Skip to main content

Tai Manuscripts in the Southeast Asia Rare Book Collection at the Library of Congress

Lao and Northern Thai Manuscripts and an Early Printed Book

There are thirteen Lao and Northern Thai manuscripts and an early printed book in the collection listed under the categories below. The overview tab provides a general description of these manuscripts and book, while the category tabs describe individual items within each grouping of materials.

Anonymous. Nangsư Sīlōm fāk tǣ mư̄ang nǭk -- mālā phǭ lǣ mǣ/ Letters from Sīlōm, Gift from foreign lands: flower of (my) parents. 1892. Southeast Asian rare book collection. Asian Division.

The Lao and Northern Thai manuscripts constitute a discreet group of manuscripts in the collection. There are twelve manuscripts and one early printed book in this part of the collection. They are written in a variety of languages: Lao, Kham Mư̄ang (Northern Thai), Shan, Tai Khoēn and Pāli representing the most linguistic diversity in the collection. Even though these manuscripts are written in several different, albeit related, languages they all share in common the Tham (“Dhamma”) script. Use of a single script enabled sustained intellectual and cultural contact among these northern Tai peoples for centuries. It also promoted cultural borrowing and intercultural exchanges that lend a wider coherence to this area of northern Tai cities and peoples in mainland Southeast Asia along the borders of China. The northern Tai peoples belong to a unique cultural and intellectual world described by Volker Grabowsky as the “Dham [Tham] Script Cultural Zone” centered on Chiang Mai, Nan, Luang Prabang, Phrae, Chiang Rai, Xieng Hung, Kengtung, Vientiane, Taunggyi and (belatedly) Champassak.1 This cultural world was more influenced by Mon and Burmese than Khmer or Siamese. It also maintained close cultural and economic contacts with China via Yunnan and Guangxi provinces. Intriguingly, before the twentieth century the Siamese referred to the whole area as “Lao.”

Since the emergence of the nation state in this part of Asia the northern Tai peoples have been divided and separated from each other by modern borders. This part of the collection is thus transnational in nature and is shared with related peoples across the border in China like the Tai Lue of Sipsongpanna. As a result of being at the margins of modern nations in most cases northern Tai manuscripts have only recently been systemically inventoried, collected, preserved and studied, especially in northern Thailand and Laos.2

The historical development of this area may be summarized briefly as follows. From the fourteenth to the sixteenth century Chiang Mai was the major center of intellectual and textual production of Pāli and Tai Buddhist and other texts (e.g. historical chronicles written in the Mahāvaṃsa tradition of Sri Lanka) in Tham and Fak Kham scripts.3 When Chiang Mai was invaded by Myanmar in 1558 much of this moved to Laos, especially Vientiane and Luang Prabang where a unique Lao script had developed by 1530.4 By the mid seventeenth century European travelers reported that Vientiane was at the center of a thriving intellectual culture which attracted monks from as far as Myanmar, Siam and Sipsongpanna. By the nineteenth century when Chiang Mai was rebuilt after years of war it received many copied manuscripts from Luang Prabang.5 Nan did the same in ca. 1840 and again in the 1860s and 1870s.6 The Tai Khoēn, and Shan to an extent, were part of this world too given that they also used the Tham script.

Manuscripts from the northern Thai, Lao, Tai Khoēn, and Shan often do not list any author, copyist or date or even the place of composition. This makes it difficult to know when and where most texts were produced. Moreover manuscripts did not remain in one place but were taken to new locations at various points in time. One cannot assume the place a manuscript was found in the present was where it was originally created, further obscuring the origins of a text. On the contrary in some cases one can find such information within a colophon somewhere in the manuscript, including even the patron who sponsored the copying of the text. Some manuscripts contain this while others do not – where a manuscript does have a colophon it will be noted in the description of the manuscript. All manuscripts in this part of the collection were composed in the traditional way as opposed to the modern, printed manuscripts of the Isan collection. Even manuscripts made more recently in Laos in the 1970s were still made in the traditional way speaking to enduring nature of the tradition in some places. Whether the manuscripts from Laos composed in 1974 and 1975 speak to the fall of the Royal Lao Government is an open question.

In this part of the collection there are actually more texts written in the Old Lao (ລາວບູຮານ) script than in the Tham script. One finds here many great works of Lao Literature like Thāo Kālakēt or Phravētsandǭn, which are also in the Isan collection (see below), which has the potential for comparative study. One sign of Mon and Burmese influence on this group of texts is the use of the lesser era (Chulasakarat) dating system in some manuscripts in this group.7 This calendar dates back to an ancient Pyu settlement in Myanmar and was used by the kingdoms of Pagan, Sukhotai, Lan Na, Ayutthaya and Lan Xang as well as other Tai states. It begins on March 22, 638. The two works of Old Lao literature which do not have a date might be from the nineteenth century, but without a colophon one cannot be certain who created it, when, or where.

This group also contains one of the most unique texts in the collection. The text entitled “Letters from Sīlōm, Gift from foreign lands: flower of (my) parents” (หนังสือสีโล้มฟากแต่เมืองนอกมาลาพ่อแลแม่) was printed in Tham script and may well be the earliest example of a northern Thai text printed using Western methods. It is well known that the America missionary Dan Beach Bradley introduced Western printing to Bangkok in 1836, but the history of Western printing in Chiang Mai is less well known. The title page of the work states it was printed in Chiang Mai (at บ้านวังสิงฆำ) in 1892. The year 1892 is the same year the American Presbyterian Mission opened the Chiang Mai Mission Press.8 Given the content, the signature inscribed on the first page and the date of the text it can be identified as a Presbyterian missionary text, and one of the first Western texts printed in Chiang Mai.

The work tells the story of Sīlōm who travels to America and Europe. He writes home to his parents about the modern marvels he sees in California and elsewhere. By the end of the text he has become converted to Christianity (p.82) referring to “my Lord Jesus” (พระเยซูเจ้าเรา). The text is written as a travelogue in the first person perspective as a series of twenty four letters Sīlōm writes home to his parents. It also introduces Western concepts such as the notion of the world being divided up into five “races” (ชาด [sic]) distinguishable by physiognomic features such as “[skin] color,” “eyes” and “hair” (p.42-43). The way the text is written strongly suggests it was translated from American English (e.g. use of “feet” for measurements).9 The author may in fact be Rev. D. G. Collins who inscribed the front page of the book and who was in charge of the Chiang Mai mission press.10 The text is filled with errors suggesting it was a very early attempt in the mission’s translation efforts.11 Another unusual feature of the text is its use of the astrological set of numerals rather than the Tham numerals (perhaps avoided for a perceived association with Buddhism).12 At any rate the use of the Christian calendar to date the text itself points to Western missionaries as the ultimate authors. As Church historian Herbert Swanson writes, the mission press published “millions of pages of northern Thai Bibles, tracts and Christian literature…” suggesting this text is an early example of one such missionary tract.13

The American Presbyterian Mission spent decades trying to establish a printing press since the 1870s, but was only successful in bringing a modern printing press to Chiang Mai in 1892.  Use of the first person perspective, much less the epistolary genre of writing, is a distinctly Western feature of text that would be unprecedented in northern Tai literature. It was printed in Tham script but introduced Western styles of writing, thinking and religion to the area in an entirely novel way. The text is important to the history of ideas in the Tai world, the history of Western influence in the nineteenth century, the role of Christian missionaries in that, and the history of printing. It can be compared to the introduction of Western printing to Bangkok in the same period.

Finally, there is one example of a Shan manuscript written in circular letters (Lik Tou Moan) in the collection.14 At this time it has not been deciphered. There may as of yet be additional Shan manuscripts in the Asia Division holdings.


Notes

  1. Volker Grabowsky, Key Note Address, Third International Conference on Lao Studies, Khǭn Kǣn, Thailand, June 2010. Back to text
  2. Much of this work has been digitized and made available online. For Laos see the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts: Externalwww.laomanuscripts.net; for Northern Thailand see the Digital Library of Northern Thai Manuscripts: Externalhttp://lannamanuscripts.net/en. David Wharton and Harold Hundis have been at the forefront of these efforts for many years doing invaluable work to preserve many texts that would otherwise be lost. Back to text
  3. On Chiang Mai see Daniel Veidlinger, Spreading the Dhamma: Writing, Orality and Textual Transmission in Buddhist Northern Thailand (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006). On the Mahāvaṃsa tradition see the works of Stephen C. Berkwitz. Back to text
  4. Michel Lorrillard, “Scripts and History: The Case of Laos” in Masao Kashinaga, ed., Written Cultures in Mainland Southeast Asia (Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, 2009). Back to text
  5. Justin McDaniel, “Notes on the Lao influence on Northern Thai Buddhist Literature,” in K. Nettavong, D. Kanlaya, D. Wharton, and K. Yangnouvong, eds., The Literary Heritage of Laos: Preservation, Dissemination and Research Perspectives (Vientiane: National Library of Laos, 2005). Back to text
  6. David Wyatt, Reading Thai Murals (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2003), 12, 20. Back to text
  7. J.C. Eade, The Calendrical Systems of Mainland South-East Asia (Leiden: Brill, 1995). Back to text
  8. Cf. Herbert R. Swanson, “Prelude to Irony: The Princeton Theology and the Practice of American Presbyterian Missions in Northern Siam, 1867-1880” (Ph.D. Thesis, The Melbourne College of Divinity, Melbourne University, 2003). This source can be accessed online at: herbswanson.com. Back to text
  9. Another sign of this is the use of Western names for well known places like Bangkok. That a subject of the Kingdom of Siam would refer to Bangkok this way would be highly unusual. “Bangkok” is commonly known in Thai as กรุงเทพ. Back to text
  10. Collins was still there as late as 1903. See for example Presbyterian Church, The Sixty-Sixth Annual Report of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (New York: Presbyterian Church, 1903), 293, 298. Back to text
  11. There are signs the author did not understand basic expressions of the Northern Thai (and Lao and Siamese) language: use of the verb “to come/มา” where it should be “to go/ไป” in a mistaken attempt to follow English usage of the words rather than Tai usage; lack of numerical classifiers; and misspelling of common words (e.g. ไป is written as ไพ which itself may be an error that arose in the process of transcription). Back to text
  12. The date of the work on the title page is also written using a neologism likely invented by the missionaries, but which never had any currency in Tai languages. Back to text
  13. Herbert R. Swanson, “This Heathen People: The Cognitive Sources of American Missionary Westernizing Activities in Northern Siam, 1867-1889” (M.A. Thesis, University of Maryland, 1987), chapter one. This source can be accessed online at: herbswanson.com. Back to text
  14. Sai Kam Mong, The History and Development of The Shan Scripts (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2004). Back to text

Literature

  1. Lam Nithān Thāo Kālakēt; Legend of Thāo Kālakēt; anonymous; Chulasakarat 1194 [1832]; 338 ff.; 55 x 5 cm; palm leaf mss.; 4 lines; in Old Lao
    1. Note: colophon at end of mss.
  2. Lam Nithān Thāo Kālakēt; Legend of Thāo Kālakēt; anonymous; Chulasakarat 1200 [1838]; 191 ff.; 54 x 5 cm; palm leaf mss.; 4 lines; in Old Lao
    1. Note: colophon at end of mss.
  3. Phravētsandǭn sadet kap phranakhǭn; The return of Prince Vessentra in verse; anonymous; 2485 [1942]; 70 ff.; 58 x 4 cm; palm leaf mss.; 4 lines; in Old Lao
    1. Note: colophon begins on the top line of the back of folio 54
  4. Phravētsandǭn sadet kap phranakhǭn; The return of Prince Vessentra in verse; anonymous; 2485 [1942]; 95 ff.; 58 x 4 cm; palm leaf mss.; 4 lines; in Old Lao
  5. Phravētsandǭn sadet kap phranakhǭn; The return of Prince Vessentra in verse; anonymous; 2485 [1942]; 104 ff.; 57 x 4 cm; palm leaf mss.; 4 lines; in Old Lao
  6. Lam Nithān Thāo Kālakēt; Legend of Thāo Kālakēt; Mǭm Lūn; 2517 [1974]; 153 ff.; 57 x 4 cm; palm leaf mss.; 4 lines; in Lao
  7. Nithan Thāo Yī; Legend of the gentleman born in the year of the tiger; anonymous; 2518 [1975]; 45 ff.; 50 x 4 cm; palm leaf mss.; 4 lines; in Lao
    1. Note: colophon at start of mss.
  8. Lam Nithān Thāo Linthǭng; Story of Thāo Linthǭng; anonymous; n.d.; 278 ff.; 58 x 5 cm; palm leaf mss.; 4 lines; in Old Lao
    1. Note: colophon at end of mss. does not include a date
  9. Khamphī phlat tǣk phūk; Collection of Lao stories; anonymous; n.d.; 225 ff. 2 vol.; 58 x 5 cm; palm leaf mss.; 4 lines; in Old Lao
  10. Phāikhlao pen tham čhao Suthūn; Story of Chao Suthūn; anonymous; n.d.; 40 ff. 6 vol.; 40 x 8 cm; folding mss.; in Tai Khoēn

Buddhism

  1. Untitled Mss.; Buddhist prophecies; anonymous; n.d.; 9 ff.; 53 x 4 cm; palm leaf mss.; 4 lines; Pāli and Northern Thai in Tham script

An Early Printed Book

  1. Nangsư Sīlōm fāk tǣ mư̄ang nǭk -- mālā phǭ lǣ mǣ; Epistolary in the first person perspective about a certain Sīlōm who travels to America and converts to Christianity; anonymous; 1892; 84 p.; 12 x 19 cm; Printed text; varies; in Northern Thai Tham script
    1. Note: inscription on first page of text in English: "Sights (?) in California by a Laos boy." followed by a signature: "D. G. Collins"

Shan Mss.

  1. Un-Deciphered Shan Mss.