The Realm of Language

Pahtama thayta-kaytu nattha aphyit asa lei-htun mingala htwet taw muhan ason (From the life of Satya Katu Nat to the Ploughing Ceremony) Parabaik, Burma, early 19th century.

Illuminated manuscript, comprising 3 joined sheets, folded accordion-style (overall dimensions 47 x c. 1100 cm., each folio 47 x 19 cm.). 2 blank + 58 + 2 blank folios. Gouache highlighted with liquid gold, on paper. Recto with five illuminations (39.4 x 74 cm., 39.4 x 129.5 cm., 39.4 x 92.5 cm., 39.4 x 129.5 cm., 39.4 x 92.5 cm.), outlined in black, against a yellow ground (upper margin 1.4 x c. 1100 cm., lower margin 6.4 x c. 1100 cm., margins between illuminations c. 2 cm), Burmese script in black ink in the lower margin. Verso blank. Contemporary grey paper boards, attached to the versos of the terminal folios, decorated in blind, concentric frames in blind rules alternating with bands of fleurons tooled in blind, diagonal rules extending through the corners of each frame, the central frame of the upper board with a manuscript title in black ink.

A recently rediscovered and very rare early Burmese illuminated folding book, or parabaik, the hitherto unidentified first volume of British Library manuscripts Or. 4762 and Or. 5757, a Burmese account of the miraculous birth of the Buddha. One of the few surviving parabaiks to pre-date substantial European influence, and therefore one of the last remaining examples of a now-lost lineage of Burmese books dating back to at least the 12th century AD. With five illuminations in gouache highlighted in liquid gold, opening out to a continuous panorama eleven metres in length.

The Burmese are thought to have descended from the south-eastern foothills of the Himalayas to the floodplains of the Irrawady in central Burma in about the 9th century AD. It was here that they established their great city of Pagan, at its zenith between the 11th and 13th centuries the capital of one of the major civilisations of medieval Asia. Pagan was sacked by the Mongol hordes under Kublai Khan in 1287: the Pagan empire disintegrated and Pagan itself was substantially destroyed. The ruins of hundreds of temples still survive today at Pagan however, and within these, in the form of inscriptions in stone and in ink on plastered walls, are the remains of the earliest examples of Burmese writing, dating from the 12th century (Herbert 1989 p. 5).

Burmese is a member of the Tibeto-Burman language group, of which Tibetan and Burmese are now best known, but which includes several hundred languages spoken in the area between the Tibetan plateau and the Malay peninsula, some of which, most likely in northern Burma, are probably yet to be discovered (Comrie, p. 693). Within this group of languages, Tibetan and Burmese have the most ancient literary traditions. Burmese is generally thought to be written in a script derived from the Mon, a pre-existing civilisation in the Irawaddy basin, itself an adaptation of an Indic script: “From the 12th century, when Burmese was first written down, it used the Mon script which seems to have been derived from the Grantha alphabet of the Pallavas of South India. The Mon had to adapt the same script in some respects to suit the phonology of their language and the Burmese made further additions, for example, adding symbols to mark lexical tones. In the present form of the script, most of the letters take the shape of circles or parts of circles... In use, the initial consonant forms the nucleus of each syllable and vowels are written as attachments above, below, or after the consonant” (Herbert 1989 p. 6).

The earliest references to Burmese books date from the 12th and 13th centuries - inscriptions on stone at Pagan that reveal a complex culture of books written on gold leaf, paper, slate, and palm leaf (Lammerts p. 231). Very few early Burmese books survive however, victim of the Mongol invasions, and a succession of destructive wars in the following centuries, culminating with the British invasion of Upper Burma in 1885, when the royal libraries at Mandalay were emptied and burned (Singer p. 128).

Ancient Burmese books took two main forms: (a) palm leaf manuscripts (pei- za), written on the leaves of the Corypha palm (Corphya umbraculifera) or the toddy palm (Borassus flabellifer), generally held together by a thin cord running through two holes pierced in each leaf (b) paper manuscripts folded accordion-style (parabaik), traditionally written on paper made from the bark of a tree (Streblus asper).

At a point currently unknown in Burmese history, a specific form of folding paper parabaik emerged. These were illustrated with a continuous frieze of images running perpendicularly to the folds - much in the manner of the folding paper books of the Aztecs of central America. Opened out, these books extended to as much as 30 meters in length (Herbert 1999 p. 92).

One of the central preoccupations of early Burmese art was wall painting, extensive areas of which, dating from the 12th century, still remain today in the temples of Pagan. It seems very probable that a close connection existed between this tradition of painting and the art of parabaiks: in effect illuminated parabaiks are complete wall paintings contained within a book. “Their composition bears some relationship to that of wall paintings and indeed scenes in Burmese parabaiks look as if they have been transferred from a temple wall onto, and overspilling, the folds of the manuscript” (Herbert 1993 p. 11).

There is as yet very little evidence to suggest where or when these books were first produced. Inscriptions at Pagan confirm the probable existence of paper in Burma in the 13th century (Lammerts p. 241), but in common with much of Burmese literary history, the earliest examples of illustrated parabaiks all appear to be now lost. The oldest surviving parabaiks date from around 1800, with only a few examples from before 1850 (Herbert 1999 p. 92). The great majority of parabaiks that now remain are from the very end of the Burmese empires, in the Mandalay period of the Konbaung dynasty (1857-1885).

The present manuscript dates from the early 19th century, and is therefore from the earliest surviving group of illustrated parabaiks. Recently rediscovered, it is the hitherto unidentified first volume of a Burmese manuscript of the life of the Buddha. Only two other volumes from the same manuscript are known to have survived: these were both purchased in the 1890s by the British Museum, and are now in the collection of the British Library (shelf marks Or. 4762 and Or. 5757). These have been dated to the early 19th century (Zwalf p. 170). Stylistically the present manuscript also bears a very close resemblance to the Peimpathara parabaik, which has been dated to c. 1823 (Singer p. 132).

The text of the manuscript is most probably based on the Ma-la lin-ga-ra wut- htu,aBurmeseversionofthelifeofthe Buddha,compiledbythemonk Kawi-wun-tha-bi-daza in 1798 in Amarapura, Upper Burma (Zwalf p. 170). The present first volume opens the narrative, and begins with the life of the Buddha as Seta Ketu, his rebirth on earth as the future Buddha, and ends with the episode of the Ploughing Ceremony. Manuscripts Or. 4762 and Or. 5757 in the British library are respectively volumes three and eleven in the manuscript, and continue the narrative of the Buddha’s life. When it was originally produced, the complete manuscript must have comprised in excess of eleven volumes, so probably included a total length of over 100 metres of painting.

Parabaiks of this period have yet to show the strong European influence that became apparent after 1850 (Herbert 1999 p. 92), and are therefore the earliest indication we have of the original tradition of these books, now entirely lost - a lineage dating back to at least the 12th century. The painting in the present manuscript is in general highly stylised compared to later parabaiks, with large blocks or striated bands of saturated colours, and almost ideographic rocks, trees, and architecture. Scenes are depicted with multiple perspectives, multiple episodes within the same pictorial space, and often with little priority given to chronological order. Illustrated parabaiks such as this were almost certainly produced exclusively in court ateliers by teams of artists, categorised according to the material they worked in - gold, silver, and vegetable and mineral colours (Singer p. 128).


Arthur and Charlotte Vershbow collection, New York.


Comrie, B. The World’s Major Languages. London, 1987.
Herbert, P. The Life of the Buddha. London, 1993.
Herbert, P. Burmese Court Manuscripts. In: The Art of Burma. New Delhi, 1999.
Herbert, P. South-East Asia Languages and Literatures. Honolulu, 1989.
Lammerts, C. Notes on Burmese manuscripts. In: The journal of Burma Studies, vol. 14, 2010.
Singer, N. The Peimpathara parabaik. In: Arts of Asia, vol. 18, no. 16, 1988.
Zwalf, W. Buddhism, Art and Faith. London, 1985.