There are twenty-eight Siamese manuscripts and an early printed book in the collection listed under the categories below. The overview tab provides a general description of these Siamese manuscripts and book, while the category tabs describe individual items within each grouping of materials.
The Siamese manuscripts in this part of the collection come from an area known for centuries as สยาม (Sayām); now designated as central Thailand.1 There are twenty six manuscripts, several cloths and one early printed book in this part of the collection. They are all written in Thai and Pāli languages. Most of these manuscripts were written in the Thai script which achieved its modern form by the nineteenth century. But several manuscripts were written in the Thai Khǭm script, which is closely related to the Khmer script.2
The Thai script and language was heavily influenced by Khmer, which the Siamese appropriated over time and modified to represent the sounds of their own language. Thai Khǭm script was borrowed from Cambodia and used to write Buddhist texts. None of the manuscripts in the collection are written in the thick-lettered ornamental style of Thai Khǭm script typical of the eighteenth century, but are instead written in the thin-lettered Khǭm style, thus placing these texts firmly in the nineteenth century or later.3 Thai Khǭm was also used for astrological and yantra texts, as this script was viewed as ancient and so it was an appropriate vehicle for material that was spiritually potent.
Unlike other parts of the collection nearly all these manuscripts are folding or concertina style manuscripts with paper made from the inner bark of the khoi (streblus asper) bush. These books are thus called samut khoi in Thai. Siamese palm leaf manuscripts were usually reserved for Buddhist texts often in Pāli and that is true of the manuscripts in this part of the collection. The tradition of palm leaf manuscripts ultimately traces back to India and was retained specifically for the sacred texts of India. Folding manuscripts on the other hand have been used for a variety of topics from government records to literature to astrology and medical texts.
Of the Buddhist texts in this part of the collection the most important would be the story of Phra Mālai, which was a very popular text in nineteenth century Siam.4 It was especially popular at funerals given the nature of the story, but it was also important for the lengthy description of the future Buddha Maitreya. The Phra Mālai manuscript in this collection includes a very fine illustration of Maitreya (พระศรีอริยเมตไตรย, พระศรีอาริย์) approaching Phra Mālai as he converses with Indra and Brahma in a Buddhist heaven. There is also a manuscript with illustrations of the Vessantra Jataka, the penultimate past life of the Buddha before being reborn as Siddhartha Gautama. Unlike the Phra Mālai illuminated manuscript, manuscripts containing Jataka illustrations are always accompanied by a different text that is unrelated to the Vessantra Jataka. The illustrations are “complementing or supplementing” the written text and stand on their own.5
Astrology texts are the largest part of this group of manuscripts. They were a popular form of text in Siam in part because they attempted to deal with the unknown. Astrology texts were recopied many times due to being heavily used. The authority on these texts Quaritch Wales stated there were nearly one thousand such texts held at the Thai National Library.6 They are the next most popular subject after Buddhism. The astrology manuscripts in this collection include manuals for fortune tellers which used the month and year a person was born in to explain a person’s characteristics and foretell what their life prospects would be. These texts utilized the Chinese zodiac (rat, ox, tiger, hare, large serpent or dragon, small serpent, horse, goat, monkey, cock, dog and pig) and the Chinese five elements (water, earth, wood, gold, fire, iron).7 In some manuscripts the zodiac is illustrated with four forms of the relevant animal below a mascot and tree for the year. The collection also includes a manual for drawing protective diagrams (yantra) and spells (mantra) as well as examples of cloths with the same type of diagrams and spells.8 One example of a more modern fortune telling manual is a text dating to 1931.
Medical texts can be considered as a subset of astrological texts. Disease was identified not just by where on the body it manifested, but also what time of year it appeared and even one’s geographic location; all were essential to diagnosis and prognosis in nineteenth century Siam. Thai medicine was influenced by Chinese, Indian and Arabic medicine. Pre-modern Thai etiology ascribed disease to phenomena not unlike the four humors of Western medicine. The collection contains several manuals for identifying and treating various diseases of the skin, eyes and body. Other medical texts treat conditions via pressure points similar to Japanese Shiatsu or Chinese acupuncture.
Thai literature was written only in verse before the nineteenth century.9 Prose was not taken seriously until around 1850. The earliest works of Thai literature were all by anonymous authors. The works of named authors only began to appear in the seventeenth century. Sunthō̜n Phū is the most famous author from the first half of the nineteenth century. Among other works he wrote the Phra ‘Aphai Manī tale from 1822 to 1844 which was about the heroic adventures of the title character Prince ‘Aphai Manī. It is the longest poem in Thai language. It is also notable for the simple language used, distinct from courtly poetry otherwise used in literature of this type.
Finally the Siamese group includes one early but valuable printed book. There is no indication of where or when it was printed, but it might be from the first half of the nineteenth century. The text consists of a short English-Thai dictionary starting with the letters and numbers of the Thai language. It ends with a word list of terms useful for Western traders. The organization of the text indicates it was written by an individual with some training in linguistics. Siamese texts began to be printed by Westerners at Serampore near Calcutta in 1819 and then at Singapore by 1823.10 The missionary Dan Beach Bradley brought printing to Bangkok in 1836. This text could have been made in any of those places, but perhaps in British India by some Orientalists with knowledge of linguistics.
Many texts in this part of the collection are undated. It is possible to undertake further tests to narrow the range of possible dates by identifying the individual dyes and material used in the making of the manuscript.11 Without further analysis one can estimate that most are likely from the nineteenth or early twentieth century. It would be very unlikely that any manuscript would be from before the late eighteenth century since the Burmese invasion of Ayutthaya in 1767 destroyed almost all manuscripts composed up to that time.