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The making of a collection: Burmese manuscripts in the British Library

Patricia Herbert


THE Burma manuscripts collection in the British Library by virtue of its size, range of material, and state of preservation constitutes the most significant collection of manuscripts to be found outside Burma. It numbers over 1,000 manuscripts, of which approximately 800 are in Oriental Collections and 350 in the India Office Library. Besides texts in Burmese, it includes Pali and Pali-Burmese nissaya texts in Burmese script (round and square script), as well as manuscripts in other languages and scripts of Burma such as Mon and Shan. Virtually every type of writing material is represented: gold, silver, and other metal plates, ivory, palm leaf, paper (both local and European), and even cloth compressed, reputedly, from discarded royal robes. In subject matter a high proportion of the collection consists of Buddhist canonical works and commentaries thereon, as is to be expected in a society where monks were the repository of learning, and responsible for its transmission and preservation through the repeated copying and explication of texts down the centuries. But other subjects represented in the collection include astrology, cosmology, language and literature, law, chronicles and inscriptions, and medicine. A particular strength of the collection is its illustrated manuscripts depicting such subjects as the life of the Buddha, the Jataka stories (of the Buddha's previous lives), and court ceremonies and entertainments.

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