Asian and African studies blog

13 posts categorized "Laos"

24 February 2015

Lao collection at the British Library now fully catalogued

The British Library holds a small but significant collection of Lao material, consisting of manuscripts, rare printed books, periodicals and post cards, mainly acquired after 1973. However, the oldest items in Lao language date back to the 19th century. The earliest book about Laos is in Italian and was published in 1663.

Cloister at Vat Sisaket, Vientiane. From Siam and Laos as seen by our American missionaries (Philadelphia: 1884), p. 277. British Library, 4767.bb.8
Cloister at Vat Sisaket, Vientiane. From Siam and Laos as seen by our American missionaries (Philadelphia: 1884), p. 277. British Library, 4767.bb.8  noc

Printed material
The collection of printed material in Lao language contains over 300 monographs, most of them dating from 1950 onwards. The highlights of the collection, however, are three of the first books printed in the Lao language: John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress in Tham (Dhamma) script, printed in 1896 by the Chiang Mai Presbyterian Mission Press (ORB.30/5145); the Évangile selon Saint Jean en laocien (Khampasœ̄t tām lư̄ang hǣng Yōhan) in Lāo buhān script, printed in Paris in 1906 (11103.b.19); and the Évangile de notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ selon Matthieu en laotien (Nangsư̄ khlittikhun pasœ̄t khǭng phra Yēsū Khlit tām thān Matthāi) in Lāo buhān script, printed in Song Khône, Laos, in 1916 (Siam.251). The latter appears to be the first book printed in Lao language in Laos. Book printing was introduced in Laos – at the time part of the Indochinese Union – through the efforts of missionaries with the Swiss Mission Evangélique in Song Khône, southern Laos. Together with a Buddhist monk Gabriel Contesse translated parts of the New Testament into Lao, of which the first part was printed in Lāo buhān script at a printing house in Paris in 1906. The second part was printed only after Contesse’s death in 1909 at the same printer. Finally, a press started printing material in Lāo buhān typeface at the mission in Song Khône thanks to the efforts of missionaries Fritz Audétat and Fritz Widmer.  

First page of the Lao translation of the Gospel of John, printed in 1906. British Library, 11103.b.19
First page of the Lao translation of the Gospel of John, printed in 1906. British Library, 11103.b.19  noc

The heart of the Lao book collection is formed by publications of Maha Sila Viravong’s transliterations of literary, linguistic, Buddhist and historical texts from palm leaf manuscripts, for example rare first editions of Nangsư̄ thēt rư̄ang Vētsandon Sādok (Vessantara Jātaka, 1961, YP.2006.b.518), Phongsāwadān Lāo (Lao chronicles, 1957, YP.2005.a.6082), and Nithān Nāng Tantai (Lao version of the Panchatantra, 1957-66, 14304.b.23).
 
Other rare printed works include original issues as well as microfilmed copies of historical Lao newspapers and journals, like for example Pituphūm (O.P.984, holdings 1969-71), Sīang pasāson (Or.Mic.7339, holdings 1975), Khāophāp pacham sapdā (ORB.40/986, holdings 1968), Sāt Lāo (Or.Mic.11526, holdings 1971-75), and Vannakhadisān (ORB.30/6967, holdings 1953-58).

The only two issues of Khāophāp pacham sapdā, dated 12 and 26 Feburary 1968, held at the British Library. ORB.40/986
The only two issues of Khāophāp pacham sapdā, dated 12 and 26 Feburary 1968, held at the British Library. ORB.40/986

The Library also holds approximately 2000 books about Laos and Lao culture in Western languages, as well as in Thai and Vietnamese languages. These include some rare first editions, like for example de Gerini’s original description of Laos and other parts of mainland Southeast Asia Delle missioni dei' padri della Compagnia di Gesù nella Provincia del Giappone, e particolarmente di quella di Tumkino (printed in 1663 in Rome, V 5052), Vremde geschiedenissen in de koninckrijcken Cambodia en Louwen-Lant, in Oost-Indien zedert den Iare 1635 tot den Iare 1644 aldaer voor-gevallen. Mitsgaders de Reyse der Nederlanders van Cambodia de Louse Revier op, na Wincjan  (printed in Haarlem in 1669, 566.f.20.(6.)), Henri Mouhot’s Travels in the central parts of Indo-China, Cambodia, and Laos, during the years 1858, 1859, and 1860 (published in London in 1864, 010056.f.8), and Siam and Laos as seen by our American Missionaries (published in Philadelphia in 1884, 4767.bb.8). Lao printed books and periodicals have now been fully catalogued and are searchable in the Library’s online catalogue.

Map of mainland Southeast Asia, from Siam and Laos as seen by our American Missionaries (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1884). British Library, 4767.bb.8.
Map of mainland Southeast Asia, from Siam and Laos as seen by our American Missionaries (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1884). British Library, 4767.bb.8.  noc

Manuscripts
In addition to printed material, the Library holds 85 manuscripts which are either in Lao language or in Pali, but written in Tham script or in Lāo buhān script. The collection comprises literary, historical and Buddhist texts, most of them written on palm leaves. A small number, however, are in form of folding books made from khoi paper or from lacquered cotton. Among the highlights are a rare Lao dictionary, which is a folding book in three volumes acquired in 1839 (Add.11624), Henri Mouhot's Alphabets and inscriptions (Or.4736), and a Kammavāca manuscript in Tham (Dhamma) script dated 1805 AD (Or.11797).

Kammavāca palm leaf manuscript from Laos. It has wooden covers which are decorated with lacquer, gilt and mirror glass inlay. British Library, Or.11797
Kammavāca palm leaf manuscript from Laos. It has wooden covers which are decorated with lacquer, gilt and mirror glass inlay. British Library, Or.11797  noc

Included in the manuscripts collection are also some wooden manuscript boxes decorated with lacquer and gold, as well as a few hand-woven manuscript wrappers made from silk or cotton. Other minor languages covered in the Lao manuscripts collection include some Tai Lue and Tai Khoen manuscripts. All items in the Library’s Lao manuscripts collection have been catalogued in the online catalogue, Search our Catalogue of Archives and Manuscripts, SoCAM.

Moving image and sound recordings
In addition to printed material and manuscripts, a collection of moving image and sound recordings from Laos is available in the Library’s Sound Archive. These include recordings of traditional Lao music, natural sound recordings, as well as a small number of documentaries and feature films. Among these are numerous unpublished recordings of remote populations of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand by Tom Vater. Access to the Sound Archive is through the online catalogue Cadensa.

Endangered Archives
The British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme supports the preservation and digitisation of archival and manuscript collections in their country of origin. The Archive of Buddhist Photographs from Luang Prabang has been digitised in full through this Programme and is available here.

Postcard of a cattle caravan in Laos, printed around 1910. From an Album of postcards from Siam, Burma, Indochina. British Library, ORB.30/6309
Postcard of a cattle caravan in Laos, printed around 1910. From an Album of postcards from Siam, Burma, Indochina. British Library, ORB.30/6309  noc

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

13 February 2015

Southeast Asian manuscripts digitised through the Ginsburg Legacy

The world of scholarship has been revolutionised by numerous digitisation programmes undertaken in libraries throughout the world. Now, instead of having to travel thousands of miles for expensive and extensive visits to cities where unique historical sources are housed, it is ever more possible to make a detailed study of a manuscript from one’s own home, in any country, via the internet. Digitisation programmes are usually shaped both by the interests of patrons and the strengths of an institution’s collections, and among the exciting projects to digitise material from the Asian and African collections of the British Library are those of Malay manuscripts in collaboration with the National Library of Singapore supported by William and Judith Bollinger, Thai manuscripts funded by the Royal Thai government, Persian manuscripts in partnership with the Iran Heritage Foundation, and Hebrew manuscripts with the Polonsky Foundation. However, with the emphasis on large projects, it is not always easy to prioritise the digitisation of other important manuscripts from smaller language groups, or from regions for which funding proves difficult to source.

Note in the Bugis language and script, from the diary of the king of Bone, south Sulawesi, 1775. British Library, Add. 12354, f. 2r (detail).
Note in the Bugis language and script, from the diary of the king of Bone, south Sulawesi, 1775. British Library, Add. 12354, f. 2r (detail).

The Southeast Asia section of the British Library is fortunate in that a legacy from the estate of the late Henry D. Ginsburg (1940-2007), who was for over thirty years the Library’s curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections, has enabled the digitisation of a small number of significant manuscripts, some representing writing traditions rarely accessible on the internet. In 2013, seven of the most important illuminated and illustrated manuscripts in Vietnamese, Burmese and Javanese were digitised. In 2014 we completed the digitisation of a further 15 manuscripts from Southeast Asia, in Vietnamese, Burmese, Shan, Khamti, Lao, Thai, Bugis, Javanese and Arabic, which this month have been made accessible through the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Artistically, the highlights are probably six Burmese folding book (parabaik) manuscripts, all lavishly and exquisitely illustrated. Three of the manuscripts depict scenes from the Life of the Buddha (Or. 4762, Or. 5757 and Or. 14197) while the other three contain Jataka stories (Or. 13538, Or. 4542A and Or. 4542B, and MSS Burmese 202).

The Jātaka stories about the previous lives of the Gautama Buddha are preserved in all branches of Buddhism. These stories show how he gradually acquired greater strength and moral stature as his soul passed from one incarnation to the other. Shown above is a scene from the Latukika Jataka. The Bodhisatta, the leader of the elephants (gilded) protects the offspring of a quail who had laid her eggs in the feeding ground of the elephants. British Library, Or. 13538, ff. 20-22
The Jātaka stories about the previous lives of the Gautama Buddha are preserved in all branches of Buddhism. These stories show how he gradually acquired greater strength and moral stature as his soul passed from one incarnation to the other. Shown above is a scene from the Latukika Jataka. The Bodhisatta, the leader of the elephants (gilded) protects the offspring of a quail who had laid her eggs in the feeding ground of the elephants. British Library, Or. 13538, ff. 20-22.

Also in folding book format is a lavishly decorated Buddhist manuscript, Buddhānussati, in Shan language (Or. 12040), a copy of Tamrā phichai songkhrām in Thai language (Or. 15760), and a rare Lao dictionary in three volumes from the 19th century (Add. 11624).

This Shan folding book (pap tup), dated 1885, with the title Buddhānussati contains a text on recollections of the Buddha, explaining mindfulness with the Buddha’s virtues as objects. The embossed gilded covers are studded with multi-coloured mirror glass for ornate floral decoration. British Library, Or.12040, front cover.
This Shan folding book (pap tup), dated 1885, with the title Buddhānussati contains a text on recollections of the Buddha, explaining mindfulness with the Buddha’s virtues as objects. The embossed gilded covers are studded with multi-coloured mirror glass for ornate floral decoration. British Library, Or.12040, front cover.

Folio 16 of the Tamrā phichai songkhrām, explaining various appearances of sun and how to interpret them. This Thai divination manual for the prediction of wars, conflicts and natural disasters also contains explanations of the shapes of clouds, the moon and planets. British Library, Or.15760, folio 16.
Folio 16 of the Tamrā phichai songkhrām, explaining various appearances of sun and how to interpret them. This Thai divination manual for the prediction of wars, conflicts and natural disasters also contains explanations of the shapes of clouds, the moon and planets. British Library, Or.15760, folio 16.

Another rarity that has been digitised in this project is a bound and scrolled paper book (pap kin) in Khamti Shan script, Kuasala Ainmakan (Or. 3494). The book, dated 1860, is sewn in a blue cotton wrapper with a white and pink braided cotton string. It contains the Mahāsupina Jātaka about the dreams of King Pasenadi, the King of Kosala.  

From the Vietnamese collection was selected ‘The Northwards Embassy by land and water’, a rare pictorial manuscript map, Bắc Sứ Thủy Lục Địa Đô (Or. 14907), illustrating the journey from Hanoi to Beijing in 1880. This manuscript is currently on display in the exhibition ‘Geo/Graphic: celebrating maps and their stories’, at the National Library of Singapore (16 January – 19 July 2015).

Tai Ping City , located by Gu Fang Mountain. The city was well fortified with a fortress and could be dated back to the Ming dynasty.British Library, Or. 14907, f. 11r.
Tai Ping City , located by Gu Fang Mountain. The city was well fortified with a fortress and could be dated back to the Ming dynasty.British Library, Or. 14907, f. 11r.

Two very different Javanese manuscripts were digitised. The first, Serat Jaya Lengkara Wulang (MSS Jav 24), contains ethical teachings of the royal house of Yogyakarta, with many fine examples of illumination. The other manuscript (Sloane 2645) is a work on Islamic law, Mukhtasar Ba Fadl or Muqaddimat al-Hadrami, here going under the title Masa'il al-ta'lim, written in Arabic with interlinear translation and marginal commentary in Javanese in Arabic (Pegon) script. The manuscript, which is dated 1623, is from the founding collections of Sir Hans Sloane, and may be one of the earliest dated examples of a Javanese manuscript in Pegon script, and written on Javanese paper dluwang) made from the bark of the mulberry tree.

Illuminated architectural section heading from a Javanese manuscript, Serat Jaya Lengkara Wulang, Yoygyakarta, 1803. British Library, MSS Jav. 24, f. 22v.
Illuminated architectural section heading from a Javanese manuscript, Serat Jaya Lengkara Wulang, Yoygyakarta, 1803. British Library, MSS Jav. 24, f. 22v.

Start of a new chapter (bab) in Masa'il al-ta'lim, in Arabic with interlinear translation in Javanese, 1623. British Library, Sloane 2645, f. 34r (detail).
Start of a new chapter (bab) in Masa'il al-ta'lim, in Arabic with interlinear translation in Javanese, 1623. British Library, Sloane 2645, f. 34r (detail).

The final manuscript, also from Indonesia, is in the Bugis language and script (Add. 12354). This is the personal diary of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin of Bone, in south Sulawesi, covering the years 1775-1795, and written in his own hand. The diary contains a wealth of detail on the social, political, economic and cultural life of Sulawesi in the late 18th century.

Entries for the first few days of August 1781, in the Bugis diary of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih. British Library, Add. 12354, f. 52r (detail).
Entries for the first few days of August 1781, in the Bugis diary of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih. British Library, Add. 12354, f. 52r (detail).

Annabel Teh Gallop, San San May, Jana Igunma, Sud Chonchirdsin

Southeast Asia section curators

06 February 2015

The beauty of palm leaf manuscripts (3): storage and preservation

In my two previous posts on this topic, I looked at palm leaf manuscripts from central Thailand and the northern Thai regions. In this final post on the beauty of palm leaf manuscripts in Tai manuscript cultures, I will take a closer look at traditional retrieval aids, and storage and preservation methods. Some temple libraries held large numbers of manuscripts which were stored in specially made furniture. Due to the fact that many manuscripts were wrapped in a piece of cloth, and the title or contents were rarely mentioned on the front leaf or front cover of a manuscript, quick retrieval of a particular manuscript was only possible if certain finding aids and methods were in place. For example, the manuscripts could be arranged in a systematic order within one cabinet, and several cabinets could be placed in a systematic order in the library building. One important finding aid was the title indicator. A title indicator, which could constitute a beautiful little work of art itself, was attached to a rope, and the rope was wound around the manuscript.     

Wooden title indicator covered with black lacquer, and text incised in Tham script on gold background. Lanna, 19th century. British Library, Or.16555. Acquired from Dr Henry Ginsburg’s bequest, in memory of Dr Henry Ginsburg.
Wooden title indicator covered with black lacquer, and text incised in Tham script on gold background. Lanna, 19th century. British Library, Or.16555. Acquired from Dr Henry Ginsburg’s bequest, in memory of Dr Henry Ginsburg.  noc

Title indicators made from wood or bamboo were important means of identifying manuscripts when these were stored together in large numbers in wooden cabinets. The length of a title indicator could range from 100 to 400 mm. Bamboo and wooden indicators were often simple strips with the title and list of contents of the manuscript incised or written on, but sometimes wooden and ivory indicators could be carved with beautiful floral ornaments. Often they were lacquered red or black and decorated with gold leaf before the text was incised.     

Two wooden title indicators covered with red lacquer, with text incised in Tham script on a gold background. Lanna, 19th century. British Library, Or.14528-9.
Two wooden title indicators covered with red lacquer, with text incised in Tham script on a gold background. Lanna, 19th century. British Library, Or.14528-9.  noc

Manuscript racks were used to hold manuscripts that had been selected to be worked with, for example to be read or discussed during Buddhist ceremonies and other events, or to be studied by an individual monk, or a monk with novices. These wooden stands can be decorated with intricate carvings, lacquer and/or gold leaf.

A wooden manuscript rack with carved decorations found in Pakse, Champassak Province, Laos. On the rack are four wooden manuscript boxes. Photograph by Harald Hundius. Courtesy of Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme (PLMP), © National Library of Laos.
A wooden manuscript rack with carved decorations found in Pakse, Champassak Province, Laos. On the rack are four wooden manuscript boxes. Photograph by Harald Hundius. Courtesy of Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme (PLMP), © National Library of Laos.

Wooden manuscript cases that were custom-made for a particular palm leaf manuscript were often decorated in the same technique and design as the manuscript covers. These decorations included floral designs, animals or mythological figures, or lattice patterns. Gold leaf on black or red lacquer was one popular technique in the Northern Thai/Lanna, Lao and Shan traditions.

Wooden case with Kammavācā palm leaf manuscript in Tham script inside. The decoration of the manuscript covers is repeated on the case. Lanna or Laos, 19th century. British Library, Or.16893. Photograph courtesy of Michael Backman. © Michael Backmann Ltd.
Wooden case with Kammavācā palm leaf manuscript in Tham script inside. The decoration of the manuscript covers is repeated on the case. Lanna or Laos, 19th century. British Library, Or.16893. Photograph courtesy of Michael Backman. © Michael Backmann Ltd.

However, most palm leaf manuscripts were not equipped with their own case but were stored in a larger casket, either a chest with a lid or a cabinet with lockable doors. Thick layers of lacquer helped to prevent damage to the chests and cabinets by the humid climate and insects. Long legs on the cabinets, and pedestals to stand the chests on, served to protect the manuscripts from flooding.  
Wooden manuscript chest from Lanna or Shan State decorated with red lacquer, raised gilt lacquer as well as carved and gilt wooden applications, 19th century. British Library, F1060. Bequest from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.
Wooden manuscript chest from Lanna or Shan State decorated with red lacquer, raised gilt lacquer as well as carved and gilt wooden applications, 19th century. British Library, F1060. Bequest from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.  noc

Whereas in southern Laos the lai rot nam technique enjoyed great popularity, in northern Laos and Lanna the gold-on-lacquer stencil painting technique was more widespread. This technique, which was also used by the Shan, Tai Khoen and and Tai Lue, involved creating designs on paper which were cut into stencils afterwards. The paper stencil was then placed over a pre-lacquered surface and gold leaf was applied. The gold leaf easily adhered to the pre-lacquered surface (Warren 2004, p. 109). However, both techniques could be combined.

Large chests and cabinets were produced for the storage of manuscripts in Buddhist temple libraries (hǭ tai) or in royal and local palaces. The largest cabinets could be over 2 metres high and were designed to house an extensive collection of manuscripts belonging to the Tipitaka. Accordingly they were called tū traipitok. They were often lavishly decorated with scenes from the Jātakas, mythological animals in the Himavanta heaven, and floral designs (Kō̜ngkǣo 1980-88).

Regular communal ceremonies called bun bai lān were - and still are - organised to preserve the palm leaf manuscripts that are stored at Buddhist libraries, which are valuable treasures of the local communities (see DLLM). At such ceremonies, which can take place annually or once every several years, the palm leaf manuscripts are removed from the storage furniture, cleaned from dust, dead insects and dry mould by wiping them with a clean, soft piece of cotton or a brush made from soft animal hair on a bamboo stick. The furniture is cleaned as well on this occasion. The cleaning tasks are carried out by lay volunteers and novice monks.


Procession on occasion of a Bun bai lān ceremony. Atsaphon District, Savannakhet Province, Laos, 2002. Courtesy of Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme (PLMP), © National Library of Laos.
Procession on occasion of a Bun bai lān ceremony. Atsaphon District, Savannakhet Province, Laos, 2002. Courtesy of Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme (PLMP), © National Library of Laos.

Damaged manuscripts can be repaired or copied onto new palm leaves by trained monks and novices, and broken covers, title indicators or torn wrappers can be replaced with new ones. At the end of this work which may be carried out over several days, monks would usually bless the manuscripts and thank the members of the community in a ceremony. Afterwards, the members of the community, novices and monks help to carry the manuscripts back to the temple library in a colourful procession.

A traditional wooden manuscript repository (hǭ tai). Vat Canthasalo in Ban Nong Lam Can, Camphon District, Savannakhet Province, 1994. Courtesy of Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme (PLMP), © National Library of Laos.
A traditional wooden manuscript repository (hǭ tai). Vat Canthasalo in Ban Nong Lam Can, Camphon District, Savannakhet Province, 1994. Courtesy of Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme (PLMP), © National Library of Laos.

Traditional manuscript repositories (hǭ tai) could be found in Buddhist temples, where special buildings were erected on high base walls, stilts or pillars in order to keep the manuscripts safe from leaf-eating animals and floods.   

References

DLLM (Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts) (retrieved 05.12.2014)

Kō̜ngkǣo Wīrapračhak and Niyadā Thāsukhon. Tū lāi thǭng = Thai lacquer and gilt bookcases. 3 vols. Bangkok, 1980-88

Tingley, Nancy. Doris Duke. The Southeast Asian Art Collection. New York: The Foundation for Southeast Asian Art and culture, 2003

Warren, William. Lanna style. Art and design of Northern Thailand. 3rd ed. Bangkok: Asia Books, 2004


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

 ccownwork

23 January 2015

The beauty of palm leaf manuscripts (2): Northern Thai, Lao and Shan traditions

Historically there has been a close cultural and linguistic relationship between the Tai peoples in Southeast Asia (Northern Thai/Lanna, Lao, Phu Thai, Phuan, Shan, Tai Khoen and Tai Lue, to mention some of the larger groups). Tai groups that have embraced Buddhism have also adopted the tradition of making palm leaf manuscripts. The reputation of the famous Pali school of Chiang Mai, the capital of the former kingdom of Lanna, may have contributed significantly to the spread not only of Buddhism in the area, but also of the making of palm leaf manuscripts and the use of the Tham script. Palm leaf manuscripts clearly play an important role especially for the preservation of Buddhist texts and commentaries, but were also used to record historical accounts and traditional knowledge relating to social values, customary laws, herbal medicine and traditional healing practices, astrology, divination and horoscopes, non-Buddhist rituals and ceremonies, and literary texts (folklore).

Buddhist manuscript in Tham script from Lanna or Laos with black lacquered covers and gilt floral decorations, 19th century. British Library, Or.16734.Buddhist manuscript in Tham script from Lanna or Laos with black lacquered covers and gilt floral decorations, 19th century. British Library, Or.16734.  noc

Whereas Buddhist texts are often in Pali language and/or in Dhamma (Tham) script, other treatises are usually written in Tai languages like Lao, Northern Thai, Tai Khoen, Tai Lue, or Shan. Local scripts like Lik Tai, Tham Lao, Tham Lanna, and Lao buhan were used.

For the production of a palm leaf manuscript, very large fan-shaped leaves from a lān palm (corypha) were cut into a long rectangular shape, soaked in a herbal mixture, then dried or  baked in a kiln, and finally pressed. These fan palm trees were the preferred type in the Northern Thai/Lanna, Lao and Shan manuscript traditions, and are still commonly planted as ornamental trees in temple grounds. The text was usually inscribed with a sharp wooden or metal stylus, then wiped over with a mixture of resin and/or oil and carbon soot to make the writing more visible.

Most of the extant palm leaf manuscripts from the Tai traditions were produced during the 18th and 19th centuries, but some date back to the early 16th century (see DLLM). The introduction of modern printing methods in mainland Southeast Asia resulted in a rapid decline of palm leaf manuscript production during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the Shan tradition, palm leaf manuscripts were largely replaced by bound or folded paper books (Terwiel 2003, p. 26). However, in some places palm leaf manuscripts are still being produced today, or their production has been revived due to the fact that the sponsoring and donation of manuscripts to temples is still regarded as an important meritorious act in the Buddhist context.

Precious manuscripts or palm leaves containing important texts were covered with two wooden or bamboo boards, which were sometimes left blank, but often they were beautifully carved or decorated. Such covers could be lacquered in red or black, and decorated with gold leaf, mirror glass, mother-of-pearl inlay or even with crystals or precious stones.

Covers from a Shan Buddhist manuscript. The wooden covers are decorated with raised gilt lacquer forming flower ornaments, which were inlaid with mirror glass.19th century. British Library, Or.16114. Bequest from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.
Covers from a Shan Buddhist manuscript. The wooden covers are decorated with raised gilt lacquer forming flower ornaments, which were inlaid with mirror glass.19th century. British Library, Or.16114. Bequest from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.  noc

Black or red lacquer was a popular material to apply on wooden manuscript covers as it provided good protection against damage by water and humidity. At the same time, the shiny black and bright purple of the lacquer were ideal background colours on which gold leaf or gold paint could be applied.

Manuscript in Tham script from Lanna or Laos with red lacquered and gilt bamboo covers, 19th or early 20th century. British Library, Or.16790.
Manuscript in Tham script from Lanna or Laos with red lacquered and gilt bamboo covers, 19th or early 20th century. British Library, Or.16790.  noc

Bamboo strips cut to match the size of the palm leaves were popular covers for manuscripts in Lanna, Laos and among the Shan. The manuscript covers shown above replicate floral decorations made in the stencil technique that can be seen on wooden pillars and beams in many temples in Northern Thailand, Laos and Shan State. This manuscript also has a custom-made wrapper made from cotton with interwoven bamboo strips.

Besides gold leaf or gold paint, other materials were applied on the lacquer as well. Mother-of-pearl inlay was very popular in central Thailand, but it was also adopted in Lanna and Laos due to close cultural relationships and exchange or transfer of Buddhist scriptures.  

Kammavācā text in Tham script from Chiang Mai with black and red lacquered covers and mother-of-pearl inlay, 19th century. British Library Or.16077. Bequest from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.
Kammavācā text in Tham script from Chiang Mai with black and red lacquered covers and mother-of-pearl inlay, 19th century. British Library Or.16077. Bequest from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.  noc

Rough shells or their parts were cut into platelets of various shapes before inlaid into the lacquer. The production of items with such intricate decorations required special skills and experienced craftsmanship. Traditionally, mother-of-pearl inlay was used in Thailand exclusively for ecclesiastical objects and was under royal patronage until the end of the 19th century. The manuscript covers shown above are thought to have been produced in central Thailand and may have been given to a royal monastery in Chiang Mai.

Another method of decorating wooden manuscript boards was to cover them with black lacquer, then to use a stylus to incise floral ornaments once the lacquer had dried. Afterwards, red lacquer was rubbed on the incisions in order to create a contrasting black and red design. This technique may have been imported into Lanna and Laos from the Burmese and Shan traditions.   

Wooden lacquered cover of a Kammavācā manuscript dated 1918 in Tham script from Lanna or northwestern Laos. British Library Or.13157.
Wooden lacquered cover of a Kammavācā manuscript dated 1918 in Tham script from Lanna or northwestern Laos. British Library Or.13157.   noc

To provide additional protection against dust and mould, palm leaf manuscripts were often wrapped in a piece of cloth, which could either be custom-made or simply an unused lady’s skirt, a hand-woven shawl or an imported piece of cloth (for example printed Indian cotton). Custom-made palm leaf wrappers could also be made from local or imported silk. Occasionally such wrappers were interwoven with bamboo strips to provide extra stability for palm leaf manuscripts which had no covers. Another type of manuscript cloth took the form of a long cotton or silk bag that was sewn to match exactly the size of the palm leaves.

Bundles of palm leaves in Tham script with a hand-woven lady’s skirt from northern Laos used as a manuscript wrapper, 19th or early 20th century. British Library, Or.16895.
Bundles of palm leaves in Tham script with a hand-woven lady’s skirt from northern Laos used as a manuscript wrapper, 19th or early 20th century. British Library, Or.16895.  noc

References

Conway, Susan. The Shan. Culture, art and crafts. Bangkok: River Books, 2006

DLLM (Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts) (retrieved 05.12.2014)

Guy, John. Palm-leaf and paper, illustrated manuscripts of India and Southeast Asia. With an essay by O.P. Agrawal on Care and conservation of palm-leaf and paper illustrated manuscripts. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1982

Terwiel, Barend J. Shan manuscripts, part 1. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2003

Tingley, Nancy. Doris Duke. The Southeast Asian Art Collection. New York: The Foundation for Southeast Asian Art and culture, 2003

Warren, William. Lanna style. Art and design of Northern Thailand. 3rd ed. Bangkok: Asia Books, 2004


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

 ccownwork

28 April 2014

The Ramayana in Southeast Asia: (2) Thailand and Laos

Continuing our series of posts on the Ramayana in Southeast Asia, today we look at Thailand and Laos. The Thai version of the epic is known as the Ramakien. The Rama story is thought to have been known to the Thais since at least the 13th century. It was adopted from older Khmer sources, hence the similarity to the Khmer title Reamker. Various new versions of the story have been composed, often by royal authors, since the 16th and 17th centuries. However, large numbers of Thai manuscripts were lost with the destruction of Ayutthya in 1767, and the Ramakien known today was compiled only between 1785 and 1807 under the supervision of King Rama I (1785-1809).

The famous reliefs depicting about 150 scenes from the Ramakien at Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho) in Bangkok date back to the early 19th century. Manuscript and mural paintings showing scenes from the Ramakien are particularly famous for their illustrations of the monkey armies. Best known are the mural paintings at the royal temple Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok. In King Rama I’s version of the Ramakien all names, places, traditions, and flora and fauna were adapted to a Thai context. In this form, the Rama story has become an epic of national character in Thailand, and it is very popular not only as a literary work, but also as a mask dance (khon) and even TV drama. It has been re-published many times in the form of children’s and juvenile literature, and characters from the Ramayana have featured on series of postal stamps and trading cards. The title of Rama constantly re-occurs in the royal genealogies of Thailand.

Hanuman facing Ravana asleep in his palace. This drawing is from a 19th century album of ink drawings by an anonymous Thai artist of scenes from the Ramakien, with some text captions in Khom script (a variant of the Cambodian Khmer script used in Thailand). Hanuman can be seen with his sword, teasing Ravana who is fast asleep in his palace after having abducted Sita. The palace resembles 19th century architecture in Bangkok. British Library, Or.14859, pp. 58-59
Hanuman facing Ravana asleep in his palace. This drawing is from a 19th century album of ink drawings by an anonymous Thai artist of scenes from the Ramakien, with some text captions in Khom script (a variant of the Cambodian Khmer script used in Thailand). Hanuman can be seen with his sword, teasing Ravana who is fast asleep in his palace after having abducted Sita. The palace resembles 19th century architecture in Bangkok. British Library, Or.14859, pp. 58-59  noc

Phralak – the Thai and Lao name of Lakshmana, Rama’s brother – served Rama and Sita reverently and played an important role in the war with Ravana. In the Thai and Lao traditions, he is a symbol of brotherly love, loyalty and commitment. He gave his life in order to protect Rama’s integrity and Ayodhya from an evil curse. This illustration of Phralak is from a folding-book with Thai character drawings including figures from the Ramakien, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or.14229, f. 29
Phralak – the Thai and Lao name of Lakshmana, Rama’s brother – served Rama and Sita reverently and played an important role in the war with Ravana. In the Thai and Lao traditions, he is a symbol of brotherly love, loyalty and commitment. He gave his life in order to protect Rama’s integrity and Ayodhya from an evil curse. This illustration of Phralak is from a folding-book with Thai character drawings including figures from the Ramakien, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or.14229, f. 29  noc

The Lao version of the Ramayana is known as Phra Lak Phra Ram (or Pha Lak Pha Lam since in modern Lao R is often replaced by L), the title referring to both the brothers Lakshmana and Rama. Sometimes it is also called Phra Ram sadok (Rama Jataka) as it is widely believed that Rama was a former incarnation of a Buddha-to-be. The Rama story featured in many mural paintings and wood relief carvings on temple doors and windows. It was also one of the favourite themes in the repertoire of the Lao Royal Ballet until 1975, and this tradition has been revived since 2002 by the Royal Ballet Theatre of Luang Prabang.

Introductory scene to thank and honour the Hindu gods during a Phra Lak Phra Ram performance by the Royal Ballet Theatre of Luang Prabang. Photo by Jana Igunma, 2002.
Introductory scene to thank and honour the Hindu gods during a Phra Lak Phra Ram performance by the Royal Ballet Theatre of Luang Prabang. Photo by Jana Igunma, 2002.

Numerous palm-leaf manuscripts from all regions of Laos containing shorter versions of the Lao Ramayana, Lam Pha Lam, show that the story was very popular all over the country in urban centres as much as in rural areas. These versions were created in order to be sung by a Mor Lam, a traditional expert singer who can melodically recite lengthy poems and epic literature while being accompanied by a Khaen (bamboo mouth organ).

In both Thai and Lao traditions, Hanuman was part of a favourite Yantra design used by soldiers and martial arts specialists. The leader of the monkey armies represents strength, stamina, agility, intelligence and devotion. Hanuman Yantras would either be drawn on protective shirts, headbands, battle standards of entire armies, or, most efficiently and durably, tattooed on a fighter’s body.

Hanuman as part of a Yantra design for tattooing or to be drawn on protective clothes and battle flags. From a Yantra manual written in gamboge ink on blackened mulberry paper, central Thailand, 19th century.  British Library, Or.15596, f. 9
Hanuman as part of a Yantra design for tattooing or to be drawn on protective clothes and battle flags. From a Yantra manual written in gamboge ink on blackened mulberry paper, central Thailand, 19th century.  British Library, Or.15596, f. 9  noc

Further reading

Angkhan Kanlayanaphong, Khon, Thai masked dance Sala Chalermkrung. Bangkok, 2006. (LP.31.a.679)

John Cadet, The Ramakien. The Thai epic illustrated with the bas-reliefs of Wat Phra Jetubon, Bangkok. Tokyo, Palo Alto, 1971. (Siam.742)

Sachchidanand Sahai, The Rama Jataka in Laos : a study in the Phra Lak Phra Lam. Delhi, 1996. (YD.2004.a.6415)

The Ramakian (Ramayana) mural paintings along the galleries of the temple of the Emerald Buddha. Bangkok, 1999. (SEA.2002.c.3)

Jana Igunma, Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian

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