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Cosmologies and Biologies

Cosmologies and Biologies


Cosmologies and Biologies: Illuminated Siamese Manuscripts of Death, Time and the Body


This is a fascinating study of rare Siamese illuminated manuscripts of two kinds, biological and cosmological. Beautiful in themselves, they are produced under unusual conditions and no one of these manuscripts is like another, though they draw on a common pool of rituals, actions and stories. This ground-breaking publication examines closely and contextualizes fourteen of the most striking and visually unique manuscripts of this kind known, in or outside Thailand.

These manuscripts are religious in nature, containing several genres of Buddhist texts including liturgical, narrative, historical, grammatical, psychological, ritual, and magical material, but, compared to other Thai and other South-East Asian examples they are particularly strong in the realms of medical, biological and cosmological Thai thought. A recurrent feature is the story of Phra Malai, a monk whose travels to various heavens and hells is described and illustrated. A number of rare medical manuscripts serve to reveal how mythology, biology, astrology, physiognomy and pharmacology are blended together in the pre-modern Siamese/Thai tradition.

These and other such illuminated manuscripts were produced in 18th- and 19th-century Siam (as Thailand was then known) and are richly illustrated both with delightful and evocative depictions of the Buddha, Hindu deities, Bodhisattvas, nuns, monks, and laypeople, and with some grotesque and terrifying ones – they attest to a particular interest in corpses and their implications among some of their readers.

The author, who has both lived the Buddhist life in Thailand and researched in Thai monasteries, has an extensive knowledge not only of the history but of the dynamic of Thai religion, studying not just older texts but continuing rituals and contemporary media. He was inspired to write this book by the very great value he saw in these particular manuscripts, a most unusual collection amassed with a discriminating eye.

The book consists both of an explanation and a detailed catalogue of some exemplary manuscripts and of a fascinating introductory essay discussing the belief systems and activities they represent.

  • Justin McDaniel

    Published by Ad Ilissvm

    March 2023

    Hardback, 280 x 240 mm

    176 pages, 100 colour illus.

    ISBN: 978-1-912168-28-6


  • About the author

    Justin McDaniel is Edmund J. and  Louise W. Kahn Endowed Professor of the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of the award-winning books Gathering Leaves and Lifting Words and The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magic Monk and has published and edited on a wide variety of subjects, such as Asian Manuscripts, Buddhist Studies, Material Culture and Religious Studies.

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