Asian and African studies blog

61 posts categorized "Thai"

21 November 2022

Three northern Thai manuscripts from Carl Bock’s collection

A currently ongoing initiative to add provenance details to catalogue records of manuscripts in the British Library’s Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections  has brought to light that three palm leaf manuscripts were previously part of Carl Bock’s collection of Southeast Asian artefacts. Carl Alfred Bock (1849-1932) was a Norwegian natural scientist and explorer, who travelled in Southeast Asia between 1878 to 1882. A zoological collecting trip took him first to Sumatra, followed by an expedition to gather information on the peoples of Borneo for Johan Willem van Lansberge, governor-general of the Dutch East Indies. In 1881 Bock travelled to Siam (Thailand) for fourteen months on a mission to collect botanical and zoological specimens, with the backing of the Zoological Society in London and the financial support of the Scottish Marquis of Tweddale, William M. Haye, an enthusiastic botanist. What Bock brought back from his expedition was much more than natural specimens though.

mpression of Carl Bock and his team during the expedition to Borneo
Impression of Carl Bock and his team during the expedition to Borneo. Lithograph by C. F. Kell of Castle St, Holborn, London, published in The head-hunters of Borneo by Carl Bock (London, 1881).  British Library, V10009, plate 29. Noc

With the permission and support of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), Bock travelled on a steamer up the Chao Phraya river, then continued on smaller boats on the Ping river to Chiang Mai, and finally by boat and elephant further north to Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen on the Mekong. He had to promise the king to refrain from any political allusions and was accompanied by Siamese soldiers. In the northern regions he passed through Tak, Lamphun, Lakhon, and Fang. Bock met Lao- and Shan-speaking people in the larger settlements along the rivers and was closely observed, and sometimes delayed, by local rulers. He noted that from Tak northwards it became increasingly difficult to move around and to purchase objects because Siamese money was not recognised, nor were the visa and letters issued by the Siamese government and the king. He concluded that the border between Siam and the polities of Lao-speaking people was running near Tak by the River Ping.

Bock’s travel route from Bangkok to Chiang Saen and back
Bock’s travel route from Bangkok to Chiang Saen and back, published in Temples and Elephants: The Narrative of a Journey of Exploration Through Upper Siam and Lao by Carl Bock (London, 1884). British Library, T 38901, p. [xv] Noc

During the expedition Bock acquired – normally by way of negotiations and purchase using Siamese Baht and Rupees of British Burma - objects of everyday use like textiles, hats, baskets, Bencharong porcelain, silverware, lacquerware, amulets, jewellery, small Buddha and Bodhisatta images, musical instruments, knives, daggers, opium weights, traditional medicines, an ivory seal, palm leaf manuscripts etc. Nearly 400 objects from Bock’s collection – including objects from Indonesia - are kept in the British Museum.

Text passage in Northern Thai Dhamma script from a text on Buddhist psychology, Mahawibak, incised on palm leaf, dated 1856
Text passage in Northern Thai Dhamma script from a text on Buddhist psychology, Mahawibak, incised on palm leaf, dated 1856. From the collection of Carl Bock. British Library, Or 2629, first bundle Noc

Three palm leaf manuscripts that were originally part of Bock’s collection at the British Museum were transferred to the British Library in or shortly after 1973. All three are incised in Dhamma (or Tham) script, seen in the image above, which was used in the historical kingdoms of Lanna (northern Thailand) and Lan Sang (Laos and north-eastern Thailand). They are not by the same scribe since the writing styles differ, and there are also some physical differences. Or 2629 consists of eleven palm leaf bundles with gilt and red lacquered edges. They contain a variety of Buddhists texts, mainly in Pali language, including one chapter from the Vessantara Jataka.

Nine palm leaf bundles containing the Mahosadha Jataka in Northern Thai Dhamma script, held together with wooden sticks to form one large manuscript, dated 1842
Nine palm leaf bundles containing the Mahosadha Jataka in Northern Thai Dhamma script, held together with wooden sticks to form one large manuscript, dated 1842. From the collection of Carl Bock. British Library, Or 2630 Noc

One manuscript that stands out in terms of binding methods is a palm leaf manuscript (Or 2630) consisting of nine bundles that are not bound with a cord, which is usually the case with palm leaf manuscripts in the Thai and Lao traditions, but stacked together using two wooden sticks (shown above). This method is well known in the Burmese manuscript tradition. However, the bundles probably were originally bound with a white-and-red cotton cord with human hair woven in, which was removed and is now kept alongside the manuscript. The edges of the palm leaves are covered with gold and black lacquer. Each bundle contains a chapter from the Mahosadha Jataka in Dhamma script, together with a colophon mentioning 1842 as the year of its creation.

The third manuscript (Or 2631, shown below) consists of palm leaves with gilt and red lacquered edges and wooden covers. The content, six chapters of the Vidhura Jataka (partially fragmented), is written neatly in Dhamma script, in a cursive calligraphy-like style. The leaves are held together with a black cord, however, this cord was inserted later as it is of a more recent make. Originally, the six chapters may have been bound in six separate bundles. Three of the six chapters mention 1860 as the year of creation.

Palm leaf manuscript with wooden covers, containing six chapters of the Vidhura Jataka in northern Thai Dhamma script, dated 1860
Palm leaf manuscript with wooden covers, containing six chapters of the Vidhura Jataka in northern Thai Dhamma script, dated 1860. From the collection of Carl Bock. British Library, Or 2631 Noc

From the shelfmarks with the prefix “Or” of these three manuscripts it was known that they were previously among a large number of manuscripts transferred from the British Museum’s library when it was absorbed into the British Library according to the British Library Act of 1972. To find out more details about the provenance of these manuscripts, the original records from the British Museum, now held in the corporate archive of the British Library, had to be consulted. With the help of Records and Archives Assistant Victoria Ogunsanya it was possible to establish that the three manuscripts were purchased from Carl Bock himself and accessioned into the British Museum collections on 22 November 1882, shortly after his return from mainland Southeast Asia.

We have no certainty as to where and how Bock acquired the manuscripts, but he reported that in Lakhon he was shown the temple library on stilts at Wat Luang: “Passing through a trap-door in this upper floor – the door is always religiously bolted against intruders – we enter a room containing a number of large chests, coloured red or black and decorated with figures or scroll-work in gold-leaf, in which the sacred palm leaf MSS are kept. Each volume is carefully wrapped in a gay-coloured cloth, and the chests are kept closely locked.” (Bock, 1884, p. 167)

Acquisition records for Or 2629 and Or 2630
Acquisition records for Or 2629 and Or 2630 in BLCA/S81/01 (DH40/1): British Museum, Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts: Registers of Oriental Manuscripts, Or.1 - Or.3480 (1867-1886)

Bock published his observations and experiences in a book with the title Temples and Elephants: The Narrative of a Journey of Exploration Through Upper Siam and Lao (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1884), which was translated into various languages (Norwegian 1884, German 1885, French 1889, Thai 1962) and re-published several times (Bangkok 1985, Singapore 1986, Geneva 2013, Nonthaburi 2019).
Other works by Bock include academic articles in Proceedings from the Scientific Meetings of the Zoological Society of London (1878, 1879, and 1881) and the book The Head-Hunters of Borneo: a narrative of Travel up the Mahakkam and down the Barito; also, Journeyings in Sumatra (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1881).

Bang Pa-In Palace on the Chao Phraya river near Ayutthaya
Lithograph depicting the Bang Pa-In Palace on the Chao Phraya river near Ayutthaya, published in Temples and Elephants: The Narrative of a Journey of Exploration Through Upper Siam and Lao by Carl Bock (London, 1884). British Library, T 38901, p. [70] Noc

Apart from natural specimens, cultural artefacts and information about the peoples of northern Thailand, Bock reportedly brought back a young girl named Krao who was born with hypertrichosis. Although there is no mention in Bock’s publications of Krao or of one Professor George G. Shelly who had apparently accompanied Bock on his expedition, newspaper articles and numerous advertisements featuring Krao were published upon their return to Europe. They believed that in Krao they had found Darwin’s “missing link between man and ape”, and she was exhibited in Farini’s “wonder shows” in London and New York. It soon became very clear that Krao, who after only a few months had learned to speak some English and German, had acquired basic reading and writing skills, and was able to entertain large crowds of people with wit and humour, was more human than those who had taken her from her family and her world. Later she had a successful career in the show business and toured the US and Europe until her death from influenza in 1926.

Advertisement for “Krao, the ‘missing link’” shows in London in January 1883
Advertisement for “Krao, the ‘missing link’” shows in London in January 1883. British Library, Evan.2474 Noc

After his expeditions in Southeast Asia, Bock joined the diplomatic service and became Norwegian-Swedish vice-consul in Shanghai in 1886, then consul-general in Shanghai in 1893, consul in Antwerp in 1899, and consul-general in Lisbon from 1900 to 1903. He travelled in Sichuan and Tibet in 1893. From 1906 until his death in 1932 he lived in Brussels.

Further reading
Men living in trees. Timaru Herald, vol. XL, issue 3198, 26 December 1884, p. 3.
Nielsen, Flemming Winther: Carl Bock: a scientist among ghosts and white elephants. Scandasia, 10 December 2011.
Nielsen, Flemming Winther: Carl Bock (2): the wilderness and the power. Scandasia, 28 February 2012.
Explorers of South-East Asia: Six Lives, ed. Victor T King, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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

07 November 2022

Manuscript Textiles in the Southeast Asian collections

A Chevening Fellowship is currently being hosted for twelve months by the Library’s Asian and African Collections department with the aim of researching and cataloguing manuscript textiles in the Southeast Asian collections. The Library holds about 3000 manuscripts from Southeast Asia, forming the largest and most significant collection of Southeast Asian manuscripts in the UK. Highlights include illustrated paper folding books and gilded manuscript chests from Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand, rare palm leaf manuscripts from Cambodia, Laos and northern Thailand, royal letters in Malay from the courts of the archipelago, some of the earliest known Batak divination manuals from Sumatra, as well as unique royal letters and edicts from Vietnam and Thailand.

Palm leaf manuscript containing a Buddhist commentary, from central Thailand c. 1824-52, with a silk wrapping cloth with gold thread, of Indian origin, made to order for the Thai royal court. British Library, Or 5107
Palm leaf manuscript containing a Buddhist commentary, from central Thailand c. 1824-52, with a silk wrapping cloth with gold thread, of Indian origin, made to order for the Thai royal court. British Library, Or 5107 Noc

Within this body of material, recent digitisation projects and exhibitions have brought to light over one hundred manuscript textiles - either wrapped around or attached to manuscripts as a form of protective cover or binding - without or with only minimal documentation and cataloguing data. Often the textiles were custom-made for one particular manuscript, and such objects could be made from valuable hand-woven silk brocades, ikat fabrics, dyed or printed cotton and imported materials like chintz and silk damask. Specially designed textiles were commissioned to add meritorious value to a Buddhist manuscript or to an entire set of Buddhist texts. Sometimes discarded textiles like monks’ robes, used and unused clothes of deceased people, or leftover pieces of cloths made for other purposes were utilised to create beautiful manuscript textiles.

The provenance of these textiles is often difficult to establish due to the lack of recorded information in the Library's catalogues and acquisition records. Another reason is that some of the manuscript textiles appear to be of a different date than the manuscripts themselves, and some may originate from a different place than the manuscripts they belong to, since there was a practice to replace worn out or damaged manuscript textiles with new ones to provide protection to the manuscripts.

Methaporn Singhanan on her first day as Chevening Fellow at the British Library, September 2022
Methaporn Singhanan on her first day as Chevening Fellow at the British Library, September 2022

The Chevening Fellow who is currently surveying and assessing these under-researched and often fragile Southeast Asian manuscript textiles is Methaporn Singhanan, a Ph.D. student from the Social Science Faculty at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, where she is also running a volunteer project to conserve Buddhist arts in northern Thailand. Her upcoming dissertation focuses on Southeast Asian textiles and trade routes, highlighting the importance of textiles as a source of information about the world's economy and trade links between countries and continents. Methaporn Singhanan has over seven years of experience as a curator at the Money and Textile Museum, Bank of Thailand, Northern Region Office, where she worked with textiles and curated exhibitions. She holds a B.A. in History as well as an M.A. in Art and Cultural Management from Chiang Mai University. Before joining the Bank of Thailand in 2013, Methaporn Singhanan worked as a historian for the Northern Archaeology Center (NAC) at Chiang Mai University, where she assisted in the conservation of artifacts from temples and the establishment of a local museum in northern Thailand. Her knowledge and expertise will help to provide comprehensive catalogue records and to plan and inform future conservation work and public engagement with the manuscript textiles.

Shan paper manuscript bound with a patterned cotton cloth cover and a felt binding ribbon, Shan State, first half of the 20th century. British Library, Or 15368
Shan paper manuscript bound with a patterned cotton cloth cover and a felt binding ribbon, Shan State, first half of the 20th century. British Library, Or 15368. From the collection of Søren Egerod. Noc

The aims of this project are not only to identify the Library’s holdings of Southeast Asian manuscript textiles dating mainly from the 18th to the 20th century, but also to document in detail the materials, size, estimated age, pattern, technique of creation, country of origin, provenance and general condition of each item and, where possible, to recommend which items should be prioritised for conservation treatment. Methaporn Singhanan works closely with the Library’s curators of Southeast Asian collections to share information about these manuscript textiles internally, especially with colleagues in the Library’s Conservation Centre, as well as externally with organisations in the UK and abroad that have an interest in the curation and conservation of Asian textiles.

Chevening is the UK government’s international awards scheme aimed at developing global leaders. Funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and partner organisations, Chevening offers fellowships to mid-career professionals to undertake a bespoke short course in the UK.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork
Methaporn Singhanan, Chevening Fellow at the British Library 2022-23 Ccownwork

05 September 2022

Glimpses from the ‘Golden Land’: Decorative manuscript art in Thailand and beyond

One of the most enchanting items in the 'Bound in Gold' section of the British Library's GOLD exhibition (20 May - 2 October 2022) is the gold and laquer front cover on a Thai manuscript (Or 15257) depicting animals and plants in the heavenly Himavanta forest of the Buddhist cosmos, a detail of which is shown below.  This blog will discuss the techniques that were used in Thailand and other parts of mainland Southeast Asia to create this book cover and other examples of gilded manuscript art.

The beauty of illustrated Buddhist manuscripts from mainland Southeast Asia is often further enhanced by lavish gold embellishments. The region, rich in natural gold deposits found in rocks and as “gold sand” in and along rivers, was once called Suvarnabhumi, ‘Golden Land’, by Indian merchants in the first millennium CE. A Thai inscription dated 1292 CE, attributed to King Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai, documents free trade in gold and silver. Gold was not only important in the commerce with the outside world, but also had and continues to have religious significance: gold images of the Buddha and gold-covered stupa monuments, texts written in gold ink, gold-leaf ornaments on Buddhist temple buildings and furniture can be found across the Southeast Asian mainland. In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, gold decorations were applied to increase the meritorious value of a manuscript, but also to reflect on the social status of the person who commissioned a manuscript or whom such a work was dedicated to. Gold-leaf applications in illustrations helped to give prominence to representations of the Buddha as well as Buddhist and Hindu deities. This blog explores the use of gold to decorate manuscripts in Thailand (formerly Siam) and techniques of applying gold on paper, palm leaves, wood and cloth.

Detail from the back cover of a Thai folding book decorated with gold on black lacquer
Detail from the back cover of a Thai folding book decorated with gold on black lacquer in lai rot nam technique. Central Thailand, second half of the 19th century. British Library, Or 15257  Noc

A popular method to apply gold leaf on the covers of Thai paper folding books, palm leaf manuscripts, furniture and musical instruments is called lai rot nam. This technique goes back at least to the late Ayutthaya period (17th-18th century CE).

The first step consists of applying on the chosen surface several coats of black lacquer, a resin from a tree in the sumac family. The design is traced on parchment paper, and small holes are punched along the lines with a needle. The artist then places the perforated paper on the dried lacquer and wipes it with white clay to copy the design on to the lacquered surface. With a yellow gummy paint made from gamboge and river tamarind rubber the parts which remain black are covered in all their smallest details.

Front cover of a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai, with gold decorations made in lai rot nam technique
Front cover of a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai, with gold decorations made in lai rot nam technique. Central Thailand, 1894. British Library, Or 16101  Noc

The next step in this process is to add a thin coat of lacquer glue over the surface, and when it is semi-dry, gold leaf is applied. After about twelve to twenty hours the work is “washed with water”: using a wet cotton ball or sponge the artist gently detaches the gummy paint to expose the lacquer while the remaining gold design, glued to the lacquered surface, appears. Hence this art is called lai rot nam, which is the Thai expression for ‘designs washed with water’. The beauty of the finished work depends first upon an exquisite design and afterwards a perfect execution which require artistic talent as well as excellent technological knowledge and skills.

Front cover of a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka, with gold decorations made in lai rot nam technique
Front cover of a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka, with gold decorations made in lai rot nam technique. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16009  Noc

The finest examples of Thai folding books have black lacquer covers with lavish gold decorations made in the lai rot nam technique. Often these were funeral or commemoration books commissioned by royals or wealthy members of the society and offered to the Buddhist order of monastics, Sangha. Made from several layers of sturdy mulberry paper, their covers provide more space to apply decorative designs in gold than the much narrower palm leaf manuscripts. Motifs of these decorations include scenes from the heavenly Himavanta forest, plants, mythical and real animals, deities and repetitive floral patterns.

Wooden covers of a palm leaf manuscript containing Buddhist tales with floral decorations in gold on black lacquer
Wooden covers of a palm leaf manuscript containing Buddhist tales with floral decorations in gold on black lacquer. Central Thailand, c. 1851-68. British Library, Or 12524  Noc

Despite the narrow format of palm leaf manuscripts, which offers only limited space for embellishment, the lai rot nam technique was also used to decorate the wooden covers of palm leaf manuscripts. Occasionally, the front and back leaves of palm leaf bundles were illuminated in this way, too, incorporating the title of the text contained in the manuscript.

Palm leaf bundles with cover decorations made in this technique are also found in the manuscript traditions of North Thailand (Lanna) and Laos. Here, the floral patterns are often less repetitive and reflect the artistic traditions of this cultural area.

Detail of the wooden front cover of a Kammavaca palm leaf manuscript with gold floral ornaments made in lai rot nam technique on black lacquer
Detail of the wooden front cover of a Kammavaca palm leaf manuscript with gold floral ornaments made in lai rot nam technique on black lacquer. North Thailand, 1903. British Library, Or 11799  Noc

Gilded pieces of Thai furniture show how manuscripts were traditionally kept in temple libraries. They are also outstanding examples of gold-and-lacquer art applied to larger surfaces. Unique designs were executed in the lai rot nam technique on wooden cabinets to house an entire set of the Buddhist canon (Tipitaka), depicting scenes from the Birth Tales of the Buddha or from the heavenly forest Himavanta. With numerous such cabinets, the libraries of royal temples truly looked like enormous treasure chests, in which the actual treasure were the teachings of the Buddha.

Side view of a wooden manuscript cabinet showing a scene from the Mahosadha Jataka in gold and lacquer
Side view of a wooden manuscript cabinet showing a scene from the Mahosadha Jataka in gold and lacquer, made in the lai rot nam technique. Central Thailand, 19th century. Gift from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. British Library, Foster 1057  Noc

Another method to apply gold on lacquer is the stencil technique, which was and continues to be popular in North Thailand and Laos, but it was also known in Cambodia and the Shan State of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Entire temple walls, pillars, ceilings, window panels, doors and furniture could be decorated with this technique. Buddhist temples well-known for their interiors adorned with exquisite gold stencil-designs are Vat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, and Wat Phra Sing in Chiang Mai, for example. Custom-made chests for single paper or palm-leaf manuscripts were frequently embellished with gold leaf on red or black lacquer, applied with the stencil technique.

Front view of a wooden chest for a single folding book with gold pattern made in stencil technique on red lacquer
Front view of a wooden chest for a single folding book with gold pattern made in stencil technique on red lacquer. Thailand, late 19th or early 20th century. British Library, Or 16840  Noc

To create the stencil ornaments the artist draws or copies the desired design on a thin sheet of paper. This is affixed to a piece of sturdy mulberry paper, which the artist places on a wooden plank. The parts that shall appear in gold are cut out, using straight and curved chisels of varying sizes. Once the entire pattern has been cut out, the artist attaches the stencil to the lacquered surface of the object to be decorated, then applies gold leaf or gold paint through the stencil openings with a soft sponge or brush. When the stencil is removed from the surface carefully, the design comes to light.

Manuscript covers containing Buddhist scriptures, especially Kammavaca ordination texts, were often decorated with gold in the stencil technique. The image below shows the wooden covers of a Kammavaca manuscript from North Thailand. This manuscript was made in the folding book format with text in gold script and illustrations on blackened cloth. The sturdy covers were added to give stability and protection to the textile. This example is interesting as it combines red and black lacquer on which the gold pattern of lotus flowers was applied in the stencil technique.

Wooden covers of a Kammavaca manuscript in folding book format made from cloth
Wooden covers of a Kammavaca manuscript in folding book format made from cloth. The floral ornaments were executed in stencil technique on black lacquer, with a red lacquer frame. North Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14025  Noc

Whereas the lai rot nam and stencil techniques are found across mainland Southeast Asia, a third method to apply gold embellishments on manuscripts was popular in Burma (now Myanmar). Here, the lacquered surface was covered entirely with gold leaf before the design was drawn on it with a pen in bright red paint made from lacquer and cinnabar. Decorative text portions in Burmese square script, especially in Kammavaca manuscripts, were executed in this technique as well, but afterwards filled in with a thick layer of black lacquer. The tradition to fill the spaces between the lines of text with delicate floral patterns lends these unique manuscripts an air of lightness and elegance.

Kammavaca manuscript with text in Burmese square script in black lacquer on a gilded surface
Kammavaca manuscript with text in Burmese square script in black lacquer on a gilded surface. On the sides and between the lines of text are decorations drawn in red colour. Myanmar, 19th century. British Library, Or 13896, f. 2r   Noc

Further reading
Aphiwan Adunyaphichet: Lai rot nam. Thai lacquer works. Bangkok: Muang Boran, 2012
Bennett, Anna T. N.: Gold in early Southeast Asia. Archeosciences 33 (2009), pp. 99-107  (viewed on 20/08/2022)
Chaichana Phojaroen: Sinlapa lai rot nam. Lairotnamart.  (viewed on 21/08/2022)
Lammerts, Christian: Notes on Burmese Manuscripts: Text and Images. Journal of Burma Studies 14 (2010), pp. 229-253  (viewed on 23/08/2022)
No. Na. Paknam: Tu Phra Traipidok sut yot haeng sinlapa lai rot nam. Bangkok: Muang Boran, 2000

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

The exhibition Gold: 50 spectacular manuscripts from around the world is on at the British Library until 2 October 2022. To visit, book your tickets here.

An accompanying book, Gold, presenting 21 highlights from the exhibition, is available from the British Library shop.

Supported by:

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The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

01 August 2022

Disfigured Ghosts and Gory Tortures in Phra Malai Manuscripts and Thai Cosmological Parks

This guest blog is by Roni N. Wang, a Ph.D. candidate at SOAS, University of London, focusing on contemporary Thai Buddhism. Roni’s research looks at Buddhist Cosmological Parks in Thailand.

Within the Buddhist cosmic scheme, birth in the realm of hell is the lowest level possible and undeniably the most horrific outcome of negative karma. Illustrations of these gory dwellings - lit by the reddish glow of blazing fires and echoing with spine-tingling screams of tortured denizens - can be found in Phra Malai manuscripts at the British Library. The story of Phra Malai tells of the arahant (one who attained enlightenment) Malai who, through accumulated merit and meditation, manifested the ability to travel to different realms of existence, and witnessed the horrors of the hells.

Paired illustrations in a paper folding book depicting Phra Malai’s visit to hell
Fig. 1. Paired illustrations in a paper folding book depicting Phra Malai’s visit to hell. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 15257, f.4  Noc

Inspired partly by this imagery are sculptural depictions of these scenes which can be found in Thai cosmological parks. Housed within Buddhist temple precincts, these parks are spaces in which different cosmic realms, local scenes, historical figures and events, and anecdotes from the Buddha’s life story come to life via three-dimensional imagery. Most popular amongst park visitors are the hell sections, some depictions of which will be explored here in relation to the Phra Malai manuscripts.

Before delving into the imagery of the monk’s hellish visions, it is vital to distinguish between two life forms that appear in the hells: hells’ denizens and hungry ghosts (Pāli: peta). The first, the hell dwellers, are creatures who were born in one of the hells, and are afflicted with myriad torturous punishments. The second group are the hungry ghosts, who are born into a realm of their own, usually due to lighter offenses or after having served one or more life spans as hell dwellers. The physical dwellings of these ghosts are varied. Some may roam the hells, and these are indeed the creatures we encounter in the depictions discussed here. Others wander the human realm, and some populate a ghostly town said to be situated above the hells. These ghosts differ in physical appearance and characteristics, but share the same grim fate, leading futile lives of constant unattainable craving, which is often expressed by ceaseless hunger and thirst.

Phra Malai with hell dwellers illustrated in a Thai folding book, dated 1875
Fig. 2. Phra Malai with hell dwellers illustrated in a Thai folding book, dated 1875. British Library, Or 6630, f.10  Noc

Now let us begin our exploration of the manuscripts’ depictions and their counterparts in the parks. One notable scene that can be found in Or 6630 (fig. 2) portrays Phra Malai seated amongst hell dwellers who ask him for meritorious assistance. As the story goes, the monk gave a sermon, after which the inhabitants of hell asked him to pay a visit to their living relatives back in the human realm to request them to perform merit on their behalf. The narrative that this image conveys emphasises the importance of merit performed by relatives for their deceased ancestors, as well as the notion that salvation is dependent on an inter-realm relationship that is communicated by ascetics.

Phra Malai amongst hell dwellers at Wat Saen Suk, Chonburi
Fig. 3. Phra Malai amongst hell dwellers at Wat Saen Suk, Chonburi. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

This scene is replicated in Wat Saen Suk Park in the eastern province of Chonburi (fig. 3). As in the 1875 manuscript, the creatures that surround Phra Malai here include naked and emaciated hell denizens and ghosts. Also noticeable are those with human bodies and animal heads. These creatures are dwellers of a hell called Saṇghāta, birth into which is a result of killing or burning animals.

These creatures also appear in OR14664 (fig. 4), displaying different animal heads, with one impressive rooster being positioned in the centre.

Inhabitants of hell with animal heads
Fig. 4. Inhabitants of hell with animal heads, illustrated in a Phra Malai manuscript from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14664, f.26  Noc

Amongst these disfigured creatures, Or 15257 (fig. 1) displays ghosts with no head but with facial features on their abdomen. This ghostly existence is the fate of robbers or thieves who used violent methods to obtain property that belonged to others. This type of headless ghost makes an appearance in the park discussed above, Wat Saen Suk. Here, it is seen holding a spear in its hand (fig. 5). It is said that the spear was given to it by Yama, the king of death, to keep away the lurking crows that tended to prey on it.

The headless ghost at Wat Sean Suk
Fig. 5. The headless ghost at Wat Sean Suk. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

Another odd creature, portrayed in Or 14710, is a male ghost with extremely large testicles, which he carries on his shoulder (fig. 6). This horrific creature was born into this state after serving a life span in hell. When he was a human, he was an evil judge who took advantage of his powerful position.

A hell dweller carrying large testicles over his shoulder
Fig. 6. A hell dweller carrying large testicles over his shoulder in a Thai Phra Malai manuscript, dated 1837. British Library, Or 14710, f.2  Noc

This same being is represented in Wat Mae Keat Noi, a park located in the northern province of Chiang Mai. Here, this monstrous creature is seen with his testicles dangling below him, pulling him down as he struggles to carry them (fig. 7).

A male ghost with extremely large testicles at Wat Mae Keat Noi
Fig. 7. A male ghost with extremely large testicles at Wat Mae Keat Noi. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

While the manuscript illustrations and their counterparts in the parks introduce a wide array of grotesque hell dwellers, the hellish backdrops also contribute to the Dantesque atmosphere, and help to convey some of the punishments that are inflicted in this horrid realm. Notable in the background scenery, both in the manuscripts and in the parks, are two images that have become widely associated with hells in the Theravāda tradition: the flaming cauldron and the towering thorn trees.

Let us begin with the cauldron. This horrific punishment is represented in Phra Malai manuscripts in two forms, each associated with a different hell. Thus, the cauldron scene in Or 14710 (fig. 6) portrays the punishment in the Lohakumbhī hell, where the denizens of hell are held by their feet and cast into these flaming iron cauldrons, which are as huge as mountains. Birth in this hell is the result of hurting monks or ascetics.

Depiction of a cauldron with decapitated heads
Fig. 8. Depiction of a cauldron with decapitated heads in a Phra Malai manuscript from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16007, f.29  Noc

The cauldrons in Or 16007 (fig. 8) and Or 14664 (fig. 4) contain decapitated heads and represent yet another hell, the Lohakumbha. In this hell, the guardians chase the inhabitants of hell with flaming iron ropes, which they twist around their necks until their heads fall. They then insert the heads into the boiling cauldrons. Then, a new head appears on the hell dweller’s body and the torture is repeated again and again. This punishment is the result of killing living beings by slashing their throats.

In the parks, these cauldrons have also taken on a cautionary role relating to alcohol abuse. Similarly, in Wat Pal Lak Roi Park (fig. 9) in Nakhon Ratchasima, north-eastern Thailand, two cauldrons are situated amid the hell section of the park. One of these cauldrons depicts several hell dwellers being scorched within it. Next to the cauldron, there is an image of a female who is being forced to drink beer by a hell guardian. The second cauldron has an inscription on it that reads ‘Lost one’s way in liquor’. In reference to this imagery, the park’s booklet notes that “This is the fate of those who…drank alcohol, until they lose consciousness… he who drinks alcohol will be met by Yama’s squad… please stop! For your children, your wife, and for a good society.”

Hellish cauldron at Wat Pal Lak Roi
Fig. 9. Hellish cauldron at Wat Pal Lak Roi. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

Another cauldron representation can be found at Wat Po Chai Sri (fig. 10), in the north-eastern province of Udon Thani. Here this hell is referred to as Narok Mo Tong Deang – literally, copper cauldron hell, and is also described as the destination for those who indulged in intoxicants. In addition, some denizens are seen being force-fed fiery melted copper, a punishment that is said to be inflicted in the Thamaphkata hell, which is indeed the destination of those who indulged in intoxicating beverages.

Copper Cauldron Hell Wat Po Chai Sri
Fig. 10. Copper Cauldron Hell Wat Po Chai Sri. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

It is curious that the cauldron became recognized as a punishment for alcohol consumption. It is tempting to assume that this is a linkage constructed through the association with liquid; however, this is just a hypothesis.

Another famous image synonymous with the hells, can be found in Or 14838 (fig. 11), Or 14731 (fig. 12) and Or 16007 (fig. 8). In these daunting depictions, we are introduced to the hellish thorn trees, upon which the poor dwellers are forced to climb endlessly whilst being pierced by thorns, whilst being trapped between large dogs who bark at the stumps below and peckish crows who await at the tops.

Illustration of a hellish thorn tree
Fig. 11. Illustration of a hellish thorn tree in a Thai Phra Malai manuscript, dated 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f.8  Noc

These trees can be found in the Lohasimbalī hell which is composed of a forest with countless trees. Somewhat misogynistic, it is the punishment inflicted on female adulterers who betrayed their husbands, or those who have had an affair with another man’s wife.

Depiction of hell dwellers being chased up a thorn tree
Fig. 12. Depiction of hell dwellers being chased up a thorn tree in a Thai Phra Malai manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14731, f.4  Noc

These trees appear in Wat Santi Nikhom (fig. 13) in the northern province of Lampang. This park has a unique layout as it is situated vertically in a building that simulates the cosmos. The hell section is situated in the basement, creating the sense of descending into hell. Here the trees are scattered around the hellish area. Naked male and female inhabitants of hell are seen climbing them, while dogs wait for them at the bottom and crows at the top, as similarly seen in the manuscripts. Adding to all these visual effects, a sensory-operated recording of the dogs’ barks and the hell dwellers’ spine-tingling wails are played as visitors arrive in the area.

Hellish thorn trees at Wat Santi Nikhom
Fig. 13. Hellish thorn trees at Wat Santi Nikhom. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

Whilst this is only a small glimpse into the rich imagery of Phra Malai’s journey to the hells, and its manifestation within contemporary cosmological parks, this account will hopefully shed light on how these imageries of the hells not only provoke thoughts about morality and mortality, but also support the relevance of these issues today, crossing both space and time.

Roni N. Wang Ccownwork

Further reading
B.P., Brereton, Thai tellings of Phra Malai: texts and rituals concerning a popular Buddhist saint. Arizona: Arizona State University, 1995.
F.E. ,Reynolds, and M.B.,Reynolds. Three Worlds According to King Ruang: A Thai Buddhist Cosmology. Berkeley, California: University of California, 1982.
Unebe T. Two Popular Buddhist Images in Thailand. Buddhist Narrative in Asia and Beyond. 2012; 2:121-42.

25 April 2022

Reunited at last: a classical Thai verse novel from Ayutthaya

A unique set of five folding books containing the story of Sang Sinchai in Thai language has recently been reunited after a separation of about 200 years. The manuscripts, dating to before 1796, contain a retelling of an older text that was lost or destroyed during the devastation of the former Thai capital Ayutthaya in 1767 in the war with Burma. The existence of this copy of the verse novel remained widely unknown until 1958 when Thai historian Khachon Sukkhaphanit (1913-78) examined manuscripts at the British Museum and identified three volumes of Sang Sinchai. In 1973, these three volumes were transferred from the British Museum, along with other books and manuscripts, to the newly-formed British Library.

Thai text written in yellow gamboge ink on black mulberry paper; third volume of Sang Sinchai
Thai text written in yellow gamboge ink on black mulberry paper; third volume of Sang Sinchai. British Library, MSS Siamese 17/A, f. 7 Noc

The folding books discovered in 1958 are volumes one (Add MS 12261), two (Add MS 12262/A) and four (Add MS 12264). Volumes three and five were thought to be missing until recently when a photocopy of an undated, handwritten list by King Chulalongkorn’s private advisor Henry Alabaster  (1836-1884) came to light during an initiative to catalogue Thai backlog material. The list describes seventeen Thai manuscripts found in the former India Office Library, among which were the two “missing” volumes of Sang Sinchai.

The reunited set consists of five folding books made from black mulberry paper in differing sizes. The Thai text was written in yellow gamboge ink, without illustrations. The title on the first folio of volume one reads Sang Sinchai samut nu’ng (สังสินชัย สหมุดนึ่ง original spelling). The spelling in all five volumes is generally consistent with 18th-century Thai orthography. The entire text is written in klon verse, in the same hand in all volumes, with extensive descriptions of places, characters and their emotions. Only volume 3 has red lacquered covers with small flower decorations.

Complete set of five volumes containing the story of Sang Sinchai
Complete set of five volumes containing the story of Sang Sinchai. British Library, Add MS 12261, Add MS 12262/A, Add MS 12264 and MSS Siamese 17/A-B Noc

The provenance of the manuscript is partially known. Three volumes were acquired for the British Museum in January 1842 from Thomas Rodd, a London bookseller, as part of the collection of Scotsman Sir John MacGregor Murray (1745-1822, biographic details in this article).

Murray served in the British establishment in Bengal from 1770 to 1797 and was auditor general of Bengal. He never travelled to Burma, but his connection with Burma was through Dr Francis Buchanan who participated in an embassy to Amarapura in 1795 and published his observations  afterwards. On Murray’s request, Buchanan collected Burmese  and Thai manuscripts, with the assistance of a missionary resident in Ava, Father Vincentius Sangermano. Murray, a passionate collector and commissioner of mainly Persian and Arakanese manuscripts, brought his collection back to the UK when he returned from Bengal in 1797. After his death, Murray’s collection was split up: some manuscripts were purchased by the British Museum, others ended up in the India Office Library and the major part is now kept at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin in Germany.

Henry Alabaster’s description of volumes 3 and 5
Henry Alabaster’s description of volumes 3 and 5 in a photocopy of a “Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts in the Library of Her Majesty’s India Office” [no place, no date]. Noc

A colophon in volume 1 (Add MS 12261) mentions that the text was compiled after the siege of the “Great City” (เมื่องไหย่) to preserve the original text that had been lost or destroyed. The phrase “siege of the Great City” is thought to refer to the destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767, and the scribe as well as the patrons may have been war captives taken from Ayutthaya to Ava. The anonymous scribe states that “this ancient Mon story” (นิยายมอนแตกอนมา original spelling) was written down from memory. Another colophon on f. 42 of the second volume mentions two grandparents, Ta Khong and Yai Mun (ตาคง ยายมูน), who commissioned this manuscript. And a colophon on the last folio of volume 3 records that this volume was completed on “Saturday, ninth month, [uposatha day before] the 3rd quarter moon, year of the rat” corresponding to 20 August 1791.

Colophon in the first volume mentioning the loss of the original text during the “siege of the Great City” (second line)
Colophon in the first volume mentioning the loss of the original text during the “siege of the Great City” (second line). British Library, Add MS 12261, f.2 Noc

The text tells the story of King Senakut and his younger sister Keson Sumontha, who was abducted by the giant Yak Kumphan. The pair later had a daughter, Sri Suphan, whom Yak Kumphan lost in a gamble to the king of serpents. Senakut, distraught by the kidnapping of his sister, set up a hermitage in the forest where he met seven beautiful maidens who became his consorts. Six of them gave birth to sons, but the seventh consort, Pathuma, and her attendant Kraison gave birth to two very special sons. Pathuma’s child, Sang Sinchai, was born in a conch shell and with an ivory bow, and Kraison’s son Sing had the shape of a mythical lion.

The six other jealous consorts plotted to convince the king that the two strange sons were a bad omen, so he banished them and their mothers from the city. Growing up in the forest, the boys acquired super-human skills in addition to powers they were born with. One day, the king ordered his other six sons to search for Keson Sumontha who he could not forget. Being cowards, they looked for Sang Sinchai and Sing and tricked them into joining the search for their aunt. Sang Sinchai located Keson Sumontha, but she told him about her daughter Sri Suphan who lived with the serpent king. Sang Sinchai and Sing rescued both women and brought them back to the other six brothers who pushed Sang Sinchai down a water hole before taking the women to King Senakut. However, Keson Sumontha left her scarf at the spot and vowed that should she ever get it back, it meant Sang Sinchai was still alive.

After some time, a merchant brought Keson Sumontha’s scarf to the city. She implored the king to find Sang Sinchai in the forest. Senakut followed her wish and finally welcomed Sang Sinchai, Sing and their mothers back into the city. Sang Sinchai married Sri Suphan and became king while Senakut ordered the six other sons and their mothers to become the new king’s servants. Senakut, Keson Sumontha and Pathuma became ascetics.

Illustration of King Senakut’s city in a dramatised version of Sang Sinchai by Rama II
Illustration of King Senakut’s city in a dramatised version of Sang Sinchai by Rama II, published in Bangkok, 1922. British Library, Siam.160, p. 471.

It is often assumed that Sang Sinchai is simply the Thai pronunciation of Sang Sinsai, a well-known work attributed to the 17th-century Lao scribe Pangkham. The Lao text is considered a masterpiece of Lao literature and is very popular across Laos thanks to the extensive research and publications of Maha Sila Viravong. He transcribed the story from palm leaf manuscripts for publication by the Kasuang Thammakan (1949) which formed the basis for numerous subsequent editions and translations into other languages. Lao Isan (Northeast Thai) and Thai versions of the story have been retold, researched and published by several Thai authors since the 1920s.

Mural depicting a scene from Sang Sinsai at Wat Sanuan Wari Phatthanaram in Khon Kaen Province, Thailand
Mural depicting a scene from Sang Sinsai at Wat Sanuan Wari Phatthanaram in Khon Kaen Province, Thailand. Photo courtesy of Peter Whittlesey. Source: Sinxay.com 

However, the Thai text of Sang Sinchai in this manuscript differs significantly from the Lao and Lao Isan versions, as it features some different characters, with different names and a storyline inspired by an ancient legend of the Mon ethnic group with the title Sangada. The motif of a boy born with a conch shell also appears in a Buddhist tale entitled Suvannasankha Jātaka (Golden Conch Birth Story) belonging to the corpus of Paññāsa Jātaka.

The verse novel Sang Sinchai is little known today, despite the fact that it once inspired Thai kings and princes - King Rama II, King Rama III and Prince Naritsaranuwattiwong - to write dramatised adaptations of the story in the 19th and early 20th century.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork
This article is an updated summary of “A Thai text of Sang Sinchai from the late Ayutthaya era” in Manuscript Cultures and Epigraphy of the Tai World, ed. Volker Grabowsky. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2022, pp. 225-254.

Further reading
Baker, Chris and Pasuk Phongpaichit. 53 Suvaṇṇasaṅkha: The golden conch
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala and Somroay Yencheuy. Buddhist murals of Northeast Thailand. Reflections of the Isan heartland. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2010.
Jenny, Mathias. The story of Prince Sangada. A Mon legend in Southeast Asia context. The Mon over two millennia. Monuments, manuscripts, movements. Ed. Patrick McCormick, Mathias Jenny and Chris Baker. Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, 2011, pp. 147-167. 
Nangklao, King of Siam. Botlakhō̜n rư̄ang Sangsinchai. [Bangkok]: Rōngphim Sōphonphiphatthanākō̜n, 1929-30.
Naritsarānuwattiwong, Prince. Prachum bot lakhō̜n du’kdamban chabap lūang. [Bangkok]: Rōngphim Thai, 1924.
Phutthalœtlā Naphālai, Phra, King of Siam. Phrarātchaniphon bot lakhǭn rū’ang Sang Sinchai. Bangkok: Sophon, 1917.
Phutthalœtlā Naphālai, Phra, King of Siam. Bot lakhǭn nǭk rūam hok rư̄ang. Bangkok, 1922.
Sang Sinsai phap thī 1. [Transcript and foreword by Maha Sila Viravong]. Vientiane: Kasūang thammakān, 1949.
Songwit Phimphakō̜n et al. Sinsai sō̜ng fang Khōng. Khō̜n Kǣn: Sūn Khō̜mūn Lāo Mahāwitthayālai Khō̜nkǣn, 2014.
Whittlesey, Peter and Baythong S. Whittlesey, Sinxay. Renaissance of a Lao-Thai epic hero. [n.p.], Sinxay Press, 2015.

04 April 2022

Ariya Metteyya, the Buddha of the future

Ariya Metteyya (Sanskrit: Maitreya), the future Buddha, is at the centre of some of the most beautiful illustrations in Thai Buddhist manuscripts. According to canonical scriptures, Ariya Metteyya is the fifth in the lineage of Buddhas (Tathāgata) of the current aeon, and successor of the 28 Buddhas of the past. Ariya means “noble”, and Metteyya is derived from the Pali word mātreyya which refers to “one's mother” and “motherloving”. The previous Buddha Gotama predicted in the Cakkavatti-sῑhanāda-sutta that Ariya Metteyya will be the Buddha of the future, following his rebirth in the human realm, renunciation of worldly life and attainment of enlightenment under a Naga tree (cobra saffron, Lat. Mesua ferrea).

The future Buddha, surrounded by deities in Tuṣita heaven
The future Buddha, surrounded by deities in Tuṣita heaven, illustrated in a folding book containing extracts from the Tipiṭaka and the story of Phra Malai, central Thailand, 1875. British Library Or 6630, f. 43  Noc

The story of the future Buddha appears in another canonical source entitled Buddhavaṃsa (chronicle of Buddhas) in the Khuddaka Nikāya. It gives details of the life of Buddha Gotama and the 24 Buddhas before him, as well as Ariya Metteyya.

An extra-canonical source that mentions the future Buddha is the Mahāvaṃsa (“Great Chronicle” of Sri Lanka), attributed to the monk Mahānāma. In this text, written in the 5th or 6th century CE, it is stated that Ariya Metteyya currently resides in the Tuṣita heaven as a deity called Natha-deva awaiting rebirth in the human realm.

Another source that describes the life, meritorious acts and attainment of enlightenment of Ariya Metteyya is known under the title Anāgatavaṃsa (account of the future), a work attributed to Ashin Kassapa (1160-1230 CE).

The future Buddha with a red aura (left) and deities (right
The future Buddha with a red aura (left) and deities (right) in a folding book containing the legend of Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library Add MS 15347, f. 48  Noc

The above-mentioned sources brought knowledge of Ariya Metteyya from Sri Lanka to Southeast Asia. In the Thai Buddhist tradition, the future Buddha is also known as Phra Sri An. Exquisite paintings of him, often lavishly decorated with gold leaf, can be found in manuscripts containing the popular legend of Phra Malai, a monk-saint who was able to travel to the Buddhist heavens and hells as a result of his accumulated merit. The story is often included, among extracts from the Abhidhamma-piṭaka, in Thai funeral and commemoration books from the 19th century. The oldest known extant manuscript containing this legend is a palm-leaf book in Northern Thai (Lanna) Dhamma script, dating back to 1516 CE (Brereton, 1993, p. 141)

Illustrations of Phra Malai with Indra at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and arrival of Ariya Metteyya with deities (right) from Tuṣita heaven
Illustrations of Phra Malai with Indra at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and arrival of Ariya Metteyya with deities (right) from Tuṣita heaven to pay reverence to the celestial stupa. Folding book from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library Or 14115, f. 59  Noc

One episode in this legend elaborates on Phra Malai’s visit to the Tāvatiṃsa heaven, where he meets the god Indra (Sakka) at the celestial stupa Chulamani Chedi. While the two are conversing, myriads of devatā (deities) and finally also the future Buddha appear from another heaven, Tuṣita, to pay reverence to the stupa. Ariya Metteyya then gives Phra Malai a message about the future of mankind, and advice to make merit and to listen to recitations of the Vessantara Jātaka for those who wish to be reborn in the era of the future Buddha.

The future Buddha with deities (right) and withayathon as flag-bearers (left)
The future Buddha with deities (right) and withayathon as flag-bearers (left) in a folding book with extracts from the Abhidhamma-piṭaka and Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 1894. British Library Or 16101, f. 51  Noc

Although most illustrated Phra Malai manuscripts include the standardised pair of paintings showing the scene at the celestial stupa, Thai artists of the 19th century used many other options to depict Ariya Metteyya. In the image above one can see the future Buddha in an elaborately decorated red aura with two deities partially hidden in clouds (right), whereas on the left side the artist decided to paint male withayathon (Pali: vijjadhara, “keepers of knowledge”, in Thai also “scholars of magic”) as flag-bearers announcing the arrival of Ariya Metteyya.

Painted in a similar manner, but with more attention to detail and in extraordinary artistic quality, are the illustrations below showing the future Buddha in a red aura with six deities (right), and two female deities as flag-bearers (left).

The future Buddha in a large red aura (right) with deities as flag-bearers (left
The future Buddha in a large red aura (right) with deities as flag-bearers (left). Folding book with extracts from the Abhidhamma-piṭaka and Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 1849. British Library Or 14838, f. 57  Noc

In the same manuscript, dated 1849, there is another - very unusual - illustration of the scene in Tāvatiṃsa heaven (shown below): as expected, on the left side is Phra Malai in conversation with Indra and another deity at the celestial stupa. However, on the right side, where normally the future Buddha appears, there is a female figure in a large red aura, floating on clouds in the sky. Like the future Buddha on the preceding folio, she is holding a lotus bud, symbol of imminent enlightenment, and she is accompanied by female deities – just in the same way Ariya Metteyya is usually depicted. We do not know if the painter aimed to express the thought that the future Buddha could be a woman, or whether they may have drawn inspiration from the idea of female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in esoteric Buddhism. Or perhaps it may have been the wish of the patrons, a mother and her two children, who commissioned this manuscript to make merit on behalf of the mother’s parents, and who expressed in the colophon their hope to attain enlightenment.

Phra Malai with Indra and another deity at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and female figure with red aura in place of the future Buddha (right) with deities
Phra Malai with Indra and another deity at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and female figure with red aura in place of the future Buddha (right) with deities. Folding book from central Thailand, 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 58  Noc

The story of Phra Malai concludes with Ariya Metteyya’s prediction of the deterioration of Buddhism and degeneration of mankind 5000 years after Buddha Gotama. This is then followed by the birth of the Buddha-to-be in an era in which the earth flourishes and humans are living meritorious lives free from suffering. The future Buddha promises to help all people to transcend saṃsāra - the cycle of birth, death and rebirth - through liberation from greed, hatred and delusion. Sometimes depictions of the blissful life in the future are included in Phra Malai manuscripts, like the example shown below where people are plucking gold jewellery from a wishing tree (left) and enjoying sweets while resting in the shade of a blossoming tree (right).

Illustrations of blissful life in the future era of Ariya Metteyya
Illustrations of blissful life in the future era of Ariya Metteyya. Folding book from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14115, f. 75 Noc

Indeed, the hope of encountering Ariya Metteyya is frequently mentioned in a colophon on the last folio of Thai Buddhist manuscripts. The example below shows a detail from a colophon in a folding book dated 1882, which contains extracts from the Tipiṭaka and the legend of Phra Malai. The future Buddha is mentioned twice here: once called Phra Sri An (underlined orange) and once called Phra Sri Anriya (underlined red), both times referring to Ariya Metteyya.

Ariya Metteyya mentioned twice in the colophon of a folding book
Ariya Metteyya mentioned twice in the colophon of a folding book. Central Thailand, 1882. British Library, Or 15207, f. 91 Noc

The idea of Ariya Metteyya still enjoys great popularity among Buddhists in Thailand today, not least because it is part of the Thai Buddhist concept of a perfect world. It describes an idealised future state of society with prosperity, health, happiness, justice, righteousness and peace which is symbolically expressed through images of Ariya Metteyya in temple murals and sculptures. The examples below from three different Thai manuscripts show that depictions of the future Buddha are easily recognisable because they are highly standardised, although minor variations can be visible like the size of the aura, background, the number of accompanying deities and objects held in the hand of Ariya Metteyya.

Illustrations of the future Buddha in three Thai folding books
Illustrations of the future Buddha in three Thai folding books, from left to right: British Library Or 6630, f. 56 (dated 1875); British Library Or 14838, f. 42 (dated 1849); British Library Or 16710, f. 39 (19th century) Noc

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork

Further reading
Aphilak Kasempholkoon, Phra Sri An (Maitreya) as a hero: A structural analysis of Phra Sri An myths in Thai society. Manusya 14/3 (2011), pp. 21-32 
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Some comments on a northern Phra Malai text dated C.S. 878 (A.D. 1516). Journal of the Siam Society 81 (1993), pp. 141-5
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Thai tellings of Phra Malai: texts and rituals concerning a popular Buddhist saint. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona State University, 1995 
Saya U Chit Tin, assisted by William Pruitt, The coming Buddha Ariya Metteyya. 2nd revised ed. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1992
Phramaha Inwong Issaraphani, Chantras Tapuling, Metteyya: The Concept of Ideal World in Buddhism. MCU Haripunchai Review 2/1 (2018), pp. 35–45.

07 February 2022

A puzzling fragment from a Thai meditation manual

Yogāvacara meditation practices, also known as borān kammathāna, were an integral part of Theravāda Buddhism in Southeast Asia until monastic reforms of the 19th and early 20th centuries discouraged esoteric meditation practices. Yogāvacara manuals incorporate teachings from canonical and post-canonical Buddhist literature: for example, meditations on the foul, kasiṇa meditation, contemplation of Ten Forms of Knowledge etc. This article introduces a manuscript fragment (Or 14447) from 18th-century Ayutthaya (Central Thailand), which has puzzled our Thai curators, past and present, because of its unusual illustrations, painting style and format.

Complete view of the illustrated (front) side of the Yogāvacara manual at the British Library, Or 14447
Complete view of the illustrated (front) side of the Yogāvacara manual at the British Library, Or 14447 Noc

The lavishly illustrated manuscript fragment consists of just three complete and two half folios with Pali and Thai text in Khmer and Khom scripts (a Thai adaptation of Khmer script) on the front side. Short passages written in black ink contain instructions for the person called Yogāvacara (spelled yogābacara in the manuscript). The back side contains only text in Thai language written in Thai script. It was purchased from Hentell Ltd Hong Kong in 1989.

The fragment is in the format of a paper folding book (samut khoi) in portrait orientation, which in the Thai manuscript tradition is mostly used for divination manuals (phrommachāt), medical treatises, yantra manuals or poetry books (konlabot).

The illustrations relate to Yogāvacara meditations on the Ten Forms of Knowledge which are briefly mentioned in the Abhidhammattha-saṅgaha, a Pali text attributed to Ācariya Anuruddha who is thought to have lived between the 8th to 12th century. In its essence the content is based on Buddhaghoṣa's Visuddhimagga, which mentions only Eight Forms of Knowledge, but elaborates in detail on graphic descriptions associated with them. The Ten Forms of Knowledge describe stages of insight that a meditator passes through on the path to nibbāna.

The illustrations are in the Ayutthaya painting style with a strong Mon influence. The minimal use of gold and liberal use of orange, the execution of mountains and rocky outcrops in the “Chinese” style with a light watery wash, the use of the Krajang Pattiyan pattern, and the depiction of a round halo around the monk’s head distinguish the painting style as Ayutthayan of the late 17th to early 18th century.

However, the style is not entirely Thai due to features often found in Mon/Shan/Burmese inspired paintings like the voluminous tail of the hamsa bird, the depiction of the monk in side view, the flow of the monk’s outer robe, and the monk’s umbrella (personal communication with Irving Chan Johnson, 11.6.2021). It is possible that the artist was Mon, or the manuscript was produced in a local Mon community in the Ayutthaya Kingdom.

If we assume that the order of the paintings illustrating the Ten Forms of Knowledge is consistent with the order of descriptions in the known Pali text sources, this manuscript must be viewed from right to left. The manuscript had previously been foliated with pencil starting with “1” in the top left corner, as one would usually read a Thai folding book in portrait orientation; however, this is incorrect.

Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 first folio [wrongly foliated “5”]
Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 first folio [wrongly foliated “5”] Noc

The illustrations on the first folio, of which only one half survives, relate to the first two Forms of Knowledge: Knowledge of calm and insight (sammathadassana-ñāṇa) and Knowledge of rise and fall (udayavyayādassana-ñāṇa).

Knowledge of calm and insight is represented in the bottom illustration by a monk with a red halo, holding a staff and pointing towards a man with a red halo, sitting on the floor. The Thai-Pali text on this folio is incomplete. At the top is an illustration related to Knowledge of rise and fall, represented by a monk with red halo holding a flame.

Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.2 [wrongly foliated “4”]
Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.2 [wrongly foliated “4”] Noc

The illustrations on the next folio represent the third and fourth Forms of Knowledge: Knowledge of disruption (bhangānudassana-ñāṇa) and Knowledge of what is to be feared (bhayatupaṭṭhāna-dassana-ñāṇa).

At the bottom, representing the Knowledge of disruption, is a monk with a red halo facing a corpse by the riverside. The monk is touching the corpse with his staff. The illustration at the top represents Knowledge of what is to be feared. A monk with a red halo crosses his hands in front of his chest while facing a corpse and a lion emerging from a cave. The Thai-Pali text above says: "The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the bhaiyavipasanāñāṇa sees saṃsāra as scary, just like a man who goes to rest in a cave where a rājasīha [mythical lion] resides. When the man leaves, he sees the rājasīha and is very scared and seeks to escape the rājasīha" (translation by Trent Walker).

Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 fol. 3
Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 fol. 3 Noc

In the middle of the manuscript (foliated “3”) two illustrations relate to the fifth and sixth Forms of Knowledge: Knowledge of of evil (ādīnavanudassana-ñāṇa) and Knowledge of disgust (nibbidānudassana-ñāṇa).

The image below is related to Knowledge of evil, depicting a monk with a red halo, who is pointing towards a burning house. The Thai-Pali text reads: “The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the ādinaviñāṇa sees saṃsāra and flees, just like [someone in] a burning house seeks to escape the house".

At the top is a monk with a red halo pointing towards a bird; behind him are an alms bowl, meditation umbrella of a forest monk and a water vessel. It represents the Knowledge of disgust, and the Thai-Pali caption says "The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the nibhidāyañāṇa sees saṃsāra and is very disgusted by it, just like a royal swan that was formerly in a clean forest but one day flies and ends up in a village of [evil-doers?]… like the royal swan who is disgusted and seeks to escape from there" (translation by Trent Walker).

Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.4 [wrongly foliated “2”]
Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.4 [wrongly foliated “2”] Noc

The illustrations on the fourth folio represent the seventh and eighth Forms of Knowledge: Knowledge of desire for freedom (muccitukamyatādassana-ñāṇa) and Knowledge of reflection (paṭisaṅkhānupassanā-ñāṇa).

Shown below is a monk with a red halo pointing towards Rāhu, the demon swallowing the moon, which relates to the Knowledge of desire for freedom. The Thai-Pali text reads: "The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the muñcitukāmāyañāṇa seeks to be freed from saṃsāra, just like the moon seeks to be freed from Rāhu" (translation by Trent Walker).

Above is a monk with red halo, sitting under his umbrella, pointing towards a man with a red halo, who has caught a snake and is putting it into a fishing basket. This relates to the Knowledge of reflection. The Thai-Pali caption of this illustration in the manuscript states: "The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the paṭi[saṅ]khārañāṇa has the means of seeking to be freed from saṃsāra, just like a man... [illegible] …. a cobra and grasps its neck and seeks to be freed from that snake" (translation by Trent Walker).

Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.5 [wrongly foliated “1”]
Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.5 [wrongly foliated “1”] Noc

Only half of the last folio survives, and the illustrations and captions are only partially visible and in very poor condition. The illustrations are related to the last two Forms of Knowledge: Knowledge of indifference towards all conditioned formations and Knowledge of contemplation of adaptation.

The Visuddhimagga mentions two scenes that are depicted in the illustrations on this folio: below showing a divorced wife finding a new lover while the former husband remains equanimous; and above there are traders on a ship using a land-finding crow when the ship has gone off course, comparing this scene with the meditator’s finding of nibbāna through rejecting the occurrence of all formations.

The paleography of the text in Khmer/Khom script accompanying the illustrations suggests that it was written towards the end of the 18th century, especially the less rounded shape of the letter ว, which in the early 18th century and before usually looks very much like modern Khmer វ (Trent Walker, personal communication 1.7.2021).

Yogāvacara manuals, mostly from the 19th century, survive in manuscript collections in Thailand, but in library catalogues and publications they are often called Pritsana Tham, meaning “Dhamma puzzle” (H. Woodward, 2021). The method of reading Yogāvacara manuals from right to left - which in the Thai tradition appear as if they were read from back to front - may have brought about the description “Dhamma puzzles”. However, the format and direction of reading Yogāvacara manuals is similar to folding books found in the East and Central Asian traditions, where manuscripts from earlier periods survive, like for example the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, a 9th-century folding book with text in Chinese and Tibetan, or a Tangut folding book dating back to between the 10th to 13th century containing the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra. Yogāvacara manuals may be a central piece in the puzzle that is trying to explain how paper folding books and esoteric meditation methods came to mainland Southeast Asia.

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

I would like to thank Trent Walker (Stanford University) and Irving Chan Johnson (National University of Singapore) for their invaluable advice and support with translations. This blog post is an extract of a full article published in the SEALG Newsletter 53.

 

13 December 2021

Khmer manuscripts at the British Library (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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