Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

12 posts categorized "Cambodia"

26 February 2024

Restoring access to the British Library’s Asian and African Collections

Following the recent cyber-attack on the British Library, the Library has now implemented an interim service which will enable existing Registered Readers to access some of our printed books and serials and a significant portion of our manuscripts. This service will be expanded further in the coming weeks. 

We understand how frustrating this recent period has been for everyone wishing to access our Asian and African Collections and we would like to thank you for your patience. We are continuing to work to restore our services, and you can read more about these activities in our Chief Executive's post to the Knowledge Matters blog. 

The Using the Library page on our temporary website provides general information on current Library services, and advice for those without an existing Reader Pass. Please read on for information about the availability of specific Asian and African collections. 

 

Printed books and serials 

You can now search for printed items using a searchable online version of our main catalogue of books and other printed material. Online and advance ordering is unavailable, so Registered Readers will need to collect a paper order form from staff in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room and fill in the required details. Please write the shelfmark exactly as it appears in the online catalogue. 

Only a small portion of the printed books and serials in the Asian and African Collection will be available for consultation in the Reading Room. Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee availability of any printed items. Materials stored in Boston Spa are current unavailable, and items stored in our St. Pancras location might be in use by another Reader or restricted for other reasons. If you wish to gain greater assurance on the availability of a particular item before you visit us, please contact our Reference Services Team by emailing [email protected].

 

Manuscripts and archival documents 

Although the Library’s online catalogue of archives and manuscripts is not currently available, the Reference Services Team can assist with queries about these collections, checking paper catalogues and other sources. Please speak to the team in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room or email [email protected] Some of our older printed catalogues have been digitised and made available online without charge. For quick access to the digitised catalogues of manuscript and archival material, or to online repositories of images, please make use of the links below:

Africa 

Catalogues 

 

East Asia 

Catalogues 

Digitised Content

Middle East and Central Asia 

Catalogues 

Digitised Content

South Asia        

Catalogues    

Digitised Content

South-East Asia

Catalogues

Digitised Content

Visual Arts (Print Room)

Catalogues

Digitised Content

Microfilms

 

 

 

Africa 

East Asia 

Chinese 

Japanese 

  • CiNii Books - National Institute of Informatics (NII), a bibliographic database service for material in Japanese academic libraries including 43,000+ British Library books and periodicals. Please use FA012954 in the Library ID field 

Korean 

 

Middle East and Central Asia 

  • FIHRIST (Largely Persian, but also includes some Kurdish, Pashto, and Turkic materials) 

 Arabic 

Armenian 

Coptic 

Hebrew  

Persian 

Syriac  

Turkish and Turkic  

 

South Asia 

Early printed books:

South Asian language manuscript catalogues:

Bengali and Assamese 

Hindi, Panjabi and Hindustani

Marathi, Gujrati, Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Pushtu and Sindhi 

Oriya 

Pali 

Sanskrit and Prakrit 

Sinhalese 

 Tibetan 

 

South-East Asia 

Burmese 

Indonesian

Thai 

  

Access to some archival and manuscript material is still restricted, but the majority of special collections held at St Pancras are now once again available. Our specialist archive and manuscripts catalogue is not online at the moment so you will need to come on-site to our Reading Rooms, where Reading Room staff will be able to help you search for what you need, and advise on its availability.

To place a request to see a manuscript or archival document, Registered Readers need to collect a paper order form from staff in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room and fill in the required details, including the shelfmark (manuscript number). The Library has created an instructional video on finding shelfmarks.  

 

Visual Arts 

The Print Room, located in the Asian and African Reading Room, is open by appointment only on Monday and Friday between 10.00 am-12.30 pm. Prints, drawings, photographs and related visual material in the Visual Arts collection can be consulted by appointment. Please contact the Visual Arts team via email (apac[email protected]) to check the availability of required items and to book an appointment. Please note that advanced booking is required. Restricted items including the Kodak Historical Collection, Fay Godwin Collection, William Henry Fox Talbot Collection are not currently available to Readers. 

 

Microfilms 

The Reference Services Team in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room has a list of microfilms of printed and manuscript materials. 

 

Digital resources 

A number of our early printed books are available on Google Books. 

We regret that our digitised manuscripts and electronic research resources are currently unavailable. Nevertheless, some of our digitised manuscripts are available on external platforms: 

East Asia 

Middle East 

  • Digital Edition of the Coptic Old Testament, including leaves of British Library Coptic papyri interwoven with images from other institutions  
  • Ktiv (Manuscript Database of the National Library of Israel), including all digitised Hebrew manuscripts from the British Library
  • Qatar Digital Library, including digitised Arabic manuscripts from the British Library

South Asia 

  • Jainpedia, including digitised Jain manuscripts from the British Library

South-East Asia 

  • South East Asia Digital Library, including a collection of digitised rare books from South East Asia held at the British Library 
  • National Library Board, Singapore, digitised Malay manuscripts and Qur'ans, papers of Sir Stamford Raffles, and the accounts by Colin Mackenzie on Java held at the British Library
  • Or 14844, Truyện Kiều (The tale of Kiều) by Nguyễn Du (1765-1820), the most significant poem in Vietnamese literature 
  • Or 15227, an illuminated Qurʼan,19th century, from the east coast of the Malay Peninsula
  • Or 16126, Letter from Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja (Daing Ibrahim), Ruler of Johor, to Napoleon III, Emperor of France, dated 1857
  • Mss Jav 89, Serat Damar Wulan with illustrations depicting Javanese society in the late 18th century
  • Or 14734, Sejarah Melayu (Malay annals), dated 1873
  • Or 13681, Burmese manuscript showing seven scenes of King Mindon's donations at various places during the first four years of his reign (1853-57) 
  • Or 14178, Burmese parabaik (folding book) from around 1870 with 16 painted scenes of the Ramayana story with captions in Burmese 
  • Or 13922, Thai massage treatise with illustrations, 19th century 
  • Or 16101, Buddhist Texts, including the Legend of Phra Malai, with Illustrations of The Ten Birth Tales, dated 1894 
  • Or 16797, Cat treatise from Thailand, with illustrations, 19th century 
  • Or 4736, Khmer alphabet, handwritten by Henri Mouhot, c.1860-1 

Visual Arts 

 

We thank you, once again, for your patience as we continue to work to restore our services. Please do check this blog and the temporary British Library website for further updates. 

 

 

13 December 2021

Khmer manuscripts at the British Library (Part 2)

The previous blog post on Khmer manuscripts at the British Library focused on traditional Khmer manuscripts - palm leaves (sleuk rith) and folding books (kraing). In addition to these, the British Library holds documents containing text in Khmer script that were made by foreigners who travelled or lived for some time in Cambodia and Thailand, or who exchanged written correspondences with Cambodia.

Of special interest is a small collection of epigraphic notes by Henri Mouhot, dated 1860-61, together with Mouhot’s visas issued by the Siamese authorities that permitted him to travel in the country. These documents were initially given to the British Museum in 1894 by Mrs Mouhot, over 30 years after her husband’s death, and were transferred to the British Library after 1973 (Or 4736). They contain a “sacred Khmer alphabet” for Pali texts together with a short text sample, an “ordinary Khmer alphabet” with two text samples, copies of ancient Khmer stone inscriptions, together with Lao alphabets and text samples.

The copies of Khmer inscriptions that Mouhot produced are particularly interesting as some of the original stones may not exist anymore. They include copies of inscriptions at Angkor Wat, at Phanom Wan near Korat, at a temple ruin near Phimai, at Khamphaeng Phet, Battambang, Chaiyaphum, and Angkor Thom.

Henri Mouhot’s copy of a stone inscription found on an unspecified terrace at Angkor Thom
Henri Mouhot’s copy of a stone inscription found on an unspecified terrace at Angkor Thom. From the collection of epigraphic notes of Henri Mouhot; date of the copy 1860-61. British Library, Or 4736, f. 14 Noc

Another interesting manuscript is a European-style bound book with the title “Dictionary of the Kameh language with the English translation to every word”. It contains thirty folios of handwritten Khmer text with English translations, and it is not actually a dictionary, but a glossary. The Khmer text is written below the line, following South and Southeast Asian writing traditions, whereas the English translations were added above the Khmer text. An introductory note says that “This dictionary wants the insertion of about 4000 words and a fuller explanation in English, which will be done, if the work is to be printed.” However, it does not seem as if the work was ever completed or printed since the last nine folios were left blank. Nonetheless, this is an outstanding work which was compiled in 1830 by two persons: a learned Khmer speaker known as Chaou Bun, resident in Siam, and the German missionary Karl Gützlaff who lived in Bangkok from 1828-31. Gützlaff’s first wife, Maria Newell Gützlaff, an English missionary, teacher and translator of Chinese, may have assisted in some way with this collaborative work after she joined her husband in Bangkok in 1830. Together, they were also working on Bible translations into Thai, Khmer and Lao languages. The sudden death of Maria following the birth of twins and Gützlaff’s departure to Macau in 1831 was probably the reason why the glossary was never finished.

Page from the “Dictionary of the Kameh language with the English translation to every word” by Chaou Bun (Khmer text) and Karl Gützlaff (English translations), 1830
Page from the “Dictionary of the Kameh language with the English translation to every word” by Chaou Bun (Khmer text) and Karl Gützlaff (English translations), 1830. British Library, Or 13577, f. 14 Noc

The most remarkable manuscript containing Khmer text is a nearly 15 m long paper scroll from Japan. It contains a mid-19th century copy of a transcript made in 1818 of ten official documents and trade letters written in Japanese from the Gaiban Shokan (Foreign Correspondence) between the Japanese government (shogunate) and various foreign rulers or officials between the years 1604 and 1675. Among Dutch, Italian and Luzon letters are six Cambodian documents with translations dated to 1605-6. Whereas the Sino-Japanese script is immaculate, the translations of the six letters in Khmer script are almost illegible and are thought to have been copied by a Japanese scribe who was not familiar with Khmer.

19th-century copy of a letter in Khmer language dating back to 1605, in a Japanese scroll containing trade documents from 1604-75
19th-century copy of a letter in Khmer language dating back to 1605, in a Japanese scroll containing trade documents from 1604-75. British Library, Or 12979 Noc

Thanks to the digitisation of several Khmer manuscripts with funding from the Legacy of Henry Ginsburg, it was possible to work with scholars across the globe to identify the age and texts contained in some of these manuscripts. The scroll from Japan (above) is one such example: Mr Bora Touch kindly provided a transcript of nine lines of almost illegible text in Khmer language, dated 1605, seen in the image above:
[1] សារ នោ ឧកញា ឝ្រីអគ្គរាជ នុឧកញា ធម្មតេជោយេងខ្ញុមទាង២ ថ្វាយបំគម្ម មោកស្តេចញីបុ៎ន កុ
[2] កជូ ឫ យេងនោស្រុកកុម្វុជ្ជាធិបតី បានយលស្តេចញីបុ៎នសាបុរ្សប្រសេថ្ឋពៀកទេព
[3] ឲយតេងសំពោវខ្មេរ១ឲយចោ សពោវឈ្មោះស្សយីមុនកានោក
[4] ទោះស្តេចយីបុ៎នកុកចូ ស្រលេងយេងខ្ញុំទាង២ពិតឲយស្តេចកុកចូវ
[5] ឲយទំនេរចោសំពោវចេញទោវឆាបកុំប្បីឲយនោវអាយលេយ ឥតអិយៗនុថ្វាយ
[6]មោកស្តេចលេយ សោមមោកថ្វាយចៀម៥ ក្រមួនហាប១ ខាន់សាកករ ហា
[7] ប១ សាកកសរ ហាប១ កន្ទុុយកងោក១០ ស្បេកខលាតម្បោង
[8] ៥ថ្វាយមោកស្តេចចងទេងព្រហ្បនគំមោកឯក្រោយម្តងទៀតទេពតេំងត្រា
[9] ផ្កាមកថ្វាយ..
Mr Bora Touch and another Cambodian scholar, Mr Suon Sopheaktra, helped to identify a French translation of the letter (no. 2, p. 130), saying it was sent to the emperor of Japan by two Cambodian envoys, Okna Srei Akkarac and Okna Thommadecho. It documents the gift of textiles, beeswax, candy sugar, white sugar, peacock tail feathers and leopard skins to the emperor of Japan. The letter was sealed with a red lotus flower seal.

This kind of information is not only extremely useful for the description of the manuscript in the Library’s online catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts, but also for historians, archaeologists, palaeographers and linguists who rely on these rare primary sources for their research.

It is hoped that through digitisation more facts about Khmer manuscripts will come to light, for example about a rather mysterious book bound in European style. It contains 203 drawings of scenes mainly from the Ramayana and the Vessantara Jataka. Short Khmer captions written on each folio with pencil accompany the drawings. 157 pages are illustrated with scenes from the Ramayana in black ink and grey water-colour shades; pages 158-203 contain coloured drawings of scenes from the Vessantara Jataka and other Jatakas. The illustrations are in the style of the Thai Rattanakosin period and resemble reliefs of the Ramakien (Thai version of the Ramayana) at Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho) in Bangkok which were created during the reign of King Rama III (r. 1824-51). However, similar scenes from the Reamker (the Khmer Ramayana) can be found in murals at Vat Po in Siem Reap as well as on 12th-century bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat. Unusual for both Thai and Khmer painting styles is the sketching of the drawings with pencil before they were drawn with ink, as well as the shading of the black ink drawings with grey water colour. On the inside of the first unfoliated page, the word "Couronne" is written in pencil, which may be a French name. Judging from the acidity of the paper the creation period of the drawings is estimated to around 1880 to 1900. The glossy endpapers were decorated with a design called “Spanish wave” made in marbling technique which became increasingly popular in Europe in the second half of the 19th century. Unfortunately, nothing else about the book is known, except that it was acquired from Sam Fogg, London, in 1994.

Rama reveals himself as an incarnation of Narayana. Illustration of a scene from the Ramayana in black ink and grey water colour on European paper, ca. 1880-1900
Rama reveals himself as an incarnation of Narayana. Illustration of a scene from the Ramayana in black ink and grey water colour on European paper, ca. 1880-1900. British Library, Or 14859, ff. 54-5 Noc

Endpaper with “Spanish wave” design in a book containing drawings of scenes from the Ramayana and the Vessantara Jataka, ca. 1880-1900
Endpaper with “Spanish wave” design in a book containing drawings of scenes from the Ramayana and the Vessantara Jataka, ca. 1880-1900. British Library, Or 14859 Noc

All Khmer manuscripts at the British Library have now been catalogued and can be searched in the Library’s online catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts  which also links to manuscripts that have been digitised.

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

Further reading
Current status of manuscript collections in Cambodia’s monasteries. Fonds pour l'Édition des Manuscrits du Cambodge, École française d'Extrême-Orient (retrieved 16/10/2021)
Mouhot, Henri. Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos during the Years 1858, 1859, and 1860 (Vol. 1 of 2). London, 1864.
Niyada Laosunthon. Silā čhamlak rư̄ang Rāmmakīan : Wat Phrachēttuphonwimonmangkhalārām. Bangkok, 1996
Péri, N. Essai sur les relations du Japon et de l'Indochine aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles. Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient. 1923, 23, pp. 1-136
Roveda, Vittorio: Wat Bo: Conclusion. (2017)

29 November 2021

Khmer manuscripts at the British Library (Part 1)

The history of Khmer manuscripts is closely connected with the influence of Indian civilisation in Southeast Asia and particularly with the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism in the region. The earliest book format in the Khmer Empire – similar to that in South Asia – was the palm leaf bundle, sleuk rith. Although the oldest surviving examples of Khmer palm leaf manuscripts date back only to the late 17th century , there is evidence that they were in use in mainland Southeast Asia much earlier. The Khin Ba gold manuscript found at Sri Ksetra (kept at the National Museum, Yangon), crafted in the shape of palm leaves with holes, indicates that such manuscripts have been present in the region at least since the 5th century CE. The donation of Mahabharata, Ramayana and Purana manuscripts to a Hindu temple is documented in a pre-Angkorian stone inscription (Veal Kantel K.359) dating back to the early 7th century, and a 9th-century inscription (Prei Prasat K.279) by King Yasovarman prescribes the provision of blank palm leaves, lampblack and earth powder - for sanding down the leaves - to students. A statue in Khmer style of the 11th-12th century (kept at the National Museum, Bangkok) shows Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara holding in his four hands a conch, mala beads, a lotus bud and a palm leaf book, whereas a 12th-century bas-relief at Angkor Wat depicts an apsara holding such a manuscript.

First three leaves with text in a long format palm leaf bundle (sastra sleuk rith) containing part of the Buddhist cosmology Traibhum in Khmer mul script, 18th or 19th century
First three leaves with text in a long format palm leaf bundle (sastra sleuk rith) containing part of the Buddhist cosmology Traibhum in Khmer mul script, 18th or 19th century. Acquired by the British Museum from Edwards Goutier, Paris, on 6 December 1895. British Library, Or 5003, ff. 9-11 Noc

In the Cambodian manuscript tradition, two types of palm leaf manuscripts (sleuk rith) are known: the short format (vean), which tend to be manuals of mostly a secular nature written in Khmer language, whereas the long format (sastra) palm leaf manuscripts mostly contain Buddhist scriptures in Pali or bilingual Pali-Khmer languages, as well as sermons, legal writings and classical literary texts and poetry in Khmer language. The text on palm leaves is usually incised and then blackened.

In addition to the palm leaf manuscripts there are folding books (kraing), which were traditionally crafted with paper (snay) made from the bark of the Streblus Asper, a tree in the Mulberry family. The paper can be in a natural cream colour with text written in black ink, or it can be blackened and text written either with white chalk, a yellow gamboge ink or gold ink. Two main styles of Khmer script are found in manuscripts: aksar chrieng (slanted script) and aksar mul (round script).

Kraing manuscript made of blackened paper containing Proleung meas oey
Kraing manuscript made of blackened paper containing Proleung meas oey (transl. 'Oh my darling', literally 'Oh my golden soul') attributed to the Cambodian king Preah Reachsamphear (alias Sri Dhammoraja II), in chrieng script written in yellow gamboge ink. Cambodia, c. 1820-80. British Library, Or 5865, f.53 Noc

Despite decades of combined efforts by Cambodian and French scholars to preserve Cambodia’s manuscripts, the majority have disappeared: an estimated 80% were lost to war and destruction by the Khmer Rouge, looting, neglect due to post-war poverty and, more recently, mutilation to make souvenirs sold at tourist markets.

However, large numbers of manuscripts containing Pali or bi-lingual Buddhist texts in Khmer script have been preserved in Thailand. The country has strong ties with Khmer cultural heritage due to the fact that much of today’s Thailand geographically was once part of the former Khmer Empire. Hinduism and largely also Buddhism were introduced to the early Thai kingdoms Sukhothai and Ayutthaya via the Khmer Empire, and Thai rulers drew inspiration from the Khmer in the process of establishing their own distinctive script, literature, art, architecture, law and administration. For centuries, until the introduction of printing in the 19th century, it was common practice to copy manuscripts as a way of preserving Buddhist and Hindu sacred texts, and often such copies – including entire editions of the Pali Tipitaka – were sponsored by members of the royal family. Towards the end of the 18th century the Khmer script was adapted to accommodate Thai vowels and tonality in order to write texts in Thai language in Khmer script (called akson Khom in Thai). The copying of Khmer manuscripts reached a climax when George Cœdès was assigned to the Royal Vajirañāna Library in Bangkok (1916-18) and ordered copies of rare Khmer manuscripts and texts that were not known outside Cambodia.

Folding book containing the Pali text Mahabuddhaguna and Abhidhamma extracts in Khmer script, with a colophon and commentary in Thai language
Folding book containing the Pali text Mahabuddhaguna and Abhidhamma extracts in Khmer script, with a colophon and commentary in Thai language. Illustrations from the Bhuridatta Jataka in Phetchaburi painting style, Central Thailand, late 18th or early 19th century. British Library, Or 14526, f.5  Noc

The majority of manuscripts with text in Khmer script at the British Library originate from Central Thailand and contain bi-lingual Buddhist texts, yantra designs, medical treatises and glossaries. However, a small number of over a dozen manuscripts are almost certainly from Cambodia with text either in Pali or Khmer language. These include palm leaves as well as paper folding books.

A collection of Khmer literary texts in eleven volumes is a fine example of multi-volume kraing (folding books), made from cream-coloured mulberry bark paper (Or 16131/1-11). The text was written with black ink, and each volume has a red stamp either on the front or back cover (image below). Although none of the volumes contain a date, they are thought to be copies made between 1890 and 1925 from older manuscripts. In volume 3 the name of a temple, Vat Pudumm Vadhatiy, is mentioned. The volumes contain chapters from verse novels like “Hans yant” (vol. 1), “Tav rioen" (vols. 2-5, 8-10) perhaps composed by Ukna Cakri Kèv and Bana Ratn Kosa Kèv in 1837, “Cau Om”, a didactic text in verse consisting of admonitions from a father to his son on the art of political life and “Dambèk puon nak”, a tale in verse on the stupidity of four bald men (both vol. 6), "Laksanavans" (vol. 7), “Varanetta” (vol. 11). Some volumes also contain notes in Thai language, in a different hand, which may have been added later.

Front cover and folio 2 of a kraing manuscript containing "Tav rioen", copy of fascicle 1 in Khmer language in chrieng script, ca. 1890-1925
Front cover and folio 2 of a kraing manuscript containing "Tav rioen", copy of fascicle 1 in Khmer language in chrieng script, ca. 1890-1925. Acquired from Arthur Probsthain, London, in 2005. British Library, Or 16131/2 Noc

A charming, small kraing manuscript made from blackened mulberry bark paper (below) was acquired when former curator Henry Ginsburg’s collection of books and manuscripts was given to the Library following his sudden death in 2007. The text in Khmer language is written in gold ink, in Khmer chrieng script, but because the manuscript is incomplete it was not possible to identify the text for a long time.

Dr Trent Walker, from Stanford University, was able to establish that the text is a letter addressed to royalty, consisting of a set of prophesies for the future and admonitions to be followed. It references other prophetic (damnay) texts, including Ind damnay. The estimated period of its creation is between 1850 to 1925.

Kraing manuscript containing a royal letter written in gold ink in Khmer chrieng script.
Kraing manuscript containing a royal letter written in gold ink in Khmer chrieng script. Cambodia, c. 1850-1925. From Henry Ginsburg’s collection. British Library, Or 16827, f. 2  Noc

Traditional Khmer manuscripts like the examples presented in this blog post have been used as vehicles of knowledge for centuries and give us insights into the religious, literary and cultural traditions of the Khmer civilisation. The upcoming second part will look at some manuscripts containing Khmer texts that were created outside Cambodia.

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

Further reading
Current status of manuscript collections in Cambodia’s monasteries. Fonds pour l'Édition des Manuscrits du Cambodge, École française d'Extrême-Orient (retrieved 16/10/2021)
David, Sen and Thik Kaliyann. Palm leaves preserving history. Phnom Penh Post, 19 September 2015
Documentary film: Sleok Rith, My Life, directed by Leng Sreynich (2017)
Goodall, Dominic. What Information can be Gleaned from Cambodian Inscriptions about Practices Relating to the Transmission of Sanskrit Literature? Indic Manuscript Cultures through the Ages: Material, Textual, and Historical Investigations. Ed. by Vincenzo Vergiani, Daniele Cuneo and Camillo Alessio Formigatti. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2017, pp. 131-160
Sassoon, Alessandro Marazzi and Kong Meta. A ‘crime’ against local history: Cambodia’s lost manuscripts. Phnom Penh Post, 7 April 2017
Sureshkumar Muthukumaran. Speaking of palm-leaf and paper (2018)
Toshiya Unebe. Textual contents of Pāli Samut Khois. Manuscript Studies 2 (University of Pennsylvania, 2017), pp. 427-444 
Walker, Trent T. Unfolding Buddhism: Communal Scripts, Localized Translations, and the Work of the Dying in Cambodian Chanted Leporellos. Ann Arbor, 2018

09 November 2018

Buddhism Illuminated through Southeast Asian Manuscript Art (2)

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.

Blog2 01
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.

Blog2 02
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.

Blog2 03
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

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

 

08 June 2018

Buddhism Illuminated through Southeast Asian Manuscript Art (1)

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

 

06 July 2015

The Life of the Buddha in Thai manuscript art

In contrast to Thai mural painting and sculpture, depictions of Gautama Buddha are relatively rare in Thai manuscript art. Numerous Buddhist temples in Thailand are famous for their lavish mural paintings illustrating the milestones in the life of Gautama Buddha, often beginning with his former existence as a Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be) in Tusita heaven, or with the wedding of his parents, and ending with the distribution of his physical remains.

Although the majority of Thai manuscript paintings are dedicated to Buddhist topics, instead of Gautama Buddha’s life these illustrations often highlight his former incarnations, particularly the last Ten Birth Tales, and the legend of the monk Phra Malai, or other subjects like the Buddhist cosmology, funeral ceremonies and meditation practices. However, there are some remarkable representations of Gautama Buddha in rare Thai manuscripts, and sometimes these can be found in a rather unexpected context.

The most lavishly painted scene from the Life of the Buddha in the British Library’s Thai, Lao and Cambodian collection is this scene called The Great Departure, contained in a northern Thai (Lanna) Kammavaca manuscript from the 19th century. Prince Siddharta, after having learned about the worldly sufferings and the inevitability of death, decided to abandon his luxurious life and to become an ascetic as a result of his great compassion for human suffering. British Library, Or.14025, ff. 13-14
The most lavishly painted scene from the Life of the Buddha in the British Library’s Thai, Lao and Cambodian collection is this scene called The Great Departure, contained in a northern Thai (Lanna) Kammavaca manuscript from the 19th century. Prince Siddharta, after having learned about the worldly sufferings and the inevitability of death, decided to abandon his luxurious life and to become an ascetic as a result of his great compassion for human suffering. British Library, Or.14025, ff. 13-14  noc
 
While the manuscript shown above was created for use by Buddhist monks on the occasion of the ordination of novices and new monks, the following book containing a collection of drawings and paintings on European paper may have been copied from one or more older manuscripts to serve as an artist’s manual. It includes numerous drawings from the Ramakien (the Thai version of the Ramayana) as well as a set of 23 ink-and-colour paintings illustrating the Ten Birth Tales and the Life of the Buddha.

After leaving his family and home, Siddharta arrived at the Anoma river where he took off his clothes and gave them to his servant and charioteer Channa, who took them back to the palace with a message for Siddharta’s relatives. Then he cut off his hair which Sakka (Indra) collected and placed in Tavatimsa heaven. British Library, Or.14859, ff. 202-203
After leaving his family and home, Siddharta arrived at the Anoma river where he took off his clothes and gave them to his servant and charioteer Channa, who took them back to the palace with a message for Siddharta’s relatives. Then he cut off his hair which Sakka (Indra) collected and placed in Tavatimsa heaven. British Library, Or.14859, ff. 202-203  noc

Another rare manuscript of a smaller, almost square folding book format was used by fortune-tellers in southern Thailand. Some men specialising in fortune-telling and divination were former monks and had acquired a good knowledge of the Buddhist doctrine. It comes as no surprise that the small book combines Buddhist topics, like Jatakas and cosmology, with folk legends and indigenous beliefs. Using the text and picture on a randomly chosen page, the fortune-teller would be able to interpret the fate of a person and give advice on how to avoid bad luck. Very often the advice would point towards making merit or following the Buddhist precepts for lay people.

In the southern Thai dialect this fortune-telling book from the 19th century is called Satra. The illustrations are all rather simple, but highly expressive. The image above shows the scene where Mara, the personification of evil and death, threatens and attacks Siddharta while he was sitting in meditation, touching the ground with his right hand (bhumisparsa or earth-touching mudra). British Library, Or.16482, f. 3
In the southern Thai dialect this fortune-telling book from the 19th century is called Satra. The illustrations are all rather simple, but highly expressive. The image above shows the scene where Mara, the personification of evil and death, threatens and attacks Siddharta while he was sitting in meditation, touching the ground with his right hand (bhumisparsa or earth-touching mudra). British Library, Or.16482, f. 3  noc

Another unexpected illustration of the same scene, Siddharta under attack from Mara and his army. British Library, Or.15596, f. 17
Another unexpected illustration of the same scene, Siddharta under attack from Mara and his army, can be found in a manuscript from central Thailand containing mantra and designs for protective diagrams (yantra). Mara cannot be seen in this drawing in yellow gamboge ink, but underneath the picture of the meditating Siddharta one can see the earth goddess Nang Thorani exercising her supernatural powers by wringing a great flood out of her long hair, thus sweeping away Mara and his army. British Library, Or.15596, f. 17  noc

Once Siddharta was free from all disturbances and distractions, he was able to attain Enlightenment on the full moon day of Visakha. By touching the earth he called upon the gods, here represented by Sakka and Brahma, to witness his enlightenment. British Library, Or.16101, fol. 2
Once Siddharta was free from all disturbances and distractions, he was able to attain Enlightenment on the full moon day of Visakha. By touching the earth he called upon the gods, here represented by Sakka and Brahma, to witness his enlightenment. British Library, Or.16101, fol. 2  noc

A book of Thai characters, which may have been produced on request of a Western traveller in 19th century Siam, contains ink coloured paintings of human figures representing various ethnic groups found in mainland Southeast Asia at the time, and of figures from Thai literature, particularly the Ramakien (Ramayana). Only on the first page there is a scene from the Life of the Buddha.   

The weeks after his enlightenment the Buddha spent in standing, walking and sitting meditation, thus recollecting his former births and the Four Noble Truths. During the fourth week in seated meditation, devas descended from the heavens to build a jewelled pavilion around him. British Library, Or.14229, f. 1
The weeks after his enlightenment the Buddha spent in standing, walking and sitting meditation, thus recollecting his former births and the Four Noble Truths. During the fourth week in seated meditation, devas descended from the heavens to build a jewelled pavilion around him. British Library, Or.14229, f. 1  noc

This illustration is from a Thai folding book in Khom (Khmer) script from the 19th century that contains a collection of extracts from the Pali canon. The painting shows the Buddha in contemplation while two creatures from the heavenly Himavanta forest kneel by his side, showing their respect. British Library, Or.15246, f. 16
This illustration is from a Thai folding book in Khom (Khmer) script from the 19th century that contains a collection of extracts from the Pali canon. The painting shows the Buddha in contemplation while two creatures from the heavenly Himavanta forest kneel by his side, showing their respect. British Library, Or.15246, f. 16  noc

Large illustrations covering one entire or more openings of a folding book like in the picture above are relatively rare. Most frequently we find a set of two smaller paintings touching the right and left edges of folding books with some text between them, as shown below.

This generously gilded set of paintings in a 19th century manuscript containing the legend of Phra Malai depict a scene of utmost rarity in Thai manuscript art - Gautama Buddha’s death that is mourned by his followers. British Library, Or.14956, fol. 2
This generously gilded set of paintings in a 19th century manuscript containing the legend of Phra Malai depict a scene of utmost rarity in Thai manuscript art - Gautama Buddha’s death that is mourned by his followers. On the right side we see Kassapa, one of Buddha’s closest disciples, who was travelling with a group of other monks. While resting under a tree, they encountered a man holding a gigantic flower over his head. They enquired about the meaning of this supernatural plant and the man informed them that he found it at the place where the Buddha had passed away and finally reached pari-nibbana. British Library, Or.14956, fol. 2  noc

Further reading

Appleton, Naomi and Sarah Shaw and Toshiya Unebe: Illuminating the Life of the Buddha. An illustrated chanting book from eighteenth-century Siam. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2013
Ginsburg, Henry: Thai art and culture. Historic manuscripts from Western collections. London: British Library, 2000
Tom Chuawiwat: The Life of the Lord Buddha from Thai mural painting. Bangkok: Asia Books (no year)

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

  ccownwork

15 May 2015

The Henry Ginsburg photo collection: an insight into a curator’s life and work

Henry David Ginsburg (1940-2007), the former Curator of the Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections at the British Library, started work at the British Museum Library in 1967 as a Special Assistant. He spent his entire life conducting research on Southeast Asian arts and cultures, but passed away in 2007 without finishing his last two research projects, on Thai banner paintings and the Chakrabongse Archive of royal letters held at the British Library. Henry Ginsburg left behind a huge collection of books, photographs and art treasures, which he had collected over forty years through personal and professional contacts. He was friends with several members of the Thai royal family, as well as with scholars, private collectors, and colleagues from a variety of institutions all over the world. As a curator Henry was well-known for his specialism in Thai manuscripts and manuscript painting, but his interests and expertise were far broader than this.

Henry Ginsburg was born in 1940 in New York as a son of prominent traders of Jewish-Russian descent who dealt in antique furniture, decorative art and accessories, and textiles. Having grown up in a family that admired the arts and dedicated much of their time to collecting and researching antiquities, he studied Russian and French at Columbia University and began to travel during this time. His first Asian experience was a trip to India in 1963, where he acquired a taste for cultural research. One year later he joined the American Peace Corps in Thailand to teach English in Chachoengsao, an experience which thence set the course of his future life. From this time on Henry started to live on three different continents (Europe, North America and Asia) and his part-time contract with the British Library from 1973 onward allowed him to pursue his own research and travel interests all over the world. 

Henry Ginsburg (fourth from left) with students in Chachoengsao in the mid 1960s. British Library, Photo 1213(17)
Henry Ginsburg (fourth from left) with students in Chachoengsao in the mid 1960s. British Library, Photo 1213(17)

Perhaps influenced by the Ginsburg family’s photographer Aaron Siskind, Henry left a remarkable collection of photographs, which tell the story of his professional life as well as of his own distinctive artistic and travel interests. The earliest pictures are from his visit to India in 1963, where he explored ancient Indian architecture and engaged with local communities: an aspect of Henry Ginsburg’s interests that was not widely known until his photographs were made available for research. Many of the pictures that were taken over a period of more than forty years show that he continued to pursue these interests throughout his life.

Kanheri archaelogical site, India, mid 1980s, British Library, Photo 1213(387)
Kanheri archaelogical site, India, mid 1980s, British Library, Photo 1213(387)

The photo collection includes a huge amount of detailed documentation of South and Southeast Asian temples in the 1970s, and particularly of ancient Khmer architecture. One particular benefit of these photographs is that they record the process of reconstruction of these sites over the past decades (for example, Payathonzu temple, shown below, nowadays has a different appearance after reconstruction was carried out).   

Payathonzu temple, archaeological site, Burma 1967, British Library Photo 1213(1014)
Payathonzu temple, archaeological site, Burma 1967, British Library Photo 1213(1014)

Many photographs did not contain any written information and were difficult to identify. In some cases, we made digital copies of such pictures and shared them with other scholars and researchers to find out more details. This kind of approach helped to establish the identity of a series of photographs depicting a piece of embroidery described later on in this post. However, there remain some photographs which have not been identified so far, for example the stone inscription shown below.  The inscription in this photograph has not yet been read, and the archaeological site where the photograph was taken is also not known; perhaps crowd-sourcing may provide a solution.

Unidentified stone inscription. British Library, Photo 1213(460)
Unidentified stone inscription. British Library, Photo 1213(460)

A smaller number of rare photographs give insights into traditional ways of life in Thailand and India in the 1960s and early 1970s, one of the reasons why travelling to these countries was so popular at the time, including for Henry himself. He was fascinated by the cultural differences and travelled a lot in order to conduct his research. It would be a valid assumption to state that Henry’s research was influenced through direct contact with living traditions and the translation of religion in everyday life. This makes his work very special in comparison with established methods based, for example, purely on textual research.
    
Traditional Norah dance performer in Southern Thailand, late 1960s. British Library, Photo 1213(233)
Traditional Norah dance performer in Southern Thailand, late 1960s. British Library, Photo 1213(233)

One example of this interdisciplinary approach combining anthropology, philology and art history was his research about the Norah dance, which is based on the legend of Sudhana and Manohara. In 1971 Henry wrote his Ph.D. thesis about “The Sudhana-Manohara tale in Thai” at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) in London. For the analysis of texts contained in two different manuscripts, he travelled to Southern Thailand, where he also attended a Norah dance performance. The photo above was shot at this time.  

The majority of pictures relate to Henry’s work as a scholar and provide a very good overview of his work at the British Library. There are various photographs of mostly illustrated manuscripts containing texts like Jatakas, Phrommachat, Phra Malai and Traiphum in all kinds of painting styles like 18th and 19th century Thai, Burmese and Khmer styles. These photos could support the comparative study of different artistic interpretations of Southeast Asian literary traditions, without spending too much time travelling, or ordering copies of manuscripts from different institutions in different countries.   

A 19th century map drawn on cotton showing the coast of Thailand. British Library, Photo 1213(1353)
A 19th century map drawn on cotton showing the coast of Thailand. British Library, Photo 1213(1353)

The image above and the following picture remind us of the roots of Henry Ginsburg. He grew up in a family who were prominent for their knowledge of antique textiles and decorative arts, and he followed this family tradition throughout his entire life. Therefore, he researched and collected antique textiles and other works of art in his spare time.
 
GinsburgPhoto1213-1485
Tibetan relic cover made from needle-looped patchwork embroidery. British Library, Photo 1213(1485)

As mentioned earlier, the most spectacular piece depicted in a series of pictures from the estate of Henry Ginsburg is this piece of needle-looped patchwork embroidery shown in the picture above. It was a hard job to find out what kind of textile it was or where it originated from. After numerous emails had been exchanged with experts and former friends of Henry’s all over the world, a solution to the mystery was found. The textile artwork shown in the photograph was a Tibetan relic cover, originally perhaps from Suzhou, now held at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. The embroidery shows different influences from all over Asia like the needle-looping technique that can be traced back to 10th century Central Asia and the patches of fine silk from China.

The photo collection of Henry Ginsburg has been fully catalogued now and can be retrieved via the Search our Catalogue Archives and Manuscripts website. The original photographs can be viewed on appointment in the Library’s Asian & African Studies reading room. Thanks to Henry Ginsburg’s passion and work on Southeast Asian manuscripts, arts and cultures the Library holds one of the finest collections of Thai manuscripts. The British Library is grateful to have been given the responsibility to look after Henry Ginsburg’s photo collection as well.   

References:

A guardian of Thai treasures. Henry Ginsburg (1940-2007), A display to mark the 70th anniversary of his birth – 5th November 2010. London: British Library 2010. Download Henry Ginsburg Guardian of Thai Treasures

Berger, Patricia: A stitch in time. Speculations on the origins of needle-looping. In:  Orientations, The magazine for collectors and connoisseurs of Asian art, vol. 20 no. 8 (August 1989).

Henry Ginsburg. The Telegraph, 11 April 2007.

Ginsburg, Henry: The Sudhana-Manohara Tale in Thai: a comparative study based on two texts from the National Library, Bangkok, Mat Wachimawat, Songkhla. Ph.D. Thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.  

Ginsburg, Henry: Thai Art and Culture. Historic Manuscripts from Western Collections. London: British Library 2000.

Anne Gruneberg, M.A., Freiburg, Germany  ccownwork

Anne is a historian and anthropologist who recently graduated from the University of Freiburg. She volunteered for six weeks at the British Library in early 2015 to catalogue and research Henry Ginsburg’s photo collection. This blog article is a summary of her work.

Update:

Since the publication  of this blog post, Nicolas Revire, lecturer at Thammasat University in Bangkok, has kindly helped to identify the stone inscription depicted in Henry Ginsburg’s photograph mentioned above. It is a detail of an inscribed Dharmacakra originally from Si Thep, now held in the collection of the Newark Museum, which has been published by Robert L. Brown in his book The Dvaravati wheels of the law and the Indianization of Southeast Asia (Leiden/New York/Cologne: Brill, 1996; pp. 106-108) and, more recently, in John Guy's catalogue  Lost Kingdoms, Hindu-Buddhist sculpture of early Southeast Asia  (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014; cat. 122). The inscription in Pali is a phrase from the Buddha’s first sermon about the Four Truths of Buddhism.

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