Kammavaca are among the most sacred of Burmese religious texts. Kammavaca (kammavaca in Pali) consist of nine Khandakas from the Pali Vinaya Pitaka, each of which relates to a specific ceremony associated with monks of the Theravada school of Buddhism.
The beginnings of embellishment on Kammavaca appears to date from around the fourteenth century, with the discovery of a palm-leaf manuscript now with the Department of Archaeology, Rangoon, which was written in black ink on a gilt and red lacquer ground.
Folded, heavily lacquered cloth became the preferred medium for the production of ‘pages’ for Kammavaca. The most highly prized were those made from waistcloths of kings or from the robes of highly revered monks.
Also at that time gold leaf (shwei-zawa) illustrations began to make their appearance in the margins and between the four to five lines of writing on a brown to reddish orange ground score with fine hatch strokes.
Margin embellishment gradually became more intricate in the following two centuries, and included bands of stylised lotus petals, monks’ fans , diamonds rhombs, beading, and large octagonal and circular rosette, mandala, and endless knot forms, as well as birds and snippets of foliage between the lines.
The Mon people of Lower Burma employed silver leaf rather than gold on their Kammavaca often using the round form rather than the square tamarind seed writing. Some Kammavaca in the eighteenth century were gilded with mo-gyo, an alloy of gold and silver.
Five to seven lines of script became the norm and the background decoration of floral sprigs and birds between the lines became more intricate.
Covers and margin embellishment became more lavish featuring intricate linked geometric patterns, hintha birds the twenty-eight Buddha’s of previous world cycles and the present Buddha with disciples and praying Devas.
Pages differ in size from 45cm to 65cm in length and from 10cm to 15cm in width.
They are made from four folded layers of cotton or chintz cloth thickly covered with a few Coats of orange and brown lacquer to create a smooth but plaint surface.
To prepare the ‘page’ for the text , the pages are first ruled up with a pen or brush in an orpiment solution to mark out the lines, margins, and appropriate spaces for embellishment. The script is then blocked out in orpiment. A
The words are then painted on with black lacquer which has been reduced by boiling to a thick gummy consistency.
After the text is written, the intervening lines are embellished in gold-leaf, using the negative technique.
Tiny delicate illustrations depicting snippets of foliage, birds, and small animals are set against a fine hatch stroke ground.
Small circles and parallel and saw tooth lines finished the border patterns on all sides.
Covers made of relief- molded lacquer inlaid with glass mosaic were also produced.
The most exquisite, however, are those of pierced Ivory which enclose extracts inscribed on pages of the same material. Unfortunately, the slightly greasy surface of the ivory can cause the lacquer to peel unless the manuscript is carefully stored in a heat and humidity- controlled atmosphere.
The title of the manuscript may sometimes be written in gilt on the inside cover.
Kammavaca are read horizontally from left to right. Each page is turned away from the reader as it is finished and the next one begun.
After reading, the unbound pages were stacked and secured with bamboo pin passed through the two perforations on each page.
Finally I was bound by a long ribbon (sa-si-gyo) woven on a card loom and placed in a gilded box for safe-keeping. The title might be inscribed on a sliver of bamboo or ivory and inserted within the bindings of the sa-si-gyo.