Depictions of ceremonial and Talipot fans, like many other objects of everyday use, are very common in Thai manuscript paintings. Ceremonial fans, or fans of honour and veneration, are called Phatyot (พัดยศ) in Thai, whereas Talipot fans are known as Talapat (ตาลปัตร), referring to the leaf of the Talipot palm. If used in royal ceremonies, Talipot fans are called Wanwichani (วาลวิชนี); however, this term is also used for royal fans made of different materials, including hairs from elephant tails or yak hair in the shape of a whisk. Images of fans can be found in manuscript illustrations accompanying a variety of texts, both of a Buddhist and secular nature: the Great Perfections of the Buddha (Mahabuddhaguna), the legend of the monk Phra Malai, Phrommachat divination manuals, or extracts from canonical scriptures selected for funeral and commemoration books.

Four monks with Talipot fans at a funeral wake. Illustration in a folding book containing 'Tipitaka' extracts from and the Mahabuddhaguna. Central Thailand, 18th century. Credit: British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 64 (Public Domain)

Talipot fans were originally made from the leaves of the Talipot palm (Corypha umbraculifera). This tree, which can grow to over 75 years old, produces large palmate plaited leaves over 5 m wide. One fully grown leaf can have a weight of 40 kg-50 kg. The palm puts up a magnificent inflorescence of up to 10 m in size, but only once before it dies. The leaves have an excellent durability, therefore they were used in South and Southeast Asia to make thatches, mats, hats, umbrellas, fans as well as palm leaf manuscripts.

Talipot palm with fully grown inflorescence, photographed in Sri Lanka in 1885. Credit: British Library, Photo 430/5(3) (Public Domain)

There are several ways to make a traditional Talapat fan from a Talipot leaf. One popular method uses a young leaf or bud that has a stem of approximately 30 cm length. The bud is unfolded and dried in the sun for several days. It can also be soaked in water that is infused with insect-repelling herbs, and then dried and pressed before it is cut to a round or oval shape. Fans in the oval shape are called Pat Na Nang (fan in the shape of a lady’s face) in Thai. The size of the fan depends on the purpose and the person who is going to use it.

The folds are sewn together and a frame made from bamboo splints, rattan or metal wire is attached. Three types of specially-made wooden or bamboo handles can be attached to hold the fan: a handle in the shape of a 20-30 cm long hook or stick attached in a right angle at the bottom of the bud; a handle of 20 cm-70 cm length attached straight at the bottom of the bud (the short size for hand-held fans, the longer size for floor fans to be placed on a stand); or a handle up to 70 cm long attached to the frame on the side of the leaf. Finally, the frame and handle can be decorated with lacquer and gold leaf. Sometimes the frame is covered with cloth that is sewn on.

Illustration of a woman holding a fan made from a Talipot leaf with a right-angled handle, in a Mon copy of a Thai divination manual (Phrommachat). Ayutthaya or Burma, c. 1750-1820. Credit: British Library, Or 14532, f. 15 (Public Domain)
Monk carrying a Talapat made from a Talipot leaf with an attached straight handle. Illustrated in a folding book containing 'Tipitaka' extracts. Central Thailand, late 18th century. Credit: British Library, Or 14048, f. 3 (Public Domain)

Modelled on the fan made from a Talipot leaf are fans made in different ways and from different materials: woven palm leaves or other natural fibers, feathers, or textiles. The latter could be discarded monks’ robes, handwoven pieces of ikat or silk brocade, velvet, fabric embroidered with gold thread, sequins or glass beads, painted cloths etc. Occasionally, Talipot fans were also lacquered and decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay or mirror-glass inlay, and the handle could be made from ivory. Such fans were – and still are - used as ceremonial fans by monks and novices, or they can be presented as gifts of honour to commemorate an important monastic or royal event that is celebrated with a ceremony.

Prince Vessantara holding a fan made from peacock feathers. The old Brahmin Jujaka has a broken Talapat in his shoulder bag. Illustrated in a folding book containing 'Tipitaka' extracts. Central Thailand, late 18th century. Credit: British Library, Or 14068, f. 13 (Public Domain)

Talapat are not part of the obligatory requisites of monastics, but they are often used in Buddhist ceremonies by monks to hide their face while chanting canonical scriptures so that the words of the Buddha are not being identified with the face of the reciting monk. Another popular opinion about the origin of monastic fans refers to the tradition of meditations on the foul, saying that monks first used Talapat to help them cope with the stench of decaying corpses while meditating.

Fans are often included in Kathina offerings or gifts on occasion of the ordination of a new novice or monk, passing a monastic exam, anniversaries of monastic ordinations, and when a monk is bestowed a rank or an honorary title. Especially during the time of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) offerings of elaborately decorated Phatyot as fans of rank and honour became fashionable. Phatyot can be made in the round shape of a lotus flower, the elongated shape of a lotus bud, or a Khao Bin offering (sweet rice offering shaped like a lotus bud) with a flame-like edge. The name of the monk, his rank and/or an occasion can be embroidered on the front face of the fan. Thus, fans in the Thai cultural context can also be seen as symbols of authority for monks, or generally as status symbols.

Comical or pretend monks at a funeral wake; one holding a fan made with embroidered cloth. Illustrated in a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka. Central Thailand, 1841. Credit: British Library, Or 15925, f. 21 (Public Domain)
Illustration of monks with a lavishly decorated Phatyot fan with a long floor handle. Illustrated in a folding book containing the story of 'Phra Malai' and 'Tipitaka' extracts. Central Thailand, 19th century. Credit: British Library, Or 14664, f. 3 (Public Domain)

Little is known as to when the Talipot fan was first made: one can assume that it is an everyday object as old as humankind, primarily made for the purpose of air ventilation. However, there is a reference to a fan made from a palm leaf in the seventh chapter of the Story of the Novice Monk in the “Arahanta-vagga”, Dhammapada, which suggests that the Talipot fan was already in use by monastics during the lifetime of Gautama Buddha over 2500 years ago.

This article first appeared on British Library’s Asian and African studies blog.