THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

152 posts categorized "South East Asia"

24 May 2017

33 Burmese manuscripts now digitised

Add comment

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

Or16761.f28r
Royal entertainments: In the above scene, a musical troupe is entertaining the royals. To the left, the royal party is seated under a canopy watching a Burmese classical dance (Zat pwe), while to the right are dancers and musicians accompanied by an orchestra (Saing waing). Zat taw gyi or zat pwe is usually based on Jataka stories, which are the most popular literary sources throughout all periods of Burmese history. British Library, Or.16761, f.28r Noc

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

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

Or3676.f13
The royal melodrama Vijayakari zat: In the eighteenth century Burmese drama flourished at the royal court, and the earliest play, Maniket Pyazat, was written in 1733 by the court poet Padesaraja (1684-1752), based on his own poem Maniket Pyo. Burmese court drama really began to develop at the beginning of the reign of King Bodawpaya (1782-1819). Court dramatists, such as U Ponnya (1807-1866) and U Kyin U (1819-1853), produced dramatic works during the reign of Bagyidaw. Hlaing Hteik Khaung Tin, the Crown Princess (1833-1875) in the reign of King Mindon, wrote court dramas such as Vijayakari and Indavamsa, but she earned particular fame for her romantic dramas. In the scene shown above, there is a tree in a magical forest where lovely maidens grow and wait to be plucked. This drama is about Prince Vijayakari, Sakanitum (a princess born from a flower bud), and Adideva of the Ogre Kingdom. These court dramatists wrote delightful romances which are marvels of literary art. Only a few of their works survive to the present day but these are still widely read and studied. British Library, Or.3676, f.13r Noc

Or15021.f16r
Regatta festival: There are many Burmese festivals throughout the year. Tawthalin (September) is the sixth month in the Burmese calendar and the third month of the rainy season in Burma. The rain becomes less frequent, there is sunshine with clear skies, no wind, and the surfaces of the rivers are smooth without waves. The season is just right for holding regatta festivals, which have traditionally been held in this month since the times of ancient Burmese kings, and the regatta festival remains one of the twelve monthly festivals in the Burmese calendar. Regattas were not only occasions for pageantry but also opportunities for demonstrating the naval prowess of the armed forces. In the olden days, the royal family sent their own boats to participate in the race, and high officials were placed in charge of preparations for boat races held along the shores of rivers throughout the country. British Library, Or.15021, f.16r Noc

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

Quick link to: Digital access to Burmese manuscripts

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

17 May 2017

Elephants, kingship and warfare in Southeast Asia

Add comment

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

OR_13652_f004v Erawan
Airavana, the god Indra’s elephant, depicted in a Thai manuscript. British Library, Or.  13652, f. 4v Noc

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

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

DSCN0686
The Trưng Sisters (Hai Bà Trưng) depicted on the front cover of Làng Văn, no. 19, March, 1986. British Library, 16641.e.13

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

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

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

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

DSCN0706
King Naresuan on his elephant battles with the Burmese.  King Naresuan the Great (Bangkok : Animate, 1994). British Library, YP.2007.a.2584,  p.[170]

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

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

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork

03 May 2017

Pushing the envelope: Siam’s stunning stamps

Add comment

To mark the passing of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the accession of Maha Vajiralongkorn as the new King of Thailand, the Philatelic Collections is displaying a selection of Siamese philatelic and postal history materials from the Row Collection. Richard William Harold Row was born in 1884 at Kingsteignton, Devon to Richard Warren Row, a congregational minister, and his wife Eliza. An intelligent youngster with a passion for biology, natural history and taxonomy, their son focused on a scientific career, being appointed Assistant Lecturer and Demonstrator of Zoology at King’s College, University of London as well as being elected  a Fellow of both the Linnean and Zoological Societies in London. During the First World War Row was engaged in research at the Pathological Laboratory of the Fourth London General Hospital Malaria Department and tragically died during the Spanish flu pandemic on 16th February 1919.

Figure 6
An unused Siam 1883 permanent issue 1 att postcard. British Library Philatelic Collections, Row Collection: Siam Postal Stationery 1883 1 att postcard. Noc

Like countless other philatelists, Richard Williams Harold Row initially attempted to form a general stamp collection, with the aim of acquiring a single example of issues released by various postal authorities. Looking down upon specialist collectors as “faddists and cranks, whose whole time was taken up with the elaborate investigation of the accidental features of an issue,” Row expressed this opinion to a friend who was a specialist collector. A lively debate ensued which not only challenged Row’s opinion but also encouraged him to form a specialist collection of Siamese stamps. Converted to the cause, the parallels between specialist collecting and taxonomy ensured Row was soon to become an avid active collector and leading authority on Siamese philately. During his lifetime Row repeatedly exhibited his collection in addition to publishing an important monograph and a number of papers on the subject.

By the time he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society, London in 1916, Row’s collection was widely regarded as the world’s most specialised accumulation of philatelic material for any single country. With a keen eye to posterity, Row arranged his collection, having had it professionally described by Messrs Frank Godden Limited, a leading firm of stamp dealers. In accordance with Row’s wishes, after his death his mother Eliza presented the collection to the British Museum, and the donation was accepted by the Trustees on 11th October 1919. At the time the Museum’s first Philatelic Curator, Edward Denny Bacon, stated that Row’s bequest was the most significant philatelic donation to the British Museum since the donation of the Tapling Collection in 1891. The current display only showcases a small part of Row’s extensive collection and will be on display until 11th October 2020 in case 9, slides 33-50 of the philatelic display on the upper ground floor at St Pancras.

The display includes Row’s eight engraved and five lithographed essays for the 1881 unadopted issue, all depicting a white elephant, the national symbol used on the Siamese flags in the nineteenth century. Their provenance is shrouded in mystery yet they were probably commissioned for Siam’s first local postal service established by King Chulalongkorn at Bangkok in 1881 as an introductory step towards establishing a national post service.

Figure 1
Five lithographed proofs of the Siam 1881 unadopted issue. British Library Philatelic Collections, Row Collection: Siam 1881 unadopted issue, p. 1. Noc

Figure 2
Eight engraved proofs of the Siam 1881 unadopted issue. British Library Philatelic Collections, Row Collection: Siam 1881 unadopted issue, p. 1. Noc

Row’s collection of 1883 Permanent Issues being the first official postage stamps of Siam is also displayed. Comprising six denominations, only five of which were used, the design features a framed profile portrait of King Chulalongkorn facing left. The stamp was designed and engraved by W. Ridgway before being recess printed by Waterlow and Sons in London. Since Siam was not yet a member of the Universal Postal Union the stamps were not designed for international usage, consequently their textual inscriptions only being in the Thai script.

Figure 3
All denominations of the Siam 1883 permanent issue, with details below of denomination, colour, and quantity printed:
1 solot    Blue    500,000   
1 att    Carmine    500,000   
1 sio    Vermillion    500,000   
1 sik    Yellow    500,000   
1 salung    Orange     500,000    (various shades)
1 fuang    Red    (prepared but not issued)
British Library Philatelic Collections, Row Collection: Siam 1883 permanent issue, p. 1. Noc

Row’s collection of the Siam 1887 Permanent Issue is also displayed. Commissioned by the Siamese Post Office upon obtaining membership to the Universal Postal Union, they were designed and printed in eight denominations by Thomas De La Rue and Company in London, featuring a framed full portrait of King Chulalongkorn. Intended for international use this stamp issue contains a mixture of Thai and European scripts.

Figure 4
All denominations of the Siam 1887 permanent issue, with details below of denomination, colour, and quantity printed:
2 att    Green and carmine    1,534,560    (three printings)
3 att    Green and blue    528,000   
4 att    Green and brown    508,800   
8 att    Green and yellow    525,600   
12 att    Purple and yellow    2,694,000    (two printings)
24 att    Purple and blue    2,547,600   
64 att    Purple and brown    2,037,600   
British Library Philatelic Collections, Row Collection: Siam 1887 permanent issue, p. 1. Noc

Part of Row’s collection of the Rejected Die Issue is also displayed. In 1899 the Siamese Post Office commissioned the German security printing company Giesecke and Devrient to produce a new set of stamps. The Company developed two designs, one of which was rejected by King Chulalongkorn. Despite being rejected they were accidentally put on sale in small quantities towards the end of 1899.

Figure 5
Three denominations of the Siam 1899 rejected die issue used on cover. British Library Philatelic Collections, Row Collection: Siam 1899 rejected die issue cover. Noc

The majority of Row’s Postal Stationery Collection in addition to his collection of stamps used at Post Offices in Malaya at Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and elsewhere are also displayed.  

Figure 7
Three used Siam 1905 issue stamps cancelled by the Alor Star Post Office in Kedah. British Library Philatelic Collections, Row Collection: Under Siamese Suzerainty, Kedah Issue of 1905. Noc

In addition to monographs and books, other relevant philatelic resources from Siam and Thailand within the British Library include the Tapling, Supplementary and UPU Specimen collections. These can be accessed by emailing the Philatelic Collections to book an appointment on philatelic@bl.uk.

Further Reading
Frajola, Richard. The Postage Stamps of Siam to 1940, [S.l. (USA)]: Postilion Publications, 1980.
Row, R.W.H. The Adhesive Postage Stamps of Siam, London, 2014.
Siamese Legation at Paris (Ed). Postal Organization of the Kingdom of Siam, London, 1886.

Richard Scott Morel
Curator, Philatelic Collections Ccownwork

With special thanks to Thea Buckley for helping me devise a suitable title for the blog.

13 March 2017

British ‘Islamic’ style seals from the Malay world

Add comment

The presence of an inscription in Arabic script is such a defining characteristic of seals used by Muslims that it tends to mask the fact that similar ‘Islamic’-style seals were also used by myriad other groups, including Christians in Ethiopia and Syria, Samaritans in Palestine, Hindu subjects of the Mughal emperor, European scholars of Arabic and Persian, and British officials of the East India Company. Examples from the British Library were featured in a recent blog post on Some British ‘Islamic’ style seals in Persian manuscripts from India by Ursula Sims-Williams, and in an earlier post on Performing Authority: the ‘Islamic’ seals of British colonial officers in the Persian Gulf by Daniel Lowe. In this post I have gathered together a small number of British ‘Islamic’-style seals from Southeast Asia, with inscriptions in Malay in Jawi (Arabic) script.

The earliest known of these British Malay seals is that of Francis Light (1740-1794), who on behalf of the East India Company negotiated with the Sultan of Kedah to establish a trading settlement at Penang in 1786. By that time Light had spent over twenty years as a private or ‘country’ trader in the Malay world, and was on close terms with the sultan. In 1771 he had been granted the title of Kapitan Dewa Raja by Sultan Muhammad Jiwa of Kedah (r. 1710-1778), with the attendant right to a seal, which is found stamped in red ink on his Malay correspondence today held in the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies.

#322
Malay seal of Francis Light, inscribed Laik Kapitan Dewa Raja di negeri dār al-amān 1185, ‘Light, Kapitan Dewa Raja, in the Abode of Security, 1185' (1771/2) (#322), on an undated letter to Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Syah of Kedah. School of Oriental and African Studies, MS 40320/6, f. 60.

Light became the first ‘Superintendant’ of Prince of Wales Island, as Penang was named by the British, and subsequent governors also used seals inscribed in Malay. Official Malay seals were usually engraved in the name of an individual office holder, but the seal shown below, engraved in 1789/90 for the British ‘ruler’ of Penang, appears to have been used by successive incumbents of the office until at least 1805. It was perhaps in that year that a new seal was engraved for Philip Dundas, Governor from 1805 to 1807. In terms of language, calligraphy, shape and medium, the seals used by British officials in Penang represent a continuation of the Kedah Malay tradition, with typically round or petalled lotus-shaped seals stamped in red ink.

#327
Malay seal of the British governor of Penang, inscribed Gurnadur Raja Pulau Pinang 1204, 'The Governor, ruler of Penang island, 1204' (AD 1789/90) (#327), stamped on a record of the sale of a Keling slave named Abdul Rahman by Fakir Sahib to Malim Sahib for 40 rial, 2 Rabiulakhir 1206 (29 November 1791). British Library, IOR: R/9/22/11, f.437  noc

R-9-20-37, f.175
Record of the sale of a female Batak slave named Dima by Nakhoda Licu of Pane to Mr. Peter Clark for $53, witnessed by Syaikh Muhammad and Mualim Kandu and written by Hakim Abdul Taif, 1 Jumadilakhir 1220 (27 August 1805), and signed and sealed the next day by the [acting] Governor W.E. Phillips, with the same seal as used in 1791. British Library, IOR: R/9/22/37, f. 175  noc

 #323
Seal engraved Guburnur Raja Pulau Pinang, ‘The Governor, ruler of Penang island’ (#323), stamped on a letter from Philip Dundas, Governor of Penang, to the sultan of Kedah, 5 Muharam [1221] (25 March 1806). British Library, MSS Eur.D.742/1, f. 9  noc

It was in Penang that Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) began his Southeast Asian career, arriving on the island in September 1805 as Assistant Secretary to the government. In December 1810 Raffles moved to Melaka following his appointment by Lord Minto as ‘Agent of the Governor-General with the Malay States’, his secret mission being to prepare for the British invasion of Java, then held by Napoleonic forces. In his Malay correspondence with neighbouring states, Raffles wrote in the name of Lord Minto, and stamped his letters with the seal of the Governor-General of Bengal. Two such seals are known: the earlier seal, used in 1810 and the first half of 1811, is written in sloping nasta ‘liq script, and may have been brought from Calcutta. The second seal is more typically Malay in its 12-petalled lotus shape and naskh calligraphy, and was probably designed in Raffles’s secretariat in Melaka either by his head scribe, Ibrahim or by Ismail, uncle of the young Munsyi Abdullah, who also worked for Raffles as a junior writer.

Raffles seal
Maharaja Gurnur Jenral Benggala, Maharaja Governor-General of Bengal (#263), seal impressed on a letter addressed to the rulers of Java from T.S. Raffles in Melaka, 22 Zulkaidah 1225 (19 December 1810). British Library, MSS Eur.D.742/1, f. 133v  noc

#99 (2)
Inilah cap Paduka Seri Maharaja Gilbetelet Lard Minto Gurnur Jenral Benggala raja pada sekalian tanah Hindustan atas angin bawah angin adanya, ‘This is the seal of Paduka Seri Maharaja Gilbert Elliot Lord Minto, Governor General of Bengal, ruler of the whole of Hindustan, above the winds [and] below the winds’ (#99), stamped on a proclamation of the British capture of Batavia, issued by Lord Minto and signed by T.S.Raffles, 11 August 1811. British Library, Or. 9484  noc

In later years, with the expansion of British colonial rule across the Malay peninsula, seals with Jawi inscriptions sometimes accompanied by elements in English continued to be used by senior British officials, including Residents of Malay states and the Governor-General of the Straits Settlements.

#2000
al-a‘azz al-‘azīz Gunur dan Komandar in Cif serta Wis Admiral yang memerintah Singapura Pulau Pinang dan Melaka // GOVERNOR / STRAITS SETTLEMENTS, ‘The most powerful of the powerful, Governor and Commander-in-Chief and Vice-Admiral who rules Singapore, Penang and Melaka // Governor / Straits Settlements’ (#2000), stamped on a letter of 1883. Image courtesy of John Klein Nagelvoort.

In contrast to British practice of using Malay seals, Dutch officials in Southeast Asia – whether during the period of VOC rule of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th and 18th centuries, or in the service of the Netherlands East Indies in the 19th century and later – never used ‘Islamic’-style seals.  Only one example has been recorded, found in an album of seals from Palembang,  but without evidence that it was ever actually used on official correspondence.

#677
Resident Gupernament Nederland fî balad Palembang sanat 1238 // RESIDENT VAN PALEMBANG JAAR 1823, 'Resident of the Dutch Government in the state of Palembang, the year 1238 // Resident of Palembang, the year 1823' (#677). Seal album from Palembang ('Stempels uit de Residentie Palembang'). Leiden University Library, Cod.Or.6663.b

The earlier post on the seals of British orientalists in India also throws light on an unusual seal in a fine Javanese Pawukon divination manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Jav. d. 2). Each of the thirty wuku or weeks of the Javanese calendar is associated with a particular god, tree, bird, foot, house and pennant, which can be used to predict the character and fortune of those born in that week. In the corner of one illustrated page of the Bodleian Pawukon is a small oval seal written in muthanna symmetrical mirror script, previously assumed to be the seal of a Javanese artist or owner of the book. Thanks to Ursula's research, this seal can now be identified as that of William Yule (1764-1839), an East India Company official who had served in Lucknow and Delhi. Yule built up an important collection of Arabic, Persian and Urdu manuscripts which were given to the British Museum by his sons in 1847 and 1850, and some of the manuscripts contain impressions of exactly the same seal, and his related bookplate, in English and Persian, also composed in muthanna script. Although William Yule was never in Southeast Asia, his brother Udny Yule (ca. 1765-1830) served with the British administration in Java and in 1815 was the commanding officer in Banten, and may have acquired the Pawukon for his bibliophile brother. Before entering the Bodleian the book was owned by James Thomson Gibson Craig (1799-1886), renowned for his library in various languages. 

Bodleian Jav.d.2  (5)
Javanese Pawukon manuscript, with the seal of William Yule in the bottom right corner. Bodleian Library, MS Jav. d. 2, f. 56r

#1222 
Seal of William Yule, inscribed with his name (w.l.y.m y.w.l) in symmetrical mirror-image muthanna script and dated 1213 (AD 1798/9).

Further reading:
Abdur-Rahman Mohamed Amin, Koleksi surat-surat Francis Light.
A.T. Gallop, The legacy of the Malay letter.  Warisan warkah Melayu.  With an essay by E. Ulrich Kratz.  London: published by the British Library for the National Archives of Malaysia, 1994.
Ann Kumar, Java and modern Europe: ambiguous encounters. Richmond: Curzon, 1997. [On the Pawukon calendar, see pp. 144-158.]
Marcus Langdon, Penang: the fourth Presidency 1805-1830. Penang: Areca Books, 2013.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

03 March 2017

Vietnam and Dragons

Add comment

In Vietnamese culture, as in many other East and South East Asian societies, the dragon plays a very prominent role. It is arguably the most sacred of the four mythical creatures - the dragon, the phoenix, the unicorn and the turtle - and its pre-eminence is closely related to the birth of the nation. Legend has it that Lạc Long Quân, king of the dragons who lived in the water, married Âu Cơ, a fairy from the bird kingdom. She gave birth to 100 sons and her first-born son became King Hùng Vương of Lạc Việt, the first dynasty of Vietnam. The word 'Long' in the name of the legendary Lạc Long Quân (Dragon Lord of the Lac) is a Hán-Việt word which also means 'dragon', or rồng in modern Vietnamese. Hence there is a proverb saying that the Vietnamese are con rồng cháu tiên or “children of the dragon and grandchildren of the fairy”.

Fig 1
Gilded dragon on the reverse of an Imperial edict of Emperor Khải Đinh, 1924. British Library, Or.14665 Noc

From the very birth of the country, the dragon has thus been closely associated with Vietnamese kings or rulers, but it is believed that in even earlier times the dragon was used as a symbol at clan level to represent talent, noble and beauty. There are proverbs which refer to the dragon in this context, such as chữ viết đẹp như rồng bay phượng múa, 'handwriting is as beautiful as a flying dragon and a dancing phoenix'. However the increasing use of the word 'dragon' and objects with dragon patterns by feudal lords led to this creature becoming a symbol of the authority of the imperial clan. In China, it is believed that an emperor of the Han dynasty (B.C.206-A.D.220) was the first ruler to use the dragon to represent his authority.

Vietnamese tales and legends also reinforce a close association between this creature and the country’s rulers. For example, when Lý Công Uẩn took power from the Early Lê dynasty in A.D. 1009, he is said to have seen a golden dragon descending from the sky over Đại La citadel. He therefore renamed Đại La as Thăng Long ('Rising Dragon'). Lý Công Uẩn  became Emperor Lý Thái Tổ, the founder of the Lý dynasty (A.D. 1009-1225) and Thăng Long, which later became Hà Nội, was chosen as the capital. It is believed that both the new emperor and the capital city were blessed by this mythical creature right from the very beginning. Lý Thái Tổ was not the only emperor who claimed to see a golden dragon during his reign, for Emperor Lý Nhân Tông (A.D. 1066-1127) and Emperor Lê Thanh Tông (A.D. 1442-1497) were also said to have seen golden dragons several times during their reigns (Zeng Zen 2000: 46).

Or_14844_ffront cover-red  Or_14844_fback cover-red
The Imperial dragon depicted on the yellow silk front and back covers of a manuscript of KimVăn Kiều, 19th c. British Library, Or.14844 Noc

The dragon is regarded as immortal and even though its appearance can seem frightening, it does not represent evil. On the contrary, in Vietnam the dragon was always regarded as a symbol of power and nobility, and thus became the chief attribute of the person highest in nobility and greatest in power: the emperor or king (Buttinger 1983: 20). The Vietnamese imperial throne is called bệ rồng or 'dragon throne', while the throne hall in the palace where the emperor granted public audiences or worked, such as that in the former imperial capital city of Huế, was also decorated with dragons. Imperial attire and accessories were also related to the dragon; for example, the imperial gown was called a long bào and his hat was called a long quân. The dragon with five claws was reserved for imperial use, while one with four claws was for the use of royal dignitaries and high ranking court officials. For commoners, their dragons could only have three claws.

From a geographical aspect, the shape of Vietnam, which resembles a letter S, also enhances the dragon myth. The Vietnamese consider the shape of their homeland to be similar to a winding dragon: the northern part is its tail, central Vietnam is its body with the Trường Sơn mountain range (the Annamite Range) as its back and spine, and the dragon’s head lies in the southern part, with its open mouth spraying water into the South China Sea. It should be noted that when the Mekong River reaches the south of Vietnam and branches into nine tributaries in the Mekong River Delta, it is called Sông Cửu Long or the 'Nine Dragon River'.

Fig 4
Gilt dragon on the Imperial edict of Emperor Khải Đinh,  25 July, 1917. British Library, Or.14631 Noc

Dragons also appear in many other aspects of Vietnamese life and culture. On auspicious occasions such as the Vietnamese New Year, a dragon dance will be organised. The Nguyễn court (A.D. 1802-1945) also declared the Dragon Boat Day, originating from Chinese traditions, as one of the 'three great holidays' in Vietnam along with the lunar New Year (Tết Nguyên Đán) and the emperor’s birthday. The boat race festival was celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month by peasants in South China and Vietnam, to ward off poisonous spirits (Woodside 1988: 36-37). Many Vietnamese proverbs and children's plays relate to dragons, and many place names in Vietnam also contain the word “Long”, or 'Dragon'.

DSCN0684
Dragon Boat Race, Thiếu nhi vẽ.  Hà Nội: Văn hóa, 1977, [21]. British Library, SEA.1986.a.4004

In Hồ Chí Minh City (formerly Sài Gòn), there is an historic building called Nhà Rồng, or the Dragon House, located at the old port of Saigon. The house was built by the French in 1862-1863 in a French colonial style, but on the roof top there were two symmetrical ceramic dragons facing each other and looking at the moon, hence the name Nhà Rồng. It was from here that the young Hồ Chí Minh embarked on a ship to sail to France in June 1911, on his search to find methods to fight French colonialism and seek independence for his motherland. Symbolically, dragons seem to appear in some critical junctures in Vietnamese history.

Further reading:
A.B. Woodside. Vietnam and the Chinese model. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University press, 1988.
Joseph Buttinger. A Dragon Defiant. Newton Abbot, Devon: David and Charles, 1983.
Phùng Hồng. ‘Rồng trong đời sống Việt Nam’  in  Hồn Việt vol.25, no.196/197, January-February 2000; pp. 63-66. (BL shelfmark: 16641.e.5)
Zeng Zen. ‘Năm thìn bàn chuyện rồng’ in Hồn Việt vol.25, no.196/197, January-February 2000; pp.45-48. (BL shelfmark: 16641.e.5)

Sud Chonchirdsin, curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork

17 February 2017

Kammavaca: Burmese Buddhist ordination manuscripts

Add comment

Kammavaca is a Pali term describing an assemblage of passages from the Tipitaka –  the Theravada Buddhist canon –  that relate to ordination, the bestowing of robes, and other rituals of monastic life. A Kammavaca is a highly ornamental type of manuscript usually commissioned by lay members of society as a work of merit, to be presented to monasteries when a son enters the Buddhist Order as a novice or becomes ordained as a monk. The novitiation ceremony of a Buddhist monk is an important family ritual, the main purpose being to gain merit for their future life. A novice may remain a monk for as long as he wishes, whether for one week or one season of lent or even for life, and he may undergo the initiation ceremony as many times as he likes. The most important Kammavaca were prepared for the upasampada (higher ordination), the ritual for the ordination of a Buddhist monk. 

Add15289.1
British Library, Add. 15289, f. 1v, top outer leaf  noc
Add15289
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script on gilded and lacquered palm leaf, 18th century. The outer leaf, shown above, has eight octagonal panels with lotus patterns within circles, while the leaf below shows the beginning of the ordination text (upasampada), flanked by similar larger lotus patterns. British Library, Add. 15289, f.1.  noc

Kammavaca manuscripts are written on a variety of materials, primarily on palm leaf but also on stiffened cloth, or gold, silver, metal or ivory sheets in the shape of palm leaf. Thickly applied lacquer or gilded decoration appears on the leaves themselves and also on the cover boards. The Pali text is written in black lacquer in ornate Burmese characters known as ‘tamarind-seed’ script, also refered to as ‘square’ script, which differs from the usual round Burmese writing. Some attractive and unusual Kammavaca may be made from discarded monastic robes thickly covered with black lacquer, with inlaid mother-of-pearl letters.

Or12010H.1
British Library, Or. 12010H, f.1v  noc
Or12010H
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script on ivory, 18th century. The outer leaf shown at the top is lacquered and gilded with birds and lotuses in octagonal panels, while  the opening leaf of the ordination section (upasampada) shown below has black lacquered text and gilded lotus patterns. British Library, Or. 12010H, f. 1r  noc

In the 12th century, the Sihala Ordination was introduced into Burma by Chappaṭa who had studied the canon and commentaries in Sri Lanka. In the 15th century, Sri Lanka was again turned to as the source of orthodoxy, and in 1476, twenty two disciples and chosen bhikkhus (monks) were sent in two ships to the island. They were duly ordained by the Mahavihara monks at the consecrated sima or ordination hall on the Kalyani River, near Colombo. Upon the return of these monks, King Dhammaceti (1471-1492) built the Kalyani Sima in Pegu (Bago), to which bhikkhus from neighbouring countries came to receive ordination.

Two types of ordination ceremonies are held in sima: ordination for novices (Pabbajja), and ordination for monks (Upasampada). To become a novice, the follower has to recite the Ten Precepts as well as the Three Refuges for a monk.  In order to become a monk, the Sangha or monastic community will perform the Upasampada ordination on fulfillment of the five conditions: Perfection of a person, Perfection of an assembly, Perfection of the Sima, Perfection of the motion, and Perfection of the Kammavaca. The most senior monk will lead the assembly for the newly-ordained monk, while selected monks will recite the Kammavaca taking great care with articulation and pronunciation.

Or12010E.1
British Library, Or. 12010E, front board  noc
Or12010E
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, written on palm leaf, 19th century. Shown at the top is the binding board, with lacquered and gilt lotuses in roundels; below is the text written in black lacquer on a red lacquer ground. British Library, Or. 12010E, f. 1r  noc

Or13896.1
British Library, Or. 13896, f. 1r  noc
Or13896.2
British Library, Or. 13896, f. 16r  noc
Or13896
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, written on metal gilded and lacquered in red, 19th century. British Library, Or. 13896, f. 1v  noc

The outer sides of the first and last leaves of the Kammavaca manuscript shown above (Or. 13896) have unusual and fine decoration in gold and red of scenes from the Buddha’s life. At the top, Prince Siddhartha cuts off his hair with his sword, the symbolic gesture of the renunciation, and Sakka, the king of the celestial abodes, receives it, while on the right devas present a robe and alms bowl to Prince Siddhartha. On the final leaf shown in the middle, when Prince Siddhartha becomes a monk, Sakka plays the harp to show Siddhartha the way to the Middle Path, and devas come to pay respects. The outer margins of text leaves are decorated with deva.

Or12010A.1
British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1v, outer front board   noc
Or12010A.2
British Library, Or. 12010A, inner front board with donor's name  noc
Or 12010A
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, lacquered cloth, with gilded and lacquered boards, 19th century. British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1r.  noc

The leaves of this manuscript (Or. 12010A) consist of cloth thickly covered with lacquer to provide a rigid surface, which is then gilded with background decoration of floral sprigs. In the margins are depicted kneeling deva or celestial figures with their hands clasped in reverence for the Kammavaca text. The text leaves are stored between a pair of bevelled binding boards, red on the inside, and lacquered and gilt on the outside, with devas within panels. A Burmese inscription on the inside of the top board of this Kammavaca records that the manuscript was a pious gift of lay devotee U Tha Hsan and his wife Ma Lun.

The manuscript contains the following Kammavaca texts: Upasampada  (Official Act for the conferment of the Higher Ordination), Kathinadussadana (Official Act for the holding of the Kathina ceremony), Ticivarena-avippavasa (text for the investiture of a monk with the three robes), Sima-sammannita (Official Act for the Agreement of boundary limits), Thera-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon the seniority of theras), Nama-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon a name), Vihara-kappa-bhumi-sammuti (text of the dedication of a Vihara), Kuṭi-vatthu-sammuti (Official Act to search and agree upon a site for a hut), Nissaya-muti-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon relaxation of the requisites). 

The leaves of the various Kammavaca manuscripts illustrated in this post range are made of various materials including palm leaf, ivory, metal and lacquered cloth, and range in size from 50 to 60 cm in length, and from 10 to 15 cm in width. The outer sides of the first and final leaves of the Kammavaca are usually decorated with panels of birds, lotus, flower and leaf designs, devas, figures of the Buddha and geometric patterns. The leaves have two holes in them in which small bamboo sticks are usually inserted in order to hold the leaves together, and the leaves are bound between decorated binding boards. Kammavaca were usually wrapped in woven or silk wrappers, and secured with a woven ribbon and placed in a gilded box.

Further reading:
To Cin Khui, The Kalyani Inscriptions erected by King Dhammaceti at Pegu in 1476 A.D. Rangoon: Superintendent, Government Printing, 1892.
Sao Htun Hmat Win, The initiation of novicehood and the ordination of monkhood in the Burmese Buddhist culture. Rangoon: Department  of Religious Affairs, 1986.

San San May, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

06 February 2017

Abdul Samad of Palembang, Malay guide to the writings of al-Ghazālī

Add comment

Abdul Samad (ca. 1704-1791) from Palembang in south Sumatra (‘Abd al-Ṣamad al-Falimbānī) was  the most prominent and influential Malay religious scholar of the 18th century, who spent most of his life studying, teaching and writing in the Arabian peninsula. From references in his own works we know he was living in Mecca and Taif between 1764 and 1789. According to al-Nafas al-Yamānī by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Sulaymān al-Ahda, in AH 1206 (AD 1791) Abdul Samad arrived in Zabid, Yemen, to teach. This is the last firm date that we have in his biography, and he probably died in the Hijaz without ever returning to Sumatra. Abdul Samad wrote in Malay and Arabic on the Sammaniyya Sufi brotherhood and on jihād or holy war, but his most important contribution is undoubtedly his Malay translations of the great 12th-century theologian, Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (ca. 1058-1111), who was born in Tus in Khorasan, Iran. Al-Ghazālī earned from his contemporaries the sobriquet Hujjat al-Islam, ‘Proof of Islam’, and is credited for reconciling in his writings both legal and mystical aspects of Islam. 

Abdulsamad
‘Abd al-Ṣamad al-Jāwī al-Falimbānī, ‘Abdul Samad, the Jawi [i.e. Muslim from Southeast Asia], from Palembang’: the name of the author as given in a manuscript of his work Hidāyat al-sālikīn . British Library, Or. 16604, f. 2r (detail)  noc

In 1778 Abdul Samad completed Hidāyat al-sālikīn fī sulūk maslak al-muttaqīn, ‘A guide for travellers on the path of those who fear God’, a Malay adaptation of al-Ghazālī’s Bidāyat al-hidāya, ‘Beginning of guidance’, which deals with a number of subjects pertaining to dogmatics, sharī‘a and other matters in a somewhat mystical way. According to the colophon the work was completed in Mecca on  5 Muharram 1192  (3 February 1778).  This work was extremely popular throughout the Malay world: over 82 manuscripts have been documented from published catalogues alone, held in Leiden, Paris, Jakarta, Palembang, Aceh and Malaysia, including 50 in the National Library of Malaysia. Hidāyat al-sālikīn was one of the first Malay works to be published in the 19th century in Cairo, Mecca, Bombay and Singapore, and it is still in print in Malaysia and Indonesia today.

MNA 07-0002
Hidāyat al-sālikīn, a copy from Aceh, 19th c. Museum Negeri Aceh, 07-0002. Source of image: Portal Naskah Nusantara

The British Library holds one manuscript of Hidāyat al-sālikīn from Aceh which appears to be the earliest dated copy known (Or. 16604). According to the colophon, the manuscript belonged to Teungku Busangan who had married the daughter of Teungku Abdul Rahman, who was of Ottoman extraction (saudara bani ‘Uthmaniyyah), and it was copied by Teungku Haji Hasyim ibn Abdul Rahman Patani in negeri l.m.s.y.n (Lamsayun in Aceh?), on 4 Rabiulawal 1197 (9 February 1783). The manuscript thus dates from just five years after the composition of the work, at a time when Abdul Samad was still actively writing. Another manuscript – one of ten copies of this text now held in the famous Islamic madrasah at Tanoh Abee in Aceh – is dated just a few months later, as it was copied in Mecca by Lebai Malim from Lam Bait in Aceh on 19 Jumadilakhir 1197 (22 May 1783) (Fathurahman 2010: 196). The presence of two manuscripts of this work copied thousands of miles apart, within five years of the work’s composition, illustrates well the impact of Abdul Samad’s writings within his own lifetime.

BL Or.16604, ff.1v-2r
Initial pages of Hidāyat al-sālikīn by Abdul Samad of Palembang, a translation of Bidāyat al-hidāya by al-Ghazālī. British Library, Or. 16604, ff. 1v-2r  noc

BL Or.16604, ff.147v-148r (1)
Final pages with colophon of Abdul Samad al-Palembani’s Hidāyat al-sālikīn, copied in Aceh in 1783. British Library, Or. 16604, ff. 147v-148r  noc

A year after completing Hidāyat al-sālikīn, Abdul Samad started on his final and most ambitious project, a rendering into Malay of an abbreviated version of the most influential of al-Ghazālī's works, Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, ‘The Revival of Religious Sciences’.  The Iḥyāʾ is presented in four sections, each containing ten chapters. 'Acts of worship' (Rub‘ al-‘ibadāt), deals with knowledge and the requirements of faith; 'Norms of daily life' (Rub‘ al-‘adat), concentrates on people and society; 'The ways to perdition' (Rub‘  al-muhlikāt) discusses vices to be overcome, while the final book, 'The Ways to Salvation' (Rub‘  al-munjiyāt), focusses on the virtues to be strived for.

Abdul Samad’s Malay work, entitled Sayr al-sālikīn ilā ‘ibādat rabb al-‘ālamīn, was likewise presented in four parts (bahagi), each comprising ten chapters (bab). The first, Pada menyatakan ilmu usuluddin, on prescriptions for ritual purity, prayer, charity, fasting, pilgrimage, recitation of the Qur’an, and so forth, was started in 1779 and completed in Mecca in 1780. The second, Pada menyatakan adat, on manners related to eating, marriage, earning a living, friendship and other societal matters, was finished in Taif in Ramadan 1195 (August-September 1781). The third book, Pada menyatakan muhlikat yakni yang membinasakan, discusses the destructive impact of vices, and was completed in Mecca on 19  Safar 1197 (24 January 1783). The fourth and final book, Pada menyatakan munjiyat yakni yang melepaskan dari pada yang membinasakan akan agama ini, focusses on virtues which overcome threats to faith, and was completed on 20 Ramadhan 1203 (14 June 1789). Sayr al-sālikīn was also extremely popular throughout Southeast Asia, with over 60 manuscripts known today (often containing just one part), including 14 manuscripts in Dayah Tanoh Abee and 36 in the National Library of Malaysia, with the majority originating from Aceh.

MSS 2399
A beautifully written and decorated copy of the third book of Sayr al-sālikīn, a copy from Aceh, probably 19th c. National Library of Malaysia, MSS 2399, ff. 2v-3r.

The British Library holds a manuscript which contains only the final two-thirds of the third book of Sayr al-sālikīn , in two stitched bundles of quires, enclosed in a loose leather wrapper (Or. 15646). The text begins in the middle of the third chapter, on crushing the two desires, of the stomach and the genitals (pada menyatakan memecahkan syahwat), with the section on curbing the appetite for food (pasal pada menyatakan bersalah-salahan hukum lapar). The manuscript continues through the chapters on defects of the tongue (kebinasaan lidah), and condemnations (kecelaan) of anger (marah), worldly mores (dunia), love of wealth (orang yang kasih akan arta), ostentation (kasih kemegahan), pride and conceit (kejahilan) and self-delusion (orang yang terpedaya).  According to a note on the leather wrapper, this manuscript was owned by Muhammad Yusuf from Tanoh Abee in Aceh.

 Or.15646-col
Colophon to the third part of Abdul Samad's Sayr al-sālikīn, composed in Mecca in 1783; this undated manuscript was probably copied in the 19th century in Aceh. British Library, Or. 15646, ff. 136v-137r  noc

Public institutions in the UK hold some of the most important Malay literary and historical manuscripts extant, in line with the interests and preoccupations of their mainly 19th-century British collectors, but these collections are equally characterised by a marked absence of works reflecting Islamic thought and practice in Southeast Asia. It is remarkable that these two manuscripts in the British Library of works by Abdul Samad of Palembang, found in such large numbers throughout Southeast Asia, are the only known copies in British collections. Both have now been fully digitised, and can be read through the hyperlinks or on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website.

Further reading:
Azyumardi Azra, The origins of Islamic reformism in Southeast Asia: networks of Malay-Indonesian and Middle Eastern 'ulama in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2004. [See pp. 112-117, 130-136.]
G.W.J. Drewes, Directions for travellers on the mystic path. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977. [See pp. 222-224.]
Oman Fathurahman, Katalog naskah Dayah Tanoh Abee Aceh Besar: Aceh manuscripts, Dayah Tanoh Abee collection. Jakarta: Komunitas Bambu, 2010.
R. Michael Feener, ‘Abd al-Samad in Arabia: the Yemeni years of a Shaykh from Sumatra.  Southeast Asian Studies, 4(2), 2015.
Sair as-salikin
. Banda Aceh: Museum Negeri Aceh, 1985/1986. [Transliteration of MS no. 923 in the MNA by A. Muin Umar, with a biographical note by Henri Chambert-Loir, ‘Abdussamad al-Falimbani sebagai ulama Jawi’.]
Hidayatus salikin: Syeikh Abdus Shamad al-Falimbani, ed. Hj. Wan Mohd. Shaghir Abdullah. Kuala Lumpur: Khazanah Fathaniyah, 1997-2000. 3 vols.

ghazali.org: a virtual online library on al-Ghazali, including a page in Malay

This blog was updated on 11 February 2017 to incorporate new biographical information from Feener 2015.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

27 January 2017

The Year of the Rooster, from a Thai perspective

Add comment

According to the Chinese luni-solar calendar, the Year of the Rooster (or Chicken) begins on the 28th January 2017. It falls on the day of the new moon halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.  A variety of calendrical systems has traditionally been used in Thailand, one of them being the Chinese calendar, together with the Chinese zodiac system. The Thai people have adapted the Chinese zodiac symbols in accordance with their own purposes and ideas, still following the principle of the twelve-year lunar cycle with each year represented by an animal, except with the Chinese dragon replaced by a Buddhist nāga (serpent). The completion of a twelve-year cycle was and is important for Thais as a reminder of their birth year and as a means to calculate their age. The zodiac is also often used for forecasting horoscopes, match making and fortune telling.

OR.3593fol20
Page of a Thai Phrommachāt manuscript dealing with predictions for people born in the Year of the Rooster. Dated 1885 A.D. British Library, Or.3593, f.14 Noc

The twelve animals of the Thai zodiac are called sipsǭng rāsī and it is believed that a person's fate can be determined by the position of the major planets at the time and date of a person's birth, along with the positions of the moon and the sun. Thai manuscripts dealing with the Thai zodiac and divination or fortune telling, usually in paper folding book format, are called Phrommachāt. They are usually illustrated with four images of each of the twelve animals, which are combined with alternating male and female “avatars” of the birthplace (chātphūm) and number diagrams. Each animal is also associated with an element (metal, wood, water, fire, earth) and a particular plant in which the khwan (soul) lives. The features and colours of the characters and their costumes depicted in the paintings are mostly in the unique Thai painting style of the Rattanakosin period, but some older versions and local variations exist as well.

Or.12167fol21
Four roosters, each representing one quarter of a year, with a male giant (yaksa) as “avatar” of the birthplace with a unique waist cloth, a plant and a number diagram determining the lucky and unlucky numbers for people born in the year of the rooster. This manuscript was rescued from a burning temple in Rangoon. Phrommachāt, 19th century. British Library, Or.12167, f.21 Noc

In Thailand, the Year of the Rooster is called Pī rakā. Its element is metal, and the avatar is a male yak (yaksa). Its lucky directions are North, East and South-West. People born in the Year of the Rooster are generally believed to be honest, competitive, punctual, generous, and self-confident. However, there are variations: people born in the 5th, 6th and 7th month of the year can be easy to teach as children, they will progress well in their career, and gain prosperity. Those born in the 8th, 9th and 10th month can be difficult as children and have a bad temper, but are intelligent and may gain wisdom and prosperity in later life. People born in the 11th, 12th and 1st month may get into trouble or live in poverty, but could make the acquaintance of a great supporter and do considerably well in the civil service and trade. People born in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th month are believed to gain great wisdom, knowledge and wealth. “Roosters” are thought to make good matches with people born in the Year of the Ox, the Year of the Snake, and the Year of the Serpent. Marriages between “Roosters” should be avoided by all means.  

OR_13650_f011v
Illustrations with highly symbolic meanings are used to determine the fate of people born on a particular day. Phrommachāt, 19th century. British Library, Or.13650, f.22 Noc

People born on Saturday or Sunday (represented by a yaksa riding on a rooster) may be troublesome as children and have a bad temper, but become powerful due to effort and persistence. People born on a Monday (nobleman riding on a horse) are bound to become leaders and gain prosperity, but will have to move around the country a lot and may not settle down. People born on a Tuesday (noblewoman on a pedestal) are thought to have a successful career and live a comfortable and wealthy life. People born on a Wednesday (mahout riding on an elephant) may become very knowledgeable and do well in government service, but there is a chance they will not be happy and have to move far away. People born on Thursday (human carrying goods) may have a lot of trouble and do hard work, but through hard study they could do well and find a dedicated supporter. People born on a Friday (dēva riding on a nāga serpent) are believed to become highly respected persons with an ascending career in government, but their character may be intolerant and impatient and they may not do very well in trade.    

Orb.30.5675
Thai trading card showing one of the fortune-telling symbols for the Year of the Rooster adopted from Phrommachāt manuscripts, [ca. 1920-1940]. These collectibles, which came with packages of cigarettes, were very popular in the first decades of the 20th century. British Library, ORB.30/6575, p.2 Noc

The beginning of the Thai New Year, however, does not coincide with the Chinese New Year or the beginning of a new cycle of the Thai lunar year (which usually occurs in December). It is determined by the Buddhist calendar and initially coincided with the rising of Aries in the astrological chart, but is now fixed on 13 April (5th month of the Thai lunar calendar). On this occasion, colourful banners with the twelve animals of the Thai zodiac are drawn and added to sand pagodas in many northern Thai Buddhist temples. Every zodiac symbol is associated with one particular Buddhist temple in Thailand. Many people aspire to make a pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime to the temple that represents their birth year to give offerings and make merit.  Associated with the Year of the Rooster is the Hariphunchai temple in Lamphun, which derives its name from the ancient Mon Kingdom of Hariphunchai.

Or.14532fol11
Page related to the Year of the Rooster in a Phrommachāt manuscript in Mon language in Burmese script, 19th century. British Library, Or.14532, f. 11 Noc

The Mon people were the founders of some of the earliest kingdoms in mainland Southeast Asia. Right up until today, Mon communities live in Thailand and Burma. The Mon created versions of the Phrommachāt in their own language and script, although the illustrations are usually similar to those in Thai manuscripts. In some Mon manuscripts, the Burmese script was used rather than Mon script. Other versions of the Phrommachāt exist in Northern Thai (Lanna), Lao, Tai Lue and Tai Nuea languages.

Further reading
Eade, J. C., The Calendrical Systems of Mainland South-East Asia. Leiden: Brill, 1995
Rom Hiranpruk, Traditional Thai calendar system.
ʿUrukhin Wiriyabūrana, Phrommachāt : chabap lūang pračham bān dū dūai ton ʿēng. Bangkok:  S. Thammaphakdī, 1957
Wales, H. G. Quaritch, Divination in Thailand. The hopes and fears of a Southeast Asian people. London & Dublin: Curzon, 1983

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