Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues


Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

21 March 2018

Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta Digitisation Project launched by Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono X

On 20 March 2018 Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono X, Governor of the Special Region of Yogyakarta, visited the British Library to launch the Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta Digitisation Project. Through the generous support of Mr S P Lohia, over the next twelve months 75 Javanese manuscripts from Yogyakarta now held in the British Library will be digitised, and will be made fully and freely accessible online through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. On completion of the project in March 2019, complete sets of the 30,000 digital images will be presented to the Libraries and Archives Board of Yogyakarta (Badan Perpustakaan dan Arsip Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta) and to the National Library (Perpustakaan Nasional) of Indonesia in Jakarta. The manuscripts will also be accessible through Mr Lohia’s website, SPLRareBooks.

Javanese MSS Presentation Project_032
H.E. the Governor of the Special District of Yogyakarta Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono X and Ibu GKR Hemas, H.E. the Indonesian Ambassador Dr Rizal Sukma and Ibu Hana Satrijo, Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library, and Annabel Gallop, Head of the Southeast Asia section, at the launch of the Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta Digitisation Project at the British Library in London.

The 75 Javanese manuscripts to be digitised include 70 known or believed to have been taken by British troops following an armed assault on the Palace (Kraton) of Yogyakarta in June 1812 by forces under the command of the Lieutenant-Governor of Java, Thomas Stamford Raffles, as well as five other related manuscripts. The manuscripts primarily comprise works on Javanese history, literature and ethics, Islamic stories and compilations of wayang (shadow theatre) tales, as well as court papers, written in Javanese in both Javanese characters (hanacaraka) and in modified Arabic script (pegon), on European and locally-made Javanese paper (dluwang). Some of these manuscripts are by now well known, such as the Babad bedah ing Ngayogyakarta, Add. 12330, a personal account by Pangéran Arya Panular (ca. 1771-1826) of the British attack on the Kraton and its aftermath, published by Peter Carey (1992), and the Babad ing Sangkala, ‘Chronogram chronicle’, MSS Jav 36(B), dated 1738 and identified by Merle Ricklefs (1978) as the oldest surviving original copy of a Javanese chronicle so far known. Peter Carey (1980 & 2000) has also published the Archive of Yogyakarta, two volumes of court documents, correspondence and legal papers. However, many of the other manuscripts have never been published.

At the request of Sri Sultan, the launching of the Project commenced with a recitation from a Javanese manuscript. The manuscript chosen was a copy of the Serat Jaya Lengkara Wulang (MSS Jav 24) copied by a court scribe in Yogyakarta in 1803, and the opening stanzas written in dandanggula metre, in which the writer profers his humble apologies for all the inadequacies of his style and manners, were beautifully sung by Mr Sujarwo Joko Prehatin. The Serat Jaya Lengkara Wulang and a few other Kraton manuscripts which are now available online are shown below, and can be accessed online by clicking on the hyperlinks in the captions.

Opening of Serat Jaya Lengkara Wulang, 1803. MSS Jav 24, ff. 2v-3r  noc

Babad Kraton, dated 1778. British Library, Add. 12320, ff. 1v-2r  noc

Pawukon, Javanese calendrical manuscript, showing Wukir, the third wuku. British Library, Add. 12338, ff. 82v-83r  noc

Surya Ngalam, legal text. British Library, Add. 12329, ff. 1v-2r    noc 

In his address at the launch ceremony at the British Library, Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono X mused upon how the small area of Gunung Kidul around Yogyakarta on the south coast of central Java had played such a pivotal role in Javanese history through the centuries. Sri Sultan expressed his profound curiosity about the particular characteristics or factors that might have made this mountainous region the birthplace of such important political and cultural movements. It is hoped that by making so many significant primary sources more widely accessible, the Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta Digitisation Project will stimulate the study of Javanese history and cultural heritage, and perhaps one day help to answer these questions.

Javanese Project 05
Roly Keating presenting Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono X with a framed print from the Pawukon manuscript shown above.


Carey, P. B. R. (ed.), The archive of Yogyakarta. Volume I. Documents relating to politics and internal court affairs. Oxford: published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 1980.

Carey, Peter (ed.). The British in Java, 1811-1816 : a Javanese account : a text edition, English synopsis and commentary on British Library Additional Manuscript 12330 (Babad Bĕdhah ing Ngayogyakarta) [Pangéran Arya Panular, , approximately 1771-1826. Oxford : Published for The British Academy by Oxford University Press, c1992.

Carey, Peter and Hoadley, Mason C. (eds.), The archive of Yogyakarta. Volume II. Documents relating to economic and agrarian affairs. Oxford: published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2000.

Ricklefs, M.C., Modern Javanese historical tradition : a study of an original Kartasura chronicle and related materials. London : School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1978.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Head of Southeast Asia section  ccownwork

14 March 2018

A Mughal copy of Nizami’s Layla Majnun (IO Islamic 384)

Some of our best-known Mughal manuscripts in the British Library’s Persian collection have already been digitised. These include the imperial Akbarnāmah (Or.12988 ), Akbar’s copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Or.12208), and the Vāqiʻāt-i Bāburī, ‘Memoirs of Babur’, (Or.3714), to mention just a few. However far more works remain undigitised and many are comparatively little-known. Over the coming months we’ll be publicising some of these in the hope that people will become more familiar with them.

IO Islamic 384_f2r_2000 IO Islamic 384_f1v_2000
Opening of Nizami's Laylā Majnūn, copied by Muhammad Baqir in 1557-8 (British Library IO Islamic 384, ff. 1v-2r)

Today’s choice is a copy of Nizami’s Laylā Majnūn, IO Islamic 384, one of the five narrative poems forming his Khamsah, ‘Quintet’. Consisting of approximately 4,600 lines of verse and completed in 584/1188, it tells of the fateful romance between Layla and Qays who, driven to madness (majnūn), took refuge in the desert with wild creatures as his only friends. When Layla eventually died of a broken heart, Majnun rushed to her grave and instantly died himself. Interpreted on several levels, the story of Layla and Majnun is one of the most popular Persian romances with versions by many of the best-known authors. Nizami’s poem was itself frequently copied and illustrated, especially in Mughal India.

IO Islamic 384_f7r_detail._2000
Layla and Majnun as children at school (British Library IO Islamic 384, f. 7r)

This particular manuscript, IO Islamic 384, is dated Rabiʻ al-avval 965 (Dec 1557/Jan 1558) and was copied by Muhammad Baqir [ibn] Mulla Mir ʻAli, the son and pupil of the famous calligrapher Mir ʻAli Haravi who worked in Herat and Bukhara. Muhammad Baqir migrated to India and was already, in Akbar’s reign, described as a noted calligrapher by Abu’l-Fazl (A’īn-i Akbarī, tr. Blochmann, p. 109). In India he worked for the courtier and patron ʻAbd al-Rahim Khan Khanan (Soucek, p. 169 citing Nihavandi’s Ma’āsir-i Raḥīmī).

IO Islamic 384_f50r_col_2000
The colophon giving the date of completion: Rabiʻ al-avval 965 (Dec 1557/Jan 1558), and the name of the scribe Muḥammad Bāqir [ibn] Mullā Mīr ʻAlī (British Library IO Islamic 384, f. 50r)

As can be seen from the image above, the manuscript begins with a fine illuminated heading. Additional illumination includes vertical bands separating the four columns of text, and chapter headings in red, set in rectangular panels of flowers on a gold ground. The five paintings were added some fifty years later. While none is attributed to any artist, Soucek has suggested that the painter might be Mushfiq who is known to have worked at ʻAbd al-Rahim’s court.

IO Islamic 384_f23r_2000 IO Islamic 384_f34v_2000
Left: Layla’s father gives her in marriage to Ibn Salam (IO Islamic 384, f. 23r)
Right: A hermit brings Layla to the place appointed for her meeting with Majnun but she shrinks from the encounter (IO Islamic 384, f. 34v)

IO Islamic 384_f42 detail_2000
Layla visits Majnun in the wilderness surrounded by animals (IO Islamic 384, f. 42r)

IO Islamic 384_f48r_detail_2000
Majnun throws himself on Layla’s tomb (IO Islamic 384, f. 48r)

Our copy was purchased by the East India Company from Richard Johnson who acquired it in Lucknow, probably between 1780 and 1782 while he was Assistant to the Resident, Nathaniel Middleton (for more on Johnson and his collection see our earlier post ‘White Mughal’ Richard Johnson and Mir Qamar al-Din Minnat). Before that it had belonged, according to a Persian inscription on f. 1r, to one Faqir ʻAbd al-Hakim who had bought it for 22 rupees at the beginning of Ramazan in the first regnal year of an unspecified ruler.

Further reading

H. Pinder-Wilson , “Three Illustrated Manuscripts of the Mughal Period”, Ars Orientalis, Vol. 2 (1957): 413-422.

Priscilla Soucek, “Persian Artists in Mughal India: Influences and Transformations”, Muqarnas 4 (1987): 166-181.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian


Related articles

07 March 2018

Introducing the Lotus Sutra Project

Conserving and digitising the Stein Collection's Chinese copies of the Lotus Sutra at the British Library

The Lotus Sūtra, whose earliest known Sanskrit title is the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra and means “Sūtra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma,” was possibly composed between the first century BCE and the second century CE. It is thought to contain the Buddha’s final teaching, complete and sufficient for salvation. Through the medium of parables and short stories, it delivers the message that all sentient beings have the potential to attain Buddhahood. As such, it is one of the most influential scriptures of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, and it is highly regarded in a number of Asian countries, including China, Korea and Japan, where it has been traditionally practised.

Frontispiece of Chapter 5 of the Lotus Sūtra, "The Parable of the Medicinal Herbs" (British Library Or.8210/S.1511)    noc

The most prevalent versions of this Sūtra in Chinese are the Zheng fahua jing (徵法華經 “Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Correct law”), translated by the monk Dharmarakṣa between 286 and 288, and the Miaofa lianhua jing, (妙法蓮華經 “Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law”), translated by Kumarajiva over a century later, in 406. There is also an alternative version called the Tianpin Miaofa lianhua jing (添品妙法蓮華經 “Supplemented Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law"), compiled in 601 by the masters Jñānagupta and Dharmagupta.

Images and scenes inspired by the Lotus Sūtra can be seen in the murals adorning the caves of the Mogao Buddhist complex, near the oasis-town of Dunhuang, Gansu. An estimated 4,000 copies of the Lotus Sūtra were also found in one of the caves, commonly called the Library Cave or Cave 17. They are now dispersed across various institutions in Beijing, Paris, St Petersburg and London. In the British Library's collection, the Lotus Sūtra outnumbers all the other Chinese Buddhist texts brought back by Sir Aurel Stein during his second expedition to Central Asia (1906-1908). There are over a thousand manuscripts, some of which are scrolls measuring up to 13 metres long.

End piece of Or.8210/S.54, with wooden roller  (British Library Or.8210/S.54)    noc

If a few have already been digitised and are now accessible via the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) website, a large proportion has remained practically untouched since their discovery in 1907 and is currently unavailable online. Thanks to a generous grant from the Bei Shan Tang Foundation, in Hong Kong, work is now underway to address this issue. The aim of this four-year project is to conserve and digitise nearly 800 copies of the Lotus Sūtra in Chinese, with a view to make images and information about them freely accessible on the Internet.

For the past six months, I have been busy checking the condition of all these manuscripts in order to plan both the conservation and digitisation workflows for the years to come. I have been extremely lucky to be joined in this task by three colleagues from the British Library Conservation department, who have volunteered some of their precious time to assess the collection with me. Together, we have been writing up detailed condition status reports to facilitate future conservation treatment and handling during photography. Another important part of my curatorial role has also been to enhance information on each of the corresponding catalogue recor

Meanwhile, Vania Assis, full-time conservator for the project, has started conserving the scrolls. Although an initial estimate based on a sample of manuscripts had established that between 200 and 300 items would need to be conserved, the ongoing assessment of the scrolls has so far revealed that most of them require some level of intervention. They are extremely fragile: they present tears, missing areas, creases and other damage that make photographing them in their current state inadvisable. Vania has already completed treatment of more than 50 items and will tell you about her amazing work in a separate post.

The project's team should soon include two senior imaging technicians, who will be ensuring the digitisation of the Lotus Sūtra copies. We will let you know how the project progresses and will post updates as regularly as possible, so watch this space!

Mélodie Doumy, Curator, Chinese collections