Chapter 5


The tradition of writing Buddhist manuscripts in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia is ancient, but most surviving examples are of the last two or three centuries or a little older. Only one fourteenth-century manuscript with illuminated covers is known from Sri Lanka. Of the Southeast Asian countries, only Burma and Thailand have preserved illuminated manuscripts. One or two examples from Laos are known, but illuminated manuscripts from Cambodia and Indonesia are rare.1 Buddhism still flourishes in Cambodia, and possibly a search of the various monasteries and temples will produce some examples of illuminated manuscripts. Indonesia, however, has been an Islamic country for centuries, and, hence, Hindu and Buddhist manuscripts have notsurvived, except in Bali. When these two religions flourished in Java, vast quantities of manuscripts must have been brought from India as well as written locally. Moreover, the climate of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, as in India, is devastating for the preservation of palm- leaf books.

Even though ancient Buddhist or Hindu manuscripts have not survived in Java, there is sufficient historical evidence to assume that books were once just as important a component of religious life in Java as they were in other Buddhist countries. Considerable quantities of inscriptions composed in Sanskrit and carved in stone or incised on copper plates attest to the Javanese pundits’ mastery of the language and the scribes’ skill with the script. The scripts in all the countries of Southeast Asia are, of course, ultimately derived from the ancient Brahmi, mostly of the southern variety. As in Java, in Cambodia as well, finely engraved inscriptions testify both to the literary and writing facilities of the ancient Cambodians.

Although there appears to be no published literature about Cambodian illuminated books, that there was a rich tradition of writing manuscripts in Cambodia is known from epigraphic evidence. Manuscripts of the Hindu epics and puranas were copied and dedicated in Cambodia as early as the sixth century.2 Both Hindu and Buddhist monasteries had large libraries for copying and preserving books. Most important monasteries maintained at least two writers, two librarians, and two patrakaras whose sole duty was to copy books. One inscription speaks of the donation of manuscripts of both Hindu and Buddhist religious texts as well as of pens, inkpots, and copper plates. In another we are informed of how a scholar named Kirtivarman, a minister of Jayavarman V (968-1001), had brought many books from foreign countries and deposited them in a Buddhist monastery. Indeed, the inscriptions make it abundantly clear that as in many other countries the Buddhist monasteries in Cambodia also served as great centers of education.

Majumdar 1953.

When Faxian visited )ava on his way back from India around the year 413 or 414, he noted that “various forms of error and Brahmanism are flourishing while Buddhism in it is not worth speaking of.”3 By the year 671, when another of his compatriots Yijing visited India, he stopped twice in the Malaysian peninsula to learn Sanskrit. Commenting on the flourishing condition of Buddhism in the region, the monk wrote:

Legge 1965, p.113

In the fortified city of Bhoja, Buddhist priests number more than 1,000, whose minds are bent on learning and good practices. They investigate and study all the subjects that exist just as in the Middle Kingdom (Madhya-desa, India); the rules and ceremonies are not at all different. If a Chinese priest wishes to go to the West in order to hear (lectures) and read (the original), he had better stay here one or two years and practice the proper rules and then proceed to India.4

Takakusu 1982, p.xxxiv.

Little is known of the Buddhist monasteries of the city mentioned by Yijing, but one can well imagine that they must have housed libraries well stocked with books containing Buddhist scriptures. As a matter of fact, Chinese sources mention how in 1017 an envoy from the country of Bhoja (modern Palembang region) “brought bundles of Sanskrit books, folded between boards” to the capital.5 Since the monuments of Central Java offer eloquent testimony to the flourishing condition of Buddhism under the enlightened patronage of the Sailendra dynasty, between the eighth and the tenth centuries, one can surmise how the Buddhist establishments there must have encouraged the copying of Indian books as well as their translation into local languages. That the Javanese, too, used palm 3- Legge i965, P. m. leaves tor their books can be assumed trom the surviving manuscripts in the Hindu island of Bali. Continuing the tradition in Orissa and southern India, the Balinese wrote on palm leaves with a stylus. Palm-leaf manuscripts are also frequently represented in Central Javanese sculpture of the Sailendra period.

While some palm-leaf manuscripts from Southeast Asia have survived, by the eighteenth century paper seems to have become the popular material. Very likely, paper was introduced into the region, as it was elsewhere, from China. When this happened is not known, but the statement quoted above about an envoy from Southeast Asia bringing Sanskrit manuscripts to the Song court in 1017 is interesting. The author specifically mentions that the books were folded between boards. This would not only imply that the books were made of paper, but that folios were folded as they often are in Burma and Thailand today. Palm-leaf folios generally are not folded. If this interpretation is correct, then we can conclude that certainly by the early eleventh century paper had become the common material for books in Southeast Asia. In any event, the passage indicates that Buddhist books were still being produced in the Palembang region of Malay in the eleventh century.

Most surviving manuscripts from Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand are of Theravada Buddhist texts. Thus, Mahayana and Vajrayana texts such as the Prajnaparamita, Pancharaksha, and the dharani were not illustrated in these countries, as they were in India, Nepal, and Tibet. If some were, none has survived. Both in Thailand and Burma the life of Buddha Sakyamuni and jataka tales were the most popular subjects. Each region also had one or two other favorite texts that were copied and illuminated more often than others. In Sri Lanka palm leaf has retained its popularity, while in Thailand most illuminated manuscripts are written on paper. Burma offers the widest variety of material for preparing books. The Burmese also illuminated the pages of their books more lavishly than others. While wood was the principal material for making the covers in all three regions, the Sinhalese were fond of using ivory as well as silver. Both the Burmese and the Thais also designed elaborate boxes or containers for storing their sutras (fig. 79 and Pl. 63). Indians, Nepalis, and Tibetans generally wrapped their manuscripts in cotton or brocade, but the Southeast Asian custom of preserving them in richly decorated boxes may have been adopted from China or Japan where sutra boxes are also richly adorned (see Chapters 6-7).

Quoted in ibid., P. xin.

Sri Lanka

Of the three Theravada Buddhist countries whose traditions of manuscript illumination are discussed in this chapter, Sri Lanka has remained the most conservative. While much painting was done on temple walls and on cloth, the practice of illuminating manuscripts does not appear to have been as popular. The thematic repertoire was also limited, although some of the subjects represented are peculiar to Sri Lanka and do not appear in any other tradition. Most known illuminted manuscripts belong to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and were produced in the Buddhist establishments of Kandy, almost in the center of the country. During their heyday, the earlier capitals of Anuradhapura in the north and Polonnaruva on the east coast must also have been active centers of writing, but little has survived. The two covers belonging to a fourteenth-century manuscript of Saratthadipani, a Pali commentary composed in the twelth century, are rather badly damaged.6 The illustrations consist of rows of dancers and musicians on the outside and vegetal designs on the inside (fig. 71). Stylistically they reveal a close kinship with other forms of existing painting, just as the surviving illuminations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are rendered in the same style as contemporary murals. The conservatism of the Sinhalese Buddhist is also evident from the fact that few known manuscripts contain pictures on the folios themselves. In most instances only the covers are illuminated. Indeed, the Sinhalese evidence suggests that the practice of enriching manuscripts with pictures and decoration was probably derived from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition that originated in the north and was adopted by adherents of the older schools in more recent centuries. Murals and cloth paintings depicting the life of the Buddha and jatakas were, however, popular among the early Buddhists in India probably since the earliest monasteries were built even during the life of the Buddha. The profusion of such murals in Sinhalese temples, dating at least to the sixth century, clearly demonstrated the popularity of this art form for didactic as well as decorative purposes.

As in southern and eastern India, manuscripts in Sri Lanka consist of palm leaves. Both the palmyra and talipot palms are used, although the former is employed generally for ordinary correspondence because it is less durable. Manuscripts are written on leaves of the tougher talipot palm. The writing is incised on the leaf with a metal stylus, as in southern India and Orissa, and the etched characters are brushed with carbon ink to make them easily visible against the smooth, creamy surface of the palm leaf. The same method was also employed to illuminate the manuscripts as may be seen in illustrations from a jataka manuscript (fig. 72).

The jataka represented here is the Vidurapandita. The Buddha was once born as Vidura, the wise minister of the king. Desiring to bring him to their abode, Vimala, the wife of the ocean god Varuna, dispatched the Yaksha Punnaka to Vidura’s monarch. Punnaka defeated the king in a game of dice in which Vidura was the stake. On meeting him, however, both Vimala and Varuna were impressed by his wisdom and allowed Vidura to return to his homeland. In the upper folio Vidura stands with a staff and, along with other courtiers, watches his monarch and Punnaka play the game of dice. In the second folio Vidura returns to his monarch and is reverentially received by the king, while several dancers dance with joy on the other side of the beautifully drawn palace.

While the Orissan artists used some colors in their incised representations, the Sinhalese preferred to achieve their effect mostly in black and white. The style is essentially two- dimensional and austerely linear. Most figures are presented in formal postures, somewhat stiff and rigid even when they kneel and bend forward. Although there is a greater sense of movement and expressiveness in the painted versions of the jatakas on book covers (fig. 73), the representations in both are highly stylized and curiously reminiscent of ancient Egyptian or Assyrian reliefs. The standing beared figures in the incised palm leaves are remarkably similar to images in early Assyrian reliefs. The basic purpose of these representations was to tell a story, and obviously the Sinhalese artists of Kandy felt simple compositions with bold, abstract forms in an uncluttered space were the best means to convey their message. Even a cursory comparison with the surviving murals of the earlier periods with their rich coloring, elaborate compositions, and emphasis upon conveying the plasticity of form reveals how radically the Kandy artists altered their style in favor of flat patterning, abstract, but crisp images, and graphic simplicity. Although the details are rendered with exquisite finesse, the aesthetic effect is achieved by precise articulation of form, delicacy in drawing, and simplicity of composition.

Zwalf 1985, p. 73. no. 90.
Fig. 71 a - b. Covers of a Saratthadipani manuscript. Sri Lanka; 14th century. Wood. 6.0 cm. British Library, London.
Fig. 72 a - b. Pages depicting the Vidurapandita Jataka. Sri Lanka, Kandy; c. 1800. Palm leaf. British Library, London; given by Mrs. F.K. Gane.
Fig. 73. Covers with jataka illustrations. Sri Lanka; 1850 - 75. Wood. British Library, London.

These observations, with some modifications, are also generally true of the painted illuminations of the period. The brush obviously is a more versatile and pliant instrument than the stylus, and, hence, the paintings have greater fluidity and more rhythmic outlines. The figures not only are less stiff and formal but move about the surface with greater elegance. Colors, too, contribute enormously to enhancing both the expressiveness and visual appeal of the painted representations as compared to those that were simply etched. Some writers have unnecessarily disparaged the Kandyan style. For instance, Siri Gunasinghe'writes, “If in Kandyan paintings form appears unstudied, unaffected, naive, and even inadequate, it is only to be expected.”7 Or again, “What is most appealing in Kandyan painting is the symbolic content and not the manner of presentation.” In fact, few people viewing such illuminations would necessarily grasp the “symbolic content,” but most would probably follow the story without any effort, and to that extent the so-called naive style of the Kandyan artists is far from “inadequate.” Although technically less sophisticated than the earlier temple murals of the classical phase of Sinhalese history, these unpretentious, transparently candid, and vividly colorful paintings are aesthetically just as appealing. By simplifying their forms and compositions and eliminating irrelevant elements in the tradition of ancient narrative paintings as seen in the early Indian monuments such as Bharhut (c. 100 B.C.), the Kandy artists re-created a style that is both pleasing and easily comprehensible. Moreover, by adopting fashions current in their time to clothe their figures, they made their manner of representation more easily perceptible to their viewers. The Kandy artists knew exactly what they were doing and did so with disciplined clarity and elegant lucidity.

This is clear from the British Library wood covers depicting jatakas (fig. 73). The slightly smaller pair presents the Khadirangara Jataka and the Samugga Jataka. In the former the bodhisattva was the generous treasurer of Varanasi. Once, after a fast, a pratyekabuddha (an enlightened person who does not teach) came to his house for alms. Knowing that the pratyekabuddha would perish without food, Mara made a fire out of acacia wood (khadira). The bodhisattva, however, defeated Mara by taking the food and walking through the fire on a golden lotus. The pratyekabuddha then departed for the Himalayas where he is shown meditating in a cave. In the second story the bodhisattva was born as an ascetic and saved a woman from being swallowed by a demon. The demon had carried off a rich and beautiful lady and had devoured her to keep her chaste and safe in his belly. She has, however, enticed a magician to accompany her into the demon’s stomach. The bodhisattva told the demon what had happened and the demon brought up the basket, whereupon the magician escaped and the lady was released unharmed.

The two longer covers depict the story of the Buddha’s birth in a former life as Dhammasonda, the king of Benaras. The story begins on the lower cover with the king sending out his elephant loaded with money to be given to the person who could preach the doctrine to the monarch. No suitable teacher, however, was found, and the king left for the forest, depicted on the second cover. While wandering through the forest, he met Sakka (Indra), the king of the gods, disguised as a goblin. Sakka promised to preach to him in return for flesh, and so we see the bodhisattva attempting to jump directly into the goblin’s mouth from a mound. This pleased the god who assumed his true form and caught the bodhisattva in his arms. Thereafter, they are shown seated in conversation.

Although representing stories from the ancient past, these illuminations vividly record the costumes and customs of contemporary Kandy court life. All the figures, except the demons, are painted in yellow, and Sakka is distinguished by his additional pair of arms. The textiles are remarkably varied and rendered in precise details. Little or no attempt is made to depict the scenes realistically. A couple of trees are considered sufficient to denote a forest, while interesting forms are devised to represent rocks and caves. Rich browns, greens, yellows, and blues contrast effectively with the flat, monochromatic red background thereby enhancing the graphic quality of the illuminations. Emotions are expressed with controlled and stylized gestures and postures so that, despite the attempt to make the pictures contemporary, they are not limited by either space or time. The disregard of illusionistic effect and the simple compositions, continuous narration, and minimal images contribute to the universal appeal of these pictures. The uniformly red background, harmonious color tonality, and sedate parade of figures provide visual coherency to the compositions and enhance their aesthetic charm.

Gunasinghe 1978 for this and the following quotation.
Fig. 74. Covers. Sri Lanka; 19th century. Silver. 6.7 x 29.8 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Fig. 75. Cover representing worship of Buddhas (detail). Sri Lanka; 19th century. Silver. 7.0 x 60.9 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Herbert Cole Bequest.
Fig. 76 Cover with shrines and stupas, from the same manuscript as fig. 75 (detail).

A pair of attractive wood covers in a private collection are adorned on the inside with unusual monographic representations (Pl. 51). The outside is decorated with finely executed floral patterns almost identical to those on another pair of covers now in the National Museum, Colombo.8 On the inside, however, against the monochromatic red background are various stupas, or dagobas, a highly stylized bodhi tree rising from a platform, a forest with an empty cave, and a black mound surmounted by a footprint. From two inscribed silver covers at Los Angeles (figs. 75-76), the mound can be identified as Mount Samantakuta, also known as Adam’s peak, which is One of the most important Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka. The cave represents Divaguha, where the Buddha is said to have rested on one of his visits to the island. Altogether, the sixteen representations on the two covers symbolize the sixteen most important pilgrimage sites of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka and are also portrayed on the silver covers.

Both silver and ivory book covers were popular with the Buddhists of Kandy, although the materials may also have been used in earlier periods. Ivory covers are generally carved with floral designs and auspicious symbols on the outside only (Pl. 52). The lotus, of course, figures prominently among floral patterns. The fine quality of the carving reveals the Sinhalese artist’s technical dexterity in carving ivory. The outside of the silver covers also are usually adorned with floral and vegetal scrolls carved with precision and delicacy (fig. 74).

Van Lohuizen 1981, p. 105. See also P.H.D.H. de Silva, Illustrated Guide to the Colombo Museum, I (Colombo: The National Museums of Sri Lanka, 1976), colorplate 3 for another pair of covers adorned with the same subjects on the inside.

Far more interesting, both for students of religion and art, are the insides of the two silver covers (figs. 75-76).9 Both covers are filled with annotated images of the Buddha and the sixteen pilgrimage sites of Sri Lanka that offer unique monographic material. The cover incised with the pilgrimage sites also contains eight images of the Buddha, both standing and seated, in two registers enlivened with flowering plants. The first seated Buddha, identified on the cover with Arabic numerals, depicts the enlightenment at Bodhgaya, and the remaining seven symbolize the seven weeks immediately following this great event, when the master continued to meditate and had various mystical experiences. This seven-week cycle was not only popular with Sinhalese artists but is ritually reenacted by the monks in an annual ceremony known as Sat Satiya (seven weeks).

On the other cover, except for the first scene, twenty-four identical Buddhas are seated in meditation, twenty-two of whom are adored by kneeling figures and two by a serpent and a lion. A few of the adorants are ascetics, the rest are crowned. These twenty-five Buddhas represent the twenty- four Buddhas of the past and the future Buddha Maitreya. Each Buddha is identified by a label. In the first composition the standing figure represents Buddha Dipankara, and the prostrate figure at his feet is the ascetic Sumedha. The story goes that once, while on a walk, Dipankara came across a puddle of water. Sumedha, who was standing nearby, immediately spread his long hair across the puddle so that Dipankara would not soil his feet. Because of this gallant and selfless act, Dipankara predicted that Sumedha would be born in the future as the Buddha Sakyamuni. In each of the other twenty- three instances (not including Maitreya), therefore, the adoring figure represents the Buddha Sakyamuni in a previous birth when, upon encountering a Buddha, he learnt about his ultimate destiny. While some of the past Buddhas were represented in other Buddhist countries and the story of Dipankara was popular both in China and Nepal, the theme of the twenty-four prophecies was especially favored by Sinhalese Buddhists. Thus, these rare Sinhalese manuscript covers not only reveal the uniqueness of the monographic tradition in Sri Lanka but also demonstrate the religious orthodoxy of Theravada Buddhism. Rather than depict the life of the Buddha Sakyamuni, the Sinhalese illuminators generally restricted themselves to showing his previous lives with the utmost brevity.

See Pal 1984a, pp. 266-69, for a detailed identification of the scenes. For two other silver covers decorated with scenes from the life of the Buddha hut in a different style and technique, see de Silva, ibid., p. 82.
Pl. 51. Covers with symbols of eighteen important religious sites. Sri Lanka; 19th century. Wood. Paul F. Walter Collection.
Pl. 52. Decorated covers. Sri Lanka; 18th - 19th century. Silvered, gilded, and lacquered paper. 8.0 cm x 52. 5 cm. each. Private collection.
Pl. 53. Pages of a ritual text. Burma; 18th-19th century. Ivory 8.0 x 52.5 cm. each. Private Collection.
Pl. 54. Pages of a ritual text. Burma; 19th century. Gilded and lacquered ivory. 9.5 x 55 cm. each. Paul F. Walter Collection.
Pl. 55 Detail of Pl. 54.
Pl. 56. Pages with scenes from the life of the Buddha and the Vessantara Jataka. Burma; 19th century. Palm leaf. Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; Philip Hofer Collection.
Pl. 57. Buddha’s departure, from a Life of the Buddha manuscript. Burma; 19th century. Paper. H. 19.0 cm. British Library, London.
Pl. 58. Buddha and monks receiving alms, from a Life of the Buddha manuscript. Burma; 19th century. Paper. H. 48.0 cm. British Library, London. See also fig. 78.
Pl. 59. The Mandhata Jataka, from a jataka manuscript (detail). Burma, 19th century. Paper. H. 19 0 cm. British Library, London.
Pl. 60 The Mahasara Jataka, from a jataka manuscript (detail). Burma; 19th century. Paper. H. 19.0 cm. British Library, London.


As in Sri Lanka and other Southeast Asian countries, most surviving manuscripts in Burma, whether illuminated or not, are of relatively late date. The tradition of Buddhist painting in the forms of murals, however, goes back much further. Superbly executed murals grace the walls of the temples in the ancient capital city of Pagan, built largely during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Stylistically, these murals, as well as contemporary Burmese sculpture, reveal a very close kinship British Library, London. with the art of eastern India, especially Bengal. The murals, in particular, are closely related to the manuscript illuminations of the Bengali rather than the Bihari expression of the Pala style. Asa neighboring state, the kingdom of Pagan obviously maintained close ties with the kingdoms in eastern Bengal, and a large quantity of manuscripts from eastern India must have found their way into Pagan.

Pl. 61. Himalayan scene, from a cosmological manuscript. Upper Burma; 19th century. Paper. H. 20.5 cm. British Library, London.
Pl. 62. The pageant of King Mmdon, from a historical manuscript Burma dated: 1865. Paper, h. 24.5 cm.

Although legends claim that Burma had received relics of the Buddha soon after his death, the earliest evidence indicates that the religion was introduced to the region by the fifth century A.D. Tradition also strongly asserts that the celebrated Indian scholar Buddhaghosha (active fifth century) visited Burma from Sri Lanka and brought with him a copy of Kachchayana’s Pali grammar. He is said to have lived a number of years in Burma and written and compiled many texts.10 Whether or not he visited Burma, certainly many of Buddhaghosha’s principal works are highly regarded by the Burmese Buddhists. To this day, he remains a much-admired figure in Burma.

See Law 1946 for a discussion of Buddhaghosha’s journeys to Sri Lanka and Burma.

That Buddhism was entrenched in Burma by the fifth century is evident from the discovery of several gold plates, inscribed with Buddhist texts in the Pali language, discovered from Manuggun near Hmawza in the Prome district.11 Srikshetra, the ancient capital of the Pyu kingdom, was situated near the modern city of Prome. Archaeological evidence indicates that both Hinduism and Buddhism flourished in the Pyu kingdom. The dominance of the Pyu ended with the sack of their capital in 832 by invaders from Nanchao in China, but by midcentury the Burmans seem to have broken away to establish their principal settlement at Pagan. Finally, the country was united by king Anawrahta, also known as Aniruddha (1044-1077), and thereafter began the glorious phase of building activity in Pagan. By now, Buddhism had become the major religious force in the country. Although Mahayana and Vajrayana forms of Buddhism were not unfamiliar, the more conservative Theravada form became predominant. Around 1075 Burmese monks visited Sri Lanka and returned with copies of the Tripitaka. These and other early manuscripts from India are not located, and the known Buddhist books from Burma, largely from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, are mostly from Mandalay in Lower Burma.

Zwalf 1985, pp. 74-76, no. 91.
Pl. 63. Sutra box. Burma; 19th century. Gilded gesso, semiprecious stones and lacquered wood. 59. 5 x 120.0 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Pl. 64. Birth of the Buddha, from a Traibhumi manuscript. Thailand; dated 1776. Paper. Each folio: 23.5 x 51.8 cm. Museum fur Indische Kunst, Berlin.
Pl. 65. Enlightenment of the Budha, from the same manuscnpt as pl 63.
Pl. 66. Vesantara Jataka, from the same manuscript as Pl. 63.
Pl. 67. Celestial beings, from a Phra Malai manuscript. Thailand; dated 1868. Paper H. 14.0 cm. British Library, London.
Pl. 68. Cosmic mountain and heaven, from a cosmological book. Thailand; 19th century. Paper. Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; Phillip Hofer Collection.
Pl. 69. Footprint of the Buddha, from the same manuscript as Pl. 68.

The zeal and devotion with which the Burmese adopted Buddhism in the fifth century is evident from the fact that the words of the Buddha were inscribed on gold sheets, obviously modeled after palm leaves, as they are about three centimeters high and between twenty-five and thiry-five centimeters long. Each sheet is inscribed only on one side with three lines of Pali in early Pyu script. Interestingly, this script is an adaptation of the contemporary Kadamba script of the western coast of the Deccan in India rather than the northern Gupta script. One would presume, therefore, that groups of monks from the Kadamba territory were among the early transmitters of the faith to Burma. Presumably, they must also have inscribed the texts on silver, for there are late examples of manuscripts (Pl. 56) where the palm leaf has been silvered. There are also examples of palm-leaf manuscripts where the edges of the leaves are gilded.

The Burmese were remarkably ingenuous in using a variety of materials for their books. Apart from gold, silver, and palm leaf, they used thin sheets of ivory, stiffened cloth, and paper (pis. 53-55). Often, the cloth as well as the paper was thickly lacquered or gilded and occasionally inlaid with mother-of-pearl. In fact, no other Buddhist tradition has made such rich use of lacquer and gilding to illuminate their manu scripts. Paper manuscripts are of two kinds. Either they are loose leafed like the palm-leaf manuscript held together by strings and protected with wood covers, or they are stuck together along the long edges and folded in the concertina fashion, as in Nepal and Thailand. These folding books are called parabaik in Burmese, and usually they are larger than similar books in Nepal. The pages are both heavier and wider than those in Nepali books and are of the same variety used in contemporary Thailand. Naturally, these folding manuscripts afforded the illuminators with opportunities^ conceive and execute larger compositions than was possible on palm leaf.

Unlike Buddhists in other countries, the Burmese were particularly fond of decorating their pages with beautiful geometric and vegetal designs in gold as well as lacquer. The designs generally consist of meandering, leafy vines, circles, and chevrons, elaborate lotiform medallions, and mazelike formations symbolizing immutable knots. In addition, both animal and human forms were used decoratively, the most common being geese with luxuriantly scrolling tails and flying or adoring angels. The only other figure used on the title pages is the image of the Buddha. Outlined in black and filled with gilding, these designs create a striking visual effect together with the bold script against a red back ground. Perhaps because of the busy and sumptuous background, the letters with their almost square shape were made larger than usual and given bolder relief with thickly applied ink or lacquer. The title pages, with prominently lettered titles, as in Tibetan manuscripts, were often more ornately decorated than the regular pages.

The most popular illuminated text among the Burmese is the Pali Kammavacha. A ritual text, it consists of certain sections extrapolated from the well-known Vinayapitaka that were used at meetings of the order. The section regarding higher ordination is deemed especially important. Other passages are concerned with such mundane matters as the bestowal of robes, election of elders, dedication of monasteries, settling of fast days, and release from monastic vows. Indeed, although these rules and regulations were strictly observed in other Theravada Buddhist countries, only in Burma were the manuscripts of the Kammavacha given such preeminence and so lavishly adorned.

Among the rare surviving illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts, the two most interesting are now in the British Library and in the Hofer collection at Harvard. The British Library manuscript is of Buddhist cosmology, depicting scenes of the heavenly mansions where the gods dwell, earth with the cosmic Mount Meru at its center, and seven hells beneath. The scene illustrated here shows the God Indra, holding court in his heavenly palace with the Buddha depicted twice in the two upper panels on the right (fig. 77). The composition spreads over several pages and attains considerable grandeur despite the absence of coloring. The highly ornate and imaginative architectural forms, as well as the decorative trees and plants, are as evocative of a celestial realm as they are admirable for their exquisite details. The black-and-white images are in fact remarkably animated, and touches of whimsy may be noted in the dragon banner suspended from a pole as well as the chariot with its charmingly unnaturalistic horses. Although not as sumptuous as the heavens rendered by an unknown Thai artist (Pl. 68), unquestionably the Burmese illuminator responsible for these delicately incised drawings was not only an accomplished draftsman but also a highly imaginative artist. Within the conceptual framework of the mortal, he has created a delightfully attractive heaven of the immortals.

Only four pages from what must once have been a richly illustrated palm-leaf manuscript of the biography of the Buddha and jatakas now remain (Pl. 56). The illustration is in the center of each page in a wide rectangular panel. Each pages is also further illuminated with lotus roundels in red and a dull gold around the string holes, narrow borders, and sides of the central panels. The background of the illustrations, too, is painted in pale gold. Against this monochromatic background, the figures are given ample room to perform their various acts. Apart from the figures, only a tree is added to each composition, so that nothing irrelevant is allowed to interfere with the dramatic events. In the uppermost panel, two women are engaged in plucking and carrying away mangoes in baskets, while a group representing Vessantara with his wife and two children is walking to the right. The scene obviously depicts the destitute royal family wandering through a mango grove. The next two illustrations depict the enlightenment of Sakyamuni, where first a group of archers from Mara’s troupe shoot arrows at him, and next the evil one’s daughters attempt to seduce him with their lascivious dance. The fourth illustration at the bottom represents the Buddha’s last moments on earth; the pathos of the scene is reduced by a minstrel entertaining the master with music.

Thus, in the last scene, where the Buddha is stretched out on a carpet in the posture typical of eighteenth-nineteenth century stone and wood images, an monographic variation is introduced by including a minstrel. Characteristic also of Burmese illuminations, the first scene is depicted with remarkable naturalism. Moreover, all the figures are dressed in contemporary costumes, the minstrel and the dancers having been modeled on court performers. The bright reds, yellow, green, and indigo blue of the garments contrast strongly with the dull background, thereby providing clarity of relief to the figures. In addition, the illuminator was familiar with techniques of showing perspective and has drawn his trees impressionistically. Although not as rich as the illuminations of contemporary paper manuscripts, these charming pictures are remarkable both for their clarity and simplicity of expression.

The life of the Buddha Sakyamuni, as well as the jataka tales, were the most popular subjects with eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Burmese illuminators. Plate 57 illustrates Siddhartha’s departure from the palace; the text seems to follow the popular Burmese prose life of the Buddha, Ma-la lin- ga-ra wut-htu, compiled by Kawi-wun-tha-bi-daza in 1798. On the left is a pavilion with a courtyard where the female musicians have fallen asleep while Yasoda is stretched out with her newborn son at her breast. Interestingly, Yasoda sleeps exactly in the same posture as does the Buddha in tho palm-leaf representation (Pl. 56). One of the palace quards obligingly lifts the curtain so that the viewer can clearly see the mother and child. On the right Siddhartha rides away in the background, while in front his groom has returned with the riderless horse.

An unusual representation of a subject that was popular in the arts of both Burma and Thailand is that showing the Buddha’s descent from heaven (fig. 78). Sometime after his enlightenment the Buddha had gone to heaven to preach before his mother. After his sermon he returned to earth escorted by the gods Brahma and Indra. Usually, from a very early period in India, the occasion was represented with the three coming down separate ladders. The unknown Burmese artist, however, has given us a rather amusing version. Instead of a ladder, the Buddha and his divine retinue come down three shoots or slides or even escalators. Indeed, the representation of the waves makes it appear as if they are sliding into a pool. In keeping with the court etiquette in Southeast Asia, the celestial beings display their humility by sliding down on their knees. The superior status of the Buddha is further emphasized by his golden complexion as well as the fact that he stands on a lotus. In fact, in this manuscript the Buddha invariably stands on a lotus, while in most illuminations of the period he is distinguished by his golden complexion. Even in jataka representations the bodhisattva, whether an animal or a human, is painted in gold.

Stylistically, these two British Library manuscripts, where the text is subordinated to the illustrations, are closely related to each other and to contemporary murals. While the costumes, architecture, and furnishings faithfully reproduce current fashions and designs, especially of the courts, the compositions generally ignore demands of time and space. Apart from juxtaposing several incidents in a given composition, landscape elements are deftly used, often with expressionist flair (Pl. 58). Many of the compositional devices and mountain forms painted bright red, green, or black are similar to those encountered in contemporary or earlier Rajput paintings and Nepali narrative scrolls as well as illuminations. The scene of the departure is particularly reminiscent of late eighteenth- century narrative pictures of some of the hill schools in Himachal Pradesh. The sky in these Burmese illuminations is always indicated by a deep indigo blue but is rarely enlivened with clouds or birds. Trees are highlighted with brighter green patches as one also encounters in contemporary Indian pictures. The convention of representing water, as in the scene of the descent (fig. 78), is probably derived from Thai illuminations, although ultimately it was adopted from Chinese paintings. As a matter of fact, there are distinct similarities between the narrative pictures of contemporary Thailand and Burma.

The jataka illustrations of the period are also rendered in the same basic style, as may be seen from the two examples reproduced here. One of these shows a detail from the Mandhata Jataka (Pl. 59). In this charming waterfront scene a boatman and ladies are seen awaiting the arrival of a prince. The treatment of the water and perceptive rendering of details are remarkably alike in this and the scene of the Buddha’s descent. The same illuminator may have rendered both. The facial features are strongly Burmese, and the floating pavilion, as well as the attire, clearly reflect the artist’s acute power of observation. He even included tattoos on the boatman’s legs. Clearly, these jataka stories afforded the artist with even a greater degree of freedom than the Buddha’s biography, where a certain amount of inflexibility was necessary to enhance the sanctity of the narrative. By representing the jataka stories in a more contemporary guise, the Burmese artists increased their appeal.

Fig. 77. Sakka’s heaven, from a manuscript of Buddhist cosmology. Burma; 19th century. Palm leaf. British Library, London.
Fig. 78 . Buddha's descent, from a Life of the Buddha manuscript. Burma; 19th century. Paper. H. 48.0 cm. British Library, London, See also Pl. 58.

Indeed, how free the artists were is clearly evident from the jataka illustrations in another manuscript in the British Library. The story represented here is the Mahasara Jataka (Pl. 60]. As recounted in the text below the painting, the bodhisattva was once born as the minister of the king of Benares. In the lower left the queen is seen bathing in a pool, having placed her necklace beside the pool. One of the cavorting monkeys has come down from the tree and snatches the necklace. In the court scene above, the king arrests five men and accuses them of the theft. The bodhisattva, however, suspects the monkeys and decides to trick them. In the composition at the lower right, he lures the monkeys with fruits and decorates them with imitation necklaces. The thieving monkey, however, proudly shows her real necklace to the others and is caught. The innocent are released, and the bodhisattva is rewarded by the king.

Although the various sequences are grouped together in several miniature compositions in the traditional manner, as in contemporary Nepali or Indian painting, they are very clearly separated by architectural and natural devices. These paintings reveal a much better understanding of Western techniques of perspective and highlighting. Note how an illusion of depth is created within the picture plane by the meandering stream, receding trees, and architectural components. In keeping with the traditional mode of depiction, however, the entire picture’s surface is uniformly lighted. Nevertheless, by employing contemporary modes of attire and architecture, the artists have obviously made these representations more meaningful to their viewers. In that sense the contemporary setting would make the stories more familiar and therefore realistic. It should be noted that after the seventeenth-century artists in Nepal, too, made richer use of landscaping and emphasized the contemporaneity of the events in a similar fashion. Indeed, the similar response of Burmese and Nepali to the stimulus of European technique can be perceived from a comparison of such jatakas with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Nepali illustrations of narrative subjects.12

A nineteenth-century book of Buddhist cosmology provides us with some of the most lavishly garish examples of Buddhist manuscript illumination (Pl. 61]. The illustration here depicts the Himalayan region with playful animals and celestial creatures in a visionary landscape delineated almost with psychedelic effect. The expressionist flair of the unknown artist is evident not only in the rich and varied coloring of the ground and trees but also of the elephants. Although not as subtle as the near-contemporary Thai cosmological manuscript illuminations (Pl. 68), these pictures are remarkable examples of the Burmese artist’s attempts to successfully combine an innate and sure sense of whimsy and vivid imagination with techniques derived from European paintings.

Pal 1978, Pl. 171.

The final Burmese manuscript illustration discussed here (Pl. 62) shows a spectacular composition depicting the procession of king Mindon of Mandalay. Although a historical work, it records a Buddhist religious ceremony performed on May 16, 1865. It describes king Mindon’s procession to the foot of Mandalay Hill to dedicate a Buddha image. One reads of such pageants in Indian and Chinese texts, but the fortunate survival of this richly illustrated manuscript makes the color and grandeur of such occasions come alive. As this was a royal commission, obviously the finest available court artist must have been responsible for the illuminations. Not only has he handled the vast and crowded composition with great skill and finesse, but he was equally deft in depicting both animals and humans. The elephants, in particular, are rendered with great naturalism, while the detailed variety of the costumes of the dancers, courtiers, and soldiers reflects the painter’s keen sense of observation. Curiously, although this is a historical event, the artist preferred not to use Western techniques.13 The bright and vivid colors, vivacious expressiveness of the grandiose theme, and boldness and complexity of some of the compositions are among the elements that make this manuscript one of the finest documents of nineteenth-century Burmese painting.

As in Thailand, manuscripts in Burma were stored in elaborate containers. Because the manuscripts themselves were large, the boxes, too, were often of impressive proportions. While there must be many such sutra boxes in Burmese monasteries, only a few are known outside the country. One of the most impressive such boxes, or chests, is now in a private collection in Australia. A second example in Los Angeles (Pl. 63) is not embellished with narrative themes as is the other, but it is no less imposing. It is made with gilded gesso and lacquered wood encrusted with semiprecious stones. Like the Australian example, this also is probably from Mandalay.

For other nineteenth-century Burmese illuminations characterized by strong use of Western pictorial techniques and rather garish colors, see Zwalf 1985, pp. 51,166,171,174.


Most illuminated manuscripts in Thailand, as in other Southeast Asian countries, belong to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A few example, however, are thought to be of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but this is uncertain.14 That the tradition was older than surviving evidence indicates seems a fair assumption, although incised palm-leaf manuscripts from the early Ayutthya period (1350-1767) have survived, it should be noted that most illuminated manuscripts are made of paper and are of the folding variety.15 An inscription of 1380 found in Sukhothai, the capital before Ayutthya, states that the people listened to the “Dhamma of Dasajati, which was extremely sweet to hear.”16 The reading of scriptures was, and still is, an important part of religious life in Thailand, and most monasteries have a library to house the Tripitaka.

The paper used for Thai manuscripts is a kind of soft cardboard made from the pulp of the khoi plant. Generally, the paper is buff or pale yellow, but sometimes it is dyed a rich purple, black, or red, especially the title pages. The size of the pages is much larger than a palm-leaf page, so that the average illustrations are quite large. Usually, the illuminations are accommodated at either end of the page, but some manuscripts are given over almost entirely to paintings. In such instances, a single composition extends over several pages, which, when unfolded, looks like a large, narrow banner. The covers are generally decorated with lacquer and gold (fig. 81). Most Thai books are written in what is called the Cambodian script. The Thai alphabet was adopted from that of the Khmer during the reign of King Rama Khamhaeng (c. 1270-1317). The art of lettering is not as varied or sophisticated as in Burma. Usually, black ink is used on buff or pale yellow paper, and gold or yellow, when the paper is dyed black or purple. Like the Burmese, the Thai too used elaborately decorated chests (fig. 79) to store their manuscripts. Usually the heavily gilded wood chests were adorned with figures of flying gods.

Wray et al. 1972, p. 121, and Boisselier 1976, p. 89.
Boisselier 1976, p. 34, has published a leaf from a nineteenth-century palm-leaf manuscript illustrated with two adoring deities at the two ends.
Wray et al. 1972, p. 117.
Fig. 79. Sutra box. Thailand, 19th century. Gilded and lacquered wood. 30.4 x 82.5 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Indian Art Special Purposes Fund.

Since the predominant form of Buddhism in Thailand, as in Sri Lanka and Burma, is Theravada, narrative subjects such as the life of the Buddha Sakyamuni and the jatakas are the favorite subjects of manuscript illuminations. The Thai Buddhists, however, created some books that are unique to the tradition. The most distinguished Buddhist text in Thailand is known as Traibhumi, or three worlds. An important work on Buddhist cosmology, it was written by King Lu Thai (1347-1374?), who was an able king and great scholar. To attain Buddhahood he joined a monastic order for several months. Incidentally, the Traibhumi contains a list of books consulted by King Lu Thai while he wrote his treatise, providing a fair indication of the manuscripts available to him at the time in Sukhothai. Apart from describing various levels of the universe, the Traibhumi also contains the last ten jataka tales, known collectively as Dasajati, the life of Buddha, and Thai folktales, all of which provided the artist with a rich repertoire of themes for illustration.

Although more than five hundred jataka tales are known to the Pali Buddhist tradition, the final ten stories have always enjoyed a special place of honor among the Buddhists. The Thai Buddhists seem to have been particularly partial to these ten, which are popularly known as Phra Chao Sip Chat, or ten lives of our lord. They were not only popular with illuminators, but were frequently depicted on temple banners and in murals. Among the ten, the most admired was, of course, the story of the selfless Vessantara. Another typically Thai composition is the legend of Phra Malai, which was also the subject of a popular book frequently copies and illuminated. It recounts the story of the monk Phra Malai, who gained supernatural powers through meditation, thereby enabling him to travel between heaven and hell. He returned to earth and vividly described the life in both places. Commonly recited at funerals, the text reminds the congregation of what the individual could expect in the afterlife. Influenced by the Burmese, the Thais also copied and illustrated the Kammavacha as well as other canonical and ritual texts.

There is no doubt that had earlier illuminated manuscripts survived, they would have been painted in the same styles in which surviving temple murals or engraving were rendered.17 This is clear from the fact that the illuminations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are often reduced versions of the murals in contemporary temples. The jataka tales, beautifully engraved on stone slabs and belonging to the Sukhothai school of the midfifteenth century, are not only graphic examples of the narrative art of the period but are reminiscent of early Indian Buddhist murals as well as Pala manuscript illuminations.18 The physiognomy and proportions of the figures, although revealing local ethnic features, and elegant postures and gestures are clearly derived from early Indian pictorial tradition.

Extant murals reveal that by the sixteenth century the style of painting had changed dramatically.19 The figures with elongated bodies, strongly oval faces, and unnaturalistically swaying postures, clearly recognizable as Thai, became the norm. Both in matters of architectural forms, as well as apparel and jewelry, the Thai artists began to use local designs and fashions that they must have observed daily. A much stronger penchant for bolder decorative effects asserts itself, and the world of imagination is explored and expressed with much greater abandon. The illuminators obviously delighted in the expressive use of vivid colors, totally disregarding natural shapes and forms as well as rules of perspective. Mountains and trees, animals and birds, gods and men all coexist in delightful harmony on the pages of these books, without any concern for space or time.

All these characteristics are clearly evident in the illuminations of a seventeenth-century Traibhumi manuscript in the National Library, Bangkok (fig. 80).20 One unusual feature of this manuscript is that the illustrations are placed in the center of the page, indicating perhaps a legacy from earlier Indian Buddhist manuscripts. This fascinating document of Thai painting raises all sorts of questions regarding style. As Boisselier has pointed out, some features in these illuminations are “slightly reminiscent of the conventions of Islamic manuscripts.”21 As Boisselier observes the style of these delightful illuminations is “markedly cursive, extremely spontaneous” with rather sketchy drawing; they also reveal the artist’s whimsical sense of humor and extraordinary skill in endowing the animals with personalities, even if they are not naturalistically drawn. This, too, is a quality frequently encountered in contemporary and earlier Indian manuscripts.

From the eighteenth century two most remarkable examples of illuminated manuscripts of the Traibhumi have survived, and both were commissioned in the year 1776 by King Taksin at Thonburi. One is now in the National Museum, Bangkok, the other is in the Berlin Museum. The texts also inform us that four scribes and four artists attached to the court were involved in preparing these two manuscripts. Of the two, the Berlin manuscript is not only larger but is more sumptuously illustrated. In both manuscripts the background is often left unpainted, but the illustrators responsible for the Bangkok manuscript certainly preferred a less-flamboyant style. In both landscape elements and architectural details are employed with restraint, mostly as topographical symbols. In the next century, however, in the illuminations of what Boisselier has characterized as the Ratnakosin school, the background is not only colored, but the figures and landscapes are integrated into more pictorial compositions. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Thai artists were particularly fond of exotic elements and appear to have been receptive to Indian, Chinese, as well as European pictorial devices. Their self-confidence, however, never wavered, and all borrowed elements were subtly absorbed in a distinctive style that is visually exciting — both for its sumptuous coloring and extraordinary flight of fancy.

See Boisselier 1976 for a thorough discussion of Thai painting, which includes manuscript illumination.
See Boisselier 1976, figs. 19, 39-40.
Ibid., figs. 105-6.
Ibid., figs. 56 and 116 for color reproductions.
Ibid., p. 86. On p. 87 Boisselier also discusses evidence of the Thai artist’s familiarity with contemporary Mughal paintings of India. Certainly, the section of wall paintings, dated 1734, from the Wat Ko Keo Suttharam in Phetburi reproduced as fig. 55 by Boisellier not only includes Indians copied from Mughal miniatures, but the entire composition shows strong Indian influences.
Fig. 80. Inhabitants of the Himalayan region, from a Traibhumi manuscript. Thailand; 17th century. Paper. National Library, Bangkok. From Boisselier 1976.
Fig. 81. Cover of a Phra Malat manuscript. Thailand; c. 1875. Gilded and lacqured paper . Each folio 14.0 x 68.0 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Neustatter.

The three scenes from the Buddha’s life, reproduced here from the Berlin manuscript, depict his birth, the four encounters (Pl. 64), and his enlightenment (Pl. 65).22 The birth scene is one of the most elaborate known in Buddhist art. While the unknown illuminator has adhered to some well-established conventions—Maya is shown as an Amazonian figure, in contrast to her companions, to emphasize her divine status, the representation of her distinctive posture holding the bent branch of a tree, and the presence of the gods Brahma and Indra—he has also introduced characteristically Thai monographic elements. Perhaps the most curious of these is the fact that the infant Buddha is not shown emerging from his mother’s right hip but is portrayed as a golden statue being received by the four-armed white Brahma who hovers above the curtain and holds a parasol. This manner of representation of the newborn infant is more reminiscent of the cult of the infant Buddha so popular in Japan. Other unusual features include the placement of Maya within a private enclosure, where incidentally only women are present, the flight of the gods, and the parade of servants outside the tent, carrying various vessels. Note how two women kneel at and outside the entrance to receive the vessels from the males, while a cook blows at a fire on an improvised stove while a woman arranges the sticks.

The illustration following the birth scene represents the three separate occasions when the young Sakyamuni, while out riding his chariot, successively encountered a sick man, a corpse, and a monk. He was dismayed by the amount of suffering in the world and the inevitability of death, and his conversations with the monk inspired him to renounce his luxurious life. Characteristic of Buddhist narrative paintings, the time element is ignored and all three occasions are included in a single composition. It is remarkable how tenaciously the artists have adhered to pictorial conventions that were employed in early Indian Buddhist art as far back as the second century B.C.

Perhaps the most dramatic composition in the entire manuscript is that showing the enlightenment. Here again we encounter certain curious features. The bodhi tree is shown only as a leafy dome crowning the rather small throne, which is empty. Below the throne, the earth goddess is given considerable prominence as she stands elegantly and wrings her hair, which is a typical Thai iconographic element. Mara, riding his elephant, is shown twice—once shooting arrows at the Buddha and then adoring him from the other side. Curiously also, while his companions attack the Buddha on land from the right, they appear to be drowning in the ocean as they flee on the other side of the throne. The level of the water is distinctly above the ground level on the other side, and the upper section is a bright red. Indeed, the representation is a visual feast of forms and colors. The great diversity of figures, including Thai, Muslims, and Chinese, distinctive costumes as well as demons depicted in various postures and gestures, make this one of the most animated renderings of this popular incident from the Buddha’s life. A curious iconographic idiosyncracy of the Berlin and Bangkok manuscripts is that the Buddha is never shown in the human form after his enlightenment, a strange and much belated continuation of a practice that was common in early Indian Buddhist narrative art of the second- first centuries B.C.

There is a distinct difference between the representations of the Buddha’s life scenes and those depicting the Vessantara lataka in the Berlin manuscript (Pl. 66). In fact,the latter illustrations are much more closely related to the more austere style of the Bangkok manuscript. None of the Vessantara compositions attains the monumentality of the birth or enlightenment compositions. Pages illustrating the jataka are often broken up into small squares or rectangles by ribbonlike schematic rivers. It would appear that, while the more monumental compositions of the life scenes were imitating sprawling murals, the jataka representations were modeled on narrative scrolls. The illustrations are at times separated by squares containing yellow cartouches with cursive writing and, at other times, compositions spread over two or more adjacent folios. Landscape elements are sparsely employed, but architectural features and the chariots reflect the illustrator’s imaginative powers and love for embellishment.

As it has already been noted in connection with such narrative representations of the same period both in Sri Lanka and Burma, the Thai artists too were eager to provide a contemporary look to their conventional subjects to make them more attractive to their contemporaries. Thus, even though the figures are given different proportions and attire according to their divine or social status and the imaginary character of the legends is never eschewed for a more naturalistic mode of depiction, such perceptive attention to details makes the pictures both interesting and lively. As also in Burma and Sri Lanka, the figures are dressed in contemporary attire revealing the artists’ keen sense of observation and meticulous rendering of textile designs. Although the forms are idealized and postures highly stylized, we have no difficulty in recognizing the hierarchical status of the various participants nor their clearly defined roles. While some attempt has been made to represent the foreground naturalistically in shades of green, there is no horizon nor any indication of the sky. In fact, it appears that rules of perspective have been intentionally reversed, with smaller trees and a lower curtain wall in the foreground so that the principal events are not obscured by pictorial techniques. Appropriately, the figure of Maya is placed prominently in the center of the enclosure, as well as the composition, like a deity placed in the cosmic center of a mandala. Also, characteristic of such sumptuously illuminated Thai manuscripts, much gold is used for ornaments, crowns, and vessels to create a brilliant visual effect.

For reproductions of ten Bangkok manuscript, see Boisellier 1976, figs. 60-61 and 110. Twenty-four color reproductions illustrate the Berlin manuscript in Wank 1965.

Most illuminated manuscripts of the nineteenth century were painted in this basic style, although with greater flamboyance and more elaborate landscape elements. Most known manuscripts appear to belong to the second rather than the first half of the century. A fascinating document of the early ninteenth century consists of an album in the British Library that was put together for a Captain Low sometime around 1820.23 Less sumptuous than the two eighteenth-century manuscripts, the representations are, nevertheless, both detailed and lively. Some illustrations, such as cosmological subjects or processional scenes, are austerely simple, without any background, and are almost diagrammatic in their visual effect.

Others of the jataka scenes, however, are more elaborate with the usual combination of the schematic and naturalistic. Costumes and architectural objects are rendered with remarkable finesse and very accurately represent contemporary styles, some trees and plants, such as the palm orlotus, are delineated with admirable veracity, while others are rendered impressionistically. When shown, the land, rocks, and hills are expressionistic in their shapes, with hues of blues, greens, purples, browns, and reds; but occasionally the artist demonstrates a clear understanding of the rules of perspective.

Zwalf 1985, pp. 179, 182, 184-85.
Fig. 82a. Scenes of hell, from the same manuscript as fig. 81.
Fig. 82b. A village scene, from the same manuscript as fig. 81.

An unusual Thai manuscript, also in the British Library and made of stiffened cloth, is of the Pali Kammavacha, a ritual text that was more popular in Burma.24 The background was blackened with soot so that the white figures with their gold ornaments and colorfully varied attire create a dazzling effect as in the Tibetan black manuscripts and thankas. Furthermore, unlike most others, this manuscript was prepared in northern Thailand, somewhere near Chingmai, and is written in Thai with gold lettering rather than the more common Cambodian script. As Henry Ginsberg has pointed out, however, the painting style “is typical of central Thailand and Bangkok, and may be by a Bangkok artist.” Although Ginsberg dates the manuscript to the late nineteenth century, stylistically there is very little to distinguish these illuminations from those occurring in the Berlin manuscript painted a century earlier.

The British Library also possesses a dated manuscript of the Phra Malai prepared in 1868. Typical of Phra Malai manuscripts, the illustrations are accommodated in pairs on either side of the page (Pl. 67]. The unusual feature of this manuscript is the rich purple background used for the first page, which dramatically highlights the fine gold writing. Moreover, red and green flowers are used decoratively at the beginning of each line and beginning and end of each sections and chapter. The frontispieces are elegantly rendered figures of Indra and Brahma, with their companions seated against an exuberantly red background of exquisitely designed dancing flames, making the illuminations shimmeringly vibrant. This mode of enriching the background is rather uncommon and is somewhat reminiscent of the Nepali practice of filling the background with a luxuriant scroll design.

More conventional and not as refined are the illustrations in a Phra Malai manuscript at Los Angeles (fig. 82a-b). The cover is gilded and lacquered (fig. 81); the end pages are decorated with rather realistically rendered floral motifs. Each illumination extends over two adjacent pages, and, although the drawing is not as accomplished, the representations reveal the Thai artists’ characteristic vacillation between expressionism and naturalism marked by a sense of humor. The two scenes of hell, witnessed by the flying monk, are at once naive and graphic. Attempts at shading notwithstanding, the figures are crudely drawn, recalling a folk tradition rather than the more- sopnisticaied style of the British Library Phra Malai manuscript. It will not be possible to describe the seventy-four panels that illustrate the various experiences of the monk with superhuman abilities, but a second composition, a wonderfully down-to-earth scene of villagers watching a snake charmer, demonstrates the more naturalistic expression that characterizes some of the illuminations. The representation is remarkably engaging for its austere manipulation of form, economy of draftsmanship, and unpretentious, although irresistible charm.

Ibid., p. 182 for a color reproduction and p. 185 for Henry Ginsberg’s comments.

During the second half of the nineteenth century Thai manuscript illuminators became increasingly familiar with Western pictorial techniques, but they never abandoned their direct and graphic mode of expression as well as their predilection for flights of fancy.25 They continued to combine their exceptional powers of observation and fertile imagination to create extraordinarily evocative landscapes with dreamlike natural forms and elegantly stylized figures.

Two illuminated pages of a manuscript of the early twentieth century in the Hofer collection at Harvard are among the finest to reveal influences of Western techniques (pis. 68-69). Such influences are recognizable in the delineation of the foreground, horizon, and blue sky. These concessions, however did not detract the Thai artists from continuing their vividly graphic and evocative style with mauve foreground, decorative plants, unnaturalistic placement of figures, and abrupt transitions of areas of color. Although by and large the Thai illuminators remained convention bound, they were never constrained in expressing their personal visions with humour and delight.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the extraordinary cosmological book in the Hofer collection, depicting heavens and hells as well as the jatakas. Although painted in the early part- of this century, when in most other countries the tradition had decayed, the unknown Thai master has created a work that can hold its own with the finest Byzantine manuscript illumination. Sometimes the compositions extend over several pages, as in the dramatic and highly visionary representation of the cosmic Mount Meru supporting Indra’s heaven (Pl. 68), and achieve the monumentality and visual impact of a large cloth painting or mural. This is an imaginary land and, by emphasizing abstract and geometric forms, the artist has eminently succeeded in conveying a realm of splendor and wonder that can match one’s wildest imagination of a cosmic mountain and a court in paradise.

The second composition illustrated here (Pl. 69) also extends over four pages and is no less extraordinary, although for different reasons. By using Western techniques for the background landscape — enriched with soothing blue mountains, impressionistically rendered trees, and grazing elephant herds—artist brings the viewer down to earth. Undoubtedly, the mode of delineating the water with sailboats at the far right, as well as the realistic ship in the horizon beyond the visionary blue island on the upper right, reveals the artist’s fascination with Western pictorial ideas. The entire foreground is then delineated as a schematized, but animated ocean, where the focus of attention is one the gigantic floating footprint of the Buddha, which is admired and escorted by a host of sea creatures and divinities. Indeed, for the imaginative boldness as well as the audacity with which the artist has juxtaposed such desparate technical and stylistic elements into a balanced and harmonious composition, this representation remains an aesthetic tour de force of Buddhist manuscript illuminations. The variety of forms and compositions, brilliantly luminous colors, strange admixture of the bizarre and elegant, sur-realistic juxtaposition of space, time, and scale, and evocative and haunting beauty of human and animal images make this illuminated book by an unknown Thai master as sumptuous a visual feast as the famous Tres Riches Heures du Due de Berry. Their differences notwithstanding, they represent, within each tradition, the pinnacles of man’s aesthetic achievements.

Ibid., see plate on p. 51 for one of the most garishly painted jataka illustrations with strong application of European pictorial techniques.