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84 posts categorized "Buddhism"

01 July 2024

Henry Alabaster’s “Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts” (2): miscellaneous texts, novels and dramas

Henry Alabaster (1836-84) started his career as an interpreter for Thai in the British consular service in Bangkok where he was in close contact with King Mongkut (Rama IV). He helped to organise the solar eclipse observation event in August 1868 that was attended by various foreign government officials, including British and French. Shortly after the King died from malaria a few weeks after this event, Alabaster had to return to the UK. Thanks to his language skills and his in-depth knowledge of Thai literature he was employed by Reinhold Rost, librarian of the India Office Library, to catalogue seventeen Thai manuscripts that had been sitting in the IOL collection unexamined for two or more decades. Alabaster returned to Bangkok in 1872 to become King Chulalongkorn’s (Rama V) adviser. In the first part of this blog post, four legal manuscripts from Alabaster’s “Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts”, first section, were introduced. Now we will look at the remaining thirteen manuscripts.

Henry Alabaster standing next to King Mongkut on occasion of the solar eclipse observation event at Wa Kor observatory in southern Thailand
Henry Alabaster standing next to King Mongkut on occasion of the solar eclipse observation event at Wa Kor observatory in southern Thailand, on 18 August 1868 (detail on the right). Photo source: ณ หว้ากอ : อดีต ปัจจุบัน อนาคต [Na Wākō̜ : ʿadīt patčhuban ʿanākhot], Bangkok 2018. British Library YP.2023.b.318 (front cover)

The handwritten catalogue has three sections: 1) Royal edicts and books of laws; 2) Miscellaneous; and 3) Novels and dramas.

In the second section, there are only three records for literary works.

The first item (MSS Siamese 5) is described as “Suphasit. Elegant sayings or Poverbs” (สุภาษิต), written with white chalk pencil on black paper in folding book format, 56 fols. He explained that this work contains 222 secular and Buddhist proverbs, commonly known as “Suphasit Thai”, which were also mentioned in Pallegoix’s “Grammatica linguae Thai” (Bangkok, 1850). Alabaster did not explicitly say that this manuscript may be related to Pallegoix in terms of provenance, but Pallegoix may have had access to this or a similar manuscript after he became vicar apostolic of Eastern Siam in 1838.

The second record (MSS Siamese 6) is for a black paper folding book, 60 fols., containing a text with the title “Kratai kap Phë. The Hare and the Goat. A fable” (กระต่ายกับแพะ), with unrelated drawings of naga (serpents) and floral designs. Alabaster included a summary of the story and established 1811 as the year of creation thanks to a note in this manuscript saying that the scribe saw a comet for eleven nights (this must have been the Great Comet of 1811).

A small unfinished drawing in a black folding book containing the story “Kratai kap Phë. The Hare and the Goat
A small unfinished drawing in a black folding book containing the story “Kratai kap Phë. The Hare and the Goat. A fable”, dated 1811. British Library, MSS Siamese 6, f. 59

Next follows a description of another black folding book (MSS Siamese 7), 56 fols., containing two texts written with white ink: “Phra Samutha Khlong Wuta Chindamani Chan – Prosody (an extract)” (จินดามณี) and “Kaiya Nakhon, the City of the Body, a Buddhist Allegory” (กายนคร). Chindamani, or Jewels of Thought, is one of the most important literary treasures in Thai language going back to the 17th century. The other is a Thai version of a Pali text (kāya nagara) dealing with contemplation of the human body, which is one of the fundamental four meditations (satipatthāna) in Theravada Buddhism. Alabaster noted the inconsistent use of accents (tone marks) which may point towards a creation date around 1800 or earlier.

Extract from the “Chindamani” written in white ink in a black paper folding book
Extract from the “Chindamani” written in white ink in a black paper folding book. British Library, MSS Siamese 7, f. 14

The third section of Alabaster’s catalogue on “Novels and Dramas” is the most extensive part, containing descriptions of ten manuscripts:

- MSS Siamese 8 “Hoi Sang vol. 1. The Adventures of Prince Hoi Sang. His escape from the city of the genies and his marriage with Princess Ruchana” (หอยสังข์), black paper folding book, 56 fols., no date. Prince Hoi Sang is born in a conch shell, similar to the hero of the story of Sang Sinchai.
- MSS Siamese 9 “I-hnao vol. 4. A Drama founded on Malayan or Javanese legends” (อิเหนา), black paper folding book, 56 fols., no date. Alabaster gives a summary of the text which is a popular Thai version of the Javanese Panji tales.
- MSS Siamese 10 “Phra Unarut vol. 5. The fight of King Unarut with the Genie King whose daughter has eloped with him” (พระอุณรุท), black paper folding book, 56 fols., no date. Alabaster notes that this is a Thai version of the story of King Anirut (Aniruddha) and Queen Usa.
- MSS Siamese 11 “Dara Suriwong vol. 1. The loves of Prince Dara and the Princess with the fragrant hair” (ดารา สุริวงศ์), black paper folding book, 66 fols., no date. Story of a prince who finds a casket containing a lock of fragrant hair and his search for the hair’s owner who turns out to be the daughter of the King of Benares.
- MSS Siamese 12 “Suwannahong vol. 13. Prince Suwannahong and his angel wives” (สุวรรณหงส์), black paper folding book, 56 fols., no date. Alabaster provides a summary of the story of the prince and his three jealous wives.
- MSS Siamese 13 “Samut Niyai Phra Si Muang vol. 1. The Story of Prince Si Muang and the wonderful Hong Bird” (พระศรีเมือง), white paper folding book, 82 fols., no date. Story of a prince who possesses a talking bird (hamsa) that leads him to study with a hermit, who then seeks a wife for the prince.
- MSS Siamese 14 “Thao Sawatthi Racha vol. 1. The King of Sravasti and his white elephant” (ท้าวสาวัตถีราชา), white paper folding book, 56 fols., contains a later added date, 1817, “which is probably the time at which it passed into foreign hands”. Story of the King of Sawatthi, whose twin sons were born while he spent many years in the jungle to look for his escaped white elephant.
- MSS Siamese 15 “Thepha Lin Thong vols. 1 and 2. The Adventures of Prince Thepha Lin Thong” (เทพลินทอง), white paper folding book, 76 fols., no date. Alabaster notes that it was “written by some foreigner, probably a Portuguese in romanized Siamese”.
- MSS Siamese 16 “Another volume of the same work” (MSS Siamese 15), white paper folding book, 58 fols., no date. “Written in ink in Siamese character, the form of the letters slightly differing from the forms now in vogue. Mentioned by Pallegoix in his list of Siamese Books as ‘King Lin Thong’”. Alabaster gives a detailed two-page summary of this story.
- MSS Siamese 17/a-b “Sang Sin Chai vols. III and V. The story of Prince Sang Sinchai, possessor of the magic shell, the magic bow, and the magic sword” (สังข์ศิลป์ชัย), black paper folding books, 44 fols. (a) and 42 fols. (b), date not stated. Alabaster provides a very short summary of the story and mentions that “The first, second and fourth volumes have got separated and are now in the British Museum numbered 12261, 12262a; and 12264 of the Additional manuscripts”. What he refers to are three manuscripts 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) who served in the British establishment in Bengal from 1770 to 1797 and brought back a vast collection of Persian, Arakanese, Pali-Burmese and few Thai manuscripts. It is certain that MSS Siamese 17/a-b, and possibly other manuscripts described in Alabaster’s catalogue, were originally part of Murray’s collection – especially the legal texts in section 1 since Murray had a particular interest in such.

One opening of the Romanised version of “Thepha Lin Thong” written in black ink in a white paper folding book
One opening of the Romanised version of “Thepha Lin Thong” written in black ink in a white paper folding book. British Library, MSS Siamese 15, f.9

After completion of his “Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts”, Alabaster was determined to return to Bangkok. He rejected offers of posts in Cayenne and Saigon, and by April 1872 was deemed to have resigned from the British consular service. The reason was that he had been invited back to Siam by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) to work in the King’s service. In May 1872 he was on a ship back to Bangkok, and on 15 November 1872 Alabaster wrote in a letter to MP Charles W Dilke that the Siamese government had recognised his position and that he was helping to facilitate the conclusion of the Chiang Mai Treaty (British Library, Add MS 43885, p. 247).

In the years until his untimely death in 1884 due to a sudden illness, Henry Alabaster made significant contributions to the modernisation of Thailand. In an announcement of his death in the Straits Times Weekly, 10 September 1884, his achievements were highlighted as follows:
“This gentleman who has been in the country for almost thirty years, was known and highly esteemed by everybody. He might, indeed, claim to have been for a long time the most prominent foreign personage in Bangkok, on account of his great influence as well as for the high offices he held for many years. He was His Majesty’s librarian, the director of the Royal Museum, the Royal Surveyor, the Administrator of Royal Parks and Gardens, the Superintendent of Roads and Bridges, and the First Official Interpreter of the King. In this delicate position especially he knew well how to command the full confidence and the highest esteem of the Sovereign, who often applied to him for advice …”

Watercolour sketch of Wa Kor observatory by Palacia Alabaster
Watercolour sketch of Wa Kor observatory by Palacia Alabaster, 1868. The National Archives, TNA, FO 69/46. Photo courtesy of Padej Kumlertsakul.

Especially for the future of the Thai library sector, Henry Alabaster played a crucial role as the King’s librarian who took the lead in cataloguing the royal collection of manuscripts and books. He instructed his Thai assistants in Western standards of cataloguing and classification, which he had learned from Reinhold Rost in order to create the “Catalogue of Siamese Manuscripts” for the India Office Library.

Alabaster left behind two families: three children by his English wife, Palacia; and two by his Thai wife, Perm. In a handwritten condolence letter  to Mrs Alabaster, King Chulalongkorn informed her, in English, that the funeral was to be conducted with all the honours of the First Class Phya, and a monument of European style would be erected at the place of Alabaster’s burial. Nearly three decades later, when King Vajiravudh (Rama Vl) introduced the use of surnames in 1913, Alabaster’s Thai family was given the name ‘Savetsila’, a literal translation of the word ‘alabaster’.

Henry Alabaster’s memorial inscription at the Protestant Cemetery in Bangkok reads:
“To Henry Alabaster, formerly of H.B.M.’s Consular Service, afterwards in that of His Majesty the King of Siam by whom this monument was erected in recognition of faithful service.
Born A.D.1836 - Died A.D.1884.
A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country.”

Henry Alabaster’s memorial erected by King Chulalongkorn (left) and bust (right) at the Protestant Cemetery in Bangkok
Henry Alabaster’s memorial erected by King Chulalongkorn (left) and bust (right) at the Protestant Cemetery in Bangkok, just a short distance from his grave, 2024. Photos courtesy of Jason Rolan.

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

References and further reading
Igunma, Jana: Reunited at last: a classical Thai verse novel from Ayutthaya (published 25 April 2022)
Alabaster, Henry. Henry Alabaster of Siam: correspondence 1857-1884 and career. [Great Britain]: Alabaster Society, 2009.
Alabaster, John S. Henry Alabaster of Siam 1836-1884: serving two masters. [Great Britain]: Alabaster Society, 2012.
Correspondence of Henry Alabaster and Palacia Alabaster (accessed 14 May 2023)

21 May 2024

Burkhard Quessel, Curator for Tibetan, retires from the British Library

At the end of April 2024, Burkhard Quessel retired from the British Library, 27 years after his appointment as Curator for Tibetan collections in 1997. 

Burkhard Quessel (second from left) shows His Holiness the 17th Karmapa a Tibetan manuscript
During a visit to the British Library on 19 May 2017 by the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje (left), Burkhard Quessel (second from left) shows His Holiness a Tibetan manuscript. Second from the right is Kristian Jensen, Head of Collections, while on the right is Chime Rinpoche, a predecessor of Burkhard as Curator for Tibetan at the British Library. Photograph by the British Library (from Karmapa Facebook).  

As well as developing and improving access to the Tibetan collections, one of Burkhard’s major contributions was his work on the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), in order to create consistent standards and guidelines for the description of manuscripts and archival records. He spearheaded the introduction of TEI for the cataloguing of content in Tibetan and other Asian languages at the British Library, and supported colleagues and teams using TEI, most notably for the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project and the International Dunhuang Progamme, and enabled the Library to contribute metadata on Persian manuscripts to Fihrist. Burkhard’s contribution was critical in setting up access strategies for the Sanskrit collection and for Tibetan materials in the Stein and related collections, as well as for the cataloguing of Tibetan materials in the Endangered Archives Programme, such as the printed Sutra shown below. 

Sutra, in Tibetan, xylograph in red and black ink; before 1857
འཕགས་པ་ཏོག་གཟུངས་བཞུགས་སོ།. Sutra, in Tibetan, xylograph in red and black ink; before 1857. Collection of Noyon Hutuktu Danzan Ravjaa Museum, Mongolia. EAP031/1/14.  

Another example of Burkhard’s collegial and collaborative work was his involvement in the Jainpedia project led by the Institute of Jainology in the early 2000s, which resulted in the digitisation of a substantial number of the Library’s Jain manuscripts, the publication of the Catalogue of the Jain manuscripts of the British Library (3 vols., 2006), and a display in the Treasures Gallery. Burkhard also played a major role in the online publishing of A Descriptive Catalogue of the Hodgson Collection in the British Library, London, which was launched in 2011. Most recent achievements include Burkhard's contribution to the AHRC-funded project Transforming Technologies and Buddhist Book Culture, a multi-disciplinary collaboration with the Mongolian Inner Asia Studies Unit (MIASU) at Cambridge University, and the follow-up project Tibetan Book Evolution and Technology (2013-2015) funded by an Inter-European Marie Curie Fellowship.

Writing exercise in Tibetan
Writing exercise in Tibetan, ca. 17th-19th c. Acquired by Aurel Stein 1913-1916 from the Etsin-gol delta, south of Soko-Nor. British Library, IOL Tib M 223 Noc

Burkhard was one of the curators who helped to shape a major exhibition on Buddhism which took place at the British Library from 25 October 2019 to 23 February 2020. As the curator responsible for Tibetan materials, he selected over a dozen objects of Tibetan origin from the Library's collection, carried out research and compiled exhibition labels. With his expertise and in-depth knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism he contributed to the development of a storyline for the exhibition and ensured that objects were handled and displayed with due respect. Shown below is a photograph of one of the exhibition cases with a Tibetan Thangka painting of Padmasambhava, founder of Samye monastery, mounted on the wall, with the caption written for the exhibition by Burkhard.

 
Exhibition case with a Tibetan Thangka painting of Padmasambhava, founder of Samye monastery, mounted on the wall
'Padmasambhava, the ‘Lotus-Born’, is one of the most popular teacher figures in Tibet. He was a master famous for his occult powers. When local demonic forces obstructed the foundation of the first Tibetan monastery in Samye in the 8th century, the king invited him from India to put the demons and deities of Tibet into the service of Buddhism. He is seated on a lotus at the centre of this painting with his two principal consorts on the left and right. Samye is still an active monastery and pilgrimage site in Tibet today. 
Thangka painting, India, 1788–1805. British Library, Add.Or.3048, from the collection of Sir Gore Ousely.'
[Exhibition caption by Burkhard Quessel, Buddhism exhibition, British Library, 2019.]

Burkhard knew the Tibetan collections in the British Library intimately, including where to find Tibetan manuscript material hidden in many different parts of the library. Presented below is Burkhard’s description of one such treasure, an account of Tibet by the Panchen Lama of 1775:

‘In 1774 George Bogle (1746-1781) was sent on a diplomatic mission to Tibet by the British Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings. During the five months he spent in Tashilhunpo at the court of the 3rd Panchen dPal Idan ye shes (1738-1780), he formed a strong relationship with the Panchen Lama or ‘Tashi Lama’ as he was referred to by the British.

Bogle records that during an audience with the Panchen Lama in January 1775, the Lama ‘told me that he would order his people to write down ever particular regarding the laws and customs of the country that I wished to know. I thanked him and told him that I would first give him an account of Europe which from the great curiosity and novelty of the subject would be agreeable to him’ (Mss Eur 226/49). Bogle’s account of Europe for the Tashi Lama was translated into Tibetan and presented to the Panchen on a later occasion.

A copy of the English draft is contained in Mss Eur 226/65 and was published in A. Lamb, Bhutan and Tibet, The Travels of George Bogle and Alexander Hamilton 1774-1777 (Hertingfordbury, 2002). Bogle’s journal mentions that the Lama also kept his promise and provided him with a similar written account on Tibet which is illustrated here. The section shown deals with the early royal history of Tibet.’

[Burkhard Quessel, ‘Account of Tibet by the Panchen Lama’, in: A Cabinet of Oriental Curiosities: an album for Graham Shaw from his colleagues, ed. Annabel Teh Gallop. London: British Library, 2006; no. 19.]

The early royal history of Tibet, from an account of Tibet by the Panchen Lama, written in Tibetan cursive script, presented to George Bogle, 1775
The early royal history of Tibet, from an account of Tibet by the Panchen Lama, written in Tibetan cursive script, presented to George Bogle, 1775. British Library, MSS Eur 226/66. Noc
 
Burkhard Quessel, receiving a farewell gift from his colleagues on his retirement
Burkhard Quessel, receiving a farewell gift from his colleagues on his retirement, 26 April 2024.

Contributed by colleagues in Asian and African Collections and Endangered Archives Programme

30 October 2023

Joseph Gaye (1852-1926) photographic views of the Kathmandu Valley and India donated to the British Library

This blog post is written by Susan Harris, our Cataloguer of Photographs, working on the British Library’s Unlocking Hidden Collections project. This initiative aims to process, research and catalogue the Library’s hidden collections, making them more accessible to researchers and the public.

In May 2023, the descendants of amateur photographer Joseph Gaye (1852-1926) donated a collection of photographic material of his views of the Kathmandu Valley and India taken between 1888 and 1899 to the British Library. Joseph's descendant Mary-Margaret Gaye and her husband Doug Halverson spent many years researching Joseph's career in South Asia and identification of his views. We are most grateful to Mary-Margaret and Doug for making this collection available for researchers documenting the transformation of Kathmandu before the earthquake of 1934. Their publication is listed in the bibliography below.

Joseph Gaye was born in Northfleet, Kent, in 1852. At 18, he enlisted with the 4th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade and went to India as a rifleman in 1873. Gaye left the army after completing his 12-year enlistment term in 1882 to lead several Indian military bands. In 1888, he, with his wife, Mary Elizabeth Short, moved to Kathmandu, Nepal, where he served as bandmaster to the Royal Nepalese Army under Maharaja Bir Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana. In 1892, he became a bandmaster in turn to three viceroys of India (Marquess of Lansdowne, Earl of Elgin, and Lord Curzon of Kedleston) before returning to England in 1899. In 1905, Gaye and his four sons moved to Canada, where he died in 1926 in Lemberg, Canada. From 1888 to 1899, he produced photographs of Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, Burma and India; these were among his possessions, along with a large studio camera, at the time of his death.

The Joseph Gaye collection is an exciting addition to the British Library, containing 91 glass negatives, five cellulose negatives and 32 albumen prints, primarily of the Kathmandu Valley, with a few from India. The subjects vary from architecture and landscapes to street scenes and people, including portraits of his family. Gaye’s photographs provided a unique insight at a time when few foreigners were allowed into Nepal.

Here are a few highlights from the collection of Nepal’s architectural monuments, some that remain today and others that have disappeared due to natural disasters or urban development:

A crowd of curious onlookers gathered before a building on the southwest corner of the Hanuman Dhoka Darbar complex in Kathmandu Durbar Square (fig.1). The building, from 1847, was the original Gaddhi Baithak, a palace used for coronations and for meeting foreign heads of state. It was in the Newar style with influences from the Mughal architecture of northern India. A western façade, as seen in the photograph, was probably added later. Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana (1863-1929) of Nepal,  replaced it in 1908 with the neo-classical building that exists today.

A crowd in front of the western facade of the original Gaddhi Baithak
Fig.1. A crowd in front of the western facade of the original Gaddhi Baithak, Basantapur Durbar Square, Kathmandu. Taken by Joseph Gaye, 1888-1892. Albumen Print, 155 x 105 mm. British Library, Photo 1424/3(17).

Patan Durbar Square, in the city of Lalitpur, is one of the three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley; it has been through two significant earthquakes in 1934 and 2015. Gaye capture the square before these earthquakes, looking south, towards a crowd of observers and a line of temples and statues (fig.2). John Alexander Dunn, an Officer of the Geological Survey of India (GSI), also took a photograph (fig.3) of the square, looking north, after the 1934 earthquake. The only recognizable landmarks still standing are the statue of Garuda, the Krishna Mandir and the Vishwanath Temple with the elephants in front.

View of the Patan Durbar Square, Lalitpur, looking south
Fig.2. View of the Patan Durbar Square, Lalitpur, looking south. From the left: Krisnhna Mandir Temple (Chayasim Deval), the Taleju Bell, the Harishankar Temple, King Yoga Narendra Malla’s Column, Narasimha Temple, Vishnu Temple, Char Narayan Temple, Garuda statue, the Krishna Mandir and the Vishvanath Temple. Taken by Joseph Gaye, 1888-1892. Albumen Print, 155 x 105 mm. British Library, Photo 1424/3(8).

Darbar Square, Patan, Nepal [after the 1934 earthquake].
Fig.3. Darbar Square, Patan, Nepal [after the 1934 earthquake]. Taken by J.A. Dunn, January 1934. Albumen Print, 83 x 111 mm. British Library, Photo 899/2(4).

Gaye captured a winding pathway on the eastern flank, leading up to Swayambhu, an ancient religious site of temples and shrines at the top of a hill in the Kathmandu Valley (fig.4). The photograph shows a pair of Buddha statues marking the beginning of the path, with small chaityas, or shrines, dotted along the route. A photograph (EAP838/1/1/5/154) taken approximately 30 years later from the Chitrakar collection by Dirgha Man and Ganesh Man Chitraker shows a stairway with refurbished Buddhas and chaityas at the entrance that has replaced the pathway. 

Steps up to Temples [Swayambhu Stupa, Kathmandu Valley]
Fig.4. Steps up to Temples [Swayambhu Stupa, Kathmandu Valley]. Taken by Joseph Gaye, 1888-1892. Dry Plate Negative. British Library, Photo 1424/1(67).

 

Further reading:

British Library’s The Endangered Archives Programme

Gaye, Mary Margaret and Halverson, Doug, The Photography of Joseph Gaye: Nepal, India and Burma 1888-1899, (privately printed) Canada: Mary Margaret Gaye and Doug Halverson, 2023

Onta, Pratyoush. ‘A Suggestive History of the First Century of Photographic Consumption in Kathmandu’, Studies in Nepali History and Society, Vol. 3, No. 1 (June 1998), pp.181-212

Slusser, Mary Shepherd, Nepal Mandala: A Cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley, Volume 1 Text, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982

Weise, Kai, ‘An outlook of Gaddhi Baithak’, The Himalayan Times, 2 April 2016 

 

By Susan M. Harris CCBY Image

16 October 2023

New display of Buddhist manuscripts and block prints in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery

Following the success of the Buddhism exhibition (October 2019 - February 2020) at the British Library, a new display of Buddhist manuscripts and block prints has recently been installed in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery.

“Sacred Texts” display case on Buddhism in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery
“Sacred Texts” display case on Buddhism in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery in the British Library.

Buddhism, which originated in northern India in the 5th-6th century BC, is mainly concerned with universal liberation. The Buddha, born as Prince Siddhartha, renounced his worldly life to search for ways to end suffering. Through meditation and subsequently enlightenment he realised that the causes of all suffering are desire, ignorance and hatred. The Buddha’s teachings of the Noble Eightfold Path, or Middle Way, describe practices and morals of a follower that help to overcome the three causes of suffering and lead to liberation (nirvana). Buddhists believe that all actions have consequences resulting in karmic reward or retribution within the cycle of birth, death and rebirth (samsāra).

Devotees founded temples and monasteries and sponsored the dissemination and preservation of Buddhist teachings over the past 2,500 years. Buddhism has produced a wealth of philosophical and doctrinal literature  in numerous languages, and as the Buddha’s words spread across Asia and to the West, different schools like Theravāda, Mahayāna and Vajrayāna stressed particular aspects of the quest for liberation.

The Birth of the Buddha
The Birth of the Buddha, India or Nepal, 1970s. Purchased from Barbara Browne in 2013. British Library, Or 16921/17

A Tibetan block print depicts with great attention to detail episodes from the legendary account around the birth of the Buddha. In the centre, Queen Māyādevī is shown giving birth to the Buddha-to-be whilst standing under a Sal tree and reaching overhead to hold on to a branch for support. On the lower right she is also shown asleep having the dream that announces her pregnancy. On the left, the newly born prince Siddhartha takes seven steps into each direction causing lotus flowers to spring from the ground with each step. The print is based on a set of 18th-century prints from Derge in Eastern Tibet.

Life of the Buddha, Burma, 1875
Life of the Buddha, Burma, 1875. Purchased in 1988. British Library, Or 14405 

Scenes from the Life of the Buddha are a popular topic of illustrated Burmese parabaik manuscripts. This image from the Mālālaṅkāra vatthu shows the Kathina festival which signifies the end of Vassa, a three-month rainy season retreat for Buddhist monks. The festival that goes back to the lifetime of the Buddha is an occasion for the laity to bring donations, often food and robes, to the monks and to express dāna, or generosity. Dāna is seen as one of the main practices through which a layperson can gain merit and attain a fortunate rebirth.

Mahākāśyapa, the ‘foremost arhat in austerities’, China, 18th century
Mahākāśyapa, the ‘foremost arhat in austerities’, China, 18th century. Purchased from Mrs Lisa Francis Butler in 1901. British Library, Or 6245

Arhat is a Sanskrit word indicating a noble person who has achieved spiritual awakening and liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Mahākāśyapa was one of the Buddha’s first disciples who became a great arhat and played a crucial role in spreading the Buddha’s teachings, or Dharma. He trained his body and mind by giving up worldly comforts. Here he is shown holding a flower, referring to an event in which he was the only one who understood the Buddha’s words during a service. He then received the Dharma from the Buddha and became a leading figure in Buddhism.

Illustration of Mañjuśrī with prayer and incantation
Illustration of Mañjuśrī with prayer and incantation, Dunhuang, China, around 10th century. Obtained by Aurel Stein during his second expedition to Central Asia, 1906-08, part-funded by the British Museum. British Library, Or.8210/P.20 

In Mahayāna Buddhism, Bodhisattvas play an important role as celestial enlightened beings who assist ordinary humans out of compassion. Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva of wisdom, is depicted riding a lion and accompanied by two attendants, a man and a boy. The texts underneath both advocate devotion to the deity. Prints such as this one were commissioned by Buddhist believers as an act of faith and were used for devotional practice, reflecting the popularity of Mañjuśrī.

Pañcarakṣā, The five protections
Pañcarakṣā (The five protections), Nepal, 1130-1150 AD. Purchased from James Singer in February 1981. British Library, Or 14000

The Pañcarakṣā is a collection of Sanskrit texts dedicated to the five Goddesses believed to be the personification of five protective spells (dhāraṇī) traditionally uttered by the Buddha himself. These texts deal with the power of each Goddess (and each spell) against various diseases, calamities and misfortunes and contain ritual invocations used for worship. Besides their textual value, manuscripts of the Pañcarakṣā also serve as amulets. The palm-leaf manuscript (fragment) shown above features illustrations of the Goddesses and is written in the early Nepalese script.

An Illustrated Guide to Mudrās, Japan, 1684
An Illustrated Guide to Mudrās, Japan, 1684. Acquired from Rev. A. Patton in 1906. British Library, 16015.a.25

The Japanese work depicted above, Shuinzu, contains depictions and explanations of the symbolic hand gestures, known in Sanskrit as mudrās, that are used in Buddhist rituals and iconography. The text describes the twelve principal mudrās of Shingon Buddhism, one of the leading Buddhist schools in Japan.

A volume from the Narthang Tenjur, Tibet, 1741-42
A volume from the Narthang Tenjur, Tibet, 1741-42. Donated to the India Office Library by the Government of India in 1904. 14310.a.RGYUD 1 

In the Tibetan Buddhist canon there are two primary collections of works: the Kanjur, the translated teachings of the Buddha, and the Tenjur, the translated commentaries. The volume on display is one of some 220 volumes of a Tenjur that was printed between 1741 and 1742 in Narthang. It is one of the most important printing houses in Central Tibet, located about 15 km west of the town of Shigatse. This volume opens the section of commentaries on Tantra that have been translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan.

Jātaka, the Buddha’s Birth Tales, Central Thailand, 1894
Jātaka, the Buddha’s Birth Tales, Central Thailand, 1894. Purchased from Robert Stolper in 2005. British Library, Or 16101 

Jātaka tales recollecting the 547 previous lives of the Buddha are an important part of the Tipiṭaka, the Buddhist canon in the Pali language of the Theravāda school. The last ten Birth Tales, six of which are illustrated in the image above, highlight ten virtues of enlightened be-ings: compassion, good conduct, renunciation, wisdom, diligence, tolerance, honesty, preseverance, kindness, equanimity. They accompany Pali text passages in Khmer script written in gold ink. This folding book was originally commissioned by a couple, Nāi Am and Am Daeng-Di.

A Commentary on Higher Teachings. Northern Thailand, 1917
A Commentary on Higher Teachings. Northern Thailand, 1917. Donated by Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection in 2004. British Library, Or 16079 

Commentaries written by followers and Buddhist scholars after the passing of the Buddha are an important source for practising Buddhists to better understand canonical scriptures. Shown above is a copy of the Saṅkhāra, a commentary on the Abhidharma-piṭaka or ‘Higher Teachings’ of the Buddha. The text, in the Shan language, emphasises that everything is subject to impermanence: birth, growth, decline, decay, and rebirth. The mind, citta, perceives impermanence as suffering. This manuscript was commissioned by Sarngjah and his wife Nang Lah as an offering to preserve the Buddha’s words.

The Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery showcases some of the greatest works from the Library’s literary, scientific, music, art and sacred texts collections. It is open to the public Monday to Sunday during the regular opening times of the Library. Entry is free for everyone.

Curators from Asian and African Collections 

03 April 2023

The Lotus Sutra Project: Conserving and Digitising 800 Manuscripts in the British Library

The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) is pleased to announce that after 5 years, the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Conservation and Digitisation Project successfully concluded in December 2022. Generously sponsored by the Bei Shan Tang Foundation, the Project aimed to publish online 793 manuscript copies of the Lotus Sutra from Dunhuang currently in the Stein collection at the British Library. This has resulted in over 374,000 cm of conserved material and nearly 17,000 new images for the IDP website.

Image of Or.8210/S.6791, conserved and digitised by the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Conservation and Digitisation Project
Image of Or.8210/S.6791, conserved and digitised by the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Conservation and Digitisation Project. Noc

The Lotus Sutra is one of the most influential scriptures in Mahayana Buddhism, and is thought to contain the Buddha’s final teaching, complete and sufficient for salvation. The Stein collection contains over 1000 copies of the Lotus Sutra in Chinese, which were acquired by Sir Marc Aurel Stein in 1907 and 1914, when he visited the so-called ‘Library Cave’ (Cave 17) at the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, in the present-day Gansu Province in China.

Before conservation photos of Lotus Sutra Scroll Or.8210/S.3796 after conservation photos of Lotus Sutra Scroll Or.8210/S.3796

Before and after conservation photos of Lotus Sutra Scroll Or.8210/S.3796, one of 793 manuscripts conserved through the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project. Noc

Only a small portion of these had been previously digitised, and the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project was organised to make images of the remaining manuscripts available online. Thanks to the sustained efforts of the Project team since 2017, 790 scrolls and 3 booklets have been stabilised and conserved to enable digitisation, and photographed to produce high-resolution images that are now freely available to the public on the IDP website

Or.8210/S.155, a Chinese Lotus Sutra scroll with Tibetan divination texts on the back
Image of Or.8210/S.155, a Chinese Lotus Sutra scroll with Tibetan divination texts on the back. Conserved and digitised as part of the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Conservation and Digitisation Project. Noc

Through the thousands of new images online, the Project has significantly increased global access to these important materials. In an effort to document the methodology of the Project, team members have published several articles, such as Digitisation Officer Francisco Perez-Garcia’s The Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project: the collaborative work between the Heritage Made Digital team and the International Dunhuang Project team (published in the Library's Digital Scholarship blog, 14 March 2022). More about the digitisation efforts of the project can be found in the article How to Digitise Scrolls: A Step-by-Step Guide from the Lotus Sutra Project by Senior Imaging Technician Jon Nicholls (published in the Library’s Asia and Africa blog, 2 August 2021).

Image of Or.8210/S.3579, featuring a custom-made core developed by conservators on the Project
Image of Or.8210/S.3579, featuring a custom-made core developed by conservators on the Project. Noc

Throughout the Project, the Conservation team also undertook critical research on preservation techniques and innovative storage solutions, shared via published articles like Conserving paper: reflections on cultures of conservation in Europe and East Asia by Paulina Kralka (published in The Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 24 May 2022) and Lotus Sutra Project: Storage Solutions by Paulina Kralka and Marya Muzart (published in the Library's Collection Care blog, 07 December 2020 and the IFLA Journal, 21 July 2021).

We wish to express our enormous gratitude for the efforts of the Project team, including Tan Wang-Ward, Marie Kaladgew, Marya Muzart, Paulina Kralka, Tania Estrada-Valadez, Vania Assis, Jon Nicholls, Ambrose Hickman, Isabelle Reynolds-Logue, Giancarlo Carozza, and countless others who have contributed throughout the lifetime of the Project.

Image of a panel discussion at the Lotus Sutra Conference in the Foyle Suite of the British Library
Image of a panel discussion at the Lotus Sutra Conference in the Foyle Suite of the British Library. (Left to right: Dr Eric Tzu-Yin CHUNG, Dr Paul Harrison, Dr Stephen F Teiser, Ven. Miao Duo, Roxanna Pang, Dr Luisa Elena Mengoni.)

To celebrate the close of the Project, the IDP hosted a conference at the British Library on 15 – 16 December 2022. The conference, titled ‘The Lotus Sutra: the Teachings, Transmission and Material Culture of a Sacred Buddhist Text’, included a keynote speech from Dr Stephen F Teiser and presentations from other experts, in addition to a panel of the Project team discussing their results and methodology.

The full programme of the conference is here:  Download IDP Lotus Sutra Conference Programme

The lectures were recorded and are now available on the IDP YouTube channel
Opening Ceremony of the Lotus Sutra Conference (15 – 16 December 2022) 

Panel 1: Teachings of the Lotus Sutra
Chaired by: Luisa Elena Mengoni
• Keynote presentation: ‘The Lotus Sutra: Creating Buddhist Scripture’ by Dr Stephen F Teiser (15 December 2022) 
• 'When Being Original No Longer Matters: Reflections on the Sanskrit Text of the Lotus Sutra and its Uses' by Dr Paul Harrison (15 December 2022) 
• 'Lotus Sutra: Applying the Teachings in an Everyday Life' by the Venerable Miao Duo 妙多法師 and Roxanna Pang (15 December 2022) 
• ‘Deciphering the Exhibition of The Arts of the Lotus Sutra at the National Palace Museum' by Dr Eric Tzu-yin Chung 鍾子寅 (15 December 2022) 
• Panel 1 Discussion: Teachings of the Lotus Sutra 

Panel 2: The Lotus Sutra at Dunhuang
Chaired by: Sam van Schaik
• ‘Universal Gate of Salvation: Guanyin at Dunhuang’ by Dr Roderick Whitfield (16 December 2022) 
• ‘Dividing and Structuring the Lotus Sutra in Manuscript Form’ by Dr Costantino Moretti (16 December 2022) 
• ‘At the Intersection of Image, Text and Ritual: The Lotus Sutra in Mogao Murals’ by Dr Neil Schmid (16 December 2022)
• ‘Pieces of a Puzzle: Fragments of Chinese Manuscript with the Lotus Sutra' by Dr Imre Galambos (16 December 2022) 
• ‘The Guanyin Sutra at Dunhuang as Seen Through the British Library Collection’ by Mélodie Doumy (16 December 2022) 
• Panel 2 Discussion: The Lotus Sutra at Dunhuang 

Panel 3: Preserving the Lotus Sutra at the British Library: From Physical to Digital
Chaired by: Mélodie Doumy
• ‘Locating the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project’ by Tan Wang-Ward 王潭 (16 December 2022) 
• ‘The Lotus Sutra Project at the British Library 2017–2022: A Conservators’ Perspective’ by Marie Kaladgew, Paulina Kralka & Marya Muzart (16 December 2022) 
• ‘Conservation Case Studies from the Lotus Sutra Project at the British Library 2017–2022’ by Tania Estrada-Valadez, Marie Kaladgew, Paulina Kralka & Marya Muzart (16 December 2022) 
• ‘Seeing Things Differently: The Imaging of Lotus Sutra Scrolls’ by Isabelle Reynolds-Logue (16 December 2022) 
• Panel 3 Discussion: Preserving the Lotus Sutra at the British Library: From Physical to Digital 

Anastasia Pineschi, International Dunhuang Project, British Library Ccownwork

13 March 2023

Talipot and ceremonial fans in Thai manuscript art (2)

Depictions of Talipot and ceremonial fans, like many other objects of everyday use, are very common in Thai manuscript paintings. In the first part of this blog, we looked at the origin and making of Talipot fans, called Talapat in the Thai language. In this part, we will be looking at how different types of fans were used historically and how they became symbols of honour and status in Thai social and religious life.

Talapat of Brahmins and sages
Brahmins are highly regarded as knowledge-seekers and members of the priestly social class in traditional Hindu society in India. However, in Thai art and literature they are sometimes represented with some degree of ambiguity, which is expressed through features of poor health, disfigurement, poverty, greed, and immorality. In the Jataka literature the figure of the Brahmin often plays the role of an antihero, who creates obstacles for the Bodhisatta, but by doing so, the Brahmin unwittingly helps to create a situation in which the Buddhist hero can prove his moral stature and accumulate merit. The depiction of Brahmins in manuscript paintings is in striking contrast to the appearance of real-life Thai court Brahmins, who are dressed in impressive gold-embroidered white robes during royal ceremonies.

The Brahmin Jujaka with Vessantara’s children, with a damaged Talipot fan in his shoulder bag
The Brahmin Jujaka with Vessantara’s children, with a damaged Talipot fan in his shoulder bag. Illustrated in a folding book containing Tipitaka extracts and the Mahabuddhaguna. Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 20  Noc

The image above from a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka is an example from the second half of the 18th century. It shows a popular scene from the Vessantara Jataka, in which the Brahmin Jujaka takes away the Bodhisatta’s children, Jali and Kanhajina. Jujaka’s hair appears unkempt, and he is dressed in a plain white loin cloth. In his shoulder bag is a damaged Talapat made from a single Talipot leaf.

Another depiction of a Brahmin appears in the illustration below from a Thai folding book containing the story of the monk Phra Malai and Tipitaka extracts, dated 1894. This scene from the Bhuridatta Jataka illustrates how the Brahmin and snake charmer Alambayana captured and humiliated the Buddha-to-be, who in this Birth Tale was reborn as a naga (serpent) prince named Bhuridatta. The Brahmin is dressed in a red-and-white chequered loin cloth, holding a Talipot fan in his right hand. On the fan is an ancient symbol that is well-known beyond Thailand and Southeast Asia: the Ring of Solomon. In this case, the symbol fulfils a protective purpose. This kind of fan can often be seen in Thai in manuscript illustrations as a utensil of Brahmins engaging in pre-Buddhist activities and magic.

Illustration of the Brahmin Alambayana capturing the naga Bhuridatta while holding a Talipot fan with a Ring of Solomon symbol
Illustration of the Brahmin Alambayana capturing the naga Bhuridatta while holding a Talipot fan with a Ring of Solomon symbol. Found in a folding book with Tipitaka extracts and the story of Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 1894. British Library, Or 16100, f. 5  Noc

Sages and hermits are also frequently depicted in illustrations of the Jataka tales. Usually, such paintings show the Bodhisatta who in a previous life was reborn with the wisdom of a sage, or who followed the path of a hermit.

The illustration below from an 18th-century folding book depicts the Buddha-to-be as the wise sage Mahosadha, on the right side, facing the evil-minded royal Brahmin Kevatta. Mahosadha is holding a jewel that he is about to drop, so that the greedy Kevatta will bow down to pick it up in front of Mahosadha, which is interpreted by everyone around them as a gesture of the Brahmin paying respect to the Bodhisatta. Quite extraordinarily, Kevatta is presented here lacking the usual attributes of a lowly character, probably because he is a royal Brahmin in this story. Both men are holding a Talipot fan, each with small floral decorations drawn on the front side in gold and red colour.

The Buddha-to-be Mahosadha and the Brahmin Kevatta, both with a Talapat in their hands
The Buddha-to-be Mahosadha and the Brahmin Kevatta, both with a Talapat in their hands. Illustrated in a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka, Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 6  Noc

Ceremonial fans in monastic life
Numerous Thai folding books contain paintings related to the lives and activities of Buddhist monks. Most frequently, such illustrations accompany the story of the monk Phra Malai. Among the most popular depictions of monastics are scenes from funeral wakes, where four monks are seen chanting passages from the Abhidhamma-pitaka and reciting the legend of Phra Malai to lay audiences.

The monk Phra Malai himself is often portrayed with a Talapat. Below is a painting from a Phra Malai manuscript dated 1837. Phra Malai is floating in the air while on his way to the hell-like realm of preta (hungry ghosts). He is shown with a red aura, dressed in a monk’s robes and a Talapat in his left hand. The fan has an oval shape and is made from Talipot leaves, with gold decorations at the center and on the edges. It has the long handle of a floor Talapat which is used by monks when chanting sacred texts.

Illustration of the monk Phra Malai holding a Talapat with intricate gold decorations
Illustration of the monk Phra Malai holding a Talapat with intricate gold decorations. From a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai and additional Pali texts. Central Thailand, 1837. British Library, Or 14710, f. 2  Noc

Scenes from the life of the Buddha are not frequently included in Thai illustrated manuscripts. However, there are few compilations of canonical texts and Buddhist cosmologies that contain rare paintings depicting the Buddha being surrounded by lavishly decorated fans of veneration, called Phatyot in Thai. In the painting below, from an 18th-century manuscript, the Buddha is represented in the earth-touching gesture which symbolises the moment of his Enlightenment. Behind the Buddha is a stylised Bodhi tree, and on each side one can see a heavily ornamented Phatyot fan, and a three-tiered umbrella, alongside deities paying their respects to the Enlightened One.

The Buddha at the moment of his Enlightenment, with Phatyot and umbrellas by his side
The Buddha at the moment of his Enlightenment, with Phatyot and umbrellas by his side. From a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka, Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 53  Noc

Highly ornamented Phatyot as symbols of veneration for the Buddha can also be found in illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi in Phra Malai manuscripts from the 19th century. In Theravada Buddhist belief, the Chulamani Chedi is a stupa situated in Tavatimsa heaven where hair and tooth relics of the Buddha are housed. Therefore, the stupa is directly related to the Life of the Buddha, and according to the legend of Phra Malai the story’s monk-hero travelled to the heavenly stupa to deposit a lotus flower offering on behalf of a poor man.

In the painting below from a 19th-century Phra Malai manuscript, the monk is depicted in front of the Chulamani Chedi in Tavatimsa heaven, conversing with the god Indra and another deity. Equipped with lavish gold-leaf decorations are four Phatyot left and right of the stupa. Two of these fans appear like lotus-shaped roundels, and the other pair are in the shape of lotus buds or Khao Bin rice offerings in lotus shapes.

Phra Malai at the heavenly Chulamani Chedi
Phra Malai at the heavenly Chulamani Chedi. On both sides of the stupa are embellished and gilded Phatyot. From a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai and Tipitaka extracts. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14664, f. 62  Noc

Fans as symbols of honour and status
Bodhisattas, kings, royals, and sometimes deities are portrayed with fans in Thai manuscript illustrations. In certain contexts, especially the Life of the Buddha, fans are used as an expression of veneration and respect. Manuscripts containing secular texts are also occasionally illustrated with images of kings or leaders surrounded by beautifully adorned fans to emphasise their royal or high social status. The painting below depicts two persons who are paying their respects to a king or royal personage wearing a large gold crown, with two decorated fans on each side of the pedestal he is sitting on. The fans are in the frequently found shapes of a lotus bud or Khao Bin offering, and a roundel. In this case, the roundel has eight spokes like a Dhamma Wheel. This image is part of a chart that is used to predict the fate and future of individuals. It is included in a Phrommachat divination manual, with text in Old Mon language and illustrations in the late Ayutthaya style.

Illustration of a royal figure with colourful Wanwichani fans on each side
Illustration of a royal figure with colourful Wanwichani fans on each side. From a Mon version of a Phrommachat divination manual. Ayutthaya or Burma, c. 1750-1820. British Library, Or 14532, f. 14  Noc

In Thai funeral or commemoration books that were commissioned to make merit, the first folios are often illustrated with the gods Brahma and Indra, mythical beings like Kinnari, Garuda or Yakkha, and deities called Thep Chumnum. The latter appear as eye-pleasing figures with golden crowns and royal attires. Thep Chumnum are often depicted in pairs with fans of honour, facing a passage of canonical Pali text like in the paired manuscript illustrations below. Two Thep Chumnum dressed in several layers of colourful loin cloths with floral designs, gold crowns and jewelery, are seated in a respectful pose, flanked by two fans with elongated floor handles. The fans with red and blue ornaments in plant shapes were included to emphasise the divine status and eminence of the Thep Chumnum.

Illustration of Thep Chumnum with exquisitely decorated fans on each side
Illustration of Thep Chumnum with exquisitely decorated fans on each side. From a folding book with Tipitaka extracts. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f. 1 Noc

Further reading
Khin Saw Oo: Culture Value of Myanmar Hand Fan (Talipot-palm Fan). Paper presented at the 2nd International Conference on Burma/Myanmar Studies, 16-18 February 2018, Mandalay
Phra Maha Min Thiritsaro: Phatyot samanasak phrasong Thai. Bangkok, 2016
Talapat. In: Traditional objects of everyday use. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (retrieved 28/12/2022)

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

20 February 2023

Talipot and ceremonial fans in Thai manuscript art (1)

Depictions of ceremonial and Talipot fans, like many other objects of everyday use, are very common in Thai manuscript paintings. Ceremonial fans, or fans of honour and veneration, are called Phatyot (พัดยศ) in Thai, whereas Talipot fans are known as Talapat (ตาลปัตร), referring to the leaf of the Talipot palm. If used in royal ceremonies, Talipot fans are called Wanwichani (วาลวิชนี); however, this term is also used for royal fans made of different materials, including hairs from elephant tails or yak hair in the shape of a whisk. Images of fans can be found in manuscript illustrations accompanying a variety of texts, both of a Buddhist and secular nature: the Great Perfections of the Buddha (Mahabuddhaguna), the legend of the monk Phra Malai, Phrommachat divination manuals, or extracts from canonical scriptures selected for funeral and commemoration books.

Four monks with Talipot fans at a funeral wake
Four monks with Talipot fans at a funeral wake. Illustration in a folding book containing Tipitaka extracts from and the Mahabuddhaguna. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 64 Noc

Talipot fans were originally made from the leaves of the Talipot palm (Corypha umbraculifera). This tree, which can grow to over 75 years old, produces large palmate plaited leaves over 5 m wide. One fully grown leaf can have a weight of 40-50 kg. The palm puts up a magnificent inflorescence of up to 10 m in size, but only once before it dies. The leaves have an excellent durability, therefore they were used in South and Southeast Asia to make thatches, mats, hats, umbrellas, fans as well as palm leaf manuscripts.

Talipot palm with fully grown inflorescence, photographed in Sri Lanka in 1885
Talipot palm with fully grown inflorescence, photographed in Sri Lanka in 1885. British Library, Photo 430/5(3) Noc

There are several ways to make a traditional Talapat fan from a Talipot leaf. One popular method uses a young leaf or bud that has a stem of approximately 30 cm length. The bud is unfolded and dried in the sun for several days. It can also be soaked in water that is infused with insect-repelling herbs, and then dried and pressed before it is cut to a round or oval shape. Fans in the oval shape are called Pat Na Nang (fan in the shape of a lady’s face) in Thai. The size of the fan depends on the purpose and the person who is going to use it.

The folds are sewn together and a frame made from bamboo splints, rattan or metal wire is attached. Three types of specially-made wooden or bamboo handles can be attached to hold the fan: a handle in the shape of a 20-30 cm long hook or stick attached in a right angle at the bottom of the bud; a handle of 20-70 cm length attached straight at the bottom of the bud (the short size for hand-held fans, the longer size for floor fans to be placed on a stand); or a handle up to 70 cm long attached to the frame on the side of the leaf. Finally, the frame and handle can be decorated with lacquer and gold leaf. Sometimes the frame is covered with cloth that is sewn on.

Illustration of a woman holding a fan made from a Talipot leaf
Illustration of a woman holding a fan made from a Talipot leaf with a right-angled handle, in a Mon copy of a Thai divination manual (Phrommachat). Ayutthaya or Burma, c. 1750-1820. British Library, Or 14532, f. 15 Noc

Monk carrying a Talapat made from a Talipot leaf
Monk carrying a Talapat made from a Talipot leaf with an attached straight handle. Illustrated in a folding book containing Tipitaka extracts. Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, Or 14048, f. 3 Noc

Modelled on the fan made from a Talipot leaf are fans made in different ways and from different materials: woven palm leaves or other natural fibers, feathers, or textiles. The latter could be discarded monks’ robes, handwoven pieces of ikat or silk brocade, velvet, fabric embroidered with gold thread, sequins or glass beads, painted cloths etc. Occasionally, Talipot fans were also lacquered and decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay or mirror-glass inlay, and the handle could be made from ivory. Such fans were – and still are - used as ceremonial fans by monks and novices, or they can be presented as gifts of honour to commemorate an important monastic or royal event that is celebrated with a ceremony.

Prince Vessantara holding a fan made from peacock feathers
Prince Vessantara holding a fan made from peacock feathers. The old Brahmin Jujaka has a broken Talapat in his shoulder bag. Illustrated in a folding book containing Tipitaka extracts. Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 13 Noc

Talapat are not part of the obligatory requisites of monastics, but they are often used in Buddhist ceremonies by monks to hide their face while chanting canonical scriptures so that the words of the Buddha are not being identified with the face of the reciting monk. Another popular opinion about the origin of monastic fans refers to the tradition of meditations on the foul, saying that monks first used Talapat to help them cope with the stench of decaying corpses while meditating.

Fans are often included in Kathina offerings or gifts on occasion of the ordination of a new novice or monk, passing a monastic exam, anniversaries of monastic ordinations, and when a monk is bestowed a rank or an honorary title. Especially during the time of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) offerings of elaborately decorated Phatyot as fans of rank and honour became fashionable. Phatyot can be made in the round shape of a lotus flower, the elongated shape of a lotus bud, or a Khao Bin offering (sweet rice offering shaped like a lotus bud) with a flame-like edge. The name of the monk, his rank and/or an occasion can be embroidered on the front face of the fan. Thus, fans in the Thai cultural context can also be seen as symbols of authority for monks, or generally as status symbols.

Comical or pretend monks at a funeral wake; one holding a fan made with embroidered cloth
Comical or pretend monks at a funeral wake; one holding a fan made with embroidered cloth. Illustrated in a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka. Central Thailand, 1841. British Library, Or 15925, f. 21 Noc

Illustration of monks with a lavishly decorated Phatyot fan with a long floor handle
Illustration of monks with a lavishly decorated Phatyot fan with a long floor handle. Illustrated in a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai and Tipitaka extracts. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14664, f. 3  Noc

Little is known as to when the Talipot fan was first made: one can assume that it is an everyday object as old as humankind, primarily made for the purpose of air ventilation. However, there is a reference to a fan made from a palm leaf in the seventh chapter of the Story of the Novice Monk in the Arahanta-vagga, Dhammapada, which suggests that the Talipot fan was already in use by monastics during the lifetime of Gotama Buddha over 2500 years ago.

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

Further reading
Khin Saw Oo: Culture Value of Myanmar Hand Fan (Talipot-palm Fan). Paper presented at the 2nd International Conference on Burma/Myanmar Studies, 16-18 February 2018, Mandalay.
Igunma, Jana: Talipot and ceremonial fans in Thai manuscript art. SEALG Newsletter no. 54 (Dec. 2022), pp. 20-38
Phra Maha Min Thiritsaro: Phatyot samanasak phrasong Thai. Bangkok, 2016
Talapat. In: Traditional objects of everyday use. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (retrieved 28/12/2022)

01 August 2022

Disfigured Ghosts and Gory Tortures in Phra Malai Manuscripts and Thai Cosmological Parks

This guest blog is by Roni N. Wang, a Ph.D. candidate at SOAS, University of London, focusing on contemporary Thai Buddhism. Roni’s research looks at Buddhist Cosmological Parks in Thailand.

Within the Buddhist cosmic scheme, birth in the realm of hell is the lowest level possible and undeniably the most horrific outcome of negative karma. Illustrations of these gory dwellings - lit by the reddish glow of blazing fires and echoing with spine-tingling screams of tortured denizens - can be found in Phra Malai manuscripts at the British Library. The story of Phra Malai tells of the arahant (one who attained enlightenment) Malai who, through accumulated merit and meditation, manifested the ability to travel to different realms of existence, and witnessed the horrors of the hells.

Paired illustrations in a paper folding book depicting Phra Malai’s visit to hell
Fig. 1. Paired illustrations in a paper folding book depicting Phra Malai’s visit to hell. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 15257, f.4  Noc

Inspired partly by this imagery are sculptural depictions of these scenes which can be found in Thai cosmological parks. Housed within Buddhist temple precincts, these parks are spaces in which different cosmic realms, local scenes, historical figures and events, and anecdotes from the Buddha’s life story come to life via three-dimensional imagery. Most popular amongst park visitors are the hell sections, some depictions of which will be explored here in relation to the Phra Malai manuscripts.

Before delving into the imagery of the monk’s hellish visions, it is vital to distinguish between two life forms that appear in the hells: hells’ denizens and hungry ghosts (Pāli: peta). The first, the hell dwellers, are creatures who were born in one of the hells, and are afflicted with myriad torturous punishments. The second group are the hungry ghosts, who are born into a realm of their own, usually due to lighter offenses or after having served one or more life spans as hell dwellers. The physical dwellings of these ghosts are varied. Some may roam the hells, and these are indeed the creatures we encounter in the depictions discussed here. Others wander the human realm, and some populate a ghostly town said to be situated above the hells. These ghosts differ in physical appearance and characteristics, but share the same grim fate, leading futile lives of constant unattainable craving, which is often expressed by ceaseless hunger and thirst.

Phra Malai with hell dwellers illustrated in a Thai folding book, dated 1875
Fig. 2. Phra Malai with hell dwellers illustrated in a Thai folding book, dated 1875. British Library, Or 6630, f.10  Noc

Now let us begin our exploration of the manuscripts’ depictions and their counterparts in the parks. One notable scene that can be found in Or 6630 (fig. 2) portrays Phra Malai seated amongst hell dwellers who ask him for meritorious assistance. As the story goes, the monk gave a sermon, after which the inhabitants of hell asked him to pay a visit to their living relatives back in the human realm to request them to perform merit on their behalf. The narrative that this image conveys emphasises the importance of merit performed by relatives for their deceased ancestors, as well as the notion that salvation is dependent on an inter-realm relationship that is communicated by ascetics.

Phra Malai amongst hell dwellers at Wat Saen Suk, Chonburi
Fig. 3. Phra Malai amongst hell dwellers at Wat Saen Suk, Chonburi. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

This scene is replicated in Wat Saen Suk Park in the eastern province of Chonburi (fig. 3). As in the 1875 manuscript, the creatures that surround Phra Malai here include naked and emaciated hell denizens and ghosts. Also noticeable are those with human bodies and animal heads. These creatures are dwellers of a hell called Saṇghāta, birth into which is a result of killing or burning animals.

These creatures also appear in OR14664 (fig. 4), displaying different animal heads, with one impressive rooster being positioned in the centre.

Inhabitants of hell with animal heads
Fig. 4. Inhabitants of hell with animal heads, illustrated in a Phra Malai manuscript from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14664, f.26  Noc

Amongst these disfigured creatures, Or 15257 (fig. 1) displays ghosts with no head but with facial features on their abdomen. This ghostly existence is the fate of robbers or thieves who used violent methods to obtain property that belonged to others. This type of headless ghost makes an appearance in the park discussed above, Wat Saen Suk. Here, it is seen holding a spear in its hand (fig. 5). It is said that the spear was given to it by Yama, the king of death, to keep away the lurking crows that tended to prey on it.

The headless ghost at Wat Sean Suk
Fig. 5. The headless ghost at Wat Sean Suk. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

Another odd creature, portrayed in Or 14710, is a male ghost with extremely large testicles, which he carries on his shoulder (fig. 6). This horrific creature was born into this state after serving a life span in hell. When he was a human, he was an evil judge who took advantage of his powerful position.

A hell dweller carrying large testicles over his shoulder
Fig. 6. A hell dweller carrying large testicles over his shoulder in a Thai Phra Malai manuscript, dated 1837. British Library, Or 14710, f.2  Noc

This same being is represented in Wat Mae Keat Noi, a park located in the northern province of Chiang Mai. Here, this monstrous creature is seen with his testicles dangling below him, pulling him down as he struggles to carry them (fig. 7).

A male ghost with extremely large testicles at Wat Mae Keat Noi
Fig. 7. A male ghost with extremely large testicles at Wat Mae Keat Noi. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

While the manuscript illustrations and their counterparts in the parks introduce a wide array of grotesque hell dwellers, the hellish backdrops also contribute to the Dantesque atmosphere, and help to convey some of the punishments that are inflicted in this horrid realm. Notable in the background scenery, both in the manuscripts and in the parks, are two images that have become widely associated with hells in the Theravāda tradition: the flaming cauldron and the towering thorn trees.

Let us begin with the cauldron. This horrific punishment is represented in Phra Malai manuscripts in two forms, each associated with a different hell. Thus, the cauldron scene in Or 14710 (fig. 6) portrays the punishment in the Lohakumbhī hell, where the denizens of hell are held by their feet and cast into these flaming iron cauldrons, which are as huge as mountains. Birth in this hell is the result of hurting monks or ascetics.

Depiction of a cauldron with decapitated heads
Fig. 8. Depiction of a cauldron with decapitated heads in a Phra Malai manuscript from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16007, f.29  Noc

The cauldrons in Or 16007 (fig. 8) and Or 14664 (fig. 4) contain decapitated heads and represent yet another hell, the Lohakumbha. In this hell, the guardians chase the inhabitants of hell with flaming iron ropes, which they twist around their necks until their heads fall. They then insert the heads into the boiling cauldrons. Then, a new head appears on the hell dweller’s body and the torture is repeated again and again. This punishment is the result of killing living beings by slashing their throats.

In the parks, these cauldrons have also taken on a cautionary role relating to alcohol abuse. Similarly, in Wat Pal Lak Roi Park (fig. 9) in Nakhon Ratchasima, north-eastern Thailand, two cauldrons are situated amid the hell section of the park. One of these cauldrons depicts several hell dwellers being scorched within it. Next to the cauldron, there is an image of a female who is being forced to drink beer by a hell guardian. The second cauldron has an inscription on it that reads ‘Lost one’s way in liquor’. In reference to this imagery, the park’s booklet notes that “This is the fate of those who…drank alcohol, until they lose consciousness… he who drinks alcohol will be met by Yama’s squad… please stop! For your children, your wife, and for a good society.”

Hellish cauldron at Wat Pal Lak Roi
Fig. 9. Hellish cauldron at Wat Pal Lak Roi. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

Another cauldron representation can be found at Wat Po Chai Sri (fig. 10), in the north-eastern province of Udon Thani. Here this hell is referred to as Narok Mo Tong Deang – literally, copper cauldron hell, and is also described as the destination for those who indulged in intoxicants. In addition, some denizens are seen being force-fed fiery melted copper, a punishment that is said to be inflicted in the Thamaphkata hell, which is indeed the destination of those who indulged in intoxicating beverages.

Copper Cauldron Hell Wat Po Chai Sri
Fig. 10. Copper Cauldron Hell Wat Po Chai Sri. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

It is curious that the cauldron became recognized as a punishment for alcohol consumption. It is tempting to assume that this is a linkage constructed through the association with liquid; however, this is just a hypothesis.

Another famous image synonymous with the hells, can be found in Or 14838 (fig. 11), Or 14731 (fig. 12) and Or 16007 (fig. 8). In these daunting depictions, we are introduced to the hellish thorn trees, upon which the poor dwellers are forced to climb endlessly whilst being pierced by thorns, whilst being trapped between large dogs who bark at the stumps below and peckish crows who await at the tops.

Illustration of a hellish thorn tree
Fig. 11. Illustration of a hellish thorn tree in a Thai Phra Malai manuscript, dated 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f.8  Noc

These trees can be found in the Lohasimbalī hell which is composed of a forest with countless trees. Somewhat misogynistic, it is the punishment inflicted on female adulterers who betrayed their husbands, or those who have had an affair with another man’s wife.

Depiction of hell dwellers being chased up a thorn tree
Fig. 12. Depiction of hell dwellers being chased up a thorn tree in a Thai Phra Malai manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14731, f.4  Noc

These trees appear in Wat Santi Nikhom (fig. 13) in the northern province of Lampang. This park has a unique layout as it is situated vertically in a building that simulates the cosmos. The hell section is situated in the basement, creating the sense of descending into hell. Here the trees are scattered around the hellish area. Naked male and female inhabitants of hell are seen climbing them, while dogs wait for them at the bottom and crows at the top, as similarly seen in the manuscripts. Adding to all these visual effects, a sensory-operated recording of the dogs’ barks and the hell dwellers’ spine-tingling wails are played as visitors arrive in the area.

Hellish thorn trees at Wat Santi Nikhom
Fig. 13. Hellish thorn trees at Wat Santi Nikhom. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

Whilst this is only a small glimpse into the rich imagery of Phra Malai’s journey to the hells, and its manifestation within contemporary cosmological parks, this account will hopefully shed light on how these imageries of the hells not only provoke thoughts about morality and mortality, but also support the relevance of these issues today, crossing both space and time.

Roni N. Wang Ccownwork

Further reading
B.P., Brereton, Thai tellings of Phra Malai: texts and rituals concerning a popular Buddhist saint. Arizona: Arizona State University, 1995.
F.E. ,Reynolds, and M.B.,Reynolds. Three Worlds According to King Ruang: A Thai Buddhist Cosmology. Berkeley, California: University of California, 1982.
Unebe T. Two Popular Buddhist Images in Thailand. Buddhist Narrative in Asia and Beyond. 2012; 2:121-42.

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