The Bodhisattva Collection

A Fine Burmese Kammavaca, Late 19th-Early 20th Century

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Directory: Antiques: Regional Art: Asian: Southeast Asian: Lacquer: Pre 1920: Item # 1047202
The Bodhisattva Collection
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New Windsor
New York

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From our Southeast Asia Collection, a fine and complete Burmese Kammavaca Manuscript, late 19th - early 20th century, containing all 16 leaves and the original teak wood covers.

Kammavaca manuscripts are a quintessentially Burmese artifact that reflect the general reverence afforded to the monastic system in that country. To Western eyes, they are usually just highly decorative ethnic handicrafts from an isolated and exotic culture. But to the Burmese, they are a rather important and quite revered part of religious life. The manuscripts themselves are a compilation of rules taken from the Vinaya that establish the general rules of conduct for monks living in the monasteries. They are made from different materials which can include very thin planks of ivory, or hammered-thin sheets of copper. But more often the case as is here, they are constructed of monks' cloth that has been treated, cut into the desired rectangular shape, and then lacquered to create a solid but flexible sheet or leaf. The leaf is then inscribed in the Pali language using what is called "tamarind seed lacquer," which is actually just raw black lacquer mixed with cinnabar that imparts a reddish hue to the black lettering. Then, the leaves are decorated with gold-leaf in the shwei-zawa technique. After drying, holes are punched through the leaves as the manuscripts are "bound" together in this manner. Teak wood covers protect the leaves, and the entire set is usually kept within a special receptacle within the monastery, taken out and used as appropriate occasions arise.

For those looking to decorate in Asian decor, these kammavaca make a stunning and dramatic statement as a wall display when spread out as we have illustrated. (We are showing only 8 leaves here with one cover simply because we have this set halved and currently on display on two different walls, but the full complete set is available and is what's being sold here.) We often see this style of kammavaca dated as 19th century, but we think the more correct attribution is “late 19th to early 20th century,” as the dated 1929 example shown in Visions from the Golden Land seems to bear out. Absent a dedication inscription that clearly dates a set within the 19th century, we think it more appropriate to extend the dating range in this manner.

Size and condition. Each leaf is 23 1/4 inches long and 5 1/4 inches wide. The teak covers are always slightly larger to protect the leaves, and these are 23 3/4 inches long and 5 3/4 inches wide. There is minor rubbing with nicks here and there commensurate with age and use.