Palm leaf Manuscripts and the Buddhist Canon ใบลาน คําภีร์พระไตรปิฎก

คําภีร์ใบลาน Buddhist palm leaf manuscript

“Shoppingrome” on the Thai language photography web site has provided a fascinating introduction (in Thai) to palm leaf manuscripts along with superb photographs that will give you a very good idea of not only what Tai Tham script really looks like when written with a needle on palm leaves, but also of the immense historical and cultural importance of the Tai Tham script:

Here follows an English translation of Shoppingrome's commentary for the benefit of site visitors unfamiliar with Thai. Be sure to check out all the photographs in this cool photo-essay!

Palm leaf Manuscripts and the Buddhist Canon

by Shoppingrome, 4 December, 2009.

Palm leaf manuscripts are called khamphi bai laan (คัมภีร์ใบลาน) in Thai.

In ancient times before Thai people knew about paper, written texts were often recorded on animal skins or bark. When religious scriptures written on palm leaves were imported along with other aspects of culture from India, Thai people followed suit and began producing palm leaf manuscripts.

The production of a palm leaf manuscript begins by cutting leaves from a “Laan” palm which has very large, fan-shaped leaves. Two species of fan palm trees in the genus Corypha are used for manuscripts: Corypha umbraculifera Linn. is commonly planted as an ornamental in temple grounds, while the other species, Corypha lecomtei Becc. is a rainforest tree in Thailand.

The leaves are cut to a uniform rectangular size as needed, soaked in a herbal mixture to provide protection against insect damage, and then dried. Taut string or cord soaked in a mixture of resin and carbon soot is used to snap ruled lines on the palm leaves.

After that, a sharp needle called a “lek jaan” (เหล็กจาร) is used to inscribe text on both sides of the prepared palm leaves. To improve clarity after inscription, the surface is wiped down with a mixture of resin and carbon soot in order to darken the inscribed letters.

Most palm leaf manuscripts are written in the old Cambodian script, followed by the Isaan Tham script, the Lanna Tham script, the old Burmese Mon script, the Singhol script, and finally the Thai script. The primary language of these manuscripts is Pali, followed by Thai, Isaan Thai, Lanna Thai, Mon, Burmese, and Sanskrit.

After the inscription process is complete, holes are punched through and the leaves are strung together with cord or string. This process is called “saay sanong” (สายสนอง). Twenty-four leaves are strung together into a bundle called a “phuk” (ผูก). A complete manuscript may consist of one or more “phuk”.

In order to protect the leaves from damage, wooden boards for the front and back are fashioned to the same size as the palm folios, similar to the way books in the West are bound with covers. These boards are called “mai prakap tham” (ไม้ประกับธรรม).

The manuscript creators often decorate the mai prakap tham boards with unique artistic designs. As a result of this practice, it is not uncommon to call the manuscript after the manner of its decoration.

The majority of manuscripts are concerned with various aspects of the Buddhist religion, including Buddhist scripture, didactic stories, treatises and commentary on the Pali Tripitaka Buddhist canon, and ceremonial chants. In addition to these, treatises on law, legends, historical and royal chronicles, literature, fables, herbal remedies, and astrological works may also be found.

For storage, the bundles of a manuscript are wrapped in cloth, bound with five bands of cord, and then the name of the manuscript is written on the cloth.

Today numerous palm leaf manuscripts are scattered in temples all over the country. Day by day these manuscripts succumb to the ravages of time in a tropical climate. If these manuscripts do not receive proper care and preservation, a time may come when only the legends of their former existence are discussed by our grandchildren.

That’s it, please spread the word, thanks!

Translated from the Thai (with a few additional explanations for the benefit of western readers) by Ed.