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Siamese Manuscript of the Phra Malai Legends, ca 1840-1860

Buddhist manuscripts from Thailand were often lavishly illustrated with exquisite paintings of Buddhist tales and cosmology, and were traditionally used as preaching books. It is illustrated with religious paintings on 4 double-page full pictures, and 11 pairs of pictures at the sides on double pages. The first four pages have a large spectacular painting of the Buddha preaching in heaven. This shows the Buddha on his visit of three months to the Tavatimsa heaven of Buddhist legend. There he preached to the god Indra on his right, and his mother Mayadevi in white on his left. Indra, shown in green, is the supreme god and ruler of the thirty-three gods in Tavatimsa Heaven. According to Buddhist legend, Mayadevi in a previous incarnation was Pusati, the favorite consort of Indra. He requested her to be reborn as a human princess, eventually to become the wife of King Sanjaya of Sivi and the mother of the future Prince Siddhartha (aka Vessantara in Thailand), who became the Gautama Buddha. Mayadevi died soon after the Buddha's birth and returned to heaven. A multitude of bare-breasted maidens below, handmaidens to Mayadevi and the deities in heaven, pay respectful attention to the Buddha, their hands clasped together in the traditional sign of prayer and respect shown for superiors. Other deities, shown with halos and white skin, attend in the background at upper left. Other paintings depict various deities in heaven including Indra, sinners in hell, and pictures of the legendary Phra Malai, a monk who traveled to heaven and hell by the powers he achieved through meditations and great merit. The Phrai Malai story with such illustrations was widely used as a preaching text on good morals and behavior at funerals and weddings, and was very popular in Thailand in the 19th C.6 The script is Kham from Central Siam, derived from the ancient Khmer script, and used only by monks in monasteries in central Thailand, but modern Thai people cannot read it. The language is mainly Siamese with a few introductory lines in Pali. This manuscript was estimated by the British Library to date from the mid-19th C.7 No date is recorded, as usual at this time for such khoi manuscripts.8 .

Ref 6 see H. Ginsburg, Thai Art and Culture - Historic Manuscripts from Western Collections, 2000, p.92-111

Ref 7 Personal correspondence with Henry Ginsburg, Curator of Thai and Cambodian Collections at the British Library, London, 6 April 2002. After examining photos that J. Kuiper sent him, Dr. Ginsburg responded: "I would suggest that the manuscript is from central Thailand, and dates from about the middle of the nineteenth century. The quality of the painting is far above the ordinary standard for a Phra Malai manuscript."

Ref 8 This is called a Khoi manuscript, since the paper is made from the khoi (mulberry) plant. The pages are 28" L , 6" W with 51 double pages folded in accordion style, written on both sides.

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