By CHUSRI NGAMPRASERT
IT’S NOT EVERY DAY you see a monk writing Lanna script on a dried palm leaf with a metal stylus, but the age-old tradition lingers at Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong in Chiang Mai.
Palm-leaf manuscripts – khum phi bai lan – represent one of the oldest writing and painting media in South and Southeast Asia. And it’s dying out thanks to the dampness, hungry insects and the very fragility of the leaves.
A manuscript on a palm leaf might last a few decades or, with luck, 600 years. When it begins to decay, the script has to be transferred onto another leaf.
The content includes passages from Buddhist literature, historical records, and laws, customs and culture. The subjects range from astrology, mythology and rituals to medicine and folk tales. The language can be the Northern Thai (Lanna), Tai Khuen, Tai Lue, Lao, Shan, Burmese or Pali.
Monastic reforms issuing from Bangkok in the early 20th century saw use of the Lanna language suppressed and along with it the writing of Lanna manuscripts in any form. Efforts to preserve khum phi bai lan as a regional literary tradition began in the early 1960s.
“It’s very hard now to find Aksorn Tham Lanna script, the northern dharma characters, because everyone uses the standard Thai alphabet,” says Phra Maha Prasert Siripunyo. The 28-year-old monk at Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong is one of the few who still inscribe palm leaves.
Preparing the leaves is in itself a complicated process, and another reason why the ancient practice has given way to modern forms.
“We cut the third and fourth leaves from the top of a lan palm [genus Corypha] because only the half-opened leaves are suitable,” says the monk. The leaves are cut to the required size and softened by boiling for three days in water that’s been used to wash rice (nam sao kao). Then the leaves are dried, pressed, polished and trimmed further as needed.
Inscribing is usually done with a sharp wooden or metal stylus, and then a mixture of resin or oil and pot soot (min mo) is applied to make the text more legible.
The manuscripts are bound with cord strung through holes punched at either end and stored between wooden panels (mai pa kad) that are sometimes painted or gilded. A cloth wrap keeps the bundle free from dust. The manuscripts are kept in temple repositories (ho tham), but are forever at risk of being destroyed by fire or termites.
Harald Hundius, professor emeritus in Thai and Lao languages and literature at the University of Passau in Germany, has spent four decades studying palm-leaf manuscripts in both Asian countries – and trying to preserve the practice.
Fluent in Thai, Hundius migrated from research on the poetry of Sunthorn Phu to the first comprehensive survey of Lanna manuscripts, conducted from 1971 to 1974 in the Thai North with funding from a German foundation. To understand the text he studied the Lanna language (kham mueang) with Singkha Wannasai in Lamphun.
It was Ajarn Singkha who had in 1966 completed a survey of the manuscripts at Wat Lai Hin in Lampang for the Siam Society.
“Kham mueang is difficult,” admits Hundius, now 77. “It was almost two years before I had the courage to try and speak it, and the locals laughed at me, but I didn’t give up!”
While lecturing at Chiang Mai University he initiated the Preservation of Northern Thai Manuscripts Project, and then headed to Laos to do the same there, with financing from the German government.
That led to a Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts, and an identical library for northern Thai manuscripts was undertaken in 2013, with funding – scant to begin with – finally secured from the Henry Luce Foundation and, again, the German government. Significant support has also come from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation and the University of Pennsylvania.
“It’s quite hard for researchers to get to the manuscripts at the temples,” Hundius says, explaining the key appeal of the digital libraries. “You have to get permission to go inside the repositories and you have to read the documents on-site. The online library makes the manuscripts more accessible for study and also helps preserve the originals.”
Complicating matters, though, is the fact that the library curators are based in Laos, says David Wharton, technical director for the Northern Thai project. “We have to borrow microfilm copies from Chiang Mai and then check them in Laos before sending them to Germany to be digitised,” he says, while praising their Lao colleagues and the National Library of Laos, where they’re based.
“There are still hundreds to thousands more ancient manuscripts out there,” Hundius says, “and we want to preserve their content for study.
“We’re a bit anxious because the funding period ends in a few months, but, when I look at those monks and the villagers who spent their whole lives taking good care of the ancient manuscripts, it encourages me not to give up.
“The practice of writing on palm leaves is almost gone,” the professor says. “People these days don’t even understand what’s written on the leaves. But now that this rich literary heritage is available online, we hope their increased accessibility will contribute in turn to the maintenance of the physical tradition for many more generations to come.”
THE OLD IS NEW
- The Digital Library of Northern Thai Manuscripts contains more than 170,000 images of manuscripts, on both palm leaf (bai lan) and mulberry paper (phap sa).
- For details, check LannaManuscripts.net.