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30 posts categorized "Burmese"

09 November 2018

Buddhism Illuminated through Southeast Asian Manuscript Art (2)

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Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia is a lavishly-illustrated book published  earlier this year by the British Library in collaboration with Washington University Press. The book aims to share many years of research on the British Library’s unique collection of Southeast Asian manuscripts on Buddhism, which illustrate not only the life and teachings of the historical Buddha, but also everyday Buddhist practice, life within the monastic order, festivals, cosmology, and ethical principles and values.

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Extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language, written in Khmer script. Folding book from Central Thailand, second half of the eighteenth century. British Library, Or 14027, f. 4 

The first two chapters, which introduce the outstanding art of Southeast Asian Buddhist manuscripts as well as the Life of the Buddha, were discussed in our previous blog. The third chapter of the book focuses on the teachings of the Buddha, or Dhamma, also known as the “righteous way”. Gotama Buddha spent more than half of his life walking around northern India over 2500 years ago, teaching his ever growing group of followers. Shortly after the Buddha’s parinibbana and physical death, the first Buddhist council was held at Rajagaha. Five hundred of the most senior Buddhist monks are said to have convened to recite and verify all the sermons they had heard during the Buddha’s forty-five years of teaching. They began to systematically arrange and compile the Buddha’s teachings called Tipitaka, or the 'Three Baskets', which include the Sutta Pitaka (the basket of discourses), the Vinaya Pitaka (the basket of discipline and monastic rules), and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (the basket of higher teachings of the Buddha). Five more councils were held over the centuries, with the most recent one taking place in Rangoon at Kaba Aye Pagoda from May 1954 to May 1956 to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s parinibbana.

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This manuscript, written in Pali - the canonical language of Theravada Buddhism - in yellow Burmese square characters, is inscribed on 49 palm leaves coated with lacquer. It contains fragments of Atthakathas, or commentaries on the Tipitaka. The manuscript is bound up with a green velvet wrapper and a ribbon, or sazigyo. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 3672

Buddhist texts that were compiled in addition to the Tipitaka are commentaries by important Buddhist scholars like for example Buddhaghosa, a fifth-century scholar who played a defining role in the development of Theravada Buddhism. Commentaries as well as translations were crucial for the spread of Buddhism to mainland Southeast Asia, where it is widely practised up till today.

Chapter four of the book provides information about the Sangha, the Buddhist monastic community. Themes in this chapter include aspects of monastic ordination in Theravada Buddhism, how the Buddha founded the Sangha, and the rules of monastic discipline and interaction between the Sangha and the lay community. Soon after attaining enlightenment the Buddha founded the order of monks, or Bhikkhu-sangha, which was later extended to the order of nuns, or Bhikkhuni-sangha.

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This image shows the Buddha’s ordination of Yasa, who went to the deer park near Varanasi
to become a Bhikkhu. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 14553, f. 2

After listening to Buddha’s first sermon, his five closest followers joined the Buddha and became his disciples, forming the first Sangha. Yasa, the son of a wealthy man, left his home as he was dissatisfied with his life. After hearing the teachings of the Buddha, Yasa became the sixth disciple to achieve the first stage of perfection. Yasa’s 54 friends followed his example. Later on, three brothers of the Kassapa family asked to be ordained into the Sangha after the Buddha tamed a naga (serpent).

The book’s fifth chapter deals with Kamma, or the principle of cause and effect that tells us that every action produces an effect, and the effects of all our actions will return to us in the future. Our accumulated positive Kamma will come back to us in the form of blessings and the opportunity to lead a good future life or to experience a better rebirth, while negative Kamma will result in deterioration and lower forms of rebirth. Burmese and Thai artistic expressions of Kamma often include scenes of the Buddhist heavens and hells and the sixteen sacred lands of Buddhism.

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Paper folding book featuring extracts from the Tipitaka and Phra Malai, written in Khmer script, with illustrations of Mahabrahma bhum (the Brahma heaven) and Tavatimsa bhum (heaven of the Four Kings). Thailand, 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 1

The illustrations portray the god Brahma with his four-faced head and a red aura (left) and the god Indra, or Sakka, also with a red aura (right). Both are seated on a marble pedestal before a red background decorated with delicate flower ornaments. Brahma and Indra are considered to have converted to Buddhism, therefore they are depicted in a respectful pose facing the Pali text passages from the Tipitaka that lie between them.

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Illustration of Tiracchana loka, the world of animals. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 14004, f. 37

The idyllic scene above shows the legendary region of Himavanta. Located in the animal realm of Tiracchana loka, it is covered in forests with great lakes and mountain ranges. It is inhabited by wild animals such as tigers, monkeys, deer, bears, birds, rabbits, cockerels and buffaloes who live together peacefully. Groves of mangoes, bananas and bamboo are featured in this illustration; all play a critical role as the animals’ survival depends almost entirely on these plants.

The final chapter in the book provides details around “making merit” in every-day Buddhist life, which include activities that aim to support the Sangha, like the Kathina robe-offering ceremony, Uposatha or observance ceremony, and royal donations, but also rituals related to death and after-life, as well as communal festivals around the year which are open to everyone.

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Scenes from the Uposatha observance ceremony. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 16761, ff. 25–6

This painting depicts the Uposatha ceremony, held on new and full moon days of every month. Lay people bring food and other offerings to the Buddhist monastery and observe five or eight precepts on these days. Three Buddhist monks, shown seated in a pavilion with their large fans, administer eight precepts to the lay community. These precepts are: not to kill, steal, engage in sexual activity, lie, become intoxicated, eat after noon, adorn their bodies or sleep on luxurious beds. Uposatha days provide time for people to listen to the teachings of the Dhamma and the chanting of special Suttas, as well as to practise meditation.

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Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a book containing drawings from the Ramayana and the Ten Birth Tales on European paper, with captions in Khmer script. Thailand or Cambodia, 1880. British Library, Or 14859, ff. 182–3

During the Bun Phawet festival in January the Vessantara Jataka is recited by monks or performed in puppet or shadow puppet theatres in the monasteries, mainly in Laos and northeast Thailand. In preparation for Bun Phawet lay people create long paper or cotton scrolls and banners decorated with paintings of scenes from the Vessantara Jataka. These scrolls, often tens of metres in length, are hung on the indoor walls of monasteries while recitations of the Vessantara Jataka are being performed. The illustration shown here depicts a scene from the Vessantara Jataka which typically features on scrolls made for the festival: the final grand scene in which Prince Vessantara and his wife Maddi are reunited with their children who had been taken away by the Brahmin Jujaka. This happy occasion is celebrated with music (right).

The book also contains a detailed bibliography, a glossary and three appendices providing a list of the 28 Buddhas of the past, explanations of symbols of the Buddha’s footprint, and an overview of the scriptures of the Tipitaka.

San San May and Jana Igunma, Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia, London: British Library, 2018. (ISBN 978 0 7123 5206 2)

The book is available from all major booksellers and online.

San San May, Curator for Burmese
Jana Igunma, Henry D. Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian

12 September 2018

A new display of Southeast Asian manuscripts from the Sloane collection

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In 1753 the British Museum was founded through the bequest of the vast collections of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), including over four thousand manuscripts, which are now held in the British Library. Sloane's manuscripts originate from all over the world, and among them are 12 from Southeast Asia. Eight of these can now be seen in a new display in the exhibition case next to the Asian and African Studies Reading Room in the British Library at St. Pancras.

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Bust of Hans Sloane by Michael Rysbrack (1693-1770), on display in the British Library

At first glance the eight exhibited manuscripts appear to be a rather random selection linked by nothing other than their Southeast Asian origin and their ownership by Sloane. But viewed through another lens, these eight manuscripts evoke vividly the two main preoccupations of the age in which they were collected: the global mercantile thrust which led to the founding of the English and Dutch East India Companies at the beginning of the 17th century, as reflected in trading permits and financial accounts, and religious zeal, manifest in an interest in the canonical and liturgical works of the major world religions which had taken root in Southeast Asia: Buddhism and Hinduism which had travelled from India, Islam from its birthplace in Arabia, and most recently Christianity by way of Europe.

Despite their small number and in some cases fragmentary state, the manuscripts on display also encompass an astonishing array of scripts: Balinese, Javanese, Lampung, Burmese, Khmer, Arabic in its original form as well as extended versions for writing Persian and Javanese, the Vietnamese Han Nom characters derived from Chinese, and Roman script. The languages found in these eight manuscripts range from indigenous languages of Southeast Asia, namely Malay, Javanese, Old Javanese, Burmese and Vietnamese, to the foreign languages which served the spread of both faith and trade in the region: Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Pali and Dutch. Four different calendrical systems are utilised – Burmese, Gregorian, the Javanese Saka era, and the Chinese zodiac calendar – and writing supports range from palm leaf and bamboo to Javanese beaten tree-bark paper (dluwang) as well as European and Chinese paper.

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Sloane manuscripts from Southeast Asia on display outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room  noc

On the top shelf of the exhibition case are grouped manuscripts relating to faiths of Southeast Asia. The Hinduized court culture of early Java is represented by a fragment of the Arjunawijaya, a court poem (kakawin) composed by Mpu Tantular in the 14th century in the kingdom of Majapahit (Sloane 3480). The lines on this small fragment of palm leaf, representing part of the right-hand half of a single leaf, describe a confrontation between Śiva’s attendant Nandīśvara and the ten-faced demon Rāvaṇa. The manuscript is in Old Javanese – an early form of the Javanese language characterised by an exceptionally high proportion of Sanskrit words – written in Balinese script, and is undated.  Since its entry into the British Museum this Old Javanese fragment had remained unidentified until it was digitised and highlighted in a recent blog; within 24 hours the text had been read and identified by a group of scholars located in different parts of the globe, and their report can be read here.

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Fragment of the Arjunawijaya in Old Javanese in Balinese script, on palm leaf. British Library, Sloane 3480  noc

Also written on palm leaf is a manuscript of the Pātimokkha, the Buddhist code of monastic discipline, dating to around 1700 or earlier (Sloane 4099(4)). The single folio on display contains three main lines of text from the Pātimokkha in Pali, the canonical language of Theravada Buddhism, written in Cambodian (Khmer) script, accompanied by interlinear explanations.

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Section of one leaf of the Pātimokkha in Pali in Khmer script. British Library, Sloane 4099(4)

Islam is represented by an important Arabic text of the Shafi‘ī school of law, Masā’īl al-ta‘līm, ‘Questions for instruction’, by the 16th-century Yemeni scholar ‘Abd Allāh bin ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Bā Faḍl (Sloane 2645). This manuscript, copied by a scribe named ‘Abd al-Qadīm, has an interlinear translation in Javanese in Arabic (pegon) script, and is dated  1545 in the Javanese era, equivalent to 1623/4 AD. This complete copy. in excellent condition. is one of the earliest dated manuscripts written on dluwang, Javanese paper made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree.

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Masā’īl al-ta‘līm, in Arabic with Javanese translation and notes, 1623. British Library, Sloane 2645, ff. 6v-7r  noc

The most recent world religion to arrive in Southeast Asia was Christianity, brought by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and on display is a Christian Psalter written in Malay in Roman script (Sloane 3115). The owner of this book was Cornelius van der Sluijs, a clergyman who served in the Moluccas and died in Batavia in 1715. This collection of hymns, psalms and Christian services in Malay was probably compiled in Ambon around 1678, following Van der Sluijs’s ordination as a full minister of the Dutch Calvinist church.

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The first page of the Psalms of David in Malay, showing the distinctive octagonal British Museum stamp designed for use on Sloane's library. British Library, Sloane 3115, f. 2r  noc

On the bottom shelf are documents relating to trade. The largest and most impressive visually is a royal letter from the ruler of Tonkin in the form of an illuminated scroll written in the Vietnamese language in Chinese (Han Nom) characters, probably despatched in 1673 (Sloane 3460). In 1672 the first English East India Company ship arrived in Tonkin in north Vietnam, and in March 1673 the captain, William Gyfford, was permitted to meet the ruler Trịnh Tac (r. 1657-1682). While the Company sought the establishment of commercial relations with Tonkin, the Vietnamese were interested in accessing new technology, and in his letter, Trịnh Tac requests iron or bronze cast cannons.

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The complete illuminated Vietnamese letter with red ink seal of Lord Trịnh Tac, 1673, with a detail showing the fine silver illumination; only a small section of the scroll has been unrolled for display. British Library, Sloane 3460  noc

The Chinese mercantile presence in Southeast Asia is reflected in a small piece of bamboo, with two lines of Javanese incised on one side with further annotations in Javanese and Lampung script, and on the other side a note written in black ink in Chinese (Sloane 1403E). The Chinese text appears to be a record of an account, and is dated in the Chinese zodiacal cycle with a date most likely equivalent to 1708.

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Front and reverse of a financial account, with text in Javanese, Lampung and Chinese, [1708]. British Library, Sloane 1403E  noc

Of particular interest are two trading permits issued by King Chandrawizaya (r. 1710-1731) of the kingdom of Mrauk U in Arakan in Burma (Myanmar). The permit written in Burmese, dated 1728, is the longest and the earliest dated palm leaf manuscript from Burma (Myanmar) in the British Library (Sloane 4098). Also found in the Sloane collection is a Persian edict (farmān) from the ruler of Arakan, dated 14 Sha‘bān 1090 (Sloane 3259). In his catalogue of Persian manuscripts in the British Museum, Charles Rieu assumed that the year inscribed was in the Hijra era, and thus dated the letter to 1679. Fortunately, just as we were preparing this exhibition, Arash Khazeni was preparing an edition of the Persian farmān, and noticed that the year was given as sanat 1090 Magi, referring to the Burmese era. The date was thus equivalent to 1728, revealing that the Persian document was in fact a counterpart to the Burmese permit! Both documents are addressed to the Armenian merchant Khwajeh Georgin (George) in Chennaipattana (Madras) across the Bay of Bengal, giving him permission to trade. Both bear the king’s round seal, inscribed in Pali, ‘Supreme Lord, Master of the Golden Palace’, which is blind-stamped on the palm leaf permit, stamped in black ink on the Persian letter, and in red wax on its cloth envelope and paper wrapper.

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The pointed end of the Burmese permit of the king of Arakan, with his round seal. Sloane 4098  noc

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The seal and date at the start of the trading permit in Persian from the king of Arakan, 1728. British Library, Sloane 3259  noc

Further reading:

Javanese manuscripts in the Sloane collection

Sir Hans Sloane's Old Javanese manuscript, Sloane 3480

Malay manuscripts in the Sloane collection

Arash Khazeni, ‘Merchants to the Golden City: the Persian Farmān of King Chandrawizaya Rājā and the elephant and ivory trade in the Indian Ocean, a view from 1728’, Iranian Studies, 2018, vol. 51.

From books to bezoars: Sir Hans Sloane and his collections, ed. Alison Walker, Arthur MacGregor and Michael Hunter (London: The British Library, 2012)

Annabel Teh Gallop, San San May, Jana Igunma & Sud Chonchirdsin, Southeast Asia section

 

18 July 2018

Traditional games in Burma

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Manuscripts from Burma (Myanmar) in the form of folding books (parabaik) often contain depictions of traditional games and sports such boxing, martial arts, cock-fighting and chinlone, reflecting popular activities in daily life.

One of the national games of Burma is chinlone, or the cane-ball game, played with a ball made of six hoops of interwoven smoothly-cut cane or rattan. The idea of the game is to try to keep the chinlone up in the air for as long as possible by foot-work, and to not let it drop to the ground. The chinlone can be kicked by the instep, outer and inner sides of the foot, sole, heel and knee, but may not be touched with the hand. It can be played indoors and outdoors, in all seasons and by all ages, and is often played barefoot. Burmese people regard this traditional game as good for exercising leg muscles, building strength and developing body flexibility.

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The illustration depicts a professional solo player playing chinlone in a court yard, while the king and queen in the pavilion watch the game. In the painting, the player has heavily tattoed legs, and his longyi (waist-cloth) is tucked up close round the middle, so that his legs may be quite free to play. In the game, the player sends the chinlone into the air again and again with decreasing force till he allows it to alight in the hollow of his shoulder, and he then rolls it down the back of the arm and jerks the chinlone off at his elbow to catch it on his knee. Up to seven chinlone may be tossed by master players; in this painting the player is playing with three chinlone. In the bottom right, musicians perform with a traditional orchestra and drum. British Library, Or 13291, f. 13 Noc

The game of chinlone can be played solo, but it more enjoyable with teams of six players. The team stands in a circle, the players standing three or four feet apart from one another and the chinlone is passed from one to another, by flipping it in the air using a succession of thirty techniques. There are rules for chinlone competitions between teams. The game exercises the body in a way that restores elasticity to the back and limbs, but it is believed that the game is good not only for physical exercise but also for mental control.

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The above scene shows a chinlone tournament. Court musicians play in a traditional Burmese orchestra while the king and queen under the white umbrellas watch a chinlone game. Four players each toss a chinlone with their feet, without touching it with their hands, trying to keep it in the air as long as possible. They may also touch or flip the chinlones with their knees, ankles, soles and shoulders. British Library, Or 14551, f. 8 Noc

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Four players play chinlone in the monastery compound, watched by a group of monks. Photograph of the national Burmese game of chinlone, taken by Watts and Skeen in the 1890s, British Library, Photo 430/15(63) Noc

Other games depicted in Burmese parabaik include polo, javelin throwing, horse racing and cock fighting. Illustrations in parabaiks show that historically, Burmese royals were very fond of watching polo.

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The above scene shows nine military men on horseback playing polo in a courtyard. According to  Burmese historical sources, this game was probably brought to Burma from Manipur in northeast India. British Library, Or. 6779, f. 8 Noc

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This painting depicts Burmese courtiers on horseback playing a game of polo, watched by the king and queen in the pavilion. The teams of four players on horseback try to hit the ball through the goal posts in order to score. In the illustration, the team wearing green (on the left) is competing against the team wearing red (on the right). British Library, Or 14963 f. 9 Noc

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Shown here are two large long legged fowls fighting each other, and people betting. Cock fighting was a favourite game of village people in the past, and despite being condemned by religion, people still bet heavily on their birds. British Library, Or 13291, f. 15 Noc

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The above painting shows the traditional Burmese form of boxing. The two boxers have their longyis gathered up over their groins to their waists, in order to move their knees and legs easily. Tattoos can be seen on their legs, but other parts of their bodies are left bare. No gloves are worn in Burmese boxing; instead, the skill in this game lies in leaping into the air and kicking each other with their bare feet. On the left, the royals watch the boxing tournament, while to the right, musicians  entertain them. British Library, Or 16761, f. 31 Noc

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An equestrian competition. This painting shows the king and queen watching a competition in martial skills. The competitors are princes, officials of ranks, and officers of the army, who are throwing spears from horseback at a gallop at targets placed on poles ranging from 15 to 50 or 100 cubits in height, standing at intervals one after the other. Under the monarchy, kings held equestrian competitions to select the best soldiers for the cavalry. British Library, Or 14963, f. 10 Noc

All the scenes of games in these Burmese folding books are painted in water colours and enclosed in yellow panels with a single line or a few words of explanatory text in Burmese script along the bottom border.

In Burma today, the game of chinlone can still be seen being played everywhere, by players young or old, male or damile, in fields and yards or in tournaments. Young girls play hop scotch at school or in playgrounds. Some seasonal festivals in Burma involve athletic competitions, with games such as climbing a greased pole, tugs of war, pulling a rope and pillow fights. In the mid-nineteenth century, western sports such as football, badminton, tennis, volleyball and golf were introduced to Burma.

Further reading:
'Chinlone: the Burmese Cane-ball game', by U Ah Yein. Guardian magazine, August 1960.

San San May, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

08 June 2018

Buddhism Illuminated through Southeast Asian Manuscript Art (1)

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Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia is a lavishly-illustrated book which has just been published by the British Library, in collaboration with Washington University Press. The book, by two curators in the British Library's Southeast Asia section, is dedicated to the memory of the Library’s former Curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections, Dr Henry D. Ginsburg (1940-2007), who was a leading expert and one of the pioneers of research on Buddhist manuscript art in Southeast Asia. The purpose of this book is to share many years of research on the British Library’s unique collection of Southeast Asian manuscripts on Buddhism, which illustrate not only the life and teachings of the historical Buddha, but also everyday Buddhist practice, life within the monastic order, festivals, cosmology, and ethical principles and values.

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Front cover of Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia, London: British Library 2018.

The book contains six chapters and over 200 high-quality coloured photographs of manuscripts which have mostly been digitised with generous funding from Henry Ginsburg’s Legacy. The illustrations are mainly from eighteenth and nineteenth century Burmese and Thai manuscripts, and the book provides detailed background information on Theravada Buddhism in general and Buddhist art in mainland Southeast Asia in particular.

The first chapter is an introduction to Buddhist manuscripts in Southeast Asia and gives an overview of the British Library’s Burmese, Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections. It discusses not only the production and contents of Buddhist manuscripts in the region, but also all aspects of manuscript culture, including storage chests and cabinets, and manuscript wrappers and binding ribbons (sazigyo).

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A palm leaf manuscript of the Malalankara (the Burmese version of the Life of Gotama Buddha) from Burma, dated 1883. British Library, Or 16673 Noc

The palm leaf manuscript shown above has five bundles and is a fine example of Burmese craftsmanship and artistry. The leaves with gilded and lacquered edges are bound between a pair of red lacquered binding boards, together with a hand-woven sazigyo featuring Burmese script. The manuscript is wrapped in a cotton cloth with butterfly and flower patterns on a red coloured background. The text on the sazigyo states ‘May the merit of writing the scripture of the Buddha’s 45 years of glorious teachings help me to attain nibbana.’

The Library’s collections are particularly rich in illustrated folding books and palm leaf manuscripts featuring scenes from the Life of the Buddha, Jataka stories or Birth Tales, Buddhist cosmology, as well as festivals and rituals.

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A Thai paper folding book (samut khoi) from the eighteenth century containing extracts from the Tipitaka with illustrations from the Ten Birth Tales (or the last Ten Jatakas). British Library, Or. 14068, f. 4 Noc

Each of the last Ten Birth Tales illustrates one of the Buddha’s great qualities, mahabuddhaguna. Illustrated in the Thai folding book above is the Nimi Jataka, illustrating the quality of resolution through the story of Prince Nimi who, thanks to his great merits, was invited to visit the Buddhist heavens. On his journey there, the charioteer stopped briefly at one hell where Nimi learned of the torments and sufferings in the Buddhist hells. This is one of a small number of surviving eighteenth-century manuscripts from central Thailand with illustrations of outstanding quality.

The second chapter,  “Buddha – The Enlightened One,” introduces the concept of Buddhahood and shows how the historical Gotama Buddha, who lived and taught in northeast India over 2,500 years ago, is depicted in manuscript illustrations. An overview is given of the 28 Buddhas of the past, as well as examples of Jatakas, stories of previous lives of the historical Buddha. Also presented in this chapter are important episodes from the life of the historical Buddha such as his birth as Prince Siddhattha, his famous renunciation of worldly life, the miracles of the Enlightened One, the Buddha’s visit to Tavatimsa heaven, his passing into parinibbana and the coming of the future Buddha Metteyya.

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Folding book with scenes from the life of Gotama Buddha. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 14297, f. 6 Noc

The birth of the Buddha-to-be (Prince Siddhattha Gotama) illustrated in the rare Burmese manuscript shown above depicts the procession of Queen Maha Maya through Lumbini Garden on her way to Devadaha, depicted at the bottom of the page. Above left we see Queen Maha Maya holding with her right hand a branch of the Sal tree for support and ease of pain while giving birth, with her left hand draped around the shoulder of Pajapati Gotami, the queen’s sister. The scene in the top right corner depicts the Brahmas receiving the new-born prince into the world. This is a fine example of Burmese artistic interpretations of scenes from the Life of Gotama Buddha.

After his enlightenment, the Buddha told his disciples and followers of his experiences in his previous existences, before he was born as Prince Siddhattha. The Buddha’s previous lives are the subject of a large collection of stories commonly known as Jatakas, or Birth Tales. The Jatakas show how he gradually acquired greater moral stature in passing from one incarnation to another. These stories are well-known in all Buddhist cultures of mainland Southeast Asia. The Buddha is thought to have narrated them during his ministry to his followers, using each Jataka to teach certain ethical principles and values.

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Illustration of the Dipankara Jataka from Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Mss Burmese 202, f.1 Noc

The Dipankara Jataka, the story of Dipankara Buddha, is special in the way that it tells of how the historical Buddha in one of his earlier incarnations met one of the 28 Buddhas of the past. The illustration above shows how the Buddha-to-be Sumedha receives his niyatha vivarana (prediction of future Buddhahood) from Dipankara Buddha, who had reached enlightenment aeons before Gotama Buddha. When he arrived at a place called Ramma, to honour him, local people cleaned the road for him to walk upon, and Sumedha took responsibility for one stretch of the muddy road. The Buddha Dipankara addressed the hermit Sumedha and foretells that in due time he will himself attain enlightenment and become a Buddha.

As well as the Buddhas of the past, the Buddha of the future, Metteyya, is also depicted in illustrated manuscripts. He is often portrayed in Thai manuscripts telling the legend of the monk Phra Malai, who, during his journey to the Buddhist heavens, learns about the coming of the future Buddha.

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Folding book containing the story of the monk Phra Malai. Central Thailand, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 6630, f. 42 Noc

These two generously gilded illustrations in the Thai painting style of the nineteenth century are set in two of the Buddhist heavens, Tavatimsa (left) and Tusita (right). On the left, the monk Phra Malai is shown seated, in orange robes, in front of the heavenly Culamani Ceti. This stupa houses the hair collected by the god Sakka when Prince Siddhattha cut his topknot on adopting the ascetic life. Phra Malai converses with Sakka (shown here as a green figure) and a deva attendant. On the right the Bodhisatta Natha, the future Buddha Metteyya residing in Tusita heaven, is depicted with a group of female attendant deities, all wearing glamorous outfits. Tusita heaven is thought to be the residence of divine beings (devata). The appearance of the future Buddha Metteyya forecasts a blissful future for those humans who follow the Dhamma, or Buddha’s teachings.

Although the life of Gotama Buddha, and those of the Buddhas of the past and the future Buddha, are often at the center of Buddhist manuscript art, there is much more to learn from Southeast Asian manuscript art about Buddha’s teachings, life in the monastic order and everyday Buddhist practice. All the details can be found in the newly published book, and a few more will be revealed in part two of this blog which will follow soon.

San San May and Jana Igunma, Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia, London: British Library 2018. (ISBN 978 0 7123 5206 2)

The book is available from all major booksellers and online.

San San May, Curator for Burmese
Jana Igunma, Henry D. Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian

Ccownwork

 

17 April 2018

The Burmese New Year

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The Burmese New Year falls in the second week of the Burmese month of Tagu (April). It is an auspicious time for Burmese people, who each year determine to make the New Year a happier, healthier and more successful one. The New Year is ushered in with the Thingyan water festival, which starts on 13 April and lasts for four days, after which comes New Year's Day itself. The word Thingyan is derived from the Sanskrit word Samkranti, which means literally ‘a passing on’, and the exact date and the precise time of the commencement and termination of Thingyan and New Year’s Day are fixed through astrological calculations. The first day of the festival is called Thingyan a-kyo nei (welcoming day), the second day is Thingyan a-kya nei (falling day) and the third day is Thingyan a-kyat nei (tight day). Certain years may contain one or two extra a-kyat days, and then the last day of the festival is Thingyan a-tet nei (rising day). The following day, 17 April, is celebrated as the Burmese New Year's Day.

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Saṅʿkranʿ tvakʿ naññʿʺ cā (Calculation the Thingyan), ca. 1880. British Library, Mss. Burmese 116

Shown above is a half-length Burmese palm leaf manuscript of Thingyan sa, which gives explanations of Thingyan with calculations. Thingyan sa are traditionally written annually at the time of the Thingyan festival, based on astrological calculations, and purport to predict the great events of the coming year.

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The Tagu Thingyan festival, depicted in a Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or.15021, ff. 1-3

The above illustration portrays royal people in a procession to celebrate Thingyan and New Year, attended by musicians. Some carry small water pots with flowers on their shoulders, some carry long fans and some wear masks resembling mythical animals. According to traditional beliefs, Sakka, king of the Tavatimsa heaven, descends to the earth from his celestial abode on a-kya day. People place a small pot with seven different kinds of flowers representing seven days of the week in front of their house to welcome Sakka. He remains upon earth for three days. During the festival people, regardless of age, gender or religion, wear colourful dresses and sing and dance together, sprinkling scented water on one another, in the belief that the Thingyan festival water will make them healthy. For fun, some people enjoy playing with water hoses at their temporary pavilions.

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A depiction of an alms-giving ceremony, 19th century. British Library, Or.13293 , f. 1

The above illustration shows an alms-giving ceremony. The practice of offering food to monks is the most common ritual practised in in Burma, and is a peaceful and spiritual ceremony. Indeed, the true spirit in which the New Year should be celebrated is by fasting, giving alms, doing meritorious deeds and observing the Buddha’s teachings (Dhamma) on New Year’s Day. Kadaw (Homage) day is held in this season. On this day, people pay their respects to their parents, teachers and superiors, and novitiation ceremonies are held in towns, cities and villages.

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This painted scene depicts the ruler receiving homage from his ministers and court officials on Kadaw or Homage day. The king is seated in a pavilion and traditional offerings of coconuts and bananas are set before him. The bottom yellow border of the painting is inscribed in Burmese characters, ‘Receiving homage’. British Library, Or.14963, f. 7  

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Paying homage to the king on the New Year Day.  British Library, Or.6779, f.2

In the scene above, the king is shown receiving homage from his ministers and members of the royal family. The ceremony features folk music troupes and processions of elephants and horses. During the days of royal rule, the New Year celebration included the state-sponsored feeding of monks for three continuous days, the watering of the sacred banyan trees and the cleansing of Buddha statues, and a three-gun salute was fired to usher in the New Year.

Further reading:

Khin Myo Chit. Flowers and festivals round the Myanmar Year. Yangon: Sarpaylawka, 2002.

San San May, Curator for Burmese

09 April 2018

Burmese marionette theatre

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Burmese puppet shows (yokthe pwe) were a popular entertainment under the Burmese monarchy, and possibly date back to the Pagan kingdom of the 11th century. Historical sources show that puppet plays have certainly been performed since the early 15th century, and rapidly grew in prestige and popularity in the 17th century. By the 18th century, puppet shows were common in ordinary Burmese circles, and were seen as a means of educating people in history, religion, culture and everyday life. At court, puppet shows were patronized by the Burmese kings, and the Thabin-wun (Minister for the performing arts) was in charge of performances.

The string puppets used in Burma (Myanmar) are made of wood, ideally Yamane wood (botanical name, Gamelina arborea) which is light and soft. Teak is also used, but it is heavier than Yamane wood. The size of the puppets varies from one to three feet tall, with small dancing puppets while non-dancing puppets are made larger. The standard repertoire involves a troupe of 28 puppets of characters comprising a nat (deva), sakka (ruler of the Tavatimsa heaven), zawgyi (alchemist), a king and queen, four ministers, a prince and princess, a hermit, a pageboy, punna (brahmin), bhilu (ogre), nat kadaw (spirit medium), two prince regents, a handmaiden, and animals including tiger, horse, elephant, monkey, parrot, garuda (mythical bird, in Burmese galon), naga (serpant), kinnara and kinnari (mythical birds). Each puppet has its own style of dancing, with accompanying song and music.

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A depiction of a traditional Burmese puppet show, late 19th century. British Library, Or.14031, ff. 19-20 Noc

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Detail of the Burmese puppets, from the painting above. British Library, Or.14031, ff. 19-20 Noc

A late 19th century Burmese manuscript in the British Library (Or.14031) contains painted scenes of a courtly puppet show and dramatic performance. The painting on folio 9 is inscribed on the bottom left in English, ‘Maung Tsa Painter.’ This identifies the painter as Saya Sa, the son of the most famous court painter U Kya Nyunt, who served as a royal artist to King Mindon (r. 1853-1878). Saya Sa was also a royal artist at the Burmese court, who served King Mindon’s son and successor, King Thibaw (r. 1878-1885). The illustration above shows the stage for the puppet show which is built of bamboo and thatch. The marionettes on the stage are surrounded by green trees. The white backdrop is about waist high. The puppeteers who work behind the curtain are visible to the audience. The stage is bare except for a male and female dancers and page boys against the white backdrop. The duet danced on the stage is performed by the leading characters in romantic scenes which are favourites with the audience. The puppets are dressed in real clothes and the puppeteers skilfully make their puppets act like living performers. The show is held under the open sky, and the grounds are filled with people who stand to watch the show. Spectators, enjoying the free entertainment, walk along the line of food stalls in the bazaar in the marionette theatre grounds.

The puppet show was allowed to use a stage as the puppets would otherwise be too small to be seen, and was hence termed amyint thabin (raised performance). However the puppet theatre was the only form of entertainment allowed to use a stage at the royal court at that time, and other entertainments performed by men and women could only be staged on the ground. Amyint thabin was later called yoke thay, and the popular saying, tha bin a sa yoke thay ka, ‘dance and drama began with marionettes’, reflects the prestige of the puppet theatre.

The themes of the puppet plays were based on the Buddha’s previous births (Jataka stories), Buddhist fables and stories, folktales and incidents in Burmese history, including the history of the pagodas. The last ten Jataka tales were very popular as they describe the perfection of ten important virtues. People learned about history, astrology, court intrigues and ethics from puppet plays.

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Court entertainment, British Library, Or.14031, f. 1-3 Noc

The painting above, from the same manuscript, portrays a royal dramatic performance. The king is shown on the stage on the right watching the court musicians and dancers in the large white umbrella hall shown in the centre. Two drum circles are in place on either side of the stage, and alongside each of them is a brass gong circle. The drum circle consists of 21 drums, and the player sits within the circular frames and strikes the drums with his bare fingers and the heels of his hands. The brass gong circle is similar in design and there are 18 brass gongs. The player sits in the middle of the gongs and strikes them with a short knobbed stick (glimpsed on the left). In the centre, the male and female dancers sing and dance the duet hna-par-thwar. All the dancers and musicians perform on the ground, as they are not allowed to dance on a stage.

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Detail of the dancers, from the painting above. British library, Or.14031, f. 1-3 Noc

A Burmese puppet troupe includes puppeteers, singers and musicians. The most complex aspect of the art of the Burmese marionette is the working of the marionette strings. 16 strings are attached to the head, hands and feet of each puppet, and these strings are then attached to a cross-piece handle. The puppeteer needs great skill to hold the handles in both his hands and pull the strings to make the marionettes perform delicate movements. The vocalists sit behind the screen and the puppeteers stand behind the screen to handle the puppets, working in conjunction with each other. A skilful puppeteer can operate the puppet in time with the vocalist’s dialogue or song, bringing the puppets alive. Some vocalists could sing both male and female voices, playing many different roles. Sometimes the puppeteer is able to perform both tasks, to sing and to manipulate the strings at the same time.

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A Burmese puppet show (Yoke thay pwe), photograph taken by Philip Adolphe Klier in 1890s. British Library, Photo 88/1(42). Noc

The marionette stage in the photo above is built of bamboo. A group of some thirty people are seated on bamboo mats spread on the bare ground, watching the performance. The puppets are arranged on the stage, and in front is the saing (puppet troupe orchestra). At one side of the stage is a throne, and puppets such as the king and queen, the prince and princess, the hermit, the minister, the page boy and the elephant can be seen on the stage. The hermit puppet is depicted as a religious image and is treated with respect by puppeteers. The scene being performed is set at the royal court and involves the king, queen and the minister.

In the present day, puppet shows can be seen at pagoda festivals in Rangoon and Mandalay, which are still occasions for traditional entertainment, with food and other bazaar stalls in the festival grounds. The dance style of the puppets differs from that of humans, but nowadays in Burma we see human performances adopting puppet characteristics and movements, as professional artists try to save this beautiful art form from disappearing.

Further reading

Khin Myo Chit, ‘Burmese marionette theatre’, The Guardian, Rangoon, 1976.
Dagon Nat Shin. Myanmar Yoke thay thabin. Rangoon: Yin Kye Mu, 1959.

San San May, Curator for Burmese  Ccownwork

24 July 2017

Animals in Southeast Asian manuscripts

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The Southeast Asia exhibition case outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room at St Pancras is currently showing a selection of images of animals in manuscripts from Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. The delightful depictions of animals can be appreciated as exquisite works of art, but certain animals were also important as religious, political and cultural symbols in Southeast Asian societies, none more so than elephants.

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Animals in Southeast Asian manuscripts, on display in 2017.

In pride of place on the top shelf is a 19th-century Burmese folding book or parabaik (MSS Burmese 204) containing 22 coloured illustrations of elephants, showing the elephant king Chaddanta, who was the Bodhisatta or previous incarnation of Gautama Buddha, and his queen Mahathubadda. In Burma white elephants are regarded as sacred and a source of blessings, as they play a major role in Buddhist tales. In the story of the ‘Life of the Buddha’, Queen Maya dreamed that a celestial white elephant holding a white lotus flower in its trunk entered her side, to be reborn as Gautama Buddha, while in the last Birth Story of the Buddha, Vessantara Jataka, the white elephant appears as a rain maker. Every Burmese king longed to possess a white elephant, a symbol of power and sovereignty.

Next to the Burmese book is a Javanese manuscript of Serat Panji Jaya Kusuma dated 1805 (MSS Jav 68), which is shown open at a scene (identified by Lydia Kieven) where Sekartaji and her servant (emban) approach the forest filled with animals including an elephant, tiger, banteng, wild boar and two deer. This tale is one of many versions of the adventures of Prince Panji in his search for his beloved Princess Candrakirana. Stories of Prince Panji date back to the 13th century, and mark the beginnings of a truly Javanese literature no longer overshadowed by the great Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Panji tales are found not only in Java but were also translated into Malay, Balinese, Thai, Lao, Khmer and Burmese.

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Drawings of forest animals in a Javanese manuscript of Serat Panji Jaya Kusuma, 1805. British Library, MSS Jav 68, f. 42r.

On the lower shelf is a Vietnamese royal edict issued by Emperor Khải Định on 25 July 1924, adorned on the back with a gilded turtle (Or 14632). The turtle (rùa) has a special place in Vietnamese culture and history. It symbolises longevity, strength and intelligence and is also closely related to the independence of Vietnam. Legend has it that Lê Lời, who led the Vietnamese fight against Chinese invaders in the 15th century, borrowed a sword from the dragon king. After the defeat of the Chinese, the sacred sword was returned to the king by a turtle which lived in a jade water lake. At the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu) in Hà Nội, 82 stone turtles carry on their backs steles inscribed with the names of scholars, signifying the importance of education in society.

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Turtle, on the back of a Vietnamese royal edict issued by Emperor Khải Định on 25 July 1924. British Library, Or. 14632.

The final item in the case is a 19th-century Thai Phrommachat or horoscope manual in folding book format (Or. 13650). The twelve-year Chinese zodiac cycle was widely used in Thailand, and the manual contains coloured drawings depicting the zodiac in two series, together with detailed explanations for fortune telling and divination. 2017 is the year of the Rooster, and on display are drawings related to this year, with each rooster shown representing one particular quarter of the year. There is also a number diagram for people born in the year of the rooster, and the male avatar and plant for this year. These are accompanied by drawings used for predicting the future and to explain dreams and omens.

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Thai horoscope manual, open at the page for the year of the Rooster (the present year, 2017). British Library, Or. 13650, f.5v

Or. 13650 has been fully digitised, and shown below are some other pages from this beautiful manuscript, which can be accessed through the hyperlinks beneath the images.

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Thai horoscope manual. British Library, Or. 13650, f. 11v

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Thai horoscope manual. British Library, Or. 13650, f. 13r

Annabel Teh Gallop, San San May, Jana Igunma & Sud Chonchirdsin, Southeast Asia section

Other blog posts about animals in Southeast Asian manuscripts:

Elephants, kingship and warfare in Southeast Asia, by Sud Chonchirdsin

Elephants in all shapes and sizes

The year of the Rooster, from a Thai perspective, by Jana Igunma

O graceful fawn, o gentle doe: deer in Thai manuscript art, by Jana Igunma

What's my Thai horoscope? by Jana Igunma

24 May 2017

33 Burmese manuscripts now digitised

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The Burmese manuscript collection in the British Library consists of approximately 1800 manuscripts. The majority are written on palm leaf, but there are also many paper folding books (parabaik), and texts written on diverse materials such as gold, silver, copper and ivory sheets in the shape of palm leaves. The collection is particularly strong in historical, legal and grammatical texts, and in illustrated material. In particular, there are many folding books with illustrations of the Life of the Buddha, Jataka stories, court scenes and other subjects.

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Royal entertainments: In the above scene, a musical troupe is entertaining the royals. To the left, the royal party is seated under a canopy watching a Burmese classical dance (Zat pwe), while to the right are dancers and musicians accompanied by an orchestra (Saing waing). Zat taw gyi or zat pwe is usually based on Jataka stories, which are the most popular literary sources throughout all periods of Burmese history. British Library, Or.16761, f.28r Noc

The manuscripts derive from two historic sources, the British Museum and the India Office Library, and were mostly brought from Burma by travellers, envoys, missionaries, administrators and researchers. From the British Museum came the John Murray collection, acquired in 1842, which includes several manuscripts from Arakan dating from the 1740s, and the Sir Arthur Phayre collection, acquired in 1886. The India Office Library collection of Burmese manuscripts began with the Royal Mandalay Collection acquired in 1886 after the Anglo-Burmese war, and a collection of official documents formed by Henry Burney which was probably presented to the Library by Burney himself. Catalogues of all the Burmese manuscripts are available in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room, and about 700 manuscripts in Burmese and and in Pali in Burmese script can be found in the online catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

Since 2013 the British Library has digitised some of the finest Burmese manuscripts in its collection, supported by the Henry D. Ginsburg Legacy. To date 33 manuscripts have been fully digitised, covering a wide range of genres and subjects.  All these manuscripts are now accessible through the Digitised Manuscripts website. A new webpage, Digital Access to Burmese Manuscripts, also lists all the Burmese manuscripts digitised so far, with hyperlinks to the images and to blog posts featuring the manuscripts. Future digitised manuscripts will be also be listed on this page. Shown in this post are a selection of our digitised Burmese manuscripts; clicking on the hyperlinked shelfmarks below the images will take you directly to the digitised versions.

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The royal melodrama Vijayakari zat: In the eighteenth century Burmese drama flourished at the royal court, and the earliest play, Maniket Pyazat, was written in 1733 by the court poet Padesaraja (1684-1752), based on his own poem Maniket Pyo. Burmese court drama really began to develop at the beginning of the reign of King Bodawpaya (1782-1819). Court dramatists, such as U Ponnya (1807-1866) and U Kyin U (1819-1853), produced dramatic works during the reign of Bagyidaw. Hlaing Hteik Khaung Tin, the Crown Princess (1833-1875) in the reign of King Mindon, wrote court dramas such as Vijayakari and Indavamsa, but she earned particular fame for her romantic dramas. In the scene shown above, there is a tree in a magical forest where lovely maidens grow and wait to be plucked. This drama is about Prince Vijayakari, Sakanitum (a princess born from a flower bud), and Adideva of the Ogre Kingdom. These court dramatists wrote delightful romances which are marvels of literary art. Only a few of their works survive to the present day but these are still widely read and studied. British Library, Or.3676, f.13r Noc

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Regatta festival: There are many Burmese festivals throughout the year. Tawthalin (September) is the sixth month in the Burmese calendar and the third month of the rainy season in Burma. The rain becomes less frequent, there is sunshine with clear skies, no wind, and the surfaces of the rivers are smooth without waves. The season is just right for holding regatta festivals, which have traditionally been held in this month since the times of ancient Burmese kings, and the regatta festival remains one of the twelve monthly festivals in the Burmese calendar. Regattas were not only occasions for pageantry but also opportunities for demonstrating the naval prowess of the armed forces. In the olden days, the royal family sent their own boats to participate in the race, and high officials were placed in charge of preparations for boat races held along the shores of rivers throughout the country. British Library, Or.15021, f.16r Noc

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Scenes from the Ramayana: Ravana, in disguise as a hermit, begs Sita to come with him to his kingdom. When she refuses, Ravana summons his magic chariot and sweeps Sita up and away, into the sky and over the forests (top). When Rama and Lakshmana finally find their way home Sita is gone (bottom). British Library, Or. 14178, f. 10 Noc

Quick link to: Digital access to Burmese manuscripts

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork