Lan Na Literature and Script
อ่านบทความภาษาไทยได้ที่นี่ (Read this article in Thai): http://www.phakinee.com/ตำราเรียนอักขระลานนาไท
The third publication of the meritorious book series „Hamburger Thaiistik Studien“ is honouring อาจารย์สิงฆะ วรรณสัย Achan Singkha Wannasai (*1920, †1980), a great scholar of Mueang Lan Na, the “Land of millions of rice fields”, as this part of today’s Thailand is traditionally called. On the occasion of Achan (= teacher) Singkha’s 100th birthday anniversary earlier this year, Prof. Volker Grabowsky from the University of Hamburg’s Asia-Africa Institute has edited and re-published Singkha’s 1975 textbook ตำราเรียนอักขระลานนาไทย Tamra Rian Akkhara Lan Na Thai (= Textbook for the Study of the Lan Na Thai Script) and added an informative foreword that precedes the Thai text. The foreword is also available in English while the rest of the book is entirely printed in Thai and Lan Na Thai.
Lan Na Script, อักษรธรรมล้านนา Akson Tham Lan Na is a writing system that was once widely used in Northern Thailand and Laos, in the Shan States of Burma and in Sipsong Panna in Southern Yuennan (China) with some, but insignificant, differences. The Lan Na Script became almost extinct when, as part of forced national unification (“Thaiization”, i.e. suppression of minorities), the fascist dictator Plaek Phibunsongkhram outlawed the use of local scripts for the spelling of Thai dialects from 1939. It slowly disappeared in the 1950s, and it is only thanks to a handful of individuals such as linguistic monks and teachers that one can read today many old and almost forgotten manuscripts and traditions again – for the most part translated into modern Thai script. But, as a matter of fact, some young people are learning Lan Na script again today.
One of those above mentioned dedicated monks and teachers was Singkha Wannasai, a native of Ban San Mahaphon in Lamphun. He was born on February 26, 1920. His parents were rice farmers. At the age of 29, he married his wife Ruankham who was six years his junior. The couple had seven children. Singkha died on September 13, 1980.
Singkha Wannasai spent thirteen years of his youth in monasteries. At the age of 12 he ordained as a novice and entered monkhood at the age of 21. After three years of elementary education in Lamphun he received his secondary education at Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai in Lamphun. At this monastic school he also enrolled as a Nak Tham (religion student) until he acquired the advanced level of Nak Tham Ek (Dhamma scholarship), passing เปรียญธรรม Priantham, the third grade in Buddhist theology. He furthered his theological studies at Mahathat Yuwarat Rangsarit in Bangkok, another monastic school where he completed the fourth grade. Later, back at Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai, he continued his study of Pali to create an easier but still conventional way of translating Pali into Thai and finally passed the fifth grade in Buddhist theology. He continued his studies and later passed the requirements of elementary school teacher and secondary school teacher. He left monkhood at the age of 25.
In addition to his Pali expertise, Singkha learned English and studied the Northern Thai language and Lan Na script from various kinds of literary works. He studied and practiced the specific liturgies of the Maharat and Nakhon episodes of the Thet Mahachat sermons, the most popular Lan Na version of the มหาเวสสันดรชาดก Maha Wetsandon Chadok („Vessantara Jataka“). Most importantly he learned to compose Kham Wen Than (= verses of dedication) from various monks in Lamphun and deepened his understanding of the Lan Na language by seeking the advice of various scholars and elderly people from all over the region. His compositions became so sophisticated and innovative that he was invited to preside over such dedication ceremonies all over Northern Thailand. Furthermore, he learned to compose several kinds of central Thai and Lan Na poetry.
Singkha Wannasai was a born teacher. Since his time as a monk, he had been teaching Thai language and Buddhist theology. After having disrobed, Singkha continued working as a schoolteacher. He was appointed an education inspector and became the school headmaster at San Rim Ping monastic school in Lamphun. He retired from his government official status at the age of fifty and furthered his academic studies on Lan Na language and literature.
Working up to twelve hours a day, he transcribed numerous texts written on palm-leaf manuscripts in Northern Thai language and script into central Thai in order to make the texts accessible to a wider audience. He became a special lecturer at Chiang Mai University, as an advisor on Lan Na language, Lan Na literature and Buddhism and devised a number of innovative courses to Thai and foreign students at Chulalongkon University. In recognition of his groundbreaking work he was awarded the honorary Master degree in Thai language at Chiang Mai University on 27 January 1977. Numerous master and doctoral students consulted him as their mentor to further their studies and research. Famous scholars such as Prof. ประคอง นิมมานเหมินท์ Prakhong Nimmanhemin (“Prakong Nimmanahaeminda”, Chulalongkon University), Prof. Harald Hundius (University of Passau), Prof. Donald K. Swearer (Swathmore College), and Viggo Brun (University of Copenhagen) were among his students.
In addition to his various academic works, Achan Singkha was often invited to be a leader at many different events, such as donation ceremonies throughout Northern Thailand, blessings in pre-ordination ceremonies, blessings in wedding ceremonies, blessings in general religious ceremonies. Moreover, he gave lectures on Buddhist doctrine and served as a master of ceremony. He also gave advice to fellowships of Buddhist Youth, young volunteers at monasteries, or ritual performers who got into trouble and people who encountered personal or family problems.
The preface of the book includes an impressive list of Achan Singkha’s publications, translations, textbooks and even literary works like นิราศ (Nirat: travel or “farewell poetry”) about the places where he had travelled to and worked at, which even includes a นิราศเมืองคีล “Nirat Müang Kiel” on his lengthy stay in northern Germany, where he helped Harald Hundius with a project on Northern Thai literature. One of his most significant achievements were his activities to survey and document palm-leaf manuscripts kept at various monasteries in Northern Thailand. With the support of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) and his fellow Lan Na literature enthusiast Harald Hundius, Achan Singkha identified a large number of manuscripts containing texts related to secular and religious histories, Buddhist literature, didactic literature, astrology, rituals and many other genres to be microfilmed. Thus, he is to be considered the first scholar in Northern Thailand who initiated the documentation and preservation of manuscripts to make accessible the vast literary heritage of Lan Na to the wider scholarly community. These endeavors have today further been transformed into larger microfilming and digitization projects.
Achan Singkha had been teaching Lan Na philology at Chiang Mai University over a period of ten years, from 1970 until his untimely death in 1980. When writing the textbook for the first time in 1975, Singkha used an old typewriter to type his explanations of the language, grammar and script of Lan Na on stencil while writing the original texts in the Lan Na script with his own hand. Finally, he produced the copies of this textbook himself by using an old stencil-duplicating machine. Over more than four decades, generations of students have used Achan Singkha’s textbook for studying the language and script of Lan Na.
Achan Singkha’s heirs and disciples are of the opinion that it is time to re-edit this most important introduction into the Northern Thai script by keeping the original text, including its preface and introduction, in its entirety while using a Dhamma script computer font which resembles Achan Singkha’s neat handwriting as closely as possible.
สิงฆะ วรรณสัย (Singkha Wannasai): ตำราเรียนอักขระลานนาไทย (Tamra rian akkhara lan na thai “Textbook for the Study of the Lan Na Script”)
Singkha Wannasai: Learning Lan Na Script. Edited by Volker Grabowsky. Segnitz: Zenos Verlag 2019. Paperback, 208 pages, 29.3 x 21 cm, 500 g, ISBN 978-3-931018-43-6, 24.80 Euro.
The book has been published as Vol. 3 of the Hamburger Thaiistik Studien, ISSN 2569-2879.
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