A true work of art from the Theravada buddhist tradition.

Burmese Gold Manuscript

16 leaves 2 covers - Complete set in excellent condition.
Extremely rare, highly decorated copy.

18th/19th 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 figures.

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 design.

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.

First and last pages :

Wood Covers :

©2002 William Wier & Co .