THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

17 April 2018

The Burmese New Year

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

13 April 2018

Adam Munni Ratna, a Buddhist monk in England in 1818

The Visual Arts section has recently acquired a portrait of Adam Sri Munni Ratna, a Singhalese Buddhist monk, who accompanied Sir Alexander Johnston (1775-1849) from Sri Lanka to England in 1817-18. Raised between Scotland, Madras and England, Johnston would be appointed as the President of the Council of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in 1811 and be a founding member of the Royal Asiatic Society in Great Britain in 1823. Fluent in multiple languages including Tamil and Telegu, he was in regular communication with local Buddhist priests who elucidated Buddhist judicial matters and were instrumental towards helping Johnston to establish trial by jury on the island. In 1817, Sri Munni Ratna and his cousin Dharma Rama, approached Johnston and requested his support to travel to England as it was understood that they were keen to learn about Christianity after reading the Singhalese translation of the New Testament by the Wesleyan ministers in Colombo. Ratna was in his late twenties.

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Adam Sree Goona Munhi Rathana Vadhegay by Robert Hicks, published by Henry Fisher, after Alexander Mosses hand-coloured stipple engraving, published 1821. British Library, P3386. Noc

Arriving in England in May 1818, the two monks were met by Dr. Adam Clarke (1762-1832), an Irish Methodist and well known scholar on the New Testament who took it upon himself to look after them. Later in his life, Clarke would become a notable collector of Arabic, Persian and Syriac Manuscripts. In 1820, Clarke wrote: ‘did so; and in doing it encountered many difficulties, which, because the good hand of my God was upon me, I surmounted; and, after twenty months instruction under my own roof, I was fully convinced that they were sincere converts to the Christian religion, and that their minds were under a very gracious influence. At their own earnest desire I admitted them into the church of Christ by baptism’.

An Account of the Baptism of two Budhist Priests by Adam Clarke as observed and written by Philoxenas provides the detailed account of the education the Singhalese monks received while living in Millbrooke, Clarke’s home near Prescot. As Clarke could not speak Singhalese or Tamil and the monks did not understand English, ‘the teacher and his pupils formed, in effect, a language for themselves, and that principally out of the Portuguese, Cinghalese and Sanscrit [sic]: these helps, however proved insufficient; but Dr C. had the high satisfaction of frequently witnessing, that his pupils, under the immediate influence of a Divine Teacher, comprehended his meaning..’

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Philoxenas, An account of the Baptism of Two Budhist Priests by Adam Clarke, L.L.D. Thomas Courtney, Dublin, 1820. British Library 4323.000.44  Noc

During their brief stay in England, several portraits of the Buddhist monks and their tutor Adam Clarke were produced. In the collection of the John Wesley’s House & Museum of Methodism, is a portrait by the artist Alexander Moses. This 19th century orientalist painting features Clark seated in a chair in his library with one of the monks seated in a chair and pointing to a manuscript, possibly a copy of the New Testament. An engraved version of this painting was published in 1844. In comparison, our newly acquired portrait instead features the Singhalese monk dressed in western clothing, including a suit jacket and a cravat. In the period following their baptisms, Munni Ratna and Dharmma Rama returned to Ceylon where they entered into government service (Sivasundaram 2013, 111)

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Adam Clarke and Two Former Buddhists by Alexander Mosses (1793–1837). Image reproduced with the permission of The Trustees of Wesley’s Chapel, John Wesley’s House & The Museum of Methodism.

 

Bibliography

Sujit Sivasundaram, Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony, University of Chicago Press, 2013. 

Philoxenas, An account of the Baptism of Two Budhist Priests by Adam Clarke, L.L.D. Thomas Courtney, Dublin, 1820. 

Happy Birthday Alexander Johnston, Royal Asiatic Society, April 2015.

 

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts

09 April 2018

Burmese marionette theatre

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