Palm-Leaf Manuscripts of Thailand

Palm leaf manuscripts are an ancient document form that comprises a significant documentary heritage of the Isan people of Northeastern Thailand. These materials contain a vast amount of knowledge that can be classified into eight categories: Buddhism, tradition and beliefs, customary law, economics, traditional medicine, science, liberal arts, and history. Seventy percent of the content recorded in these palm leaf manuscripts consist of Buddhist stories and doctrine; the other 30% record local wisdom in the form of folktales, diaries, poems, ethics, customary law, rites and rituals.

Northeastern Thai palm leaf manuscripts vary in size. A standard palm leaf manuscript is generally 5-6 cm. in width and 50-60 cm. in length with 48 pages (24 leaves written on both sides). Palm leaf manuscripts can be as short as 15 cm. or as long as 80 cm. and can vary as to the number of pages. The people of Isan used the various sizes in different ways: the longer palm leaf manuscripts are used as textbooks to record Buddhist stories and doctrine, while the shorter ones are used as notebooks to record local wisdom related to daily life. The languages used on the palm leaf manuscripts are either local or undergoing shift (Pali, ThaiIsan, Pali-ThaiIsan, Old Thai, and Khmer); in addition, manuscripts are written in four archaic orthographies (ThamIsan, ThaiNoi, Khmer, and Old Thai). Because the length of a palm leaf manuscript is determined by its physical dimensions rather than its content, a single manuscript may record many stories, or a single story may require more than one manuscript. Furthermore, one palm leaf manuscript may be inscribed in various scripts and languages. A one-story palm leaf manuscript might also be inscribed in many literary styles according to the manner in which the inscribers express the story (e.g. outstanding, fine, ordinary, etc.). The oldest palm leaf manuscript available at Khon Kaen University was inscribed in 1794 AD.

In order to preserve both knowledge and the manuscripts themselves, this project is exploring the most suitable method to digitize and organize the palm leaf manuscripts. In providing access to the collection through the web, it also promotes understanding of Isan culture. The Khon Kaen University Palm Leaf Digitization Project is a partnership between The Center for Research on Plurality in the Mekong Region (CERP), Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Office of Culture, Khon Kaen University. This has been an ongoing project since 2004 with funding partly provided by the Southeast Asian Digital Library Project based at Northern Illinois University Libraries.