Category Archives: Manuscripts

Conference on Manuscripts and Archives, Hamburg

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 vistors are welcome.

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

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Thai and Lao traditions of the Ramayana

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.

Phralak – the Thai and Lao name of Lakshmana, Rama’s brother – served Rama and Sita reverently and played an important role in the war with Ravana. In the Thai and Lao traditions, he is a symbol of brotherly love, loyalty and commitment. He gave his life in order to protect Rama’s integrity and Ayodhya from an evil curse. This illustration of Phralak is from a folding-book with Thai character drawings including figures from the Ramakien, central Thailand, 19th century. Courtesy of the British Library, Or.14229, f. 29

Phralak – the Thai and Lao name of Lakshmana, Rama’s brother – served Rama and Sita reverently and played an important role in the war with Ravana. In the Thai and Lao traditions, he is a symbol of brotherly love, loyalty and commitment. He gave his life in order to protect Rama’s integrity and Ayodhya from an evil curse. This illustration of Phralak is from a folding-book with Thai character drawings including figures from the Ramakien, central Thailand, 19th century. Courtesy of the British Library, Or.14229, f. 29

The Thai version of the epic is known as the Ramakien. The Rama story is thought to have been known to the Thais since at least the 13th century. It was adopted from older Khmer sources, hence the similarity to the Khmer title Reamker. Various new versions of the story have been composed, often by royal authors, since the 16th and 17th centuries. However, large numbers of Thai manuscripts were lost with the destruction of Ayutthya in 1767, and the Ramakien known today was compiled only between 1785 and 1807 under the supervision of King Rama I (1785-1809). The famous reliefs depicting about 150 scenes from the Ramakien at Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho) in Bangkok date back to the early 19th century. Manuscript and mural paintings showing scenes from the Ramakien are particularly famous for their illustrations of the monkey armies. Best known are the mural paintings at the royal temple Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok. In King Rama I’s version of the Ramakien all names, places, traditions, and flora and fauna were adapted to a Thai context. In this form, the Rama story has become an epic of national character in Thailand, and it is very popular not only as a literary work, but also as a mask dance (khon) and even TV drama. It has been re-published many times in the form of children’s and juvenile literature, and characters from the Ramayana have featured on series of postal stamps and trading cards. The title of Rama constantly re-occurs in the royal genealogies of Thailand.

A stamp issued by the Kingdom of Laos ca. 1960 featuring Ramayana dancers.

A stamp issued by the Kingdom of Laos ca. 1960 featuring Ramayana dancers.

The Lao version of the Ramayana is known as Phra Lak Phra Ram (or Pha Lak Pha Lam since in modern Lao R is often replaced by L), the title referring to both the brothers Lakshmana and Rama. Sometimes it is also called Phra Ram sadok (Rama Jataka) as it is widely believed that Rama was a former incarnation of a Buddha-to-be. The Rama story featured in many mural paintings and wood relief carvings on temple doors and windows. It was also one of the favourite themes in the repertoire of the Lao Royal Ballet until 1975, and this tradition has been revived since 2002 by the Royal Ballet Theatre of Luang Prabang.

Introductory scene to thank and honour the Hindu gods during a Phra Lak Phra Ram performance by the Royal Ballet Theatre of Luang Prabang.

Introductory scene to thank and honour the Hindu gods during a Phra Lak Phra Ram performance by the Royal Ballet Theatre of Luang Prabang.

Numerous palm-leaf manuscripts from all regions of Laos containing shorter versions of the Lao Ramayana, Lam Pha Lam, show that the story was very popular all over the country in urban centres as much as in rural areas. These versions were created in order to be sung by a Mor Lam, a traditional expert singer who can melodically recite lengthy poems and epic literature while being accompanied by a Khaen (bamboo mouth organ). In both Thai and Lao traditions, Hanuman was part of a favourite Yantra design used by soldiers and martial arts specialists. The leader of the monkey armies represents strength, stamina, agility, intelligence and devotion. Hanuman Yantras would either be drawn on protective shirts, headbands, battle standards of entire armies, or, most efficiently and durably, tattooed on a fighter’s body.

More information about the Ramayana in other countries of Southeast Asia can be found in a series of articles on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog.

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A Treatise on Siamese Cats

Southeast Asia Library Group (SEALG)

Jana Igunma, British Library

A Thai Treatise on Cats (Or.16797) has recently been digitised and made available online by the British Library. The original manuscript containing fine paintings of cats was brought to the library in February 2011 by the wife of an elderly manuscripts collector in the UK. The manuscript could easily be identified as a Treatise on Cats, similar to one manuscript already in the library’s Thai collections (Or.16008). However, the significant difference between the two manuscripts is that the illustrations in the newly acquired item are watercolour paintings on cream coloured paper whereas the other manuscipt contains drawings in white chalk on blackened paper.

The newly acquired Treatise on Cats has the format of a Thai folding book (samut khoi) with 12 folios, which open from top to bottom. It was produced in the 19th century in Central Thailand. Folding books were usually made from the bark…

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Khmer manuscripts online

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.

g OR14068 folio 3

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Thai medical treatise from the 19th century

An interesting article about a Thai medical treatise from the 19th century can be found on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies Blog. The article includes illustrations from the original manuscript as well as a link to a full text electronic version of the manuscript.

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