14 August 2023
Literary manuscripts from Southeast Asia on display
The British Library collections of manuscripts from Southeast Asia are especially rich in literary works, ranging from centuries-old epics deriving from Indian models, to innovative compositions in prose and poetry. In some regions literary manuscripts were designed to be read aloud to an audience, while in other places books were savoured in private. The written word aimed to enchant and soothe the soul, but usually also to instruct and improve the mind.
A selection of literary manuscripts from Southeast Asia is currently on display in the exhibitions case outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room on the third floor of the British Library building at St Pancras in London. On the bottom shelf are two illustrated folding books in Thai and Burmese, and on the top shelf are texts written in Vietnamese and Malay.
Thai konlabot กลบท. Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or. 16102, f. 9r
This folding book contains konlabot rhymes in the Thai language. Konlabot is a special form of Thai poetry going back to the classical work Chindamani (‘Jewel of Thought’), attributed to the Buddhist monk Horathibodi around 1670. Konlabot poetry is used in classical Thai literature to express emotions and the beauty of characters and scenes, but also to show the skill and intellect of the author. Rhymes are often presented in the shapes of animals, plants or natural settings, like the mythical golden hamsa bird in front of a cave.
Ramayana in Burmese. Myanmar (Burma), late 19th century. British Library, Or. 14178, f. 8r
The great Indian epic Ramayana is known in Burmese as Yama Zatdaw. This beautiful illustrated folding book depicts the episode when Rama (with green face), his wife Sita and and his brother Lakshmana are living in exile. The demon king Ravana plots to abduct Sita by sending one of his demons in the form of a golden deer. Sita begs Rama to catch the golden deer for her (left), and so he leaves Sita under the protection of Lakshmana and goes off to shoot the golden deer with his bow and arrow (right).
Vietnamese tuông plays. Vietnam, mid-19th century. British Library, Or. 8218, vol. 1, f. 2r
‘Life story of Song Ciming zhuan’ is one of 46 tuông plays from a ten-volume set possibly written in Hue, the capital of Vietnam in the 19th century. Tuông, or classical Vietnamese theatre, is believed to have originated through Chinese influence in the 13th century. It became especially popular during the Nguyên dynasty (1802-1945), when emperors and high-ranking mandarins became patrons of troupes and had performances given in their private chambers.
Malay tale of Muhammad Hanafiah. Penang, 1805. British Library, MSS Malay B.6, ff. 1v-2r
Translated from a Persian original probably in the 15th century, the Malay Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah tells of heroic battles waged in the name of Islam, and this story came to epitomise valour in battle. In a famous episode in the Sejarah Melayu, the chronicle of the great kingdom of Melaka, the night before Melaka was attacked by the Portuguese in 1511, the young knights sent a message to the sultan requesting the recitation of the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah to give them courage.
All the manuscripts shown here have been digitised, and can be read fully on the Digitised Manuscripts website.