Click here to skip to content

Thai studies

The British Library holds Thai language material, including Northern Thai and some Tai minority languages such as Shan, Tai Khoen and Tai Lue. The focus of the collection is on the humanities and social sciences

We hold about 400 manuscripts in Thai, Northern Thai and Pali (in Thai / Northern Thai script), as well as a large collection of printed books in Thai, including some rare books from the 19th and 20th centuries. We also have extensive holdings on Thailand in western languages, and a wide variety of other materials.

Researching Thailand at the British Library

Thai manuscripts

The Thai manuscripts collection consists of approximately 300 manuscripts in Thai and Northern Thai, and  more than 100 manuscripts in Pali (in Thai/Northern Thai script).

British relations with Thailand date back to 1612, when the East India Company ship The Globe arrived in Siam carrying a letter from King James I for the Siamese king. The British Library's collections relating to Thailand include the account by Peter Floris written in 1612 (IOR, L/MAR/A/XIII, ff.28/29), a member of the expedition, and other records of early East India Company trading activities in Siam.

Thai manuscripts and historic documents first came to Britain as a result of trade contacts, and documents from the earliest period include official letters and materials received from Thai counterparts. Some manuscripts were brought from Thailand by travellers, missionaries, traders, and soldiers, and include Buddhist scriptures and literary works, and manuscripts on traditional medicine, law, cosmology, fortune-telling and other treatises.

The manuscript collection was mainly built up from 1975 onwards, although the first fine illustrated Thai manuscript came into the India Office Library in 1825 (MS Pali 207), with other good examples being acquired during the 19th century. Most of the manuscripts are paper folding books and palmleaf manuscripts, but there are also some textile manuscripts.

Among the highlights of the manuscript collections are:

  • an important Thai historical chronicle, copied by royal scribes c.1840 (Or. 11827)
  • Mouhot's Alphabets and inscriptions [OR. 4736]

Our collection of illustrated manuscripts is wide-ranging in scope, and includes many superb examples of Thai Buddhist and secular painting, including 

  • two Phra Malai manuscripts (Or. 14732 and Or. 16100)
  • The Ten Birth Tales (Or. 14068)
  • a Traiphum manuscript (Or. 15245)
  • an Elephant Treatise (Or. 13652)

The collection also includes:

  • wooden and ivory title indicators for palmleaf manuscripts (for example, Or. 14613)
  • an ivory royal seal (Or. 16368)
  • protective shirts (for example, Or. 14722)

Other minor languages covered in the Thai, Lao and Cambodian manuscripts collection are Ahom, Khamti, Khasi, Tai Lue and Tai Khoen, Mon, and Shan.

Chakrabongse Letters

In 2001, the British Library received a gift of more than 100 letters written by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and his sons Prince Chakrabongse and King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) between 1896 and 1915 (Or.15749). The letters cover a range of personal and political topics and were presented by Narisa Chakrabongse, granddaughter of the prince. The collection has been digitised, and a CD-ROM can be made available in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room by the curator.

Thai manuscripts on the British Library website

The Online Gallery includes virtual books viewed through the Turning the Pages program, online exhibitions and features. One major item of Thai interest is the folding book Ten birth tales of the Buddha.

Currently, 52 Thai manuscripts are being digitised, with the support of the Royal Thai Government, in celebration of the Auspicious Occasion of the Eightieth Birthday Anniversary of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand. They will be available online by early 2012.

Accessing the manuscripts

All the manuscripts in our Thai collections catalogued to date are listed in this electronic handlist.

Further details of individual items may be found in the following printed handlists:

Ginsburg, Henry:  Thai manuscript painting. London: The British Library, 1989 [YV.1990.b.799]

Ginsburg, Henry: Thai art and culture: historic manuscripts from Western collections. London: The British Library, 2000 [LB.31.b.20500]

Igunma, Jana (ed.) Handlist of manuscripts from the Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections, The British Library. London : The British Library, 2006
CD-ROM including the updated handlist of the Tai and Mon-Khmer manuscripts in the British Museum, together with Pali manuscripts from the corresponding region, and a short bibliography [ED.2006.x.66]

Marrison, G.E.(ed.) Handlist of the Tai and Mon-Khmer manuscripts in the British Museum, together with Pali manuscripts from the corresponding region, and a short bibliography. 1968
Typescript handlist, updated by H.Ginsburg to include recent acquisitions of Thai and Cambodian manuscripts up to the year 2004 [ORC THAI 1]

Zwalf, W. (ed.) Buddhism: art and faith. London: British Museum, 1985
See 'Thailand and Cambodia', pp.175-186, for details of manuscripts from the British Library [X 205/1792]

Printed books and periodicals

The British Library's collection of Thai language books and periodicals comprises more than 4,000 printed books, dating from the mid-19th century onwards, and 45 periodical titles.

The earliest period of Thai printing, c. 1840-1890, is well represented in the collections due to the gift by Christian missionaries of about 100 books and pamphlets, some of which are unique. These include the only known copy of the first Thai book ever printed in Thailand, a Christian text published in 1838 (ORB.30/894). A copy of the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Great Britain and Siam (Siam.29) - also known as the Bowring treaty - printed in 1856 is an excellent example of Thai printing outside Thailand. In the early 20th century, all publications of the National Library of Thailand were deposited at the British Museum Library. Recent acquisitions are normally made by purchase.

Accessing the printed collections

Thai printed books and serials which were acquired before 2001 are accessible through a card catalogue in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room, with author, title and subject sequences. Thai language material acquired since 2001 is searchable in Explore the British Library. Printed books on Thailand in western languages can also be found in Explore the British Library.

Archival resources

There are some western-language archival resources on Thailand in the India Office Records, which are the documentary archives of the administration in London of the English East India Company and the pre-1947 government of India.

The India Office Records include files relating to the activities of the English East India Company and the English Factory in Siam. Apart from the British Library’s own catalogues, published listings of resources most relevant to the study of Thailand can be found in:

Farrington, Anthony and Dhiravat Na Pompejra (eds.): The English factory in Siam, 1612 – 1685. London : The British Library, 2007 [YC.2007.a.16965 and YC.2007.a.16966]

Farrington, Anthony (ed.): Low’s mission to southern Siam. Bangkok : White Lotus Press, 2007 [YD.2007.a.9559]

Sladen, E. P.: King Chulalongkorn’s journey to India 1872. Bangkok : River Books, 2000 [SEA.2000.a.158]

Visual materials

The Library has a small collection of visual materials relating to Thailand in the Prints, Drawings and Photographs collections.

This includes:

  • an impressive collection of Thai-style drawings in Captain Low's Album of Thai paintings, c. 1800-1820 A.D. [Add.27370 and Or.14179]. This was compiled by Captain James Low while serving in the East India Company in northern Malaya and Penang.
  • more than 100 drawings from the Finlayson Collection related to Thailand (Siam). George Finlayson was one of the best naturalists of the early 19th century, and his studies in southern Thailand and the Malay peninsula were pioneering [NHD5]
  • several 19th-century paintings in the Rattankosin style [Add. Or. 5581-4]
  • the Thalang letters from the Marsden Papers [NHD1]
  • Thai drawings from the Wynford Album [IO Burmese.203]

A few Thai lacquer manuscripts boxes and cabinets, which we received as a gift from Doris Duke's Southeast Asia Art Collection in 2004, are on display in front of and inside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room.

There is an online catalogue of the visual materials collection. 

A photograph of Chulalongkorn, King of Siam (1853-1910) is online on the British Library's website.

Recorded sound and audio-visual resources

The British Library holds one of the world’s largest collections of world and traditional music. Recordings from Thailand include the Tom Vater field recordings and the John Moore music collection, as well as theatre plays, classical Thai music, Thai folk and pop music, and recordings of religious ceremonies.

There are other relevant resources from Thailand in the oral history, drama and literature collections, and a large collection of field recordings of wildlife from all regions of Thailand.

These resources may be accessed through the Sound Archive catalogue.

Philatelic material

The British Library's philatelic material includes the Row Collection, an outstanding collection of Siam from 1883 to 1918. The collection is in 22 volumes, chiefly unused with many blocks, and strong in the various provisional surcharges. It includes some postal stationery and issues used in Kedah and Kelantan. The collection was formed by R.W.H. Row and presented in 1919 by his mother Mrs Eliza Row.

Electronic resources

A number of key electronic resources for the study of Thailand are also available at the British Library. For licensing reasons, most of these may be accessed only from the Library’s reading rooms. A number of important reference resources are held, including Southeast Asia in the Ming Reign Chronicles (14th-17th Centuries). 

The Library also subscribes to a growing number of electronic journals relevant to Thai studies. 

Through the Endangered Archives Programme, the Library is receiving digital copies of Thai gay, lesbian and transgender publications.

Images Online

Images Online gives instant access to thousands of images from the British Library's collections, including manuscripts, rare books, musical texts and maps.

Reproductions

Copies of nearly all collection items can be ordered from the Library’s Imaging Services.

Contact

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian
Asian and African Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7653

E-mail: jana.igunma@bl.uk