Book Review: Illuminating the Life of the Buddha: An Illustrated Chanting Book from Eighteenth-century Siam (2013)

Review by Jeffrey Martin

illumbuddhaAppleton, Naomi, Sarah Shaw, and Toshiya Unebe. Illuminating the Life of the Buddha: An Illustrated Chanting Book from Eighteenth-century Siam. Oxford, England: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2013. Print. 142 pp.

This brief book describes and illustrates (in 86 photographs) an 18-century samut khoi, an illuminated Thai manuscript now in the collection of the Bodleian Library, Oxford University.

The manuscript’s format is traditional to Buddhist texts in many countries: a stack of long sheets of paper bound between planks of leather, wood, lacquer, or other hard material as covers.  This particular manuscript was made of several sheets of paper joined into one long piece, folded fan-like, into a stack 660mm long by 95mm wide. Each fold in the fan contains two flanking illustrations, with text in the center, but the content of the paintings and the text are only loosely related.   The text is an assortment of canonical material, from Vinaya to Abhidhamma to Qualities of the Buddha.  The illustrations depict the last 10 Jātaka stories, the early life of the Bodhisatta, and the Life of the Buddha.  It is possible this text was created in Thailand specifically for Sri Lankan monks and thus contains what were considered essential texts to help restore what was then a lapsed monastic tradition.


A visual map of the manuscript

A textual map of the manuscript

A textual map of the manuscript

The book uses the samut khoi as a means of introducing the illustrative traditions of depicting the Jātakas and the Life of the Buddha.  Apart from a description, there is little discussion of the textual content of the manuscript.  Research for this book was conducted jointly by three Buddhist scholars, each authoring a chapter:  Naomi Appleton on the Jātakas, Toshiya Unebe on the Life of the Buddha and Sarah Shaw on the history of this samut khoi.  Twenty pages into her account, Shaw summarizes what little we know about the manuscript:

“At each stage the Bodleian manuscript has had a mysterious history….  It started life in Siamese temples and … was perhaps from the outset intended for Kandy [then the capital of Sri Lanka]. It would have gone by boat to Galle [Sri Lanka’s international port], either sent as part of the [Buddhist] revitalization programme or some ventures shortly after that. From there it would have been taken to Kandy, where it would have been lodged in a temple.  …it was probably [then] taken in 1819, as the label suggests, at the time of the revolt against the British, though it could have been plundered, sold, neglected given away or even rescued from a ransacked temple before then.  It then made the journey back to Galle, to [William Carmichael] Gibson, [a British port official at Galle]… and would have been kept at his spacious “bungaloe.” At some point after 1819, and probably before Gibson’s death in 1831, it went seven thousand miles to Scotland … and into the hands of the Gibson-Craig family…[before being] sold in 1888….[Shortly thereafter] the folding book…came to the Bodleian library….”



It was there that Shaw – at the Oxford Faculty of Oriental Studies – encountered the text while researching her book on the Jātakas (Birth Stories of the Bodhisatta).  Some time later, Appleton was looking for an illustration for her own book (Jātaka Stories in Theravāda Buddhism), for which Shaw recommended the paintings in this samut khoi.  Several months later at a Bangkok conference Appleton and Unebe discussed the manuscript and that very evening the idea for this book was born.

Illuminating The Life Of The Buddha is not an in-depth treatment of any of the subjects on which it touches, but is a suitable introduction to the illustrative traditions of the late 18th century Thailand, and by extension much of southern Buddhism.  It gives a good idea of what stories and themes have been considered important in popular tradition, and the book is richly illustrated, with comparative examples from contemporaneous texts and temple murals. Unfortunately some of the temple photography is poorly exposed and printed at such small scale that it is difficult to appreciate the details described in the text.

The manuscript decsription from the Bodelian Library:

An article about the research whilst in progress:

A detailed academic review of this book:

Illuminating the Buddha at Amazon:

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