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Fragile Palm Leaves Digitization Project

Just wondering if anyone has been following this project? Many years ago an American who had been a monk under Ajahn Buddhadasa told me that many Thai monasteries have piles of these old palm leaf manuscripts just rotting away. I remember thinking that was a shame. I recently learned that a conservation effort was started to digitize these old palm leaf manuscripts. The project has changed hands several times over the years, and so just searching for “Fragile Palm Leaf Project” gets a lot of hits to websites that are no longer involved. Anyway, you can find what’s been digitized so far on the British Library’s Endangered Archives Program website: Archival records from Fragile palm leaves digitisation initiative (EAP1150) | Endangered Archives Programme. There are many thousands of manuscripts in Thai, Burmese, Mon, and other languages, but I think the Burmese manuscripts are being digitized first.

Most of the manuscripts are from the 18th century and up. I glanced at some of the descriptions of the manuscripts that have been digitized so far, and most are not suttas, but texts on Pali, astrology, medicine, etc. Interestingly, sections of the Khuddaka nikaya seem to be common. On a related note, there’s an American professor who goes around the world cataloging Thai and Lao palm leaf manuscripts. This is an entertaining talk given by him on the subject: Tracing Pali and Thai Manucripts. His description of the contents of the manuscripts he catalogs seems quite similar to what I’ve seen in the Endangered Archives Program.

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Their website is down and it seems like it may have been for a while. I know some of their material is now being collected and housed via the Buddhist Digital Resource Center library. The Khyentse Foundation funded both of these efforts, and it may be that FPL’s work is increasingly being merged with BDRC to reduce overhead. The Endangered Archives Program has also continued to do some related work- they recently released a report from a pilot project that was cataloguing Mon manuscripts at temples in Thailand. The report is an interesting read, since it points out some of the difficulties (logistic, political and practical) of doing this kind of work. The Thai monarchy has funded some digitization work, but according to the EAP report it’s not clear if they are actually digitizing everything that they find and the quality of their scans is well below what you would want for long-term preservation.

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Yeah, I think the Buddhist Digital Resource Center has completely taken over the project. I emailed them and asked about it a few weeks ago and got this reply:

Thank you for your interest in our work. Manuscripts in Southeast Asia are particularly vulnerable given the climate and the fragility of palm-leaf texts so we are pleased that we have been able to undertake two major digitization projects in Southeast Asia in order to prevent the loss of this important literary heritage.
In 2016, with generous support from Khyentse Foundation, BDRC took over the digitization of the Fragile Palm Leaves collection from the Lumbini International Research Institute and to-date we’ve scanned more than 5,000 volumes of Burmese Pali texts. The project is ongoing and expected to last several more years.
You can read a bit more about the project in this post from 2018 on our website: https://www.bdrc.io/blog/2018/06/28/bdrc-in-thailand-2/

It seems like there’s very little awareness of, or interest in, these texts in Western Buddhist/scholarly circles. I’m a bit surprised by that since I’d think that Pali scholars/researchers, or even just historians, would jump for joy at literally thousands of never-before-seen (in the West) Pali texts appearing. I can’t imagine Buddhist Sanskrit scholars, for example, not being interested in such a massive amount of Sanskrit texts appearing. Anyway, I’m sure there are many reasons for the situation being what it is, like the lack of interest of the original owners of the manuscripts, as well as the texts being in Burmese. I don’t think Burmese is studied as seriously as other Buddhist languages, like Tibetan, in Western academic circles.

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BDRC started as a specifically Tibetan language project and I’m not sure how well known it is outside those circles. I’ve also found their new multi-language library a little tough to browse- if you don’t know the exact title you are looking for I haven’t found a good way to, say, browse documents in a particular language or script.

You can actually find some of the scans in their library: Here’s one from FPL

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I was a bit surprised that BDRC took on the FPL project, given that BDRC started out focused on Tibetan texts. Tibetan Buddhists are very text focused, though. The Tibetans themselves have a long and strong tradition of writing commentaries. Maybe that had something to do with it.

I worked on digitising (non-Buddhist) manuscripts in India.

In my experience, it is not uncommon for the keepers of such collections to oppose their digitisation. The reasons are complex, but there’s often a fear that if the material is photographed and put online, nobody will ever want to visit the temple/library/collection in person. So there are legitimate financial and existential concerns.

Added to that is a perceived loss of control over the material: often you have a bunch of Western academics swooping in with fancy imaging gear, digitising feverishly, and then seeming to disappear with their bounty. Even if the images are subsequently uploaded to the web, the internet connections/computers in many areas are too slow to access the online repositories (which are themselves often difficult to navigate), so the owners and wider community feel left out.

Undertaking these sort of projects requires not just financial backing, but equally importantly, cultural sensitivity - something that is frequently in short supply.

Anyway, just some general thoughts; not suggesting these concerns apply in the above cases.

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All good points.

Looks like someone has done some cataloging of those Burmese texts. There’s 3 volumes, and they’re written by a former Buddhist monk who converted to Christianity.

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