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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

Towards A Collective Memory of Mainland Southeast Asia Field Preservation of Traditional Manuscripts in Thailand, Laos and Myanmar

Rujaya Abhakorn
Chiang Mai University Library


Prior to the nineteenth century, all of the nations on mainland Southeast Asia existed as separate states of varying sizes but sharing a common complex culture of belief and practices that are rapidly fading away in the face of western values and economic development. While it could be argued that the memory of historical regional conflicts is in contrast to the modern attempts at regional coope ration in Southeast Asia and could work against it, there are plenty of historical examples of culture - sharing and harmony which come to light as more and more efforts are being made to catalogue and preserve palm - leaf and other types of traditional manuscripts, especially those that are kept in monastic and private holdings.

This paper describes the recent efforts made by various government institutions in Thailand, Laos and Myanmar at preserving manuscripts in Buddhist temples in rural or provincial areas. The methodology used is a mixture of simplicity and modern technology, with an emphasis on popular participation in conservation. The exchanges of information and experience among the leading conservationists in t hese countries will make it possible to work towards a collective memory of mainland Southeast Asia that would lead to a better understanding of the region and its culture.


Mainland Southeast Asia comprises Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and peninsular Malaysia. These national designations are of a very recent origin, tracing back to the late nineteenth century when the two imperialist powers, France and Great Britain, divided up the traditional kingdoms and principalities of Southeast Asia among themselves. These polities had emerged from several thousa nd years of cultural experience that taught the inhabitants of the hills and river valleys how to coexist with nature and other people peacefully. The rivalries, exploitations and wars are important parts of their memory as well as the religious bonds and marital ties among the different groups of Mons, Khmers, Tais, Burmese, and Vietnamese. The diverse cultural practices have common ground in th e respect for the external life - forces and the elders, the art of living with nature and with other peoples, regardless of the ethnic or language differences. The cultural practices of Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are perhaps the most visible manifestation of regional cohesion. The formation of national ideologies and the encroachment of western values and life - s tyles have led to the neglect and destruction of this classical Southeast Asian common ground. In many cases, what is left can only be found in paper or palm-leaf documents. Unfortunately, these too are also under threat from neglect or willful destruction by all types of living creatures, man among them.

Because of widespread literacy, especially among the Buddhist communities in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, there are hand-written documents everywhere, too many to be kept under one roof of a national archives or a national library. To prevent them from disappearing, field preservation is urgently needed throughout mainland SEA. At the time when the region is at peace and regional co operation is encouraged, especially through the ASEAN mechanism, field preservation can only strengthen regional ties and bring back the memory of a common regional heritage of beliefs, values and wisdom.

This paper will outline some of the recent efforts at field preservation in Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. The author has been involved in all of these efforts at different levels.

Field Preservation in Thailand

”Field Preservation” here means in situ preservation and conservation of local written sources using appropriate technology and basic methods of preventive preservation. The documents are not taken away, although important ones would be microfilmed, again in the field. It is in contrast to the library or museum-type of conservation which treats each document with perfect care at great expense. In field preservation and conservation (PAC), there is a race against time. Behind it all is the belief that local heritage should be best looked after by the local people.

Field PAC of traditional manuscripts in Thailand was not practiced on a large scale until the 1960's, when Associate Professor Sommai Premchit started a survey and microfilming project of northern Thai manuscripts from his base at the Social Research Institute of Chiang Mai University with the support of the Toyota Foundation. The project succeeded in cataloguing over 10,000 fascicles or abo ut 3,000 titles and produced 110 reels of microfilms (Social Research Institute 1982). At about the same time, the Siam Society in Bangkok also supported a survey of manuscripts in northern Thai temples.

A microfilming project was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) in the early 1970's and run by a German scholar, Dr. Harald Hundius, and Singkha Wannasai, a local expert in the northern script and literature. The project produced about 1000 titles in microfilms (Hundius 1990).

Dr. Hundius was instrumental in convincing the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1986 to support what turned out to be the largest field preservation effort ever attempted in Thailand. The Project for the Preservation of Northern Thai Manuscripts was run by the newly - created Center for the Promotion of Arts and Culture of Chiang Mai University headed by the present author. The P roject had three main aims:

  1. To restore and preserve the traditional manuscripts in about 6northern Thai temples.

  2. To promote awareness of the value of the manuscripts and encourage active participation among the local people in PAC efforts.

  3. To establish a model for PAC activities by setting up institutions and network among scholars, monks and lay supporters.

The Project emphasized preventive methods, that is to say, safe -keeping of the documents to prevent damage by external factors such as the weather, insects, animals and man. As there was neither time nor budget to carry out extensive conservation measures at each temple, basic "spring" cleaning - up method was used. The manuscripts were dusted and placed in new cotton bags . Palm-leaf manuscript s without wooden covers were provided with new ones. New containers would also be provided wherever possible as the traditional boxes tended to encourage stacking that could damage the manuscripts, and worst of all, place them out of human attention. In some cases they were removed from the original repositories to more suitable buildings. All manuscripts at each monastery were catalogued under a new system which divide them into 21 categories. Each document was given code numbers according to the province, monastery, category, bundle number and title. Important ones were microfilmed. A list of all the documents were given to the each monastery.

Local participation was an important aspect of this project. Monks, novices and lay supporters of both sexes at each location were briefed on the importance of the written heritage and asked to participate in the cleaning, cataloguing and microfilming activities. Over 1,000 local monks and laymen from eight provinces attended workshops that focussed on basic PAC methods, the contents of the man uscripts and appropriate organizations for future PAC activities. The Project had hopes to set up “Manuscript Preservation Centers“ (MPCs) in each province to sustain PAC activities at the local level. This aspect of the project has not been successful for lack of financial support and the nature of local Thai government which is excessively centralized.

Nevertheless, as a result of this Project, nearly 100 monasteries in upper northern Thailand had their manuscripts catalogued for the first time. Most of them are religious texts, with Jataka tales forming the bulk of the documents. Over 45,000 titles are now on record kept in a database at Chiang Mai University; over 3,000 of them have been microfilmed and available in 325 reels. While there ar e now many local individuals in the “preserved” areas who know the importance of their heritage and the rudimentary principles and methods of PAC, the documents are still underused and the sustainability of local efforts is in question.

Field Preservation in Laos

Lao manuscript - writing belongs to the same tradition as that of the Thais in Thailand. Changes in governmental policies in the late 1980's made it possible to look back for cultural identity in the past. In 1989, a Project for the Compilation of an Inventory of Palm Leaf Manuscripts was set up by the Ministry of Information and Culture under the leadership of Mrs. Dara Kanlaya and funded by t he Toyota Foundation. Associate Professor Sommai Premchit of Chiang Mai University acted as a consultant to this project which emphasized making inventories of temple manuscripts in seven provinces. However, as the Northern Thai project drew to a close, the German Government was asked to provide a similar assistance to Laos. Again, with the help of Dr. Hundius, a Preservation of Lao Manuscripts P rogramme was established with the aim of preserving manuscripts in Buddhist monasteries and other libraries throughout Lao PDR from 1992 - 2002.

While this project is similar to the Northern Thai project, it is more ambitious as it covers the whole of Laos and would like to make a better use of the manuscripts not only for religious, but also for scholarly and educational purposes. It plans to set up a bibliographic database of Lao literature and create a text pool which can also be used for the upcoming revision of the "Lao Literature" curriculum at high schools and other institutes of higher learning.

By the end of 1994, the two projects have covered 222 monasteries in seven provinces and have recorded over 36,000 titles (Lao PDR Ministry of Information and Culture 1994).

Field Preservation in Myanmar

Traditional written records in Myanmar consist of palm - leaf manuscripts and folded paper books (parabaik). While many of these records are now kept out of harm's ways in public organizations such as the National Library and the Universities' Central Library, many more manuscripts are in monastic and private holdings throughout the country. They are unclassified and do not receive attention as manuscripts but as holy objects that are worshipped rather than read.

U Tun Aung Chain, Chairman of the recently - established National Commission for the Preservation of Traditional Manuscripts, has pointed out that although

there was a general consciousness of the need to address the question of the preservation and conservation of Myanmar traditional manuscripts on a national basis, the first concrete steps in that direction were taken only in 1994. One of the precipitating factors was the Conference on the Library and Archives Preservation Needs of Southeast Asia organized by Chiang Mai University Library with the cooperation of Cornell University Library [in Chiang Mai in 1993}. (Tun Aung Chain 1995, 1)

The formation of the National Commission in September 1994 under the Ministry of Education was the first of its kind in SEA. It is composed of members from 12 organizations that are the major governmental custodians of traditional manuscripts, such as the Myanmar Historical Commission, the Language Commission, the National Archives, the Department of Archaeology, the Religious Affairs Departmen t, the National Library, the Universities' Central Library, and the Universities Historical Research Centre.

As part of its work, the Commission has conducted two field inventories. One was at Bagaya Monastery in Mandalay in February 1995. This temple has over two thousand manuscripts, the labour of its past abbots. The Commission made a listing of some of the vast holdings with active local support. Nearly 900 palm - leaf manuscripts and 232 parabaiks were listed, with the rest reserved for future wo rk. Another was at Nan - Oo Monastery in Paungde, Bago Division in August 1995. Again, the collection in this monastery was the work of the abbot who had a strong interest in traditional manuscripts. Nearly 400 palm - leaf manuscripts have been listed (Tun Aung Chain 1995, 2-3).

The Commission has also started on a project to compile an electronic Union Catalogue of Traditional Manuscripts in both public and private holdings. It plans to microfilm selected traditional manuscripts in the future.


Field preservation in SEA, however small and localized, is always worthwhile, not only because it will reveal the local cultural landscape and memory, but a bigger regional picture can also emerge. Most Buddhist monasteries keep manuscripts related to the Buddhist doctrine, meditation techniques, ethics, astrology and divination, mythology, rites and rituals, medicine, history, laws and customs , poetry and grammar. A regional survey would show connections, similarities [...text lost in transfer...] Southeast Asian world for the twenty - first century.

Works Cited

  1. Hundius, Herald. 1990. The Colophons of Thirty Pali Manuscripts from Northern Thailand. Reprint from Journal of the Pali Text Society, XIV, 1-173.

  2. Lao PDR Ministry of Information and Culture. 1994. Statistics of Monasteries and Palm-leaf Manuscripts Already Surveyed (1988-94) (in Lao). Unpublished paper.

  3. Social Research Institute. 1982. A Catalogue of Lan Na Manuscripts Microfilm Copies in the Social Research Institute . Chiang Mai : Social Research Institute.

  4. Tun Aung Chain, U. 1995. National Commision For the Preservation of Traditional Manuscripts. Paper presented at the Preservation and Conservation Meeting, Universities Historical Research Centre, Yangon, Myanmar, 20-21, November 1995.