Manuscript Textiles in the Southeast Asian Collections

Red silk brocade with woven-in gold ornaments in floral shapes. On top of it are bundles of gilded palm leaves and a wooden board with intricate mother-of-pearl inlay.
Silk wrapping cloth with gold thread, of Indian origin, made on order for the Thai royal court for a Buddhist commentary on palm leaves, central Thailand c. 1824-52. British Library, Or 5107

In the project Manuscript Textiles in the Southeast Asian Collections textile objects found in the manuscript collections from Southeast Asia are being researched and assessed. Metadata about these objects are added to the online catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

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The Library holds about 3000 manuscripts from Southeast Asia, forming the largest and most significant collection of Southeast Asian manuscripts in the UK. Highlights include illustrated paper folding books and gilded manuscript chests from Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand, rare palm leaf manuscripts from Cambodia, Laos and northern Thailand, royal letters in Malay from the courts of the archipelago, some of the earliest known Batak divination manuals from Sumatra, as well as unique royal letters and edicts from Thailand and Vietnam.

Within this body of material, recent digitisation projects and exhibitions have brought to light over one hundred manuscript textiles – either wrapped around or attached to manuscripts as a form of protective cover or binding - without or with only minimal documentation and cataloguing data. Often the textiles were custom-made for one particular manuscript, and such objects could be made from valuable hand-woven silk brocades, ikat fabrics, dyed or printed cotton and imported materials like chintz and silk damask. Specially designed textiles were commissioned to add meritorious value to a Buddhist manuscript or to an entire set of Buddhist texts. Sometimes discarded textiles like monks’ robes, used and unused clothes of people who had passed away, or leftover pieces of cloths made for other purposes were utilised to create beautiful manuscript textiles.

The provenance of these textiles is often difficult to establish due to the lack of recorded information in the Library's catalogues and acquisition records. Another reason is that some of the manuscript textiles appear to be of a different date than the manuscripts themselves, and some may originate from a different place than the manuscripts they belong to, since there was a practice to replace worn out or damaged manuscript textiles with new ones to provide protection to the manuscripts.

Aims of the project

The aims of this project are to identify and assess the Library’s holdings of Southeast Asian manuscript textiles dating mainly from the 18th to the 20th century, and to document the materials, size, estimated age, pattern, technique of creation, country of origin, provenance and general condition of each item and, where possible, recommend which items should be prioritised for conservation treatment.

The project is supported by Chevening, the UK government’s international awards scheme aimed at developing global leaders. A Chevening Fellow is working for 12 months (2022-23) in this project, working closely with the Library’s curators of Southeast Asian Collections and colleagues in the Library’s Conservation Centre to share information about these manuscript textiles internally, but also externally with organisations in the UK and abroad that have an interest in the curation and conservation of Asian textiles.

Further information

Manuscript textiles in the Southeast Asian Collections

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Southeast Asia

Manuscripts and publications in Southeast Asian languages


Chevening British Library Fellowships

Year-long professional development projects for emerging global leaders

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