THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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6 posts categorized "Cambodia"

06 July 2015

The Life of the Buddha in Thai manuscript art

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In contrast to Thai mural painting and sculpture, depictions of Gautama Buddha are relatively rare in Thai manuscript art. Numerous Buddhist temples in Thailand are famous for their lavish mural paintings illustrating the milestones in the life of Gautama Buddha, often beginning with his former existence as a Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be) in Tusita heaven, or with the wedding of his parents, and ending with the distribution of his physical remains.

Although the majority of Thai manuscript paintings are dedicated to Buddhist topics, instead of Gautama Buddha’s life these illustrations often highlight his former incarnations, particularly the last Ten Birth Tales, and the legend of the monk Phra Malai, or other subjects like the Buddhist cosmology, funeral ceremonies and meditation practices. However, there are some remarkable representations of Gautama Buddha in rare Thai manuscripts, and sometimes these can be found in a rather unexpected context.

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The most lavishly painted scene from the Life of the Buddha in the British Library’s Thai, Lao and Cambodian collection is this scene called The Great Departure, contained in a northern Thai (Lanna) Kammavaca manuscript from the 19th century. Prince Siddharta, after having learned about the worldly sufferings and the inevitability of death, decided to abandon his luxurious life and to become an ascetic as a result of his great compassion for human suffering. British Library, Or.14025, ff. 13-14  noc
 
While the manuscript shown above was created for use by Buddhist monks on the occasion of the ordination of novices and new monks, the following book containing a collection of drawings and paintings on European paper may have been copied from one or more older manuscripts to serve as an artist’s manual. It includes numerous drawings from the Ramakien (the Thai version of the Ramayana) as well as a set of 23 ink-and-colour paintings illustrating the Ten Birth Tales and the Life of the Buddha.

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After leaving his family and home, Siddharta arrived at the Anoma river where he took off his clothes and gave them to his servant and charioteer Channa, who took them back to the palace with a message for Siddharta’s relatives. Then he cut off his hair which Sakka (Indra) collected and placed in Tavatimsa heaven. British Library, Or.14859, ff. 202-203  noc

Another rare manuscript of a smaller, almost square folding book format was used by fortune-tellers in southern Thailand. Some men specialising in fortune-telling and divination were former monks and had acquired a good knowledge of the Buddhist doctrine. It comes as no surprise that the small book combines Buddhist topics, like Jatakas and cosmology, with folk legends and indigenous beliefs. Using the text and picture on a randomly chosen page, the fortune-teller would be able to interpret the fate of a person and give advice on how to avoid bad luck. Very often the advice would point towards making merit or following the Buddhist precepts for lay people.

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In the southern Thai dialect this fortune-telling book from the 19th century is called Satra. The illustrations are all rather simple, but highly expressive. The image above shows the scene where Mara, the personification of evil and death, threatens and attacks Siddharta while he was sitting in meditation, touching the ground with his right hand (bhumisparsa or earth-touching mudra). British Library, Or.16482, f. 3  noc

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Another unexpected illustration of the same scene, Siddharta under attack from Mara and his army, can be found in a manuscript from central Thailand containing mantra and designs for protective diagrams (yantra). Mara cannot be seen in this drawing in yellow gamboge ink, but underneath the picture of the meditating Siddharta one can see the earth goddess Nang Thorani exercising her supernatural powers by wringing a great flood out of her long hair, thus sweeping away Mara and his army. British Library, Or.15596, f. 17  noc

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Once Siddharta was free from all disturbances and distractions, he was able to attain Enlightenment on the full moon day of Visakha. By touching the earth he called upon the gods, here represented by Sakka and Brahma, to witness his enlightenment. British Library, Or.16101, fol. 2  noc

A book of Thai characters, which may have been produced on request of a Western traveller in 19th century Siam, contains ink coloured paintings of human figures representing various ethnic groups found in mainland Southeast Asia at the time, and of figures from Thai literature, particularly the Ramakien (Ramayana). Only on the first page there is a scene from the Life of the Buddha.   

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The weeks after his enlightenment the Buddha spent in standing, walking and sitting meditation, thus recollecting his former births and the Four Noble Truths. During the fourth week in seated meditation, devas descended from the heavens to build a jewelled pavilion around him. British Library, Or.14229, f. 1  noc

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This illustration is from a Thai folding book in Khom (Khmer) script from the 19th century that contains a collection of extracts from the Pali canon. The painting shows the Buddha in contemplation while two creatures from the heavenly Himavanta forest kneel by his side, showing their respect. British Library, Or.15246, f. 16  noc

Large illustrations covering one entire or more openings of a folding book like in the picture above are relatively rare. Most frequently we find a set of two smaller paintings touching the right and left edges of folding books with some text between them, as shown below.

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This generously gilded set of paintings in a 19th century manuscript containing the legend of Phra Malai depict a scene of utmost rarity in Thai manuscript art - Gautama Buddha’s death that is mourned by his followers. On the right side we see Kassapa, one of Buddha’s closest disciples, who was travelling with a group of other monks. While resting under a tree, they encountered a man holding a gigantic flower over his head. They enquired about the meaning of this supernatural plant and the man informed them that he found it at the place where the Buddha had passed away and finally reached pari-nibbana. British Library, Or.14956, fol. 2  noc

Further reading

Appleton, Naomi and Sarah Shaw and Toshiya Unebe: Illuminating the Life of the Buddha. An illustrated chanting book from eighteenth-century Siam. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2013
Ginsburg, Henry: Thai art and culture. Historic manuscripts from Western collections. London: British Library, 2000
Tom Chuawiwat: The Life of the Lord Buddha from Thai mural painting. Bangkok: Asia Books (no year)

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

  ccownwork

15 May 2015

The Henry Ginsburg photo collection: an insight into a curator’s life and work

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Henry David Ginsburg (1940-2007), the former Curator of the Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections at the British Library, started work at the British Museum Library in 1967 as a Special Assistant. He spent his entire life conducting research on Southeast Asian arts and cultures, but passed away in 2007 without finishing his last two research projects, on Thai banner paintings and the Chakrabongse Archive of royal letters held at the British Library. Henry Ginsburg left behind a huge collection of books, photographs and art treasures, which he had collected over forty years through personal and professional contacts. He was friends with several members of the Thai royal family, as well as with scholars, private collectors, and colleagues from a variety of institutions all over the world. As a curator Henry was well-known for his specialism in Thai manuscripts and manuscript painting, but his interests and expertise were far broader than this.

Henry Ginsburg was born in 1940 in New York as a son of prominent traders of Jewish-Russian descent who dealt in antique furniture, decorative art and accessories, and textiles. Having grown up in a family that admired the arts and dedicated much of their time to collecting and researching antiquities, he studied Russian and French at Columbia University and began to travel during this time. His first Asian experience was a trip to India in 1963, where he acquired a taste for cultural research. One year later he joined the American Peace Corps in Thailand to teach English in Chachoengsao, an experience which thence set the course of his future life. From this time on Henry started to live on three different continents (Europe, North America and Asia) and his part-time contract with the British Library from 1973 onward allowed him to pursue his own research and travel interests all over the world. 

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Henry Ginsburg (fourth from left) with students in Chachoengsao in the mid 1960s. British Library, Photo 1213(17)

Perhaps influenced by the Ginsburg family’s photographer Aaron Siskind, Henry left a remarkable collection of photographs, which tell the story of his professional life as well as of his own distinctive artistic and travel interests. The earliest pictures are from his visit to India in 1963, where he explored ancient Indian architecture and engaged with local communities: an aspect of Henry Ginsburg’s interests that was not widely known until his photographs were made available for research. Many of the pictures that were taken over a period of more than forty years show that he continued to pursue these interests throughout his life.

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Kanheri archaelogical site, India, mid 1980s, British Library, Photo 1213(387)

The photo collection includes a huge amount of detailed documentation of South and Southeast Asian temples in the 1970s, and particularly of ancient Khmer architecture. One particular benefit of these photographs is that they record the process of reconstruction of these sites over the past decades (for example, Payathonzu temple, shown below, nowadays has a different appearance after reconstruction was carried out).   

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Payathonzu temple, archaeological site, Burma 1967, British Library Photo 1213(1014)

Many photographs did not contain any written information and were difficult to identify. In some cases, we made digital copies of such pictures and shared them with other scholars and researchers to find out more details. This kind of approach helped to establish the identity of a series of photographs depicting a piece of embroidery described later on in this post. However, there remain some photographs which have not been identified so far, for example the stone inscription shown below.  The inscription in this photograph has not yet been read, and the archaeological site where the photograph was taken is also not known; perhaps crowd-sourcing may provide a solution.

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Unidentified stone inscription. British Library, Photo 1213(460)

A smaller number of rare photographs give insights into traditional ways of life in Thailand and India in the 1960s and early 1970s, one of the reasons why travelling to these countries was so popular at the time, including for Henry himself. He was fascinated by the cultural differences and travelled a lot in order to conduct his research. It would be a valid assumption to state that Henry’s research was influenced through direct contact with living traditions and the translation of religion in everyday life. This makes his work very special in comparison with established methods based, for example, purely on textual research.
    
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Traditional Norah dance performer in Southern Thailand, late 1960s. British Library, Photo 1213(233)

One example of this interdisciplinary approach combining anthropology, philology and art history was his research about the Norah dance, which is based on the legend of Sudhana and Manohara. In 1971 Henry wrote his Ph.D. thesis about “The Sudhana-Manohara tale in Thai” at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) in London. For the analysis of texts contained in two different manuscripts, he travelled to Southern Thailand, where he also attended a Norah dance performance. The photo above was shot at this time.  

The majority of pictures relate to Henry’s work as a scholar and provide a very good overview of his work at the British Library. There are various photographs of mostly illustrated manuscripts containing texts like Jatakas, Phrommachat, Phra Malai and Traiphum in all kinds of painting styles like 18th and 19th century Thai, Burmese and Khmer styles. These photos could support the comparative study of different artistic interpretations of Southeast Asian literary traditions, without spending too much time travelling, or ordering copies of manuscripts from different institutions in different countries.   

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A 19th century map drawn on cotton showing the coast of Thailand. British Library, Photo 1213(1353)

The image above and the following picture remind us of the roots of Henry Ginsburg. He grew up in a family who were prominent for their knowledge of antique textiles and decorative arts, and he followed this family tradition throughout his entire life. Therefore, he researched and collected antique textiles and other works of art in his spare time.
 
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Tibetan relic cover made from needle-looped patchwork embroidery. British Library, Photo 1213(1485)

As mentioned earlier, the most spectacular piece depicted in a series of pictures from the estate of Henry Ginsburg is this piece of needle-looped patchwork embroidery shown in the picture above. It was a hard job to find out what kind of textile it was or where it originated from. After numerous emails had been exchanged with experts and former friends of Henry’s all over the world, a solution to the mystery was found. The textile artwork shown in the photograph was a Tibetan relic cover, originally perhaps from Suzhou, now held at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. The embroidery shows different influences from all over Asia like the needle-looping technique that can be traced back to 10th century Central Asia and the patches of fine silk from China.

The photo collection of Henry Ginsburg has been fully catalogued now and can be retrieved via the Search our Catalogue Archives and Manuscripts website. The original photographs can be viewed on appointment in the Library’s Asian & African Studies reading room. Thanks to Henry Ginsburg’s passion and work on Southeast Asian manuscripts, arts and cultures the Library holds one of the finest collections of Thai manuscripts. The British Library is grateful to have been given the responsibility to look after Henry Ginsburg’s photo collection as well.   

References:

A guardian of Thai treasures. Henry Ginsburg (1940-2007), A display to mark the 70th anniversary of his birth – 5th November 2010. London: British Library 2010.

Berger, Patricia: A stitch in time. Speculations on the origins of needle-looping. In:  Orientations, The magazine for collectors and connoisseurs of Asian art, vol. 20 no. 8 (August 1989).

Henry Ginsburg. The Telegraph, 11 April 2007.

Ginsburg, Henry: The Sudhana-Manohara Tale in Thai: a comparative study based on two texts from the National Library, Bangkok, Mat Wachimawat, Songkhla. Ph.D. Thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.  

Ginsburg, Henry: Thai Art and Culture. Historic Manuscripts from Western Collections. London: British Library 2000.

Anne Gruneberg, M.A., Freiburg, Germany  ccownwork

Anne is a historian and anthropologist who recently graduated from the University of Freiburg. She volunteered for six weeks at the British Library in early 2015 to catalogue and research Henry Ginsburg’s photo collection. This blog article is a summary of her work.

Update:

Since the publication  of this blog post, Nicolas Revire, lecturer at Thammasat University in Bangkok, has kindly helped to identify the stone inscription depicted in Henry Ginsburg’s photograph mentioned above. It is a detail of an inscribed Dharmacakra originally from Si Thep, now held in the collection of the Newark Museum, which has been published by Robert L. Brown in his book The Dvaravati wheels of the law and the Indianization of Southeast Asia (Leiden/New York/Cologne: Brill, 1996; pp. 106-108) and, more recently, in John Guy's catalogue  Lost Kingdoms, Hindu-Buddhist sculpture of early Southeast Asia  (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014; cat. 122). The inscription in Pali is a phrase from the Buddha’s first sermon about the Four Truths of Buddhism.

21 April 2015

Foreign travellers to 19th-century Siam

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By the 15th century the kingdom of Ayutthaya had developed into an important trading centre, and Europeans, led by the Portuguese, started to travel to the region to seek their commercial fortunes and to extend their influence. Accounts left by such travellers have become rich sources for the study of the region from the 16th century onwards.

In 1537, the German Mandelslohe visited Ayutthaya and called it the “Venice of the East”. In 1636 a Director of the Dutch East India Company, Joost Schorten, wrote an account of his residence in Ayutthaya, in which he noted the fierce competition between European powers, particularly Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands, to win the favour of local rulers (Francis Caron & Joost Schorten, 1771). France, too, established relations with the court of Ayutthaya during the reigns of King Narai and Louis XIV, and the two countries exchanged diplomatic missions in the 1680s. Simon de la Loubere, the leader of the French mission to Ayutthaya in 1687, wrote a memoir of his visit in 1688 entitled Du Royaume de Siam  (Paris, 1691), and this became an important source of information for western travellers to Siam in the 19th century.

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Port of Chantaboun, Siam (Mouhot 1864: 1.136). British Library, 010056.F.8  noc

Foreign involvement in trade and politics in Siam declined after Ayutthaya collapsed in 1767 but in the 19th century, when competition among colonial powers to control Southeast Asia increased, more Westerners travelled to this region. Their journeys were either for individual scholastic purposes or were funded by colonial powers to further their political and economic ambitions.  The surgeon George Finlayson (1790–1823) accompanied the Crawfurd trade mission to Siam in 1821, and the account of his journey was published in 1826. His observations of Siamese culture and society provided, as Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles wrote in his introduction to Finlayson’s book, “much valuable information respecting countries and people, hitherto almost unknown to us … The author’s observation [is] as a spectator in common with others who were present on the occasion; its object is to throw light on the country, and on the character, institutions, and habits of the people generally” (Finlayson 1826: vii-viii).

In 1852, Frederick Arthur Neale, who served as a military officer to the Siamese court in 1840s, published an account of his residence in Siam. He often quoted details about the kingdom from previous travellers, such as La Loubere and Finlayson.  However, he also recorded his own observations and opinions, some of which may seem quite shocking to us today. For example, he wrote that “The Siamese ladies may without the smallest fear of competition proclaim themselves to be the ugliest race of females upon the face of the globe. With their hair worn in the same fashion as the men, the same features, same complexion, and same amount of clothing, a man must be a gay Lothario indeed who would be captivated by their leering glances” (Neale 1852: 238-241).
 
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Siamese women (Mouhot 1864: 1.60).  British Library, 010056.F.8  noc

Neale further commented that “it has often been remarked of the natives of the East that they are almost unchangeable in their modes of government, habits of life, and ways of thinking, century after century passes away unmarked by progress and undistinguished by change … The Siamese certainly form no exception to this remark”  (Neale 1852: 242).

Neale’s concept of the East was typical of colonial thinking of the period. However, Sir John Bowring, who led a successful British mission to secure a free trade agreement with Siam in 1855, was more cautious in his judgements. He observed that “Generalizations as to national character are among the great defects of writers on foreign countries, and, when examined, will in most cases be discovered to be the result of impressions early and hastily formed, or of some solitary examples of individual experience, from which all-embracing deductions are drawn” (Bowring 1857: 1.102). 
 
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Wat Chang, Bangkok (Bowring 1857: 1.292) British Library, T38881  noc

By the mid-19th century, Bangkok had opened its door to western powers for commercial activities, and the successful British trade agreement in 1855 was soon followed by similar agreements between other western countries and Siam. According to L’Annuaires des Deux Mondes, of 1858-1859, “The government of Siam is showing itself more and more favourable towards Europeans, who find at Bangkok not only protection, but sympathy and toleration for their religion. Bangkok has become one of the most considerable markets of Asia; and the kingdom of Siam is reaping the reward of the liberal politics which it has introduced into the extreme East, and which is warmly seconded by France, England and the United States”  (Mouhot 1864: 1.105).
Two years after Neale’s book was published, a French missionary and long-term resident of Siam during the 19th century, Jean Baptiste Pallegoix, published his account of Siam in Paris under the title Description du Royaume Thai ou Siam (1854).  His extensive knowledge of Siam proved valuable for Sir John Bowring when the latter came to write his own account of the kingdom, The Kingdom and People of Siam (1857).  

In 1858, Henri Mouhot, a French naturalist and explorer, travelled to Indochina after reading Bowring’s book.  Mouhout planned to conduct a series of botanical expeditions for the collection of new specimens, but his requests for grants and passage were rejected by French companies and the government of Napoleon III. However, the Royal Geographical Society and the Zoological Society of London lent him their support, and he set sail that year for Bangkok, which, like Mandelslohe three centuries before, he termed ‘the Venice of the East’ (Mouhout 1864: 1.56).  Henri Mouhot’s travel journal was edited by his brother, Charles Mouhot, and an English version was published in London in 1864. Here he introduced the Temple of Angkor to the western world, and this publication, with his exquisite detailed engravings, helped to popularise the now famous complex of ruined temples. These illustrations of a faraway and exotic land must have had an enormous impact on their western readers. Sadly, Mouhot was unable to complete his mission as he was struck down with malaria while travelling in Laos, where he died on November 10, 1861.

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Angkor Wat (Mouhot 1864: 1.279) British Library, 010056.F.8  noc

These travellers’ accounts made a very significant contribution to the body of knowledge of Siam among westerners at the time. Their detailed descriptions and magnificent illustrations of the countries, peoples and cultures enabled readers in the West a unique chance to visualise these foreign lands and peoples. They were, in effect, the TV travel documentaries of their time.

Further reading:

Sir John Bowring, The Kingdom and People of Siam. London, 1857. British Library, T38881
Jean Baptiste Pallegoix. Description du Royaume Thai ou Siam. Paris, 1854. British Library, 10055.aa.17
George Finlayson, The Mission to Siam and Hue. London, 1826. British Library, 1046.c.21
Simon de la Loubere, Du Royaume de Siam, Paris, 1691. British Library 279.a.10
Henri Mouhot, Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos. London: John Murray, 1864.  British Library, 010056.F.8
Frederick Arthur Neale, Narrative of a Residence at the Capital of the Kingdom of Siam. London, 1852. British Library, 741.b.10
Jean Baptiste Pallegoix, Description du Royaume Thai ou Siam (Paris: 1854). British Library, 10055.aa.17
Francis Caron & Joost Schorten, A True Description of the Mighty Kingdoms of Japan and Siam.  London, 1671. British Library, 571.a.32

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese  ccownwork

13 April 2015

Happy New Year – with a splash of cool water!

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Between the 13th and 15th April the Water Festival, locally known as Songkran or New Year Festival, takes place in Thailand, and it is indeed one of the most colourful and merriest festivals in the entire region since it is observed in neighbouring Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia as well. Tai peoples living in the south of China and in Vietnam also celebrate the Water Festival. Songkran is derived from the Sanskrit word saṅkrānti meaning “progress” or “move forward”, describing the entry of the sun into any sign of the zodiac according to the solar calendar. The full traditional name of the April Songkran - when the sun leaves Pisces to enter Aries - was Maha-Songkran, meaning major Songkran, in order to distinguish it from the other monthly Songkran. Although Maha-Songkran takes place in the 5th month of the lunar year according to the traditional Tai calendar, it is regarded as the start of the New Year because it marks the beginning of the annual rice planting cycle, which usually starts in May as soon as the rains begin to fall.

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Ladies in festive outfits carrying offerings to the Buddhist temple. Illustration from a 19th century Thai Buddhist manuscript, British Library, Or. 14732, f. 73  noc

The origins of the festival are explained in a legend which is well known all over mainland Southeast Asia. There was once a young man, Dhammapala, who was highly prodigious in learning and could even understand the language of birds. The god Kabila Mahaphrom (Brahma) came down to earth to challenge Dhammapala with three riddles, with the wager that if the young man failed to give the right answers within seven days he would lose his head, but if he succeeded, Brahma himself would give up his head. Dhammapala had already prepared himself to die when, under a tree, he overheard an eagle mother telling her curious offspring the solution to the riddles. On the appointed day, the young man gave Brahma the three correct answers and the god immediately cut off his own head.

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The god Brahma, characterised by his four faces. Illustration from an 18th century Thai manuscript containing a text on the Great Qualities of the Buddha, British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 27  noc

However, Brahma’s head was extremely hot, and if it touched the earth, there would be a universal firestorm destroying all life, while if it fell into the sea, all water would dry up. Therefore, the god’s daughters took care of his head and deposited it in a heavenly cave. Once every year during Maha-Songkran one of the daughters removes the head from the cave, bathes it and carries it in a procession together with all the other gods and heavenly beings circumambulating  Mount  Meru.  The procession is followed by a joyful feast of the gods and goddesses. The seven daughters represent the seven days of the week and all have their particular names and vehicles that they ride on, but the one who carries Brahma’s head on Songkran Day is called Nang Songkran, Miss Songkran.

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Illustration from a 19th century Thai manuscript depicting deities in the Buddhist heavens, British Library, Or. 14117, f. 58  noc

The heavenly procession and feast were traditionally re-enacted on earth, and this tradition is still followed today with some local amendments and additions. The exact date and time of the appearance of Miss Songkran with Brahma’s head is when the sun first enters the sign of Aries, a date and time to be established by astrologers and astronomers. The day before Songkran people clean their houses and compounds. Early on the first day of Songkran, people young and old visit their local Buddhist temples to offer food to the monks, to pray and to listen to sermons. Many communities organise temple fairs with music and other entertainments on this occasion. In the afternoon, there is an official bathing ceremony of the Buddha images and of the abbot of the local temple. After this purification ceremony begins the actual Water Festival, which traditionally involved people gently pouring water into the hands of elders and respected persons in order to pay tribute to them, and younger people helping the elderly take a scented bath and change into new clothes presented to them. During all three days of the Songkran Festival people amuse themselves by throwing water at each other or at strangers, and any passer-by can be sure to get soaking wet. Even monks are not exempted. In some places dry coloured powder is also thrown at people, an act that has parallels with the Holi Festival.

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A family offering food to a Buddhist monk. Illustration from a 19th century Phra Malai manuscript from central Thailand, British Library, Or. 14956, f. 25  noc

Other activities during the Songkran Festival include a religious service in memory of the deceased and offering ceremonies for local guardian spirits. The ashes of the royal ancestors are blessed by the supreme members of the Sangha. In northeast Thailand, like in Laos, families organise Su Khwan ceremonies in order to wish each other good health, peace, prosperity and longevity, and to receive blessings from their elders. Many people engage in special merit making acts by releasing birds, fish or tortoises from captivity, or by offering sand to their local Buddhist temple. The sand offering, which can be made even by the poorest people and carries the same merit as a contribution to the building of a real pagoda, is done in form of erecting a sand pagoda or stupa-like structure in which a coin or a leaf from the Bodhi tree is placed. On the outside, the pagoda or stupa is sprinkled with water and can be decorated with flags and banners while candles, incense sticks and flowers are placed at its base. It is said that the sand helps to raise the level of the temple ground which may be susceptible to flooding during the rainy season.

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Illustration from a collection of Buddhist texts and Sutras contained in a Thai folding book from the 18th century, British Library, Or. 14027, f. 66  noc

In many places, a beauty contest takes place during the Water Festival. The winner, who is not only the most beautiful and best dressed but also the most virtuous girl, is crowned Nang Songkran in memory of Brahma’s daughters who look after the god’s head eternally. She will take part in a colourful procession while being driven in a carriage that has the shape of the animal that is the vehicle of the daughter of Brahma whose turn it is to cleanse the god’s head at the beginning of this New Year.

Further reading

Phya Anuman Rajadhon, Loy Krathong and Songkran festival. (Thailand culture Series; No. 5). Bangkok: The National Culture Institute, 1956

Santosh N. Desai, Hinduism in Thai life. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1980

Suttinee Yavaprapas, Songkran festival. Bangkok: Ministry of Culture, 2004

Thai culture – Songran festival. Cultural kit no. 3 guide book. Bangkok: The Office of the National Culture Commission, 1989

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

13 February 2015

Southeast Asian manuscripts digitised through the Ginsburg Legacy

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The world of scholarship has been revolutionised by numerous digitisation programmes undertaken in libraries throughout the world. Now, instead of having to travel thousands of miles for expensive and extensive visits to cities where unique historical sources are housed, it is ever more possible to make a detailed study of a manuscript from one’s own home, in any country, via the internet. Digitisation programmes are usually shaped both by the interests of patrons and the strengths of an institution’s collections, and among the exciting projects to digitise material from the Asian and African collections of the British Library are those of Malay manuscripts in collaboration with the National Library of Singapore supported by William and Judith Bollinger, Thai manuscripts funded by the Royal Thai government, Persian manuscripts in partnership with the Iran Heritage Foundation, and Hebrew manuscripts with the Polonsky Foundation. However, with the emphasis on large projects, it is not always easy to prioritise the digitisation of other important manuscripts from smaller language groups, or from regions for which funding proves difficult to source.

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Note in the Bugis language and script, from the diary of the king of Bone, south Sulawesi, 1775. British Library, Add. 12354, f. 2r (detail).

The Southeast Asia section of the British Library is fortunate in that a legacy from the estate of the late Henry D. Ginsburg (1940-2007), who was for over thirty years the Library’s curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections, has enabled the digitisation of a small number of significant manuscripts, some representing writing traditions rarely accessible on the internet. In 2013, seven of the most important illuminated and illustrated manuscripts in Vietnamese, Burmese and Javanese were digitised. In 2014 we completed the digitisation of a further 15 manuscripts from Southeast Asia, in Vietnamese, Burmese, Shan, Khamti, Lao, Thai, Bugis, Javanese and Arabic, which this month have been made accessible through the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Artistically, the highlights are probably six Burmese folding book (parabaik) manuscripts, all lavishly and exquisitely illustrated. Three of the manuscripts depict scenes from the Life of the Buddha (Or. 4762, Or. 5757 and Or. 14197) while the other three contain Jataka stories (Or. 13538, Or. 4542A and Or. 4542B, and MSS Burmese 202).

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The Jātaka stories about the previous lives of the Gautama Buddha are preserved in all branches of Buddhism. These stories show how he gradually acquired greater strength and moral stature as his soul passed from one incarnation to the other. Shown above is a scene from the Latukika Jataka. The Bodhisatta, the leader of the elephants (gilded) protects the offspring of a quail who had laid her eggs in the feeding ground of the elephants. British Library, Or. 13538, ff. 20-22.

Also in folding book format is a lavishly decorated Buddhist manuscript, Buddhānussati, in Shan language (Or. 12040), a copy of Tamrā phichai songkhrām in Thai language (Or. 15760), and a rare Lao dictionary in three volumes from the 19th century (Add. 11624).

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This Shan folding book (pap tup), dated 1885, with the title Buddhānussati contains a text on recollections of the Buddha, explaining mindfulness with the Buddha’s virtues as objects. The embossed gilded covers are studded with multi-coloured mirror glass for ornate floral decoration. British Library, Or.12040, front cover.

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Folio 16 of the Tamrā phichai songkhrām, explaining various appearances of sun and how to interpret them. This Thai divination manual for the prediction of wars, conflicts and natural disasters also contains explanations of the shapes of clouds, the moon and planets. British Library, Or.15760, folio 16.

Another rarity that has been digitised in this project is a bound and scrolled paper book (pap kin) in Khamti Shan script, Kuasala Ainmakan (Or. 3494). The book, dated 1860, is sewn in a blue cotton wrapper with a white and pink braided cotton string. It contains the Mahāsupina Jātaka about the dreams of King Pasenadi, the King of Kosala.  

From the Vietnamese collection was selected ‘The Northwards Embassy by land and water’, a rare pictorial manuscript map, Bắc Sứ Thủy Lục Địa Đô (Or. 14907), illustrating the journey from Hanoi to Beijing in 1880. This manuscript is currently on display in the exhibition ‘Geo/Graphic: celebrating maps and their stories’, at the National Library of Singapore (16 January – 19 July 2015).

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Tai Ping City , located by Gu Fang Mountain. The city was well fortified with a fortress and could be dated back to the Ming dynasty.British Library, Or. 14907, f. 11r.

Two very different Javanese manuscripts were digitised. The first, Serat Jaya Lengkara Wulang (MSS Jav 24), contains ethical teachings of the royal house of Yogyakarta, with many fine examples of illumination. The other manuscript (Sloane 2645) is a work on Islamic law, Mukhtasar Ba Fadl or Muqaddimat al-Hadrami, here going under the title Masa'il al-ta'lim, written in Arabic with interlinear translation and marginal commentary in Javanese in Arabic (Pegon) script. The manuscript, which is dated 1623, is from the founding collections of Sir Hans Sloane, and may be one of the earliest dated examples of a Javanese manuscript in Pegon script, and written on Javanese paper dluwang) made from the bark of the mulberry tree.

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Illuminated architectural section heading from a Javanese manuscript, Serat Jaya Lengkara Wulang, Yoygyakarta, 1803. British Library, MSS Jav. 24, f. 22v.

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Start of a new chapter (bab) in Masa'il al-ta'lim, in Arabic with interlinear translation in Javanese, 1623. British Library, Sloane 2645, f. 34r (detail).

The final manuscript, also from Indonesia, is in the Bugis language and script (Add. 12354). This is the personal diary of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin of Bone, in south Sulawesi, covering the years 1775-1795, and written in his own hand. The diary contains a wealth of detail on the social, political, economic and cultural life of Sulawesi in the late 18th century.

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Entries for the first few days of August 1781, in the Bugis diary of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih. British Library, Add. 12354, f. 52r (detail).

Annabel Teh Gallop, San San May, Jana Igunma, Sud Chonchirdsin

Southeast Asia section curators

21 April 2014

The Ramayana in Southeast Asia: (1) Cambodia

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The recent digitisation of the Mewar Ramayana has enabled the ‘virtual’ reunification of this 17th-century masterpiece, bringing together paintings from the manuscript held across continents in different locations.  Originally composed in India in Sanskrit over two and half thousand years ago by Valmiki, the Ramayana is also one of the most popular masterworks throughout Southeast Asia.  This is reflected not only in the literary traditions, but also in the performing and fine arts, as well as in architecture and modern design.  The epic tells the story of Rama, his brother Lakshmana and Rama’s wife Sita, who was kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. The main part of the epic is about the fight between Ravana and Rama, who wants to get his wife back. In this battle, Rama is supported by his brother and a monkey chief, Hanuman, with his armies.

Knowledge of the Ramayana in Southeast Asia can be traced back to the 5th century in stone inscriptions from Funan, the first Hindu kingdom in mainland Southeast Asia. An outstanding series of reliefs of the Battle of Lanka from the 12th century still exists at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Ramayana sculptures from the same period can be found at Pagan in Myanmar. Thailand’s old capital Ayutthya founded in 1347 is said to have been modelled on Ayodhya, Rama’s birthplace and setting of the Ramayana.  New versions of the epic were written in poetry and prose and as dramas in Burmese, Thai, Khmer, Lao, Malay, Javanese and Balinese, and the story continues to be told in dance-dramas, music, puppet and shadow theatre throughout Southeast Asia. Most of these versions change parts of the story significantly to reflect the different natural environments, customs and cultures.

When mainland Southeast Asian societies embraced Theravada Buddhism, Rama began to be regarded as a Bodhisatta, or Buddha-to-be, in a former life. In this context, the early episodes of the story were emphasized, symbolising Rama’s Buddhist virtues of filial obedience and willing renunciation. Throughout the region, Hanuman enjoys a greatly expanded role; he becomes the king of the monkeys and the most popular character in the story, and is a reflection of all the freer aspects of life.  In a series of posts we will be exploring how the Ramayana epic has been rewritten and reimagined in the different parts of Southeast Asia, starting with the Khmer version, the Reamker.

Reamker

Royal Reamker performance, accompanied by the royal orchestra, at the ancient site of Ta Prohm, one of the temples of Angkor.  Postcard from around 1915 published in Paris by the Anciens Etablissement Gillot, from a collector’s album of postcards from Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Siam.  British Library, ORB. 30/6309, p. [16]

The Ramayana very early reached the ancient Hindu kingdoms (Funan, Chenla, Champa) in the territory of present-day Cambodia, southern Vietnam and eastern Thailand through contact with the south Indian kingdoms, but the oldest extant literary version, the Reamker in the Khmer language, appears to date from the 16th century.  It preserves closer links to Valmiki’s original than do the other Southeast Asian versions. The Rama story became a favourite theme for frescoes on temple walls and was the exclusive subject of the traditional Cambodian shadow play. The popular masked dance drama, lkhon khol, was based on certain episodes from the Ramayana, and with Rama being regarded a former incarnation for the Buddha himself the story forms part of the repertoire of the Royal Ballet  to the present day.

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Dancer of the Royal Ballet in the costume of Hanuman.  Postcard from around 1915 issued by the Comité Cambodgien de la Société des Amis d’Angkor, from a collector’s album of postcards from Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Siam.  British Library, ORB. 30/6309, p. [30]

The literary text Reamker has the form of a dramatic recitative that was intended to accompany a mimed dance performance. Live recitations of parts of the Reamker by one of the most famous Cambodian storytellers of the 20th century, Ta Krut, had been recorded in the 1960s and are available online from the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center.

Further reading:

Reamker (Ramakerti), the Cambodian version of the Ramayana. Translated by Judith Jacob with the assistance of Kuoch Haksrea. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1986 (ORW.1989.a.1223)

J. J. Boeles, The Ramayana relief from the Khmer sanctuary at Pimai in Northeast Thailand.
 
Sachchidanand Sahai (ed.), The Ramayana in South East Asia. Gaya 1981 (W 6784)


Jana Igunma, Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian