Endangered Archives

EAP691: Rare manuscripts of great Buddhist thinkers of Laos: digitisation, translation and relocation at the 'Buddhist Archive of Luang Prabang'

Professor Volker Grabowsky, Buddhist Heritage Project, Luang Prabang
2014 award - Major project
£56,787 for 18 months

Archival partner: Buddhist Archive of Photography

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Project Overview

This project aims at the identification, digitisation, and safe storage of important palm-leaf manuscripts, ancient leporello manuscripts written on mulberry paper, and related documents from the personal collections of several great Buddhist abbots of Luang Prabang in Laos.

These collections have almost miraculously survived civil war, war and revolution. Their owners and collectors have passed away during the last 25 years. The manuscripts are now in immediate danger of being dispersed. The manuscripts present valuable insight into the diverse intellectual interests of leading Theravada thinkers of the 20th century in one of the least known Buddhist cultures in the world.

Notwithstanding its rich culture, deeply influenced by Theravada Buddhism, Laos is still one of the least researched countries of Southeast Asia. During the second half of the 20th century, significant parts of the country’s cultural heritage have been destroyed, or seriously damaged, due to foreign interventions, civil war, and revolution. As a great surprise to international researchers, Buddhist monks of Luang Prabang, the ancient Royal capital, managed to preserve important parts of Lao heritage.

Between 1996 and 2006, a huge and unique corpus of historical photographs was discovered in the abodes (kuti) of leading abbots in twelve monasteries in two consecutive EAP projects, EAP177 and EAP326. With the help of EAP, the Buddhist Archive of Photography has been established. In addition, thousands of monographs, journals, and official documents were found in eight larger monasteries and are currently being inventoried and analysed by a team of Lao and German researchers at the University in Hamburg.

A most striking discovery of the last years has been a collection of 340 ancient palm-leaf manuscripts and 85 leporello manuscripts in the kuti of Pha Khamchan Virachitto (1920–2007) who was an outstanding monk of Laos in the second half of the twentieth century. Pha Khamchan’s personal collection was left undocumented by the Lao National Library's "Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme" in the 1990s, as it did not form part of the monastery’s library, but remained restricted to the exclusive use of the late abbot himself.

Whereas the manuscripts kept in monastic libraries usually contain Buddhist canonical and non-canonical texts (almost 90 percent), the Pha Khamchan manuscript collection reflects the abbot’s diverse intellectual interests ranging from history, medicine, astrology and divination to inter-religious dialogue and various aspects of Sangha organisation and policies. For the study of Buddhism in Laos, these collections are of the highest significance, as they reflect the organisation of traditional knowledge and political involvement of the Sangha, as well as the intellectual and spiritual interests of their religious leaders.

Based on a preliminary survey of the Pha Khamchan’s private collection of manuscripts we may conclude that the bulk of the manuscripts date from the first half of the 20th century. Some manuscripts have been copied by Pha Khamchan himself or have been commissioned at the occasion of the Venerable Abbot’s anniversaries; these manuscripts date from the second half the 20th century. However, there are a dozen manuscripts – both palm-leaf and mulberry paper manuscripts – which were written in the 19th century. The oldest extant manuscript in the Pha Khamchan collection is dated AD 1791. It is an ancient Buddhist prayer manuscript called Kammavāca, used for the ordination ceremonies of monks and novices.

In addition to the Pha Khamchan collection, recent investigations have shown that at least two further collections of senior monks have survived, namely those of Pha Kham Fan Silasangvaro (Vat Suvannakhili) and Pha Bunchankaeo Phothichitto (Vat Xiang Muan Vajiramangalaram). Based on experience in the previous EAP projects focusing on historical photographs, it is suspected that a systematic survey of all 34 monasteries in the city of Luang Prabang will lead to the discovery of even more personal collections of leading senior monks. There is a chance to capture and preserve, in a critical moment, the intellectual heritage of a large number of Buddhist thinkers. Access to these unique collections of documents will provide opportunities to a new generation of Lao intellectual monks and to international researchers to deepen their studies of Lao Buddhism and history.

Many manuscripts are in a vulnerable physical condition. Individual collections are in great danger of being dispersed and biological damage due to termites and mould is increasing. Other dangers of neglect, theft and mishandling are growing day by day.

It is at this point that the provincial Sangha has decided to transfer the libraries of major monasteries and personal collections of monks (the latter being the focus of this project), to a central place. The monks have invited this team to accompany the transfer with a project of digitisation and a programme of training for young local scholars. The Sala Thammavihan of Vat Souvannakhili, which since 2006 houses the Buddhist Archive of Photography, will become the central space of the Buddhist Archive of Luang Prabang.

Local staff will carry out the work, trained by the project, to ensure the long-term preservation of these manuscripts, as well as access to them for scholars inside and outside the Buddhist Sangha. It is estimated that approximately 2,000 manuscripts will be digitised, 30,000 to 40,000 folios. Copies will be deposited with the National Library of Laos in Vientiane, the local Buddhist Archive in Luang Prabang, the British Library, and the University of Hamburg.

Project Outcome

The project was able to describe and digitise the personal collections of manuscripts used by Pha Khamchan Virachitto (Vat Saen Sukharam), Pha Khamfan Silasangvara (Vat Suvannakhili), and Pha Bunchankeo Phothichitto (Vat Xiang Muan). Colophons and other paratexts (such as prefaces and titles) were transcribed into modern Lao. Roughly half of the manuscripts have such colophons which in most cases mention not only the date when the writing of the manuscript was finished, but also the names of sponsors and donors of the manuscripts and, more rarely, the name of the scribes. Preservation work has also been carried out on the original manuscripts which are now stored under safer and more accessible conditions.

In total 1,049 codological units (955 palm-leaf fascicles and 94 leporello-style folded paper manuscripts) have been digitised. Digitisation of palm-leaf manuscripts was carried out starting with the recto side of the first palm-leaf folio, the next image shows the verso side of folio 1 (above) together with the recto side of folio 2 (below), followed by the image showing folio 2 verso with folio 3 recto, and so on. The last image of a digitised manuscript shows only the verso side of the last palm-leaf folio. This method of digitisation has also been applied to the paper manuscripts of which the large majority were mulberry paper leporello manuscripts either made of the Sa or Khòi kinds of “mulberry” paper. Apart from such folded books, there were a few paper manuscripts, notably those with Tai Lue and Tai Khuen background, whose folios were sown along on of the narrow sides in a kind of “whirlwind” binding.

Awareness of the importance of this collection of manuscripts has been raised through the publication of The Lao Sangha and Modernity: Research at the Buddhist Archives of Luang Prabang, 2005–2015 which has been praised by Prof. Dr. Justin McDaniels, one of the leading authorities in Buddhist Studies, as “one of the most significant publications to come out to Lao Studies in the last fifty years”. Two doctoral dissertations (University of Hamburg, 2006), which have made full use of the collections digitised in EAP691, EAP177, and EAP326 have also been published and made available online - “Buddhist Monks and their Search for Knowledge: an examination of the personal collection of manuscripts of Phra Khamchan Virachitto (1920-2007), Abbot of Vat Saen Sukharam, Luang Prabang” , by Bounleuth Sengsoulin; and, “The Life, Work and Social Roles of the Most Venerable Sathu Nyai Khamchan Virachitta Maha Thela (1920–2007)” , by Khamvone Boulyaphonh.