Asian and African studies blog

5 posts from December 2017

22 December 2017

The 'Flower Garden' (Phulban), an illustrated Dakhni romance

Today's post is from guest contributor and regular visitor to Asian and African Collections, Sunil Sharma, Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University.

The seventeenth century witnessed a flowering of literature in Dakhni, a language that was essentially old Urdu and used in the entire Deccan peninsula, especially for the genre of the narrative verse romance (masnavi). The chief centres for the literary florescence were the courts of the Adilshahis in Bijapur and the Qutbshahis in Golconda. Royal patrons at these courts sought to elevate the status of the vernacular Dakhni to that of the more prestigious lingua franca Persian. Continuing an older tradition that began in the north, poets recast tales from the Indic tradition by adding various Persianate elements, even as they produced retellings of classical Persian stories with Indic features. A canonical work in this literary production was the Phulban (Flower garden), a verse romance composed in 1656 by the court poet Muhammad Mazharuddin Ibn Nishati, which was dedicated to the generous patron, the Qutbshahi king ʻAbdullah (r. 1626-72). We know next to nothing about the poet other than the meagre tidbits of information that he provides in the poem.

Portrait of the patron, Sultan ʻAbdullah Qutbshah who ruled Golconda from 1626 to 1672 (BL IO Islamic 14, f.10r)

The British Library manuscript IO Islamic 14 is an illustrated copy of the Phulban.[1] The text is written in Persian naskh, accompanied by 43 paintings, some on double pages. Although undated, it is likely that this manuscript dates from the mid-eighteenth century since it has several codicological similarities to another Dakhni verse romance, the more sumptuous Gulshan-i ‘ishq (Rose garden of love) in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1945-65-22).[2] Both manuscripts have their provenance in the library of Tipu Sultan. The fascinating history of the travels of this collection is described in an earlier blog: Revisiting the provenance of the Sindbadnamah. The BL Phulban was apparently not completed since there are blank spaces for section headings and also some additional paintings.

The poet, Ibn Nishati seated in a walled garden writing his poem. The line that the poet is writing in the book corresponds to the first of two in the text block above the image. Outside the walled enclosure is an Indo-Persian garden with both cypress and mango trees, flying birds, and strange-looking squirrels (BL IO Islamic 14, f.13r)

The Phulban comprises almost 2000 couplets and is a racy mix of romantic escapades and fantastic adventures involving Chinese merchants, kings of Kashmir, Sindh, Egypt, and Ajam, princes, princesses and fairies, mendicant figures such as a dervish and yogis, a talking parrot. The opening narrative involves a story told by a dervish to the king of the fabled city of Kanchanpur (City of gold).

I_o_islamic_14_f020r copy
A dervish and the king of the fabled city of Kanchanpur (BL IO Islamic 14, f.20r)

But this is not the frame story of the Phulban. Rather the whole work is a loose collection of tales, as one story leads to another. Ibn Nishati claimed in the prefatory part of the poem that his work originates in a Persian work named Basatin that is a mirror of love (basatin jo hikayat farsi hai / muhabbat dekhne ki arsi hai), exhorting himself to “translate” it into the more accessible Dakhni.[4] This Persian Basatin has generally been considered as a reference to a lost work, but it is most likely the fifteenth-century Indo-Persian prose romance, Basatin al-uns (Garden of companionship) written by Muhammad ibn Sadr Taj ‘Abdusi Akhsitan Dihlavi, a work that had a moderate degree of readership in the early modern period.[4] Some changes in place names were made in the Dakhni version, such as the city of Ujjain becomes Kanchanpur. Ibn Nishati’s work is considerably shorter than the Persian one, which is in mixed prose and verse.

The story of the king who learns the secret of making his soul enter another creature’s body has its origins in Sanskrit literature, especially connected with King Vikramaditya of Ujjain. In the Dakhni version, the king’s evil vizier learns the secret mantra and takes over the king’s body and life. It is the king’s faithful wife who helps him kill the villain and re-enter his own body.

The evil vizier takes over the king’s body and life (BL IO Islamic 14, f.41r)

The longest story in the second half of the text is a romance with a somewhat convoluted plot that involves the love, separation, and reunion of the Egyptian prince Humayun-fal and the princess of Ajam, Samanbar. Although they elope and live in hiding, the king of India falls in love with her as she is drying her hair at a palace window.

The King of India falls in love with Princess Samanbar (BL IO Islamic 14, f.61v)

In order to steal her from his rival, the king conspires to have Humayun drowned, but the distraught Samanbar spurns him. To avenge his son’s death, Humayun’s father comes with his Egyptian army and in an epic interlude defeats the Indian king. It is then discovered that Humayun did not die after all and is being held captive by fairies. Overjoyed by the news, Samanbar becomes a jogan and sets off to find him.

Princess Samanbar sets off in search of Prince Humayun (BL IO Islamic 14, f.83r)

She arrives at a stunning palace whose walls are adorned with inscriptions of the feasts of the Qutbshahs, the battles of the Turkmen, and pictures of legendary Persianate lovers such as Shirin-Farhad, Vamiq-Azra, and Layla-Majnun. The fairy princess Mulkara discovers her there and helps the lovers reunite. A third of the total paintings in the manuscript are devoted to ethnographic scenes depicting the wedding celebrations of Humayun and Samanbar.

IO Islamic 14_f116-7
 Wedding procession (BL IO Islamic 14, ff.116v-117r)

The numerous manuscripts of Phulban attest to the work’s popularity and importance in the Urdu literary culture of an earlier age. As with most Dakhni literary works, this one too has never been translated. As Ibn Nishati described the discerning reader in the concluding section of his work: “He who understands figures of speech is knowledgeable and will appreciate my verbal skills” (jo ku’i san‘at samajta hai so gyani / vahi samje meri yo nukta-dani).

Sunil Sharma, Boston University



[1] See J.F. Blumhardt, Catalogue of the Hindustani Manuscripts in the Library of the India Office (London, 1926), pp. 55-56.
[2] For a discussion of this manuscript see N.N. Haidar, "Gulshan-i ʻishq: Sufi romance of the Deccan", in L. Parodi (ed.), The Visual World of Muslim India (London, 2014), pp. 295-318.
[3] Phulban, ed. ‘Abdul Qadir Sarvari (Hyderabad, 1938), p. 22. The introduction is useful for the facts known about Ibn Nishati and also a summary of the story in modern Urdu.
[4] This Persian text was published as Basatin al-uns, ed. Nazir Ahmad (New Delhi: Centre for Persian Research, Office of the Cultural Counsellor, Embassy of Islamic Republic of Iran, 2010).

18 December 2017

Thai funeral rites and ceremonies

With the funeral of the Thai monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2017 the world witnessed the most elaborate royal funeral ceremony in decades. It took place over five days and closed a one-year period of mourning since King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away on 13 October 2016.

At the centre of a Thai royal funeral are processions of the royal urn to a specially built and lavishly decorated crematorium that represents Mount Meru in Buddhist cosmology. However, there are numerous additional rites and ceremonies around funerals in Thailand that are deeply rooted in Thai history, traditions and Buddhist culture. They have been the subject not only of various scholarly research works, but also feature in accounts of early travellers and explorers to Thailand and are well documented in the form of Thai cremation volumes and commemoration books.

01 or_15258 fol93
A lavishly gilded funeral casket with triple-tiered umbrellas on a high pedestal. Illustration in a 19th century Thai funeral book from central Thailand containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai. British Library, Or.15258, f. 93 Noc

In the Thai Buddhist tradition, a dying person was treated with respect, dignity and great compassion. Relatives and friends encouraged the dying person to concentrate on Buddha and his teachings, to recall the positive aspects and good deeds of their life, and if possible to repeat the names of previous Buddhas. The aim was to help them to be free from disturbing emotions like fear, anger or sorrow. Most of these traditions are still followed up till today, but some have changed over time.

02 OR_14117_f004r fol 7
Illustration of four monks with fans and a gilded manuscript box preparing to chant at a wake. From a central Thai folding book, 19th century. British Library, Or.14117, f. 7 Noc

Once the person had passed away the body was cleaned and covered with a funeral cloth called pamsukula. A bathing rite, in which relatives poured scented water over the right hand, took place before the hands were put together in front of the chest and long white strings were tied around the wrists and ankles of the deceased. The ends of the strings were held by four monks who chanted a selection of Buddhist texts or delivered sermons. Occasionally, the monks could recite and perform the legendary story of the monk Phra Malai during a wake at the family home of the deceased.

  03 corpse in urn
An impression of the physical remains of the Second King (Uparaja) Phra Pinklao, who passed away in 1866, during the period of lying-in-state in the funeral casket. Engraving by E. Allouis, reprinted in Yumangmi 2016, p. 37. British Library [shelfmark pending]

The fully dressed body of a deceased person in a high-ranking position was usually put in a seated position in an urn-shaped casket made from sandalwood. The urn could be heavily decorated, depending on the social status of the person who had passed away and their family. The casket was then placed on a pedestal to which multi-tiered umbrellas and an altar for flower and incense offerings could be added. The period of mourning could last from one week to one year, the latter being often the case with kings.

 04 MSS EUR F111-88
Procession of the funeral caskets of two princes to the cremation site near Wat Mahathat in Bangkok during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (r.1868-1910). Photograph from the collection of Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India (r.1899-1905). British Library, MSS EUR F111/88

The period of mourning and lying-in-state was used to erect a temporary structure, often in the shape of a large pagoda-like pavilion representing Mount Meru, at the site where the body would finally be cremated. During this time, friends, distant relatives and neighbours - or even the entire community in which the deceased lived - visited to pay their respects to the deceased person and to cheer up the grieving family members. One or more monks could perform or lead morbid meditations in order to reflect on their own mortality and the universal law that everything is subject to change and decay, but also to transfer merit to the deceased so that they may be reborn in a fortunate future existence where they could meet the future Buddha Metteyya.

05 phraam
Funeral carriage in the shape of Mount Meru. A Brahmin leads the transfer of the funeral casket from the site of the lying-in-state to the crematorium. Photograph published in Döhring 1923, vol. 1, p.80. British Library, J/

Another important activity that took place during the period of mourning was the production of cremation or commemoration books, often commissioned by family members in order to make merit on behalf of the deceased. Daily rites were carried out for a certain number of days, usually 100 days for a king. Preparations for the event of the cremation were made during this time as well. Like in the case of members of the royal family or senior leaders of the Buddhist Order, a large procession of the funeral casket and triple circumambulation of the cremation site was organised. For the royal procession, the casket with the body was placed on a large lavishly decorated carriage in the shape of Mount Meru. Following Thai-Hindu traditions, a royal procession had to be led by several Brahmins, dressed entirely in white clothes with white pointy head-gear, who were ritual and ceremonial advisers at the royal court.

 06 OR_16100_f025r
Illustration in a Thai folding book showing a cremation site with the funeral casket in a pavilion in the centre. A monk reads from palm leaves to a gathering of people in front of the crematorium, while others watch puppet theatre performances. In the background there is a stage for a shadow theatre and structures for the launching of fireworks in the night. A colophon at the top states that the production of the manuscript cost thirty Baht. Central Thailand, 1894. British Library, Or.16100, f. 49 Noc

The cremation itself would often be attended by a large crowd of mourners and visitors from near and far, and this was an ideal opportunity for everyone to make merit by giving offerings, listening to Buddhist sermons or by watching performances of the Vessantara Jataka, Buddha’s last Birth Tale. The cremation of royals, senior members of the Buddhist Order or important members of the community could be combined with certain entertainments like puppet and shadow theatre, dance drama, acrobatic and music performances. In stalls around the cremation site food was provided for visitors, and often also flowers, especially lotus blossoms, incense sticks and scented bees wax candles for offering and merit-making purposes.

The sacred space of the cremation site was usually marked by poles decorated with multi-tiered umbrellas or flags and flowers. The highest number of umbrellas on a single pole could be nine, this being the most sacred royal regalia, indicating that the cremation of a king or a member of the royal family was taking place. Tower-like structures were often erected around the crematorium to launch magnificent fireworks which concluded the event of the cremation once night had fallen.

08 reliquary urns
Photograph of two stupa-shaped wooden urns with lavish lacquer, gold and mirror-glass-inlay decorations in which the ashes were transferred to their final resting place. Photograph published in: Döhring 1923, vol. 2, p.36. British Library, J/

After the cremation, the ashes and remaining bones of the deceased person were placed in wooden urns in the shape of a stupa. These could be heavily decorated with gold leaf, mirror-glass inlay or mother-of-pearl inlay. The ashes were then transferred in another procession to a site where a memorial service could take place before it was finally enshrined in a stupa-like monument. This would normally be the final and permanent resting place of the physical remains of a deceased person.

09 OR_13650_f013r
Illustration of a stupa or dhatu chetiya showing its main elements – a plinth with a multi-level square base representing the Three Worlds (Traiphum), the bell-shaped relic chamber, the spire base and spire representing the heavens, and the top of the spire in lotus-bud shape representing nibbana (Nirvana). From a central Thai divination manual, or Phrommachat, in folding book format, 19th century. British Library, Or.13650, f. 25 Noc

In the Buddhist tradition, stupas or dhatu cetiyas were originally designed to house the relics of monks or nuns. Gotama Buddha’s relics are said to have been enshrined in such structures in various places, like for example at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Malagawa) at Kandy, Sri Lanka. In the Thai Buddhist tradition, smaller stupa-like monuments called thāt (from dhatu chetiya) became commonly accepted as structures to house the ashes of deceased lay Buddhists as well. They were built as permanent structures, usually with bricks, and then decorated with plaster and sometimes with elaborate gold or mirror-glass decorations, especially those housing the relics of royals.

10 commemoration
A small commemoration gathering in front of the thāt housing the ashes of a deceased person, perhaps a former family member, many years after the cremation as one can tell from the weathering of the monument. Photograph published in: Döhring 1923, vol. 1, p.95. British Library, J/

Stupa-like monuments housing the ashes of deceased people are not places for worship, but for remembering and paying respect to the deceased and for reflection and meditation about life, death and rebirth. Recurring ceremonies and commemoration services could be held at the thāt or at the monastery where it was situated. Such events also served as occasions to make merit on behalf of the deceased person and to support the Buddhist Order, Sangha. Often people attending such commemoration services would take five or eight precepts and dress in white clothes. White was traditionally the choice of colour for mourners.

11 Siam70
Title page of a Thai cremation volume published in 1917 on occasion of the funeral of Phraya Kamhaeng Ronnarit, sponsored by the deceased’s son Phraya Kraiphet Rattanasongkhram. The book contains the Chronicle of the Kingdom of Cambodia, held at the Vajiranana Library in manuscript form, translated into modern Thai and with a foreword by Prince Damrong Ratchanuphap. British Library, Siam.70

Prior to the 20th century it was a widespread practice to commission a handwritten cremation or commemoration volume in folding book format containing a selection of Buddhist texts in Pali language, often extracts from the seven books of the Abhidhamma, which were sometimes combined with the Thai version of Phra Malai. A colophon would often include information on the occasion, the sponsor of the manuscript and for which purpose it was produced. In the first decades of the 20th century, however, a printing culture of cremation and commemoration volumes evolved which by the 1930s had completely replaced the production of handwritten funeral books. Due to the fact that the printed volumes could be distributed to large numbers of people attending the cremation and commemoration services, the contents of these books became much more varied and ranged from art, music, literature, history, archaeology, linguistics and poetry, to Thai traditions and customs, ranks and titles of the nobility, writings and travels of kings etc. The Vajiranana Library, Sophon Printers and Thai Printers were the forerunners in the production of such cremation volumes. The texts contained in the books were often transcriptions from older palm-leaf manuscripts or handwritten folding books held in the collections of the Vajiranana Library, in private collections of royals and in various monastery libraries.

Further reading
Döhring, Karl, Siam, volumes 1 and 2. Darmstadt: Folkwang Verlag, 1923
Hays, Jeffre, Funerals, death customs and cremations in Thailand.
Mouhot, Henri M., Travels in the central parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos, during the years 1858, 1859 and 1860, vol. 2. London: John Murray, 1864
Ngān phramērumāt samai Krung Rattanakōsin. Bangkok : Ratthabān nai Phrabāt Somdet Phrapō̜raminthara Mahā Phūmiphon ʻAdunyadēt, [1985]
Nonthaphō̜n Yūmangmī, Thamnīam phraborommasop lae phrasop chaonāi. 3rd ed. Bangkok: Matichon, 2016
Williams, Paul and Patrice Ladwig, Buddhist funeral cultures of Southeast Asia and China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Ccownwork

13 December 2017

A handbook of Ethiopian magic incantations and talisman art

Currently on display in our exhibition Harry Potter: History of Magic are two intriguing items from Ethiopia: an amulet (Or.12859) and a magical manuscript (Or.11390). Ethiopian amulets and magical recipe books such as these are a striking and very distinctive form of Ethiopian Christian material culture, yet they remain a relatively poorly understood and understudied topic. Part of a rich magical literature of incantation, these manuscripts are also adorned with a variety of illustrations which were created for spiritual edification and for protection from real or imagined harm. While Christian icons were intended to promote spiritual growth, Ethiopian magical art consists of visual representations of the world of demons and evil spirits, making the invisible visible for all believers.

An Ethiopian magical recipe book, 1750. These pages contain talismans and geometric images used for making amulet scrolls, and are accompanied by prayers for undoing spells and charms (BL Or.11390, ff. 12-13)

Practitioners’ handbooks such as the recipe book portrayed above, are remarkably difficult to decode for the reason that they were intended as purely personal documents for personal use only. This annotated, magical recipe book is written in Ge’ez, also known as classic Ethiopic. It contains a rich collection of amulets, talismans, charms and incantations. From the marginal notes, we can guess that it belonged to a practitioner of magic, an exorcist (dabtara), who would have been a highly educated, ordained layman. Dabtaras typically study for several years or come from families of clergy. Since medieval times, they have worked in the courts or have taught in small parish schools, supplementing their income by producing amulet scrolls and practising traditional medicine.

Or. 12859_1500
Amulet scrolls, one with a protective cylindrical case. Ethiopia, 18th century (BL Or.12859)

Handbooks are the main source used for producing amulets and talismanic drawings. Amulets, written on leather or metal, have been worn by Ethiopians and other peoples in the Horn of Africa for thousands of years. This practice remains strongest in the northern Highlands of Ethiopia, where amulets are believed to bring health, to protect babies and to ward off the evil eye. The parchment scrolls themselves are known as Ketab, and they vary considerably in length. They are kept in leather cases, or, as shown above, in a cylindrical silver case, which can be hung up at home or worn around the neck, depending on their size. This particular scroll contains prayers for undoing spells (maftehé seray), after which the talismanic drawings were added, giving effect to its powers. The drawings have a specific purpose: they are intended to cure sickness, to exorcize demons and to protect those taking long and difficult journeys.

H.P blog scroll 007_1500

H.P blog scroll 014_1500
Examples of amulet scrolla (BL Or.13228, above; BL Or.15594, below)

An example of a talisman, is the eight-pointed star below, with four vertical and horizontal arms and a human face in the centre. The magical properties of this figurative drawing lie in the hidden symbolism. The eight-pointed star is a common motif, but has no traceable roots, appearing also in Islamic and Jewish Kabbalistic tradition.

H.P blog scroll 012_1500
Image of an eight-pointed star (BL Or.15594, detail)

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is open in the British Library PACCAR Gallery until Wed 28 Feb 2018.

Further reading

Mercier, Jacques, Art That Heals: The Image as Medicine in Ethiopia. New York: Prestel, 1997.

———, Ethiopian Magic Scrolls. New York: G. Braziller, 1979.


Eyob Derrillo, Asian and African Collections

11 December 2017

An Introduction to the Peking Gazette at the British Library

Today’s post is by Emily Mokros, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley. She wishes to thank the China and Inner Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies for funding a trip to the British Library in summer 2017. This post draws on research from her 2016 doctoral dissertation on the Peking Gazette and for her book on the same subject.

Pages from a manuscript gazette, 10 January 1841 (Daoguang 20). From collection of Dr. James Art Sinclair, surgeon in the Bombay Army (BL Add 14333)

In January 1808, the missionary Robert Morrison recorded some musings on news and politics in south China, where he had recently arrived under the auspices of the London Missionary Society. He wrote:

A court gazette from Pekin falls into the hands of some, & the loquacious Chinese, who spend much of their time in chatting parties, soon diffuse reports, and as is general, with considerable additions. I have called the Chinese loquacious, it is however only to be understood of them when by themselves. To foreigners they are reserved on every topic that regards the internal affairs of the Empire.
(Robert Morrison, Journal, January 1808, in CWM/LMS Collection, SOAS, University of London)

By early 1809, Morrison had begun to translate the court gazette (jingbao) for his new employers, the East India Company (EIC). Confined to posts in Macao and Canton, English traders yearned for access to Beijing, the nerve-center of the Qing dynasty, which ruled China from 1644 to 1911. The “Peking Gazette” promised a glimpse at the activities of the imperial court and bureaucracy. Soon, translations of the Peking Gazette by Morrison and his students became common in London newspapers and journals. Meanwhile, the EIC, the British Superintendency of Trade (established in 1842), and the Chinese Secretary’s Office (established in 1860) began to collect, transcribe, and translate the gazettes. European and American visitors to China sought out copies of the gazette as souvenirs of their encounters with the Qing state.

Originating from the intelligence missions of British diplomatic and trade representatives in China, the British Library now holds the most comprehensive collection of nineteenth-century Chinese gazettes in the world. The collection is almost continuous between 1820 and 1910, and contains both manuscript and print editions for many periods. In total this amounts to about a million pages, documenting events like the Opium Wars, the Taiping Rebellion, and subsequent efforts to modernize and rescue the ailing dynasty. At that time, most Chinese archives, libraries, and scholars saw gazettes as cheap daily publications, and not suited for long-term collection. As a result, the British Library collection is singular in scope.

A page from an 1853 printed gazette. Peking Gazette Collection, 1853, 3rd month (2). (BL PB 15440)

Government gazettes are valuable sources for historians who want to understand state communications, and the exchange of official information between the central state, its officials, and the public. By reading the Peking Gazette, we can better understand what people in nineteenth-century China knew about the Qing state and its operations. Gazettes contained details of wars, disaster relief campaigns, criminal cases, and everyday personnel transfers. They were both distributed to imperial officials, and sold on the streets and by subscription. Gazettes reveal what types of information the state made available to readers throughout the empire, and how quickly this information could travel. Finally, they are important exemplars of the print and textual methods employed in early modern China.

Chinese gazettes offer exciting transnational comparisons to both other official counterparts and to commercial newspapers emerging around the globe at the same time. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, the English government published a daily gazette called the London Gazette. By the nineteenth century, the London Gazette contained advertisements, and was subject to a press tax. Like the Chinese gazette, this paper excerpted from official documents. In comparison with the London Gazette, the Peking Gazette included relatively candid representations of state operations, because it published critical internal reports about the misbehavior of serving officials and the salacious details of criminal cases.

Like newspapers, gazettes provide insights into everyday life and social conditions. However, gazette writers did not act as editors. They did not include their own opinions, solicit letters, or publish commercial information. The Qing government regulated the contents , and punished accidental or intentional variations. Although the state controlled gazettes, it did so in order to maintain the document’s authority, rather than to eliminate unfavorable representations of court and officials as we might expect.

In addition, the margins of the Peking Gazette collection reveal hidden dimensions of historical Sino-British interactions. Many gazettes in the British Library collection were annotated by readers: names were marked, Western dates were added, and pencil summaries in English were included.

Gazette with names marked. Peking Gazette collection. 1855 1st month (Daily Edition) (BL PB 15440)

We also see  evidence of the idle moments of the Chinese clerks who worked through gazettes, including whimsical sketches and calligraphy practice on unused pages.

Sketch in a gazette. Peking Gazette collection. 1845, 3rd-4th month (BL PB 15440)

British diplomats also compiled translated summaries of the Chinese gazette. The archives of the Chinese Secretary’s Office, held at the National Archives at Kew, reveal this process in action (see in particular FO 233 and FO 1080).

The diary of Sir Chaloner Alabaster (1838-1898), held at the University of London, details his experience as a student interpreter in China. British student interpreters worked through translations each day as part of their language training. One day in 1856, eighteen-year-old Alabaster wrote in his diary:

…we worked away but did not do much today the teachers being remarkable stupid at 12 1/2 down to office & when there wasted my time nicely reading extracts from the Peking Gazette however as it was by Wades [Thomas Francis Wade, Chinese Secretary] order it was alright.
(Diary of Sir Chaloner Alabaster, 1856, n.p, MS 380451, SOAS, University of London)

Today, as in Alabaster’s day, it is possible to waste your time quite nicely reading the Peking Gazette collection at the British Library. It is a fascinating glimpse into the daily reading of individuals across nineteenth-century China, from emperor to interpreter.

Further reading
For a study of the place of the Peking Gazette in the late Qing newspaper Shenbao, see:
Barbara Mittler, A Newspaper for China? Power, Identity, and Change in Shanghai’s News Media (1872-1912) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), Chapter 3.

For a pioneering scholarly introduction to the Qing gazette, see:
Jonathan Ocko, “The British Museum’s Peking Gazette,” Ch’ing shih wen-t’i 2, no.9 (1973): 35-49.

On the history of news in Europe before the modern newspaper, see:
Andrew Pettegree, The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

On the history of the London gazette, see:
P.M. Handover, A History of the London Gazette, 1665-1965 (London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1965).

Emily Mokros, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Berkeley

04 December 2017

Illuminating India: Photography 1857-2017

Illuminating India: Photography 1857-2017  is a special exhibition at the Science Museum, commemorating 70 years of Independence and is part of the British Council's UK-India Year of Culture. This ambitious survey documents the use of photography in the subcontinent and how it portrayed as well as perceived pivotal events in history including the Mutiny of 1857 and Partition and Independence in 1947. The exhibition is arranged in 6 sections: ‘The Mutiny’, ‘Photography, Power and Performance’, ‘Early Colour’, ‘Independence and Partition’, ‘Modern India’ and ‘Contemporary’. The exhibition is drawn from multiple collections, notably the British Library and the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, as well as works from contemporary photographers including  Vasantha Yogananthan and Sohrab Hura. The British Library has lent 15 individual photographs and albums which are featured in the first two sections of the exhibition. A few of the highlights are discussed in this blog post.

Photo 1138 (1) copy
Felice Beato, Panorama of Lucknow, BL Photo 1138(1)   noc

Felice Beato's six part panorama of Lucknow, one of the principal sites of the atrocities of the Mutiny, is featured in the start of the exhibition.  Beato, a war photographer, went to India to document the aftermath of the Mutiny and arrived in Lucknow in March 1858. He photographed many of the destroyed buildings including the Sikandra Bagh, a poignant photo that featured the remains of Indian soldiers in the foreground. Beato also photographed several panoramic views of the city, including this one picturing the courtyard of the Kaisarbagh from the Roshan-ud-Daula Kothi. This once magnificent palace complex was only completed in 1852 just a few years before the uprisings, for local ruler Wajid Ali Shah. The Kaisarbagh was designed by Ahmad Ali Khan, an architect who would learn about photographic process from a British solider and be appointed as the official court photographer.  

Khan learned to produce both daguerreotypes and photographic prints. His photographs are well documented in the British Library's collection.  One of the earliest photographs featured in the exhibition and from our collection includes a portrait of Nawab Raj Begum Sahibah of Oudh, the daughter of the King Wajid Ali Shah of Oudh, taken in c. 1855. Khan obtained permission from the King to take portraits of his wide and the ladies of the court (Gordon 2010, 148-9). The Library’s collection also includes Ahmad Ali Khan’s portrait of the King of Oudh and his wife (BL Photo 500). 

Photo 500(3)
Nawab Raj Begum Sahibah of Oudh, the daughter of the King Wajid Ali Shah of Oudh, by Ahmad Ali Khan, c. 1855. BL Photo 500(3)  noc

The exhibition features works by both commercial photographers, Indian and British, as well as amateur photographers. In regards to the Mutiny, two works by Major Robert Christopher Tytler and his wife Harriet are featured in this section. Tytler was in the Bengal Army and both he and his wife were in Delhi during the siege. He learned the art of photography and printing from both Felice Beato and John Murray in 1858. They took more than 500 photographs of sites associated with the Mutiny. In Lucknow they photographed the Macchi Bhavan, a fortress that would ultimately disappear by the 1890s, and the decaying splendour of the Chaulakhi gateway into the Kaiserbagh palace. 

Photo 193 (14) copy
Palace of Shuja ud-Daula at Lucknow (left) with the mosque of Aurangzeb in the far distance by Robert and Harriet Tytler, 1858. BL Photo 193(14)  noc

[View of the principal gateway into the Kaiserbagh, Lucknow.] by Robert and Harriet Tytler, 1858. BL Photo 193(22)  noc

The exhibition also features works by John Murray, documenting the sites of Cawnpore and Delhi in the aftermath of the Mutiny, including the Sutter Ghat or the Sati Chaura Ghat, where there was a major massacre of Europeans who attempted to flee down river by boats to Allahabad and were shot by sepoys on 27 June 1857. The final and perhaps one of the most iconic images from our collection, that of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II, awaiting trail in 1858, before he was sent to exile in Burma, is featured in this section. 

Photo 797 (37) copy
The Ex-King of Delhi [Bahadur Shah II] by Robert Tytler and Charles Shepherd, 1858. BL Photo 797(37)  noc

In the second section, 'Photography, Power and Performance', photographs from the British Library document the imperial grandeur of the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon's tours of India in 1899 and 1902. Our presentation album, 'HE Lord Curzon's first tour in India, 1899' includes photographs of visits, receptions and ceremonies at Delhi, Bombay, Bhopal, Sanchi, Gwalior, Agra, Sikandra, Fatehpur Sikri, Mathura, Vrindavan, Kanpur, Lucknow and Varanasi. Included on display are the iconic images of Lord and hunting tigers and their trophies.

Photo 430 17 33
'First tiger shot by HE Lord Curzon in India, Gwalior' by Lala Deen Dayal from the album HE Lord Curzon's first tour in India, 1899. BL  Photo 430/17(33) noc

The exhibition also features a section the use of photography as a medium to document anthropology and ethnography as demonstrated through the J. Forbes Watson's The People of India (an eight volume study rooted in imperialist ideology) and William Johnson, The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombay, 1863.

Photo 355 9 (2)
Full-length seated portrait of Shah Jahan Begum (1858-1930), daughter of Sikander Begum and herself Begum of Bhopal 1901-26. BL Photo 355/9(33) - also published in The People of India, by James Waterhouse, 1862.  noc


Additional photographs on loan to the Science Museum include:

An illustrated historical album of the Rajas and Taaluqdars of Oudh (Allahabad, 1880), compiled and illustrated by Darogah Haji Abbas Ali, Government Pensioner, late Municipal Engineer, BL Photo 987.

The Lucknow album (Calcutta, 1874), compiled and photographed by Darogha Abbas Ali, BL Photo 988. 

Shikar party [Lord Curzon and party posed with dead tiger beneath shooting platform near Nekonda, Warangal District, Hyderabad] by Lala Deen Dayal, April 1902. BL Photo 556/3(67)

Their Excellencies on jhoola [Lord Curzon taking aim from a shooting platform in a tree, near Nekonda, Warangal District, Hyderabad] by Lala Deen Dayal, April 1902. BL  Photo 556/3(65)


Further reading:

India: pioneering photographers 1850-1900, by John Falconer (London, 2001)

India through the lens. Photography 1840-1911, edited by Vidya Dehejia, ( Washington DC, 2000)

The coming of photography in India, by Christopher Pinney (London 2008)

Traces of India: photography, architecture, and the politics of representation, 1850-1900, edited by Maria Antonella Pelizzari (Montreal, 2003)

Lucknow: City of Illusion, ed. Rosie Llewllyn-Jones (Delhi, 2008)  

'A sacred interest: the role of photography in the city of mourning' by Sophie Gordon in India's fabled city, the art of courtly Lucknow (Los Angeles, 2010)


Malini Roy

Visual Arts Curator