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Thailand digitizes ancient Buddhist manuscripts for online use

The digital manuscripts are hosted at the new Digital Library of Northern Thai Manuscripts. The manuscripts are essentially strips of leaves from the palm tree, tied together with string to form a book. The digitization will make them more accessible, as well protect the content in case the originals are destroyed by fire or termites. Borrowed manuscripts that are never returned is another cause for the loss of originals.

The initiative is part of the Preservation of Northern Thai Manuscripts Project (PNTMP), funded by the German government. The project has been ongoing since 1987, and has cost 730,000 euros so far with 4274 manuscripts, some of which are over 500 years old, were digitized. There are a total of around 7,000 manuscripts. Some of the manuscripts are being considered by the Thai Manuscripts Association for inclusion in the UNESCO “Memory of the World” database.

The digitization team is led by professor Harald Hundius, a German academic and expert in the ancient Indian language of Pali, the language in which the Buddha originally preached. Many of the Thai manuscripts are written in Pali and Hundius applied for a grant from the German Research Foundation in 1971, to study them. He arrived in Thailand to learn the local Lanna language over a three-year period from Singkha Wannasai, a scholar at the Wat Sung Men temple in Phrae.

“I still remember the sight of 15 northern people sitting at Wat San Rim Ping, unwrapping manuscripts, reading for each other and laughing. I was curious and tried to read the story. Finally, I understood the story after half-a-year. The script was very difficult. I wanted to study more and more,” he said.

Hundius was a professor at the University of Passau, Germany, studying Thai and Lao languages and literature from 1993 to 2004. He is also involved in the digitization project for the National Library of Laos in Cambodia. He has been working on the project since 1992.

The manuscripts included ancient works of history, religion and law, as well as folklore and folktales, as well as popular historical works such as King Mengrai’s law code, and Chiang Mai, a chronicle of local history in northern Thailand. The oldest manuscript dates to 1471, and is a Pali version of the Jataka stories, called “Chadok” in Thai, which are stories of the previous lives of Gautama Buddha. The original is at the Wat Lai Hin temple in Thailand. The work is a copy of the text by Hiuen-Tsang, a Chinese pilgrim who traveled to India in the seventh century AD, to collect important Buddhist works.

The manuscripts are primarily kept in the ancient temples, or wats, in the region, which include Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong in Chiang Mai; Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Duang Dee in Chiang Mai, Wat Sung Men in Phrae and Wat Lai Hin in Lampang.

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