THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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10 posts categorized "Laos"

23 January 2015

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

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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).

Lao sutras Or16734Buddhist 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.

Or_16114_fblefr
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.

LaoOr16790
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.  

LannaOr16077
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.   

LaoCoverOr.13157 (2)
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.

Wrappersmall
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

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28 April 2014

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

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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.

Ravana
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
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.

Ramayana Laos
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 yantra
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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