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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)

Lee Kong Chian Research Fellowship at National Library of Singapore

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The National Library of Singapore is inviting applicants for the 2014 Lee Kong Chian Research Fellow program. The program started in 2005 and is into its 9th year. The Fellowship aims to facilitate new research and publishing about Singapore and Southeast Asian culture, economy and heritage. This will enrich the Asia-centric collections and resources of the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library at the National Library of Singapore. Talented scholars and researchers are encourage to use the Library’s resources and services, and to collaborate with them on joint research projects to create new knowledge. The LKC Research Fellowship will be offered to individuals interested in suggested fields of research identified by the Library.

Who Can Apply?
The LKC Research Fellowship is open to both local and foreign applicants who are able to undertake prescribed research topics that raise awareness of our collections. Successful applicants should have scholarly and research credentials or its equivalent. Applicants could be curators, historians, academics or independent researchers who should preferably have an established record of achievement in their chosen field of research and the potential to excel further.

Research Area
Preference is given to research in the following areas, for 2014:

• Early Printing & Publishing: Singapore’s role in early printing – Chinese, Malay, Tamil and English publications including works of Mission Press, private publishers, government printing offices, etc. / Works before 1950s
• Early Printing & Publishing: Malay manuscripts and early printed books – Early works on Malay literature
• Early maps: Study of early maps and navigational charts on early Singapore and the region – Notable collection of Parry Maps acquired by the library in 2012 / Early Singapore and regional maps
• National Literature / Literary Arts: Voices of Singapore Literary Arts writers (or any art genres) post 1965  – Literature /  literary works on Singapore writers

Terms of the Award
The award of the Fellowship is for a period of six months and is subject to renewal if necessary. Fellows may not hold a concurrent fellowship or propose a research area which he has already completed his research for a masters or a doctoral thesis. The research fellow should not hold a concurrent employment or other fellowships simultaneously with the Lee Kong Chian Fellowship.

A stipend of up to a maximum of S$2,000 per month will be provided to help LKC Research Fellows meet living expenses, local transportation and photocopying expenses. In addition to the stipend, overseas Fellows will be provided with the following on a case-by-case basis:
a. One-time relocation package for Research Fellows to Singapore of up to a maximum of S$1,500. Exceptions can be made on a case-by-case basis if the lowest prevailing market rates for airfares still exceed the above capped amounts at time of purchase
b. Monthly accommodation allowance of up to a maximum of S$2,500 subject to market rates and approval from the Selection Committee

Application closes on 25 Jul 2014. Instructions on how to apply and other details about the Fellowship can be found on the homepage of the National Library Board Singapore.

The Ramayana in Southeast Asia

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Originally composed in India in Sanskrit over two and half thousand years ago by Valmiki, the Ramayana is also one of the most popular masterworks throughout Southeast Asia. This is reflected not only in the literary traditions, but also in the performing and fine arts, as well as in architecture and modern design. The epic tells the story of Rama, his brother Lakshmana and Rama’s wife Sita, who was kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. The main part of the epic is about the fight between Ravana and Rama, who wants to get his wife back. In this battle, Rama is supported by his brother and a monkey chief, Hanuman, with his armies.

Hanuman facing Ravana asleep in his palace after having abducted Sita. From a 19th century album of drawings by an anonymous Thai artist.  British Library, Or.14859, pp. 58-59

Hanuman facing Ravana asleep in his palace after having abducted Sita. From a 19th century album of drawings by an anonymous Thai artist. British Library, Or.14859, pp. 58-59

Knowledge of the Ramayana in Southeast Asia can be traced back to the 5th century in stone inscriptions from Funan, the first Hindu kingdom in mainland Southeast Asia. An outstanding series of reliefs of the Battle of Lanka from the 12th century still exists at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Ramayana sculptures from the same period can be found at Pagan in Myanmar. Thailand’s old capital Ayutthya founded in 1347 is said to have been modelled on Ayodhya, Rama’s birthplace and setting of the Ramayana. New versions of the epic were written in poetry and prose and as dramas in Burmese, Thai, Khmer, Lao, Malay, Javanese and Balinese, and the story continues to be told in dance-dramas, music, puppet and shadow theatre throughout Southeast Asia. Most of these versions change parts of the story significantly to reflect the different natural environments, customs and cultures.

Serat Rama Keling, a modern Javanese version of the Ramayana, illuminated manuscript dated 1814.  British Library,  Add.12284, ff.1v-2r

Serat Rama Keling, a modern Javanese version of the Ramayana, illuminated manuscript dated 1814. British Library, Add.12284, ff.1v-2r

When mainland Southeast Asian societies embraced Theravada Buddhism, Rama began to be regarded as a Bodhisatta, or Buddha-to-be, in a former life. In this context, the early episodes of the story were emphasized, symbolising Rama’s Buddhist virtues of filial obedience and willing renunciation. Throughout the region, Hanuman enjoys a greatly expanded role; he becomes the king of the monkeys and the most popular character in the story, and is a reflection of all the freer aspects of life. In a series of articles on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog, curators Annabel Gallop, San San May and Jana Igunma explore how the Ramayana epic has been rewritten and reimagined in the different parts of Southeast Asia.
To read the articles, go directly to the Asian and African Studies blog.

Kampot Traditional Music School for Orphaned and Disabled Children, Cambodia

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The Kampot Traditional Music School for Orphaned and Disabled Children (KCDI), was the first specialist music school to be built outside the Royal University of Fine Arts in Cambodia.  The school was founded by British-born violinist, Catherine Geach, from the Royal Academy of Music and ratified as a local Cambodian non-governmental organization in 1993. The decision to build the school was made in 1991 after the founder teaching at the Royal University of Fine Arts saw at first hand the struggle to revive ancient Khmer music following the Khmer Rouge genocide when perhaps many as 90 percent of all Cambodian artists were killed.

The extreme poverty of Cambodia at that time combined with the ongoing war made it imperative that the music school should provide care, scholastic education and vocational training to the most vulnerable children. At that time Kampot, in Cambodia’s remote southwest was badly  affected by civil war and the presence of a Khmer Rouge stronghold in the neighbouring Phnom Vor mountains.

The school currently houses seventeen orphaned children and teaches a further 400 local disadvantaged children from the wider Kampot community.

However, at present the school risks closure and all those children who reside at the school and who have no parents, have nowhere to go. The school’s Cambodian staff are completely dedicated to the school and they have chosen to work without a salary rather than see the school close despite the fact that many come from poor backgrounds themselves.

Those orphaned children resident at the school receive food, clothing, medical care, scholastic education from primary school to university level, vocational training and of course specialist training in traditional Cambodian music, dance and Yike theatre. For students graduating there is a special transition program to teach them how to become music instructors and run their own performance groups as well as supporting them through the first year of University.

The 400 primary school children who attend the school on a daily basis, receive free tuition in the performing arts, both as part of their wider social development and as a specific vocational training. Both residential and community outreach children participate in examinations to prepare them for eventual entry into the Phnom Penh University of Fine Arts.

Because of the global economic crisis, the school has found it harder and harder to find donors. Though the school raises money for itself by giving official performances, has its own fundraising website, sells its own CDs, grows its own fruit and vegetables, it is still not enough to support the school in all its needs.

Yet traditional Cambodian music and dance, have been declared World Intangible Cultural Heritage and indeed the Kampot Traditional Music School is considered by the Cambodian Ministry of Culture a role model for the rest of Cambodia. In 1995, the school received a prestigious UNESCO prize, namely the World Decade for Cultural Development Award given to the best performing arts institutions.

Recently the pupils were invited to perform a première of the Bokor dance, specially choreographed for them at the National Theatre. They have also been invited to perform in Vietnam, Qatar, France, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands.

Many of those who have graduated have gone on to be professional artists, as well as economists, entrepreneurs and businesswomen.

Despite reaching out to so many children and having such a strong impact in Southwestern Cambodia, the school does not have a big annual budget, mainly because there are no expatriate overheads or salaries. All members of the Board of Directors work on a voluntary basis. All funds go directly to the project.

For further information and to find out about the school’s current Appeal, please visit their website www.kcdi-cambodia.com .

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