Endangered Archives

EAP756: Survey and preservation of monastic manuscript collections in villages of Upper Myanmar

Dr Alexey Kirichenko, Independent Researcher
2014 award - Pilot project
£9,900 for 12 months

Archival partner: Inya Institute, Yangon

Project Overview

This project aims to document Burmese manuscript culture in its native context by exploring several surviving historical archives accumulated in villages of Upper Myanmar over the last 150 years. Manuscript collections will be surveyed at 27 sites in Sagaing, Magwe, and Mandalay regions. Most of the collections are historical and have existed for about 150-200 years while others are recent amalgamations coming from the neighbouring monasteries. The several thousands of manuscripts offer a unique opportunity for the study of the social history of Burmese manuscript culture. The results will be a short list of manuscripts in the area, digital copies of approximately 100 manuscripts that will be made available online, a project webpage bringing attention to an understudied field of research, and training given to local specialists.

Burmese manuscripts had been produced up until the 1940s. By the nineteenth century, significant collections had accumulated in almost every village. After the annexation of Upper Burma in 1885, the largest archives held in the royal palace/library and royally-sponsored monasteries were either looted and sold piecemeal to art dealers or changed ownership with many manuscripts and their provenance lost in transit.

Collections held in village monasteries were less subject to these dynamics. Although local archives also suffered from predatory acquisition by art dealers, collectors, and urban institutions, such archives are the only historical manuscript collections in Myanmar that allow in-depth research into textual production/circulation over the last 200-300 years. Adverse political and economic factors affecting Myanmar since the 1940s created another source of risk for these collections as by WWII manuscripts felt into disuse and were poorly maintained. The expansion of state power in Myanmar also accelerated the takeover of local collections by urban-based institutions that lacked the expertise to properly document archives. Except for one collection in the Tharlay monastery, Inlay Lake, local collections in Upper Myanmar were never systematically surveyed, catalogued, or digitised.

The bulk of village collections consist of palm-leaf manuscripts. Most comprise canonical and commentarial Buddhist texts, works on Pali and Sanskrit grammar, translations and adaptations of such works into Burmese, etc. Poetry, chronicles, legal, astrological, and medical works comprise approximately 10-20%. As a rule, collections range between dozens and a few hundred bundles of palm leaves copied between the 1660s and 1940s (the majority date to the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Each bundle contains one to twenty texts (usually, one to four).

Many texts (especially Pali works) exist in multiple copies. Some have been published, so their manuscripts are perceived as having little value. The best-endowed archival institutions in Myanmar see these materials as redundant and do not collect or try to preserve them. Such an approach is shortsighted, as manuscripts frequently preserve unpublished texts or textual variants that are useful for new editions or tracing of development of particular texts. Village archives are crucial for understanding monastic education, local textual activities, and social history. All such data are critically important, as Burmese and Southeast Asian history is still largely understood from the perspective of a limited archive of sources long available to researchers. Huge potential lies in contextualising these collections within larger intellectual and social histories of the region, a dimension that is often missing in a purely archival or philological approach.

The townships that will be surveyed represent core historic areas of Upper Burmese monasticism, long linked through powerful monastic and lay elite networks. At the same time, they were much less covered by manuscript research initiatives carried out by scholars and institutions based in Yangon, Mandalay, and Meiktila.

Thirteen out of the 27 sites have been already visited and a preliminary survey undertaken. Collections at the visited sites comprise more than 2,000 manuscripts, while the total amount at all sites might be more than 5,000. Selected collections feature locally produced manuscripts, manuscripts acquired by local donors at commercial manuscript workshops in Mandalay, and at least two manuscript archives moved from royal monasteries in the capital area. Thus, as a source of data on manuscript culture, the importance of these collections goes well beyond the sites themselves. The presence of both locally built collections and archives sponsored by the royalty provides unique opportunity for comparison and might offer important insights into the workings of village-based monasticism vis-a-vis monastic establishments involved in royal merit-making and royally-sponsored scripturalism. In addition to ‘normal’ risks to which almost all collections in Myanmar are exposed, three collections of the 13 already surveyed are now kept as heaps of scattered folios, many of which are broken, while several others are affected by mice inhabiting storage.

The project will build on Principal Investigator’s earlier research and long-term work on Burmese monasticism and is conceived as a step towards a major project covering a more focused set of sites and involving a more thorough documentation and digitisation. Mapping of selected areas in terms of manuscript collections, compilation and making available of collection reports and digitised manuscripts will help to raise awareness of local archives and their potential for research at the sites themselves, among Myanmar scholars and academia in general. The Principal Investigator will work in cooperation with the section of Department of Archaeology and National Museum in Mandalay and in consultation with the Ministry of Religious Affairs in order to build local capacity, and share knowledge and project deliverables.

Project Outcome