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Asian Collections: Library of Congress, An Illustrated Guide

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Burmese "Kammavaca" (Confession for  Buddhist Monks)
Burmese "Kammavaca"
(Confession for Buddhist Monks). At every new and full moon, Buddhist monks confess their sins to each other. In Burma, it is a work of piety and "merit making" for the laity to commission and present to the Sangha (monastic order) manuscripts of the texts for this ritual. For greater merit, these manuscripts are often in rich materials with beautiful calligraphy and elaborate ornamentation. This example has wooden covers; is lacquered, gilded, and embossed; and is studded with cut glass to imitate rubies, emeralds, and diamonds. The text is on thin sheets of ivory and is lacquered with the text in the ornamental "tamarind seed" script and with figures of deities in red lacquer. The long, narrow form of the book is a carryover from palm leaves, the usual material for books. (Burmese Pali Manuscript Collection, Asian Division)

Although Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia are each unique states with their own histories, they share important classical traditions. Their writing systems use alphabets derived from the early Indian script known as Brahmi, and their predominant religion has been Theravada Buddhism since the gradual decline of other Indian-derived religions by the thirteenth century. Theravada Buddhism's basic text is called the Tipitaka (Three Baskets), which is composed of discourses ("Sutta"), rules for monastic life ("Vinaya"), and elaborations on the Buddha's teachings ("Abhidhamma"). This canon was carried orally until written down in the Pali language in Ceylon in the first century ad and is considered by its followers to be the most authentic record and teaching of the Buddha. (Theravada means "the way of the elders.")

The Asian Division's collection contains many palm leaf manuscript texts of the Tipitaka and of the extensive commentaries written about it. In 1905, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), the well-known Thai reformer, presented the Library with the first printed Thai version of the Tipitaka. A Burmese Tipitaka, written in Pali using Burmese script, was presented to the Library in 1949 as part of a large Burmese donation. The Library holds an especially fine collection of Burmese Theravada palm leaf manuscripts in Pali.

A recent addition to the Burmese holdings is a set of the ten best-known Jataka (Life) stories, providing accounts of the previous ten lives of the historic Buddha. Etched in gold on black Burmese lacquer, these popular illustrated stories hold a special place among the Burmese Buddhist laity, reinforcing the teaching of moral virtues and the doctrines of Karma and rebirth

Thailand's King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) 1868-1910
Thailand's King Chulalongkorn (Rama V)
1868-1910. Instituting major reforms in Thailand's government and society during his long reign, King Chulalongkorn brought his nation into the twentieth century while preserving Thai independence in the face of Western colonial pressure. Chulalongkorn's interest in modernization did not, however, prevent him from playing the traditional role of Thai monarchs as "protector of the Buddhist faith." In 1905, he presented the Library of Congress with a handsome set of the Buddhist Theravada canon, the Tipitika, in modern Thai script. This photo of Chulalongkorn is found at the beginning of each volume. (Southest Asian Collection, Asian Division)

Theravada Buddhism shaped the early historiography of Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. The earlier Thai historical tradition that began well before the fifteenth century is called "tamnan" history and places Thai history in the broader context of the history of Buddhism. Scholars are still debating the value of tamnan writings as historical sources, but a good selection of tamnan texts can be found on microfiche in the Asian Division's holdings. Historical writings in the Chinese style of dynastic histories are a later development in Thailand, dating from the seventeenth century. This chronicle tradition, or "phongsawadan" history, is also represented in the Asian Division's collection in the form of modern microfiche copies of the original documents in Thailand. An important Burmese history, the Hmannan" maha' ya'zawin taw kyi" (The Glass Palace Chronicle), written by a group of scholars appointed by King Bagyidaw in 1829, was part of a 1949 Burmese donation that included a number of other important works of Burmese language and literature.

The Library holds some unique American material that provides a glimpse of nineteenth-century Thailand. The first treaty between the United States and an Asian state was negotiated by Edmund Roberts with the Thai government in 1833. Roberts's journal and personal papers are in the Manuscript Division, as are the papers, dating from 1894 to 1898, of U.S. Minister to Thailand John Barrett. Barrett's large collection of photos of Thailand from the 1890s is held separately in the Prints and Photographs Division. The Library's holdings of the English language newspaper Bangkok Recorder, started by the American Dan Beach ("Mo") Bradley in 1865, are of special interest to historians of nineteenth-century Thailand. The Asian Division holds a small but rare collection of early Southeast Asian works printed by American missionaries in Thailand. The Library also has a major Buddhist periodical, Thammaçhaksu (The Eye of the Law), on film from 1898 onward and in print from 1935 to 1965.

Nong Rak Chaophi Oei.
"Nong Rak Chaophi 'Oei." This manuscript from Thailand, probably ineteenth century, consists of one long strip of thick paper folded accordion style. It contains mantras (spells) in Pali, the sacred language of the Theravada Buddhism of Southeast Asia, and in Khmer script from Cambodia, as well as instructions in Thai on how to use them. The illustrations are yantras, magical diagrams. They include ultrastylized sitting Buddhas, magic squares (numerical diagrams with a constant sum in every direction), mystic syllables, and a mythological bird. This sort of thing is very popular in Thailand today, and the Library has a number of contemporary books on the subject. (Southeast Asian Collection, Asian Division)

European relations with Thailand, of course, predate American contacts, and the Library holds several rare European accounts. Among the earliest is the French diplomat Marquis Alexandré de Chaumont's account of his 1685 mission to Ayutthaya, then the capital of Thailand. Accompanied by a large delegation of Jesuits, Chaumont aimed to convert King Narai to Christianity, a mission doomed to failure. The Rare Book and Special Collections Division has a copy of Chaumont's book, Relation de l'ambassade de Mr le chevalier de Chaumont à la Cour du Roy de Siam, published in Paris in 1686. It also has several editions of Guy Tachard's book, Voyage de Siam, des pères jésuites, envoyés par le roy aux Indes & à la Chine, also first published in 1686. Father Tachard, one of the Jesuits in Chaumont's mission, later returned to continue French intrigues at the court of Ayutthaya.

Three Karen Christian Tracts.
Three Karen Christian Tracts
. The Karen are a minority people in the hilly parts of southeast Burma. They were largely converted to Christianity by American Baptist missionaries in the last century. The Baptists were very influential in many parts of Burma, and their American mission presses were important in the development of typography in the local languages. Unlike some of the minority peoples, the Karen had no writing system before their evangelization, and the missionaries devised a system that was based on Burmese and is still in use. The Karen took to publishing with zeal, starting a newspaper as early as 1841. The Library's large collection of Karen materials from the nineteenth century up to the present was acquired at various times and through various routes. These three pamphlets illustrate typical themes: the development of indigenous church institutions, struggles with the earlier religion, and issues of social reform. (Southeast Asian Collection, Asian Division)

Thailand has maintained a vibrant classical music tradition, actively supported by the current monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX). The Music Division holds a beautiful collection of Thai court musical instruments that were presented to the Library in 1960 by King Bhumibol.

Burmese music is also represented in the Library's Asian holdings. In 1952, a collection of classical Burmese music recorded by Daw Sao Mya Kyi, a legendary authority, was presented to the Library by the Burma-America Institute. The records represent the type of music played and sung at the royal court of Mandalay during the nineteenth century. This music is part of the so-called "Yodaya" type of singing, originally brought into Burma from Thailand after the eighteenth-century conquest of Ayutthaya.

HOME  Preface  Introduction  The World of Asian Books  Chinese Beginnings  Tales from the Yunnan Woods  The Diplomat and the Dalai Lama  From the Steppes of Central Asia  The Japanese World  Korean Classics  Homer on the Ganges  White Whales and Bugis Book  Barangays, Friars, and "The Mild Sway of Justice"  The Theravada Tradition  The Southern Mandarins  Modern Asia  East Asia  Inner Asia  South Asia  Southeast Asia and the Pacific  Epilog  Publications on the Asian Collections

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( November 15, 2010 )
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