Cotsen’s Covert Collections, part 1: A Pair of Burmese (Myanma) Buddhist Manuscripts

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:

2 volumes, Cotsen 101728

2 volumes, Cotsen 101728

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.


The manuscripts have no spine like in a typical codex. The sheets are pasted together at even intervals and stacked, they are only connected to the binding at the terminal ends.

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 top manuscript in the first picture above.

The top manuscript in the first picture above.

The bottom manuscript in the first picture above.

The bottom manuscript in the first picture above.

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:


1st panel, Possibly a short depiction of The Story of Chaddanta Elephant


4th panel

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:

First text panel

First text panel

Last text panel

Last text panel

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:


2nd panel


6th panel (luckily this final panel is not stained by red dust which has soiled the rest of the work)

First text panel

First text panel

Last text panel

Last text panel

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.

Moving Day in Feather Town: The Manuscript for A Picture Book by Ann M. and Henry Martin


Front wrapper, Item 6540798

To celebrate the very early end of our recent department wide collections move, we thought it would be fun to post about an item from the collection that’s all about moving.

Moving Day in Feather Town (1989) is a fun little picture book written by Ann M. Martin and illustrated by her father Henry Martin about two chickens, Fran and Emma, who decide to switch houses.

Ann’s name might sound familiar because she’s the author of the first 35 novels of the prolific “Baby-Sitters Club” series and other novels like the 2003 Newbery Medal awarded A Corner of the Universe. Henry Martin might be better known for his New Yorker illustrations and his long running comic strip “Good News/Bad News”. Perhaps less known, however, is that Ann happens to be a Princeton native and Henry a member of the Princeton University class of ’48.

This Princeton connection perhaps explains why the Illustrator kindly gifted his original artwork for the book to the Cotsen collection. So today I can not only show you some of the highlights of this story, I can showcase aspects of the production of the work as well.

Original artwork for the front wrapper

Original artwork for the front wrapper, Item 6540798, (notice the addition of a blue background to the published work)

The story Begins with a frustrated Fran and Emma waking up in their respective homes:

Page spread of [1] and [2]

Page spread of [1] and [2]

They’re both so envious of the other’s house and just sick of their boring old places!So they have they a great idea: swap houses!

And they both get excited and packed up and ready to move. But before long they both get cold feet. Unfortunately, neither has the heart to admit it to their friend. So they both decide to go through with it instead, on the day of the big parade no less:

Page [8]

And with heavy hearts, and all the items in the house packed away, each prepares her respective final act in the home:

Page [12]

Page [12]

But much to their mutual excitement, the two moving chicken friends get caught in the very parade they thought they’d miss. They even run into each other during the festivities:

Page spread of [18] and [19]

Page spread of [18] and [19]

Page spread of [18] and [19] galley (Notice how the original boarders have been clipped during production)

Page spread of [18] and [19] original artwork (Notice the absence of text and how the original boarders have been clipped during production)

Unfortunately they run into each other a little too literally and disaster strikes:

Page [19]

Page [20]

Page [19] original artwork

Page [20] original artwork

After all the commotion and confusion the pair are distraught and fear that they will never be allowed to join the parade again. Emma finally admits that she doesn’t want to move, and Fran is relieved at feeling the same. The friends part in happiness and return to their original houses:

Page [23]

Well so much for Fran and Emma’s move . . . but it all worked out in the end!

Our move to new vault space in Firestone Library, on the other hand, was much more necessary and much more efficiently handled. Not one crash!

***We’d like to thank the hard work and dedication of the CDTF team (you know who you are) and the Clancy-Cullen movers for doing such a great job.