Phakinee

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Anisong Manuscripts and Rituals

Anisong texts from Lan Na (Northern Thailand) written on palm leaves. The author of a newly presented study on these texts can be seen in an image detail.ศิลป์ศุภา แจ้งสว่าง Sǐnsùpha Châengsàwâng („Silpsupa Jaengsawang“) is the author of the fourth volume of the Hamburger Thaiistik-Studien that has just been published: Relationship between Anisong Manuscripts and Rituals. A Comparative Study of the Lan Na and Lao Traditions. The 500+ page book, has been published with the support of the Royal Thai Embassy.

Below is a review of this book by Prof. Dr. Volker Grabowsky, head of the Department of Languages and Cultures of Southeast Asia at the Asia-Africa Institute of the University of Hamburg:

This book is the revised version of a PhD dissertation which was awarded the grade Summa cum laude („with the highest praise“). It is the first in-depth study of the Anisong genre of Buddhist literature based on a manuscriptological approach. Dr. Silpsupa Jaengsawang compares the use of manuscripts containing Anisong texts in rituals in two regions of Theravada Buddhist Southeast Asia where the production of manuscripts has still not died out, namely Laos (notably Luang Prabang) and Northern Thailand.

The author has delved into linguistically difficult terrain as the texts and paratexts of the manuscripts under study are written in three variants of the Dhamma script (tua aksòn tham), a religious script once widespread in Thailand and Laos but nowadays no longer known beyond a small circle of monks and academic experts. Moreover, the texts and paratexts are written in the Lao and Northern Thai (Kam Müang) vernaculars enriched with Pali phrases which are often grammatically incorrect. On the other hand, Silpsupa Jaengsawang studied ritual theories and critically applied them to the Buddhist rituals in which Anisong manuscripts in their capacity as carriers of texts as well as ritual objects play a crucial role.

This image from the book under review (page 89) shows an almost human-sized mulberry-paper manuscript kept at the National Library of Laos, Vientiane. The author holds the manuscript; the picture was taken during her studies in Laos on March 9, 2017. (Photo © Silpsupa Jaengsawang 2021)

This image from the book under review (page 89) shows an almost human-sized mulberry-paper manuscript kept at the National Library of Laos, Vientiane. The author holds the manuscript; the picture was taken during her studies in Laos on March 9, 2017. (Photo © Silpsupa Jaengsawang 2021)

This study combines a solid philological analysis of texts with anthropological fieldwork and a theoretical framework which has been devised by the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC).

The author explicates the meaning of the term anisong which is derived from Pali ānisaṃsa meaning “benefit, advantage or good result”. She shows how this term is embedded in the fundamental Buddhist concept of dāna, the virtue of generosity and charity which constitutes the first kind of meritorious activity. Furthermore, she highlights one crucial point: Looking at anisong only as texts describing the rewards in terms of merit or “advantage” which a believer may expect from a particular religious donation is not enough. Such a simplistic view obscures the fact that the comparatively short homiletic texts called anisong cannot be separated from their carrier, the manuscript, which is used as a ritual object in dedication and preaching rituals. The double function of anisong manuscripts as carriers of texts and as ritual objects is reflected in the Lao term for anisong, salòng (often contracted to sòng), a Khmer loanword referring to celebrations of meritorious deeds but also used as a synonym for “the good results of merit” (phalaānisaṃsa) as explained in a manuscript from Luang Prabang.

One most interesting finding of Dr. Silpsupa Jaengsawang’s research is that the manuscript culture of Northern Thailand exhibits more archaic or conservative features; and secondly, modes of production and transmission of manuscripts seem to be more decentralized reflecting the multi-centred political structure of Lan Na since the mid-sixteenth century. The findings from Northern Thailand are then to be used to better understand the evidence from Laos.

The overwhelming dominance of Luang Prabang in Lao manuscript culture, even overshadowing the present-day capital of Vientiane, is due to the fact that the old capital of Luang Prabang not only remained the centre of Lao Buddhism until present but was also better able to defy the significant social and political changes since the late nineteenth century (Siamese rule, French colonialism, civil war and socialist revolution). The author reveals a number of most interesting differences between the two regions with regard to the production of anisong manuscripts, such as the greater diversity of colophons with regard to structure and content in Northern Thailand and the prominent role of royalty but also of laywomen in taking the initiative to sponsor the making of manuscripts in Luang Prabang.

Silpsupa Jaengsawang’s innovative study offers fascinating insights into the circulation, storage and re-storage, and re-use of anisong manuscripts. Of particular interest is the evidence pointing at the common practice of redonating manuscripts, allowing laypersons to engage in a gift-giving act that would not only bring advantages to the second or third sponsor and donor of an already produced manuscript but also to prolong the manuscript’s life. A significant number of anisong manuscripts being multiple-text manuscripts and composites, both in Lan Na and in Laos, tha author examines how scribes as well as later users created a corpus of texts – anisong and others – which were either used in one particular ritual or otherwise related to one another.

Prof. Dr. Justin McDaniel from the University of Pennsylvania, a leading scholar of Thai and Lao Buddhism, has praised this book summarizing its contents and significance in a nutshell:

The anisong genre of texts in the region is well-known among practitioners and liturgical masters, but not among textual scholars. These ritual, liturgical, and celebratory texts comprised in the region since the 1700s (if not before) honor gifts given to the Sangha (robes, incense, manuscripts, a child into the monkhood, an entire temple, etc.). Therefore, this book is not only a valuable historical and textual study, but very useful for understanding the foundations of everyday rituals and liturgical practices in Thailand today. This book moves systematically through ritual studies, textual analysis and detailed, yet accessible, codological descriptions, the social function of the texts, the role of women in textual production, the material foundations of the texts, scribal practices, patrons/sponsors of the texts, colophons and marginalia, the various types of anisong texts and their associated social and ritual functions.

.

It is one of the best studies of manuscript cultures in the region and is an invaluable resource to future students and scholars.

ศิลป์ศุภา แจ้งสว่าง Sinsupha Chaengsawang („Silpsupa Jaengsawang“): Relationship between Anisong Manuscripts and Rituals. A Comparative Study of the Lan Na and Lao Traditions.Silpsupa Jaengsawang: Relationship between Anisong Manuscripts and Rituals. A Comparative Study of the Lan Na and Lao Traditions. Segnitz: Zenos Verlag 2022. Paperback, 525 pages, ca. 29.5 x 21 cm, 1200 g, ISBN 978-3-931018-44-3, 30 Euro.

The book has been published as Vol. 4 of the Hamburger Thaiistik Studien, ISSN 2569-2879.

Publishing information:

Order from Zenos Verlag, Brückengasse 2, 97340 Segnitz, Germany by email: 2[at]zenos-verlag.de. (Books are sent free of postage and packaging within Germany if ordered directly from the publisher. For delivery abroad, the pure additional postage costs apply.)

Bestellung via Zenos Verlag, Brückengasse 2, 97340 Segnitz per Email: 2[ät]zenos-verlag.de. Die Auslieferung innerhalb Deutschlands erfolgt bei Direktbestellung porto- und verpackungsfrei, bei Lieferung ins Ausland fallen die reinen Porto-Mehrkosten an.

Further reading:

http://www.phakinee.com/lan-na-literature-and-script/
http://www.phakinee.com/ตำราเรียนอักขระลานนาไท/ (Thai)
http://www.phakinee.com/phaya-sekong-mueang-sing/

Links to websides with the author ศิลป์ศุภา แจ้งสว่าง Sǐnsùpha Châengsàwâng („Silpsupa Jaengsawang“):
ลักษณะเด่นและบทบาทของการ์ตูนรามเกียรติ์ ฉบับรามาวตาร = Characteristics and roles of Ramakian Chabap Ramawatan cartoon
https://www.csmc.uni-hamburg.de/about/people/jaengsawang.html
http://thaiistik-gesellschaft.de/mitglieder

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