Buddhism Illuminated

Manuscript Art from South-East Asia

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San San May, Jana Igunma
  • Seattle, WA: 
    University of Washington Press
    , March
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In recent years, a growing interest in painted manuscripts from Southeast Asia has resulted in publications that help to shed light on this thoroughly enjoyable art form. Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from South-East Asia is just such a book, written by two curators from the British Library and focused exclusively on the British Library collection. Because of the incredible number and quality of the pieces at the British Library, one of the finest collections of Thai and Burmese manuscripts in the world, this book has particular importance. The authors give researchers and casual readers access to this vast collection. They also provide insight into local developments of Buddhist practice and the way that Burmese and Thai Buddhist beliefs, histories, and cultural development are physically manifest in the individual manuscripts. Because the manuscripts are illustrated, adorned, and preserved as unique religious objects, the authors treat them throughout the book as works of art, and rightfully so. Even the most precursory glimpse through Buddhism Illuminated reveals how delightful, detailed, and full of life these manuscripts are.

In the first chapter of the book, San San May and Jana Igunma provide a wonderfully comprehensive introduction to the subject of Burmese and Thai manuscripts, looking at the histories of Buddhism in the region and the manner in which the adoption and adaptation of Buddhism vary from one kingdom to the next. Although shared characteristics, narratives, and contexts do exist between different groups, the attention the authors pay to the different traditions is noteworthy and appreciated. The authors present a holistic approach to their introduction to manuscripts and manuscript cultures. In addition to their discussion of the books and their historic, cultural, religious, and artistic grounding, they also give a sense of the great care taken in the creation and storage of the manuscripts. In addition, they do not favor one material over another, giving equal attention to both palm leaf and paper folding books.

A close reading of the introduction lays the groundwork for the themes explored in the following chapters. An assumption that the reader will be able to differentiate the various Burmese and Thai manuscripts gives the authors the freedom to explore the manuscripts not by geographical or cultural origin, but rather by the Buddhist theme that they embody, specifically the Triple Gem: Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, and the central concepts of Kamma and Punna. As the authors state, all of these concepts are covered in manuscript art, and exploring these themes through the eyes of local and royal artists from Southeast Asia reveals details about the lives of royalty, monks, and laity.

A closer examination of “Chapter 4, The Sangha—Monastic Community” helps to demonstrate both the success and the unique qualities of the authors’ approach. Monks are integral to Theravada Buddhism, and this chapter highlights this fact through discussion and images, beginning with ordination and the ordinand’s connection to the Buddha. Paintings from Burmese parabaik described and featured in this section show the earliest ordinations, followers of the Buddha, and early converts. The sangha is also deeply reliant on the lay community, and the lay community is dependent on the sangha, as discussed and illustrated in this chapter too, mostly through Thai manuscript paintings. Finally, the knowledge of the Sangha and the role of the monks in contributing to the wisdom and wellness in their communities is also conveyed through text and images in the chapter.

The incredible color plates incorporated into every page of this book are one of the many noteworthy features that Buddhism Illuminated offers its readers. The volume is impeccably crafted and a visual treat. Readers can clearly see the details of architecture, clothing, color, and expression that create an immediate connection to both the time and place where each manuscript was created. The authors’ approach to presenting the material through the themes most important to practicing Buddhists in Southeast Asia is an important contribution of this book. Rather than continuing to approach works of art through standardized art historical themes of style, iconography, by matching them to more universal narratives, or by dividing them into the texts that they center on, San San May and Jane Igunma demonstrate that approaches that echo more closely local insight or local interpretations are not only possible but fruitful.

This book serves as a wonderful and much needed follow up to the publications of Henry Ginsburg, as it should since he was the former curator of Southeast Asian manuscripts at the British Library and his legacy continues to influence younger scholars and make research on this art form possible. The authors do a fantastic job of building from the foundation that was laid by Dr. Gin

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca S. Hall is Assistant Curator at the University of Southern California Pacific Asia Musuem in Pasadena, CA.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

San San May is curator of Burmese collections at the British Library.

Jana Igunma is Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao, and Cambodian collections at the British Library.


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