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Buddhist manuscript textiles: East Asia (2)

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The previous articles on Buddhist manuscript textiles focused on manuscript wrappers, bags and textile book covers from mainland Southeast Asia and manuscript textiles from Nepal, Tibet, northwest China and Mongolia. All these rare textile objects came to light during the curation of an exhibition on Buddhism at the British Library (25 October 2019 – 23 February 2020).

Paper scrolls and bound books with silk covers were particularly popular in the manuscript traditions of the regions and countries in East Asia. This article focuses on manuscript textiles from China, Korea and Japan in the British Library collections which are unique and outstanding in their artistic presentation. In contrast to manuscript textiles from Southeast Asia, which are often of a more recent date than the manuscripts they belong to, East Asian manuscript textiles can sometimes be significantly older than the manuscripts they are attached to.

Or. 13926

Silk scroll cover of the Lotus Sutra (Myōhō rengekyō), containing chapter 8 ‘The Prophecy of Enlightenment to Five Hundred Disciples’, Japan, dated 1636.
© British Library, Or. 13926

Scroll covers made from silk damask and fine brocades can be found across East Asia. Especially copies of the most important and popular Sutras and other sacred texts commissioned by emperors or empresses are often equipped with impressive silk covers of outstanding quality.

The Lotus Sutra is one of the most influential scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, seen by many Buddhists as the summation of the teachings of the Buddha. The scroll depicted above is believed to be part of a set of 28 commissioned by the Japanese Emperor, Go-Mizunoo (1596–1680), to commemorate his grandfather-in-law, the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616). The silk brocade scroll cover in pale saffron colour is decorated with floral patterns woven in continuous supplementary weft technique. Attached is a hand-woven silk binding tape. Since this is a specially commissioned manuscript, it can be assumed that the scroll and the silk cover are of the same date.

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Silk brocade cover of a paper scroll containing the story of the ‘Palace of Tengu’ (Tengu no dairi) in Japanese language, Japan, 1560-1600. © British Library, Or.13839, vol. 1

Another outstanding example from Japan is a silk brocade scroll cover in pale brown, blue and grey tones depicting figures of the dragon, phoenix as well as lotus blossoms with eight petals which also represent the Noble Eightfold Path; all incorporated into a vibrant geometrical pattern. The illustrated text contained in this paper scroll, Tengu no dairi, recounts an episode from the life of the tragic hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune, younger brother of Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147–99).

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Silk brocade cover of a paper scroll containing the Sutra of Filial Piety (Bussetsu daihō bumo onjūgyō) printed in Chinese characters. Japan, c. 17th century. © British Library, Or. 16331

The Sutra of Filial Piety was composed in China during the Tang Dynasty (618–917), and incorporates ideas about honouring one’s parents and ancestors. It may have come as a response to claims that Buddhist beliefs could undermine this filial piety which plays an important role in Confucianism. From China the Sutra travelled to Korea then Japan, where it appeared at the end of the 14th century.

The paper scroll shown above contains a printed copy of the Sutra of Filial Piety with twenty hand-coloured illustrations extolling the love of parents for their children and the obligation of children to repay it. A square shaped piece of hand-woven silk brocade with a floral design in striking colours – cream-white, indigo, light blue and mint green on light brown background – was added as a protective cover on the back side of the frontispiece.

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A miniature paper scroll with textile cover containing the ‘Daihannya rishubun o-mamori’ (Sanskrit: Prajñāpāramitā-naya-śatapañcaśatikā) for use as an amulet. Japan, c.1960. © British Library, ORB.Misc/95

Miniature scrolls containing Buddhist texts are very popular, but usually not made for reading but to be worn on the body or carried as protective amulets. The scroll shown above with a printed copy of a short text belonging to the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras dates back to the 1960s and is only four cm wide. The scroll cover is made from a small piece of industrially woven silk with red and gold metal threads to which a purple coloured binding tape is attached.

Folding books, also known as leporello or concertina books, as well as bound books are other popular formats to contain Buddhist scriptures in East Asia. Like in the Southeast Asian manuscript tradition, folding books often have elaborately decorated front and back covers. However, in East Asia the covers are preferably equipped with textiles whereas in Southeast Asia they are usually lacquered, gilded, painted or decorated with mirror glass inlay.

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A folding book containing a copy of the Diamond Sutra (Korean: Kŭmgang panyak p’aramil kyŏng) in Chinese characters, with front and back covers layered with silk brocade with a gold floral pattern. Korea, 18th century. © British Library, Or. 15263

Being a key text in Mahayana Buddhism, the Diamond Sutra was (and still is) copied frequently, often in beautiful calligraphy or with added illuminations and decorated silk scroll covers or book covers, depending on the book format.

The outstanding copy of the Diamond Sutra from Korea shown above was written in gold ink in Chinese characters, the lingua franca of Buddhism across East Asia, on indigo-dyed paper. The sturdy paper covers are layered with a grey coloured silk brocade, decorated with gold scrolling flower ornaments which are typical of the mid-Ming period (16th century). This suggests that the textile element in this case may be older than the hand-written manuscript itself. It was common practice to re-use old silks for book covers, and in some cases these silks may have been imported from other places.

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Imperial book with silk brocade covers containing the Guan Yin Sutra (Sanskrit: Avalokiteshvara Sutra) in Chinese. China, 1705. © British Library, Add MS 22690

Buddhists across East Asia recite the Avalokiteshvara Sutra to invoke protection against accidents, illness, dangerous animals, theft, untimely death and issues around conception, pregnancy and childbirth. Known under the title Guan Yin Sutra in China, it has become one of the most popular Buddhist texts which is often illustrated with an image of Guan Yin (Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara).

The manuscript in the illustration above and below (detail) is an outstanding example dated 1705 CE containing a gold illustration of Guan Yin, with the text in Chinese characters written in gold ink on natural cream coloured silk. The silk was carefully glued on paper to form a folding book whose sturdy paper covers are layered with silk brocade of the finest quality. The complex design of the silk brocade depicts dragons in blue coloured roundels which are connected by lines in the same colour. There are also stylised flowers formed of interlocking squares with bent sides and curled extensions on the corners. The dragons and flowers are in pale blue and brown tones, whereas the ground is of a natural cream colour with a stunning geometric star design in light blue colour.

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Detail depicting a dragon roundel on the silk brocade cover of a folding book containing the Guan Yin Sutra in Chinese language. China, 1705. © British Library, Add MS 22690

Another fine example of a folding book with silk-layered covers is a miniature album containing a small collection of brush-painted paper amulets (below). Amulets are very popular in all Buddhist traditions: some types are believed to provide protection from negative thoughts and harmful influences, others are thought to bring good luck to the owners. Amulets can be made from paper, wood, metal or cloth, on which are written, stamped or printed short Buddhist texts or drawings of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, high-ranking monks, auspicious symbols etc.  They are usually issued by individual monks or Buddhist temples for their lay followers. The owner of such an amulet can make devotional visits to the places from which they received the amulet to pray and renew its protective power on a regular basis.

The album is made from paper in folding book format. The surface of the paper is layered with silk damask in old rose colour, on which the paper amulets are affixed. The thicker and sturdier book covers are layered with silk brocade whose design is dominated by flowers with four petals and svastika symbols, which stand for well-being in the Buddhist tradition; all on a bright blue background.

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Miniature album in folding book format with silk-layered covers containing brush-painted Buddhist amulets. China, early 20th century. © British Library, ORB.Misc/111

Besides paper scrolls and folding books, printed bound paper books played an important role for the spread of Buddhism across East Asia. A popular binding method was the stitched binding, which allowed for relatively thin book covers consisting of multiple or even single layers of paper only. To provide some form of protection for these books, they were often equipped with sturdy book cases. Such book cases could be made for single volumes or multiple volumes.

The example shown below was made for a single volume containing a Japanese Buddhist story, Tada no Manju, dating back to the early seventeenth century. It contains a story derived from Konjaku monogatari (‘Tales of the Past’) that is telling of the hero Manju and his conversion to Buddhism, with hand-coloured illustrations reflecting the message “Life has suffering”. The book case is layered with silk brocade with a floral design in yellow and light green colours. Small bone clasps prevent the book from falling out of the case.

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Woodblock-printed book containing the story ‘Tada no Manju’ in Japanese language, with a silk-covered bookcase. Japan, 1605-1610. © British Library, Or.64.b.26

Another type of manuscript textile worth mentioning is the mounting scroll. This is a paper scroll that is usually layered with three different silk brocades. Its purpose is for mounting votive paper objects carrying either sacred Buddhist images or sacred texts from the Mahayana tradition. Such images and texts could be printed or hand-written/-painted. To be hung up in temples or in private homes, for example in prayer or meditation rooms, the paper object was affixed in the middle of the three layered silk brocade as shown in the example below.

This modern calligraphy of the Heart Sutra in block script style was made by master calligrapher Miyamoto Chikkei (1926–2002) and mounted on a silk brocade scroll. The Heart Sutra is popular for recitation and calligraphy across East Asia.

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‘Hannya shingyō’ (Heart Sutra) calligraphy by Miyamoto Chikkei mounted on a triple layer silk scroll. Japan, 1995. © British Library, Or. 15542

To see Buddhist manuscript textiles as well as textile artefacts and colourful paintings on silk visit the Buddhism exhibition at the British Library which will be open until 23 February 2020.

By Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections, British Library

Further reading and references

Eric Boudot and Chris Buckley, The roots of Asian weaving: The He Haiyan collection of textiles and looms from Southwest China (Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2015

Anna Jackson, Japanese Textiles in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London: V&A Publications, 2000

Helen Loveday, The Baur Collection Geneva: Japanese Buddhist Textiles, Textiles Bouddhiques Japonais (Milan: 5 Continents, 2014)

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Ofuda: in with the good, out with the bad (Part 1) (retrieved 13.02.2020)

Liz Rose, Assessment and conservation of Buddhist textiles for a major exhibition (In: Arts of Asia, January-February 2020) pp. 151-7

Shelagh Vainker, Chinese silk. A cultural history (London: British Museum, 2004)

New issue of SEALG Newsletter online

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A new issue of the SEALG Newsletter (2019) has been published and is now available online.

Included in the Newsletter is the report of our group’s Annual Meeting that took place in June 2019 in Leiden. In addition to this detailed report by Marije Plomp, the latest issue of the Newsletter contains the following articles:

  • A brief account of traditional Shan manuscript culture by Chaichuen Khamdaengyodtai
  • Calendars and horoscopes in mainland Southeast Asia by Jana Igunma
  • Two Bugis Manuscripts in the Library of Seminar für Südostasienwissenschaften (FB 9), Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität Frankfurt by Sirtjo Koolhof
  • Exploring Southeast Asia Scholarly Resources in Taiwan by Virginia Shih

Previous issues of the Newsletter in electronic format are also available on the SEALG homepage.

newsletter2019frontpage

Buddhist manuscript textiles: East Asia (1)

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The previous article on Buddhist manuscript textiles focused on manuscript wrappers, bags and textile book covers from mainland Southeast Asia which came to light during the curation of an exhibition on Buddhism at the British Library (25 October 2019 – 23 February 2020). The manuscript traditions of South and East Asia are equally diverse as one can see in the above mentioned exhibition. Although the nature and production of manuscripts in South and East Asia is in many aspects different from that in Southeast Asia, manuscript textiles here were also frequently reused or repurposed pieces of cloth. However, textiles directly attached to manuscripts were often custom-made for a particular manuscript or an entire set of manuscripts; silk being the preferred material. The commission of an elaborately decorated or illuminated manuscript counts as an act of merit in all Buddhist cultures.

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A manuscript wrapper made from silk velvet, silk damask and embroidered silk for a paper manuscript. Nepal, 1683 (date of the manuscript) and 19th century (textile). © British Library, Or.11124

Shown above is an embroidered Thangka hanging that was repurposed to be used as a manuscript wrapper for a paper manuscript containing a fine calligraphic copy in gold ink of the Pancharaksha, a ritual text for the invocation of Five Protections, with illustrations of five protective goddesses. The country of origin of the cloth is not known; the different types of silk used to make the Thangka may originate from different countries or regions. The frame of the Thangka is made from brown coloured silk velvet. Historically, China and Iraq were among the first and most important producers of silk velvet, but Uzbekistan has also long been famous for the production of silk velvet. At the top, there is a veil in three layers which is made from blue and green silk damask. At the centre is a beautiful, mandala-shaped floral design embroidered in blue and white tones on bright red tabby weave silk. The actual manuscript is about two centuries older than the cloth, and it is not known whether the manuscript originally had another wrapper which deteriorated and had to replaced, or whether the manuscript had no wrapper at all.

More frequently, manuscript wrappers were custom-made for a particular manuscript to add meritorious value to the manuscript and to protect it from damage. The cloth was often sewn together combining a simpler, but stronger inner layer with a more valuable outer layer made of plain silk, silk damask or brocade.

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Initiation and ritual texts in a paper pothi manuscript with a custom-made silk wrapper with brocade application. Tibet, early 19th century. © British Library, Or.14685

The Tibetan manuscript shown above contains initiation and ritual texts with 27 illustrations and diagrams. It is made from paper in the pothi format that resembles the long oblong shape of palm leaf manuscripts in the South Asian and Southeast Asian manuscript traditions. The manuscript is wrapped in a square-shaped silk wrapper made from a red coloured inner layer and a yellow coloured outer layer. In one corner a beautifully designed application was added which was made from a small patch of hand-woven silk brocade in red, purple, white, blue and yellow tones, with embroidered edges. Attached to this corner of the cloth is a ribbon sewn from silk brocade with a Chinese coin attached to it at the end. Two other corners of the cloth also have a ribbon attached. To wrap up the manuscript, the cloth is laid out in diamond shape with the inner red layer facing up. The manuscript is placed in the middle of the wrapper, and the one corner without a ribbon is folded over the manuscript. Then the two corners on the left and right side are folded over the manuscript and tied together with the ribbons attached to those corners of the cloth. Finally, the corner with the silk brocade application is wrapped around the manuscript and the ribbon with the attached coin wound around the bundle several times, and the coin is pushed under the ribbon.

The manuscript wrapper mentioned above is one of a few examples where the smell of an object has its own story to tell. This piece of cloth has stains and quite a strong smell from butter lamps which are used on Buddhist altars. It can be assumed that the manuscript was used frequently, and the wrapper served its purpose of protecting the manuscript very well indeed.

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Silk veil attached to the title page of a volume of the Tibetan Buddhist canon, Kanjur. Containing the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in 8,000 Verses. Southern Central Tibet, 18th century. © British Library, Tib.I.232

Tibetan manuscripts containing sacred Buddhist literature often have decorative sheets as title pages, which are typically framed or illuminated and veiled with plain silk, silk damask or brocade. Many Tibetan Buddhist scriptures were written down on paper specially treated with indigo or black lacquer, and the title was written elegantly in silver or gold script (dbu can) against the dark background.

The image above depicts the title page of a volume of the Tibetan Buddhist canon, Kanjur, containing the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in 8,000 Verses. The title page is made from multi-layered, indigo-dyed paper. A veil made from four layers of silk in yellow, red, green and blue colours protects the title that is written in gold ink. The top layer in yellow colour is decorated with a sewn-on piece of intricately hand-woven silk brocade depicting stylised lotuses and figures of mythical animals as shown in the close-up image of a part of the veil below.

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Detail of a four-layered veil with silk brocade attached to the title page of a volume of the Tibetan Buddhist canon, Kanjur. Southern Central Tibet, 18th century. © British Library, Tib.I.232

Another feature of Tibetan pothi manuscripts are shelf flaps which are usually attached on the left side of the first text folio. Similar to the veil on the title page, the shelf flap consists of several layers of silk. The example below has four layers in the colours yellow, red, green and blue. The yellow layer of silk damask bears information about the content of the manuscript. The shelf flap fulfils an important function: when the manuscript is placed on the shelf or in a cabinet in a temple library, only the shelf flap with the information on the manuscript’s content is visible and enables the quick identification of the manuscript.

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Shelf flap made of silk and silk damask attached on the left side of a volume of the Tibetan Buddhist canon, Kanjur. Southern Central Tibet, 18th century. © British Library, Tib.I.232

Not all Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts are equipped with multi-layered veils, brocades or shelf flaps. Presented below is a volume containing a text which summarises the contents of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras of the Tibetan canon. The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras are very popular in the Mahayana tradition and highlight the insight into the empty nature of all phenomena. The illustrations on the title page depict on the left Shakyamuni Buddha in his earth-touching gesture (bhumisparsha mudra) and Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara on the right. The red coloured veil in tabby weave stretches the whole length of the title page to cover both the title and illustrations when closed.

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Paper pothi manuscript containing a text in Tibetan with the title Ratnaguṇasaṃcayagāthā, with a silk veil attached to the title page. Tibet, 14th century. © British Library, Or.16445

Not only Buddhist canonical scriptures could be equipped with a veil on the title page, but also extra-canonical texts. The manuscript below contains a text that describes the experiences encountered in the state between death and rebirth (bardo). In the West it became famously known as the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”. The text is often read near the bed of a deceased person to guide them through the various stages of the after-death experience and to support their spiritual liberation. The title page and pages where a new chapter begins are illustrated with various deities that are said to appear to the individual during the bardo. Attached to the pages with illustrations are silk veils in red colour, hand-woven with a chequered pattern to protect the title in gold ink and painted figures of wrathful deities. Generally, veils attached to the title page or chapter pages can have different colours; a popular type of veil is dyed yellow, red and green.

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Chapter page with silk veil of a manuscript containing the text Bar do thos grol in Tibetan language. Tibet, 18th century. British Library, © Or.15190

Buddhist texts in Tibetan language are not only found in Tibet, but also Bhutan, Mongolia and neighbouring regions. Manuscripts made in Mongolia towards the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century, for example, are usually protected by front and back covers made from multi-layered paper that was left in plain cream-white colour which is similar to the Tibetan tradition of making manuscripts. Occasionally, however, the covers were decorated each with a piece of cloth that was wrapped around the cover and then sewn together at the back of the cover. The example below shows the front cover of a well-known text in Tibetan language, the Vajracchedika Sutra (Diamond Cutter Sutra). It is decorated with a piece of printed cotton cloth with a floral design in red, yellow and brown colours.

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Front cover decorated with printed cotton of a manuscript containing the Dorjzoduba Sutra, Mongolia, 1890-1920. Held by the Dambadarjaa Monastery, Ulaanbaatar, EAP529/1/13

Some of the earliest extant manuscript textiles were found at the beginning of the 20th century by Sir Aurel Stein and his team in a library cave at Dunhuang in northwest China. The cave had been sealed for about a thousand years, which resulted in the 40,000 or so manuscripts and books contained in the cave remaining in relatively good condition.

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Silk fragment found in the library cave at Dunhuang Mogao, northwest China, 9th or 10th century. © British Library, Or.8210/S.13895 A recto

The small silk fragment above (size 8×4 cm) may have belonged to a miniature paper scroll containing a Sutra or another protective text. In this case, the piece of red coloured silk could have been attached to the back of the scroll as a scroll backing or as a cover. Miniature scrolls containing popular protective Sutras were often carried along on travels or brought back from pilgrimages as protective amulets. The silk fragment has seams at the top and bottom, and it appears as if it had been embroidered, or a pattern had been woven in for decoration, although this is not clearly visible due to the fragmented and fragile condition of the item.

Another rare manuscript textile discovered at the library cave in Dunhuang is a painted scroll cover belonging to a 21-metre long paper scroll (shown below).

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Painted silk cover of a paper scroll containing six Buddhist texts in Khotanese and Sanskrit languages in Brahmi script. Dunhuang Mogao, northwest China, dated 943 CE. © British Library, IOL Khot.S.46

The scroll contains a small collection of Mahayana Sutras and incantations written in ink on paper using the Khotanese and Sanskrit languages. The ancient kingdom of Khotan was located on the Silk Road (Xinjiang, northwest China) and was one of the main centres of Buddhism until the 11th century. This scroll was commissioned by a Buddhist patron requesting long life for himself and his family. To the scroll belongs a piece of silk that served as the scroll cover when the scroll was closed. A fine painting on the silk shows a pair of birds, possibly swan geese, standing on lotus flowers. In their beaks they are holding budding branches. This particular motif is frequently mentioned in Dunhuang literature and is also found on silk brocade book covers of the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) (see Vainker, 2004, pp.128-129).

Paper scrolls and bound books with silk covers were particularly popular in the manuscript traditions of the regions and countries in the east of East Asia. The upcoming second part of this article will look at manuscript textiles from China, Korea and Japan.

To see Buddhist manuscript textiles as well as textile artefacts and colourful paintings on silk visit the Buddhism exhibition at the British Library which will be open until 23 February 2020.

By Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections, British Library

Special thanks to Burkhard Quessel, Lead Curator of Tibetan Collections, Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator of Persian and Turcic Collections, and Liz Rose, Textile Conservator, all at the British Library, for their invaluable advice and support.

Further reading and references

Eric Boudot and Chris Buckley, The roots of Asian weaving: The He Haiyan collection of textiles and looms from Southwest China (Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2015

Elizabeth Hunter and Carl Norman, Painted silk Sutra wrapper IOL.MSS.Khot.S.46 (retrieved 03.01.2020)

Liz Rose, Assessment and conservation of Buddhist textiles for a major exhibition (In: Arts of Asia, January-February 2020)

Liz Rose, Video: The removal of linen backed paper from a silk scroll cover (retrieved 03.01.2020)

Ursula Sims-Williams, A Buddhist sutra and illustrated cover (retrieved 10.01.2020)

Shelagh Vainker, Chinese silk. A cultural history (London: British Museum, 2004)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buddhist manuscript textiles: Southeast Asia

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A major exhibition on Buddhism at the British Library (25 October 2019 – 23 February 2020) focused on Buddhist manuscripts and early printed works, and how they helped to spread Buddhism across Asia and beyond. During the curation process, an unexpected number of manuscript textiles came to light. These are textiles that are used to wrap around manuscripts to protect them from damage and dust, but also textiles that contain information about manuscripts, bags for the storage and transport of manuscripts and textiles attached to manuscripts. Often the textiles are custom-made for one particular manuscript, and in this case these cloths could be made from valuable hand-woven silk brocades, colourful printed cotton or imported materials like chintz and damask. Specially designed textiles were commissioned to add meritorious value to a manuscript or an entire set of manuscripts. However, sometimes discarded textiles like clothing, complete or partial wall hangings or leftover pieces of cloths made for other purposes were used to create manuscript textiles. This practice goes back to the historical Buddha himself who encouraged his disciples and followers to “recycle” material resources by reusing and repurposing them; for example, discarded pieces of clothing were dyed and sewn together as robes for Buddhist monks and nuns.

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Three-part tubeskirt (Lao: pha sin) that was repurposed as a wrapper for a small collection of palm leaf bundles containing Buddhist texts in Pali language in Dhamma script. Laos or North Thailand, 19th century (manuscripts) and Laos, mid-20th century (wrapper). © British Library, Or 16886

Buddhist manuscript textiles can be found across Asia, and the artistic creativity in designing and repurposing textiles for the use with manuscripts is truly amazing. In South and Southeast Asia one can find a great variety of manuscript wrappers and bags. The manuscript wrapper (Lao: pha ho khamphi) from northern Laos shown above is made from a repurposed tube-skirt that consists of three parts: a colourful decorative hem-piece with a geometric pattern made in supplementary weft, a main body part dyed in red and purple tones and woven in Ikat technique with woven-in metal strands, and a simple striped waistband at the top. Manuscript wrappers could get very dusty or even mouldy over time and had to be replaced frequently. Therefore, the manuscript(s) found with such wrappers are often much older than the textile itself, like in this case.

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Traditional two-pedal loom used for weaving the intricate and colourful Lao textile designs. The pattern is “programmed” in form of bamboo rods that are attached to the yarns of the warp. Lao Textile Museum, Vientiane, Laos, 2019. Photograph by Jana Igunma

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Geometric pattern in pink and purple tones on the hem piece of a hand-woven tube-skirt from northern Laos that was repurposed as a wrapper for seven palm leaf bundles containing Jatakas and other Buddhist texts. Laos, 20th century. © British Library, Or 15895

Textiles of high value were sometimes specially commissioned for particularly important Buddhist manuscripts, or for manuscript sets containing the entire Pali canon. George Cœdès who was director of the National Library of Thailand (formerly Vajiranana National Library) from 1918-29, wrote that “It was an old custom in Siam for fine cloths formerly used as garments but worn out, or belonging to deceased persons, to be presented to the priests for use as wrappings for their manuscripts. A considerable number of the manuscripts in the National Library are wrapped in old and beautiful cloths of every description; some delicately embroidered, some made of Indian or Siamese brocade, and others of a special kind of cotton, printed in India with Siamese designs.” (1924, p.17) The latter refers to chintz imported from the Coromandel Coast region in India.

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Silk wrapper brocaded with metal thread and a red coloured cotton backing belonging to a royal set of palm leaf bundles containing the Yōjana paṭhama samantapāsādika, a sub-commentary by the 15th-century scholar Nanakitti in Pali language in Khmer script. Thailand (manuscripts) and India (cloth), 19th century. British Library, © Or 5107

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Detail of a hand-woven purple coloured silk wrapper brocaded with metal-wrapped thread to create a plant or leaf pattern. India, 19th century. © British Library, Or 5107

The silk brocade wrapper (above) is thought to have been commissioned and designed by an unnamed Thai queen in the nineteenth century. It is one of a set of wrappers, made in India in the Deccan style, to cover palm leaf manuscripts belonging to a Thai royal edition of scriptures of the Pali canon dating back to the reign of Rama III (1824-51), including commentaries and sub-commentaries.

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Palm leaf manuscript, containing the Malalankara (Life of the Buddha), with a hand-woven binding tape and a wrapper made from imported printed cotton. Burma, 1883. © British Library, Or 16673

Printed cotton textiles imported from India were frequently used to make wrappers for manuscripts in Burma. A thicker piece of hand-woven Burmese cotton cloth was usually added as a backing to the thinner Indian cotton with colourful printed patterns. The wrapper shown above consists of a printed piece of cotton with a pattern of foliage and butterflies in red and white tones. It is combined with a white layer of cotton at the back. This wrapper was custom-made for a palm leaf manuscript in five bundles containing the Malalankara vatthu, or Life of the Buddha. A hand-woven binding tape (Burmese: sazigyo) of 330 cm length contains a colophon giving details about the donation of this manuscript. The carefully woven-in text in Burmese characters is in white colour on red background.

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Printed cotton wrapper for a manuscript containing the Sarasangaha in 13 bundles of palm leaves in Khmer script. India and Thailand, 19th century. © British Library, Or 1044

Following the Bowring Treaties (1855 and 1874), trade between British Burma and Thailand increased, and Indian cotton cloth was imported via Moulmein while at the same time traders of Indian origin frequented markets in Thailand. As a result, printed Indian cotton was frequently used to produce manuscript textiles in Thailand and subsequently in Laos and Cambodia as well.

The cotton wrapper shown above has two layers: the inner layer was made from a piece of Thai hand-woven cotton in plain red colour, and the outer layer consists of a piece of printed cotton with flowers on a blue background. A note in gilt letters on black lacquer on the manuscript states that the manuscript was given to R. C. Childers, a British Buddhist scholar, by the monk Waskaduwe Subhuti of Colombo.

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Gilded and lacquered palm leaf manuscript of the Bhikkhu Pacit Atthakatha Path with a custom-made cotton wrapper with geometric designs and woven-in bamboo slats. Burma, 1856. © British Library, Or 16545

Boards made from wood or bamboo were frequently added to palm leaf manuscripts to protect them from damage, but also to increase the meritorious value with lavishly decorated boards. However, the majority of palm leaf manuscripts do not have wooden boards and are therefore at a higher risk of damage as they can get brittle or break when they are bent and handled frequently. To add stability to palm leaf bundles without wooden boards, they were stored in custom-made cotton wrappers that have woven-in bamboo slats. The variable width of the bamboo slats allowed the creation of colourful geometric patterns.

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Two manuscript wrappers and a binding tape (sazigyo) made from Burmese cotton. Burma, 19th century. © British Library, Or 12010

The two manuscript wrappers (above) are made from Burmese cotton that was dyed with natural dyes. Red, blue, yellow, black and green were the most commonly used natural dyes. Red dye can be made from betel nut, sappan wood or the lacquer produced by the Coccus lacca insect (shellac); indigo leaves are used to make blue dye; tamarind leaves, mangosteen sap, turmeric and annatto seeds are used for yellow and orange dyes; black dye is made from ebony seed pods or pepper root; and green dye can be made by mixing blue and yellow dyes, or from pineapple leaves, wild almond bark or the myrobalan fruit and bark. Thin bamboo strips are woven into the cotton for stability. A binding tape, or sazigyo (left) is often tied around the manuscript with the wrapper.

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To make indigo dye, indigo leaves are soaked in water for 24 hours, then fermented for several days with a mixture of quicklime, rice wine, citrus leaves and ash water from burnt coconut wood. Lao Textile Museum, Vientiane, Laos, 2019. Photograph by Jana Igunma

In addition to manuscript wrappers custom-made bags were used to store manuscripts in Thailand. These bags could be made from various materials like pieces of plain or printed cotton or Thai silk. Chintz that was imported from India was also used to make manuscript bags. The bag shown below was sewn using printed cotton with a red, brown and white floral design for the outer layer, and a handwoven Thai cotton inlay of cream-white colour. Its size is 87 cm x 45 cm to house a large palm leaf manuscript of at least 10-12 bundles.

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Printed cotton bag made to fit a large palm leaf manuscript. India or Sri Lanka (fabric) and Thailand (inlay, cord and tassels), 19th century. © British Library, Or 15885

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Detail of a silk bag with a silk brocade border and Thai saffron coloured cotton inlay, custom-made for a palm leaf manuscript. China (silk) and Thailand (inlay), 19th century. © British Library, Or 16926

Besides locally produced Thai silk, imported silk from China and India was used to produce bags to store palm leaf manuscripts. Shown above is a detail (opening) of a manuscript bag made from imported Chinese damask for the outer layer. The border of the opening is decorated with silk brocade, whereas the inlay is made from saffron coloured Thai cotton. This example shows why a tougher Thai cotton inlay was always added: silk deteriorates faster and, being a protein fibre, is a preferred and easy target for cloth-eating larvae of insects.

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Scrolled bound paper book containing the Mahasupina Jataka, with indigo-dyed cotton cover and a cotton binding cord. Shan State, Burma, 1860. © British Library, Or 3494

One special type of manuscript is the scrolled or curled bound book in the Shan tradition. The Shan, an ethnic group living in the Shan State (Burma), southern China, Assam and Thailand, have a very rich manuscript tradition which includes palm leaf manuscripts, paper folding books and scrolled paper books. The latter could be made from long sheets of bamboo shoot paper (also called silk paper) or mulberry paper which were sewn together at the top. At the back mostly a cotton cover was sewn on which served as a cover when the book was scrolled up. The example above contains the Mahasupina Jataka, a Birth Tale of the Buddha, on 20 folios. The cover is made from indigo-dyed hand-woven cotton with an attached braided cotton cord in pink and white colours.

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Scrolled bound paper book, half opened, containing a Buddhist text in Shan language, with a printed cotton cover and attached felt binding tape. Shan State, Burma, first half of the 20th century. © British Library, Or 15368. From Soren Egerod’s collection.

The manuscript shown above contains a text with the title ‘Tanasaksesasanathauktikha‘ in Shan script written on 59 folios which are bound together to form a scrolled book. The attached printed cotton cover has a red, green and blue coloured leaf pattern and plain white edges. On the inside is a white cotton inlay. Attached on the lower left corner is a green velvet binding tape to wrap around the scrolled manuscript.

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Scrolled bound book containing a Buddhist commentary on the Paṭṭhāna section of the Abhidhamma, written in Shan language, with a cotton and silk cover and hand-woven binding tape. Shan State, Burma, 1800-1867. © British Library, Or 4858

Textiles imported from Europe were also used to make manuscript wrappers, bags or covers for scrolled books. The scrolled book above, made from bamboo shoot paper (silk paper), has a cream-coloured cotton wrapper (34 x 54 cm) with an industrially printed design of small cylinders, combined with a red silk damask border. Attached is a hand-woven binding tape made from red, black and yellow threads. A handwritten note on paper provides the following information: “A Shan translation of one of the books of the Belagat or Pali scriptures. It was obtained by Mr. Cushing, an American missionary of my acquaintance, in the Province of Theinnee some 28 years ago. J E Halliday, 16 January 1895”.

To see Buddhist manuscript textiles as well as textile artefacts and colourful paintings on silk visit the Buddhism exhibition at the British Library which will be open until 23 February 2020.

by Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections, British Library

Further reading

Ruth Barnes, Steven Cohen, Rosemary Crill, Trade, temple and court. Indian textiles from the Tapi collection (Mumbai: India Book House, 2002)

Eric Boudot and Chris Buckley, The roots of Asian weaving: The He Haiyan collection of textiles and and looms from Southwest China (Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2015

Patricia Cheesman, Songsak Prangwatthanakun, Pha Lanna. Yuan, Lu, Lao – Lan Na textiles. Yuan, Lue, Lao (Bangkok: Amarin, 1987)

Patricia Cheesman Naenna, Costume and culture. Vanishing textiles of some of the Tai groups in Laos P.D.R. (Chiang Mai: Studio Naenna, 1990)

George Cœdès, The Vajirañāna National Library of Siam (Bangkok: Bangkok Times Press, 1924)

Susan Conway, Thai textiles (London: British Museum, 1992)

Jana Igunma and San San May (editors), Buddhism: Origins, traditions and contemporary life (London: British Library, 2019)

San San May and Jana Igunma, Buddhism illuminated: Manuscript art from Southeast Asia (London: British Library, 2018)

Shelagh Vainker, Chinese silk. A cultural history (London: British Museum, 2004)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luang Prabang Film Festival 2017: REDHA wins Audience Choice Award

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The Luang Prabang Film Festival (LPFF) concluded its eighth annual event last week in the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, Laos, with the Audience Choice Award going to the Malaysian film, Redha.

The Audience Choice Award was decided by a 5-star online rating system, for which viewers could submit their rating of a film following its screening. This year’s winner, Redha, follows the story of Alina and Razlan, who discover that their only son is autistic and must confront the harsh realities of raising a child disabled by a condition they hardly know about. The film was directed by Tunku Mona Riza, who attended the festival for her screening and participated in a Q&A with the audience as well as a public discussion on Muslim Voices in Southeast Asia.

The festival, which has the mission of celebrating Southeast Asian cinema, ran from Friday, 8 December to Wednesday, 13 December. In addition to screening 32 feature films and four programs of short films, LPFF put on four public discussions and several performances.

Official selections are made by experts and critics from across Southeast Asia referred to as “Motion Picture Ambassadors,” and represent a carefully chosen collection of what they believe to be the finest contemporary films from their respective countries. By identifying great curators with inside understanding of their community’s film scene, LPFF is able to produce a unique program that ensures in the inclusion of the strongest voices from across Southeast Asia.

Not only is LPFF a celebration of the finest Southeast Asian cinema, it has become well known as a unique forum for regional film professionals to network internationally and to exchange diverse ideas and experiences. In LPFF’s commitment to accessibility, all screenings and activities of the festival were free and open to the public.

LPFF’s four programs of short films included: a selection from the 2017 Vientianale Short Film Competition that showcased budding talent in Laos; Thai shorts to complement the festival’s SPOTLIGHT country (see below); the top films from a Youth and Agroecology Short Film Competition held by LPFF and the Agroecology Learning alliance in Southeast Asia; and recent award winners on Viddsee, an online video platform featuring short films from across Asia.

There were also several major public discussions this year for visitors of the festival, including the aforementioned discussion on Muslim voices in Southeast Asia, featuring Harlif Mohamad and Nurain Peeraya, the Bruneian directors of Rina 2; Sheron Dayoc, the Filipino director of Women of the Weeping River; Tunku Mona Riza, the Malaysian director of Redha; and Kong Rithdee, LPFF’s Motion Picture Ambassador for Thailand and writer of The Island Funeral.

Rithdee also hosted this year’s SPOTLIGHT on Thailand, with a full day of programming devoted to screenings and discussion of the issues facing Thai filmmakers today. Delegates from the Royal Thai Embassy in Vientiane were in attendance and several Thai filmmakers participated, including Anocha Suwichakornpong (By the Time it Gets Dark), Sompot Chidgasornpongse (Railway Sleepers), Boonsong Nakphoo (Wandering), Laddawan Rattanadilokchai (The Couple), Sakchai Deenan (The upcoming Memories of New Years), and Sanchai Chotirosseranee (Thai Film Archive, representing Santi-Vina).
Also occurring during the festival was the second iteration of the LPFF Talent Lab for Southeast Asian filmmakers, led by the Tribeca Film Institute® (TFI), with 10 participating film projects from 6 ASEAN nations. The Lab, which focused on grant writing and project pitching and was extended to two days this year, included a pitching workshop led by Bryce Norbitz and Molly O’Keefe from TFI. Following the workshop was a pitch forum with feedback from a jury comprised of filmmaking professionals from around the world, including Jeremy Sim of Singapore-based media investment firm Aurora Media Holdings; Kenneth Lipper, the Oscar-winning American producer; Victor William of ROKKI, AirAsia’s in-flight entertainment provider; and Ho Hock Doong and Siti Helaliana Chumiran, both from the Malaysian distribution company, Astro.

After deliberation, the jury selected the Lao-Filipino collaboration Raising a Beast to attend the TFI Network market, which will take place in New York City at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival®. There, TFI will arrange meetings for the filmmakers with editors, distributors, and financiers. TFI will then mentor the Raising a Beast team through the completion of the project. Written and directed by Xaisongkham Induangchanty (Laos) and produced by Abigail Lazaro (Philippines), Raising a Beast tells the story of two Hmong siblings, Ying and Neng, who are blessed with beautiful voices and dream of moving to the city to become singers one day. When their father refuses to sell the family’s prized bull to help pay for Neng’s education in the city, Ying becomes a bull trainer to cover her brother’s expenses.

Another big winner at the Talent Lab was the Filipino project Cat Island, pitched by Siege Ledesma (director, writer) and Ang Alemberg (producer). Jeremy Sim and Aurora Media Holdings selected the project to receive its Aurora Producing Award of $10,000. Cat Island follows Catherine, who after dedicating almost two decades of her life to the care of her asthmatic, albeit feisty and cat-loving mother, finds herself alone and purposeless when her mother dies. On the eve of her 40th birthday, the ghost of Catherine’s mother returns to ask for Catherine’s help in completing her “unfinished business”: have her remains cremated and scattered over Cat Island, Japan. With a renewed sense of purpose, Catherine travels to Japan to complete her mission on the rural island.

A new addition to the festival’s program this year was a documentary production workshop organized by the US Mission to ASEAN and the American Film Showcase. Renowned Filipino-American filmmaker Ramona Diaz (Imelda, Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey) and Patrick Shen (Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality, The Philosopher Kings) led a five-day workshop with 14 participants from the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. At the end of the workshop, four short documentaries made in small groups by the participants throughout the week were presented following a screening of Diaz’s most recent film, Motherland.

LPFF offered five live evening performances on its main stage before headline screenings at its Night Venue, the Handicraft Market at the main intersection in town, including concerts from popular Lao singers Touly and Ola Black Eyes. These performances are an opportunity to nurture young talent, and offer a platform for these performers to showcase their talents to an international audience.

22 of this edition’s 32 feature films had directors, producers, writers, or actors in attendance, all of whom participated in Q&A sessions after the screenings of their films. Between screenings, filmmakers and other industry professionals mingled in the Beerlao Director’s Lounge on the top floor of Indigo House, where they could enjoy complimentary Beerlao Gold and take in the view of the Night Venue.

On display was an exhibition of photographs from Myanmar from the lauded Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project, accompanied by an exhibition walk-through by the initiative’s founder, Philip Jablon. As a reprise to his trip there over five years ago, Jablon spent February and March of last year researching and photographing movie theaters in Myanmar, a nation experiencing an overall rebirth of cinema-going.

Once again, the festival was proudly supported by its biggest sponsor, the Lao Brewery Company with three of their brands coming in at the Platinum Level: Beerlao, Pepsi, and Tigerhead.

Other generous supporters of the 2017 festival were the US Embassy Vientiane, the Asia Foundation, the Bennack-Polan Foundation, Chillax Productions, Embassy of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg in Laos, Exo Travel, Sofitel Luang Prabang, the Nam Theun 2 Power Company, Princeton in Asia, the Royal Thai Embassy Vientiane, Indochina Productions, the Delegation of the European Union to Lao PDR, DK Lao, Theun-Hinboun Power Company, NP Service & Design, Final Draft, and the Asia-Europe Foundation.

For more information on the festival, visit lpfilmfest.org or stay up to date at facebook.com/lpfilmfest.

(reported by Gabriel Kuperman / Founder & Director of LPFF)

Luang Prabang Film Festival 2017 poster

Mapping the Maps at Cambridge University Library

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Imagine maps as big as bedsheets, and then imagine the sheets big enough for beds made wide enough to sleep extended families. Only such a double stretch of the imagination can provide the scale of the three Burmese maps in the University Library’s collection, which have recently been made available online in digital format.

From bedsheet to map is not a great leap: all three maps are inked or painted on to generous lengths of cloth. Yet they do not depict lines on a map as the eye in the 21st century is accustomed to seeing them.  The most colourful of the three maps, the map of the Maingnyaung region [Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.1] is the one which forces the most abrupt lurch, down from that comfortable view on high of modern mapping convention. Instead, the viewer is positioned near ground level, and invited here to view a stupa, there a crocodile down in the river, away in the distance a noble line of hills. Trees are no mere generic features. While the perspective is mostly from the ground, it co-exists with other even less familiar conventions. Pagodas and stupas either loom large or sit very small, their size and their sanctity apparently intermeshed. Towns and villages, rivers and streams are the sole features which come close to appearing from a bird’s eye view. Yet the neat tracings of brickwork, and of waves on the water’s surface, suggest they may be meant to convey not the lay of the land from the air but other rules of belonging, of enclosure or of flow.

The other two maps, the map of the Royal Lands [Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.3] and map of Sa-lay township [Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.2], are less colourful than the first, but in some respects even more intriguing. Like the Maingnyaung map, they take many of their bearings from ground level. Manmade landmarks use scales which vary, apparently, according to their importance rather than their physical size. With vegetation, there is an insistence on specifics. Yet both maps feature grids traced carefully and evenly across the entire surface. These maps present two worlds at once. There are vistas to be contemplated and meaningful features to be explored in the landscape. But there is also a view from on high, where trees were counted and areas under crop were calculated, and probably, somewhere off the surface of the map, converted into tax exactions.

Photographing the Burmese maps was quite a challenge for the Library’s Digital Content Unit. The smallest map was made of 126 images, the largest of 420 and it had to be stitched into 9 parts first before being put into one piece. Some parts of the process took a few hours to complete for the computer with 64 GB RAM memory and 3Ghz 8 core computer. The biggest challenge was obviously handling. It was impossible to move the map without changing the arrangement. Hence the last map, the largest [Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.3] took a long time to prepare as they had to experiment with different stitching methods.

Great credit goes to the Map Department of the UL, both in finding the will and securing the resources to have the maps conserved and digitised, and to the Cambridge Digital Library, for producing digital pages so effortlessly navigable that they take nothing away from the joy of poring over them. They make it easier, in fact, to hover over the details, whether you are contemplating the view from the ground or from on high. What’s more, the speed of the internet has improved to such an extent in modern Myanmar, that these massive cloth maps can be viewed with ease in Yangon or Mandalay. Maps such as these are rare, non-existent even, in the location where they were originally made. No such maps produced on cloth are known to have survived within Myanmar today. This only adds to the hope and expectation that they will be pored over, enjoyed, and further studied and interpreted from quarters near and far.

To read the full article on these three maps and their provenance written by Natasha Pairaudeau, please visit the Cambridge University Library Special Collections website.

Thai local knowledge: The long hidden wisdom of manuscripts

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Local knowledge plays an important role in people’s everyday lives and helps to maintain health, wealth and stable communities. Although in the past decades, a preference for transmitting local knowledge orally or through electronic and virtual media has evolved in Thailand – as everywhere else – the preservation of local knowledge in written form is essential in order to transmit it to future generations. Presently, the contents of mostly unique manuscripts are being explored and investigated to preserve and to reconstruct partially forgotten traditional local knowledge, and numerous initiatives aim at making this knowledge available electronically and via the internet by way of digitisation.

The diverse and flexible traditional formats for storing and transmitting local knowledge are generally known as “manual” (tamrā), “treatise” (khamphi), or “handbook” (khu mü). All kinds of information, accounts, procedures, methods and rules may be encoded in these three formats, and be stored in the form of palmleaf manuscripts or paper folding books. The three terms were sometimes used interchangeably. Although some scholars would insist on distinguishing between the three formats, in practical usage their semantic ranges overlap.

Generally, knowledge encoded in the manuscript format was dignified by the Sanskrit term for science, sastra (sāt in Thai), to the extent that tamrā and sāstra in many instances are used synonymously. In its original meaning, the term sāstra was used for a written codification of rules in order to regulate certain human practices and activities.

At the courts of Thai kings, as well as at the courts of regional tributary rulers and allies, great value was placed on the possession of knowledge in the form of sāstra. This knowledge often was related with acquiring and exercising power, with waging war, with managing the ever shifting balances of allies and enemies, and with the art of governing. Brahmans (in Thai phrām) knowledgeable in the sāstra and adept at providing these aids had been retained in the Thai courts at least since the beginning of the Ayutthaya period. Knowledge of magic spells, incantations, and the creation and manipulation of magic diagrams was regarded as secret knowledge and carefully guarded from falling into the hands of enemies. Practitioners – ritual specialists, astrologers, healers, fortune tellers – claimed to know certain methods to make their spells, incantations, forecasts, or prescriptions more effective than those of their rivals. Theravada Buddhist monks sometimes also acquired sāstra, although such knowledge nowadays may be regarded by devout Buddhists as sheer superstition.

The possession of sāstra was not the preserve of the elite alone. There was, and is, a popular dimension to this knowledge. Some medical therapies, fortune-telling, magic, ritual practices and even certain aspects of astrology cannot be traced to foreign influences. Manuscripts which encode local knowledge were regarded as sacred materials, and even the possession of a certain manuscript was sometimes thought to provide protection or special powers. For long periods of time they were hidden treasures in Buddhist monastery libraries or in private and family collections in order to protect their contents and secrets. However, more and more manuscripts are being made publicly accessible in libraries, museums or institutions of higher education, or via the internet in digital form. The examples below are the results of digitisation efforts at the Bavarian State Library (Germany), the State Museums of Berlin (Germany), the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (Thailand) and the British Library (UK).

Buddhist cosmology (Traiphūmlōkwinitchai) from Central Thailand; folding book dated 1776 A.D. held at the Museum for Asian Art, Berlin (IC 27507)

Buddhist cosmology (Traiphūmlōkwinitchai) from Central Thailand; folding book dated 1776 A.D. held at the Museum for Asian Art, Berlin (IC 27507)

An outstanding example of Thai local knowledge is the Traiphum, a Buddhist cosmology. It is a treatise that describes the Buddhist universe in a Thai traditional understanding. Translated, it would mean “three worlds” (heaven, earth and hell), but in fact it describes many different states of existence, in which concepts of heaven and hell have various levels.

Illustrations of the Traiphum depict many facets of the visible and imagined worlds, including many subjects from Buddhist scriptures. Some Traiphum manuscripts also include fascinating early maps of Thailand and surrounding areas. The map shown above depicts the Indian subcontinent with Sri Lanka, with red lines giving the distances between certain places. The objective of those maps is not geographic accuracy, but rather to indicate important places and travel routes. Some Traiphum illustrations emphasize the real natural or imagined character of places. Therefore the seas are often filled with all types of creatures; and landscapes are sometimes attributed by mountains, rivers, trees, animals, Buddha footprints or important stupas, which are understood as marking points for geographic orientation. Places like countries, towns and islands are named in some cases. A digital version of parts of the manuscript can be viewed on the website of the State Museums of Berlin.

Astrology (hōrasāt) manuscript showing various appearances of the sun and related predictions; 19th-century folding book held at the British Library (Or 15760)

Astrology (hōrasāt) manuscript showing various appearances of the sun and related predictions; 19th-century folding book held at the British Library (Or 15760)

As servants of the king, Thai astrologers possessed knowledge vital to making decisions, for example about when to go to war, when to meet foreign envoys, or when to start the agrarian cycle to achieve the most favourable outcome. In the reign of the late sixteenth-century king, Naresuan, astrologers were asked on numerous occasions to decide most propitious moments to prepare the Siamese army for battle against the Mon ruler at Pegu. They also interpreted the king’s dreams. Astrologers were close to power and because of their expertise provided advice as valuable as that of a minister of state. Thai towns and cities had horoscopes, their respective futures readable in the conjunction of heavenly bodies. Astrology required accurate time-keeping and calendar systems, and for that reason was a science indispensable to maintaining historical records. Nowadays, such manuscripts can be very useful in the determination of approximate or correct dates of historical events. The fully digitised manuscript can be viewed online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts page.

Protective magic (saiyasāt) is the subject of this manuscript containing yantra designs and formula for the creation of amulets (takrut); 19th century folding book held at the Wat Lam Phaya Folk Floating Market Museum, Nakhon Pathom (NPT-004-011). Photograph courtesy of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre Bangkok

Protective magic (saiyasāt) is the subject of this manuscript containing yantra designs and formula for the creation of amulets (takrut); 19th century folding book held at the Wat Lam Phaya Folk Floating Market Museum, Nakhon Pathom (NPT-004-011). Photograph courtesy of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre Bangkok

Many manuscripts are characterized by drawings of sacred or magic diagrams (yantra) and formulas, which usually could only be produced, read and interpreted by a ritual specialist or a monk who had been trained in this unique knowledge. The historical role of magic and protective diagrams and formula is described in the Thai epic narrative Khun Chang Khun Phaen, for example. It is assumed that magic was mostly used as a protective measure and as a means to improve individual or communal fortune and merit, but it could also serve the aim to disempower real or perceived enemies. The fully digitised manuscript is available online from the website of the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre.

Medicine (phaetsāt) manual from Central Thailand detailing tumours and their prospects for treatment; 19th century folding book held at the British Library (Or. 14114)

Medicine (phaetsāt) manual from Central Thailand detailing tumours and their prospects for treatment; 19th century folding book held at the British Library (Or. 14114)

In its most sophisticated written form Thai medical knowledge was preserved by court physicians who guarded it jealously to keep it from other practitioners. But medical knowledge preserved at the court paralleled and mutually informed a body of local medical knowledge transmitted in the countryside. This medical knowledge should not be regarded as a uniform system of medicine, although the cultural dominance of the court and the practice of writing it down and making it known to Western visitors might lead historians to think otherwise. Regional differences in language, tradition, environment, and differing concepts of well-being meant that there were marked variations in the way illnesses and their treatments were classified in different parts of Thailand. Medical manuscripts often contain illustrations representing the Thai understanding of human anatomy and a wide range of tumours and diseases like the example shown above; others explain methods for childbirth, treatment of different diseases or the use of herbal remedies; and some illustrate methods for massage and acupressure. The manuscript shown above is available online from the British Library.

Elephant treatise (tamrā chāng) dealing with aspects of sacred elephants as well as keeping real elephants; 19th century folding book from Central Thailand held at the British Library (Or 13652)

Elephant treatise (tamrā chāng) dealing with aspects of sacred elephants as well as keeping real elephants; 19th century folding book from Central Thailand held at the British Library (Or 13652)

Among Thai animal treatises, those on elephants are the most remarkable. According to traditional belief, elephants – most especially white elephants – symbolised merit, power and wisdom. White elephants had a semi-divine status and were revered as a powerful symbol of the king’s strength and the prosperity of the kingdom. In Thai mythology, certain elephants were thought to have magical powers, like the 33-headed Erawan elephant. A three-headed white elephant served as a royal symbol in several Thai and Lao kingdoms on flags and state emblems. Also, practically, elephants played an important role in warfare.

In Thai manuscripts, sacred elephants in the Buddhist context are preferably shown in bright colours (white, light-yellow, golden, light-grey or pink to red), but also real elephants are shown as they appear in nature (grey to dark-grey, some with bright pink patches of skin). Some manuscripts describe real elephants in their natural appearance with advice on their character and whether or not to keep them. Similar manuscripts exist for cats, horses, birds and dogs. The elephant treatise above is available online from the British Library.

Folding book containing poetry and prosody (chanlaksana); held at the Bavarian State Library, Munich (Cod.siam. 98)

Folding book containing poetry and prosody (chanlaksana); held at the Bavarian State Library, Munich (Cod.siam. 98)

Thai poetry flourished during the period of King Narai’s reign (1656-1688) as the king was a poet of great merit himself. Poetry and prosody books served as primers and standard textbooks for teaching reading and writing to children and youths well into the Rattanakosin era (19th century). Traditionally, epic narratives and dramas were written in verse form, but poetry also served to praise the Lord Buddha, to honour meritorious people, or to celebrate the beauty of nature and landscapes. Sometimes poems were arranged like a secret code so that only a person who knew the key was able to understand the poem. The manuscript shown above contains a number of beautifully illustrated poems together with poems arranged in diagrams in honour of a beloved lady. The fully digitised manuscript is available online from the Bavarian State Library via the World Digital Library.

Jana Igunma (British Library)

Thai music inventory online

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Thailand has an incredible variety of popular and traditional musics. The website Thaimusicinventory attempts to make Thai popular music available to people who are not Thai and also aims to facilitate the exchange of information and views between Thais and non-Thais. The Thai popular music industry is the most developed in the region and has an unbroken history that extends over 100 years (even through WWII). However, Thai popular music is generally not easily available outside Thailand and has not made any impression on Western sensibilities. The study of Thai music (both popular and traditional) is still in its infancy in comparison to that of China, Japan, Indonesia and India. Even in Thailand, the study of Thai popular music is often not considered to be a worthwhile activity.

This website hosts articles on various aspects of Thai popular music, some scholarly and some more popular in approach, as well as lesson plans for high school teachers.  There are also links to the Isan music performances filmed by John Draper’s Khon Kaen University Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Program. Of particular interest is a newly added page illustrating the breadth of the Thai 78 rpm Discographical Framework.

The two main authors are Dr James Mitchell and Peter Garrity. James has studied and published widely on Thai music and Peter is a very well known figure in the Bangkok lukthung concert scene. Comments in Thai or English are encouraged and every effort to facilitate communication through these comments will be made.

This website is only for educational purposes and is intended to foster a love of Thai music and Thailand. It is not for commercial purposes.

The website has been developed with the generous support of the Australian Thai Institute, an Australian government body that seeks to build links between the two countries.

(information from the Thaimusicinventory website)

 

Burmese manuscripts on ‘The Life of the Buddha’ online

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Although the details of the life of the Buddha are not known for certain, there is scholarly consent that Gautama Buddha was an actual historical figure who lived around the 5th century BCE. Certain events of the Buddha’s life were recorded in the Buddhist traditions of South and Southeast Asia. The life of the Buddha is a favorite subject of Buddhist art, including manuscript painting.

In the Burmese manuscript tradition, ‘The Life of the Buddha’ plays an important role although it is not known when exactly the first manuscripts on this topic were produced due to the fact that few pre-18th century manuscripts have survived. However, narrative representations of the Buddha’s life can be traced back at least to the 11th century when episodes from the Buddha’s life were depicted on sculptured friezes, plaques and mural paintings in the ancient capital Pagan.

By the 19th century, series of manuscripts illustrating the life of the Buddha were produced and re-produced due to their great popularity. In this context, the Burmese manuscript tradition stands out among the Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia. The format of these manusripts is usually the parabaik, a paper folding book.

The British Library holds various illustrated parabaik manuscripts dedicated to ‘The Life of the Buddha’. Two of them  were described in detail by Patricia Herbert in her book ‘The life of the Buddha’ (British Library, 1993). Three more ‘Life of the Buddha’ manuscripts have been fully digitised recently in a digitisation project funded by the Henry Ginsburg Legacy. All three manuscripts are now available to view online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts page (Or.14197, Or.4762Or.5757). More details about these manuscripts can be found in an article by San San May, Curator for Burmese at the British Library, with the title ‘Burmese scenes from the Life of the Buddha’.

Scene from 'The Life of the Buddha', British Library Or.5757

Scene from ‘The Life of the Buddha’, British Library Or.5757

Charles Wallace Burma Trust Visiting Fellowship

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Applications are invited for the Charles Wallace Burma Trust Visiting Fellowship which will be hosted by the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, in partnership with the Charles Wallace Burma Trust and the British Council in Burma.

The Fellowship is intended to enable a Burmese scholar to conduct research on any aspect of modern Burmese history and society, and is open to scholars working in all disciplines related to this field.

The Fellowship is for a period of three months during the Lent Term, 2015 (13 January to 13 March).

The aim of the Fellowship is to advance the scholarly achievements of the visiting fellow, and thereby establish productive academic links between Cambridge and Burma.

Candidates who have had financial support from the Charles Wallace Burma Trust in the past five years will not be eligible. Provided they are qualified in other respects, candidates with little or no prior international experience are strongly encouraged to apply.

At the conclusion of the Fellowship period, the Fellow will be required to submit a report to the Committee of Management of the Centre of South Asian Studies and to the Secretary of the Charles Wallace Burma Trust outlining what he or she has achieved.

An all-inclusive monthly stipend of £1,400 is offered by the Trust to cover costs at Cambridge, together with a contribution towards a return economy air fare from Burma, and the cost of the candidate’s UK visa. The Fellow is expected to make his/her own travel arrangements.

The British Council in Burma will offer advice to the Fellow about securing a UK visa, and provide some pre-departure briefing.

If you know of anyone from Myanmar (Burma) who might be interested in applying, please direct them to the relevant part of the Centre’s website.

Candidates are invited to submit the following by email to: admin@s-asian.cam.ac.uk
 – a letter of application setting out as precisely and as clearly as possible the programme of research to be undertaken
 – the names of scholars already in Cambridge working in a similar or adjacent/related subject and with whom the fellow would hope to work
 – a full CV with a list of publications; and
 – ask not more than two academic referees to email directly in support of his or her application by the closing date of 31 October 2014.

Please note that, in order to comply with work permit regulations, the successful applicant will be asked to submit a signed, original copy of his/her application and original, signed references.

The selection will follow the Centre of South Asian Studies’ policy and procedure for Academic Visitors and is subject to the approval of the Charles Wallace Burma Trust and the British Council in Burma.

The closing date for applications is 31 October, 2014. The Fellow is expected to take up the post at the beginning of the Lent Term 2015 (13 January 2015).

Applications and enquiries should be sent to:
The Administrator, Centre of South Asian Studies, Alison Richard Building, 7 West
Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DT, UK

(Forwarded from Rachel Rowe, SAALG)

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