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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

08/2016 manuscript  of the month

From Stone to Paper:

A Manuscript on Ancient Inscriptions Marks the Beginning of Epigraphic Studies in Modern Siam

Thanks to spectacular epigraphic discoveries in the first half of the 19th century, members of the Siamese elite became curious to find out more about ancient writing on stone. Once the inscribed artefacts had been moved from the provincial areas to the capital, Bangkok, in order to be stored safely, Siamese experts – a very small group of traditional scholars – began the process of deciphering them to learn more about the past. A Siamese manuscript from the late 19th century documents various ancient scripts originating in India and South-east Asia as proof of this process:

Fig. 1: Example of an Angkorian Khmer inscription
found in Lopburi (Thailand) and dated to 1025 CE.
> Enlarge

The manuscript in question, which is from the Illustrated Manuscript Subsection of the National Library of Thailand, is a khòi leporello manuscript, one of the traditional Siamese formats for transmitting literature and secular knowledge. The seven-metre-long piece of paper made from the bark of the khòi tree was blackened with soot and folded together. On the dark background, the writing in yellow ink, which is made from a reddish mineral called realgar, is bright and therefore easy to read. The script runs horizontally, but unlike standard manuscripts, which commonly contain four or five lines of writing per page, this one only has two lines written on each page, both of which are of a relatively large size. Hence, it provides researchers with a good opportunity to undertake a investigation of the copied material.

According to the National Library, the manuscript originally belonged to Prince Patriarch Pawaret Wariyalongkorn (1809–1892), who spent much of his life living in the Bawonniwet Monastery in Bangkok. During this long period, Prince Pawaret, along with several other members of the Siamese elite, had begun deciphering inscriptions written in Old Thai and Old Khmer in the middle of the 19th century so as to study the history of the Siamese. He became one of the pioneering scholars of Thai epigraphy. Thus, the prince himself may have been the original compiler of the epigraphic texts collected in this manuscript. The manuscript was presumably created sometime after the first discovery of Thai inscriptions in 1833, but before the prince’s death in 1892.

This manuscript is an outstanding case among the various manuals on scripts that have survived in Thailand, as it contains texts from various inscriptions in a wide range of languages and scripts – seven languages, in fact (Pali, Sanskrit and Old Khmer, for example), written in ten different scripts (Pallava Grantha, Old Khmer, Old Thai and seven others). When the manuscript was written, modern technologies used in epigraphic studies, such as rubbings and photography, were either unknown or seldom used in Siam; inscriptions of this kind were copied by hand instead. The texts in the manuscript seem to have been copied by imitating ancient handwriting found on stones (albeit imperfectly), as can be seen in fig. 2.

Fig. 2: Example of the Pallava Grantha inscription, originally from the city of
Nakhòn Chaisi. On the left, the copy in the manuscript, and on the right, the
photocopy of the original stone inscription (printed in: National Library of
Thailand, 1986, p. 93). > Enlarge

Some epigraphic texts were copied and collected without any further explanation, while others were presented along with the alphabet and basic orthographic rules included at the end (fig. 3). In certain cases, notes on the origin of the inscriptions were supplemented in Thai (fig. 2), written in the writing style of the royal court in the 19th century. These remarks seem to have been added by the same person, possibly the scribe and copyist of the inscriptions.

The collected ancient scripts and languages originate from India and South-east Asia and cover a period of more than one-and-a-half millennia, from the 3rd century BCE to the 13th century. For instance, a passage from an inscription of the Angkorian Khmer kingdom in Old Khmer dated to 1025 CE (fig. 1) was copied as well as a passage from one of King Ashoka’s inscriptions (3rd century BCE) found in India (fig. 3). Several inscriptions in the Central Indian language Pali written in the Pallava Grantha script, the earliest script of ancient South-east Asia (6th century CE) (fig. 2) were recorded in the manuscript, and the Old Thai alphabet from the Sukhothai kingdom, the earliest writing in Old Thai ever found (13th century CE), was added along with notes on some obsolete spelling conventions.

Fig. 3: An example of the Ashokan Brahmi script
(lines 1-–6), followed by the complete alphabet,
and examples of ligatures (lines 7–-9).
The text is corresponds to the first Girnar Rock
Edict found in Gujarat, India. > Enlarge

The contents of the inscriptions range from royal edicts to Buddhist canonical quotations. Very few were copied in full, and most of these are short texts. Many of the texts copied are rather brief excerpts of much longer inscriptions, partly ending in the middle of a paragraph. This indicates that the main focus of the manuscript was not on the content, but rather on the scripts themselves. In addition to the ancient scripts, the manuscript also provides two modern Indian scripts, namely Tamil (fig. 4) and Devanagari, which may have been recognised by the Siamese in the 19th century, but was probably still considered foreign at that time. Knowledge of these scripts was never widespread in traditional Siamese education, it seems, as no other traditional manuals on scripts mention them.

Apparently, in the process of collecting the inscriptions for this manuscript, both original inscriptions and printed books were consulted. Most parts, especially the older scripts, were collected from the original epigraphic evidence. The sources for ancient writing from India were apparently printed books on epigraphy imported into Siam from India. This information is also given in some of the additional notes in the manuscript – one example of an Indian inscription was copied from a printed book brought to Siam from Calcutta, for instance.

According to the collection of epigraphic examples, including excerpts, alphabets and short notes, this manuscript seems to have been used for the purpose of studying and learning these ancient and foreign writings. It was probably used by the owner as an epigraphic reference source and manual for learning and possibly teaching languages. His attempt to compile the epigraphic knowledge appearing in this manuscript was not a systematically organised manual with a full explanation and translation of inscriptions that served as a self-instructional manual, but even so, it still precedes the pioneering works on epigraphy in Siam written by Western scholars in the early 20th century.

The texts of inscriptions on a paper manuscript reflect a new interest in ancient writing systems among the Siamese in the 19th century and are an attempt to organise epigraphic knowledge in the form of a traditional manuscript manual. Although some of the epigraphic texts that were copied are not perfectly faithful to the original inscriptions, the manuscript nevertheless marks the first serious attempt to establish a body of modern knowledge on ancient writings, which scholars nowadays call epigraphy and palaeography, and thus has become the earliest manual on epigraphy to be found in present-day Thailand so far.

Fig. 4: List of Tamil characters with a transliteration in Thai between the lines. > Enlarge


CŒDÈS, George (1968): The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

DANI, Ahmad Hasan (1963): Indian Palaeography. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

NATIONAL LIBRARY OF THAILAND (1986): Carük nai prathet thai lem 1 [จารึกในประเทศไทย เล่ม ๑/ Inscriptions in Thailand, Volume I]. Bangkok: National Library of Thailand.

SALOMON, Richard (1998): Indian Epigraphy: A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the Other Indo-Aryan Languages. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

The National Library of Thailand (Bangkok)
Shelf mark: MS no. 186 ‘Baep aksòn tang tang’ (‘Manual on Various Scripts’)
The Illustrated Manuscript Subsection, The Secular Manual Section, The Manuscript Collection
Material: blackened khòi paper leporello manuscript
Dimensions: 36.5 × 12 × 4.5 cm
Provenance: c. 1833–1890, Bangkok, Siam (Thailand)

Text by Peera Panarut
© for all pictures: The National Library of Thailand
Reference note:
Peera Panarut, “From Stone to Paper”
In: Wiebke Beyer (Ed.): Manuscript of the Month 2016.08, SFB 950: Hamburg,