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  • Illuminating ArchivesCollectors and Collections in the History of Thai Manuscripts
  • Justin McDaniel

My office is on 36th Street in Philadelphia. Within a twenty-mile radius, there are more than thirty Thai restaurants, three places to practice Vipassana meditation from students who studied in Thailand, four actively working Thai language teachers, seven places to practice Thai kickboxing, a cultural center where Thai-Americans and non-Thai enthusiasts can practice classical Thai music and dancing, two Thai markets, and a major Thai Buddhist monastery. Thai-style Buddha images are sold in several curio shops, and one tattoo parlor advertises Thai protective tattoos. If you go to New York or Los Angeles, the number of ways of experiencing Thai culture increases exponentially. Thai people have traditionally been great exporters and promoters of their culture abroad, providing readily available access to it in places like Philadelphia, London, Rome, Berlin, Paris, Sydney, São Paulo, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, and Tokyo. In the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, however, the first way most foreigners—at that time this contact was limited largely to members of the leisure and upper classes—encountered Thai/Siamese culture was not through kickboxing (Muay Thai) or Pad Thai noodles, but through manuscripts. [End Page 3]

When travelers from Europe, North America, and Japan, among other places, started exploring Southeast Asia, they often brought manuscripts back to their own museums and homes. Manuscripts are portable, beautiful, exotic, and informative. Thai travelers and diplomats often brought manuscripts as gifts when going abroad as well. Thai manuscripts have made their way into foreign collections for more than four hundred years. Although they were rarely translated, they were put on display and presented as the quintessential representative of both Thai and Buddhist culture. Unfortunately, despite the large number of Thai manuscripts available in museum, library, and private collections abroad, they have been understudied. When they have been studied, they have not been studied comprehensively. Moreover, we know little about the people that acquired them, traded them, collected them, or stole them.

This special issue of Manuscript Studies seeks to begin the process of studying these manuscripts. The contributors have closely examined the largest collections of Thai manuscripts abroad. We have concentrated largely on illuminated streblus asper bark (khoi) paper manuscripts and palm-leaf manuscripts from Central Thailand, versus Northern Thai (Lanna), Lao, and Shan manuscripts, which have been the study of work by Rujaya, LaGirarde, Pamphen, Wharton, Wannasai, Hundius, von Hinüber, McDaniel, and others. While, as mentioned below, Northern Thai manuscripts have been (and are undergoing) a massive photographing and cataloguing process, there has been, although this will hopefully change in the near future, no such project for manuscripts from Central Thailand despite their historical and aesthetic importance. Because of their aesthetic beauty, most of the collections are dominated by illuminated manuscripts from Central Thailand (Siam). Therefore, the first major aim of this issue of Manuscript Studies is to highlight the collections of illuminated manuscripts of Central Thailand and to show through many examples the shape and significance of their cultural importance to Buddhist textual and artistic history.

Central Thai manuscripts do not contain the wide range of genres seen in Northern Thai, Lao, and Burmese collections. Indeed, the vast majority of the Central Thai manuscripts are either drawn from or based loosely on the Abhidhamma and are frequently used for funerary rites or the story of [End Page 4] Phra Malai, a monk with supernatural powers who goes on a long journey to visit various levels of heaven and hell. While there are certainly other texts found within Central Thai manuscripts (as mentioned below), these two texts are dominant. The general lack of variety in textual content, however, is made up for by the wide variety of illustrations taken from birth stories of the Buddha, Hindu epics, the natural world, and daily life scenes. Therefore, this issue hopes to speak to those interested in Buddhist art as much as those interested in the history of textual transmission and Buddhist literature. More broadly, it is intended to provide comparative examples to students of illuminated manuscripts from the Near East, Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia, and Europe. Central Thai manuscripts...


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