Around Princeton, Cotsen Children’s Library is most often referred to as “the children’s library” (with a myriad of connotations). In the research community, the library is well-known for its wealth of children’s literature, folk tales, educational material, toys, manuscripts, and juvenilia. Material is available in scores of languages spanning the last 400 hundred years or so. But Cotsen is also home to an array of fantastic and surprisingly rare material that most wouldn’t expect to find given our collection interests and reputation.
In a blog series I’d like to call “Cotsen’s Covert Collections” (so I’m calling it that), I will showcase some of the more unexpected collections material that I come across. These are the items that I find in the vaults that make me say: “I can’t believe we have this. I don’t quite know what it is, but this is really cool!”.
The first items I’d like to show are a pair of Burmese (Myanma) Buddhist manuscripts:
The shape of these manuscripts differs drastically from a typical Western bound manuscript. Both feature accordion folded sections of rag paper pasted together between highly decorative red and gold painted wood boards.
Each panel can be read separately or the whole work can be unfolded vertically like a wall chart. In this way, the manuscripts are something between a bound manuscript and a scroll. Unlike a western manuscript or a typical scroll, however, the works are double-sided. On one side the works feature hand painted illustrations and text, on the reverse side the works feature only inscribed text.
The record indicates that both manuscripts were made around 1890 in Burma (Myanmar). This information was probably provided from a dealer’s description which we no longer have with us. Though the items themselves provide no indication of place or date (as far as I can tell) the manuscript style is iconically Burmese; and we’ll just have to take the date on face value for now.
Judging by the skill of the paintings, the mistakes in the texts, and the similarities of the works, I think it’s safe to assume that one artist probably authored both works; and that he or she was an amateur or novice.
Though my knowledge of the Burmese (Myanmar) language can hardly be called knowledge, the script does seem to differ from modern Burmese. My guess is that the manuscripts were written in Burmese-pali as is typical of other more ornate Buddhist manuscripts from Myanmar called Kammavaca. Burmese-pali uses an older form of Burmese script in order to write the Pali language, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism (the dominant branch of Buddhism in South East Asia). ***A blog comment by pansuriya (see comment below) has corrected my supposition above. The text panels are in the Shan language while the image descriptions are indeed in Burmese. I have also turned the text images 180 degrees since I depicted the text upside down.
The first manuscript seems to depict various previous lives of the Buddha juxtaposed against his final earthly state. Called Jataka tales, stories about previous lives of the Buddha are moral tales in which a particular virtue is correctly exercised by the Buddha in one of his past forms:
Of course, the text on the reverse side of the manuscript would probably offer further clues about the content of the images. Unfortunately, we don’t yet know what the text says either:
The second manuscript might be focused on scenes from the life of Siddhārtha Gautama, but I’ll admit it’s difficult for me to discern:
By including items like these on the blog, I hope to make it more transparent that Cotsen has a variety of materials that one would not expect at “the children’s library”. Hopefully, bringing these objects to light means that someone more knowledgeable than me can help us discover more about these wonderful (and under-described) materials. We have a range of unusual or unexpected artifacts, books, and objects. I hope this blog series will inspire researchers to see what else they can find in our collection.