Century - 54 * 12 cm . 16 leaves (32 pages) 2 wood covers
COMPLETE and in excellent condition
Thick cloth leaves covered with gold and lacquered. Script
in large black cinnabar characters ("Square" Burmese script).
Intricate decorations throughout , each leaf is a true
work of art. Complete sets have 16 leaves plus two decorated
wooden boards, representing a part of the Pali Vinaya,
and were commissioned by wealthy families. Those manuscripts
are extremely sought after and usually sell in single
leaves or at best in half sets framed, for several times
the price offered here.
The kammavaca (or kamawa-sa)
are among the most sacred of Burmese religious texts, containing
selections from the Vinaya that provides rules for the monastic
system. Because of the sacred nature of these manuscripts, no
expense was spared to make them objects of great beauty. A new
kammavaca would take at least a month to make by the several
members of a family of craftsmen. The lavish use of gold in
combination with the red lacquer and the rich brown of the lettering
make these manuscripts visually magnificent.
The first and last pages are
profusely illustrated with figures from the world of Hindu-Buddhist
mythology, probably devas, facing each other in pairs, against
a background of interlocking knots and luxuriant tropical foliage.
Devas ("shining ones") are inhabitants of the heavenly realms
of the Hindu-Buddhist cosmos, characterized by long life, joyous
surroundings and a blissful state of mind. In the Buddhist tradition,
these states are understood to be impermanent, not eternal.
These celestial figures appear resplendently attired in Kon-baung
court (1752-1885) costumes, with upturned epaulettes, winged
tailoring of garments and close-fitting jackets over sarongs
with front flowing trains in tiers. They have flaring cherub
wings behind the ears. The text begins overleaf.
The following two first and
last pages (4) have the text in the centre of the leaf, inset
with decorated panels on either side containing the same mythological
There are six lines of text
to the leaf. The lines of the text are divided from each other
by parallel bands embellished with foliage scrollwork in gold
leaf. The margins of the leaves have the same scrollwork, together
with bands of beaded ornament. The language is Pali, the language
of the historical Buddha, used in the most essential documents
of Theravada Buddhism, but written in a Burmese script, used
almost exclusively for kammavaca manuscripts, called magyi zi
(‘tamarind seed’), from the resemblance of the letters to the
dark brown, glossy seeds of the tree. The thickness of the raised
lettering (ink mixed with lacquer and red cinnabar) provides
an almost sculptural quality to the lines of the text. As it
is customary, each leaf is numbered on one of the margins, with
red lacquer in round script, by a letter in conjunction with
a vowel of the Burmese alphabet.
The lacquered wooden covers,
or kyan, have the same profusely illustrated decoration
of the first and last pages of the manuscript enclosing the
kammavaca. They are bevelled around the edges to give a slightly
raised effect to the surface.
The substrate for the leaves
of the manuscript are folded layers of cloth stiffened with
many coats of lacquer, but still flexible. Lacquer is the resin
of a tree which is gathered, haphazardly, in the forest, never
grown under plantation conditions. It is waterproof, heatproof,
insect and bacteria resistant and, if thin enough, as in the
kammavaca leaves, retains its flexibility. A red colouring agent,
cinnabar (mercuric sulphide), ochre or paint, turns it vermilion.
Although lacquer was used much earlier, making lacquer objects
did not become a full-blown decorative art until the Ava period
(AD 1287-1752). The art of lacquer, however, did not reach its
zenith until the Kon-baung period (AD 1752-1885).
Both the covers and the final
coat of pure filtered lacquer of the leaves are part gilded
in the shwe zawa negative gold leaf technique. Their
lively designs are drawn freehand with a resin by craftsmen
who have mastered the variety of different styles and motifs
with a high degree of artistic skill. The area to which the
gold leaf is to adhere is left unpainted and is a negative of
The gilding is made with small
tissue-thin squares of gold-leaf, or shwei-bya, made
from 24 carat panned and beaten gold. From early times, Southeast
Asia was known in the Asian world for its abundance of gold
and many objects intended for religious and royal use are embellished
with gilt decoration. Powdered gold paint is mostly confined
to objects of inferior quality. The act of gilding in the Buddhist
world is considered a meritorious deed, one that builds up good
karma, the moral law of cause and effect of human beings’ deeds.
Kammavaca manuscripts were commissioned by donors for presentation
to a monastery on ceremonies such as the building of a new house
or the ordination of a monk. Each time the manuscript is used
merit will accrue to the donors whether alive or dead.