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Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha

Image Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha

A pair of guardian figures seated
British Library MS Pali 207, f.48
Copyright © The British Library Board
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This manuscript from Thailand dates from the late 18th century and is a fine example of how Buddhist scriptures were illustrated in folding book form.

Given to the India Office in 1825, this is perhaps the earliest acquired Thai manuscript in a British collection. A note at the end of the manuscript states that it was “Presented by Ltt Coll Clifford by the hands of W Wigram Esqe, 9th Dec 1825”. Lt. Col. Miller Clifford served in the British Army during a long career beginning in the West Indies in 1794. In 1824 he was with the 89th Regiment of Foot in the first Burma war, which was where he must have acquired this fine Thai manuscript. Wigram was a director of the East India Company; he doubtless carried the manuscript to England on Clifford’s behalf.

What are the Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha about?

In Thai painting tradition, the Buddha was widely represented by scenes of the events of his life, and of his 547 previous lives, which are described in the Jātaka tales of the Pali Canon in a mixture of prose and verse. Scenes of the Buddha’s previous lives are prevalent in Thai illustrated manuscripts, especially his last ten existences before he was born as Gautama Buddha. Curiously, the illustrations rarely accompany the relevant scriptures that recount the birth tales. They are shown with extracts from the Abhidhamma section of Buddhist scripture, which treats psychological and philosophical subjects. 

The Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha are known as Thotsachat in Thailand. The very last of them is far the most important. It is known as the Great Birth Tale (Mahachat), or else by its proper name, the Vessantara Jātaka, after the name of its hero, Prince Vessantara. Its narrative embodies the greatest of all Buddhist virtues, that of giving. The retelling of the Great Birth tale is regarded as an act of Buddhist merit, and its recitation by monks is the occasion for a great celebration that lasts a full day and night. 

What exactly is in this book? 

The text of this book contains extracts from the Abhidhamma scriptures. The overall title Mahābuddhaguna (Great Qualities of the Buddha) is given to the text, which is written in Cambodian (Khmer) Mul script, but in Pali language. Cambodian Mul script was often used for the production of Buddhist folding books in Central Thailand. 30 paired illustrations make this book a rare treasure of Thai manuscript painting. The first 20 paired paintings illustrate the ten birth tales, including the Bhuridatta birth tale where the Buddha to be is reborn as a great serpent (or nāga) who exemplifies the virtue of forbearance. Scenes from the Candakumara birth tale show a ceremony that is plotted by evil Brahmins to sacrifice the Buddha to be, but god Indra descends from heaven and destroys the ceremony and the evil Brahmins. Additional scenes follow, depicting the gods Indra and Brahma, angels, and benevolent demons. The last pair of scenes depicts monks and laymen engaged in drinking tea, eating sweets and play. The paintings are simply composed, but the artist’s command of line and form, composition and colour, are all exemplary. The pale coloured backgrounds are typical of the late Ayutthaya and early Thonburi periods (late 18th century). 

How was this book made, and what for? 

The paper of this book is made from the bark of the Khoi tree (Streblus asper, or Trophis aspera). The bark was stripped from the tree, soaked in water and then beaten with wooden mallets until the bark separated into fibres. The fibres were dried on a flat surface until they gained the consistency of cardboard. After trimming the edges to 60 cm in length, the paper was folded accordion-like to form a book of 9 cm width. The paper is of a dull cream-buff, and the writing was done with black China ink and a bamboo pen. 

Traditional Thai manuscript painters had only a limited range of colours made from available natural materials. Red and yellow ochre, as well as white were obtained from local minerals. Black was produced from lampblack, carbon or crushed charcoal. Greens and blues were mostly produced from vegetable matter (for example Indigofera), only by the 18th century was malachite imported from China to produce a bright green colour. Also gold was used lavishly. Natural pigments were mixed with the sap of a tree to improve adhesion to the paper. 

The production of illustrated folding books ranks as one of Thailand’s greatest cultural achievements. They were produced for different purposes in Buddhist monasteries and at the royal and local courts, as well. First of all, such books served as teaching material and handbooks for Buddhist monks and novices. Classical Buddhist literature, prayers (Sutras) and moral teachings were also read to the lay people during religious ceremonies. The production of folding books – and even sponsoring their production - was regarded as a great act of merit making. Therefore, folding books quite often are a kind of “Festschrift” in honour of a deceased person.

How can I find out more about Thai folding books?

If you would like to know more about Thai folding books, or Thai manuscripts in general, two useful sources are the research works of late Dr Henry Ginsburg, the former Curator of Thai Collections at the British Library. 

Ginsburg, Henry: Thai art and culture. Historic manuscripts from Western Collections. London : British Library, 2000. (ISBN 0 7123 4620 1) 

Ginsburg, Henry: Thai manuscript painting. London : British Library, 1989. (ISBN 0 7123 0162 3)

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