On the wall above my piano is this:
The eighteen pieces, each double-sided, form a kammavaca. I bought them in Java, in Yogyakarta in the 1980s. There’s no point in me describing the religious and cultural significance in any detail, for two reasons: (a) because if you’re interested you can google it and (b) because I haven’t looked into it in any great depth myself. I know enough to satisfy me however, and here’s a small item from browsing:
Kammavaca is a Pali term describing an assemblage of passages from the Tipitaka – the Theravada Buddhist canon – that relate to ordination, the bestowing of robes, and other rituals of monastic life. A Kammavaca is a highly ornamental type of manuscript usually commissioned by lay members of society as a work of merit, to be presented to monasteries when a son enters the Buddhist Order as a novice or becomes ordained as a monk.
When I first saw them they were neatly piled flat, on top of one another – their natural state – with the top left one and the bottom right one (both of wood) forming the protective covers top and bottom. Each piece is around 60 x 16cms. The whole display is 2 x 1.4 metres. I had the frame made in Britain later.
Each piece has a small round hole in identical position to all the others. It was explained to me that the ‘book’ – let us call it that – would be held together via a thin vertical rod which passed through each ‘page’. The priest would lift off the top wooden cover, turn it over, and slide it carefully down another rod. Then he’d take the first page of text, lift it, read it aloud, turn it over, read the other side, and similarly slide it down the other rod onto the wooden cover. Then each page the same. When all was read, the book on the second rod would be turned over, thus ready for another reading at another time.
I was told that they date from the 18th century. Frankly, not sure about that: the 19th century seems more likely but I have no way of knowing. The shop owner who sold them said that the Sultan of Yogyakarta was releasing some of his treasures. I wasn’t sure about that either. It sounded far-fetched – a selling ploy – but since then I’ve occasionally seen others and I must say that mine are undoubtedly superior. I bought three other things from the same dealer, to be described in another blog, and there is no doubt at all that those are also of much higher quality than the normally available pieces.
To my mind the kammavaca is quite exquisite. All 18 pieces are covered in gold leaf and decorated with intricate Buddhist images in red lacquer. The 16 double-sided pages of text are firm but bendy and I believe they’re made from multiple layers of palm leaf. They’re written in Pali using the square Burmese script, in black lacquer made from tamarind seed. In sunlight or with lights on in the evenings, they glow. Here’s a close-up of one of them:
And now down-to-earth. It’s not so easy to find someone who reads Pali so I’ve no idea if they’re displayed in the right order or – shame on me – whether they’re even the right way up. A few years ago I sent a picture of them to SOAS – the School of Oriental and African Studies here in London – and offered to take them there to get advice. No reply. Perhaps someone reading this will come to the rescue. Also, if I pray about them at all it’s to pray that the Blu Tack will keep them in place and stop them from falling!
Pray with me.