the effects of our actions come back to us. Our good kamma will come back to us as blessings and lead to a good next life, while bad kamma will lead to lower forms of rebirth. A person can be born again as a different person or animal or any kind of living being after death depending on his or her kamma. Each birth is based on the actions or kamma accumulated in previous lives. Therefore people seek to gain merit by doing deeds in order to improve their kamma. Three types of kamma can be defined: meritorious acts (kusala kamma) such as generosity, morality and meditation, which will help to attain Nirvana, the path of liberation; demeritorious acts (akusala kamma), such as greed, hatred and delusion, which cause rebirth in hell; and neutral acts (kusala-akusala kamma) which are devoid of ethical substance. Rebirth takes place within the three realms (lokas) of the universe - Arupaloka, Rupaloka and Kamaloka - depending upon a being’s kamma. This blog will elucidate the planes of Buddhist rebirth, with illustrations from two Burmese cosmological manuscripts held in the British Library, Or. 14004 and Or.14550, which have recently been fully digitised.

The four great islands, from a Burmese Buddhist cosmology manuscript. British Library, Or.14004, f.27 Noc

The universe contains the earth and other planets, and the sun and moon.  Mount Meru is in the centre and is encircled by seven concentric rings of mountain ranges, with seven great rivers in between. Beyond them lies the vast ocean with four great islands named after the huge trees that grow on them: circular Uttarakuru in the north, lozenge-shaped Zambudipa in the south, semi-circular Pubbavideha in the east and square Aparagoyana in the west. Uttarakuru has a wishing (padesa) tree which supplies its inhabitants with all their needs; these fortunate islanders have the most enviable existence: they never fall ill, and they live a thousand years.  The islanders of Pubbavideha and Aparagoyana are always born back to the same island.  The southern island, Zambudipa, is our earth and it is where twenty-eight Buddhas appeared, culminating with the Bodhisatta Prince Siddharta.

The Thirty-One Planes (bhuṃ) of Existence                                                                             Buddhists believe in reincarnation, namely that all beings go through many cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth. Death is followed by immediate rebirth in one of the 31 planes of existence as a result of each being’s previous kamma. These 31 planes of existence comprise 20 planes of supreme deities (brahmas); 6 planes of deities (devas); the human plane (Manussa); and lastly 4 planes of deprivation or unhappiness (Apaya). The 31 planes are divided into three separate levels or realms: Arupaloka, Rupaloka and Kamaloka.

The first level, the Realm of Formlessness (Arupaloka), consists of four planes of brahmas who have no physical body, consisting entirely of mind, but who may create a physical body if they want to be seen. They are not completely free from the fetters of suffering (dukkha), but the dukkha experienced here is much less intense than that suffered in the Rupaloka. These brahmas are unable to hear the teachings of the Buddha (dhamma) and they can never become enlightened.

31. Nevasaññānāsaññāyatana bhuṃ (Realm of neither perception nor non-perception)
30. Ākiñcaññāyatana  bhuṃ (Realm of nothingness)       
29. Viññānaññcāyatana bhuṃ (Realm of infinite consciousness)
28. Ākāsānaññcāyatana  bhuṃ (Realm of infinite space)

Nevasaññānāsaññāyatana bhuṃ, the highest of the four planes of the Arupaloka. The celestial pavilion is an elaborate structure with tiered roofs, with two white umbrellas on either side. British Library, Or. 14550, f.9. Noc

The second level, the Realm of Form (Rupaloka), is inhabited by brahmas who have a physical body but do not enjoy sensual pleasures, and it is a place of less intense dukkha. This realm consists of 16 planes inhabited by Rupa brahmas divided into four categories according to their status of meditative absorption (jhana).  These Rupa brahmas can become enlightened if they come to know the dhamma.  

Catuttha jhana bhuṃ (Fourth jhana realm): consisting of seven planes, of which the first five are called Suddhavasa or the heavens of purity, where only the enlightened ones at the anagami (non- returner) stage can reborn.
             27. Akaniṭṭha bhuṃ (Realm of peerless devas)
             26. Sudassī bhuṃ (Realm of clear-sighted devas)
             25. Sudassā bhuṃ (Realm of beautiful devas)
             24. Atappā bhuṃ (Realm of serene devas)
             23. Avihā bhuṃ (Realm of durable devas)
             22. Asaññasatta bhuṃ (Realm of mindless devas)
             21. Vehapphala bhuṃ (Realm of very fruitful devas)

Vehapphala bhuṃ (21) and Asaññasatta bhuṃ (22): the two heavens are depicted as twin pavilions with seated Brahmas. British Library, Or. 14004, f. 11. Noc

Tatiya jhana bhuṃ (Third jhana realm): these three planes harbour brahmas who have a body with an aura.
            20. Subhakiṇṇā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with radiant glory)
            19. Appamāṇasubhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with unbounded glory)
            18. Parittasubhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with limited glory)

Dutiya jhana bhuṃ (Second jhana realm): the brahmas of these three planes have a body with different degrees of lustre.
            17. Ābhassara bhuṃ (Realm of devas with streaming radiance)
            16. Appamāṇabhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with unbounded radiance)  
            15. Parittābhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with limited glory)

Pathama jhana bhuṃ (First jhana realm): the planes of the lowest grade of Rupa brahmas.
            14. Mahābrahmā bhuṃ (Realm of the great Brahma)
            13. Brahmaparorita bhuṃ (Realm of the Brahma’s ministers)
            12. Brahmapārisajja bhuṃ (Realm of the Brahma’s retinue)

The third level, the Realm of Desire (Kamaloka), contains seven planes of happiness (six heavenly planes of devas and the human plane) and four planes of unhappiness.

The six heavenly planes

11. Paranimmitavassavatī bhuṃ (Realm of devas who enjoy sensory pleasures created by others for them)
10. Nimmānarati bhuṃ (Realm of devas who delight in creating)
9. Tusita bhuṃ (Realm of devas of  happiness and contentment)
8. Yāmā bhuṃ (Realm of blissful existence)
7. Tāvatimsa bhuṃ (Realm of the thirty-three gods)
6. Cātummahārājika bhuṃ (Heaven of four great kings)

On the right, Tusita bhuṃ (9), where a deva is entertained by a harpist and a dancer. All future Buddhas (bodhisatta) are born in this heaven before their penultimate human existence. Beside the Tusita bhuṃ to the left is the Sudhammā rest house, where a deva is surrounded by ten other devas paying reverence. Tusita bhum is the most beautiful of the celestial worlds. British Library, Or. 14004, f.17. Noc

Cātummahārājika bhuṃ (6), the lowest of the deva worlds, is a third of the way down the cosmic pillars. This is the heaven of the four great kings who watch over the quadrant of the cardinal directions. One of the four kings is seated on one side and Devadhita  (a female deity) is seated on the other side. Matali, Sakka’s charioteer takes King Nemi on a trip to see the heavens and hells. The other dwellers are celestial musicians and the yakkas, tree spirits. The sun is on the right and the moon is on the left. British Library, Or. 14550, f.28 Noc

The plane of humans

5. Manussa bhuṃ (human beings). Both dukkha (suffering) and sukha (happiness) are found here, but this plane is the most fortunate of all because it is the only sphere in which moral initiative occurs and the only one in which perfect Enlightenment can be achieved. The beings here are endowed with a measure of merit and can find protection on their own. They can listen to and learn all the teachings of the Buddha. Bodhisattvas prefer the human realm as it is the best plane in which to serve the world and perfect the requisites of Buddhahood.

Manussa bhuṃ. British Library, Or. 14004, f.36. Noc

The four planes of deprivation (Apāya)

These lowest four unhappy planes are infernal states, in which beings pay the price for akusala (demeritorious acts) committed in their previous life. Buddhists believe that beings are born as animals on account of evil kamma. Sprits and ghosts possess deformed physical forms of varying magnitude, generally invisible to the naked eye.

4. Asura loka (demon world): the inhabitants of this plane are powerful and are opposed  to devas.
3. Peta loka (world of spirits and hungry ghosts): this plane is known as the “state of woe.” People share their merits with these beings when they do good deeds.
2. Tiracchāna loka (animal world): this is not a pleasant plane as beings have to search for food and fight each other to stay alive.

World of animals. British Library, Or. 14004, f. 37. Noc

1. Niraya (world of hell): this plane is below the earth, in the deepest recesses of the Southern Island. There are eight different degrees of punishment: Sanjiva, Kalasutra, Sanghata, Roruva, Maharoruva, Tapana, Mahatapana and Avici. There is no happiness, only suffering, in this realm and it is the worst place to be reborn.

States of punishment, depicted in a Burmese manuscript.  The guard has tied up the denizens of hell with hot iron chains as they learn their fate from the inflictor of hell; many are being burned in a great cauldron of molten metal; one is having red molten metal poured down his throat; some are hacked to pieces along the markings made by the black thread; some are running on very hot ground; and one is climbing up a tree which is full of thorns while the dog of hell waits below to eat him alive if he falls down. British Library, Or. 14004, f. 47 Noc

Good or evil kamma will bring rebirth in the plane of happiness (sugati) or the plane of suffering (duggati). After many cycles, if people manage to sever their attachment to desire and the self, they can attain Nirvana, which is a state of liberation and freedom from suffering.

Further reading:
Ledī Cha rā toʿ. Paṭiccasamuppāda dīpanī. Ranʿ kunʿ: Haṃsāvatī, 1961.
Maing Kaing Sayadaw. Vithi puṃ, bhuṃ cañʿ, chanʿʺ puṃ, simʿ puṃ. Yangon: Yadanawadi, 1966.

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

14 March 2016

More than a Book: a new display of Southeast Asian manuscripts

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Visitors to the British Library building at St Pancras will recently have noticed a new display in the Southeast Asian exhibition case by the entrance to the Asian and African Studies Reading Room on the third floor. ‘More than a Book’ presents examples of writing from Southeast Asia in a range of unusual formats and materials, with texts incised on bamboo and gold, painted on paper with a brush, written on gilded wood, printed on silk, and even woven into cotton binding tapes to be wound around a book of palm leaves.

Exhibition Case 2016 (6)
More than a Book: a new display of writing from Southeast Asia, at the British Library Noc

In pride of place is the Burmese 'Butterfly Book’ (Or. 16052), as we have named what is actually a printed petition presented to a colonial official.  No government officer could ever have received a more beautiful document than this formal address, created in around 1907 on the occasion of the first visit to Mergui of the British Governor of Burma. Mergui (Myeik) is a coastal town on the Tenasserim Coast (the present-day Taninthayi Division), the southernmost district of Lower Burma (Myanmar). Technically this is not a hand-written manuscript, for the Burmese words have been typeset and printed onto ‘wings’ of silk, and bound within a large oyster shell.  In the petition, local residents offer sincere thanks to the Government for the construction of roads, and express their belief that the expansion of transport networks will bring more benefit to the region. Included in their long ‘shopping list’ is a request for a marine ferry to ply between adjacent coastal towns, a telegraph office, and aid in building a new hospital.

Burmese 'Butterfly Book', printed petition of 1907 from the residents of Mergui presented to the visiting British Governor of Burma. British Library, Or. 16052 Noc

Also from Burma are two sazigyo, or woven binding tapes for winding around sacred texts.  Among the ways in which Burmese Buddhists believe that merit can be gained is by commissioning and donating a sazigyo to a Buddhist monastery. There are many types of sazigyo: some are purely decorative but others are woven with texts recording the names of the donors, their titles and distinctions, and their deeds of merit. The donors usually call on devas and humans to applaud their meritorious deeds.

The larger red sazigyo is from a manuscript of Pacitʿ Pāli, a canonical text of Theravāda Buddhist monastic rules (Or. 4846). The text on the sazigyo is in verse, and begins with the word Zeyatu which means ‘success’. The donors call upon the universe to hear the news of their donation of the scripture of the Buddha’s glorious teaching, and express their hope that by the merit of this donation they may swiftly and directly reach the cessation of afflictions (Nirvana).  The inscription on the smaller yellow sazigyo (Or.15949/2) suggests that both the manuscript and the binding tape were donated to the Sayadaw (Abbot) of Bangyi monastery.

Exhibition Case 2016 (11)
Two sazigyo, manuscript binding tapes woven with Burmese texts. British Library, Or. 4846 and Or. 15946/2 Noc

From northern Thailand come two wooden title indicators, written in Thai in Dhamma script, decorated with red lacquer and gold leaf. The titles of the palm leaf manuscripts to which the title indicators were attached with a cord are incised on the gold background, together with the names of donors and honoured persons. The small title indicator was made for a manuscript containing the Vessantara Jataka copied in 1925 (Or.14528), while the larger one belonged to a text from the Abhidhamma dated 1930 (Or.14529). These title indicators were used to help retrieve manuscripts when they were stored in large chests or cabinets at Buddhist temple libraries.

On the lower shelf is an imperial Vietnamese scroll (Or. 14817/A). In 1793 a British embassy to China led by Lord Macartney ran into a storm while off the coast of central Vietnam, and issued a plea for help. In response, the Tây Sơn ruler of Vietnam, Emperor Cảnh Thịnh (1792-1802), sent a welcoming party to the British delegation, with food supplies and this beautiful scroll.  The scroll is written in Han Nom characters on orange paper decorated with a large dragon, and bears the royal seal stamped in red ink.

Vietnamese imperial scroll, 1793. British Library, Or. 14817/A

At the back of the case is an example of Batak writing on bamboo (MSS Batak 1), from north-east Sumatra. In 1823, at the request of his British visitor John Anderson, the King of Bunto Pane wrote on this piece of bamboo the Batak numbers one to ten, and a reminder to Anderson to send him two dogs once he had returned to Penang. In the bamboo container are found a knife – which may have been used to inscribe the Batak letters – and four poison-tipped blow-pipe darts.

Lastly, but catching all eyes at the top of the display, is a letter written on a sheet of pure gold, from Bali (Egerton 765). This letter in Balinese was sent in 1768 from the princes of Badung and Mengwi to the Dutch Resident of Semarang, on the north coast of Java.  Inscribed in Balinese language and script with a sharp stylus on a piece of gold in the  shape of a palm leaf – the usual writing material in Bali – the princes affirm their friendship with the Dutch East India Company.

Annabel Gallop, San San May, Jana Igunma, Sud Chonchirdsin Ccownwork
Southeast Asia section

20 January 2016

Scenes from Burmese popular dramas

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Among the beautiful illustrated Burmese manuscripts held in the British Library is one containing painted scenes from Burmese dramas, including the tale of Inaung and other stories. Acquired from a collector in 1889, this manuscript, Or. 3676, is an album containing 19 folios of painted scenes in a delicate style on thick paper, with a European quarter-leather binding. Some of the scenes have short captions in Burmese and English, and many illustrate the romantic intrigues of Prince Inaung.

Prince Inaung's flower carriage. British Library, Or. 3676, f. 2 Noc

The early Burmese dramatists drew on the Jatakas or Birth stories of the Buddha, and popular dramas (pyazats) were produced for entertainment. In the eighteenth century, Burmese drama flourished at the royal court, and the earliest play, Maniket Pyazat, was written in 1733 by the court poet Padesaraja (1684-1752), based on his own poem Maniket Pyo. Burmese court drama really began to develop at the beginning of the reign of King Bodawpaya (1782-1819), and dramatic performances of the Ramayana emerged in the Konbaung Period (1752-1885). It was Myawaddy Mingyi U Sa (1766-1853), a Konbaung-era Burmese poet who served under four kings in various capacities, who dramatized the Ramayana. He also dramatized the story of Inaung (based on the Thai story of Inao, itself derived from the Javanese Panji cycle of stories about Prince Inu Kertapati), narrating the love story of Prince Inaung and Princess Putsapa. These two plays were exceedingly long and took several days to present in their entirety.

The harp contest of Prince Inaung. British Library, Or. 3676, f. 19 Noc

The 550 Jataka stories are popular stories of former lives of the Gautama Buddha, which are preserved in all branches of Buddhism, and have been translated into Burmese. Minbu Sayadaw U Awbatha, who was famous during the reign of Bodawpaya, wrote the ten principal ones, and his style of Burmese prose literature became a model for later writers. These stories of the former lives of Buddha are inspiring and invaluable for Burmese people, and most Burmese dramas are based on events from these former births of Gautama Buddha.

'Generosity in charity'. The above painting depicts Vessantara giving away his two children to a Brahmin who wants them as slaves for his young wife. At bottom right, Ma-di, Vessantara’s wife and mother of the children, who had gone to fetch fruits in the forest for her family, is confronted by the animals on her return home. At bottom left, two deities look after the children while the Brahmin sleeps on the tree. British Library, Or. 3676, f. 1 Noc

Court dramatists, such as U Ponnya (1807-66) and U Kyin U (1819-53), were often persuaded to produce dramatic works. U Kyin U was a composer and playwright during the reign of Bagyidaw and at the court of King Mindon. One of U Kyin U’s plays is Vessantara Jataka, on the previous life of Buddha. This story is about the great generosity of Prince Vessantara. The prince’s generosity is unrivalled, but when he gave away the white elephant which ensured adequate rainfall for his country to a neighbouring country which was facing a drought, his citizens became enraged, and forced his father the king to banish him. His wife chose to share his exile with their children. After giving away all his possessions, Vessantara and his family lived in the forest. While his wife went to fetch fruits in the forest, Vessantara gave his children, a son and daughter, to a Brahmin who wanted them as slaves. The king rescued his grandchildren from the Brahmin and his wife, and invited his son and daughter-in-law to return to the palace. Once the family was reunited, Vessantara became king and all lived happily ever after.

Temi Jataka. British Library, Or. 3676, f. 7 Noc
When Prince Temi heard his father’s judgement on and harsh punishment of a criminal he was terrified, and too frightened to become king. He pretended to be deaf and dumb on the advice of a goddess who had been his mother in a former life. His father, the King of Kasikarit, besought his son to speak. In the scene shown above Prime Temi is being tested by a loose elephant and snakes. Then he was tempted with beautiful maidens when he was sixteen years old. He remained silent although he was tested again and again in various ways. When he showed no fear and no interest in anything his father thought his son was unsuitable for the kingship and ordered the charioteer to kill his son. However when Prince Temi explained to the charioteer that he was about to commit a sin, the charioteer did not kill him, and the prince became an ascetic and lived in the forest. His father and mother heard about their son and eventually came and asked him to accept the kingship, but their son still refused to become a king.

Paduma zat. British Library, Or. 3676, f. 8 Noc

U Ponnya wrote morality tales such as that of Paduma, a banished prince, and his utterly unfaithful wife. Paduma and his six brothers and their wives were exiled when the king was warned by his ministers that the princes might rebel. The younger princes planned to kill and eat their wives when there was no food in the forest. Paduma carried his wife on his shoulder and ran away from his brothers. Then he struck his knee with his sword to get blood for her to drink when she got thirsty. When they reached a river Paduma rescued a robber who had been maimed and sent adrift for theft. While he searched for fruit for them, his wife became infatuated with the limbless criminal, and when Paduma returned she hurled him down a precipice and left him to die. Fortunately Paduma was rescued and brought back to his kingdom by an iguana. He became king when his father, the king died. His former wife carried the limbless man in a basket and arrived at Paduma’s kingdom. Paduma, the king, recognized them but he desired no revenge on them, and simply ordered his ministers to banish them.

The Taungbyone Nats. British Library, Or. 3676, f. 9 Noc

The other main subject of Burmese drama is the sacrificial stories of nats (spirits). Before the reintroduction of Buddhism in 1056 people worshipped various nats, and spirit dances are still performed on spirit feast days. In this scene a country girl, Ma Swe Oo, who was also a weaver, was killed by a tiger sent by the younger Taung-pyone brother (Min Galay) for spurning his advances. After her violent death, she became a spirit and the patroness of weavers.

Royal melodrama Vijayakārī zat, British Library, Or. 3676, f. 13 Noc

Hlaing Hteik Khaung Tin, the Crown Princess (1833-1875) in the reign of King Mindon, wrote court dramas such as Vijayakārī and Indavaṃsa. She earned her fame through her romantic dramas. In the scene shown above, there is a tree in a magical forest where lovely maidens grow and wait to be plucked. This drama is about Prince Vijayakarī, Sakanituṃ (a princess born from flower bud), and Adideva of Ogre Kingdom.

Kethathiri zat. British Library, Or. 3676, f. 16 Noc

Kethathiri zat (drama) was compiled by Thakin Min Mi, the granddaughter of King Hsinbyushin (1763-1776) of Burma. The scene depicts a tree with a big flower bud, which was created by the king of the gods (deva) through his supernatural power, in the garden of an old hermit. When a beautiful maiden was born from the flower bud, the hermit gave her the name Kethathiri and looked after her as his granddaughter. Then the King of Ogres came and asked for permission from the hermit to adopt her as his daughter and take her to his country.

The court dramatists wrote delightful romances which are marvels of literary art. Only a few of their works survive to the present day but these are still widely read and studied. This beautiful manuscript, Or. 3676,  has recently been fully digitised.

Further reading:

Dr Htin Aung. Burmese drama. London: Oxford University Press, 1957.
Dr Ba Han. 'The evolution of Burmese dramatic performances and festal occasions'. In The Cambridge guide to Asian theatre, ed. by James R. Brandon. Cambridge University Press, 1993. 

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

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