THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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30 posts categorized "Thai"

27 January 2017

The Year of the Rooster, from a Thai perspective

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.    

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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.

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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

12 December 2016

O graceful fawn, o gentle doe: Deer in Thai manuscript art

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Among the most gorgeous images in Thai manuscript painting are those of forest animals. Illustrations of the heavenly forest Himmaphan (Pali: Himavanta), which in Buddhist cosmology is thought to surround the base of the mythical Mount Meru, are unthinkable without squirrels, rabbits, birds, lions, tigers, monkeys, elephants and deer. Scenes involving birds, elephants and deer, usually against a background of trees, plants and rocks, express an atmosphere of tranquillity and peace. Deer seem to be of particular importance as they often feature in funeral books containing extracts from the Pali canon. In Thai Buddhism, symbolic meanings of deer include harmony, happiness and serenity, but also sensitivity and watchfulness. According to the Buddhist scriptures, there could have been no better place for Gautama Buddha to give his first sermon than in the tranquil landscape of the Deer Park at Sarnath.         

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A pair of deer, one looking watchfully backward, frolicking in a rocky landscape with a blossoming tree and flowers. Illustration from a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language, late 18th or early 19th century. British Library, Or 14027, f.54 Noc
 
Some of Buddha’s Birth Stories (Jataka) also involve deer, like for example the King Banyan Deer Jataka or the Suvannasama Jataka. The King Banyan Deer Jataka tells of one of Buddha’s former incarnations as a golden deer king whose herd was captured and held in a park for the King of Benares to hunt. The king granted the golden deer immunity, but wished to hunt the other deer and eat venison meat every day. When it was the turn of a pregnant doe to be slaughtered, King Banyan Deer sacrificed himself and laid his golden neck on the butcher’s block. The King of Benares was surprised to see this and asked why the deer king offered his own life. When he heard that King Banyan Deer had taken upon himself the plight of the pregnant doe, the king prohibited hunting of deer and all other animals in his kingdom.       

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Scenes from the Sama Jataka in a rare 18th century folding book from Thailand. This manuscript contains short extracts from the Tipitaka, including a text on the great qualities of the Buddha (Mahabuddhaguna) which are illustrated by scenes from the Ten Birth Tales. British Library, Or 14068, f.5 Noc

A popular Jataka involving deer is part of the circle of the last Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha with the title Sama Jataka (in Thailand also known as Suvannasama Jataka). Illustrations of this Jataka can often be found in Thai funeral or commemoration volumes in folding book format containing a text on the Buddha’s great qualities, and sometimes the legend of the Buddhist saint Phra Malai. The painting style and preference of certain colours varies according to the period in which a manuscript was created. Whereas deer in 18th century illustrations usually appear static, a century later they are often shown in motion.

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Naturalistic scene from the Sama Jataka with deer fleeing the violent event of Sama being shot by the King of Benares. Illustration from a 19th century Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the legend of Phra Malai. British Library, Or 14559, f.6 Noc

The Sama Jataka tells of a son who, with great devotion, cared for his parents who had lost their sight as a result of snake bites. Every day, he fetched water from the forest. Because of his gentle, peaceful character the deer in the forest would always follow him. One day the King of Benares went hunting in the same forest and accidentally shot Sama in the chest. Realising his mistake, he went to Sama’s parents to inform them and to apologise. The parents, however, remained calm and asked him to lead them to their dead son’s body where they pleaded with the gods to restore his life, and due to his extraordinary merit he did indeed come back to life and the king was forgiven. The parents also regained their eyesight.

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On the left, an illustration in an innovative, dynamic style shows Sama who was shot in the chest stumbling into the river. Two deer are by his side, the spilling water pot between them. On the right are Sama’s blind parents waiting for their son’s return from the forest. From a 19th century Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka. British Library, Or 16552, f.9 Noc

The Jataka best known Thailand is without doubt the Vessantara Jataka, the last of the Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha. This Jataka symbolises the virtue of generosity and narrates the life of prince Vessantara who from early childhood on showed a great sense of charity. He gave away all his possessions, including an elephant that he grew up with, his horses, even his children and finally his beloved wife Maddi. However, as a result of his great merits, his sacrifices and acts of generosity were always rewarded. For example, when he gave away his horses that were pulling his carriage to a forest hermitage a marvellous deer appeared immediately to replace the horses. In the end, the whole family and their animals got together again with a great celebration.   

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Scene from the Vessantara Jataka showing a marvellous deer with gold decorations replacing the horses that Vessantara, standing on the carriage, had given away. From a 19th century Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka. British Library, Or 16552, f.26 Noc

Not only in Thai manuscript paintings can one find images of deer, but also on manuscript covers and manuscript chests in the form of gold-on-lacquer decorations. These would usually represent scenes from the heavenly forest Himmaphan. The lavishly decorated manuscript cover below shows a deer in the centre, standing gracefully between two mythical lions and smaller forest animals, perhaps squirrels, before a delicate background of flowers and foliage.     

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Gilt and lacquered cover of a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the legend of Phra Malai, 19th century. British Library, Or 15257, front cover  Noc

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

17 October 2016

1500 titles of Thai printed books added to the British Library’s electronic catalogue

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The Library’s Thai collection contains more than 6000 titles of printed books, pamphlets and grey literature in Thai language, dating from the mid-19th century onwards. Due to a generous gift by Christian missionaries of about 100 books and pamphlets, the earliest period of printing in Thailand, from ca.1840-1890, is well represented, including a copy of the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Great Britain and Siam (Siam.29), also known as the Bowring Treaty, which was printed by J.H. Chandler at the Washington Press in Bangkok in 1856.

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A printed version of Phra Malai, the legend of a Buddhist Saint who travelled to heaven and hell. This third edition in folding book format was printed in 1956 at S. Thammaphakdi Publishers in Bangkok. British Library, ORB.99/216 f.1

Numerous first editions, funeral volumes and government publications were acquired from the National Library of Thailand (formerly Vajiranana Library) in the first decades of the 20th century. From 1973 onwards, the British Library has systematically collected Thai publications on Thai art and culture, history, literature, anthropology, Buddhism, archaeology, law, politics and social issues. Recent acquisitions of contemporary publications are normally made by purchase, but occasionally antiquarian books are also added to the collection to fill gaps.

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Caricature of a Thai chief police officer by King Vajiravudh in his book “Phap phrahat” (Bangkok, 1920). British Library, Siam.260, p.19

The earliest shelfmark sequences for Thai books begin with ‘Siam’, followed by a number. Acquisitions between 1986 and 2000 have shelfmarks beginning ‘SEA’, while some rare books have shelfmarks beginning ‘ORB’.

Until recently, Thai printed books and serials acquired before 1986 were only accessible through a card catalogue in the British Library’s Asian & African Studies Reading Room, with author, title and subject sequences. However, in the past few years, efforts have been made to retroconvert card catalogues in Asian languages through internships, temporary cataloguing contracts and crowdsourcing initiatives like Libcrowds. Thanks to a four-month internship for Dr Thanyarat Apiwong in 2015, over 1500 book titles from the Thai card catalogue have now been added to the British Library’s electronic catalogue Explore, increasing the number of Thai book titles searchable electronically to over 5000.

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Example of a catalogue card showing basic bibliographic details of a Thai book, in Thai and partially romanised script.

The collection is particularly strong in publications by King Chulalongkorn, King Vajiravudh and Princess Sirindhorn as well as many other important scholarly and popular Thai authors like Phaya Anuman Rajadhon, Prince Damrong, Kukrit Pramoj, Botan, Kulap Saipradit, Chart Korbjitti, Khamsing Srinawk, Pira Sudham etc.  A  very small selection of rare Thai books from the Library’s holdings were fully digitised in collaboration with Northern Illinois University and include works on history, warfare, law, and literature, and are available on the Southeast Asia Digital Library.

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An early photograph of a Southern Thai Nora dancer in Prince Damrong’s book “Tamra fon ram” on Thai classical dance, first edition printed at Sophon Publishers, Bangkok, 1923. British Library, ORB.30/5539, p.82

Translations of Buddhist, Chinese, Lao, Burmese and Western literary works into Thai language form one small though important part of the Thai collection. These include translations by King Vajiravudh of works by Molière, William Shakespeare, Sax Rohmer, Arthur Moreland and Georges Courteline. Some of these publications are among the finest examples of Thai printing and book binding, often adorned with gold decorations.

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Translation of Sax Rohmer’s “Golden scorpion” by King Vajiravudh, under the pseudonym Rammachitti, published ca. 1925 in Bangkok. British Library, Siam.284, front cover

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

11 July 2016

Female figures in Thai illustrations of Buddha’s Birth Tales (Jātaka)

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Written texts in Thai Buddhist manuscripts may not always pay much attention to female figures, but the illustrations often depict male and female beings, and sometimes the relationships between them, in a well-balanced manner. Many Jātaka stories of the Birth Tales of the Buddha are unthinkable without female figures, be they Maddi, the wife of Prince Vessantara; or the sea goddess that rescues Prince Janaka; or the young naga maidens who entertain Bhuridatta while meditating.

Although all of the last Ten Birth Tales are very popular among Thai Buddhists, the Vessantara is the best known Jātaka since it is frequently performed on theatre stages set up at annual Buddhist festivals or during temple fairs throughout the country. The Vessantara Jātaka portrays the virtue of charity. It narrates the life of prince Vessantara who from early childhood on shows true generosity and a great sense of charity: he gives away all his possessions, including an elephant that he grew up with, his children, and finally his beloved wife Maddi. However, in the end they all get back together again.

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19th century folding book from Central Thailand containing a collection of Buddhist texts and illustrations from the Ten Birth Tales. British Library, Or 16552, f. 26 Noc

The people of his kingdom find Vessantara’s generosity distressing and frightening. They persuade Vessantara’s father to take back the kingdom from his son and drive him into exile, where eventually his wife and children follow him. Before their departure, they pay a visit to Vessantara’s mother, Phusati, shown in the illustration above. Phusati, sitting on a high pedestal on the left side, faces Vessantara together with Maddi and their two children sitting on Maddi’s lap. Vessantara pays respects to his mother with a wai gesture, while she pats her son's right shoulder to console him, and to give her blessings for their departure.     

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Thai illustrated manuscript of the Ten Birth Tales, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f. 52 Noc

After their departure from the kingdom, Vessantara and his family decide to live in a forest as hermits. While Maddi collects fruits in the forest for her family, the Brahmin Jujaka meets Vessantara to ask for his two children to become servants for the Brahmin’s wife. Vessantara brokenheartedly gives his children away in an act of ultimate charity. As Jujaka drives the wailing children through the forest, the gods imagine Maddi’s anguish if she were to see them in this state, and so three gods take the form of wild animals in order to block Maddi's path, thus preventing her immediate return to the hermitage. Maddi, kneeling down in front of the three animals, greets them with a wai fearlessly and respectfully, showing her still calm and peaceful state of mind.

Another of the last Ten Jātakas, the Narada Jātaka, tells of the generous King Andati who was deceived by a false ascetic and ceased giving alms to the poor. His only daughter, Ruja, prays for help from the gods to bring her father back to his senses. The Buddha, who exists in this Jātaka as the celestial deity Narada, appears before the king to warn him that those who follow false doctrine will be condemned to a horrific existence in hell.  The king shows remorse and asks Narada for forgiveness, and finally resolves to provide for those living in poverty.

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Central Thai folding book containing a collection of Buddhist texts including the Mahābuddhagunā on the qualities of the Buddha, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 9 Noc

The painting shown above depicts Ruja, King Andati’s daughter, kneeling on a pedestal. She is drawn with a red aura, which is similar to the aura that in Thai manuscript paintings is often associated with the future Buddha, Maitreya, or the saint Phra Malai. Ruja prays to the deity Narada while one of her four female attendants carries an offering bowl. The four-armed deity Narada can be seen in the upper right quarter of the painting, floating in the air.  Ruja is seen as an example of a good daughter and a strong believer in and upholder of Buddhist moral standards, hence her decoration with the aura of a saint.

The Bhuridatta Jātaka tells of the Buddha in a former existence as a naga (serpent) prince, who practices meditation every night under a Banyan tree. He earned the name Bhuridatta because of his wisdom and goodness, and he aims to follow the Eight Precepts. An evil Brahmin and snake charmer named Alambayana obtains magic spells from a hermit in order to capture Bhuridatta and force him to perform in market places so that the Brahmin would earn fame and wealth. The naga prince represses his shame and anger in order to follow the Eight Precepts. Eventually, he is freed by his three brothers.

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Thai folding book dated 1841 A.D. containing extracts from the Abhidhamma, Suttas and the Mahābuddhagunā. British Library, Or 15925, f. 12 Noc

Nagas are believed to be magical serpents who can assume human form when they wish. This painting depicts Bhuridatta practising meditation while coiled around a huge ant hill. In front of the serpent are two naga maidens in human form. The duty of the maidens is to wake up Bhuridatta from his meditation every morning and to escort him back to the realm of the nagas where he spends the daytime, before coming back at night to resume his meditations.    
     
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Thai manuscript of Mahābuddhagunā and other Buddhist texts, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 7 Noc

The rather dramatic 18th-century illustration above shows a hunter on the left, pointing toward where the Brahmin Alambayana can find the naga prince. Alambayana is on the right, carrying a magic jewel from the naga world. The hunter’s wife is standing behind bushes, trying to hide from the men. Her left hand holding her ear, she seems to be eavesdropping on the two men. She does not want her husband to get involved with the Brahmin, for her utmost concern is the well-being of her family. The painter may have decided to include the hunter’s wife in the scene - holding a machete prominently in her right hand - in recognition of her potential to prevent the capture and humiliation of Bhuridatta.   

Another Jātaka tells of Prince Janaka, who was born in exile after his father was killed by his brother. When grown up, he undertakes a sea voyage to his homeland, but suffers a shipwreck. He struggles to stay alive in the ocean for seven days until he decides to follow the Eight Precepts. Then, the goddess Manimekhala, guardian of the seas, comes to rescue and carry him to his late father’s kingdom Mithila. In the meantime, his uncle - his father’s murderer dies - and the vacant throne will be given to the man who marries the sharp-minded Princess Sivali. Janaka passes many tests and finally wins the throne and Sivali’s heart.

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Janaka Jātaka in a Thai folding book, dated 1841. British Library, Or 15925, f. 7  Noc

In the manuscript above, the lively illumination on the right depicts the disastrous event when Prince Janaka’s ship is sinking, with giant fish ready to swallow the seamen. Prince Janaka can be seen on  the left with the goddess Manimekhala by his side. She is adorned with a red aura that is usually an attribute of the future Buddha or Buddhist saints, or sometimes kings who actively support Buddhism. She is reaching out to Janaka to rescue him from the dangerous waters after Janaka has vowed to follow the Eight Precepts.  

Further reading:

Ginsburg, H. 1989. Thai manuscript painting. London: The British Library.
Ginsburg, H. 2000. Thai art and culture. Historic manuscripts from Western collections. London: The British Library.
Napat Sirisambhand and Alec Gordon. 2001.  Seeking Thai gender history: Using historical murals as a source of evidence. IIAS Newsletter 24: 23.
Thongchai Rakpathum. 1983. Rattanakosin painting. Bangkok: Krom Silapakorn.

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

03 June 2016

Exploring Thai art: Doris Duke

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In December 2004, the British Library acquired a small number of Thai and Burmese manuscripts, wooden manuscript boards, manuscript chests and cabinets, as well as paintings, from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. Doris Duke (1912-1993) assembled one of the finest collections of Thai and Burmese art outside Southeast Asia, which upon her death was passed to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The Foundation donated Doris Duke’s Art Collection to various museums in the United States and to three British institutions: the British Library, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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Doris Duke ca. 1925. Photograph by Kaiden Kazanjian Studios. Courtesy of Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

Doris Duke, born in 1912, was the only child of James Buchanan Duke and Nanaline Holt Inman. She inherited at the young age of twelve a substantial part of her father’s fortune, which was based on tobacco and hydropower production. Doris Duke pursued a variety of interests which included travelling the world and collecting art. When she went on a round-the-world honeymoon with her first husband, James H. R. Cromwell, in 1935 she visited Egypt, the Near East, India, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan and Europe. The cultures of the Near East, South and Southeast Asia sparked Doris Duke’s life-long passion for Southeast Asian and Islamic arts. One of Doris Duke’s first great art projects was the construction of Shangri La, her residence in Honolulu that was inspired by Islamic art, in the late 1930s.

After several trips to Thailand and Burma, Doris Duke established the Foundation for Southeast Asian Art and Culture in 1961. With the help of agents, the curator of the Foundation, F. D. de Bérenx, began to buy extensively Southeast Asian art and antiques of all types, including manuscript cabinets and manuscripts, Thai furniture and ceramics, Sino-Thai porcelains, wood, stone, bronze and ivory sculptures, and complete Thai houses. After a short period of time the Foundation had formed one of the largest and most important collections of Thai and Burmese art, furniture and decorative objects outside Southeast Asia, all stored at Shangri La.

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Northern Thai wooden manuscript box, decorated with red and black lacquer, gold and mirror-glass-inlay (19th century). Gift from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. British Library, Foster 1056 Noc

Inspired by meetings with Jim Thompson and visits to his traditional Thai residence in Bangkok, Doris Duke’s idea was to re-create and furnish an entire Thai village in Hawai’i, complete with a replica of a Thai royal pavilion, which she intended to open to the public for educational purposes, stressing the decorative and minor art works rather than archaeology and the major arts. Numerous drawings of the proposed village site and plans for the buildings that were to be constructed were made, but the acquisition of a site that fulfilled all of Doris Duke’s requirements proved difficult. In 1965 a fire at Shangri La destroyed five Thai houses. Doris Duke then considered Duke Farms in Hillsborough, New Jersey, as a possible site for the Thai village, and by 1972 all of the 2,000 Southeast Asian items had been shipped to New Jersey. Part of the collection was finally put on display in the Coach Barn and opened to the public in December 1972. Although her dream of a Thai village was never fulfilled, Doris Duke continued to acquire Thai and other Southeast Asian art works up until her death in 1993.  

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19th century painting on linen from central Thailand, showing a scene from the Vessantara Jataka. Gift from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. British Library, Add.Or.5582 Noc

In 2001, shortly after Forrest McGill, Chief Curator at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, had viewed the collection at Duke Farms, the Coach Barn was flooded and the moisture affected several of the larger collection items. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation decided then to donate museum-quality items from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection to institutions where her collection could be displayed and made accessible to the general public, with the Asian Art Museum and the Walters Art Museum receiving the first of these gifts.

The late Dr Henry Ginsburg, former Curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections at the British Library, helped to negotiate the distribution of selected items to institutions in the UK. At the time, he commented: “Along with a number of Thai and Burmese manuscripts, the Library’s acquisitions include a group of elaborately decorated manuscript cabinets dating from the 18th and 19th century. Such cabinets were not previously represented in any British collections; the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation now means the British Library has the finest examples in the country, together with those donated to the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum.”

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Wooden manuscript cabinet from central Thailand, with carved decorations of Kinnari in lacquer and gilt (19th century). Gift from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. British Library, Foster 1058 Noc

The bequest to the British Library included two wooden manuscript cabinets decorated with gilt and lacquer from Thailand, as well as a Northern Thai manuscript box with gilt, lacquer and glass inlay. Two gilded and lacquered manuscript chests and one manuscript box came from Burma. In addition to the manuscript furniture the donation included Thai paintings showing scenes from the Vessantara Jataka, a very rare Burmese ivory manuscript, a Shan manuscript from Burma, and a Northern Thai palm leaf manuscript with lacquered covers decorated in mother-of-pearl inlay, as well as four Shan manuscript covers with lacquer, gilt and glass inlay decoration.

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Wooden manuscript board with black and red lacquer decorations as well as mother-of-pearl inlay, belonging to a Northern Thai Buddhist palm leaf manuscript dated 1851. Gift from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. British Library, Or.16077 Noc

Particularly the rare pieces of Thai and Burmese furniture reflect not only how manuscripts were traditionally kept in Southeast Asia, but they are also outstanding examples of Southeast Asian lacquer art. In Thailand, unique lacquer and gilded designs were often applied on wooden furniture, doors and window panels of Buddhist monasteries or royal palaces. The technique consists of applying to the wooden panel several coats of black lacquer, a resin from a tree in the sumac family growing in mainland Southeast Asia. The drawing is then traced, and with a yellow-gummy paint the parts which have to remain black are covered in all their smallest details. The next process is to give a thin coat of lacquer over the surface, and when it is semi-dry, gold leaf is applied over the whole surface. After about twenty hours the work is washed with water to detach the gummy-paint in order to let the remaining gold design appear in all its details. Hence this art is called "lai rot nam" in Thai - designs washed with water. Of course, the beauty of the lacquer work depends first upon a perfect design and afterwards a perfect execution which the artist himself must carry out.

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Detail from a large wooden manuscript cabinet from central Thailand showing a scene from the Mahosadha Jataka, one of the last Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha. The filigrane gold and lacquer decoration made in “lai rot nam” technique is of outstanding quality (19th century). Gift from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. British Library, Foster 1057 Noc


The art of lacquer reached its peak in the Ayutthaya kingdom in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Later the capital of Thailand moved to Thonburi, and then to Bangkok in 1782. The art of lacquer continued to follow the achievements and styles of earlier times, though other influences, particularly Chinese flower and landscape designs, became more pronounced.

Further reading:
About Doris Duke. Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
Doris Duke’s Shangri La – architecture, landscape and Islamic art. Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.
Emerald Cities - Arts of Siam and Burma: Conserving the Collection. Asian Art Museum San Francisco.
Falkenstein, Michelle, A trove of treasures in a barn. The New York Times, October 19, 2003
Tingley, Nancy, Doris Duke. The Southeast Asian Art Collection. New York, 2003

Previous blog posts in this series:

Exploring Thai art: James Low (3 Feb 2016)

Exploring Thai art: Karl Siegfried Döhring (5 Nov 2015)

Döhring

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


25 March 2016

“A bar of pure gold”: Shan Buddhist manuscripts

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The highlights among the Shan manuscripts held at the British Library are some Buddhist folding books whose beauty will catch anyone’s eye. At first sight, each of them actually looks like a bar of pure gold – and this was certainly the intention of the craftsmen who produced these books. However, the idea of pure gold rather refers in a figurative sense to the purity and the moral value of the sacred texts contained in these manuscripts. To followers of Theravada Buddhism, Buddha’s teachings (Dhamma) are worth much more than just gold.

Buddha’s Dhamma is not just regarded as a doctrine: it is the wisdom, moral philosophy, and truth as propounded by Gautama Buddha, the most recent Buddha, in his discourses; Buddha’s interpretation of the order of the world or immanent, eternal, uncreated law of the universe. The Buddha is the discoverer - by means of Enlightenment - of this universal law, in which rational and ethical elements are combined.  

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Buddhadanadipani pathama tvai, Shan Buddhist manual on the perfection of generosity, volume 1 only, dated 1911. Gold on red lacquer covers and edges. Soren Egerod collection. British Library, Or.15350.  noc

Although the Tipitaka, the actual collection of primary texts in Pali language, forms the doctrinal foundation of Theravada Buddhism, the complete body of classical Theravada texts consists of the Tipitaka together with extra-canonical texts (commentaries, chronicles, sub-commentaries etc.) However, complete collections of the Tipitaka in manuscript form are very rare, and extra-canonical texts were often added only locally. Usually, Buddhist kings requested and commissioned the compilation of as complete as possible Tipitaka collections in order to donate them to newly established temples, or to give them as gifts to Buddhist communities even outside their kingdom.
A common practice in Shan Buddhist culture was that selected texts, short extracts or translations from the Tipitaka were combined in one folding book (pap tup) for the purpose of teaching, giving sermons or chanting. Such folding books could be commissioned by individuals or families as offerings to Buddhist temples, and often they were commemorative volumes in order to make merit on behalf of a deceased family member. For aesthetic reasons and to add value and prestige to these manuscripts, their covers could be embellished in various ways. Covers made from several layers of thick paper could be lacquered and gilded, with added lacquer high relief ornaments and coloured mirror-glass inlay. In rare cases of very prestigious royal manuscripts, jewels could be inlaid in relief-moulded and gilt lacquer. Ornaments frequently used for the decoration of such covers were flowers, plants and foliage, as well as flame-like and hourglass-like designs. Commemorative gilt folding books are known in Shan language as lik ho, i.e. recitation texts or the texts composed in a typical form of Shan poetry for reading out loud to members of audience at ceremonies.
   
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Sangkhara bhajani kyam, Shan manuscript dated 1916. British Library, Or.16079, front cover   noc

Embossed gold covers studded with multi-coloured pieces of mirror glass and lavish floral decoration in high relief protect this paper folding book, which probably is a copy of an older manuscript, made in a Shan community in in the area of "Muang Lakon Pa Kham" in Northern Thailand. It contains a sermon on aspects of the Abhidhamma and meditation in Shan language, with some sections in Pali. This manuscript was bequeathed to the British Library from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.

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Decorative ornaments drawn in the same black ink as with which the Shan text is written. British Library, Or.16079, f.259  noc

Small decorative elements drawn in ink are sometimes inserted to separate sections of text. Usually this is just a small floral or geometric shape, but in rare cases such decorative illustrations can take up to a quarter of a folio. The illustration above resembles flowery ornaments which can also be found carved on wooden elements of Shan and Northern Thai temples.

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Buddhanussati, Shan manuscript dated 1885. British Library, Or.12040, front cover  noc

The folding book above with embossed gold covers with red, green, blue and silver coloured mirror glass inlay contains a text on recollections of the Buddha, explaining mindfulness with the Buddha’s virtues as objects. This is the first of ten kinds of recollection (anussati), which help to give faith and encouragement to practising Buddhists before taking up the more arduous task of vipassana meditation.

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Nemi jat to kri vatthu, Shan manuscript dated 1913. Soren Egerod collection. British Library, Or.15353, cover and f. 1.  noc

A folding book containing the Nemi Jataka, one of the Last Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha, has red lacquered covers with added gold leaf which has worn off due to frequent handling. This less elaborate technique of cover decoration is certainly the most recurring method used for making lik ho. The front cover is followed by the first folio, which bears the title and the first section of the text. However, when folded up, a large book like the one shown above with 185 folds has the shape of an impressive huge gold bar.

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Anagatavan arimitayya vatthu (Anagatavamsa), manuscript dated 1893 in Shan and Pali. British Library, Or.14572, front cover.  noc

The Anagatavamsa is an important extra-canonical text on the coming Buddha, Buddha Metteyya, which is said to date back to the 12th-13th centuries. To create a bar-like shape of a book, the paper which is relatively tough must be folded up very carefully in an absolutely even manner. The book must then be pressed evenly before the lacquer and eventually the gold and multi-coloured mirror glass inlay decorations can be added. The creation of such a stunning piece of art required great care and much time. Folding books like the one shown above, weighing over 2 kg, are the pride of every collection of Shan Buddhist manuscripts.

Further reading:

Jotika Khur-Yearn, Richness of Buddhist texts in Shan manuscripts. Seven Shan versions of Satipa hĀna Sutta. In: Contemporary Buddhism, vol. 10,1, pp. 85-90.
Jotika Khur-Yearn, Shan manuscripts collections outside the Shan State. Preservation and cataloguing. In: SEALG Newsletter, 40/2008, pp. 12-16
Rhys Davids, T. W. and William Stede (eds.), Pali-English dictionary. Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1999
Terwiel, Barend J. with the assistance of Chaichuen Khamdaengyodtai, Shan manuscripts part 1. VOHD vol. 39,1. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2003

Tipitaka

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

14 March 2016

More than a Book: a new display of Southeast Asian manuscripts

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Visitors to the British Library building at St Pancras will recently have noticed a new display in the Southeast Asian exhibition case by the entrance to the Asian and African Studies Reading Room on the third floor. ‘More than a Book’ presents examples of writing from Southeast Asia in a range of unusual formats and materials, with texts incised on bamboo and gold, painted on paper with a brush, written on gilded wood, printed on silk, and even woven into cotton binding tapes to be wound around a book of palm leaves.

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More than a Book: a new display of writing from Southeast Asia, at the British Library Noc

In pride of place is the Burmese 'Butterfly Book’ (Or. 16052), as we have named what is actually a printed petition presented to a colonial official.  No government officer could ever have received a more beautiful document than this formal address, created in around 1907 on the occasion of the first visit to Mergui of the British Governor of Burma. Mergui (Myeik) is a coastal town on the Tenasserim Coast (the present-day Taninthayi Division), the southernmost district of Lower Burma (Myanmar). Technically this is not a hand-written manuscript, for the Burmese words have been typeset and printed onto ‘wings’ of silk, and bound within a large oyster shell.  In the petition, local residents offer sincere thanks to the Government for the construction of roads, and express their belief that the expansion of transport networks will bring more benefit to the region. Included in their long ‘shopping list’ is a request for a marine ferry to ply between adjacent coastal towns, a telegraph office, and aid in building a new hospital.

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Burmese 'Butterfly Book', printed petition of 1907 from the residents of Mergui presented to the visiting British Governor of Burma. British Library, Or. 16052 Noc

Also from Burma are two sazigyo, or woven binding tapes for winding around sacred texts.  Among the ways in which Burmese Buddhists believe that merit can be gained is by commissioning and donating a sazigyo to a Buddhist monastery. There are many types of sazigyo: some are purely decorative but others are woven with texts recording the names of the donors, their titles and distinctions, and their deeds of merit. The donors usually call on devas and humans to applaud their meritorious deeds.

The larger red sazigyo is from a manuscript of Pacitʿ Pāli, a canonical text of Theravāda Buddhist monastic rules (Or. 4846). The text on the sazigyo is in verse, and begins with the word Zeyatu which means ‘success’. The donors call upon the universe to hear the news of their donation of the scripture of the Buddha’s glorious teaching, and express their hope that by the merit of this donation they may swiftly and directly reach the cessation of afflictions (Nirvana).  The inscription on the smaller yellow sazigyo (Or.15949/2) suggests that both the manuscript and the binding tape were donated to the Sayadaw (Abbot) of Bangyi monastery.

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Two sazigyo, manuscript binding tapes woven with Burmese texts. British Library, Or. 4846 and Or. 15946/2 Noc

From northern Thailand come two wooden title indicators, written in Thai in Dhamma script, decorated with red lacquer and gold leaf. The titles of the palm leaf manuscripts to which the title indicators were attached with a cord are incised on the gold background, together with the names of donors and honoured persons. The small title indicator was made for a manuscript containing the Vessantara Jataka copied in 1925 (Or.14528), while the larger one belonged to a text from the Abhidhamma dated 1930 (Or.14529). These title indicators were used to help retrieve manuscripts when they were stored in large chests or cabinets at Buddhist temple libraries.

On the lower shelf is an imperial Vietnamese scroll (Or. 14817/A). In 1793 a British embassy to China led by Lord Macartney ran into a storm while off the coast of central Vietnam, and issued a plea for help. In response, the Tây Sơn ruler of Vietnam, Emperor Cảnh Thịnh (1792-1802), sent a welcoming party to the British delegation, with food supplies and this beautiful scroll.  The scroll is written in Han Nom characters on orange paper decorated with a large dragon, and bears the royal seal stamped in red ink.

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Vietnamese imperial scroll, 1793. British Library, Or. 14817/A

At the back of the case is an example of Batak writing on bamboo (MSS Batak 1), from north-east Sumatra. In 1823, at the request of his British visitor John Anderson, the King of Bunto Pane wrote on this piece of bamboo the Batak numbers one to ten, and a reminder to Anderson to send him two dogs once he had returned to Penang. In the bamboo container are found a knife – which may have been used to inscribe the Batak letters – and four poison-tipped blow-pipe darts.

Lastly, but catching all eyes at the top of the display, is a letter written on a sheet of pure gold, from Bali (Egerton 765). This letter in Balinese was sent in 1768 from the princes of Badung and Mengwi to the Dutch Resident of Semarang, on the north coast of Java.  Inscribed in Balinese language and script with a sharp stylus on a piece of gold in the  shape of a palm leaf – the usual writing material in Bali – the princes affirm their friendship with the Dutch East India Company.

Annabel Gallop, San San May, Jana Igunma, Sud Chonchirdsin Ccownwork
Southeast Asia section

03 February 2016

Exploring Thai art: James Low

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James Low was one of the first Europeans to visit the Andaman sea coast of Thailand, stretching from Phuket to the Malaysian border, which is nowadays one of the great tourist destinations of the world. Low’s mission took place in his line of duty as an officer of the English East India Company based at Penang.

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Detail from a drawing depicting the reception of James Low by the son of the Raja of Ligor (Nakhon Si Thammarat) in 1824. Drawing attributed to “Boon Khon”. The use of a Western perspective as in the depiction of the chairs was unusual in Thai art of the early 19th century. British Library, Add. 27370, f.18  Noc

Born on 4 April 1791 at Causland in Scotland to Alexander Low and his wife Anne Thompson, Low graduated from Edinburgh College and was then nominated for a cadetship in the East India Company’s Madras Army in 1812. He was accepted and embarked from Portsmouth on the East Indiaman Astell, which reached Madras in July 1812. During the first five years, Low acquired military competencies and language skills. The Company’s policy was that their officers had to be capable of basic communication with the Indian soldiers under their command. In May 1817 Low was appointed Adjudant, and then promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in August of the same year. In January 1819 Low moved to the East India Company’s settlement in Penang and spent the rest of his career in and around the Straits of Malacca. In 1820 he was given command of the Penang Local Corps until the corps was disbanded in 1827.

Since Low had received a mathematical and philosophical education at Edinburgh College, he nurtured an interest in the study of languages. The posting to Penang offered the opportunity to acquire language skills in both Malay and Thai. The knowledge of Thai was particularly important in the light of events on the Malay peninsula, to which the Burmese had sent their last military expedition against Siam, directed at its west coast territories. Subsequently, the British at Penang found themselves in the middle of a conflict between the Siamese Governor, known as the Raja of Ligor (Nakhon Si Thammarat), and the Sultan of Kedah, who had fled to Penang instead of providing the support which had been requested from him by the Raja of Ligor.

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Drawing by James Low of a village with pagodas in Martaban (Mottama in Mon State, Burma) 1825. RAS 027.012. Photograph courtesy of Nancy Charley, Royal Asiatic Society

Low’s was the second mission to Siam, following John Crawfurd’s first mission that was mainly concerned with resolving the legal status of Penang. The second mission of 1824 under Low’s command was prompted by the British declaration of war on Burma. Its aim was to enlist the support of the Raja of Ligor, who was in command of most of the Siamese territories on the west coast of the peninsula including Kedah, for the planned British move up the Irrawaddy river. Low described the events of the mission in a report on his Public Mission to His Highness the Rajah of Ligor, and in more detail in his Journal of a Public Mission to the Rajah of Ligor. Low also produced a map of Siam, Cambodia and Laos. After his mission to Ligor, he was posted to Tenasserim where he produced more maps and landscape drawings. In 1826, Low was promoted to Captain and was sent on other missions to the Malay state of Perak. Shortly after, he was appointed Superintendent of Lands in Province Wellesley in Penang, a post he held until 1840 when he was made Assistant Resident of Singapore. He finally retired in 1845 but returned to Edinburgh only in 1850, where he died just two years later.

Although Low's main responsibility as an officer of the East India Company was to settle disputes with local chiefs in the interests of the British – a task he did not always succeed in fulfilling – he was also a pioneer in the study of Thai language, literature and art by Westerners. The lack of textbooks inspired him to produce a Grammar of the Thai or Siamese language (1828), and he published a collection of works On the government, the literature, and the mythology of the Siamese (1831-36) as well as articles on Thai Buddhist art, Buddhist law, local histories and ethnic minorities of the Malay peninsula. He also studied inscriptions and translated parts of Thai Buddhist scriptures, and the Malay historical text from Kedah, Merong Mahawangsa. Low’s ability to observe and then describe in detail a variety of aspects of Thai art and culture helped to make his mission journal an interesting source for the study of everyday life and cultural practices in 19th century Siam.

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Copy of a Thai zodiac in Thai manuscript painting style of the 19th century. Artist unknown. British Library, Add. 27370, f.14 Noc

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Another version of the Thai zodiac shown above this one, with added background landscapes in Chinese watercolour technique. Probably by the artist “Boon Khon”. British Library, Add. 27370, f.15 Noc
 
Low clearly had a strong interest in Thai art, and amassed an impressive collection of fine paintings and drawings from southern Thailand. These included rare copies from a Thai Buddhist cosmology associated with a Thai text, Traiphum, which is thought to date back to the 14th century. Other subjects of these artworks are the Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha, illustrations from Thai divination manuals and zodiacs, as well as depictions of Low’s reception in Ligor, genre scenes, and of religious artefacts. Several of the drawings contain a note in English in Low’s handwriting that they are copies by a Siamese artist from original manuscripts, and to one pencil sketch of three Chinese gods Low had added in ink the note “Boon Khon delint” (copied by Boon Khon). On another pencil drawing of a vase, the artist is named as Sayid Nuh, his title indicating a person of Arabic origin, a descendant of the Prophet.

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Impression of a Rajamukha wheel, which is used in Thai and Malay divination. Attributed to “Boon Khon”. British Library, Or.14179 Noc

Unfortunately, not all of the artworks bear the name of an artist, but it is believed that most of these are copies from Thai manuscripts by the artist “Boon Khon”, who Low said was “a Siamese”. However, the fact that chairs, musical instruments and round objects are shown in Western perspective – something unusual in Thai art of the first half of the 19th century – and that certain features of plants, landscapes, architectural ornaments and faces of the figures appear rather Chinese in style than Thai, suggest that the artist mentioned as “Boon Khon” was probably a Chinese painter who may have acquired some drawing skills from Low himself. A comparison of pencil drawings by Low, now held at the Royal Asiatic Society in London, and works attributed to “Boon Khon” show some striking similarities, especially when it comes to details like plant features. Some of the coloured drawings showing the same motif were made in different styles and techniques, suggesting that artists copied from each other. There may actually have been a third artist - one who was skilled in Thai painting techniques - who worked for Low or who trained “Boon Khon” to copy paintings from Thai manuscripts.

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Part of a painting of Buddha’s Last Ten Birth Tales, probably by the artist “Boon Khon”, depicts scenes from the Candakumara Jataka and Bhuridatta Jataka. The faces and breasts of the Naga princesses at the bottom, but also the gable and roof of the building at the top, are untypical for Thai manuscript painting. Some trees and tufts of grass have similarities with plants in pencil drawings made by Low. The lotus plants at the bottom are similar to lotuses drawn by “Boon Khon” as part of a Buddha footprint, reprinted in Low’s article “On Buddha and the Prabat” (1835). British Library, Add. 27370, f.12 Noc

Part of Low’s collection of Thai drawings and paintings was acquired by the British Museum in 1866 from Alan White Esquire, and is now held in the British Library. Most of the artworks have been digitised and are available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts viewer (Add MS 27370). Another part of Low’s art collection, including several of his own drawings, is held in the Royal Asiatic Society in London. Although not much research has been done on Low’s art collection, it is a popular source of inspiration for Thai designers.

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Some designs for children’s shirts marketed in the early 2000s by Ayodhya, a Bangkok-based home decorative brand, used paintings from Low’s collection for inspiration. British Library, ORB.Misc/171

Further reading

Charley, Nancy. James Low in Thailand and Burma.
Farouk Yahya. Magic and divination in Malay illustrated manuscripts. Leiden, 2015 (see pp. 128/9 on the Rajamukha wheel)
Farrington, Anthony (ed.). Low’s mission to Southern Siam 1824. Bangkok, 2007
Ginsburg, Henry. Low in Thailand. The James Low album of paintings. FMR (Franco Maria Ricci) No. 13, 1985, pp. 125-140
Ginsburg, Henry. Thai manuscript painting. London, 1989 (see pp. 15 and 25 on Low’s collection)
Low, James. Extracts from the Journal of a Political Mission to the Raja of Ligor in Siam. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal No. 79, July 1838.
Low, James. On Buddha and the Prabat. Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society No. 3, London 1835, pp. 57-124

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

My thanks to Nancy Charley for providing photographs of artworks in the Low collection at the Royal Asiatic Society, and to Annabel Gallop and Farouk Yahya for their advice on Malay manuscript painting.