A signifiant but little-known collection of rare 18th and 19th century Thai Buddhist manuscripts has gone on display in the renowned Chester Beatty Library in the Irish capital Dublin, in an ongoing exhibition titled Thai Buddhist Tales: Stories along the Path to Enlightenment.
The collection of intricately and colorfully illustrated folding books, curated by Laura Muldowney, researcher of the museum’s East Asian collection, originally served a range of different purposes in Thai Buddhist monasteries and at royal and local courts. Because they were used by Buddhist monks and novices as teaching aids and for chanting during ceremonies, commissioning such books after the death of a family member and then donating them to a temple, was regarded as an especially meritorious act of devotion by lay Buddhists, both for the donor and the deceased.
“Presented as colorful illustrations alongside sacred texts, some of the most popular stories found within Thai Buddhist manuscripts are the birth tales of the Buddha and the legend of the monk Phra Malai,” Chester Beatty said of the exhibition. “From moral tales to noble quests, these pictures from the path to enlightenment offer an enchanting introduction to Thailand’s rich Buddhist heritage and its most cherished stories.” (Chester Beatty)
The texts on display include excerpts from the Jatakas, tales of the historical Buddha’s previous incarnations as he gained the attributes necessary to attain enlightenment, which are presented as paired images on either side of the text. The library also has several examples of the much rarer books relating the life of the Buddha before and after his enlightenment.
Hand-illustrated folding books of the type featured in the exhibition were usually made using the bark of the mulberry tree. Rectangular sheets of mulberry paper were stitched or glued together and folded like an accordion. To protect the inner pages, covers were made of thickened or doubled paper, sometimes decorated with lacquer and gold.
Such books were produced in Thailand into the early 20th century, until the practice was rendered obsolete by the availability of printing technology in the early 1920s. As such, these carefully crafted devotional documents are a unique and rare example of Thailand’s Theravada Buddhist heritage.
Lauded as one of the best museums in Europe and named European Museum of the Year in 2002, the Chester Beatty is dedicated to promoting the appreciation and understanding of world cultures with a collection of manuscripts, rare books, and treasures from Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. Once the private library of American mining magnate, collector, and philanthropist Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875–1968), the museum also serves as a research library for scholars, with the stated mission to “maintain and preserve the collections of the Chester Beatty and to make them available in the most appropriate ways for the use and enjoyment of the public and for scholarly study and research, in order to promote a wider appreciation and understanding of the international cultural heritage embodied in the collections and to foster relations between Ireland and the peoples whose cultures are represented in the collections.” (Chester Beatty)
The exhibition, which opened on 14 June, will run until 26 January 2020 and is supported by The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Admission is free.
Established in 2005, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation is a private philanthropic organization based in Hong Kong. The Foundation’s dual mission is to foster appreciation of Chinese arts and culture to advance global learning and to cultivate deeper understanding of Buddhism in the context of contemporary life. Guided by a belief that the insights of Buddhism have a vital role to play in approaching the challenges facing contemporary society, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation has committed resources to expanding the understanding, interpretation, and application of Buddhism.
Thai Buddhist Tales (Chester Beatty)
Exhibition: “Thai Buddhist Tales” | Ireland (ASEMUS)
Rare 18th-century Thai Buddhist manuscripts and Books go on display following restoration. (artdaily.org)
The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation