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Tai Manuscripts in the Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection

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(The following is a post by Ryan Wolfson-Ford, Junior Fellow, Asian Division, Summer 2019)

The Tai language family traverses national boundaries and encompasses a variety of scripts. In addition to Thai, the official language of Thailand, it also includes Lao, the lingua franca of Laos, as well as Shan, spoken by the Shan people in Burma (Myanmar). Tai languages can also be found in northern Vietnam and southwestern China, where a group of related dialects collectively known as Zhuang are widely spoken in the autonomous region of Guangxi.

Mainland Southeast Asia (Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, 1989). Geography & Map Division.

There are over one hundred Tai manuscripts and early printed books in the Asian Division’s Southeast Asian rare book collection. These manuscripts document a centuries-old literate culture not particularly well known in the West. In reading these manuscripts, it is as if one can hear the voices across the centuries of the various Tai peoples of mainland Southeast Asia in their own words.

Topics covered in the collection are incredibly diverse and attest to the richness of the Tai literary tradition. As one might expect, there are plenty of examples of poetry, folk tales, and other types of literature. Buddhist themes infuse many of these works and are especially represented by texts treating such topics as enlightenment, ordination, chants, Jataka stories, Buddhist hell, religious donations and merit-making, the Pali canon, yantra and mantra protection formulas, and cremation and funerary practices. Astrology, horoscopes, the zodiac, magic, manners, and other folk practices also figure prominently. Medical treatises and works on pharmacology, massage, and healing form another interesting cluster of topics in the collection. These manuscripts are written in several related languages, namely, Thai, Lao, Northern Thai, Shan, Tai Khuen, and Pali, which is linguistically distinct but widely used as the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism. While closely related, these languages are composed in varying writing systems, namely, the Thai, Lao, Khom, and Tham scripts.

Detail from an anonymous work in Thai that contains Illustrations of different kinds of Siamese cats, explaining which are good or bad luck for their owners. “Tamra Mǣo” (Felines of Old), no date. Southeast Asian rare book collection, Asian Division.
Top and bottom pages from an untitled, anonymous medical treatise about eye diseases. Folding manuscript in Thai; no date. Southeast Asian rare book collection, Asian Division.
Detail from the same medical treatise. Shown here are illustrations and descriptions of various maladies of the eye. Folding manuscript in Thai, no date. Southeast Asian rare book collection, Asian Division.



















Writing emerged among the Tai peoples in the late-thirteenth century when they adopted and adapted the more ancient writing systems of peoples like the Mon and Khmer, who resided in areas that correspond to present-day Myanmar and Cambodia, respectively. Yet Tai literature is representative of a much older literary tradition of mainland Southeast Asia, which dates back more than 1,500 years. This literature owes much to millennia of cultural contact with Indic civilization but is distinct in its reinterpretation of this culture. Tai scripts like the modern Thai and Lao scripts, as well as the more esoteric Khom and Tham scripts, all can be traced back to the south Indian Pallava script and ultimately to the famous rock edicts of the Mauryan ruler Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE. One finds certain characters in these scripts that also appear in the old Malayo-Indonesian Kawi script used in Java, Bali, and Sumatra and even the pre-Hispanic Baybayin script found in the Philippines. This evidence of borrowing not only testifies to the influence of Indic scripts throughout the region, but it also shows that the Tai were part of a larger cultural world in South and Southeast Asia.

Beyond this broader cultural milieu, one can also identify these manuscripts with much more specific, local contexts. There are manuscripts from Siam (Thailand’s name before 1939), the northern Thai kingdom of Lan Na (“million rice fields”) and the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang (“million elephants”). There are even some manuscripts from the Shan state in Burma, making this a truly transnational collection. While the Siamese were intellectually linked to the Khmer via the Thai Khom script, the northern Thai, Lao, and Shan were connected by the Tham script. All of these languages are part of the Southwestern Tai branch of the Tai Kadai language family, but they can be divided into northern and southern cultural zones on the basis of the scripts they used. Although the languages from these regions are all closely related, the use of different scripts reflects the different cultural zones they inhabited.

Illustration of the monk Phra Malai’s visit to the suffering in a Buddhist hell, where tortured souls beseech the famous monk. From an anonymous nineteenth-century Siamese manuscript. “Phra Mālai” (Illuminated Story of Phra Mālai), c. 19th century. Southeast Asian rare book collection, Asian Division.
Illustration of two gods, likely Brahma (left) and Indra (right), from a nineteenth-century Siamese manuscript edition of “Phra Mālai.” “Phra Mālai” (Illuminated Story of Phra Mālai), c. 19th century. Southeast Asian rare book collection, Asian Division.









Some of the most compelling artifacts in the collection are the illuminated or painted manuscripts. Compared to palm leaf manuscripts, illustrations appear more frequently in a type of Siamese manuscript book called samut khoi. Samut means “book” and khoi refers to the kind of tree from which bark is taken and boiled to make paper. These samut khoi books are larger and wider than palm leaf manuscripts, and thus can more easily accommodate illustrations. An especially popular tale was the story of the Buddhist monk Phra Malai, whose travel to various Buddhist heavens and hells became a favorite subject for manuscript illustrations. The other richly illustrated Buddhist story was the Vessentra Jataka, the story of the Buddha’s last life before his rebirth as Siddhartha Gautama. Interestingly, in Phra Malai texts, words and illustrations match each other so that the action depicted in color matches the text on the folio.  In contrast, Vessentra Jataka illustrations always appear next to entirely different and unrelated text. They stand on their own as devotional art to be appreciated as one reads the manuscript.

Front cover of a Presbyterian missionary text written in Tham script entitled “Letters from Silom, Gift from foreign lands: Flower of (my) parents” printed in Chiang Mai in 1892. Southeast Asian rare book collection, Asian Division.

Another standout item in the collection is “Letters from Silom, Gift from Foreign Lands: Flower of (My) Parents,” an early Northern Thai–language text from Lan Na printed in the Tham script with a publication date of 1892. What makes it unique is that it was printed in the northern city of Chiang Mai, not Bangkok. This work was among the first to be published by the American Presbyterian Mission’s Chiang Mai Mission Press, which began operating in 1892. The text here may well be the earliest Western-style text printed in Chiang Mai. A translation from English, it tells the story of Silom, a “Laos boy” from Chiang Mai who travels to America.

“Silom” describes the modern wonders of America and also looks upon Christianity favorably. The first-person narration is foreign in that it was not one used in Northern Thai literature at the time. In addition, there are various words in the text that are spelled or employed in a manner that is inconsistent with local usage, which suggests how Northern Thai sounded to the author(s), who were most probably American.

Finally, the collection includes printed manuscripts that show how the manuscript tradition among Tai-speaking peoples was both preserved and transformed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. No longer handwritten, the texts are machine printed directly onto palm leaves. The covers now include advertisements, pointing to a new commercial orientation for these texts. Publishers of these machine-printed facsimile manuscripts have also copyrighted their reproductions of many famous works of Tai literature in order to discourage copying in a tradition that, ironically, only survived until modern times by generations of scribes copying out texts by hand.

Detail from a machine-printed facsimile manuscript in Thai. Palm strands are tied around each end of this rectangular palm leaf manuscript to secure the individual leaves together when not in use. The bottom line reads “sanguanliksit,” which means “copyright reserved.” “Lamnāng phomhom samnuan phāk isān 9 kan čhop mo samrap thēt dai thuk okāt” (Tale of the Perfumed Hair Lady), no earlier than 1937. Southeast Asian rare book collection, Asian Division.

Most of the Tai manuscripts in the Southeast Asian rare book collection have not yet been fully cataloged; however, a finding aid for these manuscripts is available onsite in the Asian Reading Room.

Tai manuscripts and other items in the Southeast Asian rare book collection are accessible to researchers in the Asian Reading Room by prior appointment. To make an appointment or to ask a question about the Southeast Asian collection, please contact reference staff through the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian online inquiry form.



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Comments (2)

  1. Is there any chance the “Felines of Old” manuscript will be digitized? Based on an informal survey at my workplace there would be huge interest! (OK, we are librarians here.) Thank you for a very interesting post about these related languages, cultures, and writing traditions.

  2. Great read! Very interesting. Thank you for sharing.

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