Feature: Endangered script survives through Sunday classes in Thai temple

Source: Xinhua| 2019-07-09 15:31:11|Editor: mingmei
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Tourists and pedlars come to Wat Phra Singh, a famous temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand, July 7, 2019. Every Sunday, dozens of Thais would gather in a school inside Wat Phra Singh temple to learn Lanna script. (Xinhua/Yang Zhou)

by Yang Zhou

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, July 9 (Xinhua) -- In a corner of Chiang Mai International Exhibition and Convention Center in northern Thailand sits 79-year old Jampong Tangtrakul with two boards, in Thai and Chinese, on the desk in front of him, reading "I can write your name in Lanna letters."

The Lanna Expo 2019, which showcased goods from four northern Thai provinces, Chiang Mai, Lampang, Lamphun and Mae Hong Song, was held at the exhibition center from June 28 to July 7.

Jampong, a Lanna script teacher, was invited to give visitors a glimpse to the once prevailing, now endangered Lanna alphabet by offering them writing names in the letters.

He is a Chinese descendant with a Chinese name Chen Maozhi, and he wants to introduce the old script not only to fellow Thais but Chinese tourists as well.

It was on Saturday, the convention center was crowded and some of the visitors came to Jampong's counter.

"Could you write my name as well, but I am Chinese", asked a female Chinese tourist.

"Yes, of course", said Jampong, and took a decorated yellow paper and wrote her name, Zhao Jia, in Lanna script, explaining what the Lanna script is to her.

Lanna is the name of an old kingdom that ruled Chiang Mai and its surrounding cities from 13th to 18th century, though from 16th century to 18th century it was under rule of Myanmar's Toungoo dynasty. After that, it became part of Siam, now known as Thailand. Lanna now is a historical term referring to northern Thailand and its culture.

According to information on Chiang Mai provincial government website, Chiang Mai is founded in 1296 by Mangrai, the first king of Lanna.

The Lanna script is used in Chiang Mai since the Lanna Kingdom era to write Buddhist manuscript and to spell the north Thai dialect, or the language of Tai Yuan people.

Many temples, schools in northern Thailand added Lanna calligraphy script on their boards together with standard Thai script but few in the Chiang Mai can read it now.

Jampong told Xinhua that he teaches the script every Sunday in the city's famous temple Wat Phra Singh.

On the following day, he took Xinhua reporters to the Lanna Language, Custom and Literature Learning Center that is set up in the school inside Wat Phra Singh temple.

Dozens of Thais, ranging from young students to seniors in their 60s, came to join the class from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Sunday morning.

"The courses on Lanna script here were introduced in 1966 by former abbot of the temple and I am the first batch of students then", said 72-year old Dusit Chawachart, also Jampong's teacher.

The classes then opened during Buddhist Lent each year and and Dusit learned for three to four years to master the script.

"I was a teacher then and I found myself attracted by the old script and by learning, I could read those buddhist manuscripts written in the script," Dusit said.

Dusit, a school teacher before retirement, has been teaching Lanna script every Sunday here for many years.

"It is free for all since the beginning until now," he said. "Everyone are welcome to learn it."

The classes are set in three levels. One needs to learn each level for a year before upgrading to the next. Dusit sees more students this year and the number of the students in the first level class is expected to be increased from 10 to 40, while that of the second-level learners is expected to rise from three to 10.

Now, the center has seven teachers, all over their 60s.

"We are trying to find new young teachers, but it is hard," said Jampong.

Inside the center, students of the first level were working to remember the letters while students of higher levels read old manuscripts and the teachers explain some hard-to-understand words in northern Thai dialect.

Dusit teaches the second level together with Jampong.

He asked some students to read inscription on the Three Kings Monument in Chiang Mai. "Nopburi Sri Nakorn Ping Chiang Mai (former ceremonial name of Chiang Mai) is the great city of Lanna Thai", read the students.

"I think we should keep the Lanna script alive to pass on to future generations," said a student Koi, who is a 49-year-old free lance musical teacher.

"I learned it here and I shared with my students, it would be sad if no one here can read it anymore", she added.

Yanaranop, 43, who works for the National Archives of Thailand, has found learning the script very useful for her work as she can now understand many historical recordings.

"It helps me know more about our history and our past. That is amazing," she said.

In a textbook written by Somwang Inchai from Chiang Rai Rajabhat University, the script's decline is attributed to the collapse of Lanna Kingdom as it was conquered by Myanmar and then became part of Siam.

In the forming of modern Thailand, the standard Thai script was recognized as the only official writing system of the kingdom.

"I am 72 years old and we have to pass on the script to our children," said Dusit.

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