THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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8 posts categorized "Laos"

30 November 2015

Laos and the Vietnam War

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For a significant part of the twentieth century Laos was embroiled in armed conflict. The country had been a French protectorate from 1893, following more than a century of Siamese suzerainty. During World War II it was briefly occupied by the Japanese. After World War II, Laos became involved in the regional fight for independence, known as the French Indochina War, which officially ended in 1954. Although Laos gained independence from France in 1953, political instability saw the country descend into civil war, in which foreign parties played significant roles as a result of the regional and world-wide struggles for power during the Cold War era.

Laos40h
Declaration on the neutrality of Laos, signed by representatives of Burma, DR Vietnam, India, Cambodia, Canada, China, Poland, Republic of Vietnam, Soviet Union, Great Britain, USA, Thailand, and France on 23 July 1962. British Library, LP.31.b.467

Despite its neutral status after the French Indochina War, Laos became entangled in the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War (1964 to 1975). The ongoing civil war in Laos, essentially between Royalist, Neutralist and the Communist (Pathet Lao) forces, became part of the greater conflict. By the late 1950s, a large area of eastern Laos was controlled by the Pathet Lao, along with North Vietnamese forces who had crossed the border to lend support. For almost nine years Laos was a battlefield in the armed conflict between neighbouring North Vietnam and the United States.

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Rains in the jungle, a collection of short stories by Lao authors translated into English and published in 1967 by the Neo Lao Haksat (Lao Patriotic Front), the political wing of the Pathet Lao, for external propaganda. British Library, YA.1996.a.2640

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Les gars du 97, a novel by Phou Louang on the patriotism of the soldiers of a Pathet Lao military unit, translated from Lao into French and published by the Neo Lao Haksat in 1971. British Library, ORW.1986.a.3486

During the war, US forces flew over 500,000 aerial bombing raids over Laos, which were said to aim at gaining control of the Trường Sơn Strategic Supply Route (also known as Ho Chi Minh trail). This logistical system was of crucial relevance in the Vietnam War since it was the only connection between the People’s Army of Vietnam (North Vietnamese Army) and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam.  More than two million tons of explosive ordnance was dropped on the country, even in areas which were hundreds of kilometres away from the Ho Chi Minh trail. Altogether, more tonnage fell on Laos than was used during the whole of World War II. As a result of this war, Laos remains the most heavily bombed country in human history. Although the war in Laos officially ended in 1973, and subsequently the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was founded on 2 December 1975, the country is still affected by unexploded ordnance and the long-term effects of the use of chemical weapons.

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Luksao khong phak (The daughter of the party), a post-war novel in two volumes by S. Bupphanuvong describing the efforts of rebuilding the country after the war. The book was published by the Lao State Publishing House, Vientiane, in 1982. British Library, YP.2006.a.6100

Further reading
Branfman, Fred. Voices from the Plain of Jars: life under an air war. Madison, Wisconsin : The University of Wisconsin Press, [2013]
Impact of the UXO problem. Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (retrieved 17.11.2015)
Stuart-Fox, Martin. A history of Laos. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997
Sutton, Sean and Thongloun Sisoulith et al. Laos, legacy of a secret. Stockport : Dewi Lewis, 2010

Bombing missions in Laos 1965-1973

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

24 February 2015

Lao collection at the British Library now fully catalogued

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The British Library holds a small but significant collection of Lao material, consisting of manuscripts, rare printed books, periodicals and post cards, mainly acquired after 1973. However, the oldest items in Lao language date back to the 19th century. The earliest book about Laos is in Italian and was published in 1663.

P.277 Siam and Laos as seen by our american missionaries
Cloister at Vat Sisaket, Vientiane. From Siam and Laos as seen by our American missionaries (Philadelphia: 1884), p. 277. British Library, 4767.bb.8  noc

Printed material
The collection of printed material in Lao language contains over 300 monographs, most of them dating from 1950 onwards. The highlights of the collection, however, are three of the first books printed in the Lao language: John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress in Tham (Dhamma) script, printed in 1896 by the Chiang Mai Presbyterian Mission Press (ORB.30/5145); the Évangile selon Saint Jean en laocien (Khampasœ̄t tām lư̄ang hǣng Yōhan) in Lāo buhān script, printed in Paris in 1906 (11103.b.19); and the Évangile de notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ selon Matthieu en laotien (Nangsư̄ khlittikhun pasœ̄t khǭng phra Yēsū Khlit tām thān Matthāi) in Lāo buhān script, printed in Song Khône, Laos, in 1916 (Siam.251). The latter appears to be the first book printed in Lao language in Laos. Book printing was introduced in Laos – at the time part of the Indochinese Union – through the efforts of missionaries with the Swiss Mission Evangélique in Song Khône, southern Laos. Together with a Buddhist monk Gabriel Contesse translated parts of the New Testament into Lao, of which the first part was printed in Lāo buhān script at a printing house in Paris in 1906. The second part was printed only after Contesse’s death in 1909 at the same printer. Finally, a press started printing material in Lāo buhān typeface at the mission in Song Khône thanks to the efforts of missionaries Fritz Audétat and Fritz Widmer.  

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First page of the Lao translation of the Gospel of John, printed in 1906. British Library, 11103.b.19  noc

The heart of the Lao book collection is formed by publications of Maha Sila Viravong’s transliterations of literary, linguistic, Buddhist and historical texts from palm leaf manuscripts, for example rare first editions of Nangsư̄ thēt rư̄ang Vētsandon Sādok (Vessantara Jātaka, 1961, YP.2006.b.518), Phongsāwadān Lāo (Lao chronicles, 1957, YP.2005.a.6082), and Nithān Nāng Tantai (Lao version of the Panchatantra, 1957-66, 14304.b.23).
 
Other rare printed works include original issues as well as microfilmed copies of historical Lao newspapers and journals, like for example Pituphūm (O.P.984, holdings 1969-71), Sīang pasāson (Or.Mic.7339, holdings 1975), Khāophāp pacham sapdā (ORB.40/986, holdings 1968), Sāt Lāo (Or.Mic.11526, holdings 1971-75), and Vannakhadisān (ORB.30/6967, holdings 1953-58).

Lao newspapers
The only two issues of Khāophāp pacham sapdā, dated 12 and 26 Feburary 1968, held at the British Library. ORB.40/986

The Library also holds approximately 2000 books about Laos and Lao culture in Western languages, as well as in Thai and Vietnamese languages. These include some rare first editions, like for example de Gerini’s original description of Laos and other parts of mainland Southeast Asia Delle missioni dei' padri della Compagnia di Gesù nella Provincia del Giappone, e particolarmente di quella di Tumkino (printed in 1663 in Rome, V 5052), Vremde geschiedenissen in de koninckrijcken Cambodia en Louwen-Lant, in Oost-Indien zedert den Iare 1635 tot den Iare 1644 aldaer voor-gevallen. Mitsgaders de Reyse der Nederlanders van Cambodia de Louse Revier op, na Wincjan  (printed in Haarlem in 1669, 566.f.20.(6.)), Henri Mouhot’s Travels in the central parts of Indo-China, Cambodia, and Laos, during the years 1858, 1859, and 1860 (published in London in 1864, 010056.f.8), and Siam and Laos as seen by our American Missionaries (published in Philadelphia in 1884, 4767.bb.8). Lao printed books and periodicals have now been fully catalogued and are searchable in the Library’s online catalogue.

Map p.1 Siam and Laos as seen by our missionaries 1884
Map of mainland Southeast Asia, from Siam and Laos as seen by our American Missionaries (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1884). British Library, 4767.bb.8.  noc

Manuscripts
In addition to printed material, the Library holds 85 manuscripts which are either in Lao language or in Pali, but written in Tham script or in Lāo buhān script. The collection comprises literary, historical and Buddhist texts, most of them written on palm leaves. A small number, however, are in form of folding books made from khoi paper or from lacquered cotton. Among the highlights are a rare Lao dictionary, which is a folding book in three volumes acquired in 1839 (Add.11624), Henri Mouhot's Alphabets and inscriptions (Or.4736), and a Kammavāca manuscript in Tham (Dhamma) script dated 1805 AD (Or.11797).

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Kammavāca palm leaf manuscript from Laos. It has wooden covers which are decorated with lacquer, gilt and mirror glass inlay. British Library, Or.11797  noc

Included in the manuscripts collection are also some wooden manuscript boxes decorated with lacquer and gold, as well as a few hand-woven manuscript wrappers made from silk or cotton. Other minor languages covered in the Lao manuscripts collection include some Tai Lue and Tai Khoen manuscripts. All items in the Library’s Lao manuscripts collection have been catalogued in the online catalogue, Search our Catalogue of Archives and Manuscripts, SoCAM.

Moving image and sound recordings
In addition to printed material and manuscripts, a collection of moving image and sound recordings from Laos is available in the Library’s Sound Archive. These include recordings of traditional Lao music, natural sound recordings, as well as a small number of documentaries and feature films. Among these are numerous unpublished recordings of remote populations of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand by Tom Vater. Access to the Sound Archive is through the online catalogue Cadensa.

Endangered Archives
The British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme supports the preservation and digitisation of archival and manuscript collections in their country of origin. The Archive of Buddhist Photographs from Luang Prabang has been digitised in full through this Programme and is available here.

Lao ORB.30-6309p.6
Postcard of a cattle caravan in Laos, printed around 1910. From an Album of postcards from Siam, Burma, Indochina. British Library, ORB.30/6309  noc

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).

Or13538.20-22.Lelukika
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

06 February 2015

The beauty of palm leaf manuscripts (3): storage and preservation

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In my two previous posts on this topic, I looked at palm leaf manuscripts from central Thailand and the northern Thai regions. In this final post on the beauty of palm leaf manuscripts in Tai manuscript cultures, I will take a closer look at traditional retrieval aids, and storage and preservation methods. Some temple libraries held large numbers of manuscripts which were stored in specially made furniture. Due to the fact that many manuscripts were wrapped in a piece of cloth, and the title or contents were rarely mentioned on the front leaf or front cover of a manuscript, quick retrieval of a particular manuscript was only possible if certain finding aids and methods were in place. For example, the manuscripts could be arranged in a systematic order within one cabinet, and several cabinets could be placed in a systematic order in the library building. One important finding aid was the title indicator. A title indicator, which could constitute a beautiful little work of art itself, was attached to a rope, and the rope was wound around the manuscript.     

Or_16555_fblefr
Wooden title indicator covered with black lacquer, and text incised in Tham script on gold background. Lanna, 19th century. British Library, Or.16555. Acquired from Dr Henry Ginsburg’s bequest, in memory of Dr Henry Ginsburg.  noc

Title indicators made from wood or bamboo were important means of identifying manuscripts when these were stored together in large numbers in wooden cabinets. The length of a title indicator could range from 100 to 400 mm. Bamboo and wooden indicators were often simple strips with the title and list of contents of the manuscript incised or written on, but sometimes wooden and ivory indicators could be carved with beautiful floral ornaments. Often they were lacquered red or black and decorated with gold leaf before the text was incised.     

Indicators Or14528-9
Two wooden title indicators covered with red lacquer, with text incised in Tham script on a gold background. Lanna, 19th century. British Library, Or.14528-9.  noc

Manuscript racks were used to hold manuscripts that had been selected to be worked with, for example to be read or discussed during Buddhist ceremonies and other events, or to be studied by an individual monk, or a monk with novices. These wooden stands can be decorated with intricate carvings, lacquer and/or gold leaf.

PalmleafPakse02copyrightPLMPNatLibLaos
A wooden manuscript rack with carved decorations found in Pakse, Champassak Province, Laos. On the rack are four wooden manuscript boxes. Photograph by Harald Hundius. Courtesy of Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme (PLMP), © National Library of Laos.

Wooden manuscript cases that were custom-made for a particular palm leaf manuscript were often decorated in the same technique and design as the manuscript covers. These decorations included floral designs, animals or mythological figures, or lattice patterns. Gold leaf on black or red lacquer was one popular technique in the Northern Thai/Lanna, Lao and Shan traditions.

Backman Lao Or16893
Wooden case with Kammavācā palm leaf manuscript in Tham script inside. The decoration of the manuscript covers is repeated on the case. Lanna or Laos, 19th century. British Library, Or.16893. Photograph courtesy of Michael Backman. © Michael Backmann Ltd.

However, most palm leaf manuscripts were not equipped with their own case but were stored in a larger casket, either a chest with a lid or a cabinet with lockable doors. Thick layers of lacquer helped to prevent damage to the chests and cabinets by the humid climate and insects. Long legs on the cabinets, and pedestals to stand the chests on, served to protect the manuscripts from flooding.  
Ms chest BL F1060
Wooden manuscript chest from Lanna or Shan State decorated with red lacquer, raised gilt lacquer as well as carved and gilt wooden applications, 19th century. British Library, F1060. Bequest from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.  noc

Whereas in southern Laos the lai rot nam technique enjoyed great popularity, in northern Laos and Lanna the gold-on-lacquer stencil painting technique was more widespread. This technique, which was also used by the Shan, Tai Khoen and and Tai Lue, involved creating designs on paper which were cut into stencils afterwards. The paper stencil was then placed over a pre-lacquered surface and gold leaf was applied. The gold leaf easily adhered to the pre-lacquered surface (Warren 2004, p. 109). However, both techniques could be combined.

Large chests and cabinets were produced for the storage of manuscripts in Buddhist temple libraries (hǭ tai) or in royal and local palaces. The largest cabinets could be over 2 metres high and were designed to house an extensive collection of manuscripts belonging to the Tipitaka. Accordingly they were called tū traipitok. They were often lavishly decorated with scenes from the Jātakas, mythological animals in the Himavanta heaven, and floral designs (Kō̜ngkǣo 1980-88).

Regular communal ceremonies called bun bai lān were - and still are - organised to preserve the palm leaf manuscripts that are stored at Buddhist libraries, which are valuable treasures of the local communities (see DLLM). At such ceremonies, which can take place annually or once every several years, the palm leaf manuscripts are removed from the storage furniture, cleaned from dust, dead insects and dry mould by wiping them with a clean, soft piece of cotton or a brush made from soft animal hair on a bamboo stick. The furniture is cleaned as well on this occasion. The cleaning tasks are carried out by lay volunteers and novice monks.


Bun bai lan
Procession on occasion of a Bun bai lān ceremony. Atsaphon District, Savannakhet Province, Laos, 2002. Courtesy of Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme (PLMP), © National Library of Laos.

Damaged manuscripts can be repaired or copied onto new palm leaves by trained monks and novices, and broken covers, title indicators or torn wrappers can be replaced with new ones. At the end of this work which may be carried out over several days, monks would usually bless the manuscripts and thank the members of the community in a ceremony. Afterwards, the members of the community, novices and monks help to carry the manuscripts back to the temple library in a colourful procession.

Ho tai Laos
A traditional wooden manuscript repository (hǭ tai). Vat Canthasalo in Ban Nong Lam Can, Camphon District, Savannakhet Province, 1994. Courtesy of Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme (PLMP), © National Library of Laos.

Traditional manuscript repositories (hǭ tai) could be found in Buddhist temples, where special buildings were erected on high base walls, stilts or pillars in order to keep the manuscripts safe from leaf-eating animals and floods.   

References

DLLM (Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts) (retrieved 05.12.2014)

Kō̜ngkǣo Wīrapračhak and Niyadā Thāsukhon. Tū lāi thǭng = Thai lacquer and gilt bookcases. 3 vols. Bangkok, 1980-88

Tingley, Nancy. Doris Duke. The Southeast Asian Art Collection. New York: The Foundation for Southeast Asian Art and culture, 2003

Warren, William. Lanna style. Art and design of Northern Thailand. 3rd ed. Bangkok: Asia Books, 2004


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

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23 January 2015

The beauty of palm leaf manuscripts (2): Northern Thai, Lao and Shan traditions

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Historically there has been a close cultural and linguistic relationship between the Tai peoples in Southeast Asia (Northern Thai/Lanna, Lao, Phu Thai, Phuan, Shan, Tai Khoen and Tai Lue, to mention some of the larger groups). Tai groups that have embraced Buddhism have also adopted the tradition of making palm leaf manuscripts. The reputation of the famous Pali school of Chiang Mai, the capital of the former kingdom of Lanna, may have contributed significantly to the spread not only of Buddhism in the area, but also of the making of palm leaf manuscripts and the use of the Tham script. Palm leaf manuscripts clearly play an important role especially for the preservation of Buddhist texts and commentaries, but were also used to record historical accounts and traditional knowledge relating to social values, customary laws, herbal medicine and traditional healing practices, astrology, divination and horoscopes, non-Buddhist rituals and ceremonies, and literary texts (folklore).

Lao sutras Or16734Buddhist manuscript in Tham script from Lanna or Laos with black lacquered covers and gilt floral decorations, 19th century. British Library, Or.16734.  noc

Whereas Buddhist texts are often in Pali language and/or in Dhamma (Tham) script, other treatises are usually written in Tai languages like Lao, Northern Thai, Tai Khoen, Tai Lue, or Shan. Local scripts like Lik Tai, Tham Lao, Tham Lanna, and Lao buhan were used.

For the production of a palm leaf manuscript, very large fan-shaped leaves from a lān palm (corypha) were cut into a long rectangular shape, soaked in a herbal mixture, then dried or  baked in a kiln, and finally pressed. These fan palm trees were the preferred type in the Northern Thai/Lanna, Lao and Shan manuscript traditions, and are still commonly planted as ornamental trees in temple grounds. The text was usually inscribed with a sharp wooden or metal stylus, then wiped over with a mixture of resin and/or oil and carbon soot to make the writing more visible.

Most of the extant palm leaf manuscripts from the Tai traditions were produced during the 18th and 19th centuries, but some date back to the early 16th century (see DLLM). The introduction of modern printing methods in mainland Southeast Asia resulted in a rapid decline of palm leaf manuscript production during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the Shan tradition, palm leaf manuscripts were largely replaced by bound or folded paper books (Terwiel 2003, p. 26). However, in some places palm leaf manuscripts are still being produced today, or their production has been revived due to the fact that the sponsoring and donation of manuscripts to temples is still regarded as an important meritorious act in the Buddhist context.

Precious manuscripts or palm leaves containing important texts were covered with two wooden or bamboo boards, which were sometimes left blank, but often they were beautifully carved or decorated. Such covers could be lacquered in red or black, and decorated with gold leaf, mirror glass, mother-of-pearl inlay or even with crystals or precious stones.

Or_16114_fblefr
Covers from a Shan Buddhist manuscript. The wooden covers are decorated with raised gilt lacquer forming flower ornaments, which were inlaid with mirror glass.19th century. British Library, Or.16114. Bequest from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.  noc

Black or red lacquer was a popular material to apply on wooden manuscript covers as it provided good protection against damage by water and humidity. At the same time, the shiny black and bright purple of the lacquer were ideal background colours on which gold leaf or gold paint could be applied.

LaoOr16790
Manuscript in Tham script from Lanna or Laos with red lacquered and gilt bamboo covers, 19th or early 20th century. British Library, Or.16790.  noc

Bamboo strips cut to match the size of the palm leaves were popular covers for manuscripts in Lanna, Laos and among the Shan. The manuscript covers shown above replicate floral decorations made in the stencil technique that can be seen on wooden pillars and beams in many temples in Northern Thailand, Laos and Shan State. This manuscript also has a custom-made wrapper made from cotton with interwoven bamboo strips.

Besides gold leaf or gold paint, other materials were applied on the lacquer as well. Mother-of-pearl inlay was very popular in central Thailand, but it was also adopted in Lanna and Laos due to close cultural relationships and exchange or transfer of Buddhist scriptures.  

LannaOr16077
Kammavācā text in Tham script from Chiang Mai with black and red lacquered covers and mother-of-pearl inlay, 19th century. British Library Or.16077. Bequest from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.  noc

Rough shells or their parts were cut into platelets of various shapes before inlaid into the lacquer. The production of items with such intricate decorations required special skills and experienced craftsmanship. Traditionally, mother-of-pearl inlay was used in Thailand exclusively for ecclesiastical objects and was under royal patronage until the end of the 19th century. The manuscript covers shown above are thought to have been produced in central Thailand and may have been given to a royal monastery in Chiang Mai.

Another method of decorating wooden manuscript boards was to cover them with black lacquer, then to use a stylus to incise floral ornaments once the lacquer had dried. Afterwards, red lacquer was rubbed on the incisions in order to create a contrasting black and red design. This technique may have been imported into Lanna and Laos from the Burmese and Shan traditions.   

LaoCoverOr.13157 (2)
Wooden lacquered cover of a Kammavācā manuscript dated 1918 in Tham script from Lanna or northwestern Laos. British Library Or.13157.   noc

To provide additional protection against dust and mould, palm leaf manuscripts were often wrapped in a piece of cloth, which could either be custom-made or simply an unused lady’s skirt, a hand-woven shawl or an imported piece of cloth (for example printed Indian cotton). Custom-made palm leaf wrappers could also be made from local or imported silk. Occasionally such wrappers were interwoven with bamboo strips to provide extra stability for palm leaf manuscripts which had no covers. Another type of manuscript cloth took the form of a long cotton or silk bag that was sewn to match exactly the size of the palm leaves.

Wrappersmall
Bundles of palm leaves in Tham script with a hand-woven lady’s skirt from northern Laos used as a manuscript wrapper, 19th or early 20th century. British Library, Or.16895.  noc

References

Conway, Susan. The Shan. Culture, art and crafts. Bangkok: River Books, 2006

DLLM (Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts) (retrieved 05.12.2014)

Guy, John. Palm-leaf and paper, illustrated manuscripts of India and Southeast Asia. With an essay by O.P. Agrawal on Care and conservation of palm-leaf and paper illustrated manuscripts. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1982

Terwiel, Barend J. Shan manuscripts, part 1. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2003

Tingley, Nancy. Doris Duke. The Southeast Asian Art Collection. New York: The Foundation for Southeast Asian Art and culture, 2003

Warren, William. Lanna style. Art and design of Northern Thailand. 3rd ed. Bangkok: Asia Books, 2004


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

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28 April 2014

The Ramayana in Southeast Asia: (2) Thailand and Laos

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Continuing our series of posts on the Ramayana in Southeast Asia, today we look at Thailand and Laos. The Thai version of the epic is known as the Ramakien. The Rama story is thought to have been known to the Thais since at least the 13th century. It was adopted from older Khmer sources, hence the similarity to the Khmer title Reamker. Various new versions of the story have been composed, often by royal authors, since the 16th and 17th centuries. However, large numbers of Thai manuscripts were lost with the destruction of Ayutthya in 1767, and the Ramakien known today was compiled only between 1785 and 1807 under the supervision of King Rama I (1785-1809).

The famous reliefs depicting about 150 scenes from the Ramakien at Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho) in Bangkok date back to the early 19th century. Manuscript and mural paintings showing scenes from the Ramakien are particularly famous for their illustrations of the monkey armies. Best known are the mural paintings at the royal temple Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok. In King Rama I’s version of the Ramakien all names, places, traditions, and flora and fauna were adapted to a Thai context. In this form, the Rama story has become an epic of national character in Thailand, and it is very popular not only as a literary work, but also as a mask dance (khon) and even TV drama. It has been re-published many times in the form of children’s and juvenile literature, and characters from the Ramayana have featured on series of postal stamps and trading cards. The title of Rama constantly re-occurs in the royal genealogies of Thailand.

Ravana
Hanuman facing Ravana asleep in his palace. This drawing is from a 19th century album of ink drawings by an anonymous Thai artist of scenes from the Ramakien, with some text captions in Khom script (a variant of the Cambodian Khmer script used in Thailand). Hanuman can be seen with his sword, teasing Ravana who is fast asleep in his palace after having abducted Sita. The palace resembles 19th century architecture in Bangkok. British Library, Or.14859, pp. 58-59  noc

Phralak
Phralak – the Thai and Lao name of Lakshmana, Rama’s brother – served Rama and Sita reverently and played an important role in the war with Ravana. In the Thai and Lao traditions, he is a symbol of brotherly love, loyalty and commitment. He gave his life in order to protect Rama’s integrity and Ayodhya from an evil curse. This illustration of Phralak is from a folding-book with Thai character drawings including figures from the Ramakien, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or.14229, f. 29  noc

The Lao version of the Ramayana is known as Phra Lak Phra Ram (or Pha Lak Pha Lam since in modern Lao R is often replaced by L), the title referring to both the brothers Lakshmana and Rama. Sometimes it is also called Phra Ram sadok (Rama Jataka) as it is widely believed that Rama was a former incarnation of a Buddha-to-be. The Rama story featured in many mural paintings and wood relief carvings on temple doors and windows. It was also one of the favourite themes in the repertoire of the Lao Royal Ballet until 1975, and this tradition has been revived since 2002 by the Royal Ballet Theatre of Luang Prabang.

Ramayana Laos
Introductory scene to thank and honour the Hindu gods during a Phra Lak Phra Ram performance by the Royal Ballet Theatre of Luang Prabang. Photo by Jana Igunma, 2002.

Numerous palm-leaf manuscripts from all regions of Laos containing shorter versions of the Lao Ramayana, Lam Pha Lam, show that the story was very popular all over the country in urban centres as much as in rural areas. These versions were created in order to be sung by a Mor Lam, a traditional expert singer who can melodically recite lengthy poems and epic literature while being accompanied by a Khaen (bamboo mouth organ).

In both Thai and Lao traditions, Hanuman was part of a favourite Yantra design used by soldiers and martial arts specialists. The leader of the monkey armies represents strength, stamina, agility, intelligence and devotion. Hanuman Yantras would either be drawn on protective shirts, headbands, battle standards of entire armies, or, most efficiently and durably, tattooed on a fighter’s body.

Hanuman yantra
Hanuman as part of a Yantra design for tattooing or to be drawn on protective clothes and battle flags. From a Yantra manual written in gamboge ink on blackened mulberry paper, central Thailand, 19th century.  British Library, Or.15596, f. 9  noc

Further reading

Angkhan Kanlayanaphong, Khon, Thai masked dance Sala Chalermkrung. Bangkok, 2006. (LP.31.a.679)

John Cadet, The Ramakien. The Thai epic illustrated with the bas-reliefs of Wat Phra Jetubon, Bangkok. Tokyo, Palo Alto, 1971. (Siam.742)

Sachchidanand Sahai, The Rama Jataka in Laos : a study in the Phra Lak Phra Lam. Delhi, 1996. (YD.2004.a.6415)

The Ramakian (Ramayana) mural paintings along the galleries of the temple of the Emerald Buddha. Bangkok, 1999. (SEA.2002.c.3)

Jana Igunma, Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian

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