THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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24 posts categorized "Burmese"

24 July 2017

Animals in Southeast Asian manuscripts

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The Southeast Asia exhibition case outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room at St Pancras is currently showing a selection of images of animals in manuscripts from Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. The delightful depictions of animals can be appreciated as exquisite works of art, but certain animals were also important as religious, political and cultural symbols in Southeast Asian societies, none more so than elephants.

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Animals in Southeast Asian manuscripts, on display in 2017.

In pride of place on the top shelf is a 19th-century Burmese folding book or parabaik (MSS Burmese 204) containing 22 coloured illustrations of elephants, showing the elephant king Chaddanta, who was the Bodhisatta or previous incarnation of Gautama Buddha, and his queen Mahathubadda. In Burma white elephants are regarded as sacred and a source of blessings, as they play a major role in Buddhist tales. In the story of the ‘Life of the Buddha’, Queen Maya dreamed that a celestial white elephant holding a white lotus flower in its trunk entered her side, to be reborn as Gautama Buddha, while in the last Birth Story of the Buddha, Vessantara Jataka, the white elephant appears as a rain maker. Every Burmese king longed to possess a white elephant, a symbol of power and sovereignty.

Next to the Burmese book is a Javanese manuscript of Serat Panji Jaya Kusuma dated 1805 (MSS Jav 68), which is shown open at a scene (identified by Lydia Kieven) where Sekartaji and her servant (emban) approach the forest filled with animals including an elephant, tiger, banteng, wild boar and two deer. This tale is one of many versions of the adventures of Prince Panji in his search for his beloved Princess Candrakirana. Stories of Prince Panji date back to the 13th century, and mark the beginnings of a truly Javanese literature no longer overshadowed by the great Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Panji tales are found not only in Java but were also translated into Malay, Balinese, Thai, Lao, Khmer and Burmese.

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Drawings of forest animals in a Javanese manuscript of Serat Panji Jaya Kusuma, 1805. British Library, MSS Jav 68, f. 42r.

On the lower shelf is a Vietnamese royal edict issued by Emperor Khải Định on 25 July 1924, adorned on the back with a gilded turtle (Or 14632). The turtle (rùa) has a special place in Vietnamese culture and history. It symbolises longevity, strength and intelligence and is also closely related to the independence of Vietnam. Legend has it that Lê Lời, who led the Vietnamese fight against Chinese invaders in the 15th century, borrowed a sword from the dragon king. After the defeat of the Chinese, the sacred sword was returned to the king by a turtle which lived in a jade water lake. At the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu) in Hà Nội, 82 stone turtles carry on their backs steles inscribed with the names of scholars, signifying the importance of education in society.

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Turtle, on the back of a Vietnamese royal edict issued by Emperor Khải Định on 25 July 1924. British Library, Or. 14632.

The final item in the case is a 19th-century Thai Phrommachat or horoscope manual in folding book format (Or. 13650). The twelve-year Chinese zodiac cycle was widely used in Thailand, and the manual contains coloured drawings depicting the zodiac in two series, together with detailed explanations for fortune telling and divination. 2017 is the year of the Rooster, and on display are drawings related to this year, with each rooster shown representing one particular quarter of the year. There is also a number diagram for people born in the year of the rooster, and the male avatar and plant for this year. These are accompanied by drawings used for predicting the future and to explain dreams and omens.

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Thai horoscope manual, open at the page for the year of the Rooster (the present year, 2017). British Library, Or. 13650, f.5v

Or. 13650 has been fully digitised, and shown below are some other pages from this beautiful manuscript, which can be accessed through the hyperlinks beneath the images.

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Thai horoscope manual. British Library, Or. 13650, f. 11v

Display Animals Thai OR_13650_f013r
Thai horoscope manual. British Library, Or. 13650, f. 13r

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

Other blog posts about animals in Southeast Asian manuscripts:

Elephants, kingship and warfare in Southeast Asia, by Sud Chonchirdsin

Elephants in all shapes and sizes

The year of the Rooster, from a Thai perspective, by Jana Igunma

O graceful fawn, o gentle doe: deer in Thai manuscript art, by Jana Igunma

What's my Thai horoscope? by Jana Igunma

24 May 2017

33 Burmese manuscripts now digitised

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The Burmese manuscript collection in the British Library consists of approximately 1800 manuscripts. The majority are written on palm leaf, but there are also many paper folding books (parabaik), and texts written on diverse materials such as gold, silver, copper and ivory sheets in the shape of palm leaves. The collection is particularly strong in historical, legal and grammatical texts, and in illustrated material. In particular, there are many folding books with illustrations of the Life of the Buddha, Jataka stories, court scenes and other subjects.

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Royal entertainments: In the above scene, a musical troupe is entertaining the royals. To the left, the royal party is seated under a canopy watching a Burmese classical dance (Zat pwe), while to the right are dancers and musicians accompanied by an orchestra (Saing waing). Zat taw gyi or zat pwe is usually based on Jataka stories, which are the most popular literary sources throughout all periods of Burmese history. British Library, Or.16761, f.28r Noc

The manuscripts derive from two historic sources, the British Museum and the India Office Library, and were mostly brought from Burma by travellers, envoys, missionaries, administrators and researchers. From the British Museum came the John Murray collection, acquired in 1842, which includes several manuscripts from Arakan dating from the 1740s, and the Sir Arthur Phayre collection, acquired in 1886. The India Office Library collection of Burmese manuscripts began with the Royal Mandalay Collection acquired in 1886 after the Anglo-Burmese war, and a collection of official documents formed by Henry Burney which was probably presented to the Library by Burney himself. Catalogues of all the Burmese manuscripts are available in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room, and about 700 manuscripts in Burmese and and in Pali in Burmese script can be found in the online catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

Since 2013 the British Library has digitised some of the finest Burmese manuscripts in its collection, supported by the Henry D. Ginsburg Legacy. To date 33 manuscripts have been fully digitised, covering a wide range of genres and subjects.  All these manuscripts are now accessible through the Digitised Manuscripts website. A new webpage, Digital Access to Burmese Manuscripts, also lists all the Burmese manuscripts digitised so far, with hyperlinks to the images and to blog posts featuring the manuscripts. Future digitised manuscripts will be also be listed on this page. Shown in this post are a selection of our digitised Burmese manuscripts; clicking on the hyperlinked shelfmarks below the images will take you directly to the digitised versions.

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The royal melodrama Vijayakari zat: 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). Court dramatists, such as U Ponnya (1807-1866) and U Kyin U (1819-1853), produced dramatic works during the reign of Bagyidaw. Hlaing Hteik Khaung Tin, the Crown Princess (1833-1875) in the reign of King Mindon, wrote court dramas such as Vijayakari and Indavamsa, but she earned particular fame for 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 Vijayakari, Sakanitum (a princess born from a flower bud), and Adideva of the Ogre Kingdom. These 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. British Library, Or.3676, f.13r Noc

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Regatta festival: There are many Burmese festivals throughout the year. Tawthalin (September) is the sixth month in the Burmese calendar and the third month of the rainy season in Burma. The rain becomes less frequent, there is sunshine with clear skies, no wind, and the surfaces of the rivers are smooth without waves. The season is just right for holding regatta festivals, which have traditionally been held in this month since the times of ancient Burmese kings, and the regatta festival remains one of the twelve monthly festivals in the Burmese calendar. Regattas were not only occasions for pageantry but also opportunities for demonstrating the naval prowess of the armed forces. In the olden days, the royal family sent their own boats to participate in the race, and high officials were placed in charge of preparations for boat races held along the shores of rivers throughout the country. British Library, Or.15021, f.16r Noc

Or.14178
Scenes from the Ramayana: Ravana, in disguise as a hermit, begs Sita to come with him to his kingdom. When she refuses, Ravana summons his magic chariot and sweeps Sita up and away, into the sky and over the forests (top). When Rama and Lakshmana finally find their way home Sita is gone (bottom). British Library, Or. 14178, f. 10 Noc

Quick link to: Digital access to Burmese manuscripts

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

17 May 2017

Elephants, kingship and warfare in Southeast Asia

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Elephants have played an important part in many Asian civilisations since ancient times, for once they could be brought under control, their gigantic physical appearance and wild temperament were regarded as great assets. In China, war elephants appeared from at least as early as the Shang Dynasty (1723-1123 BC) (Kistler 2006: 8). They were respected both for their awe-inspiring size and for their difficult behaviour, which in turn helped to secure the position at the top of those kings who succeeded in controlling the beasts (Trautmann 2015: 68-69). In India, from as early as 1000 BC in the later Vedic period, elephants were domesticated and became a very valuable resource for kings and rulers in the northern states, especially for use in battle, and information on domesticating elephants was recorded in Gajasastra or elephant knowledge manuals. In Hinduism the pachyderms are regarded as sacred animals since the god Indra chose a celestial elephant named Airavana as his animal mount, or vahana (Trautmann 2015: 100).

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Airavana, the god Indra’s elephant, depicted in a Thai manuscript. British Library, Or.  13652, f. 4v Noc

The Indian epic Ramayana also portrays elephants as an important part of kingship. It mentions the relationship between kings and elephants, and the duty of the royals to attend to the needs of the elephants (Trautmann 2015: 50-51). Ayodhaya, the royal city of Rama, was full of horses and elephants, and according to early Buddhist texts, King Bimbisara of Magadha (558-491 BC) possessed a well-trained elephant corps (Kistler 2006: 21) .

The idea of the royal use of elephants, war elephants and elephant training techniques gradually spread from India to the kingdoms of Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, as early as AD 40, the two Trưng sisters, Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, led a victorious but short-lived rebellion against the Chinese Han ruler before they were suppressed in AD 42. The two Trưng sisters, who were killed in the war, have been depicted in Vietnamese history as warriors riding on elephants to fight against the Chinese Han.  Since then they have become national heroines and a symbol of resistance against foreign rule and domination.

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The Trưng Sisters (Hai Bà Trưng) depicted on the front cover of Làng Văn, no. 19, March, 1986. British Library, 16641.e.13

Elephants played an essential role in traditional warfare in Southeast Asia. Not only were they the main war machines but they could also instigate war, especially if they were “white elephants”. In many traditional kingdoms in Southeast Asia, “white elephants” received royal treatment and carried the king. In reality “white elephants” are simply albino elephants, but they are extremely rare. Some white elephants which simply had pale colorations or certain spots and other characteristics were deemed to be “auspicious” and beautiful, and were believed to be especially blessed by the gods. This belief may also be related to the Hindu myth which describes Airavana, Indra’s mount, as a white elephant. Rulers sometimes competed for ownership of such white elephants, and these ownership contests could be used as pretexts for declaring war (Kistler 2006: 178-9).

Just as the Vietnamese honour the Trưng sisters, so the Thais regard highly Queen Suriyothai and her daughter, Princess Boromdilok, for their bravery and sacrifice. According to Thai chronicles, Queen Suriyothai gave up her life to protect her husband King Maha Chakkraphat, who was engaged in an elephant fight with the Burmese Viceroy of Prome during the rise of the Tongoo dynasty of Burma in 1548. She dressed as a male soldier on a war elephant and decided to block the Viceroy of Prome from charging her husband, but was killed by a single blow from the Viceroy’s spear, together with her daughter. Between 1563 and 1564 the Burmese kingdom of the Toungoo Dynasty and the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya were engaged in another war, this time over white elephants. King Bayinnaung of the Toungoo demanded that King Maha Chakkraphat of Ayutthaya send two of his white elephants to Burma as tribute, but Maha Chakkraphat refused, and hence war broke out. Ayutthaya could not withstand the power of the Burmese army, and eventually a peace deal was agreed in which one of the Siamese king’s princes was taken hostage to Burma, and Ayutthaya also had to give four white elephants to the Burmese king. In addition, Siam had to send thirty elephants and a substantial amount of silver to Burma annually. Ayutthaya was also reduced in status to a vassal state to the Burmese kingdom.

Or_16761_f010r Catching elephants
Elephant catching in Burma. British Library, Or. 16761, f.10r Noc

According to Thai historical sources, Siamese pride was only restored by King Naresuan, the grandson of King Maha Chakkraphat, when he won an elephant duel between himself and Mingyi Swa, Bayinnaung’s grandson, in 1593. In foreign source material the actual elephant duel was not mentioned but there was definitely an elephant battle between Naresuan and the Burmese troops. Similar conflicts over white elephants took place in other traditional Southeast Asian kingdoms. For example, around the 1470s, Emperor Lê Thánh Tông of the Đại Việt kingdom waged a war against the Lan Xang kingdom (literarily translated as 'kingdom of a million elephants', located in modern Laos) after his request for a gift of a hair of the white elephant of King Chakkaphat of Lan Xang was rejected.

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King Naresuan on his elephant battles with the Burmese.  King Naresuan the Great (Bangkok : Animate, 1994). British Library, YP.2007.a.2584,  p.[170]

Elephants have no place in modern world warfare; nevertheless Southeast Asians still have a strong sense of their power and role in society. In Thailand an annual elephant round up is organised in Surin province in north-eastern Thailand. This festival was an important royal event during the Ayutthaya period, when wild elephants were hunted, tamed and trained to be used as working or war animals. In Thanh Hóa province in northern Vietnam, an elephant battle festival or Trò Chiềng has been revived recently. This festival commemorates and honours General Trịnh Quốc Bảo, who adopted war tactics in his fight against the enemy in the 11th century.  He had elephants made out of bamboo, glued fireworks to them, and then burnt them in the battle against the enemy’s elephant troops. This spectacular and original strategy may well have contributed to his victory.

Further reading:
John M. Kistler. War elephants. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2006.
Thomas R. Trautmann. Elephants and kings: an environmental history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
‘Tro Chieng: the Most Anticipated Festival in Thanh Hoa’, Vietnam Pictorial, No. 699, March, 2017, pp. 30-33 (British Library shelf mark : SU216 (2) )

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork

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. 

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British Library, Add. 15289, f. 1v, top outer leaf  noc
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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.

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British Library, Or. 12010H, f.1v  noc
Or12010H
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.

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British Library, Or. 12010E, front board  noc
Or12010E
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

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British Library, Or. 13896, f. 1r  noc
Or13896.2
British Library, Or. 13896, f. 16r  noc
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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.

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British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1v, outer front board   noc
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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.

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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:

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Add.17699A.f.84
Add.17699A.f.85
Add.17699A.f.86

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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). 

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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)

Döhring

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.
   
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Tipitaka

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