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New issue of SEALG Newsletter published

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A new issue of the SEALG Newsletter (December 2022) has been published and is now available online.

Included in the Newsletter is the report of our group’s Annual Meeting that took place in Paris on 1 July 2022, in collaboration with the 12th EuroSEAS Conference. In addition to this detailed report by Marije Plomp and Jana Igunma, the latest issue of the Newsletter contains the following articles:

  • Laos Cultural Vignettes in the British Library’s Philatelic Collections by Richard Scott Morel (The British Library)
  • Talipot and Ceremonial Fans in Thai Manuscript Art by Jana Igunma (The British Library)
  • The Current Status of Cataloging Southeast Asian Language Materials at CORMOSEA Consortium of Research Libraries in the Unites States by Virginia Shih (South/Southeast Asia Library, University of California, Berkeley) and Zoë McLaughlin (South/Southeast Asia Librarian, Michigan State University)
  • Malay Comic Books from the 1950s and 1960s in the British Library by Annabel Teh Gallop (The British Library)

Finally, included is also a report of a Laboratory on “Lao Collections in the Digital Age: Libraries, Archives, Museums” held at the 7th International Conference on Lao Studies, 15-18 November 2022.

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

Online tools for Southeast Asian librarianship

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In the past decade, various online tools and Open Source software that can be useful in Southeast Asian librarianship have been developed. This article looks at a selection of online tools that are available to help in areas like cataloguing and creation of Romanised versions of Southeast Asian scripts, text recognition, text and image annotation, date conversion, presentation and creative usage of digitised material.

Transliteration and Romanisation tools

Aksharamukha is a free online tool that facilitates the conversion between various writing systems that descended from the third-century BCE Brahmi script. It can be used for Sanskrit- and Pali-based Romanisation of many Southeast Asian scripts. In addition to the simple mapping of characters, Aksharamukha attempts to implement various script/language-specific orthographic conventions such as vowel lengths, gemination and nasalisation. It also provides several customisation options to fine-tune and to apply the correct orthography. Aksharamukha currently supports 120 scripts, including 40 extinct scripts like Ariyaka, as well as 21 Romanisation methods. It is possible to upload images with printed text in any of the supported scripts, which the tool can process by way of automated text recognition and then can be Romanised or converted into any other of the supported scripts. A report on the conversion of Burmese script with Aksharamukha is available from the British Library. However, Aksharamukha is currently not yet suitable for the Romanisation of modern Thai and Lao scripts according to the ALA-LC Romanisation method. Aksharamukha was developed by Vinodh Rajan, a computer scientist and graduate in the field of Digital Paleography.

Screenshot of Aksharamukha displaying some of the supported scripts.

To assist with the Romanisation of modern Thai, the online transliteration tool Plangsarn offers a solution. This free tool, which is easy to use by inserting a Thai word or phrase into a mask and then convert it to the Romanised version according to the ALA-LC standard, was developed by Thammasat University Library, Bangkok, and the National Electronics and Computer Technology Center (NECTEC), a statutory government organization under the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), Ministry of Science and Technology of Thailand. Problems encountered with Plangsarn are word/syllable separation and capitalisation, which can result in incorrect spacing within words and erroneous capitalisation of names or parts of names. For example, the conversion of the name “มหาวิทยาลัยมหาจุฬาลงกรณราชวิทยาลัย” resulted in “mahāwitthayālai mahā čhulā long kō̜n Na rāt witthayālai”, which acccroding to OCLC should be “Mahāčhulālongkō̜n Rātchawitthayālai”.

A free online tool for the Romanisation of modern Lao script is the Lao Romanisation converter, although it has its limitations since it does not support the ALA-LC Romanisation standard. The tool is based on the newly developed Romanisation system MoH 2020 which had been adopted by the Ministry of Health of Laos since 2020. In this system, each character corresponds to only one phonetic sound (with few exceptions). Diacritics (accents) and tone marks are not used, and short and long vowels are romanised the same. Geographic names are written in Roman script as a single word with only the first letter capitalised. The Romanisation is based on the Lao spelling reforms by the Lao government in 1975. The tool was initially developed for the Department of Planning and Cooperation, Ministry of Health of Laos, with the hope that it will be adopted as the national Romanisation system by the Lao government to mitigate the risks of the widespread “Karaoke” Romanisation of modern Lao script that is often used in social media.

Text recognition and annotation tools

Automated text recognition is becoming increasingly important in the work with manuscripts, not only among scholars and researchers, but also in the library world. Transkribus is a platform that uses machine learning technology to automate text recognition of handwritten and printed documents. By using a transcription editor to manually transcribe historical documents, members of the Transkribus community train specific text recognition models that are capable of recognising handwritten, typewritten or printed documents in any language. A pool of existing text recognition models is available for mainly European languages, which makes the process of training a specific model for an archive or manuscripts easier and faster. There are many models for non-western languages on Transkribus, but they are still mostly not available publicly. However, one can get in touch with the model creator/s and ask for them to be shared. Curators at the British Library have created a trained model on Arabic scientific manuscripts, for example. Transkribus was developed by the READ project. When the project ended, they have established a cooperative, the READ-COOP, a consortium of leading research groups from all over Europe headed by the University of Innsbruck, to continue the development and maintenance of the software and its community. Transkribus Lite is the web based instance of Transkribus. Users can upload documents, perform layout analysis, run text detection, and can experiment with their own digitised collection items.

Recogito is an online platform for collaborative document annotation with the aim to foster better linkages between online resources documenting the past. Recogito provides a personal workspace where users can upload, collect and organise source materials – texts, images and tabular data – and collaborate in their annotation and interpretation. Recogito helps to make research more visible on the Web more easily, and to expose the results of research as Open Data. An online tutorial explains in simple steps how Recogito can be used. For Southeast Asian librarianship the function of identifying geographical names within annotations as references to places and plotting them on a map, as well as the possibility to tag persons and events are useful functions to make connections between different sources in different collections. Recogito is an initiative of the Pelagios Network, developed under the leadership of the Austrian Institute of Technology, Exeter University and The Open University, with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Date conversion

Southeast Asia librarians, cataloguers and curators are often confronted with various calendar or time recording systems that are used to date manuscripts, archival and early printed material as well as published books. There are numerous online tools to assist with date conversion, many of which are supported by adverts or religious contexts.

The website Ancient Buddhist Texts offers a selection of Buddhist-Christian/Common Era converters specifically for Buddhist calendar systems used in Thailand/Laos/Cambodia and Sri Lanka/Myanmar/India. In addition, it also provides date conversion for the Cūḷasakarat (Chulasakkarat) calendar. The Ancient Buddhist Texts website is maintained by the Theravada monk Bhante Ānandajoti.

A simple and advert-free tool for the conversion of Hijri A.H. (Islamic) dates and Christian (Common Era) dates is available from Islamic Philosophy Online, a website that was developed my members of the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies at the University of Zurich.

A Javanese calendar (Saka era) online converter can be found on the front page of the website for Javanese literature, Sastra Jawa. This website is run by the non-profit organisation Sastra Lestari whose mission is to preserve and disseminate the literary works of the Indonesian archipelago.

Librarians and researchers working with manuscripts from mainland Southeast Asia often find themselves confronted with colophons mentioning dates according to the luni-solar calendar, like for example “eighth day of the waxing moon of the seventh month”. The website timeanddate offers a tool to calculate moon phases at any given place anytime in the past or future (not ad-free, but advertisements can be switched off). This website has been developed by Time and Date AS, a team of almost 30 programmers, designers, journalists, and administrative staff from four different continents based in Norway.

Screenshot of the timeanddate website displaying the moon phases of the year 1723 CE in Luang Prabang.

Presentation and creative usage

Digitisation projects of the past decade have resulted in huge collections of digital content that are accessible online via library websites. This has created the need to raise awareness, and to promote engagement and learning with these online collections. One useful free online tool is Exhibit, a user-friendly, fast, and responsive editor to create stories and quizzes with 3D models and IIIF-compatible high resolution images. Exhibit has a range of presentation modes including scrollytelling, slideshows, kiosks, and quizzes that can be embedded in websites or social media channels via an iframe. They can also be duplicated and remixed by users, which is perfect for online learning and classroom environments. Exhibit is supported by a group of the world’s leading libraries and museums and has a vibrant supportive community at its core. The tool was developed by Mnemoscene with the support of the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund. Initiated to meet the online teaching needs of The University of St. Andrews, it is now used by major organisations in the UK including The British Library, Bodleian Libraries, University of Cambridge and Royal Pavilion and Museums Trust Brighton. An example of an exhibit of the Vessantara Jataka with illustrations from a Thai manuscript at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, can be viewed by clicking on the image below.

Voices from a Lost World: A Rediscovered Collection of late XVIIth C. Mardijker poetry

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Recently the Portuguese printing house Imprensa Nacional in Lisbon has published an edition of a manuscript written in the Northern European kind of hand that was in use in the 17th and18th century, on the cover of which is written as title, Livro dos Pantuns.

This manuscript, which had been known to the famous 19th-century scholar of Creole Portuguese, Hugo Schuchard, has been recently rediscovered in the Lisbon Museu Nacional de Arqueologia by the linguist Prof. Ivo Castro and its librarian, Livia Coito in the collection of the Museum’s founder and polymath, José Leite de Vasconcellos.

One half of the manuscript’s poems consist, as its title indicates, of series of verses in a kind of pantun-form. These are worded in a now disappeared non-standard, Mardijker, variant of Malay, and are in this book presented in the Mardijker Malay reconstructed by Alexander Adelaar.

The manuscript’s other half consists of poems in the now defunct Creole-Portuguese that was spoken by the Mardijkers in Batavia until the end of the 19th century, and in Tugu it persisted into the early 20th. Of these poems, most consist of entreaties of the ardent but scorned lover addressed to his fair lady.

Whereas both in the Malay and the Creole Portuguese parts of the Livro such love poetry is the most conspicuous presence, the manuscript also contains some poems that are interesting because of their link to important events and persons in the VOC in late 17th-century history. This is, for example, the case with the poem about the presumed ‘rebellion’ against Batavia’s High Government in 1689 by Captain Jonker, the leader of the VOC’s Muslim Ambonese militia (Panton Joncker).

In view of the internal evidence from their contents, the pantuns and cantigas of the Livro must have been composed in the late 17th or early 18th century for and by the Mardijker communities of Batavia and/or Tugu.

In the new book the Livro’s poems have been provided with full transliterations and translations as well as introductions by Ivo Castro, Hugo Cardoso, Allan Baxter, Sander Adelaar and Gijs Koster. The book also contains a facsimile edition of the entire manuscript.

(Announcement by Gijs Koster)

Front cover of the recently published book Livro de Pantuns.

The Lao Recitation YouTube channel of the National Library of Laos

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The Lao Recitation YouTube channel of the National Library of Laos recently went online, containing over 100 hours of traditional recitation and interviews with reciters. All recordings will also be available in the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts, where some are readings of manuscripts and can be listened to while viewing images of the texts. This will greatly assist in the study of the texts and in learning to read the more complex scripts which are restricted to manuscript use and typically unreadable without training. The channel is also an excellent learning resource for Lao monks and novices who are training in the recitation of texts. More recordings will be added over the coming months. The project was kindly supported by the German Embassy, Vientiane. The project team comprised David Wharton, Bounchan Phanthavong, Bouasy Sypaseuth, and Nouphath Keosaphang.

Image of a Lao palm-leaf manuscript on the cover page of the Lao Recitation YouTube channel. With permission of David Wharton, National Library of Laos.

Among the high-quality recitations is the complete ‘Lam Phavet‘ by Achan Maha Bounteum Sibounheuang from Ban Pak Thang, Vientiane Capital. This Lao version of the Vessantara Jataka is the most popular of the Buddha’s Birth Tales (Jataka) not only in Laos, but across mainland Southeast Asia. The recitation in a variety of styles is in seventeen parts, and lasts over 11 hours. Separate sections of this same recitation are found under ‘Thet Mahasat‘ given by various monks in Luang Prabang: Sathu Nyai One Keo Kitthiphatho from Vat Pa Pha O, Sathu Chanthalinh Chinnathammo from Vat Phou Khouai, Sathu Bouavanh Pounyasalo from Vat Senesoukaham, Sathu Bouaphanh Phanthasalo from Vat Ban Sing, and Pha Sombath Sampanno from Vat Siphutthabat Thipphalam.

Another popular Buddhist text that can be found on the channel is ‘Nemilat‘, the Lao version of the Nemi Jataka, which is one of the Last Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha. It is well-known for its graphic descriptions of the Buddhist heavens and hells. Achan Maha Bounteum Sibounheuang from Ban Pak Thang, Vientiane, recites this text in Vientiane style, and the duration of the ten parts of this text is about three hours.

Achan Maha Bounteum Sibounheuang also presents a recitation in Vientiane style of the famous story ‘Sang Sinsai‘, a versified epic of the Lao of national significance which is also a much loved theme for theatre and dance performances. The recitation of fifteen parts has a duration of over six hours.

Kampha Kai Kaeo‘ is the title of another popular story in which the role of the hero, an orphaned boy, is similar to a Bodhisattva, or Buddha-to-be. This text in fifteen parts is recited by Achan Nouphath Keosaphang from Ban Sidamduan, Vientiane. This recitation from a manuscript in the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts in hoi kaeo hoi kong style lasts over 3 hours.

Apart from Buddhist texts and folk stories there are also recitations of traditional ritual texts known as ‘Kham Su Khuan‘ (“calling the life essence”). The idea of khuan – the life essences of persons, animals, plants or objects – is a central element in Lao pre-Buddhist belief, and Su Khuan rituals are carried out on numerous occasions like weddings, well-wishing to new mothers (one month after giving birth) and of children, to support treatment of illness, blessing of a new house, well-wishing to new novice monks, blessing of rice, cows, buffalos etc. Following an introductory talk by Achan Maha Bounteum Sibounheuang, there are several recitations of ‘Kham Su Khuan’ in thamnong hai thammada style, lasting about two hours.

More recordings will be added shortly, including a complete reading of the epic poem Champa Si Ton by Achan Phouvong Soukchalern (Chan Kop) from a palm-leaf manuscript at the National Library of Laos, lasting over 25 hours. Several Lao-language video interviews with reciters will also provide additional context to the collection.

(Report by David Wharton and Jana Igunma)

Recitation at Boun Phavet festival, Vat That Luang, Luang Prabang, October 2020. With permission of David Wharton, National Library of Laos.

DREAMSEA: A programme to digitise Southeast Asian manuscripts and to safeguard cultural diversity

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DREAMSEA stands for Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts in Southeast Asia, which is a Programme that strives to preserve the content of manuscripts in the entire region of Southeast Asia by way of digitisation, and to make this content fully and openly accessible online. The Programme is carried out by the Center for the Study of Islam and Society (PPIM) Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta State Islamic University (UIN) Jakarta, Indonesia, in cooperation with the Centre for the Study of Manuscripts Culture (CSMC), University of Hamburg, Germany. The digital repository is presented in collaboration with the Hill Museum and Manuscripts Library. The Programme is supported by Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, based in the UK.

Southeast Asia is a region with a high rate of cultural diversity. Since the aim of this Programme is to safeguard this diversity, it accommodates manuscripts written in any script and field of study as long as the manuscripts originate from Southeast Asia. The basic principle in the DREAMSEA Programme is to preserve Southeast Asian manuscripts that are under threat to be damaged or lost (endangered manuscripts), and whose condition already may have been affected by natural/environmental conditions or socio-political circumstances in Southeast Asia (affected manuscripts).

Although the Programme was only initiated in 2017, thousands of manuscript pages have already been digitised and made freely available online. In the first stage, high resolution images of 593 manuscripts containing 20,129 pages have been made available along with the metadata. They originate from three different collections: the legacy of the Kingdom of Buton in Baubau (Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia), the collections of a Muslim community in Kuningan (West Java, Indonesia), and the collection of manuscripts of Buddhist monks in Luang Prabang (Laos). In 2018-2019, DREAMSEA executed fifteen digitisation missions  and managed to safe the contents of 57 collections in eighteen cities in Indonesia, Laos and Thailand. Up to now, around 119,000 manuscript pages have been digitised and subsequently these will be made available to the public in the Programme’s  Repository, which offers search options by country, city/province, collection, project number, title, subject matter, author, language, writing support, and script. Both the quality and quantity of metadata provided for the digitised manuscripts deserve much praise, especially the often very detailed content descriptions and translations of colophons which are extremely useful for carrying out further research.

In addition, the Programme has opened its own Youtube channel of DREAMSEA Manuscripts on which short films document the work that has been carried out to digitise and preserve manuscripts in Indonesia and Laos.

Dreamsea

(Information provided by DREAMSEA)

Panji – Diponegoro – La Galigo from the UB Leiden/KITLV collections

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Three Indonesian heroes in the Memory of World Register of UNESCO

The Panji stories, the autobiography of Prince Diponegoro and the epos I La Galigo are narrative works from Indonesia that, in their very own way, bear relevance to the cultural history of the region. The Leiden University Libraries hold a substantial number of manuscripts related to those three heroes. With an exhibition the UB Leiden is currently celebrating the extraordinary fact that, over the years, the above-mentioned items have been included in the Memory of the World Register of the UNESCO.

DorisSyair Ken Tambuhan

Cod.Or. 1965, Ken Tambuhan, one of the hundreds of Panji manuscripts held in Leiden. Image: Courtesy of Leiden University Libraries and KITLV collections

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Masks used for staging Panji plays (loan Clara Brakel). Image: Courtesy of Leiden University Libraries and KITLV collections

Panji and I La Galigo stories always travelled between media, from dance performance to stage theatre to manuscript, from oral traditions and recitations to printed matters – the written text often being a mere ‘back up’ version. The exhibition focusses on the various forms of presentation of these stories.
Diponegoro, being an historic figure, takes a special stand in this group of Indonesian heroes.  However, the items on display confirm that historiography is just another form of narration (freely quoting Hayden White).

Adventures
Panji stories originate from Java but gained a growing popularity throughout Southeast Asia from the 14th and 15th centuries onwards, competing successfully with the dominating Indian epics. Within the Javanese narrative traditions the Panji stories may be considered the most popular genre, one that is meant to entertain. The UB Leiden holds hundreds of Panji manuscripts, c. 200 of which have been selected for the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme. In essence and ignoring all the side tracks, these stories depict the adventures of the Javanese Prince Panji and his lost love, Princess Kirana (both keep changing their names continually). The narrative’s ingredients are universal: love, jealousy, even murder, grief and pain, and – at least in most of the Malay versions – a happy ending.

Rebellion
Prince Diponegoro (1785-1855), one of the first indigenous rulers to seek independence from the Dutch, wrote his chronicles in exile in North-Sulawesi. Tricked by the Dutch, he was captured in 1830 when he agreed to negotiations in Magelang. The original text has not even survived the 19th century, but an early Dutch translation could be preserved and is on display now. Diponegoro’s account is often championed as the first Indonesian autobiography, but more relevant is that it forms the core of a very powerful national narrative in the modern state of Indonesia.

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D Or 13 Buku Kedhung Kebo  (1866)
Javanese manuscript that presents (part of) the ancestral history commissioned by Raden Tumenggung Cokronegoro of Purworejo (formerly called Kedhung Kebo). Raden Cokronegoro was in office from 1830 until 1862 and as fierce an opponent of Diponegoro’s as he was a loyal ally to the Dutch. Image: Courtesy of Leiden University Libraries and KITLV collections

Genesis
Flourishing in South Sulawesi since the 14th century, this oral Buginese tradition was translated from the ancient Buginese and put in writing by Queen Siti Aisyah We Tenriolle of Tanete (and/or her daughter). This mythical epos, in fact a poem built upon a metre of five syllables, narrates the genesis from a Buginese perspective. The UB Leiden holds 12 volumes which form the largest and also the opening part of what is the most voluminous literary work in the world. The complete work is estimated to contain 6.000 folio-sized pages and, because of its enormous length, no single manuscript exists that contain the complete text.

 

 

DorisBC La Galigo

NBG Boeg 188 La Galigo. Image: Courtesy of Leiden University Libraries and KITLV collections

The Buginese, the largest ethnic group of South Sulawesi with an estimated population of 2.5 million people, have a distinct language and script. I La Galigo – apart from being considered sacred and by some an historical source – is certainly also an intriguing piece of literature.

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Cod.Or. 5475, a fragment of the La Galigo epos on palm leave (late 19th or early 20th century) . The strokes of palm leaves are sewed to form one long stroke. Image: Courtesy of Leiden University Libraries and KITLV collections

UNESCO Memory of the World

By enlisting them in the Memory of the World Register as cultural heritage to be protected, UNESCO has certified the cultural (and socio-historical) relevance of the above-depicted manuscripts. In cooperation with libraries in Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia, the Leiden University Libraries/KITLV already successfully gained this special status for the three heroes Panji, Diponegoro and La Galigo.
Maybe it’s now time for a woman?

The exhibition is still on until 1 September 2019.

(Doris Jedamski, University Library Leiden)

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

 

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