Asian and African studies blog

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4 posts from July 2023

24 July 2023

Babur the Naturalist

One of the library's most treasured manuscripts on display in our current exhibition Animals: Art, Science and Sound is a late 16th century copy of the Mughal emperor Babur's autobiographical memoirs, Vāqiʻāt-i Bāburī, more often referred to as his Bāburnāmah (Book of Babur).

Or 3714  f.504v. Babur crossing the Jumna seated on an ornate dais on a boat accompanied by other boats carrying musicians and horses (Khem)
Babur crosses the Jumna threatened by an aquatic monster while entertained by musicians. Artist Khem. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f.504v)

The emperor Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur (1483-1530) is most famous as the founder of the Mughal Empire in the Indian subcontinent which he conquered and ruled from 1526. Driven from Central Asia while still a youth, he took Kabul in 1504 and made it the centre of his kingdom before moving east and defeating Ibrahim Lodi, Sultan of Delhi, at Panipat in 1526 and Rana Sanga of Mewar at Khanwa in 1527.

In between intense military activities, Babur somehow managed to find time to write his memoirs (Vāqiʻāt-i Bāburī). In these Babur records his ruthless victories, but at the same time writes unpretentiously of his personal feelings, revealing himself to be a scholar, a poet and a keen naturalist. Histories were already an established literary genre by this time as were encyclopedias which recorded the wonders of the universe. However this autobiographical record of Babur’s is unique with observations based largely on his own experiences.

Originally written in Chaghatai Turki, his memoirs are arranged chronologically by year and were translated several times into Persian but most famously in 1589 at the request of his grandson Akbar (r. 1556–1605) by Akbar's chief minister ʻAbd al-Rahim Khan-i khanan. The British Library is fortunate in possessing one of four known imperial copies of ʻAbd al-Rahim’s translation which were all made at the end of the 16th century and were illustrated by the most famous artists of the time. Our copy is datable to the early 1590s on stylistic grounds and presently has 143 paintings out of an original 183. Since it was possible to display only one opening in our exhibition, I have taken this opportunity to write further about Babur's section on the animals, birds and plants of Hindustan.

Or 3714  f 378r elephants
Elephants. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f.378r)

The elephant, Babur tells us, is native to the borders of the Kalpi country (present day Uttar Pradesh) and further east. It is a noble creature and understands what people say to it and obeys their commands. The bigger it is, the more valuable. Babur adds here that in some islands elephants are reputed to measure more than 10 gaz (‘yard’) high, but he has never seen them larger than 4 or 5. Elephants can carry immense loads, three or four can pull carts that would take four or five hundred men to pull. However, they eat a lot! One elephant eats as much as two strings of camels.

Or 3714  f 379r Rhinoceros
The Rhinoceros. Artist, Makar. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f.379r)

The rhinoceros (karg) is also a large animal equivalent in size to three buffaloes, but the story that it can lift an elephant on its horn is false. It has one horn on its nose and its hide is very thick. It is ferocious and unlike the elephant cannot be tamed.

Or 3714  f 382v Monkeys
Monkeys. Artist, Shyam. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f. 382v)

Babur mentions several different kinds of monkeys (maymūn  “called bāndar in Hindustani”): one which is yellow with a white face and short tail, which is exported and taught to do tricks, another, (langūr) is larger with white hair, a black face. and long tail. Another comes from the islands which is coloured not exactly blue nor yellow but strangely, he writes, has a permanently erect penis which never becomes limp.

Or 3714  f 384v Parrots
Parrots. Artist, Kesu Gujarati. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f. 384v)

Babur describes many kinds of parrots. Of one particular kind he recounts that he had formerly believed parrots could only repeat what they had been taught, but that recently one of his close attendants, Abu 'l-Qasim Jalayir, had told him that when he had covered his parrot’s cage, the parrot said “Uncover me. I can’t breathe.”

Or 3714. f 389v Adjutant crane
Adjutant stork. Artist, Dhanu. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or 3714, f. 389v)

One of the birds that lives in water and on the banks of rivers, the adjutant stork (ding) had the wingspan of about the size of a man and no feathers on its head or neck. Its back and breast were white. Babur had been familiar with a tamed adjutant in Kabul which would catch meat when it was thrown at it. Once it swallowed a six layered shoe, and another time a whole chicken complete with wings and feathers.

Or 3714  f 392. The large bat
The great bat (chamgadar), is as large as an owl with a head like a puppy which hangs upside down on the branch of a tree at night. Artist, Shankar Gujarati. Northern India, 1590-93 (Or. 3714, f. 392v)

And finally, of alligators and crocodiles:

Or 3714  f 393v. The alligator
An alligator (literally ‘water-lion’). Artist, Dhanu. Northern India, 1590–3 (Or 3714, f. 393v)

Babur writes: “one of the aquatic creatures is the alligator (shir-i ābī ‘water-lion’) which lives in the ‘black’ waters and resembles a lizard.” In our manuscript, the artist Dhanu, who had possibly never seen an alligator or was at least unfamiliar with the Persian word for it, interprets the word literally and paints a lion attacking a bull, a familiar motif in Persian art. He was obviously puzzled, so to clarify that it was a water-lion, he added a ship in the top left corner. Babur also described dolphins, crocodiles and an especially large crocodile, the gharial, which seized three or four soldiers between Ghazipur and Benares.

Or 3714  f 394v gharial
The gharial. Artist, Sarwan. Northern India, 1590–3 (Or. 3714, f. 394r)

Animals: Art, Science and Sound is open at the British Libray until August 28th, with reduced ticketa available on Mondays to Wednesdays. The exhibition is also accompanied by a catalogue by curators Malini Roy, Cam Sharp Jones, and Cheryl Tipp.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian, Asian and African Collections

Further reading

An online presentation of selected pages of the Vāqiʻāt-i BāburīTurning the Pages” Or.3714.
For a digital version of the whole manuscript see Or.3714.
Beveridge, Annette, trans. The Babur-nama in English (Memoirs of Babur); translated from the original Turki text. vols. 1 and 2. London: Luzac & Co, 1922.
Thackston, Wheeler M., trans. The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor. New York: Oxford University Press in association with the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, 1996. Reprinted: Random House Publishing Group, 2007.
J.P. Losty and Malini Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, London: British Library, 2012:  pp. 39-45.
Smart, Ellen, “Paintings from the Baburnama: A Study of Sixteenth-Century Mughal Historical Manuscript Illustrations.” Ph.D. diss. School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1977.


17 July 2023

Edmund Edwards McKinnon: donor of rare books on north Sumatra

Edmund Edwards McKinnon (1936-2023) – known to all as Ed McKinnon – first came to Indonesia in the 1960s to work in the field of plantation agriculture in Sumatra. After discovering the mediaeval harbour site of Kota Cina near Belawan, Deli in 1972, he embarked on an MA and then a PhD in art history at Cornell University leading to his doctoral dissertation of 1984 on Kota Cina: its context and meaning in the trade of Southeast Asia in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries. Thereafter, alongside his professional consulting career, he never ceased to be deeply involved in archaeological and art historical research in Sumatra. Ed McKinnon published widely on subjects ranging from early inter-regional commerce between the Middle East, Southeast Asia and China; the trading activities of the Tamil guilds in west Sumatra; medieval trade ceramics in Sumatra; the location of the historic Sumatran ports of Lamuri and Fansur; and on Batak material imagery. In March 2023, over fifty years after his initial work at Kota Cina, he returned to North Sumatra and on this visit – much-feted in the Indonesian press – he urged the Governor to take measures to protect the many historical and archaeological sites of world importance. His sudden passing of a heart attack, on 23 June 2023, came as a great shock to his family, friends, colleagues and admirers.

Ed McKinnon in the museum store room at Muara Jambi, during the First International Conference on Jambi Studies, 2013
Ed McKinnon in the museum store room at Muara Jambi, during the First International Conference on Jambi Studies, 2013. Photograph by A.T. Gallop.

Over the past few years, Ed McKinnon generously donated to the British Library a number of rare books relating to the history of north Sumatra from his personal collection, some dating from the 1970s. These books were mostly printed in Medan, the capital of the province of North Sumatra and the second largest city in Indonesia, and an important centre of the Malay press since the 1920s. One such local publication is a history of the city of Medan, Sejarah Kota Medan (2012) which by coincidence shows on page 2 a photograph of Ed McKinnon in a very characteristic activity: sorting through ceramic sherds.

Sejarah Kota Medan Ed McKinnon inspecting ceramic sherds
Sejarah Kota Medan (2012). British Library, YP.2020.a.625

The oldest book donated by Ed McKinnon to the British Library was a work by the Sumatran writer and poet Dada Meuraxa published in 1974 on a cultural history of Sumatra, covering the whole island from Aceh in the north to Lampung in the south.

Front cover of Dada Meuraxa, Sejarah kebudayaan Sumatera (1974)
Front cover of: Dada Meuraxa, Sejarah kebudayaan Sumatera (1974). British Library, YP.2018.a.162

Also dating from the 1970s are three booklets by M.B. Purba, a retired army officer, all concerning the art and cultural heritage of the Simalungun Batak region to the north east of Lake Toba.

Three booklets by Let. Col. (Retired) M.B. Purba on aspects of Simalungun Batak culture
Three booklets by Let. Col. (Retired) M.B. Purba on aspects of Simalungun Batak culture: a history of the Simalungun Museum in Pematang Siantar (1978); a compendium of painted and carved design motifs (1979); and a treatise on the cultural traits of the Simalungun people (1977). British Library, YP.2018.a.165; YP.2018.a.163; YP.2018.a.164

A pictorial account of the growth of the Simalungun Museum in Pematang Siantar
A pictorial account of the growth of the Simalungun Museum in Pematang Siantar, from a single building in 1939 to a cluster of 11 traditional structures in the 1970s. M.B. Purba, Museum Simalungun (1978). British Library, YP.2018.a.165, p. 29

Another group of books given by Ed McKinnon relate to the renowned historian and cultural figurehead, Tengku Luckman Sinar (1933-2011), who published widely on all aspects of Sumatran Malay history and traditions. Tengku Luckman Sinar was the third son of Sultan Sulaiman Syariful Alam Syah (r. 1879-1946) of Serdang, on the northeast coast of Sumatra. Following the declaration of Indonesian indepencence in 1945 and the ensuing ‘Social Revolution’ in east Sumatra, which saw violent local uprisings against aristocratic families for perceived collaboration with the Dutch colonial forces, for most of the 20th century the royal courts of Sumatra lost all political power and functioned purely as guardians of traditional customs. However, after the fall of President Suharto in 1998 and subsequent state decentralisation, in many parts of Indonesia sultanates were revived and played an increasingly visible and influential role. Thus in 2001, after a long professional career as a writer and academic, and following the deaths of his two older brothers, Tengku Luckman Sinar was installed as Sultan Lukman Sinar Bashar Shah II of Serdang. The donations from Ed McKinnon include a biography of Tengku Luckman Sinar by his daughter Tengku Mira Sinar, accompanied by the programme of the launch event for that publication in Medan in 2016.

Publications relating to Tengku Luckman Sinar of north Sumatra
Publications relating to Tengku Luckman Sinar of north Sumatra donated by Ed McKinnon.

List of books donated to the British Library by Ed McKinnon, 2017-2022:
• Dada Meuraxa, Sejarah Kebudayaan Sumatera. Medan: Firma Hasmar, 1974. YP.2018.a.162
• Purba, M.D., Lingga Sitopu, S.A., Mengenal Lukis & Ukir Tradisional Simalungun (Painting and Ca[r]ving). Medan: M.D. Purba, 1979. YP.2018.a.163
• Purba, M.D., Mengenal Kepribadian Asli Rakyat Simalungun. Medan: M.D. Purba, 1977. YP.2018.a.164
• Purba, M.D., Obyek Wisata Museum Simalungun. Medan: M.D. Purba, 1978. YP.2018.a.165
Sejarah Kota Medan. Medan: Pemerintah Kota Medan, Badan Perencanaan Pembangunan Daerah, 2012. YP.2020.a.625
• Yayasan Kesultanan Serdang (Medan). Sumatera Utara tempo doeloe. Koleksi gambar: Tuanku Luckman Sinar Basarshah II S.H. Medan: Yayasan Kesultanan Serdang, 2009. YP.2020.a.665
• Tengku Luckman Sinar. Mengenang kewiraan pemuka adat dan masyarakat adatnya di Sumatera Utara menentang kolonialism Belanda, oleh Tuanku Luckman Sinar Basarshah. Medan: Forkala, 2017. YP.2020.b.124
• Tengku Mira Sinar. Tengku Luckman Sinar, Melayu Nusantara dan strategi kebudayaan, oleh Tengku Mira Sinar; editor dan kata pengantar, Heddy Shri Ahimsa-Putra. Yogyakarta: Kepel Press, 2016. YP.2018.a.3499
Peluncuran buku: ‘Tengku Luckman Sinar, Melayu Nusantara dan strategi kebudayaan’. Medan, 2016. YP.2020.a.664
Ragam Pusaka Warisan Leluhur Nusantara: Pekan Raya Sumatera Utara, 18-24 Maret 2016. [Medan]: Pusaka Semenda Deli, 2016. YP.2023.b.194
• Tengku Lah Husny, Lintasan Sejarah. Peradaban dan Budaya Penduduk Melayu-Pesisir Deli, Sumatera Timur 1612-1950. Medan: privately printed by T. Lah Husny. (n.d. (1975))?. [shelfmark pending]

Ed and Sinta McKinnon at the British Library, 2022
Ed and Sinta McKinnon at the British Library, June 2022. Photograph by A.T. Gallop.

Selamat jalan, Pak Ed.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

(Updated with correct date of birth, 1.8.2023)

11 July 2023

New display of Islamic manuscripts in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery

New display of Qurans in Treasures Gallery

A new selection of Islamic manuscripts is now on view in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. In this display we've focussed on some of the different formats and regional styles produced at various times across the Islamic world. In terms of size we begin with a large-size volume of the well-known Baybars Qurʼan, one of a seven volume set produced at the beginning of the 14th century for the Mamluk Sultan Rukn al-Din Baybars. At the other extreme we have included miniature Qurʼans which would have most likely been used as amulets. Alongside these are Qurʼans from West Africa, India and China, and a prayer book from the Ottoman Empire.

Sultan Baybars' Qur’an

Baybars Quran  Add MS 22409  f.117v
Qurʼan, Surat Taha 20:115. Cairo, Egypt, 1305-6. Purchased from T & W Boone in 1858 (Add MS 22409, ff 117v-118)

The best of the book arts in any Islamic culture can be seen in copies of the Qur’an. An excellent example is this Qur’an commissioned by the Mamluk Sultan Rukn al-Din Baybars (reigned 1260-77), copied in gold in the thuluth calligraphic style by Muhammad ibn al-Wahid. Vowels and reading marks are complemented by floral verse markers and marginal medallions in red, yellow, blue, and gold. Together, they combine the power of text and decoration to honour God’s message, which here reminds believers to be patient in receiving knowledge (Surat Taha, 20:115).

Miniature Qur’ans

A tiny octagonal Quran from Persia bound with gold and contained in a jade case 16th or 17th centuryMiniature Qur'an (ORB.30.9192)

Miniature Qur’ans, on the left from Iran, 16th or 17th century, acquired by the India Office Library in the 19th century; and on the right, from Turkey, 21st century, purchased in 2021 (Loth 36 and ORB.30/9192)

Too small to be read easily, miniature Qur’ans serve as a reminder of faith and have a decorative or protective function. Alongside manuscripts, printed miniature Qur’ans have been produced in the Islamic world and Europe since the late 19th century. Today they are mass-produced and carried or hung in cars, homes or shops. Shown here is a tiny octagonal manuscript Qur’an from Iran, written in a style of calligraphy known as ghubar, the Arabic word for dust. It is bound with delicately engraved covers of gold, and stored in a case of white jade. Also on display is a contemporary example printed in Turkey and housed in a golden plastic keychain case.

Ottoman prayer book

Or 13977 Sultan Mustafa's Dua Book f 2r Or 13977 Sultan Mustafa's Dua Book f 1v
Ottoman prayer book, probably Istanbul, Turkey, 1769. Purchased at Sotheby’s in 1980 (Or 13977, ff 1v-2r)
All believers are equal in prayer, but the materials used can range from the simple to the sumptuous. This prayer book, Khawass al-ad’iyah, lavishly decorated with gold and ornate calligraphy, was probably copied for the Ottoman Sultan Mustafa III (reigned 1757-74). It contains prayers (dualar) in Arabic divided into sections, each preceded by an Ottoman Turkish explanation. At the start are medallions in gold and red that incorporate more prayers, and stating that the book was produced for Sultan Mustafa İbn-i Sultan Ahmet. The volume was copied by İsmail el-Bağdadi in May-June 1769.

West African Qur’an

West African Quran
Qur’an from West Africa, probably Nigeria, early 20th century. Presented in 1970 (Or 13284, f.1v-2)

In line with West African tradition, this Qur’an is loose leaf to allow multiple scholars or students to use the religious book at the same time. The ornate leather and pulp board cover of the Qur’an helps to bind the pages together with a leather ribbon. Unlike other West African Qur’ans, this one does not have a leather pouch to carry the book. The text is written in a Central Sudanic or a Hausa/Borno hand with red notes in Arabic in the margins. Each verse is marked with a trefoil in red and yellow and after every fifth verse is the letter , indicating the number five, in black filled with red.

Thirty-leaved Qur’an from India

30-leaved Quran from India  IO Islamic 1267
The first section (juzʼ) of the Qurʼan. India, late 17th or early 18th century. Taken in 1799 from the Palace of Tipu Sultan of Mysore (reigned 1782-99) and transferred to the East India Company Library, London between 1806 and 1808 (IO Islamic 1267, ff. 1v-2)

Different styles of presenting the Qur’an developed throughout the Islamic world, inspired by the desire to decorate and embellish the sacred words of God. In India, thirty-leaved Qur’ans were particularly popular, with each of the thirty sections (juz’) of the Qur’an written in tiny script on two facing pages. An additional feature of this Qur’an is that every line begins with the first letter of the alphabet, alif, coloured here in red.

A Qurʼan from China

The opening leaves of a seventeenth-century Qur'an written in ṣīnī (‘Chinese’) script  part five of a set originally in thirty volumes (BL Or.15604  ff. 1v-2r)
Qur’an.  China, 17th century. Purchased at Bonham’s in 2000 (Or 15604, ff 55v-56)

The text of the Qur’an is the word of God and unalterable, but manuscripts of the Qur’an are often influenced by local traditions of calligraphy and decoration. Qur’ans in China were often produced in sets of 30 volumes. In this colourful example containing the fifth part or juz’, the final line (Surat al-Nisa’ 4:147) exemplifies the Chinese style of Arabic calligraphy. The text is surrounded by bright hues of red, green and gold enclosed in banners, circles and crescents, all typical of Chinese Islamic illumination.

Further reading

If you want to explore them further, both the Baybars Qurʼan (Add MS 22409) and the West African Qurʼan (Or 13284) have been fully digitised.

See also our collection page on Qurʼans and our blogposts:


Middle East and Africa Curatorial Team

03 July 2023

Manuscript Textiles: Weaving the Thread of Faith

This blog post on the use of manuscript textiles in Thailand and Laos, illustrated by examples in the British Library's Southeast Asian collections, is by Chevening Fellow Methaporn (Noon) Singhanan, who also took all the photographs of the items.

Thai and Lao manuscript textiles have a rich history that dates back to at least the 18th century. Buddhist teachings and scriptures, written on palm leaves or paper, were highly valued, and often adorned with intricate designs, illustrations, and calligraphy. Manuscript textiles were created to protect and preserve these texts from dust, humidity and insects and, as a result, many were transformed into beautiful pieces.

Luxury manuscript textile from northern Laos
Luxury manuscript textile from northern Laos, made from a re-used tube skirt of exquisite quality, combining a silk and silver-thread tapestry (border) with a large piece of Ikat fabric (main body) and a cotton waistband. Ca. mid-20th century. British Library, Or 16886

Manuscript textiles were fabrics, usually made from finely woven cotton or silk, occasionally also hemp, using a variety of weaving techniques, such as tapestry and ikat. They were created in many different shapes and patterns and often were a mixture of materials, for example silk brocade with cotton lining. Sometimes they included repurposed monk’s robes, ritual cloths, curtains and women’s skirts. Another type of weaving used bamboo slats interwoven with colourful cotton yarn and pieces of fabric in order to provide greater strength.

Manuscript wrapper using bamboo slats that were inserted while weaving the textile with red, green, black and white cotton yarns
Manuscript wrapper using bamboo slats that were inserted while weaving the textile with red, green, black and white cotton yarns. It was used to wrap ten palm leaf bundles containing Buddhist scriptures in Northern Thai Dhamma script, dated between 1827-74. British Library, Or 12401/B-C 

For centuries, textiles have been an integral part of women's lives in Thailand and Laos. From spinning raw cotton into yarn to weaving cloth, women have played a significant role in the creation of textiles. Often women planted the cotton shrubs, picked the cotton and dyed the yarn themselves. Textile production was a way for women to earn money and contribute to their families' income. In addition to their economic importance, textiles also held cultural significance. Traditional clothing and fabrics often reflected a community's values, beliefs, and history. Women were responsible for preserving these traditions by passing down textile-making techniques from generation to generation.

These manuscript textiles ranged from the luxurious to simple, and the materials used and their quality often reflected the wealth of the person offering the item. Decorative elements of these textiles include innovative geometric patterns and nature motifs.

Detail of a handwoven cotton shoulder cloth re-purposed as a manuscript wrapper
Detail of a handwoven cotton shoulder cloth re-purposed as a manuscript wrapper with diamond pattern in red colour on white background, with a simple red-and-black border design. Used to wrap ten palm leaf bundles with texts on the perfections of the Buddha in Northern Thai Dhamma script, ca. 1880-1920. British Library, Or 16865

Manuscript textiles were highly appreciated works of art due to the time and skill required to create them by hand, and enjoyed an exceptional level of popularity in Northern Thailand and Laos during the 18th and 19th centuries. They showcase the skill and creativity of the master weavers who created them, offering a glimpse into the rich history and traditions of the area. Manuscript textiles also provided an opportunity for women artisans to express their devotion to their faith through weaving. The textiles were believed to carry the energy and power of the teachings they encased.

Detail from a handwoven silk-and-cotton manuscript textile depicting two large butterflies surrounded by colourful geometric patterns
Detail from a handwoven silk-and-cotton manuscript textile depicting two large butterflies surrounded by colourful geometric patterns. Originally this was either a bedroom curtain or a shoulder cloth, then re-used to wrap palm leaf bundles. Northern Laos, ca. mid-20th century. British Library, Or 16597

In Theravada communities in Southeast Asia, the main form of accruing merit for men was to be ordained as a monk for a period, during which they learned to study and copy the scriptures. Although ordination remained an option for women, it was not widely practiced and even forbidden in some monastic orders. This meant that most women at that time could not study the scriptures in the formal way men did. Instead, the Buddha’s teachings were learned orally, and female devotees acted as patrons of the monastic communities and devoted themselves to supporting the Sangha (monastic order) in other forms. Since weaving has been a strongly gendered profession in Northern Thailand and Laos, creating cloths to store and preserve the scriptures was considered an important form of accruing merit for women.

Weavers had to learn to use a variety of techniques in order to create beautiful fabrics. Materials were selected carefully, and an elaborate cloth woven with a meditative state of mind counted as a valuable offering to honour the Buddha. Handwoven fabrics made in this way were therefore more refined and of a higher quality than handicrafts used in everyday life. Creating textiles on the basis of belief and faith in Buddhism was regarded as one of the Dhamma practices, with the hope that the produced virtue will contribute to a happy rebirth in the next life.

Detail from a handwoven manuscript textile depicting the popular chicken-and-ancestor motif
Detail from a handwoven manuscript textile depicting the popular chicken-and-ancestor motif. Northern Laos, ca. mid-20th century. British Library, Or 16597

The copying of manuscripts preserved the Buddhist teachings that were written down and passed on for centuries. Manuscripts were also used in meditation and prayer and were considered sacred objects. Manuscript textiles, which were used to wrap up the manuscripts in order to prevent damage by dirt, dust, intense sunlight, or insects, were thus comparable to protecting the Buddha’s words.

Sponsoring and offering manuscripts to a Buddhist temple has traditionally been an important and widely practised way of making merit, and as a result one would be re-born in fortunate circumstances. Anisong (Pali: ānisaṃsa) manuscripts praising the benefits of meritorious acts and gift-giving enjoyed great popularity across Thailand and Laos, and were often  themselves presented to monasteries alongside other manuscripts with beautiful cloth wrappers. Anisong texts frequently mention the virtue of creating scriptural manuscripts as a special meritorious act. It is believed that “one script character yields the same merit as the creation of one Buddha image” (Peltier 2014: 183).

Many Anisong manuscripts specifically mention the importance of offering textiles to wrap scriptures. A frequently found quote is: “A person who offers manuscript textiles will have a prosperous life full of barns, clothes, and plenty of food. The person who provides the manuscript cloth will go to the celestial palace, which will be decorated with various precious gems after their death” (Wichian 2006: 315).

In Lao culture, a common practice was to re-purpose tube-skirts (Pha Sarong or Sinh) or shoulder cloths (Pha Biang) - often the most luxurious a person or family owned - as manuscript wrappers. An explanation for this practice is that “… people donated Pha Sarong or Sinh because their son or daughter had died when they were very young. Their children thus had had no chance to wear beautifully woven clothes, so during their funeral ceremony the parents did not burn beautiful Sinh cloth with the bodies, but instead produced palm-leaf manuscripts wrapped with Sinh cloth to make merit for their dead children in the hope that in the next life they would live long enough to wear plenty of these clothes” (Legends in the weaving 2001: 89).

Handmade cotton cords with loops used to string three bundles of a palm leaf manuscripts containing Buddhist texts in Pali language with plain wooden covers
Handmade cotton cords with loops used to string three bundles of a palm leaf manuscripts containing Buddhist texts in Pali language with plain wooden covers. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 4888

In addition to the manuscript wrappers, people could offer a cord made from silk or cotton yarn, which was used to string palm leaves together to create bundles or volumes of palm leaf scriptures. A method of binding palm leaf books going back to the first millennium was to put a looped cord through a hole that was drilled through the palm leaves on the left side; another hole on the right side was often left empty for ease of flipping the leaves while reading. Northern Thai and Lao Anisong manuscripts often contain a dedicatory phrase like “whoever offers the cords to string the palm leaf manuscript will dwell with the wise and not lose their treasures” (Wichian 2006: 319) or “Whoever ties a rope to a book will have a lot of wealth and infinite perseverance” (Wichian 2006: 315).

07 Or 4890 combined
Handmade cotton cords with tassels, no loops, in dark red colour used to string five bundles of palm leaf manuscripts containing a Pali grammar, with lacquered and gilded covers. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 4890

A white cotton cord mixed with long hair to string a palm leaf manuscript, with dedicatory inscription mentioning a woman from Lamphun Province as donor
A white cotton cord mixed with long hair to string a palm leaf manuscript, with dedicatory inscription mentioning a woman from Lamphun Province as donor. Northern Thailand, 1949. British Library, Or 16985H

Manuscript textiles were not only works of art in and of themselves, but also mirror the social status and beliefs of the people who created them. For Northern Thai and Lao women the act of weaving wrappers and cords was analogous to the act of weaving the thread of faith, thus ensuring the preservation and continuation of the Buddha’s teachings.

Many of the practices and beliefs relating to manuscript textiles described above are still in use in Northern Thailand and Laos today. Since 2015, there has been a campaign with local communities and students to revive the custom of creating and offering traditional manuscripts with textiles at Lampang Province's Pongsanuk Temple. There are now many workshops and cultural events taking place in Northern Thailand to teach about making manuscript textiles in various techniques.

09 wrapper making
Creating manuscript textiles using colourful yarns by intertwining them with bamboo sticks. Methaporn Singhanan, Chiang Mai, Thailand, November 2020 (photo courtesy of จดหมายเหตุกรุงศรี Jod Mai Hed Krungsri)

Methaporn Singhanan, Chevening Fellow at the British Library 2022-23  Ccownwork

References and further reading
Andaya, Barbara Watson. Flaming womb: repositioning women in early modern Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, c2006.
Arthid Sheravanichkul. Narrative and gift-giving in Thai Ānisaṃsa texts. Buddhist narrative in Asia and beyond. Edited by Peter Skilling and Justin McDaniel, Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, 2013, pp. 37-46. 
Gordon, Alec and Napat Sirisambhand. Evidence for Thailand's missing social history: Thai women in old mural paintings. International Review of Social History, 47(2), pp. 261-275. 
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