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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

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Burmese court scenes in a 19th century parabaik

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San San May, British Library

During the reign of King Mindon (1853-1878), Burmese artists were officially appointed at the royal court. One of the duties of the royal painters was to record important events at the court and scenes from royal life in folding books (parabaik). Those paintings from the Konbaung period were forerunners of Burmese fine arts. Sixteen scenes of court ceremonies and entertainments are in the 19th century court parabaik, Or.16761. Scenes in the folding book are painted in water colours and enclosed in yellow panels, with a single line of explanatory text in Burmese script. Subjects include elephant herding, royal processions on land and by river, ceremonial ploughing, elephant taming, javelin throwing, coronation ceremony, elephant fighting, blessing ceremony, traditional cane ball game, dramatical performance, boxing, cock-fighting and royal barge procession. In ancient times these ceremonies were not only royal occasions but also the people’s occasions as they were competitions.

In this scene, elephant trainers are herding a young white elephant. Every Burmese king longed to possess a white elephant (Sinpyudaw) as they believed white elephants were signs and symbols of power and sovereignty. These auspicious white elephants were kept as an ornament or royal regalia when they were found. According to the story of the life of Buddha, Queen Mahamaya dreamt of a young white elephant after conceiving of Lord Buddha. They are regarded as a blessing for peace and prosperity in other Buddhist stories as well. (Or.16761, fols. 1-3)

In this scene, elephant trainers are herding a young white elephant. (Or.16761, fols. 1-3)

Every Burmese king longed to possess a white elephant (Sinpyudaw) as they believed white elephants were signs and symbols of power and sovereignty. These auspicious white elephants were kept as an ornament or royal regalia when they were found. According to the story of the life of Buddha, Queen Mahamaya dreamt of a young white elephant after conceiving of Lord Buddha. They are regarded as a blessing for peace and prosperity in other Buddhist stories as well.

In the time of the Burmese Monarchy, the royal ploughing ceremony (Lehtun Mingala) was held in the month of Warso (June to July) to ensure a good harvest to the whole country.  In the scene the king and his ministers are ploughing the field outside the royal palace with the sacred oxen which are hitched to wooden ploughs. (Or.16761, fols. 7-9)

In this scene the king and his ministers are ploughing the field outside the royal palace with the sacred oxen which are hitched to wooden ploughs. (Or.16761, fols. 7-9)

In the time of the Burmese Monarchy, the royal ploughing ceremony (Lehtun Mingala) was held in the month of Warso (June to July) to ensure a good harvest to the whole country.

In this scene a Burmese musical troupe is entertaining the royals. To the left, royals are under a canopy watching Burmese classical dance (Zat pwe). To the right are dancers and musicians accompanied by an orchestra (Saing waing). Zat taw gyi or zat pwe is usually based on Jataka stories which are the most popular literary materials in all periods of Burmese history. (Or.16761, fols. 28-30)

In this scene a Burmese musical troupe is entertaining the royals. To the left, royals are under a canopy watching Burmese classical dance (Zat pwe). To the right are dancers and musicians accompanied by an orchestra (Saing waing). Zat taw gyi or zat pwe is usually based on Jataka stories which are the most popular literary materials in all periods of Burmese history. (Or.16761, fols. 28-30)

Mr & Mrs Macfarlane of London donated this manuscript, which had been in Mrs Macfarlane’s family since her grandfather acquired it in 1898, to the British Library in October 2010. The manuscript has been digitised and is available on the library’s Digitised Manuscripts Viewer.

Royal donations in 19th century Burma

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San San May, British Library

Another digitised Burmese manuscript (Or13681) from the British Library Collections shows seven scenes of King Mindon’s donations at various places during the first four years of his reign (1853-1857). The artist not only depicted the seven different historical merit making ceremonies of King Mindon, but also described the cost of the donations in detail. The mid 19th century parabaik has red tooled leather covers and the front cover bearing in gold letters, giving the title ‘Depictions of Royal donations at various places beginning in the year 1215, first [volume I]’. The name Queen Tharasein (Tharasein Mihpaya) appears on the paper label stuck on the cover of the manuscript.

In 1853, the king and queen donated a monastery (Waso kyaung) and a rest house (Za yat), including offering trees to the monks in Ratanatheinkha and the cost of the donations was 3500 kyats. (Scene 1)

The second royal donation was also made in 1853 at Kyauk myaung, which included the offering of 100,000 oil lamps on the Irrawaddy River costing 1000 kyats. King Mindon is sitting on the veranda watching the oil lamps as they are set afloat from boats in the river. (Scene 2)

The second royal donation was also made in 1853 at Kyauk myaung, which included the offering of 100,000 oil lamps on the Irrawaddy River costing 1000 kyats. King Mindon is sitting on the veranda watching the oil lamps as they are set afloat from boats in the river. (Scene 2)

At Amarapura in 1854, the king and queen donated the Thudhamma rest house (Thudhamma za yat) and a brick Buddha image, offered daily meals to 70 monks in the month of wahso, sets of monks’ robes (Wahso thin gan) and 8 requisites of a monk (Payeithkaya shi pa) to the monks.

The king and queen also offered a gold lace cloth to the Mahamuni Buddha image. This third royal donation was made while the king was residing at Amarapura. The text also includes the cost of each donation. (Scene 3)

The king and queen also offered a gold lace cloth to the Mahamuni Buddha image. This third royal donation was made while the king was residing at Amarapura. The text also includes the cost of each donation. (Scene 3)

King Mindon offered numerous gifts to the Buddhist monks in 1855 at Amarapura as his fourth donation. (Scene 4)

The artist depicted the fifth donation of the royals in Amarapura, the first capital of Burma, which took place in 1856. The donations included an ordination hall (Thein), two gilded manuscript chests (sardaik bhi dho), palm leaf manuscripts, beds decorated with glass mosaic and gold lace mosquito nets. Musicians and dancers are also in the scene as they are going to entertain the royals. Court officials and their wives also received gifts. (Scene 5)

King Mindon made his sixth donation in 1857, in Mandalay by offering a Mingala Bon San monastery and Dhamma Myitzu ordination hall to Pyay Sayadaw. In the scene the royals are being paid homage and are entertained by the orchestra. The monks also received 8 requisites and other gifts. (Scene 6)

In 1853, the king offered two lakes (Zeya Nanda kan and Thiri Nanda kan) at Nyaung gan village. A year later, in 1854 the king also offered ponds at Hsinte siyinsu at Amarapura. (Scene 7)

All seven scenes shown in this manuscript can be viewed online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts Viewer .

Further reading: Patricia M. Herbert, 1998: ‘An illustrated record of royal donations’. In: P. Pichard &  F. Robinne, eds.: Etudes birmanes en hommage à Denise Bernot (Paris: EFEO), p. 89-100.

Scenes from the Ramayana

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San San May, British Library

Three Burmese parabaik (folding book) manuscripts in the British Library have been digitised and are now accessible on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts viewer, including a Burmese copy of the Ramayana (Or.14178). This parabaik from around 1870 A.D. has 16 pages with painted scenes of the Ramayana story with brief captions in Burmese. The paper covers are painted in red, yellow and green with floral borders and prancing lions. One cover has an inscription in black ink in Burmese, giving the title, Rama Zat, and a brief identification of the contents, as follows: Rama strings the bow; Dusakhaya demon in battle; offerings of alms; abduction in the chariot; building of the stone causeway; and arrival in Thiho (Ceylon/Sri Lanka).

The ten-headed demon king of Thiho (Ceylon/Sri Lanka), Dathagiri (Ravana) sends Gambi in the form of a shwethamin (golden deer) to Thida (Sita). Being persuaded by Sita to catch the golden deer for her, Rama left Sita under the protection of his brother, Letkhana (Lakshmana), and went after the golden deer. Or.14178, f.8

The ten-headed demon king of Thiho (Ceylon/Sri Lanka), Dathagiri (Ravana) sends Gambi in the form of a shwethamin (golden deer) to Thida (Sita). Being persuaded by Sita to catch the golden deer for her, Rama left Sita under the protection of his brother, Letkhana (Lakshmana), and went after the golden deer. Or.14178, f.8

The oral tradition of the Burmese Ramayana story can be traced as far back as the reign of King Anawrahta (A.D.1044-77), the founder of the first Burmese empire. It was transmitted orally from generation to generation before being written down in prose and verse, and as a drama. The first known written Burmese version of the Ramayana is Rama Thagyin (Songs from the Ramayana), compiled by U Aung Phyo in 1775 (a typescript copy from a palm leaf manuscript made in 1980 is held in the British Library as MYAN.A.2579/1-2). A three-volume copy of the Rama story called Rama vatthu was written on palm leaf in 1877 (MAN/BUR315).

Early printed versions in the British Library include Pontaw Rama (Part 1) by Saya Ku, published in 1880 (14302.e.3/5); Rama thonmyo zat taw gyi vatthu, 1904 (BUR.B.604); Pontaw Rama and Lakkhana (Part 1) by U Maung Gyi, published in 1904 (14302.e.11); Rama ruidaya zat taw gyi by U Maung Gyi, published in 1907 (BUR.D.74/3); Rama yakan by U Toe, published in two volumes in 1933 (14302.b.52/1); and Rama thon myo by U Pho Sein, 1936 (14302.aa.34; BUR.B.647/1).

When Sita and Lakshmana heard Rama’s voice calling them in distress, Lakshmana made a three-fold magic circle around their shelter to ward off evil, and warned Sita not to venture out of the circle. As soon as Lakshmana went to look for Rama, Ravana changed himself into an old hermit and came to Sita and begged for alms of fruits. She forgot her brother-in-law’s warning and came out of the magic circle and gave him food and, water as she thought he was a real hermit. . Or.14178, f.9

When Sita and Lakshmana heard Rama’s voice calling them in distress, Lakshmana made a three-fold magic circle around their shelter to ward off evil, and warned Sita not to venture out of the circle. As soon as Lakshmana went to look for Rama, Ravana changed himself into an old hermit and came to Sita and begged for alms of fruits. She forgot her brother-in-law’s warning and came out of the magic circle and gave him food and, water as she thought he was a real hermit.  Or.14178, f.9

Ravana returned into his own form of a horrible giant with ten fearful heads and twenty great arms and begged Sita to come with him to his kingdom. When she refused, Ravana summoned his magic chariot and swept Sita up and away into the sky, over the forest. When Rama and Lakshmana finally found their way home Sita was gone. Or.14178, f.10

Ravana returned into his own form of a horrible giant with ten fearful heads and twenty great arms and begged Sita to come with him to his kingdom. When she refused, Ravana summoned his magic chariot and swept Sita up and away into the sky, over the forest. When Rama and Lakshmana finally found their way home Sita was gone. Or.14178, f.10

Dramatic performances of the Ramayana emerged in the Konbaung Period (1752-1885). The king’s minister Myawady Mingyi U Sa converted the Ramayana Jataka into a typical Burmese classical drama and he also composed theme music and songs for its performance. Ever since then, Ramayana performances have been very popular in Burmese culture, and Yama zat pwe (Rama dramatic performances) and marionette stage shows are often held. Scenes from the Ramayana can also be found as motifs or design elements in Burmese lacquerware and wood carvings.

A digital copy of the manuscript is available online .