THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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34 posts categorized "Thai"

24 July 2017

Animals in Southeast Asian manuscripts

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The Southeast Asia exhibition case outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room at St Pancras is currently showing a selection of images of animals in manuscripts from Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. The delightful depictions of animals can be appreciated as exquisite works of art, but certain animals were also important as religious, political and cultural symbols in Southeast Asian societies, none more so than elephants.

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Animals in Southeast Asian manuscripts, on display in 2017.

In pride of place on the top shelf is a 19th-century Burmese folding book or parabaik (MSS Burmese 204) containing 22 coloured illustrations of elephants, showing the elephant king Chaddanta, who was the Bodhisatta or previous incarnation of Gautama Buddha, and his queen Mahathubadda. In Burma white elephants are regarded as sacred and a source of blessings, as they play a major role in Buddhist tales. In the story of the ‘Life of the Buddha’, Queen Maya dreamed that a celestial white elephant holding a white lotus flower in its trunk entered her side, to be reborn as Gautama Buddha, while in the last Birth Story of the Buddha, Vessantara Jataka, the white elephant appears as a rain maker. Every Burmese king longed to possess a white elephant, a symbol of power and sovereignty.

Next to the Burmese book is a Javanese manuscript of Serat Panji Jaya Kusuma dated 1805 (MSS Jav 68), with drawings of an elephant, tiger, banteng, wild boar and two deer. This tale is one of many versions of the adventures of Prince Panji in his search for his beloved Princess Candrakirana. Stories of Prince Panji date back to the 13th century, and mark the beginnings of a truly Javanese literature no longer overshadowed by the great Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Panji tales are found not only in Java but were also translated into Malay, Balinese, Thai, Lao, Khmer and Burmese.

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Drawings of forest animals in a Javanese manuscript of Serat Panji Jaya Kusuma, 1805. British Library, MSS Jav 68, f. xr.

On the lower shelf is a Vietnamese royal edict issued by Emperor Khải Định on 25 July 1924, adorned on the back with a gilded turtle (Or 14632). The turtle (rùa) has a special place in Vietnamese culture and history. It symbolises longevity, strength and intelligence and is also closely related to the independence of Vietnam. Legend has it that Lê Lời, who led the Vietnamese fight against Chinese invaders in the 15th century, borrowed a sword from the dragon king. After the defeat of the Chinese, the sacred sword was returned to the king by a turtle which lived in a jade water lake. At the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu) in Hà Nội, 82 stone turtles carry on their backs steles inscribed with the names of scholars, signifying the importance of education in society.

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Turtle, on the back of a Vietnamese royal edict issued by Emperor Khải Định on 25 July 1924. British Library, Or. 14632.

The final item in the case is a 19th-century Thai Phrommachat or horoscope manual in folding book format (Or. 13650). The twelve-year Chinese zodiac cycle was widely used in Thailand, and the manual contains coloured drawings depicting the zodiac in two series, together with detailed explanations for fortune telling and divination. 2017 is the year of the Rooster, and on display are drawings related to this year, with each rooster shown representing one particular quarter of the year. There is also a number diagram for people born in the year of the rooster, and the male avatar and plant for this year. These are accompanied by drawings used for predicting the future and to explain dreams and omens.

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Thai horoscope manual, open at the page for the year of the Rooster (the present year, 2017). British Library, Or. 13650, f.5v

Or. 13650 has been fully digitised, and shown below are some other pages from this beautiful manuscript, which can be accessed through the hyperlinks beneath the images.

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Thai horoscope manual. British Library, Or. 13650, f. 11v

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Thai horoscope manual. British Library, Or. 13650, f. 13r

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

Other blog posts about animals in Southeast Asian manuscripts:

Elephants, kingship and warfare in Southeast Asia, by Sud Chonchirdsin

Elephants in all shapes and sizes

The year of the Rooster, from a Thai perspective, by Jana Igunma

O graceful fawn, o gentle doe: deer in Thai manuscript art, by Jana Igunma

02 June 2017

Exploring Thai art: Reginald Le May

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Reginald Le May was one of many European professionals who served in the Siamese Government during the first decades of the 20th century. He lived and worked for a quarter of a century in Siam (now Thailand), where he had the opportunity to travel intensively in the northern and north-eastern parts of the country. During this time, he accumulated collections of coins, stamps and Buddhist art. After his departure from Siam in 1933, he continued to study and research Thai Buddhist art, and with his publications and exhibitions Le May helped to publicise Thai Buddhist art in Europe.

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Documentation about a small crystal Buddha statue that Le May collected in the North of Siam. British Library, MSS Eur C275/6

Born in 1885 at Wadhurst, Sussex, as the second son of the successful hop merchant Herbert Le May and Harriet Jane Le May (Newman), Reginald Le May received his education at Framlingham College, Suffolk, from 1898 to 1902. The following three years he spent in France and Switzerland studying French and German, and in 1907 he passed the Public Examination for the Far Eastern Consular Service under the Foreign Office. He served in the British Consular Service in Siam from 1908 to 1922, in 1909 winning a British government prize for his proficiency in Thai language. He served as Vice-Consul at Chiang Mai from 1915 to 1917, and afterwards as Vice-Consul at Bangkok until he was transferred to Saigon in 1920. In 1916 he married Dorothy Madeline Castle, with whom he had one daughter.

During his time in Chiang Mai, Le May travelled extensively, often by elephant, to rural areas and studied the culture of the native people. In his book An Asian Arcady: the land and peoples of Northern Siam (Cambridge, 1926) he reminisces: “When I was living in the north of Siam, it was my good fortune to travel extensively through most of the province of Bayap, and to see the lives of the Lao people at fairly close range. I was … quickly attracted by their many delightful qualities, and I used the opportunity to gather as much information as I could regarding their history, customs, and folk-lore” (preface, p. v). This book gave one of the most detailed descriptions of Northern Thai and Lao history and culture at that time, with numerous valuable photographs taken by the author during his trips.

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Le May’s diplomatic travel document issued in Bangkok in 1915. British Library, MSS Eur C275/4

In 1922 Le May was offered the post of Economic Adviser to the Siamese Government, which he accepted happily. In this role, he was from 1926 to 1932 adviser to Prince Purachatra, Head of the State of Railways and Minister of Commerce. On behalf of the Siamese Government he toured Burma, northern India and British Malaya to study rural conditions, and an economic survey took him to north-eastern Siam. He retired from this post in 1933 and returned to the UK via Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, China and the US.

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Photograph of Reginald Le May made around 1925 at the Talat Noi Photo Studio in Bangkok. British Library, MSS Eur C275/6    

Although Le May’s professional duties had little to do with Thai art and culture, he had a strong interest particularly in the history of Thai and Southeast Asian Buddhist art, but also in Thai coins and the ancient coinage of the Tai-speaking peoples, as well as the evolution of Thai stamps. For many years, he maintained a close relationship with the Siam Society, which published in 1932 his book on The coinage of Siam (reprinted in 1961). The book was the outcome of ten years of research and for many years it was the standard work on this topic. Other publications that appeared during his time in Siam were The standard catalogue of Thai stamps (Siam Philatelic Society, 1920) and Siamese tales – old and new (London, 1930).

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Notes on a small bronze elephant figurine, dated 1603 A.D., collected by Le May in Northern Siam. MSS Eur C275/6

Le May was respected for his deep knowledge of Thai art and culture. He had lively written conversations with Prince Damrong, Prince Paribatra, Prince Chula Chakrabongse and other Thai intellectuals. In 1929-30 a fine scholarly dispute between Le May and one P.K. was published in the Bangkok Times on the theme of tradition and traditions. On 26 March, 1929, Le May wrote on the value of tradition: “Without tradition, there is no continuity of effort or purpose … It is this which enables the past to live in the present, and which gives us a strong sense of tradition and of our responsibility towards our association and country.” This was in response to criticism from the more progressively oriented P.K., published on 4 February of the same year, of Le May’s book: “Mr le May, in his book ‘An Asian Arcady’ deplores our lack of tradition. We differ from him. We see very little good in tradition. We are not in a position to be able to afford it. We think our adaptability is an asset and only wish we had more of it.”   

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Prince Damrong admiring sculptures at the National Museum in Bangkok in 1928, photograph in Le May’s memories. British Library, MSS Eur C275/7

After his return to the UK, Le May pursued a doctorate at Cambridge University in 1934, and was awarded a PhD for his thesis on “Buddhist art in Siam”, which was published in 1938 and soon became a standard work on Thai and Southeast Asian Buddhist art. He began lecturing on Buddhist art at London University and at the Royal Asiatic and the Royal Central Asian Societies in London, at the EFEO and Musée Guimet in Paris, and the 1938 International Congress of Orientalists in Brussels.

In 1937, Le May’s collection of Thai art was displayed at an exhibition in Cambridge with the title Buddhistic sculpture from Siam. According to the exhibition leaflet, the scope of the display covered the Mon period (400-1000 A.D.), the Khmer period (1000-1250 A.D., the Sukhothai and U-Tong periods (1200-1300 A.D.), and the Ayutthaya period (1350-1600 A.D.) Being the first major exhibition of Thai Buddhist art, it drew so much interest that it was repeated in Oxford in 1938 and finally in London in the same year, under the auspices of the Royal India Society, where it was viewed by Queen Mary.

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Announcement of Le May’s exhibition of Thai Buddhist art at Cambridge University in 1937. British Library, MSS Eur C275/3

Afterwards, some exhibits were acquired by the British Museum and the Toronto University Museum. Le May’s collection of Siamese stamps was presented to the National Museum and Library in Bangkok, and parts of his collection of ceramic wares were lent for many years to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and then donated to the British Museum. Some items from his collection of coins were also given to the British Museum.

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Examples of 18th-century Thai coins with marks representing lotus blossoms, elephants, conch shells.  Reginald Le May, The coinage of Siam (Bangkok, 1932), plate IX. British Library, 07757.cc.21

Numerous scholarly articles by Le May appeared in the Burlington Magazine, the Journal of the Siam Society, the Indian Art Letters, and the Journal of the Royal India, Pakistan and Ceylon Society, mostly on Thai and Southeast Asian Buddhist art and ceramics. In 1954 Le May’s most comprehensive work, The culture of Southeast Asia, was published by Allen & Unwin, London. This book, which was the outcome of more than 25 years of research, is a study of the formative period between 500 A.D. and 1500 A.D. of Southeast Asian art and culture, covering both mainland and insular Southeast Asia.

From around 1950 on, Le May published a family history (1958), and compiled his memories of his years in Southeast Asia which resulted in eleven albums containing original photographs, letters, newspaper cuttings, invitation cards, etc., which are held at the British Library (MSS Eur C275/1-11). Reginald Le May passed away in 1972, aged 87. In their obituary, the Siam Society remembered that “Reginald Le May's affection for this country and the Thai people was hard to match. Indeed, to the last days of his life, he called Siam ‘the country of my adoption’."

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Christmas and New Year wishes Le May received from Chiang Mai in 1950. This is a very rare example of 20th-century printing on palm leaves, with hand-coloured illustrations. British Library, MSS Eur C275/8

Further reading

Le May, Reginald, Records of the Le May family in England, 1630-1950. London, Tonbridge: Whitefriars Press, 1958
Obituary: Reginald Le May. Journal of the Siam Society vol. 60.2/1972, pp. 395-6

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

17 May 2017

Elephants, kingship and warfare in Southeast Asia

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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.    

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

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.

Phra Malai orb99 216
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.

Siam260
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.

Orb30 5539
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.

Siam284
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.

A OR16552 folio 26
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.     

B OR16552 folio 52
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.

D OR14068 folio 9
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.

E OR15925 folio 12
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.    
     
F OR14068 folio 7
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