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64 posts categorized "Buddhism"

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.

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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.

13 July 2020

Suthon and Manora: A jewel of Thai literature, art and performance

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The poetic story of Suthon and Manora (สุธนมโนห์รา) is one of the most popular Thai literary works and has inspired fine art and the performing arts in Thailand. The theme of the story is rooted in an early Sanskrit text with the title Sudhanakumāravadāna which is included in the Divyāvadāna, a collection of biographical narratives of important figures in early Buddhist history, dating back to the third or fourth century CE. Another related Sanskrit source is the Kinnarī Jātaka in the Mahāvastu, a preface to the Buddhist monastic code. Based on a Pali translation of the Sudhana Jātaka, an extra-canonical Birth Tale of the Buddha (Paññāsa Jātaka) created in northern Thailand around the fifteenth century, two poetic versions (klon suat) of Suthon and Manora were then composed in the Thai language: one showing a central Thai origin and another with a southern Thai cultural context. However, the story is also known in the Lao, Khmer, Mon, Shan and Burmese literary and performing traditions. Scenes from the legend based on the early Indian sources are depicted in a painting in cave 1 at Ajanta (5th century CE) in India and on twenty relief panels on the first terrace of Candi Borobudur (8th/9th century CE) in Indonesia, the largest Buddhist monument in the world.

Text passage from the story of Suthon and Manora in a Thai folding book
Text passage from the story of Suthon and Manora in a Thai folding book. Thailand, 19th century (British Library, Or.8851 f.15)
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At the centre of the story is Kinnari Manora (กินรี มโนห์รา), a female mythical figure with a human head and upper body and the lower body of a bird. Kinnari, and their male counterparts, Kinnara (กินนร), are believed to live in the the mythical realm of half-bird-half-human beings beyond the Himavanta forest, which is inaccessible for humans whereas Kinnara and Kinnari have the ability to enter the human realm. Manora lives happily as a princess in the world of Kinnara (plural). However, one day while taking a bath in a lake of the human realm, she is captured by a hunter with a magic noose and is forced to remain in the world of humans. Here she meets Prince Suthon, heir to the kingdom of Uttarapancala, and subsequently the two fall in love and get married.

A pair of Kinnara in the mythological Himavanta forest depicted in a collection of drawings on Thai cosmology and mythology
A pair of Kinnara in the mythological Himavanta forest depicted in a collection of drawings on Thai cosmology and mythology. Thailand, 1824 (British Library, Add MS 27370 sheet 3)
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However, because of conflict in the kingdom Prince Suthon is sent away to subdue a rebellious vassal. A jealous court counselor misinterprets a dream of the king and requests the sacrifice of Manora. She flees the kingdom and returns to the realm of Kinnara, leaving her beloved Suthon behind. When he returns and discovers that Manora was forced to leave, he chases after her. Despite the perilous journey to the realm of Kinnara, he proves his love for Manora to the king. Finally, the two lovers are reunited and return to the human realm and live happily ever after.

The two poetic versions in Thai language adhere to the Pali version of the Sudhana Jātaka in all major and minor details, however, they are not actual translations, but versified re-tellings of the story. The Thai texts also emphasize and embellish the natural setting of the tale in line with the characteristics often found in Thai literature and art. While the figure of Suthon enjoys the status of a Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be), the figure of Manora represents ideal beauty, set in a Thai stylistic framework for the story that employs description and digression, epithets, metaphors and similes.

Front cover of the book "Phra Suthon Manora"
Front cover of the book "Phra Suthon Manora", retold by Phongchan and published by Sermwit Bannakhan publishing house, Bangkok, in BE 2524 (1981 CE)
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Numerous print publications containing the story of Suthon and Manora have appeared in Thai language in the past hundred years, mainly for pleasure reading and as juvenile literature.

Various translations were made into European languages: a French translation by Jean Drans was included in his publication with the title "Histoire de Nang Manôra et histoire de Sang Thong: deux récits du Recueil des cinquante Jâtaka. Traduits du siamois" (Tokyo, 1947). A translation into German by Christian Velder appeared in the book "Muschelprinz und Duftende Blüte: Liebesgeschichten aus Thailand" (Zurich, 1966). Henry Ginsburg, while working on his dissertaion "The Sudhana-Manohara tale in Thai: a comparative study based on two texts from the National Library, Bangkok and Wat Machimawat, Songkhla" (SOAS University of London, 1971) made a translation of the story from Thai into English, now held at the British Library (Or.16758).

The southern Thai tradition of Suthon and Manora also relates to a popular dance-drama known as manora or short nora (โนรา), which appears to borrow its name from the heroine, Kinnari Manora, although the story itself is not re-enacted in the dance performance. While carrying out research for his dissertation in Thailand, Henry Ginsburg was able to attend a nora performance, which is documented in his photo collection (Photo 1213).

Traditional nora performer in southern Thailand, late 1960s
Traditional nora performer in southern Thailand, late 1960s. Photograph by Henry Ginsburg (British Library, Photo 1213(233))
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There are two types of nora dance: one is performed in a ceremonial context, known as nora rong khru (โนราโรงครู), and the other is for entertainment.

Nora rong khru is an important ritual dance for professional nora performers. Its purpose is to invite the ancestral spirits of the great nora masters of the past in order to pay homage to them. The ritual involves making votive offerings to the ancestral spirits, and the initiation of novice dancers. The full version of the ritual dance, which lasts three days and nights, is a highlight of events in the community. It usually is performed once in a year, or every three or five years, depending on the traditions of the different nora schools. A shorter version of the ritual can be performed more frequently and lasts only one day and one night.

Nora performances for entertainment can be held at any time, and they can have a competitive character. They allow dancers - novices and masters alike - to demonstrate their talents and their skills which can combine the dancing with singing. The dance is characterised by striking body poses which require many years of practice. Normally such performances do not focus on telling a story, but the dancers may decide to include episodes from well-known stories like Suthon and Manora to entertain the audiences. One of the most popular scenes to be performed is the scene of the huntsman capturing Manora. Entertainment performances always include at the beginning a song to pay homage to the teachers and the great ancestral masters of nora, and a solo performance of the current master of the school or dance troupe.

Kanit Sripaoraya, a Ph.D. candidate and a nora practitioner performs one nora movement in the pose of ‘the sitting of Kinnara’
Kanit Sripaoraya, a Ph.D. candidate and a nora practitioner performs one nora movement in the pose of ‘the sitting of Kinnara’ (in Thai 'Kinnon-nang', กินนรนั่ง), 29 September 2014. © Photograph courtesy of Kanit Sripaoraya.

Nora dances are often performed on a makeshift stage made specifically for this purpose in the community. The back of the stage is formed by a large colourful painting on cloth or a curtain. An orchestra which comprises mostly of percussion instruments determines the speed and rhythm of the dance. The most striking element of the requisites for nora performances are the costumes of the dancers who can be male or female. The costume of the principal performer who is called nora yai is made of beads in various colours which are arranged in geometric patterns. Other components include an elaborately decorated headgear, a pair of wings attached to the costume, a pendant, a decorative tail, a wrap-around skirt, a pair of calf-length trousers, additional pieces of cloth hanging down from the waist, bracelets and fingertip extension pieces. The other dancers do not usually have a pendant and wings. The attributes related to birds (wings and decorative bird tail) can be seen as a reference to Kinnari Manora, the half-bird half-human heroine of the tale of Suthon and Manora.

Nora Thanakorn Bandisak (right) recites the verse, and leads the nora practitioners, Nora Ekachai Numsawat (left) and Nora Nipaporn Namsuk (center) perform one of the movement of ‘Bot Prathom’
Nora Thanakorn Bandisak (right) recites the verse, and leads the nora practitioners, Nora Ekachai Numsawat (left) and Nora Nipaporn Namsuk (center) perform one of the movement of ‘Bot Prathom’ (บทปฐม) for the ceremony of nora (nora rong khru, โนราโรงครู) at Baan Lak chang, Nakorn Si Thammarat, Thailand, 1 May 2013. © Photograph courtesy of Kanit Sripaoraya.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections
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Bibliography

Baker, Chris and Pasuk Phongpaichit, From the fifty Jātaka: Selections from the Thai Paññāsa Jātaka. Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2019.
Drans, Jean, Histoire de Nang Manôra et histoire de Sang Thong : deux récits du Recueil des cinquante Jâtaka. Traduits du siamois . Tokyo: Presses salésiennes, 1947.
Ginsburg, Henry, The Sudhana-Manoharā tale in Thai: a comparative study based on two texts from the National Library, Bangkok and Wat Macimāwāt, Songkhla. London: University of London, 1972.
Horner, Isaline B. and Padmanabh S. Jaini, Apocryphal birth-stories : (Paññasa-jātaka). London: The Pali Text Society, 1985-1986 (2 vol).
Levin, Cecelia, Sudhana and Manoharā, “A Story of Love, Loss and Redemption at Candi Borobudur,” In From Beyond the Eastern Horizon: Essays in Honour of Professor Lokesh Chandra. Ed. Manjushree. Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 2011, pp. 191-204.
NORA, Intangible Cultural Heritage  (retrieved 20.04.2020).
Padmanabh S. Jaini, “The story of Sudhana and Manohara: an analysis of the texts and the Borobudur reliefs,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. London: University of London, vol. 29, pt. 3, 1966.
Schlingloff, Dieter: Prince Sudhana and the kinnari, an Indian love-story in Ajanta. Torino: Istituto di indologia, 1973.
Velder, Christian: Muschelprinz und Duftende Blüte: Liebesgeschichten aus Thailand. Zürich: Manesse, 1966.

 

05 June 2020

A Thai royal edition of Pannasa Jataka (ปัญญาสชาดก)

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Paññāsa Jātaka are extra-canonical Birth Tales of the Buddha. Their origin is usually associated with northern Thailand, or the former kingdom of Lānnā. However, many such extra-canonical Birth Tales found their way into the literatures of neighbouring peoples, such as the Thai of central Thailand and the Lao of Laos and northeast Thailand. Motifs that appear in some Paññāsa Jātaka can also be found on ninth-century reliefs at the Borobudur monument in Java, which suggests that some Paññāsa Jātaka may be derived from older pre-Buddhist Southeast Asian folklore. Various Paññāsa Jātaka have parallels with Sanskrit literature as well as Tamil, Chinese, Tibetan, Khotanese and Southeast Asian folk tales (Fickle, 1978).
Wooden covers of a Thai royal manuscript containing a selection of Paññāsa Jātaka from central Thailand, c.1851-1868
Wooden covers of a Thai royal manuscript containing a selection of Paññāsa Jātaka from central Thailand, c.1851-1868 (British Library, Or 12524)
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Detail from the black lacquered back cover with gilt floral decoration of a Thai royal manuscript containing Paññāsa Jātaka
Detail from the black lacquered back cover with gilt floral decoration of a Thai royal manuscript containing Paññāsa Jātaka. Central Thailand, c.1851-1868 (British Library, Or 12524)
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The Pali expression Paññāsa Jātaka literally means “fifty Birth Tales”. Varying in numbers and order of arrangement, several collections of Paññāsa Jātaka are known in the northern Thai (Lānnā), Lao, Tai Lue, Tai Khuen, central Thai, Cambodian, Burmese and Mon traditions. Although there is no evidence as to which is the original or standard collection, it is thought that most of the Paññāsa Jātaka were written down by Buddhist monastics in the Lānnā kingdom between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, mostly in the local northern Thai (Lānnā) dialect, with some phrases in Pāli language. Centres of Buddhist scholarship in the Lānnā kingdom were Wat Pā Daeng, Wat Phra Sing, Wat Mahābodhi in Chiang Mai and Wat Phra Thāt Haripunjaya in Lamphun, but many of the learned monks fled to Luang Prabang before and during the Burmese conquest of Chiang Mai in 1558, and others were taken to Burma. This explains not only the spread of the Paññāsa Jātaka but also the increase in production of manuscripts containing Paññāsa Jātaka across mainland Southeast Asia. The collections of Paññāsa Jātaka are also known as Jātaka nǭk nibāt and Hāsip chāt in the Lānnā and Lao traditions, and Zimmè pannātha in the Burmese tradition (Zimmè referring to Chiang Mai). Most of the surviving manuscripts containing one or more Paññāsa Jātaka date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but many of them appear to be copies from older manuscripts. Pali language versions of Paññāsa Jātaka can be found in the central Thai, Khmer and Burmese traditions.

Paññāsa Jātaka in Khmer script on palm leaves in ten bundles
Paññāsa Jātaka in Khmer script on palm leaves in ten bundles, written in ink on gilt background (first leaf of each bundle) and incised on plain palm leaves. With small lacquered and gilded illuminations in ovals on the second leaf. Central Thailand, c.1851-1868 (British Library, Or 12524)
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A royal edition of a selection of Paññāsa Jātaka was commissioned by King Mongkut (Rama IV, r.1851-1868). The text was written mainly in Khmer script which was commonly used for Pali Buddhist scriptures in central Thailand up until the end of the nineteenth century. Only a few words on the first two leaves are written in Khom script, a variant of Khmer script used in Thailand. The manuscript consists of ten bundles with altogether 235 palm leaves, held between two wooden covers which were decorated with black lacquer and gilt floral patterns. The text was incised and blackened on the plain dried palm leaves, except the first leaf of each bundle which are gilded with text applied in black ink or lacquer. All the palm leaves have gilded edges. The title leaves of each bundle are decorated with two illuminations in ovals; one on the left side showing a vihāra (Buddhist assembly hall), and one on the right depicting the royal seal of King Mongkut (Rama IV) with a crown between two parasols (below).

Royal seal of King Mongkut (Rama IV)
Royal seal of King Mongkut (Rama IV) on the title leaf of the first bundle of a royal manuscript containing Paññāsa Jātaka. Central Thailand, c.1851-1868 (British Library, Or 12524)
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A set of northern Thai Paññāsa Jātaka transliterated from Dhamma script into Thai script was published in 1998 under the auspices of Chiang Mai University. The international team of researchers involved in this project point out that the original manuscript version written in northern Thai Dhamma script is mainly in the Lānnā dialect with added words and phrases in Pali. The text of these Paññāsa Jātaka is in prose and largely follows the structure of the Jātaka in the Pali canon. Whereas central Thai manuscript versions of the Paññāsa Jātaka were compiled in Pali language, early printed works usually contain translations of these stories in Thai language to make them available to wider audiences in central Thailand. The first printed Thai translation was published in 1923 under the direction of Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, a son of King Mongkut (Rama IV) and founder of the modern educational system of Thailand.

05 first Thai publication
"Paññāsa Jātaka phāk thī 12 prachum nithān nai prathēt nī tǣ borān 50 rư̄ang worawong chādok". A translation of Paññāsa Jātaka into Thai published in Bangkok, Vajirañāna Library, 2470 (1923 CE). Source: National Library of Thailand (accessed 31/03/2020)

To understand the dissemination of a relatively small extra-canonical collection of stories with a Buddhist motif over a wider geographical area one has to take the role of oral tradition and performance into consideration. Although monks and novices may have collected folktales and written them down for the first time, and even translated them into Pali and then back into various other vernacular languages, the spread of these stories will also have to be credited to the oral traditions and performing arts. Not only monks travelled forth and back between centres of Buddhist worship, education and art, but also royals, artists, singers and musicians, theatre troupes, craftsmen, traders and ordinary people who would have helped to make their own folkloristic heritage known in foreign lands. And even when texts had been written down, the manuscripts did not necessarily stay in one place, but were often donated to Buddhist temples in faraway cities, regions and countries.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections
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Bibliography

Baker, Chris and Pasuk Phongpaichit: From the fifty Jātaka: Selections from the Thai Paññāsa Jātaka. Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2019
Fickle, Dorothy H.: An historical and structural study of the Paññāsa Jātaka. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1978
Niyadā Laosunthō̜n: Panyāsa chādok : prawat læ khwāmsamkhan thī mī tọ̄ wannakam rō̜ikrō̜ng khọ̄ng Thai. Bangkok: Mǣkhamfāng, 1995
Skilling, Peter: Jātaka and Paññāsa-jātaka in South-East Asia. Journal of the Pali Text Society vol. 27, 2006, pp. 113–174.
Udom Rungruangsri: Wannakam chādok thī mī laksana pen “Lānnā”. Wannakam phutthasāsanā nai Lānnā. Ed. Phanphen Khruathai. Chiang Mai, 1997, pp. 51-60

27 April 2020

The Buddha and his natural environment in Thai manuscript art

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Illustrated Buddhist manuscripts from mainland Southeast Asia are famous for their lavish and often very detailed depictions of scenes from the Life of Buddha and the Buddha’s Birth Tales, known as Jatakas. Although most of these manuscripts date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their illustrations are based on much older Pali texts originating from Sri Lanka in the first century BCE. The outstanding beauty of these manuscript paintings results from the depiction of the natural environment in which the main character – the historical Buddha – is placed, highlighting the close relationship the Buddha had with nature and all sentient beings.

Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka illustrated in a paper folding book with extracts from the Pali Tipitaka in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, IO.Pali.207 f.3)
Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka illustrated in a paper folding book with extracts from the Pali Tipitaka in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, IO.Pali.207 f.3). Public domain

The Buddha’s Birth Tales (Jatakas)

The previous lives of Gotama Buddha - the historical Buddha - are the subject of a collection of Birth Tales (Jatakas). They show how he gradually acquired greater virtues and moral stature from one incarnation to the other. These stories, well-known in all Theravada Buddhist cultures, are attributed to Gotama Buddha himself and are included in the Pali Buddhist canon. He is thought to have narrated them during his ministry to his followers, using each Jataka to teach certain morals and values. There are 547 such stories, but more were created in the region of Northern Thailand and Laos at a later time and are known as Pannasa Jatakas.

The Jatakas are a major subject of Thai manuscript illustration, with the oldest extant manuscripts dating back at least to the 18th century. These stories are meant to teach the values of compassion, loving-kindness, generosity, honesty, perseverance and morality. In his previous lives Gotama Buddha was incarnated in form of human beings, various animals, benevolent spirits, or as deities residing in the heavenly realms of the Buddhist cosmos.

Scenes from the Bhuridatta Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 19th century (British Library, Or.16552 f.16)
Scenes from the Bhuridatta Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 19th century (British Library, Or.16552 f.16). Public domain

The Bhuridatta Jataka is a fine example that describes the moral abilities of sacred or mythical animals as sentient beings. The Buddha-to-be was reborn as a mythical serpent prince (naga), who practiced meditation and aimed to follow the Buddhist precepts. A greedy snake charmer named Alambayana obtained magic spells from a hermit in order to capture Bhuridatta. A hunter who in the past was taken by Bhuridatta to live in splendor in the serpent kingdom (right side) revealed the serpent’s secret meditation place to Alambayana. The snake charmer captured the serpent while he was coiled around an ant hill (left side) and forced him to perform in market places so that he could earn fame and wealth. Bhuridatta repressed his shame and anger in order to follow the Eight Precepts. Eventually, he was freed by his brothers.

In both illustrations great care was taken to paint the serpent in great detail and in bright colours to highlight his sacredness, whereas plants, flowers, fish and different species of birds were added as decorative elements.

Scenes from the Suvannasama Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.5)
Scenes from the Suvannasama Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.5) . Public domain

The Suvannasama Jataka tells the story of the Buddha-to-be when he lived as the son of blind hermits. Suvannasama looked after his parents with great devotion until one day he was shot with a poisoned arrow by a king who was out hunting deer (right side). When the king realised his grave mistake, he went to ask the hermits for forgiveness (left side). When the parents heard about their son’s fate, they requested the king to guide them to their beloved son’s body so they could pray for his future rebirth. They appealed and called to witness all deities about their son’s merits as he had always looked after them dearly. When their pledge ended, Suvannasama stood alive and well, and the parents also regained their eyesight. This Jataka symbolises the perfection of devotion.    

These paintings are fine examples of the late Ayutthaya manuscript painting style of the eighteenth century with distinguished landscapes, rocks, foliage, birds and deer. Although the scenes depict a sorrowful event, the atmosphere seems calm and peaceful thanks to warm, pleasant colours, leaving a positive impression on the viewer.

Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14255 f.2)
Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14255 f.2). Public domain

The Mahajanaka Jataka symbolizes the virtue of perseverance. Prince Mahajanaka's father was killed in battle by his brother, Mahajanaka’s uncle. When the prince found out about his ancestry he vowed to regain his father’s kingdom. He set out on a seafaring voyage, hoping to build a fortune in a distant land and to set up a powerful army. However, the ship sank and everyone on board drowned or was killed by sea creatures - except the prince. He drifted in the water for seven days, but survived through the sheer strength of his perseverance. A goddess, Manimekhala, rescued him and carried him to his father’s kingdom, which he finally regained after his uncle’s death (funeral carriage, right side). Thereafter, he sought to follow the Noble Eightfold Path and went on to pursue spiritual attainment as an ascetic (left side).

The paintings illustrating the Mahajanaka Jataka are in the style of the late Ayutthaya period and are set before a magnificent natural scenery in bright colours most of which were derived from natural paints. On the left side, the prince is depicted while meditating under a tree, surrounded by rocks and blossoming plants, similar to Prince Siddhattha who eventually became the historical Buddha. On the right side, an exquisitely painted horse is shown pulling the uncle's funeral carriage.

Scenes from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, late 18th century (British Library, Or.14704 f.74)
Scenes from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, late 18th century (British Library, Or.14704 f.74). Public domain

Prince Vessantara was the Buddha’s last incarnation before he was reborn as Prince Siddhattha and eventually attained enlightenment. This last Birth Tale, also called the Great Jataka, is the most popular across Southeast Asia, symbolising the virtues of generosity and compassion. Prince Vessantara gave away his white elephant, bringer of rain, to Brahmins of a drought-stricken land as an act of compassion. He was then exiled from his kingdom because people feared that his generosity may bring poverty to the land. His wife and children followed him and they set up a forest hermitage. A Brahmin, Jujaka, found Prince Vessantara and asked for his children to become servants to the Brahmin’s wife to stop other villagers mocking her (right). Out of compassion for Jujaka’s wife Prince Vessantra agreed to give away his children while his wife was collecting fruit in the forest (left side). The greedy Brahmin later sold the siblings – unwittingly - to Prince Vessantara’s parents. Prince Vessantara and his wife were finally welcomed back to the kingdom and reunited with the children.

The excellent paintings in this Thai folding book depict scenes from the Last Ten Jatakas in the style of the late 18th to early 19th century. Warm colours are used to highlight the beauty of the natural environment and the serenity of the forest hermitage. Although this part of the story is sorrowful, it is one of the most popular scenes from all Jatakas in Thailand, and the painter minimizes the sadness by adding beautiful natural elements like plants and trees with every single leaf painted meticulously.

The Life of Gotama Buddha

The historical Buddha, Gotama Buddha, was born in Lumbini (a place in modern-day Nepal) over 2,500 years ago. Throughout his life, he had an intimate connection with the natural world: he was born as Prince Siddhattha under a sal tree whose branches provided support to his mother giving birth, at the first seven steps he walked a lotus flower appeared, he lived in forests and in caves as an ascetic, meditated in the rain while a serpent protected him, gained enlightenment under the bodhi tree, gave his first discourse in a deer park, followed the River Ganges to teach the Dhamma, lived with his disciples in a bamboo grove, taught at forest monasteries, interacted with various real and mythical animals during his long ministry, and at the point of his physical passing he attained pari-nibbana between twin sal trees.

In the Sutta Pitaka part of the Pali canon over 13,000 species of animals and over 18,000 species of plants are mentioned which is evidence of the consciousness of early Buddhists about biodiversity. Manuscript illustrations give insight into how the Buddha and nature were benevolent and supportive to each other, and how the natural world supports and sustains humanity. The Buddhist belief that all sentient beings possess inherent Buddha nature is expressed through spectacular depictions of the natural world surrounding the Buddha.

Scenes of Buddha’s meditation and enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Pali Tipitaka and the legend of Phra Malai in Thai language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 1894 (British Library, Or.16101 f.2)
Scenes of Buddha’s meditation and enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Pali Tipitaka and the legend of Phra Malai in Thai language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 1894 (British Library, Or.16101 f.2). Public domain

The majority of Thai manuscript paintings are dedicated to Buddhist topics. However, instead of Gotama Buddha’s life these illustrations often highlight his former incarnations, particularly the Last Ten Birth Tales.

The manuscript above includes two illustrations of Gotama Buddha which combine Thai and European painting styles. It is a fine example where team-work of at least two artists can be assumed, one specializing in the traditional style of painting Thai figures, and the other experimenting with European landscape painting techniques. The paintings illustrate a central moment in the life of Gotama Buddha – his enlightenment. Once Prince Siddhattha had freed himself from all disturbances and distractions by way of meditation (right side), he was able to attain enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi tree on the full moon day of Visakha (in May). By touching the earth (left side) he called upon the earth goddess Dharani as a witness of his merits in his previous lives. The gods Brahma and Sakka witnessed his attainment of enlightenment and asked the Buddha to share his insights with all sentient beings.

Buddha’s attainment of pari-nibbana, or final liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Paper folding book, 19th century (British Library, Or.14115 f. 95)
Buddha’s attainment of pari-nibbana, or final liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Paper folding book, 19th century (British Library, Or.14115 f. 95). Public domain

The scene above, painted in rich colours, captures details associated with the story of the Buddha’s physical passing. At the age of 80 the Buddha fell ill and passed on at Kushinara, between Pava and Sal Grove. The illustration depicts the Buddha resting on his right side next to a sal tree (left side). A newly ordained monk conveys the message of the Buddha’s passing to his lay followers (right side), whom the Buddha had urged to work towards their own enlightenment with diligence. His body was cremated and the relics were placed in monuments (stupas). The presence of the sal trees in both the Buddha’s birth and death scenes symbolises the cycle of rebirths, samsara, a key concept in Buddhist philosophy.

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.
Igunma, Jana and San San May, "Buddha embracing nature – nature embracing Buddha. The Buddha and his natural environment in Southeast Asian manuscript art",  Arts of Asia, Jan/Feb 2020, pp.114-124.
San San May and Jana Igunma, Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript art from Southeast Asia. London, British Library, 2018.
Shravasti Dhammika, Nature and environment in early Buddhism. Singapore, Buddhist Research Society, 2015.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections
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21 February 2020

Guanyin: the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion

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This is the thirteenth of a series of blog posts celebrating the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 - 23 Feb 2020. 

Bodhisattvas are sentient beings that seek enlightenment and embrace the principle of compassion to liberate others from suffering. In Buddhist practice, suffering is part of the cycle of rebirth and the level you are reborn is in a cause and effect relationship with your actions in previous lives. There are many levels that sentient beings need to attain before they achieve enlightenment and become a Buddha: the Bodhisattva level is the last step before Buddhahood. This blog post will introduce one of the most famous Boddhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism: Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, also known as Guanyin. It is important to highlight that Guanyin had actually become a Buddha known as 正法明如來 (“The Buddha who clearly understands the true law”) in the past. However, in order to make direct contact with sentient beings and lead them from suffering, this Buddha decided to step down and return as a Boddhisattva. This decision is known as 倒駕慈航 (Turning back the Ferry of Compassion). This blog will discuss the great compassion of this Bodhisattva from three perspectives: the name, the form, and the practice, all of which are centred around the needs of sentient beings.

Long Picture of Guanyin
Illustration of Guanyin. (Or.8210/S.9137)

The name: caring for all sentient beings

As Buddhism spread eastwards from its Indian heartland, Buddhist terminology in Sanskrit was adapted to other languages using either a sense-for-sense translation or a transliteration derived from the original pronunciation. For example, the name of Amitābha Buddha underwent transliteration to become ‘Amituo’ in Chinese. By contrast, Avalokiteśvara’s name was translated into Chinese based on its meaning and certain aspects of the Bodhisattva’s nature. This approach leaves more room for interpretation and, as a result, there are two common versions of the name, Guanshiyin and Guanzizai.

Guanshiyin, also known as Guanyin, is the name for this Boddhisattva that is seen in most sutras, such as the Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance. This translation comes from the Sanskrit “Avalokita”, which means to observe (觀[guan]), and “svara”, which means sound (音[yin]). In other words, the Bodhisattva is “the sound-perceiver” or the one who hears the sounds (of sentient beings) of the world (世[shi]). This name is also referred to the Universal Gate Chapter of Lotus Sutra, which says: “Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva will instantly perceive the sound of their cries, and they (the suffering) will all be liberated”. One possible explanation for this name sometimes being abbreviated is that, in order to avoid the name of Emperor Taizong (598-649) of Tang: 李世民 (Li, Shimin), people took out the second character and shortened the name from Guanshiyin to Guanyin. Either way, this reflects the fact that Guanyin is conscious of the voices of the suffering calling for help and is committed to rescuing these beings in various ways.

Name of the Bodhisattva in the Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance
The name of the Bodhisattva: Guanshiyin (觀世音) appears in the Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance. (Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance, 1838, Add MS 16329)

The second name for this Boddhisattva, Guanzizai, is an interpretation based on the characteristics of the Bodhisattva and the path that practitioners need to follow. It comes from a different, but more common Sanskrit root “Avalokita” + “iśvara” from which it is possible to derive the meaning of ‘one who can observe unimpeded’. This name appears in the Heart Sutra which is the condensed, but nonetheless sacred, text of the Sutra of Great Wisdom. It reveals the concept of emptiness and the fundamental truth that nothing is permanent. This Bodhisattva is the one who perfectly understands (or perceives: 觀[guan]) this rule of emptiness, leaves aside their worldly attachments, and attains the great freedom (自在[zizai]) that comes with this realisation. In this way, this Bodhisattva can hold all sentient beings in his heart and rescue them without any obstacles. Therefore, when the Heart Sutra was translated by Master Xuanzang (c.602-664) in the Tang Dynasty, Guanzizai was used in order to reveal this Boddhisattva’s nature and hopefully to encourage practitioners to follow the same path.

Detail of the name of Bodhisattva Guanzizai in the Heart Sutra
The name of the Bodhisattva: Guanzizai (觀自在) shows in the lower middle part of the stupa of Heart Sutra (Heart SutraOr.8210/S.4289).

The form: depictions of Guanyin

While there are a few different names to refer to this Bodhisattva, there are even more different forms that Guanyin can take when appearing to sentient beings in order to guide them away from suffering.

One interesting development of Guanyin’s form is the way in which gender is represented. In general, the gender of deities in Buddhism are neutral and rarely discussed. Early depictions show Guanyin with a more masculine appearance, creating the impression that the original gender of Guanyin was male. However, the female form becomes more popular later in Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in China. The reasons for this are linked to the historical context. Traditionally, China was a very patriarchal society; a system reinforced by Confucian principles which put pressure on women to obey their husbands and give birth to sons (instead of daughters). As a result, women were generally the ones asking for Guanyin’s help in order to achieve these goals. In addition, it was thought that a woman must commit to one man for her whole life (even after his death), therefore it seemed more appropriate for a woman to worship a deity in female form. In this way, Guanyin starts to take on more feminine qualities such as kindness and grace and, in female form, she is seen as more accessible to women.

Guanyin Bodhisattva in Female Form
Guanyin Bodhisattva appears in female form. (Vignettes Representing Manifestations of Buddhist Saints, before 1911, Add MS 10592)

So far we have discussed the work of Guanyin in isolation, but this Bodhisattva does not go it alone in the rescue business; Guanyin also works with Amitābha Buddha and Mahāsthāmaprāpta Bodhisattva to guide the dead to the Western Pure Land. This trio is known as the Three Noble Ones of the West. When pictured together, it would be easy to recognise the Amitābha Buddha as he is always in the middle but sometimes it can be a bit difficult to work out which attendant is Guanyin since the basic style of Bodhisattvas is the same. One clue would be the plant they hold in their hand; Mahāsthāmaprāpta holds a lotus and Guanyin holds a willow. The other indication is the item on their head; it is a vase containing his parents’ ashes on Mahāsthāmaprāpta’s head and a statue of seated Amitābha Buddha on Guanyin’s. In this case, when a person approaches death, they can call upon not only Amitābha, but also Guanyin to ask for guidance.

The Three Noble Ones of the West
The Three Noble Ones of the West (Photo credit: London Fo Guang Shan; posted with permission).

The practice: Guanyin as a guide

There are many different forms of Buddhist practice including meditation and chanting of texts such as dharanis or sutras. Certain dharanis and sutras can relate to a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva. The most notable ones featuring Guanyin are the Great Compassion Dharnai and the Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva.

Generally speaking, a dharani is a phrase or mantra, recited as sounds based on the original Sanskrit, which is believed to be powerful and protective. When someone chants the dharani, the related deity will come to provide their support. The Great Compassion Dharani, also known as Great Compassion Heart Dharani contains the power of Guanyin to rescue sentient beings. According to the Dharani of the Bodhisattva With a Thousand Hands and Eyes Who Regards the Worldʼs Sounds with Great Compassion , this dharani contains the power to remove all horror and suffering and achieve perfection. Furthermore, the dharani can also help followers listen to the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), enhance their wisdom, and guide the dead towards rebirth in a Pure Land.

Great Compassion Heart Dharani
Chinese manuscript of the Great Compassion Heart Dharani with annotation (Great Compassion Heart Dharani, 1700-1909, Or 6995).

A sutra is a canonical scripture recording the teachings from Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha). The Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara is the twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra. As the name suggests, in this text the Bodhisattva indicates many ‘gates’, or methods for a follower to practice, and Guanyin will manifest in different forms in order to guide them. No matter who you are, Guanyin will appear in the corresponding role to teach you. The Bodhisattva also has the power to improve a bad situation. No matter what difficulty you find yourself in, when you chant the Bodhisattva’s name, he always is able to release you from suffering. Moreover, the sutra also reveals the power of Guanyin to provide followers with wisdom and fearlessness on the path towards Buddhahood.

Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokitesvara Bodhisvatta
The Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva (Or.59.b.24).

The above perspectives all demonstrate the Great Compassion of this Bodhisattva since the name he goes by, the form he takes and the practices he upholds all have the needs of sentient beings at their heart, showing that he does his best to rescues them. However, it is also important to note that practitioners should not totally rely on the power of the Bodhisattva. The main objective is for the followers themselves to cultivate a heart as compassionate as Guanyin’s, and in doing so they will be following the path of the Bodhisattva in order to attain Buddhahood.

Han-Lin Hsieh, Curator, British Library Chinese Collections, with thanks to Emma Harrison.

CCBY Image

The accompanying volume to the Buddhism exhibition, "Buddhism: Origins, Traditions and Contemporary Life", is still available for purchase at the British Library Shop and online

Reference:

Conversion table of Buddha and Bodhisattvas’ name

Sanskrit

Chinese

Pinyin

Avalokiteśvara

觀自在

Guanzizai

觀世音

Guanshiyin

觀音

Guanyin

Amitābha

阿彌陀

Amito

Mahāsthāmaprāpta

大勢至

Dashizhi

Conversion table of Sutra names

English

Sanskrit

Chinese

Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance

 

大悲懺儀軌

Heart Sutra

Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya

般若波羅密多心經

Sutra of Great Wisdom

Mahāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra

大般若波羅蜜多經

Great Compassion Dharnai

Mahākaruṇādhāranī

大悲咒

Great Compassion Heart Dharani

Mahākaruṇā-cittadhāranī

大悲心陀羅尼

Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

Samanta-mukha-parivarto nāmâvalokiteśvara-vikurvaṇa-nirdeśaḥ

觀世音菩薩普門品

Dharani of the Bodhisattva With a Thousand Hands and Eyes Who Regards the Worldʼs Sounds with Great Compassion

 

千手千眼觀世音菩薩廣大圓滿無礙大悲心陀羅尼經

Lotus Sutra

Sad-dharma Puṇḍárīka Sūtra

妙法蓮華經

14 February 2020

Buddhist-themed stamps: Religious didactic tool or postal ephemera?

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This is the twelfth of a series of blog posts celebrating the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020.

With over five hundred million practising Buddhists, Buddhism is the fourth largest faith in the world. Consequently, numerous countries produce stamps with Buddhist themes and imagery. Stamps may now largely be viewed as a superseded technology, and are certainly less commonly encountered than in the past, but they remain an intrinsic part of our global visual and material culture. This raises the question of whether such stamps depicting Buddhist themes have any inherent didactic religious purpose, or whether they are merely pieces of visual ephemera? The following selection of late 20th century Sri Lankan stamps issued for Vesak, celebrating the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, may provide some tentative answers.

Since Buddhists start their path to enlightenment seeking refuge in the Tiratana or three jewels, this subject will form the focus of the present discussion. The Tiratana comprise the life of the Gotama Buddha, his teachings known in Pali as Dhamma (Sanskrit: Dharma) and the community of his disciples known as the Sangha. A range of stamps narrating the Buddha have been issued focusing on his birth and life as Prince Siddhattha Gotama, his unhappiness and eventual rejection of this royal lifestyle in favour of an ascetic existence, as well as his obtaining enlightenment to become the Buddha.

Figure 1 and 2
Figures 1 and 2

The two stamps shown above come from a set of four released for sale on 13 May 1983, designed by George Keyt and A. Dharmasiri, illustrating scenes from the life of Prince Siddhattha, based on temple murals in the Gotami Vihara, Colombo. The 0.35 c stamp (Figure 1) shows Prince Siddhattha’s mother, Queen Mahamaya, dreaming that a white elephant entered her side, foretelling the birth of the prince destined to become a great earthly or spiritual ruler. The 5.00 r stamp (Figure 2) depicts Prince Siddhattha and the sleeping dancers recounting how he renounced the throne on his twenty-ninth birthday intending to leave the palace and embark on a spiritual life. That day the Prince’s wife, Yasodhara gave birth to his only son Rahula, and King Suddhodana hoped to distract his son from leaving by holding a celebratory banquet inviting the best dancers and musicians to perform. During the festivities Prince Siddhattha slept, and upon waking up left the palace whilst everybody was asleep, taking the first step of his journey towards enlightenment.

Numerous stamps also depict scenes from the Buddha’s previous lives based upon a body of literature known as Jataka tales. The next two examples come from a set of four stamps issued for sale on 23 April 1982 depicting scenes from the Vessantara Jataka, about a compassionate prince named Vessantara who gave away everything he owned including his own children, thereby displaying the virtue of perfect generosity. Designed by A. Dharmasiri, the stamps depict images from a cloth painting at the Arattana Rajamaha Vihara in the Hanguranketa District of Nuwara Eliya.

Figure 3 and 4
Figures 3 and 4

The 0.35 c stamp (Figure 3) illustrates Prince Vessantara giving away a magical rain-making white elephant to envoys from Kalinga, which was then facing a serious drought. The citizens - fearing the handover of the elephant would cause a drought in their own kingdom - were dismayed at Vessantara’s act of generosity and convinced King Sanjaya to banish his son. The 2.50 stamp (Figure 4) recalls the pivotal moment of the story when Prince Vessantara hands his two children over to the old Brahmin beggar Jujaka to be enslaved.

On his death, the Buddha’s cremated remains were enshrined and worshipped in Stupas in various localities. The third Emperor of India’s Mauryan Dynasty, Ashoka, exhumed the relics and redistributed them, in addition to sending out saplings from the original Bodhi tree that the Buddha meditated under and obtained enlightenment. These relics form a continuation of the Gotama Buddha story and are a theme represented on stamps. The two examples shown below come from a set of three postage stamps issued on 3 May 1979. A. Dharmasiri’s designs based upon the painting in the Kelaniya Temple recount how Sri Lanka acquired two of its most important Buddhist relics.
The 0.25c stamp (Figure 5) highlights how the Buddha’s Sacred Tooth was conveyed out of Kalinga to Sri Lanka by Prince Danta and Princess Hema Mala upon King Guhasiva’ orders. The 1.00 r stamp (Figure 6) narrates how the Emperor Ashoka’s eldest daughter and missionary, Sanghamitta, transported the right south branch of the Bodhi-tree, under which the Buddha had meditated, to the island.

Figure 5 and 6
Figures 5 and 6

The Buddha’s teachings or Dhamma are also illustrated on stamps. Designed by S. Silva and released for sale on 30 April 1993, the following four examples and mini-sheet are based upon specific verses from the Dhammapada (Sayings of the Buddha), one of the most widely read and best known of the Buddhist scriptures. The 0.75 c stamp (Figure 7) is based on a verse recounting the story of the Brahmin Magandiya, who unsuccessfully tried to offer his beautiful daughter as a wife for the Buddha. The 1.00 stamp (Figure 8) is based on a verse recounting the story of Kisa Gotami, a mother almost driven mad by the loss of her child. Advised that the Buddha could help bring the child back, she sought him out. The Buddha promised he would do so provided she obtained some white mustard seeds from a family where no one had died. Unsuccessful in her search Kisa Gotami soon realised that no home is ever free from death, and returned to the Buddha who comforted and preached to her, whereupon she became a devoted disciple.

Figure 7 and 8
Figures 7 and 8

The design of the 3.00 r stamp (Figure 9) comes from a verse about Patacara, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant, who fell pregnant and eloped with one of her father’s servants named Amarsh to live on a farm. Against her husband’s wishes, she tried to return to her parents to give birth to her first son, who was born on the way, enabling the couple to return home. Some time later she fell pregnant once more and again left to return to her family. Amarsh followed her and en route Patacara went into labour at the onset of a storm. Her husband was bitten by a snake and killed instantly whilst trying to build some shelter. Carrying on, she reached a swollen river compelling her to cross the river with one child at a time. Leaving her oldest child on the riverbank she carried her baby across the river. On her return to retrieve her oldest child, a vulture carried the baby off. When she screamed for the baby, the oldest child entered the water thinking she was calling for him, and drowned. Encountering the Buddha and telling him about the tragic loss of her family, he taught her about impermanence, whereupon she became a disciple.

The 10.00 stamp (Figure 10) is based upon the verse about the murderous brigand Angulimala, who killed nine hundred and ninety nine people, taking their fingers as trophies which he wore round his body. The Buddha’s intervention and teachings not only prevented Angulimala from making his own mother a victim, but enabled Angulimala to convert to Buddhism and cancel his bad Kamma with meditation.

Figure 9 and 10
Figures 9 and 10

Other stamp issues offer clear advice on how to set out on the path of enlightenment. On 29 April 1995, Sri Lanka released a set of four stamps and a mini-sheet detailing a selection of the Paramita, ten noble characteristics or qualities associated with enlightened beings. Designed by S. Silva, the 1 r stamp reveals a scene representing Viriya Paramitava, loosely defined as an attitude whereby an individual gladly engages in wholesome activities to accomplish wholesome or virtuous actions. The design of the 2 r stamp depicts a Boddhisatva catching a person falling from the sky representing Khanti Paramitava or the practice of patience, forbearance and forgiveness. The 10 r stamp reveals a figure teaching two students representing Sacca Paramitava or truth in reference to the Buddha’s four noble truths. The 16 r stamp depicts a scene with a Boddhisatva representing Adhitthana Paramitava or resolution, self-determination and will (Figure 11).

Figure 11
Figure 11

Turning to stamps about the Sangha or community of disciplines, the 22 May 1991 National Hero Issue designed by S. Silva includes a 1 r stamp commemorating the notable Buddhist Missionary, Narada Thero (Figure 12).

Figure 12
Figure 12

Another stamp issued on 1 January 1988 designed by W. Rohama marks the 30th Anniversary of the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy (Figure 13). The 18 June 1989 0.75 c stamp by the same designer notes the establishment of the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, a Sri Lankan state department overseeing the governance of Buddhism nationwide. Modern Buddhist Studies are also commemorated on stamps, including this one issued on 14 July 1981 designed by P. Jaratillake celebrating the centenary of the Pali Text Society (Figure 14).

Figure 13 and 14
Figures 13 and 14

The material discussed here represents merely a fraction of stamps depicting Buddhist subject matter and is far from unique, whether from Sri Lanka or across the wider Buddhist world. In Buddhist societies, it is believed that the reproduction and dissemination of manuscript or printed Buddhist texts can accrue good Kamma (Sanskrit: karma) for their creators and sponsors, if done conscientiously with the right motives. Would it be appropriate to interpret such carefully designed stamps on Buddhist themes as an extension of this existing Buddhist manuscript and print tradition? Could the same Kamma-generating qualities accrue to individuals involved producing and disseminating such stamps?

Finally, it is interesting to consider that stamps used to pre-pay mail are defaced when dispatched to the recipient, disposed of on a letter’s receipt, and finally destroyed in the rubbish or recycling plant. Such use renders them impermanent, temporary pieces of visual mnemonics similar to the tradition of Buddhist Mandalas.

Perhaps there is a theological aspect to philately after all?

Image sources
The stamps reproduced in this blog post come from Sri Lankan material within the Crown Agent’s Philatelic and Security Printing Archive housed in the British Library’s Philatelic Collections.

Richard Scott Morel, Curator, Philatelic Collections