Ancient Historical Records in Siam
Evidence of life in what comprises modern day Thailand dates back as far as 12,000 years. Much of it comes from excavated artifacts and cave drawings. Rudimentary prehistoric cave paintings were first discovered in Thailand in 1922 but in the last forty years complete figures of men, animals and geometric patterns have been reported from caves in almost every part of the country, especially the northeast.
Records in writing however date only as far back as the first century AD.
Palm Leaves: Buddhist Scrolls & Books
The earliest written records are from the pre-Thai cultures of Thara-wadee (550-900 AD) and Lawoh, or old Lopburi, (95-1250 AD), and mainly concerned with the introduction of Buddhism to the region. During those times, several other ethnic communities also lived in the "Land of Gold", as Thailand is believed to have been called according to ancient Indian sources.
These early people used bai larn (palm leaf) to keep written records. Palm leaf was commonly used because of its ubiquity. Each leaf had adequate space for inscribing, and could be sewn together easily and neatly so pages could be opened and read conveniently. With the exception of the alphabets and languages used, the types of palm leaf, inscription techniques and tools used in various regions of Thailand were almost the same.
Aside from religious stories, such as that of the Jataka, the story of the Lord Buddha's life, the people also expressed themselves through folklore and wrote about their way of life.
King Ram - Kamhaeng: Founder of Written Thai
The earliest written record from a Thai Kingdom dates back to the late 13th century. A slate from Sukho-thai dated 1292 AD bears the earliest known inscription in the Thai language. This and other Sukhothai stone inscriptions were on slabs of green schist, a crystalline rock with slightly slanted sides and with either an ogee-shaped or a pointed four-sided top section.
According to this first inscription of 1292, King Ramkamhaeng developed the written form of the Thai language in 1283. It is believed that he contrived it from consonants and vowels found in the languages of the ancient Khom, ancient Mon, and of Lanna. The language is liberally sprinkled with words borrowed or derived from Pali and Sanskrit, the classical languages of Theravada Buddhism and Hinduism respectively.
Written Thai employs an alphabet of 44 consonants and 32 vowels, which combine to form syllabic sounds. The sounds are combined with five different tones to form a melodious, complex language.
With the development of this new language and the growing influence of the Thais in the region, history was recorded on wood-pulp paper, or gradaat khoi, a type of paper made from the fiber of the streblus asper shrub. This paper was used for centuries to document Thai history.
Wood - Pulp Paper: No Easy Task
Khoi is extremely durable, doesn't tear or ignite easily, doesn't yellow and is resistant to ants, weevils, termites and other paper-nibbling bugs. It was perfect for recording history and has been used for this purpose well into the 20th century. It's what was used to make those stylized black or white hand-written notebooks serving as the Kingdom's historical annals. Family histories were also popularly recorded on khoi paper, remaining in good condition even centuries later.
Making the paper was a long and tedious process. It took 10 days for the khoi tree fiber to be converted into paper, starting with a search for a good source of the fiber. Good care and experience as needed to select twigs and branches of just the right age. If they were too old, they would not have yielded enough fiber. If they were too young, it would have been too much fiber.
The cut twigs and branches were immersed in limewater for some time and then left to dry. Then they were held over a fire so the wooden bark became charred and easily removed. The barked wood was put into a giant pot of boiling water, where it simmered for 2 days. The softened fibers were then held in rapidly running water to get rid of the last vestiges of bark.
After all that, the pounding began. Using a large wooden hammer and board, a strictly regular rhythm was needed so the fibers wouldn't scatter or disperse unevenly. The fibers were methodically flattened a total of eight times before being gathered into a small heap to be mashed over and over again.
The last step was to spread the fibrous putty in a thin layer over a large screen. The screen was lowered into water while using a kind of rolling pin in one hand to spread the paper. Hence, a sheet of paper was only as long and wide as the range of the maker's spreading motion.
Preserving The History of Paper
Like in other parts of the region, the Lanna Kingdom (what is now present-day northern Thailand) used palm leaves to record folk tales, literature, Buddhist teachings and other cultural information. Many of the records found in the north today date back to 700 years, and their immediate restoration is tantamount to preserving history itself. But this is no easy task.
The Lanna alphabet has become obsolete since it was officially forbidden when Siam annexed the north in 1931. So it is very difficult to find translators today who are literate in that language. Also, the texts are spread among countless wats (Buddhist monasteries) and cared for by the monks and novices, not all of who understand how to properly preserve these delicate relics.
Several years ago Chiangmai University's Department of History launched a serious survey on palm leaves in northern Thailand and has found nearly a hundred bai larn so far. The oldest was discovered at Wat Phra Singh in Chiangmai, and is nearly 500 years old. It describes earth, heaven and hell.
The tradition of making khoi paper however, has died out only more recently. The last independent khoi maker in Bangkok retired more than 10 years ago, although small factories making other types of pulpy paper can be found in Thailand.
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