02 October 2023
Drawn from across the globe: manuscript textiles in the Southeast Asian collections
The Chevening Fellowship hosted by the British Library’s Asian and African Collections Department from September 2022 to September 2023 has been completed successfully. The aim of this project was to research and catalogue manuscript textiles found in the Library’s Southeast Asian collections.
Display of manuscript textiles from the Southeast Asian collections, 6 September 2023
Over the past twelve months Chevening Fellow Noon Methaporn Singhanan assessed, described and photographed 120 manuscript textiles. The outcome is detailed catalogue descriptions, with photo documentation, and an extensive bibliography for further study. The metadata of the textiles will be added to existing manuscript records in the online catalogue in the coming weeks. As a final highlight of this project we organised a display of selected textiles for colleagues and external guests on 6 September 2023. During this event, Noon answered questions about the displayed items and her research. She also demonstrated how manuscript mats with bamboo sticks were made in northern Thailand, a tradition she has helped to revive in the past through her volunteer project at UNESCO prize-winning temple Wat Pongsanuk in Lampang.
Chevening Fellow Noon Methaporn Singhanan demonstrating how to make a manuscript mat with bamboo sticks
To summarise the findings from this project, Noon said that there were three important aspects that will help with her PhD research: 1) the diversity of materials originating from different places across the globe, 2) the different types of manuscript textiles she discovered, and 3) the importance of object comparison as a research method.
Diversity of materials
Quite unexpectedly, Noon found a large number of textiles and materials which did not originate from Southeast Asia, but from China, Japan, India, and the UK. Raw cotton used to produce fabrics in Britain was most likely sourced from American plantations and from India. For example, most of some 29 British-made wooden boxes (IO Pali 1-29) with kapok and velvet cushioning contain stunning Chinese silk tapestries in the style of Dragon Robes and silk ribbons that were repurposed to wrap around Burmese Buddhist manuscripts. These were given to Arthur Phayre, Commissioner of Burma 1862-7, by the King of Burma.
Wooden box with red velvet and kapok cushioning, containing a Burmese Buddhist palm leaf manuscript with two wrapping cloths cut to size from Chinese silk brocade, c. 1862-7 or earlier. British Library, IO Pali 29
A Burmese Kammavāca manuscript (Add MS 23939) from the late 18th or early 19th century was found to be wrapped with a stunning piece of Japanese silk brocade with a pattern of Chrysanthemums, plum blossoms and butterflies woven into yellow silk with gilded washi paper threads.
Another surprising find was a scrolled paper manuscript with a Buddhist text in Shan language from the first half of the 20th century (Or 15368), acquired in 1995 from Søren Egerod’s collection. Sewn on to the binding is a factory-made cotton cover printed with a leaf pattern, which may have been imported or made locally post-1920 in one of the emerging cotton mills in Burma. Attached at the rim is a synthetically dyed green felt ribbon, made from wool, a material that is unusual in the Shan manuscript tradition. Further testing will be necessary to establish the country of origin of the wool.
Noon also discovered a wrapper made up of several parts, including a stunning piece of batik cotton fabric with rose pattern on the outside, and checkered silk sewn together with a piece of cotton on the lining. This was custom-made for a Burmese Buddhist palm leaf manuscript dated 1869 (Or 11810).
The great variety of materials and techniques to make manuscript textiles is evidence of trade and exchange relations from the late 18th to the early 20th century. In some cases, a creation date is contained in the manuscript, and usually a date is included in the acquisition record of a manuscript, so that it is possible to estimate the approximate age of the textiles.
Types of manuscript textiles
The most common type of manuscript textile found in the Southeast Asian collections is the cloth wrapper, either custom-made to fit the size of the manuscript or sometimes made from re-purposed pieces, like for example shoulder cloths and tube-skirts in the Lao manuscript tradition (Or 16886). Noon found out that many Burmese manuscripts are wrapped with printed cotton fabrics which originated in the UK, but occasionally imported velvet is found, too. One Burmese shell book dated 1907 (Or 16052) contains pages made from fine silk and it is wrapped in a piece of cloth woven on the backstrap loom in Karen style. Some manuscripts from Thailand have wrappers made from imported fabrics like silk brocades from India or European printed cotton (Or 1044). A red silk brocade wrapper with a gold thread pattern (Or 5107) was made in India for a 19th-century royal Thai edition of the Tipitaka on palm leaves. A stamp on the red coloured cotton lining is in a Brahmic script (probably originating from north-west India).
Cloth wrapper and mat consisting of 84 coconut leaf stalks, yarn and cotton fabric made for a Burmese Buddhist manuscript dated 1856. British Library, Or 12645
Another frequently found type of manuscript wrapper is the wrapping mat produced from yarn or fabric that is reinforced with bamboo slats or stalks from coconut tree leaves. Occasionally, the cloth wrapper and mat could be combined, and such items were found in the Burmese collection. The example above (Or 12645) is a wrapper made from an imported printed cotton handkerchief, of UK origin made for the South Asian market, together with a locally custom-made mat consisting of 84 coconut leaf stalks intertwined with red and yellow cotton fabric. These two items were used to cover a Burmese Buddhist palm leaf manuscript dated 1856.
Generally, there are three techniques of making wrapping mats. One method often seen in the Lao and northern Thai manuscript traditions is to weave the mat on the loom, using cotton yarn for the warp and alternately cotton yarn and bamboo slats for the weft (Or 12401).
Hand-woven mat with 19 bamboo slats and factory-made hem made for ten northern Thai palm leaf bundles with Buddhist texts. Manuscripts dated 1827-74. British Library, Or 12401
Another technique to make wrapping mats is to connect the bamboo slats by wrapping cotton yarn, or occasionally wool yarn, around them; and by using yarns of different colours one can create beautiful symmetric diamond or zig-zag patterns (Or 16545). This method was widely used in Burma and northern Thailand.
A third method is to manually weave the mat using yarn, bamboo slats or coconut leaf stalks, and rectangular pieces of fabric to insert between the yarn and bamboo slats (Or 12645).
In the Shan manuscript tradition, the most common type of textile is the cloth cover. Scrolled paper books with text in Shan script are usually equipped with a cloth cover, either made from imported printed cotton or locally made cotton fabric that is sewn on to the stab-stitch binding. Occasionally, a ribbon is attached at the rim of the cloth cover to secure the scrolled manuscript. Noon found one exceptionally beautiful Shan scrolled manuscript from the 19th century adorned with a locally made plain white cotton cover that was painted by hand with a floral design in red, orange, yellow and blue tones (Or 16137).
Shan scrolled manuscript containing a Buddhist text (right), with a hand-painted cotton cover (left) sewn-on to the binding, 19th century. British Library, Or 16137
In the Thai, Burmese and Malay manuscript collections Noon found textile manuscript bags and envelopes, all of them made from imported fabrics. One such example is a manuscript bag for a Thai palm leaf manuscript, custom-made from imported printed cotton fabric (Or 15885). The factory-made outer layer has red, brown and white floral ornaments, whereas the lining was made from locally-made cream coloured cotton fabric. A rope to tie up the open side of the bag is decorated with small cotton tassels at its ends, and such tassels are attached to all four corners of the bag, too.
Manuscript bag for a palm leaf manuscript from Thailand, made from imported printed cotton, c. 1840-60. British Library, Or 15885
An envelope made from European damask silk originally came with a letter from Pangiran Adipati of Palembang, addressed to Stamford Raffles in Bengkulu in 1824 (MSS Eur D 742/1/61). The envelope is combined with a paper wrapper made from Dutch paper, with intricately cut ends at the back, made in the Malay tradition.
Yellow silk and paper wrapper addressed to Raffles from a letter from Pangiran Adipati of Palembang, made from European damask silk and Dutch paper, 1824. British Library, MSS Eur D 742/1/61
In the Burmese collection Noon found a large number of manuscript ribbons (sazigyo) which fulfil two purposes: 1) to wrap around palm leaf or Kammavaca manuscripts - the latter often consisting of loose leaves - in order to keep the leaves in order when the manuscript is stored, and 2) to add a dedicatory message from the donor which is woven into the ribbon. Sazigyo were usually made in the tablet-weaving technique from cotton, silk or hemp. These ribbons can be of extraordinary lengths of several metres, and in addition to the inscription decorations in form of sacred symbols, geometric forms, plants and animals can be found (Or 3665).
Burmese manuscript ribbon (sazigyo) made from hand-spun cotton yarn, with text and ornaments on a solid red background, 19th century. British Library, Or 3665
When researching the manuscript textiles, Noon realised that many questions remained unanswered, especially regarding the country of origin and creation dates. Therefore, she visited several other organisations in the UK, including the British Museum, the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the Wellcome Collection, the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, the National Archives at Kew and the Victoria and Albert Museum to see if there were similar items in these collections, possibly with recorded dates or detailed provenance records.
The method of object comparison proved useful to establish connections between some textile items and places of origin. During a visit to the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, Noon had the opportunity to see seven silk wrappers of exactly the same make as the British Library’s Or 5107. It is almost certain that they belonged to the same set of the Tipitaka thought to have been commissioned by King Rama III (r. 1824-51). The Mancunian acquisition record tells us that the Thai palm leaf manuscripts were donated by Pali scholar Thomas Rhys Davids in 1917.
Cotton wrapper with a butterfly and vine print on red background, lined with plain white cotton. Manchester 1874. British Library, Or 16673
During a visit to the National Archives in Kew Noon consulted numerous large volumes containing samples of textile designs registered by British companies in the 1870s-80s. With great excitement she found an exact match for a cloth wrapper made from a piece of imported printed cotton fabric with plain white hand-woven cotton lining in the British Library’s collection (Or 16673). It was made for a Burmese palm leaf manuscript with text on the Life of the Buddha, dated 1883. The fabric design was registered in 1874 by The Strines Printing Company in Manchester.
The moment of discovering a registered fabric design matching British Library Or 16673 at the National Archives in Kew.
Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections
Noon Methaporn Singhanan, Chevening Fellow at the British Library 2022-23