Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues


Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013. Read more

29 November 2021

Khmer manuscripts at the British Library (Part 1)

The history of Khmer manuscripts is closely connected with the influence of Indian civilisation in Southeast Asia and particularly with the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism in the region. The earliest book format in the Khmer Empire – similar to that in South Asia – was the palm leaf bundle, sleuk rith. Although the oldest surviving examples of Khmer palm leaf manuscripts date back only to the late 17th century , there is evidence that they were in use in mainland Southeast Asia much earlier. The Khin Ba gold manuscript found at Sri Ksetra (kept at the National Museum, Yangon), crafted in the shape of palm leaves with holes, indicates that such manuscripts have been present in the region at least since the 5th century CE. The donation of Mahabharata, Ramayana and Purana manuscripts to a Hindu temple is documented in a pre-Angkorian stone inscription (Veal Kantel K.359) dating back to the early 7th century, and a 9th-century inscription (Prei Prasat K.279) by King Yasovarman prescribes the provision of blank palm leaves, lampblack and earth powder - for sanding down the leaves - to students. A statue in Khmer style of the 11th-12th century (kept at the National Museum, Bangkok) shows Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara holding in his four hands a conch, mala beads, a lotus bud and a palm leaf book, whereas a 12th-century bas-relief at Angkor Wat depicts an apsara holding such a manuscript.

First three leaves with text in a long format palm leaf bundle (sastra sleuk rith) containing part of the Buddhist cosmology Traibhum in Khmer mul script, 18th or 19th century
First three leaves with text in a long format palm leaf bundle (sastra sleuk rith) containing part of the Buddhist cosmology Traibhum in Khmer mul script, 18th or 19th century. Acquired by the British Museum from Edwards Goutier, Paris, on 6 December 1895. British Library, Or 5003, ff. 9-11 Noc

In the Cambodian manuscript tradition, two types of palm leaf manuscripts (sleuk rith) are known: the short format (vean), which tend to be manuals of mostly a secular nature written in Khmer language, whereas the long format (sastra) palm leaf manuscripts mostly contain Buddhist scriptures in Pali or bilingual Pali-Khmer languages, as well as sermons, legal writings and classical literary texts and poetry in Khmer language. The text on palm leaves is usually incised and then blackened.

In addition to the palm leaf manuscripts there are folding books (kraing), which were traditionally crafted with paper (snay) made from the bark of the Streblus Asper, a tree in the Mulberry family. The paper can be in a natural cream colour with text written in black ink, or it can be blackened and text written either with white chalk, a yellow gamboge ink or gold ink. Two main styles of Khmer script are found in manuscripts: aksar chrieng (slanted script) and aksar mul (round script).

Kraing manuscript made of blackened paper containing Proleung meas oey
Kraing manuscript made of blackened paper containing Proleung meas oey (transl. 'Oh my darling', literally 'Oh my golden soul') attributed to the Cambodian king Preah Reachsamphear (alias Sri Dhammoraja II), in chrieng script written in yellow gamboge ink. Cambodia, c. 1820-80. British Library, Or 5865, f.53 Noc

Despite decades of combined efforts by Cambodian and French scholars to preserve Cambodia’s manuscripts, the majority have disappeared: an estimated 80% were lost to war and destruction by the Khmer Rouge, looting, neglect due to post-war poverty and, more recently, mutilation to make souvenirs sold at tourist markets.

However, large numbers of manuscripts containing Pali or bi-lingual Buddhist texts in Khmer script have been preserved in Thailand. The country has strong ties with Khmer cultural heritage due to the fact that much of today’s Thailand geographically was once part of the former Khmer Empire. Hinduism and largely also Buddhism were introduced to the early Thai kingdoms Sukhothai and Ayutthaya via the Khmer Empire, and Thai rulers drew inspiration from the Khmer in the process of establishing their own distinctive script, literature, art, architecture, law and administration. For centuries, until the introduction of printing in the 19th century, it was common practice to copy manuscripts as a way of preserving Buddhist and Hindu sacred texts, and often such copies – including entire editions of the Pali Tipitaka – were sponsored by members of the royal family. Towards the end of the 18th century the Khmer script was adapted to accommodate Thai vowels and tonality in order to write texts in Thai language in Khmer script (called akson Khom in Thai). The copying of Khmer manuscripts reached a climax when George Cœdès was assigned to the Royal Vajirañāna Library in Bangkok (1916-18) and ordered copies of rare Khmer manuscripts and texts that were not known outside Cambodia.

Folding book containing the Pali text Mahabuddhaguna and Abhidhamma extracts in Khmer script, with a colophon and commentary in Thai language
Folding book containing the Pali text Mahabuddhaguna and Abhidhamma extracts in Khmer script, with a colophon and commentary in Thai language. Illustrations from the Bhuridatta Jataka in Phetchaburi painting style, Central Thailand, late 18th or early 19th century. British Library, Or 14526, f.5  Noc

The majority of manuscripts with text in Khmer script at the British Library originate from Central Thailand and contain bi-lingual Buddhist texts, yantra designs, medical treatises and glossaries. However, a small number of over a dozen manuscripts are almost certainly from Cambodia with text either in Pali or Khmer language. These include palm leaves as well as paper folding books.

A collection of Khmer literary texts in eleven volumes is a fine example of multi-volume kraing (folding books), made from cream-coloured mulberry bark paper (Or 16131/1-11). The text was written with black ink, and each volume has a red stamp either on the front or back cover (image below). Although none of the volumes contain a date, they are thought to be copies made between 1890 and 1925 from older manuscripts. In volume 3 the name of a temple, Vat Pudumm Vadhatiy, is mentioned. The volumes contain chapters from verse novels like “Hans yant” (vol. 1), “Tav rioen" (vols. 2-5, 8-10) perhaps composed by Ukna Cakri Kèv and Bana Ratn Kosa Kèv in 1837, “Cau Om”, a didactic text in verse consisting of admonitions from a father to his son on the art of political life and “Dambèk puon nak”, a tale in verse on the stupidity of four bald men (both vol. 6), "Laksanavans" (vol. 7), “Varanetta” (vol. 11). Some volumes also contain notes in Thai language, in a different hand, which may have been added later.

Front cover and folio 2 of a kraing manuscript containing "Tav rioen", copy of fascicle 1 in Khmer language in chrieng script, ca. 1890-1925
Front cover and folio 2 of a kraing manuscript containing "Tav rioen", copy of fascicle 1 in Khmer language in chrieng script, ca. 1890-1925. Acquired from Arthur Probsthain, London, in 2005. British Library, Or 16131/2 Noc

A charming, small kraing manuscript made from blackened mulberry bark paper (below) was acquired when former curator Henry Ginsburg’s collection of books and manuscripts was given to the Library following his sudden death in 2007. The text in Khmer language is written in gold ink, in Khmer chrieng script, but because the manuscript is incomplete it was not possible to identify the text for a long time.

Dr Trent Walker, from Stanford University, was able to establish that the text is a letter addressed to royalty, consisting of a set of prophesies for the future and admonitions to be followed. It references other prophetic (damnay) texts, including Ind damnay. The estimated period of its creation is between 1850 to 1925.

Kraing manuscript containing a royal letter written in gold ink in Khmer chrieng script.
Kraing manuscript containing a royal letter written in gold ink in Khmer chrieng script. Cambodia, c. 1850-1925. From Henry Ginsburg’s collection. British Library, Or 16827, f. 2  Noc

Traditional Khmer manuscripts like the examples presented in this blog post have been used as vehicles of knowledge for centuries and give us insights into the religious, literary and cultural traditions of the Khmer civilisation. The upcoming second part will look at some manuscripts containing Khmer texts that were created outside Cambodia.

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

Further reading
Current status of manuscript collections in Cambodia’s monasteries. Fonds pour l'Édition des Manuscrits du Cambodge, École française d'Extrême-Orient (retrieved 16/10/2021)
David, Sen and Thik Kaliyann. Palm leaves preserving history. Phnom Penh Post, 19 September 2015
Documentary film: Sleok Rith, My Life, directed by Leng Sreynich (2017)
Goodall, Dominic. What Information can be Gleaned from Cambodian Inscriptions about Practices Relating to the Transmission of Sanskrit Literature? Indic Manuscript Cultures through the Ages: Material, Textual, and Historical Investigations. Ed. by Vincenzo Vergiani, Daniele Cuneo and Camillo Alessio Formigatti. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2017, pp. 131-160
Sassoon, Alessandro Marazzi and Kong Meta. A ‘crime’ against local history: Cambodia’s lost manuscripts. Phnom Penh Post, 7 April 2017
Sureshkumar Muthukumaran. Speaking of palm-leaf and paper (2018)
Toshiya Unebe. Textual contents of Pāli Samut Khois. Manuscript Studies 2 (University of Pennsylvania, 2017), pp. 427-444 
Walker, Trent T. Unfolding Buddhism: Communal Scripts, Localized Translations, and the Work of the Dying in Cambodian Chanted Leporellos. Ann Arbor, 2018

22 November 2021

A Tale of Two Enigmas: A Magtymguly Pyragy Manuscript in the British Library Collections

Cream coloured paper with red lines outlining black text in Arabic script arranged in two columns
The opening of the Divan-i Makhtumquli, a late 18th-early 19th-century Turkmen manuscript. (Divan-i Makhtumquli, Central Asia?, late 18th century or early 19th century CE. Or 11414 f 3v)
CC Public Domain Image

Of all the languages of state included within my curatorial bailiwick, Turkmen is undoubtedly the most neglected. It doesn’t help that the name is often applied to two divergent linguistic communities. For those interested in historical uses of the word, it often refers to Turkic or Turkophone communities between the Balkans and Central Asia practicing nomadic or semi-nomadic socio-economic organization. In this usage, it can sometimes be replaced by Turcoman or Turkoman, although the rule is far from hard and fast. Various dynasties that established polities in Anatolia, the Caucasus, and Iran are often described as Turkmen; think of the Aqqoyunlular, the Seljuks, and even the Qajars, to name a few. Today, the designation is still used by and for communities in some West Asian states. Many of these peoples still practice nomadic or semi-nomadic social and economic organization. In Turkey, a geographical determinant is often used to distinguish them from historic or Central Asian communities, especially with respect to those in Iraq. For those members of these groups resident in the Republic, other endonyms are now used for some communities previously referred to as Turkmen, such as the Yörük.

There is, of course, another use of the word Turkmen, applied to a Central Asian people linked by language, culture, and history to the Turkmen of West Asia and the Balkans. Independent since 1991, Turkmenistan is at the centre of a linguistic community numbering some 11 million from northern Iran to Uzbekistan and from Afghanistan to Russia. This Turkmen language, also a member of the Oghuz branch of the Turkic family, was standardized in the 1920s and 30s by Soviet specialists, and was made the official language of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924. Currently written in the Latin alphabet, the language boasts a well-documented, if understudied, literary corpus that extends back several centuries. This tradition is best exemplified by an 18th-century poet named Magtymguly Pyragy. He is the Turkmen equivalent of Alisher Navoiy or Shakespeare, both for the influence of his poetry on later Turkmen creatives, and for his position in state-driven literary historiography. While published and translated editions of Pyragy’s poetry are relatively common in Euro-Atlantic libraries (thanks, in part, to Turkmen state institutions’ drives to promote him), manuscripts are rare. We at the British Library, however, are exceedingly lucky to hold such a copy under the shelfmark Or 11414. And I was fortunate enough to have had it brought to my attention by Dr. Anton Ikhsanov, who completed his doctorate on Turkmen intellectual history at St. Petersburg State University.

Book cover with text in yellow on a black rectangle on a red background with traditional Turkmen designs in black and yellow, and a green spineBlack and white woodcut illustration reproduced in printing featuring a man in Turkmen traditional dress standing in the foreground and a seen of various other men at work in the background
(Left) The cover of a Soviet-era collection of Magtymguly Pyragy's poetry. (Magtymguly, Saĭlanan Goshghular (Ashgabat: Turkmenistan Neshriiaty, 1976. 14499.n.231)
CC Public Domain Image

(Right) A woodcut illustration of the poet. (Magtymguly, Saĭlanan Goshghular (Ashgabat: Turkmenistan Neshriiaty, 1976. 14499.n.231)
CC Public Domain Image

Magtymguly Pyragy was born around 1730 CE in Haji Qushan, Golestan province, contemporary Iran. He passed away in 1807 CE close to the current Iranian-Turkmenistani border, and was laid to rest in Aq Taqe-yi Qadim, Golestan Province, Iran. He received his education in Turkmen, Persian and Arabic at home and in the great centres of learning in the region, including Khiva and Bukhara, before traveling widely in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Iran, and West Asia. Pyragy’s peripatetic life and widespread impact exemplify the reach and diversity of Turkmen culture, and of the fluidity of boundaries among Oghuz-speaking peoples prior to the 20th century. It’s clear that this poet’s work was influential among speakers at the eastern fringe of the Oghuz linguistic space and beyond. But during the Soviet period, Magtymghuly Pyragy was elevated, along with a number of other pre-Revolutionary Turkic literati (including Navoiy, Abai, and Mirzǝ Fǝthǝli Axundzadǝ) to the rank of proto-Socialist visionaries. Their works were woven into the dominant (and state-sanctioned) socialist realist criticism, and libraries were written on the presence of anachronistic Marxist-Leninist dogma within their works.

Cream coloured paper with black text in Arabic script in the middle of the page with a red seal towards the bottomCream coloured paper with black text in Arabic script in the middle of the page
(Left) An incomplete (?) poem or prose text, possibly on prayer or repentance, preceding the main Divan
CC Public Domain Image

(Right) A series of religious invocations in Arabic in nestalik script.
CC Public Domain Image

In a way, this later trend is what makes Or 11414 so special. The manuscript is a relatively bare and simple one, with red pencil text boxes for some of the pages. The majority of the text is written in nestalik in black ink with a relatively thick-nibbed pen. It is arranged into two columns, and there are occasional dividers in red reading “va li-hi ayzan (وله أيضاً)”. At the start and end of the work, we notice texts written in a different hand and using a different pen. The first of these, on f 2r, is an odd addition that is difficult to read because of both smearing of the ink and the irregular handwriting. I’m unsure whether this is intended as another poem, or if this an account of an individual’s attempt at prayer and repentance. On f 140v, in contrast, there are religious invocations in beautifully ornate and elaborate nestalik, all of them in Arabic. In between these two poles, we find mostly the work of Magtymguly Pyragy, but also poems by other Turkmen poets, including Döwletýar Beg, Seýitnazar Seýdi, Gurbandurdy Zelili, Bende Murad, and Abdulnazar Şahbende.

Cream coloured paper with black text in Arabic script arranged in two columns in the middle of the page
An unruled page of Magtumguly Pyragy's poetry. (Divan-i Makhtumquli, Central Asia?, late 18th century or early 19th century CE. Or 11414 f 63r)
CC Public Domain Image

What makes this so important? We’re used to seeing manuscripts lauded and promoted because of their ornate illumination and illustrations. Sometimes, they’re publicized because of the high monetary value attributed to them through the commoditization of authors’ legacies and calligraphers’ pedigrees. But Or 11414’s worth lies in the fact that it most likely reflects the copying and circulation of Turkmen texts for the enjoyment and edification of as wide an audience as possible. It provides us with a rare view into the reading, writing, and copying cultures of Turkmen-speakers in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. And, more importantly, it creates a window onto their usage of the language and their estimation of Pyragy and his work before the heavy-handed intervention of Soviet authorities in the 1920s and 30s. The manuscript creates a counterpoint for the study and hypothesizing of a language and literary tradition that are both frequently overlooked by individuals and institutions outside of Central Asia.

There is, of course, another part to this story, one about provenance. How did this rare work make it into the British Library’s collections? A note in the back of the manuscript states that it was purchased from M. E. Denissoff on 10 February 1934. This likely refers to Elie Denissoff or Ilya Denisov, a Russian émigré who was the Secretary of the Russian Prime Minister in 1917. Denisov fled the Soviet Union to Paris and then Belgium, where he eventually engaged in scholarship on ecclesiastical history. Such biographical details would fit those of individuals who often sold manuscript material to the British Museum and similar institutions at the time. But it doesn’t explain how the volume came into Denisov’s possession in the first place. Thanks to Dr. Hugh Olmsted and his enlightening “Two Exiles: The Roots and Fortunes of Elie Denissoff, Rediscoverer of Mikhail Trivolis,” we have at least a glimpse into the possible origin of the manuscript.

Denisov was from an old Cossack family that had first come into the Imperial household’s good graces through its contributions to the Siege of Azov. When the October Revolution resulted in the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and the Imperial system, Ilia escaped from St. Petersburg south to his family’s ancestral lands near Kuban. This provided only temporary respite, but it did ensure that he did not suffer the same fate as the rest of his family in St. Petersburg, who succumbed to war and persecution. He gradually made his way out of Russia via Baku into Persia. From Tehran, he requested temporary permission to re-enter Russian territory, and did so on the eastern shore of the Caspian, making his way to Ashgabat before crossing by sea again to Baku, and thence out to Istanbul, Bulgaria, and eventually France. Given this brief sketch, it is entirely possible that Denisov acquired the Divan-I Makhtumquli in Turkmenistan proper, and that the manuscript originated from Central Asia. What’s more, from a description of Denisov’s memoirs in Olmsted’s work, we know that the former visited the British Museum in the mid-1930s as part of his doctoral research on Maximus the Greek. The pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fall into place, but only at the terminal end of the manuscript’s provenance.

Cream coloured paper with black text in Arabic script arranged in two columns in the middle of the page and a red seal at the bottom
The final page of the Divan, likely with a final poem added in a different hand. (Divan-i Makhtumquli, Central Asia?, late 18th century or early 19th century CE. Or 11414 f 140r)
CC Public Domain Image

There is one last clue that is proving to be far more difficult to decipher. In addition to the note about Denissoff at the end of the manuscript, an annotation reads “Tina Negan”chik” (Тина Неганъчикъ)”. It’s not clear to me whether this is intended to be a name, and, if so, what role this person might have played in the item’s history. The use of the hard sign at the end of the word might point to a pre-Revolutionary orthography, or perhaps to nasalized and glottalized consonants, as in common in the current orthography of Crimean Tatar. Whatever the case, the all-powerful tool of Google searching has produced nothing of note, and it does appear that we might yet have to wait a bit longer before we’re able to know to what this refers.

Sometimes, big gifts come in small boxes. While Or 11414 doesn’t look like the type of manuscript that would leave us plenty of avenues for further study, that’s exactly what it has done. And at a time when increasing demands are made for the massaging and manipulation of cultural heritage to satisfy the demands of the social media machine, it bears remembering that there is value beyond being the perfect Instagram post. It just takes a bit of time and quietude to find it.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
CCBY Image

Further Reading:

Clement, V. (2018). Learning to Become Turkmen: Literacy, Language, and Power, 1914-2014, Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press. (YC.2019.a.1438)

Edgar, A. L. (2004), Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan, Princeton: Princeton University Press. (YC.2006.a.7110)

Frank, A. (2020), ‘Turkmen Literacy and Turkmen Identity before the Soviets: the Ravnaq al-Islām in Its Literary and Social Context,’ JESHO, 63 (3) : 286-315. (P.P.3779.hdd.)

Ikhsanov, A. (2016), 'Turkmenistan: Literatura', Bolshaia Rossiiskaia Entsiklopediia, 32, Moskva: Nauchnoe Izdatel'stvo Bolshaia Rossiiskaia Entsiklopedia, 548-549.

Ikhsanov, A. (2020), 'A Community of Linguists Does Not Create a Language, but a Society Does: Dichotomies in Central Asian History,' Bulletin of the International Institute for Central Asian Studies, 29, 124-136. 

Taylor, P. M. (2017), ‘Turkic poetic heritage as symbol and spectacle of identity: observations on Turkmenistan’s Year of Makhtymguly celebrations,’ Nationalities Papers, 45 (2) : 321-336. (ELD Digital Store Document Supply 6033.449000)

15 November 2021

Transcribed from the boundary wall of the universe: Early Dhammasattha manuscripts in the Burmese collection of the British Library

The British Library’s Burmese collection holds some of the earliest extant dhammasattha manuscripts in the world. The dhammasattha, or “treatise on the law” is a genre of Buddhist literature prevalent in mainland Southeast Asia, written in Pali and in a range of vernacular languages including Burmese, Arakanese, Mon, Shan, Thai, Lao and Khmer. Although it is an integral part of the Theravada tradition, it is also historically related to Brahmanical dharmaśāstra texts written in Sanskrit.

Gilded and embossed front cover of a dhammasattha manuscript
Gilded and embossed front cover of a dhammasattha manuscript. The title “Dhamasat’” is flanked by two dragons. Manu kyay dhammasat, 19th century. British Library, Phayre Collection, Or 3447 A Noc

The dhammasattha was the primary legal framework for society, and originally applied to every Buddhist, both secular and monastic. It dealt with all aspects of the law, covering property and land, debt, wages, inheritance, slavery, marriage (including rape and adultery), assault, murder, theft, slander and the breaking of oaths. The most extensive tradition of dhammasattha comes from Myanmar, where some laws derived from the genre are still in force in the legal system today. Knowledge of dhammasattha was part of the education of rulers and administrators, monks, as well as any “good men”, and could be put to practice by any of these (therefore being mainly a male activity). The exclusive profession of a judge came into being only during the colonial period.

This blog draws extensively on Christian Lammerts’ recent authoritative publication Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250–1850 (2018), as well as his article 'The Murray Manuscripts and Buddhist Dhammasattha Literature Transmitted in Chittagong and Arakan' (2015), in which he discusses at length the dhammasattha manuscripts found at the British Library.

The Origin of Law

A flying rishi
A flying rishi. Manu was one of the first rishis or men who had accomplished super-knowledge and super-powers, such as the capacity to fly. Scenes from Jataka stories, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 1r Noc

The story of how the dhammasattha text came into being has many versions. According to one standard narrative, it already existed at the beginning of the world. The very first king, Mahāsammata, had a renowned minister of great learning named Manu, whom he appointed to adjudicate disputes. Manu, however, soon found that it was difficult to rely only on witness testimony in passing judgment, and since he was fully accomplished in super-knowledge (abhiññā) and magical powers (iddhi), he used these to fly through the sky to the boundary wall of the universe. There the dhammasattha was written on the wall in Pali with letters each as big as a cow. Manu then proceeded to transcribe the law from the wall and presented the dhammasattha text to Mahāsammata.

The dhammasattha was therefore originally conceived of as cosmically derived, neither human nor divine. It had no author, but was intimately tied to writing. Although it was a natural part of the cosmos it was only accessible to those with magical power. It was also stated that the dhammasattha was so vast it could not be mastered by the average man. This is why, the tradition reports, scholars and wise men abridged it, sometimes translating it into vernacular languages. Although the dhammasattha had many textual variations its essential cosmic justification stayed the same until the 18th century when Burmese jurists began to question this theory of the origin of law.

Dhammavilāsa dhammasat

An early 18th century copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat, the oldest known dhammasattha version
An early 18th century copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat, the oldest known dhammasattha version. British Library, Or 11775. Noc

Textual references to dhammasattha begin to be found in 13th century Burmese inscriptions (although dhammasattha texts were likely in circulation earlier).  The Dhammavilāsa dhammasat (ဓမ္မသတ်, Burmese for dhammasattha) is understood to be the oldest known dhammasattha composition. Out of seven existing manuscript copies three are located at the British Library (Add MS 12248, Add MS 12249, Or 11775). Of these, Add MS 12249 is particularly significant, as it provides the only secure date for the composition of the text. Although the manuscript is dated 1825 the scribal colophon states that the text was copied from an old manuscript dated to 1637/38.

The oldest physical copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat is from 1758 and is located at the Universities’ Central Library in Yangon. One of the British Library copies (Or 11775), however, is dated only 11 years later, to 1769.

The Dhammavilāsa dhammasat was widely transmitted and produced many significantly different versions, both in prose and verse, not only in Burmese, but also in Arakanese, Mon and Shan.

An Arakanese dhammasat

The last folio of a rare Arakanese dhammasattha manuscript with a colophon dating it to 1749
The last folio of a rare Arakanese dhammasattha manuscript with a colophon dating it to 1749. British Library, Murray Collection, Add MS 12254, f. 73rNoc

The British Library holds a rare early Arakanese dhammasat manuscript (Add MS 12254) from 1749, which has been fully digitised. Although related to the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat this version represents a distinct Arakanese dhammasattha tradition, prevalent in the area of Sittwe and Chittagong in 18th-19th centuries. This is the oldest extant Arakanese version and the westernmost of all dhammasatthas; it is also nine years older than the oldest extant Burmese version of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat.

The text is written with black ink on individual strips of yellow paper (instead of palm leaf). The Murray Collection, of which it is a part, contains the oldest Arakanese paper manuscripts in the world (dated between 1721-1784).

The text is written in “mra mā”, which before the end of the 18th century designated both Arakanese and Burmese languages (that are closely related). Its scribal colophon identifies it as the work of “the excellent teacher and monk Rāmi Shyaṅ.” In Arakan personal names were used instead of monastic titles, which is still tradition in Chittagong today.

Manusāra dhammasat and Manu kyay dhammasat

The Manusāra dhammasat was written in Pali verse with a Burmese nissaya commentary
The Manusāra dhammasat was written in Pali verse with a Burmese commentary (nissaya). British Library, Add MS 12241. Noc

The Manusāra dhammasat was also an early tradition with the composition of the text attributed to 1651-52. It was written by Tipiṭakālaṅkāra (a monk and Vinaya scholar) and Kaingza Manurāja (a lay judge), and for the first time links the dhammasattha geographically to Myanmar and chronologically to Burmese and Mon kings. The origin story is slightly transformed, with a seer named “Manusāra” responsible for transcribing the dhammasattha from the boundary wall of the universe. Manusāra was written in Pali verse, for the benefit of durability and easier memorisation, but also included an elaborate nissaya or commentary in Burmese. Manusāra is noteworthy for the many reformulations of the dhammasattha tradition it introduced, including a more explicit separation of lay and monastic jurisdictional boundaries.

The British Library holds the earliest known manuscript of the 1651–2 Manusāra dhammathat (Add MS 12241), copied in 1773.

The Many kyay dhammasat was an abridged compendium of pre-existing versions
The Many kyay dhammasat was an abridged compendium of pre-existing versions. British Library, Mss Man/Bur 3429. Noc

The Manu kyay was a much later abridgement and differed considerably from the aforementioned treatises. It was an anonymous compendium of laws derived from the dhammasattha tradition and compiled sometime prior to 1782. The British Library holds the second oldest extant Manu kyay manuscript (Man/Bur 3429), dated to 1789. The Many kyay was translated in English by Richardson already in 1847, and henceforth made this version well known.

Impartial justice

The Dhammasattha was likened to the illuminating rays of the moon
The Dhammasattha was likened to the illuminating rays of the moon. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 63r. Noc

The dhammasattha advocated for universal justice and applied to all Buddhist beings, human and celestial. It was meant to be “impartial, like a pair of scales”.

The Dhammasat is like Sakka’s thunderbolt-weapon and the jewel-treasure of a cakkavatti king that grants all wishes. It is like the weapon of the lords and ministers who have been tasked with carrying out the duties of the country. It is like a carpenter’s ruler and a physician’s diagnostic manual. It is like an oil lamp that illuminates a dark room filled with precious gems. It is like an eye that can see whether an appearance is good or bad, and like an ear that can hear whether a sound is good or bad. It is like the rays of the moon that illuminate the four continents at night, and the rays of the sun that brighten them during the day. It is like the tusk of a powerful elephant. It is like mother’s milk.” (Add MS 12254, f. Ki v; trans. Lammerts 2018, 184–185)

Lammerts has noted that interestingly the Arakanese versions of the dhammasattha are much more tolerant than their Burmese counterparts by allowing the testimony of both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike (“those who take refuge [in the three jewels] and those who do not,” Lammerts 2015, 431), as well as local residents and foreigners (“people from places far away,” Lammerts 2015, 431), and of good and bad people regardless of their character and the scale of the dispute. The Burmese dhammasatthas, by contrast, specifically discriminate against non-Buddhists as untrustworthy witnesses.

Bad Judges

Being eaten by a tiger was one of the eight punishments for judges adjudicating incorrectly
Being eaten by a tiger was one of the eight punishments for judges adjudicating incorrectly. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 131r Noc

Punishment for faulty judgement was extremely harsh from the very beginning, and was the reason why Manu was prompted to look for a cosmic explication of the law in the first place. Judges were expected to be truthful, avoid bias, refrain from bribes, and to examine the evidence comprehensively. They were particularly advised to avoid the four “bad courses” (agati): desire (favouring a relative, a friend or someone who has given presents), hatred (disfavouring an enemy or someone who doesn’t pay one respect), fear (letting someone go without consequences because they know someone in power, or because they threaten one’s property or oneself), and ignorance (inability to understand or discern the law). Should a judge adjudicate incorrectly or unjustly the “eight dangers” and “ten punishments” would befall him.

The eight dangers, which in this formulation are unique to Myanmar, are the following: 1) being swallowed by earth, 2) being struck by lightning, 3) being eaten by ogres, 4) being eaten by a tiger, 5) death by crocodile, 6) capsizing in a boat, 7) bleeding to death, 8) madness.

The ten punishments are paralleled in the Dhammapada: 1) violent, unhappy suffering, 2) loss of property, 3) destruction of the body, 4) severe, torturing disease, 5) loss of mind, 6) oppressive punishment from the ruler, 7) harsh accusations, 8) extermination of the family, 9) eradication of wealth, 10) houses burnt by lightning.

When such a person died they fell into the four unhappy destinies (hell realm, demon realm, ghost realm and animal realm) suffering greatly as ghosts. The texts describe such hell-ghosts in detail: “His body would grow enormous… His eyes were a cubit in diameter, his mouth the size of a needle. His body was red like the colour of blossoming flowers. His toenails and fingernails were as sharp as nails, and with them he incessantly gouged his flesh and cannibalised himself. He lost all strength from consuming himself, and was eventually carried away by the wind.” (Add MS 12248, Add MS 12249; trans. Lammerts 2018, 81).

If the law was adjudicated correctly it would bring great prosperity to the country and foster the ability of humans to perform acts of merit. According to certain dhammasatthas, the benefit of such merit would be divided into six parts, one of which went to the ruler. In contrast, should the law be adjudicated incorrectly the country would be unable to achieve prosperity and happiness. The demerit produced would similarly be divided into six parts, with the ruler and the judge each personally receiving one.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

I would like to thank Christian Lammerts for his comments on this blog and for his expert opinion.

Further Reading:
Lammerts, D. Christian, Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250–1850 (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2018).
Lammerts, D. Christian. 'The Murray Manuscripts and Buddhist Dhammasattha Literature Transmitted in Chittagong in Arakan', Journal of Burma Studies, vol. 19, no. 2 (Dec. 2015), 407-444.
Mong, Sai Kham, ed., Shan Thammasat manuscripts (Tokyo: Mekong, 2012).
Huxley, Andrew. ‘The Importance of the Dhammathats in Burmese Law and Culture’, Journal of Burma Studies, vol. 1 (1997), 1-17.
Hla, Nai Pan, Eleven Mon Dhammasāt Texts (Tokyo: Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies for Unesco, 1992).
Richardson, D. (trans.) The Damathat, or the Laws of Menoo (Maulmain, 1847)