Keeping Knowledge Alive
By: Ma Thanegi
Photos: Sonny Nyein
Myanmar has a long and rich history of great literature that
due to few works being translated into other languages, remains widely
undiscovered by the outside world.
Monk-teachers, scholars and the people themselves, who honour education
above all, has kept alive the Bamar language that evolved from Pali an
ancient language and became known in the 12th century Bagan era.
Stone inscriptions from that period, the later manuscripts written on palm
leaves and the reading and writing taught to all children at monastic
schools kept the written language from vanishing into the past, as had
some languages that needed roman letters to resurrect the written words.
Book lending shops in villages, in many neighbourhoods of towns and cities
catered to the readers, from children to grandmothers, with books ranging
from comics, novels, history or religious tracts.
Before paper was introduced by the British in the 18th century, books were
painstakingly written and copied on ivory or lacquered sheets, or more
commonly on palm leaves. The palm leaves first had to be prepared carefully to be flat and smooth, and then cut into a required size. After
the writing is done with a pointed stylus the leaves were treated with
crude oil dregs as a way of preserving the leaves as well as to make the
letters stand out with a darker colour. Understandably, even when treated
with crude oil dregs, the dry leaves in time would not remain safe from
insects or mildew. The neatly stacked leaves with wooden, ivory, or even
gold covers would be wrapped in a clean piece of linen and tied with a
long woven ribbon. (See Enchanting Myanmar Vol. 4, No. 2) and then stored
in wooden trunks or cabinets called Sar daik, pronounced Z'daik. These
trunks were stored in airy rooms inside monasteries or palaces, or
separate libraries of brick and stone kept dark with narrow windows were
built for the express purpose, fore runners of the modern library. The
earliest library or Pittaka Taik in existence can be seen in Bagan, built
by King Anawrahta in the 11th century.
The British emissary Michael Symes who visited Myanmar in1795 left a
detailed account of all that he experienced in the country he mistakenly
called 'Ava'. In September of that year, he and his colleagues had the
chance to visit a wooden monastery in Amarapura, carved in exquisite
detail, and entirely gilded. Next to this monastery was the library, a
large one-room brick building on a terrace, surrounded by the gallery. The
room was locked but ranged against the wall on the gallery were rows of
Sar Daik, nearly one hundred in number. Presumably, there was no more
space inside the locked room.
Even as they were placed outside, by no means were the trunks or the
contents inferior in quality. The library keeper opened two boxes for the
visitors and Symes saw "some very beautiful writing on thin leaves of
ivory, the margins of which were ornamented with flowers of gold, neatly
executed. " He was "informed that there were books on diverse subjects;
more on divinity than any other; but history, music, medicine, painting
and romance, had their separate treatises."
"The volumes," he marvelled, "were disposed under distinct heads,
regularly numbered; and if all the other chests were as well filled, as
those that were submitted for our inspection, it is not improbable, that
his Birman Majesty may posses a more numerous library, than any potentate
from the banks of the Danube, to the borders of China."
Some Sar daik chests are plain rectangular trunks with a lid that lifts
off completely or is hinged and some are elaborate cabinets over 6 feet
high with tiered tops in the shape of the traditional Pyatthat roof that
one sees on religious monuments. These cabinets have doors that open
outwards, and drawers. They are mostly set on carved legs and have a
shrine on top with a Buddha image. Some exquisite examples that once
belonged to queens of the last dynasty can be seen at the National Museum
All of the boxes and cabinets have three things in common: they are
structured so that the joints fit tightly and are raised off the ground so
that insects or damp could not destroy the contents, and they are covered
with designs worked in gold leaf or in plain incised lacquer. The contents
are usually listed on the cover.
The Sar Daik chests are no ordinary boxes: they are works of art and by
now, rare collector’s items. Apart from the back, the three sides and top
are sometimes covered entirely with relief figures formed out of the
traditional thayoe clay, a mixture of resin and ash. Lacquer, the sap of
the South East Asian lacquer tree (Melanhorrea usitata) is used both as
binder and undercoat. Brilliants of cut glass are imbedded into the floral
motifs that surround the scenes, usually taken from the Jataka stories.
The whole surface is then covered with pure gold leaf.
Another method of decoration is without relief figures but the designs
would be worked in black lacquer and gold leaf. Another style makes use of
the traditional lacquer ware methods of Bagan, when the wooden surface is
covered with layers of red or black lacquer and then the designs incised
with a stylus. Different colours are rubbed into the lines with each stage
and the completed trunks would shine with glory of colourful scenes. One
favorite Jataka story is the Mahaw Thada Jataka, about the Buddha-to-be
in his incarnation as a wise minister with a learned and clever wife Amara
Dewi. She has an important and revered role in Buddhist lore, and as an
icon for learned women, ensured that educational opportunities were never
denied to the women of Myanmar. In fact, queens, princesses, and even
handmaidens who were poets and composers enjoyed great esteem from all at
In their days, they would have stored their palm-leaf texts in the most
beautiful of Sar Daik trunks, leaving both a literary and artistic legacy
for succeeding generations.
(The author is greatly indebted to U Maung Maung Thein for the relevant
data in his book 'Sar Daik Thitta, Pan Myet Hnar' which won the first
prize in the Pakokku U Ohn Pe Literary Award for 1998.)