Digital library of ancient Thai manuscripts conserves literature of a whole people

Text by Lauren Hertzler, photos by Justin McDaniel
Thai manuscript
Photo by Justin McDaniel

One day, while practicing as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, Justin McDaniel was tasked with hand-painting an incantation on the side of a young water buffalo. It’s believed the ritual would protect the beloved animal, even after the writing washed off.

The only hitch, McDaniel says, was that he didn’t know what the ancient language he was writing meant.

“You don’t need to know what it means for it to work,” he explains. “But that was the moment when I realized I really wanted to learn how to read these old scripts.”

Twenty years later, McDaniel, now a Penn professor of religious studies, has maneuvered the ins and outs of reading—and understanding—ancient texts. His focus is on Thai, Lao, Pali, and Sanskrit literature.

“Before the 20th century, people talked in various dialects, there was no standardized education or mass media,” says McDaniel, also chair of the Department of Religious Studies. “They wrote in a variety of accents, vocabulary, spelling, and, on top of that, in different languages and scripts.”

Today, McDaniel can read a manuscript and determine where the writer was born or where he or she went to school, for example.

“It took years of training,” he says.

McDaniel’s work has transitioned to also study the way this old literature operates among today’s monks and nuns.

“I want to study not a people as a relic of the past, but as a living, vibrant, intellectual, and religious community that is using these manuscripts,” he says.

Perhaps if these modern communities had better access to the ancient texts, they’d utilize them more, McDaniel says. That’s why, for several years, he’s worked to preserve and digitize every manuscript he can.

Last month, McDaniel, along with a team of three researchers in Laos—Harald Hundius, David Wharton, and Bounleut Thammachak—launched the Digital Library of Northern Thai Manuscripts, which has preserved 7,000 manuscripts. This project—a collaboration between Penn and the National Library of Laos—built on a previous project that preserved and made accessible an additional 14,000 manuscripts from Laos called the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts.

The recent three-year project was funded by $700,000 in grants from Penn Libraries, The Henry Luce Foundation, the German Federal Foreign Office, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“Now, for the first time ever, monks, nuns, and laypeople can access these particular manuscripts online,” McDaniel says. “They can search ancient ideas about botany or animals, or rivers or temples that have been destroyed. There is information about kings and famous princesses, astrology, folk tales, and philosophical tales.”

Most of the texts were written on palm leaf. The more they are handled, the more they will break down. But they shouldn’t be treated like museum pieces, McDaniel says.“We want people to use them.”

To digitize the collections, a team of about 30 people gathered manuscripts from monasteries and scanned them at the National Library.

“[The digital libraries] are fascinating for the people in Thailand and Laos,” McDaniel says. “Most people want access to these ancient texts. They are proud of them because it’s their history and their culture.” In the past month, the Northern Thai digital library has attracted 10,000 viewers.

The next step for McDaniel and his team is to expand both digital libraries’ offerings. Not only do they want to continue adding manuscripts, but they also want to add videos of monks and nuns reading the ancient texts.

“That way, for kids in, say, Bangkok, they can see this is actually how it used to be done and how it’s actually still being done in many rural places,” McDaniel says. “We’ll also have running translations next to the manuscripts in modern languages.”

“That way, for kids in, say, Bangkok, they can see this is actually how it used to be done and how it’s actually still being done in many rural places,” McDaniel says. “We’ll also have running translations next to the manuscripts in modern languages.”

“Looking back on it,” McDaniel says, “I played one small part and I’m very proud of it, along with many people working on this, to save the literature of a whole people.”

Originally published on .