Asian and African studies blog

44 posts categorized "Burmese"

07 November 2022

Manuscript Textiles in the Southeast Asian collections

A Chevening Fellowship is currently being hosted for twelve months by the Library’s Asian and African Collections department with the aim of researching and cataloguing manuscript textiles in the Southeast Asian collections. The Library holds about 3000 manuscripts from Southeast Asia, forming the largest and most significant collection of Southeast Asian manuscripts in the UK. Highlights include illustrated paper folding books and gilded manuscript chests from Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand, rare palm leaf manuscripts from Cambodia, Laos and northern Thailand, royal letters in Malay from the courts of the archipelago, some of the earliest known Batak divination manuals from Sumatra, as well as unique royal letters and edicts from Vietnam and Thailand.

Palm leaf manuscript containing a Buddhist commentary, from central Thailand c. 1824-52, with a silk wrapping cloth with gold thread, of Indian origin, made to order for the Thai royal court. British Library, Or 5107
Palm leaf manuscript containing a Buddhist commentary, from central Thailand c. 1824-52, with a silk wrapping cloth with gold thread, of Indian origin, made to order for the Thai royal court. British Library, Or 5107 Noc

Within this body of material, recent digitisation projects and exhibitions have brought to light over one hundred manuscript textiles - either wrapped around or attached to manuscripts as a form of protective cover or binding - without or with only minimal documentation and cataloguing data. Often the textiles were custom-made for one particular manuscript, and such objects could be made from valuable hand-woven silk brocades, ikat fabrics, dyed or printed cotton and imported materials like chintz and silk damask. Specially designed textiles were commissioned to add meritorious value to a Buddhist manuscript or to an entire set of Buddhist texts. Sometimes discarded textiles like monks’ robes, used and unused clothes of deceased people, or leftover pieces of cloths made for other purposes were utilised to create beautiful manuscript textiles.

The provenance of these textiles is often difficult to establish due to the lack of recorded information in the Library's catalogues and acquisition records. Another reason is that some of the manuscript textiles appear to be of a different date than the manuscripts themselves, and some may originate from a different place than the manuscripts they belong to, since there was a practice to replace worn out or damaged manuscript textiles with new ones to provide protection to the manuscripts.

Methaporn Singhanan on her first day as Chevening Fellow at the British Library, September 2022
Methaporn Singhanan on her first day as Chevening Fellow at the British Library, September 2022

The Chevening Fellow who is currently surveying and assessing these under-researched and often fragile Southeast Asian manuscript textiles is Methaporn Singhanan, a Ph.D. student from the Social Science Faculty at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, where she is also running a volunteer project to conserve Buddhist arts in northern Thailand. Her upcoming dissertation focuses on Southeast Asian textiles and trade routes, highlighting the importance of textiles as a source of information about the world's economy and trade links between countries and continents. Methaporn Singhanan has over seven years of experience as a curator at the Money and Textile Museum, Bank of Thailand, Northern Region Office, where she worked with textiles and curated exhibitions. She holds a B.A. in History as well as an M.A. in Art and Cultural Management from Chiang Mai University. Before joining the Bank of Thailand in 2013, Methaporn Singhanan worked as a historian for the Northern Archaeology Center (NAC) at Chiang Mai University, where she assisted in the conservation of artifacts from temples and the establishment of a local museum in northern Thailand. Her knowledge and expertise will help to provide comprehensive catalogue records and to plan and inform future conservation work and public engagement with the manuscript textiles.

Shan paper manuscript bound with a patterned cotton cloth cover and a felt binding ribbon, Shan State, first half of the 20th century. British Library, Or 15368
Shan paper manuscript bound with a patterned cotton cloth cover and a felt binding ribbon, Shan State, first half of the 20th century. British Library, Or 15368. From the collection of Søren Egerod. Noc

The aims of this project are not only to identify the Library’s holdings of Southeast Asian manuscript textiles dating mainly from the 18th to the 20th century, but also to document in detail the materials, size, estimated age, pattern, technique of creation, country of origin, provenance and general condition of each item and, where possible, to recommend which items should be prioritised for conservation treatment. Methaporn Singhanan works closely with the Library’s curators of Southeast Asian collections to share information about these manuscript textiles internally, especially with colleagues in the Library’s Conservation Centre, as well as externally with organisations in the UK and abroad that have an interest in the curation and conservation of Asian textiles.

Chevening is the UK government’s international awards scheme aimed at developing global leaders. Funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and partner organisations, Chevening offers fellowships to mid-career professionals to undertake a bespoke short course in the UK.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork
Methaporn Singhanan, Chevening Fellow at the British Library 2022-23 Ccownwork

20 September 2022

Two Golden Commissions from the Shan States

This guest blog is by Dr Frances O’Morchoe, Yale University.

In 1882, King Thibaw, the last king of Burma (Myanmar), issued two royal sanads, or commissions, appointing an individual, Twek Nga Lu, as chief of the Shan states of Mong Nai (Mone) and Kengtawng. These golden commissions – thin strips of gold foil embossed with the royal seal – are currently on display in the British Library's GOLD exhibition, which runs until the 2nd of October 2022. With the seals is a hand-written note, likely written by Lady Scott, wife of the below-mentioned George. This note explains: ‘These two strips of gold foil are the sanads or commissions from Theebaw to Twek Nga Lu, the bandit chief who dispossessed Mone of that State and Kengtawng by force (no doubt Theebaw was bribed). George went up with a handful of men when Britain took over and restored the old chief. See “Scott of the Shan Hills”.’

The two golden commissions bear the ruling titles of the cities
The two golden commissions bear the ruling titles of the cities: ကမ္ပောစဝံသဇေယရာဇာ (Kampocavaṃsajeyarājā) (A) and မဟာသီဟရာဇထိုစံထွား (Mahāsīharāja thui caṃ thvāʺ) (B). British Library, Mss Burmese 211 A and B Noc

Looking deeper into the story behind these commissions gives us a snapshot of what was happening in Burma and the Shan states at a pivotal moment in their history.

The golden commissions tell us first about the complex internal politics of the Shan states in the nineteenth century, as well as the nature of the political relations between the Shan rulers and the Burmese kings. The Shan states in the nineteenth century were a mass of different statelets ruled by Sawbwas (chiefs), varying hugely in size and power. Unlike today’s conception of sovereignty with territorially-defined borders dividing states, chiefs had spheres of influence rather than territorial sovereignty, and sovereign power was exercised through relationships between people.

The Shan states had a complicated relationship with the Burmese kings at Ava. While the Shan are culturally and linguistically different from the Burmese, many of the Shan Sawbwas paid tribute to the Burmese kings. For some this involved hosting a Burmese deputy, or even a garrison of Burmese soldiers, while for others this tributary status was merely nominal. The Salween River, which runs through the middle of the Shan states, is an approximate marker of a cultural divide between the western Shan states, which tended to be influenced by Burmese culture, and the eastern Shan states, which tended to be influenced by China and Siam. Thus Mong Nai, which lay on the western side of the Salween, paid tribute to the Burmese kings in Mandalay, while so-called ‘trans-Salween’ Shan states like Kengtung paid tribute to China. Complicating this, many states paid tribute in multiple directions at the same time.

The Gateway of Mong Nai.
The Gateway of Mong Nai. Photograph by Sir James Scott George, 1890s. British Library, Photo 92/2(59)

The story of how these Burmese royal sealed commissions came to be held by the British Library also gives us a snapshot of how the British annexation of Upper Burma unfolded on the ground.

The British annexed Burma in three stages, with Arakan and Tenasserim in 1825, Lower Burma in 1852, and Upper Burma in 1885. The annexation of Upper Burma in 1885 and the exile of the last king of Burma, King Thibaw, was followed by a decade-long campaign of resistance to the British across Upper Burma and the Shan, Kachin and Chin hills. This guerrilla war was the longest campaign fought by the Victorian army, yet it has been all but forgotten in Britain today. The British overthrew Thibaw in a month, but it took several years to put down the diffuse rebellions which sprang up all over Upper Burma.

After deposing King Thibaw, the British immediately claimed as British territory all states which had been vassal states to the Burmese kings. This turned out to be more complicated than they had thought. They discovered that many states paid multiple allegiance, e.g. to both Burma and China, or to Burma and Siam. Some even paid triple allegiance. As a result, annexation triggered several years of trying to determine the new colony’s boundaries with China and Siam. Adding to these complications, at the time of the annexation of Upper Burma many of the Shan states were already in open revolt against the Burmese King.

In 1882, the Mong Nai Sawbwa, Hkun Kyi, rebelled against the Burmese King Thibaw. Resenting Thibaw's perceived slights against him, and feeling the burden of hosting the main Burmese garrison in the Shan States, the Sawbwa invited the Burmese resident sitke and soldiers to a feast in the palace, shut the gates and had them all killed. King Thibaw sent a punitive expedition in response, and the Sawbwa, Hkun Kyi, fled the town. This punitive expedition was when Thibaw issued Twek Nga Lu with the golden seals which are now on display in the British Library.

Twek Nga Lu was a ‘defrocked’ monk (Twek, in Burmese ထွက်, denotes someone who has left the monkhood) who had been in a feud with Hkun Kyi, the Mong Nai Sawbwa, for several years before this point. After failing to take Mong Nai by force, Twek Nga Lu worked to cultivate a relationship with King Thibaw, at one point visiting him in Mandalay. Thibaw’s punitive expedition installed Twek Nga Lu as ruler of Mong Nai in 1882, but when Mandalay fell in 1885 all the Burmese troops were recalled. Twek Nga Lu was left without support and in 1886 Hkun Kyi recaptured Mong Nai.

In May 1887 the British arrived in Mong Nai and persuaded Hkun Kyi, the newly-reinstated Sawbwa, to surrender. Hkun Kyi surrendered without resistance. Going further, he requested permission to fly the Union Jack in Mong Nai. On 12th May 1887, in the presence of the townspeople and fifty Sikh colonial soldiers, the British solemnly hoisted the Union Jack.

The timing of this declaration of allegiance turned out well for Hkun Kyi. A couple of months later, Twek Nga Lu visited Fort Stedman, the main British garrison in the southern Shan states. He showed the British the golden seals which Thibaw had given him in 1882 and claimed to be the rightful ruler of Mong Nai. He was rebuffed, however, and the British told him they had already recognised Hkun Kyi as Sawbwa.

Twek Nga Lu regrouped and launched another attack, managing to capture Mong Nai for the second time in May 1888. This time the British rather than the Sawbwa were the ones to turn him out. A week after Twek Nga Lu took the town, James George Scott (1851-1935, from 1901 Sir James George Scott) arrived from Fort Stedman. With nine men on horseback Scott galloped into the town in the early hours of 10th of May, and captured Twek Nga Lu while he was asleep in the Haw, or palace. It was most likely at this point that Scott took possession of the golden seals.

A view of Mong Nai
A view of Mong Nai. Photograph by Sir James George Scott, 1890s. British Library, Photo 92/2(68)

Scott was an important figure in the story of the extension of British rule into the Shan States. Formerly a journalist and school master in Rangoon, he made his name with the annexation of Upper Burma. He spent his career working in the British administration of the Shan hills, and became an expert on the country.

The British had had problems recruiting enough people to ‘pacify’ Upper Burma (with ‘pacification’ in practice meaning extracting allegiance at gunpoint and torching noncompliant villages). Finding it difficult to persuade Indian Civil Service (ICS) officers to come from India, the British recruited non-ICS Burma experts then living in Lower Burma. As a result, at the same time as he was marching around the Shan hills burning villages and accepting promises of allegiance from Shan rulers, Scott was studying for his ICS exams.

Scott arrested Twek Nga Lu and sent him to Fort Stedman. On the way to Fort Stedman, Twek Nga Lu tried to escape and a guard shot him dead. His body was buried in a shallow roadside grave. Scott, perhaps believing some of the myths surrounding Twek Nga Lu’s magical powers, decided he had better check that he was actually dead. He went to look but the body had already been exhumed, the head cut off and the rest of his body cooked and sold for its magical powers. Scott retold this Twek Nga Lu story several times in different talks and publications.

Military post at Mong Nai
Military post at Mong Nai. Photograph by Sir James George Scott, c. 1888. British Library, Photo 92/4(24)

As well as being a prolific writer and giver of talks to various learned societies, Scott was also a photographer, and the British Library has a large collection of his photographs of the Shan States. These photographs are a record of the British annexation of Upper Burma, and also show how Scott used photographs to demonstrate the military might of the British. An image of a gathering of Shan chiefs for the Mong Nai Durbar (shown below) demonstrates the number of chiefs who had submitted to British rule – although most did not look particularly happy to be there. His wife Lady Scott included many of his photographs in Scott of the Shan Hills, a book she published in 1936, a year after Scott’s death.

Shan Chiefs, Mong Nai Durbar, 1889
Shan Chiefs, Mong Nai Durbar, 1889. Photograph by Sir James George Scott, May 1889. British Library, Photo 92/11(75)

The photos, like the act of taking the sealed commissions, were part of the process of establishing dominance and suppressing resistance in the Shan states. The taking of photographs and the taking of the seals alike tell us about how Scott wanted to present the annexation of Upper Burma to a British audience. The gates and city walls feature prominently in both written and visual depictions of the scene of the British victory over Twek Nga Lu. The walls symbolise the strength, now subjugated, of the Burmese garrison, and the images of wide open gates are symbols of the British entrance into the city, at full gallop, a detail that was repeated in several accounts of the event. The photographs, like the seals, were taken and displayed in order to prove the symbolic and actual domination of the British over the Shans and Burmese. They also give us a chance to see a how a crucial moment in Shan and Burmese history played out on the ground.

Bibliography:
Jane Ferguson, Repossessing Shanland: Myanmar, Thailand and a Nation-State Deferred. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2022.
Patricia Herbert, ‘The Making of a Collection: Burmese Manuscripts in the British Library’, The British Library Journal, 15:1 (1989), 59-70
Sao Saimong Mangrai, The Shan States and the British Annexation. Ithaca: Cornell University, 1965.
G.E. Mitton, Scott of the Shan Hills. London: John Murray, 1936.
James Scott, Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States. Rangoon, 1899.

Frances O’Morchoe Ccownwork

Dr Frances O’Morchoe is a Postdoctoral Associate in Myanmar Studies at the Macmillan Center, Yale University. She received her DPhil in History from the University of Oxford in 2019.

The exhibition Gold: 50 spectacular manuscripts from around the world is on at the British Library until 2 October 2022. To visit, book your tickets here.

An accompanying book, Gold, presenting 21 highlights from the exhibition, is available from the British Library shop.

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

30 May 2022

The Nomadic Chemist: Alfred Sercombe Griffin (1878-1943) and Burma

Griffin in the doorway of his Weston-super-Mare pharmacy after his return from Burma
Griffin in the doorway of his Weston-super-Mare pharmacy after his return from Burma. Griffin family archives.

The Burmese collection at the British Library has recently received two donations of fascinating memorabilia that belonged to Alfred Sercombe Griffin. He is known for his adventure novels for boys, but made his main living as a pharmacist. He described himself as a “nomadic chemist”, and was drawn to work as a locum pharmacist around England and in other parts of the world. In 1906 he accepted a post at the English pharmacy in Rangoon. As a result, many of his adventure novels are set in Burma. He also wrote extensively of his work as a pharmacist in Burma in the Chemist & Druggist and the Pharmaceutical Journal.

He writes in “Avoiding the humdrum”, Pharmaceutical Journal, 1925, under the pen name “Sasayah” (Burmese for writer): “My father spent the greater part of forty-five years within a small chemist’s shop, looking out on a dull grey wall. I was apprenticed to him, and early vowed that such an existence should not be mine, though I might be a chemist and I might be poor.”

Port of Henzada
Port of Henzada. Alfred Sercombe Griffin, 1906-08. British Library, Photo 1402(15)

Born in Bath and apprenticed by his father, Alfred Sercombe Griffin moved from Bournemouth to London and on to San Remo in 1904-05. After returning to England and working as a locum pharmacist in many parts of the country, he applied for posts in Uganda and China but was not successful. He then found an advertisement for a vacant position in the Supplement of the Pharmaceutical Journal, and was accepted for the post at the pharmacy of Mesrrs. E.M. de Souza & Co., Dalhousie Street, Rangoon, where he arrived in December 1906 after a long boat journey.

Travellers coming on board a boat at Martaban, 1906-08
Travellers coming on board a boat at Martaban, 1906-08. Alfred Sercombe Griffin. British Library, Photo 1402(28)

He writes in one of his novels, Burma Road Calling! (1943): “An intensely varied crowd surged along the road for the early morning shopping and promenade: Burmese women gay in pink silks with the daintiest replicas of themselves beside them; shaven-headed monks in yellow robes, bearing golden sunshades; sturdy Shans with enormous plantain-leaf hats from the hills; tall Paloungs with black robes and tight skull-caps who had brought tea from over the border; an English soldier or two from the barracks; Chinamen in blue pantaloons; Kachins of wild appearance, Karens of gentler aspect; and half a dozen races that even Mr Wrekin himself could not identify. ‘Just come from Babel?’ inquired Roger as he listened to the many languages being spoken all round him.”

In "Avoiding the humdrum" Griffin gives a similar description of his work place: “In the pharmacy in Rangoon fifty languages were spoken everyday; my dispensers and assistants were Burmese, Chinese, Goanese, Hindoos, Brahmins, and Eurasians…”  Griffin aimed to avoid the English circles with its bridge parties and English plays that he found rather boring, and much preferred a Burmese pwai instead, sitting leisurely on a mat and passing down a betel box to chew. He however also describes in the letters to his family Friday evenings and parties at the Rangoon YMCA. Griffin was also involved with the Boys’ Brigade (or new Scouts) and attended their camp at Kokine (Rangoon) in 1907. He was also part of the Boys’ Work Committee. Two of his adventure novels, The Scouts of Ching’s Island and Scouts in the Shan Jungle are about boy scouts based in Rangoon and lodging at the YMCA (“Ching’s Island” was located at Kokine Lake). Griffin clearly enjoyed similar literature himself, as he asked for the Boy’s Own Paper to be sent regularly to him from England. Later on he would write stories for the paper himself.

Alfred Sercombe Griffin
Alfred Sercombe Griffin (1878-1943). Griffin family archives.

Griffin was soon appointed the manager of the dispensing department, but like many British in Southeast Asia at this time soon fell gravely ill (with dysentery or malaria). In late 1907 he was sent to the branch in Maymyo, Shan States, to recuperate. With a more temperate climate than Rangoon, Maymyo was a favourite hill station for the British. Griffin used his own experiences in Burma to provide colour and detail to his adventure stories, and even the Maymyo pharmacy features in one of them: “Roger went up the steps and passed into a marble-floored pharmacy which had rows of medicine bottles, glass show-cases, and a smiling young Englishman behind the counter.” (Burma Road Calling!, 1943).

Griffin (with his Burmese name Maung Na Gyi) journeyed back to England in late 1908 due to his health, and was apparently banned from returning to the Tropics on medical grounds, which he greatly lamented. From his many writings it becomes clear that he sincerely loved his time in Burma and had a soft spot not just for the Burmese, but also for the variety of people who inhabited the country at this time. Despite staying in Burma for only  two years, one of them while very ill, the experience left a lasting impression on him, which he revisited via his writings in pharmaceutical journals, illustrated lectures, and adventure stories, published decades later.

After returning to Europe Griffin continued work as a locum pharmacist in Paris, but returned to Bath to take care of his father’s pharmacy in 1910. A few years later, he took over a bankrupt pharmacy in Weston-super-Mare, which he transformed into a thriving business, and then married and settled down there. In 1917 he built a bungalow in Sidcot, Winscombe, named Wingaba (according to Griffin Burmese for a beautiful view). He retired to Sidcot in 1925 early at 47 due to his poor health. He became a Quaker in the early 30s and subsequently travelled to Palestine, where one of his novels is set (Where the Master Lived, 1936).

Griffin writes in “Avoiding the humdrum” (1925): “In the duller days when I was to become a proprietor of a pharmacy of my very own I could jump out of the humdrum of income-tax returns and N.H.I. by picking up one of my books on Burma and fly instanter to a land of brilliant sunshine and kindly memories.”

Cover of Scouts in the Shan Jungle, 1937
Cover of Scouts in the Shan Jungle, 1937. Illustrator Richard B. Ogle. British Library, 20059.f.26

Griffin’s novels are light, entertaining stories of adventure replete with snakes and man-eating tigers, kidnappings, rides through waterfalls, lost cities, mystery and intrigue as well as a varied collection of personalities. The international group of Scouts that also includes Burmese, Shan, Indian and Chinese members nevertheless dress in khaki breeches and sun-helmets, and never miss their coffee and rolls in the morning, a tiffin and a siesta in the afternoon, and a wholesome dinner in the evening. Inevitably, the stories are written from an English perspective, and enjoy the stereotypes of the time, whether European or Asian. All of Griffin’s writings, however, relay an enjoyment of travel, wonder and humour in the small moments of life, as well as the joy of telling a story. The stress is firmly on the character of the individual.

Griffin’s interest in illnesses and their cure has also been included in the stories. Leprosy features in several novels, where a knee-jerk fear of contagion is dismissed with new medical knowledge. Snake bites can be dealt with the right treatment and some characters even catch malaria and recover.

A little girl infected with leprosy near temple steps walking towards Griffin
A little girl infected with leprosy near temple steps walking towards Griffin. Alfred Sercombe Griffin, 1906-08. British Library, Photo 1402(37)

The two donations that the British Library has received were given by Michael Bruce, the maternal grandson of Alfred Sercombe Griffin, and a traveller and an author himself (Malta: A Geographical Monograph, 1965). The donations include a box of 50 photographic glass slides that Griffin took and collected while in Burma. Once back in Europe, he would give illustrated 'lantern lectures' of his travels with these slides. This lecture is still included with the glass slides and the numerous times the lecture was given between 1910-1941 are recorded on the inside lid (33 times altogether). Some of these slides were used as a basis for illustrations in Griffin’s novels.

Medical prescription in Burmese inscribed for Alfred Sercombe Griffin in Maymyo in 1907
Medical prescription in Burmese inscribed for Alfred Sercombe Griffin in Maymyo in 1907. Photograph by Michael Bruce. British Library, Or 17020.

The second donation is a framed palm-leaf prescription with the cure for “tropical sprue”, custom-made for Griffin while he was recuperating in Maymyo. He received it from a young monk who resided in the temple across the road from Griffin’s pharmacy, which he visited, with the aid of his walking sticks, for Burmese lessons. The prescription was given to him in return for a picture of the Shwedagon Pagoda that Griffin had found at the back of a pharmaceutical catalogue. Griffin describes watching the inscription being made, and indeed one of his glass slides depicts the young monk in question. A description of the process can also be found in Burma Road Calling!: “Roger was particularly interested in the monastery scribe who was making the holy books – from start to finish.” “First there were dried strips of palm leaf, eighteen inches long by two and a half inches deep, stretched taut on a special sort of frame. On this dried leaf the words were slowly inscribed with an instrument like a knitting-needle; letter by letter in the round script of the Burmese alphabet the young monk cut into the outer tissue of the palm leaf.”

Shan scribe working on a palm leaf inscription
Shan scribe working on a palm leaf inscription. Alfred Sercombe Griffin, Maymyo, 1907. British Library, Photo 1402(31)

Griffin framed the prescription and wrote about it in the Druggist & Chemist and other medical papers, trying to find help in translating it. Apparently a portion reads: “Take the leaves of the Juju tree, plucked at midnight when Mars is in the ascendant. Pound them intimately with the dried tail of a rat and the sting of a cobra…” The inscription is undeciphered as of today and is still awaiting translation.

School boys saying their alphabet
School boys saying their alphabet. Alfred Sercombe Griffin. 1906-08. British Library, Photo 1402(35)

Bibliography of Alfred Sercombe Griffin’s monographs:
The Scouts of Ching’s Island, 1929. Set in Kokine (Rangoon), with the Kemendeen Scouts.
The Treasure of Gems, 1934. Set in 16th century Martaban and Pegu, where an English boy Roger ends up in King Tabinshweti’s court.
Fetters of Freedom, 1934
Within the Golden Globe, 1934
The Crimson Caterpillar, 1935
Where the Master Lived, 1936
Scouts in the Shan Jungle, 1937. Kemendeen Scouts’ adventures in the Shan States.
Burma Road Calling!, 1943. A journey from Rangoon to Chungking during the second Sino-Japanese War.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  Ccownwork

This blog was written courtesy of Michael Bruce and Christopher Griffin (both grandsons of Alfred Sercombe Griffin), who generously provided information, articles, letters and photographs from the family archives.

15 November 2021

Transcribed from the boundary wall of the universe: Early Dhammasattha manuscripts in the Burmese collection of the British Library

The British Library’s Burmese collection holds some of the earliest extant dhammasattha manuscripts in the world. The dhammasattha, or “treatise on the law” is a genre of Buddhist literature prevalent in mainland Southeast Asia, written in Pali and in a range of vernacular languages including Burmese, Arakanese, Mon, Shan, Thai, Lao and Khmer. Although it is an integral part of the Theravada tradition, it is also historically related to Brahmanical dharmaśāstra texts written in Sanskrit.

Gilded and embossed front cover of a dhammasattha manuscript
Gilded and embossed front cover of a dhammasattha manuscript. The title “Dhamasat’” is flanked by two dragons. Manu kyay dhammasat, 19th century. British Library, Phayre Collection, Or 3447 A Noc

The dhammasattha was the primary legal framework for society, and originally applied to every Buddhist, both secular and monastic. It dealt with all aspects of the law, covering property and land, debt, wages, inheritance, slavery, marriage (including rape and adultery), assault, murder, theft, slander and the breaking of oaths. The most extensive tradition of dhammasattha comes from Myanmar, where some laws derived from the genre are still in force in the legal system today. Knowledge of dhammasattha was part of the education of rulers and administrators, monks, as well as any “good men”, and could be put to practice by any of these (therefore being mainly a male activity). The exclusive profession of a judge came into being only during the colonial period.

This blog draws extensively on Christian Lammerts’ recent authoritative publication Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250–1850 (2018), as well as his article 'The Murray Manuscripts and Buddhist Dhammasattha Literature Transmitted in Chittagong and Arakan' (2015), in which he discusses at length the dhammasattha manuscripts found at the British Library.

The Origin of Law

A flying rishi
A flying rishi. Manu was one of the first rishis or men who had accomplished super-knowledge and super-powers, such as the capacity to fly. Scenes from Jataka stories, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 1r Noc

The story of how the dhammasattha text came into being has many versions. According to one standard narrative, it already existed at the beginning of the world. The very first king, Mahāsammata, had a renowned minister of great learning named Manu, whom he appointed to adjudicate disputes. Manu, however, soon found that it was difficult to rely only on witness testimony in passing judgment, and since he was fully accomplished in super-knowledge (abhiññā) and magical powers (iddhi), he used these to fly through the sky to the boundary wall of the universe. There the dhammasattha was written on the wall in Pali with letters each as big as a cow. Manu then proceeded to transcribe the law from the wall and presented the dhammasattha text to Mahāsammata.

The dhammasattha was therefore originally conceived of as cosmically derived, neither human nor divine. It had no author, but was intimately tied to writing. Although it was a natural part of the cosmos it was only accessible to those with magical power. It was also stated that the dhammasattha was so vast it could not be mastered by the average man. This is why, the tradition reports, scholars and wise men abridged it, sometimes translating it into vernacular languages. Although the dhammasattha had many textual variations its essential cosmic justification stayed the same until the 18th century when Burmese jurists began to question this theory of the origin of law.

Dhammavilāsa dhammasat

An early 18th century copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat, the oldest known dhammasattha version
An early 18th century copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat, the oldest known dhammasattha version. British Library, Or 11775. Noc

Textual references to dhammasattha begin to be found in 13th century Burmese inscriptions (although dhammasattha texts were likely in circulation earlier).  The Dhammavilāsa dhammasat (ဓမ္မသတ်, Burmese for dhammasattha) is understood to be the oldest known dhammasattha composition. Out of seven existing manuscript copies three are located at the British Library (Add MS 12248, Add MS 12249, Or 11775). Of these, Add MS 12249 is particularly significant, as it provides the only secure date for the composition of the text. Although the manuscript is dated 1825 the scribal colophon states that the text was copied from an old manuscript dated to 1637/38.

The oldest physical copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat is from 1758 and is located at the Universities’ Central Library in Yangon. One of the British Library copies (Or 11775), however, is dated only 11 years later, to 1769.

The Dhammavilāsa dhammasat was widely transmitted and produced many significantly different versions, both in prose and verse, not only in Burmese, but also in Arakanese, Mon and Shan.

An Arakanese dhammasat

The last folio of a rare Arakanese dhammasattha manuscript with a colophon dating it to 1749
The last folio of a rare Arakanese dhammasattha manuscript with a colophon dating it to 1749. British Library, Murray Collection, Add MS 12254, f. 73rNoc

The British Library holds a rare early Arakanese dhammasat manuscript (Add MS 12254) from 1749, which has been fully digitised. Although related to the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat this version represents a distinct Arakanese dhammasattha tradition, prevalent in the area of Sittwe and Chittagong in 18th-19th centuries. This is the oldest extant Arakanese version and the westernmost of all dhammasatthas; it is also nine years older than the oldest extant Burmese version of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat.

The text is written with black ink on individual strips of yellow paper (instead of palm leaf). The Murray Collection, of which it is a part, contains the oldest Arakanese paper manuscripts in the world (dated between 1721-1784).

The text is written in “mra mā”, which before the end of the 18th century designated both Arakanese and Burmese languages (that are closely related). Its scribal colophon identifies it as the work of “the excellent teacher and monk Rāmi Shyaṅ.” In Arakan personal names were used instead of monastic titles, which is still tradition in Chittagong today.

Manusāra dhammasat and Manu kyay dhammasat

The Manusāra dhammasat was written in Pali verse with a Burmese nissaya commentary
The Manusāra dhammasat was written in Pali verse with a Burmese commentary (nissaya). British Library, Add MS 12241. Noc

The Manusāra dhammasat was also an early tradition with the composition of the text attributed to 1651-52. It was written by Tipiṭakālaṅkāra (a monk and Vinaya scholar) and Kaingza Manurāja (a lay judge), and for the first time links the dhammasattha geographically to Myanmar and chronologically to Burmese and Mon kings. The origin story is slightly transformed, with a seer named “Manusāra” responsible for transcribing the dhammasattha from the boundary wall of the universe. Manusāra was written in Pali verse, for the benefit of durability and easier memorisation, but also included an elaborate nissaya or commentary in Burmese. Manusāra is noteworthy for the many reformulations of the dhammasattha tradition it introduced, including a more explicit separation of lay and monastic jurisdictional boundaries.

The British Library holds the earliest known manuscript of the 1651–2 Manusāra dhammathat (Add MS 12241), copied in 1773.

The Many kyay dhammasat was an abridged compendium of pre-existing versions
The Many kyay dhammasat was an abridged compendium of pre-existing versions. British Library, Mss Man/Bur 3429. Noc

The Manu kyay was a much later abridgement and differed considerably from the aforementioned treatises. It was an anonymous compendium of laws derived from the dhammasattha tradition and compiled sometime prior to 1782. The British Library holds the second oldest extant Manu kyay manuscript (Man/Bur 3429), dated to 1789. The Many kyay was translated in English by Richardson already in 1847, and henceforth made this version well known.

Impartial justice

The Dhammasattha was likened to the illuminating rays of the moon
The Dhammasattha was likened to the illuminating rays of the moon. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 63r. Noc

The dhammasattha advocated for universal justice and applied to all Buddhist beings, human and celestial. It was meant to be “impartial, like a pair of scales”.

The Dhammasat is like Sakka’s thunderbolt-weapon and the jewel-treasure of a cakkavatti king that grants all wishes. It is like the weapon of the lords and ministers who have been tasked with carrying out the duties of the country. It is like a carpenter’s ruler and a physician’s diagnostic manual. It is like an oil lamp that illuminates a dark room filled with precious gems. It is like an eye that can see whether an appearance is good or bad, and like an ear that can hear whether a sound is good or bad. It is like the rays of the moon that illuminate the four continents at night, and the rays of the sun that brighten them during the day. It is like the tusk of a powerful elephant. It is like mother’s milk.” (Add MS 12254, f. Ki v; trans. Lammerts 2018, 184–185)

Lammerts has noted that interestingly the Arakanese versions of the dhammasattha are much more tolerant than their Burmese counterparts by allowing the testimony of both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike (“those who take refuge [in the three jewels] and those who do not,” Lammerts 2015, 431), as well as local residents and foreigners (“people from places far away,” Lammerts 2015, 431), and of good and bad people regardless of their character and the scale of the dispute. The Burmese dhammasatthas, by contrast, specifically discriminate against non-Buddhists as untrustworthy witnesses.

Bad Judges

Being eaten by a tiger was one of the eight punishments for judges adjudicating incorrectly
Being eaten by a tiger was one of the eight punishments for judges adjudicating incorrectly. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 131r Noc

Punishment for faulty judgement was extremely harsh from the very beginning, and was the reason why Manu was prompted to look for a cosmic explication of the law in the first place. Judges were expected to be truthful, avoid bias, refrain from bribes, and to examine the evidence comprehensively. They were particularly advised to avoid the four “bad courses” (agati): desire (favouring a relative, a friend or someone who has given presents), hatred (disfavouring an enemy or someone who doesn’t pay one respect), fear (letting someone go without consequences because they know someone in power, or because they threaten one’s property or oneself), and ignorance (inability to understand or discern the law). Should a judge adjudicate incorrectly or unjustly the “eight dangers” and “ten punishments” would befall him.

The eight dangers, which in this formulation are unique to Myanmar, are the following: 1) being swallowed by earth, 2) being struck by lightning, 3) being eaten by ogres, 4) being eaten by a tiger, 5) death by crocodile, 6) capsizing in a boat, 7) bleeding to death, 8) madness.

The ten punishments are paralleled in the Dhammapada: 1) violent, unhappy suffering, 2) loss of property, 3) destruction of the body, 4) severe, torturing disease, 5) loss of mind, 6) oppressive punishment from the ruler, 7) harsh accusations, 8) extermination of the family, 9) eradication of wealth, 10) houses burnt by lightning.

When such a person died they fell into the four unhappy destinies (hell realm, demon realm, ghost realm and animal realm) suffering greatly as ghosts. The texts describe such hell-ghosts in detail: “His body would grow enormous… His eyes were a cubit in diameter, his mouth the size of a needle. His body was red like the colour of blossoming flowers. His toenails and fingernails were as sharp as nails, and with them he incessantly gouged his flesh and cannibalised himself. He lost all strength from consuming himself, and was eventually carried away by the wind.” (Add MS 12248, Add MS 12249; trans. Lammerts 2018, 81).

If the law was adjudicated correctly it would bring great prosperity to the country and foster the ability of humans to perform acts of merit. According to certain dhammasatthas, the benefit of such merit would be divided into six parts, one of which went to the ruler. In contrast, should the law be adjudicated incorrectly the country would be unable to achieve prosperity and happiness. The demerit produced would similarly be divided into six parts, with the ruler and the judge each personally receiving one.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

I would like to thank Christian Lammerts for his comments on this blog and for his expert opinion.

Further Reading:
Lammerts, D. Christian, Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250–1850 (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2018).
Lammerts, D. Christian. 'The Murray Manuscripts and Buddhist Dhammasattha Literature Transmitted in Chittagong in Arakan', Journal of Burma Studies, vol. 19, no. 2 (Dec. 2015), 407-444.
Mong, Sai Kham, ed., Shan Thammasat manuscripts (Tokyo: Mekong, 2012).
Huxley, Andrew. ‘The Importance of the Dhammathats in Burmese Law and Culture’, Journal of Burma Studies, vol. 1 (1997), 1-17.
Hla, Nai Pan, Eleven Mon Dhammasāt Texts (Tokyo: Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies for Unesco, 1992).
Richardson, D. (trans.) The Damathat, or the Laws of Menoo (Maulmain, 1847)

20 September 2021

Kālāma Sutta and the premise of free thinking

Tipiṭaka or the ‘Three Baskets’ forms the canon of the teachings of the Buddha written in Pāli. The second ‘Basket’, Sutta Piṭaka, contains five Nikāyas or ‘collections’ of thousands of discourses attributed to the Buddha and his disciples. The Aṅguttara Nikāya, or ‘numerical discourses’ is divided further into eleven Nipāta or ‘books’, one of which includes the Kālāma Sutta (ကာလာမသုတ်) or the ‘Instruction of the Kalamas’ (Tika-Nipāta, Mahāvagga, Sutta no. 65, also known as the Kesamutti Sutta). The Kālāma Sutta is famous for encouraging free thinking and opposes dogmatism, fanaticism and any kind of intolerance. It expounds the idea that in order to gain clarity one has to also examine one’s mind and ideas.

Palm leaf manuscript with gilded edges, containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century. Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56
Palm leaf manuscript with gilded edges, containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56  noc

The British Library’s Myanmar (Burma) Collections hold several manuscripts of the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Man/Pali 56 and Man/Pali 61 both contain the Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, including the Kālāma Sutta. They are beautifully manufactured palm leaf manuscripts, entirely gilded from the outside and placed between bevelled gilded wooden binding boards. These manuscripts belong to the Mandalay Palace Collection from 1886 and therefore date from the 19th century. Both manuscripts contain over 170 precisely incised palm leaves.

The beginning of the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, in a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56
The beginning of the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, in a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56  noc

In the Kālāma Sutta the Buddha is wandering around Kosala accompanied by a large community of monks (bhikkhus) and comes to Kesaputta town, inhabited by the Kalamas. The Kalamas ask the Buddha for advice. There are many holy and wise men who visit the town, each expounding their own doctrines and demolishing opposing ones. This leaves the Kalamas uncertain: which of these men speaks the truth?

The Buddha responds with these famous words:

"It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them.”

Palm-leaf manuscript with gilded edges containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61
Palm-leaf manuscript with gilded edges containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61  noc

An excerpt from the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, from a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61
An excerpt from the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, from a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61  noc

The Buddha then goes on to explain that mental wellbeing can be acquired by overcoming greed, hate and delusion and goes through each of these in detail. The Kalamas agree that greed, hate and delusion can only cause harm and that the absence of these is thus beneficial. Following this the Buddha expounds that each person has the capacity to distinguish what causes harm and what causes happiness and therefore each person should follow their own judgement. Whatever one’s belief (or non-belief) in the hereafter, if one is free of hate and malice, that person will be able to find solace.

Distinguishing between what causes harm and what causes happiness is in the Kālāma Sutta not simply an act of reasoning or an intellectual exercise, it is the ability to distinguish what leads to the harm or benefit of not just oneself but of everybody.

The Kesariya stupa in Bihar is believed to be the place where the Kālāma Sutta was first taught. Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5.
The Kesariya stupa in Bihar is believed to be the place where the Kālāma Sutta was first taught. Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5.

Further reading:

"Kalama Sutta: The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry", translated from the Pali by Soma Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

"Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas" (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

Alfred Bloom, Critical Thinking in Buddhism: The Kalama Sutta. Shin Darma Net.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

15 February 2021

The Burmese Harp: (3) Heaven and Earth

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

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

 

09 November 2020

The Burmese Harp: (1) Seduction of the Senses

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

Asian and African studies blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs