Asian and African studies blog

4 posts from March 2018

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


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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

01 March 2018

'South Asia Series' talks from April to May 2018

The Asia and African Collections department at British Library (BL) is pleased to announce an exciting line-up of talks in April-May 2018, featuring a diverse array of subjects such as Muharram, Delhi waters, Tipu Sultan’s library collection, Sufism and Persian manuscripts, Mughal musical rivalries, colonial police and food! This is a series of talks based around the British Library’s ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ and the South Asian collections. The speakers will range from scholars and academics in the UK and elsewhere as well as our own curators, who will share their original and cutting-edge research, followed by discussions facilitated by BL curators and other specialists in the field. The presentations will take place at the Foyle Learning Centre at the British Library, between 5.30-7.00pm.

Muharram festival, 1830-1840 (British Library Add.Or. 401)   noc

On 16th April 2018, David Lunn, Simon Digby Postdoctoral Fellow at SOAS,  will talk about transformations in the Shi’a festival of Muharram, which commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, in South and Southeast Asia during the colonial period. His talk entitled ‘Painting, Singing, and Telling Muharram in 19th-century India and Singapore focuses on various examples of art work from India in the British Library collections; the ‘Muharram processional scroll’, a painting from c. 1840 Madras now in the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore; and the Syair Tabut, a 146-quatrain Malay narrative poem from 1864 Singapore. These representations of Muharram will be viewed in the context of colonial era contests over public space and access to it.

‘The Jharna or Waterfall at the Kootoob’ from Sir Thomas Metcalfe’s 'Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi,' 1842-44 (British Library, Add.Or.5475 )   noc

Matt Birkinshaw, who recently completed his PhD in Geography at LSE, focuses on a long history of urban water provision in Delhi on 23rd April 2018. In his talk ‘Waters of Delhi: Continuity and Change under Mughal, Company and British Rule’, he examines how Delhi transformed from being a city with a sophisticated systems of well, channels and canal under Mughal rule to becoming a dangerously unhealthy city with inadequate water and drainage concerns under British rule. In his talk he will trace how water was understood and accessed under different systems of rule, the changes and continuities in water supply and their present day relevance.

Front board of Tipu Sultan’s personal Qur’an (British Library, IO Islamic 3562)   noc

In our last talk in April, Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator of Persian Collections, British Library, in her talk on 30th April, ‘Researching the Manuscript Collection of Tipu Sultan of Mysore’, will explore some of the rare and valuable manuscripts at the British Library that were once part of Tipu Sultan’s Library collection. Tipu Sultan of Mysore is one of the most colourful characters in the history of South Asia. On the one hand he is often castigated as a fanatical Muslim and brutal ruler but at the same time he is regarded by many as a martyr whose wars against the British foreshadowed the historic uprising of 1857 by around 50 years. On the basis of his collection, Ursula Sims-Williams will shed new light on the charismatic Tipu Sultan, whose library at the time of the fall of Seringapatam in 1799, was estimated to consist of about 2000 volumes.

List of contents from the opening of a late-sixteenth-century collection of letters teaching mystical principles (British Library, Delhi Persian 1129B)  noc

We will begin May with another talk from one of our curators! On Wednesday 9th May, Sâqib Bâburî, Curator, Persian Manuscripts Digitisation Project, will talk on ‘Sufism and Persian Manuscripts from the Delhi Collection’. Acquired by the Government of India in 1859, the ‘Delhi Collection’ was transferred to the India Office Library in 1876, and is now part of the British Library's collections. Sâqib Bâburi in his talk explores some of the rare manuscripts in the Delhi collection that specifically deal with Sufism, mysticism and metaphysics to help illustrate Delhi’s diverse spiritual traditions.

Nawab Muhammad ‘Abd ul-Rahman Khan of Jhajjhar entertained by members of the Delhi kalāwant lineage, 1849 (British Library Add.Or. 4680)   noc

Katherine Butler Schofield, Senior Lecturer in Music at King’s College London, will present on the 14th May 2018 on musical rivalries in Mughal times as part of her series of talks at the British Library entitled Histories of the Ephemeral: Writing about Music in Late Mughal India. Her talk ‘The Rivals: Anjha Baras Khan, Adarang, and What Happened to Muhammad Shah’s Court’ based on 18th and early 19th musician biographies, a genre new to writing on music at the time, will offer unusual access to the history of elite artisans on the move in late Mughal and early colonial India. The biographies offer themselves as both a product and a record of the upheaval, dispersal, diversification and innovation of those times.

Life in the Indian Police, by C.E Gouldsbury (London, 1912), p. 42  (British Library T 9029)   noc

On 21st May 2018, we have a talk on ‘Police in Colonial India: A Study of the Recruitment of Constabulary Labour in Late Nineteenth Century Bengal’, given by Partha Pratim Shil, Junior Research Fellow for research in History at Trinity College, Cambridge. The talk examines the archival corpus at the British Library for the study of the police establishment in Colonial Bengal. Using the police archive, Partha Pratim Shil demonstrates the different and new ways of looking at the recruitment of workers at the lowest rungs of the police, i.e., the constabulary in the Bengal and Calcutta Police establishments, in the late nineteenth century. The talk reveals how colonial police officials had to dip into the wider market of security work in Bengal to derive its constabulary, and how the operation of this labouring world shaped the colonial state apparatuses.

Left:  Sultan Ghiyas al-Din seated on his throne and right: Cows being milked (British Library IO Islamic 149)   noc

We end our spring talks on 30th May 2018 with a presentation by Preeti Khosla, an independent scholar, on Mughal-era cookbooks. Her talk entitled ‘Reintroducing the Celebrated Niʿmatnāmah Half a Century Later ‘brings to life the gastronomic delights, aromas and indulgences of the 16th century Malwa court using the British Library manuscript, the Niʿmatnāmah. Dedicated to the Malwa Sultans, Ghiyas-al-Din Shah and Nasir-al-Din Shah, its many illustrations and accompanying text provide a rare vista into the decadence of this Sultanate court and its obliging female retinue. Evidently an illustrated manuscript that was esteemed over the centuries, this talk takes another look at the celebrated Niʿmatnāmah more than half a century after it came to light.

No advance booking for these talks is required, and the sessions are free to attend. For further info, please contact Dr. Layli Uddin, Project Curator of ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ at Please do come along, listen and participate!