Asian and African studies blog

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70 posts categorized "Thai"

01 July 2024

Henry Alabaster’s “Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts” (2): miscellaneous texts, novels and dramas

Henry Alabaster (1836-84) started his career as an interpreter for Thai in the British consular service in Bangkok where he was in close contact with King Mongkut (Rama IV). He helped to organise the solar eclipse observation event in August 1868 that was attended by various foreign government officials, including British and French. Shortly after the King died from malaria a few weeks after this event, Alabaster had to return to the UK. Thanks to his language skills and his in-depth knowledge of Thai literature he was employed by Reinhold Rost, librarian of the India Office Library, to catalogue seventeen Thai manuscripts that had been sitting in the IOL collection unexamined for two or more decades. Alabaster returned to Bangkok in 1872 to become King Chulalongkorn’s (Rama V) adviser. In the first part of this blog post, four legal manuscripts from Alabaster’s “Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts”, first section, were introduced. Now we will look at the remaining thirteen manuscripts.

Henry Alabaster standing next to King Mongkut on occasion of the solar eclipse observation event at Wa Kor observatory in southern Thailand
Henry Alabaster standing next to King Mongkut on occasion of the solar eclipse observation event at Wa Kor observatory in southern Thailand, on 18 August 1868 (detail on the right). Photo source: ณ หว้ากอ : อดีต ปัจจุบัน อนาคต [Na Wākō̜ : ʿadīt patčhuban ʿanākhot], Bangkok 2018. British Library YP.2023.b.318 (front cover)

The handwritten catalogue has three sections: 1) Royal edicts and books of laws; 2) Miscellaneous; and 3) Novels and dramas.

In the second section, there are only three records for literary works.

The first item (MSS Siamese 5) is described as “Suphasit. Elegant sayings or Poverbs” (สุภาษิต), written with white chalk pencil on black paper in folding book format, 56 fols. He explained that this work contains 222 secular and Buddhist proverbs, commonly known as “Suphasit Thai”, which were also mentioned in Pallegoix’s “Grammatica linguae Thai” (Bangkok, 1850). Alabaster did not explicitly say that this manuscript may be related to Pallegoix in terms of provenance, but Pallegoix may have had access to this or a similar manuscript after he became vicar apostolic of Eastern Siam in 1838.

The second record (MSS Siamese 6) is for a black paper folding book, 60 fols., containing a text with the title “Kratai kap Phë. The Hare and the Goat. A fable” (กระต่ายกับแพะ), with unrelated drawings of naga (serpents) and floral designs. Alabaster included a summary of the story and established 1811 as the year of creation thanks to a note in this manuscript saying that the scribe saw a comet for eleven nights (this must have been the Great Comet of 1811).

A small unfinished drawing in a black folding book containing the story “Kratai kap Phë. The Hare and the Goat
A small unfinished drawing in a black folding book containing the story “Kratai kap Phë. The Hare and the Goat. A fable”, dated 1811. British Library, MSS Siamese 6, f. 59

Next follows a description of another black folding book (MSS Siamese 7), 56 fols., containing two texts written with white ink: “Phra Samutha Khlong Wuta Chindamani Chan – Prosody (an extract)” (จินดามณี) and “Kaiya Nakhon, the City of the Body, a Buddhist Allegory” (กายนคร). Chindamani, or Jewels of Thought, is one of the most important literary treasures in Thai language going back to the 17th century. The other is a Thai version of a Pali text (kāya nagara) dealing with contemplation of the human body, which is one of the fundamental four meditations (satipatthāna) in Theravada Buddhism. Alabaster noted the inconsistent use of accents (tone marks) which may point towards a creation date around 1800 or earlier.

Extract from the “Chindamani” written in white ink in a black paper folding book
Extract from the “Chindamani” written in white ink in a black paper folding book. British Library, MSS Siamese 7, f. 14

The third section of Alabaster’s catalogue on “Novels and Dramas” is the most extensive part, containing descriptions of ten manuscripts:

- MSS Siamese 8 “Hoi Sang vol. 1. The Adventures of Prince Hoi Sang. His escape from the city of the genies and his marriage with Princess Ruchana” (หอยสังข์), black paper folding book, 56 fols., no date. Prince Hoi Sang is born in a conch shell, similar to the hero of the story of Sang Sinchai.
- MSS Siamese 9 “I-hnao vol. 4. A Drama founded on Malayan or Javanese legends” (อิเหนา), black paper folding book, 56 fols., no date. Alabaster gives a summary of the text which is a popular Thai version of the Javanese Panji tales.
- MSS Siamese 10 “Phra Unarut vol. 5. The fight of King Unarut with the Genie King whose daughter has eloped with him” (พระอุณรุท), black paper folding book, 56 fols., no date. Alabaster notes that this is a Thai version of the story of King Anirut (Aniruddha) and Queen Usa.
- MSS Siamese 11 “Dara Suriwong vol. 1. The loves of Prince Dara and the Princess with the fragrant hair” (ดารา สุริวงศ์), black paper folding book, 66 fols., no date. Story of a prince who finds a casket containing a lock of fragrant hair and his search for the hair’s owner who turns out to be the daughter of the King of Benares.
- MSS Siamese 12 “Suwannahong vol. 13. Prince Suwannahong and his angel wives” (สุวรรณหงส์), black paper folding book, 56 fols., no date. Alabaster provides a summary of the story of the prince and his three jealous wives.
- MSS Siamese 13 “Samut Niyai Phra Si Muang vol. 1. The Story of Prince Si Muang and the wonderful Hong Bird” (พระศรีเมือง), white paper folding book, 82 fols., no date. Story of a prince who possesses a talking bird (hamsa) that leads him to study with a hermit, who then seeks a wife for the prince.
- MSS Siamese 14 “Thao Sawatthi Racha vol. 1. The King of Sravasti and his white elephant” (ท้าวสาวัตถีราชา), white paper folding book, 56 fols., contains a later added date, 1817, “which is probably the time at which it passed into foreign hands”. Story of the King of Sawatthi, whose twin sons were born while he spent many years in the jungle to look for his escaped white elephant.
- MSS Siamese 15 “Thepha Lin Thong vols. 1 and 2. The Adventures of Prince Thepha Lin Thong” (เทพลินทอง), white paper folding book, 76 fols., no date. Alabaster notes that it was “written by some foreigner, probably a Portuguese in romanized Siamese”.
- MSS Siamese 16 “Another volume of the same work” (MSS Siamese 15), white paper folding book, 58 fols., no date. “Written in ink in Siamese character, the form of the letters slightly differing from the forms now in vogue. Mentioned by Pallegoix in his list of Siamese Books as ‘King Lin Thong’”. Alabaster gives a detailed two-page summary of this story.
- MSS Siamese 17/a-b “Sang Sin Chai vols. III and V. The story of Prince Sang Sinchai, possessor of the magic shell, the magic bow, and the magic sword” (สังข์ศิลป์ชัย), black paper folding books, 44 fols. (a) and 42 fols. (b), date not stated. Alabaster provides a very short summary of the story and mentions that “The first, second and fourth volumes have got separated and are now in the British Museum numbered 12261, 12262a; and 12264 of the Additional manuscripts”. What he refers to are three manuscripts 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) who served in the British establishment in Bengal from 1770 to 1797 and brought back a vast collection of Persian, Arakanese, Pali-Burmese and few Thai manuscripts. It is certain that MSS Siamese 17/a-b, and possibly other manuscripts described in Alabaster’s catalogue, were originally part of Murray’s collection – especially the legal texts in section 1 since Murray had a particular interest in such.

One opening of the Romanised version of “Thepha Lin Thong” written in black ink in a white paper folding book
One opening of the Romanised version of “Thepha Lin Thong” written in black ink in a white paper folding book. British Library, MSS Siamese 15, f.9

After completion of his “Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts”, Alabaster was determined to return to Bangkok. He rejected offers of posts in Cayenne and Saigon, and by April 1872 was deemed to have resigned from the British consular service. The reason was that he had been invited back to Siam by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) to work in the King’s service. In May 1872 he was on a ship back to Bangkok, and on 15 November 1872 Alabaster wrote in a letter to MP Charles W Dilke that the Siamese government had recognised his position and that he was helping to facilitate the conclusion of the Chiang Mai Treaty (British Library, Add MS 43885, p. 247).

In the years until his untimely death in 1884 due to a sudden illness, Henry Alabaster made significant contributions to the modernisation of Thailand. In an announcement of his death in the Straits Times Weekly, 10 September 1884, his achievements were highlighted as follows:
“This gentleman who has been in the country for almost thirty years, was known and highly esteemed by everybody. He might, indeed, claim to have been for a long time the most prominent foreign personage in Bangkok, on account of his great influence as well as for the high offices he held for many years. He was His Majesty’s librarian, the director of the Royal Museum, the Royal Surveyor, the Administrator of Royal Parks and Gardens, the Superintendent of Roads and Bridges, and the First Official Interpreter of the King. In this delicate position especially he knew well how to command the full confidence and the highest esteem of the Sovereign, who often applied to him for advice …”

Watercolour sketch of Wa Kor observatory by Palacia Alabaster
Watercolour sketch of Wa Kor observatory by Palacia Alabaster, 1868. The National Archives, TNA, FO 69/46. Photo courtesy of Padej Kumlertsakul.

Especially for the future of the Thai library sector, Henry Alabaster played a crucial role as the King’s librarian who took the lead in cataloguing the royal collection of manuscripts and books. He instructed his Thai assistants in Western standards of cataloguing and classification, which he had learned from Reinhold Rost in order to create the “Catalogue of Siamese Manuscripts” for the India Office Library.

Alabaster left behind two families: three children by his English wife, Palacia; and two by his Thai wife, Perm. In a handwritten condolence letter  to Mrs Alabaster, King Chulalongkorn informed her, in English, that the funeral was to be conducted with all the honours of the First Class Phya, and a monument of European style would be erected at the place of Alabaster’s burial. Nearly three decades later, when King Vajiravudh (Rama Vl) introduced the use of surnames in 1913, Alabaster’s Thai family was given the name ‘Savetsila’, a literal translation of the word ‘alabaster’.

Henry Alabaster’s memorial inscription at the Protestant Cemetery in Bangkok reads:
“To Henry Alabaster, formerly of H.B.M.’s Consular Service, afterwards in that of His Majesty the King of Siam by whom this monument was erected in recognition of faithful service.
Born A.D.1836 - Died A.D.1884.
A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country.”

Henry Alabaster’s memorial erected by King Chulalongkorn (left) and bust (right) at the Protestant Cemetery in Bangkok
Henry Alabaster’s memorial erected by King Chulalongkorn (left) and bust (right) at the Protestant Cemetery in Bangkok, just a short distance from his grave, 2024. Photos courtesy of Jason Rolan.

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

References and further reading
Igunma, Jana: Reunited at last: a classical Thai verse novel from Ayutthaya (published 25 April 2022)
Alabaster, Henry. Henry Alabaster of Siam: correspondence 1857-1884 and career. [Great Britain]: Alabaster Society, 2009.
Alabaster, John S. Henry Alabaster of Siam 1836-1884: serving two masters. [Great Britain]: Alabaster Society, 2012.
Correspondence of Henry Alabaster and Palacia Alabaster (accessed 14 May 2023)

26 February 2024

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

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

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

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

 

Printed books and serials 

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

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

 

Manuscripts and archival documents 

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

Africa 

Catalogues 

 

East Asia 

Catalogues 

Digitised Content

Middle East and Central Asia 

Catalogues 

Digitised Content

South Asia        

Catalogues    

Digitised Content

South-East Asia

Catalogues

Digitised Content

Visual Arts (Print Room)

Catalogues

Digitised Content

Microfilms

 

 

 

Africa 

East Asia 

Chinese 

Japanese 

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

Korean 

 

Middle East and Central Asia 

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

 Arabic 

Armenian 

Coptic 

Hebrew  

Persian 

Syriac  

Turkish and Turkic  

 

South Asia 

Early printed books:

South Asian language manuscript catalogues:

Bengali and Assamese 

Hindi, Panjabi and Hindustani

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

Oriya 

Pali 

Sanskrit and Prakrit 

Sinhalese 

 Tibetan 

 

South-East Asia 

Burmese 

Indonesian

Thai 

  

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

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

 

Visual Arts 

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

 

Microfilms 

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

 

Digital resources 

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

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

East Asia 

Middle East 

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

South Asia 

  • Jainpedia, including digitised Jain manuscripts from the British Library

South-East Asia 

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

Visual Arts 

 

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

 

 

02 October 2023

Drawn from across the globe: manuscript textiles in the Southeast Asian collections

The Chevening Fellowship hosted by the British Library’s Asian and African Collections Department from September 2022 to September 2023 has been completed successfully. The aim of this project was to research and catalogue manuscript textiles found in the Library’s Southeast Asian collections.

Display of manuscript textiles from the Southeast Asian collections, 6 September 2023
Display of manuscript textiles from the Southeast Asian collections, 6 September 2023

Over the past twelve months Chevening Fellow Noon Methaporn Singhanan assessed, described and photographed 120 manuscript textiles. The outcome is detailed catalogue descriptions, with photo documentation, and an extensive bibliography for further study. The metadata of the textiles will be added to existing manuscript records in the online catalogue in the coming weeks. As a final highlight of this project we organised a display of selected textiles for colleagues and external guests on 6 September 2023. During this event, Noon answered questions about the displayed items and her research. She also demonstrated how manuscript mats with bamboo sticks were made in northern Thailand, a tradition she has helped to revive in the past through her volunteer project at UNESCO prize-winning temple Wat Pongsanuk in Lampang.

Noon Methaporn Singhanan demonstrating how to make a manuscript mat with bamboo sticks
Chevening Fellow Noon Methaporn Singhanan demonstrating how to make a manuscript mat with bamboo sticks

To summarise the findings from this project, Noon said that there were three important aspects that will help with her PhD research: 1) the diversity of materials originating from different places across the globe, 2) the different types of manuscript textiles she discovered, and 3) the importance of object comparison as a research method.

Diversity of materials
Quite unexpectedly, Noon found a large number of textiles and materials which did not originate from Southeast Asia, but from China, Japan, India, and the UK. Raw cotton used to produce fabrics in Britain was most likely sourced from American plantations and from India. For example, most of some 29 British-made wooden boxes (IO Pali 1-29) with kapok and velvet cushioning contain stunning Chinese silk tapestries in the style of Dragon Robes and silk ribbons that were repurposed to wrap around Burmese Buddhist manuscripts. These were given to Arthur Phayre, Commissioner of Burma 1862-7, by the King of Burma.

Wooden box with red velvet and kapok cushioning, containing a Burmese Buddhist palm leaf manuscript with two wrapping cloths
Wooden box with red velvet and kapok cushioning, containing a Burmese Buddhist palm leaf manuscript with two wrapping cloths cut to size from Chinese silk brocade, c. 1862-7 or earlier. British Library, IO Pali 29

A Burmese Kammavāca manuscript (Add MS 23939) from the late 18th or early 19th century was found to be wrapped with a stunning piece of Japanese silk brocade with a pattern of Chrysanthemums, plum blossoms and butterflies woven into yellow silk with gilded washi paper threads.

Another surprising find was a scrolled paper manuscript with a Buddhist text in Shan language from the first half of the 20th century (Or 15368), acquired in 1995 from Søren Egerod’s collection. Sewn on to the binding is a factory-made cotton cover printed with a leaf pattern, which may have been imported or made locally post-1920 in one of the emerging cotton mills in Burma. Attached at the rim is a synthetically dyed green felt ribbon, made from wool, a material that is unusual in the Shan manuscript tradition. Further testing will be necessary to establish the country of origin of the wool.

Noon also discovered a wrapper made up of several parts, including a stunning piece of batik cotton fabric with rose pattern on the outside, and checkered silk sewn together with a piece of cotton on the lining. This was custom-made for a Burmese Buddhist palm leaf manuscript dated 1869 (Or 11810).

The great variety of materials and techniques to make manuscript textiles is evidence of trade and exchange relations from the late 18th to the early 20th century. In some cases, a creation date is contained in the manuscript, and usually a date is included in the acquisition record of a manuscript, so that it is possible to estimate the approximate age of the textiles.

Types of manuscript textiles
The most common type of manuscript textile found in the Southeast Asian collections is the cloth wrapper, either custom-made to fit the size of the manuscript or sometimes made from re-purposed pieces, like for example shoulder cloths and tube-skirts in the Lao manuscript tradition (Or 16886). Noon found out that many Burmese manuscripts are wrapped with printed cotton fabrics which originated in the UK, but occasionally imported velvet is found, too. One Burmese shell book dated 1907 (Or 16052) contains pages made from fine silk and it is wrapped in a piece of cloth woven on the backstrap loom in Karen style. Some manuscripts from Thailand have wrappers made from imported fabrics like silk brocades from India or European printed cotton (Or 1044). A red silk brocade wrapper with a gold thread pattern (Or 5107) was made in India for a 19th-century royal Thai edition of the Tipitaka on palm leaves. A stamp on the red coloured cotton lining is in a Brahmic script (probably originating from north-west India).

Cloth wrapper and mat consisting of 84 coconut leaf stalks, yarn and cotton fabric made for a Burmese Buddhist manuscript
Cloth wrapper and mat consisting of 84 coconut leaf stalks, yarn and cotton fabric made for a Burmese Buddhist manuscript dated 1856. British Library, Or 12645

Another frequently found type of manuscript wrapper is the wrapping mat produced from yarn or fabric that is reinforced with bamboo slats or stalks from coconut tree leaves. Occasionally, the cloth wrapper and mat could be combined, and such items were found in the Burmese collection. The example above (Or 12645) is a wrapper made from an imported printed cotton handkerchief, of UK origin made for the South Asian market, together with a locally custom-made mat consisting of 84 coconut leaf stalks intertwined with red and yellow cotton fabric. These two items were used to cover a Burmese Buddhist palm leaf manuscript dated 1856.

Generally, there are three techniques of making wrapping mats. One method often seen in the Lao and northern Thai manuscript traditions is to weave the mat on the loom, using cotton yarn for the warp and alternately cotton yarn and bamboo slats for the weft (Or 12401).

Hand-woven mat with 19 bamboo slats and factory-made hem made for ten northern Thai palm leaf bundles
Hand-woven mat with 19 bamboo slats and factory-made hem made for ten northern Thai palm leaf bundles with Buddhist texts. Manuscripts dated 1827-74. British Library, Or 12401

Another technique to make wrapping mats is to connect the bamboo slats by wrapping cotton yarn, or occasionally wool yarn, around them; and by using yarns of different colours one can create beautiful symmetric diamond or zig-zag patterns (Or 16545). This method was widely used in Burma and northern Thailand.

A third method is to manually weave the mat using yarn, bamboo slats or coconut leaf stalks, and rectangular pieces of fabric to insert between the yarn and bamboo slats (Or 12645).

Mat made from knitting wool with 95 bamboo slats in a diamond-shaped symmetric pattern
Mat made from knitting wool with 95 bamboo slats in a diamond-shaped symmetric pattern, for a Burmese Buddhist manuscript dated 1852. British Library, Or 16545

In the Shan manuscript tradition, the most common type of textile is the cloth cover. Scrolled paper books with text in Shan script are usually equipped with a cloth cover, either made from imported printed cotton or locally made cotton fabric that is sewn on to the stab-stitch binding. Occasionally, a ribbon is attached at the rim of the cloth cover to secure the scrolled manuscript. Noon found one exceptionally beautiful Shan scrolled manuscript from the 19th century adorned with a locally made plain white cotton cover that was painted by hand with a floral design in red, orange, yellow and blue tones (Or 16137).

Shan scrolled manuscript containing a Buddhist text
Shan scrolled manuscript containing a Buddhist text (right), with a hand-painted cotton cover (left) sewn-on to the binding, 19th century. British Library, Or 16137

In the Thai, Burmese and Malay manuscript collections Noon found textile manuscript bags and envelopes, all of them made from imported fabrics. One such example is a manuscript bag for a Thai palm leaf manuscript, custom-made from imported printed cotton fabric (Or 15885). The factory-made outer layer has red, brown and white floral ornaments, whereas the lining was made from locally-made cream coloured cotton fabric. A rope to tie up the open side of the bag is decorated with small cotton tassels at its ends, and such tassels are attached to all four corners of the bag, too.

Manuscript bag for a palm leaf manuscript from Thailand
Manuscript bag for a palm leaf manuscript from Thailand, made from imported printed cotton, c. 1840-60. British Library, Or 15885

An envelope made from European damask silk originally came with a letter from Pangiran Adipati of Palembang, addressed to Stamford Raffles in Bengkulu in 1824 (MSS Eur D 742/1/61). The envelope is combined with a paper wrapper made from Dutch paper, with intricately cut ends at the back, made in the Malay tradition.

Yellow silk and paper wrapper addressed to Raffles
Yellow silk and paper wrapper addressed to Raffles from a letter from Pangiran Adipati of Palembang, made from European damask silk and Dutch paper, 1824. British Library, MSS Eur D 742/1/61

In the Burmese collection Noon found a large number of manuscript ribbons (sazigyo) which fulfil two purposes: 1) to wrap around palm leaf or Kammavaca manuscripts - the latter often consisting of loose leaves - in order to keep the leaves in order when the manuscript is stored, and 2) to add a dedicatory message from the donor which is woven into the ribbon. Sazigyo were usually made in the tablet-weaving technique from cotton, silk or hemp. These ribbons can be of extraordinary lengths of several metres, and in addition to the inscription decorations in form of sacred symbols, geometric forms, plants and animals can be found (Or 3665).

Burmese manuscript ribbon (sazigyo) made from hand-spun cotton yarn
Burmese manuscript ribbon (sazigyo) made from hand-spun cotton yarn, with text and ornaments on a solid red background, 19th century. British Library, Or 3665

Object comparison
When researching the manuscript textiles, Noon realised that many questions remained unanswered, especially regarding the country of origin and creation dates. Therefore, she visited several other organisations in the UK, including the British Museum, the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), the Wellcome Collection, the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, the National Archives at Kew and the Victoria and Albert Museum to see if there were similar items in these collections, possibly with recorded dates or detailed provenance records.

The method of object comparison proved useful to establish connections between some textile items and places of origin. During a visit to the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, Noon had the opportunity to see seven silk wrappers of exactly the same make as the British Library’s Or 5107. It is almost certain that they belonged to the same set of the Tipitaka thought to have been commissioned by King Rama III (r. 1824-51). The Mancunian acquisition record tells us that the Thai palm leaf manuscripts were donated by Pali scholar Thomas Rhys Davids in 1917.

Cotton wrapper with a butterfly and vine print on red background
Cotton wrapper with a butterfly and vine print on red background, lined with plain white cotton. Manchester 1874. British Library, Or 16673

During a visit to the National Archives in Kew Noon consulted numerous large volumes containing samples of textile designs registered by British companies in the 1870s-80s. With great excitement she found an exact match for a cloth wrapper made from a piece of imported printed cotton fabric with plain white hand-woven cotton lining in the British Library’s collection (Or 16673). It was made for a Burmese palm leaf manuscript with text on the Life of the Buddha, dated 1883. The fabric design was registered in 1874 by The Strines Printing Company in Manchester.

The moment of discovering a registered fabric design matching British Library Or 16673 at the National Archives in Kew
The moment of discovering a registered fabric design matching British Library Or 16673 at the National Archives in Kew.

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

14 August 2023

Literary manuscripts from Southeast Asia on display

The British Library collections of manuscripts from Southeast Asia are especially rich in literary works, ranging from centuries-old epics deriving from Indian models, to innovative compositions in prose and poetry. In some regions literary manuscripts were designed to be read aloud to an audience, while in other places books were savoured in private. The written word aimed to enchant and soothe the soul, but usually also to instruct and improve the mind.

Literary works from Southeast Asia currently on display in the British Library.
Literary works from Southeast Asia currently on display in the British Library.

A selection of literary manuscripts from Southeast Asia is currently on display in the exhibitions case outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room on the third floor of the British Library building at St Pancras in London. On the bottom shelf are two illustrated folding books in Thai and Burmese, and on the top shelf are texts written in Vietnamese and Malay.

Thai konlabot กลบท. Thailand, 19th century
Thai konlabot กลบท. Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or. 16102, f. 9r  Noc

This folding book contains konlabot rhymes in the Thai language. Konlabot is a special form of Thai poetry going back to the classical work Chindamani (‘Jewel of Thought’), attributed to the Buddhist monk Horathibodi around 1670. Konlabot poetry is used in classical Thai literature to express emotions and the beauty of characters and scenes, but also to show the skill and intellect of the author. Rhymes are often presented in the shapes of animals, plants or natural settings, like the mythical golden hamsa bird in front of a cave.

Ramayana in Burmese. Myanmar (Burma), late 19th century
Ramayana in Burmese. Myanmar (Burma), late 19th century. British Library, Or. 14178, f. 8r  Noc

The great Indian epic Ramayana is known in Burmese as Yama Zatdaw. This beautiful illustrated folding book depicts the episode when Rama (with green face), his wife Sita and and his brother Lakshmana are living in exile. The demon king Ravana plots to abduct Sita by sending one of his demons in the form of a golden deer. Sita begs Rama to catch the golden deer for her (left), and so he leaves Sita under the protection of Lakshmana and goes off to shoot the golden deer with his bow and arrow (right).

Vietnamese tuông plays. Vietnam, mid-19th century
Vietnamese tuông plays. Vietnam, mid-19th century. British Library, Or. 8218, vol. 1, f. 2r Noc

‘Life story of Song Ciming zhuan’ is one of 46 tuông plays from a ten-volume set possibly written in Hue, the capital of Vietnam in the 19th century. Tuông, or classical Vietnamese theatre, is believed to have originated through Chinese influence in the 13th century. It became especially popular during the Nguyên dynasty (1802-1945), when emperors and high-ranking mandarins became patrons of troupes and had performances given in their private chambers.

Malay tale of Muhammad Hanafiah. Penang, 1805
Malay tale of Muhammad Hanafiah. Penang, 1805. British Library, MSS Malay B.6, ff. 1v-2r Noc

Translated from a Persian original probably in the 15th century, the Malay Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah tells of heroic battles waged in the name of Islam, and this story came to epitomise valour in battle. In a famous episode in the Sejarah Melayu, the chronicle of the great kingdom of Melaka, the night before Melaka was attacked by the Portuguese in 1511, the young knights sent a message to the sultan requesting the recitation of the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah to give them courage.

All the manuscripts shown here have been digitised, and can be read fully on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Southeast Asia section curators Ccownwork

03 July 2023

Manuscript Textiles: Weaving the Thread of Faith

This blog post on the use of manuscript textiles in Thailand and Laos, illustrated by examples in the British Library's Southeast Asian collections, is by Chevening Fellow Methaporn (Noon) Singhanan, who also took all the photographs of the items.

Thai and Lao manuscript textiles have a rich history that dates back to at least the 18th century. Buddhist teachings and scriptures, written on palm leaves or paper, were highly valued, and often adorned with intricate designs, illustrations, and calligraphy. Manuscript textiles were created to protect and preserve these texts from dust, humidity and insects and, as a result, many were transformed into beautiful pieces.

Luxury manuscript textile from northern Laos
Luxury manuscript textile from northern Laos, made from a re-used tube skirt of exquisite quality, combining a silk and silver-thread tapestry (border) with a large piece of Ikat fabric (main body) and a cotton waistband. Ca. mid-20th century. British Library, Or 16886

Manuscript textiles were fabrics, usually made from finely woven cotton or silk, occasionally also hemp, using a variety of weaving techniques, such as tapestry and ikat. They were created in many different shapes and patterns and often were a mixture of materials, for example silk brocade with cotton lining. Sometimes they included repurposed monk’s robes, ritual cloths, curtains and women’s skirts. Another type of weaving used bamboo slats interwoven with colourful cotton yarn and pieces of fabric in order to provide greater strength.

Manuscript wrapper using bamboo slats that were inserted while weaving the textile with red, green, black and white cotton yarns
Manuscript wrapper using bamboo slats that were inserted while weaving the textile with red, green, black and white cotton yarns. It was used to wrap ten palm leaf bundles containing Buddhist scriptures in Northern Thai Dhamma script, dated between 1827-74. British Library, Or 12401/B-C 

For centuries, textiles have been an integral part of women's lives in Thailand and Laos. From spinning raw cotton into yarn to weaving cloth, women have played a significant role in the creation of textiles. Often women planted the cotton shrubs, picked the cotton and dyed the yarn themselves. Textile production was a way for women to earn money and contribute to their families' income. In addition to their economic importance, textiles also held cultural significance. Traditional clothing and fabrics often reflected a community's values, beliefs, and history. Women were responsible for preserving these traditions by passing down textile-making techniques from generation to generation.

These manuscript textiles ranged from the luxurious to simple, and the materials used and their quality often reflected the wealth of the person offering the item. Decorative elements of these textiles include innovative geometric patterns and nature motifs.

Detail of a handwoven cotton shoulder cloth re-purposed as a manuscript wrapper
Detail of a handwoven cotton shoulder cloth re-purposed as a manuscript wrapper with diamond pattern in red colour on white background, with a simple red-and-black border design. Used to wrap ten palm leaf bundles with texts on the perfections of the Buddha in Northern Thai Dhamma script, ca. 1880-1920. British Library, Or 16865

Manuscript textiles were highly appreciated works of art due to the time and skill required to create them by hand, and enjoyed an exceptional level of popularity in Northern Thailand and Laos during the 18th and 19th centuries. They showcase the skill and creativity of the master weavers who created them, offering a glimpse into the rich history and traditions of the area. Manuscript textiles also provided an opportunity for women artisans to express their devotion to their faith through weaving. The textiles were believed to carry the energy and power of the teachings they encased.

Detail from a handwoven silk-and-cotton manuscript textile depicting two large butterflies surrounded by colourful geometric patterns
Detail from a handwoven silk-and-cotton manuscript textile depicting two large butterflies surrounded by colourful geometric patterns. Originally this was either a bedroom curtain or a shoulder cloth, then re-used to wrap palm leaf bundles. Northern Laos, ca. mid-20th century. British Library, Or 16597

In Theravada communities in Southeast Asia, the main form of accruing merit for men was to be ordained as a monk for a period, during which they learned to study and copy the scriptures. Although ordination remained an option for women, it was not widely practiced and even forbidden in some monastic orders. This meant that most women at that time could not study the scriptures in the formal way men did. Instead, the Buddha’s teachings were learned orally, and female devotees acted as patrons of the monastic communities and devoted themselves to supporting the Sangha (monastic order) in other forms. Since weaving has been a strongly gendered profession in Northern Thailand and Laos, creating cloths to store and preserve the scriptures was considered an important form of accruing merit for women.

Weavers had to learn to use a variety of techniques in order to create beautiful fabrics. Materials were selected carefully, and an elaborate cloth woven with a meditative state of mind counted as a valuable offering to honour the Buddha. Handwoven fabrics made in this way were therefore more refined and of a higher quality than handicrafts used in everyday life. Creating textiles on the basis of belief and faith in Buddhism was regarded as one of the Dhamma practices, with the hope that the produced virtue will contribute to a happy rebirth in the next life.

Detail from a handwoven manuscript textile depicting the popular chicken-and-ancestor motif
Detail from a handwoven manuscript textile depicting the popular chicken-and-ancestor motif. Northern Laos, ca. mid-20th century. British Library, Or 16597

The copying of manuscripts preserved the Buddhist teachings that were written down and passed on for centuries. Manuscripts were also used in meditation and prayer and were considered sacred objects. Manuscript textiles, which were used to wrap up the manuscripts in order to prevent damage by dirt, dust, intense sunlight, or insects, were thus comparable to protecting the Buddha’s words.

Sponsoring and offering manuscripts to a Buddhist temple has traditionally been an important and widely practised way of making merit, and as a result one would be re-born in fortunate circumstances. Anisong (Pali: ānisaṃsa) manuscripts praising the benefits of meritorious acts and gift-giving enjoyed great popularity across Thailand and Laos, and were often  themselves presented to monasteries alongside other manuscripts with beautiful cloth wrappers. Anisong texts frequently mention the virtue of creating scriptural manuscripts as a special meritorious act. It is believed that “one script character yields the same merit as the creation of one Buddha image” (Peltier 2014: 183).

Many Anisong manuscripts specifically mention the importance of offering textiles to wrap scriptures. A frequently found quote is: “A person who offers manuscript textiles will have a prosperous life full of barns, clothes, and plenty of food. The person who provides the manuscript cloth will go to the celestial palace, which will be decorated with various precious gems after their death” (Wichian 2006: 315).

In Lao culture, a common practice was to re-purpose tube-skirts (Pha Sarong or Sinh) or shoulder cloths (Pha Biang) - often the most luxurious a person or family owned - as manuscript wrappers. An explanation for this practice is that “… people donated Pha Sarong or Sinh because their son or daughter had died when they were very young. Their children thus had had no chance to wear beautifully woven clothes, so during their funeral ceremony the parents did not burn beautiful Sinh cloth with the bodies, but instead produced palm-leaf manuscripts wrapped with Sinh cloth to make merit for their dead children in the hope that in the next life they would live long enough to wear plenty of these clothes” (Legends in the weaving 2001: 89).

Handmade cotton cords with loops used to string three bundles of a palm leaf manuscripts containing Buddhist texts in Pali language with plain wooden covers
Handmade cotton cords with loops used to string three bundles of a palm leaf manuscripts containing Buddhist texts in Pali language with plain wooden covers. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 4888

In addition to the manuscript wrappers, people could offer a cord made from silk or cotton yarn, which was used to string palm leaves together to create bundles or volumes of palm leaf scriptures. A method of binding palm leaf books going back to the first millennium was to put a looped cord through a hole that was drilled through the palm leaves on the left side; another hole on the right side was often left empty for ease of flipping the leaves while reading. Northern Thai and Lao Anisong manuscripts often contain a dedicatory phrase like “whoever offers the cords to string the palm leaf manuscript will dwell with the wise and not lose their treasures” (Wichian 2006: 319) or “Whoever ties a rope to a book will have a lot of wealth and infinite perseverance” (Wichian 2006: 315).

07 Or 4890 combined
Handmade cotton cords with tassels, no loops, in dark red colour used to string five bundles of palm leaf manuscripts containing a Pali grammar, with lacquered and gilded covers. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 4890

A white cotton cord mixed with long hair to string a palm leaf manuscript, with dedicatory inscription mentioning a woman from Lamphun Province as donor
A white cotton cord mixed with long hair to string a palm leaf manuscript, with dedicatory inscription mentioning a woman from Lamphun Province as donor. Northern Thailand, 1949. British Library, Or 16985H

Manuscript textiles were not only works of art in and of themselves, but also mirror the social status and beliefs of the people who created them. For Northern Thai and Lao women the act of weaving wrappers and cords was analogous to the act of weaving the thread of faith, thus ensuring the preservation and continuation of the Buddha’s teachings.

Many of the practices and beliefs relating to manuscript textiles described above are still in use in Northern Thailand and Laos today. Since 2015, there has been a campaign with local communities and students to revive the custom of creating and offering traditional manuscripts with textiles at Lampang Province's Pongsanuk Temple. There are now many workshops and cultural events taking place in Northern Thailand to teach about making manuscript textiles in various techniques.

09 wrapper making
Creating manuscript textiles using colourful yarns by intertwining them with bamboo sticks. Methaporn Singhanan, Chiang Mai, Thailand, November 2020 (photo courtesy of จดหมายเหตุกรุงศรี Jod Mai Hed Krungsri)

Methaporn Singhanan, Chevening Fellow at the British Library 2022-23  Ccownwork

References and further reading
Andaya, Barbara Watson. Flaming womb: repositioning women in early modern Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, c2006.
Arthid Sheravanichkul. Narrative and gift-giving in Thai Ānisaṃsa texts. Buddhist narrative in Asia and beyond. Edited by Peter Skilling and Justin McDaniel, Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, 2013, pp. 37-46. 
Gordon, Alec and Napat Sirisambhand. Evidence for Thailand's missing social history: Thai women in old mural paintings. International Review of Social History, 47(2), pp. 261-275. 
Legends in the weaving - ຜ້າແພນີ້ມີຕຳນານ [Phā phǣ nī mī tamnān]. Vientiane: The Japan Foundation Asia Center, 2001
Peltier, Anatole-Roger ed. อานิสงส์กลุ่มชาติพันธุ์ไท ในภูมิภาคลุ่มน้ำโขงและสาละวิน [ʿĀnisong klum chāttiphan Thai nai phūmmiphāk Lum Nam Khōng læ Sālawin] = Ānisaṃsa in Tai Buddhism = Les Ānisaṃsa dans le Bouddhisme Tai. Chīang Mai: Mahāwitthayālai Rātchaphat Chīang Mai, 2557 [i.e. 2014]
Seeger, Martin. Gender and the path to awakening: hidden histories of nuns in modern Thai Buddhism. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2018
Sundara, Ajahn. Women in Theravada Buddhism. British Library, 2019 
ผ้าห่อคัมภีร์วัดคงคาราม: ประวัติศาสตร์(ที่อยาก)บอกเล่า [Phā hō̜ khamphī Wat Khongkhārām: prawattisāt (thī yāk) bō̜k lao]. 2557 [i.e. 2014]
วิเชียร สุรินต๊ะ; อุไร ไชยวงค์ [Wichīan Surinta; ʿUrai Chaiyawong]. อานิสงส์ล้านนา: การปริวรรตและสาระสังเขป [ʿĀnisong Lānnā: kānpariwat læ sāra sangkhēp]. Chīang Mai : Sathāban Wičhai Sangkhom, Mahāwitthayālai Chīang Mai, 2549 [i.e. 2006]
อุไร คำมิภา [ʻUrai Khammiphā]. ผ้าห่อคำภีร์ใบลาน: ศรัทธาและปรารภนาแห่งสตรีไทย [Phā hō̜ khamphī bailān: satthā læ prārop nā hǣng sattrī Thai]. Nakhon Rachasima: King Rama IX Commemorative Library.

19 June 2023

Henry Alabaster’s 'Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts' (1): royal edicts and books of laws

When the Sanskrit scholar Dr Reinhold Rost (1822-96) was appointed librarian of the India Office Library (IOL) in 1869 “He found the Library a scattered mass of priceless, but unexamined and unarranged manuscripts…” (Dictionary of National Biography). Among these manuscripts were seventeen folding books with texts in Thai language, bare of any illustrations or decorations. While Rost was familiar with numerous South Asian languages, in order to achieve his aim of cataloguing the library’s entire collection it proved very useful that he personally knew members of the Royal Asiatic Society from his previous post as the Society’s secretary from 1863-9. Many of them were scholars of Asian languages (see Rost’s correspondences, MSS Eur A86), including Henry Alabaster. Shortly before Rost’s IOL appointment, Alabaster had returned from Siam (since 1939 known as Thailand) where he had been working in the British Consular Service since 1857. The collaboration between Rost and Alabaster to create a “Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts” between ca. 1870-2 would later have an impact on the development of libraries and librarianship as a profession in Thailand.

Bangkok in the 1850s
Bangkok in the 1850s. Source: Travels in the central parts of Indo-China, Cambodia, and Laos, during the years 1858, 1859, and 1860. Memoir of H. Mouhot with illustrations. London, 1864. Noc

Henry Alabaster, born on 22 May 1836 in Hastings, studied Classics and Chemistry at King’s College and gained the equivalent of a degree as an Associate of the College in the Applied Sciences in 1855. A year later he joined the China Consular Service and arrived in Hong Kong in September 1856, following his younger brother Chaloner Alabaster, an employee of the China Consular Service who worked closely with Sir John Bowring. As a result of the “Bowring Treaty” (Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Great Britain and Siam), signed in 1855 and ratified a year later, a British consulate was established in Bangkok. Alabaster was transferred there as a Student Interpreter in March 1857. By 1864 he was Interpreter and had access to the royal library where leading Thai scholars introduced him to the Sanskrit and Pali languages and Buddhist scriptures. From 1867 he represented the British Consul when absent, serving as Acting Consul. In his role as interpreter he arranged for the attendance of Sir Harry Ord, then Governor of the Straits Settlements, at the solar eclipse event near Hua Hin on 18 August 1868, which King Mongkut (Rama IV) used as a powerful demonstration of the sovereignty and independence of the Siamese kingdom. However, a few weeks later the king died from malaria, and a series of unfortunate events, disagreements with the Siamese regent and within the Consular Service, and his own poor health, all led to Alabaster’s return to England in 1869.

Front cover and title page of The modern Buddhist
Front cover and title page of The modern Buddhist…, a translation from Thai by Henry Alabaster. London, 1870. British Library, Siam.254 Noc

Back in the UK, Alabaster was not idle: apart from having three children with his wife Palacia between 1869-72 he worked on two books while living in London. In 1870 his translation from Thai with the title The modern Buddhist; being the views of a Siamese Minister of State on his own and other religions by Chao Phya Thipakon was published by Trübner & Co. The following year his second book, The Wheel of the Law. Buddhism illustrated from Siamese sources, appeared from the same publisher. However, with his growing family and the burden of supporting an elderly relative, financial pressures may have led him to look for additional sources of income. The fact that the IOL librarian Reinhold Rost was making great efforts to get the Thai and other manuscripts in the library’s collection catalogued at the same time when Alabaster was in London was a lucky coincidence.

There is no doubt that Rost gave Alabaster a thorough introduction into the standards of cataloguing manuscripts in Asian languages. While the British Museum was regarded as a pioneer in the methods of cataloguing manuscripts and artefacts, in the case of the cataloguing of Thai manuscripts Alabaster really made his mark, thanks not only to his skills and expertise as an interpreter for Thai, but also due to the knowledge of Thai literature he had acquired during his time in Bangkok. The “Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts” (MSS Eur B104) he produced for the IOL contains the most comprehensive and systematically compiled descriptions of Thai manuscripts one could find at that time.

Preserved fragments of the front cover and first page of Henry Alabaster’s original handwritten “Catalogue of Siamese Manuscripts”
Preserved fragments of the front cover and first page of Henry Alabaster’s original handwritten “Catalogue of Siamese Manuscripts”. British Library, MSS Eur B104  Noc

The catalogue, recently restored from fragile fragments at the British Library’s Conservation Centre, contains detailed descriptions of the seventeen Thai manuscripts that Rost had found in the IOL, divided into three thematical sections: 1) Royal edicts and books of laws; 2) Miscellaneous; and 3) Novels and dramas.

Each record begins with the title of the text which was either found in the manuscript itself or worked out by Alabaster from the contents, followed by a short summary of the text. The second part of each record consists of a physical description of the manuscript, including writing materials, colour and book format, item size, number of folios, number of text lines on each folio, date (if found in the manuscript) or an estimated period of creation, remarks on spelling/grammar and handwriting. Where possible, Alabaster also included aspects of the historical and cultural context of the manuscript. Where previously published works or research on these texts existed, he added not only the bibliographic details but also the main points of these publications. Selected text passages were translated by Alabaster from Thai.

For example, the first record (MSS Siamese 1) describes “An Introduction to the Code of Siamese Laws founded on the Dharma Shastra” with a “portion of the Law of Married Persons” (ลักษณาพระ ธรรมศาสตร์ ลักษณาผัวเมีย). The text was written with white chalk pencil on black paper in folding book format. In addition to the physical description of the manuscript, Alabaster provided some historical context of Thai laws and a summary of a revised set of laws from the Ayutthaya period which were included in the Three Seals Code (กฎหมายตราสามดวง) of 1805. This is followed by references to secondary sources and translated text passages from this volume.

First paragraph of the Law of Married Persons in Thai language
First paragraph of the Law of Married Persons in Thai language. British Library, MSS Siamese 1  Noc

Bearing in mind that these laws date to before 1805, and in their essence possibly even to before 1767, some extracts Alabaster translated state: “A paramour shall be fined for his first offence and fined double for his second offence, but not fined at all for his third. The husband who still loves a woman who has thrice dishonoured him shall be punished … A man who boasts of former intimacy with a married woman shall be fined … Those guilty of incestuous offences shall be put in irons, branded, tattooed in the face, exposed with leather cords round their necks, fired at with cross-bow shots, flogged, and floated away … on rafts. Expiatory offerings shall be made to avert misfortune from the country” (pp. 3-4). Whilst these translations need to be treated with caution as they are uncritical (and unverified) interpretations of a Western male with the worldview and using the language of Victorian England, they give insights into the nature of Thai legal texts from the late Ayutthaya and Thonburi periods which are worth being fully translated and researched further.

The second record (MSS Siamese 2) describes “Kathu Phra Aiyakan, A Compendium of Laws” (กระทู้พระไอยการ), a text on assaults, abuse and the appraisement of fines, written with black ink on white paper. Again, Alabaster provided translations from this volume: “In cases of abuse if the aggressor abuses not only one individual but his family also, he shall pay a double fine. In cases of mutual abuse half the fine only shall be levied, and that not as compensation but as a fine to government”. Another paragraph, perhaps selected by Alabaster on reflection of the common practice of corporal punishment in European schools, states: “A man [person] who strikes another with a blank book shall be fined as though he had struck him with his hand, but if the assault is committed with a book of the Classics the offender shall be fined twice as much as he would have had to pay for assaulting with a stick.” (p.5)

First paragraph (following the ๏ fong man symbol) of the “Kathu Phra Aiyakan” law in Thai language
First paragraph (following the ๏ fong man symbol) of the “Kathu Phra Aiyakan” law in Thai language. British Library, MSS Siamese 2 Noc

The last two records in the section on royal edicts and books of laws describe the text “Laksana Tat Fong” (ตัดฟ้อง) (MSS Siamese 3) that regulates plaints/allegations and dismissal of cases, written in white chalk on black paper; and the text “Phra Tham-nun” (พระทำนูน) or Royal Law (MSS Siamese 4) which includes rules for the general conduct of judicial business. This text was also recorded in white chalk on black paper.

All four texts described in this section were included in the Three Seals Code, but some were combined with other laws under a different title. At the end of the section, Alabaster discussed the amalgamation of older laws and the change of order and titles of some texts in the reformed legal code from 1805. His summary “Some of the Laws do not appear at all in the new code having been repealed or altered … Another notable difference is that in this volume [MSS Siamese 4] we find a special form appointed for taking the evidence of devotees, whilst the new Code states that devotees shall be treated in the same manner as other laymen …” (p.9) clarifies that the texts found in these four volumes are older than the Three Seals Code. Alabaster’s detailed descriptions, referencing secondary sources and brief discussion of the historical context of the manuscripts in his catalogue were extraordinary and well above the usual standards of Thai manuscript cataloguing at the time.

Nothing is known about the scribe(s) of these four texts or exact creation date(s) as they do not contain colophons, but they were formally accessioned into the library of the East India Company in 1852 (IOL from 1858). There they remained unexamined until Henry Alabaster started working on his catalogue, before a consequential career change took him back to Bangkok in 1872, which will be discussed in the upcoming second part of this blog post.

References and further reading

Alabaster, Henry. Henry Alabaster of Siam: correspondence 1857-1884 and career. [Great Britain]: Alabaster Society, 2009.
Alabaster, John S. Henry Alabaster of Siam 1836-1884: serving two masters. [Great Britain]: Alabaster Society, 2012.
Correspondence of Henry Alabaster and Palacia Alabaster (Accessed 14 May 2023)
Datta, Rajeshwari. “The India Office Library: Its History, Resources, and Functions.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, vol. 36, no. 2, 1966, pp. 99–148. JSTOR (Accessed 12 May 2023)
'List of the members of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland'. The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. New Series, Vol. 6, No. 2 (1873), pp. 1-16. JSTOR (Accessed 12 May 2023) 
Orchiston, Wayne and Darunee Lingling Orchiston. “King Rama V, Sir Harry Ord and the total solar eclipse of 18 August 1868: power, politics and astronomy”. Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 24(2), 2021, pp. 389-404 

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

01 May 2023

Manuscript Textiles in the Southeast Asian Collections: Project Update

A Chevening Fellowship that started in September 2022 with the aim to research and catalogue manuscript textiles in the Library’s Southeast Asian Collections has made good progress during the past six months: over fifty manuscript textiles have been identified and detailed object descriptions with photo documentations have been completed. Chevening Fellow Methaporn Singhanan explains how this project relates to her doctoral research: “My Ph.D. dissertation examines the social life of textiles and what ancient textiles can reveal about human history, beliefs and hierarchy, and especially trade. This project has exposed me to textiles and their trade routes, and I have seen more textiles than usual because most of these manuscripts' textiles were imported from other places than where the manuscripts originate from. These examples help me to explain my dissertation's main point, that textiles are more than just practical goods and can show relationships between communities and time periods”.

Burmese manuscript containing the Kathā vatthu
Burmese manuscript containing the Kathā vatthu with an over 4 m long sazigyo (ribbon) made in the tablet weaving technique on a backstrap loom with dedicatory inscription in Burmese language, 19th century. British Library, Or 3665 Noc

The focus so far has been on Burmese and ethnic Tai manuscript textiles, specifically sazigyo (handwoven ribbons) and custom-made manuscript wrappers with bamboo slats. More than twenty sazigyo have been assessed; most of them with a length of over two metres and beautifully woven-in geometric designs and inscriptions in Burmese language. These ribbons were traditionally made in the tablet-weaving technique on a backstrap loom. They were used to secure palm leaf manuscripts, and were often given to Buddhist monasteries as a meritorious offering by lay women. The majority of them are of special significance due to the extensive woven-in Burmese text with a dedicatory message and the donor's name. Others were woven solely with geometric or figural patterns.

The manuscript wrappers found with Burmese, Lao and northern Thai (Lanna) manuscripts were traditionally handcrafted by interlacing cotton yarns with bamboo slats. Sometimes pieces of colourful printed cotton fabrics were cut to size and woven in as well, and plain white or red cotton fabric was added as lining and to cover the edges of the wrappers. The bamboo slats were inserted instead of weft yarns to increase the stability of these wrappers. Occasionally, a combination of silk and cotton yarns is found.

Methaporn Singhanan emphasizes the great diversity of textiles she has assessed so far: “I discovered Southeast Asian tapestry and Ikat weaving, as well as rare, high-quality, and opulent imported fabrics. Two of my favourite items are a Japanese silk brocade with gilded paper thread used to wrap Burmese palm leaf manuscripts, and an attractive Indian textile ordered by the Thai royal court to encase Thai texts. To strengthen the textiles and protect the sacred manuscripts, velvet, felt, silk, fabrics with woodblock prints, and European printed fabrics were inter-woven with colourful yarns and bamboo slats. I adore the manuscripts with boards and ivory pegs decorated with gold and religious symbols just as much as the textiles. Their lavish decorations demonstrate the faith and dedication of the people who created and commissioned these precious objects”.

Methaporn Singhanan examining a manuscript wrapper made with bamboo slats and pieces of plain red and blue dyed cotton (Or 6453 B).
Methaporn Singhanan examining a manuscript wrapper made with bamboo slats and pieces of plain red and blue dyed cotton (Or 6453 B).

In addition to her work with the manuscript textiles in the Southeast Asian collections, the Chevening Fellow has visited various other areas and departments of the Library. Since Methaporn Singhanan has been running a voluntary conservation project for textiles in northern Thailand for several years, visits to the British Library’s Conservation Centre (BLCC) were of special interest to her. Textile conservator Liz Rose organised a half-day practical session on dyeing nylon net for textile conservation. On another occasion, she also showed a Shan scrolled paper manuscript (Or 15363) with a printed cotton cover that had recently undergone conservation treatment by Lois Glithero, Glasgow University MPhil Textile Conservation placement student 2022, and she explained in detail the steps taken to rescue and preserve the severely damaged textile.

Methaporn Singhanan during a conservational textile dyeing session
Methaporn Singhanan during a conservational textile dyeing session under supervision of textile conservator Liz Rose in British Library’s Conservation Centre (BLCC)

An opportunity to learn about the digitisation work at the Library arose during the digitisation of a large Burmese wall hanging (Or 16550). Together with textile conservator Liz Rose, conservation intern Storm Scott and curator for Burmese, Maria Kekki, Methaporn Singhanan assisted the Library’s photographers Tony Grant and Carl Norman with the digitisation process. Due to the large size of the item, many hands were needed to lay out the finely embroidered textile on the floor in order to digitise it with a special large format camera. The Sinar camera produces high-quality digital images using a multi-shot capture system, where each pixel is captured by every primary colour. This achieves an almost unimaginable level of colour accuracy, and prevents the moiré effect on images, which is ideal for textiles.

Methaporn Singhanan helped to set up an embroidered Burmese wall hanging (Or 16550) for digitisation at the Library’s Imaging Studio
Methaporn Singhanan helped to set up an embroidered Burmese wall hanging (Or 16550) for digitisation at the Library’s Imaging Studio.

Much of the textile research is based on comparative analysis, due to the lack of information within the manuscripts themselves (most do not contain a colophon with a creation date or related names) as well as gaps in the provenance documentation. Even if some information is found within the manuscripts, it cannot always be assumed that the textile shares the same history with the manuscript. Therefore, it is necessary to look at similar textile objects in other collections where more detailed provenance documentation may be available. A visit to the Royal Asiatic Society enabled Methaporn Singhanan to study two Burmese manuscript textiles, one of which is thought to be the oldest sazigyo, dated 1792, held in a British public collections. Conservation work had recently been completed to preserve this rare manuscript ribbon, and close examination of this item and discussion with British Library conservator Liz Rose were invaluable for Methaporn Singhanan’s research.

Liz Rose (right) and Methaporn Singhanan (left) visited the Royal Asiatic Society
The British Library’s textile conservator Liz Rose (right) and Methaporn Singhanan (left) visited the Royal Asiatic Society in London to study the oldest known Burmese sazigyo in a British public collection.

Two excellent learning opportunities for the Chevening Fellow were courses offered by other organisations in London. In November, Methaporn Singhanan attended a four-day course “Textile Arts of Asia” at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), convened by Dr Fiona Kerlogue of the Oriental Rug and Textile Society. The course gave insights into how Asian textiles and carpets can be explored, drawing on research carried out by scholars who have used literary sources, studied museum and other collections and undertaken studies in the field.

Methaporn Singhanan was also very excited about her attendance of a one-day course on 23 March 2023 at the Victoria and Albert Museum led by textile expert Dr Lesley Pullen. The day started with a talk on "Textiles tell a story: From India to Indonesia" which focused on the history of the textile trade between India and Indonesia and the wider context of Persian and European involvement. In a show-and-tell session after the talk, the participants had the opportunity to handle the exquisite textiles from Lesley Pullen’s private collection and to ask questions.

Methaporn Singhanan taking a close look at textiles from the private collection of Dr Lesley Pullen
Methaporn Singhanan taking a close look at textiles from the private collection of Dr Lesley Pullen during a course on "Textiles tell a story: From India to Indonesia" held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

A highlight was the visit of a group from the Royal Thai Embassy in London, including H.E. Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi, to the Library on 29 March 2023. Methaporn Singhanan helped to prepare a show-and-tell session for the esteemed visitors and selected an outstanding nineteenth-century manuscript textile (Or 5107) made from fine silk brocade to display on this occasion. She used this item - which had been imported from India to cover a large Thai palm leaf manuscript with gold decorations - to explain her research and work as a Chevening Fellow at the British Library.

a show-and-tell session for visitors from the Royal Thai Embassy
During a show-and-tell session for visitors from the Royal Thai Embassy, including H.E. Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi (2nd left), Chevening Fellow Methaporn Singhanan (2nd right) presented her research on a silk brocade wrapper imported from India to cover a precious Thai manuscript (Or 5107)

This fellowship is made possible through the Chevening scheme which 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

13 March 2023

Talipot and ceremonial fans in Thai manuscript art (2)

Depictions of Talipot and ceremonial fans, like many other objects of everyday use, are very common in Thai manuscript paintings. In the first part of this blog, we looked at the origin and making of Talipot fans, called Talapat in the Thai language. In this part, we will be looking at how different types of fans were used historically and how they became symbols of honour and status in Thai social and religious life.

Talapat of Brahmins and sages
Brahmins are highly regarded as knowledge-seekers and members of the priestly social class in traditional Hindu society in India. However, in Thai art and literature they are sometimes represented with some degree of ambiguity, which is expressed through features of poor health, disfigurement, poverty, greed, and immorality. In the Jataka literature the figure of the Brahmin often plays the role of an antihero, who creates obstacles for the Bodhisatta, but by doing so, the Brahmin unwittingly helps to create a situation in which the Buddhist hero can prove his moral stature and accumulate merit. The depiction of Brahmins in manuscript paintings is in striking contrast to the appearance of real-life Thai court Brahmins, who are dressed in impressive gold-embroidered white robes during royal ceremonies.

The Brahmin Jujaka with Vessantara’s children, with a damaged Talipot fan in his shoulder bag
The Brahmin Jujaka with Vessantara’s children, with a damaged Talipot fan in his shoulder bag. Illustrated in a folding book containing Tipitaka extracts and the Mahabuddhaguna. Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 20  Noc

The image above from a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka is an example from the second half of the 18th century. It shows a popular scene from the Vessantara Jataka, in which the Brahmin Jujaka takes away the Bodhisatta’s children, Jali and Kanhajina. Jujaka’s hair appears unkempt, and he is dressed in a plain white loin cloth. In his shoulder bag is a damaged Talapat made from a single Talipot leaf.

Another depiction of a Brahmin appears in the illustration below from a Thai folding book containing the story of the monk Phra Malai and Tipitaka extracts, dated 1894. This scene from the Bhuridatta Jataka illustrates how the Brahmin and snake charmer Alambayana captured and humiliated the Buddha-to-be, who in this Birth Tale was reborn as a naga (serpent) prince named Bhuridatta. The Brahmin is dressed in a red-and-white chequered loin cloth, holding a Talipot fan in his right hand. On the fan is an ancient symbol that is well-known beyond Thailand and Southeast Asia: the Ring of Solomon. In this case, the symbol fulfils a protective purpose. This kind of fan can often be seen in Thai in manuscript illustrations as a utensil of Brahmins engaging in pre-Buddhist activities and magic.

Illustration of the Brahmin Alambayana capturing the naga Bhuridatta while holding a Talipot fan with a Ring of Solomon symbol
Illustration of the Brahmin Alambayana capturing the naga Bhuridatta while holding a Talipot fan with a Ring of Solomon symbol. Found in a folding book with Tipitaka extracts and the story of Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 1894. British Library, Or 16100, f. 5  Noc

Sages and hermits are also frequently depicted in illustrations of the Jataka tales. Usually, such paintings show the Bodhisatta who in a previous life was reborn with the wisdom of a sage, or who followed the path of a hermit.

The illustration below from an 18th-century folding book depicts the Buddha-to-be as the wise sage Mahosadha, on the right side, facing the evil-minded royal Brahmin Kevatta. Mahosadha is holding a jewel that he is about to drop, so that the greedy Kevatta will bow down to pick it up in front of Mahosadha, which is interpreted by everyone around them as a gesture of the Brahmin paying respect to the Bodhisatta. Quite extraordinarily, Kevatta is presented here lacking the usual attributes of a lowly character, probably because he is a royal Brahmin in this story. Both men are holding a Talipot fan, each with small floral decorations drawn on the front side in gold and red colour.

The Buddha-to-be Mahosadha and the Brahmin Kevatta, both with a Talapat in their hands
The Buddha-to-be Mahosadha and the Brahmin Kevatta, both with a Talapat in their hands. Illustrated in a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka, Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 6  Noc

Ceremonial fans in monastic life
Numerous Thai folding books contain paintings related to the lives and activities of Buddhist monks. Most frequently, such illustrations accompany the story of the monk Phra Malai. Among the most popular depictions of monastics are scenes from funeral wakes, where four monks are seen chanting passages from the Abhidhamma-pitaka and reciting the legend of Phra Malai to lay audiences.

The monk Phra Malai himself is often portrayed with a Talapat. Below is a painting from a Phra Malai manuscript dated 1837. Phra Malai is floating in the air while on his way to the hell-like realm of preta (hungry ghosts). He is shown with a red aura, dressed in a monk’s robes and a Talapat in his left hand. The fan has an oval shape and is made from Talipot leaves, with gold decorations at the center and on the edges. It has the long handle of a floor Talapat which is used by monks when chanting sacred texts.

Illustration of the monk Phra Malai holding a Talapat with intricate gold decorations
Illustration of the monk Phra Malai holding a Talapat with intricate gold decorations. From a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai and additional Pali texts. Central Thailand, 1837. British Library, Or 14710, f. 2  Noc

Scenes from the life of the Buddha are not frequently included in Thai illustrated manuscripts. However, there are few compilations of canonical texts and Buddhist cosmologies that contain rare paintings depicting the Buddha being surrounded by lavishly decorated fans of veneration, called Phatyot in Thai. In the painting below, from an 18th-century manuscript, the Buddha is represented in the earth-touching gesture which symbolises the moment of his Enlightenment. Behind the Buddha is a stylised Bodhi tree, and on each side one can see a heavily ornamented Phatyot fan, and a three-tiered umbrella, alongside deities paying their respects to the Enlightened One.

The Buddha at the moment of his Enlightenment, with Phatyot and umbrellas by his side
The Buddha at the moment of his Enlightenment, with Phatyot and umbrellas by his side. From a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka, Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 53  Noc

Highly ornamented Phatyot as symbols of veneration for the Buddha can also be found in illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi in Phra Malai manuscripts from the 19th century. In Theravada Buddhist belief, the Chulamani Chedi is a stupa situated in Tavatimsa heaven where hair and tooth relics of the Buddha are housed. Therefore, the stupa is directly related to the Life of the Buddha, and according to the legend of Phra Malai the story’s monk-hero travelled to the heavenly stupa to deposit a lotus flower offering on behalf of a poor man.

In the painting below from a 19th-century Phra Malai manuscript, the monk is depicted in front of the Chulamani Chedi in Tavatimsa heaven, conversing with the god Indra and another deity. Equipped with lavish gold-leaf decorations are four Phatyot left and right of the stupa. Two of these fans appear like lotus-shaped roundels, and the other pair are in the shape of lotus buds or Khao Bin rice offerings in lotus shapes.

Phra Malai at the heavenly Chulamani Chedi
Phra Malai at the heavenly Chulamani Chedi. On both sides of the stupa are embellished and gilded Phatyot. From a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai and Tipitaka extracts. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14664, f. 62  Noc

Fans as symbols of honour and status
Bodhisattas, kings, royals, and sometimes deities are portrayed with fans in Thai manuscript illustrations. In certain contexts, especially the Life of the Buddha, fans are used as an expression of veneration and respect. Manuscripts containing secular texts are also occasionally illustrated with images of kings or leaders surrounded by beautifully adorned fans to emphasise their royal or high social status. The painting below depicts two persons who are paying their respects to a king or royal personage wearing a large gold crown, with two decorated fans on each side of the pedestal he is sitting on. The fans are in the frequently found shapes of a lotus bud or Khao Bin offering, and a roundel. In this case, the roundel has eight spokes like a Dhamma Wheel. This image is part of a chart that is used to predict the fate and future of individuals. It is included in a Phrommachat divination manual, with text in Old Mon language and illustrations in the late Ayutthaya style.

Illustration of a royal figure with colourful Wanwichani fans on each side
Illustration of a royal figure with colourful Wanwichani fans on each side. From a Mon version of a Phrommachat divination manual. Ayutthaya or Burma, c. 1750-1820. British Library, Or 14532, f. 14  Noc

In Thai funeral or commemoration books that were commissioned to make merit, the first folios are often illustrated with the gods Brahma and Indra, mythical beings like Kinnari, Garuda or Yakkha, and deities called Thep Chumnum. The latter appear as eye-pleasing figures with golden crowns and royal attires. Thep Chumnum are often depicted in pairs with fans of honour, facing a passage of canonical Pali text like in the paired manuscript illustrations below. Two Thep Chumnum dressed in several layers of colourful loin cloths with floral designs, gold crowns and jewelery, are seated in a respectful pose, flanked by two fans with elongated floor handles. The fans with red and blue ornaments in plant shapes were included to emphasise the divine status and eminence of the Thep Chumnum.

Illustration of Thep Chumnum with exquisitely decorated fans on each side
Illustration of Thep Chumnum with exquisitely decorated fans on each side. From a folding book with Tipitaka extracts. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f. 1 Noc

Further reading
Khin Saw Oo: Culture Value of Myanmar Hand Fan (Talipot-palm Fan). Paper presented at the 2nd International Conference on Burma/Myanmar Studies, 16-18 February 2018, Mandalay
Phra Maha Min Thiritsaro: Phatyot samanasak phrasong Thai. Bangkok, 2016
Talapat. In: Traditional objects of everyday use. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (retrieved 28/12/2022)

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