Tony Scott introduces an important new digital archive of Myanmar manuscripts.
Which colour longyi makes the best background when photographing Pali palm-leaf manuscripts? As it turns out, light green. Why should you not carry out conservation efforts in the rainy-season? Because mold will develop beneath the protective layer of lemongrass oil. What is the most crucial aspect of any conservation effort? Seeking out and respecting the knowledge of local volunteers, scholars, and devotees. These are some of the lessons an international cohort of researchers, programmers, librarians and students learned while building and launching the Myanmar Manuscript Digital Library, housed at the University of Toronto Robarts Library. The process took more than five years to come to fruition, starting with accessing the manuscripts, cleaning and cataloguing, photographing, digitally preparing, and curating them on the university server. Though permanently located on the server of the Robarts Library, the collection is accessible to anyone in the world, travelling by word of mouth, Facebook likes, through teacher-student relationships, or simply by clicking here.
Along with links to films of the manuscript cataloguing process at U Pho Thi Library, the website directs the user to the database, hosting hundreds of palm-leaf manuscripts and other media searchable by title or accession number. Say a researcher in Spain or a practitioner in Mandalay is interested in an obscure word, phrase, or episode in the commentary on the Dhammapada, a text echoing some of the earliest Buddhist teachings in verse and prose. Both can review the nissaya on the Dhammapada, an interphrasal Pali-Myanmar glossary that provides a local understanding of the question at hand, or they can consult the mahāṭīkā, a second-order Pali-Pali explanation of obscure words in the commentary itself. The high-resolution images that load are easy to read, despite the difficulties of photographing palm-leaf parameters.
Though located closer to the library than a researcher overseas, this database is especially helpful for users in Myanmar, who can access texts in their specialist or dissertation research, or even as part of their own independent pursuits or personal practice. An academic or a member of a praxis-based community, for instance, could consult a text like the Paṭisambhidāmagga, which outlines different stages and experiences in the pursuit of meditation in conservative Theravada practice. The gaṇṭḥi on this text, which unravels “knotty” words or concepts in the root, would connect the researcher or practitioner with previous generations of exegetes and sub-commentators, opening up an explanatory tradition largely unknown in the Anglosphere.
The website had its start in a collaboration involving the Pali Text Society, philologists and computer programmers from Sendai National College of Technology in Japan, librarians, faculty, and graduate students at Robarts Library, and local textual communities in Myanmar, creating an international network of scholars, scientists, pupils and local devotees. Indeed, the Digital Library provides an online platform to begin building one of the largest collections of manuscripts, accordion style-books (parabaiks), ceremonial kammavācā legal texts, and printed material from Myanmar, and is the result of countless hours spent in the field and behind screens, by team members from Japan, Europe, the U.K. and Canada, not to mention the generations of preservation and curation in Myanmar itself.
Much of the work in the field was led by Dr. William Pruitt and his team, who initially visited many locations throughout Myanmar with collections of manuscripts in advanced need of preservation. The U Pho Thi Library was commissioned by an eponymous merchant in the early twentieth century to prepare monks for the government-sponsored Pali language exams. Given the historical importance, logistics, and breadth of the collection there, the team eventually decided on U Pho Thi Library, part of the Saddhammajotikārāma, a monastery in the city of Thaton, Mon State. U Nyunt Maung, an eminent librarian at the age of 87, led the initial work by cataloguing the manuscripts in this collection. The team then developed through trial and error a method to conserve, restore, photograph, and digitise hundreds of palm-leaf manuscripts on location, some of which you can watch here. In all, the preservation and photographing of these manuscripts and other materials took numerous visits over several years and scores of scholars, technicians and local volunteers to complete, not to mention the time taken to edit the pictures, catalogue the texts, and curate the digital collection.
But without the collaboration of local officials of the monastery and the help of volunteers from the surrounding community in Thaton, this project would not have been possible. Before photographing the separate palm-leaf folios of the manuscripts at U Pho Thi Library, the team had to ensure the correct title and arrangement of the text, then apply lemongrass oil mixed with powdered carbon to preserve the brittle manuscript medium and enhance the contrast of the incised letters against the leaf surface. This essential act of conservation was tirelessly carried out by members of the lay community, who not only saw the exercise as an act of devotion and merit-making, but learned firsthand how to preserve and digitise these manuscripts for future generations. Crucially, Dr. Pruitt and his team learned many lessons from the monastic and lay community on traditional ways to preserve, catalogue and store the manuscripts, drawing from the methods of local manuscript and donative cultures in Mon State and Myanmar.
Behind the scenes, the work was undertaken by Professor Yumi Ousaka at Sendai National College of Technology, Japan. A computer scientist by training, Prof. Ousaka developed a program that prepared the tens of thousands of folios by automatically cropping and arranging them as high-resolution images in PDF form, and has spent countless hours refining the files that people download at his office in Japan. The final stage in developing the Digital Library was taken up by Christoph Emmrich, Associate Professor for Buddhist Studies at the University of Toronto, and the current coordinator of the digital archive. Dr. Emmrich worked with Robarts Library staff, including Julie Hannaford, Deputy Chief Librarian, and Sian Meikle, Associate Chief Librarian for Digital Strategies and Technology, to ensure the database would find a permanent and durable home on the University of Toronto’s central server.
The website opens up a small but significant part of the manuscript cultures of Myanmar to anyone in the world, regardless of country of origin or university affiliation, who visits the website. Along with manuscripts of Buddhist literature, doctrine, and practice, the Digital Library has texts relevant to medicine, astrology, and other secular topics of cultural and scientific value. Since anyone can access these texts by visiting the Myanmar Manuscript Digital Library website, Myanmar manuscript cultures are reaching a worldwide audience of scholars, independent researchers, students and practitioners, ensuring not only the survival of these manuscripts and artefacts over time, but their renewed role in supporting research to come.
Tony Scott is a PhD Candidate in the Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto and the Outreach and Project Liaison for the Myanmar Manuscripts Digital Library. His dissertation focuses on South and Southeast Asian religious commentary and its intersection with communities of practice and twentieth-century statecraft.