Uphill fight to preserve palm leaf texts
May 9 - 15, 2011
A library visitor, Dr Hnin Yu Yu Naing, inspects bundles of pay (palm leaf) manuscript at the National Library in Yangon on May 3. Pic: Kaung Htet
LIBRARIANS in Myanmar are in a race against time to conserve the nation’s dwindling collection of antique pay (palm leaf) manuscripts, many of which are mouldering in monasteries without proper care.
The manuscripts – consisting mostly of religious texts, literary works such as poems and plays, and historical works written on the dried leaves of pay palm trees – are also under attack by unscrupulous treasure hunters, said the assistant director of the National Library in Yangon.
“In 2003 I went on a field trip to the village of Padein at the foot of the Rakhine mountain range, I heard that a group of men had visited the monastery in the village and asked the head monk to show them the collection of pay manuscripts,” she said. “The men said they just wanted to read the manuscripts, but when the monk turned his back they furtively scraped the gold leaf gilding from the ends of the pages.”
“These occurrences are common in other areas of the country as well,” she said, adding that monks are sometimes persuaded by dealers to trade pay collections for television sets and other goods.
The assistant director explained that the pay are in loose-leaf form and collected in bundles of individual sheets. The text is written on the palm leaf in ink using a stylus. Pay are different from parabeik, which consist of sheets of paper sewn together to create folding manuscripts.
The assistant director said the National Library holds more than 10,000 bundles of pay manuscripts, which have been collected from private donations and monasteries. Large collections have also been donated by the descendents of U Kaung (1821-1903), who worked as a minister, diplomat and author during the time of the last Myanmar kings, and of U Tin (1861-1933), another writer and administrator who had saved large numbers of precious manuscripts.
The National Library’s assistant director said that because of the shady practices of some dealers and treasure hunters, it’s not always easy for library staff to gain the trust of local residents in villages where collections of palm leaf manuscripts are held.
She said her group of manuscript conservators were confronted by suspicious locals in Shan State during a 1997 trip to save nearly 1000 bundles of pay manuscripts at a monastery in Thar Lay village near Inle Lake.
“We had to insist on getting access to the manuscripts, which were sitting in a cabinet and covered in filth. We had to convince the villagers that we would clean the palm leaves and catalogue the collection. But they watched what we were doing very closely the whole day,” she said.
“They finally came to trust us only after we had cleaned the pay and arranged them neatly in the cabinet with camphor [for preservation].”
The manuscripts were left at the monastery, but the collection was catalogued and photographed, and the contents of the collection was published in 2006 in the book Palm Leaf Manuscript Catalogue.
On the same trip, the group of conservators inspected the pay manuscripts at Sulemani Pagoda in Nyaungshwe. Many were broken and covered with dust and bat guano.
However, the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival was occurring in the area at the time, and in the midst of the celebration the pagoda’s trustees were unable to accommodate the group’s request to conduct restoration work.
“Another librarian who stopped in Pangtara in 1998 said she found that villagers had been collecting broken pay in baskets and using them as fuel to make fire,” she said.
The National Library’s assistant director said palm leaf manuscripts are found throughout Myanmar, including Ayeyarwady Region – a monk from a monastery in Dedaye donated 800 pay bundles to the National Library in 2001.
“It’s unknown exactly how many palm leaf manuscripts are left in the country because the library is still getting donations from monasteries around the country,” she said.
The pilfering of palm leaf manuscripts is nothing new. In the article “The Journey of Myanmar Libraries”, published in October 1972 in Pyinnyar Lawka magazine, writer U Than Htut described how British troops occupying Mandalay Palace in 1885 combed through boxes holding pay and parabeik for precious stones.
Eyewitnesses described how, during the search, the manuscripts were strewn about as if they were trash, and many were even burned. The carnage stopped only after complaints were filed with British authorities.
The surviving manuscripts from the Mandalay court were dispersed to the Bernard Free Library in Yangon (which became the National Library in 1952), the king of Thailand’s personal collection and the library at the Secretariat for India in London.
The Bernard Free Library, established in 1883, bought palm leaf manuscripts from the families of U Kaung in 1921 and U Tin in 1924. By 1940 the collection totalled 7588 bundles.
U Thaw Kaung, retired chief librarian of the Universities Central Library and author of the 2008 book From the Librarian’s Window: Views of Library and Manuscript Studies and Myanmar Literature, said the few remaining pay manuscripts are fast disappearing due to “negligence in preservation”.
“Climate and insect bites also cause damage. There are virtually no pay manuscripts or parabeik left that were produced more than 400 years ago,” said U Thaw Kaung, who has been working to preserve manuscripts at Yangon University Library and Universities Central Library for 45 years
His preservation and restoration group consists of librarians and experts on Pali language who focus their work on monasteries in Mandalay Region, Shan State and Thaton in Mon State.
“During a trip to Bagan for preservation and restoration work, we found manuscripts left on the floor of a monastery right underneath where the rain was leaking through the roof,” he said, adding that such incidents only emphasise the amount of work needed to be done to preserve the manuscripts and educate people about Myanmar’s literary heritage.
“The texts of the pay should be published in book form, and should also be preserved in digital form and on microfilm,” he said. “It is very important to spread knowledge about these texts, both within Myanmar and abroad.”
“It is not enough to conserve bundles of pay. We must also make more field trips to monasteries to find out how many still survive and when they were produced,” U Thaw Kaung said.