Traditional Knowledge in Cultural and Material Transformation: Inscriptions of Wat Pho Monastery (1831–1832) and Thai Manuscript Culture
Thai manuscript culture suffered from the destructive wars against the Burmese in the second half of the eighteenth century. After the restoration of the Siamese kingdom in 1782, the royal court undertook great efforts to restore lost texts from the Ayutthaya period by reviving manuscript production at all levels. At the same time, the Siamese elite encountered Western concepts of knowledge, especially since the early 1820s. In this context, a unique project was carried out in 1831–1832 at the monastery of Wat Pho – also known under its official name Wat Phra Chetuphon – situated in the precincts of the Royal Palace in Bangkok. The King commissioned the editing of more than forty secular texts considered ‘classical’, which were later inscribed on stone slabs and marble plates throughout the temple’s ambulatories. This literary body of knowledge mainly covered works of didactic poetry and different kinds of treatises, in particular, works on medicine and astrology. Thus made accessible to a wider public, it had a significant impact on manuscript production during the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The 1,431 Wat Pho inscriptions comprise texts, which were originally transmitted through the medium of manuscript, then transformed into a more durable ‘epigraphic container’, which further stimulated and transformed Siamese manuscript production.
The processes outlined above shall be studied in detail by examining the extant manuscripts containing poetry (twelve texts in total) recorded in the Wat Pho inscriptions (now registered as Thai ‘Memory of the World’ by UNESCO), covering a wide range of literary texts from didactic poems, traditional treatises on poetics and rhapsody, to literary tales in verses. Some of the texts have been related closely to other monastic and artistic artifacts, with which the inscribed slabs were put together.
Among over thousand stone slabs, the Wat Pho inscriptions also comprise various literary texts (in poetry) on different fields of traditional knowledge, which have been transmitted earlier through the manuscript tradition. In addition, the inscribed texts of Wat Pho seem to be related closely to manuscript production, since a number of extant manuscripts appear to be the official copies presented to the King for the preparation of the inscriptions, whereas some manuscripts have been copied from the Wat Pho inscriptions. Therefore, our study aims at providing new insights into the cultural change of inscriptions and the relationship between the usage of both manuscripts and inscriptions as writing tools and carriers of texts in traditional Siam, as well as on the history of textual transmission through these two media.