Digital Library of Northern Thai Manuscripts

Southeast Asia Library Group (SEALG)

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…

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Women and folktales project in Laos

Southeast Asia Library Group (SEALG)

Women are important storytellers and bearers of cultural heritage in Laos. However, their voices are rarely heard outside their communities, due to their traditional homebound responsibilities and their lack of confidence in participating in public forums. At the same time, traditional folktales and legends are in danger of dying out, as an older generation passes on and young people prefer entertainment from television and the internet.

With this in mind, the Luang Prabang Film Festival and the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre launched the Women and Folktales Project to empower ethnic minority women in Laos and document and disseminate traditional stories using film.

Funded by the US Embassy Vientiane, the project filmed seven women, from Hmong, Kmhmu, and Tai Lue villages around Luang Prabang Province, recounting 19 traditional folktales in their native languages. These films were translated into Lao and English, subtitled, and are now archived within the digital libraries…

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Vietnam in historic photographs

The National Overseas Archives in Aix-en-Provence have opened up to the public an online database called Ulysse, thereby making a variety of digitised materials from the Archives and their library available for research. Begun in 2002, this database contains individual photographs or albums, postcards, posters, drawings and maps.

These materials document on one side the history of French colonial empire, but on the other side they are a rich source for the study of Vietnamese traditions and everyday life in historical perspective. The materials mainly originate from public records (state secretariats and departments that managed colonies from the seventeenth century until the mid-twentieth century, general government offices, etc.) and private archives, but also from donations, purchases, and bequests.

A keyword seach for Vietnam returned almost 400 results, of which most were photographs from the 1940s. Interestingly, they do not only document Vietnamese traditions and everyday life scenery, but also the culture of ethnic minorities in Vietnam. The Cao Dai religion and their rituals are well presented in this collection, as well as the cultural traditions of the Tai in North Vietnam and the Chinese in Saigon. A selection of photographs from this wonderful online database can be found below.

Mobile barber shop at Camau

Mobile barber shop at Camau

Vietnamese children playing traditional games

Vietnamese children playing traditional games

Construction of a boat at Camau

Construction of a boat at Camau

Chinese funeral procession in Saigon

Chinese funeral procession in Saigon

Students exiting the Lycee Calmette in Saigon

Students exiting the Lycee Calmette in Saigon

Theravada Buddhist temple near Nguu Son

Theravada Buddhist temple near Nguu Son

Theravada monks at their temple near Nguu Son

Theravada monks at their temple near Nguu Son

Cao Dai temple interior in Tay Ninh

Cao Dai temple interior in Tay Ninh

Superior Pham Cong Tac in his ritual costume at the Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh

Superior Pham Cong Tac in his ritual costume at the Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh

Cao Dai musical group in Tay Ninh

Cao Dai musical group in Tay Ninh

Tai princesses, the daughters of Deo Van Dai

Tai princesses, the daughters of Deo Van Long

Tai religious ritual

Tai religious ritual

Tai dancers

Tai dancers

View of Cholon

View of Cholon

The Ulysse database can be accessed free of charge.

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Laos – The Land of a Million Caves

Speleologists call Laos the “Land of a Million Caves”, referring to it’s former official name Laan Saang – “Land of a Million Elephants”. Laos is indeed home to countless such natural wonders. Expeditions to systematically explore Laos’ caves have taken place since the 19th century, and they have gradually demonstrated the outstanding potential for the scientific study of caves in the country. While well over 500 km of caves and giant underground rivers have already been explored and mapped, much remains to be done.

Caves have a special meaning in Lao culture and history. From ancient times on, they were believed to be the residences of powerful serpents (naga) – called by the Lao too luuang or  phanyaa naak. As a result, many caves have become places for worship. In some caves, one can find large amounts of Buddha statues which were placed there as offerings or in an act of making merit. One of the best known caves for this purpose is the Paak Uu cave near  Luang Prabang.

Interior of the Paak Uu cave near Luang Prabang

Interior of the Paak Uu cave near Luang Prabang

In other caves ancient drawings and artefacts, relief carvings on the walls and even inscriptions in the earliest scripts of the Lao have been found. They are therefore of historical and archaeological significance.

Stalactites and stalagmites in caves are often interpreted by the Lao to have the shape of the Buddha, a stupa, a meditating monk or certain animals, especially sacred animals like the serpent or the elephant which give a cave special religious relevance. Certain shapes in the ground or on cave walls are often regarded as Buddha footprints. Some caves were used by monks to live in or to meditate in. Meditation in caves, which often are characterised by a total lack of light, inhabited by large colonies of bats, or are believed to be inhabited by demons and powerful spirits, is regarded among forest monks as an excellent test of their faith in the Dhamma and proof of their advanced level in meditation.

Throughout their history, the Lao have used caves during times of war and political unrest to seek refuge from invaders, and to hide their religious treasures from looters. This is another reason why some caves are still housing Buddha statues and other relics which are worshipped and guarded by local communities. During the Indochina Wars, caves in combination with tunnel systems have helped many people to survive the massive US bombing raids (Laos remains to date the most heavily bombed country in history). In the Viengsai caves in Northeastern Laos, for example, over 20,000 people could hide for a longer period of time, due to the fact that the caves contained a school, a hospital, kitchens, shops, and a theatre.

Entrance into one of the caves at Viengsai.

Entrance into one of the caves at Viengsai.

Nowadays, selected caves are open for tourists and some caves are reserved for research purposes only. Since 1990, various organisations and groups of speleologists have been exploring the caves of Laos more intensively than before. One of these groups, known as “Explo Laos”, has created a very detailed website to tell the history of speleology in Laos.

Other useful resources for further reading are:

Publications of the Northern Lao – European Cave Project

Tham Khoun Xe – The Great Cave on the Xe Bang Fai River (in: NSS News July 2009, page 4)

Ecological relationships between Buddhist monks, sacred caves, bats, and forests in Thailand (summary of research project with bibliography)

Sacred caves of Northern Thailand

Sacred rocks and Buddhist caves in Thailand (book review)

The Plain of Jars: Sacred caves

(J. Igunma)

 

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Lao collection at the British Library now fully catalogued

The British Library holds a small but significant collection of Lao material, consisting of manuscripts, rare printed books, periodicals and post cards, mainly acquired after 1973. However, the oldest items in Lao language date back to the 19th century. The earliest book about Laos is in Italian and was published in 1663.

The collection of printed material in Lao language contains over 300 monographs, most of them dating from 1950 onwards. The highlights of the collection, however, are three of the first books printed in the Lao language in Chiang Mai, Paris and Song Khone (Laos) around 1900. The heart of the Lao book collection is formed by publications of Maha Sila Viravong’s transliterations of literary, linguistic, Buddhist and historical texts from palm leaf manuscripts, for example rare first editions of Nangsư̄ thēt rư̄ang Vētsandon Sādok (Vessantara Jātaka, 1961) Phongsāwadān Lāo (Lao chronicles, 1957), and Nithān Nāng Tantai (Lao version of the Panchatantra, 1957-66).

The Library also holds approximately 2000 books about Laos and Lao culture in Western languages, as well as in Thai and Vietnamese languages. These include some rare first editions, like for example de Gerini’s original description of Laos and other parts of mainland Southeast Asia Delle missioni dei’ padri della Compagnia di Gesù nella Provincia del Giappone, e particolarmente di quella di Tumkino (printed in 1663 in Rome). All printed books and periodicals in Lao language have now been fully catalogued and are searchable in the Library’s online catalogue.

In addition to printed material, the Library holds 85 manuscripts which are either in Lao language or in Pali, but written in Tham script or in Lāo buhān script. The collection comprises literary, historical and Buddhist texts, most of them written on palm leaves. A small number, however, are in form of folding books made from khoi paper or from lacquered cotton. Included in the manuscripts collection are also some wooden manuscript boxes decorated with lacquer and gold, as well as a few hand-woven manuscript wrappers made from silk or cotton. Other minor languages covered in the Lao manuscripts collection include some Tai Lue and Tai Khoen manuscripts. All items in the Library’s Lao manuscripts collection have been catalogued in the online catalogue, Search our Catalogue of Archives and Manuscripts.

More detailed information about this Lao collection and contact details can be found online here.

Lao palm leaf manuscript at the British Library in London

Lao palm leaf manuscript at the British Library in London

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New issue of TAI CULTURE on “Tai Ahom in Assam”

A new issue of the Interdiciplinary Tai Studies Series TAI CULTURE dedicated to the topic “Tai Ahom in Assam” is now available. The 210 p. volume was edited in collaboration between SEACOM southeast asia communication centre Berlin (Germany) and the Purna Kanta Buragohain Institute for Tai and Southeast Asian Studies, Guwahati, Assam (India).

Although there exist a good number of studies and publications on Assam and the Tai Ahom altogether – mostly written by Tai Ahom or other scholars from India, and many of the works are in Assamese language – in general there has been limited awareness among other Tai peoples of Asia and among international scholars on the historical role, development, achievements, and specific characteristics of the Tai people who are called Ahom in Northeast India, and about their former Tai kingdom in Assam.

This new volume aims to shed more light on the history and culture of the Tai Ahom, and to give indigenous Ahom researchers and scholars from Assam a voice in an international publication as they are able to research and interpret primary sources in Ahom and Assamese languages.

The volume consists of 16 research articles, photo reports, bibliographies and glossaries, including articles on the Buddhist Tai ethnic groups in NE India, Impressions and thoughts on the Tai Ahom and other Tai in NE India, Tai Studies in Assam, the Historical background of Tai Ahom law, Ahom warfare, the Diplomatic relations of the Tai Ahom court, Tai Ahom-Assamese dictionary manuscripts, Inscriptions in Tai Ahom language, the Priestly classes of the Tai Ahom, Tai Ahom cosmology and traditions, Burial sites of Tai Ahom kings, and many more.

The volume can be ordered via the SEACOM homepage http://www.seacom.de (click on “TAI CULTURE”).

© Photo by Oliver Raendchen, 2013.

© Photo by Oliver Raendchen, 2013.

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Shan Manuscripts in the UK

Southeast Asia Library Group (SEALG)

An interesting article with the title “An Introduction to the World of Shan Manuscripts” by our member Jotika Khur-Yearn has appeared on the blog of the SOAS Subject Librarians. It gives a short overview of the Shan manuscript tradition and collections of Shan manuscripts in the UK. Jotika is currently working on an exhibition of Shan manuscripts which will be on display at the Wolfson Gallery of the SOAS Library in London in November and December 2014. More details about the upcoming exhibition will follow on this blog nearer the time.

Detail of a cover of a Shan folding book (pap tup) held at the British Library (Or.12040) Detail of a cover of a Shan folding book (pap tup) held at the British Library (Or.12040)

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