30 Jul, 2020


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.


  1. I thought again, when we visited you the other day, how very beautiful the Kammavaca is…I had no idea it was called this until now! It is stunning.

    I’m so pleased you decided to write about your artefacts and favourite books. Two really interesting blog posts, and hopefully more to follow! Oliver is also very keen on learning and reciting poetry, (starting on the short ones – he was awarded the Headmaster’s Award for ‘Now I am Six’ the other day!!) but I definitely won’t be telling him any aunts will be parting with their cash to hear him! Xx

  2. **Now We Are Six!!

  3. Hi

    From the picture, it seems that the folios are not ordered. On the left-hand side of each folio you should find a Burmese word in a small circle. It indicates the “pagination” of the kammavaca. I can send you the right order if you wish. The text is in “tamarind seed” scripture, not many people know how to read it. Some years ago I contacted the Pali text society and they gave me some help. Might be worth trying. Anyhow a very nice item.

  4. I loved reading about these kammavaca, and knowing more about these beauties that I’ve previously admired without ever getting round to asking about! Have been on a mini online quest to try to help answer some of David’s questions… via Anglican colleague in Exeter, to Thai Forest abbot in Honiton, to ex monk in digital library of Laos: all of whom have been really interested and helpful, but who don’t read that script. The latest, James, via another contact, and much closer to home, has just emailed this though, which I thought was interesting. Still haven’t found anyone who can read it, but hey!

    “…I have been a student of Sanskrit and Pali for well over 50 years now, and teach the weekly Pali class at the Golden Buddha Centre in Totnes (by Zoom now..)

    The text you sent is written in a decorative form of the Burmese script. Normal modern printed Burmese script is curly, and looks like this:
    နနမော တသ္သ ဘဂဝတော အရဟတော သမ္မ သမ္ဗုဒ္ဓသ္သ (This is the formulaic chant “Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammā sambuddhassa”)

    The old-fashioned decorative script is more square, with broad lines. This developed out of writing with broad-nibbed bamboo pens on palm or similar broad leaves. It is difficult to make curly squiggles with a broad-nibbed bamboo pen. Anyway, this style developed historically, and is still used, as here, for ceremonial purposes.

    As you may know, each Theravada Buddhist country uses its own script to write Pali. For example, the exact same text written in Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka would be incomprehensible in written form to people not from that country who had not specifically studied the script, even though all the monks from all Theravada countries would recite it identically. This chimes with the ancient Indian tradition that it doesn’t matter how you write something down, provided you accurately record the sounds. For example, the earliest extant records of written Pali appear in the rock-carved edicts of King Ashoka (middle of the 3rd century BC). They are written in the Brahmi script, which has long since fallen into disuse, and is readable now only by scholars who have made a special study. But it’s still genuine Pali, as is this piece in Burmese script.

    Although I cannot actually read this decorative stylised form of the Burmese script, I can detect from pictures of similar pieces, and from the letters that are similar enough to Devanagari (with which I am very familiar), and from some give-away similarities with modern standard Burmese (e.g. ဩ) that it is the right way up as shown in your pictures.

    Also, I am virtually certain that the three sections are in the correct order. The script runs from left to right, like ours. Therefore, in a series of sheets arranged into columns, you would expect a blank header sheet to appear at the top of the first column on the left, and a blank end-sheet at the bottom right, which is, reassuringly, exactly what we have in your arrangement.

    So, I am happy to be able to reassure you and your godfather that this beautiful piece is displayed in the correct order and orientation. …”

    • Dear Chris

      Would you mind sharing the contact? I have also been searching for someone who could read the text. Amazing how you found one!


      • Hi Pedro

        Sorry for slow reply. Just to reiterate, he can’t actually read this text, but is clearly more expert than anyone else I’ve found! He’s studied Pali for 50 years..

        I’ve checked he happy for me to share publicly – jamespwhelan67@gmail.com from Golden Buddha Centre, Totnes.

        All the best

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