Thai and Lao manuscript cultures revisited: Insights from newly discovered monastic collection in Luang Prabang
Prof. Dr. Volker Grabowsky, Asien-Afrika-Institut, Universität Hamburg ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

     The Tai peoples form an ethno-linguistic group whose settlement area extends from the Malay Peninsula to southern China, and from northern Vietnam to as far as Assam in India. From their original areas in southeastern China, the Tai expanded between the seventh and thirteenth centuries to their present settlements in various waves of migration, displacing the indigenous Austro-asiatic populations (Mon, Khmer etc.) or assimilating with them. Through close contact with the older cultures of the Mon and Khmer, the Tai developed their own writing system, as did the Thai (Siamese) and the Lao, Tai Yuan (northern Thai) and Shan. Like of most of its Southeast Asian neighbors, it is based on a South Indian form of the Brahmi script called Pallava. Although its authenticity is disputed, the oldest evidence of the Tai script is on a stone inscription from Sukhothai dating to 1292. While the earliest evidence of Tai epigraphy date to the fourteenth century, the oldest surviving Thai palm leaf manuscripts date to the second half of the fifteenth century.

     Two different scripts are found in the Siamese (Thai) manuscript culture, which for the most part covered the territory of the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351–1767). Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the Cambodian Mul script was used for works written in Pali. It was also frequently used for religious texts in the vernacular (i.e. Thai). On the other hand, manuscripts with secular contents were only written in the Thai script. The Siamese manuscript culture thus differs from the manuscript cultures of the Burmese, Mon and Khmer, where Pali texts were always written in the respective script of the country.

     Using two scripts also characterizes the manuscript culture of the Tai peoples living in the large valleys of the Southeast Asian highland. The various “secular” scripts of the Tai Yuan, Lao, Tai Khuen, Tai Shan Lu were contrasted with a “religious” script, known as the Dhamma script (tua aksòn tham). This script probably originated in the fourteenth century as an offshoot of the Mon script of Hariphunchai. In the course of the political and cultural expansion of the Lan Na Kingdom (North Thailand), which in the second half of the fifteenth century was the centre of Theravada Buddhist learning, it spread to the Shan areas, to Sipsòng Panna (Yunnan), and finally to Lan Sang (Laos, northeast Thailand).

     Based on a decade-long research of manuscript holdings in various monastic repositeries in the old Lao capital of Luang Prabang, which has been the most important centre of Lao Buddhism for centuries and World Cultural Heritage since 1996, this keynote address seeks to re-evaluate our knowledge on the manuscript cultures of the Thai and Lao. Point of departure was the striking in 2010 of a collection of almost 300 ancient palm-leaf manuscripts and more than 80 leporello manuscripts, made of mulberry (sa) paper, in the kuti of Phra Khamchan Virachitto (1920–2007) who was an outstanding monk of Laos in the second half of the twentieth century. Phra Khamchan’s personal collection of manuscripts was left undocumented by the Lao National Library’s “Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme” in the 1990s, as it did not form part of the monastery’s library (hò tham), but remained restricted to the exclusive use of the late abbot himself