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A HISTORY OF THE THET MAHA CHAT:

AND ITS CONTRIBUTION TO A THAI POLITICAL CULTURE

by
Patrick Jory

A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy


of The Australian National University

Canberra, December 1996

This thesis is based on my own research except


where otherwise indicated.

...........................
Patrick Jory

ABSTRACT

This thesis is a study of the thet maha chat, the ritual recitation of the Vessantara Jataka, in Thai
cultural history. The two primary questions the thesis addresses are: why the Vessantara Jataka and
the form in which it was disseminated, the thet maha chat, were so popular throughout the Thai
world; and why this popularity began to decline from the latter part of the nineteenth century.
It begins by examining the Vessantara Jataka (known in Thai as the maha chat, literally,
the great life) as a performative text. It is clear that one of the most important reasons for the
storys historical popularity among the Thai was the fact that unlike much Buddhist scripture, it
was a text that was written for the express purpose of recitation to a lay audience.
The thesis traces the history of the thet maha chat among the Tai peoples influenced by
Theravada Buddhism, focussing mainly on its popularity among the ethnic Thai and their
kingdoms. The historical record clearly shows that the Vessantara Jataka has long been popular
both with Thai rulers and their rural subjects. The popularity of the thet maha chat with Thai rulers
is especially evident at periods of political integration, best illustrated in the period directly after
the resurrection of the Thai state following the fall of Ayuthaya to the Burmese in 1767. This
would suggest that the ideas contained in the Vessantara Jataka played a role in Thai state
formation. The thesis argues that the reason that the Vessantara Jataka was favoured by Thai rulers
was because it exemplified in the form of religious narrative notions about authority and social
order that lay at the heart of premodern Thai political culture.
Both Thai and Western scholarship has depicted the Vessantara Jataka, and the genre of
Jatakas generally, as folklore, religious parables, and legends. However, this interpretation of the
Jatakas as tales is a recent one. It originated in the Buddhist scholarship of both Western and Thai
court scholars towards the end of the nineteenth century. This interpretation of the Jatakas has
hindered the recognition of their real significance to Thai political culture. For the Western
Buddhist scholars the Jatakas were irrational tales, indicative of a later corrupted form of
Buddhism, as distinct from an earlier, purer Buddhism. For the Thai court, the Jatakas and
associated religious scripture were not only outdated in their epistemology but the ideology they
articulated and disseminated rendered them, in the age of European imperialism, also potentially
threatening to the continued independence of the Thai kingdom and the survival of the monarchy.
Performances of the thet maha chat continue to be held annually in temples throughout
Thailand, although the ceremonys popularity has long been on the wane. Despite the decline of
the story, vestiges of its influence are clearly recognizable in contemporary Thai society and
political culture, bearing witness to the intimate association between the Maha chat and the Thai
over the last seven centuries.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Writers today seem to be more aware of the multitude of different influences on their work than
was once the case. There is an enhanced recognition of the many factors - some of them outside
the authors control - which determine the evolution of the authors finished work. I am
particularly conscious of the fact that this thesis is the product of the influence of many people. In
a thesis that examines a story about the act of giving, I would like to give thanks to these people.
My first debt of gratitude is to my supervisor, Craig Reynolds, of the Australian National
University. Craig introduced me to the world of Thai studies, and gave me a wholly new way of
looking at the relationship between history, politics, culture and language. His supervision was
always caring, patient and dedicated. I will benefit from the fruits of his teaching for a long time to
come.
I must also thank my two other thesis advisors. Anthony Reid introduced me to the rich
field of Southeast Asian studies, and kindly gave up his time to offer valuable comments and
criticisms on my research. My thesis has also benefited from the comments of Anthony Diller,
who generously shared his great knowledge of Thai language and literature.
Vacharin McFadden, head librarian of the Australian National Librarys superb Thai
language collection, was invaluable in finding everything I could possibly need for the writing up
of this thesis in Australia.
I am particularly grateful to the Division of Pacific and Asian History at the Australian
National Universitys Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, first for accepting me as a
student in the department, and second for making it such a happy place in which to work. My
thanks go especially to Dorothy Macintosh, Jude Shanahan, Julie Gordon, Marion Weekes, and
Linda Poskitt, and to friends, Thien Do, Tomoko Akami, Kambati Uriam, Maurizio Peleggi,
Dayaneetha De Silva, Kieran Schmidt, Natasha Davis, Vicky Luker, Paul DArcy, Lim Choohoon, Josephine Fox, Yang Dong, Rosemary Trott, Hiromitsu Iwamoto, and Lewis Mayo.
A special thanks goes to my friends in the ANU Thai Studies Group, Sakkarin Niyomsilpa,
Sittipong Dilokwanich, Sureeporn Punpuing, Julaporn Euaruksakul, Anuchat Poungsomlee,
Wichitra Chalermchaichana, Aree Phrommo, Rossarin Sootipong, Rapin Quinn, Niti Pawakapan,
Puangthong Rungsawasdisab, Voravudh Chirasombat, Anchalee Ngamchalermsak, and Saowalak
Roongtawanruangsri, for the benefits of their friendship, research, and our activities together in the
Thai Studies Group.
To friends who gave up their time to read, proofread, and give valuable comments on
sections of the thesis I thank John Jory, Max Birgin, Romit Dasgupta, Ward Keeler, Thien Do,
and Pankaj Narendra.
My fieldwork in Thailand from 1992 - 93 would not have been possible, let alone as
productive and enjoyable as it was, without the help of many people. I was overwhelmed by the
willingness of Thai people of all occupations to help me in my research. It is one of the most
attractive and memorable aspects of doing research in Thailand.

The staff at the National Research Council of Thailand were friendly, efficient and
extremely helpful in looking after all the administrative details of my fieldwork.
The staff at the following institutions all went out of their way to find materials or direct
me to the right places: the National Library (I am particularly grateful to Phinyo Srichamlong for
letting me talk to him about my work on several occasions), the National Archives, the Siam
Society, the libraries of Thammasat University, Silapakorn University, Chulalongkorn University,
Ramkhamhaeng University and Srinakharinwirot University (Prasarnmit campus) in Bangkok; the
libraries of Mahasarakham Teachers College, the Mahasarakham campus of Srinakharinwirot
University, and the Mahasarakham Cultural Centre; the libraries of Chiang Mai University and its
Social Research Institute, and Chiang Mai Teachers College; and in the south the libraries of
Nakhorn Sri Thammarat Teachers College, the Nakhorn Sri Thammarat branch of the National
Library, Songkhla Teachers College and the Institute of Southern Studies on Koh Yor.
I owe a debt of gratitude to the following people who generously gave up time from their
busy schedules to allow me to talk to them about my work: at Chulalongkorn University, Chalong
Soontravanich, Dhida Saraya, and Suwanna Kriengkraiphet; at Thammasat University, Warunee
Osatharom, Achan Naruemol (Library Studies), and Sangworn Phromsen; and at Ramkhamhaeng
University, Thawat Punnothok.
In Mahasarakham I am extremely grateful to Somchai and Supatra Nilathi and their family
for hosting me and my wife during our stay in Mahasarakham. We will always remember the time
we spent there. I am also especially grateful to Somchai Nilathi for sharing with me his deep
knowledge of northeastern culture and history. The following people were also extremely helpful
in guiding me in my research: Charuwan Thammawat, Thaweesin Subwat, and At Nanthachak.
My thanks also goes to the late Phra Pong of Wat Nakwichai, Central District,
Mahasarakham, for our many conversations and for introducing me to his herbal saunas; to Phra
Khru Sirithamwichit of Wat Nong Born, Kosumphisai district, Mahasarakham, for his first-hand
knowledge as a nak thet of the thet maha chat; and to Phra Khru Srinarintharanuwat, Wat Nong
Khon, Borabu district, Mahasarakham.
In Ubol Ratchathani Dr Preecha Pinthong was kind enough to receive me at short notice
and talk to me at length about the thet maha chat in the northeastern region. Dr Pricha also gave
me a fascinating insight into the extremely rich but neglected field of ethnic Lao history, literature
and culture in Thailand. At Ubol Ratchathani Teachers College I thank Khanungnit Chanthabut for
a brief but extremely stimulating conversation about Thai culture, politics and history.
In Chiang Mai, Anchalee Susayan made me feel at home and was extremely helpful in
introducing me to scholars working in my field. Bamphen Rawin, Nidhi Aeusrivongse, and Mani
Phayomyong all generously gave up their time to talk to me.
In the south I was lucky enough to talk to Suttiwong Phongphaibun at the Institute for
Southern Studies, and to Udom Nuthong of Nakhon Sri Thammarat Teachers College. In
Phatthalung Phra Khru Suthat of Wat Pradu Horm in Central district, Phatthalung, kindly allowed
me to interview him. The following people also spared me their time: Phra Chit Thammiko, Wat
Tha Pho, Central district, Nakhon Sri Thammarat; Than Maha Chua Sophano, Wat Withayalai

Khru Rangsan, Nakhon Sri Thammarat; and Phra Athikan Fuang, Wat Wang Lao in Tha Sala
district, also in Nakhorn Sri Thammarat. I am also grateful to Barami and Prakorp Chantarachota
for hosting us during our stay in Nakhorn.
I was very lucky to have the support of two scholarships without which my doctoral
programme would have been impossible. The Australian Postgraduate Research Award funded
most of my doctoral candidature, and the Australian Award for Research in Asia (funded by the
Department of Employment, Education and Training through the Australian Vice-Chancellors
Committee) made it financially possible for me to undertake an invaluable years fieldwork in
Thailand.
My parents sacrificed much to give me the best education they could and have never asked
for anything in return.
This thesis would not have been completed without Uwes love, understanding and
tolerance. Many ideas in the thesis have come from insights she has shared with me and the
conversations we have had. She often managed to convey to me the spirit of the topic in a way
which documents can never do.
Finally, this thesis is dedicated to Phor Yai Khen Lawong, poet and scholar, Nak Prat
Muang Mahasarakham. Phor Yai Khen has himself composed a beautiful version of the
Vessantara Jataka in the linguistically rich dialect of northeastern Thailand. His conversations with
me about the Vessantara Jataka and about the literature and culture of northeastern Thailand
brought the story alive for me. He vividly evoked the world that gave the story meaning and in
which the story of Vessantara was once listened to with such devotion.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

iii

ABSTRACT

vi

TABLE OF CONTENTS

viii

INTRODUCTION

The Popularity of the Vessantara Jataka


Studies of the Vessantara Jataka in the Thai kingdom
The Thet Maha chat and Thai Political Culture
Structure of Thesis

1
6
13
21

CHAPTER 1:

The Thet Maha Chat: The Vessantara Jataka


as a Performative Text

22

The Sacred Text


Texts Recited in Conjunction with the Maha chat
The Aesthetics of the Recitation: thamnorng and lae
Ritual 42

22
32
37

The Dissemination of the Vessantara Jataka


and Early Thai State Formation

46

The Dvaravati and Sukhothai States


Scripture and Orality in Sukhothai
Self-Perfection and Power in Thai Culture
Than: a Thai Ethic of Giving
The Vessantara Jataka, the Family, and Thai Social Relations
The Kingdom of Ayuthaya
Lanna and Lan Sang

47
50
53
59
67
72
76

CHAPTER 2:

CHAPTER 3:

The Expansion of the Thai State


and the Height of the Thet Maha Chat

80

The Vessantara Jataka and the Thai Aristocracy


The Maha chat in Popular Culture
Kingship and the Ten Perfections
The Vessantara Jataka, Buddhist Time, and Great Lineage History
The Genealogy of the Buddha and the Origin of Kings
CHAPTER 4:

Challenges to the Thai State


and the Decline of the Thet Maha Chat

83
89
94
102
103

113

The Courts Rejection of the Jatakas 1


The Excision of the Jatakas from the Story of the Buddha
The Decline of Great Lineage History
The End of bodhisatta Kingship
Politics and Intellectual Change in the Thai Kingdom
CHAPTER 5:

Thai and Western Buddhist Scholarship in the Age


of Imperialism: The Court Redefines the Jatakas

King Chulalongkorns Essay on the Jatakas


Western Buddhist Scholarship on the Jatakas
Relations between the Thai Court and Western Pali Scholars
The Persistence of the Jatakas in Popular Culture
CHAPTER 6:

Books, The Wachirayan Library, and


the Formation of a Thai Literary Knowledge

Development of the Library Idea


Centralisation of the Kingdoms Books
Collection and Preservation
Strange Books
Classification
Printing and Dissemination
Wachirayan Library Editions
CHAPTER 7:

From Jatakas to Thai Folktales

15
120
121
124
128

135
137
143
154
162

170
173
178
182
186
188
191
194
199

Nithan
The Printed Translation of the Nipata Jatakas, 1904-1931
Folktale Editions of the Jatakas

201
204
211

CONCLUSION

216

APPENDIX: The Thirteen

Chapters (kan) of the Vessantara Jataka

230

GLOSSARY OF THAI AND PALI TERMINOLOGY USED

235

BIBLIOGRAPHY

239

INTRODUCTION

This is a study of the history of the Vessantara Jataka among the Thai people.
1 The Vessantara Jataka2 is the final of the five hundred and fifty Jatakas, or stories of the
Buddhas former lives, contained in the Theravada Buddhist scriptures. It is the story of the
Buddhas last life before the one in which he achieves enlightenment. This is also a study of the
history of the thet maha chat, literally the recitation of the Great Life. The Great Life is the
name by which the story of the Buddhas incarnation as Vessantara is more commonly known. It
was through the thet maha chat that the Vessantara Jataka became better known than any other
Jataka. The primary questions this study addresses are, why the story was so popular among the
Thai for so long, and why it began to lose favour at the Thai court from around the middle of the
nineteenth century.
The Popularity of the Vessantara Jataka
It has been said that the Vessantara Jataka is the most famous story in the Buddhist world.3
Historically the story has been known in various forms in almost every area influenced by
Buddhist culture, including Southeast Asia, China, Tibet, India, Sri Lanka, even in places as far as
modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan.4 Scenes from the Vessantara Jataka are depicted at the great
Buddhist monuments of classical Southeast Asia, including Pagan, Borobodur, and the Angkor

This thesis covers six centuries of the history of the thet maha chat from documents deriving from the

kingdoms of Sukhothai, Lanna, Ayuthaya, and particularly Bangkok. This time frame and regional scope raises the
issue of the categorization of the communities I am studying. Since the thesis main focus (Chapters 3-7) is on the
Bangkok kingdom I have generally limited my remarks to the Thai. As an ethnic category, however, the term Thai
is problematic. Thai or Siamese usually refers to the ethnic group of central Thailand, as opposed to the linguistic
category Tai, which connotes speakers of a large variety of languages of the Tai language family found throughout
mainland Southeast Asia (see Charles F. Keyes, Who are the Tai? Reflections on the Inventions of Identities, in Lola
Romanucci-Ross and George DeVos, eds., Ethnic Identity: Creation, Conflict and Accomodation, SAGE, London,
1995, pp. 136-160). It is clear from this thesis that the thet maha chat was popular amongst many Tai-language
speaking communities which had been influenced by Theravada Buddhism, including the Lao, the Yuan, and the
Khoen. Indeed, from the nineteenth century onwards, when there is much more documentary material, the evidence for
the tremendous popularity of the story amongst the Yuan and Lao is overwhelming. For this reason I have felt it
appropriate in places to refer to the Tai Buddhists in order to avoid the assumption that the story and its ideas were
limited to the ethnic Thai.
2

In Thai, wetsandorn chadok. The plot of the Vessantara Jataka is outlined in brief in the Appendix.

Introduction, The Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessantara, A Buddhist Epic, translated from the Pali and

illustrated by unpublished paintings from Sinhalese temples by Margaret Cone and Richard F. Gombrich, Oxford,
Clarendon Press, 1977, p. xv.
4

Ibid., pp. xxxv-xliv.

Wat complex.5 Yet the story seems to have been particularly popular in the regions and among the
peoples historically under the influence of the succession of kingdoms and dynasties which are the
ancestors of the modern Thai nation-state.
The thet maha chat6 or ceremonial recitation of the Vessantara Jataka in its entirety, is the
form in which the story is best known to the people of Thailand. The ceremony, which in some
villages once lasted up to seven days, has traditionally been held annually in every region of the
country and amongst all of the kingdoms ethnic minorities with the exception of the non-Buddhist
communities. The thet maha chat is popular beyond the kingdoms present borders, including
among the Shan and the Khoen peoples of northeastern Burma,7 some speakers of Tai languages in
southern China, the Lao8 and the Khmer.9 The ceremony continues to be held by emigr Thai, Lao
and Khmer communities in the USA, Australia, and in other countries where there are significant
numbers of these peoples.
Recently completed surveys of manuscript literature in the kingdoms various regions
indicate the historical popularity of the Vessantara Jataka and of the Jataka genre generally. Since
1978 the Social Research Institute of Chiang Mai University has been surveying and recording
palm leaf manuscripts found in northern Thai temples on microfilm.10 By 1991 the results of the
survey showed that of those manuscripts dealing with Buddhist subjects (about 90% of the total),

L.McClung, The Vessantara Jataka: Paradigm for a Buddhist Utopian Ideal, PhD Thesis, Princeton, 1975,

pp. 78-9.
6

The recitation of the Vessantara Jataka is known in the central and Southern regions as thet maha chat,

recitation of the Great Life; in the Lao regions as bun pa wet, the Merit-Making Ceremony of Vessantara, or thet pa
wet, Sermon on Vessantara; and in the Northern region as part of the tang tham luang ritual, Set Out the Great
Dhamma.
7

See Anatole-Roger Peltier, Wannakam thai khoen/ La Littrature Tai khoeun/ Tai khoeun literature, cole

Francaise d'Extrme Orient, & Social Research Institute, Chiang Mai University, 1987.
8

See Sila Wirawong, Hit sip sorng (The Twelve Customary Festivals), Transcribed into Thai by Udom

Phornprasoet, edited by Phichai Siphufai, Ubon Ratchathani Arts and Cultural Centre, Ubon Ratchathani, 1986, pp.
68-72.
9

For a nineteenth-century Khmer version of the Vessantara Jataka published in Thai see Thet maha chat kham

khamen, kan mahaphon (Khmer Version of the Great Life Sermon, the Great Forest Episode), Cremation Volume,
Phra Sanit Somkhun (Ngoen), Bangkok, 1920. For a Khmer version of the Vessantara Jataka used by a Khmer
community in Thailand today see Khamphi maha chat kan nang matsi phra khatha 90 khatha (The Great Life Text:
the Maddi Chapter with 90 Verses) translated from the Original Khmer Manuscript Used for Recitations in the Lower
Northeastern Region, by Sangop Bunkloi, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Buriram Teachers College,
Buriram, 1981. For a description of the Khmer recitation of the Vessantara Jataka see A.Leclre, Cambodge, Ftes
Civiles et Religieuses, Paris, 1947, pp. 415-8.
10

Rai chu nangsu boran lanna ekasan microfilm khorng sathaban wichai sangkhom, mahawithayalai chiang

mai phor sor 2521-2533 (Catalogue of Ancient Lanna Literature on Microfilm, University of Chiang Mai Social
Research Institute, 1978-1990), Chiang Mai, 1991.

the Jatakas made up over a third of the total. In terms of the number of bundles (phuk) of palm
leaves collected and microfilmed, the Jatakas comprised over two thirds of the total. Of all the
Jatakas the Vessantara Jataka was by far the most popular. There were ten times more manuscripts
of the Vessantara Jataka than the other nine thotsachat Jatakas11 put together, and at over four
hundred manuscript versions there were far more copies of the Vessantara Jataka than of any other
single story in the catalogue.12 Because of the great length of the Vessantara Jataka story, it
accounted for over 40% of the total number of bundles of palm leaves recorded by the Institute on
microfilm.13 The dates of composition of the manuscripts in this collection vary from the mideighteenth century to well after the Second World War.14 This suggests the consistency of the
storys popularity in the region over at least two hundred years. Few palm leaf manuscripts from
before this time have survived.
In the northeast of the country there is a similar picture. Since 1981 a joint project has been
carried out by teachers colleges and a university in the northeast Thailand to survey the contents of
temple libraries in the provinces of that region of the country.15 Once again the Jatakas are one of
the largest categories of palm leaf literature extant in most temples. Virtually every temple
surveyed possessed a Vessantara Jataka (recitation version) manuscript, and in terms of the
number of palm leaves this manuscript comprisd one of the largest holdings in most collections.
Although for this survey manuscripts were not dated, the fact that almost all manuscripts were
written in the aksorn tham script and in the Isan/Lao dialect means that many would have predated
the use of the Thai script and language, which gained momentum in the 1930s with the
development of the state education system.
Surveys conducted into the manuscript literature of Laos in the 1950s and 1960s reveal a
situation similar to that of the manuscript literature of the ethnic Lao in northeast Thailand. The
Jatakas predominate in Lao literature, and the Vessantara Jataka is one of the most popular stories

11

The thotsachat Jatakas (literally ten lives) are the final ten of the canonical collection of five hundred and

fifty Jatakas, which appear in the Khuddaka Nikaya section of the Theravada Buddhist canon, the Tripitaka.
12

Ibid., p. 14. Although it is true that two other categories, Jatakas and Dhamma, were each of greater size

than the Vessantara Jataka category - 24% and 17% of the total number of manuscripts respectively - these categories
are very broad and each includes a great number of different texts brought together under the one title.
13

Those manuscripts selected for microfilming came from over six hundred temples with some reputation for

scholarship in the past. Manuscripts in these temples which were in poor condition or carelessly copied were not
microfilmed; Wannakam Lanna/ Lanna Literature: Catalogue of Palm Leaf Texts on Microfilm, Social Research
Institute, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 1986, "Foreword".
14

A recently published catalogue of the literature popular among the Khoen peoples of Northwestern Burma

(who are culturally closely related to the kham muang peoples of Northern Thailand), is also dominated by what the
collectors categorise as folk jatakas, and includes the Vessantara Jataka; see Peltier, Wannakam thai khoen/ La
Littrature Tai khoeun/ Tai khoeun literature.
15

Banchi samruat ekasan boran (Catalogue of Surveyed Ancient Literature), 14 Vols., Northeastern Teachers

Colleges and Khon Kaen University, led by Maha Sarakham Teachers College, Maha Sarakham, 1981-1990.

in terms of bundles of palm leaves.16 In 1971 Mizuno wrote that in one northeastern village the
story of Vessantara was better known than that of the Buddha.17 In Roi Et province the governor
recently made the thet maha chat the official annual festival celebrating the identity (ngan ekalak
pracham pi) of Roi Et province.18 Perhaps because the northeast remains Thailands least
modernized region where traditional cultural forms are still largely intact, the thet maha chat
continues to be more popular there than in any other part of the country.
In southern Thailand the largest collection of local literature (housed at the Institute of
Southern Studies in Songkhla province) contains a considerable proportion of manuscripts of
Jatakas or Jataka-inspired literature.19 A recent doctoral thesis highlighting the popularity of the
Jatakas in local religious literature in the south, states that the Vessantara Jataka, along with the
Ramayana, exercised the greatest influence of any story in southern Thai culture.20
In temple art all over the Thai kingdom the Vessantara Jataka is by far the most popular
story represented.21 From remote rural preaching halls to temples in the Grand Palace, scenes from

16

See Catalogue des Manuscrits de la Littrature du Laos, Recueilles par Thao Kne, Membre du Comit

Littrature, Ministre de lducation Nationale, Comit Littrature Lao, 1958; Catalogue des Manuscrits de la
Littrature Lao Vientiane, Thao Kne, 1960; and Inventaire des Manuscrits des Pagodes du Laos par Pierre-Bernard
Lafont, 1959; all contained in Samana bai lan thua pathet khang thi nung (First National Conference on Palm Leaf
Manuscripts), Vientiane, 10-13 March, 1988.
17

Mizuno Koichi, "Social System of Don Daeng Village: A Community Study in Northeast Thailand",

Discussion Paper No.28, The Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, Japan, March 1971, p. 171.
18

Ruangsak Lathaynin, Kin khao pun bun pha wet lae fang thet maha chat thi bung planchai roi et (Eating

Vessantara Merit-making Rice Noodles and Listening to the Recitation of the Great Life at Bung Planchai, Roi Et
Province), Sakun thai, 33, March 1991.
19

See the collection of manuscripts at the horng wannakam thorng thin (Local Literature Room) at the

Sathaban thaksin khadi suksa (Institute of Southern Studies), in Songkhla province. In the Southern and Central
regions of the kingdom local texts have not survived to the extent they have in the North and the Northeast. This is
partly due to the fact that in the southern and central regions the same scripts were used - Thai, and Khorm for
religious texts - as in literary works produced by the court. When the Thai court began to use the technology of print
for the purpose of national integration, printed texts using Thai script which emanated from the court overwhelmed
local literature in the Central and Southern regions much earlier than it did in those parts of the country which used
different scripts.
20

Supphong Thammachat, Kan suksa wikhro wannakam chadok phak tai chak nangsu but (Analysis of

Jataka Literature in Southern Thailand from But Manuscripts), PhD thesis, Graduate School, Chulalongkorn
University, 1991, p. 533.
21

Cf.Sombat Plainoi, Mural Paintings, trans. Panit Boonyawatana, ed. Malithat Pramathattavedi, National

Culture Commission, Ministry of Education (no date given); Sing faeng ren yu nai chitrakam fa phanang isan (Things
Hidden in Isan Wall Paintings), Khon Kaen University, 1981; Khrong sang chitrakam fa phanang lanna (The
Structure of Lanna Wall Murals), Chiang Mai, 1981; Saengarun Kanonkphongchai, Khati khwam chuan ruang maha
chat chadok: kan plian plaeng lae kan sup nuang sathorn chak phap chitrakam fa phanang (Beliefs and Customs

the story are depicted around the inside walls of the buildings (in the manner of the Christian
Stations of the Cross), either together with scenes from other Jataka stories (especially the
thotsachat or last ten Jatakas), or from each of the thirteen chapters of the Vessantara Jataka alone.
It is often in temples illustrated with the Vessantara Jataka that the thet maha chat ceremony is
held.
At one time a state ceremony attended by the king, high ranking aristocracy and the
nobility, the thet maha chat has, since the turn of the century, been predominantly a phenomenon
of rural communities. In recent years, however, there have been attempts to revive the thet maha
chat as a state function, apparently with the support of Princess Sirindhorn, in the interests of the
preservation of Thai culture.22 In the Supreme Patriarchs address on the occasion in 1991 (in
honour of the Princess thirty-sixth birthday) he declared that the thet maha chat is an old
tradition of the Thai people...and is part of Thai life...23 In this state ceremony of the thet maha
chat each of the government ministries is invited to sponsor the recitation of one of the thirteen
chapters which make up the Vessantara Jataka.24 During my fieldwork in 1992 parts of the
ceremony were nationally televised in a live broadcast.

Studies of the Vessantara Jataka in the Thai Kingdom

Related to the Great Life Jataka: Change and Continuity Reflected in Temple Murals: A Case Study of the Murals in
the Chanting Hall of Wat Suwannaram), Masters Thesis, Silapakorn University, Bangkok, 1989; see also the Muang
Boran series of published temple art from well-known temples in the Thai kingdom such as Wat Chongnonsi, Mural
Paintings of Thailand Series, Bangkok, Muang Boran, 1982. See also the intricate carvings of scenes from the
Vessantara Jataka on the outside teak walls of Wat Kuti in Phetburi Province, in Wat kut bang khem: bot mai sak
cham lak lai (Wat Kut Bang Khem: Carvings in a Teak Chapel), Office for the Promotion of National Identity,
Bangkok, 1990. Finally, a recent archaeological excavation in northern Thailand found a number of bricks which had
been inscribed with scenes from the Vessantara Jataka. The bricks had originally been used to construct a building,
which had hid the inscribed scenes until now; see Winai Tankittikorn, Wetsandorn chadok bon phaen it (The
Vessantara Jataka Depicted on Building Bricks), Khwam ru khu prathip (Knowledge is a Lantarn), 2, 32, April - June,
1989, pp. 28 - 31.
22

Thet maha chat chaloem phra kiat somdet phrathep ratanaratchasuda sayamboromaratchakumari

(Recitation of the Vessantara Jataka in Honour of Crown Princess Sirindhorn), 4-6 October 1991, Phutthamonthon,
Department of Religious Affairs, Bangkok, 1991. In 1992 the same government-sponsored thet maha chat was held as
part of the year-long celebrations in honour of the sixtieth birthday (fifth cycle) of Queen Sirikit.
23

Ibid., Phra owat.

24

In 1991 the Office of the Prime Minister sponsored the khatha phan or canonical verses of the Vessantara

Jataka; Industry - thotsaphorn; Defence - himaphan; Foreign Affairs - thankan; Treasury - wanaprawet; Agriculture
and Cooperatives - chuchok; Transport and Communications - chulaphorn; Princess Sirindhorn - mahaphon;
Commerce - kuman; the Interior - matsi; Public Health - sakkabap; Science and Technology - maharat; Bureau of
University Affairs - chokasat; and Industry - nakhornkan; Thet maha chat chaloem phrakiat, preface.

It is a strange anomaly that despite the enormous popularity of the Vessantara Jataka among the
Thai, a popularity which historical evidence suggests dates back at least seven centuries, relatively
few scholarly works have been written on the subject. Most studies, moreover, tend to be empirical
accounts of the story and its recitation via the thet maha chat ceremony, with little consideration
given to the significance of the story in its political and social context. This applies both to studies
by Thai scholars as well as to the little Western scholarship that exists on the subject.
One of the main reasons behind the dearth of Western scholarship is the comparative
neglect of Thai studies owing to the Thai kingdoms avoidance of direct European colonization.
There were simply fewer Western scholars working there. The Thai kingdom lacked the great
scholars of colonial Southeast Asia in the first decades of this century, who, writing in European
languages, created a new field of study by setting up, translating and publishing a canon of works
through which the history, culture and civilization of the region and its peoples could be known.
While scholars of the Thai court were engaged in a similar activity with the kingdoms historical
and literary traditions, the accessibility of this indigenous scholarship was hindered by the fact that
few Thai scholars published in European languages.
The neglect of the Vessantara Jataka by Western scholarship contrasts markedly with the
attention given to the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the two Indic epics which were quickly
recognised as being among the master narratives of Southeast Asian culture. European scholarship
was already familiar with these stories owing to the British colonization of India, where the stories
still thrived. Also, these tales are not unlike their Western counterparts of classical times. The
Ramayana, in particular, bears similarities to the Iliad and the Odyssey in areas such as the plot of
the abduction of a queen and the attempts to win her back, and the emphasis on martial prowess.
By contrast, there is little in the European tradition to compare with the Vessantara Jataka. Indeed,
the foreignness of the story and, to the Western mind, its seemingly aberrant morality, made it less
appealing to scholars. How could one appreciate the story of a man who gave away his two
children and his wife for spiritual gain? Despite great Western interest in Buddhism in the
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Vessantara Jataka was all but ignored. In the work of
Western Buddhist scholars Rhys Davids, Fausbll, Mller, Cowell and others the Jatakas tended to
be categorized as folklore, and were considered to be a later accretion to the Buddhist religion,
alien to the original purity of the Buddhist message.25 Moreover, most early Western religious
scholarship of Thai Buddhism was textually oriented (with particular attention given to the
Buddhist canonical texts), and little attempt was made to study the religious beliefs and practices
among the rural population of the Thai kingdom where the story and its ritual recitation still held
its own. Finally, by the time European scholars began their researches on the culture and religion
of the Thai kingdom the Vessantara Jataka had lost its place at the Thai court as an influential
religious text. What little Western scholarship on religion in the Thai kingdom there was rarely

25

The studies by these writers are listed in the bibliography.

mentioned the story.26 In Thai scholarship today the Ramayana is much better known than the
Vessantara Jataka, despite the fact the latter story was undoubtedly more widespread in Thai
literary and popular culture.
An important exception to this rule is the work of Colonel Gerini. Gerini was an Italian
who was employed in the Thai royal bureaucracy, could read Thai, and had access to historical
records and to the leading scholars of the Thai court. In 1892 Gerini published the first study in
English of the thet maha chat, which was checked with corrections added by the King of Siam
himself.27 Gerini gives a short account of the history of the thet maha chat showing the importance
of the ceremony as both an aristocratic and a popular ceremony. While he identifies a decrease in
the popularity of the thet maha chat there is no explanation as to the reason for the customs
decline. Gerinis study remains to this day the only significant Western work on the thet maha
chat.
The Vessantara Jataka became an object of modern Thai scholarship (as opposed to the
older monastic religious scholarship) in the late nineteenth century. The first work of modern Thai
scholarship on the thet maha chat ritual followed soon after Gerinis study. The short essay,
published in 1893, is believed to have been written by Prince Narathip Praphanphong, a senior
member of the Thai court and brother to King Chulalongkorn. The theme of the essay is the great
importance of the thet maha chat as a merit-making ceremony among the Thai peoples.28 Narathip
attributes the popularity of the ceremony to three factors: (i) the belief that the story contains the
words of the Buddha and to listen to it is therefore meritorious; (ii) the millenarian belief attributed
to the legendary saint Phra Malai that listening to the storys one thousand verse would ensure
rebirth in the time of the future Buddha; and (iii) the beauty of the monks melodic rendition of the
story, which was a verbal art not unlike Western operatic singing. 29
The most influential works on the Vessantara Jataka in the Thai tradition come from the
pen of Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, half-brother of King Chulalongkorn, long-time head of the
powerful Ministry of the Interior, and the courts most prolific and influential scholar. From 1916
the Wachirayan Library (later renamed the National Library), which was then headed by
Damrong, began editing and publishing for the first time the various royal recitation versions of

26

See, for example, Henry Alabaster, The Wheel of the Law: Buddhism Illustrated from Siamese Sources by

The Modern Buddhist, A Life of Buddha and an Account of the Phra Bat, London, Trbner & Co., 1871 (Republished
by Gregg International Publishers Ltd, 1971).
27

Gerini, G.E., A Retrospective View and Account of the Origin of the Thet Maha Chat Ceremony, Bangkok,

1892.
28

"Nor.Por.", Prapheni Thet Maha Chat (The Custom of the Recitation of the Vessantara Jataka),

Ratanakosin Sok 112 (1893), in Maha wetsandorn chadok samnuan thesana 13 kan (Thirteen Chapter Recitation
Version of the Vessantara Jataka), In Commemoration of the Ninetieth Birthday of Phra Ratchaphatharachan (Pleng
Kuwamathera), Wat Ratchabophitsathitamahasimaram, Bangkok, Monday, 29 April, 1991 pp. 5-15. The initials "Nor.
Por." are generally considered to be those of Prince Narathip Praphanphong.
29

Ibid., pp. 5-6.

the Vessantara Jataka from the original manuscripts held by the Library. Each of these publications
was accompanied by a short preface written by Damrong explaining the origin and particular
qualities of each work, and in some cases describing the thet maha chat ceremony. But whereas
Prince Narathips essay had focussed on the thet maha chat as a popular festival among the
kingdoms rural communities, Damrongs work on the Vessantara Jataka tends to treat the story as
an historical and literary artefact of the Thai court. In the 1917 publication of the Maha chat kham
luang, the version composed in the reign of the fifteenth century king Boromatrailokanat,
Damrong commented that the Vessantara Jataka had been written in more poetic forms than any
other Thai story.30 The Library eventually published all the major court versions of the story
including those versions attributed to King Boromatrailokanat, King Songtham, King Mongkut,
and to the court poets of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1920 the Wachirayan
Library published the five chapters (kan) of the version of the Maha chat written by King Mongkut
between 1866 and 1868. In the preface to this book Damrong noted that almost every prince of the
somdet phra chao luk thoe and phra chao luk thoe rank who had been a novice in the monkhood
during the Fourth and Fifth Reigns (1851-1910) had recited a chapter from Mongkuts version of
the Maha chat.31 However, Damrong had little to say about why the story was so popular. In all his
work there are only a few brief comments regarding the fact that it dealt with the Theravada
Buddhist doctrine of the Ten Perfections, and that listening to it was a powerful form of meritmaking.32 In Damrongs work the Vessantara Jataka is presented primarily as a classic of Thai
literature, notable principally for the aesthetic qualities of its poetry, with an underlying but
unstated sense that the story belongs to a different age. The socio-cultural importance of the
Vessantara Jataka is entirely ignored. Why?
The main reason is that, at the time Damrong was writing, the thet maha chat no longer
enjoyed the popularity at the Thai court it once had. Indeed, as this thesis will show, from the midnineteenth century the court made deliberate attempts to expunge the story from Thai Buddhism.
By the turn of this century it is no longer true to say that the Maha chat was a cultural artefact
shared by elite and popular sections of Thai society. Because the story was no longer a living part
of court culture, scholars of the Thai court, starting from Damrong, tended to downplay its
influence. As far as the Thai court was concerned, the Vessantara Jataka and the ideas it expressed
did belong to a bygone era. Yet at the same time it was clear that the thet maha chat still enjoyed
immense popularity outside the Thai court. Because court scholarship on Thai history, literature,
religion and culture tended to focus on the Thai elite, the issue of the storys continued influence in
the kingdoms hinterland was never really addressed.

30

"Kham nam" (Introduction), Maha chat kham luang (Royal Version of the Great Life), Bangkok, Khlang

Withaya, 1973 (1st publ.1917), p. 6.


31

"Kham athibai", (Explanation), Maha chat phra ratchaniphon nai ratchakan thi 4 (Rama IVs Version of the

Great Life), Cremation Volume, Morm Chao Chongkonni Wathanawong, Bangkok, 1965, p. kor.
32

See kham nam, Maha chat kham luang, p. 2.

Damrongs work on the Maha chat has influenced generations of readers of Thai literature,
not least because of the repeated publication of Damrongs explanations with many subsequent
publications of court versions of the Maha chat. Some of these publications have become texts for
study in school and university literature courses.33 Damrongs influence is clearly evident in
references to the Maha chat in studies of Thai religious literature.34
A new approach to the study of the thet maha chat was initiated by the works of one of the
pioneers of Thai anthropology, Phya Anuman Rajadhon (also known by his pen-name
Sathiarakoset). Writing in the 1950s and 1960s and influenced by Western anthropologists, Phya
Anuman wrote extensively on folk customs and religious festivals of the Thai peasantry at a time
when traditional forms of social organization were being increasingly disrupted by economic
modernization. Phya Anumans work was partly responsible for the emergence of interest in folk
culture among the Thai middle class after decades of, at best, disregard for and at worst, hostility
towards those elements of local culture perceived to be backward. His studies on the thet maha
chat retain the positivistic and descriptive modes of earlier Thai scholarship, but depict the
ceremony as a valuable cultural artefact of the Thai people. The thet maha chat is portrayed as an
example of an idealised folk culture characterised by deeply held spiritual beliefs and gay
community festivals at the heart of Thai cultural identity - precisely the characteristics of Thai
peasant culture which modernization was breaking down.35 Thus Phya Anumans interest in the
thet maha chat and in folk culture is largely nostalgic.
Phya Anumans work did help to spark off a new scholarly interest in folk culture. But
whereas his work was written from the perspective of a Bangkok based academic scholar, a new
body of scholarship was emerging based in the regional and provincial areas. The tumultuous
events of 1973 and the political openness of the following three years were the most important

33

Some textbooks for the study of the Maha chat in Thai schools include, Nangsu khu mu wichakawiniphon

thai: maha wetsandorn chadok (Manual for Thai Poetry Classes: The Great Vessantara Jataka), (for Upper
Secondary School), by Khun Wirupcharaya, Upper Secondary Thai Language Teacher, Suan Kulap School, Bangkok,
1934; Baep rian wannakhadi thai ruang wetsandorn chadok chabap 5 kan samrap prayok triam udom suksa
(Textbook for Thai Literature: the Vessantara Jataka, 5 Kan Version, for Primary School), Bangkok, Education
Department, 1950; Chua Satewethin, Wetsandorn chadok samrap sorp chut phasa thai, por.mor., lae naksuksa
wannakhadi tua pai (The Vessantara Jataka for Thai Language Examinations, for Primary and Secondary Students
and Students of Literature Generally), Bangkok, Burisuksa, 1965.
34

Such as Chua Satawethin, Wannakhadi Phutthasasana (Buddhist Literature), Part 1, Bangkok, Khurusapha,

1971; Thawisak Yanaprathip, Wannakam sasana (Religious Literature), Ramkhamhaeng University, Bangkok, 1975;
and Sap Prakorpsuk, Wannakhadi chadok (Jataka Literature), Srinakharinwirot University, Pathumwan Campus,
Bangkok, 1984.
35

See Sathiarakoset (Phya Anuman Rajadhon), Prapheni thai nuang nai thetsakan trut sat (Thai Customs

Related to the Sat Festival), Bangkok, Social Science Association of Thailand, 1963; and Rajadhon, Phya Anuman,
Thet Maha Chat, Thai Culture New Series, Bangkok, 1990. The latter work was first published in English in 1969 by
the Fine Arts Department for the benefit of foreigners wishing to understand and appreciate Thai culture; ibid., p. 2.

factors behind the rapid growth in local scholarly inquiry.36 Locally-based amateur scholars
(often with a monastic background), monks, and Bangkok-trained academics teaching in the newly
established regional teachers colleges and universities, increasingly turned their attention to the
study of local history, literature, and culture. Even more importantly they began to publish their
studies (albeit often with a rather narrow circulation because of limited resources37), in Thai,
making such locally produced scholarship accessible to the wider public. While this local
discourse shared the same positivistic orientation of the Bangkok-based scholarship, the subject
matter differed significantly. Increasingly, studies of local culture (wathanatham thorngthin) saw
folk culture as emblematic of local identity, rather than a mere reflection of court culture or part of
a state-defined Thai cultural identity. Studies of local thet maha chat ceremonies began to appear,
still mainly descriptive in form, but tending to highlight local variations in, for example, the way
the ceremony was carried out. These studies are also somewhat nostalgic in regard to folk culture
and often make a case for the need to preserve such cultural treasures in the face of the decline of
traditional local culture. So despite acknowledging the ceremonys popularity, it was, nevertheless,
seen to be in a state of decline.
In the late 1970s and through the 1980s the study of local culture in Thailand became
increasingly mainstream, gaining the support of the Education Department and the established
Bangkok universities. There are a number of valuable Masters Degree theses and monographs on
regional versions of the Vessantara Jataka, most of which were completed at Bangkok
universities.38 These studies differ from those mentioned above in terms of increased conformity

36

Thongchai Winichakul, The Changing Landscape of the Past: New Histories in Thailand Since 1973,

Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 26, 1 (March 1995), p. 110.


37

A number of these studies, like Sura Unawongs Bun phra wet (The Vessantara Merit-Making Festival),

Ubon Ratchathani Teachers College, Ubon Ratchathani, 1980, were reproduced by Roneo.
38

Such Masters Degree studies include those by Mani Phayormyong, "Kan Wikhro Lae Priap Thiap Maha Chat

Chabab Phak Klang, Phak Nua, Phak Isan Lae Phak Tai" (Analysis and Comparison of Central, Northern,
Northeastern and Southern versions of the Maha Chat), M.A. thesis, Srinakharinwirot University, 1976; Prathum
Suwannakhangkha, "Kan Suksa Maha Wetsandorn Chadok Chabap Wat Machimawat Songkhla" (A Study of
Songkhlas Wat Machimawat Version of the Vessantara Jataka), M.A. thesis, Silapakorn University, 1983; Saman
Sohem, "Maha Chat Chabap Muang Phetburi Kan Chuchok: Kan Suksa Choeng Wikhro" (The Chuchok Chapter of
the Phetburi Version of the Maha Chat: An Analysis), M.A. thesis, Eastern Languages, Silapakorn University, 1985;
Sinchana Chirakiat, "Kan Suksa Maha Chat Chabap Muang Phetburi Kan Mahaphon" (A Study of the Mahaphon
Chapter of the Phetburi Version of the Maha Chat), M.A. thesis, Eastern Languages, Silapakorn University, 1988;
Anupha Asawapiyanon, "Kan Suksa Maha Wetsandorn Chadok Chabap Thorng Thin Isan Chak Ton Chabap Wat
Klang Khok Kho Changwat Kalasin", (A Study of a Northeastern Local Version of the Vessantara Jataka from a
Manuscript in Wat Klang Khok Kho, Kalasin Province) M.A. thesis, Eastern Languages, Silapakorn University, 1989;
and Supphong Thammachat, "Kan Suksa Wikhro Wannakam Chadok Phak Tai Chak Nang Su But" (Analysis of
Jataka Literature in Southern Thailand from But Manuscripts), PhD thesis, Department of Thai Language, Graduate
School, Chulalongkorn University, 1991. Prakhorng Nimmanhemins Maha chat lanna: kan suksa nai thana thi pen

with academic conventions and methodologies. A number of them are textual analyses of locally
composed versions of the Maha chat, in which the variations between the local versions and those
used at the Thai court are highlighted. Such variations consist mainly of descriptions of local flora
and fauna, forms of speech, architectural styles, kinds of food, styles of clothing, names of minor
characters, and an earthier style of composition. There do not appear to be any marked
differences between the local versions of the Maha chat and court versions in the crucial areas of
plot, structure, and the major themes of the narrative. Indeed, the consistency of the storys form
wherever it is found is one of its distinctive characteristics.
Few works of Western scholarship specifically dealing with the Vessantara Jataka in
Thailand have been written. McClungs thesis of 1975 looks at the story in its cultural context as
a Buddhist utopian ideal.39 While recognising the popularity of the story and its historical
influence at the Thai court, McClungs study is limited by the lack of Thai language sources, an
appreciation of the storys significance beyond the soteriological, and an historical perspective on
the decline of the story. Since the 1960s there have been a number of anthropological studies of
rural culture in Thailand in which the ceremony has been covered.40 These studies highlight the
importance of the ceremony as a merit-making festival, as well as locating the story within the
traditional Buddhist world view held by village communities.
In summary, then, studies of the Vessantara Jataka and the thet maha chat fall into two
broad groups. The studies done by the early Thai scholars on the Maha chat such as those written
by Damrong and others emphasise the storys long and close association with Thai rulers and its
influence in the culture of the Thai court. On the other hand the works which have come out of the
local studies movement highlight the enormous popularity of the thet maha chat at the village
level in every region of the country. What these two streams of scholarship suggest, therefore, is
that unlike many cultural traditions of Southeast Asia, the Maha chat is a cultural artefact that is at
the same time both popular and elitist. As to how and why the Vessantara Jataka came to enjoy
this status, and why the story was dropped from court culture at the very time that Buddhism was
being mobilised by the court for the purposes of national integration, the existing scholarship

wannakhadi thorng thin (The Lanna Great Life: A Study of Its Status as Local Literature), Foundation for the Social
Sciences and Humanities Textbooks Project, Bangkok, 1983, is the best monograph on the northern version of the
Maha chat.
39

McClung, L., "The Vessantara Jataka: Paradigm for a Buddhist Utopian Ideal", PhD. thesis, Department of

Religion, Princeton University, 1975.


40

Some examples are S.J. Tambiah, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand, Cambridge,

Cambridge University Press, 1970; Mizuno Koichi, "Social System of Don Daeng Village: A Community Study in
Northeast Thailand", Discussion Paper No.28, The Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, Japan,
March 1971; G.W. Skinner, and A.T.Hirsch, (ed.), Change and Persistence in Thai Society: Essays in Honor of
Lauriston Sharp, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1975; Kingshill, K., Ku Daeng: The Red Tomb A Village Study in
Northern Thailand, Bangkok, Bangkok Christian College, 1965; and R.B. Davis, Muang Metaphysics, Bangkok,
Pandora, 1984.

offers very little explanation. Nor has there been any genuine attempt to explain what this
enormous influence meant for the socio-cultural life of the Tai Buddhist peoples.
The thet maha chat and Thai Political Culture
One of the principal reasons behind the neglect of the thet maha chat as an historical source and
the limitations in the existing scholarship lies in the way the Vessantara Jataka has been viewed by
modern scholarship. Both Thai and Western commentators have tended to interpret the Vessantara
Jataka within a framework dictated by the categories into which they have already placed the story.
These categories are most often religious parable, folktale, legend, or literary artefact. One of the
arguments in this thesis is that this process of categorization is responsible for the lack of
understanding of the influence of the Vessantara Jataka in Thai history. The categorization of the
story as religious parable, folktale, or literary classic, has led to a disregard for the storys sociopolitical significance. Yet the fact that the story was a performative text, that the thet maha chat
was specifically designed to propagate the ideas contained in the Vessantara Jataka to a mass
audience, that the story was popular both at the courts of rulers and in rural villages, suggests that
the story had a political use in the premodern Tai Buddhist world. This thesis, then, proposes that
the Vessantara Jataka was more than a tale for literary enjoyment or religious edification, but that
it contained the basic elements of what modern academic discourse would call political theory.
One study stands out in its recognition of the ideological content of the Vessantara Jataka.
An article by political scientist Sombat Chanthornwong on the Maha chat kham luang, published
in 1980, is the first study to explore the political use of the Vessantara Jataka.41 Sombat looks at a
fifteenth century version of the story attributed to the expansionist king of Ayuthaya,
Boromatrailokanat (1448-88). He argues that the Maha chat kham luang can be viewed as a
political text, in terms of the way in which it conflates the concepts of Buddhahood and
kingship.42 Sombats study comes out of a revisionist critique of elite Thai literature popular in the
1970s, which saw such literature as servant of the interests of the ruling class. Today this
explanation appears too mechanistic. While it recognises the political content of religious
literature, it fails to account for why this kind of literature achieved the widespread popularity it
did. Also, Sombats study focusses on a single text produced by the court of the kingdom of
Ayuthaya. Yet it is clear that from very early times there were countless texts of the Vessantara
Jataka circulating among the various Tai Buddhist peoples throughout the region, far outside the

41

This article first appears in Thai as Maha chat kham luang: khwam mai thang kan muang (Royal Version of

the Great Life: Its Political Meaning), in Sombat Chantornwong lae Chai-Anan Samudavanija, Khwam khit thang kan
muang lae sangkhom thai (Political Thought and Thai Society), Thai Studies Centre, Thammasat University,
Bangkok, 1980; and in English as "Religious Literature in Thai Political Perspective: The Case of the Maha Chat
Kham Luang" in Tham Seong Chee (ed.) Essays on Literature and Society in Southeast Asia: Political and Social
Perspectives, Singapore, Singapore University Press, 1981.
42

Sombat, Religious Literature in Thai Political Perspective, pp. 188, 196.

control of their rulers. Sombat sees the Maha chat kham luang as a text that enhanced the power of
a particular fifteenth century king. But given the widespread popularity of the thet maha chat and
the decentralised nature of political control in premodern Thai kingdoms, it is more likely that the
Vessantara Jataka contributed to ideas about authority generally, rather than enhancing the power
of a particular Ayuthayan king.
Why then, did the Vessantara Jataka appeal to the Thai, and what was the nature of the
conception of authority that it articulated?
To answer the first question we must recall the medium through which the Vessantara
Jataka was popularised, the thet maha chat. Given the fact that a large proportion of the population
was semi-literate or illiterate the performative text greatly enhanced the storys reach in premodern
Thai society. It is worth bearing in mind that of the huge corpus of Buddhist teaching contained in
the Tripitaka and the Commentaries, only a very small part was made available to an audience in
this way. By the eighteenth century (and almost certainly well before this) we know that recitation
of the Maha chat had reached the status of a verbal art form, not unlike that of Western opera.
Monks skilled in the art of the thet maha chat could move audiences to tears - or laughter - by their
recitation of the story. They were aided by the vernacular translations of the Pali Vessantara Jataka
which were deliberately designed for oral rendition, and which allowed full use of the wide range
of arts of composition for verbal performance.
The content of the Vessantara Jataka story gave it a wide appeal. It is not a dry treatise on
statecraft, nor is it cynical propaganda designed by Machiavellian princes to deceive the people
into submitting to autocratic rulers. Rather, it is a gripping narrative, full of action, suspense,
humour and especially pathos. Although the Maha chat was elitist in the sense that it was about
kings, queens and princes, it was at the same time a story which dealt with an institution
fundamental to Thai society, the family. There are few stories that have a greater emotional effect
on Thai people, even today, and this is largely because the story deals very intimately with family
relationships. Especially moving are the episodes when Vessantara is exiled from the royal city
and must be separated from his parents; when Matsi searches desperately for her missing children;
or when Vessantara watches on as the Brahman beats his own children:
suan somdet phra borom phothisat
trat dai song fang phra surasiang kaew kanha
siaw phra sakonkaya yen krayor
sao salot rathot thor phra thai thoe thoi lang
phra nasik eut tang atsatspatsat
nam phra net thoe lai yat yot pen sai luat
mai wen wai hai huat sung soka43
The great bodhisatta
Heard the cries of his dear Kanha and a shiver shook his whole body
Shocked and distressed, his heart taken aback
He took a deep breath
43

From kan kuman, Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap 13 kan (Thirteen Chapter Version of the Great
Vessantara Jataka), Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1988, p. 227.

Tears as if of blood fell from his eyes


Still his sorrow did not abate.
The story is structured around the progressive breakup of the (extended) family, the separation of
its members and their final happy reunion. Within this narrative structure the Maha chat expresses
clear notions concerning order in the family. It provides models which have become moral norms
in Thai familial organization: the caring mother, the virtuous and dutiful wife, obedient children,
and the father as head of the family as well as the morally and spiritually superior being. Matsi,
Kanha and Chali are the possessions of Vessantara, for only as possessions can they be his to give
away. The Maha chat enunciated a code of hierarchical relations within the family. Authority in
Thai society started at the level of the family.
The Maha chat is the classic work in Thai culture on the practice and morality of giving. It
is a story about a man who gives everything he owns, until he has no more to give. Throughout the
story there are exhortations on the great virtue of giving, such as this one from Vessantaras speech
to Indra, who is disguised as a Brahman:
O than phram oei
wa thung than kan kuson yai
nam chai rao mai chuan choei yor thor
sing rai than hak ork park khor kap tua rao nai khrang ni
rao kor mi khwam yin di yorm yok hai
mai wan wai duai khwam alai nai panraya ru wa khwam trani
sapsin sing thi mi yu nai amnat tua rao at pen chao khorng khrorp khrorng wai
ru cha borichak hai kae phu un
rao khor wa yang yun mankhong trong tam atayasai
rao mai dai khit pit bang sorn wai mi hai yachok hen lae ru
phro samoe yu pen nit nam chit khorng rao yorm yindi mi aphirom
yu tae nai thi cha bamphen than dang rao patiyan ni lae 44
O Brahman
As for giving, the great form of merit-making
My generosity does not hesitate or waver
Anything you ask of me now
I am glad to give to you
I will neither pine for my wife or be slow in giving
All the things that are in my power and possession
That I can give to other people
I will always tell the truth as it is my nature to do
I do not think to hide them from the sight or knowledge of beggars
my generosity is always glad and merry
It knows only of giving, as I have said.
The path of giving as a way to moral perfection was open to everyone. The story portrays the act of
giving to be the ascetic feat par excellence. The fact that the Vessantara Jataka was the final of the
five hundred and fifty Jatakas gave added emphasis to the virtue of giving. The story was not only
44

From kan sakkabap, Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap 13 kan, pp. 264-5.

about how much one could give but also about the morality of the giving. It shows that for the
morally superior being, the gift overrides attachments to ones homeland, parents, even wife and
children. The Maha chat elevated the act of giving to the status of the supreme virtue among the
Thai. As we will see, the connection between the virtue of giving and leadership in Thai political
culture was a very close one.
One of the problems in attempting to describe conceptions of authority and political life in
Thailand, and in non-Western societies generally, is that most academic studies tend to use the
language and concepts of Western political theory. As Anderson has pointed out in his seminal
essay, The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture, the very use of Western terms like power in the
context of (in this case) Javanese culture, is problematic, because this term is drawn from a
Western analytical and interpretative framework which has been fundamentally influenced by
Western history and culture.45 To a certain extent this linguistic and conceptual problem can never
be completely resolved if we are to use Western languages and modern academic interpretative
methodologies. It is, however, possible to greatly improve on current understandings of indigenous
notions of power. First, we need to realize that notions of power are culturally embedded. There
is no universal concept of power. Second, the divisions commonly made in Western academic
studies of social life such as politics, economics, religion and culture must be questioned.
Not only do each of these terms have a distinctly Western history and flavour, but also, as this
thesis hopes to show in the case of Thailand, the strict delineation of social life into these
categories is highly problematic. It obscures more than it illuminates. In premodern Thailand it is
impossible to identify a distinct realm of politics. Like most other aspects of social life it seems
to be saturated with religious conceptions. Third, we need to try and understand how peoples in the
societies themselves understand notions of power and authority. This involves the study of the
sources from which these indigenous notions arise. Lastly, through such study it may be possible
to develop a new conceptual knowledge and vocabulary which will better describe power relations
in these societies.
This thesis argues that in the Vessantara Jataka, and in the Jatakas generally, there can be
found a Thai Buddhist concept of authority. In the Maha chat and in premodern Thai political
discourse this concept is referred to as barami, from the Pali parami, meaning Perfection. When
Thai historical documents talk about authority they use the same vocabulary as that found in the
Jatakas. The Jatakas were the storehouse of indigenous political theory, and the thet maha chat
was one of the primary means by which it spread into the popular culture of the Thai.
Although studies of Thai political culture show a relationship between morality, spiritual
attainment and power, it is surprising there has been little, if any, attention given to the concept of
barami, or to the question of how this concept was popularized. Hanks widely influential
anthropological study, Merit and Power in the Thai Social Order made the important connection

45

Benedict R.OG. Anderson, The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture in Language and Power: Exploring

Political Cultures in Indonesia, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 19-20, n. 8.

between Buddhist ideas of merit (bun), morality and power in Thai thinking, but he fails to
mention barami.46 Hanks influence can be seen, for example, in Gesicks article on Buddhist
kingship in the reign of King Taksin.47 Aung Thwins study of Burmese kingship touches on a
concept which appears similar to the Thai idea of barami. This is not unusual since both Thai and
Burmese kingship were deeply influenced by Theravada Buddhism. In Aung-Thwins study the
fundamental concept is the Burmese word hpon, which derives from the Pali pua, meaning
merit.48 Hpon translates as glory and is an attribute associated with spiritual or morally superior
beings....in the context of political power it was charisma.49 Wolters brief but stimulating essay
on cultural continuities in Southeast Asia touches on the term parami (the Pali translation of
barami), as the Thai variant of an attribute of personal spiritual prowess common to Southeast
Asian leaders .50
Significantly it is Thai scholars, who have been perhaps more aware of the conceptual
difficulties in understanding such things, who have in recent times come the closest to identifying
barami as the key notion for indigenous Thai conceptions of power. An M.A. thesis written by
Princess Sirindhorn while at Chulalongkorn University which was later published is one of the
first Thai works to draw specific attention to the concept of barami. The thesis traces in
considerable detail the terms usage and various meanings through the Pali and Thai literature of
Thailands Theravada Buddhist tradition.51 The cultural historian Nidhi Aeusrivongse was
probably the first Thai scholar to make use of the term bun barami in his studies of premodern
Thai politics.52 In his study of the reign of King Taksin, Nidhi attempts to theorize a Thai concept
of power by creating his own term anabarami. Nidhi gives the English translation of anabarami

46

Lucien M. Hanks, Merit and Power in the Thai Social Order, American Anthropologist, LXIV, 6, Dec

1962, pp. 1247-1261.


47

Lorraine Gesick, ed., Centres, Symbols and hierarchies: Essays on the Classical States of Southeast Asia,

New haven, Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1983, pp.


48

Michael Aung-Thwin, Divinity, Spirit, and Human: Conceptions of Classical Burmese Kingship, in

Lorraine Gesick, ed., Centres, Symbols and hierarchies: Essays on the Classical States of Southeast Asia, New haven,
Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1983, pp. 45-86.
49

Ibid., p. 50.

50

Wolters, O.W., History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives, Singapore, Institute of

Southeast Asian Studies, 1982, p. 103.


51

See Princess Sirindhorn, Thotsabarami nai phutthasatsana therawat (The Ten Perfections in Theravada

Buddhism), Published by Mahamakut Ratchawithayalai Under Royal Patronage, in Commemoration of 200 Years of
the Chakri Dynasty, Bangkok, 1982.
52

See especially Nidhi Aeusrivongse, Prawatisat ratanakosin nai phra ratchaphongsawadan ayuthaya

(Bangkok History in the Royal Chronicles of Ayuthaya), Thai Khadi Suksa, Thammasat University, Bangkok, 1980;
and Kan muang thai samai phra chao krung thonburi (Thai Politics in the Time of the King of Thonburi), Bangkok,
Sinlapawathanatham, 1986.

in parentheses as charisma, the term first popularised by Webers studies of premodern society.53
Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian is another Thai scholar who is attracted to a more indigenous
conceptual vocabulary. In her English langauge study of Thai-Malay relations prior to the
twentieth century, Kobkua rejects the political notions of Western theorists such as Locke, Hobbes
and Rousseau as inadequate for the explanation of premodern Southeast Asian intra-regional
relations. She makes frequent references to the notion of barami, which she describes as
charismatic power or meritorious prestige.54 Most recently the political scientist Likhit
Dhiravegin has also made use of the concept of barami. The difference in Likhits work is that he
has applied the concept to the study of contemporary Thai politics. Likhits description of barami
(albeit confined to footnotes, which is perhaps a reflection of the Western-trained political
scientists reticence to emphasize non-Western political theory) is a Thai version of charisma.55
None of these studies, however, give the source of the idea of barami, or explain how the
concept was popularised beyond the Thai court. In order to gain a deeper understanding of the
term we need to go to the source of the concept, which can be found in Theravada Buddhism. In
premodern Theravada Buddhist thinking, a Buddha-to-be, known in Pali as bodhisatta, had to
accumulate ten kinds of Perfection (barami) in order to achieve a state of moral and spiritual
Perfection which was the prerequisite for the attainment of enlightenment and Buddhahood. The
Ten Perfections (Thai, thotsabarami; Pali, dasaparami) consisted of the Perfections of Giving,
Moral Conduct, Renunciation, Wisdom, Energy, Patience, Truthfulness, Resolution, Loving
Kindness, and Equanimity. In Theravada Buddhism these ideals are explained in great detail in
such works as the Buddhavamsa, the Cariyapitaka, and most importantly, the Jatakas. The five
hundred and fifty Jatakas were traditionally represented in Theravada Buddhism as stories of the
bodhisattas accumulation of the Perfections. As mentioned above, the Vessantara Jataka is the
most sacred of all the Jatakas among the Thai because it is in this incarnation that the bodhisatta
finally achieves the Perfections. Thus in the Jatakas most of the raw material for this indigenous
political theory can be found, and the thet maha chat was one of the primary means by which it
became known to a popular audience.
In the context of premodern Thai political culture, barami referred to an idealized form of
personal authority characterised by moral superiority, spiritual prowess and supernatural abilities.
Naturally these qualities drew people around the individual who possessed them, which in turn
formed a base for the individuals power. Barami was considered to derive partly from ones store
of merit in previous incarnations, but it was never constant. Rather it was in a state of flux,
depending on the individuals present spiritual and moral state. Ones barami could wax or wane.

53

Nidhi, Kan muang thai samai phra chao krung thonburi, pp. 28-9.

54

Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian, Thai-Malay Relations: Traditional Intra-Regional Relations from the

Seventeenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries, East Asian Historical Monographs, Singapore, Oxford University Press,
1988, see pp. 8, 28-30, 37-8, 46-8, 206.
55

Likhit Dhiravegin, Demi-Democracy: The Evolution of the Thai Political System, Singapore, Times

Academic Press, 1992, see p. 59, n. 49; p. 191, n. 33.

The particular form of barami that the Maha chat emphasised above all others was than barami, or
the Perfection of Giving. In Thai political culture leaders are givers, and the relations of obligation
that giving creates become another source of political support. Also, in order to be able to give one
must possess the resources to give. The elevation of giving to the position of the supreme moral
virtue also provided the rationale for wealth accumulation. Thus wealth is a further component of
barami. Barami was, of course, an attribute of kings and princes. In documents of the courts of the
Tai states of Sukhothai, Ayuthaya, Lanna, Lan Chang and Bangkok, rulers are commonly referred
to as bodhisattas and are represented as possessing qualities similar to Vessantara. But barami
could also be an attribute of leaders generally. Monks, particularly those who are highly
accomplished in ascetic pursuits, are very often regarded as possessing barami. The type of
authority which inspired the revolts of the men of merit, or phu mi bun, in the kingdoms
northeast at the turn of the century, can also be understood as barami. Thus the concept of barami
could be as useful to figures in authority as it could be subversive. Finally, barami, at least in its
premodern manifestations, appears to have been an exclusively male attribute, just as political
leadership and spiritual attainment have traditionally been regarded in Thai society as male
domains.
Once we recognise that the popularity of the Vessantara Jataka among the Thai can be
attributed to the crucial role it played in disseminating a certain culture of authority, the reasons
why the story fell from favour at the Thai court from the mid-nineteenth century gradually become
clearer. By this time the political culture popularised by the thet maha chat did not suit the new
situation in which the Thai court found itself. The geo-political balance of the region had
fundamentally changed. The Thai kingdom had formerly been a superpower in mainland
Southeast Asia. Now, with the arrival of the militarily superior colonial powers, the Thai court
gradually began to realize that indigenous concepts of power, and the political organization of the
kingdom to which they gave shape, were becoming obsolete. The political notions that had helped
shape intra-regional relations prior to the arrival of the colonial powers were simply not recognised
by the British and the French. At the same time, the widespread popularity of such notions in the
kingdoms hinterland - which, by the end of the twentieth century, shared newly defined and
unstable borders with colonial states - risked provoking a confrontation with colonial powers
which the Thai court might not survive.
Great changes were taking place in the intellectual landscape of the Thai court. For reasons
related to the opening up of the kingdoms economy, which had been taking place since the late
eighteenth century, and to the courts increasing engagement with Western knowledge from the
1830s (particularly the sciences), the epistemological basis of the Thai cultural tradition was being
questioned by the Thai court. Belief in miracles, supernatural powers, and mythical beasts,
premodern cosmologies and religious-historical traditions, even fundamental Buddhist concepts
like rebirth, were all being reassessed in the light of Western rationalism. The Jatakas were one of
the first and most deep-rooted elements of that tradition to be found unacceptable according to

these new criteria and in the end were rejected by the king and prominent members of the Thai
court.
The courts ongoing struggle for survival in the colonial era, and the new intellectual trends
which were profoundly altering the way the court viewed its own cultural roots, led to the gradual
abandonment of the Jatakas and the thet maha chat. The modernization of Buddhism, undertaken
by the Thai court from the Fourth Reign, saw the Jatakas and other religious scripture which dealt
with the themes of the bodhisatta and barami, such as the Cariyapitaka and the Buddhavamsa,
completely marginalised from Thai Buddhist orthodoxy. By the end of the Fifth Reign the Thai
court was promoting a very different Buddhism from the one which had existed before, and indeed
from that which still existed outside the royal capital. As for the problem of how to account for the
status the Jatakas had once held in the Thai cultural tradition, by the turn of the century the Thai
court had set about redefining them as Thai folktales. In this way the Vessantara Jataka became a
casualty of modernity.
Structure of Thesis
This thesis is divided into eight chapters. The first chapter describes the dynamics of the thet maha
chat ceremony. It argues that in the recitation of the Vessantara Jataka, and in the ritual which
surrounds it, conscious attempts are made to defer to the words of the Buddha. This was because
the authority and status of the Vessantara Jataka in Thai Buddhism traditionally were dependent on
the fact that the story was believed to have originally been told by the Buddha himself. Later in the
thesis I outline the attempts by the Thai court to undermine the authority of the Vessantara Jataka
by arguing that the belief that the Buddha had related the Jataka stories was ill-founded.
The second chapter traces the early history of the Vessantara Jataka among those Tai
peoples influenced by Theravada Buddhism. The story appears in the early states of Sukhothai,
Lanna, Lan Chang and Ayuthaya with the arrival of the new, dominant Sinhalese school of
Theravada Buddhism. Chapter Three examines the thet maha chat during the time it reached the
height of its popularity, the period of the early Bangkok kings. In the chapter which follows, I
identify an abrupt change in the courts attitude towards the Vessantara Jataka dating from the
Fourth Reign, and its declining influence at the Thai court. The focus of Chapter Five is King
Chulalongkorns famous essay on the Jatakas, which defined the stories as folktales. Chapter Six
is a study of the Wachirayan Library, the institution which was at the heart of the Thai courts
attempts during the Fifth Reign to come to terms with the kingdoms premodern cultural traditions
at a time of rapid modernization. Chapter Seven returns to the Thai courts concern with the
Jatakas by examining the role of the courts publication of the entire collection of Jatakas as tales
within the new category of Thai literature. The final chapter attempts to address the question of
the legacy of the seven centuries of influence the Vessantara Jataka has had among the Thai, by
looking for traces of the storys message in contemporary Thai political culture.

CHAPTER 1
THE THET MAHA CHAT: THE VESSANTARA JATAKA
AS A PERFORMATIVE TEXT

The Vessantara Jataka in Thailand is first and foremost a performative text. The storys historical
popularity and its impact on Thai political culture and social organization, derive from the fact that
the story was, from very early times, communicated to an audience from a text in the vernacular in
oral form. Were it not for the fact that the Vessantara Jataka was disseminated in this way the story
would never have achieved the popularity or influence it has and would most likely have remained
a little known subject of erudite monastic scholarship.
Thet maha chat literally means recitation of the Great Life. The Great Life refers to the
life of Prince Vessantara, the penultimate incarnation (chat) of the bodhisatta, before his
enlightenment as the Buddha. Thet (or thetsana) can be translated variously as recitation,
sermon, preaching, or more fully, exposition of the dhamma.
When trying to understand the reason for the Vessantara Jatakas popularity amongst the
Thai most scholarship tends to look at the story itself, separate from the medium by which the
story was communicated. But if we are to attempt to understand the way the story was received by
audiences in premodern times it is essential to look at the storys meaning in the context of the thet
maha chat, the medium through which the story became known to people. The thet maha chat
imparted to the Vessantara Jataka a sense of sanctity and authority which is entirely missing in, for
example, modern Thai paperback editions of the story, which contribute to the common
interpretation of the Vessantara Jataka today as some kind of folktale. An examination of the
various components of the thet maha chat performance suggests that this medium enhanced the
authority of the story by repeatedly stressing the fact that it was based on the Buddhas own
utterances. This fact, signified in the thet maha chat in diverse ways, had the effect of raising the
storys status to one of religious truth. To understand this process let us now examine these
various components of the thet maha chat.
The Sacred Text
The text which is recited at the thet maha chat ceremony has its origin in the Pali Jataka
Commentary (Pali: Jatakatthavannana or Jatakatthakatha), believed to have been composed in its
final form no later than the fifth century AD on the island known today as Sri Lanka. This Jataka
Commentary consists of five hundred and forty-seven Jatakas (though often referred to as five
hundred and fifty), of which the Vessantara Jataka is the final Jataka.56 The Vessantara Jataka, as it
56

There was another, distinct collection of Jatakas, known in Thai as the Panyat Chadok (Pali: paasa jataka)

meaning literally Fifty Jatakas. This collection is believed to have been written in Pali by monks in Chiang Mai from
about the fifteenth century AD, and thus were not canonical - an important distinction for orthodox Theravada
Buddhists. These Jatakas did, however, enjoy considerable popularity in the Thai, Lao, Burmese and Cambodian

appears in the Jataka Commentary, is made up of two distinct parts: verses (khatha) which are held
as having been actually uttered by the Buddha himself, and a prose commentary (atthakatha),
traditionally attributed to the great commentator of the Pali Buddhist tradition, Buddhaghosa.
Although the Pali Jataka Commentary has survived intact in Thailand it is not this version of the
Vessantara Jataka that is recited at the thet maha chat ceremony, but vernacular translations which
have been versified into Thai poetic metres.
For the wider communication of Buddhist teachings in the Thai kingdom it was essential
that the Pali scriptures be translated into the vernacular. This was, in fact, a problematic issue, for
there was a danger that translation would distort in some way the meaning of the original Pali text.
The changes involved in translation were something Thai monastic scholars were very much aware
of. For this reason thet maha chat texts are careful to show deference to the changes the content
has gone through in translation. Most vernacular recitation versions of the Vessantara Jataka until
recently interspersed the translated text with the certain Pali words or phrases (known in Thai as
chunniyabot) from the original Pali version of the Vessantara Jataka.57 The oldest Thai version of
the Vessantara Jataka in existence, the maha chat kham luang, composed in the kingdom of
Ayuthaya in the late fifteenth century and still recited today,58 went as far as including the entire
Pali original - both commentary and verses - in the translation; the text is structured by placing a
phrase in Pali followed by its translation, until the whole of the original has been translated.59 Not
only did this guarantee the rendering of the Buddhas actual words but it also provided the
opportunity for those fluent in Pali to monitor the accuracy of the translation. The negative aspect
of this method of translation, however, lay in the realm of communication. The amount of Pali the
recitation contained, being unintelligible for the majority of listeners, must have detracted from the
coherency of the narrative. For a narrative which could take up to a day to recite in its entirety, this

kingdoms. Many of the classical stories of Thai literature come from the Panyat Chadok. See Prince Damrong
Rajanubhab, Kham nam (Introduction), in Panyat chadok: prachum nithan tae prathet ni tae boran 50 ruang (The
Pannasa Jatakas: A Collection of Fifty Ancient Tales from this Country), Part 1, Samutthakhota Jataka and Suthana
Jataka, Cremation Volume, M.R. Lek Siriwong Na Krungthep, Bangkok, 1924.
57

Cf. Nidhi Aeusrivongse, Wathanatham kradumphi kap wannakam ratanakosin and An nuang ma chak

maha chat muang phet, Pak kai lae bai rua: ruam khwam riang wa duai wannakam lae prawatisat ratanakosin (Quill
and Sail, Collected Essays on Early Bangkok Literature and History), Bangkok, Amarin, 1984, p. 22 and p. 327. For
examples see Maha wetsandorn chadok samnuan thesana 13 kan (Thirteen Chapter Recitation Version of the
Vessantara Jataka), In Commemoration of the Ninetieth Birthday of Phra Ratchaphatharachan (Pleng Kuwamathera),
Wat Ratchabophitsathitamahasimaram, Bangkok, Monday, 29 April, 1991; and for a northeastern version, Maha chat
samnuan isan (Northeastern Version of the Vessantara Jataka), Bangkok, Krom Sinlapakorn, 1988.
58

The recital of the Maha chat kham luang version of the Vessantara Jataka takes place every year during the

Rains Retreat period in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace.
59

Cf. Damrongs introduction in Maha chat kham luang (Royal Version of the Great Life), Bangkok, Khlang

Withaya, 1973, p. 3.

certainly presented a problem. This explains the superior popularity of the thet versions (with
only occasional Pali words or phrases) of the Vessantara Jataka during the nineteenth century.60
Despite the fact that countless vernacular translations of the Vessantara Jataka have been
made throughout the kingdom, they all share the same basic narrative structure, for they are always
anchored by the original Pali version, and the requirement that the words first uttered by the
Buddha be accurately rendered in the vernacular.61 Thus although communicated to an audience in
oral form, the Vessantara Jataka was in no sense an oral tradition, which is the case with most socalled folktales. There are no markedly variant versions of the Vessantara Jataka as there are with
stories based on oral tradition. On the contrary, the storys form and transmission through
successive generations was thoroughly determined by textual factors, since it was the text which
preserved the integrity of the Buddhas words. Indeed, when comparing versions of Vessantara
Jataka texts from different regions of Thailand one is struck by their lack of divergence from the
same basic narrative. Fidelity to the Buddhas words was a primary concern in the thet maha chat
text and its oral performance.
1. The Manuscript and Scripts
The thet maha chat is a complex process of communication whose message is the words
supposedly first uttered by the Buddha. For pre-print societies the medium which conveyed that
message to its audience was of considerable importance, worthy of the message it conveyed. In the
case of the thet maha chat, the medium of the message - the Vessantara Jataka - consisted of two
elements, the palm leaf manuscript, known in Thai as bai lan, and the script.
In the language of semiology the bai lan used in the thet maha chat could be said to act as a
sign, whose signified was the sanctity of the text with which it was inscribed.62 The bai lan is a
strip of leaf from the corypha palm. The text of the bai lan consists of inscriptions made onto the
face of the palm leaf by means of a sharp stylus. The leaf is then rubbed in ash or soot which is
caught in the incisions, and brushed off from the rest of the leaf face, making the inscribed text

60

See King Chulalongkorns comments (written in 1888) on the recitation of the Maha chat kham luang, in

Phra ratcha phithi sip sorng duan, phra ratchaniphon nai phra bat somdet phra chula chorm klao chao yu hua
(Royal Ceremonies of the Twelve Months by King Chulalongkorn), Bangkok, Sinlapa Bannakan, 1973, p. 527; and
G.E Gerini, A Retrospective View and Account of the Origin of the Maha Chat Ceremony, Bangkok, 1892, pp. 15-16.
61

The author/translator of a recent vernacular version of the Vessantara Jataka (Khen Lawong, Wetsandorn

chadok chabap isan (Isan Version of the Vessantara Jataka), Mahasarakham Cultural Centre, Mahasarakham, 1993)
stressed to me the utmost importance of correctly rendering the meaning of the original Pali, and criticised past scribes
or authors for their inaccurate translations (Interview, Phor Yai Khen Lawong, October 1992).
62

Thus in manuscript collections around the country, texts on administrative matters or other secular subjecst

are written on a different type of manuscript, sometimes referred to in Thai as samut khoi.

legible against the background of the leaf.63 Several leaves are tied together into bundles, known in
Thai as phuk, which together make up the complete text. Palm leaf manuscripts appear to have
been the traditional means of preserving the Buddhist scriptures, and in the Thai kingdom the
corpus of Buddhist canonical scripture, the Tripitaka, was preserved in this way until 1893 when
the Thai court published the scriptures for the first time in printed book form.
The bai lan was a sacred object and treated with utmost respect. Today, in areas where
older traditions remain, this is still the case. Before reciting its contents the monk will raise the bai
lan above his head as a gesture of reverence. The bai lan is never held below the waist, and when
transported it is placed on the carriers shoulder.64 In the procession to the place where it is to be
recited the bai lan is carried ahead of the monk who will recite it - clearly symbolic of the reciters
subordination to the text.65 On the day of the thet maha chat the bai lan containing the text to be
recited is carried to the place of recital wrapped in expensive cloth (pha hor phra khamphi) and
sometimes placed in a specially crafted box.66 At the place of recital, in some regions, there is a
small stand ("khakrayia") specially designed for the purpose of holding the bai lan before and after
reading.67 In the recitation itself the bai lan is commonly held between thumb and forefinger,
sometimes with the hands pressed together in the traditional attitude of respect (Thai: pranom mu).
This is despite the fact that for monks experienced in recitations of the Vessantara Jataka the text
has already been memorised,68 which underlines the signifying function of the bai lan in the thet
maha chat ceremony. Even today in this age of mass production of printed materials in book form
on paper, the bai lan continues to be used in thet maha chat ceremonies as the medium of the

63

G.Coeds, The Vajira_na National Library of Siam, Published by the Authority of the National Library,

Bangkok, 1924, pp. 15-16; John Guy, Palm Leaf and Paper: Illustrated Manuscripts of India and Southeast Asia,
National Gallery of Victoria, 1982, pp. 84-5.
64

Samana bai lan thua pathet khang thi 1 (First National Conference on Palm Leaf Manuscripts), Vientiane,

1988, p. 2; Pricha Phinthorng, Prapheni boran thai isan (Ancient Thai-Isan Customs), Ubon Ratchathani, Siritham,
1991, p. 79; Phra Ariyanuwat Khemchari, Rabiap boran prapheni tham bun maha chat phak isan (Traditional
Guidelines for the Isan Regions Maha Chat Merit-Making Festival) Cremation Volume, Chao Khun Phra Sarakham
Muni, Mahasarakham, 1963, p. 50. Traces of this respect traditionally paid to the written word have survived into
modern times. Thai friends tell me of the practice in their schooldays whereby teachers taught their pupils to bow in
the attitude of deep respect (krap) before their books when they had finished reading them - the same sort of bow one
would make to ones parents, a monk, a Buddha image, or the king. School children were also taught not to leave
books lying on the floor where they might be stepped on, nor to drop them, and that books were to be kept in a high
place.
65

Phra Ariyanuwat, op. cit., pp. 49-50.

66

Nor. Por., "Prapheni mi thet maha chat" (The Custom of Reciting the Vessantara Jataka), Maha wetsandorn

chadok samnuan thetsana 13 kan p. 9; Phra Ariyanuwat, op. cit., pp. 49-50.
67

Phra Ariyanuwat, op. cit., pp. 49-50.

68

Interview, Luang Phor Phra Khru Sirithamwichit (Wirat Saensophawan), Wat Norngborn, Kosumphisai,

Mahasarakham, 2 October 1992.

story of the Vessantara Jataka. The only concession that has been made to modern technology is
that the text is now usually printed onto the palm leaf by religious publishing houses instead of
being incised by local scribes.69
The script inscribed or printed onto the palm leaf is another element in the process of
communicating the Vessantara Jataka, and was therefore traditionally imbued with the sanctity
appropriate to the message it rendered readable. Today in the kingdom of Thailand most versions
of the Vessantara Jataka recited at thet maha chat ceremonies will be written in the Thai script.
This, however, is only a recent innovation. Formerly recitation versions of the Vessantara Jataka in
the Thai kingdom were written in various sacred scripts, distinguishing them from secular or
administrative writings which were written in a different script. In the central and southern regions
the script reserved for sacred writings was the Khmer script, known in Thai as khorm;70 in the Lao
region of modern day northeastern Thailand and Laos a different script known as aksorn tham or
tua tham - dhamma characters, based on the Mon script - was in use; and in the northern region a
different set of characters again were used, which were also known as aksorn tham. In addition
there were a number of other scripts in use by the kingdoms minority peoples reserved
exclusively for religious discourse. It was not until the late nineteenth century that the Thai
government began implementing a policy of making the Thai script the sole script used for written
discourse throughout the kingdom. This was only achieved around the mid-twentieth century with
the expansion of the state education system.
The dhamma scripts in which recitation versions of the Vessantara Jataka were
traditionally composed, gave written form to words originally uttered by the Buddha, a fact which
is made explicit in the Vessantara Jataka text with constant references to the fact that the Buddha
is narrating the story. The bai lan together with the sacred characters with which it is inscribed,
therefore, serve as reminders of the important fact (and one often overlooked today) that the
Vessantara Jataka was part of the dhamma. While dhamma is often translated as the Buddhas
teachings, another valid translation might be rendered as absolute truth.71 In Buddhist thinking
the Buddhas enlightenment is considered to be his perception of this absolute truth (the dhamma),
and his teachings were the communication of that truth. The sacred characters, or the dhamma

69

The religious publishing house Sor Thammaphakdi, based in Bangkok, is one well-known publisher of

printed bai lan versions of the Vessantara Jataka.


70

"Prapheni mi thet maha chat", in Maha wetsandorn chadok samnuan thetsana sip sam kan, p. 14.

71

Horner has written, Primarily Dhamma means the natural state or condition of beings and things, what

supports them, the law of their being, what it is right for them to be, the very stuff of their being...So Dhamma also
means truth...hence the Buddhist Doctrine Dhamma or saddhamma, the Teaching itself... cf. The Collection of Middle
Length Sayings (Majjhima Nikaya), Vol.1, The First Fifty Discourses (Mulapannasa) translated from the Pali by
I.B.Horner, Pali Text Society, London, 1954, p. xix. Childers Pali dictionary also lists truth as one of the definitions
of dhamma; cf. A Dictionary of the Pali Language, by Robert Caesar Childers, Kyoto Book Company, Kyoto, 1976,
p.118.

characters, and the bai lan must therefore be understood as important signs of this absolute truth
of which the Vessantara Jataka is a part.72 They guarantee the authenticity of the story.
The relatively recent transcription of the Vessantara Jataka into Thai characters has
detracted considerably from the texts status as sacred discourse, because in terms of the characters
which carry the text, ie. Thai, it can not be distinguished from any other kind of written discourse
produced in Thailand. The appearance of the Vessantara Jataka today in book form has had the
same effect. As signs which complement the text they communicate, the Thai script and the book
have quite different associated meanings to those of the dhamma characters and the bai lan, even
though it is the same story that they communicate.
2. The Narrator
Of critical importance to the status of the story is the question of the identity of the narrator. In the
case of the Vessantara Jataka it is implicit in the text that there is more than one narrator. When
the story opens it is apparent that it is the voice of the commentator that is speaking, for it begins
with a description of the Buddhas visit to the kingdom of Kapilavatthu, the seat of his own clan
the Sakya, where his father and relatives pay homage to him. After performing a miracle in the
Nigrodharama Park, in which he produces a red-coloured shower of rain which drenches those
who wished to be made wet, and leaves dry those who wished to remain dry, the Buddha remarks
that this is not the first time that such a phenomenon has occurred, and proceeds to tell the story to
a group of monks and assembled relatives. Here is the cue that the Buddha is now the narrator. The
text of the Vessantara Jataka makes it clear that the story is being narrated by the Buddha. For
example, throughout the text brief interjectory phrases are, as it were, put into the mouth of the
Buddha, such as "O most pure monks...", before the narrative continues.73 This device repeatedly
signifies to the audience the original context of the Buddhas recitation of the story in
Kapilavatthu.
But how could one be sure of what the commentator had added in the text and what was the
Buddhas own narration? In the original Pali text of the Vessantara Jataka contained in the Pali
Jataka Commentary, one finds a mixure of prose and verse. According to tradition, only the verses

72

The sacredness of these dhamma scripts is reflected in many cultural practices. Tattooing in the central

region, for example, used khorm characters to protect the bearer from various dangers. Khorm was also used in the
texts and magical spells of the science known as saiyasat. In medicine, pieces of bai lan text with khorm charaters
were sometimes ground up and mixed with medicines to improve their effectiveness, a potion known as ya long khun
phra (cf. Saman sohem, "Maha chat chabap muang phetburi kan chuchok: kan suksa choeng wikhro" (The Chuchok
Chapter of the Phetburi Version of the Maha Chat: An Analysis), M.A., Eastern Languages, Sinlapakorn University,
1985, p. 10, footnote 20). I have been told by a monk of a man who once accidentally stepped on a bai lan text and as
a result developed a sore on his ear; the man had to perform a ceremony of forgiveness for his indiscretion before the
sore would heal properly.
73

See phrases such as "Du korn song phu song sin sangworn..." and similar expressions in Maha wetsandorn

chadok samnuan thetsana 13 kan, and Maha chat samnuan isan.

contained in the Vessantara Jataka were held in the strict sense to have been uttered by the
Buddha, while the prose is attributed to the commentary. Accordingly, only the verses are
contained in the corpus of Pali canonical works, the Tripitaka; they appear in the section titled
Jataka of the Khuddakanikaya, which is the fifth book of the division of the Suttanta Pitaka. It
would be a mistake to consider this a matter which concerned only monastic textual scholars.
Indeed, this problem can be seen to be specifically addressed in a number of elements of the thet
maha chat ritual. For example, the verses, known in Thai as the khatha phan, or one thousand
verses,74 were traditionally recited at the thet maha chat ceremony in their entirety, prior to the
recitation of the vernacular translation of the Vessantara Jataka proper. There were, moreover,
ritual elements associated with the thet maha chat ceremony which highlighted the importance of
the khatha phan. In addition, the text of the recitation versions of the Vessantara Jataka always
specifically mentions at the end of each chapter (known in Thai as kan) how many khatha (verses)
that chapter contained.75
In regard to narration and the status of the Vessantara Jataka two additional points should
be made. Firstly, even when it would appear that it is the commentator who is narrating in the
name of the Buddha, the fact that the commentary was traditionally attributed to the famous
scholar Buddhaghosa would assure the authority of the narrative. Secondly, to the audience of a
recital of the text which was unaware of the textual technicalities, it is the Buddha who narrates
the story, which consequently would imply that the story was true. This is, in fact, corroborated by
studies of the thet maha chat, which commonly acknowledge that one of the reasons for its great
popularity is that the Vessantara Jataka is believed to be the words of the Buddha.76
Thus for the audience of the thet maha chat the authenticity of the story of the Vessantara
Jataka is underlined by the notion, which is implicit in the text, that the Buddha is the narrator.
3. The Subject
A further element related to the authority of the Vessantara Jataka, the qualities which set it apart
from other stories or tales, is the subject of the story. The subject of the Vessantara Jataka is, as its
name implies, Prince Vessantara. However, there are two special qualities about Vessantara as a
subject which are reiterated throughout the various Thai versions of the Vessantara Jataka by the
use of two basic sets of epithets in conjunction with the proper noun Vessantara. The first set

74

This is a nominal figure, the actual number of verses appears to be less than this. In Fausblls romanised text

the number is 786; cf. The Jataka together with its Commentary being Tales of the Anterior Births of Gotama Buddha,
for the First time edited in the Original Pali by V.Fausbll, Vol.VI, Pali Text Society, London, 1964, p. 593.
75

See Maha wetsandorn chadok samnuan thetsana 13 kan; Maha chat samnuan isan.

76

See for example "Prapheni mi thet maha chat", written in 1894, in Maha wetsandorn chadok samnuan

thetsana sip sam kan, p. 5; Prakhorng Nimmanhemin,Maha chat lanna: kan suksa nai thana thi pen wannakhadi
thorng thin (The Lanna Great Life: A Study of Its Status as Local Literature), Foundation for the Social Sciences and
Humanities Textbooks Project, Bangkok, 1983, p. 2.

includes such epithets as the Great Being (Pali: mahasatto; Thai: mahasat) or the Buddha to be
(Pali: bodhisatta, Thai: phothisat).77 The second set of epithets refers to Vessantara as a man
descended from a particular lineage (wong, phong) of kings.78
By referring to Vessantara as the bodhisatta we are constantly made aware of the fact that
this is the being who in his next incarnation will be enlightened as Gotama Buddha. It is by
performing the great acts of giving in this incarnation that the bodhisatta, the Buddha-to-be, will
achieve the Perfection of Giving (than barami) which will fulfill his quest for the Ten Perfections,
thereby enabling him to achieve enlightenment. Throughout the narrative, therefore, the subjects
relationship to the Buddha is explicit. It is as though the Buddha is narrating his autobiography,
since it is his origins as a bodhisatta which he is recounting.
The second set of epithets reiterates Vessantaras status of being of royal descent and
demonstates also that the Buddha is descended from the same lineage (wong) of kings, since the
lineage is conceived not only on the basis of consanguinity but also on ties of reincarnation. For
this reason the story can be seen to be not purely religious or moral, but also political, both in the
sense that it is a story of a king, and because it is part of a larger story of a royal lineage. This
lineage is described in the fifth century Sinhalese chronicle, the Mahavamsa, which translated
from the Pali literally means, the Great Lineage. The Mahavamsa became the model for a genre
of religious chronicle widely used by the royal houses of Theravada Buddhist rulers throughout
Southeast Asia.79 As will be explained in subsequent chapters of this thesis, this same lineage of
kings was one which Thai kings up until the reign of King Rama IV also claimed as their own. The
story of Vessantara was one which had special significance because of Vessantaras place in the
lineage from which Thai kings - and Theravada Buddhist rulers throughout mainland Southeast
Asia - claimed descent. The political importance of this lineage for contemporary rulers was,
therefore, yet another factor underlying the authenticity of the story.
4. Metre

77

Other epithets in the royal version of the Vessantara Jataka, (see Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam

kan), which have the same meaning include phutthangkun, phutthaphong, norsanphetphotthiphong, norphrachinnasi.
In northeastern versions the epithets thammikarat, and ton wiset are also used (see Maha chat kham isan); and in
northern version ton kaew also appears (see Maha chat phak phayap chabap soi sangkorn samnuan ek (The Soi
Sangkorn Version of the Northwestern Great Life), edited by Phra Thammarachanuwat (Fu Attasiwathera), Sor.
Thammaphakdi, 1955.
78

These

royal

epithets

include

mahasommutiwong,

(of

the

race

of

King

Mahasammata);

siwisutthithepphawong, (of the pure race of the gods); sisuriyawong (of the race of sun kings); khattiyawong,
woraratchawong, (of the race of kings); thammikarat, (Dhamma king); maharat, (the great king).
79

Cf. The Mahvamsa or The Great Chronicle of Ceylon, translated into English by Wilhelm Geiger, Pali Text

Society, London, 1964.

Until recently, vernacular versions of the Vessantara Jataka for recitation at thet maha chat
ceremonies all over the Thai kindom were all written in the same poetic metre, known in Thai as
rai.80 Early monastic regulations concerning the vernacular translations of the Vessantara Jataka
prohibited translations into other kinds of poetic metres.81 What was the reason for this? In his
study of the literature of the early Bangkok period Nidhi notes that rai was the metre traditionally
reserved for subjects of a sacred (saksit) nature, including writings addressed to the gods (thep)
and spirits, as well as translations of Pali scriptures into the vernacular for recital.82 As a poetic
metre rai has very few rules, and can be considered the metre closest to prose, which is itself the
form of writing closest to ordinary speech.83 One could conclude, therefore, that rai had the
qualities best suited to rendering into the vernacular the content of the original Pali Vessantara
Jataka in the most accurate form, as a well as in a form suitable for oral presentation.
By using rai as the metre of the Vessantara Jataka translation the poet and translator not
only endows the story with the aura of sanctity, but is able to convert the Pali into the vernacular
without the added burden of having to conform to formal rules of poetic composition, which might
otherwise detract from the accuracy of the translation. Rai, moreover, was a metre designed to be
spoken to an audience, as opposed to being silently read to oneself. This reflects also the particular

80

My analysis is based on the following versions: Maha wetsandorn chadok samnuan thetsana sip sam kan;

Phetburi province version: Maha chat muang phet (The Phetburi Version of the Great Life), transcribed from the
Khorm script into Thai by Saman Sohem, Office of the National Culture Council, Bangkok, 1980; Northern version:
Maha chat samnuan ek soi sangkorn (The Soi Sangkorn Version of the Northwestern Great Life), edited by Phra
Thammarachanuwat (Fu Atthasiwo), Sanguan Printing, Chiang Mai, 1965; on the use of rai in northern versions see
also Mani Phayormyong Prapheni sip sorng duan lanna thai (The Lanna Thai Twelve Month Ceremonies), Vol. 2,
Chiang Mai, 1986, Prapheni tang tham luang, p. 34; northeastern Versions: Maha chat samnuan isan, Lam phra wet
- thet maha chat ru maha wetsandorn chadok phak isan (The Vessantara Book - the Great Life Sermon or the
Northeastern Version of the Vessantara Jataka), edited by Phithun Maliwan, Cremation Volume, Somdet Phra
Phuthachan (At Asaphopmahathera), 14 April 1990, Wetsandorn chadok chabap isan (Isan Version of the Vessantara
Jataka), Khen Lawong, Mahasarakham Cultural Centre, 1993; see also Anupha Atsawapiyanon, Kan suksa
mahawetsandorn chadok chabap thorng thin isan chak ton chabap wat klang khok khor changwat kalasin (A Study of
a Northeastern Local Version of the Vessantara Jataka from a Manuscript in Wat Klang Khok Kho, Kalasin Province),
Masters Degree thesis, Eastern Languages, Graduate School, Sinlapakorn University, 1985; I have not been able to
find a published version of the Vessantara Jataka in Southern dialect in the rai metre, although I have seen such
versions in manuscript form at the Institute of Southern Studies (Sathaban thaksin khadi suksa) in Songkhla province.
81

Kot phra song 1 (1st Sangha Regulation), Kotmai tra sam duang (The Three Seals Law), Vol. 4, Bangkok,

Khurusapha, 1962, pp. 167-9.


82

Nidhi Aeusrivongse, Wathanatham kradumphi kap wannakam ratanakosin and An nuang ma chak maha

chat muang phet, Pak kai lae bai rua: ruam khwam riang wa duai wannakam lae prawatisat ratanakosin (Quill and
Sail, Collected Essays on Early Bangkok Literature and History), Bangkok, Amarin, 1984, p. 23, and p. 306.
83

Ibid., p. 22.

origin of the Vessantara Jataka as a narrative, since the story is held to have been related by the
Buddha to an audience of his relatives and followers.
Thus the metre in which vernacular versions of the Vessantara Jataka in the Thai kingdom
were written is yet another element of the thet maha chat performance where a deliberate attempt
appears to have been made to ensure fidelity to what were considered to be the Buddhas original
words.
Texts Recited in Conjunction with the Maha chat
Ceremonial recitations of the Vessantara Jataka all over the country are traditionally accompanied
by recitations of a number of other texts. As mentioned above, the khatha phan, or canonical
verses of the Vessantara Jataka were always recited in their original Pali usually prior (but
sometimes subsequent) to the recital of the vernacular translation of the Vessantara Jataka. This
highlighted the importance of the Buddhas original utterances, which are lost in the recital of the
vernacular translation. However, there were also other texts recited which placed the story of
Vessantara within the wider context of the Theravada Buddhist conception of history. This
Buddhist-historical context contributed much to the meaning and popularity of the Vessantara
Jataka which is not apparent in the story itself.
The most notable of these additional texts was the story of Malai, which in both the Lao
and northern Thai traditions was recited on the day preceding the recital of the Vessantara Jataka.84
The origin of this work is unclear but it is certainly postcanonical.85 It tells the story of a

84

For the northern Thai tradition see Sanguan Chotisukharat, Tang tham luang - thet maha chat, Prapheni thai

phak nua (Northern Thai Festivals), Chiang Mai, 1966, p. 132; Sommai Premchit, Khamphi bai lan lae prapheni tang
tham nai phak nua (Palm Leaf Manuscripts and the Tang Tham festival in the Northern Region), Phutthasatsana nai
lanna thai (Buddhism in Lanna Thai), kan prachum yai samai thi 13, ongkan phutthasasanikhachon haeng lok, 24-29
November, Chiang Mai, 1981, p. 128; Mani Phayormyong, Tang tham luang, Phrapheni sip sorng duan lanna thai
(The Lanna Thai Twelve Month Ceremonies), Vol. 2, Chiang Mai, 1986, p. 36; Wathanatham phun ban dan khanop
thamniam prapheni phak nua bon (Village Culture in Customs, Beliefs, and Festivals in the Upper North), National
Culture Office, Bangkok, 1988, p. 19; Prapheni tang tham luang the maha chat wetsandorn chadok (The Ceremony of
the Setting Out of the Great Dhamma: the Great Life Sermon or the Vessantara Jataka), edited by Phra Khru Winai
Thorapraphat, Chiang Mai, 1989, p. 8. On the Lao tradition see Santhani Abuarat, Kan suksa wannakam isan ruang
malai mun malai saen (A Study of Isan Literature: The Malai Mun Mali Saen Story), Masters Thesis,
Srinakharinwirot University (Prasanmit), Bangkok, 1987, pp. 37-41.
85

On the story of Malai see Dhani Nivat, Phra Malai, Royal Version, by Chao Fa Kung, Prince Royal of

Ayuthaya Journal of the Siam Society, Vol.37, Part 1, October 1948, pp. 69-72; Prathip Chumphon, Khor
sanitsathan ruang phra malai (Hypotheses About the Story of Phra Malai), Wannakhadi wikhro (Literary Criticism),
Sinlapakorn University, Bangkok, 1975; Phithaya Wongkraithorng, Khwam khit nai ruang phra si an lae phra malai
nai sangkhom thai (Belief in Ariya Mettrai and Malai in Thai Society), Asia parithat (Asia Review), 3, 1, January

Singhalese monk, Malai, endowed with supernatural powers who visits the various levels of
Buddhist hell and heaven. In heaven Malai meets a succession of divine figures who, the god Indra
tells him, have achieved their divinity through the merit of deeds done in their earthly existences.
Finally he meets the bodhisatta and future Buddha, Maitreya, who entrusts him with a message to
carry to people on earth. This message urges the faithful to make merit by listening to the
Vessantara Jataka within one day and by paying appropriate respect to it (in the form of ritual
offerings) in order to be reborn in the age when Maitreya is incarnated on earth and achieves
enlightenment. Maitreya then describes how Gotama Buddhas religion will last five thousand
years before a dark age (kali yuk) of killing and suffering will appear bringing that world to an end.
This will be followed by a new golden age when Maitreya will appear as the next Buddha.
Although not recited at the thet maha chat in the central and southern regions of the
kingdom, the story of Malai seems to have been of equal popularity in these regions. Formerly it
was commonly recited on other religious occasions, such as cremations. Such was its importance
that a Thai prince, Thammathibet, composed a version of it in the eighteenth century.86 The
widespread influence of the Malai story amongst the Tai peoples with its millenarian message has
long been recognised as one of the reasons for the Vessantara Jatakas own popularity.87 Listening
to the Vessantara Jataka was held to be necessary for ones future salvation.
In the bun pha wet (as the Lao call their festival of the recitation of the Vessantara Jataka)
traditionally the next text to be recited was the Phothisat ban ton, the first part of the bodhisatta
story. This text describes the five Buddhas - Gotama Buddha is the fourth - who were believed to
have appeared in the present aeon (kap), known as the phatharakap, the auspicious era.88 The
place of Vessantara in the phatharakap is crucial, since it is the bodhisattas great acts of giving in
the incarnation as Vessantara that allows him to achieve enlightenment as Gotama Buddha in his
next incarnation.89 It is this broad religious-historical context provided by texts such as the

1982. See also a recent dissertation by Bonnie Brereton, The Phra Malai Legend in Thai Buddhist Literature: A Study
of Three Texts, PhD thesis, University of Michigan, 1992.
86

See Phra malai kham luang, Chao fa thammathibet: phra prawat lae phra niphon roi krorng (Prince

Thammathibet: His Life and Poetry), Bangkok, Sinlapa Bannakan, 1970, pp. 239-294.
87

See Prapheni mi thet maha chat, (written by a member of the Thai court in 1894), pp. 5-6. King Rama Is

Sangha laws in the late eighteenth century mention the connection between Malais message and the performance of
the thet maha chat in the Thai kingdom , see Kot phra song 1, Kotmai tra sam duang, Book 4, pp. 165-9.
88

Interview with Pricha Phinthorng, Siritham Publishing, 6 October, 1992. The era is auspicious because five

Buddhas have appeared; see Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap 13 kan (Thirteen Chapter Version of the Great
Vessantara Jataka), Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1988, p. 350. The five Buddhas of the phatharakap are Kakusandha,
Konagamana, Kassapa, Gotama, and the future Buddha Maitreya.
89

The recital of this text in the bun pha wet seems to be rare nowadays, and altogether absent from recitations

in the northern, central and southern regions of Thailand. It is, however, still recited in some localities, see Kanchana
Suanpradit, Phi ta khon: suksa chapo karani amphoe dan sai changwat loei (The Ta Khon Ghosts: Case Study of Dan
Sai district, Loei Province), Masters Thesis, Srinakharinwirot University, Mahasarakham Campus, 1991, p. 107. On

Phothisat ban ton which fills the Vessantara Jataka with added significance beyond the events in
the story.
In the early hours of the following day another such text is recited, Sangkat, which
translates as era or age.90 It begins with the bodhisattas resolution to the Buddha Dipankara to
become a Buddha, four asankheyas (incalculable periods of time) and one hundred thousand kap
(aeons) before he becomes enlightened. It goes on to relate the life of Prince Siddhattha, and
gives an account of his defeat of Mara and final achievement of enlightenment, and his teaching of
the dhamma. Sangkat also records the Buddhas conversation with his disciple Ananda on the
future of the Buddhist religion, and its decline and eventual disappearance at the end of five
thousand years.91
The recital of Sangkat in the bun pha wet appears to be an elaboration of a custom common
to preaching in all regions called bork sakarat,92 meaning to tell the era. Bork sakarat entailed
the monk who was to give the sermon making a complicated mathematical calculation and then
stating the number of years, months, and days which had elapsed since Gotama Buddha had passed
away to nibbana until the actual day of the sermon; the present date according to various dating
systems; and how many years, months and days were left to the end of religion founded by the
Buddha, which was prophesied to last exactly five thousand years from the time of the Buddhas
nibbana.93 The following example comes from a northeastern Vessantara Jataka recitation:
I will calculate and read out the course of time (ayukan) of the Buddhist religion. It
is two thousand five hundred and nineteen years (watsa - rainy seasons) since the
great Sakyamuni, the all-knowing Buddha passed away into nibbana. The
remainder, counting from Visakha day,94 is eight months and twenty-seven days.

the recital of phothisat ban ton in former times see Phra Phothiwongsachan (Tisso Uan)s early twentieth century
account, Kan ao bun phra wet (Performing the Vessantara Merit-Making Festival), Latthi thamniam tang tang
(Beliefs and Customs), Book 2, Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1972, p. 450; Ariyanuwat, op. cit., p. 27; Kasem Bunsi,
Prapheni thet maha chat (The Festival of the Recitation of the Vessantara Jataka), Bangkok, Religious Affairs
Department, 1973, p. 45.
90

See Kan ao bun phra wet Latthi thamniam tang tang, p. 451; see also Ariyanuwat, op. cit., pp. 26-7;

Kasem, op. cit, p. 47; for the text of Sangkat see Maha chat samnuan isan, pp. 27-37.
91

The order of disappearance as stated in Sangkat is as follows: After five hundred years monks will not follow

the Vinaya; after one thousand years no arahants will appear; after two thousand years no-one will memorise the
Tripitaka and preach the five nikayas; after three thousand years the monkhood will not meet together to take the
monastic vows; after four thousand years; no monks will teach meditation; after five thousand years no one will give
monastic robes. Maha chat samnuan isan, pp. 34-5; Lam phra wet - thet maha chat ru maha wetsandorn chadok, pp.
247-276.
92

Sakarat is the Thai word for the Lao sangkat.

93

See Roeng Atthawibun, Rabiap prapheni song wa duai rabiap baep phaen lae sut an pen prapheni song

(Regulations and Rituals of the Sangha), Bangkok, 1973, pp. 193-7.


94
The day of the Buddhas birth, enlightenment and nibbana.

Now I will state the present date (patchuban kan). This is a hawai si year,95 the 8th
year of the minor era (atthasok), the winter season, the third month, the thirteenth
day of the waxing moon, Tuesday. As for the course of time of the Buddhist religion
in the future, two thousand four hundred and eighty years are left. The remainder
counting from Visakha is three months and two days. These three parts of the
course of time of the Buddhist religion add together to make five thousand years.96
According to Roeng Atthawibun the custom of bork sakarat was officially changed in 1941 under
the Phibun Songkhram government. Under the new formula monks stated only the years since the
Buddhas nibbana, and abandoned the calculation of the number of years remaining of the
Buddhist religion.97 One can clearly see the historically contextualising function of bork sakarat
and Sangkat in the thet maha chat ceremony. They place the audience within a historical
framework defined by the origins of the Buddha and the life-span of the Buddhist religion.
In both the bun pha wet and the tang tham luang today, the recital of the Vessantara Jataka
in the vernacular is traditionally followed (or sometimes preceded) by a text known as Anisong
phra wetsandorn, meaning reward for a merit-making act. This text is also held as having been
originally preached by the Buddha himself after finishing preaching the Vessantara Jataka.98 In
more detail than the Malai story, Anisong tells of the future riches and good fortune that will come
to those who have listened to and made merit (by giving offerings) for each of the thirteen chapters
(kan) of the Vessantara Jataka. The rewards for the faithful for having paid respect (bucha) to each
chapter closely follow the action of each chapter, and are often the same rewards that Vessantara
himself received for his actions in that particular chapter of the story. For example, according to
one version, those who made merit offerings to nakhorn kan would be reborn as great kings with
armies; they would enjoy all kinds of pleasures; their father, mother and relatives would be with
them; and all their sufferings would cease...99 The rewards cited in Anisong also include, as in the
Malai story, meeting the next Buddha Maitreya in a future incarnation.
What is apparent in this brief account of some of the most common texts to be recited in
conjunction with the Vessantara Jataka is the predominance of narrative and texts which set out an
historical framework of the Theravada Buddhist religion. These narratives serve to structuralise
the Vessantara Jataka: they situate it within the context of the overall story of the origins and
future of the Buddhist religion - including the coming of the Buddhas prior to Gotama Buddha;
Gotama Buddhas own origins as a bodhisatta who resolved to become enlightened at the feet of
the first Buddha Dipankara; the bodhisattas defeat of Mara and enlightenment; the Buddhas

95

A particular year in a traditional Tai calendrical system; I am grateful to Dr. A.V. Diller of the Australian
National Universitys Faculty of Asian Studies for this information.
96
Lam phra wet - thet maha chat ru maha wetsandorn chadok, pp. 268-9.
97

Roeng, op.cit., pp. 193-4.

98

It is also known as Anisong phra wet, or in the Lao regions, Salorng pha wet. For the text of Anisong in the

bun pha wet see Maha chat samnuan isan, pp. 241 - 248, Lam phra wet - thet maha chat ru maha wetsandorn chadok,
pp. 287-294.
99

Maha chat samnuan isan, pp. 246-7.

teaching of the dhamma; his nibbana; the five thousand year duration of the Gotama Buddhas
religion; the ascetic Malais travels to the heavens; and finally the coming of the new Buddha,
Maitreya. The additional stories recited in the thet maha chat also make clear the position of the
audience within that greater narrative, which is somewhere within the time scheme of Gotama
Buddhas religion, with the hope of a future life in the religion of Maitreya by the worshipping of
the Vessantara Jataka.
The thet maha chat, therefore, should not be interpreted on the basis of the story of
Vessantara alone, but in association with a whole complex of Buddhist narrative. One can not
attribute the popularity of the Vessantara Jataka merely to the story. The meaning it conveyed
derives at least partly from the position it occupied within the overall historical framework of the
Buddhist religion as expounded in these supplementary texts.

The Aesthetics of the Recitation: thamnorng and lae


The recital of the Vessantara Jataka at the thet maha chat is performed not in a normal reading
voice but according to special rhythms and melodies, known in Thai as thamnorng.100 Each
chapter of the Vessantara Jataka is recited in a different thamnorng to suit the mood of the
chapter, whether it be serious, as in than kan; pitiful, as in kuman kan and kan matsi; comic, as in
kan chuchok; or triumphant, as in nakhorn kan. The thamnorng also varies according to the
characters. Styles of thamnorng in the Thai kingdom differ from region to region, reflecting
linguistic and artistic variation. The thamnorng is often cited as one of the reasons for the
Vessantara Jatakas popularity, for it is through the skilled singing of the text according to the
thamnorng that the monk is able to excite the emotion of the audience, even to the point of moving
people to tears. Some monks (known as nak thet maha chat) have become famous and widely
sought after for the virtuosity and beauty of their recitation style.101 Yet despite the importance of
the thamnorng to the thet maha chats popularity, even in this area of the verbal utterance of the
Vessantara Jataka it is possible to see the underlying intention of the thet maha chat performance
of assuring fidelity to the content of the text and hence respect for the authority of the story.
While the thamnorng was certainly an essential aesthetic aspect of the thet maha chat it is
clear that traditionally the art of the recitation was subordinate to the purpose of effectively
communicating the content of the text, which was held to have been originally related by the

100

The singing and chanting of religious texts is not unique to Thailand. Boureau notes that until recent times

saints lives were recited - half sung, half chanted in the marketplaces of Italy... Alain Boureau, Franciscan Piety and
Voracity: Uses and Strategems in the Hagiographic Pamphlet, in R. Chartier, ed., The Culture of Print: Power and
the Uses of Print in Early Modern Europe, trans. L.G. Cochrane., Cambridge, Polity Press, 1989, p. 26.
101

The charismatic monk of the first half of the nineteenth century, Phra Phuthachan (To), had a reputation as a

skilled reciter of kan matsi; cf. "Chanthichai", Phra phuthachan (To), Vol.1, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1983, pp. 28-34.

Buddha. There were practices and regulations to assure that this was the case. For example, the
recitation of the khatha phan is not sung, as was the recitation of the vernacular translation, for the
khatha phan were held to be the Buddhas actual utterances.102 According to the canonical
sciptures, Pali text was allowed to be sung but only if the words were rendered intelligibly and in a
dignified manner.103 Skilled reciters of the thet maha chat had to learn (which involved years of
voice training and memorisation) the correct thamnorng for each kan, as any particular thamnorng
was only appropriate to the content of one particlar kan.104 Of course, the thamnorng could in fact
enhance the reception of the message of the text. For example, the pathos of the episode when
Matsi is frantically searching for her children in the forest is heightened by the mournful sound of
the reciters voice, often to the point of inducing tears from the audience. It was only when the
thamnorng was at odds with the meaning of the text, or when it became an end in itself, that it
became a problem in regard to monastic regulations regarding the recitation of the dhamma.
This issue of the relationship between the text and the aesthetic dimensions of the form in
which it was communicated - including the thamnorng - was a problematic one, and one which has
a history of regulation in the Thai kingdom. In the reign of Rama I in the late eighteenth century a
law was promulgated prohibiting recitations of the Vessantara Jataka which were composed in
inappropriate forms of verse (kap klorn) and sung in comic fashion.105 At the turn of the twentieth

102

Ariyaniwat, op. cit., p. 34.

103

In 1917 the head of the Sangha wrote ...even in the Tripitaka there is verse. Indeed, even some entire

scriptures are in verse, like the Dhammapada which explains the heart of the religion. Other sutras like the
Atthakavagga and Barayanavagga in the Suttanta also use verse. And soraphanya chanting which is a kind of singing
(thamnorng khap) is allowed, except for singing in which the words are drawn out (siang yut) so that the listener can
not understand the meaning... Phra prarop khorng somdet phra maha samana ruang mi thet maha chat pracham pi
(The Sangha Heads Announcement on the Annual Recitation of the Vessantara Jataka), Thalaengkan khana song
(Sangha Announcements) Vol. 4, Bangkok, 1917, p. 328. See also the discussion on the monastic regulations
regarding the singing of Pali scripture, and where the recitation of the Vessantara Jataka stands in regard to these
regulations, in Maha chat: ekasan prakorp kan prachum wichakan lae kan thet maha chat 21-22 minakhom 2524 (The
Great Life: Conference Papers and the Thet Maha Chat, 21-22 March 1981), Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok,
1981, p. 149ff. In a report of a recitation of the Vessantara Jataka at the Thai court in 1874 published in the court
magazine Darunowat particular praise was given to the clarity of the rendition; see Thet maha chat, Darunowat, Vol.
1, No.201, 1874, p. 202.
104

Thamniam phra song thet maha chat (The Monastic Custom of the Recitation of the Vessantara Jataka),

Roeng Atthawibun, Phithi thamniam song (Monastic Rituals and Customs), Cremation Volume, Phra
Sunthorathamachan (Bua Thammatharo), Bangkok, 1972, pp. 100 - 102.
105

Kot phra song 1 (First Sangha Law), Kotmai tra sam duang (The Three Seals Law),Vol. 4, pp. 167-9:

Some monks who preach (samdaeng) the Vessantara Jataka have not studied the Tripitaka. They only know the basic
story and translate it into kap klorn [a form of verse often used for song]. Then they preach the story with comic and
vulgar speech (thoi kham talok kanorng yap cha)...this is most damaging to the religion...these people will not meet
Maitreya in the future...When the king ordered the head of the Sangha, the ratchakhana, learned monks and scholars

century the head of the Sangha Prince Wachirayan made a similar pronouncement about all
preaching (thetsana) and chanting (suat).106 In 1917, however, Wachirayan issued a more
compromising announcement in regard to the thet maha chat, in which he recognised that a songlike thamnorng encouraged certain kinds of people to listen and to make merit, and that as long as
the recitation was intelligible and the reciting monk maintained his monastic dignity, such
preaching was acceptable.107
Such regulations and pronouncements demonstrate a clear concern that in the performance
of the thet maha chat the literal meaning of the text of the Vessantara Jataka should not be
subordinated to the artistic quality of its rendition. As I have attempted to demonstrate in this
chapter, this corresponds with a general concern for the integrity of the Vessantara Jataka evident
in many other aspects of the thet maha chat performance. Yet it is equally clear that the aesthetics
of the Vessantara Jataka recitation contributed significantly to the ceremonys popularity. There
appears, therefore, to have been a constant tension between these two aspects of the thet maha chat
performance, the art of the recitation and the desire for verbal accuracy of the rendition.
Since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the aesthetic elements of the
Vessantara Jataka recitation appear to have progressively flourished at the expense of the verbal
presentation of the text. This development can be seen in the rise of the lae form of recitation.
Lae is a style of melodic and rhythmic utterance in the thet maha chat which differs from the
traditional thamnorng in which the Vessantara Jataka was recited. Lae raises the art of recitation to
new heights. Some types of lae sung at thet maha chat performances, known as lae nork, are
actually separate compositions, which bear little or no relation to the Vessantara Jataka text. They
are composed in klorn rather than the sacred rai metre. Either composed beforehand or improvised
on the spur of the moment by talented reciters, lae are recited during breaks in recital of the
Vessantara Jataka proper.108 Lae occasionally violated monastic regulations for preaching the

to consult the Tripitaka, it was found that both the preacher and listener to dhamma which was preached in a comic
way, turning the dhamma into adhamma, are guilty of a serious offence. Even preaching the dhamma in a singing
voice (siang khap) is an offence. And to compose the dhamma into kap klorn verse with beautiful prosody like a song
(pleng khap) is inappropriate. Therefore it is a royal command that from now on when monks preach and the people
listen to the Vessantara Jataka they must preach and listen to the story according to the full Pali text and commentary
(tam wara pali lae atthakatha) in order that they receive the full merit and meet Maitreya in the future...Giving and
listening to sermons that are in kap klorn verse and are spoken in a comic and humorous manner are forbidden...
106

Pramuan phra niphon somdet phra maha samana chao krom phraya wachirayan warorot: kan khana song

(Prince-Patriarch Wachirayans Collected Writings: Sangha Affairs), Bangkok, Mahamakut, 1971, p. 7.


107

Phra prarop khorng somdet phra maha samana ruang mi thet maha chat pracham pi, pp. 327-8.

108

Collections of such lae composed by monks or laymen for memorisation and later recitation are sold in

books, for example, Noi Phiwphan & Phim Norngsutham, Pramuan lae thet siang phaen mai ruang phra wetsandorn
phak isan (Collection of Lae in the New Style on the Isan Vessantara), Khorn Kaen, Khlang Nanatham, 1972; Wira
Prian, Chumnum lae thet mahaphon (Collecition of Lae Recitations of the Great Forest Chapter), Bangkok, Amnuai
San, 1982; Thanangkaro Phikkhu, Pramuan lae thet siang samai mai (Collection of Lae Recited in the New Style),

dhamma referred to above, for the nature of lae singing clearly raises the art of the communication
above the object of the communication - the dhamma, and in the case of lae nork even the
dhamma is absent altogether. In 1937 the Supreme Monastic Council (maha thera samakhom)
banned certain kinds of lae from being recited at thet maha chat performances:
...lately the thet maha chat has become a comic affair because the reciter brings in
new material which is not part of the original text, and changes the thamnorng into a
racy tune (lot phon). Sometimes the reciter only starts with a little of the text from
the maha chat and then just sings various kinds of lae. The reciter behaves comically
which is damaging to monastic dignity... The monastic council therefore
unanimously decrees that reciting lae outside the maha chat which are raucous
(samrak), obscene (yap lon), and which have a racy tune, as well as comic behaviour
which is damaging to monastic dignity, is forbidden...109
The efficacy of such regulations is questionable as lae singing in the thet maha chat has
become extremely popular during the twentieth century. Indeed lae singing has actually broken
away from the thet maha chat and become an autonomous and indeed commercial artform.110
However, most scholars and monks agree that the growth in the popularity of lae is a relatively
recent phenomenon. Sathit notes that in recitations of the Vessantara Jataka presented to king
Rama III in the mid-nineteenth century,
only the content of the Jataka which scholars and poets had originally written was
recited. There were no elaborate lae nork. This was so that the audience would hear
in detail only the real content of the Jataka, to the extent of every syllable of each
kan.111
In and around Bangkok lae singing appears to have first become popular during the nineteenth
century,112 but in the rural regions it would seem that lae is no more than two or three generations

Khorn Kaen, Khlang Nanatham, 1983; Khian Amphaphan (ed.), Lae thet tang tang (Various Lae Recitations),
Bangkok, Liang Chiang, 1987 (1954).
109
Prakat ham mai hai phiksu samanen thet maha chat talok khanorng sia samanasarup (Decree Forbidding
Monks and Novices from Giving Comical Recitations of the Great Life which are Damaging to Monastic Dignity), in
Thalaengkan khana song (Sangha Announcements), Vol. 24, Part 12, March 1937, pp. 873-4.
110

Phorn Phirom, a former nak thet (skilled reciter) of the Vessantara Jataka, is one of the best known lae

singers. Thai country music (pleng luk thung) owes much to the lae style of singing, and many of country musics
greatest singers were trained by teachers skilled in lae, who were themselves former nak thet maha chat.
111
Sathit Semanin, Wisasa, Bangkok, Phrae Phithaya, 1970, p. 111: "...thet tae champho nua nai chadok thi
prat lae kawi than rotchana wai, lae nork thi sap pradi si pradon pen mai mi loei, phua dai fang tae nua thae, doi
phitsadan thuk phayanchana chon chop thuk kan".
112

Cf. Thiphawan Bunwira, "Lae khruang len maha chat" (The Lae Style of Singing the Maha Chat)

Sinlapakorn, 22, 2, July 1978, pp. 67-70; and Rit Ruangrit, Prachum lae khruang len maha chat (Collection of Lae
and Tricks of the Great Life Recitation) Books 1, 2, Bangkok, Wathanaphanit, 1958.

old.113 In his study of Buddhism in Northern Thailand Sommai Premchit notes that before the
cultural influence of the central Thai in the northern part of the country over the last century,
monks at the recital of the Vessantara Jataka would never preach ex tempore (baep pathiphan,
one of the skills of a lae singer) but would always recite directly from the text inscribed on the
palm leaf manuscript.114
The development of lae in the thet maha chat performance is indicative of the declining
regard for the textual authenticity of the Vessantara Jataka which has taken place over the last
hundred years. This decline can be seen in other changes to the thet maha chat. Increasingly in
modern performances of the thet maha chat, the Vessantara Jataka text which is recited is written
not in rai form but in klorn. This infers that the accurate rendition of the original text - by
implication the Buddhas words - is subordinated to a poetic form whose aim is purely aesthetic.115
Sometimes, due to time constraints, the Vessantara Jataka text is not even recited in its entirety.
On such occasions the reciter often retells large sections of the story in his own words, reciting
from the text only certain selected sections. This is a major change from past performances of the
thet maha chat where recitation according to the text, and by implication, in conformity with the
Buddhas original rendition of the story, was of utmost importance.116
Ritual

113

Pricha Phinthorng informed me that lae in the northeast are only about fifty or sixty years old (Interview,

Siritham Publishers, Ubol Ratchathani, 6 October 1992); Phor Yai Khen Lawong informed me that there are more lae
now than there used to be (Interview, Ban Tha Sorng Khorn, Mahasarakham, 20 September 1992); Luang Phor Phra
Khru Sirithamwichit (Wirat Saensophawan), a nak thet from Maha Sarakham province informed me that lae began
only fifty to sixty years ago (Interview, Wat Norngborn, Kosumphisai, Mahasarakham, 2 October 1992); Millers
study of musical forms in northeast Thailand estimates that lae are as recent as fifty years old (T.E. Miller Khaen
Playing and Mawlum Singing in Northeast Thailand, PhD Thesis, Indiana University, 1976, p. 86).
114

Sommai Premchit, Khamphi bai lan lae prapheni tang tham luang nai phak nua (Palm Leaf Manuscripts

and the Tang Tham Luang Festival in the Northern Region), Phutthasatsana nai lanna thai (Buddhism in Lanna
Thai), Chiang Mai, 1980, p. 126.
115

Examples of published Vessantara Jataka texts written in klorn form include Sawat Thepthani, Nangsu

wetsandorn chadok phak isan (The Northeastern Book of the Vessantara Jataka), Liang Chiang, Bangkok, 1953;
Banyen Limsawat, Maha chat kham klorn (The Maha Chat in Klorn Form), Bangkok, 1970; Suthisangkophat Parian,
Nangsu wetsandorn chadok kham klorn (The Vessantara Jataka Book in Klorn Verse), Cremation Volume, Saksi
Suthisong, Yasothorn, 1987; Maha wetsandorn chadok kham klorn isan phrorm duai yort phra kan phra traipitok lae
khatha chinabanchorn lae withi taeng klorn lam lae klorn lam tua yang (The Great Vessantara Jataka in
Northeastern Klorn Verse, with the Great Verses of the Tripitaka, with Chinabanchorn Verses, with the Method for
Composing Lam Verse and Examples of Lam Verse), by Man Chongrian, Kalasin, 1988.
116

Luang Phor Phra Khru Sirithamwichit (Wirat Saensophawan), Interview, Wat Norngborn, Kosumphisai,

Mahasarakham, 2 October 1992; Sommai Premchit, Khamphi bai lan lae prapheni tang tham luang nai phak nua, p.
126.

The recitation of the Vessantara Jataka takes place amidst a complex set of ritual requirements
whose proper observance is essential to the overall thet maha chat performance.117 In the ritual, as
in other aspects of the thet maha chat, there is a conscious attempt to defer to the Vessantara
Jataka text and to the Buddhas original words, and to reproduce in symbols what is said in the
text.
One aspect of the ritual is related to the decoration of the temple. The preaching hall of the
temple in which the recitation is to take place is decorated to appear like a forest. Trees,
(particularly fruit trees, including sugar cane, banana, and coconut), as well various plants,
flowers, ponds, pictures of animals, and even pictures of scenes from each of the thirteen chapters
of the Vessantara Jataka, are set up both inside and around the temple.118 There is an obvious
attempt to make the surroundings in which the audience hears the Vessantara Jataka resemble the
forests of Mount Wongkot where much of the story takes place.119 What the text attempts to
achieve through aural means, the decoration of the temple does visually. In some regions the visual
expression of the story is carried out to the extent of a re-enactment in dramatic form of the events
of each chapter, with actors playing out the parts of Vessantara and Matsi, Kanha and Chali, and
the rest of the characters of the story.120 The decorations which surround the pulpit (Thai:
thammat) in which the monk delivers the recitation, moreover, probably signify the Banyan Grove
in Kapilavatthu where the Buddha actually told the story to his relatives and followers.121 In
reciting from the Vessantara Jataka text words once uttered by the Buddha, the monk already
imitates the Buddha; the decoration adds to the general simulating effect.
A further aspect related to the thet maha chat ritual are the offerings (khruang kiriya bucha)
presented by the audience at the ceremony. The thet maha chat was traditionally the greatest meritmaking occasion of the religious calender. The offerings which confer merit conform to a special

117

Ariyanuwat, op. cit., p. 59; Kasem, op. cit., p. 27.

118

Sathiarakoset (Phya Anuman Rajadhon), Prapheni thai nuang nai thetsakan trut sat (Thai Customs Related

to the Sat Festival), Bangkok, Social Science Association of Thailand, 1963, pp. 290-3; Ariyanuwat, op. cit., pp. 1720; Kasem, op. cit., pp. 27-8; Mani, op. cit., pp. 42-3. In the northeast a cloth, often over ten metres long, is painted
with scenes from the thirteen chapters of the Vessantara Jataka, as well as with other scenes such as Malais journey to
the hells and heavens and meeting with Maitreya, the bodhisattas defeat of Mara, etc., drawn from texts recited at the
bun phra wet. The cloth, known as pha phra wet, is paraded before the recital of the Vessantara Jataka and then set up
inside the preaching hall; see Somchai Nilathi, Pha phra wet: phap sanyalak nai ngan bun maha chat (The Vessantara
Cloth: Symbol in the Great Life Merit-Making Festival), Sinlapa wathanatham (Arts and Culture), 15, 5, March 1994,
pp. 88-97.
119

Kasem, op. cit., pp. 24-25.

120

Damrong Nuthorng, Like maha chat song khruang: ekalak like phak tai (The Great Life in Folk Dramas: the

Character of Southern Folk Drama), Sinlapa wathanatham (Arts and Culture), 13, 3, January 1992, pp. 117-119.
121

Prapheni mi thet maha chat, p. 7; Pai fang khao sewana kan ruang thet maha chat (Listening to a

Discussion on the Recitation of the Vessantara Jataka), Lok nangsu (Book World), 4, 8, May 1981.

formula which is based on the number of canonical verses that make up the Vessantara Jataka one thousand. Therefore one finds arranged inside the temple offerings such as incense, candles,
several varieties of lotus, water hyacinth and other flowers, miang (a kind of sweet-meat wrapped
in leaf), betel, tobacco, popped rice (khao tork), and paper flags (thong), all in multiples of one
thousand.122 In the bun phra wet among the Lao people one thousand balls of sticky rice are
actually paraded around the temple preaching hall by the faithful before the recitation begins. 123
There are six kinds of offering which are essential to thet maha chat ceremonies everywhere - one
thousand incense lotuses, flowers, candles, flags (thong) and multi-tiered umbrellas (chatra)124 because these are the ritual offerings the future Buddha Maitreya entrusted Phra Malai to tell the
faithful to make in honour of the Vessantara Jataka.125 The paramount importance of the canonical
verses is also reflected in another kind of offering: during the recital of each kan, candles and
incense are lit in multiples of the number of khatha in that particular kan. For example, when the
monk recites than kan, two hundred and nine candles and incense sticks are lit, signifying the two
hundred and nine canonical verses found in that chapter of the story.126 Given that the khatha are
the closest symbols of the Buddhist original utterances, these ritual offerings in honour of the
khatha underline the authority of these utterances.
Of the ceremony in the Lao speaking regions of Thailand where the recitation of the
Vessantara Jataka conforms closest to traditional patterns, Ariyanuwat notes that
old people traditionally believe that when you hold the bun maha chat, if one sets up
the offerings (khruang kiriya bucha) incorrectly or incompletely, catastrophes will
take place, such as drought or lightning strikes out of the blue which bring suffering
to the villagers. So the ritual (phithi phithan) in setting up the offerings for the
Vessantara Jataka (kan taeng khruang maha chat) is strictly adhered to...127
Once again it is clear that the ritual associated with the Vessantara Jataka recitation, as with
so many other aspects of the thet maha chat performance, is deliberately designed to enhance the
authority of the story by reinforcing the fact of the storys origin in the words of the Buddha.
Conclusion

122

Phra Ariyanuwat, op. cit., pp. 17-18; Kasem, op. cit., pp. 27-8; Sanguan, op. cit., pp. 138-9; Prapheni mi thet

maha chat, p. 7.
123

Hae khao phan korn, Phra Ariyanuwat, op. cit., p. 26; Pricha, op. cit., pp. 71-2.

124

Thong and chatra are royal symbols, both for ancient Indic and Southeast Asian monarchies.

125

As related in the Phra Malai story. See Phra malai kham luang, Chao fa thammathibet: phra prawat lae

phra niphon bot roi krorng p. 272; Malai mun malai saen, Maha chat samnuan isan, p. 18.
126

Phra Ariyanuwat, op. cit., pp. 36-7; Kasem, op. cit., p. 34; Prapheni mi thet maha chat, p. 7; Anuman, op.

cit., p. 296, pp. 298-9.


127
Phra Ariyanuwat, op. cit., p. 59.

In the same way as the modern discipline of history teaches that attention to ones sources is the
basis of accurate and therefore authoritative historical writing, aspects of the Vessantara Jataka and
the thet maha chat, including the structure of the text, the script and manuscript, the issue of
translation, the metre, the art of the recitation and the ritual, all clearly demonstrate a concern for a
primary source - the Buddhas words. It is the Buddhas words which guarantee the storys
authoritative status. The Buddhas words guaranteed the storys status as religious truth. For the
audience of the thet maha chat the story they were listening to was more than just a morality tale
on the virtue of giving, although it was this too. The events recounted in the story were understood
to have actually occurred, within the schema of Buddhist history. For this reason Tambiahs
anecdote about a villager in northeastern Thailand who told him that a nearby forest in Khorn
Kaen province had been the forest where Vessantara had once lived, is hardly surprising.128 The
fact that the events of the story were held to have in fact taken place gave those events a
significance they would not otherwise have had. The thet maha chat can be understood as a
premodern form of historical discourse, equipped with the forms and rules to assert the authority
of that discourse.
This chapter has argued that the thet maha chat performance guaranteed the authenticity of
the Vessantara Jataka and thereby raised it to the status of religious truth. Thus far we have been
looking at the form of the story; we now need to turn our attention to the content. We need to ask
why the storys integrity was so important. What was the maha chat saying that made it so
important to guarantee that that message was conveyed properly? Why, from the time of the
formation of the first political units, did the Vessantara Jataka and its message prove so attractive
to Thai rulers? The remainder of this thesis will look at the history of the thet maha chat in
premodern Tai Buddhist societies.

128

Tambiah, S.J., The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets: A Study in Charisma,

Hagiography, Sectarianism, and Millennial Buddhism, Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology, Cambridge
University Press, 1984, p. 286.

CHAPTER 2
THE DISSEMINATION OF THE VESSANTARA JATAKA
AND EARLY THAI STATE FORMATION

The Vessantara Jataka counts as one of the oldest cultural artifacts of Indic civilisation in the
region now known as Thailand. The arrival of the Vessantara Jataka along with other aspects of
Indic culture suggest that the story played some role in the still inadequately understood process by
which local chiefdoms in mainland Southeast Asia were transformed into new kinds of
communities which increasingly referred to themselves in terms derived from Brahmanical and
Buddhist scripture. Although the Vessantara Jataka is well known in all countries which follow
Theravada Buddhism, including Burma Cambodia and Sri Lanka, as well as in many areas where
Mahayana schools of Buddhism hold sway, the story appears to have been especially popular in
those regions which were dominated or influenced by the Tai Buddhist peoples - of whom the
modern day central, southern and northern Thai, as well as the Lao and Shan, are the descendants.
The Vessantara Jataka, therefore, is not only a Buddhist story but one which appears to have an
close association with Tai Buddhist traditions in particular.
The Vessantara Jataka differed from the bulk of Buddhist scripture in one important aspect.
Unlike much Buddhist writing, which was the preserve of a literate monastic class and was read in
the Pali original, the Vessantara Jataka in Tai Buddhist culture was first and foremost a
performative text, and appeared at an early time in translation. The form in which the story was
best known was its oral recitation in the vernacular, known in Thai as the Recitation of the Great
Life (thet maha chat). This recitation of a foreign text, in translation, to what must have been a
largely illiterate audience suggests that the Recitation on the Great Life performed some mediating
function between centres of power and the peoples over whom they had authority. Moreover at
those periods when states were expanding to incorporate new territories and peoples into their
sphere of influence the Vessantara Jataka appears to have enjoyed particularly close patronage by
the rulers of such states. The story seems to have been part of a more general strategy by rulers to
use Buddhism to transcend local attachments - particularly animist beliefs popular throughout
Southeast Asia - which hindered the formation of larger political units. It should not, however, be
thought that the Vessantara Jataka was merely a tool in the hands of ruling elites with which to
indoctrinate subject peoples. Rather the evidence suggests that the story and its dissemination
was a means of encouraging people to offer their allegiance to a particular kind of ruler and social
order. The Maha chat helped to shape a certain culture of authority among the Thai.

The Dvaravati and Sukhothai States

The earliest traces of the influence of the Vessantara Jataka in the culture of mainland Southeast
Asia date from the period of so-called Dvaravati civilisation, lasting from the sixth to the eleventh
centuries. Dvaravati is the name given to a number of small chiefdoms dominated by Mon
speaking peoples which stretched from the lower Chao Phraya river basin, north to the region
around modern day Lamphun, and northeast into the Khorat plateau. What seems to have bound
the Dvaravati states together was a common Buddhist culture evident in religious sculpture and
paleographic evidence, making Dvaravati one of the early Indianised civilisations of mainland
Southeast Asia. Among the artifacts of Dvaravati culture which have survived, archaeologists have
identified scenes from the Vessantara and numerous other Jataka stories depicted on sema or
boundary stones, found both in the Chao Phraya basin and in the Mun river basin on the Khorat
plateau.129 These boundary stones demarcated sites of Buddhist worship, which were possibly also
places of ordination of Buddhist monks. It was into this region of Buddhist culture that Tai
speaking peoples migrated in increasing numbers from the sixth and seventh centuries, and which
several centuries later they came to dominate politically.
It was not until the decline of the hegemony of the Khmer and Pagan empires in mainland
Southeast Asia that the first Tai states began to form. The change was so dramatic that Wyatt has
called the thirteenth and first half of the fourteenth centuries a Tai century.130 With the formation
of these new Tai states came also a resurgence of Buddhism, this time based on the Sinhalese
Theravada tradition with which some Tai groups had come into contact, first through exchanges
with the Mon peoples of the Pagan empire and later through direct interaction with the Sinhalese.
Theravada Buddhism made extraordinary gains among the Tai and Khmer peoples during this
period. To explain this phenomenon scholars have argued that Theravada Buddhism was,
compared to Khmer Brahmanism or the Mahayana Buddhism of Jayavaraman VII, more accessible
to the broad mass of people.131 Part of the reason for this popular accessibility was the institution
of the Sangha or monkhood, through which the religion could be disseminated to a much wider
popular base.132 Theravada Buddhism was also comparatively more tolerant of the existing

129

Piriya Krairiksh, Semas with Scenes from the Mahanipata-Jatakas in the National Museum at Khon Kaen',

Sinlapa lae boranakhadi nai prathet thai (Art and Archaeology in Thailand), Krom Sinlapakorn, Published on the
Occasion of the Hundredth Anniversary of the National Museum, Bangkok, 11 September 1974, pp. 35-65; Piriya
Krairiksh, Buddhist Folktales Depicted at Chula Pathon Cedi, with Thai translation by Suphatharadit Ditsakun,
Bangkok, 1974; Nor Na Paknam, Sinlapa bon bai sema (Art on Sema-Boundary Stones), Bangkok, 1981, p. 131.
130

David K. Wyatt, Thailand: A Short History, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1984, p. 38.

131

G. Coeds, The Indianised States of Southeast Asia, edited by Walter Vella, translated by Susan Brown

Cowing, Canberra, Australian National University Press, 1975, p. 33; H.G. Quaritch Wales Siamese State
Ceremonies: Their History and Function, with Supplementary Notes, Surrey, Curzon Press, 1992 (First publ. 1931),
pp. 25, 60. Charles F. Keyes, The Golden Peninsula: Culture and Adaptation in Mainland Southeast Asia, New York,
Macmillan Publishing, 1977, p. 82; David P. Chandler, A History of Cambodia, Boulder, Westview Press, 1983, pp.
57, 68.
132

Chandler, A History of Cambodia, pp. 57, 68-9, 80; and Coeds, The Indianised States, p.253.

religious systems, including both the more elite-centred Brahmanism as well as the various local
animist beliefs. Its lack of an exclusive deism made the adoption of the religion for animist
believers less a formal break from their own religious traditions than the addition of another layer
of belief. On the evidence of the inscriptions of the period most Thai accepted animist, Buddhist,
and even Hindu forms of religious belief and practice.133 Importantly, Theravada Buddhism, in the
form in which it was adopted and practised by the Thais, was remarkably successful in its ability to
integrate different ethnic groups into larger socio-cultural communities. Theravada Buddhisms
wide appeal was enhanced due to the absence of prohibitions with regard to food consumption, as
well as its lack of a definitive conversion ritual. The kingdom of Sukhothai drew Mons, Khmers,
Burmese, Sinhalese, Malays, as well as the dominant Thai into its orbit. The later kingdom of
Ayuthaya was even more ethnically diverse. From their inception Theravada Buddhist Thai
kingdoms were multi-ethnic polities, and this is a characteristic of Thai socio-political organisation
that has persisted until the present day.
While the universalist claims of Theravada Buddhism were no doubt a force for cultural
unity, paradoxically its wide appeal, owing to the fact that its social demands were so relaxed, also
accounted for its very weakness as a centralizing force. This weakness meant that Buddhism could
not be recognised by Thai rulers as the exclusive religion of their domains, but was incorporated
into animist, Hindu, and other belief systems. For Thai rulers, stability and social cohesion were
perennial problems which required an ecumenic attitude to ideas and their dissemination.
Moreover, the forms of Buddhism which rulers did encourage were precisely those which appear
aimed at strengthening social bonds. It is in this context that the rulers interest in the Vessantara
Jataka should be seen.
One of the major centres for the dissemination of this Sinhalese Theravada Buddhist
culture in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was the kingdom of Sukhothai, one of the first
significant Tai states. Originally an outpost of the Khmer empire, during the thirteenth century
Sukhothai broke away from its suzerain and became the centre of a new, culturally distinctive
polity. At its greatest extent the hegemony of Sukhothai stretched from Luang Phrabang in the
north, to Nakhon Sri Thammarat in the South, Vientiane in the east and Pegu in the west. In the
last years of the thirteenth century the kingdom gave a clear indication of its autonomy by sending
a mission to the court of the Mongol emperor, whose armies had profoundly disrupted the
geopolitical situation in mainland Southeast Asia.
It is significant that at this moment of vigorous religious propagation the Vessantara Jataka
reappears in the historical record. From Sukhothai come a number of stone inscriptions
(silacharuk) which refer explicitly to the Vessantara Jataka. These inscriptions were public

133

This eclecticism in Tai religious belief is well expressed in the Ramkhamhaeng inscription; see Prasert Na

Nagara and A.B. Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, The Historical Society Under the Patronage of HRH
Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, Bangkok, 1992, (English text) pp. 265-82.

statements made by rulers, and set up in public places.134 For messages which required wide
circulation, copies of the inscription would be made and set up in public areas, both within the
royal city itself as well as in the outlying areas of the kingdom.135 Stone had the advantage of
possessing a permanence and a reliability unequalled by other media forms. A number of the
inscriptions mentioning the Vessantara Jataka are, in addition, among the oldest examples of Tai
writing in existence, which suggests that their intended readership - or audience - was the wider
community of Tai language speakers, rather than the lite circle of Pali scholars.
The earliest of these inscriptions is the Nakhon Chum inscription dated 1356, during the
reign of King Lithai.136 The inscription refers to the prophecy of the gradual disappearance of the
Buddhist religion. The prophecy in fact was of some antiquity, usually being attributed to the fifth
century Sinhalese commentator Buddhaghosa.137 It predicted five major disappearances to take
place within five thousand years of the Buddhas death: that of the Tripitaka or sacred Buddhist
scriptures, proper monastic conduct, the achievement of enlightenment and nirvana, the institution
of the monkhood, and finally the Buddhas relics.138 The final extinction of the Buddhist religion
would be followed by a dark age in which the people, lacking a moral teaching to guide their
actions, would commit sins and be condemned to rebirth in hell. Among the sacred Buddhist
scriptures prophesied to disappear which were explicitly mentioned in Lithais inscription was the
phra maha chat (the Great Incarnation, ie. the Vessantara Jataka). The orality of this text is
underlined by the words used in the inscription: As for the preaching of the Dhamma such as the
Maha chat, no-one will be able to be found to recite it.139 This demonstrates that from the earliest
times the Vessantara Jataka was a performative text. Unlike other Buddhist scriptures which were
accessible only to a literate monastic elite, the custom had been established whereby the Maha
chat was recited to an audience.

134

Nidhi Aeusrivongse and Akhom Phathiya, Lakthan prawatisat nai prathet thai (Historical Sources in

Thailand), Bangkok, Bannakit Trading, 1982. pp. 40-5.


135

For an example see the Nakhon Chum' inscription in Prasert Na Nagara and A.B. Griswold, Epigraphic and

Historical Studies, The Historical Society Under the Patronage of HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, Bangkok,
1992, p. 465.
136

Prachum silacharuk (Collected Stone Inscriptions), Vol. I, Inscriptions from the Kingdom of Sukhothai

discovered before 1924, Prime Minister's Office, Bangkok, 1978, Inscription 3', pp. 59-73.
137

Craig J.Reynolds, Religious Historical Writing and the Legitimation of the First Bangkok Reign', in

Anthony Reid and David Marr, eds., Perceptions of the Past in Southeast Asia, Singapore, Asian Studies Association
of Australia, 1979, p. 100.
138

Prachum silacharuk (Collected Stone Inscriptions), Vol. I, pp. 63-4.

139

Thammathetsana an pen ton wa phra maha chat ha khon suat lae mai dai loei', ibid., p. 63. The other

specifically mentioned scriptures to disappear were the Patthana and Yammaka, the last two books of the
Abhidhamma, the third division of the Tripitaka. Besides the Vessantara Jataka the remaining Jatakas were similarly
prophesied to fade from peoples knowledge.

The pancha antarathan or Five Disappearances, as the prophecy became known, later
gained widespread recognition among the Thai. The prophecy indicates an attitude to Buddhist
knowledge which persisted until recent times. The Buddhist religion was perceived to be in a
precarious and deteriorating state. Common experiences of endemic war, political instability and
particularly the ravages of a tropical climate on manuscripts which preserved such knowledge
would have given much credence to the prophecy. Rulers could be considered to have a moral
obligation to preserve and propagate knowledge to their subjects. Rather than being merely a
record of the prophecy the inscription encouraged the faithful to follow certain Buddhist practices
while they still had the opportunity. The specific mention of the Vessantara and other Jatakas
highlights the particular value attributed to them by Sukhothai rulers vis--vis Buddhist knowledge
as a whole. The connection between the Vessantara Jataka and the apocalyptic thinking of the
prophecy suggests the sense of urgency felt by the rulers in their desire for their subjects to attain
this knowledge. The decay of the religion was considered to be already underway, and a precise
date was even calculated for the disappearance of the scriptures: ninety-nine years after a certain
relic was enshrined at Nakhon Chum in 1357, making it the year 1456 AD.140
Scripture and Orality in Sukhothai
These scriptural references to the Maha chat raise the whole issue of the place of scripture and its
relationship to orality in the Sukhothai kingdom. The value of writing as a medium of
communication amongst the Thai at this time tends to be overlooked by modern scholars. The
creation of a Thai script to express in writing the Thai language was a revolutionary development.
It was recognised as such by the Thai themselves. The Ramkhamhaeng inscription states:
Formerly these Dai letters did not exist. In 1205 [1283 AD]...King Rama Gamhen set his mind
and heart on devising these Dai letters.141 Scripture was highly valued. Several inscriptions refer
to King Lithais great renown as a scholar: Whatever he has to explain, he always does so
according to texts.142 In the Nakhon Chum inscription mentioned above, the order of
disappearances differs from the original order of Buddhaghosas commentary. Lithais
inscription has the scriptures as the second disappearance (currently underway), whereas in
Buddhaghosas version the observation of the monastic regulations is second to disappear.143 This
suggests the importance Lithai gave to the scriptures over other elements of the religion.
Scripture in the Sukhothai kingdom, such as the Buddhist Tripitaka, the Vedas, the Indic
sastra and other Indic literatures, was valued by rulers not only because of its content, but also
because of its form, writing. As a medium of communication, a written text had an advantage over
the spoken word in that it had a greater potential for the preservation and dissemination of a

140

Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, p. 453.

141

Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, p. 279.

142

Ibid., pp. 491-2.

143

Ibid., pp. 452-3, fn.40.

particular message. Whereas the spoken word was lost as soon as it was uttered, text on paper
might last for decades, and on stone, for centuries. The spoken word was effective in reaching
audiences only within earshot, whereas texts could be carried across continents. In a largely
illiterate society, however, a further factor, oral performance, was required to enable any scripture
to be broadcast even more widely. The communication of knowledge preserved in writing was of
paramount importance. Knowledge, and indeed scripture itself, was of minimal value to rulers as
long as it lacked the means of communication.
Certain kinds of knowledge had a greater potential for oral dissemination than others at the
time. According to Brahmanical law it was forbidden under pain of death for the sacred knowledge
of the Vedas to be heard by commoners. As a result these scriptures remained the exclusive
preserve of the Brahmans and the rulers court. By contrast the propagation of knowledge
contained in the Buddhist scriptures was strongly encouraged in Sukhothai from the start. The first
known Sukhothai inscription, Inscription 1 dating from 1292, makes this clear when it states that
monks preached (suat) to crowds of lay people.144 What particular Buddhist scriptures were
preached? The corpus of Theravada Buddhist scripture, the Tripitaka, is often mentioned in the
inscriptions. Yet this was a massive volume of scripture, only a minute fraction of which could
ever be recited at one time. That is why the references in the inscriptions to the recitation of the
Vessantara Jataka are so significant, for it is the only Buddhist scripture specifically mentioned to
have been recited.
The Vessantara and other Jatakas, moreover, possessed a structure that made them
exceptionally well suited to oral dissemination. While much of the Tripitaka consisted of
discursive exposition of doctrine, dialogical exchanges, or metaphysical argument, the Vessantara
Jataka was a narrative. Narrative possessed a structure which was, in Ongs words, paramount
among all verbal art forms.145 No other verbal form was more efficient for the verbal
communication of doctrine. In cultures that were basically oral - which was the case outside the
royal court and Buddhist temples - the narrative was the favoured device because it enabled a
substantial amount of knowledge to be contained and transmitted to the listener within a single
form.146 The narrative of the Vessantara Jataka would have been particularly effective as it also
incorporated elements of humour, pathos, and excitement, which made it especially attractive to
the listener.
Just as the common use of a spoken language created a linguistic community, distinct from
peoples who spoke a different tongue, so the sudden appearance of written communications among
the Thai in the Sukhothai period also had the effect of creating a new community of users,
including writers, readers, and more significantly, audiences of the written Thai language
performed orally. These new communities (of which the Sukhothai Thai script was the basis of
only one of several, including Mon, Khmer, and various scripts used by peoples in the northern

144

Ibid., p. 276.

145

Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word, New York, Methuen, 1987, p. 140.

146

Ibid., pp. 140-1.

and northeastern regions) were not coterminous with boundaries founded upon military conquest,
feudal alliance, or tributary relations. Rather they extended as far as the written communication
reached, and thus were potentially far more influential. While most scholars of Sukhothai note the
great piety of its rulers in regard to their knowledge of the scriptures and their support of the
Sangha, the use of scripture as a means of extending their cultural presence - in the same sense as
military campaigning extended military power - is less commonly recognised. Within this cultural
presence was contained not merely the comforting and uplifting moral and spiritual guidance of
what is often considered to be a religion more concerned with transcendental matters, but more
significantly an idealised conception of authority and social hierarchy.
The growth of literacy in a community also indicates an increase in hierarchical relations,
or at least, the development of a different kind of hierarchy to that in a society where oral
communications are dominant. In oral societies hierarchy is limited by the fact that everyone has
access to the faculty of speech, though some are naturally more gifted in voice or speech than
others, or are selected to receive some special training (as singers, poets, rhetoricians), or are given
special sanction to speak denied to others. Orality was still valued in Southeast Asian societies
even when literacy had made inroads, and it was not uncommon for rulers to be praised for the
sweetness of their eloquence147, or for the kings voice to be described as a lions roar148.
Rather than being mere empty rhetorical flourishes in royal eulogy these qualities signified a
rulers supremacy in an important mode of communication. However in societies where literacy
begins to dominate communications a new hierarchy appears based upon the ability to read and
write - and indeed to hear - written communications. A telling indication of the growing
dominance of writing among the Thai is the praise given in Sukhothai inscriptions to the scholarly
abilities of rulers, as well as to the Sangha, a class intimately related to scripture. A new social
order was forming based on the use of and access to this new form of communication.
Self-Perfection and Power in Tai Culture
With the kingdom of Sukhothai we catch the first glimpses of the formulation of a Thai Buddhist
conception of authority. Much has been made in the scholarship on Sukhothai of the influence of
the Buddhist concepts of the dhammaraja and the cakravartin149, Brahmanical statecraft150,

147

See for example, A.C. Milner, Kerajaan: Malay Political Culture on the Eve of Colonial Rule, Tucson,

Association for Asian Studies, 1982, p. 98.


148

In Thai chronicles an order or proclamation of the king is often referred to as phra surasihanat, the noble

lion's roar'.
149

S.J.Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against

a Historical Background, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1976, p. 84ff.


150

Quaritch Wales, Siamese State Ceremonies, p. 60; A.B. Griswold, Towards a History of Sukhodaya Art, Fine

Arts Department, Bangkok, 1967, p. 12: Keyes, The Golden Peninsula, p. 76.

benevolent paternalism151, animism and even Mongol elements152 in Thai social integration. In
all this literature the Vessantara and other Jatakas have been ignored or else treated as moral
parables whose function was merely to teach morals to the common people. In one of the most
influential works on Sukhothai, Griswold writes that representations of the Jatakas, more than any
other category of Buddhist art, are intended for the edification of the general public.153 Following
Griswold, Gosling writes more recently that the Jatakas are ancient Indian folktales, which,
because of their moralistic teachings and popular appeal have been incorporated into the Buddhist
canon...Sukhodayans arranged the Jataka scenes...where they would entertain and edify one and
all.154
The tendency of modern scholarship to see the Jatakas as moral or religious fables ignores
several points. Firstly the Vessantara Jataka and most of the popular Jatakas are stories which deal
at length with the kinds of authority rulers hold, and the relations between rulers and people. This
makes them, in the language of modern scholarship, political. Secondly we know that rulers
made great efforts to portray themselves in the likeness of characters in the Jatakas. And thirdly
their political character is strongly suggested by the fact that, unlike much of the conceptualisation
of authority mentioned above, we have evidence that rulers were actively disseminating the Jatakas
to their subjects, through oral recitation as well as pictorial representation. Were the stories merely
moral tales it is unlikely that rulers would have expended the time and effort in their
dissemination.
In 1361 a stone inscription erected by King Lithai (this time in Pali), displays the first
explicit reference to a connection between the Vessantara Jataka and Sukhothai rulers. The
inscription states that in the practice of Giving (than) the king is like Vessantara; in the practice of
Wisdom (panya) he is like Mahosadha; in the practice of Moral Conduct (sin) he is like King
Silava; and in the practice of Renunciation he is like Janaka.155 The key to understanding these
references is the Jatakas, for that is where these personages are found. The subject of the over fivehundred stories contained in the Jatakas is the many incarnations of the bodhisatta, or the future
Gotama Buddha, and his accumulation of barami, often translated as Perfection or Virtue. It

151

This image of kingship was popularised in Thailand by Prince Damrong in an essay of 1926 titled Ancient

Forms of Government in Siam', see David A. Wilson, Politics in Thailand, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1962, pp.
86-8; see also Fred W. Riggs, Thailand: The Modernisation of a Bureaucratic Polity, Honolulu, East-West Center
Press, 1966, pp. 79-80; and Akin Rabibhadana, The Organisation of Thai Society in the Early Bangkok Period 17821873, Data Paper No.74, Southeast Asia Program, Department of Asian Studies, Cornell University, Ithaca, New
York, 1969, p. 40.
152

Coeds, The Indianised States, p. 197.

153

Griswold, Towards a History of Sukhodaya Art, p. 27.

154

Betty Gosling, Sukhothai: Its History, Culture and Art, Singapore, Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 45.

155

Ibid., Inscription 6', p. 101; also Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, pp. 515-7. In the

latter work the translation of the inscription omits Mahosadha' on the grounds that the text is unclear, while the former
work gives the alternative translation of the Pali Janaka' as his [Lithai's] father'.

was the possession of barami that was the prerequisite for enlightenment. In the Pali tradition
there were ten kinds of barami. First in the order of Perfections was (in Thai) than barami, or the
Perfection of Giving; followed by sin barami, the Perfection of Moral Conduct; nekkhamma
barami, the Perfection of Renunciation; panya barami, the Perfection of Wisdom; viriya barami,
the Perfection of Exertion; khanti barami, the Perfection of Patience; satcha barami, the
Perfection of Truthfulness; adhitthan barami, the Perfection of Resolution; metta barami, the
Perfection of Loving Kindness; and ubekkha barami, the Perfection of Equanimity. The four
characters mentioned in the inscription are all incarnations of the bodhisatta, and are
representative of the bodhisattas practice of four different kinds of barami.
In likening himself to these characters King Lithai was enunciating a model of royal
authority based on the example of the bodhisattas accumulation of barami as described in the
Jatakas. Inscriptions of the period repeatedly refer to the desire of kings and other royal personages
to achieve enlightenment by perfecting themselves in these ten virtues. The possession of all the
Perfections in theory produced the perfect being, ie. a Buddha. The pursuit of self-perfection as
exemplified in the Jatakas became an integral part of a Thai conception of power. Idealised in the
concept of barami, in practice self-perfection entailed the rulers regular practice of alms giving,
periods of sexual abstinence, fasting, meditation, and other acts of asceticism and self-denial.
There is a sense in which royal self-perfection lay on the dividing line between engagement and
detachment from the world. Whereas the cakravartin monarch was a secular ideal, and the buddha
the spiritual ideal, as a bodhisatta the ruler overcomes the dichotomy between the two. It set a
pattern for Thai kingship to oscillate between, in Tambiahs words, the World Conqueror and the
World Renouncer. As Tambiah bluntly puts it, kings must be good killers before they can turn
to piety and good works.156 Lithai is a good example. He had come to power through force of
arms.157 In 1361 he entered a monastery where an inscription says he rejected the attractions of
the cakravartin, and vowed to attain enlightenment in order to lead all creatures out of the three
realms of existence.158 The following year for unknown reasons he left the monkhood and led a
military campaign to subjugate the principality of Nan.159
As a moral guide for rulers the concept of barami differed from the so-called
thotsaphitaratchatham or Ten Kinds of Royal Dhamma, which was another code of royal
conduct propagated primarily through the Vessantara160 and other Jatakas and referred to in

156

Tambiah, World Conqueror, p. 522.

157

Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, Inscription 4, English trans. p. 490.

158

Ibid., Inscription 4, pp. 496-7.

159

Griswold, Towards a History of Sukhothai Art, pp. 37-8.

160

Though no version of the Vessantara Jataka survives from Sukhothai, later versions in Thai refer to

Vessantara's practice of the Ten Kinds of Royal Dhamma: Maha chat kham luang, Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1973,
p. 338; Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1988, p. 324.

Sukhothai inscriptions.161 While the thotsaphitaratchatham was a code aimed at guiding the
behaviour of the ruler towards his subjects, the ten kinds of barami all concern the rulers conduct
of his own self. The Perfections are more introspective and supramundane. On the face of it the
accumulation of barami would seem to be a more selfish activity, and not suitable as a royal form
of moral behaviour. Yet at the same time it could have been popularly perceived to be a far higher
order of royal conduct, since enlightenment (in a future incarnation) and the salvation of humanity
were its ultimate objective.
How widespread was knowledge of the Jatakas and the model of royal self-perfection they
expressed in the Sukhothai kingdom? In 1972 a set of reliefs of the Jataka illustrations were
discovered dating from the mid-fourteenth century, complete with captions in the Thai
language.162 The reliefs were clearly designed for public viewing and were probably originally
attached to one of the major temples in the city, Wat Mahathat. Besides visual representation
(which was limited to one scene of the story) we know from brief references in the inscriptions of
Nakhon Chum and Wat Hin Tang that the custom of reciting the Maha chat (Great Life) to an
audience already existed.163 The White Elephant Pond inscription of 1380 in Thai mentions
royalty listening to the dhamma of the thotsachat, or the last ten Jatakas (the last being the
Vessantara Jataka), which was extremely sweet to hear.164 Although it is unclear whether such
recitations were in Thai or Pali, and how widespread they were, from the Nakhon Chum
inscription mentioned above we can get some idea of the value attached to the reciting - and
therefore the dissemination - of the Vessantara Jataka. The propagation of Jataka knowledge may
also have occurred via the famous treatise on Buddhist cosmology attributed to King Lithai, the
Trai phum phra ruang, which, at least in the versions of the last two centuries, we know was
recited in the vernacular to lay audiences.165 The treatise includes references to great feats
performed in the accumulation of the Perfection, including those of King Nimi of the Nimi Jataka,

161

While the thotsaphitharatchatham bear some resemblance to the Ten Perfections, they are clearly directed

more at relations between ruler and subject: than - giving to individuals, sin - moral conduct, borichak - generosity to
the public, atchawa - honesty, matthawa - gentleness, taba - determination, akkotha - aversion to anger, awihingsa non-aggression, khanti - patience, and awirothana - justice. For Lithai's adherence to these principles see Inscriptions
3 (p. 462), and 5 (p. 508), in Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies. Though no version of the
Vessantara Jataka survives from Sukhothai, a version believed to date from the fifteenth century Ayuthayan kingdom
refers to Vessantara's practice of the Ten Kinds of Royal Dhamma', Maha chat kham luang, Bangkok, Khlang
Withaya, 1973, p. 338.
162

Gosling, Sukhothai: Its History, Culture and Art, pp. 45-9; Charuk samai sukhothai (Sukhothai Inscriptions),

Bangkok, Krom Sinlapakorn, 1983, pp. 381-440; Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, p. 347.
163

Cf. Prachum silacharuk, Vol. 1, p. 63, and Silacharuk wat hin tang', Charuk sukhothai (Sukhothai

Inscriptions), Krom Sinlapakorn, Bangkok, 1983, pp. 189-192; Gosling, Sukhothai, p. 59.
164

Inscription of wat traphang chang phuak, Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, p. 201.

165

See C.J.Reynolds, "Buddhist Cosmography in Thai History, with Special Reference to Nineteenth Century

Cultural Change", Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 35, no. 2, 1976, pp. 207-8.

who was taken on a tour of the various hells166; King Sivi of the Sivi Jataka, who plucked out his
eyes as an offering of alms (than) to the god Indra167; Prince Vessantara of the Vessantara Jataka
who gave away his kingdoms white elephant168; and Sasapandita of the Sasapandita Jataka, who
threw himself into a fire and offered his flesh as alms for Brahmans to eat.169
While Lithai is best known for his piety, he has also been seen by scholars as both a
successful military leader and an effective statesman.170 He briefly revived the fortunes of the
Sukhothai kingdom after a period in which most of its vassal states had broken away from its
control. While military campaigns were a factor in this success it is likely that his activities in the
religious sphere may also have been in pursuit of the same end, the consolidation of royal
authority. Certainly the ideological output of Lithais reign was much greater than that of any
other Sukhothai king. State formation took place in more than just the realm of military action.
From the documentary evidence it appears that activities in the sphere of culture and ideology
were pursued by Tai rulers just as vigorously. This was no mere adjunct to the real world of
military conquest, dynastic alliances, trade relations, or taxing powers. The potential of cultural
dissemination to form communities and hierarchies was as great if not greater than these activities
more commonly considered appropriate to ruling elites. Through the media of scripture and oral
performance, words and ideas could travel through territory and reach more people faster than a
levied army ever could. The Vessantara and other Jatakas were in the vanguard of this cultural
activity. Through their dissemination by the media of text and recitation they were forming
communities which recognised these representations of ideal hierarchical relations. The power of
these media were partly dependent on a rulers sponsorship of education in literacy, support of the
Sangha, and the production of texts, and to that extent they served the rulers ideological interests.
However, they also opened opened up opportunities for others to use these media for their own
purposes.
Self-perfection was not exclusively a royal activity. In theory the objective of
enlightenment which required such rigorous personal conduct was open to anyone, man or woman,
prince or peasant. Inscriptions from the period mention that princes as well as queens and
princesses performed similar acts of piety with the same professed objective.171 In the Jatakas the
bodhisatta has accumulated the Perfections in incarnations as an animal as well as a commoner,
though incarnations as royalty or a Brahman are far more common.
For those who wished to follow the path of self-perfection the Sangha was the principal
means to this end. The Sangha provided not only the material support necessary for such activity,

166

Trai phum phra ruang khorng phraya lithai (King Lithai's Trai Phum Phra Ruang), Bangkok,

Sinlapabannakan, 1970, p. 20.


167

Ibid., p. 238.

168

Ibid., p. 240.

169

Ibid., p. 241.

170

Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, pp. 427-432.

171

Ibid., pp. 65-6.

but also the knowledge and the opportunity to train oneself in these disciplines. For this reason the
Sangha was potentially a dangerous institution for rulers. The history of the Thai is littered with
rebellions and even royal coups which were launched by figures from out of Buddhist monasteries.
At the same time, however, the Sangha could also be said to function as an apparatus by which
non-royal aspirations to self-perfection were guided through the monastic regulations, control of
ordination, the abbots authority, etc. Outside such a regulatory apparatus individuals could prove
threatening to incumbent rulers. The idea of self-perfection translated into conceptions of
hierarchy, with the king at the apex because of his barami accumulated in previous incarnations.
An individuals practice of self-perfection was a potential challenge to the existing hierarchy.
During this period there is no purely political writing. Rather, what we would call politics
is expressed in religious or moral terminology. There is no clear separation between the modern
notion of political and religious realms. The Sukhothai period shows a flourishing of this politicalreligious writing. One of the conduits of this discourse of authority conceptualised in moral terms
must surely have been the Sangha, which received generous royal patronage and which appears to
have increasingly dominated secular as well as religious affairs in Sukhothai following the reign of
Lithai.172 While other conceptions of royal authority certainly appear in Sukhothai inscriptions, it
was the idealisation of authority in terms of the bodhisatta and barami which would have had the
greater influence among the general population, given the widespread familiarity with the Jatakas
in popular culture. Where Buddhism would otherwise appear a religion more concerned with
supermundane matters, the Jatakas provided much of the language and conceptualisation for what
modern scholars would call a political philosophy.
Than: a Thai Ethic of Giving173
The dominant theme of the Vessantara Jataka is than barami, the Perfection of Giving. Vessantara
achieves the Perfection of Giving by giving away his kingdoms white elephant, his own personal
riches (the Great Gift of the Seven Hundreds174), his two children and his wife. To the modern
mind Vessantaras desire for giving is extreme, and indeed, in certain cases morally disturbing.
Excerpts from a nineteenth century Thai version of the story convey some of this sense. As soon as
he is born Vessantara utters the words,
Sap an dai khorng rao thi banda mi
phra luk ni cha bamphen than

172

Gosling, Sukhothai, p. 80.

173

I use McClung's phrase derived from his study of dana in the Buddhist canonical and commentary literature;

see L.G. McClung, The "Vessantara Jataka": Paradigm for a Buddhist Utopian Ideal', PhD Thesis, Princeton
University, 1975, Chapter 2, pp. 91-135.
174

In Thai, sattasadokmahathan, which consisted of seven hundred elephants, horses, carriages, women, cows,

female and male slaves.

All the wealth that I possess


I, your son, will give as alms175
Several times in the story Vessantara states that even were a beggar to ask him for his flesh and
blood, heart and eyes, he would not hesitate to give them.176 Vessantaras generosity and capacity
to give is described as greater than all the waters in the ocean,177 or a river which never runs dry.178
When he realises that the Brahman-beggar is coming to ask for his children, Vessantara is
preoccupied with finding the beggar to receive royal alms, as a drunkard is to find liquor to
drink.179 When Chuchok asks him for the gift of the children Vessantara is as happy as if a poor
man was offered a great amount of money.180 When Vessantara gives Matsi to Indra (disguised as
Brahman) he utters the words,
O than phram oei
wa thung than kan kuson yai
nam chai rao mai chuan choei yor thor
sing rai than hak ork park khor kap tua rao nai khrang ni
rao kor mi khwam yin di yorm yok hai
mai wan wai duai khwam alai nai panraya ru wa khwam trani
sapsin sing thi mi yu nai amnat tua rao at pen chao khorng khrorp khrorng wai
ru cha borichak hai kae phu un
rao khor wa yang yun mankhong trong tam atayasai
rao mai dai khit pit bang sorn wai mi hai yachok hen lae ru
phro samoe yu pen nit nam chit khorng rao yorm yindi mi aphirom
yu tae nai thi cha bamphen than dang rao patiyan ni lae181
O Brahman
As for giving, the great form of merit-making
My generosity does not hesitate or waver
Anything you ask of me now
I am happy to give to you
I do not regret the gift of my wife nor am I slow to give
175

Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan, p. 16; Maha chat kham luang, p. 27.

176

Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan, pp. 18,31,254; Maha chat kham luang, pp. 27-8; 37.

177

Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan, pp. 202-3; Maha chat kham luang, pp. 189-90.

178

Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan, p. 264; Maha chat kham luang, pp. 269-70.

179

Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan, p. 197; Maha chat kham luang, p. 183.

180

Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan, p. 203; Maha chat kham luang, p. 191.
Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan, pp. 264-5; Maha chat kham luang, p. 271.

181

All the things in my power and possession


That I can give to other people I am firmly resolved in my habits! I do not think to hide them from the sight or knowledge of beggars
My kindness is always glad and willing
I know only of giving, as I here avow
Among the wishes that Indra grants Vessantara is that he never run out of things to give to
others.182 Indra keeps his pledge, and when Vessantara returns to the city as king he sends a
shower of jewels knee and waist deep, part of which Vessantara gives to the citizens and part of
which he collects for future gift-giving.183
As the major source and conduit of the theory of the Perfections (barami), the Jatakas are
arranged in the Pali scriptures in such a way as to give a structural bias to the Perfection of Giving,
since the story of Vessantara is the last story in the Jataka Commentary. The bodhisattas birth as
Vessantara is his penultimate incarnation before the achievement of Buddhahood, after a journey
of countless incarnations (of which only a small number are supposed to have been related in the
Jatakas). It is through the bodhisattas attainment of than barami in this incarnation as Vessantara
that all the Perfections are finally achieved, and enlightenment and Buddhahood are within reach.
Than (Pali, dana) is variously translated into English as alms, sometimes charity, or
simply giving. It is the central term in a rich vocabulary in the Thai language of words
corresponding in various degrees to the English word give. Besides than there is hai, thawai,
borichak, fak, prakhen, prasat, prathan, chaek, chai, morp, yok, sala, uai/oi and amnuai, among
others, each denoting slight variations of context and circumstance in which this activity takes
place. Within the concept of the Ten Perfections, the ethic of giving held an exalted position in
Thai social relations.
Today the idea of giving, charity or donation has the notion of an act devoid of self-interest.
In the modern age of commercial relations, where a multitude of kinds of exchange are regulated
by financial transaction, there is something almost romantic about giving. This modern notion of
giving, however, is inappropriate in interpreting the importance of giving in premodern society. In
economies where money transactions are limited, like many of those in premodern Southeast Asia
- particularly outside the royal cities - giving assumes far greater significance.
Much has been written on the role of trade in state formation in Southeast Asia, yet
comparatively little attention has been given to the vital role of gift exchange. Unlike trade, where
the two parties were bound together only for the short duration of the transaction, the gift actually
bound together parties in a closer and more enduring relationship through the creation of long-term

182

Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan, p. 279; Maha chat kham luang, p. 278.

183

Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan, p. 343; Maha chat kham luang, pp. 357-8.

indebtedness and the obligation to reciprocate.184 In his study of gift-giving in archaic societies,
Mauss identified three types of obligation concerned with the gift: the obligation to give, the
obligation to receive, and the obligation to reciprocate.185 In such societies gift-giving created a
network of obligations which required reciprocation, usually in the form of personal relationships,
at some time in the future.186 In his commentary on Mauss findings Sahlins writes about the way
the gift functioned in societies in a Hobbesian state of disorder - a state which would not have
been exceptional in thirteenth and fourteenth century mainland Southeast Asia. Where the
alternative might be war, exchange worked to moderate competing interests by encouraging
relations of interdependency. Sahlins describes the gift as the primitive way of achieving the
peace that in civil society is secured by the State, and concludes that the primitive analogue of
the social contract is not the State but the gift.187
Another reason why the ethic of giving was raised above other kinds of moral conduct was
that it had great prestige value.188 Unlike the other Perfections, such as moral conduct,
renunciation, wisdom, patience, and equanimity, for example, which were cultivated in isolation,
the cultivation of than barami was only possible by entering into a relationship: the giver needed a
receiver. Moreover, unlike other virtues there was always an audience for an act of giving, even if
it were only the receiver. For political purposes it was essential that the kings practice of selfperfection be recognised by the general public. Vessantaras Great Gift of the Seven Hundreds,
shortly before his exile, was performed before the citizenry of Sivi, and his return to the royal city
was also accompanied by great public displays of alms giving. Than was the most expressive of
the Perfections.
In epigraphical evidence from the Sukhothai period it is clear that among the meritorious
acts performed by rulers it was than which was given pride of place.189 The scale of the royal than
(or phraratchathan) was often enormous. One inscription refers to a than presentation to the
monkhood by King Lithai, comprising large amounts of gold and silver, ten million cowries, ten

184

J.Van Baal, Reciprocity and the Position of Women: Anthropological Papers, Assen, Van Gorcum, 1975, p.

50. The way the gift could create useful indebtedness for the giver is illustrated in a general manner by a Thai folktale
of unknown origin. A rich man, wishing to marry off his son to a suitable woman, invites three eligible women to his
house and asks each of them in turn, how they would use one fish to enable the household to eat all year. The first
woman answers that she would salt the fish. The second says that she would dry the fish. The third answers that she
would make a fish curry and give it to the villagers. Having given the right answer she gained the sons hand in
marriage.
185

Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, London, Cohen and West,

1970, pp. 37-41.


186

C.A. Gregory, Gifts and Commodities, London, Academic Press, 1982, pp. 19, 51.

187

Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, Chicago, Aldine Atherton Inc., 1972, p. 169.

188

McClung, The "Vessantara Jataka", p. 119.

189

See, for example, Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, Inscriptions 1-6: pp. 271, 382-3,

458, 494-6, 512, 515-6.

million areca nuts, four hundred sets of monastic robes, almsbowls, cushions, pillows, mattresses
and countless other items.190 Often particular acts of than recounted in the Vessantara Jataka
would be models for royal alms-giving. For example an inscription in Thai from the 1340s gives a
eulogy of a certain Sukhothai prince who, desiring to become a Buddha, is said to have taken
ascetic vows and offered his two children and wife as than - obviously in direct imitation of
Vessantaras famous gift.191
Why did Thai rulers indulge themselves in the act of giving, and moreover, wish to
broadcast the message of the king as a great giver? The answer lies partly in the process of state
formation taking place during this period. Scholarship on classical and early modern Southeast
Asian state formation is now showing that rather than the use of coercion (although this was a
factor), rulers more often than not had to employ other means to attract people into their sphere of
control.192 In many cases compulsion was simply not an option. The geography of the region,
characterised by extensive tracts of forest which was often impenetrable, particularly in the wet
season, worked against any ruler physically extending their power beyond a very limited radius. 193
The sheer fertility of the region, abundance of land, and low population levels meant that
individuals had a relative freedom to settle and cultivate new lands, rather than being tied to any
one piece of land or kingdom. The history of Southeast Asia tells of the perennial problem
experienced by rulers of trying to secure and maintain manpower. The most common end result of
wars was for the populations of the vanquished party to be rounded up by the victor and physically
relocated within his own domain. On the other hand there are countless records of peasants unable
or unwilling to endure the exactions of the state in the form of corve service or tax payments, and
fleeing beyond the states reach.194 In order for rulers to attract people to settle within their domain
inducements had to be provided. A famous example is the so-called Ramkhamhaeng inscription
of the late thirteenth century, which has been called a kind of advertisement for the Sukhothai
kingdom and its ruler, on account of the rosy picture it paints of the kingdom and the attractions it
offered to potential citizens.195 In Southeast Asia providing inducement was as much a part of
statecraft as was coercion.

190

Ibid., Inscription 5, pp. 512-3.

191

Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, Inscription 2', p. 368 (trans. p.388).

192

Craig J. Reynolds A New Look at Old Southeast Asia', Journal of Asian Studies, 54, no.2, (May 1995), p.

426; Barbara Watson Andaya, To Live as Brothers: Southeast Sumatra in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,
Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1993, pp. 30ff.
193

Anthony Reid, ed., Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Era: Trade, Power and Belief, Ithaca, Cornell

University Press, 1993, pp. 3-5.


194

Akin, The Organisation of Thai Society in the Early Bangkok Period, pp. 87-8.

195

Wyatt, Thailand, pp. 30, 31, 54.

The ideal of the king as one who gives was one such inducement. Certainly the
characterisation of rulers as bestowers of largesse is common throughout Southeast Asia.196 In the
wake of Khmer domination the memory of the heavy exactions of the Khmer overlords on their
Thai subjects (referred to in a number of Thai chronicles197), may have been one of the factors
behind the promotion of a more benevolent and generous image by Thai rulers. The twentieth
century Thai historian Chit Phumisak cites the increasing influence of the Vessantara Jataka from
the Sukhothai period as evidence of a new philosophy of self-sacrifice and giving, which was
challenging the oppressive rule of Khmer civilisation.198 Inscriptions from Sukhothai emphasise
the kings benevolence and generosity (ua fua199), allowing traders to travel without levying tolls,
to trade without royal interference, not seizing the property of his subjects upon their deaths, and
not coveting the goods of others.200
By contrast, Brahmans in the Vessantara Jataka are cast as greedy and avaricious.
Vessantaras exile from the royal city was caused by the actions of Brahmans who had come to ask
him for the gift of the citys white elephant. It is a mean-hearted Brahman again who asks
Vessantara for the gift of his children to be servants for his wife. Indra disguises himself as a
Brahman to ask for the gift of Vessantaras wife, Matsi. In the context of Sukhothais struggle for
independence from the Brahman dominated Khmer empire, and indeed later the kingdom of
Ayuthaya, the Vessantara Jataka may have been directed by rulers at winning the hearts and
minds of the common people. Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism are commonly depicted in the
scholarly literature as living in peaceful coexistence, and the inscriptions do mention Brahmans
residing at the Sukhothai court. Yet the poor light in which Brahmans are cast in such a popular
text is suggestive of a level of tension which would already have been present due to geopolitical
realities.
In premodern Thai communities it was essential that rulers show themselves to be the
greatest givers, for that was the most important foundation of their authority. Anyone who could
challenge the kings reputation as the greatest giver was a potential rival, for that would enable
them to create a greater network of indebtedness and therefore the support necessary to mount a
challenge.

196

Cf. Andaya, To Live as Brothers, pp. 30, 175, 248; Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian, Thai-Malay Relations:

Traditional Intra-Regional Relations from the Seventeenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries, East Asian Historical
Monographs, Singapore, Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 38; Milner, Kerajaan, p. 40; G. Carter Bentley,

Mohammed Ali Dimaporo: A Modern Maranao Datu' in Alfred W. McCoy, An Anarchy of Families: State and
Family in the Philippines, Madison, Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, 1993, p. 275.
197

Wyatt, Thailand, pp. 30-31, 54.

198

Chit Phumisak, Sangkhom thai lum mae nam chaophraya korn samai si ayuthaya (Thai Society in the

Chaophraya River Basin before the Ayuthaya), Bangkok, Mai Ngam, 1983, p. 304.
199

Inscription 1, Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, p. 260.

200

Ibid., pp. 268-270, 463-4, 491, 508.

The relationship between the act of giving and authority is another example of the
ambiguous boundaries in Thai social life between the spheres of religion, morality and statecraft. It
is clear that while the capacity to give was considered the supreme moral virtue (barami) among
the Thai, at the same time it also provided the rationale for wealth accumulation and royal
authority. It is, after all, impossible to give, to practice this virtue, if one has nothing. Wealth
accumulation was the sine qua non not only of the gift but also of royal authority generally. Yet at
the same time the gift is manifest evidence of a rulers piety. So the ethic of giving is central both
to statecraft, in acquiring and maintaining authority, and to ascetic self cultivation. The association
between morality and authority is neatly summed up by the term barami, which connotes both the
Buddhist ideal of Perfection and this Thai Buddhist notion of power. In the Maha chat it is
illustrated by the conclusion of the story: by performing his great acts of giving Vessantara not
only becomes king of Sivi but also achieves the Perfection of Giving, which opens the way to
Buddhahood.
The principle beneficiary of the popular propagation of the value of than was the Sangha.
Indeed, than most often refers specifically to acts of giving to the Sangha. As an unproductive
class (the Vinaya contained strict regulations forbidding monks to engage in productive labour) the
Sangha was totally dependent for its day to day existence upon outside material support. Given the
importance of the Sangha to the dissemination of royal ideology it was in the interest of rulers to
see that the Sangha was well provided for. So what took the outward form of royal piety, a rulers
cultivation of the Perfection of Giving, was at the same time a form of support for the ideological
dissemination of royal authority. Royal alms-giving to the Sangha had the added advantage of
being the most ostentatious, the most public of all royal acts of self-perfection. The royal kathin
ceremonies at which the king presented robes to the monks was above all a performance, a
demonstration of royal support of the Sangha, and of the kings preeminent position as the greatest
giver in the kingdom.201 The sheer quantity of goods offered was also an expression of the material
prosperity of the kingdom.
Royal support for the Sangha, however, was never enough. It was essential for the
existence of the Sangha as a broad, popularly based institution to also receive material support
from the general population. Yet the Sangha could only operate effectively within a community
which was willing to support it. This accounts for the exhortations in inscriptions from this period
for the common people to engage themselves in than in order to reap the rewards in a future life.
Giving to the Sangha was valued as the highest form of merit making, as Vessantara makes clear
in a speech to Matsi,
chao chong hai sap khao nam photchanahan watthalangkan an udom kae than phu song sin
samathi phrommachan
kor cha pen maha suwannanithi an prasert

201

For kathin ceremonies in Sukhothai see Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, Inscription

1, p. 271; and Inscription 5, pp. 512-3.

sing an un cha lam loet kwa than nan mi dai202


You should give rice, water, foods and all provisions to the holy men of virtue and chastity
This is the greatest and most perfect treasurehouse
There is no greater thing than than
Conversely, not being able to give to the Sangha was one of the worst fates to befall a person. One
Sukhothai inscription recording a pact between a Sukhothai king and his nephew includes, among
the terrible curses that would be realised if the pact was broken by either party, the curse that
monks would refuse to accept ones offerings of than.203 Giving to the Sangha was backed up by
the concept of reward for merit making in a future life. Such reward, known in Thai (from the Pali)
as anisong, was a powerful and pervasive idea, and was disseminated both through royal
inscriptions and religious tracts. As we shall see below, the Vessantara Jataka and a number of
related texts were primarily responsible for propagating the concept of anisong. Anisong was a
major impetus for the practice of than, and was consequently an important factor in assuring
popular support of the Sangha.
In Thai society than appears a contradictory moral. On the one hand it emphasised the
Buddhist ideas of selflessness, non-attachment, and disengagement from the material world, but on
the other, the twin concept of anisong meant that an act of than was inevitably in ones self
interest. Those who had the greatest capacity to perform than were also those who were most
attached to the material world. The case of Vessantara is a classic illustration of this contradiction.
Although Vessantara gave away his White Elephant, the Great Gift of the Seven Hundreds, his
royal horse-drawn carriage, his two children, and his wife, all of these gifts were returned to him at
the end of the story, with the additional rewards of both the kingdom and future Buddhahood.
Despite this apparent contradiction - or perhaps because of its resolution in the Vessantara Jataka the ethic of than became deeply entrenched in Thai social life. Of all virtuous and meritorious acts
of popular Buddhism in Thai kingdoms, than became the most basic and typical act.
The Vessantara Jataka, the Family, and Thai Social Relations
More than any other Buddhist scripture known to the Thai the Vessantara Jataka is a story about
the family and social relationships. This, perhaps as much as any other reason, explains why the
story appealed to a mass audience. As the basic unit in society, relations within the family were of
concern to everyone - to the aristocracy and nobility as much as to rural villagers. The Maha chat
was a discourse not only about kingship, moral and ascetic self-cultivation, and royal power, but
also about relations within the family. The fact that these issues were played out at the level of the
family made the story much more realistic and accessible to a popular audience. The Vessantara
Jataka addressed issues of authority generally, and authority started in the family, in relations
202

Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan, p. 33; see also Maha chat kham luang, p. 39.

203

Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, Inscription 15, English trans., pp.180-1.

between husband and wife, between parents and children. The principal relationships dealt with in
the story are those between father and son, mother and child, husband and wife, family and state,
and the individual and society. The Maha chat examines the hierarchies, tensions, and
contradictions within these relationships. What then were the models of such social relations
provided by the Vessantara Jataka?
The relationship between father and son is characterised by the absolute deference of the
latter to the former. Vessantara must obey his fathers order for his exile; and Chali must obey
Vessantara when he gives him and his sister Kanha to Chuchok as than. The children are
Vessantaras property to give, in order that he can achieve enlightenment and pass into nibbana.
This hierarchical relationship is, however, tempered by a tie of paternal love. This provides much
pathos when the two aspects of the relationship are in conflict with each other. Yet this love is
strictly subordinated to the fathers self interest, a fact the story graphically illustrates when
Vessantara does nothing even when he sees his own children being beaten.
Between mother and child the relationship is characterised by the dependence of the child
upon the mother, reciprocated by the mothers maternal love for the child. Matsis devotion to her
children, and Phutsadis love for Vessantara, are major themes in the story, repeated again and
again. As opposed to the father - son relationship, the interests of the child are placed above those
of the mother. The mother - child relationship is also shown to be subordinate to the will of the
husband or father, as when Sonchai overrules Phutsadis plea that Vessantara not be exiled, and
when Matsi must acquiesce to Vessantaras gift of the two children to Chuchok.
The husband - wife relationship is characterised by the absolute deference of the latter to
the former, and, in the case where Vessantara and Matsi take vows of asceticism, the dependence
of the former upon the latter for his material well-being. This hierarchical relationship is again
challenged, though in the end not affected by, ties of conjugal love. This conflict between conjugal
love and Vessantaras ascetic pursuits provides more pathos in the narrative. For example, fearing
that she was dead, Vessantara momentarily breaks his vows of asceticism by taking Matsi in his
lap when she has fainted from the distress of her missing children. But Vessantaras gift of his
wife to Indra in the interests of achieving than barami is a clear demonstration of the
subordination of relations of conjugal love to male spiritual endeavour. Matsi should also be
understood as the property of Vessantara, as are the two children, for they are gifts given by
Vessantara in the same way as his other material property - the White Elephant, and his wealth.
For example, Matsi says to Vessantara,
Than phraong nan pen chao khorng khrorp khrorng pen an khat
mi amnat pen yai nai tua rao204

You are my owner, my master


204

From the Bangkok period version of the Maha chat, Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan, p. 268;
see also Maha chat kham luang, p.273.

You have absolute power over me.


The relationship between Vessantara and Matsi is also shown to rest upon a principle which has
become fundamental in Thai social relations. That is that power and ascetic pursuits are the
preserve of the male/father, while activities in the domestic sphere, such as the care of children and
providing for the livelihood of the family, are the domain of the female/mother. This gendered
division between the spheres of power and spirituality (especially regarding the Buddhist
monkhood) on the one hand, and domestic life on the other, which the Vessantara Jataka portrays
so clearly, has persisted in Thai society with little change into recent times.
The relationship between Vessantara and Matsi is contrasted in every way to that between
Chuchok, the ugly old Brahman, and his beautiful young wife, Amittada. Chuchoks attachment to
Amittada is based on lust, while Vessantaras ties to Matsi are for the most part spiritual in nature.
Vessantara is entirely dependent on Matsi to support his ascetic endeavours, to the extent that this
overrides her attachment to her own children. Whereas Matsi renders absolute obedience to
Vessantara, Amittada refuses to obey Chuchok and carry out her domestic duties, and threatens to
leave him. Amittadas obstinacy is the impetus for Chuchoks journey to the forest to ask
Vessantara for the gift of the two children. The story casts the two conjugal relationships in starkly
contrasting moral terms.
As for the relationship between family and state, the two are seen to be intrinsically related
to the extent that the integrity of the family is shown to be essential to the health of the state. The
structure of the story is built around the progressive break-up of the royal family of Siwi, from
Vessantaras exile from his fathers kingdom, to the gift of the children and Matsi, to its reunion at
the end of the story. In the final two chapters when the family is reunited (Sonchai, Phutsadi,
Vessantara, Matsi, Chali, and Kanha) auspicious occurrences take place: the earth quakes, the
White Elephant is returned, a shower of jewels falls from the sky; and there is general rejoicing
among the citizens. The reunion of the royal family is propitious for the kingdom at large.
The relationship of the individual to society underlies all of the above relationships.
Vessantaras duty to society, as a bodhisatta whose future enlightenment will enable others to
escape the endless cycle of rebirth and suffering, overrides his obligations in all other
relationships, most poignantly his duties to his own family. As Vessantara states in the narrative,
enlightenment is a far dearer to him than his children or his wife,
phram eoi luk thang sorng khorng rao ni rao rak dang duang naiyanet
het wa rao rak phra phothiyan ying kwa sorng kuman dai roi thao phan thawi
det phon than nai khrang ni chong samret
tae phra soisanphet phuttharatanaworanayan
nai anakhothakan non thoet205
O Brahman, my two children I love as my own eyes
205

Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan, p. 215. See also Maha chat kham luang, pp.272-3.

Yet a hundred, a thousand times more than these children


do I love enlightenment!
So may the result of this act of giving in the future bring
Omniscience, the supreme jewel of enlightenment.
Similarly, Sonchais royal duty to carry out the will of the citizens by exiling Vessantara must
override his loyalty to his family. The individuals duty to society, whether it be defined as the
citizenry or humankind, is raised above all other social obligations.
The fact that all the conflicts in the various relationships are resolved to the happiness of all
parties demonstrates the moral of the story: if one heeds this hierarchy of relationships, and
recognises and conforms with the mutual obligations each relationship entails, the outcome will be
beneficial to all concerned.206
It is not difficult to understand why such relationships should have been of concern to early
Thai rulers. The thirteenth century was a time of particular instability and realignments, social as
well as political, following the break-up of the classical empires of Angkor and Pagan, the Mongol
invasions and the establishment of the first Tai states. The breakup of Sukhothais dominion and
the rise of the Ayuthayan kingdom in the fourteenth century would have meant a similar
environment of social instability. In such uncertain times rulers must have found it desirable to
provide appropriate examples of the ideal sorts of relationships with which a strong community
could be formed. In the absence of elaborate bureaucracies, inadequate revenue collection,
undeveloped legal structures, and difficulties in military logistics - the commonly understood sine
qua non of a state - such relationships when reproduced hundreds and thousands of times could be
thought of as the network of attachments which as a whole constituted the state.
At the apex of this network of relationships was the rulers own family, whose members
were often his most important political allies. At this level proper familial relations - meaning the
maintenance of a recognised hierarchy - were essential to the rulers authority. The
Ramkhamhaeng inscription stresses Ramkhamhaengs respect for his father, mother, and elder
brother.207 Inscriptions from Lithais reign also show how the king relied upon his brothers, sons,
and grandsons in administering the kingdoms affairs. Also, in the Sukhothai kingdom a system of
patrilineal descent was established to regulate the succession of rulers.208 Given this reliance on

206

These Buddhist ideal relationships bear a close resemblance to the Five Relationships of Confucian social

thinking: ruler - subject, father - son, husband - wife, elder brother - younger brother, and friend - friend.
207

Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, pp. 266-7.

208

Sukhothai inscriptions show that Ramkhamhaeng inherited the throne from his brother, Ban Muang, who had

inherited it from his father Si Intharathit. Ramkhamhaeng was succeeded by his son Loethai, who was eventually
succeeded by his son Lithai, after he had fought off a usurper, details of whom are unknown. Lithai was succeeded by
his son, Maha Thammaracha II, who was followed by his son, Maha Thammaracha III, who was followed by his son,

kin relations it is not surprising that inscriptions from the period emphasise proper relations
amongst family members, especially respect for ones mother, father, and elders.209
Marriage relations similarly had consequences for royal authority. Intermarriage amongst
the rulers of the various muang (small Tai polities) was one of the most common ways in which
inter-muang rivalry was managed, and ethnic differences were overcome. Intermarriage resulted in
small communities being amalgamated into larger socio-political units by uniting groups of people
who had previously been under separate authority.210 The significance of marriage relations for the
Sukhothai state is underlined in one chronicle which has King Ramkhamhaeng related to the king
of Nakhorn Si Thammarat, the king of Angkor, and the king of Ayodhya (the forerunner of
Ayuthaya).211
Thai kingdoms were themselves conceptualised in kinship terms. For example when he
became king, Ramkhamhaeng acquired the title phor, meaning father, while princes or nobles
were known as luk khun, or the rulers children.212 In the Ayuthayan kingdom the term muang
luk luang, meaning cities of the royal sons, was used to denote the major cities of the kingdom even if the rulers of these cities were not actual sons of the king.213 Such terminology might be
residual of a time when social formations were more kinship-based. The Thai were not alone in
their use of kinship terminology to describe state relations. The practice was widespread
throughout Southeast Asia.214 The use of kinship terms to describe what amounted to power
relations necessarily implied a hierarchical relationship. Ones kinship status implied behaviour
appropriate to that status. The same cluster of terms found in inscriptions and religious texts such
as the Vessantara Jataka and the Traiphum which signify hierarchy, including chongrak phakdi loyalty; khaorop napthu and yam kreng - respect; and sawami - lord or husband, for
example, were used both for intra-familial relations as well as to describe relations between
subject and ruler. The family was therefore a microcosm of the larger community and relations
within the family could be seen to reflect relations on the macro scale. Matters of family were
consequently of state concern.

Maha Thammaracha IV; Charnvit Kasetsiri, The Rise of Ayudhya: A History of Siam in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth
Centuries, East Asian Historical Monographs, Duang Kamol, Bangkok, 1976, Appendix A.
209

For example, Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, Inscription 3, p. 463.

210

Charnvit, The Rise of Ayudhya, pp. 39-41.

211

Ibid., p. 40.

212

Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, Inscription 1 (Thai text), pp. 259-64; G. Coedes,

The Making of Southeast Asia, trans. H.M.Wright, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966 p. 143.
213

Charnvit, The Rise of Ayudhya, pp. 26-7, n.27; pp. 97-8.

214

See, for example, B.W. Andaya, To Live As Brothers; McCoy, An Anarchy of Families; Leonard Y. Andaya,

The Heritage of Arung Palakka: a History of South Sulawesi (Celebes) in the Seventeenth Century, The Hague,
Nijhoff, 1981; J.S. Furnivall, Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India,
New York University Press, 1956, p. 219; and V.B. Lieberman, Burmese Administrative Cycles: Anarchy and
Conquest 1580-1760, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1984, p. 82.

If the maintenance of proper familial relations was seen to be fundamental to the stability
of the kingdom, disregard for such proper relations might mean the weakness of the state. One
Sukhothai inscription appears to attribute the breakup of Sukhothais dominion in the fourteenth
century to dissension among relatives.215
Familial and social relations such as those described in the Vessantara Jataka may appear
unremarkable (albeit conservative) to us now. The apparent naturalness of familial relations hides
the fact that they are as much the result of culture as of nature. They are not fixed. Although the
so-called decline of family values is seen by some social conservatives to be a recent
phenomenon, the modern scholar should be aware of the perceived fragility of such relations even
in the early history of the Thai. Old Buddhist prophesies propagated in such common works as the
Traiphum, the Phra Malai story, the Anagatavamsa, and the Metteyasutta, describe the coming of
a future time of disorder and killing (variously referred to as lokawinat, satthandarakap,
mikhasanyi, or kali yuk) after the final disappearance of the Buddhist religion. This would be an
apocalyptic time when all social relationships would be turned on their heads. Relatives would
forget each other and enter into sexual relations and violent conflict. Children would no longer
respect their parents, turning on them and killing them. Parents would fail to care for their
children. Husbands and wives would enter into extramarital relations. Citizens would rebel against
their rulers. The whole age would descend into a violent maelstrom of killing and chaos.
This social chaos is followed by a golden age foretold in the same prophesies,
immediately prior to the coming of the future Buddha Maitreya. This age is characterised by
monogamous relations between men and women, childrens respect for their parents, peaceful
relations amongst rulers and subjects, and the absence of royal overthrows - phenomena which by
virtue of their inclusion in the prophesy are obviously causally interrelated.
The Vessantara Jataka was preeminent among a number of works, including inscriptions
and religious texts such as Lithais Traiphum, that disseminated models of ideal social
relationships. Chaos and disorder were never far from the minds of the Thai. Not only did they
have experience of it in their own lifetimes but the coming of a future apocalyptic age was assured
in the prophesies mentioned above. By spreading the notion that the very act of listening to certain
religious texts was the key to transcending the future apocalyptic age, notions of a hierarchical
ordering of social relationships which these same texts contained were also disseminated, thus
aiding present day purposes of social integration. As we will see below, listening to the Vessantara
Jataka became valued by Thai rulers as the prime act by which the common people could be
assured of reincarnation in this future fortunate age. As such it was one of the foremost ideological
influences in the formation of Thai social relations.
The Kingdom of Ayuthaya

215

See the conjectural translation in Prasert and Griswold, Epigraphic and Historical Studies, p.460.

Sukhothais hegemony in the region was shortlived. From the latter part of the fourteenth century
Sukhothai and several of the other small Tai states, were drawn into the orbit of a new kingdom
based at the city of Ayuthaya in the lower Chao Phraya basin. The new kingdom embraced most of
Sukhothais former domain, as well as much of modern day Thailand. Unlike Sukhothai, Ayuthaya
was able to retain control over its empire for a longer period. As in Sukhothai, Buddhism was
invaluable to the extension of royal authority.
Buddhism, and the Ayuthayan kingdom, made great gains under the long reign (14481488) of King Boromatrailokanat. Boromatrailokanats reign is best known for the establishment
of a structure of bureaucratic administration for the kingdom of Ayuthaya, including the formation
of the sakdina system of social ranking, which became the political and legal foundation of the
Thai feudal state until the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932.216 In many ways
Boromatrailokanat typified the model Thai king, of which Lithai was the exemplar in Sukhothai.
He combined the qualities of the warrior, the scholar, and the self-perfecting ascetic. Much of his
reign was spent fighting wars with the Yuan kingdom in the north, the main rival Tai state. Yuan
phai, a poem commemorating Boromatrailokanats defeat of the Yuan, refers to
Boromatrailokanat as well versed in the three gems of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dhamma, and
the Sangha, as well as in the Vedas.217 He was the first Ayuthayan king known to have entered the
monkhood (for eight months) after he had become king. He was an enthusiastic patron of
Buddhism and the Sangha, constructing and restoring temples, importing Sinhalese monks and
making great presentations of alms to the Sangha and the poor.218 Boromatrailokanat seems to
have also played a significant role in the cultural union of the Brahman dominated south around
the muang of Ayuthaya, with the more Buddhist-influenced north. The administrative capital
where the king resided for many years was the muang of Phitsanulok, in the central-north, which
for a long time had been captive of the cultural influence of Sukhothai.
It is not surprising that given Boromatrailokanats vigorous efforts to expand Ayuthayan
authority through warfare, the strengthening of the bureaucracy, the development of a standardised
corpus of law, and the extensive support of the Sangha, we should see the reappearance of the
rulers ideological use of the Jatakas. The royal chronicles of Ayuthaya record that in 1458, King
Boromatrailokanat ordered five hundred statues to be cast representing the incarnations of the
bodhisatta - five hundred being the number of incarnations of the bodhisatta traditionally believed
to have been represented in the Jatakas.219 Boromatrailokanat is also credited with the composition

216

Wyatt, Thailand., pp. 73-4.

217

Charnvit, The Rise of Ayudhya, p. 100. Mention of the Vedas indicates the respect at the elite level for pre-

Theravada Indic learning.


218

Ibid, pp. 135-41; Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung si ayuthaya (chabap somdet phra phonarat) (Royal

Chronicle of Ayuthaya (Phra Phonarat Version), Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1971, pp. 12-16.
219

This is the account from the "Luang Prasoet" version of the royal chronicles, which is believed to be the

earliest version, originally compiled during the reign of King Narai; "Phra ratcha phongsawadan krung kao chabap
luang prasoet aksoranit" in Kham hai kan chao krung kao, Kham hai kan khun luang ha wat lae Phra ratcha

in 1482 of the Maha chat kham luang, the oldest extant rendering into Thai of the Vessantara
Jataka.220 By the end of Boromatrailokanats reign, with the defeat of the Yuan, and the
administrative incorporation of Sukhothai into the kingdom, Ayuthaya had emerged to become, in
Charnvits words, the centre of the Thai world.221
The Maha chat kham luang, as the first extant Thai translation of the Vessantara Jataka,
shows beyond doubt that the story was being used by rulers for dissemination of the story beyond
the lite group of Pali readers. By the latter period of the kingdom of Ayuthaya there is increasing
evidence that it was widespread.222 Chronicles of Ayuthaya record that in 1627, the year of his
death, King Song Tham ordered another version of the Maha chat to be composed.223 Song
Thams version, known to scholars today as the Kap maha chat, is written in a relatively simple
style of Thai, free of the ceremonial royal language and frequent Khmer and Pali phrasing which
are found in King Boromatrailokanats earlier version, suggesting that the work was intended for a

phongsawadan krung kao chabap luang prasoet aksoranit (Testimony of the People of the Old Capital, Testimony of
Khun Luang Ha Wat, and Luang Prasoet Aksoranit version of the Royal Chronicle of the Old Capital), Bangkok,
Krom Sinlapakorn, 1972, p.448. Some versions of the royal chronicles compiled in the Bangkok period differ slightly
from this account, making it 550 bodhisatta images that were cast, in 1444. The exact number of incarnations of the
bodhisatta represented in the Jatakas is a slightly problematic issue; see T.W. Rhys Davids, Buddhist Birth Stories,
London, 1925 (1st publ.1880, Truebner's Oriental Series), p. lxxiv.
220

Recorded by the "Luang Prasoet" chronicle; Phra ratcha phongsawadan krung kao chabap luang prasoet

aksoranit, p. 451. Sombat has argued that the king's composition of the translation had a clear ideological purpose; see
Sombat Chantornwong, Religious Literature in Thai Political Perspective: the Case of the Maha Chat Kham Luang',
in Tham Seong Chee, ed., Essays on Literature and Society in Southeast Asia: Political and Social Perspectives,
Singapore, Singapore University Press, 1981, pp. 187-205.
221

Charnvit, The Rise of Ayudhya, p. 141.

222

Nidhi Aeusrivongse, An nuang ma chak maha chat muang phet' (In Connection to the Phetburi Maha Chat),

Pak kai lae bai rua: ruam khwam riang wa duai wannakam lae prawatisat ratanakosin (Quill and Sail, Collected
Essays on Early Bangkok Literature and History), Bangkok, Amarin, 1984, pp. 302ff. From the eighteenth century
there are increasing documentary references to the recitation of the Vessantara Jataka, such as Inscription Number 97
which mentions a performance of the thet maha chat in Chainat (a town just north of Ayuthaya) in 1718; Inscription
Number 97, silacharuk wat phraboromathat chainat' (Inscription at the Temple of the Great Relic, Chainat), Prachum
silacharuk (Collected Inscriptions) Vol. 4, Prime Minister's Office, Bangkok, 1978, pp. 73-4.
223

See Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung si ayuthaya chabap phanchanthanumat (choem) kap phra

chakraphadiphong (chat) (The Phanchanthanumat and Chakraphadiphong Versions of the Royal Chronicle of
Ayuthaya), Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1964, p. 102 and p. 856. Song Tham displayed several common traits of the
Thai ruler: his name means follower of the Dhamma'; as a high ranking monk he gained a large following as a scholar
of the Buddhist scriptures and the Vedas. He became king in 1602 by overthrowing the reigning king, probably his
half-brother, whom he had put to death.

popular audience.224 It has also been argued that the poetic metre of this version is indicative of a
text which was composed for oral presentation.225 The rules of composition were relatively loose
(albeit given that the essential meaning of the original Pali was conveyed), allowing the poet the
freedom to use the full range of his art for the audiences enjoyment.
The widespread dissemination of the story was strongly encouraged by a number of other
Buddhist works. One text with which the Vessantara Jataka became intimately related is the story
of Phra Malai.226 The Phra Malai tells the story of a Sinhalese monk, Malai, who travels to hell
and heaven, witnesses the conditions there, and brings the news back to people on earth, urging
them to make merit - especially through than - in order to reap the rewards in the next life. While
in heaven Malai speaks to the bodhisatta Maitreya, who is destined in his next incarnation to
become the next Buddha. Maitreya gives Malai a message to take back to announce to the people:
those who wish to be reborn when Maitreya is incarnated as the Buddha, in order to hear him
preach the dhamma and to thereby become enlightened, should perform the Maha Chat ritual with
the appropriate offerings of than, and complete it within one day.227 This is followed by a
description of a paradise-like world into which the bodhisatta Maitreya will be incarnated.
The same exhortation to perform and listen to the recitation of the Vessantara Jataka and to
perform acts of than appears in other ancient texts, including the Metteyyasutta (Treatise on
Maitreya) and the Anagatavamsa (History of Future Events).228 The antiquity of these prophesies
is indicated by the fact that the latter work is mentioned in Lithais Traiphum.229

224

Kap maha chat (Maha Chat in the Kap Metre'), Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1964; see also Nidhi, An

nuang ma chak maha chat muang phet', p. 305.


225

Nidhi, An nuang ma chak maha chat muang phet', pp. 305-7.

226

The earliest Thai version in the historical record today is that written by the poet-prince Thammathibet in

1737 (see Chao fa thammathibet: phra prawat lae phra niphon roi krorng (Prince Thammathibet: His Life and
Poetry), Bangkok, Sinlapa Bannakan, 1970, pp. 239-294). but the original work is much older. The story first appears
in a thirteenth century Sinhalese collection of stories called Rasavahini (McClung, The "Vessantara Jataka"', pp. 745), and would probably have been known to Tai Buddhists via the influx of Sinhalese Buddhism from the thirteenth
century. The Lao and Tai Yuan ceremonies of the recitation of the Vessantara Jataka (at least since the nineteenth
century) were directly preceded by a recitation of the Phra Malai story.
227

Chao fa thammathibet, "Phra malai kham luang", p. 272.

228

These works appear in catalogues of temple literature from north and northeast Thailand; see Rai chu nangsu

boran lanna ekasan microfilm khorng sathaban wichai sangkhom, mahawithayalai chiang mai phor sor 2521-2533
(Catalogue of Ancient Lanna Literature on Microfilm, University of Chiang Mai Social Research Institute, 19781990), Chiang Mai, 1990, pp. 297, 386; Banchi samruat ekasan boran (Catalogue of Surveyed Ancient Literature), 14
Vols., Northeastern Teachers Colleges and Khorn Kaen University, led by Maha Sarakham Teachers College, Maha
Sarakham, 1981-1990, passim.
For northern versions of these texts see, Anakhotawong Metteyasut lae Metteyawong samnuan lanna (Lanna
Versions of the Anagatavamsa, the Metteyasutta and the Metteyavamsa), transcribed and edited by Bamphen Rawin,

There is a common pattern to all these works. All are concerned with teaching the moral
message of merit-making, with an emphasis upon the act of giving, than. All stress the rewards of
acts of than - anisong. The Malai story describes in particular detail the rewards people receive in
future incarnations for each specific act of than and other forms of merit. All show a concern for
the future, a millenarian belief in the coming of a dark age, followed by the arrival of the future
Buddha, Maitreya. All give the Vessantara Jataka - more specifically its recitation - an
instrumental role in the ability of people to transcend this future age of chaos to secure rebirth in
the age of the future Buddha.
Lanna and Lan Sang
It was not only in the kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayuthaya that the Vessantara Jataka had become
a popular performative text favoured by rulers. It seems to have had a similar status in the Yuan
kingdom of Lanna, centred in Chiang Mai, and the Lao kingdom of Lan Sang based in Vientiane
and Luang Phrabang. Founded around the same time as Sukhothai, Chiang Mai was a powerful
rival of Sukhothai and later Ayuthaya, and was influential in the kingdom of Lan Sang. Buddhist
monks from Sukhothai had propagated the Sinhalese style of Theravada Buddhism in Lanna from
the late fourteenth century, and it may have been this form of Buddhism that brought with it the
Vessantara Jataka. The earliest reference to the Vessantara Jatakas dissemination in the northern
Tai kingdom appears in the Jinakalamali, a Pali chronicle of the kings of Lanna composed during
a golden age of Buddhist scholarship and royal sponsorship of Sinhalese Buddhism under the reign
of King Muang Kaew in the early sixteenth century. The Jinakalamali chronicle mentions that in
1519 King Muang Kaew listened to a version of the Vessantara Jataka which he had had written
for the purpose of teaching the dhamma (thamma banyai).230 Once again the oral character of the
dissemination of the story should be noted here. Apart from the Jinakalamali a Pali scholarly
commentary on the Vessantara Jataka called Wetsandorn Thipani written by a Lanna monk has
also been dated from the reign of King Muang Kaew.231

Chiang Mai University, 1992, p. 109. For the Anagatavamsa see Henry Clarke Warren, Buddhism in Translations,
Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., 1909, pp. 481-86.
229

Traiphum phra ruang, p. 208.

230

Phra Ratanapanyathera, Chinakalamalipakorn, trans. Saeng Manawithun, Cremation Volume, Bangkok,

Saeng Manawithun, 1974, p. 153.


231

Phra Sirimangkhalachan, Wetsandorn thipani (Commentary on Vessantara), 2 Vols., Chiang Mai, A.D.

1517; Text transcribed from Khmer Script and Ancient Local Scripts, Project for the Transcription of Khmer and
Ancient Local Scripts and Translation of Buddhist Texts into Thai, with the Support of the Supreme Ecclesiastical
Council Committee and the Religious Affairs Department, Ministry of Education, (Unpublished Typed Manuscript in
the National Library of Thailand) 1975. See also Damrong's preface in Chamthewiwong: phongsawadan muang
haripunchai (The History of Princess Cham: History of the City of Haripunjaya), Bangkok, Bannakit Trading, 1973.

From the kingdom of Lanna, Buddhism was disseminated to the Lao kingdom of Lan Sang
to the east. The two kingdoms were closely related, both politically and culturally. Under King
Phothisalarat (1516-1548) many of the senior figures in the Lao Sangha appear to have originally
come from Lanna, and a Lao chronicle states that in 1523 the king sent emmissaries to Chiang Mai
to request sixty copies of the Tripitaka to take back to Lan Sang.232 These close relations continued
under his son, Chaiyachetthathirat, who in 1548 briefly united the two thrones of Chiang Mai and
Lan Sang. Scholars from Chiang Mai were brought to Lan Sang and Lao monks were sent to study
Buddhism in Chiang Mai.233
It was among the Lanna Tai peoples that the Vessantara Jataka first became connected in
legend to one of the most sacred Buddha images of Theravada Buddhist Southeast Asia, the
Emerald Buddha.234 The chronicle of the Emerald Buddha, Ratanabimbavamsa, composed in Pali
by a Lanna monk in 1729, gives an account of the origins of the Emerald Buddha and its
movements throughout mainland Southeast Asia, as successive rulers tried to secure the auspicious
image for the purpose of ensuring the prosperity of their kingdoms.235 One of the incidents in the
history of the sacred image related by the chronicle is that, when a late fifteenth century king of
Chiang Mai ordered the Emerald Buddha to be brought from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai, the
procession which accompanied the Emerald Buddha regularly stopped along the way to piously
listen to a recital of the Vessantara Jataka.236 The chronicle recounts that when the elephant
bearing the Emerald Buddha entered the territory of Chiang Mai the elephant refused to go on and
uttered a terrifying roar. Taking this as an omen, the accompanying party informed the king, who
replied that lots should be drawn as to which city the sacred image should be taken to. The result
of the draw was that Lampang was the designated city. The elephant carrying the Emerald Buddha
was turned onto the path towards Lampang and the procession set off anew, again stopping off
along the way to listen to the Vessantara Jataka.237
This association of the Emerald Buddha with the Vessantara Jataka may be seen in a
political light. The image had resided (according to legend) in a number of historically important
Buddhist centres and Tai muang, including Pataliputra in northern India, Sri Lanka, the Khmer
kingdom of Angkor, Ayuthaya, Kampaeng Phet, Chiang Rai, Lampang, Chiang Mai, and later

232

Thawat Punnothok, Wannakam thorng thin (Regional Literature), Bangkok, Phira Phathana, 1982, pp. 156-

7.
233

Ibid.

234

F.E.Reynolds, The Holy Emerald Jewel: Some Aspects of Buddhist Symbolism and Political Legitimation

in Thailand and Laos, in Bardwell L.Smith, ed., Religion and Legitimation of Power in Thailand Laos and Burma,
Chambersburg, PA, ANIMA, 1978, pp. 181, 184.
235

Ratanaphimphawong: tamnan phra kaew morakot (Ratanabimbavamsa: the History of the Emerald

Buddha), Written in Pali by Phra Phiksu Phromaratpanya, Translated into Thai by Saeng Manawithun, Cremation
Volume, Phra Phutthiwongwiwat (Wong Thanawangso) Chiang Rai, 1987.
236

Ratanaphimphawong (no pagination).

237

Ibid.

Luang Phrabang, Vientiane, Thonburi and finally Bangkok, where it has resided since the founding
of the Chakri dynasty in 1782. Possession of the image did much to confer upon a city the status of
the centre of the Buddhist world.
Conclusion
In this chapter I have argued that the Vessantara Jataka has an ancient and continuous association
with the Tai Buddhist peoples. It performed a vital function in state formation by disseminating
through the powerful medium of textual recitation an example of an ideal social order. As
expressed by the story this order consisted of three main elements. Firstly, a moral hierarchy based
on ones accumulation of the Perfections (barami), moral virtues, among which the Perfection of
Giving was preeminent. The Vessantara Jataka represents the ruler as a superior being at the apex
of this hierarchy due to his greater accumulation of barami. The path of self-perfection, however,
lay open to everyone. The second force for order contained in the story was the ethic of giving.
The Vessantara Jataka portrayed the ruler in positive terms as the most generous giver in the
kingdom; its message of supramundane rewards for the act of giving encouraged the expansion of
the Sangha; and the social act of giving itself promoted increasing interaction and closer relations
among the culturally and ethnically diverse peoples of the various Tai muang. Finally, recitation of
the Vessantara Jataka disseminated models of ideal social relationships, especially within the
family and between ruler and subject. What the Maha chat had to say about the family in particular
meant that it was more than a treatise about kingship, asceticism and power, but also a story which
examined the fundamental unit of society. The family was a subject which concerned people in
general. Surely this was one of the fundamental reasons behind the Vessantara Jatakas popularity.
In Tai Buddhist society Vessantara was regarded not just as a prince and a bodhisatta, but also a
father, while Matsi provided the classical image of the devoted wife and mother. These were ideal
roles to which everyone could aspire.
The thet maha chats role in state formation seems to be indicated by the fact that at
moments of great political activity, such as the formation of the first significant Tai state in
Sukhothai, or the vigorous extension of central power as in Boromatrailokanats reign, the story
has received particularly close royal patronage. On the other hand the story should not be seen
purely in terms of elite manipulation and social control. As a force for social order, the
performance of the thet maha chat took place within an environment where social disintegration
and chaos were ever-present dangers. The fragility of society was a consistent theme in Tai
Buddhist teaching, as it must have been amidst the turbulence of premodern political life. Social
disorder was a danger which both rulers and subjects shared a common interest in avoiding.
Unlike the more commonly understood factors in state formation such as military violence,
administrative extension, expansion of royal trade, and greater efficiency in revenue collection, for
example, the dissemination of the Vessantara Jataka tended towards the creation of what might be
called cultural communities. Such communities recognised certain cultural codes which could
themselves act as a conduit for central authority through the shared recognition between rulers and

subject of specific ways of social behaviour. The reach and hold of cultural dissemination was
potentially much greater than that of a rulers army. The widespread propagation of the Maha chat
meant that it would have been recognised from Yunnan to Nakhorn Sri Thammarat, Luang
Phrabang to Champassak, and beyond. This cultural community was far larger and longer lasting
than any single Tai kingdom.
The following chapter will examine the relationship between the Thai people and the thet
maha chat in the period in which the Thai state under the Chakri dynasty reached the apogee of its
power. It is no surprise that it was then that the story was at the height of its popularity both in the
rural villages and at the royal court.

CHAPTER 3
THE EXPANSION OF THE THAI STATE
AND THE HEIGHT OF THE THET MAHA CHAT

After more than three centuries as the major political centre of the Tai world, as well as the capital
of one of the most powerful kingdoms in Southeast Asia, in 1767 the city of Ayuthaya fell to
besieging Burmese forces. If the fall of Ayuthaya had been dramatic, the resurrection and
expansion of the kingdom in the decades which followed were no less so. In a remarkably short
period of time the Thai238 had gained the submission of the rulers of all significant Tai
principalities, including those of the Lao, Khon Muang/Yuan and Shan peoples, the kingdom of
Cambodia and some of the Malay sultanates. In terms of vassal allegiance to the Thai king, the
Thai state under the early kings of the Chakri dynasty was one of the largest in Southeast Asia, and
considerably greater than the kingdom of Thailand today.
Scholars have marvelled at the rapid turn-around of the kingdoms fortunes. It has been
variously attributed to the military skills of its rulers, firstly King Taksin, and later the Chakri
kings,239 the kingdoms economic recovery through the expansion of overseas trade and the courts
tighter control over trade regions within its own sphere of influence,240 and the courts energetic
promotion of Buddhism to the exclusion of other religious practices, in particular Brahmanism and
animism.241
Given this recognition of the critical role of Buddhism in the reformation of the Thai state
in the early Bangkok period it is surprising that no study has seriously raised the question of the
political role of the thet maha chat. The common categorisation of the Vessantara Jataka by later
scholars as a religious or moral tale - and therefore without political significance - has
contributed to this scholarly neglect. It was in this period that the performance of the story reached
the height of its popularity at the Thai court. The best known versions of the story date from this

238

I use the term Thai to refer to the group of Tai inhabiting the lower Chaophraya river basin, whose language,

culture, and ethnicity distinguished them from other Tai peoples.


239

This line of thinking is derived mainly from the royal chronicles which were compiled in the time of the early

Chakri kings.
240

In a doctoral thesis submitted to Wollongong University in 1995 Puangthong Rungsawasdisab argues strongly that

this was an important motivation for Thai involvement in the Mekong basin, Puangthong Rungsawasdisab, War and
Trade: Siamese Interventions in Cambodia, 1767-1851, University of Wollongong, 1995.
241

See Atchara Kanchanothai, Kan fun fu phra phuttha satsana nai samai ratanakosin torn ton (B.E.2325 - 2395)

(The Restoration of Buddhism in the Early Bangkok Period, 1782-1852), Masters Degree Thesis, History, Graduate
School, Chulalongkorn University, 1980; Saichon Wannarat, Phutthasatsana kap naew khwam khit thang kan muang
nai ratchasamai phra bat somdet phra phuttha yort fa chula lok (Buddhism and Political Thought in the First Reign),
M.A. thesis, Chulalongkorn University, 1982; and David K. Wyatt, The Subtle Revolution of King Rama I of
Siam, David K. Wyatt and Alexander Woodside, Moral Order and the Question of Change: Essays on Southeast
Asian Thought, New Haven, Yale University Southeast Asian Studies, 1982, pp. 28-9

time, and many more chronicles and other court documents are available to the historian which
attest to its pervasive influence on court culture. Court chronicles, literature, religious scholarship
and art are suffused with the imagery and conceptions of the Vessantara Jataka. From the Bangkok
period we are, moreover, much better able to judge the storys influence at the local level than
previously. Historical records indicate that the performances great popularity at the Thai court
was reflected in the towns and villages of the Thai kingdom. The timing of this rapid growth in the
storys popularity then suggests a connection between the Vessantara Jataka and the expansion of
the Thai state.
The great surge in the popularity of the thet maha chat took place amidst a general courtled cultural efflorescence during this period. This can be attributed to three factors. First, following
the collapse of the Thai state under the Burmese attacks, cultural activity had come to an almost
complete halt. The court, the centre of cultural life of the kingdom, had ceased to exist. Burmese
forces in the area - and later bandits and looters - had ravaged the kingdoms most sacred cultural
treasures, razing Ayuthayas libraries, sacking and burning temples, stripping the gold from
Buddha images and decapitating them. Not only was Ayuthayas military power ruined, but its
status as the centre of Thai civilisation with a rich and illustrious cultural heritage reflecting the
prosperity of the kingdom had also been destroyed. Restoration of the courts cultural life was,
therefore, one of the main tasks of the new rulers.
A second reason for the resurgence of the courts interest in cultural affairs was that neither
Taksin, the half-Chinese military leader who had expelled the Burmese after 1767 and made
himself king, nor the Chakri brothers who overthrew him in 1782 and established the new dynasty,
had blood links with the old Ayuthayan dynasty. Strictly speaking, they were usurpers of the
throne. From the beginning Taksin faced this problem of legitimacy. Taksin was only one of many
local lords who had taken advantage of the disintegration of Ayuthayas power to claim their
independence. Such was the case with the rulers of the important cities of Nakhon Sri Thammarat
to the South, Nakhon Ratchasima to the northeast, Phitsanulok and Chiang Mai to the north.
Where even the authority of the local lord had disappeared, new, charismatic leader figures
appeared styling themselves as men of merit (phu mi bun) and acquired large followings, often
due to their religious background and appeal. It could be said that Taksin differed from these other
leaders only by virtue of his military success first in repelling the Burmese forces, and then in his
suppression of all other internal resistance. There is no evidence that Taksin had had a coronation
ceremony to proclaim himself king. He abandoned the ancient and sacred capital Ayuthaya and
established his palace - the symbolic centre of the new kingdom - at the previously unremarkable
town of Thonburi. For all his military prowess Taksin lacked not only the political alliances but
also the cultural and ideological authority which had disintegrated with the fall of Ayuthaya.
The men who deposed Taksin, Chaophraya Chakri and his brother Chaophraya Surasi, had
similar problems of legitimacy. They were, like Taksin, not of the Ayuthayan royal line. Their
claim to the kingdom, like Taksins, was based on sheer force of arms, although it received crucial

support from powerful sections of the old Ayuthayan nobility.242 Resurrection of the courts
ceremonial and cultural life, particularly during the reign of Rama I, was therefore partly directed
at convincing the old Ayuthayan elite of the cultural legitimacy of the new rulers.
A third reason for the courts renewed interest in culture, and particularly in the
dissemination of Buddhist narratives about authority like the Vessantara Jataka, was the
incorporation into the kingdom of peoples previously independent of Ayuthayas authority with
strong Theravada Buddhist traditions. These included the kingdom of Chiang Mai and its
dependencies, the Lao kingdoms, and Cambodia. The courts elevation of Buddhism virtually to
the status of the state religion, and the corresponding downplaying of Brahmanical notions of
kingship, prevented the potential instability that might have occurred with the incorporation of
these Buddhist heartlands.
This chapter, then, documents the popularity of the thet maha chat against the historical
background of the Thai kingdom in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It argues that
the storys popularity both at court and village level is an indication of its role in the expansion of
the Thai state. As in earlier periods of state formation, the storys significance lay in the notions it
expressed about authority and social order which were recognised throughout the Tai Buddhist
cultural world and which were ritually reaffirmed and disseminated further through the annual
performance of the thet maha chat. These notions - the importance for the authority of rulers of the
practice of giving; the idea of the ruler as a being constantly engaged in the practice of selfperfection which was the basis of both his moral authority and supernatural powers; and respect
for a hierarchical code of familial relations which was the foundation of a stable social order were cornerstones of the Thai state. Finally we will see how the Vessantara Jataka was connected
to a historical framework about the origin of kings, which conflated the genealogy of the Thai
kings with that of the Buddha, and thereby provided further ideological support for the new Chakri
dynasty. Even today, the story of Vessantara is still recognised by some Buddhist scholars as
primarily a story explaining the Buddhas origins.243
The Vessantara Jataka and the Thai Aristocracy
The spiritual centre of the new Thai state and the palladium of the Chakri dynasty was the Emerald
Buddha, a Buddha image which was housed within a specially constructed temple located within
the Grand Palace, the residence of the king. The Emerald Buddha had in fact been captured from
the Lao at Vientiane in 1778 by the victorious armies of the Chakri brothers and taken to the then
Thai capital, Thonburi. After the overthrow of Taksin the image had been transferred across the

242

See Nidhi Aeusrivongse, Kan muang thai samai phra chao krung thonburi (Thai Politics in the Time of the King of

Thonburi), Bangkok, Sinlapa Wathanatham, 1986.


243

Interview with Phor Yai Khen Lawong, local Buddhist scholar and author of a version of the Vessantara Jataka in

the Northeastern (Isan) dialect, at Ban Tha Sorng Khorn, Tambon Talat, Maha Sarakham Province, 20 September,
1992.

river to Bangkok. One of the titles of the holy image, ratanakosin, or Indras Jewel, came to
signify the new dynasty and indeed the new state.244 Possession of the image served to link the
Chakri rulers temporally to the person of the Buddha, for the image was considered to be a perfect
likeness of the Buddha. The images peripatetic history, which had seen it reside in most of the
great Buddhist centres of Southeast Asia and even northern India, meant that it had a claim as the
symbolic centre of the Buddhist world. The images particular significance to those Tai Buddhist
peoples who had been newly incorporated into the Chakri kingdom would have also made it a
powerful unifying symbol for the new Chakri Buddhist state. The images illustrious history, as
recounted in the Pali Ratanabimbavamsa (or History of the Jewel Image), was evidently of
considerable interest to Rama I, who had the text translated into Thai early in his reign,
presumably for recitation and the edification of the Thai elite, and perhaps for further
dissemination outside the court.245
This central icon of the Thai state became intimately associated with the Vessantara Jataka
under the early Chakri rulers. At least from the reign of Rama II the story and the sacred image
were at the centre of a royal ritual performed each year. On the first three days of the three-month
Buddhist Rains Retreat (khao phansa), the customary time for Buddhist ordination, the Maha chat
kham luang would be chanted (suat) by a team specially trained in the melodies and rhythms of the
chant, in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha before the sacred image.246 The custom survives at
the Temple of the Emerald Buddha until this day.247 The version chanted is that which was
supposedly composed by King Boromatrailokanat, the fifteenth century Ayuthayan king. The
chronicles mention that in 1812 under Rama II six chapters of the Maha chat kham luang which
had disappeared after the fall of Ayuthaya were rewritten by royal command, perhaps specifically
for recitation at the ceremony at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.248
This retelling of the story of the Buddhas penultimate life, in front of the kingdoms most
sacred Buddha image, during the Rains Retreat - a time symbolic of worldly renunciation - and
with the most senior aristocracy, monks and court officials of the Thai kingdom in attendance,
suggests that the occasion had immense political significance. It took place at the most sacred and
potent time of the seasonal cycle, and at the symbolic heart of Buddhist kingdom, both of which

244

For example, the history of the reign of Rama I was titled Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung ratanakosin ratchakan

thi 1, The Royal Chronicle of the First Reign of the Ratanakosin Kingdom.
245

See Phra Phromratchapanya, Ratanaphimphawong: tamnan phra kaew morakot (History of the Jewel Image:

Chronicle of the Emerald Jewel), translated from the Pali into Thai by Saeng Manawithun, Cremation Volume for
Phra Phutthiwongwiwat (Wong Thanawangsamahathera), Bangkok, 1987, (no pagination).
246

Chulalongkorn, King, Phra ratcha phithi sip sorng duan (The Royal Ceremonies of the Twelve Months), Bangkok,

Khlang Withaya, 1971, pp. 520-529.


247

Today the story is recited on the first three days, the middle three days, and the final three days of the Rains

Retreat; Interview with one of the chanters, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, 11 October 1992.
248

Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung ratanakosin ratchakan thi 2 (Royal Chronicle of the Second Reign), Book 2,

Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1962, pp. 197-8.

would have augmented the authority of the message being communicated. Politics is also not far
below the surface in the actual content of the text being publicly recited. The Vessantara Jataka
depicted a particular kind of Buddhist ruler who was at the same time both within and outside of
worldly affairs, and whose authority depended on this very paradox: the kings activities in the
worldly life were ostensibly designed for future Buddhahood. The chanting of the story thus
publicised among the Thai elite an ideal of Buddhist authority, and by association helped to affirm
the Thai ruler himself as a bodhisatta king, or future Buddha.
It seems that even before the ceremony in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha was devised
the thet maha chat had already become a regular royal ceremony. The royal thet maha chat
differed from the chanting of the Maha chat kham luang in that it was a much more public
occasion. Its purpose was manifold. Not only was it an occasion for the expression of the ideals
contained in the Vessantara Jataka through its recitation to an audience, but as a public ceremony
it was also an opportunity for the ritual demonstration of royal authority. Royal thet maha chat
were always extremely ostentatious occasions, and this aspect is recorded faithfully in the
chronicles, which seem to delight in describing the elaborate and expensive decorations involved
in these ceremonies. In particular they were occasions for great displays of alms giving, which, as
the Vessantara Jataka taught, was the principle path to Buddhahood - as well as to the royal throne.
The Royal Chronicle of the First Reign records a particularly spectacular thet maha chat which
took place in 1807 involving the whole palace, which vividly shows the exhibitionary nature of the
ceremony. Thirteen giant baskets (krachat), 33 feet wide and 47 feet high, one for each of the
thirteen chapters (kan) of the story, were set up in public outside the royal palace to receive
alms.249 Besides the great gifts of alms presented by the king, other alms-givers competed amongst
themselves to make the most munificent offering. One of the kings senior consorts actually
presented a child to the monks as alms, in imitation of Vessantaras gift of his children to the
brahman.250 Honorary offerings had also been sent by Siams tributary territories, with the rulers of
the Malay, Cambodian, and Lao states sending the traditional symbols of tributary submission, the
gold and silver trees.251 Here formal tributary obligations were mixed up with the general
celebration of the act of giving. The involvement of not only the king and the palace but also the
kings tributary vassals and the people of the royal capital thus made the thet maha chat a state
occasion. The royal thet maha chat was a spectacle, a display of the prosperity of the kingdom
evident in the alms-giving, and of the splendour of the royal court.
Other accounts of royal thet maha chat ceremonies which have survived (though of later
periods) reveal the same ostentatious character of the royal ceremony. On one occasion during the
reign of King Mongkut, a life-size Chinese junk, with great multi-tiered alms baskets set up on

249

Gerini, G.E., A Retrospective View and Account of the Origin of the Maha Chat Ceremony, Bangkok, 1892, pp. 32-

3.
250

Chaophraya Thiphakorawong (Kham Bunnak), Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung ratanakosin ratchakan thi 1

(Dynastic Chronicle of the First Reign), edited by Damrong Rajanubhab, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1983, p. 205.
251

Gerini, A Retrospective View, p. 33

deck in place of the masts, was erected outside the walls of the Grand Palace.252 Again in 1891,
under King Chulalongkorn, the thet maha chat was organized with great spectacle, with an even
bigger Chinese junk being set up to receive offerings of alms.253 The fact that the alms-giving
activities were located outside the walls of the Grand Palace is a further indication of the public
nature of the occasion.
The imitation Chinese junks associated with this ritual alms-giving in the royal thet maha
chat ceremonies had special significance. The boat is an important metaphor in the Vessantara
Jataka. When Vessantara explains to his son Chali why he must give him to the Brahman he uses
the boat as a metaphor for this superlative act of alms giving. By performing the gift of his
children to the Brahmin, Vessantara will have achieved that ideal of freedom from all worldy
attachments which will enable him to achieve enlightenment, and in so doing the means to convey
all living creatures to Nirvana. The gift is therefore like a boat which will carry its passengers
across the sea of endless rebirth to the distant shore of Nirvana:
Phra luk oei chao mai ru reu phra biturong banchong rak phra phothiyan wang cha yang
sat hai kham huang mahanaphop songsan hai thung fak
Pen yiang yang yort yak thi cha kham dai...
...phor hen tae na chao phra phi norng thang sorng ra
Chao chong ma pen mahasamphao thorng thammachat...
...kor cha laen rari luai chuai pai chon thung muang kaew
An klao laew khu phra amata maha nakhorn naruphan254
My son, do you not know that your father is determined in his desire for enlightenment?
That he wishes to help all living things to cross over the great sea of Becoming to the other
side
This is the hardest sea to cross...
...Your father sees you two children
As the great golden boat...
...which will steadfastly sail me to the bejewelled city
the timeless, great land of Nirvana
But the boat also had a less metaphoric and more literal significance to the early Bangkok rulers.
One has only to think of the economic importance of the junk trade to the early Bangkok kings to
see how powerful the association of the boat as a means of salvation was to the early Bangkok
merchant kings.255 Rama III, who had amassed great wealth from the junk trade actually

252

Ibid., p. 30.

Ibid., p. 31.
Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan (The Thirteen Chapter Version of the Great Vessantara Jataka),
Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1988, Kan Kuman pp. 210-12.
253
254

255

Nidhi has pointed out how Chao Phraya Phra Khlang (Hon), a poet who was also a senior figure at the court of

Rama, in his version of this chapter of the Vessantara Jataka describes the boat as a Chinese junk. The intimacy of the
description no doubt reflected the poets own close association with the junk trade; Nidhi, An nuang ma chak maha
chat muang phet, (On the Phetburi Vessantara Jataka), Pak kai lae bai rua: ruam khwam riang wa duai wannakam

constructed (or restored) a temple, Wat Yannawa, which had a life-sized junk situated inside the
temple grounds. The junk housed two cetiya, or receptacles of relics of the Buddha. At the stern of
the boat there were statues of Vessantara, and his two children, Kanha and Chali.256 On the inside
walls of the junk was inscribed the text of the Vessantara Jataka.257 This curious association of
signs points to a link between on the one hand, the theme of giving in the Vessantara Jataka, which
showed that the activity of giving was both a means of attaining royal power as well as an essential
activity of the good ruler for the well-being of his subjects; and on the other the kings conduct of
trade and commerce, which was another kind of exchange, but which had a similar effect of
bringing wealth and power to rulers and prosperity to the kingdom. The Vessantara Jatakas ideal
of the king as the greatest giver in the kingdom thus provided ideological justification for the
acquisition of wealth. For the early Bangkok kings the junk trade was the means by which they
were able to accumulate such large amounts of wealth and thus fulfil the ideal of king so widely
disseminated by the Vessantara Jataka.
Rama Is thet maha chat seems to have been the model for such performances of the
Vessantara Jataka held by later kings of the Chakri dynasty. The royal chronicles record a number
of particularly grand thet maha chat performances, such as that of 1851, the year of his coming to
the throne, when King Mongkut organized a thet maha chat ceremony of similar proportions to
that of his grandfather Rama I, in honour of the first three kings of the Chakri dynasty.258 The thet
maha chat was also performed at the so-called Front Palace (wang na), which was the palace of
the Prince who traditionally had direct responsibility for the kingdoms defence, who often
inherited the throne of the king proper (wang luang), and whose status in the kingdom was such
that he was often referred to by the foreign community (mistakenly) as the Second King.259 The
Front Palace Prince during the Fourth Reign, Pin Klao, (whose royal title showed him to be of
equal status with the king proper, Mongkut), was reputed to be a skilled reciter of the Vessantara
Jataka, and he even personally instructed those who wished to learn its intricate rhythms and

lae prawatisat ratanakosin (Quill and Sail: Collected Essays on Early Bangkok Literature and History), Bangkok,
Amarin, 1984, pp. 320-1.
256

These statues are said to have been destroyed by Allied bombing raids over Bangkok during World War Two; cf.

Damrong Rajanubhab, Prawat wat yannawa (History of Wat Yannawa) in Chumnum phra niphon somdet krom
phraya Damrong Rajanubhab (Prince Damrong Rajanubhabs Collected Writings), Bangkok, Bannakit, 1991, pp.
42ff.
257

Atchara, Kan fun fu phra phuttha satsana nai samai ratanakosin torn ton, p. 32, n. 4); Prawat wat samkhan thang

phutthasatsana torn thi 7 (History of Important Buddhist Temples, Part 7), Religious Affairs Department, Ministry of
Education, Bangkok, 1986, p.276.
258

Chaophraya Thiphakorawong, Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung ratanakosin ratchakan thi 4 (Royal Chronicle of

the Fourth Reign), 2nd ed., Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1978, pp. 77-80.
259

At least from the reign of King Pin Klao, Mongkuts younger brother, and technically his equal in rank; Latthi

thamniam tang tang (Beliefs and Customs), Krom Sinlapakorn, Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1972, pp. 551-2, 569-574.

melodies.260 Again we see the clear association between the Vessantara Jataka and kings - or
would-be kings. It will be remembered that at the beginning of the story Vessantara is a prince,
and through his feats of alms-giving eventually becomes king.
Indeed, knowledge of the story - and public demonstration of this knowledge - by would-be
kings was ritualised by the Thai court. At least by the Second Reign a custom had been established
whereby the presumed heir to the throne who had entered the monkhood as a novice, memorised
and recited in front of an audience a chapter (kan) from the Maha chat. In 1817 the novice Prince
Mongkut, at the time technically first in line to the throne, recited a chapter from the Vessantara
Jataka to his father, King Rama II.261 Prince Chetsadabodin, Mongkuts half-brother who later
managed to assume the throne ahead of Mongkut, also invited the young Mongkut to recite at an
elaborate thet maha chat ceremony held at his palace. Later when Mongkut himself was king, he
had his son and chosen successor, the young Chulalongkorn, recite a chapter of the Vessantara
Jataka which Mongkut had himself composed specially for the occasion.262 In 1891 King
Chulalongkorn, in turn, had the Crown Prince his son Prince Wachirunhit, also recite the same
chapter from the Vessantara Jataka.263 The new Crown Prince after Wachirunhits untimely death,
Prince Wachirawut (Vajiravudh), later Rama VI, had also trained to give a recital, but his
departure to England to further his education prevented him from actually giving it.264
The custom of reciting a chapter from the Maha chat was eventually extended to all young
males of the aristocracy and nobility. Special teachers were used to train the princes in the vocal
art of the storys recitation.265 Indeed the custom became so popular that Prince Damrong noted
later that almost every prince of the somdet phra chao luk thoe and phra chao luk thoe rank
(mostly Mongkuts sons) who had been novices during the Fourth and Fifth Reigns (1851-1910)
had recited a chapter, using King Mongkuts own version of the Maha chat. Among these were
most of the highest ranking members of the court of the Fifth Reign, including Damrong himself,
Sangha head Prince Patriarch Wachirayan, Foreign Minister Thewawong (Devawongse), the
kings Private Secretary Sommut Amoraphan, Narathip Praphanphong, Naritsaranuwattiwong,

260

Thiphawan Bunwira, Lae khruang len maha chat (Popular Tunes in the Maha Chat), Sinlapakorn (Journal of Fine

Arts), 22, 2, 1978, p. 63.


261

Damrong Rajanubhab, Phra ratcha phongsawadan krung ratanakosin ratchakan thi 2 (Dynastic Chronicle of the

Second Reign), Book 2, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1962 (1st publ. 1916), p. 17. The chapter was kan matsi.
262

Damrong Rajanubhab, Prawat bukkhon samkhan (Biographies of Important People), Bangkok, Bannakit, 1988, pp.

54-5; Phra ratcha phithi sip sorng duan, p. 75; the chapter was Sakkabap kan.
263

Gerini, A Retrospective View, p. 31. The rank Crown Prince had been newly created by Chulalongkorn after the

British model, in order to minimize the potential of political instability in the royal succession.
264

Damrong Rajanubhab, kham athibai (Explanation), Maha chat phra ratchaniphon nai ratchakan thi 4 (The

Fourth Reign Kings Version of the Maha Chat), Cremation Volume, Morm Chao Chongkonni Wathanawong,
Bangkok, 1965, (1st publ. 1920), pp. kor-khor.
265

Maha chat phra ratchaniphon nai ratchakan thi 4, p. kor.

Phichit Prichakorn, Phanuphanthuwongworadet, and many others.266 Oral performance of the thet
maha chat was an integral part of the education of the sons of the Thai aristocracy and future
rulers of the kingdom, once again illustrating the connection between the Vessantara Jataka and
authority in the Thai kingdom.
The early Bangkok period was the golden age for the composition of recitation versions of
the Vessantara Jataka at the Thai court. Court poets competed to create the most beautiful versions
of the story - ie. versions which would be rendered orally by the reciters in the most pleasing
manner - while nevertheless keeping closely to the basic structure and meaning of the Pali original.
It should not be forgotten that the thet maha chat was a performance, and the aesthetics of the
performance was highly valued. Among the poets whose versions of chapters of the Vessantara
Jataka are now regarded as classics of the Thai language are Chaophraya Phra Khlang (Hon), who
was Rama Is minister in charge of Trade and Foreign Affairs and a poet of great repute, PrincePatriarch Paramanuchit, head of the Sangha in the Third Reign, Phra Thepmoli (Klin), another
senior monk, King Mongkut himself, and many others whose work has not survived.
There is no doubt therefore that the Vessantara was highly valued knowledge for Thai
kings and the Thai elite in general. Yet we know that the story was most certainly not confined to
the Thai court, as was the case with other examples of high culture. The storys permeation of
popular culture seems to have been equally deep.
The Maha chat in Popular Culture
One measure of the general popularity of the thet maha chat throughout the kingdom is in the first
of the so-called Sangha Laws. Between 1782 and 1801 Rama I issued an unprecedented set of
laws designed to give the Chakri court greater control over the Sangha and over the kingdoms
religious affairs in general. Following the collapse of the kingdom of Ayuthaya the organisation of
the Sangha, like other institutions of the Ayuthayan kingdom, had fallen into disarray. During the
reign of Taksin the Sangha had become divided and highly politicised, with the king stripping
several senior monks of their ranks for insubordination. Moreover many of the rebellions and
uprisings subsequent to the fall of Ayuthaya, during Taksins reign, and indeed through into the
twentieth century, were led by religious figures, and conceptualised in religious, often millenarian
terms. If protest against the authority of the Thai king was informed by religious belief, then court
surveillance and suppression of deviant religious activity was a defence against such outbreaks. It
was under these circumstances that the king directly intervened in the affairs of the Sangha, a rare
occurrence in Thai state - religious relations.267

266

Maha chat phra ratchaniphon nai ratchakan thi 4, pp. kor-khor; and Maha chat phra niphon krom somdet phra

paramanuchit chinorot (wen tae kan mahaphon kap kan matsi) (Prince Paramanuchit Chinorots Version of the
Maha Chat, Not Including Mahaphon and Matsi Chapters), National Library, Bangkok, Thai Printing, 1918, pp. 27-9.
267

David K. Wyatt, The "Subtle Revolution" of King Rama I of Siam in David K. Wyatt and Alexander Woodside,

eds., Moral Order and the Question of Change, pp. 22-3.

The first of these ten special Sangha laws (kot phra song), issued in 1782, prohibited socalled buffoonish (talok khanorng) performances of the thet maha chat:268
At this time the entire populace of the kingdom are holding recitations of the
Vessantara Jataka. However they do not respect the story as part of the Dhamma.
They listen only to the buffoonish poetry, which is of no benefit to them. Some of
the monks who recite the story have not studied the Tripitika. They know only the
parts which have been put into song-verse (kap klorn), which they then recite in a
bufoonish and obscene manner. They are interested only in fame and riches. They
have never desired to study and pass on the knowledge of the Dhamma. This is
damaging to the religion and encourages people to be careless in teaching the
Dhamma. Such people will suffer long torment in the four hells...
So from now on the king orders that monks who give sermons and the people who
listen to the recitation of the Maha Chat Jataka, must recite and listen to only the
Pali canonical verses and the Commentary...the recitation of and listening to
sermons in song-verse or the expression of buffoonish words for comic purposes is
strictly forbidden...269
The regulation was addressed to all royal officials, including both military and civilian authorities,
the Krom (Ministry) heads, the Front Palace, City officials, and the Sangha authorities and abbots
both within Bangkok and in the kingdoms First, Second and Third Class cities of the Western,
Eastern, Southern and Northern regions of the kingdom, and everywhere.270 Violators of the law
along with their relatives were liable for unspecified punishment.271
This regulation, then, gives us the first indication of the thet maha chats popularity at the
beginning of the First Reign. The courts crackdown on such buffoonish recitations of the
Vessantara Jataka, the fact that it was the very first of the Sangha laws and enacted in the critical
year of Rama Is seizure of power, and the promulgation of the law through all the kingdoms
agencies, all indicate the importance the court attached to the proper performance of the thet maha
chat. If the storys value in the eyes of the court derived from the ideas it expressed in regard to
authority and social order, then the buffoonish treatment of the story in some popular recitations
implied an attack not just on a religious story but on those very ideas of authority that underlay the
rule of the Thai king and order within the Thai kingdom.
The effectiveness of the law is difficult to judge from the existing records. Perhaps rather
than a law (kot) it should be regarded more as an articulation of an elite norm. But it certainly did
not impede the popularity of the thet maha chat in the villages and towns of the new, greater Thai
kingdom. Other references in documents of the Early Bangkok period, for example in the long

268

Kot phra song 1 (Monastic Regulation Number 1), Kotmai tra sam duang (The Three Seals Law), Book 4, pp.

164-9.
269 Ibid., pp. 167-9.
270

These were the terms for grading towns and cities according to their distance from and relative importance to

Bangkok.
271

Ibid., pp. 164, 169.

narrative Khun chang khun phaen, bear witness to the pervasiveness of the thet maha chat outside
the court.272 Many extant versions of the story written in the northern Tai dialect from around the
region of Chiang Mai also date from this era.273
The laws ban on the versification of the story for the purposes of singing the text seems
also to have had little effect. In any case, for many audiences this was the principal attraction of
the thet maha chat in the first place. Monks became famous for their skill in reciting particular
chapters of the Vessantara Jataka, and would receive invitations to perform at thet maha chat
ceremonies far and wide. The principal device employed to attract and entertain the audience was
the monks distinctive melodic and rhythmic style of reciting the verse (known as thamnorng
maha chat). The thet maha chat was unique for its singing style of preaching Buddhist scripture.
This style of recitation made listening to the lengthy narrative, which went on from before dawn
until late at night on the same day, not only endurable but highly entertaining for audiences. Each
chapter had a different style of recitation, a different vocal repertoire, and it was rare that any one
monk could master the complete repertoire. So thet maha chat performances usually involved
several monks, and sometimes even novices.
The charismatic monk Somdet Phra Phuthachan (To), who was close to the Thai court in
the mid-nineteenth century, was a reknowned performer, and is known to have preached in village
temples as well as at the royal court. His rendering of the Matsi chapter of the Vessantara Jataka,
in which Matsi frantically searches the forest for her children, was reputed to have moved
audiences to tears.274 Monks had to train for many years in order to become skilled in the arts of
recitation - much in the manner of Western opera singers. Monks who were accomplished in
reciting the Maha chat were sometimes known by the title of maha (or the great).
It was not purely for the love of performance that monks became nak thet or reciters of
the Vessantara Jataka. The alms giving at the thet maha chat was the greatest of any festival of the
year. It was an opportunity for the local big men to flaunt their wealth and gain face in the eyes
of the community.275 The alms giving which took place at thet maha chat ceremonies, ostensibly
for personal merit-making, was also a competition for social status in which the whole community
was involved. It appears to bear a certain similarity to Mauss agonistic contest of giving in
archaic societies, in which gift giving took the form of a kind of war of wealth.276 During the

272

Cf. Sepha ruang khun chang khun phaen: phra ratchaniphon phra bat somdet phra phutthaloetlanaphalai (The

Ballad of Khun Chang and Khun Phaen), Bangkok, Krom Sinlapakorn, 1971, pp. 54ff.
273

Cf. Rai chu nangsu boran lanna ekasan microfilm khorng sathaban wichai sangkhom, mahawithayalai chiang mai

phor sor 2521-2533 (Catalogue of Ancient Lanna Literature on Microfilm, University of Chiang Mai Social Research
Institute, 1978-1990), Chiang Mai, 1990, pp. 239-280.
274

"Chanthichai", Somdet phra phuthachan (To), Vol. 1, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1983, pp. 28-34.

275

Chanthichais account of the performance given at a small village by Somdet To is a good illustration of this; ibid.,

Vol. 1, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1983, pp. 28-34.


276

Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. Ian Cunnison, London,

Cohen and West, 1950, p. 35.

thet maha chat ceremony the audience would attempt to outdo each other in their alms-giving.
Because of the large amounts of money involved, it was an opportunity for skilled monks to
become very wealthy, a situation recognised in Rama Is Sangha Law. It remained a problem
through to the Fourth Reign, when King Mongkut issued a pronouncement criticising the
opportunists who organised thet maha chat ceremonies purely for selfish financial gain.277
The courts concern with rogue monks performing the thet maha chat for fame and riches
came amidst the general concern with religious figures who often became leaders of local or even
regional revolts. It is worth bearing in mind the similarity of these provincial monastic figures
reciting the Vessantara Jataka, and the situation at the royal court where young would-be kings and
sons of the aristocracy and nobility were also reciting the story amidst great pomp and ceremony.
There was a potential, therefore, for these local recitations to greatly enhance the status of local
power figures. The great alms giving that these ceremonies occasioned could also provide these
figures with financial power and a network of obligations which had the potential to pose a
challenge to the state authorities.
For the Vessantara Jataka was a story not specifically about the power of the Thai king, but
about authority and social order in general. This was one of the reasons for its popularity at local
level. Local figures, regional lords, even the rulers of tributary states like the Chiang Mai kings,
were happy to patronise the Vessantara Jataka because it could disseminate images of kingship and
authority which enhanced their own power: the idea of the benevolent ruler and the greatest giver,
the supreme moral being, and a future Buddha, whose ascetic abilities endowed him with
supernatural powers. The great alms which took place in the thet maha chat ceremony worked to
support the local Sangha, and thus indirectly aided central authority. And the Vessantara Jatakas
message about adherence to ones duty in the hierarchy of kin relations also promoted social order
based on seniority and gender. So the kind of authority the Vessantara Jataka idealised was a
decentralised and therefore potentially unstable one. It was suited to the conditions of a
premodern Southeast Asian kingdom where direct royal administration was impossible for all but
the most adjacent areas to the royal city. The thet maha chat helped create a cultural community in
which the authority of the Thai king could be understood by diverse and dispersed rural
communities in the same cultural terms. It thereby actied as a cohesive force. On the other hand, it
also provided the opportunity for local figures to take advantage of the same concepts of authority
and thus become a threat to the integration of the Thai kingdom. This was a perennial problem
which the court had to deal with on an ad hoc basis, until the arrival of the colonial powers in the
later nineteenth century necessitated a fundamental change in the type of political order used to
hold the kingdom together.
For local, rural audiences the attraction of the thet maha chat was manifold. The recitation
of the story had developed into a highly refined vocal art which was greatly popular with the
people. Different regions developed their own highly distinctive vocal styles of recitation, and

277

Nangsu chotmaihet - The Bangkok Recorder, Vol. 1, November 18 1965, No. 18, Ruang niyai khorng luang, p.

161.

Maha chat texts were written in the local vernacular. Through this art audiences were attracted to
the story and its ideas and values widely inculcated. Yet while local power figures could use the
story to enhance their own authority, at the same time it provided a moral code by which they
would be judged by those under their authority.
Let us now look more closely at this moral code and how the figure of Vessantara became
the model for supreme political authority in the Thai kingdom, the Thai king.
Kingship and the Ten Perfections
A number of scholars have shown how prior to the mid-nineteenth century Thai kings were
directly referred to as bodhisattas or future Buddhas, and were represented in documents
emanating from the court as possessing qualities similar to those of the bodhisatta.278 As
bodhisatta the kings were depicted as being committed to the accumulation of the Ten Perfections,
or barami, in the same way as Gotama Buddha had done in his previous incarnations when he was
a bodhisatta. For example, the lengthy and elaborate names which kings assumed on their
enthronement often included the title nor phutthangkun or nor somdet phra phuttha chao,
meaning one who will in the future become a Buddha - the same appellation of the bodhisatta in
the Vessantara Jataka.279 In performing meritorious deeds Thai kings were said to phoem phra
barami, sang phra barami, or bamphen barami - increase their barami, or Perfections, in the
hope of attaining enlightenment at some time in the future, and thereby delivering all living beings
from suffering.280 King Taksin was praised by sections of his clergy for his accumulation of the ten
kinds of barami (namely Giving, Moral Conduct, Renunciation, Wisdom, Exertion, Patience,

278

See S.J.Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand Against A

Historical Background, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1976; Nidhi Aeusrivongse, Prawatisat ratanakosin
nai phra ratchaphongsawadan ayuthaya (Bangkok History in the Royal Chronicles of Ayuthaya), Thai Khadi Suksa,
Thammasat University, Bangkok, 1980, pp. 50-65; and Kan muang thai samai phra chao krung thonburi, pp. 114-6;
Atchara, Kan fun fu phra phutthasatsana; Saichon, Phutthasatsana kap naew khwam khit thang kan muang;
Phimphada Yangcharoen and Suwadi Thanaprasitphathana, Kan suksa lae phon krathop tor sangkhom thai samai ton
ratanakosin (por.sor. 2325-2394) (Education and Its Effects on Thai Society in the Early Bangkok Period), Bangkok,
Chulalongkorn University, 1986; Princess Sirindhorn, Thotsabarami nai phutthasatsana therawat (The Ten
Perfections in Theravada Buddhism), Published by Mahamakut Ratchawithayalai Under Royal Patronage, in
Commemoration of 200 Years of the Chakri Dynasty, Bangkok, 1982.
279

See Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan (The Great Vessantara Jataka: the Thirteen Chapter Edition),

Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1988; for the names of the first three kings of the Chakri dynasty which include the title maha
phutthangun see Somphong Kriangkraiphet, Prapheni thai lae ruang na ru (Thai Customs and Things Worth
Knowing), Bangkok, Phrae Phithaya, 1964, pp. 613-616.
280

Another phrase of similar meaning commonly found in these works is sang phothisomphan.

Truthfulness, Resolution, Loving Kindness, and Equanimity281), after the model of the Buddhas
own accumulation of the ten barami during his existence as a bodhisatta.282
Of the two Chakri brothers who later deposed Taksin, a First Reign chronicle wrote that
...There were two royal kings who had previously resided in Ayuthaya. They were
bodhisattas, future Buddhas. They possessed much bunya barami which they had
accumulated [from previous incarnations]. They were men of great faith and
wisdom. They desired only enlightenment...283
According to the chronicles of the time it was the power of their barami (usually expressed
as duai decha phra barami) that enabled kings to defeat their enemies and perform supernatural
feats such as causing the rain to fall, or the earth to quake. Such manifestations of royal power are
commonly recorded in historical works written from the late eighteenth up to the mid-nineteenth
centuries. For example, among the many miraculous royal feats recorded by the Royal Chronicle
of Thonburi, King Taksin is depicted as having calmed a storm which threatened his fleet through
the power of his barami accumulated in past incarnations.284 The same chronicles account of the
kings campaign to oust the Burmese from Chiang Mai records that
When the king moved the royal army [to Chiang Mai] the Burmese army fled. It was
a miracle. The Burmese army had fled because of the power of the kings barami.
The monks of Chiang Mai said that on the morning of the kings arrival a miracle
occurred when the earth quaked in Chiang Mai city.285
In a passage from another historical account from the early nineteenth century, the accession of
King Rama I to the throne in 1782 by dethroning the reigning king in a bloody coup is represented
using the vivid metaphor of the bodhisattas defeat of Mara (the embodiment of evil and delusion)
through the power of his barami.286 The same metaphor is also used in a late eighteenth-century
chronicle in describing King Naresuans famous victory over the Burmese Uparacha in 1593: the

281

In Thai: than barami, sin barami, nekkhamma barami, panya barami, viriya barami, khanti barami, sacca barami,

adhitthan barami, metta barami, upekkha barami.


Saichon, Phutthasatsana kap naew khwam khit thang kan muang, p. 186.
Somdet Phra Wanarat, Sangkhitiyawong: phongsawadan ruang sangkhayana phra thammawinai (Sangitiyavamsa:
Chronicle of the Recensions of the Scriptures), Translated by Phraya Pariyatithammathada (Phae Tanlaksamon),
Cremation Volume, Somdet Phra Phuthachan (Wanathitiyan Mahathera), Bangkok, 1978, p. 424.
282
283

284

See Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung thonburi (The Royal Chronicle of the Kingdom of Thonburi), in Prachum

phongsawadan (Collected Histories), Vol. 40, pt. 65, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1969, p. 41.
285 Ibid., p. 64.
286

Chotmaihet khwam song cham khorng krommaluang narintharathewi (phor.sor.2310-2381) lae phra

ratchawichan nai phra bat somdet phra chula chorm klao chao yu hua (Recorded Memoirs of Princess
Narintharathewi (1777-1838) and Commentary by King Chulachormklao), Cremation Volume, Phrachao
Boromawongthoe Phraongchao Wapibutsabakorn, Bangkok, March 1983, pp. 15, 185.

Uparacha is represented as Mara and Naresuan as the bodhisatta.287 This metaphor is a particularly
effective one as the image of the defeat or subduing of Mara (drawn from texts on the progress of
the bodhisatta) is probably the best-known of all images in Theravada Buddhism, and is often
depicted graphically on the walls of temples.
Princes or vassals who submitted to the overlordship of the king were said to phung phra
barami, or to come under the protection of the kings barami. Defeated armies are depicted as
being unable to stand up to the kings barami. Enemies of the king were said not to believe in the
kings barami. The kings barami was also reflected in the kingdoms prosperity; and if disaster
struck such as famine or epidemic, this showed that the kings barami was failing, and at such
dangerous times kings had to make great displays of merit-making (usually alms-giving) to prove
their legitimacy.288 Another way was to test ones barami (siang phra barami). For example,
the following incident from the reign of King Taksin is recorded in the Royal Chronicle compiled
in the Fourth Reign:
...having paid respect to the sacred Buddha image at Wat Klang Doi Khao Kaew the
king addressed the monks "do you remember, monks, when I was at Rahaeng I lifted
a great jewelled bell up and pledged to put my barami to the test? I said that if in the
future I was truly to achieve the victory of enlightenment, when I hit the jewelled
bell it would crack at the spot which I touched, and then I would build a stupa
containing a Holy Relic. After I made this pledge and hit the bell a crack did appear
at just that spot, a miracle for all to see". The monks blessed the king, affirming his
words.289
The representation of kings as bodhisattas accumulating the Perfections was not, moreover,
limited to written documents. Besides the bodhisattas defeat of Mara, one of the most common
subjects for temple artists was the last ten Jatakas - the thotsachat. Each of these ten Jatakas was
supposed to represent the attainment by the bodhisatta of one particular Perfection (barami), and
appropriate scenes from each Jataka were chosen for painting. These scenes were painted in order
around the walls inside the temple, in the manner of the Stations of the Cross in Christian
churches. In many temples the Vessantara Jataka would be given prominence, with the temple
walls displaying scenes from all thirteen chapters (kan) of the story.290 In these illustrations of the

287

Sunait Chutintaranond, The Image of the Burmese Enemy in Thai Perceptions and Historical Writing, The

Journal of the Siam Society, Vol. 80, Part 1, 1992, p. 92; Phra ratchaphongsawadan chabap phanchanthanumat (The
Phanchanthanumat Version of the Royal Chronicle), Prachum phongsawasan (Collected Histories), Vol. 38, Part 64,
Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1969, pp. 252-3
Atchara, Kan fun fu phra phutthasatsana, pp. 33-5.
Phra ratchaphongsawadan chabap phra ratchahatthalekha (The Royal Autograph Version of the Royal
Chronicle), Vol.2, Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1973, pp. 374-5; the same incident is recorded in Phra
ratchaphongsawadan krung thonburi, p. 75.
288
289

290

See for example, Wat Khongkharam, Thai Wathanaphanit, Bangkok, 1978; Chitrakam fa phanang thonburi

(Thonburi Wall Paintings), Society for the Conservation of National Art Treasures and Environment, Bangkok, 1980;
Wat Chongnonsi, Mural Paintings of Thailand Series, Bangkok, Muang Boran, 1982; Wat Suwannaram, Mural
Paintings of Thailand Series, Bangkok, Muang Boran, 1982; Wat Ratchasittharam, Mural Paintings of Thailand

Vessantara and other Jatakas painted from the late Ayuthaya and early Bangkok periods the
bodhisatta is commonly depicted dressed in garments and regalia identical to those worn by the
Thai kings.291 Such illustrations are significant not merely for their aesthetic value; they also
helped to disseminate through visual means the conception of the king as bodhisatta.
It is in relation to this concept of perfectibility, of the kings status as a bodhisatta
accumulating the Perfections, that the Vessantara Jataka was of special relevance to the Thai
kings. The Vessantara Jataka marks the completion of the bodhisattas accumulation of the
Perfections which he had begun countless lifetimes previously. Attainment of the Perfections was
the prerequisite to enlightenment, which would be achieved in the following incarnation. It is
understandable then that the bodhisattas incarnation as Vessantara was the most popular model
for Thai kings to emulate, for like Vessantara they too could be considered to be bodhisattas, who
in their next incarnation were destined to achieve enlightenment. Rama Is great gifts of alms
during the grandiose thet maha chat ceremony mentioned above was, in the words of one account,
intended to speed the king on the way to attain Buddhaship at some future existence when he
would be enabled, in accordance with the Gospel of Salvation preached by Gotama Buddha, to
lead all sentient beings to the attainment of Nirvana, thus emancipating them from the evils of
continued rebirths.292
Of all the Perfections, the Perfection of Giving was given pride of place. Vessantaras great
feats of alms-giving became a model for kings to emulate. In the chronicles it is in the activity of
alms-giving that kings most ostentatiously demonstrated their piety. The extent to which kings
sought to model themselves on Vessantara was sometimes extraordinary. For example, King
Taksin is recorded as having said to his monks on the subject of his dedication to alms-giving:

Series, Bangkok, Muang Boran, 1982; Wat Dusidaram, Mural Paintings of Thailand Series, Bangkok, Muang Boran,
1983; Buddhaisawan Chapel, Mural Paintings of Thailand Series, Bangkok, Muang Boran, 1983; Sombat Plainoi,
Mural Paintings, trans. Panit Boonyawatana, ed. Malithat Pramathattavedi, Office of the National Culture
Commission, Bangkok (No Date); for Jataka paintings in Northeastern temples see Wannipha Na Songkhla, Kan
anurak chitrakam fa phanang phak isan (The Preservation of Isan Wall Painting) in Sing faeng ren yu nai chitrakam
fa phanang isan (Things Hidden in Isan Wall Paintings), Conference, Khorn Kaen University, 2 - 4 December 1983,
pp. 1-7; Saengarun Kanokphongchai, Khati khwam chua ruang maha chat chadok: kan plian plaeng lae kan sup nuang
sathorn chak phap chitrakam fa phanang korani suksa chapo phap chitrakam fa phanang nai phra ubosot wat
suwannaram (Beliefs Related to the Vessantara Jataka: Change and Continuity Reflected in Wall Paintings, A Case
Study of the Wall Paintings in the Chanting Hall of Wat Suwannaram), M.A. Thesis, Sinlapakorn University,
Bangkok, 1989; For an example of a temple with carved wooden reliefs of the Vessantara Jataka fixed around the
outside walls of the temple see Wat kut bang khem: bot mai sak cham lak lai (Wat Kut Bang Khem: Carvings in a
Teak Chapel), Office for the Promotion of National Identity, Bangkok, 1990.
291

Nidhi, Phra pathom somphothikatha kap khwam khluan wai thang satsana nai ton ratanakosin (The Phra

Patomsomphothikatha and Religious Change in the Early Bangkok Period), Pak kai lae bai rua, pp. 403-4.
292

Gerini, A Retrospective View, p. 33.

Even were you to desire my own flesh and blood I would carve out my flesh and
blood and give them as alms.293
This is an almost verbatim repetition of Vessantaras words to his wife Matsi, on his devotion to
the Perfection of Giving:
If anyone should desire my skin, flesh, blood, heart and both eyes
I would not flinch from cutting them out and giving them as alms...294
Similarly, on the coronation of King Rama III in 1824 a chronicle records that the king went to
great lengths to imitate the bodhisatta Vessantara by symbolically giving away to a monk (in a
staged ritual) the kings own son and daughter.295 The same chronicle describes how the king also
performed the Great Gift of the Seven Hundreds (satasadokmahathan) in imitation of
Vessantaras gift to the citizens of Sivi.296 Older chronicles document kings of earlier periods
performing the same feat.297 The often stated desire of kings for enlightenment by way of great
deeds of charity such as Vessantaras was, moreover, reinforced by orthodox belief based on
religious texts, which held that all bodhisattas either past, present or future, had similar careers,
and that in their penultimate incarnation they would give away their wife and children to achieve

Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung thonburi, p. 33.


Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan, (kan matsi), p. 254. See also p. 18 (kan himaphan): "If beggars
desire my heart, flesh, and blood I would cut them out and give them as alms". The author of the former verse,
Chaophraya Phra Khlang (Hon), was head of the royal treasury in the reign on Rama I. This may go some way in
explaining the verses similarity to that taken from the Thonburi chronicle (in which Taksins alms-giving prowess is
referred to) which was revised in the reign of Rama I.
293
294

295

Atchara, Kan fun fu phra phutthasatsana, p. 32. The kings son and daughter were returned to the king later. Note

that in the Questions of King Milinda, one of the best-known commentaries in Theravada Buddhist countries, all
bodhisattas were required to give away their wife and children just as Vessantara had done; see Milindas Questions,
Vol.II, translated from the Pali by I.B.Horner, Sacred Books of the Buddhists, Vol.XXIII, Pali Text Society, London,
1964, pp. 95ff.
296

See Chaophraya Thiphakorawong, Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung ratanakosin ratchakan thi 3 (Dynastic

Chronicles of Bangkok, the Third Reign), Vol. 1, Bangkok, 1961, p. 120. The Great Gift of the Seven Hundreds was
made up of seven hundred elephants, seven hundred horses, seven hundred chariots, seven hundred noblewomen,
seven hundred female slaves, seven hundred male slaves, and seven hundred cows. For the original Great Gift of the
Seven Hundreds by Prince Vessantara see Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan, pp. 54-6.
297

For the performance of this feat by King Prasat Thorng in 1638 (but in multiples of one hundred) see

Chulayutthakanwong (Chronicle of Minor Battles), Prachum phongsawadan (Collected Histories), Vol. 41, part 66,
Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1969, p. 84; and for that of eighteenth century king Boromakot see Kham hai kan khun luang
ha wat, in Kham hai kan chao krung kao, kham hai kan khun luang ha wat, lae phra ratchaphongsawadan krung kao
chabap luang prasoet aksoranit (Testimony of the People of the Old Capital, Testimony of Khun Luang Ha Wat, and
Luang Prasoet Aksoranit version of the Royal Chronicle of the Old Capital), Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1972, p. 384.

the Perfection of Giving just as Vessantara had done.298 It is surely due to this idealization of the
bodhisatta-king that in the reign of King Rama III we see great respect accorded to the Jataka
stories generally. One of the clearest illustrations of this respect is the inscription of the entire five
hundred and fifty Jatakas upon the walls of Wat Phra Chetuphon, one of the kingdoms highest
ranking temples, in this reign.299
The extent of the Thai kings identification with Vessantara can also be seen in peculiar
customs such as, for example, naming the kings white elephant, itself one of the most potent
symbols of the kings barami300 and simultaneously a guarantor of the kingdoms prosperity, after
Vessantaras white elephant, Patchai Nakhen.301 Parallels between the Vessantara Jataka and the
conduct of kings were also noticed by observers. One early nineteenth century account of the often
difficult relations between the wang luang (Royal Palace) and the wang na (Front Palace) in the
First Reign, which is sympathetic to the wang na, compares the wang na king when he entered the
monkhood to Vessantara, and the wang luang king to Sanjaya, who in the Vessantara Jataka had
sent his son into exile.302
For the Thai kingdom the Vessantara Jataka was the classic performative text about
kingship, or more specifically, a Buddhist formulation of authority based on the ideal of
perfectibility. This explains why the narrative received such attention from the Thai kings, from
the great state ceremonial recitations performed annually at the Thai court to the education of the
children of the Thai aristocracy and nobility with its ideals. The storys illustration of the
exemplary ruler accounts for the extent to which it, along with the rest of the Jatakas, was the most
widely disseminated of all Buddhist scripture in popular culture. The attempts by the court to
regulate popular recitations of the Vessantara Jataka in the First Reign would appear in this light to
reflect the courts concern that the integrity of the story - which expounded a set of ideals upon
which political authority in the Thai kingdom was based - be properly respected by the kingdoms
subjects. Indeed, a very immediate concern for political authority, to which the Vessantara Jataka
was perceived to contribute, would appear to have been behind this particular regulation, for it

See, for example, Milindas Questions, a Pali commentary well known in Thai Buddhism: Milindas Questions, p.

298

95.
299

Prachum charuk wat phra chetuphon (Collection of Inscriptions from Wat Phra Chetuphon), Cremation Volume,

Somdet Phra Ariyawongsakhotayan, Phra Sangkharat (Pun Punnasiri), Bangkok, 1974, pp. 3, 109-118.
300

The white elephant was sometimes referred to as khu phra barami or partnerof the kings barami; see Phra

ratchaphongsawadan krung ratanakosin ratchakan thi 2, Part 2, p. 191.


301

Eg. Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung kao chabap luang prasoet, p. 457; for Vessantaras white elephant see Maha

wetsandorn chadok chabap 13 kan, p. 17.


302

Saichon, Phutthasatsana kap naew khwam khit thang kan muang, p. 139; cf. Chotmaihet khwam song cham

khorng kromaluang narintharathewi, p. 273.

came in the same year as the Chakri brothers coup against Taksin, a time of considerable
instability in the Thai kingdom when the need for political authority was never greater.303
Models of authority and their dissemination were also essential for the integration of newly
conquered peoples into the greater Thai state. Integration into the Thai kingdom required more
than just military control but also a process of drawing these peoples more closely into the cultural
orbit of the Thai monarchy. For example, after the successful completion of the war between the
Thai and the Vietnamese over hegemony in Cambodia in the mid-nineteenth century, King Rama
III ordered a number of texts to be sent to the country, among which archival sources specifically
mention the Vessantara Jataka and the last ten Jatakas, the thotsachat, which described the
bodhisattas accumulation of the Ten Perfections.304 The Thai court was concerned to reassert the
cultural hegemony of the Thai in Cambodia after the devastation of a protracted war and the forced
imposition of Vietnamese cultural norms.305 Unless one appreciates the connection between
culture and authority in the regional politics of nineteenth century mainland Southeast Asia the
Thai concern about such cultural matters which is so evident in the sources of the time appears
strange. The imposition of Vietnamese culture had included the teaching of Vietnamese language,
the use of Vietnamese weights, measures, fashions and coiffures, a disdain for Buddhism, and
most importantly the imposition of Vietnamese Confucian bureaucratic models.306 This latter
action was a direct attack on traditional Cambodian - and Thai - notions of authority since it
devalued kingship and the social order that supported it in favour of Vietnamese bureaucratic

303

Appropriately the law begins by stating the kings credentials as a bodhisatta king:

The King [Rama I] has resolved himself to achieve the omniscience of enlightenment.
Endowed with the wisdom of great compassion (prakorp duai mahakarunayan) he constantly
keeps in mind his duty to aid all the worlds living creatures...; Kotmai tra sam duang, Vol.
4, p. 165.
304

Chotmaihet ratchakan thi 3 chor.sor.1211/2 (Records of the Third Reign, 1849-50); the other texts sent by the Thai

king included various other Pali religious scriptures and a number of legal works. We know that the recitation of the
Vessantara Jataka was performed in Cambodia at least by the mid-eighteenth century (most probably because of Thai
political and cultural influence), see David P. Chandler, An Eighteenth Century Inscription from Angkor Wat,
Journal of the Siam Society, Vol. 59, Part 2, July 1971. pp. 157-9 (I am grateful to Puangthong Rungsawasdisab for
bringing these references to my attention). See also Damrongs edition of a nineteenth century Khmer version of the
Vessantara Jataka in Thet maha chat kham khamen: kan mahaphon (Recitation of the Khmer Version of the
Vessantara Jataka: Mahaphon Chapter), Cremation Volume, Phra Sanit Somkhun (Ngoen), Bangkok, 1920, pp. kor. khor. For other Khmer versions of the Vessantara Jataka see Catalogue du Fonds Khmer, par Au Chhieng,
Bibliothque Nationale, Paris, 1953.
305

For the Thai concern regarding Vietnamese cultural influence in Cambodia under the Emperor Minh Mang see Wa

duai hetkan muang khamen torn set songkhram thai kap yuan (On the Cambodian Situation After the War Between
the Thai and the Vietnamese), Prachum phongsawadan (Collected Histories), Vol. 31, Part 56, pp. 166-7.
306

David P. Chandler, A History of Cambodia, Boulder, Westview Press, 1983, pp. 128-31.

authority. When Thai hegemony was returned to the area from 1847 the Cambodian king
immediately set about restoring the ceremonial aura of (Thai sponsored) kingship in Cambodia
with the performance of elaborate court ceremonies and the restoration of Buddhist monasteries.307
The dispatch of Jataka texts to Cambodia by the Thai court, almost certainly for royal ceremonial
performances as well as popular recitations, was part of the restoration of the ideological
foundations of Thai Buddhist authority in Cambodia.308
It was in these areas and periods when the authority of the Thai king was uncertain or
incomplete that the Thai kings paid special attention to the Vessantara Jataka. In the conditions of
pre-modern Southeast Asia military force was never enough to ensure the enduring authority of the
centre and the integration of outlying areas and peoples into a kingdom. The thet maha chat,
because of what it says about the nature and acquisition of authority, as well as the expressive
nature of the ritual, was an essential element in the cultural dimension of authority in the Thai
kingdom. As Geertz has argued for ceremony and ritual in the theatre state, the representation of
power or authority found in the thet maha chat was not simply a masking of the real workings of
power, but was itself an ordering force, in the same sense as military action, revenue collection,
and the more commonly understood instruments of state power.309 If the royal capital was an
exemplary centre the royal recitation of the Vessantara Jataka provided idealized examples of
authority and social order, whose actual expression contributed to their implementation in practice.
The Vessantara Jataka, Buddhist Time and Great Lineage History
An essential element of the exemplary force that the Vessantara Jataka had for Thai kings was its
special place in the general framework of Buddhist history. That is, the Vessantara Jataka was
much more than a mere story lacking a wider historical context. Rather, it was situated within a
much larger historical narrative which not only explained the origins of the Buddha, but also the
origins of the Thai kings themselves. Let us now look at the conception of time and history in
which the Vessantara Jataka was grounded, and how it related to the history of Thai kings.
According to the Theravada Buddhist tradition310, the origins of the Buddha were said to
have begun four asankheyyas (literally incalculable periods of time) and one hundred thousand

307
308

Chandler, op. cit., p. 135.


A Khmer Maha chat manuscript published by Damrong in 1920, obtained from the Cambodian Sangkharat (Sangha

Head) Thiang who received his education in Bangkok in the Third Reign, is likely to date from about this period;
Thet maha chat kham khamen, (kan mahaphon) (Khmer version of Thet maha chat: Mahaphon chapter), Cremation
Volume for Phra Sanit Somkhun (Ngoen), Bangkok, Sophonphiphatthanakan, 1920, pp. kor-khor.
309

Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press,

1980, p. 121.
310

The Pali works on which this tradition was based include the canonical Buddhavamsa, Cariyapitaka, and the

introduction to the Jataka Commentary called the Nidanakatha.

kappas (aeons, or world cycles311) ago. It was at this time that the brahman Sumedha made a
vow at the feet of the Buddha Dipankara that he would himself one day become a Buddha. The
Buddha at that time, known as Dipankara, made the prophecy that Sumedhas vow would be
fulfilled in four asankheyyas and one hundred thousand kappas in the future. Assuming the status
of a bodhisatta, or a being destined to become a Buddha, Sumedha began the task of accumulating
the Ten Perfections. Following the Buddha Dipankara there appeared in succession over an
immense period of time a further twenty-three Buddhas312 before the appearance of Gotama
Buddha. It is as Gotama Buddha that the bodhisatta, originally the Brahman Sumedha, was finally
enlightened.313
In the period from when he made his vow to achieve enlightenment up to his actual
enlightenment as Gotama Buddha the bodhisatta is incarnated countless times, including
incarnations during the lifetimes of each of the Buddhas prior to Gotama Buddha. Five hundred
and forty-seven of the bodhisattas incarnations are recorded in the work known as the Jataka
Commentary. The Vessantara Jataka, the last Jataka in this work, is the story of the bodhisattas
next to last incarnation, immediately preceding his incarnation when he finally achieves
enlightenment as Gotama Buddha, four asankheyya and one hundred thousand kappa since his
vow to attain enlightenment made in his incarnation as Sumedha. The incarnation as Vessantara,
therefore, is the culminating moment in the bodhisattas career, and in the origin of the present
Buddha.

311

The world is born, decays and ends within one kappa, to be reborn in a new kappa, and so on.

312

The Nidanakatha is quite detailed in listing these Buddhas and the times at which they appear. After Dipankara

there appeared the Buddha called Kondaa, and after a period of one asankheyya four Buddhas appeared within the
same kappa: Mangala, Sumana, Revata and Sobhita; one asankheyya later three Buddhas appeared in the same kappa:
Anomadassi, Paduma and Narada; then 100 000 kappa before the present kappa Padumuttara appeared; then 30 000
kappa later, two Buddhas appeared, Sumedha and Sujata; then 1800 kappa ago three Buddhas appeared in the same
kappa: Piyadasssi, Atthadassi, and Dhammadassi; 94 kappa ago one Buddha appeared named Siddhattha; 92 kappa
ago two Buddhas appeared, Tissa and Phussa; 91 kappa ago there appeared the Buddha Vipassi; 31 kappa ago there
appeared two Buddhas, Sikhi and Vessabhu. In the present kappa called the bhadarakappa, meaning fortunate
aeon, five Buddhas are destined to appear; Kakusandha, Konagamana, Kassapa, and Gotama Buddha, (who was the
last Buddha to appear), and finally Metteya, who is the future Buddha. This time schema and lineage of Buddhas is
quite different from the contemporary Theravada Buddhist time schema which is centred around the single figure of
Gotama Buddha.
313

From Nidanakatha in The Story of Gotama Buddha: The Nidana-katha of the Jatakatthakatha, trans.

N.A.Jayawickrama, Pali Text Society, Oxford, 1990, pp. 3-57; for an edited Thai MS version of the Nidanakatha see
Chadok atthakatha (atthibai chadok) (Jataka Commentary - Explanation of the Jataka), Part 1, First Report, Project
for the Transcription, Editing and Thai translation of Buddhist Texts in khorm [Old Khmer] and Local Scripts,
Education Ministry, Phumiphalo Phikku Foundation, Bangkok, 1976. A further indication of the great time scale
involved is the life spans of the Buddhas previous to Gotama Buddha, which stretched from twenty to one hundred
thousand years.

The Genealogy of the Buddha and the Origin of Kings


As the historian Nidhi Aeusrivongse has shown in a study of the origins of the biography of the
Buddha in the Thai kingdom, it was the narrative of the progress of the bodhisatta (as broadly
outlined above) that was the framework for traditional accounts of the Buddhas origins.314 In fact,
his study shows that before the Bangkok period Buddhist chronicles paid remarkably little
attention to the actual life of the founder of the religion, the Buddha himself. These texts Nidhi
terms dhamma histories (thammaprawat), since they place less emphasis on the actual person of
the Buddha than they do on the Buddha as a principle of the dhamma.315 Based on the Pali
canonical texts the Buddhavamsa and the Cariyapitaka, and commentaries such as the
Nidanakatha, these Buddhist historical narratives achieved widespread popularity and include
such works as the Jinamahanidana316 and the Pathomsomphot.317 The emphasis in these dhamma
histories is on the bodhisattas accumulation of the Perfections. The incarnation as Vessantara
and his achievement of the Perfection of Charity is always given special mention, as it is a decisive
moment in the progress of the bodhisatta. Another reference to the Vessantara Jataka made by
these narratives is in connection with the episode of the bodhisattas confrontation with the demon
Mara immediately before the achievement of enlightenment. In response to Maras challenge the
bodhisatta is said to have called the earth to witness his achievement of the Perfection of Charity
in his incarnation as Vessantara, to which the earth responded by quaking in affirmation, thus
putting Mara and his army to flight.318 The bodhisattas story as told in the Jatakas, and in
particular the Vessantara Jataka, would seem to have been inseparable from the life of the Buddha
in Thai religious thinking of the time.319
Early Western accounts of the life of the Buddha derived from Thai informants also
indicate that popular perceptions of the life of the Buddha do not seem to vary greatly from the
textual evidence. The late seventeenth century French missionary Gervaise who had spent four
years in Siam gave an account of the Buddhas life which included the Buddhas previous

314

Nidhi, Phra pathomsomphothikatha kap khwam khluan wai thang satsana nai ton ratanakosin, pp. 374-418.

315

Lakkan khorng thamma, ibid., p. 381.

316

Chinamahanithan (The Great Story of the Victor), Vol. 2, Thai translation, National Library, Published by the Fine

Arts Department in Honour of the Kings Fifth Cycle Birthday Celebrations, Bangkok, 1987.
317

See Phra pathomsomphothikatha (Story of the First Enlightenment), by Prince Patriarch Paramanuchit Chinorot,

Department of Religion, Ministry of Education, Bangkok, 1962; this is a Third Reign work which was based on the
Chinamahanithan and an older work called Pathomsomphot.
318

See Nidanakatha in The Story of Gotama Buddha, p. 98; Chinamahanithan, p. 96; Phra pathomsomphothikatha,

pp. 180-1.
319

Nidhi, Phra patomsomphothikatha kap khwam khluan wai than satsana nai ton ratanakosin, p. 387.

incarnations, the donation of all his possessions to the poor, and even the gift of one of his eyes as
alms - all elements derived from the Jatakas.320
Another seventeenth century account, by de la Loubre, French envoy to the Siamese court
in 1687-1688, presents a similar picture. Eager to find a book explaining the life of the Buddha de
la Loubre wrote that this could not be obtained, so he was forced to rely on what he was told. His
account includes the story that the Buddha gave his estate in alms, plucked out his eyes, and
slaughtered his wife and children to give to an ascetic to eat, the latter a curious perversion of the
Vessantara Jataka.321 Nevertheless, the centrality of the incarnation of Vessantara to the life of
the Buddha is clear.
Yet another account is that published in 1686 by a Jesuit priest who had spent some time at
the court of King Narai.322 Father Tachards version of the Buddhas life tells of the five hundred
and fifty times that the Buddha had returned to the world, which is the nominal number of Jataka
stories in the original Pali collection. The account also mentions the Buddhas renunciation of
worldly life and retirement to the wilderness with his wife and chidren, where, having fully
extinguished his passions, he was able to allow a brahmin to take away his son and daughter and
torment them before his eyes; the donation of his wife to a poor man begging for alms, the
putting out of his own eyes; and the giving of his own flesh to be distributed among the beasts once again, a mixture of incidents derived from the Vessantara and various other Jataka stories.323
The widespread popularity of such Jataka-based ideas can be seen from Tachards observation that
these feats are the rare actions which the talapoins [monks] in their Sermons propose to the
people for imitation, and the examples they make use of to incline them to virtue.324
This narrative of the progress of the bodhisatta was not restricted to merely describing the
origins of the Buddha. In turn it became part of a chronicle tradition which described the origins of
kings and ruling houses throughout Theravada Buddhist Southeast Asia.325 In other words, the
bodhisattas progress was incorporated into the genealogy of contemporary kings and rulers. The

320

The story of the giving away of all his possesions probably derives from the Vessantara Jataka (Nidhi, Phra

pathom somphothikatha kap khwam khluan wai, p. 385) and the donation of one of his eyes comes from the Sivi
Jataka. See also Nicolas Gervaise, The Natural and Political History of the Kingdom of Siam, translated and edited by
John Villiers, Bangkok, White Lotus, 1989.
321

Nidhi, Phra pathomsomphothikatha kap khwam khluan wai, p. 386. See also Simon de la Loubre The Kingdom

of Siam, with an introduction by David Wyatt, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 136. Could La Loubres
gruesome story have arisen from a confusion of the Thai word than, meaning both to give alms, and to eat?
322

G.Tachard, A Relation of the Voyage to Siam Performed by Six Jesuits Sent by the French King to the Indies and

China in the year 1685, Bangkok, White Orchid Press, 1981.


323

Ibid., pp. 291-292. These incidents appear to derive from the Vessantara Jataka, the Sivi Jataka and the Sasapandit

Jataka.
324

325

Ibid.
On the integration of the Buddha into the Thai chronicle tradition see S.J.Tambiah, The Buddhist Saints of the

Forest and the Cult of Amulets, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 119-23.

prototype of this historiographical genre was the famous fifth century Sinhalese chronicle, the
Mahavamsa.326 Mahavamsa literally means great lineage and refers to the lineage from which
the Buddha had descended, and of which the Sinhalese kings were the heirs. Beginning with the
narrative of the bodhisattas progress starting from his vow as the brahman Sumedha, the
Mahavamsa goes on to present the bodhisattas lineage in the present world cycle known as the
bhadarakappa. The progenitor of the lineage is a figure called Maha Sammata, the first king of the
present bhadarakappa and an incarnation of the bodhisatta - the future Gotama Buddha.327 His
royal descendants are numbered in the hundreds of thousands, though only the most notable are
referred to by name in the Mahavamsa. Of these, many are kings who are also recorded in the
Jatakas, and some of these are actually incarnations of the bodhisatta himself: for example King
Nimi of the King Nimi Jataka; Mahasudassana of the Mahasudassana Jataka; and most
importantly, Prince Vessantara, his father Sonchai and son Chali of the Vessantara Jataka.328 It is
from the lineage of kings descended from the bodhisatta king Maha Sammata that the Buddha and
his own Sakya family belonged. Thus by virtue of his place in the lineage of contemporary kings
as set out in great lineage history, Vessantara is a crucial figure in the genealogy of the Buddha.

326

See The Mahvamsa or The Great Chronicle of Ceylon, translated into English by Wilhelm Geiger, Pali Text

Society, London, 1964. See also a Thai edition of the Mahavamsa, Wannakam samai ratanakosin (Literature in the
Bangkok Period), Vol. 1, (Religious Section), Khamphi mahawong (The Mahavamsa), Bangkok, Krom Sinlapakorn,
1991.
327

Geiger, The Mahavamsa, pp. 10-13; Wannakam samai ratanakosin, p. 52:

The omniscient Buddha, the greatest of all Sages belongs to the lineage of King Maha Sammata. For
in the beginning of this bhadarakappa our Lord Buddha was incarnated as the great king Maha
Sammata. In the beginning of this kappa there were no kings; disputes arose and people stole
eachothers grain. There was noone to control the people. So the people all invited the great
bodhisatta to be king...

See also Craig J.Reynolds, Religious Historical Writing and the Legitimation of the First Bangkok Reign, in Anthony
Reid and David Marr (eds.), Perceptions of the Past in Southeast Asia, Singapore, Asian Studies Association of
Australia, 1979, p. 99-100. For the canonical reference to Maha Sammata see the Aggaa Suttanta, in Dialogues of
the Buddha, translated from the Pali of the Digha Nikaya by T.W. and C.A.F. Rhys Davids, Part III, Pali Text Society,
London, 1957 (1921), p. 88.
328

Among the other figures in the Maha Sammata lineage to whom I have found references in the Jatakas are

Mucalinda, Roja, Sakara, Bharata, Angirasa, Suruci, Mahapatapa, Panada, Kalarajanaka, Okkaka, and Kusa; cf. E.B.
Cowell, The Jataka or Stories of the Buddhas Former Births, translated from the Pali by Various Hands, under the
Editorship of Professor E.B. Cowell, 6 Vols., Pali Text Society, London, 1957. The clear relation between the
historical conception of the Jatakas and the Mahavamsa (and the great lineage genre of historiography to which it
gave birth) is at least partly explained by the fact that the Mahavamsa and Jataka Commentary were originally
compiled at roughly the same time and place, the Sinhalese island-kingdom in the fifth century.

To construct their own histories rulers and ruling houses throughout Theravada Buddhist
Southeast Asia merely appended their dynastic lineages onto the great lineage, (which in the
original Mahavamsa had ended with the Sinhalese kings), thereby fusing the origins of the present
king with those of the Buddha, Vessantara and back to Maha Sammata, the original king. Both
the Mahavamsa and historiography of this great lineage genre enjoyed extraordinary popularity
not only among Thai kings but also among those of the Burmese, the Lao, the Khmer, and other
rulers in areas where Theravada Buddhist culture dominated and the bodhisatta kingship ideal
prevailed.
The genre seems to have been particularly popular at the court of King Rama I. The first
Chakri king actually had the Mahavamsa translated from the Pali into Thai in 1797. During the
First Reign one of the best known of these great lineage histories, the sixteenth century chronicle
of the northern kingdoms the Jinakalamali, was also translated from the Pali to Thai.329 Another
history of the same genre compiled in the First Reign was the Sangitiyavamsa, a chronicle of the
Buddhist Councils and recensions of the Tripitaka compiled by a senior monk shortly after Rama I
had convened his own Council to produce a new recension of the Tripitaka. Many histories of
northern and northeastern kingdoms and principalities were composed in this genre, including the
Tamnan Munlasatsana,330 composed around the same time as the Jinakalamali, the Tamnan phun
muang chiang mai,331 the Tamnan sip ha ratchawong,332 the Tamnan muang
suwannakhomkham,333 the so-called Sinhanavati Chronicle,334 and the Ratchawong pakorn, the
chronicle of the rulers of the principality of Nan.335 Versions of the latter four works date from the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Relic histories such as the Tamnan phra that haripunchai and
the Tamnan phra that doi suthep are written within the great lineage historiographical

329

Chinakalamalipakorn, pp. 12-13.

330

Tamnan munlasatsana (The Story of the Origin of the Religion), Krom Sinlapakorn, Bangkok, Soem Bannakhan,

1976.
331

Cf.Tamnan phun muang chiang mai chak ton chabap bai lan aksorn thai yuan (The Chronicle of the City of

Chiang Mai from the Palm Leaf Manuscript in Thai Yuan Characters), translated by Sanguan Chotisukharat, Prime
Ministers Office, Bangkok, 1971, see pp. 1-2.
332

Tamnan Sip Ha Rachawong, The Chronicle of the Fifteen Dynasties, Part 1 (Fascicle I-II), Lanna Thai Manuscript

Project Phase 1, Social Research Institute, Chiang Mai University, October 1981, see pp. 9-12.
333

Tamnan muang suwannakhomkham, (The Chronicle of Suwannakhomkham City), Prachum phongsawadan

(Collected Histories), Vol. 45, Part 72, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1969, see pp.129ff.
334

Chronique de Sinhanavati, Annales du Siam, traduction de Camille Notton, Vol. 1, Pt. 1, Paris, C. Lavauzelle,

1926, see pp. 141-2. See also the Chronique de Xieng Mai, Annales de Siam, Vol. 3, pp. 7ff., which includes
Vessantara in the Samantaraja dynasty, another name for the Maha Sammata lineage.
335

Ruang ratchawong pakorn, phongsawadan lanna thai (About the Royal Lineage, a Chronicle of Lanna Thai),

Compiled by Saen Luang Ratchasomphan under the Order of Phrachao Suriyaphong Phritadet, Prince of Nan,
Prachum phongsawadan (Collected Histories), Vol. 9, Part 10, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1964, see pp. 188ff.

framework.336 Finally, great lineage themes can also be found in cosmological treatises such as
the Traiphumilokwinitchai,337 also composed at the court of Rama I, the Pali Lokathipakasan338
and the Pathomamulamuli,339 the latter a work widely known throughout the northern and
northeastern regions of the kingdom.
To demonstrate their membership of this lineage and hence their royal legitimacy, Thai
kings in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries claimed the title of (maha)
sommutiwong, meaning literally of the lineage of Maha Sammata - also an epithet of Prince
Vessantara in the Thai version of Vessantara Jataka.340 Not only was the king himself perceived as
having descended from the bodhisatta king Maha Sammata, but the Pali code of law inherited
from the Mon and in use both at the courts of the Burmese and the Thai, the dhammasattham
(Thai: thammasat), stated in its preamble that Manu, the figure credited with having been the
original source of the law, was actually a minister in the service of Maha Sammata.341 The
authority of a code of law originating from the rule of the first king Maha Sammata could be and
indeed was cited, as in the case of King Rama III when he justified the crowns taxing powers as
having derived from royal custom since Maha Sammata.342
One of the distinctive characteristics of great lineage history was that the lineage whose
history it related was only partly based on consanguinity or dynastic ties. It included literally
hundreds of thousands of kings of many different dynasties and polities, and geographical areas
which stretched from modern day northern India, to Sri Lanka, Burma, and various regions of
Thailand, yet nevertheless it was seen to be the same lineage, of which present kings were the

336

Prachum tamnan phra that (Collection of Relic Histories), Parts 1 and 2, Cremation Volume, Nang Oep

Umaphirom, Bangkok, 1970; see pp. 28-9 and 139.


337

Traiphumilokwinitchai Vol. 1, Compiled by Phraya Thammapricha by Order of King Rama I in 1802, Bangkok,

Krom Sinlapakorn, 1977, see pp. 69-72.


338

Lokathipakasan, Compiled by Phra Sangkharat Methangkorn, Krom Sinlapakorn, Bangkok, 1986, see pp. 54-5.

Eighteen copies of this text are extant, dating from 1771 to 1820.
339

Tamnan khao phi lanna pathomamulamuli/ pathamamulamuli, trans. Anatole Roger Peltier, Chiang Mai, 1991,

English translation. A popular cosmology in the North and the Northeast, the Pathomamulamuli shows the structural
importance of the Vessantara Jataka in premodern representations of the history of Buddhism. Before the text narrates
the circumstances of the Buddhas preaching of the Pathomamulamuli and the cosmography itself, it relates how
[a]fter he had achieved his earthly life as Prince Vessantara our Eminent and Precious Bodhisatva was born again in
Tusita heaven where he lived four thousand celestial years. He thus came down unto the earth and was reincarnated in
the womb of Queen Sri Mahamaya..., p. 193 (Yuan version, p. 10; Thai trans., p. 11).
340

See Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan, passim.

341

Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer., pp. 93-4, p. 188; See also Phra thammasat in Kotmai tra sam

duang, Vol. 1, pp. 1-41.


342

Atthachak Satayanurak, Khwam plian prae khorng samnuk thang prawatisat lae kan plian plaeng khorng sangkhom

thai tang tae ratchakan thi 4 thung phor sor 2475 (Shifts in Historical Consciousness and Change in Thai Society from
the Fourth Reign to 1932), Masters Degree Thesis, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, 1988, p. 46.

heirs. Of greater significance than blood ties was a notion of lineage based on what could be
termed ties of incarnation, and which the concept of the bodhisatta king exploited. The Buddha
was related to Vessantara, Nimi, Mahasudassana and other kings of the great lineage in the sense
that as a bodhisatta he had previously been incarnated as these figures. Great lineage history,
therefore, allowed contemporary kings to use to their advantage the same kind of lineal
relationship to great kings of the past, to whom they were otherwise unrelated.
The obvious advantage of great lineage history over dynastic history was that it could
smooth over dynastic discontinuities which might threaten the legitimacy of a king or a ruling
house. For example, during the Ayuthayan period when great lineage historiography dominated,
dynastic or blood relations were no firm guarantee of royal legitimacy. Indeed, the Ayuthaya
period is characterised by relatively frequent dynastic changes (six in four hundred years), and
many bloody coups. Rather it was a persons barami which was the basis of his claim to the
throne, just as it was his lack of barami which would be the rallying call of his enemies when he
was to be deposed.343 The same lack of a strong dynastic principle was characteristic of the
kingdoms and principalities to the north and northeast of Ayuthaya, where great lineage history
flourished. Likewise, the prominence of great lineage history in the First Reign noted above is
related to the problem of political discontinuity between the old kingdom of Ayuthaya and the new
kingdom based in Bangkok. The Chakri ruled a kingdom seized by force from the King of
Thonburi, and to which they had little claim based on dynastic ties to the former rulers of the
kingdom of Ayuthaya.
There was, moreover, encouragement for aspiring rulers in the story of King Maha
Sammata, in that Maha Sammata was, according to canonical scripture, chosen by the people to
rule over them to end discord because of his status as a bodhisatta, rather than acceding to power
through dynastic birthright.344 While this canonical precedent provided some flexibility in the
choice of a new king, it could at the same time be a recipe for political instability, since it could be
exploited by any figure who could convince others that he had the qualities of a bodhisatta and the
right to rule. Such figures, known variously as phu mi bun, phu wiset, ton bun, or thammikarat
(again, epithets used for Vessantara and other incarnations of the bodhisatta in the Jatakas), have
appeared regularly in Thai history, particularly during periods of great crisis and social disorder,
such as that immediately following the fall of Ayuthaya in 1767,345 and in the Lao speaking
regions of the Thai kingdom and French Laos in 1901-2.346

343

See Nidhi, Prawatisat ratanakosin nai phra ratchaphongsawadan ayuthaya, pp. 52, 64-5; and Atthachak, Khwam

plian prae khorng samnuk thang prawatisat, pp. 29, 80-4.


344

See for example Kotmai tra sam duang, Vol. 1, Phra thammasat, p. 10.

345

Cf. Nidhi, Kan muang thai samai phra chao krung thonburi, especially pp. 64ff.

346

See Yoneo Ishii, A Note on Buddhistic Millenarian Revolts in Northeastern Siam, Journal of Southeast Asian

Studies, 6, 2, September 1975, pp. 121-126; and Charles F.Keyes, Millenialism, Theravada Buddhism, and Thai
Society, Journal of Asian History, 36, 2, February 1977, pp. 283-302.

The concepts of the phu mi bun and the bodhisatta are virtually the same, differing only in
ones perspective: they both refer to leader-heroes whose authority derives from their practices of
self-perfection. Phu mi bun was the term used, often pejoratively in court documents, for local
ascetic figures who sometimes became leaders of revolts. Literally the term means person of
merit. Such merit was acquired by the same practices of self-perfection as popular texts like the
Vessantara Jataka describe for the bodhisatta. The term bodhisatta, however, was associated in
court and religious documents almost always with legitimate royalty. Both terms signify a Tai
Buddhist kind of moral and political authority which flourished in the fluid political conditions of
premodern Tai Buddhist states.
The fusion of the kings origins as represented in great lineage history with those of the
Buddha has important implications for the way we view the relationship between Buddhist
history and the history of polities in which great lineage history was written. In the Thai case
most scholars who have studied great lineage history of various types (often referred to as
tamnan) note the Buddhist character of the narratives, and often actually characterise them as
Buddhist history.347 This terminology, however, has the effect of positing a distinction between
the Buddha and the Thai king, and more importantly between Buddhist history and, for example,
Thai history. It is necessary to bear in mind that such distinctions have been imposed by later
scholars for whom the Thai king bears no relation to the Buddha. The structure of great lineage
histories however, implies that no such distinction was perceived by the writers, patrons, and
audiences of such narratives themselves. Because they were perceived as belonging to the same
lineage, the genealogy of the Buddha was seen as part of the genealogy of contemporary kings. It
is by bearing in mind the conception of great lineage history that it is possible to understand
reports of Western visitors to the Kingdom of Ayuthaya in the late seventeenth century, which
noted the popular belief that the Buddha had been a Siamese king, and even that the Buddha had
actually founded the Siamese kingdom.348 This belief seems to have been little diminished by the
time Bowring visited Siam in 1855, when he noted in the record of his visit that The Siamese
group their earliest ancestors around the first disciples of Buddha (Gaudama) and begin their
annals about five centuries before the Christian era...349

347

See for example, Charnvit Kasetsiri, The Rise of Ayudhya: A History of Siam in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth

Centuries, New York, Oxford University Press, 1976, especially pp. 1-11; David, K. Wyatt, Chronicle Traditions in
Thai Historiography, C.D.Cowan and O.W.Wolters, (eds.) Southeast Asian Historyand Historiography:, Essays
Presented to D.G.E. Hall, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1976; Dhida Saraya, Tamnan lae tamnan prawatisat kap
kan suksa prawatisat thorng thin (Tamnan and Tamnan History: A Study of Local History, Office of the National
Culture Commission, Bangkok, 1982.
348

See N. Gervaise, The Natural and Political History of Siam, p. 140; and Jeremias Van Vliet, The Short History of

the Kings of Siam, trans. Leonard Andaya, from a transcription by Miriam J. Verkuijl-van den Berg, ed. David K.
Wyatt, Siam Society, Bangkok, 1975, p. 55.
349

Sir John Bowring, The Kingdom and People of Siam, with a Narrative of the Mission to that Country in 1855, Vol.

1, London, 1857 (Reprinted 1975, J.W. Parker, London), p. 35.

Conclusion
In this chapter I have argued that the apogee of Thai hegemony in mainland Southeast Asia
coincided with the peak in the popularity of the thet maha chat, both at the royal court and in the
kingdoms rural villages. The two phenomena were connected. The Vessantara Jataka contained
the elements of what became a Tai Buddhist conception of authority, and the thet maha chat was
the means by which this conception was disseminated. The story portrayed rulers as the greatest
givers, as beings possessed of moral perfection or the ten barami which had been accumulated
through ascetic practices of self-cultivation, and as holders of supernatural powers which such
moral perfection had endowed them with. The dissemination of these notions enabled the Thai
kings to maintain an enduring semblance of authority in a vast kingdom with a relatively weak
coercive apparatus, in terms of law, military forces, revenue collection, etc.350 The price to pay,
however, was constant vigilance and suppression of local challenges to the authority of the Thai
king, which were based on the same political conceptions.
Understanding the Vessantara Jataka as part of the genealogy of the Buddha, which in turn
formed part of the genealogy of Thai kings, has great significance in the history of the Vessantara
Jataka and the Thai kingdom. As we shall see in the next chapter, when the concept of political
authority as exemplified in the Vessantara Jataka was rejected by the Thai court, it was precisely
the Vessantara Jatakas place in this genealogy and the very integrity of the story itself which came
under attack from factions within the Thai court under the leadership of the king.

350

It is perhaps for this reason that when one goes to the historical records of the kingdoms of the Tai peoples, the

religious, literary, historical and cultural works one finds far outweigh the more obvious records of state control such
as legal codes, administrative records, taxation registers and so on.

CHAPTER 4
CHALLENGES TO THE THAI STATE
AND THE DECLINE OF THE THET MAHA CHAT

The expansion of the Thai state under the early Chakri kings had seen the apogee of the thet maha
chat, both in the courts of kings and princes as well as in the village temples of most Buddhist,
Tai-speaking regions in mainland Southeast Asia. However, from around the middle of the
nineteenth century a gradual decline of the status and influence of the Vessantara Jataka at the
Thai court can be traced, which coincided with a series of challenges which shook the foundations
of the Thai state. The question needs to be asked, was the decline of the thet maha chat merely
coincidental, or was it more directly connected to the profound changes taking place in the Thai
kingdom?
The most significant of these challenge was the encroachment of the colonial powers in
mainland Southeast Asia. By 1826 the British had taken the Burmese territories of Arakan and
Tenasserim. In 1853, following the Second Anglo-Burmese War, the British seized control of the
remainder of Lower Burma. Meanwhile, to the south, the influence of the East India Company in
the Malayan peninsula was increasing. Following the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 the British
established the Straits Settlements, made up of the port cities of Singapore, Penang and Malacca,
which controlled an increasing proportion of the maritime commerce of Southeast Asia. British
influence in the northern Malay states of Kedah, Kelantan, Perak and Trengganu were challenging
the Thai kings traditional hegemony in the region. To the east it was French power that was on the
rise. The late 1850s saw the first French invasion of the Vietnamese kingdom, and by 1867 French
military action had resulted in the creation of the French colony of Cochinchina in the southern
part of the kingdom. Three years earlier French influence in the kingdom of Cambodia was
formalised when the kingdom became a protectorate of the French. From being the dominant
power in mainland Southeast Asia the Thai kingdom was now encircled on all sides by colonial
powers. Just prior to his death in 1851 King Rama III is reputed to have remarked to his most
senior minister that the threat from Vietnam and Burma was now gone, and that future wars would
be with the West.351
Changes were also being effected in the economic foundations of the Thai state. Under the
threat of British force Siam signed the Bowring Treaty of 1855, which opened the kingdom to
foreign trade as never before, while at the same time attacking the fiscal basis of the Thai
monarchy. Most royal monopolies were abolished, import and export duties were limited to an
average of three and five percent respectively, the ban on the export of rice was lifted, and British
citizens were granted extraterritorial rights.352 Within the next ten years similar commercial

351

David K. Wyatt, Thailand: A Short History, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1984, p. 180.

352

Ibid., p. 183.

treaties were signed with other Western trading countries. The British envoy Bowring referred to
the changes resulting from the 1855 treaty as a total revolution in all the financial machinery of
the government.353
A further profound change was taking place in the sphere of cultural and intellectual life.
Whether due to increasing Western contact, or the influence of a home-grown Thai bourgeois
class of merchant kings, royalty, and nobles which had been growing well before interaction with
the West,354 the intellectual life of the Thai court - especially religious, historical, and scientific
thought - began to take on some of the characteristics associated with modernity. Among these
characteristics are what are commonly known to modern scholars as rationalism and secularism.
Certain traditional knowledges and cultural forms, on the other hand, came under increasing
criticism by the reformist faction of the Thai court under the leadership of the Thai king.
This chapter examines the decline of the influence of the Vessantara Jataka at the Thai
court amidst the great changes occurring from the middle of the nineteenth century. It will also
look at the courts rejection of the whole religious-historical framework in which the Vessantara
Jataka was situated, and its adoption of a more recognisably modern form of historical writing.
The key to these changes was the end of an ideology of authority based on the concept of the man
of merit, the bodhisatta ruler, which underpinned the Thai Buddhist state and the monarchy at its
apex, and which the Vessantara Jataka popularised. It was the threat to the existence of the Thai
monarchy - and the Thai state itself - in this period that brought about renunciation of this
ideology, and its replacement with a new concept of political authority, not implemented until well
into the Fifth Reign, which was a response to this threat. Given that the Vessantara Jataka had
been a central and enduring element in the political formations of the Thai peoples since historical
records first began, its rejection by the court was an event of momentous significance for the Thai
state.

The Courts Rejection of the Jatakas


It is increasingly apparent in documents and literature from the reign of King Mongkut that the
importance of the Vessantara Jataka and the Jataka stories as a whole in royal culture was on the
wane. Chaophraya Thiphakorawong, a senior official and court historian during both Mongkut's
reign and the early part of the reign of King Chulalongkorn, is reported to have viewed the Jatakas

353

Quoted in Charles F. Keyes, Thailand: Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation-State, Bangkok, Duang Kamol,

1989, p. 45.
354

See Nidhi Aeusrivongse, Pak kai lae bai rua: ruam khwam riang wa duai wannakam lae prawatisat ton

ratanakosin (Quill and Sail: Essays on Early Bangok Literature and History), Bangkok, Amarin, 1984.

as mere fables.355 It is from Mongkuts reign that the royal thet maha chat becomes a less regular
royal ceremony, scaled down in size and edged out of its usual place in the ceremonial calendar by
new ceremonies such as the celebration of royal birthdays.356 The decreasing popularity of the
Jatakas at the Thai court is reflected in the changing subject matter of sermons delivered to the
king. Whereas in the reign of Rama I many of the texts which senior monks recited to the king for
his spiritual edification were Jatakas or texts closely related to the Jatakas,357 by Mongkuts reign
the Jatakas had (with the exception of the Vessantara Jataka) by and large been excluded as
subjects for royal sermons. The Thammayut school of the Thai Sangha which Mongkut had
himself founded in the Third Reign was, by the latter part of the nineteenth century, refusing to
hold thet maha chat ceremonies ostensibly on the grounds that they did not recognise the
Vessantara Jataka as a canonical text.358
Mention of the declining status of the Jatakas can also be found in the writings of Western
observers who had begun to take up residence in the kingdom since the Third Reign. The Catholic
Bishop Pallegoix enjoyed a close friendship with King Mongkut, and can be considered as having
a relatively well-informed idea of the religious orthodoxy of the time. On the subject of the
Jatakas, Pallegoix remarked in his Description du Royaume Thai ou Siam published in 1854 that
they were just ridiculous tales...only the last ten incarnations, which are called the thotsaxat, are
venerated as canonical...359
Sir John Bowring, who on behalf of the British government had concluded the trade treaty
with the Thai court in 1855, gives us another hint of the decline of the Jatakas at the Thai court
during this period. In what is almost certainly a reference to the over five hundred Jatakas
contained in the Jataka Commentary, Bowring relates a story of an American missionary who had

355

Craig. J. Reynolds, Buddhist Cosmography in Thai History, with Special Reference to Nineteenth-Century

Cultural Change', Journal of Asian Studies, 35, 2, 1976, p. 213; Nidhi, Lok khorng nang nophamat (The World of
Lady Nophamat), in Pak kai lae bai rua, p. 370.
356

Phra ratchaphithi sip sorng duan, phra ratchaniphon phra bat somdet phra chula chorm klao chao yu hua

(Royal Ceremonies of the Twelve Months by King Chulalongkorn), Bangkok, Krom Sinlapakorn, 1973, pp. 71-5.
357

Saichon gives a list of the sermons listened to by Rama I, which includes readings from the Phra sut (Sutras),

Milintakhamphi (The Questions of King Milinda), Thotsachat (the last ten Jatakas), Maha chat (the Vessantara
Jataka), Atthakatha chariyapitok (the Cariya Pitaka Commentary), and Pathomsomphothikatha (The Story of the First
Enlightenment); in Saichon Wannarat, Phutthasatsana kap naew khwam khit thang kan muang nai ratchasamai phra
bat somdet phra phuttha yort fa chula lok (Buddhism and Political Thought in the Reign of King Rama I', M.A.
Thesis, Chulalongkorn University, 1982, p. 119.
358

G.E. Gerini, A Retrospective View and Account of the Origin of the Maha Chat Ceremony, Bangkok, 1892,

p. 16, fn.1. Gerini writes that the Thammayut denied that the Jatakas formed part of the Buddhist canon, (despite the
fact of their inclusion in the Buddhist scriptures, being the tenth book of the Khuddakanikaya, in the Sutta pitaka),
claiming that the Buddha did not usually discourse much of himself', and that there were no references to previous
incarnations in the authentic sacred texts such as the Vinaya; ibid., p. 55.
359

Mgr. Pallegoix, Description du Royaume Thai ou Siam, Tome Second, Paris, 1854 (1969), p. 2.

asked a senior monk during the Fourth Reign whether much religious commentary had been
rejected by the more enlightened party in Siam. The monk replied in the affirmative, mentioning
one set of books, consisting of more than five hundred volumes, the whole of which they
rejected.360
Towards the end of his reign Mongkut publically expressed his disapproval of the popular
performances of the thet maha chat. In an article published in 1865 in one of the first Thailanguage newspapers, Dr. Bradley's Bangkok Recorder, Mongkut questioned the merit gained
from the sponsorship of thet maha chat ceremonies, observing that there were other preferable
ways of obtaining merit:
...There is a custom which has existed in Siam since ancient times, which takes place after the end
of the Rains Retreat, late in the Tenth or in the Eleventh month [of the lunar calender], in
preaching halls both within and outside the capital, in both royal and non-royal temples in every
region of the country, and in royal palaces or houses of the noblility. That custom is the thet maha
chat. Princes and nobles as well as men and women in the villages get together and sponsor the
performance, inviting monks and novices to come and sing the thirteen chapters of the Vessantara
Jataka in its melodic recitation style (thamnorng thetsana). The sponsors of the recitations of each
chapter are very happy to donate money and offerings amounting to great sums. In every region of
the country it is believed that this is meritorious for the Buddhist religion.
But there are some people who do not believe that this is merit making. These people criticise such
buffoonish (talok khanorng) performances of the thet maha chat, questioning the nature of the
merit one will receive in return for such great donations. If one wishes to pay worship by
practising the dhamma and the vinaya, and by so doing really sustaining the Buddhist religion, or
by paying respect to one's father and mother, relatives and elders in ones family, or by helping the
poor, the elderly and infirm, and the needy, or by building roads, bridges, rest-houses or
residences, or anything else, one will gain more reward and merit than by pouring money into the
thet maha chat...361
Mongkut goes on to to decry the monastic charlatans who urge the people to donate large amounts
of money to stage thet maha chat performances, and who then disrobe from the monkhood, find
themselves wives, and proceed to drink and gamble away their ill-gotten earnings from the thet
maha chat. While the emphasis here is on the wastage of capital which might otherwise have been
invested for the kingdom's economic and social development, Mongkuts words do not reject
merit-making itself - even for other religious activities. The target is clearly the thet maha chat.

360

Sir John Bowring, The Kingdom and People of Siam; with a Narrative of the Mission to that Country in

1855, London, 1857, pp. 307-8.


361
Nangsu chotmaihet - The Bangkok Recorder, Vol. 1, November 18th 1965, No.18, Ruang niyai khorng
luang (A Royal Story'), p. 161.

Published in Thai, the article was obviously directed at the Bangkok lite and can be seen as the
first official attempt to discourage performances of the thet maha chat.
Despite the clearly negative light in which the Jatakas were held by Mongkut and his
supporters, the process by which they were edged out of royal culture was a gradual one. Mongkut
himself had recited a chapter from the Maha chat as a youth in the Second Reign. The Fourth
Reign chronicle mentions a large royal thet maha chat ceremony performed in the year of
Mongkuts accession to the throne in 1851 in honour of his three royal predecessors, as well as the
young crown prince Chulalongkorns recitation of a chapter of the Vessantara Jataka in 1866,
specially written for him by King Mongkut himself. Mongkut is known to have personally
composed at least four other chapters of the Vessantara Jataka for recitation, and even a version in
Latin!362 A possible explanation for this inconsistency may lie in court politics. Mongkut's
political position as king was relatively weak, owing to his twenty-seven years in the monkhood
during the reign of his older half-brother Rama III. It was only through the support of the powerful
Bunnag family that he came to the throne, and significantly it was an influential member of that
family, Chaophraya Thiphakorawong, who shared his opinion of the Jatakas. It may have been that
Mongkuts political enemies, the conservative faction at the court (the so-called old Siam party),
were still influential enough to insist that such royal ceremonial as the thet maha chat, which
popularised an ideology of kingship promoted by Mongkut's royal predecessor and long time rival,
Rama III, be retained. Nevertheless, for the first time the close association between the institution
of kingship and the Vessantara Jataka was being challenged.
By the mid-Fifth Reign there is mounting evidence that the performance of the Vessantara
Jataka had been even further marginalised by the Bangkok court. In 1892 Colonel Gerini, an
Italian in the employ of the court who had resided in the kingdom for eleven years, published a
study (in English) of the thet maha chat. The study was personally checked by King
Chulalongkorn himself, and the text contains his corrigenda. The overall impression given by
Gerinis study is that the thet maha chat as a royal custom was in chronic decline. Of the chanting
of Boromatralokanat's version of the Vessantara Jataka, the Maha chat kham luang, Gerini
claimed that it had long become obsolete for recitation in select circles363. Of the custom
whereby new novices recited chapters of the Maha chat, he wrote that it had been popular up to
forty or fifty years ago (ie. the late Third and early Fourth Reigns) among all families whether rich
or poor, but had since declined, and was now limited to a few of the noblest and wealthiest
families of the realm....364 Another custom associated with the royal thet maha chat, where the

362

See Maha chat phra ratchaniphon nai ratchakan thi 4 (The Fourth Reign King's Version of the Maha Chat),

Cremation Volume, Morm Chao Chongkonni Wathanawong, Bangkok, 1965, kham atthibai', p. kor; and Gerini, op.
cit., p. 62. Gerini notes that the latter version was written while Mongkut was still in the monkhood. Mongkut had
learned his Latin from the French Bishop Pallegoix.
363

Gerini, op. cit., p. 16.

364

Ibid., p. 28.

Second King365 would travel by boat to nearby Pathum Thani province to collect the thousands of
lotus flowers required for the performance of the thet maha chat, had, in Gerinis words, long
become a mere reminiscence, as also has the post and office of the uparaja itself.366 In general
the annual thet maha chat and ceremony at the Thai court was, in Gerinis judgment, not so
general and popular as in the days of yore.367
King Chulalongkorn himself had begun to comment publicly on the Jatakas status. In 1888
the king's work Phraratchaphithi sip sorng duan, or Royal Ceremonies of the Twelve Months,
was published in instalments to a readership of the Thai aristocracy and nobility. A complex and
intricately descriptive work, at one level it was an attempt to present a detailed and accurate
picture of royal custom and ceremony and its origins at a time of great cultural change. A
particularly remarkable aspect of the work is the sense of historical awareness it displays, most
apparent in its observations of changes in the ritual details of certain ceremonies and customs over
time, as well as in the realization that some elements of royal culture were now out of date, or
unacceptable for the present times. This was certainly the light in which the Jatakas were
portrayed. One instance was the kings condemnation of the Buddhist belief known as the pancha
antarathan, or the prophesy of the five-stage disappearance of Buddhist knowledge.
In regard to the pancha antarathan the Commentator [ie. the fifth century Pali scholar
Buddhaghosa] predicted that the Disappearance will proceed in stages starting from the good parts
of the dhamma. From the highest dhamma (paramat) the disappearance will continue until the
Jatakas. Of the Jatakas the Vessantara Jataka will disappear first because it is the best Jataka...368
Dismissing this belief as nonsense the king wrote that in his opinion
...the Disappearance which will in fact happen will be of that kind of knowledge which has no
real substance (kaensan). My prediction is that it will be the Jatakas that will disappear before
anything else, because they are full of rubbish...369

365

As the position was known by the foreign community. In Thai the post of uparat (alternatively uparaja, wang

na, phraratchawang boworn sathan mongkhon, or Front Palace Prince) was one of the power centres of the
premodern Thai state, second only to, and frequently at rivalry with, the King himself. A number of kings had
previously held the post of uparat prior to assuming the throne. King Chulalongkorn abolished the post of uparat in
1885, following the death of its last incumbent, Wichaichan.
366
367

Gerini, op. cit., p. 34.

Ibid.
Phra ratchaphithi sip sorng duan, p. 430.
369
In Thai: pen khorng rok riaw tang tang mi mak; Phra ratchaphithi sip sorng duan, pp. 430-3. In the
original pancha antarathan prophecy the first diasappearance is that of the scriptures, starting from the Abhidhamma
and finishing with the Vessantara Jataka followed by the rest of the Jatakas; the second is that of religious practice; the
third, enlightenment; the fourth the monkhood; and finally the holy relics.
368

On the chanting of the Maha chat kham luang at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha the
king remarked that nowadays nobody enjoys listening to it, because they can not really understand
it.370 Of the king who had composed the Maha chat kham luang centuries earlier, while praising
his mastery of poetic composition Chulalongkorn regretted that he had not been serious in
studying the dhamma. His written work, Chulalongkorn wrote, attained only to the level of the
Vessantara Jataka, which is merely an entertaining and readable story. His aim in composing this
work was merely to play with the Pali and Thai language....371 As for the royal thet maha chat,
once the grandest ceremony of the royal calender, Chulalongkorn wrote that nowadays it was held
only irregularly.372
Excision of the Jatakas from the Story of the Buddha
Another sign of the declining status at the Thai court of the Vessantara and other Jatakas, the
stories of the Buddhas former lives, was their exclusion from narratives about the life of the
Buddha. A study by Nidhi Aeusrivongse has shown the appearance during the nineteenth century
of a new genre of Buddhist narrative of a more biographical nature, which took as its main subject
the human life of the Buddha, starting from his birth and ending with his death and entry into
nibbana.373 This new biographical genre, exemplified in Nidhis study by three works Phrapathomsomphothikatha written by Prince Patriarch Paramanuchit during the Third Reign; a
work by the Supreme Patriarch Sa similarly titled Pathomsomphot and composed in the early part
of the Fifth Reign; and Prince Wachirayans Phutthaprawat written in the early twentieth century excluded virtually all references to the Buddhas previous lives. It replaced an older Buddhist
narrative tradition whose subject was not so much the Buddha as the bodhisatta - the Buddha-tobe - and his accumulation of the Perfections (barami) in countless successive incarnations,

370

Ibid., p. 527.

371

Ibid., p. 521. The full quote: If one carefully considers the knowledge of King Songtham one will realise that

although he had a great knowledge of the Tripitaka, and was unequalled in his skill in Thai composition, he did not
concern himself with the careful investigation of the finer and more profound parts of the dhamma. He was content
merely with literary study, rather than applying himself to the search for the truth in the dhamma. The reason I say this
is that in everything the king did - his teaching of the monks for example - involved only the explanation of Pali
grammar. His written work attained only to the level of the Vessantara Jataka, which is just an entertaining and
readable story. His aim in composing this work was merely to play with the Pali and Thai language. As for his concern
for the Buddhist religion it does not appear that the king thought to clean up the bad practices, to improve it and leave
it better than before. All in all, the king's accession to the throne shows that he was skilled in and favoured study rather
than practice. He was not particularly interested in improving religious practice.'
372

Ibid., p. 73.

373

Nidhi, Phra pathomsomphothikatha kap khwam khluan wai thang satsana nai ton ratanakosin (The

Phrapathomsomphothikatha and Religious Movements in the Early Bangkok Period) in Pak kai lae bai rua, pp. 400402.

culminating in the achievement of Buddha-hood in his incarnation as Gautama. Nidhi calls this
older form of Buddhist narrative thammaprawat, literally dhamma history, on the grounds that it
is characterised by the representation of the Buddha not as a human being but as a principle of the
dhamma.374
The decline of the genre of dhamma history, had enormous implications for the status of
the Jatakas. The importance of the Jatakas depended to a large extent on their structural position in
relation to the old dhamma history narrative. The Jatakas were part of the narrative about the
origins of the Buddha. However, as records of the incarnations of the bodhisatta the Jatakas lost
their significance once the focus of Buddhist history shifted to the (human) lifetime of the person
of the Buddha. In the older dhamma history schema the Vessantara Jataka had been crucial
because it was in the incarnation as Vessantara that the bodhisatta finally achieved all the
Perfections which would enable him to be enlightened in his subsequent incarnation as the
Buddha. In the new biographical representation of the Buddha the Vessantara Jataka had no place,
since the origins of the Buddha went back only to his birth.
This new form of Buddhist narrative resulted in the undermining not only of the Jatakas but
with them the theory of the Perfections (barami). The Jatakas had provided vivid examples of the
accumulation and practice of the Perfections (kan bamphen barami), such as Giving (than
barami), Equanimity (ubekkha barami) and Morality (sin barami). In the new genre of Buddhist
narrative the bodhisattas accumulation of Perfections in previous incarnations counts for nothing.
It was of no significance in the new representation of the Buddhas life, which concentrates on the
quest for enlightenment only within the Buddhas lifetime. Together with the theory of the
Perfections, the ideal of the bodhisatta which the Jatakas had exemplified was also eclipsed in the
new genre, and this development had correlations in the political sphere, as will be shown below.
The Decline of Great Lineage History
A further factor related to the decline of the Jatakas was the development of a new conception of
history. It was argued in the previous chapter that dhamma history style narratives of the
Buddhas origins had been integrated into the genealogies of ruling houses to produce a chronicle
tradition that was popular with Theravada Buddhist rulers everywhere, including the Sinhalese and
Burmese rulers, as well as the Thai kings of Ayuthaya, the early Bangkok monarchy, and rulers of
other Tai principalities. I have termed this type of chronicle tradition great lineage history, after
its prototype, the Sinhalese Mahavamsa. By means of great lineage history contemporary rulers
could claim to be descended from the house of the Buddha, (which in turn was descended from the
first king, the bodhisatta Maha Sammata, or the Great Elect).375

374

Ibid., p. 381.

375

Cf. The Mahavamsa or Great Chronicle of Ceylon, trans. W.Geiger, Pali Text Society, London, 1964, pp.

10-13.

The great lineage historographical tradition which flourished at the courts of Thai rulers
through to the reign of the first Chakri king Rama I, appears to have coexisted alongside another
genre of chronicle, the Phraratchaphongsawadan, or dynastic chronicle.376 In striking contrast to
great lineage history the Phraratchaphongsawadan made no reference (in terms of the structure
of the genre) to the lineage of the Buddha.The Phraratchaphongsawadans subject was the reigns
and successions of the kings of the former capital Ayuthaya, dating from the putative founding
of the royal city in the mid-fourteenth century until the citys fall - and that of the incumbent
dynasty - to the Burmese in 1767. The genre is known to have existed since the seventeenth
century in the kingdom of Ayuthaya,377 and was resurrected after the citys fall, first by King
Taksin of the short-lived kingdom of Thonburi, and later by Rama I and his successors of the
Chakri dynasty.378 The political uses of the Phraratchaphongsawadan genre are clear. For the new
regimes of Taksin and then the Chakri it was necessary to show their connections to the former
kingdom of Ayuthaya, whose political authority they had laid claim to through military conquest
following its collapse after the Burmese sack of the city of Ayuthaya in 1767.
While the Phraratchaphongsawadan provided meaning and legitimacy to the early
Bangkok kings in terms of their relationship to previous kings of Ayuthaya, compared to the great
lineage chronicle it was relatively limited in terms of its historical scope. Great lineage history
linked contemporary rulers to races of kings dating from (in the chronicles terms) the beginning
of the world, to the race of the Buddha himself, as well as to kingdoms, and dynasties subsequent
to the Buddha and prior to the founding of Ayuthaya. Great lineage history, therefore, had its
political uses as well. For Thai kings it served the purpose of portraying them as inheritors and
protectors of the Buddhist religion. Moreover, in the newly expanded Thai kingdom under the
early Bangkok kings which incorporated the previously autonomous Buddhist heartlands of the
north and northeast (where great lineage history had had a long tradition), it showed them to be
leaders of the Buddhist world.

376

An etymological interpretation of the termphraratchaphongsawadan suggests that the word originally

signified royal lineage of avatars- avatar being a Brahmanical concept meaning in this case an earthly incarnation
of the god Narayana; cf. Chit Phumisak, Sangkhom thai lum mae nam chao phraya korn samai ayuthaya, Bangkok,
Mai Ngam, 1983, pp. 72-3. Perhaps originating from a period when Brahmanical culture was influential in the
kingdom, by the time of the early kings of the Chakri dynasty the word would appear to have lost much of its original
meaning, when, as Atchara has convincingly argued, Buddhism was vigorously promoted as the state religion and
Hindu or Brahman elements of court culture marginalised; cf. Atchara Kanchanothai, Kan fun fu phra
phutthasatsana nai samai ratanakosin torn ton (phor sor 2325-2395) (The Restoration of Buddhism in the Early
Bangkok Period, 1782-1852), Masters Thesis, Dept. of History, Chulalongkorn University, 1980.
377

The origin of this genre is the subject of a Masters degree thesis being written by Ian Hodges in the Faculty

of Asian Studies at the Australian National University.


378

Cf. Nidhi Aeusrivongse, Prawatisat ratanakosin nai phraratchaphongsawadan (Early Bangkok History in

the Phraratchaphongsawadan), Thai Studies Institute, Thammasat University, Bangkok, Bannakit, 1980, pp. 5-20.

The two historiographical forms appear to have coexisted in the early Bangkok period. By
the mid-nineteenth century, however, this situation had changed. The Phraratchaphongsawadan
became the dominant historical form and great lineage history ceased to be written at the Thai
court. Well-known versions of Phraratchaphongsawadan were compiled during the Third Reign
by the Prince-Patriarch Paramanuchitchinorot, a son of Rama I and a high-ranking monk,379 and in
the Fourth Reign by King Mongkut himself and Prince Wongsathiratsanit, a half-brother of
Mongkut.380 In the early Fifth Reign Chaophraya Thiphakorawong made use of the genre to write
separate dynastic chronicles of the first four Chakri reigns, the Phraratchaphongsawadan krung
ratanakosin.
The abandonment of the great lineage genre in favour of the exclusive use of the
Phraratchaphongsawadan marks an important break in the historical consciousness of the Thai
elite. It suggests that the representation and legitimation of kings in historical discourse was
moving away from association with the Buddha and his royal line, and towards firstly, depicting
the Chakri dynasty as rightful successors to the kingdom of Ayuthaya, and secondly, emphasising
the importance of the Chakri blood-line.381 A change in the idea of royal lineage was occurring.
The conseqences of the decline of great lineage history for the Jatakas were drastic. While
the Buddha remained an important element in this great lineage chronicle tradition the Jatakas
maintained their status at the Thai court. But once the Buddha was omitted from the genealogy of
Thai kings the Jatakas inevitably lost their authority - indeed were rendered irrelevant - in relation
to the dominant conception of history.
An example of the changing concept of the lineal descent of kings, which is evident in the
Thai courts development of the Phraratchaphongsawadan genre, can be found in a letter by King
Mongkut to the Burmese. In 1856 Mongkut had received a letter carried by emissaries sent by the
Burmese king to the head of the Thai Sangha, inquiring as to the state of the Buddhist religion in
Siam, with an offer of assistance. The letter began by extolling the virtues of the Burmese king,
including his claim of descent from the bodhisatta king Maha Sammata, and his pious conduct
modelled on the Jataka kings Silava, Dasanajakra, Nemi and Vessantara. In a mocking reply to the
Burmese kings letter Mongkut wrote,
...Because of this dhamma gift we have received which discourses upon the greatness of the King
of Ava,382 and praises his qualities and pious reknown at such great length, I ought to explain the
379

Ibid., p. 19.

380

Phraratchaphongsawadan chabap phraratchahatthalekkha (Royal Autograph Version of the Royal

Chronicle), 2 Vols., Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1973.


381

See Atthachak Satayanurak, Khwam plian prae khorng samnuk thang prawatisat lae kan plian plaeng khorng

sangkhom thai tang tae ratchakan thi 4 thung phor.sor.2475' (Shifts in Historical Consciousness and Change in Thai
Society from the Fourth Reign to 1932), Master's Degree thesis, Department of History, Chulalongkorn University,
1988, pp. 39, 64, 80ff.
382
At that time the capital city of the Burmese kingdom. The following year the Burmese king Mindon moved
the capital to Mandalay.

situation here in Siam in return. As a rule the Thai of Siam are moderate in their rhetoric. Even if
some claim is true, if it concerns someone or some thing which is difficult to verify and believe for
oneself, then one ought not talk about it at any length. It serves no purpose. As for the boast about
[the Burmese king] being descended from the lineage of king Maha Sammata in a pure, unbroken
line, this idea comes from the Canon and Commentaries. But people of all countries know now
that this is an ancient mode of praise originally used only for mathayom prathet, which is today
known as India, since the Canon was compiled in mathayom prathet, and the Commentaries and
Sub-commentaries refer to the Canon. The situation in mathayom prathet has nothing to do with
other countries...It is difficult to believe that any king has such a pure descent from such a remote
origin...So we will leave aside such outrageous claims rather than imitate you...383
The irony of Mongkuts reply to the Burmese king was that this was the same lineage - the lineage
of the mythical first king Maha Sammata - from which Thai kings had themselves claimed descent
as late as the previous reign.384
The Thai kings had, therefore, discarded the so-called great lineage in favour of a lineage
which paid more attention to the importance of blood or dynastic ties, and especially those of the
Chakri dynasty. To understand why this change occurred we now need to look at the new concept
of kingship that was emerging in Mongkuts reign.
The End of the bodhisatta-King
The previous two chapters showed how royal support for the Vessantara Jataka and their
dissemination into popular culture was bound up with ideas of political authority based on the
concept of bodhisatta kingship. That is, like the bodhisatta in the Jatakas, the king was also
conceived of as being intent on achieving enlightenment through the accumulation of the
Perfections (barami). Indeed, the mere fact of being king was itself held to be evidence of the
accumulation of the Perfections in previous incarnations. In the first three reigns of the Chakri
dynasty this ideal was so pervasive that the king, on occasions, appeared consciously to imitate the
deeds of the bodhisatta as recorded in the Jatakas.
The rejection of the Jatakas, which is evident in the decline of the thet maha chat at the
court of the Thai king, in the new biographical narrative of the Buddhas life, and in the new genre
of historiography that was evolving, implied the discarding of the concept of bodhisatta kingship.
It is clear that during the Fourth Reign the king was attempting to distance himself from the ideal
of bodhisatta-kingship. One of the clearest signs of this was in the change to the kings official
name, which was ceremonially inscribed onto a plate of gold (suphannabat) at the start of each
383

Prachum phraratchaputcha (Collected Royal Inquiries), Bangkok, 1973, pp. 254-265. Damrong notes that
the name of the great Burmese king Alaungphaya translates as great bodhisatta; see Damrong Rajanubhab, Phra
ratchaphongsawadan krung ratanakosin rachakan thi 2 (Royal Chronicle of the Second Reign), Part 2, Bangkok,
Khurusapha, 1962, p. 90.
384

Atthachak, Khwam plian prae khorng samnuk thang prawatisat, p. 46, refers to King Rama III claiming

taxation powers as a royal right inherited from the time of King Maha Sammata.

reign. The title signifying bodhisatta status, maha phutthangkun, which had been part of the
official title of each of the first three Chakri kings, was conspicuously absent from Mongkuts own
royal title.385
One finds in Mongkuts writings several disparaging references to Rama IIIs assumption
of the status of bodhisatta-king. For example, in faintly disguised sarcasm he writes that,
King Nang Klao [Rama III]...was a very conscientious giver of alms. He used to listen to many old
stories like the Jataka tales, and desired that the monks and laity praise and worship him as a great,
enlightened bodhisatta, more marvellous than other kings. So he consciously acted in the manner
of a bodhisatta, as it is described in the Jatakas, which relate how the bodhisatta was a king, ruling
in Benares and other cites in Machimaprathet, where the people ate milk and butter and sesame
seed. The king dwelt on how, in the past, the bodhisatta-king had shown mercy to the forest
animals, the birds, and the fish, and would not let any one do any injury to them. So he decided
that he also would follow this practice...386
In another disparaging reference to the bodhisatta-kingship ideal popularised by King Rama III,
Mongkut writes disapprovingly about monks in the previous reign who had deceived the king by
sycophantically praising the kings barami. Monkut wrote that the former king had himself
participated in the deception, encouraging the monks to travel the length and breadth of the
kingdom proclaiming the king to be a bodhisatta, who was on the path to achieving
Enlightenment.387
Elsewhere Mongkut wrote in a similar vein about King Taksin, whose overthrow had
brought the Chakri dynasty to power:
From the time that the Emerald Buddha image was obtained and brought to Thonburi, the king of
Thonburi [Taksin] began to have delusions of grandeur. He became mentally deranged, claiming
that he was a being of great merit, a bodhisatta, who would achieve Buddhahood by defeating
Mara, and that he was Mettrai [the prophesied future Buddha]. His thoughts, words and actions
showed that the king had become insane.388

385

For the full official names of the kings of the Chakri dynasty see Somphong Kriangkraiphet, Prapheni thai

lae ruang na ru (Thai Customs and Things Worth Knowing), Bangkok, Phrae Phithaya, 1964, pp. 613-27. Maha
phutthangkun is also one of Vessantaras titles in the Thai version of the Vessantara Jataka, see Maha wetsandorn
chadok chabap sip sam kan, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1988, passim.
386
Atchara Kanchanothai Kan fun fu phra phutthasatsana nai samai ratanakosin torn ton (phor.sor.2325-2395)
(The Restoration of Buddhism in the Early Bangkok Period, 1782 - 1852), Masters Thesis, Dept. of History,
Chulalongkorn University, 1980, pp. 32-3; Lathi thamniam tang tang (Beliefs and Customs), Book 2, Bangkok,
Khlang Withaya, 1972, tamnan akorn kha nam (The History of the Water Tax), p. 196.
387

Wa duai kan nai phra phutthasatsana (On the State of the Buddhist Religion), Prachum phra

ratchaputcha, p. 247.
388
Pathomwong (The First Lineage), Prachum phongsawadan (Collected Histories), Vol. 8, Part 8, Bangkok,
Khurusapha, 1964, p. 243.

As shown in the previous chapter, there is ample evidence in the documents of the period to prove
that the man who overthrew Taksin, ostensibly on the grounds of the latters insanity, exhibited
during his reign similar signs of bodhisatta status, and moreover was represented in official
records of the period in precisely such terms.389
It is also revealing to look to the chronicles written in the early ratankosin period and
compare the image of kingship they portray with chronicles written subsequently.
Similar elements of the bodhisatta-king motif can be observed in the accounts of the reigns
of the Ayuthaya kings contained in certain versions of the royal chronicles of Ayuthaya. In one
vivid example from the phanchanthanumat version of the royal chronicles, believed to have been
compiled in 1795 during the reign of Rama I, King Chetthathirat, an early seventeenth century
king, is likened to a certain incarnation of the bodhisatta, who, as helmsman of a trading vessel,
guides its passengers safely through a storm which had threatened to sink the boat.390 Elsewhere in
the same chronicle a Mon monk compares the determination of the Burmese king Tongu, rival of
the great Thai king Naresuan, to that of the bodhisatta in another incarnation.391
In subsequent versions of the Ayuthaya chronicles, however, there is a significant
alteration to these passages to downplay the idea of the bodhisatta king. In the Royal Autograph
edition compiled by Mongkut and his half-brother in the Fourth Reign, the same passages are
modified to present a comparison on the basis of the tales (nithan) of the bodhisatta, rather than
with the bodhisatta himself, as in the 1795 version.392 That is, it is as if the bodhisatta has started
to lose his status as a real figure and is being transformed into one found in - and confined to certain tales. Moreover, by Mongkuts time this category of literature referred to as tales, or

389

Thus Wyatt (in David J.Steinberg, ed., In Search of Southeast Asia: A Modern History, University of Hawaii

Press, Honalulu, 1987, p. 112) and Keyes (in Charles F.Keyes, Thailand: Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation State,
Duang Kamol, Bangkok, 1989, p. 39) both appear to misrepresent Rama Is coup against Taksin in 1782 by referring
to Taksins claim of bodhisatta-hood as a factor precipitating the coup.
390

Phraratchaphongsawadan

krung

si

ayuthaya

chabap

phanchanthanumat

(choem)

kap

phra

chakraphadiphong (chat) (The Phanchanthanumat and Chakraphadiphong Versions of the Royal Chronicle of
Ayuthaya), Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1964, p. 336.
391

Ibid., p. 258.

392

Cf. Phraratchaphongsawadan chabap phraratchahatthalekha (the Royal Chronicle, the Royal Autograph

Version), lem 2, Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1973, p. 6; and ibid., lem 1, p. 322. The same passages are also found in
the Phra Phonarat and in the Chakraphadiphong (chat) versions of the Ayuthaya chronicles, both of which appear to
date from before the Fourth Reign (cf. Phraratchaphongsawadan krung si ayuthaya chabap phra phonarat, Bangkok,
Khlang Withaya, 1971, pp. 338, 258; and Phraratchaphongsawadan krung si ayuthaya chabap phanchanthanumat
(choem) kap phra chakraphadiphong (chat), pp. 860, 780). The exact dating for both these works is, however, a
question of some uncertainty.

nithan, was being characterised more and more as one of dubious credibility.393 For example, royal
references to the Jatakas - one of the prime examples of nithan - are increasingly informed with a
spirit of facetiousness which one would expect when treating stories of no historical basis. For
example, on the issue of the kingdoms revenue base Mongkut once remarked that he did not have
the power (bunyarit) to summon a shower of jewels to fall all over the city as Vessantara (of the
Vessantara Jataka) had done.394
That the ideal of the king as a bodhisatta had been abandoned in official representations of
the Thai kings is however most obvious in Chaophraya Thiphakorawongs chronicles of the first
four kings of the Chakri dynasty, composed by royal command between 1869 and 1870.
Thiphakorawong, a senior figure at the Thai court in the Third and Fourth Reigns involved in trade
and foreign relations, and a close associate and ally of Mongkut, presents kingship more as a state
institution rather than as an attribute of the bodhisatta.395 References to the kings as descendants
of the Buddha are done away with, as are incidents of kings displaying superhuman qualities,
victories being attributed to the accumulated perfections of the king, and kings making pledges
to achieve enlightenment at some time in the future. In denying any claim to being a bodhisatta
Mongkut stated that the king was also human.396
Whether in the rejection of the stories of the bodhisattas deeds as told in the Jatakas, in the
new biographical story of the Buddha, in the new genres of historiography employed at the Thai
court, or in direct pronouncements on the institution of kingship, from the reign of King Mongkut
the idea of the king as a bodhisatta is increasingly discredited at the Thai court. Let us know look
at some of the reasons behind this change.
Politics and Intellectual Change at the Thai Court
Foremost among these reasons were political considerations. Intense rivalry had existed between
Mongkut and his predecessor, Rama III, his older half-brother, since the latter had managed to
seize the throne despite Mongkuts more legitimate claim to the succession by virtue of his
superior ranking mother. Mongkuts own accession to the throne in 1851 took place amidst
opposition from supporters of one of Rama IIIs sons, and his powerful brother, Prince

393

Cf. Mongkuts disparaging treatment of nithan in Prachum phra ratchaputcha, p. 245: In the scriptures

there is no end to such nithan. They relate how so-and-so did such and such a deed, and how they were rewarded with
happiness or suffering....yet in these stories there is not so much as a mention of moral conduct, mental development,
or wisdom...
394

Cited in Atthachak, Khwam plian prae khorng samnuk thang prawatisat, p. 45; see also Tamnan phasi

akorn kha nam, Latthi thamniam tang tang, Book 2, p. 195.


395

Somjai Phirotthirarach, "The Historical Writings of Chao Phraya Thiphakorawong", PhD thesis, Northern

Illinois University, 1983, Chap. VI.


396

p. 38.

Phra chao phaendin kor song pen manut; Atthachak, Khwam plian prae khorng samnuk thang prawatisat,

Chudamani, was another potential threat. Mongkut and his supporters (primarily the Bunnag
family) therefore had a political interest in emphasising his dynastic legitimacy. Furthermore, the
Chakri dynasty had been in power long enough for it to be expedient to emphasise the importance
of dynastic legitimacy over and above royal merit based on bodhisatta-hood and the possession of
the Perfections.397 Whereas in the previously fluid and unstable situation of Thai politics rulers
could justify their seizure of power (in official court documents, and religious and historical
writings) through their bun barami, their accumulated merit and Perfections, in the new
geopolitical situation with colonial powers ready to take advantage of any internal instability, it
was essential for the Chakri rulers to avoid such domestic disturbances. Challenges to the
monarchy from phu mi bun figures - both near the Thai court as well as in distant regions of the
kingdom - needed to be minimised. In a court text of the Third Reign there is a moral dictum, ya
klua phu mi bun mak kwa chao -Do not fear men of merit (phu mi bun) more than your lord,
which sums up the courts changing conception of authority.398
Mongkuts rejection of the bodhisatta ideal and the theory of the Perfections also helped
him win respect and crucial political support from the increasingly influential Western figures in
the Thai kingdom. The doctrine of the Perfections, reincarnation, and the bodhisatta were alien to
the Christian intellectual tradition which viewed them as backward and irrational. Mongkuts
opposition to this doctrine thus contributed to his reputation among many Western observers of the
time as progressive and reformist, not only in the religious sphere but also in government. The
political situation in the Thai kingdom was increasingly viewed by the Western powers as divided
between the conservatives and the progressives, between the old and new Siam.
Mongkuts political motivations took place in a time of considerable intellectual ferment.
Two major strands of this change affected this older ideology of authority and the Jatakas: firstly,
the turn to the canonical scriptures and criticism of the commentary literature in religious
scholarship; and secondly the development of rational thought.
The issue of canonicity was increasingly affecting the status of the Jatakas, and by
association the doctrine of the Perfections. In Theravada Buddhist scripture there were two basic
divisions of scripture: the canonical literature of the Tripitaka, held to be the original teachings of
the Buddha; and the later commentary literature known in Thai as atthakatha. It is a distinguishing
feature of the Thai Buddhist tradition that before the ratanakosin period the Buddhist canon seems
to have played a relatively minor role in the explication of Buddhist doctrine in the Thai kingdom,
and in any case seems to have peacefully coexisted with other species of religious text. 399
Although the three books of the Tripitaka, the Sutta, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma, represented the
essence of the dhamma, or the corpus of the Buddha's teaching, and the chronicles note that pious
Buddhist kings almost always made sure they produced at least one copy of the Tripitaka to ensure

397

Atthachak, op. cit., pp. 36ff, p. 64.

398

Ibid., p. 36.

399

Cf. Nidhi Aeusrivongse, Phra pathomsomphothikatha kap khwam khluan wai thang satsana nai ton

ratanakosin, in Pak kai lae bai rua, pp. 390-3.

the health of the dhamma), among the Tai peoples the explication and dissemination of the
dhamma seems to have been carried out on the whole not by the Tripitaka but by commentaries.
During the nineteenth century, however, a significant change occurred. The Tripitaka came to be
regarded more and more as the sole criteria of religious truth. Mongkut especially is known to
have paid great attention to the issue of which scriptures were actually uttered by the Buddha, and
which were the product of later commentators.400
While scholars of religious change in the nineteenth century have traditionally attributed
the new emphasis on the Buddhist canon to Prince Mongkut and the new Buddhist sect he
founded as a monk, the Thammayut, in an important study Nidhi has argued that increasing
attention to the Tripitaka was apparent even from the First Reign.401 The earliest reference to the
issue of canonicity in connection to the Jatakas seems to date from the Third Reign, when the
Front Palace King presented a royal inquiry to senior monks on the subject of whether the
thotsaphothisat (Ten Bodhisattas) text - an obvious reference to the book of the last ten Jatakas had been preached by the Buddha or not.402 By the second half of the nineteenth century
Mongkuts Thammayut sect, which by that time had become an instrument of royal power in the
Sangha, had abandoned recitations of the Vessantara Jataka on the grounds that it was not strictly
speaking a canonical text; no references to previous incarnations of the Buddha, the Thammayut
argued, could be found in the authentic sacred texts such as the Vinaya.403 As will be explained
at greater length in the following chapter, the situation came to a head at the turn of the century
when the king published an article broadly denying the Jatakas claim to canonicity.
How did this turn to the canon as the arbiter of religious authority affect the Jatakas? The
Jatakas were a special category of scripture, in that they were a somewhat complex mixture of
canon and commentary. While in the text of the Jataka it was the Buddha who narrated the story of
his own former incarnation, scholars began to argue that this may have been the addition of a later
commentator.404 As such the Jatakas became targets for critics of the authority of the commentary
scripture. Moreover, a great number of other texts which contributed to the popularity and
authority of the Jatakas also fell under the category of commentary, or were based on
commentaries. For example, the whole genre of narratives on the theme of the quest of the
bodhisatta, which provided the framework for the Jatakas relationship to the Buddha; the Phra
Malai story, which was a millenarian exhortation for people to listen to the Vessantara Jataka in
return for a better future life and the chance to meet the future Buddha; the anisong genre of
religious literature, which expounded the rewards in the next life due to people who piously
listened to religious texts like the Jatakas; and even the Traiphum and related cosmological texts

400

Atthachak, Khwam plian prae khornng samnuk thang prawatisat, p. 19.

401

Nidhi, Phra pathomsomphothikatha kap khwam khluan wai thang satsana, p. 392.

402

Atthachak, Khwam plian prae khorng samnuk thang prawatisat', p. 20.

403

Gerini, A Retrospective View and Account of the Origin of the Maha Chat Ceremony, Bangkok, 1892, p. 16,

n. 1.
404

This will be discussed at greater length in Chapter 4.

which described the world in which the events recounted in the Jatakas took place.405 Once the
foundations of these texts were undermined by the attacks on the commentaries, the whole edifice
of the Jatakas authority was also weakened.
The second major impact on the status of the Jatakas was the development of rational
thought at the Thai court. The emergence of rational thought, or a system of thinking based on
empirical reality, has been commonly attributed to Western influence: the presence of Christian
missionaries from the 1830s; a growing interest in Western science;406 the political dominance of
the progressive or liberal faction at the Thai court (in particular Prince and later King, Mongkut
and the Thammayut);407 and to increasing contact with the outside world as a result of the trade
treaties the Thai court had been forced to make with the Western powers. However, this apparently
Western origin of rational thought (sometimes rendered in modern Thai as hetphonniyom408) in
the Thai kingdom has been challenged by Nidhis work, which sees the roots of these cultural and
intellectual changes going back to the period before Western influence. Nidhi points to the
increasingly bourgeois character of elite Thai society as early as the late eighteenth century, a
result of the growth of trade, urbanization, and the development of an export oriented economy
under the early Bangkok kings.409 Bourgeois literary culture of the early Bangkok period shows a
number of characteristics indicative of rational thought. For example, concern for the otherwordly gives way to interest in this world, the human individual starts to emerge and replace the
superhuman, peoples present lives are given precedence over past incarnations, and explanations
of events are presented in a rational way based on the writer's own actual experience.410 Even the
turn to the canon in religious thinking could be interpreted as a side-effect of the increasing
rationalism in Thai thought; according to Nidhi the Tripitaka is considerably more rational than
the commentaries.411
All these elements can be seen in increasing influence in successive works on the life of the
Buddha written during the nineteenth century, which, as outlined above, were taking the place of

405

Traiphum manuscripts include graphic images of the Vessantara Jataka and the other Jatakas in the overall

representation of the Thai Buddhist universe; see Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geobody of
a Nation, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1994, pp. 25-6.
406

Mongkut was later to become known in Thailand as the Father of Thai Science.

407

Cf. Reynolds, Buddhist Cosmography in Thai History

408

The term used by Nidhi, Pak kai lae bai rua, passim.

409

Cf. Nidhi Aeusrivongse, Wathanatham kradumphi kap wannakam ton ratanakosin, (Bourgeois Culture and

Literature in the Early Bangkok Period) in Nidhi, Pak kai lae bai rua, pp. 1-234.
410

Ibid., Wathanatham kradumphi kap wannakam ton ratanakosin', pp. 157, 176; and Lok khorng nang

nophamat, pp. 353-4, 364-6.


411

Nidhi, Phrapathomsomphothikatha kap khwam khluan wai thang satsana', pp. 392, 415-6; Lok khorng nang

nophamat, p. 371. This of course suggests that rational thought was not exclusively the product of the Western
enlightenment.

the Jatakas.412 The culmination of this genre is Prince Wachirayans Phutthaprawat written in
the early twentieth century, in which the Buddha, Nidhi poignantly remarks, is portrayed as a
completely historical figure.413 Phutthaprawat414 begins by giving a geographical and
ethnographical description of the region where the Buddha was born, and discusses in considerable
detail themes such as the Sakya clan, the Buddhas birth, his becoming an ascetic, enlightenment,
travels and teaching. Throughout the biography Wachirayan gives considerable attention to the
geographical detail and particularly to the correspondence of ancient sites from the Buddhas time
with places in modern day India, thus providing evidence of the modern-day existence of these
sites, rather than mere scriptural references. Another significant feature is Wachirayan's attempt to
write a completely rational account of the Buddha's life, and to interpret miraculous events where
they appear in the sources in a metaphoric rather than literal sense. For example, in the episode of
the Buddhas confrontation with the demon Mara and his hordes immediately preceding his
enlightenment, Mara is said to be a personification of the defilements (kilesa) which assailed the
Buddhas mind; the defeat of Mara is similarly understood as the overcoming of these
defilements415. In Wachirayan's own words his narrative differs from previous accounts of the
Buddhas life in that his is written in the style of an historian (nak tamnan)416. And it is
significant that Wachirayan bases his work almost exclusively on canonical sources.
How did the rise of rational thought in the nineteenth century affect the Jatakas? Much of
the criticism of the Jatakas during the nineteenth century was directed at their failure to adequately
display sufficient criteria of rationality. That is, the material in the Jatakas which could be defined
as irrational - the abundance of miracles, supernatural events, marvellous creatures, and so on was (now) beyond the bounds of the credibility of many leading figures at the Thai court. This was
behind Thiphakorawongs and Mongkuts labelling of the Jatakas as fables, or nithan. From
Mongkuts reign through to the end of the century, criticism of the Jatakas on the grounds of their
apparent irrationality grew louder and louder, both from Thai and Western commentators. In the
Thai religious and historical tradition a sharply defined line was being drawn between fable and
history.
Had the Jatakas originally been understood as mere folktales, criticism on these grounds
would, of course, have been meaningless. What did it matter if a fictional character displayed
supernatural powers? But it was precisely because the Jatakas had possessed (and for much of the
kingdoms subjects continued to possess) the status of true stories - stories that had a basis in
historical fact, which had actually happened at some time in the old Buddhist temporal schema -

412

Nidhi, Phra pathomsomphothikatha kap khwam khluan wai thang satsana nai ton ratanakosin, pp. 393-403.

413

Pen bukkhon nai prawatisat pai doi sombun; Nidhi, Phra pathomsomphothikatha kap khwam khluan wai

thang satsana, p. 402.


414

Prince Wachirayan Warorot, Phutthaprawat (Biography of the Buddha), Vol. 1, Mahamakut

Ratchawithayalai, Bangkok, 1991.


415

Wachirayan, Phutthaprawat, pp. 45-6.

416

Nidhi, Phra pathomsomphothikatha kap khwam khluan wai thang satsana, p. 402.

that the issue of their irrationality (in the opinion of the progressives at the Thai court) presented such a problem.
Conclusion
In this chapter I have argued that from around the middle of the nineteenth century the popularity
of the Vessantara Jataka and the genre of the Jatakas as a whole experienced a loss of intellectual
and religious status at the Thai court. The Jatakas were coming under increasing attack from the
king himself and his court allies. This attack was ostensibly motivated by the Jatakas ambiguous
canonical status among the Buddhist scriptures, at a time when the Tripitaka was becoming the
exclusive basis of religious authority; as well as by a growing perception of the irrationality of
the stories themselves, which brought them into conflict with an increasingly rational thinking
Thai elite.
Yet the diminishing influence of the Jatakas at the Thai court was indicative not merely of
the fading of a literary genre. Their rejection mirrored the courts gradual detachment from a
certain culture of authority which the stories had helped disseminate to the Tai peoples since the
first Tai states had begun to form six centuries earlier. The decline of this ideology of authority
was apparent in the new biographical style narratives of the Buddhas life which omitted the
bodhisattas accumulation of the Perfections before the Buddhas enlightenment. The decline was
visible also in the sphere of royal historiography, where older historiographical genres such as the
great lineage chronicles concerned themselves more with a succession of great men, men of
merit, who had accumulated barami in previous incarnations, the new phraratchaphongsawadan
style of chronicle played down this factor in favour of a renewed emphasis on the legitimacy of an
authority based on a dynastic line.
The ideal of the ascetic ruler possessed of the Perfections and thereby endowed with
supernatural powers had become untenable in the new socio-economic and geopolitical situation
in which the Thai kingdom found itself. Whereas the Vessantara Jataka had seemed to go hand in
hand with the expansion of the Thai state, such expansion now threatened to bring the Thai kings
into conflict with the colonial powers. A new, more delimited as well as a more centralised kind of
authority was needed. There was also increasing pressure on the Thai court from a new source.
The period of high imperialism in the latter half of the nineteenth century was producing a new
class of Western scholar-administrators, whose researches into Buddhism were beginning to have
an impact on the Thai courts own understanding of Buddhism. The next chapter will look at both
these problems and how they were handled by the court of King Rama V.

CHAPTER 5
THAI AND WESTERN BUDDHIST SCHOLARSHIP
IN THE AGE OF IMPERIALISM: THE THAI COURT REDEFINES THE JATAKAS

Today the Jatakas, which originated in India some two and a half thousand years ago, are known
almost universally as religious parables or folk tale. While this interpretation of this hugely
popular genre of Buddhist literature is widespread, its origin is recent indeed. In earlier chapters I
have argued that of all Buddhist scripture it was the Jatakas, and in particular the Vessantara
Jataka, which had been the major source among the Tai Buddhist peoples of ideas about the nature
of authority, and of social organization. The Jatakas, moreover, were fundamental to the particular
historical conception which accounted for the origin of Tai Buddhist rulers and their states. A
discontinuity would seem to exist, therefore, between the role the Jatakas once played in the Thai
kingdom and that of today. In the previous chapter I discussed how, from around the middle of the
nineteenth century, the Jatakas had fallen out of favour among the leading sections of the Thai
court. In this chapter I will describe how the court of King Chulalongkorn at the turn of this
century took steps to address the matter of the Jatakas directly. The court attempted to formally
redefine the Jatakas as mere folktales, valuable purely for the moral that could be gleaned from
the story. In the history of the influence of the Jatakas among the Thai this was a pivotal moment.
It is difficult to understand today how a body of literature could so preoccupy the attention
of a countrys government. And it would seem extraordinary that at the height of Western
imperialism in Southeast Asia the Thai king would invest his mental energy in researching and
publishing an article on the Jatakas, which, as modern scholarship would have it, are little more
than fables. The question is all the more pertinent to ask of Chulalongkorn who, more than any
other figure, is responsible for the great transformation in the governing apparatus of the Thai
kingdom. What then was the impetus behind the kings actions?
There were two major reasons. First, it was the era of high imperialism in Southeast Asia.
In 1893 a serious dispute broke out betweeen Siam and France which resulted in the French
sending gunboats up the Chao Phraya River towards Bangkok. Siam was later obliged to comply
with a treaty containing a number of humiliating provisions, including the ceding to France of the
kingdoms Lao territories east of the Mekong river, huge reparations, and the occupation by
French troops of Siamese territories in the Southeast part of the kingdom, pending Siamese
compliance with the French demands. In 1904 Siam lost more of its Lao territories to the French,
as well as some of its areas of jurisdiction in Cambodia. In 1907 it lost the rest of its Cambodian
territories to France. Finally, in 1909 Siam ceded its southern tributary states, Kelantan,
Trengganu, Kedah, Perlis, Raman, and the Langkawi islands to Great Britain.417

417

Tej Bunnag, The Provincial Administration of Siam 1892-1915, London, Oxford University Press, 1977, pp.

88-91, 161-2.

The threat of imperialism was also influencing the sphere of religion. For several decades
Western scholars had been studying the Buddhist scriptures of the countries which professed that
religion. The Buddhist scriptures seemed to be a sign of civilisation, in stark contrast to the
generally negative light in which the political regimes and peoples of the region were held by the
colonising powers. The research conducted by Western scholars into the Pali scriptures was
creating a new religious orthodoxy, which resulted in existing religious practice being seen as a
very corrupted form of the original purity of the religion. The Thai court developed close relations
with many of the leading Buddhist scholars of the day and it seems to have been considerably
influenced by this new Western Buddhist scholarship. The courts attitude was shaped by their
constant struggle to be accepted by the Western powers, culturally and intellectually, as well as
politically. Western scholarly interest in the Jatakas, the most popular of the Buddhist scriptures in
the Thai kingdom, was to be particularly influential at the Thai court.
The second reason behind the kings essay is linked to the first. While the political
conceptions associated with the Jatakas had declined in elite circles along with the popularity of
the Jatakas themselves, in the vast rural hinterland of the Thai kingdom the Jatakas maintained
their popularity unabated. But now the risk of this political culture which thrived in these remote
regions had become apparent to the Thai court. The political conceptions deriving from the
Jatakas, including the ideal of the phu mi bun, the so-called man of merit, who was believed to
command supernatural powers through the strength of his barami, risked provoking a
confrontation with the colonial powers which threatened the very existence of the Thai court. A
new centralised, bureaucratic administrative model was being developed to ensure the courts
authority over the entire kingdom. The courts control over its outer provinces required not only
political reform but also a transformation of the kingdoms religious and cultural traditions. Up
until now it was these traditions that had provided the major source of political thought.418 The
timing of Chulalongkorns essay on the Jatakas is instructive: the essay was published in 1904, just
over two years after the courts firm suppression of the phu mi bun uprisings in the kingdoms
northeast.
This chapter, then, will examine the kings essay on the Jatakas, showing the new way in
which the king desired the Jatakas to be understood. It will look at the impact of Western Pali
scholarship which had so influenced the substance of the kings essay, as well as the relationship
between the Western Pali scholars and the Thai court. Finally it will return to the situation within

418

One has only to look at the catalogues of extant literature in the provincial regions of the Thai kingdom for

the pre-nineteenth century period, where religious, cultural, and folk-literary sources make up around 90% of the total,
and where documents which could be defined as secular are virtually non-existent; see Rai chu nangsu boran lanna
ekasan microfilm khorng sathaban wichai sangkhom, mahawithayalai chiang mai phor sor 2521-2533 (Catalogue of
Ancient Lanna Literature on Microfilm, University of Chiang Mai Social Research Institute, 1978-1990), Chiang Mai,
1990, pp. 297, 386; Banchi samruat ekasan boran (Catalogue of Surveyed Ancient Literature), 14 Vols., Northeastern
Teachers Colleges and Khorn Kaen University, led by Maha Sarakham Teachers College, Maha Sarakham, 19811990, passim.

the Thai kingdom, remembering that outside the capital the Jatakas still enjoyed much of their
traditional influence in social and political life. The chapter will examine the problem this
popularity posed for the Thai court.
King Chulalongkorns Essay on the Jatakas
In 1904 the King of Siam published a collection of thirty Jatakas translated from the Pali into Thai,
together with an introductory essay he had written himself called Phra borom rachathibai ruang
nibat chadok or "His Majestys Explanation of the Nipata Jataka", which explained how the
Jatakas should be read.419 The kings Explanation of the Jatakas was in response to a short book
titled Buddhist India published the previous year by the British Pali scholar Rhys Davids. This
work had contained a chapter on the Jatakas. So impressed was he by this piece of Buddhist
scholarship that at one stage Chulalongkorn had thought of simply translating and publishing Rhys
Davids work unchanged in Thai. However, it seems that it was the de facto head of the Sangha,
Chulalongkorns half-brother Prince Wachirayan, who suggested that Chulalongkorn rewrite the
essay as if it were his own work, rather than to praise Rhys Davids writings on the Jatakas. This
would avoid the risk of upsetting the older generation who would object on the grounds that Rhys
Davids was not himself a Buddhist.420 Thus nowhere in his essay does Chulalongkorn mention his
source beyond the general term nak prat (scholars).
The influence of this short essay by King Chulalongkorn has been enormous, to the extent
that it has become in Thailand the definitive explanation of Jataka literature. It was disseminated
to the Thai reading public of the time - consisting mostly of the aristocracy, nobility, and senior
Buddhist monkhood - via the powerful new technology of print. It was republished again and again
with the official edited translations of the entire Nipata collection of Jatakas which came out from
1904 to 1931. It was referred to in Prince Damrongs introduction to the Panyat Chadok (another
collection of Jatakas), which accompanied the successive publications of this other collection of
Jatakas during the same period. Damrongs introduction was still reproduced in reprintings of the

419

Contained in Praphat Trinarong, Khorng di nai chadok, (Good Things in the Jatakas) in Warasan

Wathanatham Thai, 23, 5, 1984, pp. 32-40. Nipata Jataka was the name given to the Jatakas in the Pali Jataka
Commentary. There were two other major collections of Jatakas: the Panyat Chadok (Fifty Jatakas), which was a
non-canonical collection of Jatakas popular throughout mainland Buddhist Southeast Asia, composed possibly in the
fifteenth or sixteenth centuries; and the Jataka Mala, a much older collection of Jatakas from the first millenium AD
written in Sanskrit.
420

Letter from Wachirayan to Chulalongkorn, 30 October 1904, "Ruang plae nibat chadok" (On the Translation

of the Nipata Jatakas), Pramuan phra niphon somdet phra maha samana chao krom phra ya wachirayan warorot:
phra ratcha hatthalekha - lai phra hat (Prince-Patriarch Wachirayans Collected Writings: Correspondence between
the Prince and the King), Bangkok, Mahamakut, 1971, p. 80.

Panyat Chadok at least as late as the 1960s.421 Chulalongkorns essay is used in several wellknown university textbooks on religious literature,422 and is quoted in academic journals.423 A
recent scholarly edition of the Pali Jataka Commentary printed the essay in its entirety.424 The
Channel Seven nightly news in Thailand has even made reference to it in its regular cultural
segment, when explaining the significance of the thet maha chat, the annual recitation of the
Vessantara Jataka.425 Thus it could be said that even today, Chulalongkorns essay provides the
orthodoxy in interpretations of the status of the Jatakas in the Thai kingdom.
Chulalongkorn began the essay by stating that he was addressing three groups of people:
those who enjoyed listening to stories (nithan) but who were not interested in the dhamma or
suphasit (moral) that might be contained in the Jataka; those who sought dhamma in their
reading, but considered the Jatakas to be mere tales (ruang lao niyai) in which there was so little
dhamma that it was not worth the effort reading them; and those who saw the Jatakas as stories
without any truth in them whatsoever, since they contained such absurd elements as animals being
able to speak, and because the characters in the Jataka were identified as previous incarnations of
characters who lived in the time of the Buddha. Moreover,
The old belief that those who doubted those books which were said to be the word of the Buddha
would go to hell, thereby forcing people to believe in them, made people resent the Jatakas even
more.426
Chulalongkorn stated that the way all three groups approached the Jatakas was too narrowminded,427 and proceeded to demonstrate how and why the Jatakas were still worthwhile reading.
What then made Chulalongkorns explanation of the Jatakas so different?
421

Panyat Chadok (The Fifty Jatakas), phak thi 4, Suwannakuman chadok, Cremation Volume, Nang Bunnak

Thitathan, Bangkok, 1965; kham nam.


422

For example: Chua Satawethin, Wannakhadi Phutthasatsana (Buddhist Literature), Part 1, Bangkok,

Khurusapha, 1971, (pp. 130-134); Thawisak Yanaprathip, Wannakam satsana (Religious Literature), Ramkhamhaeng
University, Bangkok, 1975, p. 95; Sap Prakorpsuk, Wannakhadi chadok (Jataka Literature), Srinakharinwirot
University, Pathumwan Campus, Bangkok, 1984, p. 102.
423

For example, Khwam ru ruang chadok (Knowledge about the Jatakas), Thanit Chakharataphong, in

Aksorasan, Bangkok, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, 1972, p. 36; and Praphat Trinarong, "Khorng di nai
chadok" (Good Things in the Jatakas), Warasan Wathanatham Thai (Journal of Thai Culture), 23, 5, 1984, which
prints the entire essay (pp. 32-40).
424

Chadok atthakatha - athibai chadok (The Jataka Commentary - Explanation of the Jatakas), Part I, 1st

Academic Report, Project for the Transcription of the Khorm and Ancient Regional Scripts, and Editing and
Translation of Buddhist Texts into Thai, with the Support of the Ecclesiastical Council and the Religious Affairs
Department, the Education Ministry and the Phumiphalopphikkhu Foundation, Bangkok, 1976.
425
426
427

Khao Chorng Chet Si (Channel Seven Colour News), October, 1992.


Praphat, op. cit., p. 32.
"Tang wong phicharana khap khaep", ibid., p. 33.

Previously the Jatakas had been generally understood as stories which the Buddha had
himself told about his former lives. This is in fact stated in the text of each Jataka, which begins by
describing the circumstances in which the Buddha related the story (the so-called prarop
section), and ends with the Buddha identifying himself with the bodhisatta (buddha-to-be), who
is usually the main character of that particular story (the so-called prachum chadok section).
Now, according to Chulalongkorn, the Jatakas were to be understood as mere tales (nithan)
which, moreover, were pre-Buddhist in origin. This new interpretation of the Jatakas represents a
remarkable shift in interpretation. How could stories narrated by the Buddha about his own former
lives now be explained as having originated before the Buddha himself?
First, Chulalongkorn denied what the Jataka text explicitly stated, that is, that it was a story
narrated by the Buddha about one of his former lives. But in order to make such an argument the
king had to bring the text of the Jataka into question. Chulalongkorn wrote that according to the
research by scholars (nak prat), the two crucial parts of the Jataka which referred to the Buddha
as narrator of a story of a former life - the prarop section in the introduction, and the prachum
chadok section in the conclusion - were not in fact the words of the Buddha (phutthawochana) but
part of a commentary (athakatha) added to the original text some time later. Only the verses which
each Jataka contained were considered as having been uttered by the Buddha.428 The result of this
dissection of the Jataka text into separate sections, and the classification of these sections
according to what were the Buddhas words (the verses) and what was commentary (the prose),
had the effect of transforming the Jataka. It could not be denied that the Buddha had uttered the
actual verses that were preserved in the Jataka text as it appeared today. But the exclusion of those
parts of the Jataka considered to be post-canonical additions meant that the Jataka could no longer
be interpreted as a story actually narrated by the Buddha about a former life. In other words, it was
no longer a Jataka, since the literal translation of the Pali term jataka, and indeed the popular
understanding of the word, was a story about one of the Buddhas former lives.
Fig.1 Jataka Structure according to Chulalongkorns Explanation
SECTION OF TEXT

FUNCTION

1. Prarop (Introduction)

3. Prachum Chadok
Conclusion)

Describes the circumstances of


the Buddhas narration of the
Jataka
(Jataka
The narrative, consisting of (i)

2. Main Text

428

Praphat, op. cit., p. 36.

verses and (ii) prose

ATTRIBUTED ORIGIN
Composed by later commentator
Describes who the characters in
the story are reborn as in the
Buddhas lifetime; with the
bodhisatta, usually the hero of
(i) verses held to be uttered by the
the story, being identified with
Buddha
the
Buddha
himself
(ii) prose text composed by a
later commentator

Composed by later commentator

One problem remained. How could one reconcile the fact that the Buddha had told stories
which on the face of it appeared unlikely to be true, given the supernatural events which occurred
in most of the stories? The answer, according to Chulalongkorn, was that the Buddha had most
probably used these stories as parables, allegorical tales which illustrated some moral or point he
wanted to convey to his audience.429 The need for such parables was explained by Chulalongkorn
as due to the fact that
people understand the dhamma with differing degrees of difficulty. With some people it is not
possible to get them to understand just by raising various teachings of the dhamma. But if one uses
a parable (nithan priab) with the same content as the dhamma it will be easy for them to
understand...430
The stories contained in the Jatakas were thereby deprived of their status as historical fact.
Yet not content with interpreting the Jatakas as mere tales, Chulalongkorn referred to other
evidence which seemed to reinforce the idea that the Jatakas were not especially Buddhist either.
For example, it turned out that stories similar to those found in the Jatakas could also be found in
other ancient literatures of the world - Arab and Persion tales, and Aesops fables for example.
These stories were also mostly of the parable genre.431

429
430
431

Ibid.
Ibid.
Chulalongkorn had actually himself translated some of Aesops Fables; Praphat, op. cit., p. 34. Some of these

translations appeared in the early Thai literary magazine Wachirayan Wiset, in 1886, cf. Wachirayan Wiset, Thursday

Moreover, according to other evidence referred to by Chulalongkorn, it appeared that the


origin of the Jataka stories was actually in pre-Buddhist Indian folklore. This conclusion was made
possible by the textual dissection of the prose commentary from the canonical verses (ie. the
Buddhas words) noted above, as well as textual evidence by scholars, which will be referred to
below. The significance of the use of such a term as pre-Buddhist was that it implied a different
notion of time to the one implicit in the Jataka text. In the Jataka text the Buddha begins his
narration of each story with the equivalent of the phrase once upon a time (Pali: atite). The story
is not located in what might be called historical time. It does not state how many years before the
time of the Buddha the story took place. This is of no importance. The crucial temporal relation
here is between the subject of the story - one of the Buddhas past incarnations - and the person of
the Buddha himself. In this context, then, time before the Buddha is meaningful only in terms of
the stories about the bodhisatta as recounted in the Jatakas, or in those lesser known scriptural
accounts of the other Buddhas who had achieved enlightenment before the better-known Gautama
Buddha.432 On the other hand, in the context of historical time, it became possible to talk of a
pre-Buddhist past which was not actually Buddhist. In the older conception of time the dhamma
was timeless, whereas in the new historical time the dhamma commenced when it was taught by
the Buddha. Chronological history, therefore, becomes the benchmark by which the Jatakas are
judged. If the origins of the Jatakas were pre-Buddhist (in historical time) it followed that their
status as Buddhist stories was also in question.
In Chulalongkorns essay the influence of this notion of historical time is also apparent in
the way different texts are classified in terms of their dates of composition. Historical analysis of
texts could determine which texts had been composed earliest and which followed later. The
implicit assumption in the essay is that the older texts had the greatest claims to truth or orthodoxy
while the later texts were more open to question. Chulalongkorn pointed out that not only were the
introduction and conclusion to each Jataka part of the commentary, but that this commentary had
also been composed well after the other scriptures. This evidence further supported the argument
against the authority of the Jatakas in Buddhism scripture.
The idea of historical time, new to the Thai kingdom, also carried with it the notion that
time could separate historical periods quite different from each other. The Jatakas were by
implication the product of a by-gone age, rather than stories with relevance to the present. For
example, the king wrote,
You must understand that the Buddha died almost two thousand five hundred years ago. The
thoughts, expressions and ways of explaining things in that time are very different from those of
today.

15 July 1886 and Sunday 22 August 1886 (wan 5, duan 8, khun 15 kham; wan 1, duan 9, raem 8 kham, chor sor 1248).
My thanks to Dr Anthony Diller for calculating these dates for me.
432

Accounts of the former Buddhas appear in the canonical work, the Buddhavamsa (Th. Phutthawong); as well

as in the long Introduction (Nidana katha) in the Jataka Commentary.

Chulalongkorn included an example so his readers might appreciate this point more easily.
If one were to read a book from the Third Reign, sixty years ago, and compare it with a book
written today, one would find that the thoughts and expressions in those books are different from
those of today...
One could imagine, therefore, how different they would have been two thousand five hundred
years ago.433 The Jatakas were presented as belonging to a time very different from the present.
Near the conclusion to the article Chulalongkorn offers a piece of advice which reveals how
remote the Jatakas had become from the life of the modern reader: the reader [of the Jatakas]
must imagine himself to have been born at that time.434
Not only did historical time separate the modern reader from the world of the Jatakas, but
also geographical space. Chulalongkorn pointed out for those who were not already aware, that the
Buddha did not in fact live in our country (prathet rao), but in another country. Different
countries had different customs and behaviour, and an obvious example of such differences could
be seen by comparing Siam with its close neighbours, Burma and Vietnam.435 This was an attempt
to delocalise the Jatakas, to classify them as stories of foreign origin. Yet the notion of the
foreignness (or Indianess) of the Jatakas was quite recent . There is no evidence to show that this
was an issue of any importance, at least before the Fourth Reign. On the contrary, the evidence
suggests that most people implicitly believed that the Buddha had lived in the same country as they
did, as evidenced by temples housing footprints of the Buddha and local legends recounting the
Buddhas presence in the region. Indeed, the anthropologist Tambiah refers to a monk in
northeastern Thailand who believed that the forest in which Prince Vessantara had lived in exile
was actually located in Khon Kaen province.436
The overall objective of all these arguments was to remove the Jatakas from orthodox
Buddhism. The application of the new discipline of textual studies, which strictly divided the
scriptures into canon and commentary, the allied discipline of history, which gave new
significance to that distinction as well as judging the Jataka stories to be pre-Buddhist, and
geography, which considered the stories to be foreign, all contributed to give the Jatakas a new
meaning. No longer acceptable as stories of the Buddhas former lives, the Jatakas were now to be
read either as parables with a moral, or for those with more scholarly interests, as folktales (nithan
boran), containing a wealth of information about how ancient peoples of foreign countries lived.

433

Ibid., p. 33.

434

Ibid., p. 40.

435

Ibid., p. 33.

436

S.J Tambiah, The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets, Cambridge, Cambridge University

Press, 1984, p. 286.

Western Buddhist Scholarship and the Jatakas


What, then, was the impetus behind this re-interpretation of the Jataka literature, which
delocalised, dehistoricised and, in effect, devalued the genre? Who were the scholars
Chulalongkorn refers to intermittently in his Explanation?
Documents of the Thai court show that in writing the essay the king had consulted with
senior members of the court, foremost among whom was the de facto head of the Thai Buddhist
Sangha, Prince Wachirayan.437 But in fact, for the most part Chulalongkorn had relied on the work
of a group of Western scholars who, since the middle of the nineteenth century, had been working
in the new field of Pali textual studies. This field had been opened up because of the increasing
exposure of the West to the Buddhist religion as a result of the expansion of European
imperialism, in particular the British acquisition of the colonies of Ceylon and Burma. In the West
Buddhism was being brought to the publics attention with works such as Edwin Arnolds hugely
popular The Light of Asia published in 1879, a work which presents a very sympathetic portrait of
Buddhism - in stark contrast to the negative view of Asian moral and philosophical systems
generally held in the West.438 The point was made by a number of Buddhist scholars that an
estimated three to five hundred million people could be classified as Buddhist, making Buddhism
the worlds second most popular religion after Roman Catholicism.439 There was also a growing
collection in the West of Pali manuscripts, obtained initially from Ceylon, later from Burma, and
later still from the kingdom of Siam. Whereas previously most Western accounts of Buddhism had
been the work of missionaries,440 from the mid-nineteenth century Buddhism began to be taken up
as a subject of formal academic study, sometimes by scholars who had been former colonial
administrators.441 The new scholarship on Buddhism was characterised by a much greater

437

"Ruang plae nibat chadok", (On Translating the Nipata Jatakas), Pramuan phra niphon somdet phra maha

samana chao krom phraya wachirayan warorot: phra ratcha hatthalekha - lai phra hat, pp. 80 - 109.
438

Edwin Arnold, The Light Of Asia: or, the Great Renunciation (Mahabhinishkramana), Being the Life and

Teaching of Gautama Prince of India and Founder of Buddhism (as Told in Verse by an Indian Buddhist), London,
Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1925. By 1925 this work had been through sixty-five editions.
439

Arnold gives the figure of four hundred and seventy million adherents, or a third of mankind, Arnold, op.

cit., pp. vii-viii; Rhys Davids estimates a combined total of five hundred million northern and southern Buddhists,
T.W. Rhys Davids, Buddhism: Being a Sketch of the Life and Teachings of Gautama, the Buddha, London, Society
for Promoting Christian knowledge, 1907 (1st ed. 1877), pp. 4-5; Alabaster has three hundred and sixty five million,
H. Alabaster, The Wheel of the Law: Buddhism Illustrated from Siamese Sources, London, Trbner and Co., 1871, p.
1.
440

Some of the better known missionary scholars on Buddhism included Rev.D.J.Gogerley and Rev.R.Spence

Hardy in Ceylon; Rev.P. Bigandet in Burma; Bishop Pallegoix in Siam.


441

Two of the best known Pali textual scholars, R.C. Childers and T.W. Rhys Davids had both formerly worked

in the Civil Service in British Ceylon; L.Ananda Wickremeratne, The Genesis of an Orientalist: Thomas William Rhys
Davids in Sri Lanka, Delhi, 1984, p. 150, pp. 9-139.

emphasis on the Pali texts themselves. Indeed, there was remarkably little interest in the
contemporary practice of the religion in Buddhist countries. It was generally perceived by Western
scholars to have been so corrupted from the religions original purity as to be almost worthless.442
The history of Western scholarly interest in the Jatakas can be said to have begun in the
latter part of the nineteenth century. Accounts of the religious systems and practices of Buddhist
countries by Westerners before this time had not placed so much attention on the Jatakas in
particular. There are several reasons why the Jatakas later became the subject of such attention.
First, between 1877 and 1897 the Danish scholar Fausbll published his transcription of the
original Pali Jataka Book in its entirety into Roman characters.443 Up until then the Jataka Book
had only been available for scholars in manuscript form, written in the native scripts in Ceylon,
Burma and Siam. Once this transcription became available in the West the Jatakas began to gain a
wider scholarly audience. As the stories contained in the Jatakas became more widely known it
was noticed that many of them bore a marked resemblance to fables and folk-tales found in
Western literature. Folk-lore had, by this time, become an area of great scholarly interest among
the young nations of Europe eager to discover their national roots, and this resemblance intrigued
many scholars. Besides their value as folk stories it was claimed by scholars that the Jatakas also
contained a wealth of historical information about the peoples of ancient India. Moreover, because
studies in philology were identifying an historical link between the Indian and European peoples,
the Jatakas were perceived by some scholars as an historical source for the origins of the European
races. The rise of the discipline of history in the nineteenth century, then, was the other stimulus to
Western interest in the Jatakas.
The scholar Chulalongkorn relied upon most closely in his essay on the Jatakas was
T.W.Rhys Davids.444 A former colonial administrator in British Ceylon, Rhys Davids was an
important figure in Western Pali scholarship, and was influential in bringing Buddhism to the
publics attention. In 1881 he founded the Pali Text Society, an organization which arranged the
publication of much of the work going on in Western Pali textual scholarship and to which most of
the leading Pali text scholars of the age belonged. In the Pali Text Societys Prospectus published

442

Western scholarship on Japanese Buddhism was taking place at the same time; cf. Judith Snodgrass, "The

Representation of Japanese Buddhism at the World's Parliament of Religions, Chicago, 1893." PhD dissertation,
University of Sydney, 1994.
443

V. Fausbll, (ed.), The Jataka together with its Commentary; being Tales of the Anterior Births of Gotama

Buddha, 7 Vols., Pali Text Society, London, 1962 - 1964 (1st publ.1877 - 1897 by Truebner and co.).
444

Cf."Ruang plae nibat chadok" (On the Translation of the Nipata Jatakas), Pramuan phra niphon somdet phra

maha samana chao krom phraya wachirayan warorot: phra ratcha hatthalekha - lai phra hat, pp. 80-109. Rhys
Davids work was also extensively drawn upon by Prince Damrong; see Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, Tamnan phra
phuttha chedi (History of Buddhist Stupas) in Prachum phra niphon kiao kap tamnan thang satsana (Collected
Writings on Religious History), Cremation Volume, Phra Thep Khunathan (Phon Chinputto), Bangkok, Phra Phiren,
1971, p. 2 & passim.

in the initial volumes of the Societys Journal, Rhys Davids outlined the historical nature of the
Societys endeavour:
This Society has been started in order to render accessible to students the rich stores of the earliest
Buddhist literature now lying unedited and practically unused in the various MSS. scattered
throughout the University and other Public Libraries of Europe.
The historical importance of these Texts can scarcely be exaggerated, either in respect of their
value for the history of folk-lore, or of religion, or of language. It is already certain that they were
all put into their present form within a very limited period, probably extending to less than a
century and a half (about B.C. 400-250). For that period they have preserved for us a record, quite
uncontaminated by filtration through any European mind, of the every-day beliefs and customs of
a people nearly related to ourselves, just as they were passing through the first stages of
civilization. They are our best authorities for the early history of that interesting system of religion
so nearly allied to some of the latest speculations among ourselves, and which has influenced so
powerfully, and for so long a time, so great a portion of the human race - the system of religion
which we now call Buddhism. The sacred books of the early Buddhists have preserved to us the
sole record of the only religious movement in the worlds history which bears any close
resemblance to Christianity. In the history of speech they contain unimpeachable evidence of a
stage in language midway between the Vedic Sanskrit and the various modern forms of speech in
India. In the history of Indian literature there is nothing older than these works, excepting only the
Vedic writings; and all the later classical Sanskrit literature has been profoundly influenced by the
intellectual struggle of which they afford the only direct evidence. It is not, therefore, too much to
say that the publication of this unique literature will be no less important for the study of history, whether anthropological, philological, literary, or religious, - than the publication of the Vedas has
already been.445
This concern for the historical clearly informs Rhys Davids work on the Jatakas. Most of
this work appeared in two books; Buddhist Birth Stories, in 1880, and Buddhist India in 1903, the
latter being an enlarged restatement of the views he had put forward in 1880.446 In Buddhist Birth
Stories Rhys Davids claimed that the Jataka Book was important as a record of the every-day life
and every-day thought, of the people among whom these tales were told: it is the oldest, most
complete, and most important collection of folk-lore extant.447 Drawing on the work of
contemporary folk-lorists (Benfey, Mller and others) he found in the worlds great collections of
folktale literature an astonishing number of stories similar to those of the Jatakas. Similar stories
could be found in such works as Aesops Fables; Biblical stories, including the Judgment of
445

Journal of the Pali Text Society, Vol. I, London, 1882, Prospectus of the Society, pp. vii-viii.

446

T.W. Rhys Davids, Buddhist India, Story of the Nations Series, London, T.Fisher Unwin, 1903, p. 189.

447

T.W. Rhys Davids, Buddhist Birth Stories (Jataka Tales), London, Truebner's Oriental Series, 1925 (1st ed.

1880), pp. iii-iv, authors emphasis.

Solomon in the Book of Kings; the Syriac collection of tales called Kalilag and Damnag, and its
Arabic translation Kalilah and Dimnah; the later Hebrew, Latin and eventually European language
translations of this work; the popular medieval religious romance Barlaam and Joasaph448 and its
many translations into European languages; another medieval work called the Gesta Romanorum;
the Sinbad the Sailor stories; the Arabian Nights; Jean de la Fontaines folktales; as well as the
works of Poggio, Boccaccio, Gower, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and many others.449
The similarities between the stories in the above collections and the Jatakas were not
coincidental. It was argued that the presence of the Greeks in the East during the time of the
Buddhist ascendancy in Northern India in the fourth and third centuries B.C. facilitated the
transmission of stories from Buddhist to Greek culture. While it may have been that the
transmission of stories had gone in the other direction, the internal evidence was against this
hypothesis.450 Largely on the basis of such historical reasoning Rhys Davids argued that in the
collection of Indian tales found in the Jataka Book lay the real origin of much of the folk literature
current in the West.
This claim had significant implications, for the Jatakas were more than just literature. As
folk-lore they were an important record of the beliefs and habits of men in the earlier stages of
their development, and contemporary research had shown this to be the key to a correct
understanding of the habits and beliefs of men in the present.451 But this record was not only
relevant to the history of ancient peoples of Northern India, nor only to the history of the
Buddhists. For Rhys Davids there was another factor:
...in the Jatakas we have a nearly complete picture, and quite uncorrupted and adulterated by
European intercourse, of the social life and customs and popular beliefs of the common people of
Aryan tribes closely related to ourselves, just as they were passing through the first stages of
civilization.
For Rhys Davids the Jatakas were a priceless record of the childhood of our race.452
Another scholar whose influence can be seen in Chulalongkorns essay is E.B. Cowell,
who had supervised the English translation of Fausblls romanized edition of the Pali text. 453

448

Joasaph or Josaphat was said to be a corruption of the word Bodisat [bodhisatta], the common epithet of the

main character in the Jatakas who was eventually to become the Buddha. The popularity of the character Josaphat
among medieval Christians was such that he was eventually canonized. The Catholic Church had thus unwittingly
recognising the Buddha as a Christian saint!; Buddhist Birth Stories, pp. xxxiv-xxxix.
449

Ibid., pp. ii-xlvi.

450

Ibid., p. xli.

451

Ibid., p. lxxviii.

452

Ibid., pp. lxxviii - lxxix. For Rhys Davids linking of Buddhism with the Aryan peoples of North India, see

T.W. Rhys Davids, Buddhism: Being a Sketch of the Life and Teachings of Gautama, the Buddha, pp. 22-26; Buddhist
India, passim; see also Wickremeratne, op. cit., pp. 163-4, 198, 208.

While not referring to any Aryan connection, he concurred with Rhys Davids that the primary
value of the Jatakas was as folk literature with historical use:
[The Jatakas] foremost interest to us consists in their relation to folk-lore and the light which they
often throw on those popular stories which illustrate so vividly the ideas and superstitions of the
early times of civilisation. In this respect they possess a special value, as, although much of their
matter is peculiar to Buddhism, they contain embedded with it an unrivalled collection of Folklore. They are also full of interest as giving a vivid picture of the social life and customs of
Ancient India.454
Fausbll himself, who had initially become interested in the Jataka Book because of its great
popularity among the Sinhalese Buddhists and the great reverence they paid to it, later related that
the further I got into the book, the clearer I saw its importance, not only in a linguistic sense but
also from a culture-historical point of view...455
Western scholarship, then, was concerned foremost with the historical significance of the
stories found in the Jataka Book. With this objective it became all the more necessary to date
accurately the origins of Jataka literature. This turned out to be a complex operation.456 The Jataka
Book, or the Jatakatthavannana as it was known in Pali and as it appeared in Fausblls
romanized edition, was in fact a prose commentary on an earlier canonical work in verse457. This
canonical work (without the commentary) was rare and as yet unpublished. The entire work the
Jatakatthavannana, consisted of a long general introduction (called in Pali Nidana katha),
followed by the five hundred and fifty Jatakas. Each of the five hundred and fifty Jatakas was
made up of a number of distinct parts. That is, each Jataka was framed by an introduction, where
it was described how the Buddha came to tell the following story, and a short conclusion, in which
the Buddha told his audience whom the characters in the story were reborn as in their present
births, and identified himself as the bodhisatta (buddha-to-be) in the story. This frame
surrounded the story itself, which was written mainly in prose but contained also the verses of the

453

For Chulalongkorns knowledge and use of Cowells work see "Ruang plae nibat chadok", Pramuan phra

niphon somdet phra maha samana chao krom phraya wachirayan warorot: phra ratcha hatthalekha - lai phra hat,
pp. 99 - 103.
454
E.B. Cowell, The Jataka or Stories of the Buddhas Former Births, translated from the Pali by Various
Hands, under the editorship of Professor E.B. Cowell, Vol. I, translated by R. Chalmers B.A., Pali Text Society,
London, 1957 (1st ed. 1895), p. xi.
455

V. Fausbll, (ed.), op. cit., Vol. VII, Index to the Jataka and its Commentary, London, Pali Text Society,

1964 (1st publ. 1897 by Truebner and co.), pp. I-II.


456

The following summary is based on Buddhist Birth Stories, pp. i-lxxx; Buddhist India, pp. 189-209;

Fausbll, op. cit., Vol. VII, pp. I-XII; and Cowell, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. vii-xii.
457

The Pali text itself actually states this in the beginning of the general introduction to the work; Buddhist Birth

Stories, p. 81.

earlier canonical work. Finally there was also a verbal interpretation of the verses contained in
the stories.458
The Jataka Book therefore was a composite text. The whole was written down in Pali by an
unknown author in Ceylon probably in the fifth century A.D. However it appears that this work
was a translation of an earlier work, also a commentary, in Sinhalese, which had accompanied the
Pali canonical verses.459 This earlier Sinhalese work had apparently been lost, but clues to the age
of the original commentary were found elsewhere. Fausbll and others reasoned that because the
canonical verses alone were not enough to constitute the story, they must have been accompanied
from the earliest times by a prose commentary, which narrated most of the story and made the
verses intelligible. This implied that at least by the time of the finalisation of the Buddhist canon
(the latest time the canonical verses could have been composed) the story existed in something like
the form in which it appeared in the fifth century A.D. commentary. Unfortunately, since the dates
of the various parts of the canon and its eventual finalisation were not yet clear to Western
scholars, more evidence was needed.460
Part of that evidence came from a discipline closely allied to history: archaeology. Recent
archaeological excavations at the Bharhut and Sanchi stupas had revealed bas-reliefs dating from

458

Fausbll, op. cit., Vol. I, preliminary remarks; Vol. VII, pp. III, VIII; Buddhist Birth Stories, p. lvii.

459

This older Sinhalese version is actually referred to in the text; Rhys Davids, Buddhist Birth Stories, p. 173.

460

See for example Mllers discussion of this point in The Dhammapada: A Collection of Verses being One of

the Canonical Books of the Buddhists, translated fom Pali by F.Max Mller, Sacred Books of the East, Vol. X, New
Delhi, 1965 (1st publ. 1881), pp. ix - lv. The dating of the Buddhist scriptures was just part of the overall project
undertaken by scholars in the broader field of Indian studies to, as Mller described it, [land] the storm tossed ship of
Indian chronology...in the harbour of real historical chronology, ibid., p. xxxv.
The whole question of canonicity was one which preoccupied the Western Pali scholars. The issue was very
complex. Different texts - canonical works, commentaries, and religious histories - written at different times, give
accounts of different bodies of works, all of which could be described as canonical. Even more confusing was that
the fact that the word canon as Western scholars were using it did not correspond exactly with words used in
Buddhist texts to describe some authoritative corpus of Buddhist works. In a recent article (Steven Collins, "On The
Very Idea of the Pali Canon", Journal of the Pali Text Society, Vol. XV, edited by K.R.Norman, Oxford, 1990, pp.
89-126), it is shown that there are a number of words appearing in Pali texts which could be translated by the word
canon, except that none of them convey the same sense of a closed list. The word pali, which later came to mean
the language of the scriptures, was also used in contrast to the word atthakatha (commentary). Pitaka, usually
translated as basket, from which comes the word tripitaka, or three baskets [of tradition], only later acquired the
meaning of canon in the closed sense. Buddha-vacana, meaning Word of the Buddha, which comes closer to the
exclusivist sense of canon, could, however, also be interpreted figuratively [Collins, pp. 91-94]. But the way in which
Western Pali scholars used the term also implied to a certain extent a value judgment. These scholars were creating a
new field of knowledge, and as in all such activities it was necessary to define ones object of study. In this case the
object was Buddhism, and in this context the use of the word canon, whichever way it was defined, seems to have
implied a purer form of Buddhism than texts which were judged non-canonical.

the third century B.C., which illustrated scenes from the Jataka stories. Many of these bas-reliefs
portrayed scenes which were found in the commentary but not in the canonical verses, which
thereby proved the existence of the commentary by that time. Another reliable date was found in
the Dipavamsa, which scholars had judged to be the earliest Ceylonese chronicle, composed not
earlier than the fourth century A.D. The chronicle gave an account of the Great Council, known to
have been held in about the middle of the fourth century B.C., in which a book called the Jataka
was mentioned. Whether this book included the prose commentary however was not known.
More evidence suggested that the some of the stories may have been older still. The archaic
language of the Pali verses indicated that they may have come from the time of the early
Buddhists. Research had even shown that language similar to that found in the verses was present
in the earliest Indian literature, the Vedas, which was known to predate Buddhist writings by many
hundreds of years. Authorities on Indian history claimed that social conditions revealed in Jataka
stories certainly dated at least from the Buddhas time, if not earlier.461 In particular, a great many
of the cities and kingdoms referred to in the Jataka stories were known by Indian historical
scholarship to have flourished before the time of the Buddha, on the basis of their appearance in
the earlier Vedic literature. Other references in the Jataka stories supported the conclusion that
most of the stories must have been drawn from a body of folk literature pre-dating the Buddha.462
Thus even though the stories were narrated largely by the commentary (which was, of
course, post-canonical), Western Buddhist scholarship was showing that the origin of many of the
stories was pre-Buddhist. On the other hand however, that part of the commentary which described
the Buddha as narrator of the story of one of his own former lives was declared to have originated
well after the time of the Buddha. Supporting evidence included the fact that place names referred
to in this part of the Jataka dated mostly from the Buddhas time and later.
What were the consequences of this historical classification of the various parts of the
Jatakas?
Firstly it split the Jatakas into different parts according to their respective chronological
status. The verses together with the story which presumably accompanied the verses in some form
from the start, were old in terms of the evolution of the Buddhist scriptures, and those of a large
number of Jatakas could be proven with considerable certainty to have been in existence before the
time of the Buddha, in the form of folk-tales. What this deduction inevitably suggested was that
many Jatakas must have been adopted from this previously existing body of tales, and given a
Buddhist flavour. As Rhys Davids wrote of the oldest Jatakas, None of them are specially
Buddhist. They are modified, perhaps, more or less to suit Buddhist ethics...there is nothing
peculiarly Buddhist about them. Even the ethics they inculcate are Indian.463 That the Jataka

461

Rhys Davids, Buddhist India, pp. 201-4.

462

Here, though, there was another problem in that the date of the Buddhas birth and death in terms of Western

chronology was still a subject of debate; cf. Mller, The Dhammapada: A Collection of Verses being One of the
Canonical Books of the Buddhists, pp. xxxiv - xlv.
463

Rhys Davids, Buddhist India, p. 197.

stories had not been created purely as vehicles for Buddhist ethics but rather had been adapted
from other, older tales meant that they had an historical value independent of their religious
content. And the fact that their content could be cross-checked with other texts enhanced that
value.
This supposedly pre-Buddhist kernel of the Jataka, the story, contrasted with the
framework part of the Jataka commentary, which was considered to be of later origin. In
particular, the introduction to each Jataka - which described the circumstances of the Buddha
telling the story - was given little status as historical fact. Cowell wrote it is an interesting
question for future investigation how far they contain any historical data...I confess that I have no
confidence in their historical credibility, - they appear to me rather the laboured invention of a later
age...464 For Rhys Davids, too, the style of the introductions seemed to be more modern than the
stories, rendering them entirely devoid of credit.465 He also pointed to cases where similar
introductions had been used for different stories, which again served to attack their basis in
historical fact. Rhys Davids compared that part of the commentary containing the introductions
with the medieval Legends of the Saints.466 The pejorative sense implied here was in the contrast
between legend and history. That is, the stories could be considered historical whereas the
rest of the commentary which related the story to the person of the Buddha was legend.
History was the main criterion by which the Jatakas were judged. Its assault on the Jataka
text divided the Jataka into separate parts: those that could be accepted as fact on historical
grounds; and those that failed this criterion. The parts which tied the Jataka story to the Buddha,
the introduction and conclusion, were judged to be of later genesis and hence of dubious historical
status. But the kernel of the Jataka, the story, was held to be drawn from pre-Buddhist folklore,
and thus not essentially Buddhist at all. Without the crucial connection between the Jataka and the
Buddha the story could now be interpreted as parable, which perhaps had been used by the Buddha
to illustrate some point in his teaching.467 Since history showed that this parable had its origin in

464

Cowell, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. xi.

465

Rhys Davids, Buddhist India, p. lxviii.

466

Rhys Davids, Buddhist Birth Stories, p. lxxvi.

467

In fact Rhys Davids appears uncertain as to whether the Buddha actually told these stories as pure parables

which were turned into Birth Stories by later commentators, or whether he told them from the start as Birth Stories. In
Buddhist Birth Stories Rhys Davids writes From the facts as they stand it seems at present to be the most probable
explanation of the rise of our Jataka Book to suppose that it was due to the religious faith of the Indian Buddhists of
the third or fourth century B.C., who not only repeated a number of fables, parables and stories ascribed to the
Buddha, but gave them a peculiar sacredness and a special religious significance by identifying the best character in
each with the Buddha himself in some previous birth. From the time when this step was taken, what had been merely
parables or fables became "Jatakas", a word invented to distinguish, and used only of those stories which have beeen
thus sanctified... p. lxxv. From this passage, and indeed the tone of the rest of the essay, the sense is that the stories
only became Birth Stories - Jatakas - subsequent to the Buddha telling them. But in Buddhist India this stance seems to

existing folklore rather than in religious inspiration, the Jataka became valuable to modern day
scholars as an historical source for pre-Buddhist India studies.
The critical influence of the new discipline of history in Western textual studies on the
Jatakas can be seen in perspective by looking at how the same text was interpreted by the
Sinhalese. Fausblls transcription of the Jataka Book had relied for the most part on the Sinhalese
text, and the Sinhalese tradition was the one most Western scholars were familiar with. Hardy, in
his very popular book on Sinhalese Buddhism, quotes a comment made in 1838 by a missionary
friend and early Pali scholar on this point: "The work known by this title [the Book of the Five
Hundred and Fifty Births]...is a Pali commentary on one of the fifteen books belonging to the fifth
section of the Sutra Pitaka, or Discourses of Budha [sic], and forms no part therefore of the sacred
code; but according to a decision that the comments are of equal authority with the text, it is
regarded as of indisputable authority".468 The Sinhalese therefore, like the Western scholars, also
distinguished the commentary from the text,469 but unlike the Western scholars the commentary
was not seen to be inferior to the text. However on the subject of the Sinhalese tradition, Rhys
Davids commented, Unfortunately this orthodox belief as to the history of the Book of the Birth
Stories rests on a foundation of quicksand.470
Yet quite apart from the historical arguments there seems to have been a reluctance on the
part of Western scholars to attribute the telling of the Jatakas to the Buddha, based on other
grounds. Whereas similarities between the Jataka stories and Western folklore could be found and

be softened a little, not denying that the Buddha told the stories as Birth Stories, but emphasising that the stories were
still basically parables, and mostly drawn from existing folklore; Buddhist India, pp. 206-208.
468
469

R. Spence Hardy, A Manual of Buddhism, Varanasi, 1967 (1st publ. 1853), p. 99.
"The Ceylonese tradition goes so far as to say that the original Jataka Book consisted of verses alone; that

the Birth Stories are Commentary upon them; and the Introductory Stories, the Conclusions and the Pada-gatasannaya or word-for-word explanation of the verses are Commentary on this Commentary", Rhys Davids, Buddhist
India, pp. lxx-lxxi.
470

Rhys Davids, Buddhist Birth Stories, p. ii. Rhys Davids gives this account of the Sinhalese traditon: The

Buddha, as occasion arose, was accustomed throughout his long career to explain and comment on the events
happening around him by telling of similar events that had occured in his own previous births. The experience, not of
one lifetime only, but of many lives, was always present to his mind; and it was this experience he so often used to
point a moral, or adorn a tale. The stories so told are said to have been reverently learned and repeated by his
disciples; and after his death 550 of them were gathered together in one collection, called the Book of the 550 Jatakas
or Birthlets. The commentary to these gives for each Jataka, or Birth Story, an account of the event in Gotamas life
which led to his first telling that particular story. Both text and commentary were then handed down, in the Pali
language in which they were composed, to the time of the Council of Patna (held in or about the year 250 B.C.); and
they were carried in the following year to Ceylon by the great missionary Mahinda, the son of Asoka. There the
commentary was written down in Sinhalese, the Aryan dialect spoken in Ceylon; and was retranslated into its present
form in the Pali language in the fifth century of our era. But the text of the Jataka stories themselves has been
throughout preserved in its original Pali form; ibid., pp. i-ii.

highlighted, no such similarities with Western traditions existed in regard to the central doctrines
expressed in the Jataka Book. It is interesting that these doctrines - rebirth, and the bodhisattas
accumulation of parami over successive lifetimes - receive surprisingly little attention in the
Western scholarship, and when they do it is with some scepticism bordering on condescension as
to their intellectual merit. Max Mller wrote: We must not suppose that [the Buddhas] hearers
were expected to believe, in our sense of the word, all the circumstances of his former existences
as told by Buddha Sakya-muni. Even for an Indian imagination it would have been hard to accept
them as matters of fact. A Gataka [Jataka] was not much more than what a parable is with us...471
In Rhys Davids work it is as if they have no part in the original Buddhism, but were a later
addition. In support of this proposition, he showed that those canonical works which treated the
same doctrines found in the Jataka Book, the Buddhavamsa and the Cariyapitaka, were the latest
of the Buddhist canonical works. On the Jatakas included in the Cariyapitaka Rhys Davids wrote
This particular set of Jatakas is also arranged on the basis of the Paramitas, a doctrine that plays
no part in the older books. The Ten Perfections (Paramita) are qualities a Buddha is supposed to
be obliged to have acquired in the countless series of his previous rebirths as a Bodhisatva. It
gradually grew up as the Bodhisatva idea began to appeal more to the Indian mind.472
Rhys Davids suggested, moreover, that it was these doctrines, which he attributed to the heterodox
Mahayana Buddhist sect, which had actually led to the decline of Buddhism.473
Western Pali scholarship marginalised and devalued the Jatakas. The Jatakas were, in
effect, omitted from the orthodox Buddhism this scholarship was constructing. Textual and
historical arguments were put forward which undermined the authority on which the Jatakas was
based: the belief that they were narrated by the Buddha himself. The content of the Jatakas stories
was seen at best as pre-Buddhist folklore with some use in socio-historical research into the
conditions of ancient Indian civilization, and at worst as a corruption of the original purity of
Buddhism. Let us now turn to see how influential Western Pali scholarship was on the Thai courts
own researches into Buddhism in the Thai kingdom.
Relations between the Thai Court and Western Pali Scholars

471

The Jatakamala: Garland of Birth Stories of Aryasura, translated by J.S.Speyer, Indian edition, Delhi, 1971

(1st publ. 1895), p. xiii.


472
Rhys Davids, Buddhist India, p. 177. Bodhisatva is the Sanskrit equivalent of the Pali bodhisatta.
473

Ibid., p. 177. Most scholarship on Buddhism up till this time had been based on the Pali texts. However there

was a growing recognition that another distinct school of Buddhism existed, based on the later, Sanskrit texts. The
kind of Buddhism based on these Sanscrit texts came to be called Mahayana Buddhism. Rhys Davids writings often
convey a sense that, because the Mahayana doctrine was based on texts composed subsequent to the Pali texts, it was
somehow inferior to the early Buddhism.

That Chulalongkorns essay on the Jatakas made use of Western Pali scholarship, in particular the
work of Rhys Davids, appears obvious. At times the text of Chulalongkorns essay follows this
scholarship almost verbatim. The fact that Chulalongkorn was able to make such use of Western
scholarship is an indication of the closeness of the relations between the Thai court of King
Chulalongkorn and the Western Pali text scholars. This relationship had existed for many years
before Chulalongkorn wrote his essay on the Jatakas. But it also illustrates what appears to be a
distinctive characteristic of Thai culture generally, which is a willingness to adopt, copy, and
indigenize foreign ideas and culture, seemingly without misgivings and yet at the same time
maintaining a sense of cultural continuity. Besides Chulalongkorn, Prince-Patriarch Wachirayan,
Sommut Amoraphan, Damrong, Narit, and other leading scholars of the Thai court made frequent
use of the research and edited texts of the Pali Text Society and European scholars.
It was a strange relationship. For the Western scholars the Thai aristocratic Buddhist
scholars were at the same time native informants as well as fellow scholars. One of the most
pressing reasons for the frequent contact with the Siamese court was the desire to obtain Pali
manuscripts. Fausbll, when beginning his transcription of the Jataka Book, requested from the
King of Siam a Siamese manuscript of the Jatakas, but his letter remained unanswered.474 In 1885
Fausbll did receive from Prince Devawongse, the Siamese Minister for Foreign Affairs, a
manuscript containing a portion of the Jataka Book, but the Jatakas it contained had already been
transcribed by Fausbll in an earlier volume.475 A copy of Fausblls initial request appears in the
Thai National Archives in the files of the Ministry of Education, along with a letter dated 1901 to
Prince Sommut Amoraphan from R. Chalmers, the translator (under Cowells editorship) of the
first volume of Fausblls edition of the Jataka Book. In this letter Chalmers politely declined a
belated offer from the Siamese to send a Siamese manuscript of the Jataka Book, on the grounds
that Fausblls transcription had already been completed.476 Two years earlier, in recognition of
the scholarly talents of Prince Patriarch Wachirayan, the de facto head of the Thai Buddhist
Sangha, Chalmers had dedicated the last volume of his edition of the Majjhima-Nikaya for the Pali
Text Society to the Prince-Priest; the dedication read, "To Vajiraana: A Western Tribute to
Eastern Scholarship".477 Chalmers had also been impressed with the scholarship and courtesy of
the kings Private Secretary, Prince Sommut, on his trip to England in 1897 accompanying the
king.478

474

Fausbll, op. cit., Vol. I, "Preliminary Remarks 1".

475

Fausbll, op. cit., Vol. IV. Another Siamese manuscript was received in 1891; op. cit., Vol. V.

476

Hor chotmaihet haeng chat (National Archives), "mor ror 5 sor/34" Thammakhadi, 25/178, "ruang mister

chalmers thawai nangsu bali text kae krom sommut" (Mr. Chalmers Presents Pali Text MS to Prince Sommut), 4-5
January 1901 (r.s.120).
477

Majjhima-Nikaya, edited by Robert Chalmers, Vol. III, Pali Text Society, London, 1960 (1st publ.1899).

478

Robert Chalmers, The King of Siams Edition of the Pali Tipitaka, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic

Society, 1898, p. 1.

In the inaugural issue of the Journal of the Pali Text Society in 1882 Rhys Davids had
appealed for help from Burma, Siam, and Ceylon for good manuscripts.479 Whereas early Pali
textual scholarship in the West had relied for the most part on texts from Ceylon, as contacts with
the Siamese court became closer, Pali manuscripts from Siam began to make their way into
Western manuscript collections.480 On occasions it even seems as if the Thai court felt some
pressure from Western scholars to have texts published or manuscripts found for them. In a letter
to King Chulalongkorn in 1903 Wachirayan wrote that Rhys Davids had expressed to him the
desire to have the Commentaries to the Tripitaka published. Chulalongkorn replied that he felt
embarassed (laai chai khao) as he had already personally promised Rhys Davids that he would
have the Commentaries printed.481 Western scholars were constantly pressing the Thai court for
texts, some of which could not always be found, as in the case of Fausblls request for a
manuscript of the Jataka Book.
Of greater significance than the offer of manuscripts, however, was the financial assistance
that the King of Siam and members of the court were rendering to Pali scholarship. It seems that
the king was very conscious of the positive role that Buddhism could play in shaping Western
attitudes towards Asia, and certainly did his utmost to promote Western studies of Buddhism. The
King had played a most important role in the birth of the Pali Text Society. In 1882, when the
Society was in danger of failing, in response to a request from Rhys Davids the King donated a
sum of two hundred pounds to ensure the Societys survival.482 The Kings donation was out of an

479

Journal of the Pali Text Society, Vol. I, "Report of the Pali Text Society for 1882", p. 6.

480

The initial orientation of Pali scholars was towards the Sinhalese Buddhist tradition. Several scholars had

been former civil servants in British Ceylon; the majority of available Pali manuscripts were obtained from Ceylon,
(cf. the lists of Pali manuscripts in collections around the world, in Journal of the Pali Text Society, Vol. I, 1882, pp.
30-58; almost half of the subscribers to the first volume of the Journal of the Pali Text Society were Sinhalese
Buddhist monks, ibid., p. 3; and a letter from one of these monks published in this first volume sets out the historical
dependence of Burmese and Siamese MSS. on those of Ceylon, and strongly insists on the general superiority of the
latter", ibid. Unknown to Western scholars of this period, in the eighteenth century Buddhism in Ceylon had
undergone a decline, and the then king had to send a mission to Siam, where Buddhism appeared to be flourishing,
with a request for assistance in religious matters. King Boromakot of Siam replied by sending two missions to Ceylon,
one in 1752 and another in 1756, along with a total of 97 Pali manuscripts, ostensibly on the grounds that these texts
were no longer extant in Ceylon; Prince Damrong Rajanubhap, Ruang praditsathan phra song sayam wong nai langka
thawip (On the Establishment of the Siamese Sangha in Sri Lanka), written in 1914 and presented to Prince
Naritsaranuwatiwong, Cremation Volume, Somdet Phra Sangkharat Chao Krom Luang Wachirayanwong, Wat
Thepsirintharawat, Bangkok, 1960; see also articles by O.von Hinber and Suphaphan Na Bangchang in Journal of the
Pali Text Society, Vol. XII, ed. K.R.Norman, Oxford, 1988, pp. 173-212.
481

"Ruang cha phim atthakatha phra traipitok" (On the Publishing of the Tripitaka Commentaries), Pramuan

phra niphon somdet phra maha samana chao krom phra ya wachirayan warorot: phra ratcha hatthalekha - lai phra
hat, pp. 77-79.
482

Wickremeratne, op. cit., p. 154.

initial donation total of only three hundred and sixty eight pounds, and the third largest donation,
twenty pounds, was from another member of the Siamese court, Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince
Devawongse.483 By 1884 Prince Prisdang, Siamese Minister to Germany had also donated money
to the Society,484 and by 1901 the King had donated a further twenty pounds.485 Some years later
Chulalongkorn presented a huge gift of five hundred pounds to the Pali Text Society for a Pali
Dictionary Fund.486
The Thai king had also been a contributor to Max Mller, the doyen of Indian literary
studies, whom Chulalongkorn had met during his trip to Europe in 1897. Mller was editor of the
Sacred Books of the East series, on which the publications of the Pali Text Society had been
modelled.487 This series, which had published translations of the sacred texts of the Hindus,
Buddhists, Confucians, Taoists, Muslims and Zoroastrians, had just been completed when there
were offers to translate some additional Buddhist texts. Mller, who was eager to have these texts
published, later wrote: "I was highly gratified when I was informed that H.M. the King of Siam,
being desirous that the true teaching of the Buddha should become more widely known in Europe,
had been graciously pleased to promise that material support without which the publication of
these translations would have been impossible."488 The new series was called the Sacred Books of
the Buddhists.489
The Thai court attempted to promote Buddhism in the West in other ways. In 1893 at the
World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago, Prince Chandradat Chudhadharn presented a
paper entitled Buddhism as it Exists in Siam in which he described the moral system to a
Western audience.490 As a reward for his services to Buddhism the Thai court awarded Edwin
Arnold the title Officer of the Order of the White Elephant of Siam, under the new system of
royal honours conceived by King Chulalongkorn.491 It seems that the Thai court was eager to show
that Buddhism was a religion which was in spiritual, moral, scriptural, and indeed intellectual

483

Journal of the Pali Text Society, Vol. I, 1882, p. 15.

484

Ibid., 1884, p. 162.

485

Ibid., 1897-1901, p. 91.

486

Cf. Journal of the Pali Text Society, 1913, Preface.

487

Wickremeratne, op. cit., pp. 149, 154.

488
489

Max Mller, Editors Preface, p. vii, in The Jatakamala: Garland of Birth Stories of Aryasura.
Sacred Books of the Buddhists, Vol. II, Translated by Various Oriental Scholars and Edited by F.Max

Mller, Published in 1899 under the Patronage of His Majesty King Chulalankarana [Chulalongkorn] King of Siam,
"Dialogues of the Buddha" pt.1, translated from the Pali by T.W.Rhys Davids, London, 1956, (1st publ. 1899); Sacred
Books of the Buddhists Vol. III, Translated by Various Oriental Scholars and Edited by T.W. Rhys Davids, "Dialogues
of the Buddha", pt.2, translated from the Pali of the Digha Nikaya by T.W. Rhys Davids, London, 1956 (1st publ.
1910).
490

Rev. John Henry Barrows, ed., The Worlds Parliament of Religions, Vol. I, Chicago, Parliament Publishing

Co., 1893, pp. 645-649. I am grateful to Judith Snodgrass for bringing this reference to my attention.
491

Arnold, op.cit., see title page.

terms at least the equal of Christianity.492 In Buddhism the Thai court had found an attribute of
their society - indeed, in some respects the foundation of Thai society - which received
considerable respect from important sections of the Western scholarly community. This helped to
combat Western perceptions of barbarism and the lack of civilisation in the peoples and
religious and philosophical systems of Asia, which inevitably accompanied the spread of
imperialism.
In all these projects it could also be said that Chulalongkorn was fulfilling the traditional
role expected of Thai Buddhist kings to nourish and support the Buddhist religion, which included
the maintenance of the Buddhist scriptures. However, given the extent of the Kings assistance to
the publication of Buddhist texts it is possible that, as the last remaining independent Buddhist
monarch (at least in the Theravada tradition) Chulalongkorn was aware of a broader responsibility
as the supreme patron of the Buddhist religion world-wide. Ceylon, the birthplace of the
Theravada Buddhist textual tradition, had been under British control since the early nineteenth
century, and the monarchy at Kandy was abolished in 1815; Lao independence from the Thai
kingdom was finally brought to an end with the Thai sacking of Vientiane in the late 1820s and the
capture and execution of the Lao king Chao Anu; the Cambodian kingdom had been made a
French protectorate in 1867; In 1886 the British brought the Konbaung dynasty in Burma to an end
with the annexation of Upper Burma; and in 1893 the French seized Siams Lao territories east of
the Mekong.
The unique status of the Siamese king was also recognised by Buddhists in the colonised
Buddhist former kingdoms, who were worried about the state of the religion under the colonial
powers. In 1896 the King was approached by a Burmese publishing house for financial assistance
in the printing of the famous Burmese recension of the Tripitaka which had been inscribed in stone
tablets at Mandalay by a former king of Burma, Mindon Min. The assistance had been asked of the
Siamese king, the publisher pointed out, because Burmese Buddhism was now without a spiritual
or temporal head.493 Fears for the future of Buddhism in Ceylon and requests for patronage were
also expressed to Chulalongkorn by Ceylonese monks and pious laity. When Chulalongkorn
visited British Ceylon on his way to Europe in 1897 he was welcomed with banners on which were

492

Snodgrass has shown a similar concern on the part of Japanese Buddhists; see Snodgrass, The

Representation of Japanese Buddhism.


493

Hor chotmai het haeng chat (National Archives), mor ror 5 sor/41, phra traipitok (Tripitaka), 3/276, "ruang

rong phim rangkung khor phraratchathan rachupatham nai kan phim phra traipitok aksorn phama" (Rangoon Publisher
Requests Royal Assistance in Printing Tripitaka in Burmese Script), 9 karakadakhom 115 - 20 mesayon 124 (9 July
1896 - 20 April 1905). The Kings approval for this assistance was given.
As in the Thai kingdom, for the Burmese the king and the Buddhist religion were inextricably linked. A
British official in late nineteenth century Burma commented that The Burman cannot conceive of a religion without a
Defender of the Faith - a king who appoints and rules the Buddhist hierarchy. The extinction of the monarchy left the
nation, according to the peoples notions, without a religion.; quoted in Yoneo Ishii, Sangha, State, and Society: Thai
Buddhism in History, trans. Peter Hawkes, Kyoto University, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1986, p. 67.

written the greetings Hail Buddhist King of Siam and Welcome to the Defender of
Buddhism.494
Western control of the former Buddhist kingdoms, and the perceived dangers this had for
the future of the Buddhist religion was one of the reasons behind the first ever printed version of
the Siamese redaction of the Tripitaka, completed in 1893.495 As the preface to each volume of the
publication explained,
In early times Buddhist kingdoms were still independent; the king of each was a Buddhist, and
both endowed and supported Buddhism. This was the case in many countries, to wit, Siam,
Ceylon, Burma, Laos and Cambodia....But in the present time Ceylon and Burma have come under
English dominion; the governors of these countires are not Buddhists; they take measures to foster
the secular rather than the spiritual welfare of the people; and they do not maintain Buddhism as
did the old Buddhist kings... Cambodia came under French dominion, so that the people there
could not maintain the faith in its full vigour. As regards the country of Laos, which is in the
kingdom of Siam, the princes and people there profess a distorted form of the faith...Hence it is
only in Siam that Buddhism stands inviolate...Such, then, were the considerations which led His
Majesty the King of Siam to conceive the plan of examining and purifying the text of the
Tipitaka...496
The publication was intended both for distribution throughout the Thai kingdom, and overseas to
Western centres of Buddhist studies. Over two hundred and thirty copies of this massive work
were sent to scholarly institutions around the world, including those of England and her colonies,
France, Germany, Portugal and its colonies, Holland and her colonies, Belgium, Italy, Sweden,
Denmark, America, Spain, Japan and Russia.497 On the front cover was written in English, French,
German, Thai and Pali,
494

Phraya Si Sahathep (Seng), Chotmaihet sadet praphat yurop ror sor 116 (Notes on the Royal Visit to Europe

in 1897), Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1972, pp. 86-7. On Chulalongkorns visit to British Ceylon see also Pramuan phra
niphon somdet phra maha samana chao krom phraya wachirayan warorot: phra niphon tang ruang (PrincePatriarch Wachirayans Collected Writings: Various Works), Bangkok, Mahamakut, 1971, pp. 154, 159, 197.
495

See Chulalongkorns address to the Sangha in 1888: Phra ratchadamrat kae phra song nai kan thi cha truat

sorp phra traipitok (The Kings Directive to the Sangha in Editing the Tripitaka), in Prayut Sitthiphan, ed., Nangsu
maharatchakawi piyamaharat chor.por.ror. chotmaihet phra ratchaniphon phraratchahatthalekha phraratchaprarop
phraboromrachowat (Chulalongkorn the Great, Beloved King, the Great Royal Poet; Records, Writings,
Correspondence, Announcements, Commands), Part 1, 1984, p. 154.
496
Cited in Robert Chalmers, The King of Siams Edition of the Pali Tipitaka, The Journal of the Royal
Asiatic Society, 1898, pp. 2-3.
497

Hor chotmai het haeng chat (National Archives), mor ror 5 sor/41, phra traipitok (Tripitaka)., 8/175,

"Banchi chamnuan phra traipitok thi phra ratchathan suksasathan tang prathet" (List of Tripitakas Given by the King to
Foreign Scholarly Institutions).

This edition of the sacred writings of the Southern Buddhists the Tripitaka has been published by
order of His Majesty Somdetch Phra Paramindr Maha Chulalongkorn Phra Chula Chom Klao of
Siam on the 25th anniversary of his ascension to the Throne and is presented by Him in
commemoration of this event to ...498
A certain number of copies had also been set aside for subsequent overseas requests. The court
would only respond to such requests provided they came from recognised scholarly
institutions.499
In this new recension of the Tripitaka in 1893 we find further evidence of the
marginalisation of the Jatakas by the Thai court in the Fifth Reign. Excluded from the monumental
publication was the Jataka book along with seven other books which had also previously been
considered canonical, namely the Vimanavatthu, the Petavatthu, the Therakatha, the Therikatha,
the Apadana, the Buddhavamsa and the Cariyapitaka.500 The reason why these books were not
included is not clear. In Childers Pali dictonary of 1875 it had been pointed out that three of the
aforementioned books, the Apadana, the Buddhavamsa and the Cariyapitaka, were of dubious
canonical status on the grounds that the commentator Buddhaghosa had not mentioned these books
as being recited at the First Council immediately following the Buddhas death.501 However, other
traditions suggest that these books were added to the canon at a later date, and Childers list of
canonical works does include all the books left out of the Siamese edition. The books are held as

498

Ibid.

499

One request from a Ceylonese library was rejected with an explanation that the library was "unknown to the

principle Buddhists in the island and can therefore be of little importance. Under these circumstances I cannot
recommend His Majesty the King to present a gift of such a valuable book as the Royal Edition of the Tripitika to such
an unimportant district." ibid., 13/175, "ruang chao tang chat khor phra ratchathan phra traipitok" (Foreigners Request
the Tripitaka), 22 minakhom 114 - 17 mokarakhom 119 (22 March 1895 - 17 January 1900).
500

Buddhism in Translations: Passages Selected from the Buddhist Sacred Books and Translated from the

Original Pali into English by Henry Clarke Warren, New York, 1896, p. xviii, n. 1; Chalmers, The King of Siams
Edition of the Pali Tripitaka, pp. 6-7; and Journal of the Thailand Research Society, Vol. XXXV, pt.2, Sept. 1944, p.
219.
501

R.C. Childers, A Dictionary of the Pali Language, Kyoto, 1976 (reprinted from 1st ed., London, 1875), p.

282, "nikaya". Also referred to in Mller, The Dhammapada, p. xxvi. It is known that Childers dictionary was in use
among scholars at the Thai court including Chulalongkorn, and indeed became a model for similar dictionaries later
produced in Siam; see Pramuan phra niphon somdet phra maha samana chao krom phraya wachirayan warorot: lai
phra hat kiao kap kan suksa (Prince-Patriarch Wachirayans Collected Writings: Letters on Education), Bangkok,
Mahamakut, 1971, p. 508. One Thai-Pali dictionary produced in Siam based on Childers dictionary was
Pathananukrom bali thai angkrit sanskrit (Thai, Pali, English, Sanskrit Dictionary), compiled by Prince
Chanthaburinarunat, Printed on the Occasion of the Fifth Cycle Celebrations of M.L. Bua Kitiyakorn nai Phra
Worawongthoe Kromamun Chantaburisuranat, Bangkok, 1969, see p. 889.

canonical - ie. being part of the Tripitaka - by most Western scholars.502 The omission of the
Jataka and other books was also unprecedented in previous recensions of the Tripitaka by the Thai
court. The Sangitayavamsa, written in 1788, presents a list of the works contained in Rama Is
famous recension of the Tripitaka completed in the same year, which includes all those works
missing from the 1893 edition.503 And Rama VIIs edition of a second printed Siamese Tripitaka
in 1928 (Phra Traipitok Sayam Rat) saw the reinstatement of the missing books in the official
Siamese canon.504 The omission seems therefore to have to been an aberration peculiar to the 1893
edition.
The Jataka book was closely related in theme and content to a number of the other books
which had been omitted from the 1893 Tripitaka, in particular the Cariya Pitaka and the
Buddhavamsa. They dealt with similar concepts: the bodhisatta; the accumulation of barami;
reincarnation; and the lineage of Buddhas who existed before the better known Gautama Buddha.
Besides being incompatible with the rationalism of Western scholars,505 they were also no longer
acceptable to the prevailing religious orthodoxy of the Siamese elite. Yet the omission of these
books, and the marginalisation of the Jatakas by the Thai court in general, was more than simply
an issue of canonicity or textual authenticity - although these were the grounds on which the
Jatakas were attacked, both by Western Buddhist scholars and the Thai court. To understand the
real concern of the Thai court in relation to the Jatakas it is now time to look at their place in
popular culture during the Fifth Reign.
The Persistence of the Jatakas in Popular Culture
It is always difficult to get a picture of rural life in the Thai kingdom because of the lack of local
sources for the period and the need to fall back on elite documents. Because of the great influence
of literature originating from the Thai court, it is tempting to imagine the social and cultural
character of the Thai kingdom outside the royal capital as some vague reflection of court life. This
would be a mistake. Despite the undoubted modernist outlook of the Thai court in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it would be wrong to view the Thai kingdom as a whole

502

See for example, Mller, op. cit., pp. xxvii-xxix; also the first volume of the Journal of the Pali Text Society,

1882, p. 9. Chalmers assumed that the eight books had been left out because of the inability of the small body of
editors to cope with their task in its entirety before the Kings Jubillee, Chalmers, The King of Siams Edition of the
Pali Tripitaka, p. 7.
503

Somdet Phra Wanarat, Sangkhitayawong, pp. 456-7, 461.

504

Journal of the Thailand Research Society, Vol. XXXV, pt. 2, Sept. 1944, p. 219.

505

In regard to the omission of the Petavatthu, one Western scholar remarked that it was "relatively late in

composition...a low type of Buddhism...", and "The base type of Buddhism found in this work evidently directed the
Siamese theologians in not admitting the book into the printed edition of the Canon"; Sacred Books of the Buddhists,
Vol. XXX, "The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon" Part IV, Petavatthu: Stories of the Departed, translated by
H.S. Gehman, Pali Text Society, London, 1974 (1st publ. 1942), p. xii.

as modern. In many respects the culture of the provincial regions bore a closer resemblance to
the culture of the Thai capital a century earlier. The religious and cultural affairs of the rural
hinterland had not seemed to worry the Thai court up to now. It had been prepared to allow a
considerable degree of autonomy to regional centres - the various administrative towns or muang,
as well as the tributary states or prathetsarat - as long as political and economic obligations (such
as the oath of allegiance rendered by local lords, nobility and tributary princes, corvee duties,
revenue collection, etc.) were met.
The courts relatively tenuous control over its hinterlands increasingly became a cause for
concern with the coming of the colonial powers. Continuing Western encroachment meant that
that the Thai court was forced to rethink its system of administration in the interests of its own
survival. The result was a new system of provincial administration, known in Thai as the
thetsaphiban system. This was modelled on the colonial administration of the Dutch and British,
and was implemented progressively throughout the kingdom from 1893.506 The previous system
consisted of the old dynasties of regional lords or princes of tributary states who were bound to the
Thai king by oaths of allegiance and who enjoyed their positions through hereditary birthright.
This decentralized, rather loose system of governance no longer guaranteed the Thai court
sufficient control. The thetsaphiban system involved the replacement of the old regional ruling
houses with Commissioners (kha luang) appointed by the court. The courts appointees were
usually from the Bangkok aristocracy or nobility, and they assumed responsibility for all
administrative matters of importance, in particular financial and judicial affairs. New
administrative regions known as monthon were created in place of the older territorial units. The
effect of the thesaphiban system was to destroy the power of the local lords and centralize control
of the provincial regions and tributary states into the hands of the Thai court.
A further result of the new geopolitical situation was the heightening of Bangkoks interest
in the cultural affairs of the kingdoms outlying regions. While Rhys Davids and the other Western
Pali scholars were writing about the Jatakas as a kind of textual exercise, for the Buddhist scholars
of the Thai court the Jatakas were more than just texts, they were a thriving part of the kingdoms
popular culture. Indeed, it was during the reign of Chulalongkorn that the enormous influence of
Jataka literature in popular religion was coming to the attention of the Thai court. In 1893 an
article was published in Thai under the pen name N.P. (probably Prince Narathip Praphanphong)
which gave a account of the custom of the thet maha chat among the peoples of the Thai
kingdom.507 Describing the popular ceremony in great detail the article noted that it was the

506

Tej Bunnag, The Provincial Administration of Siam 1892-1915, Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press,

1977.
507

N.P. , Prapheni thet maha chat (The Thet maha chat custom), 1893, reprinted in Maha wetsandorn

chadok samnuan thetsana 13 kan (The Thirteen Chapter Version of the Great Vessantara Jataka), Published in
Honour of the 90th birthday of Phraratchaphatharachan (Pleng Kumara), Bangkok, 1992. The original article was
published along with a version of the Vessantara Jataka printed in Thai characters - manuscript versions of the Maha
Chat had traditionally been written using the khorm or khmer script because of the sacredness of the subject. Only

greatest alms giving occasion of the year, and that it was celebrated every year, in virtually every
temple or preaching hall throughout the country, even more so in the outer provinces.508 Although
the article notes that the thet maha chat had been known to former Thai kings, it is interesting that
the author appears to attempt to distance the thet maha chat from Thai culture, by suggesting that
the Maha chat probably originated among the Lao people.509 This seems to be another attempt by
the Thai court to downplay the formerly high status the Jatakas had once enjoyed at the Thai court.
The king himself had had a greater opportunity than perhaps any other king before him to
see the situation in the countryside for himself. Chulalongkorn is well known for his visits
upcountry, both in an official capacity as well as incognito. On one trip to Chanthaburi in 1886 the
king had the opportunity to listen to a sermon (thetsana) given in a local temple. In a letter to to
Prince Wachirayan the king expressed his shock that the sermon was mostly made up of nithan
(tales or fables).510 We can assume that among these nithan must have been the Jataka tales,
since nithan was the generic name the court now gave to the Jatakas. The king commented to
Wachirayan that religion in the provinces was in a poor state, because the books were either full of
nonsense (lewlew lailai) or were too difficult for the villagers to understand. The king expressed
his intention that appropriate religious teaching material be prepared by Sangha authorities in
Bangkok and sent out to the provinces in place of the material that was currently being used.511
The kings concern for religious afffairs in the rural up-country regions was perhaps the
seed for the most wide-ranging survey into local religious practice ever attempted by the Thai
court. In the last years of the nineteenth century the king ordered the Sangha to report on the state
of religious affairs throughout the Thai kingdom. The results of the survey, conducted over several
years, startled the Sangha authorities. Not only did religious practice generally appear lax (in the
eyes of the Sangha officials), but it was found that the Jatakas and other nithan formed the basis of
religious instruction for most of the kingdom. In Nakhon Sri Thammarat monthon in the South,
one of the most ancient religious centres of the region, the report sent back to Sangha head
Wachirayan stated that religious instruction (kan thetsana sang sorn) consists mostly of the
Jatakas, as in other monthon.512 Indeed this seems to have been the pattern for the Thai kingdom
as a whole, for on the question of religious preaching Wachirayans final report to the king

monks were adept at reading khorm script, so the publishing of the story in Thai characters was an attempt to make the
Vessantara Jataka accessible to a wider reading audience.
508

Ibid., pp. 6-7.

509

Ibid., pp. 13-14.

510

Ruang bamrung satsana nai hua muang (Strengthening Religion in the Provinces), Pramuan phra niphon

somdet phra maha samana chao krom phraya wachirayan warorot: phra ratcha hatthalekha lai phra hat, pp. 54-5.
511

Ibid.

512

Pramuan phra niphon somdet phra maha samana chao krom phra ya wachirayan warorot: lai phra hat kiao

kap kan suksa (Prince-Patriarch Wachirayans Collected Writings: Letters on Education), Bangkok, Mahamakut,
1971, p. 70.

concluded, as for religious instruction, generally speaking it consists of merely explaining about
Giving, Moral Conduct, and the Vessantara Jataka.513
While the survey has no specific mention of the Jatakas for the northern part of the
kingdom, a chronicle compiled in 1893 by a northern monk in honour of the ruler of the
principality of Nan, Suriyaphritadet, mentions the merit making acts of his predecessor
Anantaworaritthidet, who between 1855 and 1886 financed the copying of a great number of
Buddhist manuscripts, including a great many Jatakas, the Vessantara Jataka being the most
popular among them.514 As for religious affairs in the Chiang Mai region, a recently compiled
catalogue of regional manuscript literature reveals a flourishing tradition of Jataka manuscript
composition during this period, with the Vessantara Jataka again the most popular work in terms
of the numbers of extant manuscripts.515
Another feature of religious life in the up-country areas which was alarming to the Thai
court was the continuing popular interest in the idea of the man of merit (phu mi bun). This term
described a being who was believed to have acquired great moral stature and supernatural power
as a result of ascetic self-cultivation. One of the reports of the Sanghas survey from the
Chumphorn area in the south stated that meditation was one of the most popular forms of religious
activity, but that some people would lose their senses believing they were phu wiset (another
name for a person of merit) and attract large followings.516 In the Lao region the situation was
worse. The report from Nakhorn Ratchasima stated that there no worthy religious teaching
materials, only books about men of merit. The Sangha reports noted that these stories were very
popular among the villagers. In some cases villagers would become deranged (charit fan fuan)
and attempt to set themselves up as men of merit like in the books, or else flock to see others who
were reputed to be men of merit. The report recommended that such books be seized and replaced
by more appropriate material.517
The report from Nakhorn Ratchasima coincided with the most serious diplomatic incident
to occur since the Thai kingdom was forced to give up its suzerainty over the Lao territories east of
the Mekong river to the French in 1893. Between 1901-2 a number of religious figures from the
northeastern region of the Thai kingdom and French Laos led large scale uprisings against the Thai

513

"Katha thi tetsana pen phiang sadaeng than sin lae ruang chadok maha chat doi mak", Sarup raikan truat chat

kan khana kan phra satsana lae kan suksa hua muang, sok 120 (Conclusion to the Report on the Investigation and
Organisation of the Sangha, Religious Affairs and Provincial Education, 1901), in ibid., p. 95.
514

Ruang ratchawong pakorn, phongsawadan lanna thai (The Book of a Royal Dynasty, A History of Northern

Thailand), Prachum phongsawadan, Book 9, Part 10, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1964, pp. 82-110.
515

Rai chu nangsu boran lanna ekasan microfilm khorng sathaban wichai sangkhom, mahawithayalai chiang

mai phor sor 2521 - 2533 (Catalogue of Ancient Lanna Literature on Microfilm, University of Chiang Mai Social
Research Institute 1978 - 1990), Chiang Mai, 1991, especially pp. 239-280.
516

Pramuan phra niphon somdet phra maha samana chao krom phra ya wachirayan warorot: lai phra hat kiao

kap kan suksa (Prince-Patriarch Wachirayans Collected Writings: Letters on Education), p.114.
517

Ibid., pp. 115-6.

and French administrative authorities, in what became known as the Rebellion of the Men of
Merit (kabot phu mi bun).518 The uprising has been attributed to a combination of factors,
including the acute poverty of the region, exacerbated by heavy taxation by both the French and
Thai authorities, bad harvests, and perhaps most importantly the nullification of the powers of the
Lao nobility and political class by the implementation of Thai and French centralised
administration. But the most interesting aspect of the uprising is the terms in which it was
conceived of by those involved. The leaders of the uprising were known locally as phu mi bun, and
were adept at meditation and other forms of self-cultivation, from which they were said to have
developed supernatural powers, including invulnerability, and healing powers. The coming of the
phu mi bun had been prophesied by palm leaf manuscripts circulating throughout the region which the Thai court had been aware of from its survey into religious affairs in the Lao region and recited to the people by monks and lettered men. The manuscripts contained a millenarian
prophecy of an imminent catastrophe, the coming of a righteous ruler, and the beginning of a new,
more just social order. The uprising presented a serious problem for the Thai court. It gave the
French an ideal pretext for further expansion into the Thai kingdom in the interests of ensuring
their regional security. However, after several confrontations with both the Thai and French
authorities, in which the phu mi bun and several thousand of their followers experienced some
initial successes, the uprising was eventually suppressed by heavily armed troops despatched by
the Thai authorities with the cooperation of the French.
Who were the phu mi bun? The evidence suggests that a number of them were disaffected
members of the former Lao nobility who saw both Thai and French rule as a foreign imposition.519
Yet they were also regarded by their followers as ascetics with supernatural powers. What must be
recognised is the religious nature of the authority of these leaders which enabled them to lead the
uprising. The attraction of the phu mi bun figures for the Lao villagers was the belief in their
superior moral and supernatural qualities acquired through regimes of asceticism, or in Jataka
terms, accumulation of the Perfections. This corresponds precisely with the ideal of authority
disseminated by the Jatakas among the Tai Buddhist peoples for over six hundred years. Even the
terms used to refer to these figures, phu mi bun, phu wiset, thao thammikarat, and chao ton bun,
are the same terms used as epithets for the bodhisatta in Lao versions of the Vessantara Jataka.520
Keyes has noted how Thai military suppression of the revolt and the execution of its
leaders were insufficient to guarantee the long term integration of the northeastern region with the

518

The following summary is based on John B. Murdoch, The 1901-1902 "Holy Mans Rebellion, Journal of

the Siam Society, Vol. 62, Pt. 1, January 1974; Bunnag, op. cit., pp. 151-61; Charles F. Keyes, Millenialism,
Theravada Buddhism, and Thai Society, Journal of Asian Studies, 36, 2, February 1977, pp. 283-302; and Yoneo
Ishii, Sangha, State and Society: Thai Buddhism in History, trans. Peter Hawkes, Monographs of the Centre for
Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University; Honolulu University of Hawaii Press, 1986, pp. 171-187.
519

Keyes, op. cit., pp. 297-8; Murdoch, op. cit., p. 57; Bunnag, op. cit., p. 151.

520

See for example Maha chat samnuan isan (Northeastern Version of the Maha Chat), Bangkok, National

Library, 1988.

Thai state. To achieve this the Thai government was forced to change the cultural outlook of the
Lao people.521 This was achieved over subsequent decades through the centralisation of the
Sangha in the northeast, the implementation of compulsory primary school education with a
curriculum designed by authorities in Bangkok, and rituals which closely associated the Buddha
and the Thai king. The idea was emphasised that the only man of merit was the Thai king. In the
new conception of government popularised by the Thai authorities,
All legitimate authority is conceived of as flowing from the monarchy... In short, the centralization
of power became not only a fact in the experience of northeasterners; it also became a fact in the
way in which they conceived of the nature of political power...522
The phu mi bun uprisings at the beginning of the twentieth century were by no means the
first nor the last such occurrences to take place among the Thai peoples. Ironically, the phu mi bun
rebels in the kingdoms northeast had more in common with previous Thai rulers such as the kings
of Sukhothai, Chiang Mai and the Lao kingdom of Lan Chang, as well as Taksin and the Chakri
kings of the early Bangkok period, than they did with the more modern kind of political authority
embodied by King Chulalongkorn. Chulalongkorn saw the rebellions essentially as an attempt to
return to an older form of government.523 Yet such a view illustrates the extent to which the king
had embraced a linear theory of modernization and political development, which provided the
justification for eliminating different forms of political behaviour on the grounds that they needed
to be superceded by a more modern and hence superior form. Although the phu mi bun revolts
were its last major violent expresson, the decline of the older conceptualisation of authority was
gradual. Sporadic outbreaks of social unrest similar to the phu mi bun uprisings continued to occur
in various parts of the Thai kingdom as late as the 1960s, which illustrates the enduring power of
this ideology in the popular consciousness.524
Conclusion
As we have seen throughout this thesis, it was at times of intense political activity among Tai
Buddhist peoples - such as at the formation of the first states in the thirteenth and fourteenth
centuries, the resurrection of the Thai state after the fall of Ayuthaya in 1767, and now the threat to
the existence of an independent Thai state in the age of imperialism - that the Jatakas received the
support of kings and princes.
For the Jatakas to have preoccupied the attention of a kingdoms rulers would be
considered absurd were they simply folktales or religious parables, as most Thai and Western
scholarship scholarship has declared since the time of King Chulalongkorn until the present day.
521
522

Keyes, op. cit., p. 300.


Ibid.

523

Murdoch, op. cit., p. 66.

524

Keyes, op. cit., p. 301; Ishii, op. cit., p. 179.

Jatakas were never just folktales; that is a recent definition. The arguments surrounding issues of
canonicity, textual authenticity, and rationality, as well as the engagement with Western scholars
on matters relating to Buddhist orthodoxy, were more the outward expression of a deeper concern
in the minds of the Thai rulers. As I have argued in previous chapters, the Jatakas, and the
Vessantara Jataka in particular, were the principal conduit of a conception of authority and social
hierarchy which was recognised throughout the Tai Buddhist world. For this reason they had
enjoyed such a privileged position with Thai rulers. The courts rejection of the Jatakas in the Fifth
Reign was directly related to the repudiation of a Tai Buddhist form of political organisation in
favour of a more centralized, bureaucratic model, not unlike that of the neighbouring colonial
regimes. It was this model which enabled the Thai court to survive the dangers of the colonial era.
In the Thai kingdom until modern times there is no body of literature which examines the
nature of political life (as we understand it) - of the sort that may be found in the European
tradition of political thought from the sixteenth century onwards. Instead it is the Jatakas and
related religious literature which seem to provide the source of much of the conceptualization of
authority and political organization among the Tai Buddhist peoples. The language of statecraft in
the Thai kingdom up until the mid-nineteenth century seems to echo the moral-religious discourse
found in stories like the Vessantara Jataka. It is no surprise, therefore, that with the marginalisation
of the Jatakas in the late nineteenth century we see the first stirrings of Thai political thought that
could legitimately be called modern. In 1885 a group of princes presented a lengthy document to
King Chulalongkorn unsuccessfully petitioning him to introduce steps to transform Thai
government into one along the lines of a European parliamentary democracy. Three years later
King Chulalongkorn gave a long speech analysing in great detail the old forms of government in
the Thai kingdom and declaring the need to change the traditional system of government
(thamniam kan pokkhrong) to make it appropriate to the present time and to enable the country to
progress.525 The political ideals popularised by the Jatakas were making way for a new conception
of power and government.
The issue of the Jatakas was only one element of a much broader questioning of cultural
matters taking place in the Thai kingdom. The documentary sources of the Fifth Reign are replete
with material concerning Thai culture. The question of culture was much more than just scholarly
debate. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the major figures in the scholarly debate over the Jatakas
and other cultural issues - Chulalongkorn, Wachirayan, and several of the leading Thai princes were also the principal agents of executive power in the Thai kingdom. In the Thai kingdom of the
Fifth Reign, what we today call culture cannot be separated from other spheres of human
activity. Culture was inextricably linked to those other areas of human experience we know today
as politics and government, history, and even economic life. The following two chapters will
examine the reconfiguration of cultural matters which was occurring in the Fifth Reign.

525

Phra ratchadamrat phra bat somdet phra chula chorm klao chao yu hua song thalaeng phra borom

ratchathibai kae khai kan pokkhrong phaen din (King Chulalongkorns Speech Announcing Changes in the
Administration of the Kingdom), in Prayut Sitthiphan, op. cit., Part Two, p. 342.

CHAPTER 6
THE WACHIRAYAN LIBRARY AND THE FORMATION OF
A THAI LITERARY KNOWLEDGE

In the Fifth Reign the Jatakas as a literary genre were categorized by the Thai court as folktale nithan. It had been a move deliberately designed to deny them the legitimacy they had enjoyed
since the formation of the first known Tai polities over six centuries earlier. The courts attack on
the Jatakas, however, was but one aspect of a much broader change taking place in the Thai
kingdom. A new hierarchy of knowledge was being erected by the Thai elite, designed to serve a
new but as yet inchoate conception of authority in the Thai kingdom, that of the nation-state. This
new hierarchy differed from the old in important aspects. The custodians of the new knowledge
were secular - princes or state functionaries, rather than Buddhist monks or Brahmins; the mode of
dissemination was literary, rather than oral; the character of the new knowledge was consciously
Thai, rather than Buddhist; and rather than in temples scattered throughout the kingdom, the
centre of the preservation of this knowledge was the national library in the royal capital.
The significance of the library, as its name suggests both in Thai (hor samut - book
house) and English, lay in it being a centre for knowledge contained in literary form. Although
Buddhist and other premodern knowledges of the Thai kingdom certainly relied on manuscripts,
yet much of the transmission of these kinds of knowledge was done by oral means. This was
especially so with Buddhist knowledge, where the thetsana (sermon) was the main form of
communicating knowledge to a popular audience. As we have seen with the Vessantara Jataka, the
medium which was responsible for the storys widespread popularity among the Tai peoples was
the thet maha chat, the sermon on the Great Birth.
As a medium for the preservation and communication of knowledge, however, the written
word was acquiring a new importance with the introduction of printing in the mid-nineteenth
century. Literacy was becoming more and more important as an instrument of government. In
particular, the expansion of the bureaucracy in the 1880s and 1890s relied on literate clerks, and
reforms in the education system of the same period, intended primarily to serve the expanding
bureaucracy, were placing more and more emphasis on literacy in the Thai language - not for
reading the Buddhist scriptures, but for administrative competency. Moreover, the power of
printing, the ability to produce thousands of exact copies of the same document, gave it a political
advantage which the palm leaf manuscript could never hope to match.
In previous chapters it was shown that even during this period, the power of palm leaf
manuscript was considerable. Indeed, the Holy Men revolts of the turn of the century were partly
sparked off by the circulation and recitation of palm leaf manuscripts with millenarian predictions.
The courts response that such manuscripts ought to be seized and replaced by religious instruction

produced by the court is an indication of the political potential of the palm leaf manuscript.526 The
shift to print can be seen as partly due to this desire of the Thai court to replace the existing
religious tradition in the rural areas with a standardised one devised in the Thai capital.527 Indeed,
one of Prince-Patriarch Wachirayans main activities during these decades was to produce a corpus
of Buddhist instructional material and distribute it in printed editions to the kingdoms temples.
The origins of the national library in the Thai kingdom can be seen in the context of these
shifts in the preservation and dissemination of knowledge: firstly from orality to literacy; and
secondly from manuscripts to printed literature.
A second development with which the national library was inextricably bound was the
laying of the first foundations of the Thai nation-state in the reign of King Chulalongkorn. Of the
institutions which were central to the development of the nation-state scholars have singled out for
particular attention the creation of a national bureaucracy, the setting up of a standing army, the
development of a national education system, and the formation of a nationalised religious
administration. On a different level, the elaboration of the actual concept of the Thai nation has
been attributed to various individuals, such as Chulalongkorn himself and Prince Damrong; to the
flourishing of historical studies in the kingdom; to the establishment of a national museum; and to
the development of a sense of the territorial identity of the Thai nation.528 However, one institution
which has received less attention but which was essential to the enrichment of the concept of the
Thai nation - as much as it was indispensible to the proper appearance of a modern state - was the
national library. Founded in the early 1880s as a kind of club for the Thai aristocracy, and
institutionalised as an official organ of the Thai state in 1905, the Wachirayan Library of the
Capital (hor phra samut samrap phra nakhorn) - renamed the National Library after 1932 - was
fundamental to the formation of what could be called a Thai literary knowledge. The library
functioned to give tangible form to a certain kind of knowledge - hitherto non-existent as such about the Thai nation.

526

Pramuan phra niphon somdet phra maha samana chao krom phra ya wachirayan warorot: lai phra hat kiao

kap kan suksa (Prince-Patriarch Wachirayans Collected Writings: Letters on Education), Bangkok, Mahamakut,
1971, pp. 115-116.
527

Saenger has written about a very similar process taking part in late medieval Europe, when the culture of

print began to make an impact on existing religious tradition. The decline of the sermon paralleled the rise of silent
prayer reading; cf. Paul Saenger, Books of Hours and the Reading Habits of the Later Middle Ages, in R. Chartier,
ed., The Culture of Print: Power and the Uses of Print in Early Modern Europe, trans. L.G. Cochrane., Cambridge,
Polity, 1989, pp. 150-1.
528

Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geobody of a Nation, Honolulu, University of

Hawaii Press, 1994.

The raw material from which this knowledge derived was the kingdoms literary heritage.
Writing, contained in palm leaf (bai lan)529 or samut khoi530 manuscripts, stone inscriptions, and
from the later nineteenth century in bound, printed volumes, was a potent symbol of knowledge. It
was the vehicle of a great variety of knowledges coexisting in the kingdom, including Buddhism,
Brahmanism, law, astrology, magic, medicine, and the many treatises or manuals (tamra) written
for the preservation, adaptation and dissemination of diverse knowledges. Concomitant with the
elites emerging conceptualisation of the Thai kingdom as a nation-state, the kingdoms books and
the knowledge they contained acquired new significance to the Thai court. They were seen as the
possession of the Thai nation. Safeguarding this national possession in what was in effect (though
not yet in name) a national library, was a way of securing knowledge about the Thai kingdom
and its peoples. The library was a nationalising institution. It aimed to centralise disparate
knowledges produced by diverse peoples in many different parts of a still loosely integrated feudal
kingdom.
This chapter will trace the development of the idea of the national library between the
1880s and early 1900s, and its role in the formation of a corpus of Thai knowledge, a knowledge
about the Thai nation. In particular it will examine the librarys involvement in the centralisation,
collection and preservation of the kingdoms books; the classification of the librarys collection
of books into several new categories of knowledge; and finally the dissemination, through
publication, to the literate classes of a selected number of books, carefully edited by the library, in
the form of Thai history, Thai literature, and other genres of knowledge whose subject was the
Thai nation.
Development of the Library Idea
The library organisation, initially called the Wachiriyan Library (hor samut wachirayan),531 was
established by the Thai court in fits and starts in the early 1880s.532 Part of the reason for the

529

A type of manuscript made from leaves of the corypha palm. The text is inscribed into the leaf with a stylus,

and the entire manuscript is comprised of several leaves bound together. Bai lan manuscripts are used mainly for texts
of a religious nature.
530

A type of paper manuscript used by the Thais before the introduction of printing. It was made from the pulp

of the khoi plant (streblus asper). Samut khoi were also known as samut thai, and came in two forms: samut thai dam,
a black paper to be inscribed in white; and samut thai khao a white paper to be inscribed in black.
531

In honour of King Rama IV, whose monastic name (prior to becoming king) had been Vajiraana

(phonetically in Thai, Wachirayan); ibid., p. 16.


532

For the difficulties in the librarys establishment and the slow progress in its early years, see Prawat hor phra

samut wachirayan, Wachirayan, 1, October 1894, and Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, Tamnan hor phra samut hor
phra monthian tham hor phutthasatsanasangkhaha lae hor samut samrap phra nakhorn (History of the Book Hall, the
Palace Dhamma Library, the Buddhist Collection and the City Library), Cremation Volume, Phra Inthabenya
(Sarakham Wattha), Bangkok, 1969, pp. 31-2.

librarys shaky beginnings can be put down to the fact that the concept of a library - meaning a
repository of books - was a new one to the Thai kingdom. Although there already existed royal
collections of manuscripts held at the palace or royal temples, collections of books held in the
temples throughout the kingdom called hor trai, as well as private collections, these did not have
quite the same function. They were selective in the works they chose to house - mostly Buddhist in
content.533 The idea of the library in late nineteenth-century Siam was to be more encompassing,
aiming to house the full variety of written works found within the Thai kingdom. If the object of
knowledge of the hor trai was the dhamma, the object of the knowledge contained in the library
was the peoples of the Thai kingdom.
Underlying the foundation of the library was a new conception of the nature of knowledge.
The librarys principal function was professed to be the improvement or increase of knowledge,
a catch-phrase associated with many of the reforms of the Fifth Reign.534 This is a significant shift
from the former dominant ideal of learning in the Thai kingdom - the understanding of the
dhamma through the Buddhas teaching. One meaning of dhamma can roughly be translated into
English as the truth of things (sometimes rendered in modern Thai as sacha tham) or the nature
of things. In Buddhist thinking this truth was opposed to the concept of maya or illusion. The
Buddha, by virtue of his enlightenment, had achieved total understanding of this truth, and taught
this knowledge as the dhamma, which was later preserved in the canonical scriptures. Studying the
dhamma as revealed by the Buddha in the scriptures, then, could be said to be a finite exercise.535
Theoretically, at least, it was possible to attain a complete understanding of this truth.536
Knowledge in this sense, therefore, could be said to be a finite entity. This idea is reflected above
all in the maintenance of an unchangeable canon of Buddhist scripture, the Tripitaka, in which the
dhamma in its entirety was contained. Even though commentary played a most important role in

533

Prawat hor phra samut wachirayan (History of the Wachirayan Library), Wachirayan, October 1894, p. 5.

534

Ibid., pp. 24-5, pp. 127-9, pp. 133-4. There are a number of phrases in Thai in use at the time which convey

this general sense: charoen wichakan thang puang, chak chung panya khwan ru, charoen wicha, charoen khwam
ru. In the preface to a new textbook for teaching Thai, Munlabot banphakit, King Chulalongkorn wrote that the
purpose of the book was to instruct youths in the Thai language, for the increase of their knowledge, that they might
become proficient in the use of the alphabet and the tone markers, correctly, expertly, clearly, and widely, and for the
future benefit of the government; quote from D.K.Wyatt, The Politics of Reform in Thailand: Education in the Reign
of King Chulalongkorn, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1969, p. 68 (Wyatts translation).
535

Note, however, that in the Thai Buddhist tradition studying the scriptures was by no means the only path to

understanding the dhamma. Meditation was a highly developed practice which shared the same aim. There is a long
history of division within the Thai Sangha - and those of other Theravada countries - between text-based Buddhist
learning (khanthathura), and the practice of insight mediation or (vipassana thura).
536

Nidhi writes of this old conception of knowledge and learning that knowledge of the highest truth (khwam

ching paramat) was the end of all learning, Nidhi Aeusrivongse, Lok khorng nang nopamat (Lady Nopamats
World) in Pak kai lae bai rua: ruam khwam riang wa duai wannakam lae prawatisat ton ratanakosin (Quill and Sail:
Essays on Early Bangkok Literature and History), Bangkok, Amarin, 1984, p. 366.

Buddhist learning, it was effectively an exposition of the truths which already lay in the canon,
rather than an addition to, or improvement on the canon. Chronicles record Tai kings and rulers
ordering the copying of the Tripitaka and Commentaries, not the improvement of them. Indeed, the
scriptural recensions (sangkhayana) called by kings like Rama I were to cleanse the supposed
corrupted texts and to return the scriptures to their original pure state.
Other fields of knowledge besides Buddhist scripture, such as the tamra or manuals on
astrology, medicine, sorcery, law, and military science, for example, were founded on a similar
ideal. Knowledge of each particular subject existed as a complete and fixed entity, usually having
been revealed by a teacher in the distant past. Often conceived of as having originated in
completeness and perfection, such bodies of knowledge could not be improved upon, and their
transmission (through the copying of manuscripts, and especially the teacher - student relationship)
placed paramount emphasis on the preservation of their original form. For example, an old Thai
legal code, the Dhammasastra (Thai: thammasat) begins by stating that ...This Dhammasastra
...was first enunciated in Pali by the sage Mano [Manu] and has been handed down by ancient
scholars...537 In practice, of course, additions, omissions, and alterations to bodies of knowledge
occurred regularly. Indeed, it was this flexibility, rather than rigidity, which was one of the
defining qualities of the tamra genre. Changes to the original form could be explained as attempts
to restore that knowledge to its original, perfect form as laid out by the first teacher.538
In theory, at least, knowledge had been conceived of as fixed and unchanging, certainly not
increasing. Indeed, the mere preservation of knowledge was seen as a battle in itself. The Buddhist
idea of antarathan, of the gradual and inevitable disappearance of the dhamma, still had a
powerful hold on Thai conceptions of the nature of knowledge, as Chulalongkorn himself readily
acknowledged.539
By the late nineteenth century, however, partly as a result of the courts increased contact
with and awareness of new and foreign knowledges both outside as well as within the
kingdom,540 knowledge had begun to be perceived as something which could be accumulated,

537

Kot mai tra sam duang (Three Seals Law), Book 1, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1962, p. 8. The Thai version of

the Dhammasastra was in fact based on a Mon Buddhist adaptation of the Hindu legal classic the Laws of Manu; see
Stanley J. Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer: a Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand Against a
Historical Background, Cambridge, Cambridge U.P., 1976, pp. 93-4.
538

Cf. Viggo Brun, Traditional Manuals and the Transmission of Knowledge in Thailand in The Master Said:

To Study and... To Soren Egerod on the Occasion of His Sixty Seventh Birthday, Edited by B.Arendrup, Simon B.
Heilesen, Jens Ostergard Petersen, East Asian Institute Occasional Papers, Copenhagen, 1990.
539

See Phra ratch phithi sip sorng duan, phra ratchaniphon phra bat somdet phra chula chorm klao chao yu

hua (Royal Ceremonies of the Twelve Months by King Chulalongkorn), Bangkok, Sinlapa Bannakan, 1973, p. 430-3.
540

The courts encounter with new kinds of knowledge from outside the kingdom, eg. astronomy, geography and

other Western sciences, during the Third and Fourth Reigns is well known to scholars of Thai history. For the courts
awareness of new knowledges from China and the West before this period, see Nidhi Aeusrivongse, Lok khorng nang
nophamat, pp. 344-8. For the courts concern with foreign knowledges within the kingdom, see below.

increased. The sense in which knowledge from within the Thai kingdom could also be
accumulated was directly related to the fact that the political integration of the Thai state in the last
decades of the nineteenth century was bringing the court into contact with different kinds of
knowledge as never before - sorcery, local history and legend, divergent forms of regional and
local Buddhist practice - contained in palm leaf and other kinds of manuscript. Furthermore,
unlike the Buddhist canon, books - both manuscripts and printed works - existed in ever-increasing
numbers. Since books were regarded as the receptacles, and to a certain extent even the symbols of
knowledge, this brought with it the implication that knowledge itself was also limitless. A central
collection of books, the library, which was continually expanding, was an essential instrument for
the process of knowledge accumulation.541
Whereas the centre of Buddhist learning had been the dhamma, it could be said that the
focus of the new learning was the book and writing (nangsu).542 This is not to say writing had no
role in Buddhist learning, but that writing was more a means to a clearly defined end: the
understanding of the dhamma. Religious knowledge could be obtained by oral, as well as literate
means, or through meditation. Monks studied the dhamma, rather than books per se. Scholarship
which was centred on books, however, was concerned with whatever knowledge each particular
book might contain. King Chulalongkorn gave particular encouragement to this new learning,
making it the foundation of the education reforms carried out during his reign. In an address to the
first batch of graduates from the first school based on Western educational models, Suan Kulap, in
1884, Chulalongkorn remarked that, the study of books (wicha nangsu) is the highest form of
study.543
Books, moreover, came increasingly to be seen as the possessions of nations. Indeed, part
of being a nation was to possess books, and perhaps more importantly, to be seen to possess
books. A significant function of the library was to display to other nations the fact that the Thai
nation, too, could be counted among those nations which possessed a collection of books. On the

541

The thinking of the Thai court must certainly owe some of its inspiration to the Western idea of the library.

Chartier writes of The dream of the library [...] that would bring together all accumulated knowledge and all the books
ever written... Yet whereas Chartiers argues that this dream can be found throughout the history of Western
civilisation, in the Thai kingdom it seems to be a distinctly modern idea; cf. Roger Chartier, The Order of Books:
Readers, Authors and Libraries in Europe between the Fourteenth and Eighteenth Centuries, trans. Lydia G.
Cochrane, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1994, p. 62.
542

Even today, the phrase an nangsu, which is equivalent to the English to study, literally means to read

books.
543

Wicha nangsu...pen wicha an prasoet, Phra ratchadamrat nai phraratchathan rangwan nakrian thi rong rian

phra tamnak suan kulap mua pi raka phor sor 2427 (Kings Speech at the Awards to Suan Kulap Students in the Year
of the Cock, 1884) in Prayut Sitthiphan, Maharatchakawi piya maharat ramluk chor.por.ror. chotmaihet
phraratchaniphon phraratchahatthalekha phraratchaprarop phraratchadamrat phraboromrachowat (Chulalongkorn
the Great, Beloved King, the Great Royal Poet: Records, Writings Correspondence, Announcements, Commands),
Part 1, Bangkok, 1984, pp. 146-9.

opening of the new Wachirayan Library of the Capital in 1905, Chulalongkorn gave the following
reason for the establishment of the library: Prosperous cities overseas have city libraries to house
and preserve collections of all their books, because they are the scholarly possessions
(withayasombat) of the nation (chonchat). [The library] is considered an important part of
government. Such a library, however, does not yet exist in Siam... The establishment of this library
will be of benefit and will bring honour (kiatiyot) to this country.544 Undoubtedly such honour
meant acceptance and perhaps even a certain measure of respect by the colonial powers.
The connection between books, the library and nationhood is reiterated in an address by
King Vajiravudh at the opening of the librarys new premises in 1917:
The library...is evidence of the progress (khwam charoen rung ruang) of our beloved Thai nation
(chat). A nation that has no books (nangsu) and no histories (tamnan) is considered barbarian
(muan khon pa). In fact, our nation has possessed many books and histories for a long time, but
they are scattered around, and have not been gathered together into one place. Some foreigners
have said that the Thai nation has no books or histories. This has offended me and all of you for a
long time now; they should not be allowed to say such things. So we have tried to establish the
library as evidence to foreigners...that Siam is not an uncivilised country. It is civilised (charoen
ma laew) and possesses many books and histories...545
Vajiravudhs address makes explicit the perceived association between books, the library, and a
countrys level of civilisation.546 An accomplished essayist, poet and dramatist, Vajiravudh took
a special interest in things literary. Vajiravudh was the most bicultural of all Thai kings, having
spent the formative years of his youth being educated in England.547 He would have been well
aware of European discourses on modernity, progress, and civilization, and the significance of
writing and literacy within these discourses. For Vajiravudh, the possession of books, made
manifest by the institution of the library, was an attribute of being civilised.
In the eyes of the Thai elite at the time, civilisation to a large extent simply meant having
a history. In a speech to the Historical Society founded by the king in 1907, King Chulalongkorn
refers to

544
545
546

Tamnan hor phra samut, p. 1.


Maenmat Chawalit ed., Prawat hor samut haeng chat (The National Library), Bangkok, 1966, pp. 19-20.
Variously denoted in Thai documents of the period by the word (or phrase based on the word) charoen, or

sometimes siwilai; and opposed to the word (or phrase based on the word) pa, meaning wild, of the jungle,
savage, etc.
547

Walter F. Vella, assisted by Dorothy Vella, Chaiyo! King Vajiravudh and the Development of Thai

Nationalism, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1978, pp. 2-3.

barbarian countries (muang pa thuan) that do not know books or tradition, and so know only one
or two generations of their own history...548
Books were tangible evidence of a nations past, hence their great value to civilised nations. A
lack of books was interpreted as an absence of a credible history, and consequently indicative of a
lack of civilisation.
These statements point to an insecurity among the Thai elite in the early twentieth century
in regard to the kingdoms books, and to what extent they provided evidence of the civilisation
of the Thai nation. Part of the source of this insecurity was the international political climate of the
time, in which one of the justifications of colonial rule was la mission civilatrice. If books were a
symbol of civilisation, the library provided a measure of support against such arguments of
European imperialism. In a speech in 1907 to the Historical Society which King Chulalongkorn
had founded to research into the history of the Thai nation (located, significantly, at the
Wachirayan Library), the king expressed his regret at the apparent lack of books in the Thai
kingdom, which he saw was a result of the many wars which had wracked the nation throughout
its history, as well as the (uncomfortable) fact that the Thai seemed to have been less interested in
literary pursuits than other nations.549 It was partly for this reason that besides responsibility for
the collection of books, King Chulalongkorn also entrusted to the library (particularly in its early
days) the task of encouraging the writing of Thai books.550 This task was later, in the Sixth Reign,
entrusted to the Literary Society (wannakhadi samosorn), which was specially established for the
purpose.551 Books and the library, therefore, were important symbols of a civilised nation.
Centralisation of the Kingdoms Books
The new ideal of learning required, above all, books of every variety, and the concentration of the
kingdoms literary heritage into one place was one of the major tasks of the newly established
Wachirayan Library. In the early years of the librarys foundation during the 1880s the collection
of books progressed relatively slowly. The basic problem seems to have been that the library was
not yet an official state organ, but more of a club (samakhom),552 albeit one with the kings
active support. There were funding problems (the library had to rely on membership fees and sales
from its magazine), and members were too busy with official government business to devote
proper attention to the librarys needs, particularly as the administration of the library was not part

548

Samakhom sup suan khorng buran nai prathet sayam, phra ratchadamrat khorng phrabat somdet phra
chulachormklao chao yu hua (Society for Research into Siamese History, King Chulalongkorns Speech),
Sinlapakorn, 12, 2, July 1966, p. 42.
549

Ibid,, 12, 2, July, 1966, pp. 42-3.

550

Tamnan hor phra samut, p. 27.

551

Phua cha ut nun wicha taeng nangsu thai..., ibid., p. 104.

552

Tamnan hor phra samut, p. 32.

of their official duties.553 It appears at this stage as if the concept of the library and its use to the
state had not yet been fully grasped. In 1889 King Chulalongkorn, who had been instrumental in
the founding of the Wachirayan Library in the early 1880s, stepped in to take direct control of the
management of the library. The king donated books from the royal collection, a sum of money for
renovations to the library building, and arranged for great festivities to be held to celebrate the
establishment of the library.554
The single most significant step in the movement to centralise the kingdoms corpus of
written knowledge came in 1905 when the king ordered the amalgamation of three major
collections of books, the Wachirayan Library, the Hor monthian tham, and the Hor
phutthasatsanasangkhaha, into one organisation which was named the Hor phra samut
wachirayan samrap phranakhorn, or the Wachirayan Library of the Capital.555 The library
became an official state organ, with state funding, under the Ministry of Religious Affairs
(krasuang thammakan).556 It is from this period that the library began to assume the status of a
national library.
As for those collections which had been merged with the old Wachirayan Library, the Hor
monthian tham (The Royal Dhamma House) had been created by Rama I in 1783, a year after
coming to power, to house the Royal Edition of the Tripitaka. It later came to hold other royal
editions of the Tripitaka, as well as Mon and Sinhalese editions, and other books on Buddhism.557
The Hor phutthasatsanasangkhaha (The Buddhism Collection) was a much more recent
collection, founded by Chulalongkorn in 1900, with the intention of gathering together in one
place works on Buddhism. It included the various khorm (Khmer) script editions of the Tripitaka,
the Commentaries and Sub-Commentaries, Buddhist treatises, Pali Grammars, Translations,
Sermons (nangsu thetsana), Thai printed works on Buddhism, Jatakas written in various poetic
metres, Lao, Mon, Sinhalese, Japanese, and Sanskrit works on Buddhism, Buddhist works printed
in Roman characters, books on research in India, (like the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society),
stone inscriptions (silacharuk) with Buddhist references, and anything else related to Buddhism.558

553

Ibid.

554

Ibid, pp. 28-9. See Prawat hor phra samut wachirayan, Wachirayan, 7, April 1895, for a lengthy description

of the celebrations.
555

Later known in English as the Wachirayan National Library of Siam, cf. G. Coeds, (Chief Librarian), The

Vajiraana National Library of Siam, Published by the Authority of the Council of the National Library, Bangkok,
1924, pp. 3-6. The librarys official name in Thai was not nationalised until the 1930s, after the overthrow of the
absolute monarchy, when the Wachirayan (King Mongkuts monastic name), was dropped from the librarys name,
which then became Hor samut haeng chat - the National Library, the name it retains today; see Hor samut haeng
chat: chak adit thung patchuban (The National Library: Past and Present), National Library, Fine Arts Department,
Bangkok, 1985, p. 67.
556

Tamnan hor phra samut, pp. 1, 44.

557

Ibid., pp. 2-12.

558

Ibid., pp. 32-5.

Again, the nationalising function of the library is evident, given the role that Buddhism was to play
in the coming years as emblem of the Thai nation.
The Hor phutthasatsanasangkhaha shared the ethos of the Wachirayan Library - with
which it was amalgamated only five years after its establishment - in the sense that it was
universal in its aims. It can be seen as an attempt by the court to centralise the entire corpus of
Buddhist written knowledge, the extent and heterogeneity of which was becoming increasingly
apparent to the Thai court during the Fifth Reign. It was during this period that the court was
confronted with a growing Western scholarship on Buddhism. This scholarship, moreover,
concerned itself not only with the same Pali texts on which the Thai Buddhist tradition was based,
but also with other Buddhist textual traditions which were quite alien to the Thai kingdom.
Western Buddhist scholars such as Max Mller, Rhys Davids and others were in the process of
identifying what they saw as divergent strains of Buddhism: the tradition based on the Pali texts
and that based on the Sanskrit, the southern school and the northern school, Hinayana and
Mahayana.559 Scholarly members of the Thai court - and this included the king - who imbibed
this scholarship became increasingly aware that the Buddhism of the Thai kingdom was only one
amongst many Buddhisms.560 The collection of these foreign works on Buddhism was one way
of keeping track of this rapidly expanding corpus of Buddhist scholarship, as well as discovering
the relationship of Thai Buddhism to all the other Buddhisms. For example, in his researches
about the history of Buddhism in the Thai kingdom Chulalongkorn consulted old Pali Buddhist
histories from former Tai kingdoms such as the Chinakalamali, the more recent Phongsawadan
Chiang Mai, as well as Buddhist works from Japan in translation.561 A number of members of the
Thai court, including the king, were members of the Pali Text Society; the influence of the foreign
publications on Buddhism in the works of the Thai court during the period is obvious.562
But even apart from foreign Buddhist scholarship the Thai court was being faced with a
myriad of different Buddhist texts and practices which it was discovering in its own kingdom - the
other foreign knowledge referred to above. This discovery was the result of policies which
intensified from 1892 to centralise the kingdoms political, religious and educational
administration, which in turn resulted in the court acquiring a more intimate knowledge of the
kingdoms constituent parts. The king himself made many trips up-country (sometimes incognito)

559

See for example T.W. Rhys Davids, Buddhist India, London, T.Fisher Unwin, 1926, pp. 171-4.

560

See the exchange of letters between Chulalongkorn and Prince Naritsaranuwatiwong in 1904 on the subject

of Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism; Phra ratchahatthalekha phra bat somdet phra chula chorm klao chao yu hua
song phra ratcha wichan thiap latthi phra phutthasatsana fai hinayan kap mahayan lae ruang sang phra bot luang
(King Chulalongkorns Correspondence on the Subject of the Comparison of Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism,
and the Construction of the Royal Chapel), Cremation Volume, Nai Kawi Wianrawi, Bangkok, 1966, pp. 8-57.
561

Ibid., p. 34.

562

See my discussion of this point in Chapter 4.

and observed at first hand the customs and religious practices of his subjects.563 Knowledge from
the kingdoms interior in some cases included religious texts and practices that were at great
variance to those favoured by the court. In the case of the Lao territories, for example, religion was
perceived to be so corrupt (suam) that, according to Prince Wachirayan in 1901, any attempt at
religious reform (by the court) would be tantamount to setting up a new religion.564 The
gathering together of the kingdoms religious texts into one place was, together with surveys
ordered by the king to examine village religious practice, and up-country visits by the king and
members of the court to observe village religious life first-hand, was part of the process by which
the Thai court sought to gain a better knowledge of the kingdoms religious identity. And given the
all-pervading role of religion in the rural areas this knowledge became more and more important as
the court tightened its administrative control over the Thai kingdom.
The amalgamation of these Buddhist collections with the Wachirayan Library into one
central library is symbolic. It can be seen as the consolidation of the library concept: a repository
of the kingdoms books, gathered together regardless of their content. To a certain extent it also
represents the subordination of the corpus of Buddhist works to the library, by the very fact of the
inclusion of these Buddhist works in the library collection. It was as if Buddhist knowledge was
being subordinated to - or more accurately, subsumed within - a broader corpus of knowledge
about the Thai kingdom. Whereas the Hor monthian tham had been the symbolic centre of
Buddhist knowledge in the old Thai kingdom, the Wachirayan Library of the Capital became the
centre of a new kind of knowledge. This knowledge, derived from the kingdoms books, was to
help give substance to a newly emerging and, for many in the Thai court, still inadequately
understood idea, the concept of the Thai nation.
An important indication that the library was becoming the new, dominant centre of
knowledge in the Thai kingdom was that its custodians were a different order of scholars than
those of the previously dominant sources of knowledge. The latter - the monkhood, scribes,
astrologers, brahmans, royal pandits, and others - were being eclipsed at the elite level by a new
group of men of the aristocracy and the nobility who held the highest executive positions in the

563

See, for example Pramuan phra niphon somdet phra maha samana chao krom phraya wachirayan warorot:

Phra ratcha hattha lekha - lai phra hat (Prince Patriarch Wachirayans Collected Writings: Correspondence between
the Prince and the King), Bangkok, Mahamakut, 2514, (1971) p. 54; the survey ordered by the king into religious
practice throughout the kingdom, in Pramuan phra niphon somdet phra maha samana chao krom phraya wachirayan
warorot: lai phra hat kiao kap kan suksa (Prince Patriarch Wachirayans Collected Writings: Writings on
Education), Bangkok, Mahamakut, 2514, (1971) pp. 1-123; and Prince Wachirayans trip to the north of the kingdom
to inspect monastic discipline, in Prince Patriarch Wachirayan, Raya thang somdet phra maha samana chao sadet
truat khana song monthon fai nua phor sor 2457 (Prince Patriarchs Inspection of the Sangha in the Northern
Monthon, 1914), Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1961.
564

Lai phra hat kiao kap kan suksa, p. 313; for Chulalongkorns perception of the corruptness of Lao religion

see Phra ratchadamrat kae phra song nai kan thi cha truat sorp phra traipitok, pi chuat, 2431 (1888) (Royal Speech to
the Sangha on the Recension of the Tripitaka, Year of the Rat, 1888) in Prayut Sitthiphan, op. cit., p. 154.

government of the Fifth Reign. Indeed, the most active figures in the library organisation were
those who were simultaneously carrying out the enormous transformations of the Thai kingdom in
the Fifth Reign. Among them were King Chulalongkorn himself; the Crown Prince Vajiravudh,
Prince Sommot Amoraphan, for many years the kings private secretary; Prince Damrong,
Minister of Education and later Minister of the Interior; Prince Phanurangsi, Minister of War;
Prince Devawongse, the long-serving Minister of Foreign Affairs; Prince Phichit Prichakorn;
Prince Naritsaranuwatiwong; Prince Naret Worarit, Minister of the Capital; Prince Narathip
Praphanphong, one-time Minister of Finance; and many others. Each year the presidency of the
library changed, so that by 1905, twenty-one princes had held the position.565 The library,
therefore, was an institution operated by and in the interests of the agents of executive power in the
Thai kingdom.
Collection and Preservation
Old documents (ekasan boran) will never be produced again. Their condition is deteriorating all
the time, and eventually there may be none left at all. This would be an enormous loss for the
nation, as the nations people would not know their own past. We must realise, therefore, the
importance of preserving (sanguan raksa) and restoring (burana) these old documents... (National
Library publication, 1986)566
This quotation from 1986, coming a century after the establishment of the Wachirayan Library,
nevertheless carries with it the same sentiment as that which animated the librarys early efforts to
collect and preserve the kingdoms books. The preservation of the kingdoms literary inheritance
was seen to be of crucial significance. From the early years of the twentieth century we can trace
the origins of this new concern among the leading members of the Thai court to collect and
preserve the kingdoms books through the institution of the Wachirayan Library. And it is during
this period that the association between the kingdoms literary corpus and the idea of the Thai
nation gradually begins to emerge.
In accordance with the ideal of increasing knowledge one of the basic functions of the
library was the collection of books of all kinds. However, it is apparent that the library in fact
devoted most of its attention to the preservation of manuscripts and other written material found
within the kingdom. The frequent references to preservation (raksa) made by court documents of
the period indicate the courts deep concern for the kingdoms books. The preservation of
knowledge had been a traditional concern of Theravada Buddhist kings, especially in relation to
Buddhist knowledge. Buddhism was always seen to be in danger of decline and disappearance.
The pancha antarathan, or five stage decay and eventual disappearance of the Buddhist religion
prophesied by the fifth-century Sinhalese scholar Buddhaghosa, is a motif present in inscriptions
565
566

p. 3.

Tamnan hor phra samut, pp. 18-19.


Ekasan boran (Ancient Documents), National Library, Krom Sinlapakorn, Bangkok, 1986,

and texts from Tai-Buddhist kingdoms dating at least from the fourteenth century.567 Maintaining
or preserving the Buddhist religion, from the construction of temples, the support of the
monkhood, through to the copying of the sacred scriptures, in particular the Tripitaka, was
considered a basic duty of the king.568 In the late nineteenth century there was a similar concern at
the Thai court for the preservation of knowledge, but this included the entire corpus of the
kingdoms written works, in particular palm leaf and samut khoi manuscripts, rather than just the
Buddhist scriptures.569 And it was books about the Thai that the library seems to have been most
interested in acquiring and preserving. Even the books the library ordered from overseas were
mostly works about the Thai kingdom.570
The librarys special concern for the preservation of the Thai kingdoms books is clearly
expressed by Prince Damrong in 1917, who, in his capacity as library president, wrote
...there are many old books in Thailand (muang thai) which have never been printed. These books
are scattered around everywhere, and are in danger of disappearance, because of fire, rain, insects,
and foreign book-buyers who take them overseas. These books are an important possession
(sombat) of the nation (chat), and are found nowhere else apart from in Thailand. Since they are
the property of the Thai nation (chat thai), we should hurry to search for and collect these books
before any others, and look after them at the Wachirayan Library of the Capital.571
567

Cf. the fourteenth century inscription Silacharuk nakhorn chum lak thi 3 in Prachum silacharuk (Collected

Inscriptions), Book 1, Bangkok, 1978, p. 63; there is reference to the prophecy in the Sangitayavamsa, written in the
reign of Rama I, (Phra Wanarat Sangkhitiyawong: phongsawadan ruang sangkhayana phra thammawinai
(Sangitiyavamsa: Chronicle of the Recension of the Scriptures), trans. Phraya Pariyathammathada (Phae
Tanlaksamon), Cremation Volume, Somdet Phra Phuthachan (Wanathitiyan Mahathera), Bangkok, 1978, pp. 558ff),
and in the Pathomsomphothikatha, written by Prince Patriarch Paramanuchitchinorot in the Third Reign, (Phra
pathomsomphothikatha (Story of the First Enlightenment), by Prince Patriarch Paramanuchit Chinorot, Department of
Religion, Ministry of Education, Bangkok, 1962, pp. 552-562). As late as 1888 King Chulalongkorn criticised the
continuing belief of many people in the panchaantarathan prophesy, stating that it was patently untrue and a
hindrance to the nations future progress, cf. Phra ratchaphithi sip sorng duan (Royal Ceremonies of the Twelve
Months), Bangkok, 1973, pp. 430-3.
568

The kings maintenance of the Buddhist religion is an important theme in Buddhist chronicle traditions,

present in such northern chronicles as the Tamnan mulasatsana and Jinakalamalipakarana of the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries, through to Chaophraya Thiphakorawongs chronicles of the first four reigns of the Chakri dynasty,
the Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung ratanakosin, composed early in the reign of King Chulalongkorn.
569

The lack of urgency in the collection of printed works stemmed from the librarys concern that the kingdoms

manuscripts were in greater danger of being lost forever, whereas printed works on the whole were in no such danger.
By 1922, however, printed material was being produced in such great quantities that the king legislated that printers
were required to send two copies of every printed work to the Wachirayan Library, within one week of the date of
publishing; Maenmat, op. cit., p. 26.
570
571

Tamnan hor phra samut, pp. 48, 63-7.


Ibid., p. 47.

Such anxiety for the preservation of the kingdoms books stemmed from the idea that civilized
nations were expected to possess books. For this reason they needed to be gathered together and
preserved at the library. Failure to do this would inevitably lead to the loss of this attribute of
nationhood.572
The progress of the Wachiryan Library through the 1890s, particularly in relation to the
activity of collection, coincided with the implementation of revolutionary administrative reforms
in the Thai kingdom, whereby the Thai court took direct control of provincial administration,
effectively destroying the political autonomy of the provincial nobility. For much of the time that
Damrong was obtaining books for the Wachirayan Library he was also head of the Interior
Ministry, which was the vanguard of the administrative reform. The push to centralise
administrative power was, in a sense, paralleled by the librarys efforts to centralise the kingdoms
books, and indeed, the Interior Ministry apparatus was instrumental in the location and
appropriation of the kingdoms written records. Soon after the establishment of the new
Wachirayan Library of the Capital in 1905 an announcement was made by the library that the king
had ordered the library to be set up, and that the library wished to collect editions of the Tripitaka,
scriptural translations (khamphi plae roi), and Thai books, and that book owners were invited to
donate their books, or to allow their books to be copied, or to sell their books to the library. This
announcement was communicated to the thesaphiban (provincial administration) officials, who
were under the control of the Interior Ministry, with the order to make it widely known.573 In some
cases the library would simply request temples to send their entire collection of manuscripts to the
library.574
Searching for books up-country was a difficult and time-consuming operation, because it
was not known where books might be kept. Books were widely scattered throughout the kingdom
and one might spend considerable efforts searching for meagre rewards. The library asked its staff
to help in this regard by looking for books when they were on holiday (wela wang ratchakan). The
owners of books were to be told that the library was willing to pay reasonable prices for their
books. Some owners, though, refused to sell or would agree to sell only at (in the librarys view)
excessive prices. Eventually when it became more widely known that the library was offering to
purchase books, book owners, both commoners and nobility, actually began to bring their books to
the library to sell. Middlemen (nai na) began to appear, who purchased books around the country
and then either brought them to the library for resale, or sold them to Western collectors,
depending upon who offered the higher price.575 The means by which many of these middlemen

572

On Damrongs concern at the loss of the kingdoms books, particularly as historical evidence, see Kennon

Breazeale, A Transition in Historical Writing: The Works of Prince Damrong Rajanubhab Journal of the Siam
Society, 59, 2, July 1971, pp. 42-3.
573

Ibid., p. 47.

574

Coeds, op. cit., p. 25.

575

Tamnan hor phra samut, p. 61.

obtained their books were in Damrongs opinion questionable, but, he pointed out, if one were to
press them on this matter it might very well have the undesirable effect of scaring them off, and
discouraging them from selling their books to the library. Thus it was library policy not to inquire
into the origins of books offered for sale.576
The demand for books created by the library and private collectors made the book trade at
this time a very lucrative business. Damrong had rivals, both Westerners and Thai, whose interest
in collecting books he described with obvious disapproval as antiquarian.577 These rival
collectors would pay high prices for certain books, in particular those with illustrations, or with
similar aesthetic appeal. The particularly worrying aspect of this situation for Damrong, stemming
from the anxiety for the preservation of the kingdoms books mentioned above, was that
increasing numbers of books were being obtained by foreigners and taken out of the kingdom. On
his travels to Europe in 1929 Damrong found a great number of Thai manuscripts in libraries in
London and Berlin, including a royal version of the Traiphum dating from the Thonburi period,
which had been purchased for one thousand baht, a small fortune at that time.578
Strange Books
Among the great numbers of books that were flowing into the library were those which the library
officials referred to as nangsu plaek plaek, strange books.579 The library had a special interest in
these strange books, and even specifically asked temples to inform them if they possessed any
such books, in order that it might obtain or copy them.580 What were these strange books, and
why were they strange?
There seems to have been two categories of strange books. One included those works
which had been written by members of the Thai aristocracy and nobility at some time in the past,
and had been rediscovered as a result of the librarys efforts. The content of these books often
contained material of great interest to the courts historical investigations. Damrong recalls that
one of the most remarkable finds was made by a library official, who discovered an old woman
about to burn a pile of manuscripts. Having asked if he could read the manuscripts, he discovered
that one of the manuscripts was a dynastic chronicle (phongsawadan) of the kingdom of Ayuthaya,

576

Ruang nangsu hor luang (On the Books of the Royal Library), in Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, Nithan

boranakhadi (Stories from Historical Studies), Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1974, pp. 136-8. On the trade in ancient
manuscripts see also Craig J. Reynolds, The Case of KSR Kulap: A Challenge to Royal Historical Writing in Late
Nineteenth Century Thailand, Journal of the Siam Society, 61, 2, July 1973, pp. 85-6.
577

Phuak len sa som khorng kao, literally hobby collectors of old things is the term Damrong uses; Nithan

boranakhadi, p. 133.
578

Ibid., pp. 141-2. Damrong regretted that he did not also check the libraries in Paris, which must also have

contained sizeable numbers of Thai books.


579

Tamnan hor phra samut, pp. 58ff.

580

Ibid., p. 61; Maenmat, op. cit., p. 26.

dating from the seventeenth century - a century older than any other existing chronicle.581 Strange
books were also found among those books obtained from the Front Palace (wang na), including
historical records of events in the reigns of the early Chakri kings. One such work, the Memoirs
of Princess Narinthewi, recorded the disputes between the Royal Palace (wang luang) and the
Front Palace (wang na) in the First Reign, written from the perspective of the Front Palace.582
Many strange books found nowhere else, some dating from the late Ayuthaya period, were also
found in Phetburi, an important town in the kingdom of Ayuthaya. It was said that during the
Burmese campaigns against Ayuthaya in the eighteenth century, monks had hidden manuscripts in
the caves near the town, where they had managed to escaped the ravages of the Burmese. The
strangeness of such works, therefore, was due to the fact that they were recently discovered and
threw new light on the kingdoms history.583
There were also books considered strange for another reason. These were the palm leaf
manuscripts (bai lan), which contained knowledges which were often quite alien to the librarian
officials.584 Among them were the treatises describing strange rituals, magical signs, diagrams and
spells. Writing from a modern, rational standpoint Damrong describes these texts as containing
very strange things...which most people know nothing about; but the miraculous claims these
books make are usually quite unbelievable...585 There were other reasons why, as a vehicle of the
written word, the palm leaf manuscript had something of a dubious reputation by the turn of the
century. In rural areas palm leaf seems to have been used almost exclusively for a wide range of
religious-literary genres, often considered backward by the Thai court.586 In the kingdoms

581

Nithan boranakhadi, p. 136.

582

The book was Chotmaihet khwam song cham khorng kromaluang narintharathewi; cf. Tamnan hor phra

samut, pp. 58-9.


583

Tamnan hor phra samut, pp. 57-8.

584

For palm leaf manuscripts referred to as strange, cf. ibid., p. 39.

585

Ruang plaek plaek...an mai khrai mi khrai ru, tae mak mai na chua khunawiset thi uat ang nai nangsu nan;

Nithan boranakhadi, pp. 132-3.


586

On collections of palm leaf manuscripts see Banchi ruang nangsu nai hor phra samut wachirayan

(Catalogue of the Books in the Wachirayan Library), phak thi 1, phanaek bali, Cremation Volume, Prince Sommot
Amoraphan, 1916, which lists religious books in Lao scripts collected by the Wachirayan Library from the north,
most of which are written on palm leaf: pp. 87-103; More recent catalogues of manuscripts held in temple libraries in
the provinces show similarly the domination of palm leaf manuscripts, see Rai chu nang su boran lanna ekasan
microfilm khorng sathaban wichai sangkhom, mahawithayalai chiang mai phor sor 2521-2533 (Catalogue of Ancient
Lanna Literature on Microfilm, University of Chiang Mai Social Research Institute 1978 - 1990), Chiang Mai, 1991;
and Banchi samruat ekasan boran (Catalogue of the Survey of Ancient Documents), 14 Parts, Maha Sarakham, 19811990. Collections of manuscripts at Nakhorn Sri Thammarat Teachers College, and Sathaban taksin khadi suksa
(Institute of Southern Studies) in the South, do contain a certain amount of literature written on samut khoi type
manuscripts (referred to in the South as nangsu but), but the earliest examples date only from the late nineteenth
century.

hinterland printing had yet to gain a strong foothold. In a report to the king in 1899 on the state of
religion in Prachinburi, Wachirayan commented on the ignorance of the local monks, who would
not read printed books as they were believed to be books teaching Christianity.587 While palm leaf
had been used at the Thai court (for religious writings) until quite recently, it had now been
overtaken by print. 1893 is something of a landmark in this respect with the publication the first
royal edition of the Tripitaka printed on paper. All former royal editions of Tripitakas dating from
the earliest Buddhist kingdoms had been inscribed on palm leaf. With the rapid expansion of print
at the end of the nineteenth century, the palm leaf manuscript had, for the new Thai intelligentsia,
become something of a symbol of the past. While that past could be the past of orthodox
Buddhism or of the great deeds of Thai kings, it might also be that of arcane knowledges, of rural
backwardness, and even of rural revolt. Indeed, it was millenarian prophesies of imminent
catastrophe inscribed on palm leaf manuscripts and recited throughout the region that played a
central role in fomenting the uprisings in the northeast at the turn of the century.588
Both categories of book were perceived to be strange because they contained knowledge
largely unknown to the library officials. In a sense the library officials were discovering knowledge
about the Thai kingdom. Finding strange books of historical value created particular interest
among the Thai elite who were becoming increasingly conscious of the existence of a Thai history.
Such books seemed to provide clues to a lost history of the Thai kingdom. Strange books of the
other kind revealed information about the vast, little-known interior of the Thai kingdom, as well
as of the peoples who inhabited it. Increasingly this new knowledge was being characterised by the
institution of the library as Thai knowledge - knowledge about the Thai nation.
Classification
The large numbers of books now flowing into the library necessitated a scheme of classification so
that this collection of books might have some kind of order for its users. Indeed, the library was
itself a classificatory system. From its inception in 1905 the Wachirayan Library of the Capital
divided its books into three broad categories: books on Buddhism (nangsu phra satsana); foreign
language books (nangsu tang prathet); and Thai books (nangsu thai).589 By Damrongs own
admission this system was far from perfect. One of the greatest problems was that most of the
old books contained in the library collection were religious in content, including almost all of
the older books in the Thai language. So a modified classification system was implemented, based
on language: books written in Pali language were classified under the category of Buddhism;
those written in Thai under the category of Thai; and those written in all other languages under

587

Lai phra hat kiao kap kan suksa, p. 33. This shows the connection in the popular consciousness between

printing technology and the Western missionaries, who had introduced printing into the Thai kingdom in the 1830s.
588

Nithan boranakhadi, pp. 137-142.

589

Tamnan hor phra samut, p. 71.

the category of Foreign. This modification was, however, also problematic, and the scheme was
not always adhered to.590
The implementation of this three-fold classification scheme is significant not so much
because of its effectiveness in classifying the kingdoms books, but rather because of the
underlying conception of the character of knowledge in the Thai kingdom implied by such a
scheme. It effectively distinguished three broad realms of knowledge in the Thai kingdom:
Buddhist, Thai, and Foreign.
Of the three categories it is the category of Thai, and its distinction from the other two
categories that is most remarkable, for it indicated the existence of a separate body of knowledge,
a Thai knowledge. As a category of knowledge, Thai was a recent invention. This is not to say,
however, that the books contained in this category had only recently been composed (although
some were); books in this category were of various genres, had been written in different places and
at different times, under different circumstances, and for a diversity of purposes. It was only now,
for the purposes of the library, that they came to be united as sources of knowledge about the Thai
nation, and hence gave substance to the category of Thai books. In this sense the category of Thai
acted, as it were, retrospectively, since it imposed the new category of Thai upon this diverse
assortment of books that had been inherited from the past and appropriated by the library.
What then was the nature of this Thai knowledge? The librarys subdivision of the category
of Thai books provides an indication. By 1915 Thai books were divided into three sub-categories:
Boranakhadi (history)
Wannakhadi (literature)
Tamra (textbooks or treatises)
The three sub-categories of Thai were subdivided further into the following categories:
Boranakhadi:
phongsawadan (dynastic histories)
tamnan (non-dynastic histories)
prawat (biography)
chotmaihet (official government documents)
Wannakhadi:
klorn thet (poetry for sermons)
bot lakhorn (drama)

590

See, for example, Banchi ruang nangsu nai hor phra samut wachirayan; ostensibly a catalogue of the

librarys books in Pali, it also includes translations of Pali works in both Thai and Northern Thai.

klorn an (poetry for reading)


klorn suat (poetry for chanting)
klorn rorng (poetry for singing)
chan (poetry in the "chan" metre)
khlong, lilit (poetry in the "khlong" and "lilit" metres)
Tamra:
phumisat (geography)
yutthasat (military science)
satawasat (zoology)
wechasat (medicine)
athansat (magic/sorcery)
silapasat (creative arts)
natasat (dance)
thatsat (alchemy/chemistry)
tamra phraratchaphithi (treatise on royal ceremonies)
tamra betalet (miscellaneous treatises)
horasat (astrology)
darasat (astronomy)
lekwithi (mathematics)
thammasat (law)
akkharasat (orthography)591
Thai knowledge, then, at least as it was represented in the librarys category of Thai books,
was made up of the three sub-categories boranakhadi, wannakhadi, and tamra. Like the category
of Thai itself the first two of these three categories, which correspond to the Western genres of
history and literature, had only recently been invented.592 A new framework had been created to
categorise existing knowledge.

591

Tamnan hor phra samut, pp. 72-3. Note that the English translations are only a very approximate guide, as

the words in each language signify different bodies of knowledge.


592

Neither words appear in Bradleys Siamese dictionary of 1873 (cf. Nangsuakkharasaphithansap - Dictionary

of the Siamese Language, Bangkok, 1873). Boranakhadi is used by Chulalongkorn with the obvious intention of
signifying the modern discipline of history (cf. Atthachak Satayanurak, Khwam plian prae khorng samnuk thang
prawatisat lae kan plian plaeng khorng sangkhom thai tang tae ratchakan thi 4 thung phor.sor.2475 (Shifts in
Historical Consciousness and Change in Thai Society from the Fourth Reign to 1932), M.A. Thesis, Chulalongkorn
University, 1988, p. 59). As for the word wannakhadi, Damrong stated in a letter to Prince Narit, who had inquired as
to the origin of the word, that it had been coined by King Vajiravudh in 1914; see San somdet (Royal Letters), Book

Printing and Dissemination


While the gathering of the kingdoms literature (or at least the literature the court considered to be
worth gathering) into one central collection was perhaps the major function of the library, the
library was also involved in the dissemination of a limited number of works contained in its
collection, in standardised, edited form, using the technology of print. Publishing was considered
by library officials to be part of the educative function of the library - theoretically the
improvement and accumulation of knowledge for the nation. As Damrong wrote in 1917,
...the benefit to the country (banmuang) of the City Library is not only the collection of books so
that they become the possession of the country, but an even greater benefit is to edit (truat sorp)
the books in order that they can give birth to knowledge, and then to print them so that this
knowledge can be widely disseminated. It is just as if one were to distribute this possession to the
people (mahachon).593
It was not just any books that the library chose to publish. The criterion was that they be works
based on scholarly knowledge or learning (pen kaensan nai thang wicha khwam ru), rather than
simply books which would be popular with readers.594 In fact, the majority of works published by
the library were either historical or literary works,595 which were two of the three classes of
book making up the category of Thai books. The librarys publishing policy was thus an essential
part in the construction - and dissemination - of the concept of Thai knowledge.
Much of the printed material published by the Wachirayan Library in the 1880s and 1890s
appeared in its own regular magazine, called Wachirayan Wiset and later simply Wachirayan.
While undergoing regular changes in format, the magazine contained, mostly in serial form, a
mixture of Thai literary works (mostly poetry), histories, short stories (nithan), collections of
proverbs, articles written by members on a variety of subjects including science, topical issues of
the time, religion, commerce and economic activities, local and international news, and works
translated from European languages.596 Besides the regular magazine the library also began to
publish, through its own finances, complete works, usually of an historical or literary nature,
though the volume of these publications was relatively small owing to the limitations on the
librarys budget. Apart from these self-funded publications, the library also allowed private
25, (Correspondence between Prince Naritsaranuwatiwong and Prince Damrong Rajanubhab), Bangkok, Khurusapha,
1962, p. 45.
593
Tamnan hor phra samut, p. 85.
594

Ibid., p. 86.

595

See Damrongs list of works published by the library from 1906-1915 in Tamnan hor phra samut, pp. 88-99;

see also Coeds, op. cit., p. 10.


596

Cf. Wachirayan wiset, and from 1894, Wachirayan. On these magazines see Reynolds, The Case of KSR

Kulap, pp. 67-8.

printers to publish books from the librarys own collection, in return for a percentage of the printed
issue.597
By far the greater part of the publication and distribution of books held by the library,
however, was carried out through the cremation volume (nangsu ngan sop) system of publishing,
to which so much printed Thai literature owes its existence to this day. The practice of printing
works for distribution at cremations had advantages for both the host and the library. For the host
and sponsor of the cremation ceremony, providing the financial means for publishing a particular
work was a form of alms-giving for the deceased. Moreover this form of alms-giving was of a kind
which ensured a particularly wide-ranging and enduring remembrance of the deceased. Printing
technology enabled the product of this act of alms-giving to be distributed to thousands of
recipients, a product which would also last for many years into the future.598
For the library, cremation volumes also provided an excellent means of financing the
printing of literary works. Printing was at this time an expensive business. Printing paper itself was
expensive and in scarce supply.599 The demand for printed works was still relatively limited, and
many of the works which the library wanted to publish and distribute had to be fully financed by
the library, as it could not rely on sales.600 As mentioned above, the educative value of the
published work - as assessed by Damrong and the library editors - was of more importance to the
library than the works popularity. This is where publishing by cremation volumes was so useful.
It enabled the court to print and widely distribute works of scholarly merit, with little if any cost
to the library. The choice of the work to be printed could either be that of the host of the
cremation, in which case the officials in charge of the various manuscript collections would find,
check and edit that particular manuscript; or the library officials could themselves recommend an
appropriate work to be published.601 Besides the advantage of publishing books at no expense to
the library, the library received other benefits. A certain portion of the cremation volume issue was
donated to the library, part of which was in turn sold to raise money for the library, and the
remainder distributed to overseas scholarly institutions. These institutions often reciprocated the
gesture by sending to the Wachirayan Library publications of their own.602
The production of written material as alms was not in fact a new phenomenon. One of the
greatest acts of alms-giving practised by kings from the earliest times (as recorded in the
chronicles) down to the present day was the production of an edition of the Tripitaka, the
Theravada Buddhist canon, or other religious works, which ensured the health and survival of the

597

Coeds, op. cit., p. 10; Tamnan hor phra samut, pp. 87-8, 99.

598

Kan chaek nangsu pen khorng chamruai (Distributing Books as Gifts), Sanguan Ankhong, Sing raek nai

muang thai (Firsts in Thailand), Book 3, Bangkok, 1973, p. 709; see also Grant A. Olson, Thai Cremation Volumes:
A Brief History of a Unique Genre of Literature, Asian Folklore Studies, Vol.51, 1992, pp. 279-295, pp. 280-294.
599

Sanguan, op. cit., p. 713.

600

Tamnan hor phra samut, p. 86.

601

Sanguan, op. cit., p. 722.

602

Coeds, op. cit., pp. 11-13; Tamnan hor phra samut, p. 99.

Buddhist religion. This act was sometimes called thammathan, or Dhamma alms. Indeed, the
first of the Sangha laws drawn up during the reign of Rama I recognised thammathan as superior
to all other forms of alms-giving, in terms of the merit it produced (phalanisong).603 Religious
works written by monks also often end with the wish that on the merit of this alms-giving (the
composition of a particular work) they will be born in the age of Mettrai, the future Buddha, or
will attain enlightenment and nibbana. The technology of print gave a much broader section of the
faithful the opportunity to practice the same kind of alms-giving, providing they possessed the
financial means. This kind of alms-giving originally known as thammathan, was now sometimes
called withayathan, alms of knowledge or alms of learning, depending on the subject matter of
the printed work. Initially religious works were the most common choice of works to be printed,
because of the great merit this was believed to produce.604 Later, however, particularly with the
encouragement of the officials of the library organisation, works chosen for publication as
cremation volumes were those considered to be of scholarly value - which usually meant Thai
history or Thai literature. It could be said that in the same way that thammathan was seen to ensure
the health of the Buddhist religion, withayathan could be said to be nourishing and encouraging
scholarly knowledge. This scholarly knowledge (wicha khwam ru), however, consisting as it
mostly did of Thai history, Thai literature, and other writings on things Thai, in fact had more the
character of a specifically Thai knowledge.
Wachirayan Library Editions
Prior to publication it was considered essential that the manuscripts chosen for printing be
thoroughly edited (truat chamra) by the library staff.605 Besides the obvious concern to check
manuscripts for errors of one kind or another (the library placed great emphasis on - and took
great pride in - printing only texts which were as correct as possible)606 the editing process was
another important step in the librarys construction of Thai knowledge. Although it acted under the
guise of checking texts to enable them to, in Damrongs words, give birth to knowledge, editing
actually functioned to characterise works of diverse origins as sources of Thai knowledge,
especially Thai history and Thai literature.
The power of print meant that the books edited by the Wachirayan Library had the effect of
standardising a particular work. That is, where there might have been thousands of manuscript
versions of a particular story in use throughout the kingdom, each differing in certain ways from

603

Kotmai tra sam duang (The Three Seals Law), Book 4, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1962, pp. 165-6. This

recognition prefaces a law forbidding buffoonish recitals of the Vessantara Jataka - the recital of the Vessantara Jataka
probably being the most popular example of thammathan in the Thai kingdom at that time.
604

Sanguan, op. cit., p. 718.

605

To edit is a rather loose translation of truat chamra; the Thai phrase also has the connotation of to

cleanse, or make clean.


606

Tamnan hor phra samut, pp. 84-5.

the other (ie. language, script, literary style, narrative structure, etc.) to suit the particular needs of
its author and audience, the Wachirayan Library Edition created one national version of that
work, which took its place among other national versions to make up the canon of Thai
literature. For each Wachirayan Library Edition published as Thai literature, countless other
versions of the same story were excluded from the national literature, most disappearing altogether
through the process of the decay of the material on which they were written.
What, then, did this editorial process involve? Perhaps the most important element of the
editorial process was the inclusion in the librarys publications of a preface (kham nam, or
sometimes kham athibai) to the work, usually written by Damrong. In fact, Damrong wrote more
of these prefaces than any other kind of writing he did, which is an indication of their
importance.607 The function of these prefaces was to explain the book to the reader, noting the
author, the date it was written, the origin of the manuscript, the reason for its composition, the
reason for its publication, the value of the work for readers, the genre and nature of the work, and
so on. It was through these prefaces that the library exercised its control over a particular work,
effectively defining the work and its place within the world of Thai letters for its prospective
readers. In particular it was in the prefaces that the librarys system of classification, and the new
category of Thai books, was disseminated to the reading public. The librarys publication of
books whose prefaces classified them as Thai was part of the process of creating a Thai literary
heritage - a corpus of written works perceived of as essentially Thai.
As much as the works they accompany, many of these prefaces have themselves become
classics. They have been reproduced time and time again in subsequent publications of the same
work thereby exercising a controlling influence over the interpretation of these works for several
successive generations of readers. The prefaces have helped reinforce the librarys original
definition of the work.
Apart from the library prefaces the actual text of the work to be published was altered in
certain ways to enhance the works status as Thai. One such area in which editing was required
was in the transcription into the Thai script of the great number of works in the library collection
written in scripts other than Thai. One of the most important of these was the Cambodian script
(khorm). Khorm had traditionally been the script used in the Central and Southern regions of the
Thai kingdom for works of a religious nature. In fact, the great majority of works which the
library classified as Thai literature, as well as many of those which it published as Thai history,
were originally written in the khorm script. It would, of course, have been inappropriate to be
publishing Thai literature and history using what, at that time, was considered more and more by
the Thai elite to be a foreign script. While in fact, the khorm script was the main script used by
monastics in the central and southern regions of the kingdom well into the Fifth Reign (and even
beyond), efforts were being made to replace khorm with Thai. In 1880 the King ordered the
printing of a standardised handbook of monastic chants (nangsu suat mon), which for the first time

607

Breazeale, A Transition in Historical Writing, p. 39.

used Thai characters.608 Ten thousand copies of which were distributed to temples throughout the
kingdom. Included in the introduction to this work were instructions explaining how to read the
Pali using the new script. Since the Thai script had apparently never before been used to inscribe
the Pali language, a new system of spelling and pronunciation had had to be developed. Another
landmark in the nationalisation of scripts in use in the Thai kingdom was the first printed
Tripitaka published in 1893, which also happened to be the first complete Tripitaka ever written
using the Thai script.
Besides khorm there were several other scripts in use throughout the kingdom, which were
unintelligible for readers from the central part of the kingdom. The north had two major scripts;
one used for Pali and other religious works, and one used for secular works. The northeastern or
Lao part of the kingdom similarly used two scripts; again, one for religious works, and one for
non-religious works. Also, the non-Pali works in both these regions were written in different (but
related) dialects to the Thai language used in the central region. Publishing these works therefore
presented problems for the library editors. There was a need for standardisation of script, and
especially of language, so that the printed work could be understood by the predominantly Thai
readers of the aristocracy and the nobility. The appearance of these works, originally of diverse
scripts and language, published in standard Thai script and language, reinforced the perception of
the existence of a single body of literature, which belonged to the Thai.
These books became known as Wachirayan Library Editions.609 If one can believe
Damrong this title seems to have given these published works some authority: people liked these
editions, Damrong wrote, because they gained more knowledge from these than they did from
other editions.610 In any case the influence of these editions has long outlived their original
publication. They have been (and continue to be) reprinted, usually with no change to the original
edited text, for the use of schools, universities and other book consumers. The Wachirayan Library
Editions effectively created a kind of canon of Thai literary works. That is, the Thai literary
heritage, as it is recognised in schools and universities today, is overwhelmingly based on that
which has been published under the auspices of the Wachirayan Library.
The works in each particular genre chosen for publication by the library were in most cases
those composed by authors within or close to the Thai court. Thus what was published in the
Wachirayan Library Editions as Thai literature - the literature of the Thai nation - was almost
always derived from the literature of the Thai court. One such example comes from the activities
of the Literature Society (wannakhadi samosorn) set up by King Vajiravudh in 1914 to promote
Thai literature. Requested by the king to choose works in various literary categories to stand as
examples of excellence in literary composition, the Societys committee chose works which had

608

Sanguan, op. cit., pp. 715-718.

609

Tamnan hor phra samut, p. 88; or simply Library Editions - Nangsu chabap hor phra samut; Nithan

boranakhadi, p. 135.
610

...dai khwam ru di kwa chabap un; Nithan boranakhadi, p. 135.

been written either by Thai kings, by members of the aristocracy or nobility close to the Thai court,
or anonymous works popular at the Thai court.611
The Wachirayan Librarys role in creating a standardised canon of Thai literary works
certainly does not imply that Thai letters were in any sense becoming petrified. The library itself
and the spread of the technology of printing enabled figures from outside court circles to research,
publish, and gain a readership for their own views on Thai literary matters. Maverick figures such
as Thianwan and K.S.R. Kulap, both of whom had a strong interest in Thai history, published
ideas which were at considerable variance to those of the court - and subsequently incurred the
courts displeasure and punishment.612 Printing and the increased public accessibility to the
kingdoms literary materials which the library made possible, were giving rise to alternative views
of the past and indeed the present.
Conclusion
It was not until shortly after the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932 that the Wachirayan
Library of the Capital was officially renamed in Thai the National Library.613 Yet implicit in the
concept of the library as understood by the Thai court of the late nineteenth and early twentieth
century, and increasingly explicit in the activities of the library, was the idea of a Thai nation. The
concept of the national library symbolised the formation of a knowledge about the Thai nation.
This knowledge, in the form of books, was being collected from all corners of the Thai kingdom
and gathered together into one place; it was classified as Thai according to the new
categorization of knowledge devised by library officials; and it was disseminated to the public in
standardised printed form in Wachirayan Library Editions. It was this knowledge which was
replacing Buddhism as the dominant form of knowledge for the kingdoms rulers.

611

The categories and the chosen works were as follows:

Klorn Lilit - Phra Lor


Klorn Chan - Samutthakhot
Klorn Kap - Maha Chat Kham Thet
Klorn Suphap - Sepha Ruang Khun Chang Khun Phaen
Bot Lakhorn Rorng - Inao
Bot Lakhorn Phut - Hua Chai Nak Rop
Khwam Riang Nithan - Sam Kok
Khwam Riang Athibai - Phra Ratcha Phithi 12 Duan

Phra ratcha phithi sip sorng duan, pp. khor-ngor.


612

Cf. Reynolds, The Case of K.S.R. Kulap.

613

Hor samut haeng chat: chak adit thung patchuban, p. 67.

Amidst these changes in the organisation of knowledge in the Thai kingdom the courts
redefinition of the Jatakas was taking place. How did this shift affect the place of the Jatakas? The
following chapter will examine how the Jatakas related to the new configuration of Thai
knowledge.

CHAPTER 7
FROM JATAKAS TO THAI FOLKTALES

It is the argument of this thesis that for the Thai court until the mid- to late-nineteenth century, and
for peasant communities until very recently, the Jatakas were understood as factual narrative, as
opposed to the category of fiction, or folktale. The basis for this faith in the reliability of the Jataka
narrative was the belief that each Jataka story had originally been related by the Buddha himself
about his own previous incarnations; it had subsequently been memorised and later recorded in
manuscript form by monks; and had been repeatedly copied and faithfully handed down
unchanged over many generations until the present day. The contemporary narrator of the Jataka,
in his capacity as heir to this tradition, was actually repeating the words of the Buddha, which gave
the story great authority.
One of the most important symbols of the Jatakas status as true stories was the medium
through which the Jataka was always told - the palm leaf manuscript. The palm leaf manuscript
contained the text of the Jataka, thereby embodying the Buddhas words in writing. The palm leaf
manuscript, therefore, was a highly sacred object, for it was recognised as a vehicle of the
Buddhas words. As such it was always present at recitations of the Jatakas. Even today at
recitations of the Vessantara Jataka, the reciting monk will always hold in his hands the palm leaf
manuscript on which the Vessantara Jataka has been inscribed, to symbolise that the words he is
reciting are those first uttered by the Buddha.614
The role of the Buddhas utterances in guaranteeing the authority of the Jataka narrative is
also evident in the ritual that surrounds the Jatakas recitation. For example, monks performed
recitations of the Vessantara Jataka for the most part in the vernacular, while the Buddhas words
were supposed originally to have been uttered in Pali. There was a danger, therefore, that the
Jataka narrative rendered in the vernacular might misrepresent the Buddhas original words. This
was an ever-present danger for a religion like Buddhism based on non-vernacular scripture, which
required the vernacular to communicate its teachings. The issue was addressed in the following
way. Either immediately before or after the vernacular recitation of the Vessantara Jataka took
place there was an additional recitation of the Pali canonical verses to the Vessantara Jataka
known as the khatha phan, the thousand verses.615 The khatha phan were held to be the actual

614

As a medium of the Buddhas teachings the palm leaf manuscript in some places still commands great

respect. Today in Laos, before a monk begins reading from a palm leaf manuscript he will raise it above his head as a
gesture of respect; the manuscript is never held below the waist, and when it is to be moved it is placed on the
shoulder; Samana bai lan thua pathet khang thi 1 (First National Conference on Palm Leaf Manuscripts), Vientiane,
1988, p. 2.
615

During my fieldwork in 1992 I was told that it was less and less common for recitations of the khatha phan to

be held at thet maha chat, for the major reason that most people nowadays had no time to listen, particularly to

words used by the Buddha to relate the Vessantara Jataka. The great merit that the faithful gained
from listening to the Vessantara Jataka, was, according to the popular Phra Malai story, and
restated by the Sangha Laws promulgated in the reign of Rama I, derived from listening and
paying homage to the khatha phan; it was not enough merely to listen to the vernacular
rendition.616 The great respect paid to the thousand verses of the Vessantara Jataka, based on the
belief that they were the Buddhas actual words, is reflected in the ceremony surrounding the
recital of the Vessantara Jataka. The faithful would make offerings of fruit and other foodstuffs,
lotus flowers, candles, incense sticks and other items of worship, in amounts of one thousand of
each item - representing each of the thousand verses uttered by the Buddha.
We have seen, however, that from the mid-nineteenth century the Jatakas were coming
under attack from sections of the Thai court led by the king, for reasons examined in earlier
chapters. This attack culminated in 1904 with King Chulalongkorns essay on the Jatakas, in
which he argued that the stories were not based on the words of the Buddha but were pre-Buddhist
folktales. That is, they were not to be understood as factual accounts of the Buddhas former
incarnations, but rather as fictional tales illustrating a particular moral. While the former
understanding of the Jatakas, widespread amongst Thailands rural communities, persisted for
many decades, the expansion of the state education sytem and the gradual centralization of the
Sangha administration has ensured that King Chulalongkorns redefinition of the Jatakas has
become the orthodox understanding of the Jatakas place in Thai culture. For all intents and
purposes the Jatakas have been excised from orthodox Thai Buddhism. The authority of the
Jatakas, texts which had for so long had been associated with the formation of Thai states, and
which encoded the cultural notions of power and hierarchy taken up and used by the Tai peoples,
was being eroded.
Yet what was this category of folktale into which the Thai court had placed the Jatakas?
Where did the category come from? And how was it related to the new categories of knowledge
into which Thai court officials and the Wachirayan Library were busy organising the Thai
kingdoms literary tradition? This chapter will examine the category of folktale as it evolved in
the Thai kingdom in the late nineteenth century. It will look at the final stage in the process by
which the Jatakas were recategorised by court scholars as Thai folktales, a subset of the new

something they could not understand. My informants told me that in the past, however, recitations of the khatha phan
were invariably held.
616

Chaofa thammathibet: phraprawat lae phraniphon bot roi krorng (Prince Thammathibet, His Life and

Poetry), Bangkok, Krom Sinlapakorn, 1970, phra malai kham luang, p. 272; also mentioned in Kotmai tra sam
duang (The Three Seals Law), Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1962, lem 4, kot phra song 1 (First Sangha Law), p. 167. The
Maha chat kham luang, a vernacular version of the Vessatara Jataka which was supposedly composed in the reign of
the fifteenth century King Boromatrailokanat, solves the problem in a different way. The entire original Pali text of the
Vessantara Jataka is included in the same text with the Thai translation, with words or a phrase in the Pali followed
directly by the Thai translation.

category of Thai literature. It was through the categorization of the Jatakas as fiction that the court
attempted to deny the stories the authority they had previously enjoyed.
Nithan
The common term for folktale in Thai today is nithan. The term has an interesting history in the
Thai world. It would appear that this understanding of the word nithan, and indeed the actual
concept of fictional narrative, is in fact of recent origin. The Thai word nithan was a translation of
the Pali nidana. One of the uses of the Pali word nidana was to signify a genre of Pali scripture
which was considered to be true in the context of the Theravada Buddhist scriptural tradition.617
One example, the Nidanakatha, was the well-known Pali introduction to the Jataka Commentary,
which narrates the progress of the bodhisatta (ie. the origins of the Buddha). The Jinamahanidana,
another Pali work of which extant versions date from the early Bangkok period, is another
Buddhist religious-historical narrative largely based on the Nidanakatha. Pallegoixs Thai
dictionary published in 1854 translates the Thai word nithan into English as history,
narration.618 In his Pali dictionary published in 1875 the British Pali scholar Robert Childers
translated the Pali root word nidanam as primary source, origin, cause - concepts which
would appear to be related to historical discourse.619 The three divisions of the Nidanakatha,
durenidanam, avidurenidanam, and santikenidanam (translated by Childers as the distant Epoch,
the middle Epoch and the near Epoch) suggest that nidana could also be used to mean an
historical period. Another British Pali scholar C.A.F. Rhys Davids republished her late husbands
translation of the Nidanakatha, the title of which he had left untranslated, as the Story [katha] of
the Lineage [nidana].620 The lineage referred to in this case is that of Gautama Buddha. Thus it
would appear that nowhere in the roots of the term is there the sense that nithan was associated
with anything else but factual narrative, which in todays terminology we might refer to as
historical.

617

There is a reference to the Jatakas as nithan in a text from the First Reign, in which the meaning of the term

nithan is a story from the dhamma, rather than fiction; see Prachum phraratchaputcha (Collected Royal Inquiries),
Bangkok, 1973, pp. 148-9: chung trat phra thamma thetsana chadok nithan (...followed by a recitation of the
dhamma in the form of a Jataka nithan).
618

Sapphaphachana phasa thai - Dictionaruium Linguae Thai sive Siamensis (Dictionary of the Thai

Language), Interpretatione Latina Gallica et Anglica, Illustratum Auctore D.J.B. Pallegoix, Episcopo Mallensi,
Vicario Apostolico Siamensi, Parisiis Jussu Imperatoris Impressum in Typographeo Imperatorio, MDCCCLIV (1854),
p. 489.
619

A Dictionary of the Pali Language by Robert Caesar Childers, Kyoto Book Company, Kyoto, 1976, p. 278.

620

Rhys Davids, T.W., Buddhist Birth Stories (Jataka Tales), London, Routledge, 1925, p. xi; C.A.F. Rhys

Davids writes The word nidana suggests something serial, or connected in line. Da is to bind; ni means along. And
so we get the notion of chain or series of antecedents. And that, in the matter of living ascent or descent, is lineage.

Yet by the second half of the nineteenth century the word nithan was being used in a new
way. It began to be taken up by scholars and officials of the Thai court as an oppositional term to
that of the new category of history. That is, where history (referred to by various terms,
including phongsawadan, tamnan, ruang rao, and others) meant a factual narrative concerning
past events, nithan came to be used by court officials to signify a narrative not based on a factual
account of past events, that is, a tale. It was in this latter sense that court scholars began
increasingly to refer to the Jatakas as nithan. The term jataka itself was already a generic name
found in the corpus of Pali canonical scriptures, the Tripitaka, which referred to a genre of
narrative: stories told by the Buddha about his former lives. So the addition of the epithet nithan
by court officials when referring to the Jatakas would appear to indicate that the term jataka was
no longer sufficient to carry the meaning its users required. In other words the use of the term
nithan in association with jataka served to emphasize the fictional status of the Jatakas.
What failed the criteria of historical fact was increasingly referred to by court scholars as
nithan. King Chulalongkorns address to the Historical Society which he had founded in 1907 to
promote historical studies expresses this clearly: Countries have evidence for only six thousand
years of history, but this evidence is mixed together with unbelievable stories - nithan...621 Calling
for a history of more than simply the kings of Thailand Chulalongkorn stated in the same address
that ...we do not really have any reliable accounts (rung rao...pen kan mankhong) of towns such
as Nakhorn Chaisi or Lopburi. We only have various references in other books, or else nithan.622
Nithan, then, was defined in opposition to historical discourse.
In the religious life of the kingdoms rural population in the nineteenth century it was
recognised by the Thai court that nithan was the dominant mode through which religious teachings
were communicated. When in 1886 on a trip to Chanthaburi, one of the kingdoms southeastern
provinces, the king had the opportunity to listen to a sermon (thetsana), he appears to have been
disturbed to find that the sermon was mostly made up of nithan, meaning (from the Kings point
of view) tales or fables.623 The full extent of the situation was revealed in the last years of the
nineteenth century, when the results of a wide-ranging survey ordered by the king into the state of

621

Samakhom sup suan khorng boran nai prathet sayam, phra ratchadamrat khorng phrabat somdet phra chula

chorm klao chao yu hua (Society for Research into Antiquities in Siam: Address by King Chulalongkorn),
Sinlapakorn, 12, 2, July 1966, p. 42. In what is a late example but in the same spirit, Prince Narit wrote to Damrong in
a letter of 1943 that the Phongsawadan nua (Northern Chronicle) was wrongly named, and would be better named
nithan nua (Northern Tale) on account of its lack of credibility; San somdet (Royal Letters - Correspondence
between Prince Naritsaranuwatiwong and Prince Damrong Rajanubhab), Vol. 26, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1962, p.
172.
622
623

Samakhom sup suan khorng boran nai prathet sayam, p. 44.


Ruang bamrung satsana nai hua muang (On Improving Religion in the Provinces), Pramuan phra niphon

somdet phra maha samana chao krom phra ya wachirayan warorot: phra ratcha hatthalekha - lai phra hat (PrincePatriarch Wachirayans Collected Writings: Correspondence between the Prince and the King), Bangkok,
Mahamakut, 1971, pp. 54-5.

religious affairs in every province of the kingdom indicated that it was the Jatakas and other works
described (along with the Jatakas) as nithan which formed the basis of religious instruction for
most of the kingdom.624
The change in the meaning of the word nithan for the Thai court, from a certain genre of
religious narrative to fictional account, is indicative of a whole genre of narrative which had lost
its historicity or status in historical fact in the eyes of the elite of the Thai kingdom. The term
nithan was acquiring a new meaning in addition to that of a now discredited mode of religioushistorical discourse. Nithan increasingly came to be used to signify new stories consciously written
as fictional narrative which were appearing in new court literary magazines modelled on European
literary journals. As the popularity of these new stories intentionally written as fiction grew, the
association of the word nithan with fictional narrative became stronger amongst the Thai elite until
it eventually eliminated all vestiges of the older meaning of nithan.
The late nineteenth century is the birth period of imaginative fiction in the Thai kingdom,
as it is in most countries of Southeast Asia.625 The pages of Wachirayan Wiset and its successor
Wachirayan, the literary magazines of the Wachirayan Library read by members of the Thai
court and the literate elite in the Thai capital, are full of works entitled nithan, which often
appeared alongside Jataka stories. Many of the new works of fiction were written by court literati,
attesting to the popularity of this genre of literature among members of the court. Another
particularly popular genre among readers of the Thai elite was Chinese historical romance
translated into Thai, which also came under the category of nithan.626 Indeed, in 1914 the
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (in Thai, Sam kok) was awarded a prize by the newly founded
Literary Society in the category of nithan.627 In 1895 an anonymous article (as most articles were)
appeared in Wachirayan specifically on the subject of nithan. The article opened with the question
should nithan be kept in the library?. Answering its own question by stating that every kind of
book should be held by the library, the article went on to give a definition of nithan:

624

"Religious sermons are based on Jatakas as in other monthon (administrative regions)", p. 70; and "The

religious sermons are merely illustrations of the virtue of giving and moral conduct, and especially the Vessantara
Jataka", p. 95; Sarup raikan truat chat kan khana kan phra satsana lae kan suksa hua muang, sok 120 (Conclusions to
the Report into the Administration of Religion and Education in the Provinces, 1901), in Pramuan phra niphon
somdet phra maha samana chao krom phraya wachirayan warorot: lai phra hat kiao kap kan suksa (PrincePatriarch Wachirayans Collected Writings: Letters on Education), Bangkok, Mahamakut, 1971.
625

Anderson, Benedict R. OG. and Ruchira Mendiones, ed. and trans., In The Mirror: Literature and Politics

in Siam in the American Era, Bangkok, Duang Kamol, 1985, pp. 12-13.
626

Wachirayan, October 1894, pp. 101-3.

627

cf. Phra ratchaphithi sip sorng duan - phra ratchaniphon nai phra bat somdet phra chula chorm klao chao

yu hua (The Royal Ceremonies of the Twelve Months, by King Chulalongkorn), Bangkok, Sinlapa Bannakan, 1973, p.
ngor.

The word nithan is understood to mean a story that has been made up. It is not a true story
(ruang ching), nor a [false] story that claims to be true. Those stories that are impossible to believe
are true can be considered nithan.628
Nithan, the article stated, were useful to help people to relax, but if read to excess they could lead
people to lose their senses.629 Besides the new meaning of nithan, here we can also see the new
function of nithan, that of giving pleasure to the reader. The meaning of nithan had changed from
that of conveying religious knowledge of the highest order to fictional content purely for the
purpose of entertainment. Thus by the late nineteenth century the category of literary knowledge in
the Thai kingdom into which the king and court scholars in the Wachirayan Library were placing
the Jatakas was one which for the Thai elite had come to signify fictional narrative. Nithan stood
in opposition to history. Let us now examine how the Wachirayan Library reinforced and
disseminated this notion of the fictionality of the Jatakas.
The Printed Translation of the Nipata Jatakas, 1904-1931
The Thai courts translation and publication of the Jatakas between 1904-1931 provided a
completely new medium - the printed book, and a new context - private reading, through which the
Jatakas were to be communicated to an audience. As this change in the mode of communicating
the Jatakas was a critical factor in the reinterpretation of the Jatakas as fiction the whole process
will now be examined in detail.
In 1904 the king decided to publish the collection of Jatakas contained in the original fifth
century Pali Commentary, the Jatakathavannana. This collection became known as the Nibat
chadok (Pali, nipata jataka). That the decision was made by the king is an indication of the
importance of the matter for the Thai court. The decision would seem to have been prompted by
the kings reading of Rhys Davids Buddhist India, published a year earlier, which contained a
chapter on the Jatakas.630 At the time it was the largest project of translation from Pali to Thai ever
to have been undertaken by the court, which is another indication of the significance it was
perceived to have had for the Thai kingdom. Because of the great size of the project, which
involved the editing and translation of five hundred and fifty separate stories, it was not completed
until 1931, twenty-seven years after the project had begun. Monastic and lay officials associated
with the Wachirayan Library were in charge of finding the Pali Jataka manuscripts for the
628

Kham wa nithan ni tam thi khao chai kan torng pen ruang thi taeng, mai chai ruang ching ru thi aep ang wa
pen ruang ching. Tae hen wa cha pen ching pai mai dai nan, ruang lao ni nap wa pen nithan...; Sonthana ruang
nithan, Wachirayan, March 1895, p. 606.
629

...Phu thi long nithan chon sati khloem, ibid., p. 611.

630

Letter from Wachirayan to Chulalongkorn, 30 October 1904, "Ruang plae nibat chadok" (On the Translation

of the Nipata Jatakas), Pramuan phra niphon somdet phra maha samana chao krom phra ya wachirayan warorot:
phra ratcha hatthalekha - lai phra hat (Prince-Patriarch Wachirayans Collected Writings: Correspondence between
the Prince and the King), Bangkok, Mahamakut, 1971, p. 80.

translators, and organising the publication of the completed translations. The printed translations
were published in successive cremation volumes in honour of the king (bamphen kuson sanorng
phradet phrakhun), which ensured both a wide readership and gave them an additional stamp of
authority.
Chulalongkorns essay on the Jatakas, in which the king defined the Jatakas as allegorical
tales (nithan) first appeared in the initial group of Jataka translations published in 1904. The
essay was reproduced many times over the twenty-seven years it took to complete the Jataka book
translation. As with the prefaces of other works published by the Wachirayan Library, the
inclusion of the essay with successive new issues of the Jataka translations strongly influenced
how the actual published work was perceived by the reader, not least because of the fact that the
explanation contained in the essay was the word of the king. In an absolute monarchy the word of
the king carried the weight of truth.
Besides the Nibat chadok translation another major translation project was undertaken by
library between 1924 and 1931. This was the translation of the category of Jatakas known in Thai
as the Panyat chadok (from the Pali: pannasa jataka, meaning literally the Fifty Jatakas). This
collection of Jatakas was also written in Pali but believed to have been composed by monks in
Chiang Mai several hundred years ago, as opposed to the semi-canonical status of the Nibat
chadok. Many Jatakas from this collection were extremely popular throughout the Thai kingdom,
as well as among the Lao and Khmer peoples, rivalling Jatakas from the Nibat chadok collection.
However, it is unlikely that in all but the most learned circles a distinction would have been made
between the two categories of Jataka. Like those from the Nibat chadok, Jatakas from the Panyat
chadok also appear in mural form in temples, particularly in the northeast and northern regions.
The Panyat chadok collection of Jatakas had, like the Nibat chadok, never been translated as a
whole. As with the publications of the Nibat chadok, a preface was included in the introductions to
the successive publications of the translations, explaining to the reader about the work and saying
how it should be read. And this preface, like Chulalongkorns essay on the Nibat chadok,
emphasized the literary status of the Jatakas as tales. Prince Damrong, the author of the preface,
wrote that
the Panyat chadok is a collection of old tales (nithan) which have been told in Thailand
(muang thai) since ancient times. They were collected by monks in Chiang Mai and then written in
Pali in the style of Jatakas between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries...the Panyat chadok was
written after the pattern of the Nibat chadok... a Burmese king had once claimed that the book
falsely pretended to be the Buddhas words and ordered it to be burnt...
But in fact the kings criticism of the book as falsely pretending to be the Buddhas words was
based on his mistaken belief that the Nibat chadok (or as we call it in Thai, the Five Hundred and
Fifty Incarnations of the Buddha) was the words of the Buddha, which is not the case. Actually it
is as King Chulalongkorn explained in his introduction to the first volume of the Nibat chadok,
published in the Fifth Reign: the stories in the Nibat chadok were probably folktales (nithan)

originating long before Buddhist times. When the Buddha was teaching his followers he would
often use a tale (nithan) in his sermons as an allegory (pen upama)...
After the time of the Buddha the belief arose that the Great Being in these Jataka stories was one
of the previous incarnations of the Buddha...when the Tripitaka was being compiled the compilers
themselves...added the prachum chadok [concluding section to the Jataka] so that it appeared as if
the Buddha himself had preached that the Great Being was reborn as the Buddha, and other
characters in the story were reborn in the present as such and such persons. This is the origin of the
Jataka genre as it appears in the Nibat chadok...This explains why the monks in Chiang Mai got
hold of folktales and wrote them up as Jatakas, in imitation of the ancient commentary...631
As in the case of the publication of the Nibat chadok it was to a great extent through the
agency of the preface, and indeed through the repeated attachment of the preface to subsequent
publications of Jatakas (editions of the Panyat chadok published in the 1960s still contained
Damrongs preface), that the Jatakas of the Panyat chadok collection were also classified as Thai
folktales. Like Chulalongkorns essay on the Nibat chadok Jatakas, Damrongs definition of the
Panyat chadok Jatakas has had enormous influence upon subsequent scholarly studies of the
Jatakas. Even as late as the 1970s and 1980s most academic works on the subject of the Panyat
chadok Jatakas written by Thai scholars and used in Thai schools and universities uncritically
accept Damrongs explanation written over half a century earlier.632
Since many Jatakas from both collections already existed in translation, what was the
significance of the Wachirayan Library translation? Perhaps the principal reason was that
mentioned in Chulalongkorns introduction to the first selection of Nibat chadok Jatakas to be
published in 1904, and which was paraphrased in prefaces to subsequent publications of the Nibat
chadok by Prince Damrong, who was instrumental in continuing the project after the kings death
in 1910:

631

Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, Kham nam (Introduction), in Panyat chadok: prachum nithan tae prathet ni
tae boran 50 ruang (The Pannasa Jatakas: A Collection of Fifty Ancient Tales from this Country), Part 1,
Samutthakhota Jataka and Suthana Jataka, Cremation Volume, M.R. Lek Siriwong Na Krungthep, Bangkok, 1924, pp.
1-4.
632

See for example Chua Satawethin, Wannakhadi Phutthasatsana (Buddhist Literature), lem 1, Khurusapha,

Bangkok, 1971, pp. 129-130, 219-20; Mani Phayormyong, Prawat lae wannakhadi lanna (Lanna History and
Literature), Chiang Mai, 1973, p. 14; Thawisak Yanaprathip, Wannakam satsana (Religious Literature),
Ramkhamhaeng University, Bangkok, 1975, p. 95; Udom Nuthorng, Wannakam thorngthin phak tai praphet nithan
pralom lok (Local Southern Thai Literature: Folktales), Srinakharinwirot University, Songkhla, [no date, but most
recent reference work cited is 1978], p. 188; Sap Prakorpsuk, Wannakhadi chadok (Jataka Literature),
Srinakharinwirot University, Pathumwan Campus, Bangkok, 1984, p. 33; Sanit Tangthawi, Wannakhadi lae
wannakam satsana (Literature and Religious Writings), Srinakharinwirot University, Mahasarakham Campus, 1984,
p. 161.

...No-one has ever attempted to translate [the Jatakas] into our language in their proper categories
according to the form of the original book. Until now only certain particular [Jataka] stories have
been translated, either for preaching, or to quote from in other works.633
The significance of translating the Nibat chadok in its entirety (as opposed to the translation of
selected Jatakas) was that it effectively broadcast to the general public (or at least to the Thai
literate public) that Jatakas, countless versions of which existed in virtually every region of the
kingdom, owed their origin to a particular book, in this case the Pali Nibat chadok.The translation
of the Panyat chadok in its entirety under Damrong did the same thing for the Panyat chadok
Jatakas. It was the textual analysis of the stories in their original Pali form which enabled the
scholars of the Thai court to declare that their contents - the Jatakas - were in fact tales, and not
true stories. Once the original texts had been thus characterised it followed that the almost
countless Jataka translations in existence throughout the kingdom which had been based on those
original Pali texts must also be characterised as mere tales, because of the very fact that they owed
their origin to these texts. It is the written basis of the former lives of the Buddha that is being
underlined in the Jataka publications, since it is on textual grounds that the stories had been
declared untrue: tales.
A further vital function of the translation and publication of the Jatakas was that associated
with the construction of Thai literature. It was becoming apparent to the Thai court that one of
the attributes of a nation, the political and cultural entity which the kingdoms rulers were
gradually conceptualising as the desired political form, was a national literature. As with other
nation-building programs of other countries, langauge and literature were an important element in
the imagining of the national community. It was shown in the previous chapter that in the era of
European colonialism in Southeast Asia, books, and a historical and literary tradition were
perceived as being attributes of a civilized people. The Wachirayan Library had been set up
partly to demonstrate to the European colonial powers the civilization of the Thai people in terms
of their literary culture. The establishment by King Wachirawut, one of the Thai kingdoms most
literary kings, of the Literary Society (wannakhadi samosorn) in 1914 was also partly directed to
this end.
But what is meant by Thai literature? Initially the word most commonly used was nangsu
thai, meaning literally the Thai script (letters), or material written in the Thai script. It will be
remembered that within the kingdom there existed a large number of different scripts among
633

My emphasis; Damrong Rajanubhab Kham nam (Introduction), Nibat chadok; eknibat, sam wak, phak thi 3
(The Nipata Jatakas: First Nipata, Three Phrases, Part Three), Cremation Volume, Sombun lae Luang Wariyotharak
(Thorng Kham), Bamrungnukunlakit, Bangkok, 1918, p. 2. For Chulalongkorns words see Thukkanibat chadok sam
wak, phak ton (Second Book of the Nipata Jatakas, Three Phrases, Part One), ed. Phra Phimonlatham, Royal
Cremation Volume, King Chulalongkorn, Bangkok, 1910 (r.s. 129), p. sor, "Samnao krasae phra ratchadamri" (Copy
of the Kings Considerations).
The phrase in their proper categories (pen muat mu) alludes to the fact that in the original Jataka
Commentary the five hundred and fifty Jatakas were arranged in the book according to the number of canonical verses
each Jataka contained, starting from the category of Jatakas with one verse to that with hundreds of verses for the final
Jatakas.

which the Thai script was far from dominant. Even works in the Thai language were not
necessarily composed using the Thai script. Up until the Fifth Reign the Thai script appears to
have been used only in the central and southern regions, and only for administrative matters and
for a limited category of non-sacred texts such as, for example, the phraratchaphongsawadan
(royal chronicles). All other works - and they appear to have been in the majority634 - were
transcribed using the Khmer script (khorm). Both the north and northeastern regions of the
kingdom similarly each had two different scripts, one for sacred and one for non-sacred works.
Moreover, by the late nineteenth century there were increasing numbers of books in foreign scripts
flowing into the kingdom, including both the roman script of the European languages as well as
books in Chinese characters.
The reclassification of works like the Jatakas as Thai literature meant in part, literally the
production of literary materials in the Thai script. Jataka translations in Thai were written in the
khorm script, at least in the central and southern regions of the kingdom, while in the northern and
northeastern regions of the kingdom they were transcribed in the sacred scripts of these regions
(sometimes referred to as aksorn tham, dhamma characters). The very act of transcribing the
Jatakas into Thai script and language out of the khorm and Pali was crucial to the new
categorization of the Jatakas as nangsu thai. It removed the Jatakas from the realm of the sacred
knowledge signified by khorm and aksorn tham characters and subsumed them into the new
category of Thai literature. Without the Thai script there is nothing in the Jataka texts themselves
to identify them as Thai.
That the publication of the Jatakas was related to the project of constructing a literature for
the nation is clear from the preface to the first of the published Nibat chadok translations in 1904
written by King Chulalongkorn. In this preface the king had written:
If this book [the Nibat chadok] in its entirety were in Thai it would be an important
contribution to our script and language (nangsu lae phasa). In the future, when the need for books
as embellishments (khruang pradap) for our language is greater, I or maybe someone else may
have the opportunity to continue the project. It would be a treasure (sap) for the library of our
language in the future...635

634

One has only to look through the catalogues of manuscript collections at the National Library and other

manuscript collections at institutions around the country to see the predominance of works of a religious nature
transcribed in the sacred scripts particular to that region.
635
Thukkanibat chadok sam wak, p. sor, "Samnao krasae phraratchadamri"; see also Nibat chadok; eknibat, sam
wak, phak thi 3 p. 2, for Damrongs paraphrasing of the kings words in later publications. Chulalongkorns use of the
word nangsu seems sometimes to have been used to mean book, and on other occasions script. In Thai literary
culture the scripts function as vehicle of the message meant that the script assumed great importance, certainly greater
than that we attribute to the roman script today.

It is important to note the emphasis on the value of the Thai script and language, the very literal
meaning of the word literature (for which the Thai language had yet to coin a word).636 Note also
the corresponding lack of emphasis in regard to the value of the stories themselves. The
translations were important because they increased the existing corpus of Thai script and language.
In a preface to later editions Damrong had also written that one of the three reasons those who
agreed to sponsor the Jataka translations had done so was to add to the corpus of Thai literature
(wicha nangsu khorng prachachon chao thai).637 Thus it was primarily the Jatakas status as Thai
literature that gave the publication value, rather than their worth as true accounts of the Buddhas
former lives.
The presentation of the Jatakas as literature underlines another major difference in which
the Jatakas in this form differed from previous presentations of the Jatakas. This difference,
based on the Jatakas new literary status, is so obvious as to almost be overlooked. The published
Jatakas were meant to be read as literature, whereas virtually all previous presentations were
meant to be listened to as factual accounts, originally narrated by the Buddha, of his own former
incarnations. When the translation of the Nibat chadok was being planned Chulalongkorn had
written to Wachirayan saying that he favoured a free translation of the Jatakas, one which
readers would be able to understand easily, rather than one which stuck too closely to the Pali
original, and which thereby made the translated text difficult to read and understand for all but Pali
scholars.638 Thus the principle requirement of the translations was to make the story readable.
This aim differs markedly from the traditional form in which the Jatakas were most commonly
presented, the thetsana or sermon. While the text of the translated Jataka presented as thetsana
had to be written in such a way as to be easily understood when recited to the audience, utmost
care had to be taken to ensure that the factual content of the Jataka be transmitted - since the
narrative was held to be the Buddhas words. This meant deference to the original Pali text, often
to the extent of including a certain amount of the Pali in with the vernacular translation.639 Also, as
mentioned above, in the ceremony of the thet maha chat the Pali verses of the Vessantara Jataka
would in fact be recited in their entirety, in addition to the recitation of the vernacular translation.
There were, furthermore, ritual and textual elements associated with the Vessantara Jataka

636

The modern term for literature in Thailand, wannakhadi, appears to have been coined by King Wachirawut

in 1914 with the setting up of the wannakhadi samosorn or Literary/Literature Society; see San somdet, Vol. 25, pp.
20, 44.
637

The other two reasons were to fulfill the kings wish to have the Jatakas translated; and to ensure the long

life of the Buddhist religion; cf. Kham nam, krom phraya Damrong Rajanubhab, in Nibat chadok, ek nibat sam wak,
phak thi 3 (The Nipata Jatakas: First Nipata, Three Phrases, Part Three), Cremation Volume, Sombun lae Luang
Wariyotharak (Thorng Kham), Bamrungnukunlakit, Bangkok, 1918, pp. 1-5. On the Nibat chadok translation see also
"The Jataka: A Complete Translation into Siamese", by D (sic), Journal of the Siam Society, Vol. 27, Pt. 1, 1935, pp.
130-3.
638

Phraratchahatthalekha - laiphrahat, pp. 83-87.

639

Sometimes referred to as chunniyabot.

recitation which served to reinforce the authority of the Pali verses. All this is to say that, in the
traditional mode of presentation of the Jatakas, their status as factual accounts was emphasized,
while in the published translations of the Nibat chadok it was comprehension and enjoyment of the
story - as a story - which was the paramount aim of the publishers. By the Fifth Reign the value of
fictional narrative was measured in the aesthetics of its reading, in its worth as entertainment,
rather than in its factual accuracy, which was considered the realm of historical discourse.
The following is a specific example of the disregard with which the traditional presentation
of the Jatakas, which was essential to the storys status as a factual account, was treated. In his
long work on traditional royal ceremony written in 1888 King Chulalongkorn gave an account of
the chanting (suat) of the Maha chat kham luang. This was the version of the Vessantara Jataka
supposedly composed in the reign of the fifteenth century Ayuthayan king Boromatrailokanat, and
still chanted every year during the rains retreat in the temple of the Emerald Buddha within the
Grand Palace.640 His account gives a generally negative impression of the ceremonys popularity at
that time. The king noted that nowadays few people enjoyed going to listen to the recital because
they could not understand it.641 The Maha chat kham luang is unique in its composition. The text
is structured by interchanging phrases of the Pali original with their Thai translation.642 Thus the
very structure designed to demonstrate the Maha chat kham luangs faithful rendering of the
original story, and therefore the authority of the story, is precisely the source of the kings (and
others) dissatisfaction.
The publication of the courts translated edition of the Nibat chadok served to reinforce the
Thai courts interpretation of the status of the Jatakas. This interpretation was that the Jatakas were
nothing more than folktales, having no basis in historical truth, and were of value only in their
contribution to the notion of Thai literature. The power of print was such that thousands of copies
of the courts edition of the Nibat chadok, and of the essays by the king and Damrong defining the
Jatakas as folktales, could be rapidly produced and circulated throughout the Thai kingdom. It
gave the printed versions a great advantage in numbers over the Jatakas in manuscript form.
Folktale Editions of Jatakas
The publication of the Nibat chadok is the final chapter in the story of the Thai courts redefinition
of the Jatakas as folktales. This is not to say, of course, that the new understanding of the Jatakas
was accepted throughout the Thai kingdom. In villages throughout the Thai kingdom until

640

The Maha chat kham luang is still chanted until this day in the temple of the Emerald Buddha in the Grand

Palace compound during the Rains Retreat.


641

Phra ratchaphithi sip sorng duan - phra ratchaniphon nai phra bat somdet phra chula chorm klao chao yu

hua (The Royal Ceremonies of the Twelve Months, by King Chulalongkorn), Bangkok, Sinlapa Bannakan, 1973, p.
527.
642

See Damrongs explanation in Kap maha chat (The Great Life, in Kap Verse), Bangkok, Khlang Withaya,

1964, pp. 86-7.

recently, the former understanding of the Jatakas remained intact. Only with the expansion of the
state education system, together with the reformation of monastic education and the centralisation
of the Sangha, has the courts orthodoxy about the status of the Jatakas in Thai literature gradually
become more widespread.
One place in which we can see the influence of the courts conceptualization of the Jatakas
as tales is in subsequent translations and retellings of the Jatakas published by private printing
houses from the 1950s. These new folktale editions were published for a popular readership in
easily readable and abbreviated form. Examples of such translations include Wannakhadi chadok
(Jataka Literature), published in 1950 and reprinted in 1956 by the former statesman, prolific
writer and historian, Luang Wichit Wathakan.643 Other well-known translations and retellings
include Plaek Sonthiraks Lao ruang phra sip chat (Stories of the Ten Lives);644 as well as his
several volumes of Nithan thai (Thai Tales);645 and countless other editions of Jatakas,
individual and collected, published since then for children.646
In these popular translations of the Jatakas there are a significant changes to the form in
which the stories are presented to the reader, which reveals the extent to which Jatakas were
becoming more solidly part of the folktale genre. The new folktale editions omitted crucial parts of
the original Jataka text which had given the stories their former authority. The omissions included
the introductory section (in Thai, prarop) which set the scene for the Buddhas telling of the
story, usually to a gathering of monks; the regular references throughout the story to the Buddha as
narrator; reference to the main protagonist of the story as the bodhisatta (ie. a former incarnation
of the Buddha); and finally the concluding section to the Jataka (in Thai prachum chadok) in
which the Buddha, concluding the story, identified people in the present with their past
incarnations in the story, and identified himself, of course, with the bodhisatta.
Jataka Text as it Appears in Original Jataka
New Structure of Jataka Text as it Appears in
Commentary and Recitation (thet) Form
Popular Folktale Editions

643

Wannakhadi chadok chabap luang wichit wathakan (Luang Wichit Wathakans Edition of Jataka

Literature), Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 2nd ed., 1956.


644

Plaek Sonthirak, Lao ruang phra sip chat (Stories About the Ten Holy Lives), 2 Vols., Bangkok, Khurusapha,

1963.
645

Plaek Sonthirak, Nithan thai chut mai (Thai Tales: New Volume), Bangkok, Ruam San, 1965; Nithan thai

chut 3 (Thai Tales: Volume 3), Bangkok, Ruam San, 1967; Nithan thai chut 4 (Thai Tales: Volume 4), Bangkok,
Ruam San, 1969.
646

For example, Samnao Hiriotabpa, Khawi: nithan wannakhadi thai (Khawi: A Thai Literary Tale), Bangkok,

1972; Phongchan Sattha, Nithan thai (nithan saen sanuk chak wannakhadi, chadok, lae nithan param para (Thai
Tales - Great Stories from Literature, the Jatakas, and Legends), 3rd ed., Bangkok, 1978; Nithan chadok chut muang
khon di (Jataka Tales: the Muang Khon Di Edition), Klum Bai Raka, Bangkok, Maeng Thap Printing, 1991.

1. Prarop (Jataka Introduction)


1. Prarop - OMITTED
Describes the circumstances of the Buddhas
narration of the Jataka.
2. Main Text
2. Main Text
The narrative, consisting of (i) canonical verses
The narrative, written in prose, usually in
and (ii) prose commentary. Frequent reference
shortened
to
form. No reference to the Buddha as
the Buddha as narrator of the story.
narrator, or to the bodhisatta.
3. Prachum chadok (Jataka Conclusion) 3. Prachum chadok - OMITTED
The Buddha describes who the characters in the
story are reincarated as in the present, with the
bodhisatta, usually the hero of the story, being
identified with the Buddha himself.
Thus what remained in the folktale editions of the Jatakas was the story, without a narrator. The
stories, as it were, told themselves, or rather were told by the author of the translations. The
Buddhas role as narrator has been completely removed.
Conclusion
This chapter has been concerned with the redefinition of the Jatakas in the Thai kingdom in the
early twentieth century. I have argued that the Thai court attempted to control the meaning of the
Jatakas through direct pronouncements on their status as well as the dissemination of these
pronouncements through the new and powerful technology of print. It is quite remarkable how
successful the courts reformulation of the Jatakas has been. Today the interpretation first devised
by Chulalongkorn and the scholars of the Thai court is the dominant understanding of the Jatakas
in both the Thai language scholarship and in mainstream Thai Buddhist thinking. The fact that this
understanding of the Jatakas as folktales is a relatively recent one, and one that was deliberately
created by the Thai court, has been overlooked.
Yet the interpretation of the Jatakas as folktales according to the courts definition in the
Fifth Reign raises the question of why kings, senior officials, and scholars of the Thai court were
so concerned with the place of the Jatakas in Thai literary and popular culture. Why did the King
of Thailand, during the height of the threat of colonialism, bother himself to compose an essay on
a matter as trivial as folktales? Why did the Thai court from the early 1900s until the 1930s
expend so much time, effort, and money on the translation and publication of the entire collection
of five hundred and fifty Jatakas, which we are to believe are merely quaint, moral fables?
Moreover, if we are to interpret the Jatakas as tales (nithan) for the readers entertainment it is
difficult to imagine why they could have had such a close association with Tai Buddhist rulers

since the foundation of the first Tai states in the thirteenth century. In short, it is simply not
possible to understand the contribution of the Jatakas to premodern Thai political culture if one
interprets them in this way.
The recent definition of the Jatakas as folktales has blinded scholars from understanding
their real place and meaning in premodern Thai political culture. This thesis has argued that the
Jatakas, and the Vessantara Jataka in particular, articulated to a mass audience in narrative form
certain notions about power and hierarchy which for at least seven centuries were central to the
socio-political organization of Tai Buddhist peoples. The particular form of power expressed in
the Jataka is quite different from modern notions of power. The conceptual lexicon of Western
political science is insufficient to describe it.647 In the Jatakas the fundamental concept is barami,
a form of moral and supernatural authority - a type of charisma - that was believed to be acquired
as a result of the ascetic practice of self-perfection. Barami was the key attribute of the exemplary
figure of the bodhisatta-ruler. The concepts of barami and the bodhisatta were at the heart of the
discourses of authority popularised by the Jatakas in the premodern Tai Buddhist world.
From the mid-nineteenth century, however, the world in which the ideas articulated by the
Jatakas made sense for the Thai elite began to break down. Among the factors that caused this
breakdown were developments in the Thai economy from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth
centuries, and the new geopolitical realities created by the encroachment of the colonial powers.
The popularity of the Jatakas and their associated beliefs in the rural areas of the Thai kingdom
appeared to the Thai elite not only to be a sign of backwardness but also increasingly dangerous to
the existing political order. Indeed, the Holy Men revolts of the turn of the century, which had
the real potential to trigger European military intervention in the Thai kingdom, were informed by
the sorts of ideas concerning authority and leadership contained in and propagated by the Jatakas.
It is no coincidence that the courts pronouncements on the status of the Jatakas occurred in the
years immediately following its violent suppression of the revolts.
The courts categorization of the Jatakas as folktales, indeed, the very invention of the
folktale as a category of literature was not simply a dry, scholarly exercise, marginal to the real
concerns of the Thai state. It was part of a much wider cultural and political strategy that was
carried out by the Thai elite involving the reassessment of tradition and resolving the
contradictions of a premodern cultural inheritance. While this cultural inheritance was the source
of both the roots and identity of the Thai state, at the same time it appeared out of step with the
late nineteenth century, and potentially even dangerous to the kingdoms existing political order .
The Fifth Reign was a period of intense cultural activity which preoccupied virtually all of
the senior figures of the Thai court. Such activity included the setting up of a centralised library
organization; the delineation of new knowledge categories and the organization of the kingdoms
literary corpus into these categories; the researches carried out by the king and princes into all

647

This point is made by Anderson in his investigations into Javanese notions of power; see Benedict R.OG.

Anderson, The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture in Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in
Indonesia, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 17 - 77; see especially footnote 8, pp. 19-20.

manner of historical, cultural, literary, religious, ceremonial, and ethnographical subjects; the
establishment of scholarly societies and interaction with foreign scholars; the reformation of
religious knowledge; and, very importantly, the expansion of mass publishing, which gave the
courts otherwise isolated ruminations the potential to transform the kingdoms existing cultural
landscape. Such activity in the cultural sphere seems to have been pursued with no less zeal and
effort than those activities in the political sphere which we might consider to have been more
central to the immediate concerns of the government of the kingdom. These included the farreaching thetsaphiban reforms, which replaced the local political elite in the provinces with a
centralised system of bureaucratic control; the setting up of a cabinet-style royal government; and
the centralisation of the Sangha, which gave the Thai court unprecedented authority over the
principal apparatus of ideological control in the kingdom.
Thus, as it appears to have been the case throughout the history of the Thai, what modern
academic discourse would refer to as issues of culture and politics seem to have gone together
in the Fifth Reign. But what is this differentiation we make between these notions of culture and
politics? It is, of course, an arbitrary one imposed by modern scholarship. Not only does this
differentiation seem to be altogether absent in the literature of the Thai world, the two terms
themselves refer to very modern concepts. They would have made little sense in the premodern
world of the Thai.

CONCLUSION

yachok kor naen nuang khao ma rap phraratchathan


bang kor sorng sathukan mothana bang kor soka pruksa kan wa
chao rao oei nap wan cha ot yak
thun kramom cha plat prak pai chak laew
dang duang duan prathip kaew an luang lap
rao phu khon chon kor ap sap saen kandan
cha dai rap phra ratchathan kor tae nai wan ni
bang kor rorng hai yu ung mi na wethana 648
Crowds of beggars approached to receive the royal gifts
Some cheered in jubilation, while others wept, saying
Soon we will be in poverty
He is about to leave us.
Like a crystal lantern that has gone out
We, the poor, will be without money and in great hardship
Today is the last day we will receive royal alms.
Some began to loudly wail. How sad!

This study has argued that the reason for the thet maha chats great popularity among premodern
Tai peoples is because the Vessantara Jataka expressed certain notions of authority. These notions
were adopted by the Tai peoples and became part of a distinctive political culture. The thesis
began with an examination of the thet maha chat and emphasised the importance given both in the
recitation and in the ceremony to showing fidelity to the Buddhas words, which gave the story its
high status. The thesis ended with the attempts by the Thai court of the Fifth Reign to deny the
authenticity of the Jatakas based on belief that they had been related by the Buddha. This, and the
courts subsequent redefinition of the Jataka genre as folktales, undermined the high status the
stories had previously held. At the Thai court and among the elite the thet maha chat was
eventually abandoned. The period of the Fifth Reign is therefore a natural end to this study.
It is fitting, however, to ask what has become of the Maha chat and the culture it inspired
in present-day Thailand.
To the majority of educated, urbanised Thai people of recent generations, and certainly to
Western observers, the thet maha chat, occurring each year at a declining number of temples
throughout the kingdom, is something of an oddity. It has been largely forgotten that the
Vessantara Jataka was until recently the best known of all stories in those areas under the influence
648

From than kan, Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap sip sam kan (Thirteen Chapter Version of the Great
Vessantara Jataka), Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1988, pp. 55-6.

of the Thai kingdom - better known than the story of the Buddha himself. Few would be aware that
it was the only story to be recited every year in virtually every region of the kingdom; that it was
the only story to have an elaborate ritual associated with its recitation; that this ritual was part of
one of the most important festivals of each year lasting up to seven days; that it was the only story
to have been recited by the children of the aristocracy and nobility as an essential part of their
education; and that it was once worshipped by both royalty and the peasantry alike. In orthodox
Thai Buddhism, few traces of the storys former status remain. The Vessantara Jataka is not
mentioned in textbooks for Buddhist classes at government school, and even in monastic
education little regard is paid to the story. A modern, progressive-minded monk from a
northeastern temple told me during my fieldwork that the Maha chat was not really Buddhist, but a
Brahmanical story. From their former position at the core of Buddhist thinking in the Thai
kingdom the Jatakas are now at best regarded as an outer shell, irrelevant to understanding the
real Buddhist truths.
For modern people it is difficult to understand how the Vessantara Jataka once enjoyed
such enormous popularity. A story of a man who gives away his fortune, his kingdom, his children
and his wife, is, in an age when material accumulation is the economic logic upon which modern
states function, at best archaic, and at worst immoral.649 The aspect of the Maha chat which has
come under the greatest scrutiny has been its morality. The journalist, novelist and former Prime
Minister M.R. Kukrit Pramot probably spoke for many in the educated middle class when in a
newspaper article published in 1968 he criticised the Vessantara Jataka on this and other grounds:
The Vessantara Jataka is not in the Tripitaka. It is a Jataka tale (niyai chadok) written after the
time of the Buddha. I believe in (luam sai) the Buddha but I dont believe in Vessantara... his
donation of the elephant... was against royal morals (sin kasat)... the citizens were right to expel
him from the city... he violated the husbands moral duty by not protecting Matsi... he violated the
fathers moral duty by not protecting his children... Vessantaras practice of charity was a burden
to society... If one practices charity one must stay within the bounds of morality (sin).650
The influence of the Fifth Reigns redefinition of the Jatakas as non-canonical folktales is clearly
evident in Kukrits remarks denying that the story was in the Tripitaka, the canon of Buddhist
teachings.651 But more importantly, the Vessantara Jataka conflicts with modern discourses of
649

Criticisms of Vessantaras acts of giving, and responses to such criticisms can be found in Phra

Phimonlatham (Chorp Anucharimahathera), Parithat wetsandorn chadok, Bangkok, 1990, kham nam, p. 35;
Chamlae phra wetsandorn baep putcha wisatchana (Critique of Vessantara: Questions and Answers), Bangkok,
1987; Banyen Limsawat, Maha chat kham klorn Klorn Version of the Great Life), Bangkok, 1970, Aramphawatchani
(Introduction).
650
Colonel Pin Muthukan, Khwam ching ruang phra wetsandorn (The Truth About Vessantara), Duang
prathip (Flame), 6, 6, March 1969, p. 4 - 5.
651

On this point Khukrit is in fact mistaken. Although the Jataka book was left out of the 1893 Thai edition of

the Tripitaka, it was reinstated in the 1928 version.

morality. Social relations have changed to the extent that Vessantaras treatment of Matsi and his
two children is no longer morally acceptable, even in striving for a legitimate spiritual goal:
Perfection and enlightenment. It is extremely difficult now to justify Vessantara giving away his
two children and his wife for the sake of spiritual attainment.
The story also goes against the morality of economic development, and Khukrits criticisms
are very much couched in this language, written as it was at the time that Thailand had just entered
the era of national development (kan phatthana). The Vessantara Jataka was the exemplary
narrative about the concept of than. But the concept of than as the central activity of merit-making
among the Thai people was coming under increasing criticism from the countrys leaders on
economic grounds.652 A very large proportion of the income of most rural people at the time was
spent in acts of than, in religious ceremonies, building temples, providing for the local monks, etc.
The logic of economic development, however, saw many such acts of giving as a wastage of
capital which could be put to more productive purposes for the ultimate benefit of the nation.
In the same way that the practice of giving as presented in the Vessantara Jataka is being
questioned, the practice of asking for gifts - begging - is also being reexamined. The former
Cabinet recently approved a Beggars Bill, drafted by the Public Welfare Department, designed to
outlaw beggars, known in Thai as khor than, literally those who ask for than. Begging is big
business in Thailand. A recent survey showed that 60% of beggars earned more than 300 baht a
day, which is over twice the minimum daily wage, and there are many who earn more than this. 653
The intent of the bill is ostensibly to stop criminal rackets organizing and exploiting gangs of
beggars, sometimes by coercion, for financial gain. But the appearance of beggars in the streets of
Bangkok (particularly the old and frail from the rural regions, especially the northeast) is also an
embarrassment for the government of a rapidly developing country lauded in international
economic circles. Behind the bill there is a new moral notion that the practice of khor than is a
shameful activity. The bill has provisions for beggars to be arrested and sent to job placement
agencies. Those who have diseases will be sent to medical centres while those who have mental
problems will be sent to mental hospitals. Those who play music for money are not classified as
beggars and are exempt from the bills provisions since they are considered to be working for
money.654

652

Field Marshal Sarit, who was responsible for prioritizing economic development both as policy and ideology

during his Prime Ministership (1957-63), opposed those Buddhist teachings which he considered inimical to economic
development; Niels Mulder, Inside Thai Society: Interpretations of Everyday Life, Bangkok, Duang Kamol, 1994, p.
100.
653

Begging Business, The Bangkok Post, November 13 1996.

654

The bill defines beggars as those who live by begging with words or acts to encourage the

public to put money into their bowls without providing work or property.

Somchai Ninlathi notes that the bill overlooks the deep-rooted culture of giving in Thai
society.655 In rural society - out of which many beggars come - begging was a common activity. In
times of crisis where there was not enough rice because of drought, flooding or other factors,
begging and giving were a normal part of social life. Somchai writes that among the Lao it was
not unusual for whole villages which had suffered poor harvests to travel to other more prosperous
villages to ask for rice. People were glad to give, not least because the uncertainties of agricultural
life meant that the situation could be reversed in the future. This was the old meaning of khor than,
a term without the connotations of shame it has today. This system of begging and giving was
part of a premodern economy with its own morality. The Buddhist virtue of giving described in
the Maha chat fitted in well with the gift economy which was a natural part of agricultural
society. But in Thailands transformation to modern capitalist society what was once seen as a
normal activity is now regarded as shameful. Contemporary attitudes behind the Beggars Bill,
therefore, reveal a conflict between premodern and modern moral notions concerning giving.
In many respects it would seem that the Vessantara Jataka and its message have indeed
almost entirely disappeared in Thailand. Yet if one looks closely the ideas the story expressed can
still be seen, sometimes in new, unusual forms. And while Thai politics and society have changed
immeasurably since the Fifth Reign, it is tempting to see a continuity in the political culture that
links leadership, virtue, and the act of giving.
It would be hard to overemphasise even today the social and religious importance of giving
in Thai society. It is obvious to foreigners who spend time in Thailand and are showered with gifts
wherever they go. In Thailand, if you interrupt people who are in the middle of eating they will
never fail to offer you food. One of the most important personal qualities which parents, relatives
and teachers try and instill in Thai children, is to be ua fua phua phae, or mi nam jai, meaning
to be generous, willing to give. The act of giving is perceived in more than just material terms. For
example, teachers are thought to be givers of knowledge; monks give the gift of the dhamma or
religious knowledge, to the laity. Giving in Thailand pervades virtually every area of social life,
including religion, education, business, politics, and social relations generally. There is a Thai
saying that giving and taking are systems of friendship.656
The act of giving remains central to the Thai practice of Buddhism. Every morning all over
Thailand, monks come out from the temples to receive food and provisions which the laity is only
too willing to give. Indeed, the very existence of the monkhood as an institution is dependent on
the free act of giving. A visit to a temple is not complete without a gift to the monks or the temple,
whether it is merely incense, candles and lotus flowers, or something more substantial. Throughout
the year there are festivals (thort kathin, thort pha pa, etc.) organised to donate (often very
publicly) money to temples. Today, perhaps the biggest Buddhist ceremony of the year is the thort

655

Somchai Ninlathi, Khor than: kan prasomprasan lae kan plianplaeng wathanatham khorng sangkhom

chonabot (Beggars: Cultural Adaptation and Change in Village Society), Private Circulation, 13 April 1993.
656

Asiaweek, 3 November 1995, p. 22.

kathin, when monastic robes and other items required by the monkhood are presented to the
temples. It is a ceremony in which the king himself also participates, in the capacity of greatest
patron of the Buddhist religion in the kingdom. These festivals also attract big businessmen, as
well as the ordinary laity. During my fieldwork in Thailand in 1992-3, Montri Pongpanich, the
leader of Thailands Social Action party, gave 44 million baht ( $US1.76 million) as part of one
of these festivals. Gifts of such amounts by people of this status are certainly not uncommon.
The association between figures of authority and giving is, today, still very strong. The
television news programmes regularly show scenes of giving, such as the King giving monastic
robes to the monks in kathin ceremonies, or the Prime Minister, senior ministers, politicians,
armed forces officers, the police, or provincial governors, giving assistance of various kinds to
villagers, such as blankets, food, etc. In 1995 when severe flooding was affecting large parts of the
country senior political figures, including then Prime Minister Banharn Silapa-acha, were often
seen on television and pictured in newspapers giving out relief assistance to victims of the floods.
The culture of giving is often self-consciously seen by some Thais as a cultural attribute
distinguishing the Thai from other nationalities. A report in the Bangkok Post English language
newspaper in July 1995 quoted an unnamed Thai foreign affairs analyst who noted that the Thai
ethic of giving had a strong influence on Thai investment practices in other countries.
Differences in custom can ...work to Thailand's advantage...It is much easier for Thais to reach
Burmese people than it is for nationals of other countries. Thais enjoy a comparative advantage by
virtue of their readiness to give...Burmese people do not give so readily. The idea of giving, or haithan as Thais know it, is not as much part of their culture. This difference .... may be one reason
why Burmese people clearly appreciate the giving of Thai people.657
In 1995 there was an interesting example of this type of thinking put into practice in the
service of Thailands diplomatic relations with its neighbouring countries. The Thai Department of
Foreign Affairs organised a royal thort kathin trip to Thailand's Theravada Buddhist neighbours,
Laos, Cambodia and Burma. The delegation was made up of royal representatives, high ranking
military officers, and staff of the Department of Foreign Affairs. They travelled to the most
important temples of these countries. In Cambodia the delegation visited the temple used by King
Sihanouk and the Cambodian royal family, where they were met by Prince Norodom Sirivudh,
secretary-general of ruling FUNCINPEC party. In Laos they travelled to the temple where the
Supreme Patriarch of the Lao Sangha resides, where they were received by the Lao deputy Foreign
Minister. And in Burma they chose to visit the temple which is said to be frequented by members
of the SLORC junta, where they were met by the Burmese Deputy Foreign Minister. The
delegation donated monastic robes and provisions sponsored by the Thai king. Each temple was
also given half a million baht ($US20 000) in donations from the Thai king, embassy staff and
other Thai and local Buddhists who joined in the merit-making. General Siri Thiwaphan, the
Commander of the Third Army and leader of the delegation called the trip an overwhelming
657

The Bangkok Post, July 22, 1995.

success.658 Another thort kathin trip is being planned but this time it will also include the southern
Chinese province of Yunnan which borders Laos and Cambodia, where there are large numbers of
Buddhists, as well as Vietnam, whose government is also gradually allowing its Buddhists more
freedom of expression. Needless to say, all of these regions also fall within the locus of rapidly
expanding Thai business investment.
In the popular practice of Buddhism, giving is performed as part of the practice of making
merit. Indeed, the phrase to make merit in Thai is commonly referred to as tham bun hai than,
illustrating the centrality of the act of giving in merit-making. One gives in order to accumulate
merit in the future. This future reward is known in Thai as anisong, and there is a very large
religious literature on the types of rewards for various acts of giving. The monkhood is often
described using the evocative metaphor of the field of merit (na bun), which highlights the belief
that, like in the rice field, in this field of merit people will reap what they sow.
In religious thinking, giving for the sole and conscious purpose of expecting some future
reward is frowned upon. Indeed, strictly speaking, this type of giving would not be classified as
than at all. On the contrary, ideally, the gift associated with merit-making is unselfishly made. And
much of the giving which occurs in Thai society outside the sphere of religion is spontaneous,
unselfconscious, and disinterested. The practice of giving in Thai society seems to be a naturalized
activity of everyday social interaction.
Strictly speaking than is a very idealised form of giving. It is, or should be, an entirely
disinterested act. One gives freely without any expectation of reward. In its highest religious
expression it is a form of cultivation of the mind, related to Buddhist ideas of selflessness and nonattachment. In Thailand, as elsewhere, there exists a broad spectrum of giving, ranging from than,
or the completely disinterested, pure, selfless act of giving, to forms of giving which are made in
the real expectation of some future reward or reciprocation, through to full-blown commercial
exchange. Often, the exact form and meaning of an act of giving is ambiguous, lying somewhere
along that spectrum. This is certainly not to say that all gifts come with strings attached, nor that
the public acts of giving by political figures are imitations of the pure than - style giving of
Vessantara. They are, however, part of one continuum.
There is a popular Thai folk-story which demonstrates the more instrumental function of
giving. There was a wealthy man who had a son whom he wanted to marry to a capable woman.
He made an announcement seeking a woman to be his sons wife. Many women applied. To
decide which one would be the most suitable he asked only one question: how would they use one
fish to enable the entire household to eat for one year. Most women answered by giving methods
of preserving food. One woman replied that she would ferment the fish, another said she would
salt it, while another said she would dry it. But then one that she would cook a big pot of fish curry
and would give a plate of it to every home in the village. The rich man was very intrigued with this
womans answer and asked her, if you give away all of your food in one day how are we going to
have enough for a whole year? The woman replied, if you give things to people, people will

658

The Bangkok Post, 14 November 1995.

always give something back to you. This is the way you will have enough food for the whole year.
Of course, it was this woman who became the son's wife.
The story demonstrates an important principle that the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss
wrote about in his seminal study of the gift in so-called archaic societies. That is, the gift,
although apparently freely offered and received, in fact carried with it three major obligations.659
These were first, the obligation to give; second, the obligation to receive; and third, the obligation
to reciprocate. These principles can be applied to certain acts of giving in Thai society. In actual
practice the principles are much more subtle than they sound. In particular, reciprocation of the gift
may not take place for some considerable time (if at all), it may be in a very different form, it may
not balance the value of the original gift, and it may seem almost unrelated to the original gift.
Indeed, direct and immediate reciprocation of a gift would be appear inappropriate, if not very
rude, for it would signal an unwillingness to continue the relationship initiated by the gift.
The practice of giving is something which establishes a relationship. It binds two parties
together in relations of obligation in a way that is quite different from the types of exchange in
trade and commerce. Whereas commercial relations take place between equals, are unbinding, and
end when the exchange is completed, in a relationship of gift exchange the two parties are not
equal, the exchange is fundamentally binding, and the relationship is actually strengthened when
the gift exchange takes place.660 Gift exchange is based on an economy whose rules are unwritten,
subtle, and personalised.
In Thai the debt of obligation that receipt of the gift incurs is commonly known as bun
khun. Bun khun can be translated into English as debt of gratitude. The etymology of the phrase
is significant because it derives from Pali Buddhist moral terminology, from which so much of the
language of giving in Thai culture derives.661 Bun khun is the moral tie which binds the receiver to
the giver in the gift relationship.662
Besides the images of generosity associated with the legitimate authority figures
associated with state power mentioned above, Thailands gangsters, who are doing increasingly
well in Thailands economic boom today, also stake their reputation on their benevolence. And
much of this benevolence comes with the ties of bun khun. Ockeys study of Thailands chao pho
(godfathers) demonstrates that the success of the chao pho is dependent on their charitable
activities, including financial assistance for villagers and huge donations of money to

659

Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. Ian Cunnison,

London, Cohen and West, 1954, pp. 37-41.


660

See J.Van Baal, Reciprocity and the Position of Women: Anthropological Papers, Assen, Van Gorcum,

1975, p. 50.
661

Bun comes from the Pali pua, meaning merit or good deed; khun comes from the Pali khuna, meaning

goodness, virtue.
662

The concept of bun khun has been discussed at length by Mulder, see Niels Mulder, Inside Thai Society:

Interpretations of Everyday Life, Bangkok, Duang Kamol, 1994, pp. 41-54.

monasteries.663 As a result the chao pho enjoy considerable popular support at the local level. In
recent years many have entered national politics since, with the ongoing decline in political
influence of the military and the bureaucracy, a position in the parliament relies more than ever
before on such local support. Although the acts of giving indulged in by the chao pho have a
morally positive flavour, they also create an unspoken debt of gratitude or bun khun with the
receiver which must be fulfilled. Ockey gives an example of how this system works from an
interview with one of the supporters of a well-known chao pho on Thailands rapidly developing
eastern seaboard:
People come and ask for help and [he] helps them, for example, finds them work...To his
followers who are close to him, he gives them sales work, by giving them some of the whisky he
distributes to sell. He doesnt take a profit. Whoever can make a profit, he gives them all of
it...From this point, when there is an election, [he] will ask for help and everyone will help - and
without asking for money from him.664
This chao pho continually has people coming and asking him for financial assistance. Ockey notes
that as mayor he has spent twenty million baht of his own money on his municipality and donated
ten million baht to monasteries. Such charity has made this particular chao pho one of the most
influential figures in the region. His authority surpasses even that of the provincial chief of police nominally an agent of state power.665 Two of his sons are involved in national politics and he has
close links with the leader of the Chat Thai party, Banharn Silpa-acha, as well as with many other
senior political figures at the national level.
Giving has always been a part of Thailands political culture, and the increasing
democratization and decentralization of the political system seems to be giving new expression to
this old practice. The two general elections in Thailand in 1995 and 1996 have demonstrated how
important the practice of giving is - in the form of vote-buying - for all the political parties. Since
the gradual withdrawal of the military from Thai politics in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the
consequently enhanced importance of elections to the formation of governments, the role of votebuying in Thailands political system has greatly increased. Vote-buying is often regarded as the
major obstacle preventing Thailand from evolving into a real democracy. Over the last two years
there has been intense and sustained criticism of the practice by Western observers, as well as by
Bangkoks middle-class media. What is rarely commented upon is the fact that cash handouts are
often far more useful to the average farmer in a rural electorate than election promises. It is
interesting to note how effective such money handouts were in securing votes, especially in the
rural areas. Voting was done by secret ballot (and there do not appear to have been any major
irregularities in this regard), so there was no way for parties to check whether electors had in fact
663

Jim Ockey, Capital Accumulation and Social Welfare in Thailand, Crossroads, General Issue, Vol. 8, No.

1, 1993, pp. 48-77.


664
Ibid., p. 69, n. 71.
665

Ibid., pp.68-9.

voted for them until after the election. Yet that did not stop parties handing out hundreds of
millions of baht to secure votes. They knew that in general, people would reciprocate the gift that
they had received, which is what, in fact, generally happened.
Many people in the Thai print media and academia have singled out for particular criticism
the former Prime Minister, Banharn Silpa-acha, for his alleged practice of money politics.
During the election campaign last year he was dubbed by the media, the walking ATM. The
media pointed to his home province of Suphanburi, 150 kms northwest of Bangkok, which is like
a personal fiefdom because of the influence of Banharn and his family. Banharns brother and
daughter are also Members of Parliament. Suphanburi stands out as one of the most developed
provincial cities in Thailand outside Bangkok. It has excellent roads, new hospitals, schools, and
many other development projects are underway; commercial activity in Suphanburi is booming. In
the last few elections Banharn has polled more individual votes than any other Member of
Parliament in the country, over 218 000 in the 1995 election. He has frequently been accused of
using state funds to enrich his own electorate. In the debate over the former governments first
budget which was handed down in late 1995, the Democrats Party attacked the government on the
issue that the lions share of the Highway Departments budget for provincial road construction
had gone to Suphanburi, and to the home provinces of several other senior Cabinet Ministers.666
In the most recent election of November 1996 the New Aspiration Party led by General
Chavalit Yongchaiyudh was targetted by the Thai press as one the worst parties in terms of its
indulgence in vote-buying. In one TV interview, Democrats leaders Chuan Leekphai quipped that
the Democrats would have a hard time parting the NAPs purple curtain in the northeast - purple
being the colour of the five hundred baht note. The Far Eastern Economic Reviews post-election
feature on the problem of money politics noted how one NAP candidate handed out half a million
baht to temples in his province of Chiang Mai, and openly admitted to using money to help
people, because this was the system in Thailand.667 The high-profile Solidarity MP from
Buriram, Newin Chidchob, who was involved in a well publicised vote-buying scandal in the 1995
elections, was also quoted as saying that ...Ive never done anything immoral. My goal is to get as
much money as I can for the people of Buriram.668
The cases of these provincial politicians are typical of the political culture in Thailand in
the rural, rice-growing electorates which still account for most seats in the Thai parliament. Here,
people vote for personalities rather than national parties, for the very rational consideration that
they have more to gain by doing so. This can be shown by the voting figures in the two recent
elections, where politicians in this mould in general gained many more votes than politicians who
stood on a party platform. It was mainly politicians of this kind who formed the governments after
the elections.

666

The Bangkok Post, 26 September 1995.

667

Mission Impossible, Far Eastern Economic Review, November 28 196, p. 16.

668

Ibid., p. 17.

The question needs to be asked, then, whether this represents the last vestiges of a
premodern political culture that will eventually make way for a cleaner Western style democratic
system, or whether it is an alternative political culture with its own deeply rooted moral
underpinnings - still inadequately understood by most political commentators. Will Thailands
continued economic development and increasing status as a regional power lead to the evolution of
modern Western democratic norms, as the modernization paradigm would have us believe, or
rather, will it reinvigorate older, equally sophisticated notions about authority and social relations
which have a long history among the Tai peoples?
Most political commentators see Thailands political culture in moral terms. There is a
widespread perception that Thailands political system is fundamentally corrupt. The Far
Eastern Economic Review saw the November 1996 election as one of dirtiest in history, and
regards Thailands democracy as hampered by corruption, and sleaze.669 Much of what is today
collectively referred to as corruption, can also be seen as forms of giving. Bribery, kickbacks,
tea money or under-the-counter payments, secret commissions and so on, can all be construed
as gifts of various kinds. It is, of course, obvious that a bribe is different from a gift, and I do not
argue that all corruption is really harmless gift-giving. And I do not believe that corrupt and
dishonest behaviour is any less common in Thailand than in other countries. But I would argue
that in Thai society there is great ambiguity about the dividing line between the two, particular
when there is a preexisting culture of giving, to which a moral system is attached, and you have a
continuation of personalized authority structures. In many cases, too, the legal system lags behind
modern notions of legality. Cries of systemic corruption in Thai society and politics fail to
acknowledge this. The logic behind the moral condemnation of Thailands political system would
mean that most of the Thai electorate must be seen as corrupt. It is interesting that in Thailand
the English word corruption is often used untranslated (khor rap chan), which suggests that it
is a modern concept, lifted from a culturally foreign Western discourse.
Nevertheless, the state in Thailand has taken a number of courses of action to sanction
those kinds of giving which are deemed corrupt. First, receiving gifts is officially banned by the
Thai bureaucracy. The Counter Corruption Commission (Por.Por.Por.) has been set up to
investigate allegations of corruption against senior members of the bureaucracy. Another, extreme
measure of dealing with alleged corruption occurred in February 1991, when officers of the Class
Five faction of the Chula Chorm Klao Military Academy overthrew the elected Chatichai
government in a coup detat on the grounds of gross corruption. Once in power, the NPKC junta
(ror. sor. chor.) seized the assets of a number of former Cabinet members deemed to be unusually
wealthy - a euphemism for corruption. The thrust of many of the attacks launched by the
Opposition against the former coalition government led by Prime Minister Banharn was also
aimed at alleged corrupt activities. Allegations of corruption have thus become a political weapon
in the contest for state power.

669

Mission Impossible, pp. 16-22.

As for measures introduced to prevent corruption in the political sphere, a limit of 1 million
baht is placed on the amount of money individual candidates can spend in their election
campaigns. There have been high profile media campaigns urging people not to sell their votes. An
independent monitoring body has been set up, called PollWatch (ongkorn klang), to report any
corrupt activity during the campaign. However, it is fair to say that the effectiveness of all these
measures has been minimal. In regard to bureaucrats accepting gifts, it is not necessarily the case
that officials always seek bribes in order to oil the wheels of bureaucracy, nor that people are
constantly offering bribes for such favours, but rather that it is almost impossible to stop people
from giving, even when there is no ostensible favour demanded. It is reminiscent of Mauss first
principle, the obligation to give.
Although the Counter Corruption Commission has investigated many cases of alleged
corruption, very few cases have ever been prosecuted in court. The Commission is something of a
paper tiger. As for military-backed coups detat, the current elected government in Thailand is
made up of many of the parties and politicians that were overthrown in the 1991 coup. Given the
current political and economic climate it is highly unlikely that another such coup could ever be
attempted, let alone succeed, on such grounds as alleged corruption. Finally, despite the high
profile campaign against vote-buying and the tenacious activities of PollWatch, the 1996 election
was the most expensive in history, with an estimated twenty billion baht ($US1 billion) given
away by all political parties in vote buying.670 All efforts by the state to restrict such giving
appear to have failed.
In the Thai moral-religious tradition, the act of giving known as than was once held to be
the highest degree of virtue that could be attained. In the context of Thailands modern political
system, however, it is as though there has been a reversal of this situation. The practice of giving
in politics is represented by most political observers as, at best, morally ambiguous, and, at worst,
corruption.671 Modernization in Thailand has led to the deterioration of a gift economy and the
current domination of a commercial economy, and in the process this has led to conflict between
the moral codes deriving from the two different forms of economy.
One of the essential problems regarding the ethic of giving is that it is has difficulty fitting
in with the economy of a modern nation-state. The ethic of giving referred to here belongs to a
time when authority was personalised, rather than embodied in national institutions. People owed
their political allegiance and their taxes to, and received protection from, the king, princes, the
kings officials, the local nobility, down to regional and local men of influence, and even religious
figures, rather than to the nebulous idea of the nation-state. Thailand was one of the worlds last
Absolute Monarchies, overthrown in a bureaucratic coup only in 1932. In Thailand the
institutionalisation of authority associated with the creation of a nation-state is still incomplete. In

670

Ibid., p. 16.

671

Interestingly, on the other hand commercial exchange, which was previously looked down upon by the Thais

out of moral considerations and left largely to the Chinese, is now not only regarded as morally acceptable, but
preferable to the gift.

many respects personal authority remains far more effective than institutional authority. It is this
feature that complicates the practice of giving in Thai society and leads to perceptions of
corruption. One can see the problem quite clearly when the obligations that politicians owe to their
own local electorates (in terms of development funds, etc.) come into conflict with their
obligations to a national electorate, which the concept of the nation-state requires and which the
parliamentary system is ostensibly designed to serve.
A second major change that complicates the practice of giving is the continuing expansion
of the modern capitalist economy in Thailand, and of course, in countries all over developing Asia.
The result of this is that social relations regulated by commercial exchange are entangling
themselves more and more with relations which had once been based largely upon gift exchange. It
is precisely because this older kind of exchange can not be measured using the analytical tools of
modern economics that it is not really understood, and in many cases left to fall into the new,
make-shift category of corruption. The modern science of economics has its own (usually
unstated) moral gauge. Giving can not be measured in the same way that economists measure
Gross Domestic Product, official exchange rates, capital investment, and so on. In fact, the whole
practice of hai than and its associated forms of giving would appear to be largely invisible to the
science of economics, despite the billions of baht which are exchanged in Thailand each year in its
name.
What does over seven centuries of the cultural influence of the Maha chat mean in present
day Thailand? To what extent does modernization wipe out the past? Does culture really have
any influence on social and political formations, or are these things determined more by the logic
of economic development? Is it inevitable that Thai cultural forms will converge with modern
Western models?
In the view of Thai anthropologist Somchai Ninlathi, the reason for the appeal of the
Vessantara Jataka to the villagers of Thailand is that it is a story of a ruler with khunatham or
virtue.672 As part of the bun pha wet festival among the Lao of northeast Thailand a special
ceremony is performed known as the hae pha wet, or Procession of Prince Vessantara. This is a
re-enactment of the triumphant return of Vessantara from exile to the city of Siwi at the end of the
story. Villagers march to a wooded area near the village which symbolises the Wongkot forest
where Vessantara had been exiled. A monk recites a passage from nakhorn kan, the final chapter
in the story, and the villagers collectively carry a long length of cloth on which the story of the
Vessantara Jataka is painted. The whole procession marches back into the village, led by the
monk. Symbolically the villagers are receiving the virtuous ruler back into their village. As to the
nature of his virtuous authority, it is perhaps best evoked by the description of the procession scene
from the Maha chat:

672

Somchai Ninlathi, Pha phra wet: phiang phap sanyalak nai ngan bun maha chat (The Vessantara Cloth: Just

a Symbol in the Great Life Merit-Making Festival), Private Circulation, 1993, p. 25.

Fung prachachon kor prachum chuan kan sin thang puang


ma nang biat siat thang sorng khang thanon luang yu ae at
tang khon kor somanat yin di khoi rap sadet phra
yort khattiyaphisek si samuttiwong
an at hai sap sing prasong sap phokhai 673
Crowds of citizens gathered together, every one
Lining both sides of the main road in throngs
All happily awaiting the noble ruler of the Sammata lineage
Who might give them the things and riches they desired.

673

Nakhorn kan, Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap 13 kan, p. 342.

GLOSSARY OF THAI AND PALI TERMINOLOGY USED


aksorn tham dhamma characters, used for writing the Buddhist scriptures. In Thailand it
usually refers to religious scripts used historically in the northeast and north of the country
anisong
(Pali: anisamsa) a genre of religious texts once popular in northern and northeastern
Thailand which describes the rewards one receives for various kinds of merit-making
asankheyya an incalculable period of time in the former Buddhist time schema
atthakatha

Pali commentary literature, as opposed to the canonical text or the Buddhas words

bai lan

palm leaf manuscript, formerly used for inscribing religious texts

barami
(Pali: parami; paramita) perfection, supreme moral virtue, charisma, power,
authority; In the Theravada tradition there are ten perfections which a bodhisatta must accumulate
in order to achieve enlightenment: Giving, Moral Conduct, Renunciation, Wisdom, Energy,
Patience, Truthfulness, Resolution, Loving Kindness, and Equanimity. These ten perfections are
sometimes known as thotsabarami.
bodhisatta (Thai: phothisat) in the Theravada tradition, a being that has made a vow to
achieve enlightenment through the accumulation of the Ten Perfections; usually refers to the hero
of the Jataka stories, who is the future Gotama Buddha
bun pha wet the festival of the recitation of the Vessantara Jataka among the Lao peoples
chadok

see jataka

chat

rebirth, incarnation, life

dhamma

the Buddhas teachings; Buddhist conception of reality

jataka

(Thai: chadok) story of a former incarnation of the Buddha

Jatakatthavannana / Jatakatthakatha
Fifth century AD Pali commentary on the Jatakas believed to have been composed
in its final form on the island known today as Sri Lanka. The commentary also
contains verses (khatha) purported to have been uttered by the Buddha.

kan

(Pali: kanda) chapter, canto. One of the thirteen parts into which the Vessantara

Jataka narrative is divided


kap

a form of Thai verse

kap maha chat a version of the Vessantara Jataka written in kap verse, attributed to the
seventeenth century king of Ayuthaya, Song Tham
kappa
aeon or world cycle in the former Buddhist time schema
khatha

verse in Buddhist scripture

khatha phan the one thousand verses of the Vessantara Jataka believed to have been the actual
utterances of the Buddha. They are contained in the Tripitaka, the authoritative source of Buddhist
canonical scripture
khorm old Khmer script used in the central and southern regions of the Thai kingdom for
transcribing Buddhist works up until the late nineteenth - early twentieth centuries
klorn

a form of Thai verse

lae
an improvisation of the normal verbal style of reciting the Vessantara Jataka, often
containing material other than that in the text of the Vessantara Jataka; later developed into a new
and popular form of recitation in its own right
maha chat literally, the great life, great birth or great incarnation; refers to the Vessantara
Jataka, the story of the last of the bodhisattas incarnations before the achievement of
enlightenment as the Buddha
maha chat kham luang
fifteenth century version of the Vessantara Jataka attributed to the Ayuthayan king,
Boromatrailokanat
muang

premodern Tai political unit, principality

nak thet
Jataka

a monk skilled in the art of reciting Buddhist teachings, especially the Vessantara

nibat chadok (Pali: nipata jataka) the Pali collection of Jatakas compiled in Sri Lanka in the fifth
century AD

nithan

folktale; originally referred to a genre of Pali religious-historical narrative

pancha antarathan
the Five Disappearances: prophecy of the five stages of the gradual decline and
eventual disappearance of the Buddhist religion over five millenia. First to
disappear are the scriptures, followed by monastic conduct, achievement of
enlightenment, the monkhood, and finally the Buddhas relics
panyat chadok (Pali: pannasa jataka)a collection of fifty Jataka stories believed to have been
composed by monks in Chiang Mai (as opposed to the much older, semi-canonical nibat chadok
collection) before the sixteenth century. These Jatakas were widely popular throughout Thailand,
Laos, and Cambodia
phongsawadan chronicle; history
phothisat

see bodhisatta

phraratchaphongsawadan
literally means the sacred royal lineage of avatars, referring to the Hindu notion that the king
was an incarnation (avatar) of the god Narayana/Vishnu. A genre of royal chronicle used by Thai
court historians from about the seventeenth century in the kingdom of Ayuthaya until the second
half of the nineteenth century
phu mi bun literally, man of merit; often referring to local religious figures of authority who
led revolts against the Thai kingdom
phutthangun epithet of Thai kings before the mid-nineteenth century meaning future Buddha
phu wiset

man of supernatural powers derived from his store of merit; another term for phu

mi bun
prapheni

festival, tradition, custom, ceremony

rai
a type of Thai verse closest to prose, often used to relate stories of a sacred or
religious nature. Most vernacular versions of the Vessantara Jataka among the Tai peoples were
composed in rai verse
rai yao
a form of rai in which the phrases are longer than normal. A popular form of verse
for the composition of the maha chat

suat

a form of chanting Buddhist texts (distinct from thet)

tamnan
religious chronicle; term used by Thai court scholars from the Fifth Reign to
categorise a genre of religious-historical writing composed in religious or political centres outside
the Thai capital
Tai
refers to the ethno-linguistic group found in mainland Southeast Asia, as opposed to
Thai, which is more commonly used to refer to the citizens of Thailand or the ethnic group of
central Thailand
thamnorng

the melody, rhythm, and style of recitation of the text of the Vessantara Jataka

tang tham luang the festival of the recitation of the Vessantara Jataka among the peoples of
northern Thailand
than

gift, charity, alms

thet maha chatthe recitation of the Vessantara Jataka


thetsana

to preach the dhamma

thort kathin ceremony of giving monastic robes and other provisions to monks
thotsachat
ten Jatakas

the last ten incarnations of the Buddha before enlightenment, the subject of the last

thotsabarami see barami


ton bun

man of supernatural powers derived from his store of merit; another term for phu

mi bun
Tripitaka
corpus of Theravada Buddhist scripture, consisting of three scriptural divisions: (i)
the Vinaya; (ii) the Sutta; (iii) the Abhidhamma.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
A. THAI VERSIONS OF THE MAHA CHAT OR VESSANTARA JATAKA
(i) Royal
Maha wetsandorn chadok chabap 13 kan (Thirteen Chapter Version of the Great Vessantara
Jataka), Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1988.
Maha wetsandorn chadok samnuan thetsana 13 kan (Thirteen Chapter Recitation Version of the
Vessantara Jataka), In Commemoration of the Ninetieth Birthday of Phra Ratchaphatharachan
(Pleng Kuwamathera), Wat Ratchabophitsathitmahasimaram, Bangkok, Monday, 29 April, 1991.
Maha chat kham luang (Royal Version of the Great Life), Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1973.
Maha chat phra ratchaniphon nai ratchakan thi 4 (Rama IV's Version of the Great Life),
Cremation Volume, Morm Chao Chongkonni Wathanawong, Bangkok, 1965.
Kap maha chat (The Great Life in Kap Verse), Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1964.
Maha chat phra niphon krom somdet phra paramanuchitchinorot (wen tae kan mahaphon kap kan
matsi) (Somdet Phra Paramanuchit Chinorot's Version of the Great Life, without the Great Forest
and Maddi Chapters), compiled by the Wachirayan Library Committee, Bangkok, 1918.
Maha nibat chadok thotsachat, chabap chinaworn (The Last Ten Jatakas of the Great Nibata
Jatakas, Chinaworn Version), 2, translated by the Head of the Sangha, Phra Chao Worawongthoe
Kromaluang Chinaworasiriwat, Cremation Volume for Somdet Phra Ariyawongsakhatayan
(Wasana Maha Thera), sponsored by Supreme Military Headquarters, the Armed Forces, and the
Police, Bangkok, 18 March 1989.
(ii) Central Thai
Maha chat muang phet (The Phetburi Version of the Great Life), transcribed from the Khorm
Script by Saman Sohem, Phetburi, Phetburi Teachers' College, 1980.
Maha chat kham klorn (Klorn Version of the Great Life), by Banyen Limsawat, Bangkok, Phra
Nakhon Printing, 1970.
Maha chat kham chan (The Great Life in Chan Verse), by Nor Or Luang Samruat Withisamut,
Cremation Volume for Mae Bunchuai Thapthimthep, Bangkok, 1961.

(iii) Southern Thai


Nangsu nithan wetsandorn chadok (mahachat) kham klorn phleng bork (The Vessantara Jataka
Tale (Maha Chat) in Phleng Bork Verse, ed. Phra Luam Suwanno, Wat Bang Chak, Nakhon Si
Thammarat, 1935.
(iv) Northeastern Thai
Lam phra wet - thet maha chat ru maha wetsandorn chadok phak isan (The Vessantara Book - the
Great Life Sermon or the Northeastern Version of the Vessantara Jataka), edited by Phithun
Maliwan, published by the Northeastern Section of the Sangha, Cremation Volume for Somdet
Phra Phuthachan (At Asaphop Mahathera), Bangkok, 1990.
Maha chat samnuan isan (Northeastern Version of the Vessantara Jataka), Bangkok, Krom
Sinlapakorn, 1988.
Wetsandorn chadok chabap isan (Northeastern Version of the Vessantara Jataka), by Khen
Lawong, Mahasarakham Cultural Centre, Mahasarakham Teachers' College, 1992.
Wetsandorn kham khlong isan (Vessantara in Northeastern Khlong Verse), by Pricha Phinthong,
Ubon Ratchathani, Siritham, 1982.
Nangsu wetsandorn chadok phak isan (Northeastern Region Book of the Vessantara Jataka),
copied by Sawat Thepthani, 1953.
Maha wetsandorn chadok kham klorn isan phrorm duai yort phra kan phra traipitok lae khatha
chinabanchorn lae withi taeng klorn lam lae klorn lam tua yang (The Great Vessantara Jataka in
Northeastern Klorn Verse, with the Great Verses of the Tripitaka, with Chinabanchorn Verses,
with the Method of Composing Lam Verse and Examples of Lam Verse), by Man Chongrian,
Kalasin, 1988.
Nangsu wetsandorn chadok kham klorn (The Vessantara Jataka Book in Klorn Verse), by
Suthisangkhophat Parian, Cremation Volume, Saksi Suthisong, Yasothorn, 1987.

(v) Northern Thai

Maha chat phak phayap chabap soi sangkorn samnuan ek (The Soi Sangkorn Version of the
Northwestern Great Life), edited by Phra Thammarachanuwat (Fu Attasiwathera), Sor.
Thammaphakdi, 1955.
Maha chat kham chiang, mahaphon khwam phra thep moli (The Chiang Version of the Great Life,
and Phra Thep Moli's Version of the Great Forest), Cremation Volume, Khun Ratchaphichit,
Bangkok, Sophon Phiphathanakorn Printers, 1920.
Wetsandorn thipani, Phra Sirimangkhalachan, 2 Vols., Chiang Mai, A.D. 1517, Text transcribed
from Khmer Script and Ancient Local Scripts, Project for the Transcription of Khmer and Ancient
Local Scripts and Translation of Buddhist Texts into Thai, with the Support of the Supreme
Ecclesiastical Council Committee and the Religious Affairs Department, Ministry of Education,
(Unpublished Typed Manuscript in the National Library of Thailand).
(vi) Khmer
Khamphi maha chat kan nang matsi phra khatha 90 khatha (The Great Life Text: the Maddi
Chapter with 90 Verses) translated from the Original Khmer Manuscript Used for Recitations in
the Lower Northeastern Region by Sangop Bunkloi, Department of Humanities and Social
Sciences, Buriram Teachers College, Buriram, 1981.
Thet maha chat kham khamen, kan mahaphon (Khmer Version of the Great Life Sermon, the Great
Forest Episode), Cremation Volume, Phra Sanit Somkhun (Ngoen), Bangkok,
Sophonphiphatthanakan, 1920.
B. SECONDARY SOURCES ON THE MAHA CHAT
(i) Central Maha chat
Chulachormklao chao yu hua, phra bat somdet phra, "Phra ratchakuson thetsana maha chat" (Royal
Meritmaking Ceremony of the Sermon of the Great Life), and "Kan suat maha chat kham luang"
(The Chanting of the Royal Great Life); in Phra ratchaphithi sip sorng duan (Royal Ceremonies of
the Twelve Months), Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1971.
Damrong Rajanubhab, Prince, "Athibai ruang nangsu maha chat", (Explanation about the Great
Life Book) Kap maha chat (The Great Life in Kap Verse), Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1964, pp. 14.

---------------------------------------, "Athibai ruang nangsu kap kuman bap", (Explanation of the Kap
Verse Version of the Royal Children Chapter), Kap maha chat (The Great Life in Kap Verse),
Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1964, pp. 31-32.
--------------------------------------, "Athibai ruang nangsu kap sakrabap", (Explanation About the
Kap Verse Version of the Sakka Chapter), Kap maha chat (The Great Life in Kap Verse),
Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1964, pp. 85-92.
---------------------------------------, "Kham nam", (Preface), Maha chat kham luang (Royal Version
of the Great Life), Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1973, pp. 1-6.
---------------------------------------, "Kham athibai", (Explanation), Maha chat phra ratchaniphon
nai ratchakan thi 4 (Rama IVs Version of the Great Life), Cremation Volume, Morm Chao
Chongkonni Wathanawong, Bangkok, 1965, pp. kor-khor.
----------------------------------------, "Kham nam", (Preface), Maha wetsandorn chadok samnuan
thetsana 13 kan (Thirteen Chapter Recitation Version of the Vessantara Jataka), In
Commemoration of the Ninetieth Birthday of Phra Ratchaphatharachan (Pleng Kuwamathera),
Wat Ratchabophitsathitamahasimaram, Bangkok, Monday, 29 April, 1991.
----------------------------------------, "Kham nam", (Preface), Maha chat kham chiang, mahaphon
khwam phra thep moli (The Chiang Version of the Great Life, and Phra Thep Molis Version of
the Great Forest), Cremation Volume for Khun Ratchaphichit, Sophon Phiphathanakorn Printing,
Bangkok, 1920.
---------------------------------------, "Kham nam", (Preface), Thet maha chat kham khamen, kan
mahaphon (Khmer Version of the Great Life Sermon, the Great Forest Episode), Cremation
Volume for Phra Sanit Somkhun (Ngoen), Bangkok, 1920, pp. kor-jor.
-------------------------------------, "Kham nam", (Preface), Maha chat phra niphon krom somdet
phra paramanuchitchinorot (wen tae kan mahaphon kap kan matsi) (Somdet Phra Paramanuchit
Chinorots Version of the Great Life, without the Great Forest and Maddi Chapters), compiled by
the Wachirayan Library Committee, Bangkok, 1918, pp. 1-29.
Kasem Bunsi, Prapheni thet maha chat (The Festival of the Recitation of the Vessantara Jataka),
Bangkok, Religious Affairs Department, 1973.
Nor Por, "Prapheni mi thet maha chat", (Custom of the Great Life Sermon), 1893, in Maha
wetsandorn chadok samnuan thetsana 13 kan (Thirteen Chapter Recitation Version of the
Vessantara Jataka), In Commemoration of the Ninetieth Birthday of Phra Ratchaphatharachan

(Pleng Kuwamathera), Wat Ratchabophitsathitamahasimaram, Bangkok, Monday, 29 April, 1991,


pp. 5-15.
Nidhi Aeusrivongse "An nuang ma chak maha chat muang phet", Pak kai lae bai rua: ruam
khwam riang wa duai wannakam lae prawatisat ton ratanakosin, Bangkok, Amarin, 1984.
Roeng Atthawibun, Phithi thamniam song (Monastic Rituals and Customs), Cremation Volume,
Phra Sunthorathamachan (Bua Thammatharo), Bangkok, 1972.
Thet maha chat chaloem phra kiat somdet phrathep ratanaratchasuda sayamboromaratchakumari
(Recitation of the Vessantara Jataka in Honour of Crown Princess Sirindhorn), 4-6 October 1991,
Phutthamonthon, Department of Religious Affairs, Bangkok, 1991.
(ii) Northeastern Maha chat
Ariyanuwat Khemchari, Phra, Rabiap boran prapheni tham bun maha chat phak isan (Traditional
Guidelines for the Isan Regions Maha Chat Merit-Making Festival) Cremation Volume, Chao
Khun Phra Sarakham Muni, Mahasarakham, 1963.
Bun pha wet khorng chao isan: kan wikhro lae ti khwam mai thang manutsayawithaya (Bun
Phawet of Isan: An Anthropological Interpretation), Department of Social Studies and
Anthropology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Khon Kaen University, Khon Kaen,
1991.
Charuwan Thammawat, Khanop thamniam prapheni khorng isan (Northeastern Customs and
Ceremonies), Bangkok, Ministry of Education, 1980.
Kanchana Suanpradit, "Phi ta khon: suksa chapho karani amphoe dan sai changwat loei", (The Ta
Khon Ghosts: Case Study from Dan Sai District, Loei Province), M.A. Thesis, Thai Studies,
Sinakharin Wirot University, Mahasarakham, March 1990.
Miller T.E., "Khaen Playing and Mawlum Singing in Northeast Thailand" PhD. thesis, Indiana
University, 1976.
Mizuno Koichi, "Social System of Don Daeng Village: A Community Study in Northeast
Thailand", Discussion Paper No.28, The Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University,
Japan, March 1971.
Ruangsak Lathainin, "Kin khao pun bun pha wet lae fang thet maha chat thi bung phlan chai roi
et", (Eating Rice Noodles at the Vessantara Merit-making Ceremony and Listening to the Sermon

on the Great Birth at Bung Phlan Chai, Roi Et Province), Sakun thai (Thai Lineage), 33, March
1991.
Sila Wirawong, Hit sip sorng (The Twelve Ceremonies), Transcribed with Explanatory Notes by
Udom Phornprasoet, edited and typed by Michai Siphufai, 1986, published by the Ubon
Ratchathani Teachers Colleges Arts and Culture Centre, Ubon Ratchathani, 1987.
Sura Unawong, Bun phra wet (The Vessantara Merit-Making Festival), Ubon Ratchathani
Teachers College, Ubon Ratchathani, 1980.
Wannaphan, "Ngan bun maha chat khorng ban hai yong", (The Great Life Meritmaking Ceremony
of Hai Yong Village), Wathanatham thai (Thai Culture), 12, 9, 1972.
(iii) Northern Maha chat
Mani Phayormyong, Prapheni sip sorng duan lanna thai (The Lanna Thai Twelve Month
Ceremonies), Vol. 2, Chiang Mai, 1986.
Phairot Loetphiriyakamon, Khati chao ban lanna thai (Customs of the Lanna Thai Villagers),
Chiang Mai Teachers College, Chiang Mai, 1973.
Phra Khru Winai Thorapraphat Thanawuttho, ed., Prapheni tang tham luang thet maha chat
wetsandorn chadok (The Ceremony of the Setting Out of the Great Dhamma: the Great Life
Sermon or the Vessantara Jataka), Wat That Kham, Chiang Mai, 1989.
Phutthasatsana nai lanna thai (Buddhism in Lanna Thai), Thirteenth Plenary Meeting of the
World Buddhist Association, Chiang Mai, 24-29 November, 1980.
Prakhorng Nimmanhemin, Maha chat lanna: kan suksa nai thana thi pen wannakhadi thorng thin
(The Lanna Great Life: A Study of Its Status as Local Literature), Foundation for the Social
Sciences and Humanities Textbooks Project, Bangkok, 1983.
Sanguan Chotisukharat, Prapheni thai phak nua (Thai Ceremonies in the North), Chiang Mai,
1968 (1st ed. 1966).
Sommai Premchit and Amphay Dore, The Lanna Twelve Month Traditions, Chiang Mai, 1992.
Wathanatham phun ban dan khanop thamniam prapheni: phak nua torn bon (Customs and
Ceremonies in Local Culture: The Upper Northern Region), Compiled by the Centre for Local
Culture, Section for the Promotion and Dissemination of Culture, National Culture Council, 1988.

(iv) School Textbooks


Chua Satewethin, Wetsandorn chadok samrap sorp chut phasa thai, por.mor., lae naksuksa
wannakhadi tua pai (The Vessantara Jataka for Thai Language Examinations, for Primary and
Secondary Students and Students of Literature Generally), Bangkok, Burisuksa, 1965.
Baep rian wannakhadi thai ruang wetsandorn chadok chabap 5 kan samrap prayok triam udom
suksa (Textbook for Thai Literature: the Vessantara Jataka, 5 Kan Version, for Primary School),
Bangkok, Education Department, 1950.
Nangsu khu mu wichakawiniphon thai: maha wetsandorn chadok (Manual for Thai Poetry
Classes: The Great Vessantara Jataka), (for Upper Secondary School), by Khun Wirupcharaya,
Upper Secondary Thai Language Teacher, Suan Kulap School, Bangkok, 1934.
C. THAI LANGUAGE THESES
Atthachak Satayanurak, "Khwam plian prae khorng samnuk thang prawatisat lae kan plian plaeng
khorng sangkhom thai tang tae ratchakan thi 4 thung phor sor 2475" (Shifts in Historical
Consciousness and Change in Thai Society from the Fourth Reign to 1932), Masters Degree
Thesis, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, 1988.
Atchara Kanchanothai, "Kan fun fu phra phuttha satsana nai samai ratanakosin torn ton (B.E.2325
- 2395)" (The Restoration of Buddhism in the Early Bangkok Period 1782-1852), Masters Degree
Thesis, History, Graduate School, Chulalongkorn University, 1980.
Anupha Asawapiyanon, "Kan suksa maha wetsandorn chadok chabap thorng thin isan chak ton
chabap wat klang khok kho changwat kalasin" (A Study of a Northeastern Local Version of the
Vessantara Jataka from a Manuscript in Wat Klang Khok Kho, Kalasin Province), Masters Degree
Thesis, Eastern Languages, Sinlapakorn University, 1989.
Kanchana Suanpradit, Phi ta khon: suksa chapo karani amphoe dan sai changwat loei (The Ta
Khon Ghosts: Case Study of Dan Sai district, Loei Province), Masters Thesis, Srinakharinwirot
University, Mahasarakham Campus, Mahasarakham, 1991.
Mani Phayormyong, "Kan wikhro lae priap thiap maha chat chabab phak klang, phak nua, phak
isan lae phak tai" (Analysis and Comparison of Central, Northern, Northeastern and Southern
versions of the Maha Chat), Masters Degree Thesis, Srinakharinwirot University, 1976.

Prathum Suwannakhangkha, "Kan Suksa Maha Wetsandorn Chadok Chabap Wat Machimawat
Songkhla" (A Study of Songkhlas Wat Machimawat Version of the Vessantara Jataka), Masters
Thesis, Sinlapakorn University, 1983
Saengarun Kanokphongchai, "Khati khwam chua ruang maha chat chadok: kan plian plaeng lae
kan sup nuang sathorn chak phap chitrakam fa phanang: karani suksa chapo phap chitrakam fa
phanang nai phra ubosot wat suwannaram" (Beliefs and Customs Related to the Great Life Jataka:
Change and Continuity Reflected in Temple Murals: A Case Study of the Murals in the Chanting
Hall of Wat Suwannaram), Masters Degree Thesis, Anthropology, Sinlapakorn University, 1989.
Saichon Wannarat, "Phutthasatsana kap naew khwam khit thang kan muang nai ratchasamai phra
bat somdet phra phuttha yort fa chula lok" (Buddhism and Political Thought in the First Reign),
Masters Degree Thesis, Chulalongkorn University, 1982.
Saman Sohem, "Maha chat chabap muang phetburi kan chuchok: kan suksa choeng wikhro" (The
Chuchok Chapter of the Phetburi Version of the Maha Chat: An Analysis), Masters Degree Thesis,
Eastern Languages, Sinlapakorn University, 1985.
Santhani Abuarat, Kan suksa wannakam isan ruang malai mun malai saen (A Study of Isan
Literature: Malai Mun Mali Saen), Masters Thesis, Srinakharinwirot University (Prasanmit),
Bangkok, 1987.
Sinchana Chirakiat, "Kan suksa maha chat chabap muang phetburi kan mahaphon" (A Study of the
Mahaphon Chapter of the Phetburi Version of the Maha Chat), Masters Degree Thesis, Eastern
Languages, Sinlapakorn University, 1988.
Princess Sirindhorn, Thotsabarami nai phutthasatsana therawat (The Ten Perfections in
Theravada Buddhism), Published by Mahamakut Ratchawithayalai Under Royal Patronage, in
Commemoration of 200 Years of the Chakri Dynasty, Bangkok, 1982.
Sopha Chanamun, "Khru ba si wichai: ton bun haeng lanna (B.E.2421 - 2481)" (Teacher Sri
Wichai: Man of Merit of Lanna, 1878 - 1938), Masters Degree Thesis, Faculty of Arts, Thammasat
University, 1991.
Supphong Thammachat, Kan suksa wikhro wannakam chadok phak tai chak nangsu but
(Analysis of Jataka Literature in Southern Thailand from But Manuscripts), PhD thesis, Graduate
School, Chulalongkorn University, 1991.
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Various Hands, under the Editorship of Professor E.B. Cowell, 6 Vols., Pali Text Society, London,
1895-1907.
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Gotama Buddha, 7 Vols., Pali Text Society, London, 1962 - 1964 (1st publ.1877 - 1897 by
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University Press, 1980.
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Text Society, 1964.

Gerini, G.E., A Retrospective View and Account of the Origin of the Maha Chat Ceremony,
Bangkok, 1892.
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edited by John Villiers, Bangkok, White Lotus, 1989.
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Gregory, C.A., Gifts and Commodities, London, Academic Press, 1982.
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Guy, John, Palm Leaf and Paper: Illustrated Manuscripts of India and Southeast Asia,
Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, 1982.
Hardy, R.S., Eastern Monachism: An Account of the Origin, Laws, Discipline, Sacred Writings...of
the Order of Mendicants Founded by Gotama Budha with Comparative Notices of the Usages and
Institutions of the Western Ascetics and a Review of the Monastic System, London, Williams and
Norgate, 1860.
---------------, A Manual of Buddhism in its Modern Development : Translated from
Singhalese MSS, Varanasi, Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1967.
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----------------------, Thailand: Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation State, Bangkok, Duang


Kamol, 1989.
----------------------, The Golden Peninsula: Culture and Adaptation in Mainland Southeast Asia,
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----------------------, Millenialism, Theravada Buddhism, and Thai Society, Journal of Asian
History, 36, 2, February 1977, pp. 283-302.
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Bangkok Christian College, 1965.
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for Asian Studies, 1982.
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Mulder, Niels, Inside Thai Society: Interpretations of Everyday Life, Bangkok, Duang Kamol,
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the Canonical Books of the Buddhists, Sacred Books of the East, Vol. X, New Delhi, 1965 (1st
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Piriya Krairiksh, Semas with Scenes from the Mahanipata-Jatakas in the National Museum at
Khon Kaen, Sinlapa lae boranakhadi nai prathet thai (Art and Archaeology in Thailand),
Bangkok, Krom Sinlapakorn, 1974.
----------------, Buddhist Folktales Depicted at Chula Pathon Cedi, with Thai translation by
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-----------------------, Sedition in Thai History: A Nineteenth-Century Poem and Its Critics, Manas
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-----------------------, ed. and trans., Autobiography: The Life of Prince-Patriarch Vajiraana of
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-----------------------, "Buddhist Cosmography in Thai History, with Special Reference to
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-----------------------, The Case of KSR Kulap: A Challenge to Royal Historical Writing in Late
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Sahlins, Marshall, Stone Age Economics, Chicago, Aldine Atherton Inc., 1972.
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---------------------------, The Changing Landscape of the Past: New Histories in Thailand Since
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E. ENGLISH LANGUAGE THESES


Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, The Phra Malai Legend in Thai Buddhist Literature: A Study of Three
Texts, PhD thesis, University of Michigan, 1992.
McClung, L., "The Vessantara Jataka: Paradigm for a Buddhist Utopian Ideal", PhD.thesis,
Princeton, 1975.
Miller T.E., "Khaen Playing and Mawlum Singing in Northeast Thailand", PhD. thesis, Indiana
University, 1976.
Puangthong Rungsawasdisab, "War and Trade: Siamese Interventions in Cambodia, 1767-1851",
PhD Thesis, University of Wollongong, 1995.
Snodgrass, Judith, "The Representation of Japanese Buddhism at the World's Parliament of
Religions, Chicago, 1893", PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 1994.
Somjai Phirotthirarach, "The Historical Writings of Chao Phraya Thiphakorawong", PhD thesis,
Northern Illinois University, 1983.

F. FRENCH LANGUAGE SOURCES


Archaimbault C., La Course du Pirogues au Laos: Un Complex Culturel, Artibus Asiae
Publishers, 1972.
Au Chieng, Catalogue du Fonds Khmer, Bibliothque Nationale, Paris, 1953.
Karpeles, S., "Voyage au Laos", Bulletin de l'Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient, Vol.XXXI, 1931.
Leclre, A., Cambodge: Ftes Civiles et Religieuses, Paris, 1947.
Lingat, R., "Le Culte du Bouddha d'Emeroude" in Journal of The Siam Society, Vol.XXVII, No.1,
1934.
Notton, Camille, ed., Chroniques de Suvanna Khamdeng, Suvanna K'om Kham, Sinhanavati,
Annales du Siam, traduction de Camille Notton, Vol. 1, Paris, C. Lavauzelle, 1926.
Pallegoix, Mgr., Description du Royaume Thai ou Siam, Tome Second, Paris, 1854 (Repriinted by
Gregg International Publishers Ltd, London, 1969).

Peltier, Anatole-Roger, Wannakam thai khoen/ La Littrature Tai khoeun/ Tai khoeun literature,
cole Francaise d'Extrme Orient, & Social Research Institute, Chiang Mai University, 1987.
Vannasak, Keng, "Quelques aspects de la litterature khmere" Annales de la Facult des Lettres et
des Sciences Humaines de lUniversit Royale, Phnom Penh, 1967.
G. LAO LANGUAGE SOURCES
Samana bai lan thua pathet khang thi 1 (First National Conference on Palm Leaf Manuscripts),
Vientiane, 1982.
H. THAI JOURNALS
Aksorasan (Literary Journal), Bangkok, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, 1972; Thanit
Chakharataphong, Khwam ru ruang chadok (Knowledge about the Jatakas).
Lok nangsu (Book World), 4, 8, May 1981, pp. 8-11: Pai fang khao sewana kan ruang thet maha
chat (Listening to a Discussion on the Recitation of the Vessantara Jataka).
Sakun thai, 33, March 1991, p. 11: Ruangsak Lathaynin, Kin khao pun bun pha wet lae fang thet
maha chat thi bung planchai roi et (Eating Vessantara Merit-Making Rice Noodles and Listening
to the Recitation of the Great Life at Bung Planchai, Roi Et Province).
Sinlapa wathanatham (Arts and Culture), 3, 9, July 1982, pp. 28-30: San Suwannaprathip, "Kan
suat maha chat kham luang lae o e wihan rai" (Chanting the Royal Maha Chat and O E Wihan
Poetry).
------------------------------------------------, 4, 4, February 1984, pp. 44-50: Niphon Bunruang "Maha
chat phayap chabap soi sangkorn" (The Northwestern Soi Sangkorn Version of the Maha Chat).
------------------------------------------------, 13, 3, January, 1992, pp. 116-8: Damrong Nuthong, "Like
maha chat song khruang ekalak like phak tai" (The Maha Chat performed in the Like Dramatical
Style - The Character of Southern Like).
Sinlapakorn (Fine Arts), 12, 2, July 1966, pp. 42-6: Samakhom sup suan khorng buran nai prathet
sayam, phra ratchadamrat khorng phrabat somdet phra chulachormklao chao yu hua (Society for
Research into Siamese History: Address by King Chulalongkorn).
--------------------------, 21, 2, July 1977, pp. 27-36: Somchai Phumsaad, "Phra thep moli (klin)
samana kawi haeng krung ratanakosin" (Phra thep moli (klin): The Priest-Poet of Ratanakosin).

-------------------------, 22, 2, July 1978, pp. 56-73: Thiphawan Bunwira, "Lae khruang len maha
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Wachirayan, 7, April 1895.
Wachirayan Wiset, 1886.
Warasan Wathanatham Thai (Journal of Thai Culture), 23, 5, 1984, pp. 32-40; Praphat Trinarong,
"Khorng di nai chadok" (Good Things in the Jatakas).
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-------------------------------------, Prachum phra niphon kiao kap tamnan thang satsana (Collected
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-------------------------------------, Ruang praditsathan phra song sayam wong nai langka thawip (On
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-------------------------------------, Tamnan hor phra samut hor phra monthian tham hor
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-------------------------------------, Nithan boranakhadi (Stories from Historical Studies), Bangkok,
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-------------------------------------, Somdet phrachao boromawongthoe kromphraya Damrong
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Bangkok, 1980.
------------------------, Pak kai lae bai rua: ruam khwam riang wa duai wannakam lae prawatisat
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------------------------, Kan muang thai samai phra chao krung thonburi (Thai Politics in the Time
of the King of Thonburi), Bangkok, Sinlapawathanatham, 1986.
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Vessantara Jataka), Bangkok, 1990.
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Society in the Early Bangkok Period), Bangkok, Chulalongkorn University, 1986.
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January 1982, pp. 73-94.
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Phra ratchahatthalekha phra bat somdet phra chula chorm klao chao yu hua song phra ratcha
wichan thiap latthi phra phutthasastsana fai hinayan kap mahayan lae ruang sang phra bot luang
(King Chulalongkorns Correspondence on the Subject of the Comparison of Hinayana and
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Wianrawi, Bangkok, 1966.
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to Europe in 1897), Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1972.
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Duang prathip (Flame), 6, 6, March 1969.
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Khurusapha, 1963.
-------------------, Nithan thai chut mai (Thai Tales: New Volume), Bangkok, Ruam San, 1965
-------------------, Nithan thai chut 3 (Thai Tales: Volume 3), Bangkok, Ruam San, 1967.
-------------------, Nithan thai chut 4 (Thai Tales: Volume 4), Bangkok, Ruam San, 1969.

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Thai People: A Special Relationship, Committee for the Bicentennial Celebration, Bangkok, 1982.
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Bangkok, 1968.
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prawatisat - boranakhadi (Prince-Patriarch Wachirayans Collected Writings: History and
Antiquities), Bangkok, Mahamakut, 1971.
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ratcha hatthalekha - lai phra hat (Prince-Patriarch Wachirayans Collected Writings:
Correspondence between the Prince and the King), Bangkok, Mahamakut, 1971.
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niphon tang ruang (Prince-Patriarch Wachirayans Collected Writings: Various Works),
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phra hat kiao kap kan suksa (Prince-Patriarch Wachirayans Collected Writings: Letters on
Education), Bangkok, Mahamakut, 1971.
Praphat Trinarong, Khorng di nai chadok, (Good Things in the Jatakas) in Warasan
Wathanatham Thai, 23, 5, 1984, pp. 32-40.
Prathip Chumphon, Khor sanitsathan ruang phra malai (Hypotheses About the Story of Phra
Malai), Wannakhadi wikhro (Literary Criticism), Sinlapakorn University, Bangkok, 1975.
Prawat hor phra samut wachirayan (History of the Wachirayan Library), Wachirayan, October
1894.
Prawat wat samkhan thang phutthasatsana torn thi 7 (History of Important Buddhist Temples,
Part 7), Religious Affairs Department, Ministry of Education, Bangkok, 1986.
Prayut Sitthiphan, ed., Nangsu maharatchakawi piyamaharat chor.por.ror. chotmaihet phra
ratchaniphon phraratchahatthalekha phraratchaprarop phraboromrachowat (Chulalongkorn the

Great, Beloved King, the Great Royal Poet; Records, Writings, Correspondence, Announcements,
Commands), Parts 1 & 2, 1984.
Pricha Phinthorng, Prapheni boran thai isan (Ancient Thai-Isan Customs), Ubon Ratchathani,
Siritham, 1991.
Rai chu nangsu boran lanna ekasan microfilm khorng sathaban wichai sangkhom,
mahawithayalai chiang mai phor sor 2521-2533 (Catalogue of Ancient Lanna Literature on
Microfilm, University of Chiang Mai Social Research Institute, 1978-1990), Chiang Mai, 1991.
Rit Ruangrit, Prachum lae khruang len maha chat (Collection of Lae and Tricks of the Great
Life Recitation), Books 1, 2, Bangkok, Wathanaphanit, 1958.
Roeng Atthawibun, Rabiap prapheni song wa duai rabiap baep phaen lae sut an pen prapheni
song (Regulations and Rituals of the Sangha), Bangkok, 1973.
Ruang niyai khorng luang (A Royal Story), Nangsu chotmaihet - The Bangkok Recorder, Vol. 1,
No. 18, Bangkok, November 18 1965.
Samnao Hiriotabpa, Khawi: nithan wannakhadi thai (Khawi: A Thai Literary Tale), Bangkok,
1972.
Sanit Tangthawi, Wannakhadi lae wannakam satsana (Literature and Religious Writing),
Srinakharinwirot University, Mahasarakham Campus, 1984.
Sanguan Ankhong, Sing raek nai muang thai (Firsts in Thailand), Book 3, Bangkok, 1973.
San somdet (Royal Letters - Correspondence between Prince Naritsaranuwatiwong and Prince
Damrong Rajanubhab), Vols. 25 & 26, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1962.
Sapphaphachana phasa thai - Dictionaruium Linguae Thai sive Siamensis (Dictionary of the Thai
Language), Interpretatione Latina Gallica et Anglica, Illustratum Auctore D.J.B. Pallegoix,
Episcopo Mallensi, Vicario Apostolico Siamensi, Parisiis Jussu Imperatoris Impressum in
Typographeo Imperatorio, MDCCCLIV (1854).
Sap Prakorpsuk, Wannakhadi chadok (Jataka Literature), Srinakharinwirot University,
Pathumwan Campus, Bangkok, 1984.
Sathiarakoset (Phya Anuman Rajadhon), Prapheni thai nuang nai thetsakan trut sat (Thai
Customs Related to the Sat Festival), Bangkok, Social Science Association of Thailand, 1963.

Sepha ruang khun chang khun phaen: phra ratchaniphon phra bat somdet phra
phutthaloetlanaphalai (The Ballad of Khun Chang and Khun Phaen: King Rama IIs Version),
Bangkok, Krom Sinlapakorn, 1971.
Sila Wirawong, Hit sip sorng (The Twelve Festivals), Transcribed into Thai by Udom
Phornprasoet, edited by Phichai Siphufai, Ubon Ratchathani Arts and Cultural Centre, Ubon
Ratchathani, 1986.
Sombat Chantorawong lae Chai-Anan Samudavanija, Khwam khit thang kan muang lae sangkhom
thai (Political Thought and Thai Society), Thai Studies Centre, Thammasat University, Bangkok,
1980.
Somchai Ninlathi, Pha phra wet: phap sanyalak nai ngan bun maha chat (The Vessantara Cloth:
Symbol in the Great Life Merit-Making Festival), Sinlapa wathanatham (Arts and Culture), 15, 5,
March 1994, pp. 88-97.
---------------------, Pha phra wet: phiang phap sanyalak nai ngan bun maha chat (The Vessantara
Cloth: a Symbol in the Great Life Merit-Making Festival), Private Circulation, 1993.
---------------------, Khor than: kan prasomprasan lae kan plianplaeng wathanatham khorng
sangkhom chonabot (Beggars: Cultural Adaptation and Change in Village Society), Private
Circulation, 13 April 1993.
Sommai Premchit, Khamphi bai lan lae prapheni tang tham nai phak nua (Palm Leaf
Manuscripts and the Tang Tham festival in the Northern Region), Phutthasatsana nai lanna thai
(Buddhism in Lanna Thai), kan prachum yai samai thi 13, ongkan phutthasasanikhachon haeng
lok, 24 -29 November, Chiang Mai, 1981
Somphong Kriangkraiphet, Prapheni thai lae ruang na ru (Thai Customs and Things Worth
Knowing), Bangkok, Phrae Phithaya, 1964.
Suchit Wongthet, ed., Charuk phor khun ramkhamhaeng: khrai taeng kan nae? (The
Ramkhamhaeng Inscription: Who Really Wrote It?), Bangkok, Sinlapawathanatham, 1988.
Thalaengkan khana song (Sangha Announcements), Vol. 4, Compiled by Phraya Phakdinarubet by
Order of the Head of the Sangha; "Phra prarop khorng somdet phra maha samana ruang mi
thetsana maha chat pracham pi" (Announcement by the Head of the Sangha on the Annual
Recitation of the Great Life), Bangkok, 1917, pp. 326 - 330.

-----------------------------------------------------------------,

Vol.

10,

Compiled

by

Phraya

Wichitrathampariwat by Order of the Head of the Sangha, Bangkok, 1922, pp. 756 - 764.
-----------------------------------------------------------------, Vol. 24, Part 12, March 1937: "Prakat ham
mai hai phiksu samanen thet maha chat talok khanorng sia samanasarup" (Decree Forbidding
Monks and Novices from Giving Comical Recitations of the Great Life Which Are Damaging to
Monastic Dignity) pp. 873-4.
Thanangkaro Phikkhu, Pramuan lae thet siang samai mai (Collection of Lae Recited in the New
Style), Khorn Kaen, Khlang Nanatham, 1983.
Thawat Punnothok, Wannakam thorng thin (Regional Literature), Bangkok, Phira Phathana, 1982.
Thawisak Yanaprathip, Wannakam satsana (Religious Literature), Ramkhamhaeng University,
Bangkok, 1975.
Udom Nuthorng, Wannakam thorngthin phak tai praphet nithan pralom lok (Southern Thai Local
Literature: Folktales), Srinakharinwirot University, Songkhla (undated).
Wannakam Lanna/ Lanna Literature: Catalogue of Palm Leaf Texts on Microfilm, Social
Research Institute, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 1986.
Wachirayan Warorot, Prince-Patriarch, Phutthaprawat (Biography of the Buddha), Vol. 1,
Mahamakut Ratchawithayalai, Bangkok, 1991.
---------------------------------------------, Nawakowat [lak sut nak tham chan tri] (Instructions for
Beginners: Curriculum for Dhamma students, Level Three), Bangkok, Mahamakut
Ratchawithayalai, 1975.
--------------------------------------------- Raya thang somdet phra maha samana chao sadet truat
khana song monthon fai nua phor sor 2457 (Prince Patriarchs Inspection of the Sangha in the
Northern Monthon, 1914), Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1961.
Wichit Wathakan, Luang, Wannakhadi chadok chabap luang wichit wathakan (Luang Wichit
Wathakans Edition of Jataka Literature), Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 2nd ed., 1956.
Winai Tankittikorn, Wetsandorn chadok bon phaen it (The Vessantara Jataka Depicted on
Building Bricks), Khwam ru khu prathip (Knowledge is a Lantarn), 2, 32, April - June, 1989, pp.
28-31.

Wira Prian, Chumnum lae thet mahaphon (Collecition of Lae Recitations of the Great Forest
Chapter), Bangkok, Amnuai San, 1982.
J. THAI LANGUAGE CHRONICLE AND ARCHIVAL SOURCES
Chaophraya Thiphakorawong (Kham Bunnak), Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung ratanakosin
ratchakan thi 1 (Royal Chronicles of the First Reign), edited by Damrong Rajanubhab, Bangkok,
Khurusapha, 1983, p. 205.
-------------------------------------------------------, Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung ratanakosin
ratchakan thi 3 (Royal Chronicles of Bangkok, the Third Reign), Vol. 1, Bangkok, 1961.
-------------------------------------------------------, Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung ratanakosin
ratchakan thi 4 (Royal Chronicle of the Fourth Reign), 2nd ed., Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1978.
Chotmaihet khwam song cham khorng krommaluang narintharathewi (phor.sor.2310-2381) lae
phra ratchawichan nai phra bat somdet phra chula chorm klao chao yu hua (Recorded Memoirs
of Princess Narintharathewi (1777-1838) and Commentary by King Chulachormklao), Cremation
Volume, Phrachao Boromawongthoe Phraongchao Wapibutsabakorn, Bangkok, March 1983.
Chotmaihet ratchakan thi 3 chor.sor.1211/2 (Records of the Third Reign, 1849-50)
Chunlayutthakanwong (Chronicle of Minor Battles), Prachum phongsawadan (Collected
Histories), Vol. 41, Part 66, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1969, pp. 67-93.
Kham hai kan chao krung kao, Kham hai kan khun luang ha wat lae Phra ratcha phongsawadan
krung kao chabap luang prasoet aksoranit (Testimony of the People of the Old Capital, Testimony
of Khun Luang Ha Wat, and the Luang Prasoet Aksoranit version of the Royal Chronicle of the
Old Capital), Bangkok, Krom Sinlapakorn, 1972.
Hor chotmaihet haeng chat (National Archives), "mor ror 5 sor/34" Thammakhadi, 25/178, "ruang
mister chalmers thawai nangsu bali text kae krom sommut" (Mr. Chalmers Presents Pali Text MS
to Prince Sommut), 4-5 January 1901 (r.s.120).
Hor chotmai het haeng chat (National Archives), mor ror 5 sor/41, phra traipitok (Tripitaka),
3/276, "ruang rong phim rangkung khor phraratchathan rachupatham nai kan phim phra traipitok
aksorn phama" (Rangoon Publisher Requests Royal Assistance in Printing Tripitaka in Burmese
Script), 9 karakadakhom 115 - 20 mesayon 124 (9 July 1896 - 20 April 1905).

Phra ratchaphongsawadan chabap phanchanthanumat (The Phanchanthanumat Version of the


Royal Chronicle), Prachum phongsawasan (Collected Histories), Vols. 38-39, Part 64, Bangkok,
Khurusapha, 1969.
Phra ratchaphongsawadan chabap phra ratchahatthalekha (The Royal Autograph Version of the
Royal Chronicle), Vol.2, Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1973.
Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung ratanakosin ratchakan thi 2 (Royal Chronicle of the Second
Reign), by Damrong Rajanubhab, Book 2, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1962.
Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung thonburi (The Royal Chronicle of the Kingdom of Thonburi), in
Prachum phongsawadan (Collected Histories), Vol. 40, pt. 65, Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1969, pp.
1-162.
Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung si ayuthaya (chabap somdet phra phonarat) (Royal Chronicle of
Ayuthaya - Phra Phonarat Version), Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1971.
Phra ratchaphongsawadan krung si ayuthaya chabap phanchanthanumat (choem) kap phra
chakraphadiphong (chat) (The Phanchanthanumat and Chakraphadiphong Versions of the Royal
Chronicle of Ayuthaya), Bangkok, Khlang Withaya, 1964.
Prachum phraratchaputcha (Collected Royal Inquiries), Bangkok, 1973.
K. THAI LANGUAGE RELIGIOUS-HISTORICAL TEXTS:
Anakhotawong Metteyasut lae Metteyawong samnuan lanna (Lanna Versions of the
Anagatavamsa, the Metteyasutta and the Metteyavamsa), transcribed and edited by Bamphen
Rawin, Chiang Mai University, 1992.
Chadok atthakatha (atthibai chadok) (Jataka Commentary - Explanation of the Jataka), Part 1,
First Report, Project for the Transcription, Editing and Thai translation of Buddhist Texts in khorm
[Old Khmer] and Local Scripts, Education Ministry, Phumiphalo Phikku Foundation, Bangkok,
1976.
Chamthewiwong: phongsawadan muang haripunchai (The History of Princess Cham: Chronicle
of the City of Haripunjaya), Bangkok, Bannakit Trading, 1973.
Chaofa thammathibet: phraprawat lae phraniphon bot roi krorng (Prince Thammathibet, His Life
and Poetry), Bangkok, Krom Sinlapakorn, 1970

Chinamahanithan (The Great Story of the Victor), Pali Version, published by the National Library
in Honour of the Fifth Cycle Celebrations of King Bhumipol Adulyadej, Bangkok, 5 December,
1987.
Nibat chadok; eknibat, sam wak, phak thi 3 (The Nipata Jatakas: First Nipata, Three Phrases,
Part Three), Cremation Volume, Sombun lae Luang Wariyotharak (Thorng Kham), Bangkok,
Bamrungnukunlakit, 1918.
Nibat chadok lem thi 22, wetsandorn chadok nai maha nibat (22nd Book of the Nipata Jatakas,
The Vessantara Jataka in the Great Nipata), Printed by Order of the King for the Royal MeritMaking Ceremony in Thanksgiving for His Father, King Chulalongkorn the Great, Bangkok,
Sophon Piphathanakorn Printing, 1931.
Panyat chadok (The Pannasa Jatakas), Part 4, Suwannakuman chadok, Cremation Volume,
Nang Bunnak Thitathan, Bangkok, 1965.
Panyat chadok: prachum nithan tae prathet ni tae boran 50 ruang (the Pannasa Jatakas: A
Collection of Fifty Tales from this Country), Part 1, Cremation Volume, M.R. Lek Siriwong Na
Krungthep, Bangkok, 1924.
Pathomsomphot chabap lanna (Lanna Version of the Pathomsomphot), Bamphen Rawin,
Department of Thai Language, Faculty of Humanities, Chiang Mai University, 1992 (1st ed.
1989).
Pathomwong (The First Lineage), Prachum phongsawadan (Collected Histories), Book 8, Part 8,
Bangkok, Khurusapha, 1964, pp. 229-253.
Phra Ratanapanyathera, Chinakalamalipakorn, translated by Saeng Manawithun, Cremation
Volume, Saeng Manawithun, Bangkok, 1974.
Phra Ratanapanyathera, Chinakalamalipakorn, translated by Saeng Manawithun, published in
memory of Kaiki Nimmanhemin on the opening of the new special patients building,
"Nimmanhemin Chutima", Chiang Mai City Hospital, Chiang Mai University, 12 May 1967.
Phrapathomsomphothikatha (Story of the First Enlightenment), by Somdet Krom Phra
Paramanuchit Chinorot, Religious Affairs Department, Ministry of Education, Bangkok, 1962.
Prachum tamnan phra that (Collection of Relic Histories), Parts 1 and 2, Cremation Volume,
Nang Oep Umaphirom, Bangkok, 1970.

Ratanaphimphawong: tamnan phra kaew morakot (Ratanabimbavamsa: the History of the


Emerald Buddha), Written in Pali by Phra Phiksu Phromaratchapanya, translated into Thai by
Saeng Manawithun, Cremation Volume, Phra Phutthiwongwiwat (Wong Thanwaso), Chiang Rai,
1987.
Ruang ratchawong pakorn, phongsawadan lanna thai (About the Royal Lineage, a Chronicle of
Lanna Thai), Compiled by Saen Luang Ratchasomphan under the Order of Phrachao Suriyaphong
Phritadet, Prince of Nan, Prachum phongsawadan (Collected Histories), Bangkok, Khurusapha,
1964: Vol. 9, Part 10, pp. 188-344; Vol. 10, Part 10, pp. 1-134.
Somdet Phra Wanarat, Sangkhitiyawong: phongsawadan ruang sangkhayana phra thammawinai
(Sangitiyavamsa: Chronicle of the Recensions of the Scriptures), Translated by Phraya
Pariyatithammathada (Phae Tanlaksamon), Cremation Volume, Somdet Phra Phuthachan
(Wanathitiyan Mahathera), Bangkok, 1978.
Tamnan khao phi lanna pathomamulamuli / Pathamamulamuli (Chronicle of the Origin of
Lanna), traduction et notes par Anatole-Roger Peltier, Bangkok, Amarin Printing, 1991.
Tamnan muang suwannakhomkham, (The Chronicle of Suwannakhomkham City), Prachum
phongsawadan (Collected Histories), Vol. 45, Part 72, Khurusapha, Bangkok, 1969, pp. 132-240.
Tamnan munlasatsana (Chronicle of the Origin of the Religion), Cremation Volume for Lor
Chutima, Chiang Mai, 7 June, 1970.
Tamnan phun muang chiang mai chak ton chabap bai lan aksorn thai yuan (The Chronicle of the
City of Chiang Mai from the Palm Leaf Manuscript in Thai Yuan Characters), translated by
Sanguan Chotisukharat, Prime Ministers Office, Bangkok, 1971.
Tamnan Sip Ha Rachawong, (The Chronicle of the Fifteen Dynasties), Part 1 (Fascicle I-II),
Lanna Thai Manuscript Project Phase 1, Social Research Institute, Chiang Mai University, October
1981.
Thukkanibat chadok sam wak, phak ton (Second Book of the Nipata Jatakas, Three Phrases, Part
One), ed. Phra Phimonlatham, Royal Cremation Volume, King Chulalongkorn, Bangkok, 1910
(r.s. 129).
Traiphum (traiphum chabap lanna) (Lanna Version of the Three Worlds), Transcribed by Udom
Rungruangsi from Lanna Script inscribed on Palm Leaf, Unit for the Promotion of Lanna Arts and
Culture, Faculty of Humanities, Chiang Mai University, 1981.

Traiphum phra ruang khorng phraya lithai (King Lithai's Trai Phum Phra Ruang), Bangkok,
Sinlapa Bannakan, 1970.
Traiphumilokwinitchai Vol.1, Compiled by Phraya Thammapricha by Order of King Rama I in
1802, Bangkok, Krom Sinlapakorn, 1977.
Wannakam samai ratanakosin (Literature in the Bangkok Period), Vol.1, (Religious Section),
Bangkok, Krom Sinlapakorn, 1991.
L. INSCRIPTIONS (SILACHARUK)
Prachum charuk wat phra chetuphon (Collection of Inscriptions from Wat Phra Chetuphon),
Cremation Volume, Somdet Phra Ariyawongsakhotayan, Phra Sangkharat (Pun Punnasiri),
Bangkok, 1974.
Prachum silacharuk (Collected Stone Inscriptions), Vol.I, Inscriptions from the Kingdom of
Sukhothai discovered before 1924, Prime Minister's Office, Bangkok, 1978.
Prachum silacharuk (Collected Inscriptions) Vol.4, Inscription Number 97, silacharuk wat
phraboromathat chainat, Prime Minister's Office, Bangkok, 1978.
Charuk samai sukhothai (Sukhothai Inscriptions), Bangkok, Krom Sinlapakorn, 1983.
M. TEMPLE ART
Buddhaisawan Chapel, Mural Paintings of Thailand Series, Bangkok, Muang Boran, 1983.
Chitrakam fa phanang thonburi (Thonburi Wall Paintings), Society for the Conservation of
National Art Treasures and Environment, Bangkok, 1980.
Khrong sang chitrakam fa phanang lanna (The Structure of Lanna Wall Murals), Chiang Mai,
1981.
Sombat Plainoi, Mural Paintings, trans. Panit Boonyawatana, ed. Malithat Pramathattavedi, Office
of the National Culture Commission, Bangkok (Undated)
Wannipha Na Songkhla, Kan anurak chitrakam fa phanang phak isan (The Preservation of Isan
Wall Painting) in Sing faeng ren yu nai chitrakam fa phanang isan (Things Hidden in Isan Wall
Paintings), Conference, Khorn Kaen University, Khorn Kaen, 2 - 4 December 1983.

Wat kut bang khem: bot mai sak cham lak lai (Wat Kut Bang Khem: Carvings in a Teak Chapel),
Office for the Promotion of National Identity, Bangkok, 1990.
Wat Chongnonsi, Mural Paintings of Thailand Series, Bangkok, Muang Boran, 1982.
Wat Dusidaram, Mural Paintings of Thailand Series, Bangkok, Muang Boran, 1983.
Wat Khongkharam, Bangkok, Thai Wathanaphanit, 1978.
Wat Ratchasittharam, Mural Paintings of Thailand Series, Bangkok, Muang Boran, 1982.
Wat Suwannaram, Mural Paintings of Thailand Series, Bangkok, Muang Boran, 1982.