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Burmese scholar pens update to 18th century palm leaf poem

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Burmese scholar U Than Htaik makes a handwritten copy of a palm-leaf manuscript at his home in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by: Kaung Htetine

A YANGON scholar last week published a modern version of an 18th century poem detailing the siege of the Siamese capital Ayutthaya by the Burmese army, originally composed on palm leaves by Letwe Nawrahta.

Dr Yee Yee Khin’s edited version of the poem Yodaya Naing Mawgun (Conquest of Ayutthaya), in which she converted the old text into modern Burmese, won the “manuscript” category of the 2011 Tun Foundation Literature Prize before the book was rushed into print and released on August 2.

Dr Yee Yee Khin, a lecturer at the University of Yangon’s Myanmar Department, said she had not been aware that a palm-leaf copy of the poem survived in the National Library until she found a reference to it while conducting research.

“I was studying three Myanmar poems about military conquests while writing a doctoral dissertation, and at the Yangon University Library I found a thesis on Yodaya Naing Mawgun in typewritten text by Daw Mya Mya Than. A book on the subject had never been done before,” she said.

In 2003 Dr Yee Yee Khin searched the National Library and found a palm-leaf copy of Yodaya Naing Mawgun, but the 200-year-old mystery of who wrote the poem remained.

The quandary was solved when she consulted the Pitakat Thamaing (Bibliography of Myanmar Classical Works), compiled in 1888 by royal librarian U Yan, who was in charge of the Royal Library in the palace of King Mindon (1853-1878).

The author of Yodaya Naing Mawgun was named in the bibliography as Letwe Nawrahta.

“The poem gives a factual account of the siege [which occurred in 1766 and 1767] and I noticed stylistic similarities between this and the other works of Letwe Nawrahta, proving that it was his,” Dr Yee Yee Khin said.

“The poetic record of Letwe Nawrahta is unusual. The author does not lay great emphasis on the victory of the king; instead he stresses the efforts of the Myanmar army to enter Ayutthaya through military manoeuvres,” she said.

Dr Yee Yee Khin’s version of Yodaya Naing Mawgun includes the original text of Letwe Nawrahta’s 46-stanza poem as copied from the palm-leaf book, a prose rendition of each stanza, and a glossary of old terms used in the poem.

Dr Thaw Kaung, a retired librarian and professor, acknowledged that historians had been looking for the palm-leaf manuscript for some time.

“It is the only manuscript in Myanmar to give an accurate, complete and truthful account of the battle for Ayutthaya because Letwe Nawrahta wrote it just after the city was conquered,” he said.

“It is invaluable for Myanmar historians, providing details

of the year-long siege and how the Myanmar army used strategy to prevail over the Siamese royal court, courtiers and commanders.

“Another poem called Yodaya Naing Mawgun was also written by U Pon-nya [1812-1868], the most well-known poet of Myanmar, but U Pon-nya wrote about overcoming the Siamese invasion of Kengtung and his book does not include the sack of Ayutthaya,” Dr Thaw Kaung added.

Dr Yee Yee Khin said there was a tradition in the field of literature of making new copies of palm-leaf texts to preserve the record, especially when the original copy was damaged.

“However, the copied texts often contain a number of errors, and the style of the original writer is sometimes changed when many people make a number of copies,” she said.

She added that the palm-leaf copy of Yodaya Naing Mawgun she had found in 2003 was substantially decayed when she looked at it again in 2009 to make a copy, because so many people had handled it in the interim. But she said it was vital for scholars to have access to these manuscripts.

“It’s important to expose a wider audience to the records made in palm-leaf books. We need to vastly expand people’s knowledge about literature, history, traditional medicine and records of the past,” she said.

U Thet Tun, a retired ambassador and a judge of the Tun Foundation Literary Prize, said this was precisely the reason that a “manuscript” category was added to the Tun Foundation awards.

“The only other literary prize that offers a manuscript award is the Sarpay Beikman Literary Award,” he said.

Another researcher who has copied palm-leaf manuscripts and modernised the language is U Than Htaik, a library and information studies scholar whose version of Sāsanavamsa Cāta was published in 2010.

“When I read books on history, I have doubts about whether some facts are trustworthy, which drives me to seek out the original palm-leaf manuscripts,” he said.

U Than Htaik related an incident in which a foreign scholar wrote a doctoral thesis on the book Vamsa Dipani written by Maung Htaung Sayadaw, which is now in its fourth edition.

“A few errors have been made since the first edition was copied, and they have been repeated up to the fourth edition. The foreign scholar’s work is meticulous and well-written, but he based it on the erroneous text that appeared in later printed versions,” he said.

“With something as delicate as making copies from original manuscripts, there is little margin for error, and researchers should see the original palm-leaf versions for themselves.”

U Than Htaik said he limits his work to manuscripts for which two or three palm-leaf versions are available so he can cross check them. “If the handwriting on one palm-leaf book is faint, I can check another version,” he said, adding: “The earliest palm-leaf books are getting old and decrepit. I want to record the ones I am interested in before they fall into disrepair.”

THE MYANMAR TIMES

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