THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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69 posts categorized "Buddhism"

26 July 2021

Glorious chariots in Thai manuscript paintings

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Chariots figure prominently in South and Southeast Asian art and architectural decoration. Borrowed from the Sanskrit word ratha, the chariot is called rot (รถ) in Thai and has a special importance in  religious traditions in Thailand, especially those related to royal ceremonies and funerals. Impressive funeral chariots on four wheels have been reserved for kings and members of the royal family since the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767). Representing Mount Meru, the tip of which reaches the heavens according to the Thai Buddhist cosmology Traiphum, such ornate and lavishly gilded funeral chariots carried equally ornate urns containing the body of the deceased to the place of cremation. Four-wheeled chariots or chariot-like vehicles are also used in ceremonies to parade Buddha statues during Songkran (New Year) processions, as shown in the image below.

Drawing of a Buddhist procession in southern Thailand
Drawing of a Buddhist procession in southern Thailand, commissioned by James Low, Penang, 1824. British Library, Add MS 27370 f.2v Noc

The coloured drawing of a procession of a Buddha statue in southern Thailand was commissioned in 1824 by Captain James Low who was based at Penang as an officer of the English East India Company. It depicts a realistically-drawn four-wheeled cart with a superstructure in the shape of a chariot on which a Buddha statue is paraded through town. The vehicle is pulled by twelve men and accompanied by monks and charioteers seated next to the statue, with additional men, women and children in various ethnic attires seen in southern Thailand at the time. Depictions of chariots with four wheels are rare in Thai manuscript paintings, however, two-wheeled chariots are frequently found in illustrations of scenes from the last ten Birth Tales of the Buddha (Jataka) in which the Bodhisatta, or Buddha-to-be, uses the vehicles. They can also be seen carrying Lord Sun and Lord Moon (below) in Thai Buddhist cosmologies.

Lord Moon (Phra Chan), travelling across the sky in a horse-drawn chariot
Lord Moon (Phra Chan), travelling across the sky in a horse-drawn chariot. Detail from a drawing of Mount Meru and the Buddhist heavens. Copy from a Thai Buddhist cosmology made for James Low, Penang, 1824. British Library, Add MS 27370 f.4r Noc

While some European influence is obvious in the illustration of Lord Moon travelling in a chariot – for example in the simplified depiction of the wheels – the parts of a typical chariot in the Thai painting style are visible: the shaft with a decorative element in the shape of a naga (serpent) head and a banner, a highly decorative seat and a “tail” in a popular design called kranok.

Illustrations of scenes from the last ten Jataka were often added to a Buddhist text on the Great Perfections of the Buddha (Pali: Mahābuddhagunā) and collections of short extracts from the Pali Buddhist canon. Each of the last ten Jataka symbolises one of the Buddha’s Great Perfections. These texts and images were often included in funeral and commemoration books made in folding book format (samut khoi) from mulberry paper in the fashion of the 18th and 19th centuries. In some of these Jataka stories chariots play an important role.

Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century
Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f.4 Noc

The painting above depicts a scene from the Nemi Jataka in the style of the late 18th century. Although the Nemi Jataka - which symbolises the perfection of resolution - is not included in this manuscript, the illustration appears in the context of the Mahābuddhagunā. Before a vibrant red background with floral decorations one can see King Nemi (Pali: Nimi) on a two-wheeled chariot pulled by two horses. The wheel of the chariot has eight spokes, similar to the Dhammchakka whose spokes represent the Noble Eightfold Path, or Middle Way of Buddhism. On one horse kneels the divine charioteer Matali, who was sent from the heavenly realm of the god Indra to fetch Nemi for a visit to the Buddhist heavens, and Nemi is seen here sitting in the carriage with a small pavilion-like superstructure. However, Nemi ordered Matali to first take him to the realms of hell - shown in the lower part of the picture - so he could teach his subjects about the horrors that await evildoers.

Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century
Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14255, f.4 Noc

Although illustrations from the Jataka stories were relatively standardised in Thai manuscripts, there are always variations in the choice of colours and execution of details. The example above has a bright orange background with a deity hovering in the air. Two horses are jumping over a skeleton, but apparently the painter had some difficulty with perspective since the hind legs and tail of only one horse are visible. The chariot, harness and garments of the deity and charioteer are decorated with gold leaf.

During the 19th century, Thai painters seem to have enjoyed greater freedom to change details or to include their own ideas in their works. The illustration below depicts King Nemi on a glorious chariot that is pulled by only one horse. For the background, the artist chose plain black, perhaps to highlight the fact that hell is a dark and hopeless place. An interesting element in this illustration is the charioteer’s conical white hat  which is a traditional headgear worn by Thai nobility and royal Brahmins.

Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century
Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f.13 Noc

The features of horses appear more realistic in 19th-century illustrations, and often some Western influence is visible in the painting style. The picture below has a bright blue background with white clouds executed with simple brush strokes. In the clouds, however, there are rooftops of heavenly palaces painted in the conventional Thai style. The chariot has no superstructure, but a wheel with a unique arrangement of spokes. Matali is depicted with green skin, possibly to emphasize the fact that he is a divine charioteer sent by the god Indra.

Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, dated 1894
Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, dated 1894. British Library, Or 16101, f.3 Noc

Another popular Jataka involving a chariot scene is the story of Prince Temiya, who as a child pretended to be “crippled and mute” so he would not have to become king, a role in which he might have to commit cruel acts leading to negative Karma. Ignorant Brahmins advised the king to send the apparently disabled child in a chariot to a graveyard and bury him there. Upon arrival at the graveyard, the young prince lifted the chariot with one hand to show his power and capabilities. The scared charioteer released Temiya at once, realising he was a Bodhisatta, who then chose a life in meditation as an ascetic. Temiya lifting the chariot is the most popular scene from this Jataka, shown in the illustration below in 18th-century painting style with a distinctive rocky landscape and a crooked tree. The scene is made particularly lively by the shocked, escaping horses.

Scene from the Temiya Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century
Scene from the Temiya Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f.1 Noc

Another example of illustrating the Temiya Jataka, from a 19th-century manuscript, is shown below: the chariot waiting to pick up Prince Temiya, who sits motionless in meditation in front of a white stone building. The charioteer is depicted with green skin, perhaps to indicate that he was under the influence of Indra’s deities when they guided him to steer the chariot carrying Temiya through the Gate of Victory instead of the Gate of Death. The heavily decorated chariot is also equipped with two monastic fans (Thai: talaphat) and a golden offering bowl.

Scene from the Temiya Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century
Scene from the Temiya Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14559, f.4 Noc

The Vessantara Jataka, or Great Jataka, also contains important episodes involving chariots. It tells the story of the Buddha’s last existence before attaining Buddhahood as a generous prince who showed great compassion with the needy and the poor. One well-known episode is depicted in the painting below, from a 19th-century manuscript: when Prince Vessantara was banished from the kingdom, he departed with his wife and children in a horse-driven chariot to set up a hermitage in the forest. However, on the way some Brahmins asked for the horses which Vessantara gave them as a gift. Deities sent by the god Indra immediately transformed themselves into deer to replace the horses and pull the chariot.

Prince Vessantara is seen on the chariot which is only half shown. The realistically-painted deer that is pulling the chariot has a golden harness, similar to those worn by the white horses which are being taken away by the Brahmins. This excellently executed illustration in 19th-century painting style has a calm light pink and light green background.


Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century
Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f.26 Noc

Another popular episode of the Vessantara Jataka is the return of the prince and his family to the royal palace, followed by his ascension to the throne. In contrast to the two-wheeled chariots in most Jataka illustrations, the scene below depicts an extravagantly decorated, glorious chariot with four wheels and a gilded pavilion-like superstructure in which Prince Vessantara is seated. Also kneeling on the chariot are his wife Maddi with their two little children, as well as Prince Vessantara’s parents who welcomed them back into the palace. They are wearing golden headgear as a sign of royalty. At the back of the chariot one can see two gilded monastic fans. Below are four attendants in commoners’ outfits accompanying the procession.

Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century, red background
Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f.78 Noc

In all these Jataka illustrations, chariots are more than just vehicles for transportation: they also fulfil symbolic functions. In the Nemi Jataka the chariot is a means to travel between the Three Worlds (Traiphum) of the Thai cosmos – human realm, heavens and hells. In the story of Prince Temiya, the chariot is used to express the hero’s physical power, and metaphorically his mental strength and moral stature as a Bodhisatta. The chariots that appear in the Vessantara Jataka are vehicles in which the Buddha-to-be goes through pivotal changes, from a life of luxury and convenience in the royal palace to a life of sacrifice and hardship as a hermit in the wilderness, and then back from a hermit to becoming a righteous Buddhist king.

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

Further reading
Blurton, Richard, A processional chariot from south India. London: British Museum, 2018.
Terwiel, Barend J., Two Scrolls Depicting Phra Phetracha’s Funeral Procession in 1704 and the Riddle of their Creation. Journal of the Siam Society vol. 104 (2016), pp. 79-94.

 

15 February 2021

The Burmese Harp: (3) Heaven and Earth

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In my two previous blogs on the Burmese harp - (1) Seduction of the Senses and (2) Matters of the Heart - I gave examples of how the Burmese harp or Saung was incorporated into Jātaka stories (stories of the previous lives of the Buddha). In this final instalment I will discuss how the Saung was intimately connected with the life of the Gautama Buddha.

The Buddha was originally born as a prince into a lavish lifestyle, and is described as having been accompanied by forty thousand dancing women and an all-female orchestra. In this depiction of the court (Or 14197) one can see alongside the dancer a full female orchestra with a fiddle, a xylophone, a harp (back row, next to the fiddle), a flute and a drum. Two of the women are clapping their hands in rhythm.

Prince Siddhartha Gautama enjoying the entertainment of his private orchestra and a dancer. British Library
Prince Siddhartha Gautama enjoying the entertainment of his private orchestra and a dancer. British Library, Or 14197, f. 1r  noc

The orchestra played an important part in the Buddha’s disillusionment and decision to leave his princely life. One day, when he returned to his palace the orchestra started enthusiastically entertaining him. However, his mind was already detached from such pleasures and he fell asleep. Without its main audience, the orchestra also dozed off while still hugging their instruments. When the prince woke up and saw them lying around in a disorderly fashion, leg showing here, breast showing there, some sleeping with their mouths open, some grinding their teeth, he became even more disillusioned. He decided to bid goodbye to his sleeping wife and child and leave the palace for good in the Great Departure (Or 4762, Or 14197).

Siddhartha Gautama peruses the sleeping orchestra. The Saung player (on the right) has fallen asleep on her instrument. British Library, Or 14197, f. 3r
Siddhartha Gautama peruses the sleeping orchestra. The Saung player (on the right) has fallen asleep on her instrument. British Library, Or 14197, f. 3r  noc

Siddhartha Gautama, standing next to a mislaid harp, peers over the orchestra, strewn about in a disorderly fashion. British Library, Or 4762, f. 1
Siddhartha Gautama, standing next to a mislaid harp, peers over the orchestra, strewn about in a disorderly fashion. British Library, Or 4762, f. 1  noc

Although the Buddha left his earthly orchestra behind, the Saung still followed him throughout his journey in heavenly form. In this rare illustrated Kammavācā manuscript (Or 13896), which is currently on display at the Treasures Gallery at the British Library, the deva Sakka plays the harp in order to lead the Buddha, who now has become a monk, to the Middle Path.

Sakka plays the Saung to the Buddha in order to lead him to the Middle Path. British Library, Or 13896, f. 16r
Sakka plays the Saung to the Buddha in order to lead him to the Middle Path. British Library, Or 13896, f. 16r  noc

The Saung was an integral part of the life in the heavenly realms, and is shown in cosmology manuscripts in all four heavenly realms of sensual pleasure - Paranimmita-vasavatti, Nimmānaratī, Tusita, and Yāma. In the depiction below, which describes the heavenly musicians of the Paranimmita-vasavatti realm the Saung is accompanied by a bell and a dancer (Or 14004).

Harp 3 - picture 5 Paranimmita-vasavatti realm
The ruler of the Paranimmita-vasavatti realm accompanied by his heavenly musicians and a dancer. British Library, Or 14004, f. 15r  noc

The most impressive orchestra of all, however, could be found in the Tāvatiṃsa realm, or the realm of the thirty-three devas, located on top of the Sumeru world mountain. In the depiction below we can see two joined orchestras with a dancer in the middle. There are two harps and a bell in the left side orchestra, and a xylophone and a harp in the right side orchestra (Or 14004).

The ruler and the heavenly orchestras of the Tāvatiṃsa heaven.
The ruler and the heavenly orchestras of the Tāvatiṃsa heaven. British Library, Or 14004, f. 21r  noc

Until the 19th century the Saung was played exclusively within the royal court, and was considered the most valued of instruments. The most notable harpists were given posts at court, where they composed many famous pieces. Myawaddy Mingyi U Sa (1766-1853) was one of these great musicians, and added six more harp strings to the existing seven, thus producing a fuller range (of two and a half octaves). A fourteenth string was added by the famous and last court harpist U Maung Maung Gyi (1855-1933), who was appointed to King Mindon’s court in Mandalay, where he was given the title "Deiwa-Einda" (Heavenly Musician) already at the age of thirteen. The Saung gradually came out of the palace during the 19th century via small outlying courts and travelling troupes of actors and musicians. Since then it has found its way to the general public and can now be enjoyed by all.

The Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree, with the devas Sakka, Brahma and Mahākāla next to him singing songs of praise
The Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree, with the devas Sakka, Brahma and Mahākāla next to him singing songs of praise. British Library, Or 14297, f. 18r  noc

The Saung returned at the pivotal moments of the Buddha’s life. The scene above depicts the beginning of the process of meditation that in the end led to Enlightenment. The Buddha is here shown meditating under the Bodhi tree, with the three devas Sakka, Brahma and Mahākāla from the three realms next to him singing songs of praise. Sakka blows the conch, while Mahākāla plays the harp and sings with over a hundred verses (Or 14297).

The Buddha’s Enlightenment, celebrated with harp music
The Buddha’s Enlightenment, celebrated with harp music. British Library, Or 14297, f. 20r  noc

The devas ran away when Māra’s frightening troops arrived, and a difficult mental battle ensued which the Buddha eventually conquered. He had now attained Enlightenment, and the event was celebrated and rejoiced with much music. The Saung (with Mahākāla) is depicted here again right at his side (Or 14297).

Harp 3 - picture 9 Buddha descending
The Buddha descends from Tāvatiṃsa heaven with a heavenly retinue beside him. British Library, Or 5757, f. 17r  noc

After his Enlightenment the Buddha travelled around and taught the Dhamma to others. In the above illustration the Buddha is descending from the Tāvatiṃsa heaven, where he spent three months preaching the Dhamma to his mother, who was there. The Saung accompanies his descent to Earth (Or 5757). It has been said that the Saung was indeed the Buddha’s preferred instrument or even a symbol of him, and in temple murals he has been portrayed as a harpist in many of his previous incarnations.

References:

Muriel C. Williamson, The Burmese Harp: its classical music, tunings, and modes. Dekalb, Ill.: Southeast Asia Publications, 2000.

N.A. Jayawickrama (trans.), The Story of Gotama Buddha. Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 2002.

A documentary about the harp in Southeast Asia, by Patrick Kersalé, Sounds of Angkor, 2021, including music clips of the Burmese and Karen harps, can be viewed here.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

28 December 2020

The Burmese Harp: (2) Matters of the Heart

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In my previous blog The Burmese Harp: (1) Seduction of the Senses I gave examples of how female harpists were depicted in Burmese manuscript illustrations. In this blog I will discuss stories of male harpists that appear in Jātakas, or tales of the Buddha's former lives, in the British Library's Burmese manuscripts collection. The theme of these stories revolves around longing and heartache.

The Sussondi Jātaka (Or 13538) recounts the story of Sagga, a harpist-minstrel. He is sent by the king of Benares to find the queen who has disappeared. Unbeknownst to the king the queen had in fact fallen in love with the Garuḍa king, who had taken her with him to Nāga Island.

The king sends Sagga, his harpist-minstrel, to search for Sussondi, his queen. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r
The king sends Sagga, his harpist-minstrel, to search for Sussondi, his queen. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r  noc

While looking for her Sagga crosses the sea with a ship of merchants who implore him to play his harp. He responds: “I would make music, but if I do, the fish will be so excited that your vessel will be wrecked.” The merchants disbelieve him and insist, and in the end he plays and sings with great beauty. The fish start splashing about and a sea monster who lives in the area leaps up, falls onto the ship and sinks it. Nevertheless, Sagga manages to reach the shore of the Nāga island clutching onto his (boat-shaped) harp.


Sagga is shipwrecked by jumping fish, but manages to swim to shore with his harp. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r
Sagga is shipwrecked by jumping fish, but manages to swim to shore with his harp. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r  noc

Queen Sussondi, who was strolling on the shore in the absence of the Garuḍa king, finds him. She recognises Sagga and welcomes him with open arms. They become lovers and Sussondi hides him from the Garuḍa king whenever he returns.

Queen Sussondi finds Sagga. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r
Queen Sussondi finds Sagga. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r  noc

The next time a group of merchants reach the shore, Sagga sails back with them to Benares (this time successfully), where he plays his harp and sings the song of Sussondi, replete with his own longing of her, to the king.

Sagga makes the return voyage by boat. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r
Sagga makes the return voyage by boat. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r  noc

Sagga returns to the palace and sings the story of Sussondi to the king. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r 
Sagga returns to the palace and sings the story of Sussondi to the king. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r   noc

The Burmese harp or Saung is a very old instrument that has a continuous history that spans over a thousand years. Many temple reliefs and wall frescoes from Bagan (9th-13th centuries) depict harps, although Judith Becker has suggested these harps may be different from the Sri Ksetra harp (see previous blog), which in turn resembles quite closely the modern Burmese harp. There probably were many different kinds of harps in use at the time. Although the terminology for the harp varies, the word Saung first appears at the Lokatheikpan temple in Bagan (c. 1125), where it describes “monks, who can play the harp”. Indeed, the Saung seems to have an inextricable connection with Buddhism and, according to Becker, the disappearance of the harp accompanied the decline of Buddhism in certain parts of South Asia.

The earliest known songs thought to have been composed for harp music date to the early 14th century (“Three Shield-Dance Songs attributed to the Lord of Myinzaing”). Although song-texts were inscribed on palm leaf there was no musical notation, and so the musical tradition was passed on orally with the music itself being impressed on memory when performed. The oldest harp music that still survives is the “Three Barge Songs”, attributed to Wungyi Padei-tha-yaza (1683-1754), a minister at the Toungoo court. These songs purportedly describe a river voyage from Lake Meiktila to Tagaung.

The Aṇḍabhūta Jātaka (Mss Burmese 202) makes use of the harp for a lighthearted slapstick humour scene. It recounts the story of a Brahmin who has gone to great effort to find and keep a wife who has never seen any other men. Here he plays the harp to her at home for her entertainment. Unbeknownst to him, however, she has taken a lover, and tricks him into being blindfolded through the pretense of her being too shy of him watching her dance. While he is blindfolded in this way, the lover, who is currently staying in the house, hits him on the head and hides.

A blindfolded Brahmin plays the harp to his wife, while her lover hits him from behind. Mss Burmese 202, f. 75v 
A blindfolded Brahmin plays the harp to his wife, while her lover hits him from behind. Mss Burmese 202, f. 75v   noc

The Dīghītikosala Jātaka (Or 13538) tells the heart-wrenching story of a prince (the Bodhisatta), whose parents are cruelly slain by a deceitful rival. He is devastated, but instead of seeking revenge he goes to stay with the keeper of the red elephant of the palace and leads a simple life. Slowly he recovers from his heartache and when the monsoon rains fall he sings and plays beautiful songs of acceptance and reconciliation with his harp.

The Bodhisatta goes to stay with the keeper of the red elephant, and recovers from his heartache by playing his harp. British Library, Or 13538, f. 65r
The Bodhisatta goes to stay with the keeper of the red elephant, and recovers from his heartache by playing his harp. British Library, Or 13538, f. 65r  noc

In the next installment of this series of blogs on the Burmese harp, I will talk about the Saung’s relationship with Gautama Buddha.

References:

Muriel C. Williamson, The Burmese Harp: Its Classical Music, Tunings, and Modes. Dekalb, Ill.: Southeast Asia Publications, 2000.

Judith Becker, “The Migration of the Arched Harp from India to Burma”, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 20 (Mar., 1967), pp. 17-23.

E.B. Cowell (ed.), The Jātaka or stories of the Buddha’s former births, Vols. I-VI. Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 2004-2005.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

 

07 December 2020

Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage: Conference at the British Library 7-8 February 2020

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In February 2020, to coincide with its major exhibition ‘Buddhism’, the British Library hosted a public conference entitled Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage organised in partnership with the School of Oriental and African Studies and supported by the Robert H N Ho Family Foundation. Over two days, speakers explored the idea of ‘collections’ – be they of manuscripts, texts, art works, or practices – and how they have shaped our understanding of, and indeed the very practice of, Buddhism across the world. In this blogpost, summaries of the event’s papers are given together with links to recordings and slideshows of the papers themselves. The conference provided a wide and rich array of reflections upon Buddhism and what we mean by the very nature of ‘collections’ – and the papers are articulate and entertaining scholarship well worth exploring for all audiences.

Conference participants
Conference participants (left to right from the back): Charles Manson; Stefano Zacchetti; Andrew Skilton; Matt Kimberley; Tim Barrett; Sam van Schaik; Melodié Doumy; Luisa Elena Mengoni; Marie Kaladgew; Camillo Formigatti; Lucia Dolce; Birgit Kellner; Mahinda Deegalle; Christian Luczanits; Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim; Jana Igunma; Jann Ronis. Photo: Serena Biondo

Following an introduction by Head of Asian and African Collections Dr Luisa Elena Mengoni, a keynote lecture was delivered by Prof. Dr Birgit Kellner of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. She began by outlining how Indian manuscripts first came into circulation in Tibet during the 8th to 14th centuries in large numbers. The nature of the texts contained in these manuscripts was highly heterogenous: doctrine, philosophy, ritual, narrative and devotional poetry, non-Buddhist Indian epic, grammar. However, unlike in other regions to which Buddhism spread, Sanskrit did not take on the status of a liturgical language, with effort instead poured into using these manuscripts for teaching and translation by a network of translators moving around between and within India and Tibet. Several thousand Indian Buddhist works came to be translated and form the Tibetan canon in this way, and after the 14th century a knowledge of Sanskrit became restricted to those who specialised in the grammatical tradition.


Birgit Kellner Indian manuscripts in the history of Tibetan Buddhism

Kellner went on to look at two case studies in order to better understand how Indian manuscripts were perceived, collected and categorized. She did this by examining accounts of their use in a number of contexts, including the trading of manuscripts as a kind of currency in exchange for teaching; the acquisition and preservation of manuscripts as part of the material legacy of significant personages of a particular lineage within Tibetan Buddhist culture; and, by the 19th and 20th centuries, no longer circulating but treated as sacred objects within monastic collections to be treated as sacred objects and specially stored in libraries and stupas. Through this, Kellner addressed some of the core themes that ran throughout the rest of the conference.

The late Professor Stefano Zacchetti
The late Professor Stefano Zacchetti Remnants of a textual shipwreck: manuscript fragments of Early Chinese Buddhist exegetical literature. Photo: Luisa Elena Mengoni

In the first panel – “Collections and Buddhist Practice: Texts and Translation” –  our speakers considered how particular textual collections and their translations shaped the understanding of Buddhism by its practitioners in the past, and how what survives of such collections colours our interpretation of Buddhist history today. In his paper on Early Chinese Buddhist exegetical literature, the late Prof. Stefano Zacchetti, University of Oxford, explored how the early Chinese Buddhist canon was conceived of and transmitted as a collection of translated texts, creating complexities in the production of commentaries so vital to interpreting these Indian doctrines upon their reception in China. Dr Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim of Goldsmiths College London gave a paper on the fascinating subject of Tibetan medicine and in particular the translation of the term rlung or ‘breath’. She looked at the history of translations of the term, and how intersection of different cultural influences from Greek to Indian have shaped interpretations of the concept and Tibetan medicine. Dr Camillo Formigatti, Clay Sanskrit Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries Oxford, examined the translations of Sanskrit texts by the Tibetan lo tsā ba Shong ston Rdo rje rgyal mtshan and Nepalese pandit Laksmīkara, and how their processes played a pivotal role in the formation of a new Tibetan literary language. The panel concluded with a Q&A session chaired by the conference organiser, Matt Kimberley Research Curator at the British Library.


Andrew Skilton Endangered texts in Thai Buddhism

The second panel – “Collections in Monastic Contexts” – explored how manuscript collections in Buddhist monasteries, temples and courts have influenced the development and interpretation of Buddhist practice. Ven. Prof. Mahinda Deegalle of Bath Spa University,  spoke about his research on Sri Lanka’s largest temple library palm-leaf manuscript collection at Hanguranketa Potgul Rajamahā Vihāra. This collection has never been the subject of published work nor its role in shaping the Theravāda tradition considered, so Deegalle presented some initial results of his survey. Following this, Dr Andrew Skilton, University of Oxford, gave a paper on recent efforts to catalogue and digitise Thai temple manuscript collections, and how conditions of preservation, textual canonical status and changes in Buddhist practice itself have pushed once significant texts to the margins where they now risk being lost forever. The final paper of the panel came from Prof. Kate Crosby, and Dr Amal Gunasena, both of of King's College London, which examined a particular group of related meditation practice texts originally composed for Sri Lankan royalty by high ranking members of the monastic community in nineteenth century, now kept in the Hugh Nevill collection at the British Library. She showed how this particular set of practices ceased to be recognised in the modern period, and how as a result this important tradition has been left absent in both Asian and Western scholarship on the subject. The panel ended with a Q&A session chaired by curator Jana Igunma.


Jana Igunma The Buddha and his natural environment in SE Asian manuscript art

The third panel – “Collections and Buddhist Practice: Art and Performance” – considered the way that visual arts and ritual performances in collections provide insight into Buddhist practice. Dr Christian Luczanits, SOAS, gave a talk on monastic collections of manuscripts and artworks in the Mustang region of Nepal. He highlighted the challenges that come with inventorising and documenting these collections and what doing so can do for understanding Buddhism’s development in Nepal. The British Library’s curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections, Jana Igunma, presented a paper on her work investigating the relationship between the historical Buddha and the natural environment. She looked at a range of eighteenth and nineteenth century illustrated manuscripts from South East Asia and how their realistic imagery of the natural world has its roots in much older Pali texts from Sri Lanka. Dr Lucia Dulce, SOAS, presented Tantric ritual practice in medieval Japanese Buddhism through an examination of writings from Japanese temple libraries. In particular, she focused on yugi kanjō, a type of ritual consecration that developed in the medieval period, drawing on unpublished material incorporating liturgy, certificates and visual representations of practitioners and performance spaces. The panel concluded with a Q&A chaired by Sam van Schaik.


Melodie Doumy and Marie Kaledgew Preservation and conservation of Buddhist scrolls

In the fourth and final panel – “Collections in the Heritage Context: Conservation, Preservation, Dissemination” – the speakers looked at different aspects of the lives of collections in cultural heritage institutions and how these contemporary settings influence the study and practice of Buddhism today. Dr Jann Ronis of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center presented the work of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center in building the world’s largest online collection of Buddhist literature in Asian languages. Ronis talked about the BDRC’s workflows, data structure and the ambitions for establishing shared standards for Linked Open Data in the field of Buddhist Studies. The British Library’s curator of Chinese collections, Melodié Doumy, and Scroll and Digitisation Conservator for the International Dunhuang Project, Marie Kaladgew, jointly presented on their work for the Lotus Sutra Digitisation Project. By focussing on one particular scroll from this collection, they demonstrated the collaborative decision-making processes that inform conservation practices and the implications these have for the longevity and interpretation of material held in the library. Finally, Dr Sam van Schaik, head of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), shared his research on the oft overlooked area of Buddhist ‘magic’ using material from both the Stein collections and more contemporary materials preserved by the EAP. Through endeavours like EAP, heritage institutions helped preserve and disseminate at-risk collections the world over by combining local knowledge and understanding of collections with the resources that are typically only available through large public bodies. The panel finished with a Q&A session chaired by Matt Kimberley.

Roundtable discussion
Roundtable discussion with (left to right) Lucia Dolce, Sam van Schaik, Mahinda Deegalle, Birgit Kellner and Tim Barrett (chair). Photo: Luisa Elena Mengoni

The conference drew to a close with a roundtable discussion on the issues explored throughout the two days, chaired by Prof. Tim Barrett of SOAS with the participation of Prof. Dr. Kellner, Prof. Deegalle, Dr Dolce and Dr van Schaik. This wide-ranging conversation looked at everything from what we mean by the very idea of collections through the challenges that come with the responsibilities of holding collections for the use of current and future generations. In all, Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage was an important and very successful event for bringing together Buddhism scholars and professionals, Buddhist practitioners and the public to reflect upon the history of this major religious tradition, and for considering the role that institutions like the British Library play in preserving and providing access to its wealth of cultural knowledge and understanding.

Matt Kimberley, Research Curator, Asian and African Collections
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09 November 2020

The Burmese Harp: (1) Seduction of the Senses

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The British Library’s collection of digitised Burmese manuscripts, dating mainly from the 19th century, has many depictions of the Burmese harp or Saung (စောင်းကောက်). The Saung appears often in certain Jātaka stories, or tales of the previous lives of the Buddha, which have seduction and pleasure as one of the prevailing themes. The Mandhātu Jātaka tells the story of Mandhātā, a powerful king who had everything he could ever desire. Although he ended up ruling even the heavenly realms, he still remained dissatisfied. Shown below is a detail from an illustrated manuscript of the Mandhātu Jātaka (Or 4542/B). It gives us a peek into Mandhātā's court, which included beautiful musicians. The Saung player is turning curiously to see who is entering the palace.

Women of the court, including a musician holding the Burmese harp or Saung, Mandhātu Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f.57r
Women of the court, including a musician holding the Burmese harp or Saung, Mandhātu Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f.57r  noc

The Saung is a unique musical instrument with a continuous history that stretches over a thousand years. It is known for its soothing, melodious sound and can be recognised by its horizontal boat-shaped body and its long, inwardly arched neck. The ends of the strings, which used to be made from silk, are decorated with red cotton tassels. The harp is held on the lap and the strings are plucked with one hand, while the other is used for damping and staccato notes. The Saung usually accompanies a singer, who also controls the tempo with a bell (Si) and a clapper (Wa).

The earliest description of the Saung comes from a temple relief at Bawbawkyi in Sri Ksetra from the 8th century CE. It depicts a dancer with an accompanying harpist and a rhythm keeper. Tang chronicles from the 9th century also describe a delegation from the kingdom with thirty-five musicians and dancers that enchanted the court with their elaborate music performance. The orchestra included two harps and it performed twelve songs on Buddhist texts. These harps were tuned with pegs rather than strings, and interestingly peg-tuned harps are still used in Mon and Karen traditions. A later 10th-century Tang chronicle confirms that the music from these two geographic areas (from the present-day lower Myanmar) was the same.

The Boddhisatta and his four brothers at the enchanted pavilion of music. Telapatta Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/A f. 53r 
The Boddhisatta and his four brothers at the enchanted pavilion of music. Telapatta Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/A f. 53r   noc

Another of the Jātaka stories, the Telapatta Jātaka (Or 4542/A) recounts the story of the Bodhisatta as a prince who had to travel through a dangerous, enchanted forest inhabited by ogresses. His five brothers accompany him, but are eaten one by one by the ogresses who seduce them with different sensory pleasures. In this manuscript illustration the Boddhisatta (on the right in gold) has arrived to the ogresses’ magical pavilion of music. By this time he has already lost one brother in the pavilion of beauty. One of his remaining brothers, the lover of music, is raising the curtain in order to be fully immersed by the entertainment, and is just about to become the next victim. The harpist is here accompanied by a flute and a singer.

Temiya’s last temptation. Temiya Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 3676, f. 7r
Temiya’s last temptation. Temiya Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 3676, f. 7r

The famous Temiya Jātaka (Or 3676) is one of the ten last lives of the Buddha. He was a much wished-for son of the king of Benares. However, as soon as he discovered that his future kingly duties would involve inflicting punishment, he stopped speaking and sat motionless, as he did not want to inherit the throne. The king tried to budge him in many different ways, from tempting him with cakes to scaring him with snakes and loose elephants, but with no success. When Temiya turned sixteen he was put to the final test with beautiful women, song and dance. Although this illustration actually shows him quite tempted, he did in fact hold firm, and ended up not having to inherit the kingdom.

The Bodhisatta hears beautiful music through his window, and slowly falls in love with the harpist. Culla Palobhana Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f. 89r
The Bodhisatta hears beautiful music through his window, and slowly falls in love with the harpist. Culla Palobhana Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f. 89r  noc

A somewhat similar story is recounted in the Culla Palobhana Jātaka (Or 4542/B). In this story as well, the Bodhisatta was born as a much-wanted prince, but from his earliest days as a baby he didn’t like to be nursed by women, and was only attended by male members of the court. The king grew worried about his son’s lack of desire for pleasure, for surely this would also include ruling the kingdom. A young dancing girl, accomplished in music and song, was therefore asked to seduce him. In return she would become his queen. When morning came she played and sang outside the place where the prince was meditating. Little by little he fell in love with her and they became closer.

The Boddhisatta and his lover are banished from the kingdom after a fit of jealousy. Culla Palobhana Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f. 89r
The Boddhisatta and his lover are banished from the kingdom after a fit of jealousy. Culla Palobhana Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f. 89r  noc

Unfortunately, the Bodhisatta became so enamoured with her that he ran amok the town in a fit of jealousy. As punishment for this bad behaviour both of them were banished from the kingdom and went on to live together in the forest.

In forthcoming blog posts I will give examples of how male harpists were depicted in manuscript illustrations, and how the Saung was inextricably entwined with the life of the Gautama Buddha.

References:

Muriel C. Williamson, The Burmese Harp: Its Classical Music, Tunings, and Modes. Dekalb, Ill.: Southeast Asia Publications, 2000.

Judith Becker, “The Migration of the Arched Harp from India to Burma”, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 20 (Mar., 1967), pp. 17-23.

E.B. Cowell (ed.), The Jātaka or stories of the Buddha’s former births, Vols. I-VI. Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 2004-2005.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

26 October 2020

Libraries and manuscripts of Laos (1994-2012)

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This blog post is written by guest contributor Prof. Dr. Volker Grabowsky, who has been Professor for the Language and Culture of Thailand at the University of Hamburg since 2009, and advisor to the Buddhist Archive of Photography in Luang Prabang Since 2006.  Grabowsky’s blog looks at the photographs taken by Hans Georg Berger of libraries in Laos, that were acquired by the British Library in August 2020.

 The ancient and exceptional manuscript culture of Laos has survived colonial rule, war and revolution as well as rapid modernization in a globalized world. Unlike in many parts of the world, production of manuscripts did not stop during the 20th century in Laos, where traditional ways of writing have been preserved by monks and lay scribes until present times. The oldest dated manuscript, a mono-lingual Pali palm-leaf manuscript containing parts of the Parivāra of the Vinaya Piṭaka, was made in 1520/21 and is kept at the National Museum of Luang Prabang (formerly the Royal Palace). It is also the first documentary evidence of the Dhamma (Tham) script in the Lao Kingdom of Lan Sang. This sacred script is a special feature of Lao literature. It originated in the neighboring northern Thai kingdom of Lan Na – probably as a derivative of the ancient Mon alphabet of Hariphunchai - in the late fourteenth century and made its way south through the Mekong river basin. As its name indicates, this script was used for the writing of the Buddhist scriptures and other religious texts. Next to this script, the Lao also developed a secular script nowadays called “Old Lao script” (Lao Buhan script).

Cabinet with palm leaf manuscripts
Opening of a cabinet with palm-leaf manuscripts, Manuscript Preservation Project of the National Library of Laos, Vat Muen Na Somphuaram, Luang Prabang, 1996. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994-2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(6). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

Lao manuscripts were mostly inscribed with a stylus on rectangular cut and cured palm-leaf sheets varying in length. Each sheet had two holes; a cotton string was passed through the left one, making it possible to bind several palm-leaf sheets together as one bundle, or fascicle (phuk). Recent research estimates that more than ninety percent of Lao manuscripts are “palm-leaf books” (nangsü bai lan). The number of leaves in a given fascicle depend on the length and/or the number of text pages. All fascicles of palm-leaf manuscripts are fastened by a string (sai sanὸng). Generally, numerous fascicles of palm-leaf manuscripts which contain the same version of a literary text are fastened together in bundles, called sum. Two wooden boards are frequently added to such a bundle for protection. The bundle usually is wrapped in a piece of cloth and tied with a cotton string. It is called mat.

Palm-leaf is not only the most widely used but, in this region’s subtropical climate, also the most durable “soft” writing support of the Lao cultural area. It was mostly used for Buddhist text. The leporello format was used for secular texts such as chronicles, legal texts, medical and astrological treatises, official documents, non-religious literary works, and only occasionally, Buddhist texts. For these leporello manuscripts, a cardboard-like paper made out of the bark of the sa tree (Broussonetia papyrifera L. vent.) was used. The grayish sa paper was inscribed on both sides, often with black ink. Sometimes it was first painted with a layer of lampblack and then written on with yellowish ink, or white chalk. The covers of both phap sa, as such leporello manuscripts are called in Lao, as well as palm-leaf manuscripts, were often decorated with lacquer and gold. The manuscripts were kept in elaborately fashioned wooden boxes. In addition, bound books exist, notably in the Tai Lü areas of northern Laos, such as Müang Sing, where each piece of paper has been folded over once vertically, so that it becomes much longer than it is broad. By folding the paper, both the front and the back page of one sheet can be used for writing. These sheets of paper are sewn together along one of the vertical sides. This kind of manuscript is called phap hua. In the manuscript tradition of the Tai Lü, pap sa manuscripts play a very important role and are even more widespread than palm-leaf manuscripts, the latter being restricted to the writing of religious texts.

Sa-Paper manuscripts
Sa-Paper manuscripts of the Lü of Müang Sing at the collection of Vat Mai Suvannaphumaram, Luang Prabang, 1994. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(12). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

The vast majority of Lao manuscripts are not kept in private households but in monasteries. The most precious manuscripts are stored in small and elegant buildings devoted solely to the conservation of manuscripts. They are called hò tham (“House of the Dhamma”) or hò trai (“House of the three [baskets]) because they are dedicated homes to Buddhist scriptures. These libraries are integrated into the monastic site (vat) of which they embrace the organization and architectural style. According to traditional Buddhist belief, no matter whether they were written carefully or not, manuscripts should not be treated disrespectfully, or kept in a demeaning place. The texts that manuscripts contain, especially the ritual ones, should not have any insertions or other writing added to them. Any person who breaks this rule would lose the respect of devout Buddhists. Traditionally, laywomen were not supposed to touch religious manuscripts directly, even if very often they were the persons who donated them to the monasteries. This tradition came to an end during the country-wide effort of manuscript preservation of the National Library of Laos since the 1990s, where laywomen were prominently involved.

Historic wooden Library of Vat Nong Lam Chan photograph by Hans Georg Berger
The historic wooden library of Vat Nong Lam Chan at Ban Nong Lam Chan, Champhon District, Savannakhet Province, 1999. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(21). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

It is the sponsor or donor, not the scribe, who is called the “maker” (phu sang) of a manuscript. Usually, its “making” is recorded in the colophons following the end of the text. Here, the names of the leading monastic or lay supporter(s) or mūlasaddhā who took the initiative in commissioning the writing of the manuscript is mentioned. This person provides the writing support and pays the scribe, usually a learned monk or ex-monk. The main aim of that pious deed is to help support the Teachings of the Buddha to endure for 5,000 years. As such, it is expected to bring in return to the sponsors, donors, and – in the case of manuscripts – scribes important karmic benefit. Scribes were exclusively male; recent research found that a surprisingly high number of principal donors were women. In the case of Luang Prabang, we noted a substantial number of manuscripts donated by royalty and members of the aristocracy.

Between 1992 and 2002 the Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme, run by the National Library of Laos and supported by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, surveyed the manuscript holdings of 830 monasteries all over Laos and preserved almost 86,000 manuscripts. Of these, around 12,000 manuscripts were selected for microfilm recordings which are now accessible in the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts. More recently, a number of digitization projects supported by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP)  and the Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts (DREAMSEA) focused on the particularly rich manuscript collections in Luang Prabang’s monasteries, the royal city which since the 14th century has been the centre of Lao Buddhism.

1018-07
A novice reads from a palm-leaf manuscript written in Tham Lao script, Vat Ban Müang Kang, Champasak Province, Southern Laos, 1999. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(19). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

Hans Georg Berger, a photographer and writer born in 1951 in Trier, Germany, surveyed the situation of Lao manuscripts in the context of his photographic documentation of Lao ceremonies, rituals, meditation and everyday life since 1993. From 2006 to 2011 he was grant-holder of three projects of the Endangered Archives Programme which resulted in the digitization, identification and safe storage of more than 33,000 photographs taken and collected by the monks of Luang Prabang for over 120 years.

His collaboration with the Buddhist sangha, the National Library of Laos and the Buddhist Archives of Luang Prabang created a unique corpus and overview on Lao manuscript culture from which 60 photographs, both digital and printed, were acquired for the Library's Visual Arts collections. Hans Georg Berger's work for the Endangered Archives Programme was documented in the short film "Theravada Vision".

 

By Volker Grabowsky

 

Further reading

Berger, Hans Georg: The floating Buddha: the revival of vipassana meditation in Laos. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009, c2006

Berger, Hans Georg. Meditation colors: nine digital color photographs. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009

Berger, Hans Georg. Sacred dust from the Buddha's feet: Theravada Buddhism in Laos. Ulbeek: Salto Ulbeek, 2010

Berger, Hans Georg. My sacred Laos. Chicago: Serindia Contemporary, 2015

Berger, Hans Georg (photographs), Christian Caujolle et al. (texts). Het bun dai bun: Laos - Sacred Rituals of Luang Prabang. London: Westzone, 2000

Berger, Hans Georg, Khamvone Boulyaphone. Treasures from the Buddhist Archive of Photography : historic photographs taken or collected by the monks of Luang Prabang between 1890 and 2007. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2010

Farmer, John Alan. The Self-in-Relation: on Hans Georg Berger's photographs. New York / Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2011

Lingham, Brian (ed). The learning photographer: scholarly texts on Hans Georg Berger's art work in Laos and Iran. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009

Pha One Keo Sitthivong, Khamvone Boulyaphone; foreword by Hans Georg Berger. Great monks of Luang Prabang 1854 to 2007. Luang Prabang: Publications of the Buddhist Archive of Photography; Anantha Publishing, 2011

 

28 September 2020

Tickling the trees, dancing with clouds: Birds in Thai manuscript illustration (2)

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In my previous article on Birds in Thai manuscript illustration I described depictions of natural birds in Thai Buddhist manuscripts. Images of birds can be found in scenes from the last ten Birth Tales of the Buddha, but also in illustrations of the mythical Himavanta forest at the foot of the mythical Mount Meru according to Buddhist cosmology. Such illustrations are used to accompany extracts from the Pali canon (Tipiṭaka), specifically text passages from the Seven Books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka contained in funeral or commemoration volumes.

Detail from a painting depicting a natural scene with a pair of unidentified birds in a Thai folding book containing the Mahābuddhagunā and extracts from the Tipiṭaka. Central Thailand, 18th century
Detail from a painting depicting a natural scene with a pair of unidentified birds in a Thai folding book containing the Mahābuddhagunā and extracts from the Tipiṭaka. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.52)
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Many birds depicted in manuscript illustrations however cannot be identified as real birds. Some of them may represent real birds that the painter never had seen in nature and only knew from descriptions. From early European depictions of life in Thailand dating back to the time before the invention of photography, for example, we know that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for an artist to create a realistic impression of something from just a verbal description.

Scene from the Bhuridatta Jātaka depicting the serpent Bhuridatta coiled around an ant hill next to a pair of birds which could represent Red-headed Trogons (Harpactes erythrocephalus, นกขุนแผนหัวแดง). Central Thailand, 18th century.  British Library, Or 14068 f.7
Scene from the Bhuridatta Jātaka depicting the serpent Bhuridatta coiled around an ant hill next to a pair of birds which could represent Red-headed Trogons (Harpactes erythrocephalus, นกขุนแผนหัวแดง). Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.7)
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The birds in the illustration above from the Bhuridatta Jātaka - a Birth Tale in which the Buddha in a previous life was a serpent (nāga) who followed the Buddhist precepts - have a mainly red coloured head and body with a white chest, black wings and long, black tail feathers. The description, to some extent, matches that of the Red-headed Trogon (Harpactes erythrocephalus, นกขุนแผนหัวแดง). This bird, described by John Gould in 1834, is found in all countries of Southeast Asia as well as Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. It has variations in coloration throughout its range, but always follows the same general color scheme: the male has a dark red head and belly, a white patch on the chest, a brown back, and barred black-and-white wings. The female has a more faded-red belly and a brown head. This is a typically stationary bird and difficult to see, and often one can only hear its high-pitched gulping hoots.

Detail of an illustration of the Himavanta forest with a pair of ducks, possibly Mandarin Ducks (Aix galericulata, เป็ดแมนดาริน). Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or.14068 f.34
Detail of an illustration of the Himavanta forest with a pair of ducks, possibly Mandarin Ducks (Aix galericulata, เป็ดแมนดาริน). Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.34)
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Some of the bird illustrations in this manuscript are particularly colourful, which makes it even more difficult to establish whether they are real or imagined birds. One example is found in an illustration of the Himavanta forest accompanying text passages of the Mahābuddhagunā: two birds are depicted with long slender necks and pointed tails in yellow, brown, red, green, blue and white colours. Remarkable are the long red bills with red crests. Judging from their shape these birds are clearly ducks and the colours match to some extent those of the male Mandarin Duck, although in nature these ducks do not have long slender necks. In this case the painter may again have worked from a verbal description without seeing a Mandarin Duck in nature. However, it is possible that the painting had been inspired by Chinese representations of Mandarin Ducks on porcelain or textiles

The Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata, เป็ดแมนดาริน), described by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758, is a medium-sized perching duck originally found in East Asia, but nowadays with large populations in Europe and North America as well. The appearance of the adult male is striking: it has a red bill, a large white crescent above the eye and a reddish face. The breast is purple with two vertical white bars, and the flanks ruddy, with two orange tips at the back. The female is of a mainly brownish colour with some white. Both the males and females have crests, but the crest is more pronounced on the male. In Chinese culture Mandarin Ducks are regarded as a symbol of conjugal affection and fidelity, and are frequently featured in Chinese art.

Detail of an illustration of the Himavanta forest with a pair of birds which may represent Mrs. Hume's Pheasants (Syrmaticus humiae, ไก่ฟ้าหางลายขวาง). Central Thailand, 18th century.  British Library, Or.14068 f.33
Detail of an illustration of the Himavanta forest with a pair of birds which may represent Mrs. Hume's Pheasants (Syrmaticus humiae, ไก่ฟ้าหางลายขวาง). Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.33)
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One last example of outstanding painting quality in this manuscript is a pair of colourful birds appearing in another illustration of a scene in the Himavanta forest, in which the birds are placed above a pair of mythical lions (Rajasiha, ราชสีห์). These bird illustrations stand out for the detail of the long and pointy wing and tail feathers in red, brown and green colours. The chest is white and the upper part is dominated by red and orange tones with darker spots on the back. The colour of the head, or crest, matches the green in the wings and tail. The long, pointed wing and tail feathers may be a hint that the painter tried to depict Mrs. Hume's Pheasants (Syrmaticus humiae, ไก่ฟ้าหางลายขวาง) , a species of a rare pheasant found throughout forested habitats in southwestern China, northeastern India, Burma and Thailand. Allan O. Hume described the bird in 1881 as a large, bar-tailed forest pheasant with a greyish brown head, bare red facial skin, chestnut brown plumage, yellowish bill, brownish orange iris, white wingbars and metallic blue neck feathers. The male has a long greyish white, barred black and brown tail whereas the female is a chestnut brown bird with whitish throat, buff color belly and white-tipped tail.

It is quite remarkable that the painter of this manuscript tried to include some real birds in the illustrations which depict scenes from the last ten Birth Tales of the Buddha and of the Himavanta forest. Although these birds are purely decorative elements, they give viewers some sense of reality and connection with their own lives. They also show that there was good knowledge of certain species of birds, whereas others may have been rarely seen and painters had to work with verbal descriptions of very rare birds.

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

McDaniel, Justin: "The Bird in the Corner of the Painting: Some Problems with the Use of Buddhist Texts to Study Buddhist Ornamental Art in Thailand." Moussons 23, 2014, pp. 21-53

07 September 2020

Tickling the trees, dancing with clouds: Birds in Thai manuscript illustration (1)

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In my previous article on The Buddha and his natural environment in Thai manuscript art I discussed artistic depictions of the natural environment in which the historical Buddha is placed, highlighting the close relationship he had with the natural world and all sentient beings. Besides trees, flowers, rocks and water one can almost always find representations of animals in Thai Buddhist manuscript illustrations. Sometimes these are related to the text or to references within the text to certain Buddhist scriptures, for example depictions of elephants, horses, wild cats and deer in the context of the Buddha's Birth Tales (Jātaka). But very often depictions of animals like rabbits, squirrels, fish, lobsters and birds have no connection with the text at all - they are added as decorative elements to highlight the beauty of the natural world that humans often are unable to appreciate in their busy daily lives.

Spotted Doves (Spilopelia chinensis, นกเขาใหญ่) depicted with a greedy Brahmin, Jujaka, in an illustration from the Vessantara Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068 f.13
Spotted Doves (Spilopelia chinensis, นกเขาใหญ่) depicted with a greedy Brahmin, Jujaka, in an illustration from the Vessantara Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.13)
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Although there are Thai animal treatises specially dedicated to the study of certain animals, like elephants or cats, in Thai Buddhist manuscript illustration the most frequently appearing animals are birds. Judging from the paintings, the purpose of adding images of birds is to enhance the serenity and auspiciousness of a scene. Often representations of birds can be found in scenes from the last ten Birth Tales of the Buddha, but also in illustrations of the mythical Himavanta forest at the foot of Mount Meru according to Buddhist cosmology. Such illustrations are used to accompany extracts from the Pali canon (Tipiṭaka), specifically text passages from the Seven Books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka that can be found in funeral or commemoration volumes.  

As regards the depiction of birds, one manuscript in the Library's Thai collections stands out: Or.14068, an eighteenth-century folding book (samut khoi) with 53 folios containing a collection of Pali Buddhist texts in Khmer script, including the Pārājika (Four Disrobing Offences), the Brahmajālasutta (the first of the Buddha's Long Discourses), passages from the Seven Books of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, Sahassanaya (a text on meditation), and as the main text the Mahābuddhagunā (the Great Perfections of the Buddha). Added to the texts are thirteen paired illustrations showing scenes from the last ten Birth Tales and the Himavanta forest, and one illustration of the Buddha in the earth-touching gesture (bhumisparsha mudra).

Depiction of two Mountain Imperial Pigeons (Ducula badia, นกมูม) in an illustration of the Nārada Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068 f.9
Depiction of two Mountain Imperial Pigeons (Ducula badia, นกมูม) in an illustration of the Nārada Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.9)
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Looking at the illustrations, some of which depict real animals such as deer and squirrels, whereas others show mythical animals such as the King of Lions (Rajasiha, ราชสีห์) and serpents (nāga, นาค), I was wondering if the birds in the paintings could be identified as real birds or if they were mythical birds, or simply the results of artistic imagination.

The illustration above shows a detail from a scene in the Nārada Jātaka which tells of a king who indulges in worldly pleasures instead of following the Buddhist precepts until his devoted daughter asks the Great Brahma God Nārada, a former incarnation of the Buddha, for help. Seen on the trees behind the roof of the king's palace are two birds which could be artistic representations of Mountain Imperial Pigeons (Ducula badia, นกมูม), described by Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1822. This bird in the pigeon and dove family, common across Southeast Asia, is the largest pigeon species with a fairly long tail and broad, rounded wings. The head, neck and underparts are vinous-grey with a contrasting white throat and greyish-brown or dull maroon upperparts and wings. Its natural habitats are subtropical or tropical moist lowland and mountain forests of up to 2500 m height.

A pair of Spotted Doves (Spilopelia chinensis, นกเขาใหญ่) in an illustration from the Temiya Jātaka, here seen next to Prince Temiya. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068 f.1
A pair of Spotted Doves (Spilopelia chinensis, นกเขาใหญ่) in an illustration from the Temiya Jātaka, here seen next to Prince Temiya. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.1)
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Another bird in the pigeon and dove family that appears several times in this manuscript can be safely identified as the Spotted Dove (Spilopelia chinensis, นกเขาใหญ่). The illustration above is part of a scene in the Temiya Jātaka which tells of the young Prince Temiya, a former incarnation of the Buddha, who did not wish to become king and pretended to be mute. When a charioteer was commanded to bury the prince alive, he revealed the truth to the charioteer who set him free. Temiya then became an ascetic and followed the Buddhist precepts. The pair of Spotted Doves, one resting on a rock, the other on a tree branch next to Prince Temiya, play no role whatsoever in the story and clearly were only added for decorative purposes in this illustration.

The Spotted Dove, described by Giovanni Antonio Scopoli in 1768, is a small and relatively long-tailed pigeon with a heavily spotted neck patch and scaly-patterned upperparts. It is a common open-country pigeon on the Indian Subcontinent and in Southeast Asia. This bird is found across a range of habitats including woodland, scrub, farmland and human habitation.

A bird that appears very similar to the Spotted Dove in these manuscript illustrations is shown in the picture below. However, instead of the spotted neck patch it has a red collar which suggests that this is may be an artist's interpretation of a Burmese Collared Dove although the collar in the natural bird is black.

In this illustration belonging to a scene from the Suvannasāma Jātaka, a pair of what may be Burmese Collared Doves (Streptopelia decaocto xanthocycla, นกเขาแขก) are sitting on tree branches behind the roof of a forest hermitage. In this hermitage live the blind parents of Suvannasāma, a previous incarnation of the Buddha, who with great devotion cares for his parents. One day he is shot by a hunter with a poisined arrow, but thanks to Suvannasāma's accumulated merit and the pleadings of his parents he comes back to life and recovers fully.

Two birds, possibly representing Burmese Collared Doves (Streptopelia decaocto xanthocycla, นกเขาแขก) in an illustration from the Suvannasāma Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or.14068 f.5
Two birds, possibly representing Burmese Collared Doves (Streptopelia decaocto xanthocycla, นกเขาแขก) in an illustration from the Suvannasāma Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.5)
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The Burmese Collared Dove, described by Oliver M. G. Newman in 1906, is a sub-species of the Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto decaocto, นกเขาแขก). This medium sized bird is grey-buff to pinkish-grey overall, a little darker above than below, with a black half-collar across the base of its hindneck. Its habitat stretches from central Myanmar across the Shan State and Yunnan to eastern China. The bird's habitat may explain why the doves in this manuscript from central Thailand were painted with red collars: the painter may only have known them from hear-say, but never seen them in nature.

Red Turtle Doves (Streptopelia tranquebarica, นกเขาไฟ) on a possibly imaginary tree with colourful leaves in another illustration from the Suvannasāma Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068 f.5
Red Turtle Doves (Streptopelia tranquebarica, นกเขาไฟ) on a possibly imaginary tree with colourful leaves in another illustration from the Suvannasāma Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.5)
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Related to the same story in this manuscript, the Suvannasāma Jātaka, is a second illustration depicting Suvannasāma with an arrow in his chest, lying on the ground next to a tree with colourful leaves. On the tree one can see a pair of birds (shown above) which may represent Red Turtle Doves (Streptopelia tranquebarica, นกเขาไฟ). The Red Turtle Dove, described by Johann Hermann in 1804, is in its appearance quite similar to the Burmese Collared Dove. It is also known as Red Collared Dove. The smaller size and reddish plummage differentiate this species from its relatives. It has a narrow black collar at the base of the hindneck and plain reddish (male) to dull brown upperparts (female). This dove is essentially a plains species with its habitat extending from the Indian Sub-continent across mainland Southeast Asia to Taiwan and the Philippines.

An illustration of a natural scene with artistic interpretation of a pair of Ospreys (Or14068)
An illustration of a natural scene with artistic interpretation of a pair of Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus, เหยี่ยวออสเปร). Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14968 f.52)
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A rather unusual bird to be depicted in a Thai manuscript can be seen in the illustration above which accompanies the last text passage of the Mahābuddhagunā (Great Perfections of the Buddha). This may be an artistic interpretation of a pair of Ospreys, set in a rocky landscape, although the colours do not exactly match those of the natural bird. This is a detail of two illustrations on the same folio which also depict other unidentified birds and small mammals.

The Osprey (Pandion haliaetus, เหยี่ยวออสเปร), described by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758, is a fish-eating bird of prey. The upperparts of this larger bird are glossy brown, while the breast is white and sometimes streaked with brown, and the underparts are pure white. The head is white with a darker mask across the eyes, reaching to the sides of the neck. The Osprey has a worldwide distribution and is found in temperate and tropical regions of all continents except Antarctica. During winters it visits all parts of South Asia and Southeast Asia from Myanmar through to Vietnam and southern China, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

In my next post I'll write about some of the unidentified birds illustrated in Thai manuscript art.

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

McDaniel, Justin: "The Bird in the Corner of the Painting: Some Problems with the Use of Buddhist Texts to Study Buddhist Ornamental Art in Thailand." Moussons 23, 2014, pp. 21-53.