THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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36 posts categorized "Thai"

23 October 2017

Mastering the art of a strong background: examples from Thai manuscripts

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The importance of a strong yet subtle background cannot be underestimated in manuscript painting. Illustrations in manuscripts often accompany a particular text, or are used to highlight an important section of text. At the same time they function as decorative elements and sometimes their purpose is to increase the value of a manuscript. Manuscript painters had to master the fine balance between the subject or central motif, determined by the text, and decorative ornaments and backgrounds in a painting. The background is an important part of the composition and has a significant impact on the finished artwork: if it is too strong or blatant it dominates the rest of the painting, but a weak or neglected background leaves a large area of the painting unappealing.

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Scenes from the legend of Phra Malai while meeting the god Indra in one of the Buddhist heavens (left) and the future Buddha, Metteyya, shown with attendants (right). Central Thai folding book dated 1875. British Library, Or 6630 f.43 Noc

In Thai manuscript art special attention was usually paid to the design of backgrounds in paintings depicting heavenly scenes and celestial figures, whereas the backgrounds of worldly scenes were often shown in a realistic way with plants, rocks, ponds, mountains, buildings, etc. The marvellous scenes shown above are from the legend of the Buddhist monk Phra Malai, here shown during his visit to Tavatimsa heaven. The lavishly gilded red background in a flame-like pattern known in Thai as lai kranok complements the main figures and the structure of the heavenly stupa Chulamani Chedi perfectly. Red was a preferred background colour even before the 19th century, but at that time decorative elements of different sizes and shapes were strewn in randomly to fill in empty space, as shown below in the example from the 18th century.

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A scene from the Nimi Jataka showing Prince Nimi’s journey to the Tavatimsa heaven, passing through the Buddhist hells. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068 f. 4 Noc

The 19th century was a period of experiment and innovation in Thai manuscript painting. Not only were new and brighter tones for background designs introduced, but also strong and well-structured patterns like the lai kranok. Minerals to produce blue tones were expensive and rarely used in manuscript illustrations before 1800, but during the 19th century blue paints were imported from Europe and sometimes were used very lavishly to questionable artistic effect.

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The gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right) with attendants in their heavenly environment. From a central Thai folding book containing the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1875. British Library, Or 6630 f. 1  Noc

In the image above the strong blue background used for the central part of Buddhist text passages in Pali language, written in gold ink, is almost overwhelming. It is unlikely that the excessive use of blue was the painter’s decision, but rather the request of the person(s) who commissioned the manuscript. Bright blue tones became very fashionable during the 19th century and together with the gold ink they made the manuscript appear more valuable. In the illustrations of the gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right) together with other celestial beings, however, the painter decided to use blue tones very sparingly in the lai kranok pattern which has a bright red as its basic tone, very much in the pre-1800 tradition.

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The gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right) in their heavenly environment. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, 19th century. British Library, Or 15257 f. 2 Noc

The usual way to record text in illustrated Thai folding books was to write it in black ink on the naturally cream-coloured paper as shown above. Sometimes, the paper was blackened and the text recorded in yellow ink or white steatite pencil. The image above shows illustrations of the gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right), both before a background dominated by red. The lai kranok pattern makes use of white, blue, green and pink tones. The figures are kneeling on a blue ground that is decorated with gold floral patterns.

Besides the lai kranok pattern, floral background designs enjoyed great popularity throughout the 19th century. The use of floral patterns for backgrounds was a further development of the already well-established application of flowers and foliage as decorative elements in manuscript illustrations of worldly scenes before the 19th century, though not in strictly structured, pattern-like designs.

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Illustrations of four Buddhist monks at a funeral. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, 19th century. British Library, Or 15257, f. 4 Noc

Flowers are not only aesthetically-enhancing elements in Thai manuscript painting. They can also symbolise a peaceful and enjoyable environment as well as positive thoughts and beautiful minds. This can be assumed in the case of the illustrations above, showing four Buddhist monks seated in meditation or while chanting Pali texts at a funeral. Although the floral pattern of white-and-pink blossoms with foliage in green tones on a dark brown foundation is very strong and distinctive, it does not overpower the four figures in the foreground. The monks’ appearance is presented in very bright colours, dominated by an almost white cream tone and an intense orange so that they stand out before the darker background.

The following three manuscript illustrations feature similar floral background patterns which aim to enhance the appearance of the god Brahma, a red Hanuman figure and a hermit.

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The god Brahma seated in a respectful pose on a floor decorated with red foliage before a black background with a light blue and green floral pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1903. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15370, f. 4 Noc

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The red coloured Hanuman seated in a respectful pose on a floor decorated with white foliage before a black background with a white, pink and green floral pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1903. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15370, f. 8 Noc

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A hermit seated in a respectful pose on a floor decorated with blue foliage before a black background with a white, pink and green floral pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1903. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15370, f. 10 Noc

Simpler floral background patterns that were frequently used consisted of triple blossoms, single or multi-coloured, combined with a green leaf as shown in the image below. An even more simplified floral pattern consisted of a combination of dots arranged in such a way that they resembled multiple blossoms on trees. Such simpler floral patterns were also used to decorate curtains or carpets which sometimes appear in manuscript paintings.

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A half-human half-bird kinnara seated in a respectful pose on a floor decorated with green foliage before a black background with a simple multi-coloured floral pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1903. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15370, f. 9 Noc

Another frequent background pattern in Thai manuscript painting is the cloud pattern. Consisting of distinctively shaped white or light blue clouds on a bright blue foundation, this pattern usually accompanies celestial beings to show their heavenly environment. The cloud pattern often resembles clouds that were used in East Asian manuscript decoration (compare, for example, the Vietnamese Truyện Kiều) and may have been adopted from East Asian traditions.

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Celestial banner bearers (left) and the future Buddha Metteyya with attendants (right) before a light blue background with a cloud pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 57 Noc

The manuscript paintings shown above are fine examples where larger and smaller clouds were combined to form a light-blue and white background pattern that contrasts and enhances the presentation in yellow, orange and red tones of celestial beings (devata) and Metteyya, the Buddha-to-be, in their heavenly environment.

A clear example of neglect in the background design can be seen in the illustrations below. Although the artist put considerable effort into the execution of the celestial beings, paying much attention to details of their clothes and jewellery which are presented in gold, yellow and orange tones, the background design is really bland with broad white brushstrokes thrown wildly on a blue foundation.

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Male and female heavenly beings, devata, before a poorly executed background with clouds. From a central Thai folding book containing the legend of Phra Malai, 19th century. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15371, f. 25   Noc

It is difficult to explain such carelessness in the presentation of the background. The painter may have been under time pressure to finish illustrating the manuscript; or maybe he wanted to experiment with foreign water-colour painting techniques which he had not mastered yet. It may also be the work of two painters, one of whom was not very skilled or an apprentice. Another possibility is that the manuscript was produced at one of the many commercial workshops that had sprung up in Bangkok during the second half of the 19th century where numerous low-quality manuscripts and affordable copies of older, more valuable manuscripts were produced by less skilled artists.

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

21 September 2017

The oldest example of Thai script printed in Europe

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Formal relations between Great Britain and Thailand were established in 1612 when a letter from James I to the Thai King Songtham travelled on the ship The Globe via Patani in the Gulf of Siam, and finally arrived in the capital Ayutthaya in August or September 1612. Following this, permission was given to British merchants to trade in Siam, and subsequently to explore trading opportunities in the northern Thai kingdom of Lanna, which had been visited in 1587 by the adventurer Ralph Fitch, the first Englishman known to have set foot in Thailand.

In January 1684, during the reign of the pro-foreign King Narai, an embassy from Ayutthaya set sail for France via Great Britain. The ambassadors Khun Phichai Walit and Khun Phichit Maitri were accompanied by the missionary Bénigne Vachet, who spoke Thai. They met Charles II on 26 September 1684. The 17th-century writer, thinker and bibliophile John Evelyn noted in his diary: "26th of September [1684]. There was now an ambassador from the King of Siam, in the East Indies, to His Majesty" (Evelyn 1955: 4.388). On this occasion a manuscript Thai syllabary with numerals, with Romanised equivalents, all written in a sloping hand, was presented to Charles II.

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Detail of the first page of a handwritten syllabary listing the Thai consonants (first three lines) and some vowels (bottom line) with Romanised equivalents, circa 1684. British Library, Reg.16.B.IV, f.1 Noc

The scribe of the document is not mentioned – perhaps it was compiled by one or both Thai ambassadors working together with Bénigne Vachet. It can be assumed that its purpose was to further written communications between Great Britain and Siam. However, British trading activities in the Thai kingdom came to an abrupt end with the Siamese revolution and the overthrow of King Narai in 1688.

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Detail of the third page of the Thai syllabary listing certain syllables and numerals at the bottom, circa 1684. British Library, Reg.16.B.IV, f.3 Noc

The Thai syllabary passed into the possession of Thomas Hyde (1636-1703), the king's translator. Hyde was a Cambridge-educated Orientalist, who became Hebrew Reader at Oxford in 1658, and was appointed librarian-in-chief of the Bodleian Library in 1665. He had a strong interest in Asian languages and was well known for his knowledge of Arabic, Hebrew, Malay, Persian, Syriac and Turkish. After Hyde's death in 1703 the syllabary was one of many Oriental manuscripts purchased from his estate for the Royal Collection, and is listed in a catalogue as 'The Syam Alphabet, with their numbers' (Casley 1734: 248). The syllabary then remained in the Royal Collection until 1757, when George II gave the library to the British Museum which had been established four years earlier following the bequest of Sir Hans Sloane’s collection to George II for the nation. The approximately 2000 manuscripts and 9000 printed books of the Royal Collection are now held at the British Library.

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Front cover of a volume containing various engraved prints from copper plates of the Thai, Sinhalese and Tatar alphabets, and Chinese numbers, weights and measures, bound with a British Museum red leather binding. British Library, Or.70.bb.9 Noc

Hyde appears to have commissioned a copper-plate engraving of this handwritten Thai syllabary from Michael Burghers (1647/8 – 1727), a Dutch engraver who resided at Oxford for most of his life, and who was the printer used by Thomas Hyde for most of his experiments with typography. Burghers worked mainly for the university and booksellers, but was also employed by the English aristocracy. Although Burghers produced numerous portraits of scholars and aristocrats, including one of Charles II, he became known best for his engravings of antiquities, artefacts and ruins. In a letter of 19 April 1700 to Thomas Bowrey, compiler of the first Malay-English dictionary, Hyde states that he is sending him copper-plates of two Siamese and one Sinhalese alphabets, for which the engraver had charged £5 (British Library, MSS Eur E 192). 

Hyde's own copy of the two-page print of the Thai syllabary was also acquired for the Royal Collection, and entered the British Museum in 1757. Here it was bound in red leather together with prints of the Sinhalese and Tatar alphabets, Chinese numbers, weights, measures, directions etc., all engraved by Burghers. Each of the prints is marked with “MBurg. sculp.” in the right bottom corner. The prints were first published in a collection of Hyde’s works, edited by Gregory Sharpe, with the title Syntagma dissertationum quas olim auctor doctissimus S.T.P. separatim edidit (Oxford, 1767).

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Engraving of the Thai alphabet and syllables, based on the handwritten syllabary presented to Charles II in 1684. British Library, Or.70.bb.9, f.8 Noc

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Detail of Michael Burghers‘ copper print of the Thai syllabary with Romanised equivalents, and with numbers at the bottom, 1700. In the right bottom corner, Burghers signed his work: „Mburg. sculp.“ British Library, Or.70.bb.9, f.9 Noc

Burghers' work, which can now be dated to 1700, is the oldest known example of Thai script printed in the West. Older Chinese woodblock prints of Thai script were produced at the end of the 16th century as a part of multi-language vocabularies, known as Hua Yi Yi Yu, after a section for the Thai language was established at the translators’ institute of the Ming government in 1579.

Further reading

Anderson, John, English intercourse with Siam in the seventeenth century. London: Routledge, 2000 (reprint of the 1890 first edition).

Baker, Chris and Pasuk Phongpaichit, A history of Ayutthaya: Siam in the early modern world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Casley, D. A catalogue of the manuscripts of the King's Library. London, 1734.

Evelyn, John, Diary. Edited by Esmond Samuel de Beer, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955.

Farrington, Anthony and Dhiravat na Pombejra, The English Factory in Siam 1612-1685. London: British Library, 2007.

Tyacke, Nicholas, The history of the University of Oxford. [Vol. 4, Seventeenth-century Oxford]. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Jana Igunma
Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian

With information on Thomas Hyde and Thomas Bowrey from Ursula Sims-Williams and Annabel Teh Gallop

Ccownwork

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), which is shown open at a scene (identified by Lydia Kieven) where Sekartaji and her servant (emban) approach the forest filled with animals including 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. 42r.

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

What's my Thai horoscope? 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.

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Scott Morel
Curator, Philatelic Collections Ccownwork

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

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