THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

221 posts categorized "South East Asia"

07 September 2020

Tickling the trees, dancing with clouds: Birds in Thai manuscript illustration (1)

Add comment

In my previous article on The Buddha and his natural environment in Thai manuscript art I discussed artistic depictions of the natural environment in which the historical Buddha is placed, highlighting the close relationship he had with the natural world and all sentient beings. Besides trees, flowers, rocks and water one can almost always find representations of animals in Thai Buddhist manuscript illustrations. Sometimes these are related to the text or to references within the text to certain Buddhist scriptures, for example depictions of elephants, horses, wild cats and deer in the context of the Buddha's Birth Tales (Jātaka). But very often depictions of animals like rabbits, squirrels, fish, lobsters and birds have no connection with the text at all - they are added as decorative elements to highlight the beauty of the natural world that humans often are unable to appreciate in their busy daily lives.

Spotted Doves (Spilopelia chinensis, นกเขาใหญ่) depicted with a greedy Brahmin, Jujaka, in an illustration from the Vessantara Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068 f.13
Spotted Doves (Spilopelia chinensis, นกเขาใหญ่) depicted with a greedy Brahmin, Jujaka, in an illustration from the Vessantara Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.13)
 noc

Although there are Thai animal treatises specially dedicated to the study of certain animals, like elephants or cats, in Thai Buddhist manuscript illustration the most frequently appearing animals are birds. Judging from the paintings, the purpose of adding images of birds is to enhance the serenity and auspiciousness of a scene. Often representations of birds can be found in scenes from the last ten Birth Tales of the Buddha, but also in illustrations of the mythical Himavanta forest at the foot of Mount Meru according to Buddhist cosmology. Such illustrations are used to accompany extracts from the Pali canon (Tipiṭaka), specifically text passages from the Seven Books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka that can be found in funeral or commemoration volumes.  

As regards the depiction of birds, one manuscript in the Library's Thai collections stands out: Or.14068, an eighteenth-century folding book (samut khoi) with 53 folios containing a collection of Pali Buddhist texts in Khmer script, including the Pārājika (Four Disrobing Offences), the Brahmajālasutta (the first of the Buddha's Long Discourses), passages from the Seven Books of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, Sahassanaya (a text on meditation), and as the main text the Mahābuddhagunā (the Great Perfections of the Buddha). Added to the texts are thirteen paired illustrations showing scenes from the last ten Birth Tales and the Himavanta forest, and one illustration of the Buddha in the earth-touching gesture (bhumisparsha mudra).

Depiction of two Mountain Imperial Pigeons (Ducula badia, นกมูม) in an illustration of the Nārada Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068 f.9
Depiction of two Mountain Imperial Pigeons (Ducula badia, นกมูม) in an illustration of the Nārada Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.9)
 noc

Looking at the illustrations, some of which depict real animals such as deer and squirrels, whereas others show mythical animals such as the King of Lions (Rajasiha, ราชสีห์) and serpents (nāga, นาค), I was wondering if the birds in the paintings could be identified as real birds or if they were mythical birds, or simply the results of artistic imagination.

The illustration above shows a detail from a scene in the Nārada Jātaka which tells of a king who indulges in worldly pleasures instead of following the Buddhist precepts until his devoted daughter asks the Great Brahma God Nārada, a former incarnation of the Buddha, for help. Seen on the trees behind the roof of the king's palace are two birds which could be artistic representations of Mountain Imperial Pigeons (Ducula badia, นกมูม), described by Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1822. This bird in the pigeon and dove family, common across Southeast Asia, is the largest pigeon species with a fairly long tail and broad, rounded wings. The head, neck and underparts are vinous-grey with a contrasting white throat and greyish-brown or dull maroon upperparts and wings. Its natural habitats are subtropical or tropical moist lowland and mountain forests of up to 2500 m height.

A pair of Spotted Doves (Spilopelia chinensis, นกเขาใหญ่) in an illustration from the Temiya Jātaka, here seen next to Prince Temiya. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068 f.1
A pair of Spotted Doves (Spilopelia chinensis, นกเขาใหญ่) in an illustration from the Temiya Jātaka, here seen next to Prince Temiya. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.1)
 noc

Another bird in the pigeon and dove family that appears several times in this manuscript can be safely identified as the Spotted Dove (Spilopelia chinensis, นกเขาใหญ่). The illustration above is part of a scene in the Temiya Jātaka which tells of the young Prince Temiya, a former incarnation of the Buddha, who did not wish to become king and pretended to be mute. When a charioteer was commanded to bury the prince alive, he revealed the truth to the charioteer who set him free. Temiya then became an ascetic and followed the Buddhist precepts. The pair of Spotted Doves, one resting on a rock, the other on a tree branch next to Prince Temiya, play no role whatsoever in the story and clearly were only added for decorative purposes in this illustration.

The Spotted Dove, described by Giovanni Antonio Scopoli in 1768, is a small and relatively long-tailed pigeon with a heavily spotted neck patch and scaly-patterned upperparts. It is a common open-country pigeon on the Indian Subcontinent and in Southeast Asia. This bird is found across a range of habitats including woodland, scrub, farmland and human habitation.

A bird that appears very similar to the Spotted Dove in these manuscript illustrations is shown in the picture below. However, instead of the spotted neck patch it has a red collar which suggests that this is may be an artist's interpretation of a Burmese Collared Dove although the collar in the natural bird is black.

In this illustration belonging to a scene from the Suvannasāma Jātaka, a pair of what may be Burmese Collared Doves (Streptopelia decaocto xanthocycla, นกเขาแขก) are sitting on tree branches behind the roof of a forest hermitage. In this hermitage live the blind parents of Suvannasāma, a previous incarnation of the Buddha, who with great devotion cares for his parents. One day he is shot by a hunter with a poisined arrow, but thanks to Suvannasāma's accumulated merit and the pleadings of his parents he comes back to life and recovers fully.

Two birds, possibly representing Burmese Collared Doves (Streptopelia decaocto xanthocycla, นกเขาแขก) in an illustration from the Suvannasāma Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or.14068 f.5
Two birds, possibly representing Burmese Collared Doves (Streptopelia decaocto xanthocycla, นกเขาแขก) in an illustration from the Suvannasāma Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.5)
 noc

The Burmese Collared Dove, described by Oliver M. G. Newman in 1906, is a sub-species of the Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto decaocto, นกเขาแขก). This medium sized bird is grey-buff to pinkish-grey overall, a little darker above than below, with a black half-collar across the base of its hindneck. Its habitat stretches from central Myanmar across the Shan State and Yunnan to eastern China. The bird's habitat may explain why the doves in this manuscript from central Thailand were painted with red collars: the painter may only have known them from hear-say, but never seen them in nature.

Red Turtle Doves (Streptopelia tranquebarica, นกเขาไฟ) on a possibly imaginary tree with colourful leaves in another illustration from the Suvannasāma Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068 f.5
Red Turtle Doves (Streptopelia tranquebarica, นกเขาไฟ) on a possibly imaginary tree with colourful leaves in another illustration from the Suvannasāma Jātaka. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14068 f.5)
 noc

Related to the same story in this manuscript, the Suvannasāma Jātaka, is a second illustration depicting Suvannasāma with an arrow in his chest, lying on the ground next to a tree with colourful leaves. On the tree one can see a pair of birds (shown above) which may represent Red Turtle Doves (Streptopelia tranquebarica, นกเขาไฟ). The Red Turtle Dove, described by Johann Hermann in 1804, is in its appearance quite similar to the Burmese Collared Dove. It is also known as Red Collared Dove. The smaller size and reddish plummage differentiate this species from its relatives. It has a narrow black collar at the base of the hindneck and plain reddish (male) to dull brown upperparts (female). This dove is essentially a plains species with its habitat extending from the Indian Sub-continent across mainland Southeast Asia to Taiwan and the Philippines.

An illustration of a natural scene with artistic interpretation of a pair of Ospreys (Or14068)
An illustration of a natural scene with artistic interpretation of a pair of Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus, เหยี่ยวออสเปร). Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or 14968 f.52)
 noc

A rather unusual bird to be depicted in a Thai manuscript can be seen in the illustration above which accompanies the last text passage of the Mahābuddhagunā (Great Perfections of the Buddha). This may be an artistic interpretation of a pair of Ospreys, set in a rocky landscape, although the colours do not exactly match those of the natural bird. This is a detail of two illustrations on the same folio which also depict other unidentified birds and small mammals.

The Osprey (Pandion haliaetus, เหยี่ยวออสเปร), described by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758, is a fish-eating bird of prey. The upperparts of this larger bird are glossy brown, while the breast is white and sometimes streaked with brown, and the underparts are pure white. The head is white with a darker mask across the eyes, reaching to the sides of the neck. The Osprey has a worldwide distribution and is found in temperate and tropical regions of all continents except Antarctica. During winters it visits all parts of South Asia and Southeast Asia from Myanmar through to Vietnam and southern China, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

In my next post I'll write about some of the unidentified birds illustrated in Thai manuscript art.

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

Further reading

McDaniel, Justin: "The Bird in the Corner of the Painting: Some Problems with the Use of Buddhist Texts to Study Buddhist Ornamental Art in Thailand." Moussons 23, 2014, pp. 21-53.

13 July 2020

Suthon and Manora: A jewel of Thai literature, art and performance

Add comment

The poetic story of Suthon and Manora (สุธนมโนห์รา) is one of the most popular Thai literary works and has inspired fine art and the performing arts in Thailand. The theme of the story is rooted in an early Sanskrit text with the title Sudhanakumāravadāna which is included in the Divyāvadāna, a collection of biographical narratives of important figures in early Buddhist history, dating back to the third or fourth century CE. Another related Sanskrit source is the Kinnarī Jātaka in the Mahāvastu, a preface to the Buddhist monastic code. Based on a Pali translation of the Sudhana Jātaka, an extra-canonical Birth Tale of the Buddha (Paññāsa Jātaka) created in northern Thailand around the fifteenth century, two poetic versions (klon suat) of Suthon and Manora were then composed in the Thai language: one showing a central Thai origin and another with a southern Thai cultural context. However, the story is also known in the Lao, Khmer, Mon, Shan and Burmese literary and performing traditions. Scenes from the legend based on the early Indian sources are depicted in a painting in cave 1 at Ajanta (5th century CE) in India and on twenty relief panels on the first terrace of Candi Borobudur (8th/9th century CE) in Indonesia, the largest Buddhist monument in the world.

Text passage from the story of Suthon and Manora in a Thai folding book
Text passage from the story of Suthon and Manora in a Thai folding book. Thailand, 19th century (British Library, Or.8851 f.15)
 noc

At the centre of the story is Kinnari Manora (กินรี มโนห์รา), a female mythical figure with a human head and upper body and the lower body of a bird. Kinnari, and their male counterparts, Kinnara (กินนร), are believed to live in the the mythical realm of half-bird-half-human beings beyond the Himavanta forest, which is inaccessible for humans whereas Kinnara and Kinnari have the ability to enter the human realm. Manora lives happily as a princess in the world of Kinnara (plural). However, one day while taking a bath in a lake of the human realm, she is captured by a hunter with a magic noose and is forced to remain in the world of humans. Here she meets Prince Suthon, heir to the kingdom of Uttarapancala, and subsequently the two fall in love and get married.

A pair of Kinnara in the mythological Himavanta forest depicted in a collection of drawings on Thai cosmology and mythology
A pair of Kinnara in the mythological Himavanta forest depicted in a collection of drawings on Thai cosmology and mythology. Thailand, 1824 (British Library, Add MS 27370 sheet 3)
 noc

However, because of conflict in the kingdom Prince Suthon is sent away to subdue a rebellious vassal. A jealous court counselor misinterprets a dream of the king and requests the sacrifice of Manora. She flees the kingdom and returns to the realm of Kinnara, leaving her beloved Suthon behind. When he returns and discovers that Manora was forced to leave, he chases after her. Despite the perilous journey to the realm of Kinnara, he proves his love for Manora to the king. Finally, the two lovers are reunited and return to the human realm and live happily ever after.

The two poetic versions in Thai language adhere to the Pali version of the Sudhana Jātaka in all major and minor details, however, they are not actual translations, but versified re-tellings of the story. The Thai texts also emphasize and embellish the natural setting of the tale in line with the characteristics often found in Thai literature and art. While the figure of Suthon enjoys the status of a Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be), the figure of Manora represents ideal beauty, set in a Thai stylistic framework for the story that employs description and digression, epithets, metaphors and similes.

Front cover of the book "Phra Suthon Manora"
Front cover of the book "Phra Suthon Manora", retold by Phongchan and published by Sermwit Bannakhan publishing house, Bangkok, in BE 2524 (1981 CE)
 noc

Numerous print publications containing the story of Suthon and Manora have appeared in Thai language in the past hundred years, mainly for pleasure reading and as juvenile literature.

Various translations were made into European languages: a French translation by Jean Drans was included in his publication with the title "Histoire de Nang Manôra et histoire de Sang Thong: deux récits du Recueil des cinquante Jâtaka. Traduits du siamois" (Tokyo, 1947). A translation into German by Christian Velder appeared in the book "Muschelprinz und Duftende Blüte: Liebesgeschichten aus Thailand" (Zurich, 1966). Henry Ginsburg, while working on his dissertaion "The Sudhana-Manohara tale in Thai: a comparative study based on two texts from the National Library, Bangkok and Wat Machimawat, Songkhla" (SOAS University of London, 1971) made a translation of the story from Thai into English, now held at the British Library (Or.16758).

The southern Thai tradition of Suthon and Manora also relates to a popular dance-drama known as manora or short nora (โนรา), which appears to borrow its name from the heroine, Kinnari Manora, although the story itself is not re-enacted in the dance performance. While carrying out research for his dissertation in Thailand, Henry Ginsburg was able to attend a nora performance, which is documented in his photo collection (Photo 1213).

Traditional nora performer in southern Thailand, late 1960s
Traditional nora performer in southern Thailand, late 1960s. Photograph by Henry Ginsburg (British Library, Photo 1213(233))
 noc

There are two types of nora dance: one is performed in a ceremonial context, known as nora rong khru (โนราโรงครู), and the other is for entertainment.

Nora rong khru is an important ritual dance for professional nora performers. Its purpose is to invite the ancestral spirits of the great nora masters of the past in order to pay homage to them. The ritual involves making votive offerings to the ancestral spirits, and the initiation of novice dancers. The full version of the ritual dance, which lasts three days and nights, is a highlight of events in the community. It usually is performed once in a year, or every three or five years, depending on the traditions of the different nora schools. A shorter version of the ritual can be performed more frequently and lasts only one day and one night.

Nora performances for entertainment can be held at any time, and they can have a competitive character. They allow dancers - novices and masters alike - to demonstrate their talents and their skills which can combine the dancing with singing. The dance is characterised by striking body poses which require many years of practice. Normally such performances do not focus on telling a story, but the dancers may decide to include episodes from well-known stories like Suthon and Manora to entertain the audiences. One of the most popular scenes to be performed is the scene of the huntsman capturing Manora. Entertainment performances always include at the beginning a song to pay homage to the teachers and the great ancestral masters of nora, and a solo performance of the current master of the school or dance troupe.

Kanit Sripaoraya, a Ph.D. candidate and a nora practitioner performs one nora movement in the pose of ‘the sitting of Kinnara’
Kanit Sripaoraya, a Ph.D. candidate and a nora practitioner performs one nora movement in the pose of ‘the sitting of Kinnara’ (in Thai 'Kinnon-nang', กินนรนั่ง), 29 September 2014. © Photograph courtesy of Kanit Sripaoraya.

Nora dances are often performed on a makeshift stage made specifically for this purpose in the community. The back of the stage is formed by a large colourful painting on cloth or a curtain. An orchestra which comprises mostly of percussion instruments determines the speed and rhythm of the dance. The most striking element of the requisites for nora performances are the costumes of the dancers who can be male or female. The costume of the principal performer who is called nora yai is made of beads in various colours which are arranged in geometric patterns. Other components include an elaborately decorated headgear, a pair of wings attached to the costume, a pendant, a decorative tail, a wrap-around skirt, a pair of calf-length trousers, additional pieces of cloth hanging down from the waist, bracelets and fingertip extension pieces. The other dancers do not usually have a pendant and wings. The attributes related to birds (wings and decorative bird tail) can be seen as a reference to Kinnari Manora, the half-bird half-human heroine of the tale of Suthon and Manora.

Nora Thanakorn Bandisak (right) recites the verse, and leads the nora practitioners, Nora Ekachai Numsawat (left) and Nora Nipaporn Namsuk (center) perform one of the movement of ‘Bot Prathom’
Nora Thanakorn Bandisak (right) recites the verse, and leads the nora practitioners, Nora Ekachai Numsawat (left) and Nora Nipaporn Namsuk (center) perform one of the movement of ‘Bot Prathom’ (บทปฐม) for the ceremony of nora (nora rong khru, โนราโรงครู) at Baan Lak chang, Nakorn Si Thammarat, Thailand, 1 May 2013. © Photograph courtesy of Kanit Sripaoraya.

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

 

Bibliography

Baker, Chris and Pasuk Phongpaichit, From the fifty Jātaka: Selections from the Thai Paññāsa Jātaka. Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2019.
Drans, Jean, Histoire de Nang Manôra et histoire de Sang Thong : deux récits du Recueil des cinquante Jâtaka. Traduits du siamois . Tokyo: Presses salésiennes, 1947.
Ginsburg, Henry, The Sudhana-Manoharā tale in Thai: a comparative study based on two texts from the National Library, Bangkok and Wat Macimāwāt, Songkhla. London: University of London, 1972.
Horner, Isaline B. and Padmanabh S. Jaini, Apocryphal birth-stories : (Paññasa-jātaka). London: The Pali Text Society, 1985-1986 (2 vol).
Levin, Cecelia, Sudhana and Manoharā, “A Story of Love, Loss and Redemption at Candi Borobudur,” In From Beyond the Eastern Horizon: Essays in Honour of Professor Lokesh Chandra. Ed. Manjushree. Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 2011, pp. 191-204.
NORA, Intangible Cultural Heritage  (retrieved 20.04.2020).
Padmanabh S. Jaini, “The story of Sudhana and Manohara: an analysis of the texts and the Borobudur reliefs,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. London: University of London, vol. 29, pt. 3, 1966.
Schlingloff, Dieter: Prince Sudhana and the kinnari, an Indian love-story in Ajanta. Torino: Istituto di indologia, 1973.
Velder, Christian: Muschelprinz und Duftende Blüte: Liebesgeschichten aus Thailand. Zürich: Manesse, 1966.

 

05 June 2020

A Thai royal edition of Pannasa Jataka (ปัญญาสชาดก)

Add comment

Paññāsa Jātaka are extra-canonical Birth Tales of the Buddha. Their origin is usually associated with northern Thailand, or the former kingdom of Lānnā. However, many such extra-canonical Birth Tales found their way into the literatures of neighbouring peoples, such as the Thai of central Thailand and the Lao of Laos and northeast Thailand. Motifs that appear in some Paññāsa Jātaka can also be found on ninth-century reliefs at the Borobudur monument in Java, which suggests that some Paññāsa Jātaka may be derived from older pre-Buddhist Southeast Asian folklore. Various Paññāsa Jātaka have parallels with Sanskrit literature as well as Tamil, Chinese, Tibetan, Khotanese and Southeast Asian folk tales (Fickle, 1978).
Wooden covers of a Thai royal manuscript containing a selection of Paññāsa Jātaka from central Thailand, c.1851-1868
Wooden covers of a Thai royal manuscript containing a selection of Paññāsa Jātaka from central Thailand, c.1851-1868 (British Library, Or 12524)
 noc

Detail from the black lacquered back cover with gilt floral decoration of a Thai royal manuscript containing Paññāsa Jātaka
Detail from the black lacquered back cover with gilt floral decoration of a Thai royal manuscript containing Paññāsa Jātaka. Central Thailand, c.1851-1868 (British Library, Or 12524)
 noc

The Pali expression Paññāsa Jātaka literally means “fifty Birth Tales”. Varying in numbers and order of arrangement, several collections of Paññāsa Jātaka are known in the northern Thai (Lānnā), Lao, Tai Lue, Tai Khuen, central Thai, Cambodian, Burmese and Mon traditions. Although there is no evidence as to which is the original or standard collection, it is thought that most of the Paññāsa Jātaka were written down by Buddhist monastics in the Lānnā kingdom between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, mostly in the local northern Thai (Lānnā) dialect, with some phrases in Pāli language. Centres of Buddhist scholarship in the Lānnā kingdom were Wat Pā Daeng, Wat Phra Sing, Wat Mahābodhi in Chiang Mai and Wat Phra Thāt Haripunjaya in Lamphun, but many of the learned monks fled to Luang Prabang before and during the Burmese conquest of Chiang Mai in 1558, and others were taken to Burma. This explains not only the spread of the Paññāsa Jātaka but also the increase in production of manuscripts containing Paññāsa Jātaka across mainland Southeast Asia. The collections of Paññāsa Jātaka are also known as Jātaka nǭk nibāt and Hāsip chāt in the Lānnā and Lao traditions, and Zimmè pannātha in the Burmese tradition (Zimmè referring to Chiang Mai). Most of the surviving manuscripts containing one or more Paññāsa Jātaka date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but many of them appear to be copies from older manuscripts. Pali language versions of Paññāsa Jātaka can be found in the central Thai, Khmer and Burmese traditions.

Paññāsa Jātaka in Khmer script on palm leaves in ten bundles
Paññāsa Jātaka in Khmer script on palm leaves in ten bundles, written in ink on gilt background (first leaf of each bundle) and incised on plain palm leaves. With small lacquered and gilded illuminations in ovals on the second leaf. Central Thailand, c.1851-1868 (British Library, Or 12524)
 noc

A royal edition of a selection of Paññāsa Jātaka was commissioned by King Mongkut (Rama IV, r.1851-1868). The text was written mainly in Khmer script which was commonly used for Pali Buddhist scriptures in central Thailand up until the end of the nineteenth century. Only a few words on the first two leaves are written in Khom script, a variant of Khmer script used in Thailand. The manuscript consists of ten bundles with altogether 235 palm leaves, held between two wooden covers which were decorated with black lacquer and gilt floral patterns. The text was incised and blackened on the plain dried palm leaves, except the first leaf of each bundle which are gilded with text applied in black ink or lacquer. All the palm leaves have gilded edges. The title leaves of each bundle are decorated with two illuminations in ovals; one on the left side showing a vihāra (Buddhist assembly hall), and one on the right depicting the royal seal of King Mongkut (Rama IV) with a crown between two parasols (below).

Royal seal of King Mongkut (Rama IV)
Royal seal of King Mongkut (Rama IV) on the title leaf of the first bundle of a royal manuscript containing Paññāsa Jātaka. Central Thailand, c.1851-1868 (British Library, Or 12524)
 noc

A set of northern Thai Paññāsa Jātaka transliterated from Dhamma script into Thai script was published in 1998 under the auspices of Chiang Mai University. The international team of researchers involved in this project point out that the original manuscript version written in northern Thai Dhamma script is mainly in the Lānnā dialect with added words and phrases in Pali. The text of these Paññāsa Jātaka is in prose and largely follows the structure of the Jātaka in the Pali canon. Whereas central Thai manuscript versions of the Paññāsa Jātaka were compiled in Pali language, early printed works usually contain translations of these stories in Thai language to make them available to wider audiences in central Thailand. The first printed Thai translation was published in 1923 under the direction of Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, a son of King Mongkut (Rama IV) and founder of the modern educational system of Thailand.

05 first Thai publication
"Paññāsa Jātaka phāk thī 12 prachum nithān nai prathēt nī tǣ borān 50 rư̄ang worawong chādok". A translation of Paññāsa Jātaka into Thai published in Bangkok, Vajirañāna Library, 2470 (1923 CE). Source: National Library of Thailand (accessed 31/03/2020)

To understand the dissemination of a relatively small extra-canonical collection of stories with a Buddhist motif over a wider geographical area one has to take the role of oral tradition and performance into consideration. Although monks and novices may have collected folktales and written them down for the first time, and even translated them into Pali and then back into various other vernacular languages, the spread of these stories will also have to be credited to the oral traditions and performing arts. Not only monks travelled forth and back between centres of Buddhist worship, education and art, but also royals, artists, singers and musicians, theatre troupes, craftsmen, traders and ordinary people who would have helped to make their own folkloristic heritage known in foreign lands. And even when texts had been written down, the manuscripts did not necessarily stay in one place, but were often donated to Buddhist temples in faraway cities, regions and countries.

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

Bibliography

Baker, Chris and Pasuk Phongpaichit: From the fifty Jātaka: Selections from the Thai Paññāsa Jātaka. Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2019
Fickle, Dorothy H.: An historical and structural study of the Paññāsa Jātaka. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1978
Niyadā Laosunthō̜n: Panyāsa chādok : prawat læ khwāmsamkhan thī mī tọ̄ wannakam rō̜ikrō̜ng khọ̄ng Thai. Bangkok: Mǣkhamfāng, 1995
Skilling, Peter: Jātaka and Paññāsa-jātaka in South-East Asia. Journal of the Pali Text Society vol. 27, 2006, pp. 113–174.
Udom Rungruangsri: Wannakam chādok thī mī laksana pen “Lānnā”. Wannakam phutthasāsanā nai Lānnā. Ed. Phanphen Khruathai. Chiang Mai, 1997, pp. 51-60

27 April 2020

The Buddha and his natural environment in Thai manuscript art

Add comment

Illustrated Buddhist manuscripts from mainland Southeast Asia are famous for their lavish and often very detailed depictions of scenes from the Life of Buddha and the Buddha’s Birth Tales, known as Jatakas. Although most of these manuscripts date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their illustrations are based on much older Pali texts originating from Sri Lanka in the first century BCE. The outstanding beauty of these manuscript paintings results from the depiction of the natural environment in which the main character – the historical Buddha – is placed, highlighting the close relationship the Buddha had with nature and all sentient beings.

Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka illustrated in a paper folding book with extracts from the Pali Tipitaka in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, IO.Pali.207 f.3)
Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka illustrated in a paper folding book with extracts from the Pali Tipitaka in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, IO.Pali.207 f.3). Public domain

The Buddha’s Birth Tales (Jatakas)

The previous lives of Gotama Buddha - the historical Buddha - are the subject of a collection of Birth Tales (Jatakas). They show how he gradually acquired greater virtues and moral stature from one incarnation to the other. These stories, well-known in all Theravada Buddhist cultures, are attributed to Gotama Buddha himself and are included in the Pali Buddhist canon. He is thought to have narrated them during his ministry to his followers, using each Jataka to teach certain morals and values. There are 547 such stories, but more were created in the region of Northern Thailand and Laos at a later time and are known as Pannasa Jatakas.

The Jatakas are a major subject of Thai manuscript illustration, with the oldest extant manuscripts dating back at least to the 18th century. These stories are meant to teach the values of compassion, loving-kindness, generosity, honesty, perseverance and morality. In his previous lives Gotama Buddha was incarnated in form of human beings, various animals, benevolent spirits, or as deities residing in the heavenly realms of the Buddhist cosmos.

Scenes from the Bhuridatta Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 19th century (British Library, Or.16552 f.16)
Scenes from the Bhuridatta Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 19th century (British Library, Or.16552 f.16). Public domain

The Bhuridatta Jataka is a fine example that describes the moral abilities of sacred or mythical animals as sentient beings. The Buddha-to-be was reborn as a mythical serpent prince (naga), who practiced meditation and aimed to follow the Buddhist precepts. A greedy snake charmer named Alambayana obtained magic spells from a hermit in order to capture Bhuridatta. A hunter who in the past was taken by Bhuridatta to live in splendor in the serpent kingdom (right side) revealed the serpent’s secret meditation place to Alambayana. The snake charmer captured the serpent while he was coiled around an ant hill (left side) and forced him to perform in market places so that he could earn fame and wealth. Bhuridatta repressed his shame and anger in order to follow the Eight Precepts. Eventually, he was freed by his brothers.

In both illustrations great care was taken to paint the serpent in great detail and in bright colours to highlight his sacredness, whereas plants, flowers, fish and different species of birds were added as decorative elements.

Scenes from the Suvannasama Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.5)
Scenes from the Suvannasama Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14068 f.5) . Public domain

The Suvannasama Jataka tells the story of the Buddha-to-be when he lived as the son of blind hermits. Suvannasama looked after his parents with great devotion until one day he was shot with a poisoned arrow by a king who was out hunting deer (right side). When the king realised his grave mistake, he went to ask the hermits for forgiveness (left side). When the parents heard about their son’s fate, they requested the king to guide them to their beloved son’s body so they could pray for his future rebirth. They appealed and called to witness all deities about their son’s merits as he had always looked after them dearly. When their pledge ended, Suvannasama stood alive and well, and the parents also regained their eyesight. This Jataka symbolises the perfection of devotion.    

These paintings are fine examples of the late Ayutthaya manuscript painting style of the eighteenth century with distinguished landscapes, rocks, foliage, birds and deer. Although the scenes depict a sorrowful event, the atmosphere seems calm and peaceful thanks to warm, pleasant colours, leaving a positive impression on the viewer.

Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14255 f.2)
Scenes from the Mahajanaka Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 18th century (British Library, Or.14255 f.2). Public domain

The Mahajanaka Jataka symbolizes the virtue of perseverance. Prince Mahajanaka's father was killed in battle by his brother, Mahajanaka’s uncle. When the prince found out about his ancestry he vowed to regain his father’s kingdom. He set out on a seafaring voyage, hoping to build a fortune in a distant land and to set up a powerful army. However, the ship sank and everyone on board drowned or was killed by sea creatures - except the prince. He drifted in the water for seven days, but survived through the sheer strength of his perseverance. A goddess, Manimekhala, rescued him and carried him to his father’s kingdom, which he finally regained after his uncle’s death (funeral carriage, right side). Thereafter, he sought to follow the Noble Eightfold Path and went on to pursue spiritual attainment as an ascetic (left side).

The paintings illustrating the Mahajanaka Jataka are in the style of the late Ayutthaya period and are set before a magnificent natural scenery in bright colours most of which were derived from natural paints. On the left side, the prince is depicted while meditating under a tree, surrounded by rocks and blossoming plants, similar to Prince Siddhattha who eventually became the historical Buddha. On the right side, an exquisitely painted horse is shown pulling the uncle's funeral carriage.

Scenes from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, late 18th century (British Library, Or.14704 f.74)
Scenes from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, late 18th century (British Library, Or.14704 f.74). Public domain

Prince Vessantara was the Buddha’s last incarnation before he was reborn as Prince Siddhattha and eventually attained enlightenment. This last Birth Tale, also called the Great Jataka, is the most popular across Southeast Asia, symbolising the virtues of generosity and compassion. Prince Vessantara gave away his white elephant, bringer of rain, to Brahmins of a drought-stricken land as an act of compassion. He was then exiled from his kingdom because people feared that his generosity may bring poverty to the land. His wife and children followed him and they set up a forest hermitage. A Brahmin, Jujaka, found Prince Vessantara and asked for his children to become servants to the Brahmin’s wife to stop other villagers mocking her (right). Out of compassion for Jujaka’s wife Prince Vessantra agreed to give away his children while his wife was collecting fruit in the forest (left side). The greedy Brahmin later sold the siblings – unwittingly - to Prince Vessantara’s parents. Prince Vessantara and his wife were finally welcomed back to the kingdom and reunited with the children.

The excellent paintings in this Thai folding book depict scenes from the Last Ten Jatakas in the style of the late 18th to early 19th century. Warm colours are used to highlight the beauty of the natural environment and the serenity of the forest hermitage. Although this part of the story is sorrowful, it is one of the most popular scenes from all Jatakas in Thailand, and the painter minimizes the sadness by adding beautiful natural elements like plants and trees with every single leaf painted meticulously.

The Life of Gotama Buddha

The historical Buddha, Gotama Buddha, was born in Lumbini (a place in modern-day Nepal) over 2,500 years ago. Throughout his life, he had an intimate connection with the natural world: he was born as Prince Siddhattha under a sal tree whose branches provided support to his mother giving birth, at the first seven steps he walked a lotus flower appeared, he lived in forests and in caves as an ascetic, meditated in the rain while a serpent protected him, gained enlightenment under the bodhi tree, gave his first discourse in a deer park, followed the River Ganges to teach the Dhamma, lived with his disciples in a bamboo grove, taught at forest monasteries, interacted with various real and mythical animals during his long ministry, and at the point of his physical passing he attained pari-nibbana between twin sal trees.

In the Sutta Pitaka part of the Pali canon over 13,000 species of animals and over 18,000 species of plants are mentioned which is evidence of the consciousness of early Buddhists about biodiversity. Manuscript illustrations give insight into how the Buddha and nature were benevolent and supportive to each other, and how the natural world supports and sustains humanity. The Buddhist belief that all sentient beings possess inherent Buddha nature is expressed through spectacular depictions of the natural world surrounding the Buddha.

Scenes of Buddha’s meditation and enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Pali Tipitaka and the legend of Phra Malai in Thai language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 1894 (British Library, Or.16101 f.2)
Scenes of Buddha’s meditation and enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in a paper folding book containing extracts from the Pali Tipitaka and the legend of Phra Malai in Thai language in Khmer script. Central Thailand, 1894 (British Library, Or.16101 f.2). Public domain

The majority of Thai manuscript paintings are dedicated to Buddhist topics. However, instead of Gotama Buddha’s life these illustrations often highlight his former incarnations, particularly the Last Ten Birth Tales.

The manuscript above includes two illustrations of Gotama Buddha which combine Thai and European painting styles. It is a fine example where team-work of at least two artists can be assumed, one specializing in the traditional style of painting Thai figures, and the other experimenting with European landscape painting techniques. The paintings illustrate a central moment in the life of Gotama Buddha – his enlightenment. Once Prince Siddhattha had freed himself from all disturbances and distractions by way of meditation (right side), he was able to attain enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi tree on the full moon day of Visakha (in May). By touching the earth (left side) he called upon the earth goddess Dharani as a witness of his merits in his previous lives. The gods Brahma and Sakka witnessed his attainment of enlightenment and asked the Buddha to share his insights with all sentient beings.

Buddha’s attainment of pari-nibbana, or final liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Paper folding book, 19th century (British Library, Or.14115 f. 95)
Buddha’s attainment of pari-nibbana, or final liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Paper folding book, 19th century (British Library, Or.14115 f. 95). Public domain

The scene above, painted in rich colours, captures details associated with the story of the Buddha’s physical passing. At the age of 80 the Buddha fell ill and passed on at Kushinara, between Pava and Sal Grove. The illustration depicts the Buddha resting on his right side next to a sal tree (left side). A newly ordained monk conveys the message of the Buddha’s passing to his lay followers (right side), whom the Buddha had urged to work towards their own enlightenment with diligence. His body was cremated and the relics were placed in monuments (stupas). The presence of the sal trees in both the Buddha’s birth and death scenes symbolises the cycle of rebirths, samsara, a key concept in Buddhist philosophy.

Further reading

McDaniel, Justin, "The bird in the corner of the painting. Some problems with the use of Buddhist texts to study Buddhist ornamental art in Thailand", Moussons, 23/2014, pp. 21-53.
Igunma, Jana and San San May, "Buddha embracing nature – nature embracing Buddha. The Buddha and his natural environment in Southeast Asian manuscript art",  Arts of Asia, Jan/Feb 2020, pp.114-124.
San San May and Jana Igunma, Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript art from Southeast Asia. London, British Library, 2018.
Shravasti Dhammika, Nature and environment in early Buddhism. Singapore, Buddhist Research Society, 2015.

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

13 April 2020

Animal days: three Bugis amulets in British collections

Add comment

Today's guest blog is by Dr Roger Tol, former Head of the KITLV in Jakarta, and a specialist on Bugis manuscripts.

Mystical diagrams or amulets have always been very popular in Southeast Asia. In almost every local bookstore across Indonesia and Malaysia you can buy cheap publications called primbon which contain a great variety of texts, calendars, and mystical diagrams. By and large they are used to predict the future. Is this a good day for shopping? Or to marry? To harvest, to travel?  These diagrams go back a long time and you can find them in many Indonesian literary traditions. It is little surprise to find that we also come across them in handwritten documents from these traditions.

Still, it was  wonderful to see one such amulet pop up in a Bugis manuscript (Add 12360) from the Crawfurd collection in the British Library, which was recently digitised and made available online.

Bugis amuletic compass diagram Add_ms_12360_f062r-crop
Amuletic diagram in a Bugis manuscript containing treatises on medicine and agriculture, before 1814. British Library, Add 12360, f. 62r 

When I told Annabel Gallop that it was an interesting diagram, she informed me that she had discovered a very similar diagram in another Bugis manuscript, Add. 12372, from the same collection. Even more interesting!

Bugis amuletic compass diagram Add_ms_12372_f066r-crop
Amuletic diagram in another Bugis manuscript also containing treatises and notes on medical and agricultural matters, before 1814. British Library, Add 12372, f. 66r  

In both manuscripts we see a circular diagram like a wheel, divided into eight sections, with a flower in the middle resembling a rose window. Each section is numbered and has a few words in Bugis script. How do we read it? Where do we begin? Are there any reference sources? Yes, there are. We have good old Matthes’ publication on Bugis and Makassar amulets or kotika (1868) and two books on Malay magic which provide clues. It was Skeat who laid the groundwork in his Malay Magic of 1900. This is still a great read. More than a century later we also have the superb study on magical illustrations in Malay manuscripts which was published by Farouk Yayha in 2016, and this is an even greater read.

These books tell us how to read the diagrams and provide context, and Farouk in particular discusses animal days. Yes, animal days: each part of the diagram deals with a particular animal, except for number one, which is a wood day. So we have the following eight parts in our diagrams: wood day, tiger day, crocodile day, deer day, bird day, pig day, fish day, and dog day. The numbers (Arabic in Add 12360 and Latin in Add 12372) indicate the sequence of the days. We start with wood day, followed by tiger day, crocodile day, and so on. Their order is not accidental; at the very least there is an evident relation between animals on the opposite sides of the diagram: the crocodile versus the fish, the deer versus the dog, and the pig versus the tiger, while the bird relaxes in the tree.

How do you know what kind of animal belongs to a particular day? First you establish the date of the (Islamic) month, let’s say 18 Muharram. Then you start counting, beginning with the wood day and continue counting counter-clockwise until you arrive at 18, which turns out to be a tiger day.

Farouk shows us a few intriguing circular diagrams with actual drawings of the animals. A Malay one in particular is fascinating because it has the same shape as our diagrams and depicts the same animals save for one (Farouk 2016: 132).

EAP153-3-15 compass diagram with animals
A compass diagram of eight animals (cat, tiger, dog, bird, mouse, deer, crocodile, fish), in Kitab azimat dan rajah, a Malay manuscript on divination and spells,  Palembang, c. 1890.  Aswandi  Syahri Collection, British Library EAP153/3/15 image 21; rotated 180 degrees to match the orientation of the Bugis diagrams.

Back to our two Bugis manuscripts. They not only contain the same amulets, but also a complete and remarkable text preceding them, concerning divination corresponding to 30 surahs in the Qur’an (nos 2-31). However, a striking difference between the manuscripts is that Add 12372 also has an explanatory text following the amulet (ff. 66v-67v), shown below, which is lacking in Add 12360.

Add_ms_12372_f066v-67r Bugis explanation of divination diagram
Bugis explanation of the amuletic diagram. Briitish Library, Add 12372, ff. 66v-67r 

When we look at the two amulets themselves we see that both are well-drawn and have clear, neat Bugis writing. There are differences though. A major one is in the layout of the amulets with a bold and large central ‘flower’ in Add 12360 and a much smaller (and multi-coloured) one in the other manuscript, Add 12372. Also the amulet in Add 12372 has more informative text in the ring next to the green line: there it adds in each section the words ‘one night’, ‘two nights,’ up to  ‘eight nights’. The texts in the amulets are otherwise identical, though in different positions within the amulets. Interestingly in both amulets the sections are numbered, but in different ways and positions. Whereas in Add 12372 the numerals are written in the modern ‘Western’ way and placed inside the amulet, Add 12360 writes them as ‘Arab’ Arabic numerals in the outer sections.

So far so good, but what is the practical meaning of these diagrams? What do they tell us? To answer this question, we can turn to the explanation in Add 12372. This is what it says on f. 66v about the first two days, a wood day and a tiger day, in a free translation:

Greetings. We take a wheel with eight sections.
A wood day is a good day to weave cloth and also good to buy cloth. It is bad to go far away, but good to wage war. Bad to set sail because the rudder will shake. It is also bad to claim debts since these will not be paid soon. It is also a bad day for lending because you’ll never get it back. It is a good day to buy for relatives. Also good to buy animals. Bad to have a cockfight. End.
A tiger day is a very good day to marry a woman when she is a relative.It is also good for love. Not good for buying things since they will be eaten by fire or stolen. Also a good day to plant rice or other crop. End.

And then, surprise, surprise, and of very great interest, an ink drawing of a very similar kotika turned up in the Library of the Wellcome Collection in London.

Bugis amuletic compass diagram Wellcome Library no. 570977i
Bugis amuletic diagram. Wellcome Library no. 570977i 

There is no doubt that there is a clear relation between these three diagrams. But what kind of a relationship? This is all food for some guesswork.

The date of the Wellcome Library diagram is not certain. The approximate date in the online catalogue is given as “1850-1910”, but an earlier date might be possible, as suggested in an email from Wellcome’s research team. That is because a possibly related drawing in the same folder is dated “Jan 05” which probably indicates 1905, but might also refer to 1805.

For our two diagrams from the Crawfurd collection we have a clear terminus ante quem – they were drawn before 1814, the year they were looted from the Boné palace. We see that both manuscripts are closely related and present very similar, although not identical, amulets and contextual information. The most striking differences between the two are firstly that Add 12360 does not contain the explanation of the amulet, and secondly that Add 12360 uses Arabic numbers in the diagrams whereas Add 12372 uses Latin numbers. Does this mean Add 12360 is the “original” and Add 12372 its copy? Not necessarily. There is also the possibility both manuscripts were not direct copies from each other, but were copied from another manuscript. That could explain easily the differences between the texts, and therefore I have a preference for this option.

Considering the layout and use of Arabic numbering, the Wellcome kotika is apparently a direct copy from Add 12360. Yet there are some differences between the two. The most important is the quality of the Bugis script which in the Wellcome amulet is noticeably inferior to the script in Add 12360. It seems the copyist was not familiar with this script. Another difference is right in the middle, in the ‘heart’ of the flower. Whereas the petals in the ‘original’ are less well matched, those in the Wellcome copy are neat and symmetrical. The flower ‘handgrip’ denoting the wood day is also different and shows a combination of the differences mentioned above: the lines are both straighter and simpler.

Summarizing, it seems likely there was an “original” Bugis diagram drawn in the 18th century, which was copied in two manuscripts and kept in Boné’s royal library until 1814 when they were taken by the British. Then, at some stage, maybe even after the arrival of the Crawfurd manuscripts in the British Library in 1842, a copy of the diagram in Add 12360 was made which ultimately found its way in the Wellcome Library.

References
Farouk Yahya (2016). Magic and divination in Malay illustrated manuscripts. Leiden: Brill.
Farouk Yahya (2017).  The wheel diagram in the Malay divinatory technique of the Faal Qur'an. Indonesia and the Malay world, 45(132): 200-225.
Matthes, B.F. (1868). De Makassaarsche en Boeginesche kotika's. [Makassar: Sutherland]
Skeat, W.W. (1900). Malay magic being an introduction to the folklore and popular religion of the Malay Peninsula. London [etc.]: Macmillan.

Roger Tol, Leiden

Related blogs:

The Royal Library of Bone: Bugis and Makassar manuscripts in the British Library (6 January 2020).

Digital access to Bugis and Makassar manuscripts

30 March 2020

Sân khấu: a Vietnamese magazine on theatre and performing arts

Add comment

Today’s guest blog is by Haewon Lee, who is currently working on a Ph.D. at SOAS, University of London, on safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage, with special reference to Vietnamese Lên đồng.

Sân Khấu, which means “stage” or “theatre" in Vietnamese, is a monthly (bi-monthly in the early stages) magazine on theatre and performing arts. Although it has now faded into Vietnamese history, with the final volume published in 2002, the British Library holds a long run of Sân Khấu from 1977 to 2002, covering almost the entire life of the journal (16671.c.4).

Image 1
Front cover of Sân Khấu, no.17 (1-1979). British Library, 16671.c.4   

I am writing this post to raise awareness of this fantastic magazine so that more people can make good use of it for various purposes. The table below indicates the available volumes in the British Library. However, when requesting an item, it is necessary to specify which particular issues are required. As many first-time users will probably not know which volume to consult, attachments are provided via the links below, giving the table of contents for each volume.

Table: British Library holdings for Sân Khấu, 1977-2002 (16671.c.4)
Image 1 (table)

Downloadable PDFs of images of the contents pages of Sân Khấu for the following years:
Download San Khau 1977-1991
Download San Khau 1992-1994
Download San Khau 1995-1999
Download San Khau 2000-2002

Each volume usually contains around ten sections, with four core sections common to all the volumes. Theatre Issues (Những Vấn Đề Sân Khấu), Foreign Theatre (Sân Khấu Nước Ngoài), Cultural Exchange/Communications (Trao Đổi), and New Plays/Theatre News (Vở diễn mới/Tin sân khấu). Theatre Issues is the section for updates in the field. The editorials in this section discuss important issues such as fundraising and conserving the traditions.  The Foreign Theatre section covers a wide range of international topics of relevance to the theatre. The Cultural Exchange/Communications section contains not only interviews with artists and performers but also scholars’ discussions concerning ways to integrate traditional and contemporary art forms. Finally, the New Plays/ Theatre News section introduces new plays in Vietnam to the readers. On occasions it provides information about certain troupes who have made names for themselves by performing abroad.

Image 2
Front cover; introduction to a troupe of performers; and the table of contents, Sân Khấu, no. 152 (12-1993), pp. 1-3. British Library, 16671.c.4

This magazine is especially valuable for researchers for two reasons. First, the magazine covers not only the Viet people but also ethnic minority groups in Vietnam. For example, I was editing the paper I wrote on the Cham peoples’ impact on Bóng rỗi performance in southern Vietnam. The main purpose of the editing process was to fill in the gaps on Vietnamese perspectives on Cham performing arts, and I found numerous thought-provoking perspectives by Vietnamese scholars on Cham performing art in this magazine. Secondly, it gives me insightful ideas for my doctoral research. My doctoral research is on Vietnamese beliefs and practices in a folk religion called Lên đồng or Mother Goddess, and the current issues they are facing in terms of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage since 2016 when it was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This magazine has been valuable for me my research as it also covers various opinions on the issues of "stage-isation” of intangible cultural heritage not only in Vietnam but also worldwide. Concerns about “stage-isation" have been raised frequently as an issue of grave concern either in the Theatre Issues section or the Cultural Exchange/Communications section by experts in Vietnam since the late 1970s. Other matters of interest can also be found since each issue of the journal starts with the section called Theatre Issues

I intend to promote this magazine to reach more readers by introducing its full scope. The main focus of this magazine is the four key traditional performances in Vietnam: Chèo, Múa rối nước from northern Vietnam, Cải Lương , and Tuồng or Hát bội from southern Vietnam (see the blog post by Sud Chonchirdsin on Tuồng or Hát bội) Histories, contemporary issues, and reviews of individual performances are also discussed in this magazine. Additionally, each issue introduces the troupes presenting these traditional performances, along with contact information for the troupe and profiles of each member. This information is helpful for those who conduct fieldwork and need more networks in Vietnam.

Looking closely at the content, some special issues for certain months might grab the attention of a broader audience. For example, part of the October or November issues of the magazine celebrate the Russian revolution in 1917, and in these issues, contemporary issues in Russian theatre or cultural exchanges between Vietnam and the Soviet Union were featured. International perspectives are not only confined to communist states. Almost every issue has a section called Foreign Theatre, which might include essays on Broadway productions in the US and Shakespeare in the UK. These special issues and the coverage of general topics make this magazine more historically valuable as it allows readers to fathom Vietnamese perspectives  on various topics relating to theatre and performance. 

Image 3
Changes in front covers over time. Sân Khấu, no.6 (5,6-1977), no.20 (5-1979), no.165 (1-1995), no.225 (1-2000), no.242 (6-2002), and no.244 (8-2002). British Library, 16671.c.4    

Apart from the special issues, other features of the magazine are noteworthy. The special issues, which can be goldmines for researchers on Vietnam studies, became more frequent in the late 1970s. A different approach was apparent in the 1990s, when a number of “pretty” female artists were featured frequently in the magazine. During that period, the magazine seemed to be slowly losing its academic identity through the inclusion of more advertisements and articles on general lifestyle issues, as well as health and  beauty. However, in the very final stage, before it ceased publication in the early 2000s, the magazine returned to its roots and featured more editorials and reviews of plays. Reading through issues of Sân Khấu in the British Library can provide a rewarding journey through the lifecycle of the magazine.

Haewon Lee  ccownwork

Haewon Lee trained as an anthropologist, and has wide interests that include ritual practices and performing arts in Southeast Asian countries, and studies on intangible cultural heritage. She earned her BA in Vietnamese and Communications from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, while her MA dissertation (SOAS, 2017) and other writings mainly focus on the meaning of of gender in Lên đồng, a ritual practice in Vietnam. Her interest in ritual practices of mediumship in Vietnam led on to her current doctoral research at SOAS.  Haewon can be contacted by email on 643227@soas.ac.uk.

Note from Annabel Gallop, Head of the Southeast Asia section:
When Haewon Lee attended the annual Asian and African Collections Doctoral Students Day at the British Library on 20 January 2020, she asked if there was any quick way of finding out the contents of individual issues of Sân Khấu. My short answer was no: there was no alternative to ordering up every single issue of the journal to the Reading Room.  This Haewon duly did, slowly and methodically, while photographing every contents page. She then generously contacted me to ask if there was any way to make this information available to future researchers; hence this blog, with its valuable downloadable compilations of the contents pages of Sân Khấu.

11 February 2020

Bugis flower power: a compendium of floral designs

Add comment

The collection of Bugis and Makassar manuscripts in the British Library, which has now been fully digitised, covers a wide range of genres from court diaries to literature, treatises on a range of sciences, and religious works on Islamic law and Sufism.  Most of the manuscripts are sober textual documents, carefully and neatly written in Bugis/Makassar (lontaraq) or Arabic script, but - save for one compendium of poems - with few formal decorative elements.  On the other hand, many manuscripts also contain notes, calligraphic pen trials and doodles, which often include sketches, primarily of a floral nature.  This text-light but picture-heavy blog post has brought together all the floral drawings discovered in these manuscripts from south Sulawesi, presented here as a sourcebook for Bugis floral designs in the late 18th century.  In each case, the manuscript shelfmarks are hyperlinked to the full digitised manuscript page, so that the sketches can be seen in context; all the manuscripts originate from the royal library of Bone and were captured by the British in 1814.

Floral sketch in a Bugis court diary from Bone Add_ms_12373_f076v-crop
Floral sketch in a Bugis court diary from Bone, on an empty page prepared for September 1798. British Library, Add. 12373, f. 76v  noc

The one decorated manuscript in the collection is a collection of poems. The largest part of the manuscript comprises a series of fourteen short Bugis poems in tolo' style, concerning heroic episodes in the past: one poem tells of the death of the mid-sixteenth century king of Gowa, Tu-nibatta, whose head was cut off in battle. The volume also contains one Makassar poem (sinrili'), by Arung Palakka on his divorce from Arung Kaju, and it ends with a Bugis war-song (elong-oseng) by Daeng Manrupai.  The manuscript is neatly written and opens with a finely double frame drawn in black ink with faint red highlights, shown below.

Add_ms_12346_f002v-3r
Opening pages of a collection of Bugis poems, late 18th century. British Library, Add. 12346, ff. 2v-3r   noc
 
Within the volume new poems are heralded with a horizontal floral panel, all of which are presented below, together with hyperlinks to the folio of the manuscript on which they are found.

horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f007r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 7r  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f012r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 12r   noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f019v-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 19v  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f026r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 26r  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f030r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 30r  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f046v-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 46v  noc
Add_ms_12346_f050r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 50r  noc
Add_ms_12346_f052r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 52r  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f056v-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 56v  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f061v-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 61v  noc
Floral panel - Add_ms_12346_f064v-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 64v  noc

At the start of the first six poems, a single flower is inserted at the end of the first line of text:

Flower-Add_ms_12346_f046v-flower  Add_ms_12346_f012r-flower  Add_ms_12346_f019v-flower  Add_ms_12346_f026r-flower  Add_ms_12346_f030r-flower  Add_ms_12346_f046v-flower
British Library, Add. 12346, ff. 7r, 12r, 19v, 26r, 30r, 46v  noc

The only other polished examples of artwork found in a few manuscripts in this collection are of divination diagrams (kutika) based on the compass rose, which were used to establish propitious days or times for certain actions. Some of these diagrams have at their heart an elaborate floral composition.

Floral pattern at the centre of a divinatory diagram in a collection of Bugis treatises on medicine and other matters Add_ms_12360_f062r-flower  Floral pattern at the centre of a divinatory diagram in a collection of Bugis treatises on medicine and other matters Add_ms_12372_f066r
(Left) Floral pattern at the centre of a divinatory diagram in a collection of Bugis treatises on medicine and other matters, British Library, Add. 12360, f. 62r; (right) a similar floral pattern on a divinatory diagram from a similar compendium on diseases and medicines, British Library, Add. 12372, f. 66r.  noc

 The other drawings presented below are all essentially doodles: sketches drawn in blank pages or spaces on a page at the beginning or end of a text. But all are remarkable for the skill and artistry of the artist’s pen, in black ink, sketching intricate floral and foliate compositions.

Doodle of flower with heart-shaped petals Add_ms_12346_back cover
Doodle of flower with heart-shaped petals, found on the inside back cover of the volume of poetry presented above. British Library, Add. 12346, inside back cover  noc

Floral sketches in a collection of Bugis poems Add_ms_12361_f017r-floral
Floral sketches in a collection of Bugis poems. British Library, Add. 12361, f. 17r  noc

Sketches in a collection of Bugis poems Add_ms_12361_f018r-floral
Floral sketches in a collection of Bugis poems. British Library, Add. 12361, f. 18r  noc

Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines
Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines. British Library, Add. 12372, f. 1v   noc

Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines Add_ms_12372_f049r-crop
Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines. British Library, Add. 12372, f. 49r  noc

Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines Add_ms_12372_f073v
Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines. British Library, Add. 12372, f. 73v  noc

floral scrolls in a Bugis court diary from Bone  Add_ms_12373_f002r-flower

floral scrolls in a Bugis court diary from Bone  Add_ms_12373_f002r-flowers
Two floral scrolls in a Bugis court diary from Bone for the years 1793-1799. British Library, Add. 12373, f. 2r  noc

Related blog posts:

The Royal Library of Bone: Bugis and Makassar manuscripts in the British Library

Digital access to Bugis and Makassar manuscripts

Bugis manuscript art

Annabel Teh Gallop, Southeast Asia section  ccownwork

15 January 2020

The Vessantara Jataka on the move

Add comment

This is the ninth of a series of blog posts accompanying the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020.

Stories about the Buddha and Buddhism are depicted not only in illustrated manuscripts, but also in other media such as wall paintings, vertical hangings and thousands of long, painted, narrative scrolls that are part of the Lao and Thai-Lao tradition. These scrolls, found in Laos and Northeast Thailand, usually depict the story of Prince Vessantara, the penultimate incarnation of Prince Siddhartha. Prince Vessantara’s life was dedicated to donating whatever was requested of him, most notably the gift to beseeching Brahmins of the white elephant that ensured the prosperity of his own kingdom. Later, while Vessantara was in exile due to this gift, the Brahmin Chuchok, who lived as a beggar, asked for his children, while the god Indra, disguised as Chuchok, asked for his wife.

01 Gift of white elephant Kalasin 2518
Vessantara’s gift of the white elephant, illustrated on a scroll from Kalasin, Thailand, 1975. At the lower left, Prince Vessantara pours water onto the eight Brahmins, sealing the gift of the white elephant. On the upper right, the eight Brahmins ride the elephant out of the city’s gate, threatened by a soldier disputing the gift’s authenticity. Photograph by Leedom Lefferts, courtesy of Ajaan Somroay Yencheuy.

02 OR_16552_f012v
Scene of Vessantara sealing the gift of the white elephant by pouring water onto the hands of the recipients. Illustrated in a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the Mahabuddhaguna. Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or. 16552, f. 24 Noc

Dr. Sandra Cate and I have termed these long painted scrolls – which are about a meter wide and can extend from 15 to 45 and more meters in length – “murals on the move”, because they translate the Vessantara story painted on the walls of Buddhist temples (wat) into a portable version, and parade it through the community to display it. We can also see these scrolls as “manuscripts on the move”, not only because most have captions and other details written on them to explain the story, but also because the painting itself allows people to “read” the story in its narrative totality.

03 scroll and mural Buriram 2016
A painted scroll of the Vessantara Jataka is shown hung below a mural painting of the Last Ten Jatakas. Photographed at a temple in Buriram, Thailand, 2016, by Leedom Lefferts

Illustrated manuscripts are rare outside major cities, and the usual medium for Buddhist sacred texts is narrow palm leaf manuscripts which are usually not illustrated. Older Northeast Thai-Lao and Lao wat were almost entirely constructed of easily available wood which is not amenable to murals. The oldest illustrated materials now found in Northeast Thai and Lao wat are colored lithographs produced by the S. Thammapakdi company, dating to the early 1900’s, and sets of these prints depicting the lives of the Buddha and of Prince Vessantara are often found mounted on the walls of wooden preaching halls. But the tradition of long portable painted scrolls is arguably earlier, and may have been brought to the Lao through long-standing connections with India.

04 OR_16101_f045r
Illustration of a monk giving a sermon in a Thai manuscript containing extracts from the Tipitaka, the legend of Phra Malai and illustrations of the Last Ten Birth Tales. Thailand, 1894. British Library, Or. 16101, f. 89 Noc

05 Khok Sanghaa 2005 tayok wat
Bundled palm leaf manuscripts kept in a wooden box are distributed to monks to recite their section. Roi-et, Thailand, 2005. Photograph by Leedom Lefferts.

The ingenuity of the Lao is that they have taken these scrolls, best seen “in motion”, and incorporated them into a two-day merit-making festival, the Bun Phra Wet (the Merit-making Festival for Prince Vessantara, Phra Wet). The first day, muu hom (Lao; Thai, wan ruam), the day of coming together, includes visits by friends and relatives from more distant villages to the celebrating community. More importantly, it culminates in welcoming the return to the community of Prince Vessantara and his family, the Prince embodied in the scroll which the people in procession carry aloft. In this way, the people re-enact the beginning of the story’s climax, when they recognize their belief in the justice of Prince Vessantara’s actions and invite him to return home.

06 OR_15925_f022r
Scene of Chuchok leading Vessantara’s children away through the forest. Illustration in a folding book containing the Mahabuddhaguna, Thailand, 1841. British Library, Or. 15925, f. 43 Noc

07 Chuchok procession 2008
Chuchok leading the children of Vessantara away, performed by lay people during a procession in Khon Kaen, Thailand, 2008. Photograph by Leedom Lefferts.

In the cooler late afternoon of muu hom the rolled-up long scroll is taken from its storage place in the wat to a nearby water source outside the village, monks are invited to attend, and villagers gather, sitting on the ground on mats. The water source replicates the surroundings of Vessantara and his family’s hermitage in their place of exile, on Mazeway Mountain. The villagers then begin the story’s celebratory end. The Prince’s children have returned to the palace, ransomed by their grandparents; Vessantara sits in meditation, accompanied by his wife, Matsi. An elderly man initiates the invocation to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha and the receipt of the five precepts, and then recites a special request, asking Phra Wet to return home. The elder’s recitation apologizes on behalf of the citizens who asked Vessantara’s father, the King, to exile his son. Sometimes a monk acting as Phra Wet, rejects the invitation two times, finally accepting it, reluctantly; sometimes a layman accepts it. A dish holding candles, incense, and leaves and flowers, meant as a token of the city, is offered. Phra Wet is reluctant to accept because he has found success and peace at the hermitage in this wild place “hidden in the mountains”; he finally agrees because it has been foretold that it is his duty to become king.

08 OR_16552_f038v
Vessantara is asked to return home and the family is reunited. Illustrated in a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the Mahabuddhaguna. Thailand, 19th century. Or. 16552, f. 78 Noc

09 V to come home KK 2014
Lay people and monks re-enact the scene in which Vessantara is asked to return to the Kingdom. Photograph taken in Khon Kaen, Thailand, 2014, by Leedom Lefferts.

At this point, the village’s celebration echoes the story. In the Jataka tale, the celebratory procession wends its way city-ward for thirty days. The village procession mimics this, walking from the water source outside the village with the long scroll unfurled and held high on sticks or by its upper edge, as participants proceed with laughter and jollity. Villagers say Phra Wet is in the scroll; “Vessantara comes home”, as the day’s name signifies. As the procession enters the community, more and more people join it, holding the scroll while dancing, singing, and generally exclaiming, bringing branches and flowers from the forest to the wat. The festive congregation enters the temple grounds and circles the preaching hall three times, placing the branches and flowers in baskets under waving flags. They carry scroll into the preaching hall and fasten it to pillars so that it surrounds the preaching and audience area, converting it into a transformative space.

10 procession NBLP 2011 Sandra Cate
Vessantara scroll procession, Nong Bua Lam Phu, Thailand, 2011. Photograph by Sandra Cate.  To download a short video of a scroll procession in Khon Kaen province, filmed by Leedom Lefferts in 2009, please click here.

That evening, the Phra Malai legend is read to the audience, ensuring that they know the importance of listening to the complete Vessantara Jataka. Phra Malai, a monk who had accumulated much merit, travels to the various Buddhist hells and to Tavatimsa heaven to worship the Culamani Cetiya, in which is enshrined the hair of Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, which he had cut off when he entered his seven years of exile. There Phra Malai meets Indra, King of the Gods, and Maitreya, the incarnation who will follow the Buddha of the present era. Maitreya enjoins Phra Malai to return to the human world and inform its citizens that, in order to be reborn when Maitreya comes, they must listen to the complete recitation of the Vessantara Jataka.

11 recitation KK 2006
Audience listening to the Phra Malai story, burning candles and incense over water in the transformative space created by the scroll and other meaningful objects. The sacralized water will be taken home to infuse bath water for children and older adults. Photograph taken by Leedom Lefferts, Khon Kaen Province, Thailand, 2006.

The next day, muu thet, the day of the sermon, monks recite the complete story from palm leaf manuscripts. This takes place in the transformative space created by the hanging scroll. Indeed, since he is present in the scroll, people say that Prince Vessantara hears the recitation of the story of his own life.

After the day-long recitation, villagers clean the preaching hall, and the scroll is taken down and rolled and stored for the ceremony the following year. A scroll endures considerable wear and tear in the course of the procession and while hanging. Most new scrolls are produced in just two villages in Northeast Thailand, but the fluorescence of scroll production by local artists appears to have occurred in the period following World War II to the mid-1980’s. The Buddhist year 2500 (1957CE) seems to have resulted in a peak of production, as Buddhists realized that the 2,500 years to follow have been predicted to witness a decline in the following of the Dharma. The continuing popularity of annual Bun Phra Wet festivals in the thousands of Northeast Thai and Lowland Lao temples indicates the vibrancy of this religious practice among these people.

12 Ban Khok Sanghaa 2005
An elderly monk reading from a palm leaf manuscript. Photograph taken in Roi-et Province, Thailand, 2005, by Leedom Lefferts.

References and further reading
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, and Somroay Yencheuy, Buddhist Murals of Northeast Thailand: Reflections of the Isan Heartland. Chiang Mai: Mekong Press, 2010

Kaiser, Thomas, with Leedom Lefferts and Martina Wernsdörfer, Devotion: Image, Recitation, and Celebration of the Vessantara Epic in Northeast Thailand. Zurich: Ethnographic Museum, University of Zurich and Arnoldsche Art Publishers. 2017

Lefferts, Leedom, and Sandra Cate, Buddhist Storytelling in Thailand and Laos: The Vessantara Scroll at the Asian Civilisations Museum. Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2012.

Leedom Lefferts Ccownwork

Leedom Lefferts is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey, and Visiting Scholar at the Carolina Asia Center, The University of North Carolina. His studies have focused on Northeast Thai Lao and Southeast Asian material culture, including indigenous pottery production, the Vessantara epic and its scrolls, and issues of rural development and political inclusion.