Buddhist Texts, Including the Legend of Phra Malai, with Illustrations of The Ten Birth Tales

The legend of Phra Malai, a Buddhist monk of the Theravada tradition said to have attained supernatural powers through his accumulated merit and meditation, is the main text in this 19th-century Thai samut khoi (folding book) held in the Thai, Lao, and Cambodian Collections of the British Library. Phra Malai figures prominently in Thai art, religious treatises, and rituals associated with the afterlife, and the story is one of the most popular subjects of 19th-century illustrated Thai manuscripts. The earliest surviving examples of Phra Malai manuscripts date back to the late 18th century, although it is assumed that the story is much older, being based on a Pali text. The legend also has some parallels with the Ksitigarbha Sutra. The Thai text in this manuscript is combined with extracts in Pali from the Abhidhammapitaka, Vinayapitaka, Suttantapitaka, Sahassanaya, and illustrations from the Thotsachat (Last ten birth tales of the Buddha). Altogether, the manuscript has 95 folios with illustrations on 17 folios. It was very common to combine these or similar texts in one manuscript, with Phra Malai forming the main part. These texts are written in Khom script, a variant of Khmer script often used in Central Thai religious manuscripts. Although Khom script, which was regarded as sacred, was normally used for texts in Pali, in the Thai manuscript tradition the story of Phra Malai is always presented in Thai. Because Khmer script was not designed for a tonal language such as Thai, tone markers and certain vowels that do not exist in Khmer script have been adopted in Khom script to support the proper Thai pronunciation and intonation.

Letter from Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja (Daing Ibrahim), Ruler of Johor, to Napoleon III, Emperor of France

This beautiful royal Malay letter from the ruler of Johor, Temenggung Daing Ibrahim, to the Emperor of France, written in Singapore in 1857, is a triumph of style over substance. Its 13 golden lines pay effusive compliments to Napoleon III but convey little else. It is hard to know what either side hoped to gain from the despatch of such a magnificent missive, for in the mid-19th century French interests in Southeast Asia were primarily focused on Indochina, while Johor’s allegiance was firmly with the British. In the letter, the Temenggung makes no requests of the French and adroitly expresses his greatest praise for Napoleon III in terms of the emperor’s cordial relations with Queen Victoria, “both sides thereby gaining in such strength that no other nation can match them, as long as the sun and moon revolve.” It is most likely that the French envoy named in the letter, Charles de Montigny, who in 1857 was based in Singapore, procured the letter for his own personal or professional advancement. Politically, historically, and diplomatically this letter could be regarded as something of a dead end, but as a work of art it is far more significant. Despite the frequent use of gold in Malay manuscript illumination, this is the earliest known example of chrysography—writing in gold ink—in a Malay letter. It is beautifully illuminated with a rectangular golden frame on all four sides of the textblock, surmounted with an elaborate arched headpiece in red, blue, and gold. In format and structure, this epistle is an exemplar of the courtly Malay art of letter writing. At the top is the kepala surat (letter heading) in Arabic, Nur al-shams wa-al-qamr, “Light of the sun and the moon;” this phrase is very commonly encountered in Malay letters addressed to European officials. The letter opens conventionally with extensive puji-pujian (opening compliments), identifying the sender and addressee, and with fulsome praise for the emperor on account of his renown. Strangely, we do not encounter the Arabic word wa-ba‘dahu or its equivalents such as the Malay kemudian daripada itu, traditionally used to terminate the compliments and mark the start of the contents proper, for the simple reason that there is no real content to this letter. The compliments meld seamlessly with a brief mention of the French envoy entrusted with the letter, before gliding into the final section with a statement of the accompanying gift and thence onto the termaktub, the closing line giving the place and date of writing.

Treatise on Cats

This manuscript containing fine paintings of cats is in the format of a samut khoi (Thai folding book) with 12 folios, which open from top to bottom. It was produced in the 19th century in central Thailand. Folding books were usually made from the bark of mulberry trees; minerals, plant liquids, and occasionally materials imported from China and Europe were used as paints. Sometimes the paper was blackened with lampblack or lacquer to make the paper stronger and more resistant to damage by insects or humidity. Such books were mainly used for the production of non-religious manuscripts in central Thailand. The rather short captions give descriptions of the features of different types of cats that were known in Siam (present-day Thailand). For each type of cat there is also a note explaining what effect keeping this cat might have on its owner. Unfortunately, as is often the case with Thai manuscripts, no author name, illustrator name, or date is given in the manuscript. In 19th century Siam, there was a tradition of producing treatises on animals that  played important roles at the royal court and in monasteries. Among such were, first of all, elephants, particularly albinos, but also horses and cats. The breeding of the famous Siamese cats was originally reserved for the royal family. Certain cats also were believed to be the “keepers” of Buddhist temples, which resulted in these cats being closely guarded and highly revered. There was a strong belief that certain types of cats could bring good luck, prosperity, or health to the owner, whereas other types of cats were regarded as unlucky and to be avoided. For example, a white cat with nine black spots, auspicious green eyes, and a strong and beautiful voice was regarded as a lucky cat. It was said that however poor the owner of this cat might be, he or she would become a respected person and gain a high social status. The manuscript was brought to the British Library in February 2011 by the wife of an elderly manuscripts collector in the United Kingdom. The manuscript could easily be identified as a treatise on cats, similar to a manuscript already in the library’s Thai collections (Or 16008). The significant difference between the two manuscripts is that the illustrations in this item are watercolor paintings on cream-colored paper, whereas the other manuscript contains drawings in white chalk on blackened paper.

Khmer Alphabet

On April 27, 1858, Alexandre Henri Mouhot, aged 31, sailed from London to Bangkok with the aim of exploring the remote interior regions of mainland Southeast Asia. He was particularly interested in ornithology and conchology, but he also had a passion for philology, photography, and foreign languages. Born in 1826 in Montbeliard, France, Mouhot became a Greek scholar, and at the age of 18 went to teach Greek and French at the Military Academy in Saint Petersburg, where he quickly picked up Russian and Polish. At the same time he learned about the new photographic process invented by Daguerre, which he tried out as a new art form during extensive travels to Germany, Belgium, and Italy from 1854 onwards. Two years later, Mouhot settled down in England and married Annette, a relative of the Scottish explorer Mungo Park. John Bowring’s newly published book, The Kingdom and People of Siam (1857) is said to have inspired Mouhot to travel outside Europe, but the growing French presence in mainland Southeast Asia and the adventurous travels of Mungo Park may as well have played a role. Presented here are facsimiles of Sanskrit, Thai, Lao, and Khmer inscriptions from Angkor (present-day Cambodia) and Korat (then Siam, present-day Thailand) made by Mouhot. Also shown are Mouhot's travel documents issued by the Siamese authorities.


The oral tradition of the Burmese Ramayana story can be traced as far back as the reign of King Anawrahta (active 1044−77), the founder of the first Burmese empire. The story was transmitted orally from generation to generation before being written down in prose and verse and as a drama. The earliest known written Burmese version of the Ramayana is Rama Thagyin (Songs from the Ramayana), compiled by U Aung Phyo in 1775. A three-volume copy of the Rama story called Rama vatthu was written on palm leaf in 1877. This parabaik (folding book) from around 1870 has 16 pages with painted scenes of the Ramayana story with brief captions in Burmese. The paper covers are painted in red, yellow, and green, with floral borders and prancing lions. One cover has an inscription in black ink in Burmese, giving the title, Rama Zat, and a brief identification of the contents. They are, as follows: Rama strings the bow; Dusakhaya demon in battle; offerings of alms; abduction in the chariot; building of the stone causeway; and arrival in Thiho (Ceylon, or present-day Sri Lanka). Dramatic performances of the Ramayana emerged in the Konbaung Period (1752−1885), when royal minister Myawaddy Mingyi U Sa converted the Ramayana Jataka into a typical Burmese classical drama; he also composed theme music and songs for its performance. Ever since then, Ramayana performances have been very popular in Burmese culture, and Yama zat pwe (Rama dramatic performances) and marionette stage shows are often held. Scenes from the Ramayana can also be found as motifs or design elements in Burmese lacquerware and wood carvings.

Malay Annals

Sometime around the year 1400, a prince from Sumatra named Parameswara founded a settlement at the mouth of the Melaka River on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. One of his successors embraced Islam, and Melaka soon grew to become the greatest Islamic kingdom in Southeast Asia. A center of the spice trade that was known as the “Venice of the East,” it attracted merchants from as far away as Arabia, India, China, and Japan. The wealth of Melaka proved irresistible to the Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to navigate around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean. Not content simply to join in the bustling trade, the Portuguese attacked Melaka and captured it in 1511. The Malay sultan, Mahmud Shah, fled southwards to Johor. As the exiled court began to face up to the realization that their enforced sojourn in Johor would not be temporary, it became ever more urgent for them to record for posterity the still-vivid memories of Melaka’s magnificence. A chronicle was envisaged that would testify that the sultan and his kin, now settled on the upper reaches of the Johor River, were descended from a glorious line of Malay kings, originating in south Sumatra from the ancient empire of Srivijaya, and who had gone on to found at Melaka the richest entrepot in Southeast Asia. It so happened that the court official charged with the task, Tun Seri Lanang, was the greatest Malay writer of perhaps any period, and he produced in the early 17th century what is now regarded as a masterpiece of Malay literature. Entitled in Arabic Sulalat al-Salatin (Genealogy of kings), but popularly known as Sejarah Melayu (Malay annals), this work is not only a literary triumph but also a handbook of Malay statecraft. It outlines the solemn covenant between the ruler, who promises never to shame his subjects, and his people, who undertake never to commit durhaka (treason). More than 30 manuscripts of Sejarah Melayu are known, with numerous different versions of the text, some designed to bolster the credentials of other Malay kingdoms by claiming links with the illustrious royal line of Melaka. The enduring popularity of the Sejarah Melayu also derives from the skill of its author in addressing key historical episodes and refashioning them, invariably to the greater glory of Melaka. In one celebrated anecdote, when a delegation from Melaka visited China, all had to bow low and were not allowed to look at the emperor’s face. When the emperor enquired as to what food they liked, the crafty Malays specified kangkung (spinach), not chopped up, but left long. They then ate the kangkung by lifting each strand up high and lowering it into their upturned mouths−thus enabling them to lift their heads and gaze upon the Chinese emperor!

The Tale of Kiều

Truyện Kiều (The tale of Kiều), written by Nguyễn Du (1765−1820) is regarded as the most significant poem in Vietnamese literature. It was composed in Lục-bát (6-8) stanzas and its original title in Vietnamese is Ðoạn Trường Tân Thanh (A new cry from a broken heart). However, it is better known as Truyện Kiều or Kim Văn Kiều. The story is based on a 17th century Ming Chinese novel, which Nguyễn Du discovered while he was on an ambassadorial mission to China in 1813. The plot portrays the chaotic political and social circumstances of Vietnam in the 18th century, arising from political infighting. The theme of the story is filial piety, one of the main tenets of Confucianism. It recounts the life and trials of a beautiful and talented young woman who sacrificed her happiness to save her disgraced family. She had to go through many sufferings, such as being lured into prostitution, being wed to a man who was already married, and being thrown out of a Buddhist sanctuary before she was finally reunited with her first love. However, this reunion did not bring earthly joy for Kiều, who chose to devote her life to serving her family as filial piety demanded. Literary critics have argued that the theme of the story is an allegory of Nguyễn Du’s guilt and conflict of interest in agreeing to work for the new regime (the Nguyễn dynasty, 1802−1945), which had been indirectly involved in the overthrow of his former master. This behavior was unacceptable in traditional Confucian Vietnamese society, as it was tantamount to betraying filial piety. Hence the theme of the story was a poignant reminder for Nguyễn Du, who was born into a high-profile mandarin family, and whose father served as a high-ranking minister under the Le dynasty. The copy of the Truyện Kiều manuscript held at the British Library (reference number Or 14844) was completed around 1894. It is written in Chữ Nôm (Sino-Vietnamese characters). Each page is beautifully illustrated with scenes from the story. It is bound in a royal-yellow silk cover with dragon patterns. Nguyễn Quang Tuấn, an independent Vietnamese scholar who inspected the manuscript, is of the opinion that this manuscript bears some royal significance because the dragon on the cover has the five claws normally reserved for imperial use only. Another significant feature of this manuscript is that it bears annotations by Paul Pelliot (1878−1945), the renowned French Sinologist, who bought the manuscript in 1929.


This exquisite illuminated Qurʼan (Or 15227) dating from the 19th century originates from the east coast of the Malay Peninsula. On the basis of various codicological features, the manuscript can be attributed to the cultural zone encompassing Kelantan, on the northeast coast of Malaysia, and Patani, in southern Thailand. In many ways, the Qurʼan is typical of manuscript production in Patani, with black endpapers of Thai manufacture, a cloth cover with elaborate stitched headbands, and illuminated frames with typical Patani features, such as the interlocking-wave motif. And yet the exactitude of the drawing and coloring, and the repetition of ornamental details, is more typical of Qurʼans from the court of Terengganu, just south of Kelantan, the richest center for Islamic manuscript illumination in Southeast Asia. The hybrid character of this manuscript is emphasized by some other unusual features, including the presence of double decorated frames in the middle of the book marking the start of Surat al-Kahf and Surat Yasin, instead of just at the beginning of Surat al-Isra’, as is usual in east coast Qurʼans. The illuminated pages have six double decorated frames and one single decorated frame in the “East Coast” style. Text frames are ruled lines of black-thick yellow-black-black-red ink. Verse markers are yellow (and occasionally green) roundels outlined in black. Surah headings are set within rectangular frames, reserved in white against five colored panels, alternating either green and red, or blue and red. Marginalia include juz' marked by beautiful ornaments with the words al-juz' reserved in white against a colored background in a roundel with floral extensions above and below (these markers are found every 10 folios, always situated in the top-right corner of the verso of a folio); maqra’ written in red ink in a very small hand; and catchwords at the end of every quire. This is the first Qurʼan manuscript in the British Library to be digitized in its entirety. The manuscript was displayed in the British Library’s sacred texts exhibition in 2007 and also was featured in the accompanying book on Qurʼan manuscripts.

Map of Havana

Estéban Pichardo (1799−1879) was one of Cuba’s most important figures in the area of scientific research in the 19th century and its leading representative in the fields of geography and cartography. Plano de la Habana (Map of Havana) is part of a larger work in 35 sheets, Carta Geo-hidro-topográfica de la Isla de Cuba (Geo-hydro-topographic map of the island of Cuba) that Esteban published in 1874–75. Esteban adopted a set of geographic symbols very similar to those used in contemporary maps. His maps also reflected a high degree of mathematical sophistication and remained a major cartographic reference for Cuba up until almost a century later. They were used to help determine that the land area of Cuba was 124,500 square kilometers—a calculation far from reality (according to contemporary geographers, the area of Cuba is 109,884 square kilometers)—but of historical relevance for its time. The map shows contemporary place-names, urban developments in different parts the growing city, streets, noteworthy structures, railroad lines, and the harbor.

Letter of Damar Wulan

The Serat Damar Wulan (MSS.Jav.89) is one of the loveliest Indonesian manuscripts in the British Library, with a treasury of illustrations depicting Javanese society in the late 18th century. The pictures are rich in humor and the artist had a marvellous eye for facial expressions and bodily postures (for example, a woman sleeping with her arm across her eyes, a sandal just balanced on a foot). Everyday things are depicted in fascinating detail, from birdcages to garden pots and textiles, with wonderful scenes of music and dance of enormous interest to performers today. A contemporary English note that accompanied the donation of the manuscript in 1815 states: “This Book is said to be 2 hundred years old,” but according to Dr. Russell Jones, the watermarks of the much-thumbed and soiled pages of Dutch paper, “J HONIG” and “J H & Z,” have so far only been found in Indonesian manuscripts dated around 1800 to 1855, and so a late 18th-century dating is perhaps most likely for this manuscript. Early scholars of Javanese texts were notoriously oblivious to the artistic aspects of manuscripts, but the Serat Damar Wulan proved irresistible. The manuscript begins with the accession of the daughter of Brawijaya (Kusuma Kancana Wungu) to the throne of Majapahit. It is dated Jumahat-Manis, 9 Rabingulawal, no year given.