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.
The Ahom are an ethnic group in India who are descendants of Tai people who settled in the Brahmaputra Valley in the early thirteenth century. Most Ahom people now live in Assam, and some live in the Lohit District of Arunachal Pradesh. Today, the Ahom community is estimated to number between 1 to 2 million.
Founded in 1228, during the mass migration of Tai-speaking ethnic groups from southern China towards the South and West, the Ahom Dynasty governed the region until 1826 when the control of the kingdom passed into the hands of the East India Company. The Ahom Kingdom represented the furthest reach of a diverse Tai culture that is shared by communities speaking Tai languages in China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Burma. Separated from Tai communities in China and Southeast Asia for centuries, Ahom culture is essentially unique due to the fact that it did not embrace Buddhism. Ahom language, a Tai dialect similar to Khamti and Shan that was spoken by the founders of the Ahom Kingdom in the 13th century, is free of Sanskrit and Pali linguistic influences that infuse even the 700-year-old Sukhothai inscriptions in Thailand. By the 19th century, the Ahom language was regarded extinct, but it was possible to reconstruct it from surviving manuscripts and with the help of traditional priests (mo, or Deodhai) who continued to use Ahom language in rituals.
Textile weaving was a fine art which attracted great interest in Assam since ancient times. Apart from cotton textiles and some wool products, three kinds of silks – muga, paat and endi or eri – are produced in Assam until today. Especially silk was in great demand in adjoining regions like Tibet, Bhutan, Burma, Sikkim and Bengal. The Mughals also valued silk textiles from Assam, which were either sent as gifts to the court of the Mughal Empire or were exported for sale.
Distinctive textiles originating from Assam have been documented in the Harsacharita of Banabhatta (7th century CE). In the beginning of Ahom rule in the 13th century, the kings were taking great interest in the promotion of silk production and textile art. During the reign of King Suteopha (1268-1364) the rearing of silk worms to produce silks like muga, paat and eri was given royal patronage. Ahom textiles were popular beyond the borders of the Ahom Kingdom for their fine quality, bright colours and durability. The designs and motifs of the textiles were inspired by nature, like for example imitations of flowers, ferns, trees, butterflies, birds and mammals, as well as mythical animals like the winged lion-dragon “Ngi Ngao Kham”, the royal insignia of the Ahom Dynasty. Motifs were often represented in abstract and geometrical shapes depending on the weaving methods. Traditional Ahom textiles in their design resembled Shan and Lao textiles.
Muga silk is one of the rarest silks in the world. It is made exclusively in Assam by cultivation of the Assam silk moth (Anthaerea Assamensis). It was during the Ahom dynasty that muga silk became valued as a luxury commodity as it was reserved for royalty and for high ranking officers and aristocrats. The silk is of a soft golden colour, and it appears to be more durable than other silks. It is sought-after to use for heirloom fabrics because its natural lustre increases with time and wear. Pat silk is a product of the pat silkworm – it is also called mulberry silk as the larvae prefers white mulberry leaves for food. The silk comes in natural white or off-white, has excellent durability and is known for its glossy quality. Eri silk is a vegan product as it is produced without causing any harm to the silkworms. The cocoon of the Ailanthus silk moth is harvested only after the moth has left. Somewhat woolly in texture, but very durable and moisture-absorbent, eri silk has excellent thermal qualities which makes it perfect for use in both hot and cold climate and in household products.
Historically, royal looms were operated by skilled female weavers within the palace, and the fabric woven on them was destined exclusively for the royal family. However, almost every Ahom woman and many men were proficient in spinning, spooling and hand-weaving since textiles production was one of the major industries in the Ahom Kingdom. A young woman was considered unfit for marriage if she was not able operate a loom.
The traditional dress of Ahom women depended on their status in society, but it consists basically of a three piece attire: the suti sula is a blouse, the mekhela is like a sarong or tube-skirt, and the reeha is a long piece of cloth draped around the waist and the shoulder. Another distinctive part of the traditional attire of men and women alike is the turban or paguri worn on the head, and the cheleng chador worn like a scarf. This was mainly worn by royalty as well as high officials, but is common today for festive occasions. Ahom men’s dress consists of the sapkon which is a short shirt that is tied at the waist with a basual tongali, a kind of belt-type strap. The lower garment is called suria, it is wrapped around the waist and extended to the knee or below it. The length of the suria was an expression of the social status of a man. Finally, the hengdang, a sword that is part of the male attire, used to be the pride and identity of any Ahom man.
In 2007, muga silk received geographical indication (GI) protection, which means that genuine muga silk can only be produced in Assam. One important centre for Ahom silk weaving is Sualkuchi, located in Kamrup district of Assam, which rose to fame during Ahom rule and is arguably the most striking feature of Assam’s culture and tradition.
All photographs by Oliver Raendchen, Assam 2007-2013
The National Overseas Archives in Aix-en-Provence (ANOM) have opened up to the public an ever growing online database called Base Ulysse, thereby making a variety of digitised materials from the Archives and their library available for research. Begun in 2002, this database currently makes available well over 45,000 individual photographs, albums, postcards, posters, drawings and maps.
These materials document on one side the history of the French colonial empire in general, but on the other side they are a rich source for the study of the cultures, traditions and everyday life in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in historical perspective. The materials mainly originate from public records (state secretariats and departments that managed French colonial territories from the seventeenth century until the mid-twentieth century, general government offices, etc.) and private archives, but also from donations, purchases, and bequests.
The digital collection contains over 3000 photographs from Vietnam which…
The current exhibition on Buddhism at the British Library (25 October 2019 – 23 February 2020) focuses on Buddhist manuscripts and early printed works, and how they helped to spread Buddhism across Asia and beyond. During the curation process, an unexpected number of manuscript textiles came to light. These are textiles that are used to wrap around manuscripts to protect them from damage and dust, but also textiles that contain information about manuscripts, bags for the storage and transport of manuscripts and textiles attached to manuscripts. Often the textiles are custom-made for one particular manuscript, and in this case these cloths could be made from valuable hand-woven silk brocades, colourful printed cotton or imported materials like chintz and damask. Specially designed textiles were commissioned to add meritorious value to a manuscript or an entire set of manuscripts. However, sometimes discarded textiles like clothing, complete or partial wall hangings or leftover…
Created by American researcher, documentarian, and musician Victoria Vorreiter for over a decade, Tribal Music Asia is the home of the Resonance Project, a dynamic multi-media archive that aspires to record and preserve the traditional musical heritage of the indigenous peoples living in the mountains of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and China, who have depended for millennia on “the mother tongue method” to transmit their ancestral knowledge, history, and beliefs. Numbering over 130 groups and subgroups, most of these communities continue to live close to the earth, to practice animism, and to maintain a vital oral tradition. Culturally and sonically, this is one of the most extraordinary places on the planet.
Xob Lwm Vaj and Friends Performing the Qeej at the New Year Festival at Ban Tan, Phongsali Province, Laos December 2005. Copyright: Victoria Vorreiter
By interweaving a variety of visual, aural, and tactile components, the Resonance Project spotlights these highlanders’…
Angkor Wat Apsara and Devata : Khmer women in divine context is a rich and well researched online resource dedicated to the women of the Khmer Empire (9th-15th century). Being great builders, the Khmer filled the landscape with monumental temples, huge reservoirs and canals, and laid an extensive network of roads with bridges. Angkor Wat is the best known and most stunning temple. It is, in fact, a microcosm of the Hindu universe. Covering 200 hectares it is the world’s largest religious complex. Its construction was started by the Khmer king Suryavarman II around 1122 CE and took some 30 years to complete. The walls of Angkor Wat house a royal portrait gallery with 1,795 women realistically rendered in stone. Although the temple complex has been researched extensively in terms of architecture, art and archaeology, not much is known about these women.
Devata.org aims to provide answers to questions like:
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…
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.
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…
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
Vietnamese children playing traditional games
Construction of a boat at Camau
Chinese funeral procession in Saigon
Students exiting the Lycee Calmette in Saigon
Theravada Buddhist temple near Nguu Son
Theravada monks at their temple near Nguu Son
Cao Dai temple interior in Tay Ninh
Superior Pham Cong Tac in his ritual costume at the Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh
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
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.
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.