The Lao Literary Tradition

Laos possesses a rich literary tradition dating back to the 15th/16th century AD. Most works have been handed down through continuous copying and have survived in the form of palm-leaf manuscripts traditionally stored in wooden caskets and kept at the libraries of Buddhist monasteries. A small proportion of texts are written on other materials, such as mulberry or sa paper, which is much less durable than palm-leaf. While monasteries have been seats of learning in the country since ancient times, tens of thousands of invaluable manuscripts have run into danger of destruction during recent decades.

Throughout the centuries there has been a constant movement of people and an exchange of culture, religion, arts and literature among the Tai and Lao population in what is now the Upper North of Thailand, Northeastern Myanmar, Southwest Yunnan, Laos and Northeast Thailand. The exchange of literary works has been facilitated by the very close linguistic relationship between the languages spoken in these areas. Historically this relationship was especially close between the ancient kingdoms of Lan Sang and Lan Na. In fact, the Lan Na region which is now the eight provinces constituting the Upper North of Thailand used to be referred to as ‘Western Laos’ by some European scholars, due to its close historical and cultural ties to its eastern neighbour.

In addition, the Buddhist monasteries in these regions use very similar versions of the Tham or Dhamma script (a derivative of an ancient Mon alphabet) in contrast to Khom – a variant of an old Khmer script, which was used for religious writings in Siam up to the end of the 19th century. This large area of common cultural tradition may therefore be referred to as the ‘Tham Script Domain.’ Further connections exist to Tai cultures found in parts of Assam state in India, Northern and Northwestern Myanmar, Yunnan Province of China, and North Vietnam. In a broader perspective, the Theravada Buddhist culture and literature of Laos is closely related to that found in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia. Within Laos, this mainstream Buddhist literature is shared by the Tai Lue and Tai Nuea. There also exist a huge number of literary traditions of the various ethnic groups which form almost half of the total population of Laos. While the vast majority of these are oral traditions, notable examples of written literary traditions include the Hmong, Mien, and Tai Dam.

The majority of Lao manuscripts are from the Theravada Buddhist tradition, most commonly in bi-lingual versions, i.e. Pali with more or less elaborated Lao translations or commentaries, which shed light on the local interpretation of the Pali texts. One special genre is the huge number of extra-canonical works, especially narrative literature such as Jataka stories, a considerable number of which are thought to originate from local Southeast Asian traditions. Many of these legends are among the most popular texts used by the monks in their recitations and sermons given to the lay people, and deserve special interest because they contain valuable information about social life and values in the Buddhist societies of the region. Other texts contain a wide range of works about history, traditional law and customs, astrology, magic, mythology and rituals, traditional medicine and healing, grammar and lexicography, as well as poetry and epic stories, folk tales, romances, etc.

Click here to see collected papers from the International Conference on The Literary Heritage of Laos.

Previous Research

Research concerning the literature of the territories of what is now the Lao PDR, the eight northernmost and the sixteen Northeastern provinces of Thailand, the Northeastern provinces of present Myanmar, and Xishuangbanna (Sipsongpanna) in Southwestern Yunnan, started at the beginning of the 20th century, a few years after the incorporation of Laos into French Indochina.

Almost all of the early surveys and registrations of manuscripts were undertaken by French scholars and their Lao assistants. While now outdated in many respects, these remain helpful tools for researchers up to the present. Louis Finot’s Recherches sur la littérature laotienne, published in 1917 in the Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême Orient (see bibliography) still provides a useful overview of traditional Lao literature in a Western language. The Liste générale des manuscrits laotiens provided in the final part of his study is of two principal collections existing at the time: that of the Bibliothèque Royale de Luang Prabang (catalogued by M. Meiller, 1181 entries), and of the Bibliothèque de l’École française d’Extrême Orient (338 entries).

Several other inventories of monastery or library holdings were undertaken during the period from 1900 to 1973, by both Lao and French scholars, listing a total of 3,678 manuscripts from 94 monasteries in nine provinces. A notable initiative is the work of the Chanthabouly Buddhist Council, under the leadership of Chao Phetsarat, which asked abbots throughout the country to submit lists of their manuscript holdings between 1934-36.

Work on the EFEO inventory, plus research and analysis of manuscripts followed in 1950s and 1960s by Henri Deydier, Pierre-Bernard Lafont and Charles Archaimbault. An Inventaire des Manuscrits des Pagodes du Laos (see bibliography), building on the previous work of French scholars, was conducted under the leadership of Pierre-Bernard Lafont in 1959 and covered altogether 83 monasteries: 13 in Luang Prabang, 25 in Vientiane, and 45 in Campasak. Other related catalogues during this period, while valuable tools in themselves, were of limited collections and not intended to be representative of Lao literature as a whole. An example is Georges Cœdès’ 1966 catalogue of 116 manuscripts, of which 23 are in Pali language and Lan Na (Northern Thai) script, in the Royal Library, Copenhagen (see bibliography).

During the Second Indochina War and the years immediately following the proclamation of the Lao PDR in 1975, the country met with extremely difficult conditions, and it is only since the mid-1980s, with changes in the global political climate and the end of the Cold War, that national awareness of the importance of literary works re-appeared. In March 1988, with the support of the Toyota Foundation, a conference was convened in Vientiane attended by monks as well as knowledgeable lay people from all over Laos who were invited to discuss the state of conservation of manuscripts in their home communities, and to exchange views on what should be done in order to safeguard the remaining manuscripts which were in danger to be forgotten in the monastic libraries. As a result of this meeting a project to set up a Lao-language Inventory of Palm-leaf Manuscripts in Six Provinces of Laos (see bibliography) was initiated by the Ministry of Information and Culture with the support of the Toyota Foundation. In the course of this project (1988-1994) altogether about 128,000 fascicles were inventoried from some 250 selected monasteries in Vientiane Capital and the provinces of Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Bolikhamsai, Khammuan, Savannakhet, and Campasak.

The Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme

The Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme (PLMP) of the Lao Ministry of Information & Culture was supported by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs through its cultural assistance programme from 1992 until 2004. The main objectives were to help the Lao PDR physically preserve its national literary heritage, to revitalise public awareness of its value and build local capacity for field preservation and for research and dissemination of these resources through:

  • The systematic survey and in situ preservation of manuscript holdings of selected Buddhist monasteries as well as State and private collections in all 17 provinces;
  • The microfilming of documents of historical or cultural importance;
  • Support for the revitalisation of usage of traditional literature in religious life as well as its integration into the modern public education system;
  • To guide and assist in the creation of scientific and technical tools such as databases, study material, textbooks, specialized computer software, etc, as well as developing a new generation of academic and human resources needed for utilizing the manuscripts for teaching and research purposes in the field of traditional Lao language, literature, and culture at institutions of higher learning.

The programme responded directly to local needs and all work was carried out with strong community participation. Under the guidance of a mobile preservation team of three who were joined by locally recruited volunteers, manuscripts were systematically scrutinized, reassembled, cleaned, titled, classified according to their content, and bibliographic data collected to be entered into a computerized database. Throughout the programme, no materials, including the most damaged or decayed palm-leaves, wooden covers, manuscript wrappings and storage chests, or any other local artefacts, were removed from their original sites. Where necessary and feasible, damaged documents were restored and repaired and then stored in an appropriate way, i.e. safe from termites, mice and mould.

As a major product of the project, a collection of microfilm recordings of some 12,000 selected texts was set up, including a large number of parallel versions or additional copies which are necessary for any serious study. The master copy is stored at the Lao National Film Archive and Video Centre, while a working copy is kept at the National Library of Laos, and a second copy at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz, in Germany. Most important for the wider study of Lao culture, this collection is by far the most extensive to date and can be seen as representative of the national literary heritage. It comprises almost 500,000 frames, which on average contain about 6-8 palm-leaf pages, giving a total of some 3-4 million recorded manuscript pages.

Criteria for selection for microfilming were historico-cultural importance, cultural diversity or regional representation, age (all manuscripts over 150 years old) and quality of the manuscript. Within these general guidelines, priority for microfilming was given to extra-canonical literature, all manuscripts which were thought to represent indigenous literary traditions, and all texts of a non-religious nature whenever the condition of the manuscript allowed.

Microfilming began in the capital, Vientiane, in April 1994, and then in the provinces, using a Zeutschel OK102 camera and Fujifilm microfilm negative, on 35mm x 30.5 m (100ft) rolls. Whenever possible, the filming was done at the premises of provincial cultural offices or provincial museums, since these generally provided better facilities than in remote villages. In addition, the microfilming equipment could be damaged on rural roads. Texts selected for microfilming were taken there temporarily from temples or private collections in the district and returned after filming.

In order to obtain the best possible contrast in the grey-tone images, the cleaned and sorted manuscripts were wiped with 90 percent alcohol immediately before filming. Local volunteers assisted the cameraman. The exposed microfilm rolls were then sent in batches to the National Library to be developed, which was initially done manually on a Zeutschel developer, and later on using a Kodak Prostar I-L processor, with Kodak Prostar Plus developer and fixer. The master films were thoroughly checked and then copied using a Zeutschel 100L copier. Other microfilm equipment used at the National Library of Laos includes two Zeutschel OL2 microfilm readers and a Canon NP Printer 980 microfilm reader-printer.

This project – for the first time ever – covered all of the country’s provinces, and included remote monasteries in addition to the more well-known collections, many of which had never been surveyed before. Over the course of ten years until the cooperation project officially ended in December 2002, the manuscript holdings of over 800 monasteries had been surveyed, and approximately 86,000 texts (368,000 fascicles) preserved. The inventory data sheets for these texts are kept in hard copy at the National Library of Laos (see bibliography).

The German Foreign Office supported a follow-up phase of the project from January 2003 to December 2004, during which time provincial Manuscript Preservation Centres were set up in selected monasteries in Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Campasak provinces. Their roles are to serve as examples of well-kept monastic libraries, centres for the study of traditional literature, and to advise and assist monasteries which were not included in the project in preserving their manuscript holdings. In addition, these centres hold annual manuscript festivals or bun bai lan, during which the entire manuscript holdings are taken out of their repositories, unwrapped and inspected for signs of damage, cleaned if necessary, re-wrapped, and carried three times around the ordination hall (sim) in a dignified procession. This is in fact an ‘imported’ tradition which originates from previous preservation work undertaken in the Lan Na region in the late 1980s in the course of the Preservation of Northern Thai Manuscripts Project, coordinated by the Center for the Promotion of Arts and Culture, Chiang Mai University. They were first organized by the Tai Lue community of Ban Yuan, Chiang Kham district, in what is now Phayao province, and when video recordings were shown in other monastic communities, this activity was enthusiastically taken up. The annual inspection of the library holdings has been a tradition at Wat Sung Men, Phrae province, the former resident-monastery of Khruba Kancana, for many generations. The festivals are organised and funded by local communities, demonstrating their ownership and sense of merit-making or het bun.

Throughout the project timeframe, 22 volumes of a quarterly Lao-language newsletter were published containing current news from the various field sites where the survey and microfilming was taking place, together with short extracts from palm-leaf manuscripts which had been found in those locations. Khao bai lan or “Palm-leaf News” stimulated each location to be proud and to talk about the number of manuscripts that they had, and to be willing to take better care of them. An additional 14 booklets about traditional customs, laws, and literature were also printed. Click here to see Lao-language PLMP Newsletter Khao bai lan.

The project was nominated by the German Government as a contribution to the UNESCO World Decade of Cultural Development (1987-1997) and was awarded a gold medal at the Expo 2000 held in Hannover, Germany.

In its final phase, the PLMP project convened an international conference on The Literary Heritage of Laos: Preservation, Dissemination and Research Perspectives, which was the first of its kind. Held in Vientiane in January 2004, it attracted more than 120 participants and observers, including scholars, monks, researchers, and specialists from Laos and neighbouring countries, as well as academics from Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the USA. The collected conference papers were published in November 2005. Click here to see collected papers in Lao, Thai and English from the conference.

Manuscript preservation and related research continues to this day, supported by the Lao Government and other project funds, based at the National Library of Laos. Contact us if you would like to support this work.


Centre de Recherche Artistique et Littéraire_1989
Centre de Recherche Artistique et Littéraire (ed.), Sammana bai lan thua pathet khang thi nueng. Vientiane: Centre de Recherche Artistique et Littéraire, 1989 (in Lao).

Cœdès, Georges, Catalogue des manuscrits en pali, laotien et siamois provenant de la Thaïlande. Copenhagen: The Royal Library, 1966.

de Berval_1959
de Berval, René (ed.), Kingdom of Laos: The Land of the Million Elephants and of the White Parasol. Saigon: France-Asie, 1959.

Finot, Louis, ‘Recherches sur la littérature laotienne’ in Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient (BEFEO 17.5, 1917): 1-128.
Click here to see a PDF version of this paper.

Hartmann, John F., ‘The Spread of South Indic Scripts in Southeast Asia’ in Crossroads. 3.1 (1986): 6-20.

v. Hinüber_1996
von Hinüber, Oskar. A Handbook of Pali Literature. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1996.

Hundius, Harald, ‘Lao manuscripts and Traditional Literature: The Struggle for thier Survival’ in The Literary Heritage of Laos: Preservation, Dissemination and Research Perspectives. Vientiane: National Library of Laos, 2005. Note: much of the above text on Lao Literary Tradition is based on this paper.
Click here to see a PDF version of this paper.

Hundius, Harald, ‘The Preservation of Lao Manuscripts’ in M. Lorrillard and Y. Goudineau (eds.), Recherches récentes sur le Laos. EFEO: Collection Etudes Thématiques, 2008.

Dara Kanlaya, ‘The Preservation of Palm-leaf Manuscripts in the Lao PDR’ in The Literary Heritage of Laos: Preservation, Dissemination and Research Perspectives. Vientiane: National Library of Laos, 2005. English translation by David Wharton.
Click here to see a PDF version of this paper.

Kato, Kumiko (ed.), A Study of Lue Manuscripts in China, Laos and Thailand. Nagoya: The Graduate School, Faculty of Arts, University of Nagoya, 2001 (in Japanese, with the lists of titles given in Thai).

Lafont, Pierre-Bernard, ‘Inventaire des manuscrits des pagodes du Laos’ in Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême Orient (BEFEO 52.2, 1965): 429-545.
Click here to see a PDF version of this paper.

Lafont, Pierre-Bernard (ed.), Les recherches en sciences humaines sur le Laos. Paris: Centre d’Histoire et Civilisations de la Péninsule Indochinoise, 1994.

National Library of Laos_1992-2002
National Library of Laos, ‘Bansi luang.’ Unpublished Inventory of Preservation of Lao Palmleaf Manuscripts Programme at National Library of Laos, Vientiane, 1992-2002.

National Library of Laos_1994
National Library of Laos, ‘Inventory of Palm-leaf Manuscripts in Six Provinces of Laos.’ Vientiane: Ministry of Information and Culture, 1994.

National Library of Laos_2005
National Library of Laos (ed.), The Literary Heritage of Laos: Preservation, Dissemination and Research Perspectives. Vientiane: National Library of Laos, 2005.
Click here to see collected papers in Lao, Thai and English from this conference.

Udom Roongruangsri, Wannakam lan na (Second Edition). Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, BE 2547 (in Thai).

Saddhatissa, Hammalawa, Pāli Literature of South-East Asia. Dehiwala: Buddhist Cultural Centre, 2004.

Social Sciences Research Institute_1987
Social Sciences Research Institute (ed.), Vannakhadi lao. Vientiane: Social Sciences Research Institute, 1987 (in Lao).

Veidlinger, Daniel M., Spreading the Dhamma – Writing, Orality, and Textual Transmission in Buddhist Northern Thailand. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006.