THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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27 posts categorized "Burmese"

08 June 2018

Buddhism Illuminated through Southeast Asian Manuscript Art (1)

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Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia is a lavishly-illustrated book which has just been published by the British Library, in collaboration with Washington University Press. The book, by two curators in the British Library's Southeast Asia section, is dedicated to the memory of the Library’s former Curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections, Dr Henry D. Ginsburg (1940-2007), who was a leading expert and one of the pioneers of research on Buddhist manuscript art in Southeast Asia. The purpose of this book is to share many years of research on the British Library’s unique collection of Southeast Asian manuscripts on Buddhism, which illustrate not only the life and teachings of the historical Buddha, but also everyday Buddhist practice, life within the monastic order, festivals, cosmology, and ethical principles and values.

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Front cover of Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia, London: British Library 2018.

The book contains six chapters and over 200 high-quality coloured photographs of manuscripts which have mostly been digitised with generous funding from Henry Ginsburg’s Legacy. The illustrations are mainly from eighteenth and nineteenth century Burmese and Thai manuscripts, and the book provides detailed background information on Theravada Buddhism in general and Buddhist art in mainland Southeast Asia in particular.

The first chapter is an introduction to Buddhist manuscripts in Southeast Asia and gives an overview of the British Library’s Burmese, Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections. It discusses not only the production and contents of Buddhist manuscripts in the region, but also all aspects of manuscript culture, including storage chests and cabinets, and manuscript wrappers and binding ribbons (sazigyo).

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A palm leaf manuscript of the Malalankara (the Burmese version of the Life of Gotama Buddha) from Burma, dated 1883. British Library, Or 16673 Noc

The palm leaf manuscript shown above has five bundles and is a fine example of Burmese craftsmanship and artistry. The leaves with gilded and lacquered edges are bound between a pair of red lacquered binding boards, together with a hand-woven sazigyo featuring Burmese script. The manuscript is wrapped in a cotton cloth with butterfly and flower patterns on a red coloured background. The text on the sazigyo states ‘May the merit of writing the scripture of the Buddha’s 45 years of glorious teachings help me to attain nibbana.’

The Library’s collections are particularly rich in illustrated folding books and palm leaf manuscripts featuring scenes from the Life of the Buddha, Jataka stories or Birth Tales, Buddhist cosmology, as well as festivals and rituals.

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A Thai paper folding book (samut khoi) from the eighteenth century containing extracts from the Tipitaka with illustrations from the Ten Birth Tales (or the last Ten Jatakas). British Library, Or. 14068, f. 4 Noc

Each of the last Ten Birth Tales illustrates one of the Buddha’s great qualities, mahabuddhaguna. Illustrated in the Thai folding book above is the Nimi Jataka, illustrating the quality of resolution through the story of Prince Nimi who, thanks to his great merits, was invited to visit the Buddhist heavens. On his journey there, the charioteer stopped briefly at one hell where Nimi learned of the torments and sufferings in the Buddhist hells. This is one of a small number of surviving eighteenth-century manuscripts from central Thailand with illustrations of outstanding quality.

The second chapter,  “Buddha – The Enlightened One,” introduces the concept of Buddhahood and shows how the historical Gotama Buddha, who lived and taught in northeast India over 2,500 years ago, is depicted in manuscript illustrations. An overview is given of the 28 Buddhas of the past, as well as examples of Jatakas, stories of previous lives of the historical Buddha. Also presented in this chapter are important episodes from the life of the historical Buddha such as his birth as Prince Siddhattha, his famous renunciation of worldly life, the miracles of the Enlightened One, the Buddha’s visit to Tavatimsa heaven, his passing into parinibbana and the coming of the future Buddha Metteyya.

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Folding book with scenes from the life of Gotama Buddha. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 14297, f. 6 Noc

The birth of the Buddha-to-be (Prince Siddhattha Gotama) illustrated in the rare Burmese manuscript shown above depicts the procession of Queen Maha Maya through Lumbini Garden on her way to Devadaha, depicted at the bottom of the page. Above left we see Queen Maha Maya holding with her right hand a branch of the Sal tree for support and ease of pain while giving birth, with her left hand draped around the shoulder of Pajapati Gotami, the queen’s sister. The scene in the top right corner depicts the Brahmas receiving the new-born prince into the world. This is a fine example of Burmese artistic interpretations of scenes from the Life of Gotama Buddha.

After his enlightenment, the Buddha told his disciples and followers of his experiences in his previous existences, before he was born as Prince Siddhattha. The Buddha’s previous lives are the subject of a large collection of stories commonly known as Jatakas, or Birth Tales. The Jatakas show how he gradually acquired greater moral stature in passing from one incarnation to another. These stories are well-known in all Buddhist cultures of mainland Southeast Asia. The Buddha is thought to have narrated them during his ministry to his followers, using each Jataka to teach certain ethical principles and values.

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Illustration of the Dipankara Jataka from Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Mss Burmese 202, f.1 Noc

The Dipankara Jataka, the story of Dipankara Buddha, is special in the way that it tells of how the historical Buddha in one of his earlier incarnations met one of the 28 Buddhas of the past. The illustration above shows how the Buddha-to-be Sumedha receives his niyatha vivarana (prediction of future Buddhahood) from Dipankara Buddha, who had reached enlightenment aeons before Gotama Buddha. When he arrived at a place called Ramma, to honour him, local people cleaned the road for him to walk upon, and Sumedha took responsibility for one stretch of the muddy road. The Buddha Dipankara addressed the hermit Sumedha and foretells that in due time he will himself attain enlightenment and become a Buddha.

As well as the Buddhas of the past, the Buddha of the future, Metteyya, is also depicted in illustrated manuscripts. He is often portrayed in Thai manuscripts telling the legend of the monk Phra Malai, who, during his journey to the Buddhist heavens, learns about the coming of the future Buddha.

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Folding book containing the story of the monk Phra Malai. Central Thailand, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 6630, f. 42 Noc

These two generously gilded illustrations in the Thai painting style of the nineteenth century are set in two of the Buddhist heavens, Tavatimsa (left) and Tusita (right). On the left, the monk Phra Malai is shown seated, in orange robes, in front of the heavenly Culamani Ceti. This stupa houses the hair collected by the god Sakka when Prince Siddhattha cut his topknot on adopting the ascetic life. Phra Malai converses with Sakka (shown here as a green figure) and a deva attendant. On the right the Bodhisatta Natha, the future Buddha Metteyya residing in Tusita heaven, is depicted with a group of female attendant deities, all wearing glamorous outfits. Tusita heaven is thought to be the residence of divine beings (devata). The appearance of the future Buddha Metteyya forecasts a blissful future for those humans who follow the Dhamma, or Buddha’s teachings.

Although the life of Gotama Buddha, and those of the Buddhas of the past and the future Buddha, are often at the center of Buddhist manuscript art, there is much more to learn from Southeast Asian manuscript art about Buddha’s teachings, life in the monastic order and everyday Buddhist practice. All the details can be found in the newly published book, and a few more will be revealed in part two of this blog which will follow soon.

San San May and Jana Igunma, Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia, London: British Library 2018. (ISBN 978 0 7123 5206 2)

The book is available from all major booksellers and online.

San San May, Curator for Burmese
Jana Igunma, Henry D. Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian

Ccownwork

 

17 April 2018

The Burmese New Year

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The Burmese New Year falls in the second week of the Burmese month of Tagu (April). It is an auspicious time for Burmese people, who each year determine to make the New Year a happier, healthier and more successful one. The New Year is ushered in with the Thingyan water festival, which starts on 13 April and lasts for four days, after which comes New Year's Day itself. The word Thingyan is derived from the Sanskrit word Samkranti, which means literally ‘a passing on’, and the exact date and the precise time of the commencement and termination of Thingyan and New Year’s Day are fixed through astrological calculations. The first day of the festival is called Thingyan a-kyo nei (welcoming day), the second day is Thingyan a-kya nei (falling day) and the third day is Thingyan a-kyat nei (tight day). Certain years may contain one or two extra a-kyat days, and then the last day of the festival is Thingyan a-tet nei (rising day). The following day, 17 April, is celebrated as the Burmese New Year's Day.

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Saṅʿkranʿ tvakʿ naññʿʺ cā (Calculation the Thingyan), ca. 1880. British Library, Mss. Burmese 116

Shown above is a half-length Burmese palm leaf manuscript of Thingyan sa, which gives explanations of Thingyan with calculations. Thingyan sa are traditionally written annually at the time of the Thingyan festival, based on astrological calculations, and purport to predict the great events of the coming year.

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The Tagu Thingyan festival, depicted in a Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or.15021, ff. 1-3

The above illustration portrays royal people in a procession to celebrate Thingyan and New Year, attended by musicians. Some carry small water pots with flowers on their shoulders, some carry long fans and some wear masks resembling mythical animals. According to traditional beliefs, Sakka, king of the Tavatimsa heaven, descends to the earth from his celestial abode on a-kya day. People place a small pot with seven different kinds of flowers representing seven days of the week in front of their house to welcome Sakka. He remains upon earth for three days. During the festival people, regardless of age, gender or religion, wear colourful dresses and sing and dance together, sprinkling scented water on one another, in the belief that the Thingyan festival water will make them healthy. For fun, some people enjoy playing with water hoses at their temporary pavilions.

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A depiction of an alms-giving ceremony, 19th century. British Library, Or.13293 , f. 1

The above illustration shows an alms-giving ceremony. The practice of offering food to monks is the most common ritual practised in in Burma, and is a peaceful and spiritual ceremony. Indeed, the true spirit in which the New Year should be celebrated is by fasting, giving alms, doing meritorious deeds and observing the Buddha’s teachings (Dhamma) on New Year’s Day. Kadaw (Homage) day is held in this season. On this day, people pay their respects to their parents, teachers and superiors, and novitiation ceremonies are held in towns, cities and villages.

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This painted scene depicts the ruler receiving homage from his ministers and court officials on Kadaw or Homage day. The king is seated in a pavilion and traditional offerings of coconuts and bananas are set before him. The bottom yellow border of the painting is inscribed in Burmese characters, ‘Receiving homage’. British Library, Or.14963, f. 7  

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Paying homage to the king on the New Year Day.  British Library, Or.6779, f.2

In the scene above, the king is shown receiving homage from his ministers and members of the royal family. The ceremony features folk music troupes and processions of elephants and horses. During the days of royal rule, the New Year celebration included the state-sponsored feeding of monks for three continuous days, the watering of the sacred banyan trees and the cleansing of Buddha statues, and a three-gun salute was fired to usher in the New Year.

Further reading:

Khin Myo Chit. Flowers and festivals round the Myanmar Year. Yangon: Sarpaylawka, 2002.

San San May, Curator for Burmese

09 April 2018

Burmese marionette theatre

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Burmese puppet shows (yokthe pwe) were a popular entertainment under the Burmese monarchy, and possibly date back to the Pagan kingdom of the 11th century. Historical sources show that puppet plays have certainly been performed since the early 15th century, and rapidly grew in prestige and popularity in the 17th century. By the 18th century, puppet shows were common in ordinary Burmese circles, and were seen as a means of educating people in history, religion, culture and everyday life. At court, puppet shows were patronized by the Burmese kings, and the Thabin-wun (Minister for the performing arts) was in charge of performances.

The string puppets used in Burma (Myanmar) are made of wood, ideally Yamane wood (botanical name, Gamelina arborea) which is light and soft. Teak is also used, but it is heavier than Yamane wood. The size of the puppets varies from one to three feet tall, with small dancing puppets while non-dancing puppets are made larger. The standard repertoire involves a troupe of 28 puppets of characters comprising a nat (deva), sakka (ruler of the Tavatimsa heaven), zawgyi (alchemist), a king and queen, four ministers, a prince and princess, a hermit, a pageboy, punna (brahmin), bhilu (ogre), nat kadaw (spirit medium), two prince regents, a handmaiden, and animals including tiger, horse, elephant, monkey, parrot, garuda (mythical bird, in Burmese galon), naga (serpant), kinnara and kinnari (mythical birds). Each puppet has its own style of dancing, with accompanying song and music.

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A depiction of a traditional Burmese puppet show, late 19th century. British Library, Or.14031, ff. 19-20 Noc

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Detail of the Burmese puppets, from the painting above. British Library, Or.14031, ff. 19-20 Noc

A late 19th century Burmese manuscript in the British Library (Or.14031) contains painted scenes of a courtly puppet show and dramatic performance. The painting on folio 9 is inscribed on the bottom left in English, ‘Maung Tsa Painter.’ This identifies the painter as Saya Sa, the son of the most famous court painter U Kya Nyunt, who served as a royal artist to King Mindon (r. 1853-1878). Saya Sa was also a royal artist at the Burmese court, who served King Mindon’s son and successor, King Thibaw (r. 1878-1885). The illustration above shows the stage for the puppet show which is built of bamboo and thatch. The marionettes on the stage are surrounded by green trees. The white backdrop is about waist high. The puppeteers who work behind the curtain are visible to the audience. The stage is bare except for a male and female dancers and page boys against the white backdrop. The duet danced on the stage is performed by the leading characters in romantic scenes which are favourites with the audience. The puppets are dressed in real clothes and the puppeteers skilfully make their puppets act like living performers. The show is held under the open sky, and the grounds are filled with people who stand to watch the show. Spectators, enjoying the free entertainment, walk along the line of food stalls in the bazaar in the marionette theatre grounds.

The puppet show was allowed to use a stage as the puppets would otherwise be too small to be seen, and was hence termed amyint thabin (raised performance). However the puppet theatre was the only form of entertainment allowed to use a stage at the royal court at that time, and other entertainments performed by men and women could only be staged on the ground. Amyint thabin was later called yoke thay, and the popular saying, tha bin a sa yoke thay ka, ‘dance and drama began with marionettes’, reflects the prestige of the puppet theatre.

The themes of the puppet plays were based on the Buddha’s previous births (Jataka stories), Buddhist fables and stories, folktales and incidents in Burmese history, including the history of the pagodas. The last ten Jataka tales were very popular as they describe the perfection of ten important virtues. People learned about history, astrology, court intrigues and ethics from puppet plays.

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Court entertainment, British Library, Or.14031, f. 1-3 Noc

The painting above, from the same manuscript, portrays a royal dramatic performance. The king is shown on the stage on the right watching the court musicians and dancers in the large white umbrella hall shown in the centre. Two drum circles are in place on either side of the stage, and alongside each of them is a brass gong circle. The drum circle consists of 21 drums, and the player sits within the circular frames and strikes the drums with his bare fingers and the heels of his hands. The brass gong circle is similar in design and there are 18 brass gongs. The player sits in the middle of the gongs and strikes them with a short knobbed stick (glimpsed on the left). In the centre, the male and female dancers sing and dance the duet hna-par-thwar. All the dancers and musicians perform on the ground, as they are not allowed to dance on a stage.

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Detail of the dancers, from the painting above. British library, Or.14031, f. 1-3 Noc

A Burmese puppet troupe includes puppeteers, singers and musicians. The most complex aspect of the art of the Burmese marionette is the working of the marionette strings. 16 strings are attached to the head, hands and feet of each puppet, and these strings are then attached to a cross-piece handle. The puppeteer needs great skill to hold the handles in both his hands and pull the strings to make the marionettes perform delicate movements. The vocalists sit behind the screen and the puppeteers stand behind the screen to handle the puppets, working in conjunction with each other. A skilful puppeteer can operate the puppet in time with the vocalist’s dialogue or song, bringing the puppets alive. Some vocalists could sing both male and female voices, playing many different roles. Sometimes the puppeteer is able to perform both tasks, to sing and to manipulate the strings at the same time.

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A Burmese puppet show (Yoke thay pwe), photograph taken by Philip Adolphe Klier in 1890s. British Library, Photo 88/1(42). Noc

The marionette stage in the photo above is built of bamboo. A group of some thirty people are seated on bamboo mats spread on the bare ground, watching the performance. The puppets are arranged on the stage, and in front is the saing (puppet troupe orchestra). At one side of the stage is a throne, and puppets such as the king and queen, the prince and princess, the hermit, the minister, the page boy and the elephant can be seen on the stage. The hermit puppet is depicted as a religious image and is treated with respect by puppeteers. The scene being performed is set at the royal court and involves the king, queen and the minister.

In the present day, puppet shows can be seen at pagoda festivals in Rangoon and Mandalay, which are still occasions for traditional entertainment, with food and other bazaar stalls in the festival grounds. The dance style of the puppets differs from that of humans, but nowadays in Burma we see human performances adopting puppet characteristics and movements, as professional artists try to save this beautiful art form from disappearing.

Further reading

Khin Myo Chit, ‘Burmese marionette theatre’, The Guardian, Rangoon, 1976.
Dagon Nat Shin. Myanmar Yoke thay thabin. Rangoon: Yin Kye Mu, 1959.

San San May, Curator for Burmese  Ccownwork

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

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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

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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.

DSCN0706
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. 

Add15289.1
British Library, Add. 15289, f. 1v, top outer leaf  noc
Add15289
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.

Or12010H.1
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.

Or12010E.1
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

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

Or12010A.1
British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1v, outer front board   noc
Or12010A.2
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.

Or.14004.f.28
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:

Add.17699A.f.83
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.

Or.14298.f.1
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.

Or.14297.f.44
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.

Or.14823.f.31
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.

Or.5757.f.29
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). 

Or.14298.f.18
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