Project to Digitize Myanmar Manuscripts

In February 2013, work began on taking photos of palm-leaf manuscripts and parabaiks in Myanmar monasteries.
The project is being supported by the Pali Text Society, U.K., and by grants from Japan that were won by Dr Sunao Kasamatsu of Sendai National College of Technology (SNCT): grants from the KDDI Foundation (2012) and the Mitsubishi Foundation (2013), a grant-in-aid for challenging exploratory research from JSPS Kakenhi (2013, No. 25580010) and a grant-in-aid for scientific research from JSPS Kakenhi (2016, No. 15H03353).
Dr Sunao Kasamatsu and Dr Yutaka Kawasaki from Japan and Aleix Ruiz Falqués joined me, William Pruitt, in photographing manuscripts in Thaton and Inle Lake. We were helped by U Aung Moe Oo. Two monasteries with sizeable collections are happy for us to prepare and photograph their manuscripts. At the same time, it is a good opportunity to organize the manuscripts and make sure they are well cared for. In Thaton we were helped by U Nyunt Maung, an 87-year-old retired librarian who is still active and considered the leading expert in the field.
It was decided that we will concentrate on one library at a time, so in August and September of 2013, work continued on taking photos of manuscripts in the U Pho Thi Library in the Saddhamma-jotikā-rāma Monastery in Thaton, Myanmar, which was an earlier Mon capital that was important in the history of introducing Pāli texts in Myanmar. Some 130 manuscripts were photographed. Dr Win Htay, who is the director of the computer university in Thaton, is developing a computer program to make it easy to crop colour photos and create a PDF for each manuscript. Dr Kazuhiko Fujiwara and Professor Yumi Ousaka of SNCT are now making an effective program that can compile an electronic book from photos of the palm-leaf manuscripts together with information about the leaves that is automatically added to the book – for example its serial number and its sides (recto or verso), etc. This computer program will save a great deal of time and can easily process hundreds of manuscripts, each of which contains dozens of palm leaves. We can edit these books, depending on how they will be used – for example, to upload them to a Web site in order to preserve the manuscripts in a very clear formate so that they can be studied in the future. U Aung Moe is making PDFs of the manuscripts using Burmese script. By the summer of 2016, PDFs of over 500 manuscripts have been prepared. A number of these have been shared with scholars around the world.
Thaton is one of the cities in Myanmar where monks go to prepare for examinations, and the Saddhamma-jotikārāma Monastery is the largest centre where they study in Thaton. The monastery is at the foot of the highest mountain in the region, and a long staircase leads up to the Myathabate Pagoda on the top of the mountain.
A wealthy layman named U Pho Thi donated the library that bears his name in the early 20th century in order to aid the monks in their studies. The manuscripts are housed in a magnificent room with a gilded ceiling and gilded cabinets surmounted by devas. There is a beautiful manuscript chest with a Kammavaca manuscript that was made in Mandalay in 1951 in honour of U Pho Thi after he died. Kammavaca manuscripts contain texts of formal proceedings of the monks such as ordination. Some of the manuscripts have beautiful designs worked into the gilded edges. One manuscript is unusual in that it has rounded leaves and a checker-board design on the edges of the leaves.
The head Sayadaw told us the library is open to be used and that he is happy for the manuscripts to be digitized and shared with all. A local group of laypeople in Thaton support the library. After our work there in February and March 2013, they put the manuscripts back in order which was a great help in locating specific texts.
U Nyunt Maung trained the members of the lay group, teaching them the numbering system used in manuscripts. It is based on combinations of consonants and vowels rather than numerals, giving groups of 12 leafs called aṅgas. He showed them the long ribbons with text woven in them used when wrapping the manuscripts. And he also showed them how to apply lemon-grass oil with powdered carbon added to help preserve the leaves and bring out the letters inscribed in the leaves using a metal stylus. U Ye Kyi assisted U Nyunt Maung and helped with taking the photos. He checked the manuscripts to insure that the leaves were in order and helped turn the leaves for the photographs. He is also expert in wrapping the manuscripts.
U Nyunt Maung worked on a new catalogue for the library. At least three catalogues or lists of the manuscripts have been made in the past, but a new catalogue is needed that gives accurate details of the manuscripts and the texts in them. Some manuscripts contain several texts. With a catalogue available on a computer, searches will be much easier.
U Nyunt Maung identified approximately 50 manuscripts that contain rare Pāli texts, most of which have not been published. There are also many manuscripts with nissayas, which are word-by-word translations of Pāli texts into Burmese. Many of these could be useful to Burmese scholars.
There are also several white and black parabaiks, which are accordion-style, thick paper manuscripts. The white parabaiks are often illustrated. There are two in the collection with the 32 planes of existence from the highest heavens to the lowest hells, one with medicinal plants, one with royal regalia, and one related to horoscopes. The black parabaiks are written on using soapstone. They rarely contain Pāli texts, and they can be used like a blackboard slate for making notes.
The lay group purchased the material we were using to photograph the manuscripts. They began photographing manuscripts themselves so that all the manuscripts in the collection have now been photographed. Future work could include identifying rare editions of Pāli texts in the collection of printed books.

For the list of manuscripts being digitized in the U Pho Thi Library in Thaton, click on "Digital Data Sample of Myanmar Manuscripts" on the following Web page:

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A Short Introduction to the Project "Digitizing Manuscripts in Myanmar":

An Introduction to the Project "Digitizing Manuscripts in Myanmar":

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