Asian and African studies blog

4 posts from April 2022

25 April 2022

Reunited at last: a classical Thai verse novel from Ayutthaya

A unique set of five folding books containing the story of Sang Sinchai in Thai language has recently been reunited after a separation of about 200 years. The manuscripts, dating to before 1796, contain a retelling of an older text that was lost or destroyed during the devastation of the former Thai capital Ayutthaya in 1767 in the war with Burma. The existence of this copy of the verse novel remained widely unknown until 1958 when Thai historian Khachon Sukkhaphanit (1913-78) examined manuscripts at the British Museum and identified three volumes of Sang Sinchai. In 1973, these three volumes were transferred from the British Museum, along with other books and manuscripts, to the newly-formed British Library.

Thai text written in yellow gamboge ink on black mulberry paper; third volume of Sang Sinchai
Thai text written in yellow gamboge ink on black mulberry paper; third volume of Sang Sinchai. British Library, MSS Siamese 17/A, f. 7 Noc

The folding books discovered in 1958 are volumes one (Add MS 12261), two (Add MS 12262/A) and four (Add MS 12264). Volumes three and five were thought to be missing until recently when a photocopy of an undated, handwritten list by King Chulalongkorn’s private advisor Henry Alabaster  (1836-1884) came to light during an initiative to catalogue Thai backlog material. The list describes seventeen Thai manuscripts found in the former India Office Library, among which were the two “missing” volumes of Sang Sinchai.

The reunited set consists of five folding books made from black mulberry paper in differing sizes. The Thai text was written in yellow gamboge ink, without illustrations. The title on the first folio of volume one reads Sang Sinchai samut nu’ng (สังสินชัย สหมุดนึ่ง original spelling). The spelling in all five volumes is generally consistent with 18th-century Thai orthography. The entire text is written in klon verse, in the same hand in all volumes, with extensive descriptions of places, characters and their emotions. Only volume 3 has red lacquered covers with small flower decorations.

Complete set of five volumes containing the story of Sang Sinchai
Complete set of five volumes containing the story of Sang Sinchai. British Library, Add MS 12261, Add MS 12262/A, Add MS 12264 and MSS Siamese 17/A-B Noc

The provenance of the manuscript is partially known. Three volumes were acquired for the British Museum in January 1842 from Thomas Rodd, a London bookseller, as part of the collection of Scotsman Sir John MacGregor Murray (1745-1822, biographic details in this article).

Murray served in the British establishment in Bengal from 1770 to 1797 and was auditor general of Bengal. He never travelled to Burma, but his connection with Burma was through Dr Francis Buchanan who participated in an embassy to Amarapura in 1795 and published his observations  afterwards. On Murray’s request, Buchanan collected Burmese  and Thai manuscripts, with the assistance of a missionary resident in Ava, Father Vincentius Sangermano. Murray, a passionate collector and commissioner of mainly Persian and Arakanese manuscripts, brought his collection back to the UK when he returned from Bengal in 1797. After his death, Murray’s collection was split up: some manuscripts were purchased by the British Museum, others ended up in the India Office Library and the major part is now kept at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin in Germany.

Henry Alabaster’s description of volumes 3 and 5
Henry Alabaster’s description of volumes 3 and 5 in a photocopy of a “Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts in the Library of Her Majesty’s India Office” [no place, no date]. Noc

A colophon in volume 1 (Add MS 12261) mentions that the text was compiled after the siege of the “Great City” (เมื่องไหย่) to preserve the original text that had been lost or destroyed. The phrase “siege of the Great City” is thought to refer to the destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767, and the scribe as well as the patrons may have been war captives taken from Ayutthaya to Ava. The anonymous scribe states that “this ancient Mon story” (นิยายมอนแตกอนมา original spelling) was written down from memory. Another colophon on f. 42 of the second volume mentions two grandparents, Ta Khong and Yai Mun (ตาคง ยายมูน), who commissioned this manuscript. And a colophon on the last folio of volume 3 records that this volume was completed on “Saturday, ninth month, [uposatha day before] the 3rd quarter moon, year of the rat” corresponding to 20 August 1791.

Colophon in the first volume mentioning the loss of the original text during the “siege of the Great City” (second line)
Colophon in the first volume mentioning the loss of the original text during the “siege of the Great City” (second line). British Library, Add MS 12261, f.2 Noc

The text tells the story of King Senakut and his younger sister Keson Sumontha, who was abducted by the giant Yak Kumphan. The pair later had a daughter, Sri Suphan, whom Yak Kumphan lost in a gamble to the king of serpents. Senakut, distraught by the kidnapping of his sister, set up a hermitage in the forest where he met seven beautiful maidens who became his consorts. Six of them gave birth to sons, but the seventh consort, Pathuma, and her attendant Kraison gave birth to two very special sons. Pathuma’s child, Sang Sinchai, was born in a conch shell and with an ivory bow, and Kraison’s son Sing had the shape of a mythical lion.

The six other jealous consorts plotted to convince the king that the two strange sons were a bad omen, so he banished them and their mothers from the city. Growing up in the forest, the boys acquired super-human skills in addition to powers they were born with. One day, the king ordered his other six sons to search for Keson Sumontha who he could not forget. Being cowards, they looked for Sang Sinchai and Sing and tricked them into joining the search for their aunt. Sang Sinchai located Keson Sumontha, but she told him about her daughter Sri Suphan who lived with the serpent king. Sang Sinchai and Sing rescued both women and brought them back to the other six brothers who pushed Sang Sinchai down a water hole before taking the women to King Senakut. However, Keson Sumontha left her scarf at the spot and vowed that should she ever get it back, it meant Sang Sinchai was still alive.

After some time, a merchant brought Keson Sumontha’s scarf to the city. She implored the king to find Sang Sinchai in the forest. Senakut followed her wish and finally welcomed Sang Sinchai, Sing and their mothers back into the city. Sang Sinchai married Sri Suphan and became king while Senakut ordered the six other sons and their mothers to become the new king’s servants. Senakut, Keson Sumontha and Pathuma became ascetics.

Illustration of King Senakut’s city in a dramatised version of Sang Sinchai by Rama II
Illustration of King Senakut’s city in a dramatised version of Sang Sinchai by Rama II, published in Bangkok, 1922. British Library, Siam.160, p. 471.

It is often assumed that Sang Sinchai is simply the Thai pronunciation of Sang Sinsai, a well-known work attributed to the 17th-century Lao scribe Pangkham. The Lao text is considered a masterpiece of Lao literature and is very popular across Laos thanks to the extensive research and publications of Maha Sila Viravong. He transcribed the story from palm leaf manuscripts for publication by the Kasuang Thammakan (1949) which formed the basis for numerous subsequent editions and translations into other languages. Lao Isan (Northeast Thai) and Thai versions of the story have been retold, researched and published by several Thai authors since the 1920s.

Mural depicting a scene from Sang Sinsai at Wat Sanuan Wari Phatthanaram in Khon Kaen Province, Thailand
Mural depicting a scene from Sang Sinsai at Wat Sanuan Wari Phatthanaram in Khon Kaen Province, Thailand. Photo courtesy of Peter Whittlesey. Source: 

However, the Thai text of Sang Sinchai in this manuscript differs significantly from the Lao and Lao Isan versions, as it features some different characters, with different names and a storyline inspired by an ancient legend of the Mon ethnic group with the title Sangada. The motif of a boy born with a conch shell also appears in a Buddhist tale entitled Suvannasankha Jātaka (Golden Conch Birth Story) belonging to the corpus of Paññāsa Jātaka.

The verse novel Sang Sinchai is little known today, despite the fact that it once inspired Thai kings and princes - King Rama II, King Rama III and Prince Naritsaranuwattiwong - to write dramatised adaptations of the story in the 19th and early 20th century.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork
This article is an updated summary of “A Thai text of Sang Sinchai from the late Ayutthaya era” in Manuscript Cultures and Epigraphy of the Tai World, ed. Volker Grabowsky. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2022, pp. 225-254.

Further reading
Baker, Chris and Pasuk Phongpaichit. 53 Suvaṇṇasaṅkha: The golden conch
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala and Somroay Yencheuy. Buddhist murals of Northeast Thailand. Reflections of the Isan heartland. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2010.
Jenny, Mathias. The story of Prince Sangada. A Mon legend in Southeast Asia context. The Mon over two millennia. Monuments, manuscripts, movements. Ed. Patrick McCormick, Mathias Jenny and Chris Baker. Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, 2011, pp. 147-167. 
Nangklao, King of Siam. Botlakhō̜n rư̄ang Sangsinchai. [Bangkok]: Rōngphim Sōphonphiphatthanākō̜n, 1929-30.
Naritsarānuwattiwong, Prince. Prachum bot lakhō̜n du’kdamban chabap lūang. [Bangkok]: Rōngphim Thai, 1924.
Phutthalœtlā Naphālai, Phra, King of Siam. Phrarātchaniphon bot lakhǭn rū’ang Sang Sinchai. Bangkok: Sophon, 1917.
Phutthalœtlā Naphālai, Phra, King of Siam. Bot lakhǭn nǭk rūam hok rư̄ang. Bangkok, 1922.
Sang Sinsai phap thī 1. [Transcript and foreword by Maha Sila Viravong]. Vientiane: Kasūang thammakān, 1949.
Songwit Phimphakō̜n et al. Sinsai sō̜ng fang Khōng. Khō̜n Kǣn: Sūn Khō̜mūn Lāo Mahāwitthayālai Khō̜nkǣn, 2014.
Whittlesey, Peter and Baythong S. Whittlesey, Sinxay. Renaissance of a Lao-Thai epic hero. [n.p.], Sinxay Press, 2015.

18 April 2022

The provenance histories of Batak manuscripts in the British Library (1): The British Museum collection to 1900

Provenance research is increasingly acknowledged as an essential part of the study of manuscripts, which was long dominated by a focus on the texts within.  More recently philological studies have increasingly been complemented by considerations of materiality, with an enhanced appreciation of materials, decorative elements, graphic layouts and paratextual elements.  Our understandings of writing cultures can be further enhanced by exploring the 'social life' of manuscripts (alluding to Arjun Appadurai's influential 1986 volume) and in particular the changing meanings of books through time and place as they were created, used, sold, seized, stolen, traded, discarded or treasured.

Following the digitisation of the complete collection of 37 Batak manuscripts in the British Library, in collaboration with CMSC Hamburg University, this series of three blog posts attempts to trace the complex journeys that each manuscript undertook, from north Sumatra to London.  The task is also important for scholarly reasons, for Batak manuscripts are never dated, and therefore the date of acquisition is often the only firm evidence towards dating the manuscript, providing at the very least a latest possible date for the writing of the book. This first part considers manuscripts from the collections of the British Museum up to 1900. The second installment looks at Batak manuscripts from the India Office Library and Records, which joined the British Library in 1982. The third and final part presents more recent aquisitions up to the present.

Provenance note in a manuscript
Provenance note in Batak manuscript Add 11546, with the red 'British Museum' crown stamp. British Library, Add 11546 Noc

An important element of provenance research is understanding the system of shelfmarks or reference numbers used by libraries and museums, because often these offer clear indications of the likely date of acquisition. The British Museum was founded in 1753 through the bequest of Sir Hans Sloane, whose own manuscripts were assigned the shelfmarks 'Sloane MS 1-4100'.  Following the end of the Sloane sequence, subsequent manuscripts which entered the British Museum were given 'Additional' manuscript numbers, now abbreviated as 'Add', starting with Add MS 4101.  The first Batak manuscript to enter the British Museum, just a decade after its founding, was Add MS 4726, a pustaha or tree-bark book folded in concertina form, in Toba Batak script.  This is in fact the first known Batak manuscript to enter a European collection, and also gives us the earliest terminus ante quem or 'earliest latest date of writing' for any Batak manuscript (the complex formulation reflecting the difficulties of establishing chronological frameworks for Batak manuscripts). A black ink inscription on the first page identifies the donor: ‘Presented by Alexander Hall, Esq., 18 May 1764’.

Thanks to research by Ellen Filor (2014), Alexander Hall (1731/2-1764) can be identified as the youngest son of a Scottish aristocrat, James Hall, 2nd Baronet of Dunglass. Hall entered the East India Company in 1750 and was sent out as a factor or merchant to Fort Marlborough at Bengkulu (then called Bencoolen) on the west coast of Sumatra, and in 1753 was appointed assistant to the Resident at Natal, in Mandailing Batak territory. He is cited – in the context of a discussion of the cannibalism of the Bataks – in William Marsden’s History of Sumatra (1783, p. 303): ‘Mr. Alexander Hall made a charge in his public accounts of a sum paid to a raja as an inducement to him to spare a man whom he had seen preparing for a victim’. Hall returned to Britain in 1762 and unsuccessfully petitioned the Company to be transferred to Bengal. He departed again for India in 1763 and in September 1764 arrived back in Bengkulu, where he died two months later. As in May 1764 Hall would have been en route to Bengkulu, the Batak manuscript was probably brought to England in 1762, and then delivered to the British Museum either personally before he set sail again in 1763, or in 1764 by someone acting on his behalf.

Donation inscription of Alexander Hall, 18 May 1764. British Library, Add 4726
Inscription naming the donor as Alexander Hall, 18 May 1764. British Library, Add 4726, f. 19r, start of text on side b Noc

We have no information on how Alexander Hall acquired this manuscript. However, inscriptions on the book itself suggest an informed exchange enquiring into the contents of the book. On the first page is written with a European pen in Latin characters: ‘Ompoo Nee Ha ee doo punn / Harryen Soocoo nya / Punn ampoo Hee wrote this / Witness Raja Muntaggar’, which can be read in conjunction with the Batak text to understand that Ompu Ni Haidupan, of the clan Harean, wrote this panampuhi or text on the divination oracle through analysis of the cut slices of a lemon. 

Romanised inscription identifying the author and subject of this Batak manuscript. British Library, Add 4726
Romanised inscription identifying the author and subject of this Batak manuscript. British Library, Add 4726, f. 1r  Noc

The next two Batak manuscripts to enter the British Museum were both purchased from dealers who were major suppliers to the Museum. Add 11546 was bought in 1839 from Harry (Henry) Osborne Cureton (1785-1858), a dealer in coins and antiquities based at 81 Aldersgate, Barbican, London (see illustration at the top of this post).  Add 15678 was acquired in 1846 from Joseph Lilly (1804-1870), a well-known London bookseller.  No further information is available on where or how these manuscripts ended up in London.

A substantial collection of eight pustaha, Add 19378 to Add 19385, was purchased from a Dr E.G. Latham in 1853. Latham had received them from Baron Oscar von Kessel, who had travelled in the southern regions of Batak country from Tobing via Sipirok in south Tapanuli to Sigompulon in 1844 as part of a survey expedition (see von Kessel, 1856). A further manuscript, Or 2445, sold to the British Museum by Dr E. G. Latham in 1881, evidently came from the same source. The connection between Dr Latham and Baron von Kessel is not known.

One of the eight pustaha acquired in 1844 by Baron von Kessel in Mandailing territory, and sold to the British Museum in 1853 by Dr E. G. Latham. British Library, Add 19378, f. 53r
One of the eight pustaha acquired in 1844 by Baron von Kessel in Mandailing territory, and sold to the British Museum in 1853 by Dr E. G. Latham. British Library, Add 19378, f. 35r Noc

Or 5309 is a bamboo cylinder which was given to the British Museum by Lord Crawford in 1897. Ludovic Lindsay (1847-1913), 26th Earl of Crawford, inherited his father Lord Lindsay’s bibliophilia, including for Oriental manuscripts. Lord Lindsay had acquired a number of Batak pustaha from the sale of H.C. Millies in 1870, and Ludovic continued to seek out Batak and other Southeast Asian manuscripts. On 15 October 1897 he wrote to his librarian, instructing him to contact C.M. Pleyte at the booksellers Brill in Leiden, and: ‘Get all the Batak he [Pleyte] will let you have especially the Bamboo ones’ (Hodgson 2020: 1021). Is it therefore not rather surprising that Ludovic presented a bamboo Batak manuscript to the British Museum in this very year? The answer probably lies in its condition: Or 5309 is split in two halves. The placement of the old British Museum labels on the inside of the bamboo suggests that the manuscript was already broken when it arrived, and this is perhaps why Ludovic did not retain it in his collection, and instead donated it to the British Museum.

Bamboo manuscript, split into two halves. British Library, Or 5309
Bamboo manuscript, split into two halves. British Library, Or 5309 Noc

The next part of this blog will look at Batak manuscripts from the India Office Library collection.

Further reading:
Ellen Filor. Alexander Hall (c. 1731/2-1764) in Scotland and Sumatra. East India Company at Home, 1757-1857: The British country house in an imperial and global context. 2014.
John R. Hodgson, ‘Spoils of Many a Distant Land’: The Earls of Crawford and the collecting of Oriental manuscripts in the nineteenth century. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 2020, 48(6): 1011-1047.
Oscar von Kessel, Reis in de Nog Onafhankelijke Batak-Landen van Klein-Toba, op Sumatra, in 1844. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1856, 4(1): 55-97.
M.C. Ricklefs, P. Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain. New edition with Addenda et corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

10 April 2022

Christian Bibles in Muslim Robes with Jewish Glosses: Arundel Or.15 and other Medieval Coptic Arabic Bible Translations at the British Library

Today's guest post is by Miriam L. Hjälm, Sankt Ignatios Academy, Stockholm School of Theology

One of the most impressive Christian Arabic manuscripts at the British Library is Arundel Or.15. This beautifully ornamented codex, presented like a Mamluk Quran, contains a carefully copied translation of the Psalms into Arabic preceded by an elaborate introduction on the use and perception of this biblical book.

1.Beginning of Psalm 1
Beginning of Psalm 1, c.1350 (BL Arundel Or. 15. ff. 38v-39r)

The codex is undated and anonymous but the handwriting of the main text appears to be identical with that of the Arabic translation of the Pentateuch in Paris (BnF. Ar. 12). The latter was composed by Jirjis b. al-qass Abū al-Mufaḍḍal b. Amīn al-Mulk Luṭf Allāh and dated 1353. It was copied from a manuscript copied by (bi-khaṭṭ) al-Shams ibn Kabar (f. 290r), a known Coptic writer who served as the secretary of a Mamluk minister. Ibn Kabar died in 1324, around thirty years before the copy was made, but it is likely that both he and Jirjis belonged to the same scribal elite and shared common views on the literature they produced.

The ornamented frames and calligraphic style used for the rubrics in the two copies differ somewhat, but both codices are exactly the same size, are arranged in groupings of five sheets (quinions) with the quire number written in conjunction with the word kurrās (quire) and are foliated using Coptic Epact numbers.

2. The end of Psalm 40:41
The end of Psalm 40/41 (BL Arundel Or.15, f. 106r)

Yet another luxurious copy produced by Jirjis is found in Copt. Museum, Bibl. 90. Here he is called Jirjis Abū al-Faḍl ibn Luṭf Allāh, yet the handwriting in the main text appears to be identical to that in Arundel Or.15 and the Paris manuscript, which are both written in elegant naskh and include headings in muḥaqqaq and other scripts associated with Qurans. This Gospel translation was produced in 1340 (Hunt, p.122) during the time of Buṭrus, the metropolitan of the Copts in Jerusalem and Syria.

Both the Paris manuscript and Arundel Or.15 contain a similar text critical apparatus. The scribe collated the main text with several different copies and marked alternative renderings preceded by various sigla in red color. The same system is described in detail in another manuscript at the British Library: Or. 3382, dated 1264–65. This copy contains the Gospels in Arabic, which are carefully compared with the Coptic text and with Arabic translations from Greek and Syriac. In an epilogue appended to the translation, we learn that the text was originally composed by Ibn al-ʻAssāl. The text-critical system in these three copies can thus be associated with Ibn al-ʿAssāl and his text-critical projects of the thirteenth century.

The system is described in the epilogue to the Gospels: the letter qāf is used for Arabic translations of Coptic, sīn for Arabic translations of Syriac, and rāʼ for Arabic translations of Greek. A Coptic translation is also referenced. Combinations of letters, such as sīn- rāʼ, indicates that both the Syriac-based and the Greek-based translation share a reading. This interpretation makes perfect sense if applied to Arundel Or. 15. In the latter, we also find the siglum ʻayn, which almost certainly stands for Hebrew. From this and other various sigla used, we know that the scribe collated a considerable number of texts, some of which represented standard versions in Jewish and Christian communities in the Middle East. Most notably, the Hebrew-based version coincides with Rav Saadiah Gaon’s (d. 942) tafsīr of the Psalms, and Syriac-based glosses often match the Arabic translation by the East Syriac polymath Abū al-Faraj ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Ṭayyib (d. 1043).

3. From Psalms 1 and 2 (BL Arundel Or.15  ff. 39v–40r)
From Psalms 1 and 2 (BL Arundel Or.15, ff. 39v–40r)

A beautiful illustration of king David precedes the Psalm translation. The illustration does not imitate typically Coptic iconography but rather resembles Byzantine images. David is featured as a scribe, in the process of composing his psalms.

4.King David writing psalms (BL Arundel Or.15  f. 38r)
King David writing psalms (BL Arundel Or.15, f. 38r)

In format the codex resembles a Mamluk Quran, and the scribe used terms associated with Islam, such as al-fajr for ‘morning prayer’. The iconography, however, is Byzantine while the Psalm translation itself was compared with Coptic, Rūm (Orthodox), East Syriac, and Jewish bible versions. The manuscript thus testifies to an astonishing openness to other communities among the Copts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. We understand from his ecclesiastical encyclopedia Miṣbāḥ al-Ẓulmah wa Īḍāḥ al-Khidmah (The Lamp of Shadows and the Illumination of Service) that Ibn Kabar was questioned for his inclusive approach to other people’s texts and traditions and to counteract such claims, he explains (my italics):

Also included are those later writers … who composed anything on religion, whether from those sects that are joined with us in confession, or those that are separated from us in creed. But we have not listed the compositions of this latter group, unless we have received thorough knowledge of them and grown in understanding from them, even though something differing from the views of the orthodox and inconsistent with the aims of the Jacobites [i.e. miaphysites] might be mixed in among them, for eminent men do not gather gems, without being interested in pearls: they pick out what is suitable without harping on the differences (Abū al-Barakāt, Catalog of Christian Literature in Arabic; tr. A McCollum).

5. Beginning of the introduction to Psalms (BL Arundel Or.15  ff. 2v-3r)
Beginning of the introduction to Psalms (BL Arundel Or.15, ff. 2v-3r)

The same or a similar scribal Coptic workshop produced several other impressive manuscripts. In addition to those already mentioned above and without the text-critical apparatus, British Library, Or. 1327 contains a beautifully ornamented Arabic Gospel translation, dated 1334.

6. Frontispiece to the Gospel of John (BL Or.1327  ff. 185v-186r)
Frontispiece to the Gospel of John, dated 1334 (BL Or.1327, ff. 185v-186r)

Another manuscript from the same time period is Add. MS 11856, a Gospel translation dated 1336–1337. This copy was presented to the Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa and includes, besides the Gospel texts, short summaries of each book. Add. 11856 is less lavishly decorated than Arundel Or. 15 but includes beautiful frontispieces and  illustrations (Jerusalem 1000-1400: Four Gospels in Arabic):

7.Add MS 11856 Portrait of St Luke
Portrait of St. Luke. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 95v)

The examples provided in this blog represent a peak in Christian Arabic Bible production. Despite the political hardship the Coptic communities faced in the fourteenth century, scribal workshops thrived and produced expensive and scholarly advanced copies of the Bible, which impress their readers still today. These copies are not only aesthetically appealing but also show us how Bible translations could be used to mediate –or dominate– in socio-religious conflicts. By dressing their Bibles in typically Muslim robes, the robes were no longer Muslim, but an expression of holy Scriptures, and by using Jewish translations as one of several authoritative sources, the Jewish claim to Scripture was partially disarmed. It appears that for Ibn Kabar, ‘eminent men’ were those bold enough to delve into other peoples’ traditions and confident enough to decide what was good in them, regardless of origin. The ‘Coptic renaissance’ was indeed a bold project.

This post was written with the support of the Swedish Research Council (2017-01630)

Miriam L. Hjälm. Sankt Ignatios Academy, Stockholm School of Theology



Further reading

Wadi Awad, ‘al-Shams ibn Kabar’, in Christian-Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History, vol. 4 (1200-1350), ed. Thomas et al. (Brill: 2012), 762–766.
Miriam L. Hjälm, ‘1.2.12 Arabic Texts’, in The Textual History of the Bible, vol. 2A, ed. Feder and Henze (Brill, 2020), 483–495.
Lucy-Anne Hunt, ‘Christian Arab Gospel Book: Cairo, Coptic Museum MS Bibl. 90 in its Mamluk Context’, Mamlūk Studies Review 13, no. 2 (2009): 105–132.
Duncan B. MacDonald (ed. and trans.), ‘Ibn al-ʿAssāl’s Arabic Version of the Gospels’, in Homenaje á D. Francisco Codera en su Jubilación del Profesorado, ed. Saavedra (M. Escar, 1904), 375–392.
Ronny Vollandt, ‘The Conundrum of Scriptural Plurality: The Arabic Bible, Polyglots, and Medieval Predecessors of Biblical Criticism’, in Editing the Hebrew Bible in the Variety of its Texts and Versions, ed. Lange et al. (Brill, 2016), 56–85.
————————, ‘Flawed Biblical translations into Arabic and How to Correct Them: A Copt and a Jew study Saadiah’s Tafsīr’, in Studies on Arabic Christianity in Honor of Sidney H. Griffith, ed. Bertaina et al. (Brill: 2018), 56–90.
Vevian Zaki, ‘Al-Asʿad Hibat Allāh ibn al-ʿAssāl: His Contribution to the Formation of New Identity of Copts in Egypt Through his Critical Translation of the Gospel of Luke’. MA thesis, Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, 2011.
——————, ‘The business of copying manuscripts: Tuma al-Safi and his elite clients’ (forthcoming).

04 April 2022

Ariya Metteyya, the Buddha of the future

Ariya Metteyya (Sanskrit: Maitreya), the future Buddha, is at the centre of some of the most beautiful illustrations in Thai Buddhist manuscripts. According to canonical scriptures, Ariya Metteyya is the fifth in the lineage of Buddhas (Tathāgata) of the current aeon, and successor of the 28 Buddhas of the past. Ariya means “noble”, and Metteyya is derived from the Pali word mātreyya which refers to “one's mother” and “motherloving”. The previous Buddha Gotama predicted in the Cakkavatti-sῑhanāda-sutta that Ariya Metteyya will be the Buddha of the future, following his rebirth in the human realm, renunciation of worldly life and attainment of enlightenment under a Naga tree (cobra saffron, Lat. Mesua ferrea).

The future Buddha, surrounded by deities in Tuṣita heaven
The future Buddha, surrounded by deities in Tuṣita heaven, illustrated in a folding book containing extracts from the Tipiṭaka and the story of Phra Malai, central Thailand, 1875. British Library Or 6630, f. 43  Noc

The story of the future Buddha appears in another canonical source entitled Buddhavaṃsa (chronicle of Buddhas) in the Khuddaka Nikāya. It gives details of the life of Buddha Gotama and the 24 Buddhas before him, as well as Ariya Metteyya.

An extra-canonical source that mentions the future Buddha is the Mahāvaṃsa (“Great Chronicle” of Sri Lanka), attributed to the monk Mahānāma. In this text, written in the 5th or 6th century CE, it is stated that Ariya Metteyya currently resides in the Tuṣita heaven as a deity called Natha-deva awaiting rebirth in the human realm.

Another source that describes the life, meritorious acts and attainment of enlightenment of Ariya Metteyya is known under the title Anāgatavaṃsa (account of the future), a work attributed to Ashin Kassapa (1160-1230 CE).

The future Buddha with a red aura (left) and deities (right
The future Buddha with a red aura (left) and deities (right) in a folding book containing the legend of Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library Add MS 15347, f. 48  Noc

The above-mentioned sources brought knowledge of Ariya Metteyya from Sri Lanka to Southeast Asia. In the Thai Buddhist tradition, the future Buddha is also known as Phra Sri An. Exquisite paintings of him, often lavishly decorated with gold leaf, can be found in manuscripts containing the popular legend of Phra Malai, a monk-saint who was able to travel to the Buddhist heavens and hells as a result of his accumulated merit. The story is often included, among extracts from the Abhidhamma-piṭaka, in Thai funeral and commemoration books from the 19th century. The oldest known extant manuscript containing this legend is a palm-leaf book in Northern Thai (Lanna) Dhamma script, dating back to 1516 CE (Brereton, 1993, p. 141)

Illustrations of Phra Malai with Indra at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and arrival of Ariya Metteyya with deities (right) from Tuṣita heaven
Illustrations of Phra Malai with Indra at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and arrival of Ariya Metteyya with deities (right) from Tuṣita heaven to pay reverence to the celestial stupa. Folding book from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library Or 14115, f. 59  Noc

One episode in this legend elaborates on Phra Malai’s visit to the Tāvatiṃsa heaven, where he meets the god Indra (Sakka) at the celestial stupa Chulamani Chedi. While the two are conversing, myriads of devatā (deities) and finally also the future Buddha appear from another heaven, Tuṣita, to pay reverence to the stupa. Ariya Metteyya then gives Phra Malai a message about the future of mankind, and advice to make merit and to listen to recitations of the Vessantara Jātaka for those who wish to be reborn in the era of the future Buddha.

The future Buddha with deities (right) and withayathon as flag-bearers (left)
The future Buddha with deities (right) and withayathon as flag-bearers (left) in a folding book with extracts from the Abhidhamma-piṭaka and Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 1894. British Library Or 16101, f. 51  Noc

Although most illustrated Phra Malai manuscripts include the standardised pair of paintings showing the scene at the celestial stupa, Thai artists of the 19th century used many other options to depict Ariya Metteyya. In the image above one can see the future Buddha in an elaborately decorated red aura with two deities partially hidden in clouds (right), whereas on the left side the artist decided to paint male withayathon (Pali: vijjadhara, “keepers of knowledge”, in Thai also “scholars of magic”) as flag-bearers announcing the arrival of Ariya Metteyya.

Painted in a similar manner, but with more attention to detail and in extraordinary artistic quality, are the illustrations below showing the future Buddha in a red aura with six deities (right), and two female deities as flag-bearers (left).

The future Buddha in a large red aura (right) with deities as flag-bearers (left
The future Buddha in a large red aura (right) with deities as flag-bearers (left). Folding book with extracts from the Abhidhamma-piṭaka and Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 1849. British Library Or 14838, f. 57  Noc

In the same manuscript, dated 1849, there is another - very unusual - illustration of the scene in Tāvatiṃsa heaven (shown below): as expected, on the left side is Phra Malai in conversation with Indra and another deity at the celestial stupa. However, on the right side, where normally the future Buddha appears, there is a female figure in a large red aura, floating on clouds in the sky. Like the future Buddha on the preceding folio, she is holding a lotus bud, symbol of imminent enlightenment, and she is accompanied by female deities – just in the same way Ariya Metteyya is usually depicted. We do not know if the painter aimed to express the thought that the future Buddha could be a woman, or whether they may have drawn inspiration from the idea of female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in esoteric Buddhism. Or perhaps it may have been the wish of the patrons, a mother and her two children, who commissioned this manuscript to make merit on behalf of the mother’s parents, and who expressed in the colophon their hope to attain enlightenment.

Phra Malai with Indra and another deity at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and female figure with red aura in place of the future Buddha (right) with deities
Phra Malai with Indra and another deity at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and female figure with red aura in place of the future Buddha (right) with deities. Folding book from central Thailand, 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 58  Noc

The story of Phra Malai concludes with Ariya Metteyya’s prediction of the deterioration of Buddhism and degeneration of mankind 5000 years after Buddha Gotama. This is then followed by the birth of the Buddha-to-be in an era in which the earth flourishes and humans are living meritorious lives free from suffering. The future Buddha promises to help all people to transcend saṃsāra - the cycle of birth, death and rebirth - through liberation from greed, hatred and delusion. Sometimes depictions of the blissful life in the future are included in Phra Malai manuscripts, like the example shown below where people are plucking gold jewellery from a wishing tree (left) and enjoying sweets while resting in the shade of a blossoming tree (right).

Illustrations of blissful life in the future era of Ariya Metteyya
Illustrations of blissful life in the future era of Ariya Metteyya. Folding book from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14115, f. 75 Noc

Indeed, the hope of encountering Ariya Metteyya is frequently mentioned in a colophon on the last folio of Thai Buddhist manuscripts. The example below shows a detail from a colophon in a folding book dated 1882, which contains extracts from the Tipiṭaka and the legend of Phra Malai. The future Buddha is mentioned twice here: once called Phra Sri An (underlined orange) and once called Phra Sri Anriya (underlined red), both times referring to Ariya Metteyya.

Ariya Metteyya mentioned twice in the colophon of a folding book
Ariya Metteyya mentioned twice in the colophon of a folding book. Central Thailand, 1882. British Library, Or 15207, f. 91 Noc

The idea of Ariya Metteyya still enjoys great popularity among Buddhists in Thailand today, not least because it is part of the Thai Buddhist concept of a perfect world. It describes an idealised future state of society with prosperity, health, happiness, justice, righteousness and peace which is symbolically expressed through images of Ariya Metteyya in temple murals and sculptures. The examples below from three different Thai manuscripts show that depictions of the future Buddha are easily recognisable because they are highly standardised, although minor variations can be visible like the size of the aura, background, the number of accompanying deities and objects held in the hand of Ariya Metteyya.

Illustrations of the future Buddha in three Thai folding books
Illustrations of the future Buddha in three Thai folding books, from left to right: British Library Or 6630, f. 56 (dated 1875); British Library Or 14838, f. 42 (dated 1849); British Library Or 16710, f. 39 (19th century) Noc

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork

Further reading
Aphilak Kasempholkoon, Phra Sri An (Maitreya) as a hero: A structural analysis of Phra Sri An myths in Thai society. Manusya 14/3 (2011), pp. 21-32 
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Some comments on a northern Phra Malai text dated C.S. 878 (A.D. 1516). Journal of the Siam Society 81 (1993), pp. 141-5
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Thai tellings of Phra Malai: texts and rituals concerning a popular Buddhist saint. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona State University, 1995 
Saya U Chit Tin, assisted by William Pruitt, The coming Buddha Ariya Metteyya. 2nd revised ed. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1992
Phramaha Inwong Issaraphani, Chantras Tapuling, Metteyya: The Concept of Ideal World in Buddhism. MCU Haripunchai Review 2/1 (2018), pp. 35–45.