Sinxay review by Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian, British Library

Sinxay review by Jana Igunma,     Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian, British Library

We would like to give a shout out to Jana Igunma who just posted the following review of Sinxay. Jana works at The British Library which is the national library of the United Kingdom and the second largest library in the world by number of items catalogued. Wow.

And quoting from Wikipedia:

The British library is a major research library, holding around 170 million items from many countries, in many languages[5] and in many formats, both print and digital: books, manuscripts, journals, newspapers, magazines, sound and music recordings, videos, play-scripts, patents, databases, maps, stamps, prints, drawings. The Library’s collections include around 14 million books,[6] along with substantial holdings of manuscripts and historical items dating back as far as 2000 BC.

Jana has been extremely supportive of Sinxay, and as the Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian at the British Library, her support and review is an honor that we don’t take lightly.

ຊອບໃຈຫລຫລ Jana

Translating classical Buddhist literature from Lao into a Western language is a very challenging undertaking. I have tried to do something similar and ended up with half of every page of the translation consisting of footnotes, making it very unattractive for the general reader. The reason is that for many words and phrases in Lao there are no equivalents in Western languages. Also, without knowledge of the Lao cultural and Buddhist religious background the Western reader would find it difficult to understand the values, symbols, morality and ethical aims of such literary works.


By re-telling the legendary story of Sinxay the authors of this book have avoided the addition of countless footnotes, which would make the text difficult to understand and not very enjoyable to read. They have instead, in a very sensible manner, inserted explanatory words and phrases within the text, without losing the connection to the original sources which they discuss in the second part of the book.


In four chapters they present the outcomes of their own research that took them to many parts of the Lao PDR and to the Northeast of Thailand. In the first chapter the authors discuss the Buddhist origins of the story of Sinxay, whose core motif is based on a Pannasa Jataka known as Suvannasankha Jataka. They also introduce the reader to the Buddhist symbolism in the story of Sinxay, and compare certain characters and scenes in Sinxay and the Vessantara Jataka, which is the most popular Jataka (or Birth Story of the Buddha) in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia.


The second chapter is dedicated to existing researches on Sinxay in Laos. The authors identify the numerous publications by Maha Sila Viravong who was the first scholar to transcribe the story of Sinxay into modern Lao and to research its origins and meaning. Viravong’s works were ground-breaking for the renaissance of Sinxay in Laos. The authors praise the tireless efforts of Maha Sila Viravong’s daughter, Douangdeuane Bounyavong, to continue what her father had started and to promote Sinxay in the Lao PDR. Another important aspect they discuss in this chapter is the presence of over ninety manuscript versions of Sinxay written on palm leaves that were digitised and made available publicly for the first time in the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts project.


In the third chapter the authors present the research they carried out in Northeast Thailand, where various Buddhist temples are decorated with historical murals depicting scenes from the legend of Sinxay. They chose to include many retouched drawings based on these mural paintings in their book to illustrate the text. In addition to the temple murals they discuss the role of Sinxay in the traditional shadow puppet theatre Nang Pramo Thai and how Sinxay is currently promoted by authorities in Northeast Thailand.


Finally, in chapter four, the reader is taken back to Laos where various events and festivals were held recently to recognize the importance of Sinxay as national cultural heritage. Included are photographs of geographical sites that are thought to be connected to the story of Sinxay. Last, but not least, the depiction of scenes from Sinxay in modern Lao Buddhist temple decoration as well as in Lao hand-woven textiles is presented to the reader.


What I missed in the book are the numerous Thai print publications of Sinxay. The first two translations into Thai language appeared in the 1920s, and to date almost thirty translations into Thai and various researches on Sinxay by Thai scholars have helped to shed more light on the role and reception of Sinxay in Thailand. Clearly, there is still much room for further research.


The illustrations in the book are truly marvellous. Many of them are based on mural paintings in Northeast Thailand; others (including the captivating book cover) are creative artworks by an American and two Lao artists. With these wonderful works of art one would not want to flick through the pages on an electronic book-reader, but one will – over and over again – enjoy holding the book in one’s hands, leaning back comfortably in an armchair, and allowing one’s imagination to travel back in time and to indulge in another timeless story of love and war.


Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian, British Library

Our featured image above is an illustration of when someone offers kan dokmai, a sign of respect, that is a common occurrence in Sinxay. The illustration was drawn by Nick Bowen and is included in our book. As Peter celebrated his birthday on the 17th, this was the BEST birthday present ever! We include the illustration of kan dokmai  here as our offering to Jana.

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