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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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The current exhibition on Buddhism at the British Library (25 October 2019 – 23 February 2020) focuses 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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buddhism Illuminated – A new book on manuscript art from Southeast Asia

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I would like to draw your attention to a new book with the title Buddhism Illuminated – Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia which is a fully illustrated guide to Southeast Asian Buddhist manuscript art based on the British Library collections. Many years of research and digitisation have resulted in this major publication that goes far beyond Buddhist manuscript illustration. The book consists of six chapters covering all aspects of Buddhist manuscript art in mainland Southeast Asia. A brief overview of the contents is below:

  • Introduction: The British Library collections – Some aspects of Buddhism in SEA – The Burmese manuscript tradition – Manuscript production in Khmer and Tai cultures
  • Buddha: The Enlightened One – The names of 28 Buddhas – Previous Lives of the Buddha – The Life of Gotama Buddha – The future Buddha
  • Dhamma: The Righteous Way – The Tipitaka and commentaries – Kammavaca ordination texts
  • Sangha: The Monastic Community – Ordination in Theravada Buddhism – Interaction between the Sangha and the lay community
  • Kamma: Cause and Effect – The thirty-one planes of existence – The sixteen sacred lands of Buddhism
  • Punna: Making Merit in Everyday Life – Royal donations – Death and afterlife – Pagodas and monasteries – The Buddha’s footprints – Monasteries during Buddha’s long ministry – Communal festivals

Buddhism Illuminated – Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia includes over 200 coloured photographs of Buddhist manuscript art from the British Library’s collection, relating each manuscript to Theravada tradition and beliefs, and introducing the historical, artistic, and religious contexts of their production. It is the first book in English to showcase the beauty and variety of Buddhist manuscripts in Southeast Asia and reproduces many works that have never before been photographed.

The book is available from British Library Press and University of Washington Press, as well as all major book sellers and online suppliers (ISBN 9780712352062).

A free review copy can currently be requested from Newbooks Asia.

Read a short article revealing some more details about the book on the British Library’s website, and a short promotional film (part 1) can be viewed online.

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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