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Kammavaca Art – Buddhist Manuscripts from Myanmar

June 06, 2017 2 min read

Instances of the use of religion as a strategic tool for political gain are common in history.

In Sri Lanka:

By the second half of the seventeenth century the religious scripture – Kammavaca were no longer available on the island and ordinations were rarely held.

While religion flourished in the Mon country (part of present day Myanmar) as a result of the pious efforts by devout men, across the Bay of Bengal in Sri Lanka the teachings of Gautama Buddha gradually waned.

The Dutch, in a calculated move to counter the growing influence of the Portuguese priests who had in the 1570s managed to convert Dhammapala, the chief of Colombo, to Catholicism, organized the exchange of religions missions with the Buddhist kingdom or Rakhaing, on the west coast of Myanmar.

In 1684, forty monks from Myannmar arrived in Ceylon with sacred texts and as a result of the visit, ordinations resumed in Ceylon.

Interesting strategy!

Here are two Kammavaca Manuscripts that besides being religious works, are also works of art.


Note that there are 5 lines of lacquered script on each page.

Note also the character of the border present between any two lines of text. Unlike floral curvilinear patterns, what we see here is a neatly hatched border called yazamat.

Both these features are distinct characteristic of manuscripts produced in the late 1700s – early 1800s.


Some folios from the eighteenth century are recognizable by their distinctive slightly tarnished silvery sheen. This was acquired by adding a small amount of gold to silver, a piece of which was pounded repeatedly in a leather pouch to produce mogyoleaf or “sky string”, said to resemble the color or lightning.


All of these have the thick lacquered text – but some are written in a fine script on gold background, others on a plain un-decorated palm leaf. Each type is loosely associated with a particular origin and source so for us, sitting at the very end of history it is easy to make conjectures.


Whatever story e build with our little clues, it only offers some comfort that we ‘know’ – but not really the knowledge.

If only the manuscripts could tell us the stories along their journey!



June 2017

Reference: Noel Singer


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