DUBLIN.- The Chester Beatty
has opened an exhibition of Thai Buddhist manuscripts dating to the 18th and 19th centuries. The world-renowned collection of beautifully illustrated books provides a rare opportunity to explore the Buddhist tales depicted within. Presented as colourful illustrations alongside sacred texts, some of the most popular Buddhist stories within the books are the birth tales of the Buddha and the legend of the monk Phra Malai.
Handsomely decorated folding books were used by monks as teaching aids and for chanting during religious ceremonies. Many were commissioned following the death of a relative and then donated to a temple. This earned religious merit for the donor as well as the deceased.
The Buddha had many past lives, but stories of his last ten are particularly important in Thai culture. Known as jatakas, or birth tales, these stories tell of the Buddhas moral evolution over countless incarnations as he attained the ten perfections required for Buddhahood. Well-known scenes from these stories are featured in Thai folding books of the 18th and 19th centuries. They are presented as paired paintings, flanking the passages of sacred text.
The life of the historical Buddha was much less frequently depicted in Thai folding books, but the museum has several examples that show scenes from his life before and after he became the Buddha.
The legend of a monk named Phra Malai was one of the most popular subjects of 19th century Thai illustrated folding books. The pious monk Phra Malai visited heaven and hell using powers he earned through meditation and acts of merit. On his return to earth he reported what he had seen. The tale was often recited at wakes. Its detailed descriptions of hell and heaven served as powerful reminders that actions in this life determine ones next life.
Illustrated folding books continued to be made in Thailand into the early twentieth century. However by the 1920s, the availability of inexpensive printing meant their production had almost completely come to an end. Introducing cherished stories and preserving the devotion of their makers and the communities who used them, these beautiful books offer a unique window onto Thai Buddhist heritage.
The exhibition is curated by Laura Muldowney, researcher of the museums East Asian collection.