Keeping Knowledge Alive
By: Ma Thanegi
Photos: Sonny Nyein

Sar Daik front decorated in fine gold and black
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 Sar Daik chests are no ordinary boxes: they are works of art and by now, rare collector’s items. 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 of Yangon.

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.

ilded relief figuresfrom the scene of PrinceAnother 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 court.
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.)