THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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197 posts categorized "Art"

13 April 2018

Adam Munni Ratna, a Buddhist monk in England in 1818

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The Visual Arts section has recently acquired a portrait of Adam Sri Munni Ratna, a Singhalese Buddhist monk, who accompanied Sir Alexander Johnston (1775-1849) from Sri Lanka to England in 1817-18. Raised between Scotland, Madras and England, Johnston would be appointed as the President of the Council of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in 1811 and be a founding member of the Royal Asiatic Society in Great Britain in 1823. Fluent in multiple languages including Tamil and Telegu, he was in regular communication with local Buddhist priests who elucidated Buddhist judicial matters and were instrumental towards helping Johnston to establish trial by jury on the island. In 1817, Sri Munni Ratna and his cousin Dharma Rama, approached Johnston and requested his support to travel to England as it was understood that they were keen to learn about Christianity after reading the Singhalese translation of the New Testament by the Wesleyan ministers in Colombo. Ratna was in his late twenties.

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Adam Sree Goona Munhi Rathana Vadhegay by Robert Hicks, published by Henry Fisher, after Alexander Mosses hand-coloured stipple engraving, published 1821. British Library, P3386. Noc

Arriving in England in May 1818, the two monks were met by Dr. Adam Clarke (1762-1832), an Irish Methodist and well known scholar on the New Testament who took it upon himself to look after them. Later in his life, Clarke would become a notable collector of Arabic, Persian and Syriac Manuscripts. In 1820, Clarke wrote: ‘did so; and in doing it encountered many difficulties, which, because the good hand of my God was upon me, I surmounted; and, after twenty months instruction under my own roof, I was fully convinced that they were sincere converts to the Christian religion, and that their minds were under a very gracious influence. At their own earnest desire I admitted them into the church of Christ by baptism’.

An Account of the Baptism of two Budhist Priests by Adam Clarke as observed and written by Philoxenas provides the detailed account of the education the Singhalese monks received while living in Millbrooke, Clarke’s home near Prescot. As Clarke could not speak Singhalese or Tamil and the monks did not understand English, ‘the teacher and his pupils formed, in effect, a language for themselves, and that principally out of the Portuguese, Cinghalese and Sanscrit [sic]: these helps, however proved insufficient; but Dr C. had the high satisfaction of frequently witnessing, that his pupils, under the immediate influence of a Divine Teacher, comprehended his meaning..’

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Philoxenas, An account of the Baptism of Two Budhist Priests by Adam Clarke, L.L.D. Thomas Courtney, Dublin, 1820. British Library 4323.000.44  Noc

During their brief stay in England, several portraits of the Buddhist monks and their tutor Adam Clarke were produced. In the collection of the John Wesley’s House & Museum of Methodism, is a portrait by the artist Alexander Moses. This 19th century orientalist painting features Clark seated in a chair in his library with one of the monks seated in a chair and pointing to a manuscript, possibly a copy of the New Testament. An engraved version of this painting was published in 1844. In comparison, our newly acquired portrait instead features the Singhalese monk dressed in western clothing, including a suit jacket and a cravat. In the period following their baptisms, Munni Ratna and Dharmma Rama returned to Ceylon where they entered into government service (Sivasundaram 2013, 111)

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Adam Clarke and Two Former Buddhists by Alexander Mosses (1793–1837). Image reproduced with the permission of The Trustees of Wesley’s Chapel, John Wesley’s House & The Museum of Methodism.

 

Bibliography

Sujit Sivasundaram, Islanded: Britain, Sri Lanka, and the Bounds of an Indian Ocean Colony, University of Chicago Press, 2013. 

Philoxenas, An account of the Baptism of Two Budhist Priests by Adam Clarke, L.L.D. Thomas Courtney, Dublin, 1820. 

Happy Birthday Alexander Johnston, Royal Asiatic Society, April 2015.

 

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts

14 March 2018

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

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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.

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

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

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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)
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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.

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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)
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Layla visits Majnun in the wilderness surrounded by animals (IO Islamic 384, f. 42r)
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Majnun throws himself on Layla’s tomb (IO Islamic 384, f. 48r)
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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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05 February 2018

African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia

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February 6th marks the opening of a new display, “African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia,” in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. It will be the first exhibit to be held at the Library devoted entirely to Ethiopian manuscripts, exploring the culture of a manuscript tradition which extends back to the early centuries of the Christian era.

The Ethiopian collections in the British Library include over 500 manuscripts most of which are written in Ge'ez and were acquired from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. The collection is especially strong in illuminated manuscripts of the 16th and 17th centuries and also contains, in addition to biblical texts, an important collection of Ethiopian magical and divinatory scrolls. On display is a selection of twelve exhibits chosen to demonstrate the arts of painting and calligraphy besides serving as an introduction to Ethiopian literary traditions.

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Christ, the Virgin Mary, Michael, Gabriel and the Twelve Apostles appearing to St. Takla Haymanot at Easter. From the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot. 18th century (BL Or. 728, ff. 80-81)
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Highlights of the display are:

The Four Gospels

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St. Luke the Evangelist accompanied by two disciples. At his feet are two Abyssinian ground hornbills. Lasta, early 17th century (BL Or. 516, f.100v)
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The four Gospels are the central religious scriptures of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which traces its history to the first century AD, when an Ethiopian court official on pilgrimage to Jerusalem was met on his way back by St. Philip who baptised him (Acts of the Apostles 8:26-40).


The Octateuch, the Four Gospels and other ecclesiastical works

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The adoration of the Magi, 17th century (BL Or. 481, f. 101r)
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Written on parchment in Ge'ez during the second half of the 17th century, this manuscript consists of the first eight books of the Old Testament (Genesis-Ruth), the Gospels and other ecclesiastical works. It is decorated with coloured borders and contains many illustrations. This volume also contains copies of many 14th century deeds of gift and grants of various kings.


Deggwa or Hymnbook

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A portrait of the 13th century St. Takla Haymanot, founder of the monastery of Debra Libanos and one of the most revered saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The priests are depicted in distinguishable turbans, colourful robes and holding crosses and multi-coloured umbrellas (BL Or. 584, f.154v)
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The Deggwa is the liturgical collection of hymns and chants used in the Ethiopian Church. The hymns are arranged according to the calendar and divided by the seasons of the liturgical year. The book also provides the orders of service for various feasts of saints, martyrs, angels, Sundays and festivals such as Antiphonary for the Fast of Lent. The composition of hymns in the Deggwa is attributed to St. Yared of Aksum (505-571 AD).


The Revelation of St. John

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St John in the presence of God. Illuminated manuscript with 126 paintings illustrating the life and death of the apostle St. John. Gondar, Ethiopia 1700-1730 (BL Or. 533, f. 3r)
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The Revelation of St. John of Ephesus is the last book in the New Testament, traditionally called Abuqalamisis in Ethiopian. This copy was composed at the beginning of the eighteenth century for King ʻlyasu I (r. 1682–1706) and Queen Walatta Giyorgis. This volume is an exceptional example of Ethiopian art containing 126 paintings. This painting was inspired by a series of woodcuts depicting the Apocalypse by the 16th-century German artist Albrecht Dürer.


Carry case for a Psalter

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Leather bag containing a manuscript Psalter (BL Or.9036)
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The Psalter is one of the most frequently copied texts. Used as a daily prayer-book in religious ceremonies, it needed to be portable. This example is preserved with its traditional carry case.


Copper gilt cover of the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot

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Front cover of the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot, one of the most revered saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. 18th century (BL Or. 728)
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This manuscript was copied during the reign of king ‘Iyasu II (r. 1730-55) and, like the majority of Ethiopian manuscripts in the British Library, has retained its original binding. This is the only known example, however, of a copper gilt cover, comprising carvings of figures and of the cross.

Digital Ethiopian
Some of our Ethiopian manuscripts are being digitised as we write and will shortly be made available on our website as part of Heritage made Digital. This is one of the Library’s five main focuses for the coming years and for the first time, the British Library has allocated a part of its government grant towards digitisation. During the next two years we aim to digitise some 250 manuscripts from the Ethiopian collection. The first 25 manuscripts have already been catalogued and imaged, and will soon be available online. We’ll be writing more about Ethiopian manuscripts as they go live so follow us on Twitter @BLAsia_Africa and watch this space to keep in touch!

Eyob Derillo, Cataloguer, Ethiopian Manuscripts Digitisation Project
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26 January 2018

The 'Agra Scroll': Agra in the early 19th century

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The riverfront at Agra once formed one of the great sights of Mughal India.  In addition to the great fort rebuilt by the Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605) and the Taj Mahal (the tomb built for the Emperor Shah Jahan’s wife Mumtaz Mahal, d.1633), both banks of the River Yamuna were lined with great mansions, palatial garden houses, grand tombs and imperial gardens.  The houses of the princes and mansabdars lined the right bank up- and down-river from the fort, while the left bank was mostly devoted to imperial gardens.  The Emperor Babur (r. 1526-30) had been the first to build a garden at Agra, nearly opposite the site of the Taj Mahal, and other imperial gardens were laid out on the left bank of the river mostly in the time of the Emperors Jahangir (r.1605-27) and Shah Jahan (r.1628-58).  Jahangir and Shah Jahan gave the land on the riverbanks to their sons and to the great nobles of the empire.  Jahangir’s powerful Iranian wife Nur Jahan laid out the garden now known as the Ram Bagh and also converted the garden of her parents, I`timad al-Daula and his wife ‘Asmat Banu Begum, into the first of the great tombs in Agra itself, while Mumtaz Mahal herself began the garden that was finished by her daughter Jahanara.  Apart from the emperor and the imperial women, all the men who built gardens or tombs on the river front were mansabdars (high-ranking officers of the court).

Land could be bought, but the prestigious riverfront sites were granted to the nobles by the emperor and could be reclaimed after their death.  The best way for a Mughal mansabdar to ensure that his mansion or land was not reclaimed was to build his tomb on it, when it became inviolable.  Several of the garden houses were therefore converted into tomb gardens.  After Shah Jahan moved the capital to Delhi in 1648, Agra declined and its gardens and buildings became of less importance to the emperor, so that most of those houses and gardens remaining are still generally known by their last Shahjahani owner.

Apart from the Taj Mahal and the fort, only the gardens and tombs of the upper left bank of the river round the tomb of I`timad al-Daula survive today in anything like the state in which their former splendour can be appreciated.  The city was repeatedly sacked in the eighteenth century by Afghan invaders as well as more local marauders in the form of Jats, Rohillas and Marathas, until it came into the possession of the East India Company in 1803.  A thorough study of the riverfront at Agra was made by Ebba Koch in her book on the Taj Mahal published in 2006.  The evidence there presented can now be supplemented by an important panoramic scroll of the riverfront at Agra acquired recently by the British Library (Or.16805).  This painted and inscribed scroll shows the elevations of all the buildings along both sides of the river as it flows through the whole length of the city. The length of the scroll is 763 cm and the width 32 cm.  A full description of the scroll can be found in Ebba Koch’s and the present writer’s joint article in the eBLJ (9 of 2017).

The scroll is drawn in a way consistent with the development of Indian topographical mapping.  The river is simply a blank straight path in the middle of the scroll, its great bend totally ignored, while the buildings and gardens on either side are rendered in elevation strung out along a straight base line.  Buildings and inscriptions on each side of the river are therefore upside down compared to those on the opposite side.  Inscriptions in English and Urdu are written above each building, two of which enable the scroll to be approximately dated.  ‘Major Taylor's garden’ is noted near the Taj Mahal.  This is Joseph Taylor of the Bengal Engineers who worked at Agra on and off from 1809 until his death in 1835.  His rank was that of a Major between 1827 and 1831.  He had lived with his family in the imperial apartments in the fort (this was no longer allowed by 1831) and also had fitted up a suite of rooms at the Taj Mahal between the mihman khana (the assembly hall for imperial visits on the east side of the tomb itself) and the adjacent river tower. This piece of evidence is however contradicted by the absence on the riverbank north of the fort of the Great Gun of Agra, which was depicted in all panoramic views of the fort from the river, until it was blown up for its scrap value in 1833 (see the present author’s essay on the Great Gun in the BLJ in 1989). At the moment it seems best to date the scroll to c. 1830.  It must be stressed, however, that the artist was not necessarily sketching all the monuments afresh, but could rather as with most Indian artists be relying on earlier versions of the same subject for some of them.  A key discrepancy for instance arises in Ja`far Khan’s tomb, which is much better preserved in the scroll than in a drawing in Florentia Sale’s notebook also from c. 1830 (MSS Eur B360(a), no. 43). 

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The garden of I`tiqad Khan and the tomb of Ja’far Khan, Agra artist, c. 1830 (Or. 16805, detail)  noc

The scroll reveals the tomb for the first time as a double-storeyed structure, much resembling that of Ja’far Khan’s grandfather I’timad al-Daula across the river, built by his daughter Nur Jahan whom Jahangir had married in 1611, thereby propelling her family to the most important positions in the empire.  An important new finding from the scroll is the evidence of the concentration of the upper right bank of the Yamuna of structures connected with the family of Nur Jahan.  Just upriver from Ja’far Khan’s tomb were the gardens of Nur Jahan’s brother and sister I`tiqad Khan (d. 1650) and Manija Begum,.  Ja`far Khan (d. 1670) was the son of another of Nur Jahan’s sisters and was married to his cousin Farzana Begum, Asaf Khan’s daughter and the sister of Mumtaz Mahal.  He was thus the son-in-law as well as the nephew of Jahangir’s vizier powerful Asaf Khan and also Shah Jahan’s brother-in-law.  His mansion was downstream nearer the Fort as was that of his uncle Asaf Khan, next to the mansions of the imperial princes.

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The Agra Fort, Agra artist, c. 1830 (Or. 16805, detail)  noc

Downstream from the Fort were the mansions of some of the great officers of state of Jahangir and Shah Jahan – Islam Khan Mashhadi, A’zam Khan, who was son-in-law to Asaf Khan, Mahabat Khan (Jahangir’s thuggish general), Raja Man Singh of Amber (who owned land in Agra including the site of the Taj Mahal, exchanged with Shah Jahan for four other mansions in Agra), and Khan ‘Alam, Jahangir’s ambassador to Shah ‘Abbas I of Iran, who retired early in the reign of Shah Jahan to his garden in Agra on account of his old age and his addiction to opium.  His mansion was next to the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal.

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Khan ‘Alam’s mansion and garden, Agra artist, c. 1830 (Or. 16805, detail)  noc


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The Taj Mahal, with part of Major Taylor’s garden on the left, Agra artist, c. 1830 (Or. 16805, detail)  noc

After the Taj Mahal came the garden established by Major Taylor and then the mansion of Khan Dauran. Ebljarticle92017_Page_21_Image_0002
The mansion of Khan Dauran and Major Taylor's Garden, Agra artist, c. 1830 (Or. 16805, detail)  noc

We now cross the river and proceed back upstream.  The gardens and monuments on the left or eastern bank on the scroll are numbered in the reverse direction to those on the opposite bank.  On this side there are fewer mansions and more gardens, most of them former imperial gardens.

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The Mahtab Bagh, Agra artist, c. 1830 (Or. 16805, detail)  noc

Our anonymous scribe continues the mistaken tradition that Shah Jahan had the Mahtab Bagh or Moonlight Garden laid out opposite the Taj Mahal (‘Emperor Shah Jahan had it built as his grave’) so that he could be buried there.  In fact it was laid out by the emperor as a char bagh garden (divided by paths and canals into four) for viewing the mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal on the opposite bank.  An octagonal pool reflected the Taj Mahal in its waters and this was immediately in front of the bangla pavilion depicted here.

The left bank was largely occupied by imperial gardens with few structures surviving until much further upstream with the tomb of I’timad al-Daula, Jahangir’s vizier, and his wife.  After his vizier’s death in 1622, shortly after that of his wife, Jahangir gave his property to Nur Jahan and she (and not her father as erroneously claimed in the inscription) was therefore able to build this tomb for her parents in his garden on the bank of the Yamuna (all the property of deceased mansabdars normally reverted to the state on their death).    Just upriver is the domed tomb of Sultan Pariviz, Jahangir’s second son, whose excessive indulgence in alcohol resulted in his death in 1626. 

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Tomb of I’timad al-Daula and Sultan Parviz’s tomb, Agra artist, c. 1830 (Or. 16805, detail)  noc

Upriver is the tomb of Wazir Khan.  Hakim ‘Alim al-Din titled Wazir Khan was one of the most esteemed nobles of the reign of Shah Jahan.  He was governor of the Punjab 1631-41 and renowned for his patronage of architecture in Lahore, where his comparatively long governorship enabled him to build a famous mosque and a hamman or baths.  Only the two corner towers of his garden in Agra survive, the central pavilion and its tahkhana being now ruinous, and the rest of the garden has been built over.

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Garden of Wazir Khan and tomb of Afzal Khan (the ‘China tomb’), Agra artist, c. 1830 (Or. 16805, detail)  noc

Alongside Wazir Khan’s tomb is that of Afzal Khan Shirazi, who was divan-i kul or finance minister under Shah Jahan. He died in 1639 at Lahore and his body was brought back to Agra to be buried in the tomb he had built in his lifetime.  It is decorated outside with the coloured tiles which were a speciality of Lahore, as found on the walls of the Lahore fort and of the mosque of Wazir Khan, and with painted decorations inside.  The tomb survives but its original decoration is largely gone and the interior has been repainted. 

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Jahanara’s garden and Nur Jahan’s garden, the Rambagh, Agra artist, c. 1830 (Or. 16805, detail)  noc

Jahanara (1614-81) was the eldest child as well as the eldest daughter of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, and she held a special place in her father’s affections after the death of her mother in 1631, when she became the Begum Sahiba and ran the emperor’s household.  Her garden was one of the largest on the Agra riverfront. It was in fact begun by her mother during Jahangir’s reign and is the only foundation which can be connected to the patronage of the Lady of the Taj.  The earlier construction phase can be seen in the uncusped arches of the lower two storeys of the corner towers, to which Jahanara added smaller chhatris.  Only one of them survives and the large pavilion fronting the river has now gone, so that the scroll’s evidence is of the greatest importance in showing the details of the riverside elevation. 

Next door to Jahanara’s garden is Nur Jahan’s garden, now known as the Rambagh.  She seems to have laid out this garden shortly after her wedding to Jahangir in 1611 and it is the earliest surviving Mughal garden in Agra.  It was named the Bagh-i Nur Afshan, the name Ram Bagh by which it is popularly known being a corruption of its later denomination Aram Bagh.  Two pavilions end on to the river, each consisting of alternate open verandas and enclosed rooms, face each other across a pool on an elevated terrace, with a tahkhana beneath.  The garden was never meant to be symmetrical, unlike later Mughal ones, and the pavilions occupy the southern end of the elevated terrace by the river.

From this unique scroll we learn that despite the ravages of time, neglect and war, in 1830 there was still considerable evidence of Agra’s imperial past to be seen along the riverfronts.  Many towers and facades remained along with a considerable number of mansabdari and princely mansions albeit partly ruinous.  After the Uprising of 1858, the picture changes dramatically.  As in Delhi, whole swathes of the city near the fort were demolished to afford a clear field of fire and the remains of all the nearby mansions were blown up.  Roads were laid out along the right bank punching through the gardens that were left.  Bridges were constructed across the Yamuna for rail and road that destroyed the environment at either end.  Only a few of the imperial gardens at the northern end of the left bank survived in any form, while the rest were converted into fields for crops and are now being built over for Agra’s expanding population.   It is now 400 years since the heyday of Agra as an imperial capital and our scroll, suspended half way between then and now, affords us a precious glimpse of how it once was.

Further reading:

Koch, Ebba, The Complete Taj Mahal, London, 2006

Koch, E., and Losty, J.P., ‘The Riverside Mansions and Tombs of Agra:  New Evidence from a Panoramic Scroll recently acquired by the British Library’, in eBLJ, 2017/9

Losty, J.P., ‘The Great Gun at Agra’, British Library Journal, xv (1989), pp. 35-58

J.P. Losty (Curator Emeritus, Visual Arts Collection)

 

 

22 December 2017

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

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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.

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

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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)
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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).

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

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

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

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

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

04 December 2017

Illuminating India: Photography 1857-2017

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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.

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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). 

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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. 


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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

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[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. 

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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.

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'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.

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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 

 

29 November 2017

Fifty shades of Kiều

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Kim Văn Kiều, or the Tale of Kiều, by Nguyễn Du (1765-1820), is a jewel in the crown of Vietnamese classical writing. In Vietnam, as Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen (2003: 18) points out, the Tale of Kiều has been embraced by the general public, who see it as a romance, a book of divination, and a moral fable, while scholars explore its literary, linguistic, philosophical, political and social aspects. The eponymous heroine is the most acclaimed lady in Vietnamese literature, and her captivating but tragic story has inspired many artistic depictions. The most outstanding version in the British Library collection is undoubtedly a manuscript which was completed around 1894 (Or 14844), written in Hán-Nôm with illustrations of scenes from the story on each page, and a fine yellow silk binding with dragon patterns. Shown in this post are a selection of images of Kiều from this beautiful manuscript, alongside more recent portrayals from printed books.

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Kiều demonstrates her talent for playing the Ho guitar. British Library, Or 14844, f. 3r  noc

Literary critics have argued that the theme of the story is an allegory of Nguyễn Du’s guilt and conflict of interest in agreeing to work for the new regime (the Nguyễn dynasty, 1802-1945) which had been indirectly involved in the overthrow of his former master. This behaviour was unacceptable in traditional Confucian Vietnamese society as it was tantamount to betraying filial piety. Hence the theme of the story was a poignant reminder for Nguyễn Du, who was born into a high profile mandarin family, and whose father served as a high ranking minister under the Le dynasty.

Nguyễn Du was inspired by a Chinese Qing dynasty novel ‘The Tale of Chin, Yu , Ch’ia’ while he was leading a diplomatic mission to Beijing in 1813. He re-wrote the story by using ‘lục-bát’ or ‘six-eight’ verse form. The ’lục-bát’ was a commonly used and popular style in folk poetry and it was conducive to reciting. Its original title in Vietnamese is Ðoạn Trường Tân Thanh (A New Cry From a Broken Heart). However, it is better known as Truyện Kiều or Kim Văn Kiều.

The name of the story Kim Văn Kiều derives from the names of three important characters: Kim Trọng, Kiều’s fiancé and her first love; Thúy Văn, Kiều’s younger sister; and Thúy Kiều herself; the main protagonist being, of course, Thúy Kiều. Arguably the most recognised and stereotypical image of Kiều is of her playing a musical instrument, usually depicted either as a Ho guitar or a p’i p’a lute. In his English translation of the story, Lê Xuân Thủy describes her talents and beauty: "The bow of her eyes looked like two graceful autumn waves ... flowers envied her brightness, and willow shivered for not being so clear. With one sidelong glance, then another, she could subvert empires and put cities in revolution ... Being a thorough master of the Cung Thương five-tone scale, she excelled chiefly in playing Ho guitar ... (1960?: 22-23).

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Kim Văn Kiều, by Le Xuân Thủy (1960?). British Library, 16690.a.40, front cover

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Tryuện Kiều, by Nguyễn Thạch Giang (2010). British Library, YP.2011.b.433, back cover

Kiều was born to a family of scholars and was a vision of idealised Confucian womanhood: beautiful, chaste, obedient and loyal to her family (Nathalie 2003: 14). A virtuous and graceful young woman, however her fate was doomed, and she had to sacrifice her love and life to save her father and her family. After a noble upbringing, she gradually fell into disgrace, being forced to work as a prostitute, not once but twice, and had four husbands. At one point she even stole valuables from her master to survive. After fifteen years of suffering, she was finally reunited with her first love, Kim Trọng. However, after all she had gone through she could not see herself as his wife, and therefore remained in a platonic relationship with him, and asked her younger sister, Thúy Văn, to marry him instead.

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Kiều meets Kim Trọng for the first time. British Library, Or 14844, f. 6r  noc

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The first meeting of Kiều and Kim Trọng in Truyện Kiều (2010). British Library, YP.2011.b.433, pp. [20-21]

It is hard to imagine how this pure and talented young lady faced and coped with her subsequent downfall. In the following images, the manuscript artist depicts the lowest point in Kiều’s life, when she was sold by her first husband to a brothel. Tứ Bà, the madame and owner of the brothel cajoled Kiều into prostitution: ‘Listen to this my daughter, and keep this in mind: there are seven interior attitudes and eight intimate techniques to amuse people …until you can turn them upside down like stones…you must know how to charm them, sometimes by the tips of your lips, sometimes by the corner of your eyes, sometimes by reciting alluring poems, and occasionally by the flowers of your smile’ (Le Xuân Thủy, 1960?: 176-77).

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Tứ Bà taught Kiều how to use her charms to attract men. British Library, Or 14844, f. 29v  noc

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Kiều in Tú Bà’s brothel. British Library, Or 14844, f. 25r   noc

As Nathalie (2003: 13) points out, Kiều and this literary genre ‘stand out as a character of universal and enduring appeal, a vulnerable individual with whom those most acutely affected by change and misfortune can readily identify. For generations of Vietnamese who have experienced years of turmoil, changing regimes, colonisation, post-colonisation, war and exile, Kiều’s troubles strike a deep emotional chord.’

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Kiều is kidnapped on the order of Hoạn Thư, the first wife of Kiều’s second husband. British Library, Or 14844, f. 38v   noc

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The same scene depicted in Truyện Kiều (2010). British Library, YP.2011.b.433, p. [119]

Reflecting its popularity, Kim Văn Kiều has been widely published in various forms, and in the British Library alone, there are over thirty books on this Vietnamese classic. Literary criticisms, different interpretations and translations of Kiều, both in Vietnamese and foreign languages, continue to be published; for instance, in 2004, Vladislav Zhukov translated the story into English with his own interpretations. His version complements well other widely recognised English translations, especially those by Lê Xuân Thủy in the early 1960s and by Huynh Sanh Thong in 1973.

Further reading

Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen. Vietnamese Voices: Gender and Cultural identity in the Vietnamese Francophone Novel. DeKalb: Illinois: Northern Illinois University, 2003.
Kim Văn Kiều: English translation, footnotes and commentaries, by Lê Xuân Thủy. Fort Smith, Arizona: Sống Mới, [1960?]
Ta Quang Khôi. Nhân vật truyện Kiều, in Hồn Việt. Vol. 36, No. 323 & 324, January-February 2011, pp. 138-143.
Nguyễn Du. Truện Kiều : thơ và tranh. Nguyễn Thạch Giang, dịch. Hà Nội : Văn học, 2010.

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork

23 October 2017

Mastering the art of a strong background: examples from Thai manuscripts

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The importance of a strong yet subtle background cannot be underestimated in manuscript painting. Illustrations in manuscripts often accompany a particular text, or are used to highlight an important section of text. At the same time they function as decorative elements and sometimes their purpose is to increase the value of a manuscript. Manuscript painters had to master the fine balance between the subject or central motif, determined by the text, and decorative ornaments and backgrounds in a painting. The background is an important part of the composition and has a significant impact on the finished artwork: if it is too strong or blatant it dominates the rest of the painting, but a weak or neglected background leaves a large area of the painting unappealing.

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Scenes from the legend of Phra Malai while meeting the god Indra in one of the Buddhist heavens (left) and the future Buddha, Metteyya, shown with attendants (right). Central Thai folding book dated 1875. British Library, Or 6630 f.43 Noc

In Thai manuscript art special attention was usually paid to the design of backgrounds in paintings depicting heavenly scenes and celestial figures, whereas the backgrounds of worldly scenes were often shown in a realistic way with plants, rocks, ponds, mountains, buildings, etc. The marvellous scenes shown above are from the legend of the Buddhist monk Phra Malai, here shown during his visit to Tavatimsa heaven. The lavishly gilded red background in a flame-like pattern known in Thai as lai kranok complements the main figures and the structure of the heavenly stupa Chulamani Chedi perfectly. Red was a preferred background colour even before the 19th century, but at that time decorative elements of different sizes and shapes were strewn in randomly to fill in empty space, as shown below in the example from the 18th century.

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A scene from the Nimi Jataka showing Prince Nimi’s journey to the Tavatimsa heaven, passing through the Buddhist hells. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068 f. 4 Noc

The 19th century was a period of experiment and innovation in Thai manuscript painting. Not only were new and brighter tones for background designs introduced, but also strong and well-structured patterns like the lai kranok. Minerals to produce blue tones were expensive and rarely used in manuscript illustrations before 1800, but during the 19th century blue paints were imported from Europe and sometimes were used very lavishly to questionable artistic effect.

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The gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right) with attendants in their heavenly environment. From a central Thai folding book containing the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1875. British Library, Or 6630 f. 1  Noc

In the image above the strong blue background used for the central part of Buddhist text passages in Pali language, written in gold ink, is almost overwhelming. It is unlikely that the excessive use of blue was the painter’s decision, but rather the request of the person(s) who commissioned the manuscript. Bright blue tones became very fashionable during the 19th century and together with the gold ink they made the manuscript appear more valuable. In the illustrations of the gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right) together with other celestial beings, however, the painter decided to use blue tones very sparingly in the lai kranok pattern which has a bright red as its basic tone, very much in the pre-1800 tradition.

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The gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right) in their heavenly environment. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, 19th century. British Library, Or 15257 f. 2 Noc

The usual way to record text in illustrated Thai folding books was to write it in black ink on the naturally cream-coloured paper as shown above. Sometimes, the paper was blackened and the text recorded in yellow ink or white steatite pencil. The image above shows illustrations of the gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right), both before a background dominated by red. The lai kranok pattern makes use of white, blue, green and pink tones. The figures are kneeling on a blue ground that is decorated with gold floral patterns.

Besides the lai kranok pattern, floral background designs enjoyed great popularity throughout the 19th century. The use of floral patterns for backgrounds was a further development of the already well-established application of flowers and foliage as decorative elements in manuscript illustrations of worldly scenes before the 19th century, though not in strictly structured, pattern-like designs.

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Illustrations of four Buddhist monks at a funeral. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, 19th century. British Library, Or 15257, f. 4 Noc

Flowers are not only aesthetically-enhancing elements in Thai manuscript painting. They can also symbolise a peaceful and enjoyable environment as well as positive thoughts and beautiful minds. This can be assumed in the case of the illustrations above, showing four Buddhist monks seated in meditation or while chanting Pali texts at a funeral. Although the floral pattern of white-and-pink blossoms with foliage in green tones on a dark brown foundation is very strong and distinctive, it does not overpower the four figures in the foreground. The monks’ appearance is presented in very bright colours, dominated by an almost white cream tone and an intense orange so that they stand out before the darker background.

The following three manuscript illustrations feature similar floral background patterns which aim to enhance the appearance of the god Brahma, a red Hanuman figure and a hermit.

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The god Brahma seated in a respectful pose on a floor decorated with red foliage before a black background with a light blue and green floral pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1903. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15370, f. 4 Noc

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The red coloured Hanuman seated in a respectful pose on a floor decorated with white foliage before a black background with a white, pink and green floral pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1903. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15370, f. 8 Noc

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A hermit seated in a respectful pose on a floor decorated with blue foliage before a black background with a white, pink and green floral pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1903. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15370, f. 10 Noc

Simpler floral background patterns that were frequently used consisted of triple blossoms, single or multi-coloured, combined with a green leaf as shown in the image below. An even more simplified floral pattern consisted of a combination of dots arranged in such a way that they resembled multiple blossoms on trees. Such simpler floral patterns were also used to decorate curtains or carpets which sometimes appear in manuscript paintings.

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A half-human half-bird kinnara seated in a respectful pose on a floor decorated with green foliage before a black background with a simple multi-coloured floral pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1903. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15370, f. 9 Noc

Another frequent background pattern in Thai manuscript painting is the cloud pattern. Consisting of distinctively shaped white or light blue clouds on a bright blue foundation, this pattern usually accompanies celestial beings to show their heavenly environment. The cloud pattern often resembles clouds that were used in East Asian manuscript decoration (compare, for example, the Vietnamese Truyện Kiều) and may have been adopted from East Asian traditions.

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Celestial banner bearers (left) and the future Buddha Metteyya with attendants (right) before a light blue background with a cloud pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 57 Noc

The manuscript paintings shown above are fine examples where larger and smaller clouds were combined to form a light-blue and white background pattern that contrasts and enhances the presentation in yellow, orange and red tones of celestial beings (devata) and Metteyya, the Buddha-to-be, in their heavenly environment.

A clear example of neglect in the background design can be seen in the illustrations below. Although the artist put considerable effort into the execution of the celestial beings, paying much attention to details of their clothes and jewellery which are presented in gold, yellow and orange tones, the background design is really bland with broad white brushstrokes thrown wildly on a blue foundation.

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Male and female heavenly beings, devata, before a poorly executed background with clouds. From a central Thai folding book containing the legend of Phra Malai, 19th century. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15371, f. 25   Noc

It is difficult to explain such carelessness in the presentation of the background. The painter may have been under time pressure to finish illustrating the manuscript; or maybe he wanted to experiment with foreign water-colour painting techniques which he had not mastered yet. It may also be the work of two painters, one of whom was not very skilled or an apprentice. Another possibility is that the manuscript was produced at one of the many commercial workshops that had sprung up in Bangkok during the second half of the 19th century where numerous low-quality manuscripts and affordable copies of older, more valuable manuscripts were produced by less skilled artists.

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