Launched in 2019, the Myanmar Manuscript Digital Library (MMDL) is a growing collection of open-access Pali and Pali-Burmese manuscripts available to scholars all over the world. Hosted at the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto but developed through the collaboration of an international cohort of researchers, programmers, librarians, students, monastics, and devotees, the MMDL is honoured to announce a new database of manuscripts from the Bagaya Monastery in Upper Myanmar. This database, developed in collaboration with the National Library of Myanmar in Nay Pyi Taw, contains the first hundred of almost ten-thousand manuscripts that the Bagaya Monastery donated to the National Library in 2016 to ensure their preservation for posterity. This new National Library of Myanmar Bagaya Monastery database is in addition to the MMDL’s U Pho Thi Library database, which contains about a 1000 manuscripts and accordion-style books (parabaiks) from the Saddhammajotikārāma Monastery in Thaton, Lower Myanmar.
Working under Director General Daw Mya Oo, the Assistant Librarian Daw Shwe Nwe Soe and her team digitised this first set of manuscripts from Bagaya Monastery that were copied before 1850. These manuscripts represent a wide range of Buddhist material and textual genres, including the Cūlavagga-aṭṭhakathā-nissaya (BGY0028), a Pali-Burmese glossary on the Pali commentary of the Vinayapiṭaka copied in 1747, the Kavisāra-ṭīkā-san (BGY0047-A), a Pali subcommentary on a metrical work composed in Myanmar, and a Milindapañhā-pāḷi-tō (BGY0006) copied in 1758. Alongside these texts, there are examples of handbooks and compendiums only found in Myanmar, meaning that this database promises to offer insight into local interpretative communities and conceptions of the Tipiṭaka. Indeed, these first hundred entries of the new database represent a critical stage in Burmese manuscript culture before the standardisation of such texts in the Fifth Buddhist Council of 1872.
The mandate of the National Library was not only to ensure the preservation of these manuscripts, but also to make them freely available to scholars and practitioners in both Myanmar and globally. To this end, Daw Shwe Nwe Soe and her team were assisted by Dr. William Pruitt of the Pali Text Society and U Aung Moe Oo, who both shared digitisation techniques developed while working on the first database of the MMDL, the U Pho Thi Library collection. Dr. Pruitt and his team also donated equipment and resources to the National Library, whose staff first restored and preserved the palm-leaves, photographed, and catalogued them. Computer Scientist Dr. Yumi Ousaka from the National Institute of Technology in Japan then trained the library staff to use his specially designed, open-source software to automatically crop and arrange the folios as high-resolution PDFs, which were sent to be stored on the central servers at the University of Toronto for perpetuity.
In Toronto, the effort to store and secure these digital files is overseen by Kelli Babcock, Digital Initiatives Librarian, Robarts Library, and Priya Murugaiah, a Manager of Infrastructure for Informational and Instructional Technology, who are striving to ensure that these digitised manuscripts will have a permanent home at the University of Toronto as the collection continues to grow. On the ground, PhD Candidates in the Department for the Study of Religion specialising in Burmese Buddhism, Rachelle Saruya and Andrew Dade, helped develop the website, have been archiving the new files, and are in the process of creating a Burmese language mirror-site to ensure accessibility for colleagues in Myanmar. The MMDL is curated by Associate Professor of Buddhist Studies, Christoph Emmrich, an expert in Pali and vernacular literatures in South and Southeast Asia.
This next stage in the MMDL’s development is an exciting horizon for the field of Buddhist Studies and beyond, for it is expected that almost ten-thousand new manuscripts might be added in the next few years from the Bagaya Monastery collection, made possible only with the collaboration and generosity of the National Library of Myanmar. We invite all scholars, monastics, and practitioners to share in the opening of this new database and the international collaboration that brought it to fruition.
If you have any questions or want to learn more about the MMDL, please direct all enquiries to Associate Professor Christoph Emmrich at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Outreach and Project Liaison,
Myanmar Manuscript Digital Library;
Department for the Study of Religion
University of Toronto