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57 posts categorized "Thai"

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)

29 November 2021

Khmer manuscripts at the British Library (Part 1)

The history of Khmer manuscripts is closely connected with the influence of Indian civilisation in Southeast Asia and particularly with the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism in the region. The earliest book format in the Khmer Empire – similar to that in South Asia – was the palm leaf bundle, sleuk rith. Although the oldest surviving examples of Khmer palm leaf manuscripts date back only to the late 17th century , there is evidence that they were in use in mainland Southeast Asia much earlier. The Khin Ba gold manuscript found at Sri Ksetra (kept at the National Museum, Yangon), crafted in the shape of palm leaves with holes, indicates that such manuscripts have been present in the region at least since the 5th century CE. The donation of Mahabharata, Ramayana and Purana manuscripts to a Hindu temple is documented in a pre-Angkorian stone inscription (Veal Kantel K.359) dating back to the early 7th century, and a 9th-century inscription (Prei Prasat K.279) by King Yasovarman prescribes the provision of blank palm leaves, lampblack and earth powder - for sanding down the leaves - to students. A statue in Khmer style of the 11th-12th century (kept at the National Museum, Bangkok) shows Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara holding in his four hands a conch, mala beads, a lotus bud and a palm leaf book, whereas a 12th-century bas-relief at Angkor Wat depicts an apsara holding such a manuscript.

First three leaves with text in a long format palm leaf bundle (sastra sleuk rith) containing part of the Buddhist cosmology Traibhum in Khmer mul script, 18th or 19th century
First three leaves with text in a long format palm leaf bundle (sastra sleuk rith) containing part of the Buddhist cosmology Traibhum in Khmer mul script, 18th or 19th century. Acquired by the British Museum from Edwards Goutier, Paris, on 6 December 1895. British Library, Or 5003, ff. 9-11 Noc

In the Cambodian manuscript tradition, two types of palm leaf manuscripts (sleuk rith) are known: the short format (vean), which tend to be manuals of mostly a secular nature written in Khmer language, whereas the long format (sastra) palm leaf manuscripts mostly contain Buddhist scriptures in Pali or bilingual Pali-Khmer languages, as well as sermons, legal writings and classical literary texts and poetry in Khmer language. The text on palm leaves is usually incised and then blackened.

In addition to the palm leaf manuscripts there are folding books (kraing), which were traditionally crafted with paper (snay) made from the bark of the Streblus Asper, a tree in the Mulberry family. The paper can be in a natural cream colour with text written in black ink, or it can be blackened and text written either with white chalk, a yellow gamboge ink or gold ink. Two main styles of Khmer script are found in manuscripts: aksar chrieng (slanted script) and aksar mul (round script).

Kraing manuscript made of blackened paper containing Proleung meas oey
Kraing manuscript made of blackened paper containing Proleung meas oey (transl. 'Oh my darling', literally 'Oh my golden soul') attributed to the Cambodian king Preah Reachsamphear (alias Sri Dhammoraja II), in chrieng script written in yellow gamboge ink. Cambodia, c. 1820-80. British Library, Or 5865, f.53 Noc

Despite decades of combined efforts by Cambodian and French scholars to preserve Cambodia’s manuscripts, the majority have disappeared: an estimated 80% were lost to war and destruction by the Khmer Rouge, looting, neglect due to post-war poverty and, more recently, mutilation to make souvenirs sold at tourist markets.

However, large numbers of manuscripts containing Pali or bi-lingual Buddhist texts in Khmer script have been preserved in Thailand. The country has strong ties with Khmer cultural heritage due to the fact that much of today’s Thailand geographically was once part of the former Khmer Empire. Hinduism and largely also Buddhism were introduced to the early Thai kingdoms Sukhothai and Ayutthaya via the Khmer Empire, and Thai rulers drew inspiration from the Khmer in the process of establishing their own distinctive script, literature, art, architecture, law and administration. For centuries, until the introduction of printing in the 19th century, it was common practice to copy manuscripts as a way of preserving Buddhist and Hindu sacred texts, and often such copies – including entire editions of the Pali Tipitaka – were sponsored by members of the royal family. Towards the end of the 18th century the Khmer script was adapted to accommodate Thai vowels and tonality in order to write texts in Thai language in Khmer script (called akson Khom in Thai). The copying of Khmer manuscripts reached a climax when George Cœdès was assigned to the Royal Vajirañāna Library in Bangkok (1916-18) and ordered copies of rare Khmer manuscripts and texts that were not known outside Cambodia.

Folding book containing the Pali text Mahabuddhaguna and Abhidhamma extracts in Khmer script, with a colophon and commentary in Thai language
Folding book containing the Pali text Mahabuddhaguna and Abhidhamma extracts in Khmer script, with a colophon and commentary in Thai language. Illustrations from the Bhuridatta Jataka in Phetchaburi painting style, Central Thailand, late 18th or early 19th century. British Library, Or 14526, f.5  Noc

The majority of manuscripts with text in Khmer script at the British Library originate from Central Thailand and contain bi-lingual Buddhist texts, yantra designs, medical treatises and glossaries. However, a small number of over a dozen manuscripts are almost certainly from Cambodia with text either in Pali or Khmer language. These include palm leaves as well as paper folding books.

A collection of Khmer literary texts in eleven volumes is a fine example of multi-volume kraing (folding books), made from cream-coloured mulberry bark paper (Or 16131/1-11). The text was written with black ink, and each volume has a red stamp either on the front or back cover (image below). Although none of the volumes contain a date, they are thought to be copies made between 1890 and 1925 from older manuscripts. In volume 3 the name of a temple, Vat Pudumm Vadhatiy, is mentioned. The volumes contain chapters from verse novels like “Hans yant” (vol. 1), “Tav rioen" (vols. 2-5, 8-10) perhaps composed by Ukna Cakri Kèv and Bana Ratn Kosa Kèv in 1837, “Cau Om”, a didactic text in verse consisting of admonitions from a father to his son on the art of political life and “Dambèk puon nak”, a tale in verse on the stupidity of four bald men (both vol. 6), "Laksanavans" (vol. 7), “Varanetta” (vol. 11). Some volumes also contain notes in Thai language, in a different hand, which may have been added later.

Front cover and folio 2 of a kraing manuscript containing "Tav rioen", copy of fascicle 1 in Khmer language in chrieng script, ca. 1890-1925
Front cover and folio 2 of a kraing manuscript containing "Tav rioen", copy of fascicle 1 in Khmer language in chrieng script, ca. 1890-1925. Acquired from Arthur Probsthain, London, in 2005. British Library, Or 16131/2 Noc

A charming, small kraing manuscript made from blackened mulberry bark paper (below) was acquired when former curator Henry Ginsburg’s collection of books and manuscripts was given to the Library following his sudden death in 2007. The text in Khmer language is written in gold ink, in Khmer chrieng script, but because the manuscript is incomplete it was not possible to identify the text for a long time.

Dr Trent Walker, from Stanford University, was able to establish that the text is a letter addressed to royalty, consisting of a set of prophesies for the future and admonitions to be followed. It references other prophetic (damnay) texts, including Ind damnay. The estimated period of its creation is between 1850 to 1925.

Kraing manuscript containing a royal letter written in gold ink in Khmer chrieng script.
Kraing manuscript containing a royal letter written in gold ink in Khmer chrieng script. Cambodia, c. 1850-1925. From Henry Ginsburg’s collection. British Library, Or 16827, f. 2  Noc

Traditional Khmer manuscripts like the examples presented in this blog post have been used as vehicles of knowledge for centuries and give us insights into the religious, literary and cultural traditions of the Khmer civilisation. The upcoming second part will look at some manuscripts containing Khmer texts that were created outside Cambodia.

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)
David, Sen and Thik Kaliyann. Palm leaves preserving history. Phnom Penh Post, 19 September 2015
Documentary film: Sleok Rith, My Life, directed by Leng Sreynich (2017)
Goodall, Dominic. What Information can be Gleaned from Cambodian Inscriptions about Practices Relating to the Transmission of Sanskrit Literature? Indic Manuscript Cultures through the Ages: Material, Textual, and Historical Investigations. Ed. by Vincenzo Vergiani, Daniele Cuneo and Camillo Alessio Formigatti. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2017, pp. 131-160
Sassoon, Alessandro Marazzi and Kong Meta. A ‘crime’ against local history: Cambodia’s lost manuscripts. Phnom Penh Post, 7 April 2017
Sureshkumar Muthukumaran. Speaking of palm-leaf and paper (2018)
Toshiya Unebe. Textual contents of Pāli Samut Khois. Manuscript Studies 2 (University of Pennsylvania, 2017), pp. 427-444 
Walker, Trent T. Unfolding Buddhism: Communal Scripts, Localized Translations, and the Work of the Dying in Cambodian Chanted Leporellos. Ann Arbor, 2018

11 October 2021

Chulamani Chedi, a celestial stupa

A stupa (Sanskrit for “heap”) is an important form of Buddhist architecture as a place of burial or a receptacle for sacred religious objects, which has its origins in the pre-Buddhist burial mounds of ancient India. The earliest stupa contained portions of Gotama Buddha’s relics, and as a result, these monuments began to be associated with the body and energy of the historical Buddha. In Thailand the term chedi (from Pali: cetiya) is more commonly used to refer to stupa as objects and places that keep the memory of the Buddha and his teachings alive. According to the Thai Buddhist cosmology, Traiphum Phra Ruang, a celestial stupa with the name Chulamani Chedi (Pali: Cūḷāmaṇi Cetiya) is situated in the Tavatimsa heaven (image below, left) where the god Indra (Sakka) and 32 deities reside.

The Chulamani Chedi (left), the pāricchattaka tree, celestial umbrella and Sudhamma assembly hall (right) in the Tavatimsa heaven, illustrated in a Buddhist cosmology, Traiphum, from Thailand, 19th century
The Chulamani Chedi (left), the pāricchattaka tree, celestial umbrella and Sudhamma assembly hall (right) in the Tavatimsa heaven, illustrated in a Buddhist cosmology, Traiphum, from Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 15245, ff. 7-8  noc

The Chulamani Chedi is mentioned repeatedly in the story of the Life of the Buddha: when Prince Siddhattha renounced worldly life, he cut off his hair which the god Indra placed in the celestial stupa. Long after his enlightenment, the Buddha ascended to the Tavatimsa heaven - where his mother had been reborn as a deva (deity) - to deliver his wisdom, or Dhamma.  This occurred during one rainy retreat (the period of the Buddhist Lent), in the celestial Sudhamma assembly hall, next to the celestial pāricchattaka tree and the Chulamani Chedi. Finally, after the Buddha’s attainment of pari-nibbana and the cremation of his physical remains, Indra descended from Tavatimsa heaven to fetch a relic of the Buddha and deposit it inside the Chulamani Chedi.

An exquisite illustration of the Chulamani Chedi with the monk Phra Malai, the god Indra and his spouse, in a Thai folding book containing the story of Phra Malai, dated 1849
An exquisite illustration of the Chulamani Chedi with the monk Phra Malai, the god Indra and his spouse, in a Thai folding book containing the story of Phra Malai, dated 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 42  noc

Symbolising the Tavatimsa heaven, the Chulamani Chedi plays an important role in the popular story of the monk Phra Malai, who, as a result of his accumulated merit, was able to travel to the Buddhist hells and heavens. The creatures reborn in the hell realm asked him to urge their relatives in the human world to make merit. Phra Malai revealed his encounters to the laity and received eight flowers from a poor man as an offering, given with the hope of making merit and being reborn into a more fortunate existence. Phra Malai then traveled to the Tavatimsa heaven, where he met the god Indra to discuss ways to gain merit, including the accumulation of merit through listening to recitations of the Vessantara Jataka, the last Birth Tale of the Buddha. This scene is shown in the illustration above from a Thai folding book (Or 14838, dated 1849), in which Phra Malai is seen in front of Chulamani Chedi while conversing with the god Indra and his spouse, Indrani, both depicted with a red aura. Below is the same scene from another Thai folding book containing the story of Phra Malai (Or 6630, dated 1875), but here the monk is conversing with Indra and another male deity.

Phra Malai, Indra and a male deity in front of the Chulamani Chedi, illustrated in a folding book with extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, Central Thailand, 1875
Phra Malai, Indra and a male deity in front of the Chulamani Chedi, illustrated in a folding book with extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, Central Thailand, 1875. British Library, Or 6630, f. 43  noc

Although the composition of this prominent painted scene in Phra Malai manuscripts is quite standardised – always showing the monk and the god Indra with green skin in front of the celestial stupa – additional figures and objects can be included, like for example Indra’s spouse or, alternatively, a male deity, or several male and/or female deities. Chulamani Chedi is most frequently depicted as an emerald stupa with gold decorations on a white base. Sometimes the stupa is shown before a lavishly decorated background as in the example above. Often included are also the monk’s alms bowl, the poor man’s lotus offering, candles, incense, containers for pouring water for the transfer of merit to the deceased, as well as funeral banners. The latter can be either white or gold, with images of crocodiles or centipedes. In the Thai tradition, such banners are hung outside the home when someone has passed away, and they are carried in a procession to the Buddhist temple on occasion of the cremation of the deceased’s body. Occasionally, the banners can be in the shape of crocodiles and centipedes as in the manuscript below (Or 15207, dated 1882).

The Chulamani Chedi with a red aura to highlight the fact that it is housing relics of the Buddha. Illustration from a Phra Malai manuscript, Central Thailand, 1882
The Chulamani Chedi with a red aura to highlight the fact that it is housing relics of the Buddha. Illustration from a Phra Malai manuscript, Central Thailand, 1882. British Library, Or 15207, f. 38  noc

These elaborately decorated funeral and commemoration books with the story of Phra Malai were commissioned as an act of merit, sometimes on behalf of a dying or deceased relative, with the hope of rebirth in a heavenly realm. In the colophon of the manuscript above (Or 15207, fol. 91) it is mentioned that the patron’s wish was to be reborn in the heavenly realm of Phra Si An (Thai name for Buddha Metteyya) and to attain nibbana. It is believed that on each Buddhist holiday all celestial beings gather at the Chulamani Chedi, circumambulating it with lit candles to venerate the Buddha and his teachings.

The Chulamani Chedi depicted as a gold stupa in a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, dated 1837
The Chulamani Chedi depicted as a gold stupa in a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, dated 1837. British Library, Or 14710, f. 76   noc

The illustration above (Or 14710, dated 1837) shows the Chulamani Chedi in gold on a heavily decorated white base. It is situated in a walled compound with amber floor tiles. According to Pali Buddhist scriptures, Indra built walls around the Tavatimsa heaven so that mischievous or evil-minded asura, inferior deities, could not enter this realm. While Indra is shown kneeling in a respectful pose facing the Chulamani Chedi, Phra Malai is seated behind the stupa, pointing towards the entrance of the Tavatimsa realm through which Buddha Metteyya later joined the two of them to give predictions about the future of mankind. Above the entrance is a white banner with the crocodile image (Thai: makara) which in Thai Buddhist mythology functions as a guardian of gateways. Occasionally, one can see in these illustrations from the story of Phra Malai plain white banners and lanterns hanging from large poles with tiered umbrellas as in the example below (Or 14732, dated 1857). All these details reflect Thai funeral traditions.

Two illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi with white lanterns (left), white funeral banners (right), tiered umbrellas on top of poles, and worshippers in a Phra Malai manuscript from Central Thailand dated 1857
Two illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi with white lanterns (left), white funeral banners (right), tiered umbrellas on top of poles, and worshippers in a Phra Malai manuscript from Central Thailand dated 1857. British Library, Or 14732, f. 45   noc

Another feature that frequently appears in illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi are images of hong (from Mon language: hongsa, and Sanskrit: haṃsa), mythical swan-like birds that represent the release of the deceased from the cycle of life. These images, usually in gold, are also attached to the poles that hold the funerary banners and/or tiered umbrellas (below).
In the Thai Buddhist tradition, it is advised to reflect on the Buddha and to visualise the Chulamani Chedi when someone is approaching death, with a banana leaf envelope containing a white flower, incense and a beeswax candle in their hands. This is called "creating one's own image", with the aim of creating an atmosphere of tranquility and peace in the mind. When a person is going to complete their present existence all attachments, loves and hates must be cut in order to enable a fortunate rebirth in the future and, eventually, attainment of nibbana.

Emerald Chulamani Chedi with images of gold hong birds and tiered umbrellas before a background with flower decorations in a Phra Malai manuscript, Central Thailand, 19th century
Emerald Chulamani Chedi with images of gold hong birds and tiered umbrellas before a background with flower decorations in a Phra Malai manuscript, Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16007, f. 48   noc

Further reading
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Thai Tellings of Phra Malai: Texts and Rituals Concerning a Popular Buddhist Saint. Tempe: Arizona State University, Program for Southeast Asian Studies, 1995.
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Envisioning the Buddhist Cosmos through Paintings: The Traiphum in Central Thailand and Phra Malai in Isan. Social Science Asia, Volume 3 Number 4, pp. 111-120 
Ginsburg, Henry, Thai Art and Culture: Historic Manuscripts from Western Collections. London: British Library, 2000
Heijdra, Martin, The Legend of Phra Malai. Firestone Library, Princeton University (2018)
Igunma, Jana, A Buddhist monk’s journey to heaven and hell. Journal of International Association of Buddhist Universities 3 (2012), pp. 65-82
Peltier, Anatole, Iconographie de la légende de Braḥ Mālay. Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême Orient 76 (1982), pp. 63-76
Santi Leksukhum, Buddhism in Thai architecture: Stupa. Manusya Journal of Humanities vol. 4 no. 1 (2001), pp. 68-77
Traiphumikatha, Buddhist cosmology: The illustrated King Rama IX edition. Bangkok: Ministry of Culture, 2012

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

 

26 July 2021

Glorious chariots in Thai manuscript paintings

Chariots figure prominently in South and Southeast Asian art and architectural decoration. Borrowed from the Sanskrit word ratha, the chariot is called rot (รถ) in Thai and has a special importance in  religious traditions in Thailand, especially those related to royal ceremonies and funerals. Impressive funeral chariots on four wheels have been reserved for kings and members of the royal family since the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767). Representing Mount Meru, the tip of which reaches the heavens according to the Thai Buddhist cosmology Traiphum, such ornate and lavishly gilded funeral chariots carried equally ornate urns containing the body of the deceased to the place of cremation. Four-wheeled chariots or chariot-like vehicles are also used in ceremonies to parade Buddha statues during Songkran (New Year) processions, as shown in the image below.

Drawing of a Buddhist procession in southern Thailand
Drawing of a Buddhist procession in southern Thailand, commissioned by James Low, Penang, 1824. British Library, Add MS 27370 f.2v Noc

The coloured drawing of a procession of a Buddha statue in southern Thailand was commissioned in 1824 by Captain James Low who was based at Penang as an officer of the English East India Company. It depicts a realistically-drawn four-wheeled cart with a superstructure in the shape of a chariot on which a Buddha statue is paraded through town. The vehicle is pulled by twelve men and accompanied by monks and charioteers seated next to the statue, with additional men, women and children in various ethnic attires seen in southern Thailand at the time. Depictions of chariots with four wheels are rare in Thai manuscript paintings, however, two-wheeled chariots are frequently found in illustrations of scenes from the last ten Birth Tales of the Buddha (Jataka) in which the Bodhisatta, or Buddha-to-be, uses the vehicles. They can also be seen carrying Lord Sun and Lord Moon (below) in Thai Buddhist cosmologies.

Lord Moon (Phra Chan), travelling across the sky in a horse-drawn chariot
Lord Moon (Phra Chan), travelling across the sky in a horse-drawn chariot. Detail from a drawing of Mount Meru and the Buddhist heavens. Copy from a Thai Buddhist cosmology made for James Low, Penang, 1824. British Library, Add MS 27370 f.4r Noc

While some European influence is obvious in the illustration of Lord Moon travelling in a chariot – for example in the simplified depiction of the wheels – the parts of a typical chariot in the Thai painting style are visible: the shaft with a decorative element in the shape of a naga (serpent) head and a banner, a highly decorative seat and a “tail” in a popular design called kranok.

Illustrations of scenes from the last ten Jataka were often added to a Buddhist text on the Great Perfections of the Buddha (Pali: Mahābuddhagunā) and collections of short extracts from the Pali Buddhist canon. Each of the last ten Jataka symbolises one of the Buddha’s Great Perfections. These texts and images were often included in funeral and commemoration books made in folding book format (samut khoi) from mulberry paper in the fashion of the 18th and 19th centuries. In some of these Jataka stories chariots play an important role.

Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century
Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f.4 Noc

The painting above depicts a scene from the Nemi Jataka in the style of the late 18th century. Although the Nemi Jataka - which symbolises the perfection of resolution - is not included in this manuscript, the illustration appears in the context of the Mahābuddhagunā. Before a vibrant red background with floral decorations one can see King Nemi (Pali: Nimi) on a two-wheeled chariot pulled by two horses. The wheel of the chariot has eight spokes, similar to the Dhammchakka whose spokes represent the Noble Eightfold Path, or Middle Way of Buddhism. On one horse kneels the divine charioteer Matali, who was sent from the heavenly realm of the god Indra to fetch Nemi for a visit to the Buddhist heavens, and Nemi is seen here sitting in the carriage with a small pavilion-like superstructure. However, Nemi ordered Matali to first take him to the realms of hell - shown in the lower part of the picture - so he could teach his subjects about the horrors that await evildoers.

Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century
Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14255, f.4 Noc

Although illustrations from the Jataka stories were relatively standardised in Thai manuscripts, there are always variations in the choice of colours and execution of details. The example above has a bright orange background with a deity hovering in the air. Two horses are jumping over a skeleton, but apparently the painter had some difficulty with perspective since the hind legs and tail of only one horse are visible. The chariot, harness and garments of the deity and charioteer are decorated with gold leaf.

During the 19th century, Thai painters seem to have enjoyed greater freedom to change details or to include their own ideas in their works. The illustration below depicts King Nemi on a glorious chariot that is pulled by only one horse. For the background, the artist chose plain black, perhaps to highlight the fact that hell is a dark and hopeless place. An interesting element in this illustration is the charioteer’s conical white hat  which is a traditional headgear worn by Thai nobility and royal Brahmins.

Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century
Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f.13 Noc

The features of horses appear more realistic in 19th-century illustrations, and often some Western influence is visible in the painting style. The picture below has a bright blue background with white clouds executed with simple brush strokes. In the clouds, however, there are rooftops of heavenly palaces painted in the conventional Thai style. The chariot has no superstructure, but a wheel with a unique arrangement of spokes. Matali is depicted with green skin, possibly to emphasize the fact that he is a divine charioteer sent by the god Indra.

Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, dated 1894
Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, dated 1894. British Library, Or 16101, f.3 Noc

Another popular Jataka involving a chariot scene is the story of Prince Temiya, who as a child pretended to be “crippled and mute” so he would not have to become king, a role in which he might have to commit cruel acts leading to negative Karma. Ignorant Brahmins advised the king to send the apparently disabled child in a chariot to a graveyard and bury him there. Upon arrival at the graveyard, the young prince lifted the chariot with one hand to show his power and capabilities. The scared charioteer released Temiya at once, realising he was a Bodhisatta, who then chose a life in meditation as an ascetic. Temiya lifting the chariot is the most popular scene from this Jataka, shown in the illustration below in 18th-century painting style with a distinctive rocky landscape and a crooked tree. The scene is made particularly lively by the shocked, escaping horses.

Scene from the Temiya Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century
Scene from the Temiya Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f.1 Noc

Another example of illustrating the Temiya Jataka, from a 19th-century manuscript, is shown below: the chariot waiting to pick up Prince Temiya, who sits motionless in meditation in front of a white stone building. The charioteer is depicted with green skin, perhaps to indicate that he was under the influence of Indra’s deities when they guided him to steer the chariot carrying Temiya through the Gate of Victory instead of the Gate of Death. The heavily decorated chariot is also equipped with two monastic fans (Thai: talaphat) and a golden offering bowl.

Scene from the Temiya Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century
Scene from the Temiya Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14559, f.4 Noc

The Vessantara Jataka, or Great Jataka, also contains important episodes involving chariots. It tells the story of the Buddha’s last existence before attaining Buddhahood as a generous prince who showed great compassion with the needy and the poor. One well-known episode is depicted in the painting below, from a 19th-century manuscript: when Prince Vessantara was banished from the kingdom, he departed with his wife and children in a horse-driven chariot to set up a hermitage in the forest. However, on the way some Brahmins asked for the horses which Vessantara gave them as a gift. Deities sent by the god Indra immediately transformed themselves into deer to replace the horses and pull the chariot.

Prince Vessantara is seen on the chariot which is only half shown. The realistically-painted deer that is pulling the chariot has a golden harness, similar to those worn by the white horses which are being taken away by the Brahmins. This excellently executed illustration in 19th-century painting style has a calm light pink and light green background.


Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century
Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f.26 Noc

Another popular episode of the Vessantara Jataka is the return of the prince and his family to the royal palace, followed by his ascension to the throne. In contrast to the two-wheeled chariots in most Jataka illustrations, the scene below depicts an extravagantly decorated, glorious chariot with four wheels and a gilded pavilion-like superstructure in which Prince Vessantara is seated. Also kneeling on the chariot are his wife Maddi with their two little children, as well as Prince Vessantara’s parents who welcomed them back into the palace. They are wearing golden headgear as a sign of royalty. At the back of the chariot one can see two gilded monastic fans. Below are four attendants in commoners’ outfits accompanying the procession.

Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century, red background
Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f.78 Noc

In all these Jataka illustrations, chariots are more than just vehicles for transportation: they also fulfil symbolic functions. In the Nemi Jataka the chariot is a means to travel between the Three Worlds (Traiphum) of the Thai cosmos – human realm, heavens and hells. In the story of Prince Temiya, the chariot is used to express the hero’s physical power, and metaphorically his mental strength and moral stature as a Bodhisatta. The chariots that appear in the Vessantara Jataka are vehicles in which the Buddha-to-be goes through pivotal changes, from a life of luxury and convenience in the royal palace to a life of sacrifice and hardship as a hermit in the wilderness, and then back from a hermit to becoming a righteous Buddhist king.

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

Further reading
Blurton, Richard, A processional chariot from south India. London: British Museum, 2018.
Terwiel, Barend J., Two Scrolls Depicting Phra Phetracha’s Funeral Procession in 1704 and the Riddle of their Creation. Journal of the Siam Society vol. 104 (2016), pp. 79-94.

 

19 April 2021

Konlabot: Thai poetry from 'Jewels of Thought'

Among the literary treasures of Thailand is the famous work Chindamani, "Jewels of Thought". The oldest version of this work is attributed to the seventeenth-century monk and court astrologer Horathibodi of Ayutthaya. It is thought that he compiled it around 1670 in Lopburi for King Narai, but he may have drawn inspiration and knowledge from older texts. Although the original work has not been preserved physically, copies of it are held in numerous archives and libraries in Thailand and abroad. Chindamani is a treatise about "writing", covering vocabulary, orthography, grammar, loan words from Pali, Sanskrit and Khmer, literary styles and poetry conventions.

Thai poetry is shaped by a combination of foreign influences and the 'poetic' character and tonality of the Thai language. Thai poets were inspired by foreign languages like Pali, Sanskrit and Khmer, but the nature of the Thai language governs, selects and adapts these imported influences. Poets in the past explored the possibilities of the language and indirectly established new conventions for the following generations. This can be seen in the techniques of word-play and punning as well as the many variations of Thai verse forms known as Konlabot.

The poem Suriyakanta nai chak (Lord Sun in the wheel) illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f.11
The poem Suriyakanta nai chak (Lord Sun in the wheel) illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f.11 Noc

A small treasure in the Library's Thai, Lao and Cambodian collection is a nineteenth-century folding book (samut khoi) made from mulberry paper with examples of illustrated Konlabot poetry. The poems are written in black ink, in a very accurate hand, on eighteen folios. Twelve folios contain coloured illustrations, most of which have Konlabot verses written in a geometric pattern. The size of the book is 340 mm x 107 mm, rather small compared to the larger Thai folding books containing Buddhist texts. However, this is the usual folding-book size for literary, historical and other secular topics. The first part of the book contains nine poems without illustrations and two poems accompanied by illustrations, including one about the popular folktale Kraithong, a story of a brave man who rescued a young lady after she was abducted by a crocodile and held captive in a cave. The second part contains poems which are embedded in paintings of fine quality, like for example two striking symbolic illustrations of the sun (above) and moon (below) which contain verses in praise of Suriya, lord of the sun, and Chandra, lord of the moon. The moon with the white rabbit is shown together with the demi-god Rahu who is trying to swallow the moon – a traditional explanation of a lunar eclipse.

The poem Phra Chandra (Lord Moon) illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f. 12
The poem Phra Chandra (Lord Moon) illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f. 12 Noc

Historically, Thai poets have cherished and explored the possibilities of language through the invention of various stylistic methods of Konlabot. In many major literary works in Thai language - like Lilit Phra Lo, Yuan Phai, Samuttakhot Khamchan, and Anirut Khamchan - there is an abundance of Konlabot poetry to break up the main text, or to poetically "illustrate" the main text. This serves the purpose of highlighting the mastery of an author and their ability to intensify the emotions in their work. Much dedication and effort are given to the novelty of imagery that can appeal to the feelings and the aesthetic senses of audiences. Therefore, the refinement of diction and embellishment through poetry is highly valued.

The poem Dragon flicking his tail illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f. 13
The poem Dragon flicking his tail illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f. 13 Noc

Although over time many different types of Konlabot have emerged, Chindamani is the only theoretical work to cover Konlabot poetry as a subject, giving examples of different types of Konlabot with their proper names. Ten of the most popular and best-known types of Konlabot are the following:

- Alternating letters
- Kinnara picking lotus
- Cows circling a stake
- Elephants joining tusks
- A serpent's composition
- The mountain covered
- Stems joining on to flowers
- Lions swishing tails
- Charioteers driving
- Flowers in designs

These ten types of Konlabot are also mentioned in an inscription from the treatise of Khlong Konlabot found at Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho) in Bangkok, the temple considered as the first university in Thailand founded by King Rama III.

The poem Thousand lotuses illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f. 14
The poem Thousand lotuses illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f. 14 Noc

From the different types of Konlabot mentioned above it is obvious that the name of each type of Konlabot implies certain characteristics corresponding to the name. For example, words or verses can be arranged in a certain geometric pattern, which is then embedded in an illustration. The reader needs to know the "code" to decipher the poem that is represented in the geometric shape. This geometric structure subsequently affects the sound pattern and the rhythm of the poem. Usually the poet includes certain key-words together with a suggestive title which enable the reader to decode a poem. Thus, Konlabot poetry can also be used to cover taboo topics, or to send secret messages to lovers, like for example the erotic poem about the Bird in the cave below. The title is a symbolic expression for love-making, and the poem elaborates on the poet’s desire for his lover, a gorgeous lady with a playful, chatty voice and a face bright and sparkling like a diamond.

The poem Bird in the cave illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f. 17
The poem Bird in the cave illustrated in a folding book containing Konlabot poetry, Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16102, f. 17 Noc

The idea of poetry as a critical exploration of language is highlighted in the famous eighteenth-century work Klon Konlabot Siriwibunkiti, which contains eighty-four variations of versification. While this text is seen as evidence of the established importance and recognition of Thai written poetry since the Ayutthaya era (1350-1767), it also shows that the Konlabot genre is proof of the Khmer influence in Thai poetry. Like the Kaap, another popular form of versification in Thailand, Konlabot has exact counterparts in Khmer language. Generally, Thai classical literature embraces Khmer and Sanskrit loanwords, especially older compositions from before the nineteenth century.

Further reading:
Braginsky, Vladimir: The comparative study of traditional Asian literatures: from reflective traditionalism to neo-traditionalism. London, 2015
Cholthira Satyavadhana: วิจารณ์รื้อวิจารณ์ ตำนานวรรณคดีวิจารณ์แนวรื้อสร้างและสืบสาน = Wichan ru wichan tamnan wannakhadi wichan naeo ru sang lae suepsan. Mahasarakham, 2550 (i.e. 2007)
Herbert, Patricia and Anthony Milner (ed.): South-East Asia: languages and literatures: a select guide. Whiting Bay, 1990
Peera Panarut: Cindamani. The Odd Content Version. A Critical Edition. Segnitz, 2018
Peera Panarut: On a quest for the jewel: a review of the Fine Arts Department’s edition of Phra Horathibodi’s Chindamani. Manusya Journal of Humanities, vol. 18/1 (2015), pp. 23-57
Suchitra Chongstitvatana: The nature of modern Thai poetry considered with reference to the works of Angkhan Kalayanaphong, Naowarat Phongphaibun and Suchit Wongthet. PhD thesis, SOAS, London, 1984

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

I would like to thank Prof. emeritus Cholthira Satyawadhana, former Dean of School of Liberal Arts, Walailak University, for her advice and help in decoding poems in the Konlabot manuscript that is subject of this article.

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