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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)

Lanna manuscripts – Online Collection of Northern Thai Chronicles and Other Texts

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The project Lanna Manuscripts – คัมภีร์ล้านนา was launched in 2005 in the premises of the Siam Society in Bangkok. The initial aim was to test the procedures that had been devised for the digitisation of manuscripts. The rich manuscript library of the Society placed under the responsibility of Achan Term Mitem, a well-known specialist from the National Archives of Thailand, provided an ideal venue for such a ‘pilot’ project. Seventeen manuscripts — all tamnan — from the library were digitised, and they were the first documents of this digital collection.

Between 2006 and 2011 numerous field-trips took place, scouting Northern Thailand province by province. The Princess Mahachakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre in Bangkok, an institute under the supervision of the Thai Ministry of Culture, provided the official backing that enabled project workers to gain access to the collections stored in local repositories.

After visiting hundreds of monasteries, forty-one of them were selected either for their rich collections or for their rare manuscripts. In each monastery, the manuscripts deemed worth being integrated into the corpus were studied and photographed in situ. No copies were ever displaced or borrowed. These manuscripts constitute now the main bulk of this online database.

Descriptive records containing textual and paratextual information on the manuscripts were first entered in text files, and later integrated into a prototype database. Then, in Paris, the EFEO provided support for transforming the original database into a MySQL Internet database, which took shape in 2013. Then the photographs of all the leaves of each manuscript were edited and inserted into the viewer component of the database. Thumbnail images of the titles were inserted in every record and series of supplementary photographs relating to monasteries, libraries and conservation of the manuscripts, were added in the form of albums.

This online collection is aimed at students and researchers interested in philology, literature and history of Thailand, especially texts representative of Northern Thai Buddhism. Over 18,000 pages of manuscripts have been digitised with the focus on a principal genre, the chronicles and traditional stories called tamnan (ตำนาน) which are Buddhist narratives of foundation composed almost entirely in the Northern Thai language and tham (Dhamma) script. For reasons of regional linguistic and cultural unity that kind of text developed throughout the Tai area of Southeast Asia (among the Thai, Lao, Shan and Tai peoples) but especially in the ancient kingdom of Lanna, which covered at least the nine northern provinces of Thailand. The project website does not only give access to the digitised manuscripts, but also provides rich information on Northern Thai literary traditions, Lanna manuscripts collections elsewhere, bibliographic resources, and photo galleries illustrating various aspects of manuscripts production, storage, preservation etc.

 

Digital Library of Northern Thai Manuscripts

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The University of Pennsylvania and National Library of Laos have launched the Digital Library of Northern Thai Manuscripts as a resource for the study of traditional literature from this region. At present, the digital library contains images of over 4,200 manuscripts which can be searched and viewed online or freely downloaded, and to which more manuscripts will be added subsequently.

The database contains four collections: digitised microfilms from the Preservation of Northern Thai Manuscripts Project (with permission of Chiang Mai University Library), digitised microfilms and also handwritten copies of manuscripts made in the early 1970s during research conducted by Harald Hundius, and directly-digitised manuscripts made during the current digital library project.

A gallery with images from temples which were involved in the project, as well as a collection of written and online resources for further study complement the database.

All digitisation was funded by the German Federal Foreign Office, and the digital library project was funded by The Henry Luce Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries and the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. The project was implemented by the National Library of Laos, based on the existing Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts.

We hope that the digital library will be a useful resource for the study of traditional literature from this region.  Feedback on the site is welcome.

Reported by Justin McDaniel (DLNTM Project Leader, University of Pennsylvania), Harald Hundius (DLNTM Local Project Leader, National Library of Laos), David Wharton (DLNTM Technical Director, National Library of Laos)

Manuscript Chest, Wat Phan On © 2015 David Wharton, Digital Library of Northern Thai Manuscripts (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Manuscript Chest, Wat Phan On
© 2015 David Wharton, Digital Library of Northern Thai Manuscripts (CC BY-NC 4.0).

Panel on Southeast Asian Manuscripts Studies, ASEASUK Conference London 2016

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The next Association for Southeast Asian Studies in the United Kingdom (ASEASUK) Conference, to be held 16-18 September 2016, is being hosted at SOAS, University of London. This conference provides a major venue for the dissemination of research on South East Asia in various disciplines for academics both from the UK and abroad.

ASEASUK is now calling for papers to be presented in about 40 accepted panels. A listing with descriptions of the accepted panels and additional information about the conference can be found here.

We would like to draw your attention to panel 27a on “Southeast Asian Manuscripts Studies”, which I co-convene with Dr Mulaika Hijjas from SOAS London. The panel aims to provide a collegial and stimulating forum for researchers working on diverse aspects of manuscript studies. Topics may include the codicology of manuscripts, including research on illumination and illustration, bindings, inks and paints, calligraphy and palaeography; philological studies of texts in vernacular or sacral languages; and the overlap between manuscript studies and epigraphy, looking at inscriptions in wood, stone or metal. Historical, literary or cultural studies based on manuscript materials will also be welcome, as well as researches on the production and use of manuscripts in historical perspective. I would like to invite you to contribute to this panel if you are currently researching or working with Southeast Asian manuscripts.

The deadline for paper proposals is 15 April 2016. Please note that only one paper per person is permitted for this conference.

Conference registration opens on 1 April 2016 and early bird rates apply until 30 June. Online registration will close on 12 September. The full conference fee is payable from 1 July. All paper presenters must register in advance. Paper presenters who are not members of ASEASUK must additionally register for a one year membership of ASEASUK.

If you consider proposing a paper for the panel on “Southeast Asian Manuscripts Studies”, please contact me directly at jana.igunma AT bl.uk (for mainland Southeast Asian manuscripts) or Dr Mulaika Hijjas at mh86 AT soas.ac.uk (for maritime Southeast Asian manuscripts).

Elephant treatise, British Library Or.13652

Elephant treatise, British Library Or.13652

 

Khmer manuscripts online

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SEACOM southeast asia communication centre

A very useful online resource for the study and research on manuscripts in Khmer and Pali languages is http://www.khmermanuscripts.org/.

This platform is the outcome of a long-term research, digitisation and preservation project carried out by the EFEO in collaboration with Buddhist temples in Cambodia and many Cambodian researchers and monks. The emphasis was on conservation of the manuscripts, preparation of a catalogue and digitisation. The digitisation and online publication of numerous manuscripts makes it possible to study the various facets of the Khmer manuscripts tradition as well as Buddhist and traditional literature in Cambodia.

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Conference on Manuscripts and Archives, Hamburg

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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, 19-22 November 2014

The Centre of the Studies of Manuscripts Cultures (University of Hamburg) organizes a conference on Manuscripts and Archives from 19-22 November 2014. Contributions from the field of Southeast Asian manuscript cultures are most welcome and are encouraged. Proposals should be submitted as soon as possible.

The conference will explore the complex topic of the archive in a historical, systematic and comparative dimension and try to contextualise it in the broader context of manuscript cultures by addressing the following questions: How, by whom and for which purpose are archival records produced? Is there any observable difference from literary manuscripts concerning materials, formats, producers (scribes)? Where are they stored, how organised? Are there other objects stored together with the records? Which practices are involved inside the archive, how and by whom are they used? Is there a term or a concept of archive as opposed to library, museum, cabinet (of curiosities) and the like? Is there a relation to historiography? Is there an archival science (archivology)?

The conference takes place at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, Warburgstraße 26, Hamburg, Germany.

Participation in the conference is free of charge and visitors are welcome.

For more detailed information and registration please visit the CSMC website: http://www.manuscript-cultures.uni-hamburg.de/register_archives.html

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.

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