THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

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

17 February 2017

Kammavaca: Burmese Buddhist ordination manuscripts

Kammavaca is a Pali term describing an assemblage of passages from the Tipitaka –  the Theravada Buddhist canon –  that relate to ordination, the bestowing of robes, and other rituals of monastic life. A Kammavaca is a highly ornamental type of manuscript usually commissioned by lay members of society as a work of merit, to be presented to monasteries when a son enters the Buddhist Order as a novice or becomes ordained as a monk. The novitiation ceremony of a Buddhist monk is an important family ritual, the main purpose being to gain merit for their future life. A novice may remain a monk for as long as he wishes, whether for one week or one season of lent or even for life, and he may undergo the initiation ceremony as many times as he likes. The most important Kammavaca were prepared for the upasampada (higher ordination), the ritual for the ordination of a Buddhist monk. 

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British Library, Add. 15289, f. 1v, top outer leaf  noc
Add15289
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script on gilded and lacquered palm leaf, 18th century. The outer leaf, shown above, has eight octagonal panels with lotus patterns within circles, while the leaf below shows the beginning of the ordination text (upasampada), flanked by similar larger lotus patterns. British Library, Add. 15289, f.1.  noc

Kammavaca manuscripts are written on a variety of materials, primarily on palm leaf but also on stiffened cloth, or gold, silver, metal or ivory sheets in the shape of palm leaf. Thickly applied lacquer or gilded decoration appears on the leaves themselves and also on the cover boards. The Pali text is written in black lacquer in ornate Burmese characters known as ‘tamarind-seed’ script, also refered to as ‘square’ script, which differs from the usual round Burmese writing. Some attractive and unusual Kammavaca may be made from discarded monastic robes thickly covered with black lacquer, with inlaid mother-of-pearl letters.

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British Library, Or. 12010H, f.1v  noc
Or12010H
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script on ivory, 18th century. The outer leaf shown at the top is lacquered and gilded with birds and lotuses in octagonal panels, while  the opening leaf of the ordination section (upasampada) shown below has black lacquered text and gilded lotus patterns. British Library, Or. 12010H, f. 1r  noc

In the 12th century, the Sihala Ordination was introduced into Burma by Chappaṭa who had studied the canon and commentaries in Sri Lanka. In the 15th century, Sri Lanka was again turned to as the source of orthodoxy, and in 1476, twenty two disciples and chosen bhikkhus (monks) were sent in two ships to the island. They were duly ordained by the Mahavihara monks at the consecrated sima or ordination hall on the Kalyani River, near Colombo. Upon the return of these monks, King Dhammaceti (1471-1492) built the Kalyani Sima in Pegu (Bago), to which bhikkhus from neighbouring countries came to receive ordination.

Two types of ordination ceremonies are held in sima: ordination for novices (Pabbajja), and ordination for monks (Upasampada). To become a novice, the follower has to recite the Ten Precepts as well as the Three Refuges for a monk.  In order to become a monk, the Sangha or monastic community will perform the Upasampada ordination on fulfillment of the five conditions: Perfection of a person, Perfection of an assembly, Perfection of the Sima, Perfection of the motion, and Perfection of the Kammavaca. The most senior monk will lead the assembly for the newly-ordained monk, while selected monks will recite the Kammavaca taking great care with articulation and pronunciation.

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British Library, Or. 12010E, front board  noc
Or12010E
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, written on palm leaf, 19th century. Shown at the top is the binding board, with lacquered and gilt lotuses in roundels; below is the text written in black lacquer on a red lacquer ground. British Library, Or. 12010E, f. 1r  noc

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British Library, Or. 13896, f. 1r  noc
Or13896.2
British Library, Or. 13896, f. 16r  noc
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Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, written on metal gilded and lacquered in red, 19th century. British Library, Or. 13896, f. 1v  noc

The outer sides of the first and last leaves of the Kammavaca manuscript shown above (Or. 13896) have unusual and fine decoration in gold and red of scenes from the Buddha’s life. At the top, Prince Siddhartha cuts off his hair with his sword, the symbolic gesture of the renunciation, and Sakka, the king of the celestial abodes, receives it, while on the right devas present a robe and alms bowl to Prince Siddhartha. On the final leaf shown in the middle, when Prince Siddhartha becomes a monk, Sakka plays the harp to show Siddhartha the way to the Middle Path, and devas come to pay respects. The outer margins of text leaves are decorated with deva.

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British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1v, outer front board   noc
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British Library, Or. 12010A, inner front board with donor's name  noc
Or 12010A
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, lacquered cloth, with gilded and lacquered boards, 19th century. British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1r.  noc

The leaves of this manuscript (Or. 12010A) consist of cloth thickly covered with lacquer to provide a rigid surface, which is then gilded with background decoration of floral sprigs. In the margins are depicted kneeling deva or celestial figures with their hands clasped in reverence for the Kammavaca text. The text leaves are stored between a pair of bevelled binding boards, red on the inside, and lacquered and gilt on the outside, with devas within panels. A Burmese inscription on the inside of the top board of this Kammavaca records that the manuscript was a pious gift of lay devotee U Tha Hsan and his wife Ma Lun.

The manuscript contains the following Kammavaca texts: Upasampada  (Official Act for the conferment of the Higher Ordination), Kathinadussadana (Official Act for the holding of the Kathina ceremony), Ticivarena-avippavasa (text for the investiture of a monk with the three robes), Sima-sammannita (Official Act for the Agreement of boundary limits), Thera-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon the seniority of theras), Nama-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon a name), Vihara-kappa-bhumi-sammuti (text of the dedication of a Vihara), Kuṭi-vatthu-sammuti (Official Act to search and agree upon a site for a hut), Nissaya-muti-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon relaxation of the requisites). 

The leaves of the various Kammavaca manuscripts illustrated in this post range are made of various materials including palm leaf, ivory, metal and lacquered cloth, and range in size from 50 to 60 cm in length, and from 10 to 15 cm in width. The outer sides of the first and final leaves of the Kammavaca are usually decorated with panels of birds, lotus, flower and leaf designs, devas, figures of the Buddha and geometric patterns. The leaves have two holes in them in which small bamboo sticks are usually inserted in order to hold the leaves together, and the leaves are bound between decorated binding boards. Kammavaca were usually wrapped in woven or silk wrappers, and secured with a woven ribbon and placed in a gilded box.

Further reading:
To Cin Khui, The Kalyani Inscriptions erected by King Dhammaceti at Pegu in 1476 A.D. Rangoon: Superintendent, Government Printing, 1892.
Sao Htun Hmat Win, The initiation of novicehood and the ordination of monkhood in the Burmese Buddhist culture. Rangoon: Department  of Religious Affairs, 1986.

San San May, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

14 February 2017

Romancing the Tome: Love in Illustrated Persian Manuscripts

For anyone inspired by celebrations of St Valentine’s day, Persian literature has much to offer. Whether it be platonic adoration, romantic affection, or star-crossed disappointment, Persian poetry in particular has something to say about it. With a written tradition stretching over a millennium, much of it still preserved in manuscripts, we explore here a few select examples of epic and romantic compositions from the British Library’s growing collection of digitised Persian manuscripts available online to observe wonderful and alternative responses to love, physical and spiritual.

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Illustration to a ghazal celebrating love and music from an undated Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ. The painting is unsigned (BL Grenville XLI, f. 66v noc

We begin with a painting (Grenville XLI, f. 66v) illustrating a lyric poem or ghazal (rhyming a-a, b-a, c-a, and so on) by one the genre’s most distinguished exponents, Ḥāfiẓ of Shīrāz (d. circa 1202). Although its tone is initially celebratory, the composition continues by examining different aspects of the lover’s condition, gradually moving toward the melancholic. Couplets 1, 2, and 6 illustrate this shift:

Love's musician possesses an amazing instrument and sound / every air composed strikes a chord.
May the world never empty of lovers’ laments / their sound possesses a delightful harmony.
Showing tears of blood, doctors commented / it is the disease of love, requiring heartrending medication.

The painting is broadly consistent with the ghazal’s narrative arc, showing seated musicians in the foreground facing several figures on a canopied stone platform. The mature male on the left is presumably Ḥāfiẓ addressing his patron, seated on the right, notionally depicted here as a youth absorbed in love’s sorrows.

Although the manuscript is not dated, it is thought to have been transcribed around 1600-1605 in Timurid/Mughal India, and illustrated very soon after. Some of the damage caused to other figures in the same scene is due to the partial obliteration of faces and strategic overpainting (now partially removed), ordered by later owners. Another Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ (Or 14139, f. 47r) refurbished with decorated margins just a few years earlier at the same court isolates the celebratory theme of the first couplet interpreted more straightforwardly as a European musical entertainer playing a fiddle-like instrument while dancing on the spot, and enclosed within an ornamental cartouche.

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Ghazal celebrating love and music from a Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ dateable to circa 1470, with illumination added in the margins as part of later refurbishment (BL Or 14139, f. 47r)  noc

Epic poetry and romances play an important role in distilling specific personal traits and emotional states in the characters of the heroes, heroines, and lovers they seek to celebrate, and thereby humanising the ghazal’s expressive and frequently abstract repertoire of conceits and metaphors. The exploits of the archetypal hero, Sasanian ruler Bahrām Gūr (Bahrām V, d. 438), are the subject of several works of epic poetry, notably the Haft Paykar, part of the Khamsah or Quintet of poems by Niẓāmī of Ganjah (d. 599/1203). In one of the finest manuscript treasures at the British Library, the interpretation of a distinctly amorous scene has been the source of some confusion (Or 2265, f. 221r).

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Scene from the tale of King Turktāzī and Turktāz, queen of the faeries, as told by the Princess of India in the Haft Paykar from Shāh Ṭahmāsp Ṣafavī's Khamsah of Niẓāmī. Signed by Muḥammad Zamān, dated 1086/1675-76. For more on this painting see Some paintings by the 17th century Safavid artist Muhammad Zaman (BL Or 2265, f. 221v)  noc

The Haft Paykar’s allegorical narrative describes Bahrām Gūr’s encounters with seven princesses over the period of seven evenings. An illustration close to the beginning of the narrative appears at first to depict the first of the seven encounters, specifically, with the Princess of India dressed in black, representing Saturn. A closer reading of the text indicates the painting is an illustration from an edifying tale told by the Indian princess of King Turktāzī entertained by Turktāz, queen of the faeries.

After a lengthy description of Turktāzī awaking in an enchanted garden, the mas̲navī (couplets rhyming a-a, b-b, c-c, and so forth) gradually recounts the impression made be the queen’s magical arrival and unveiling to expose her European (literally Rūmī or Byzantine) features and complexion. Following tender exchanges, the romantically-charged feast of duck (replaced in the painting by pomegranates) and wine takes on a renewed intensity. It is at this point the surge of passion is delicately summarised by the use of familiar musical metaphors establishing the convivial mood:

The musician entered and cup bearers departed / joyousness hardly needed an excuse.
Every imperforate pearl was pierced (in sequence) / every song followed another.
Dance opened the field to form a circle / entering on foot, skipping and gesturing.

BL Or_12208_f123r_detail
Zayd revives the fainting Laylá and Majnūn (Qays) in the wilderness in Laylá va Majnūn from the Khamsah of Niẓāmī written for  the Timurid/Mughal Emperor Akbar I. Ascribed to Farrukh Chelah (BL Or 12208, f. 123r)  noc

In another mas̲navī from the same work, but a different illustrated manuscript (Or 12208, f. 122v), Niẓāmī records with particular sensitivity the doomed relationship of two pre-Islamic lovers, Laylá and Majnūn (originally known as Qays). Qays, distracted with love’s ardour for his beloved since childhood, Laylá, is driven to the wilderness where he is reduced to rags. It is at this point he is given the epithet majnūn, Arabic for ‘possessed by jinns’ or ‘maniac.’ Later, a mutual friend, Zayd, momentarily reunites Majnūn with Laylá in the vicinity of her tents. The scene of their dramatic meeting is evoked in the following selection of couplets:

Majnūn, upon seeing his beloved / glimpsing his soul in a dark veil.
He, alive, though spiritless / she, withholding her life, yet dead.
The two lovers collapsed, senseless / worldly sounds evade their ears.
Bloodthirsty beasts encircle / sharpening their claws in the dead.
The two fallen lovers remained / until midday on the path.

We see in the exquisitely detailed painting by Farrukh Chelah (ascribed in the lower border) that Laylá and Majnūn are being revived by Zayd with a bottle of perfume, just as the text specifies. However, Farrukh Chelah has used this illustration as an opportunity to fill his composition with an array of vegetal, animal, and topographical features that go beyond the text, to make a visually stimulating whole.

Returning to the ghazal genre, a perennial concern to literary critics is the degree to which poets and their audiences, including later illustrators of their works, interpret meaning. Insofar as the Persian language is essentially gender neutral, that is, you cannot automatically infer from a text whether the subject is male or female in the absence of a gendered attribute, poets have in the past been able to encode into their compositions both heterosexual and homosexual references. Such constructive ambiguity, to borrow a recent term, has in turn been exploited by illustrators to respond to the demands of their patrons, in determining the male or female gender of the beloved as described.

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An older man clasps the hand of a departing adolescent boy, based on a ghazal from the Kullīyāt of Saʿdī, dated 1624 (BL IO Islamic 843, f. 322r)  noc

In a painting from a lavishly illustrated copy of the Kullīyāt or compendium of collected works by Saʿdī (d. 690/1291), dated 1624 and made in Safavid Shīrāz, the poet’s place of birth (IO Islamic 843, f. 322r), we witness the interplay between words and the painted image. The scene shows men seated around a pool, several of them with books in hand, indicating a genial poetic gathering. The bearded man seated in a recess clasps the hand of an adolescent boy about to depart. The relevant couplet illustrated here does not, however, mention either the gathering of men, the reading of poetry, or the detention of a boy specifically, except for the daring khvājah, who is in this context a mature man. It is evident from the range of certain visual interpretations of gender in illustrated manuscripts of poetry that patrons and readers generally approached such nuanced subjects with latitude.


Sâqib Bâburî

Curator, Persian Manuscripts Digitisation Project
 ccownwork

10 February 2017

Some British ‘Islamic’ style seals in Persian manuscripts from India

The history of manuscript movements, usage and ownership in the Islamicate world is a comparatively underdeveloped subject. Happily, however, paratextual studies especially of seals and ownership inscriptions are now becoming increasingly important in research on the early-modern period. In an earlier post, my colleague Daniel Lowe (Performing Authority: the ‘Islamic’ Seals of British Colonial Officers) gave examples of ‘Islamic’ style seals used by British colonial officers in the Gulf well into the 19th and 20th centuries. I thought I would parallel this with some examples of Europeans’ seals found in our Persian manuscripts from India. These can reflect the official status of the owner of the seal or more simply act as a personal statement of ownership. The list is arranged chronologically and is by no means exhaustive, reflecting very much current work in progress!

Or2839_f1r
Seal of Archibald Swinton (1731-1804) dated 1174 in the 2nd regnal year of Shah ʻAlam II (1760/61): Archībāld Svīntan Bahādur Rustam Jang, 1174 [year] 2. From a copy of the poem Sūz va Gudāz ‘Burning and Melting’ by Nawʻī Khabūshānī (BL Or.2839, f.1r
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Originally trained as a surgeon Archibald Swinton (1731-1804) began his career in India in 1752 serving under Robert Clive in the Carnatic. From the end of 1759 he participated in the Company’s campaigns against Shah ʻAlam II and at the beginning of 1761 after the battle of Gaya was sent by Major Carnac to negotiate terms with him. Presumably this was when Swinton was awarded the Mughal title Rustam Jang. One hundred and twenty of Swinton's mostly Persian manuscripts were sold after his death by Christie’s on June 6th 1810, however this by no means included all his manuscripts of which the British Library has several.

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Seal of Major James Browne dated 1191 (1777/78): Muʻīn al-Dawlah Naṣīr al-Mulk Jīms Brawn Bahādur Ṣalābat Jang, 1191. From a history of the Kachwaha Rajas of Dhundhar commissioned by Browne in 1784 (BL Or.1271, f.11r)
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James Browne had joined the East India Company in 1765 and in 1782 was chosen to be Warren Hastings representative at the Mughal Court in Delhi on a mission to supplant the Marathas in Shah ‘Alam's loyalties. Due to delays he was not however presented until 5 Feb 1784. This particular manuscript, according to an adjacent inscription, entered Swinton's library at the Capital (Dār al-, at the beginning of the month Rabīʻ II 1198 (February 1784).

It was during his time in Delhi that Browne wrote his History of the origin and progress of the Sicks which he translated from an especially commissioned Persian manuscript. After Warren Hastings’ resignation and return to England in 1785, Browne was withdrawn from Delhi due to policy changes. The British Library has several of his manuscripts, two of which subsequently belonged to the Marquess of Hastings, Governor-General 1813–1823.

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Bookplate of Richard Johnson (1753-1807) based on his seal dated 1780: Mumtāz al-Dawlah Mufakhkhar al-Mulk Richārd Jānsan Bahādur Ḥusām Jang, 1194. (BL IO Islamic 1518)
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Richard Johnson (See ʻWhite Mughal’ Richard Johnson and Mir Qamar al-Din Minnat) arrived in Calcutta as a writer for the East India Company in 1770. In 1780 he was nominated for an embassy to the Mughal Emperor but for some reason this mission did not materialise[1]. This must have been the occasion of his being awarded the titles Mumtāz al-Dawlah (ʻChosen of the Dynastyʼ), Mufakhkhar al-Mulk (ʻExalted of the Kingdomʼ), Bahādur (ʻValiantʼ) and Ḥusām Jang (ʻSharp Blade in Warʼ) by Shāh ʻĀlam II on 4 Rabīʻ I 1194 (10 March 1780). The titles carried with them the rank (mansab) of 6,000 and insignia of a fish and two balls, a kettle-drum and fringed palankeen[2]. Johnson’s 716 manuscripts and 64 albums of paintings were acquired by the East India Company Library in 1807 and today form one of the most important of the British Library Persian and Arabic manuscript collections.

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Seal of James Grant dated 1193 in the Bengali era (1786/7): Jams Grānṭ Ṣadr-i Sarrishtahdār va Mulāḥiz̤-i Kull-i Dafātir az ṭaraf-i Dīvān-i Ṣūbahjāt-i Bangālah va Bahār va ghayrih Madār al-Mahām Sipahsālār Angrīz Kampanī, sannah Bangalah 1193. Unlike the seals above which included Mughal titles, this is an official Company seal though it seems to have been used here in a private capacity. Note the early typographical use of a retroflex <ṭ> in Grant's name, as is also found twice in Richard Rotton's seal below (BL Add. 6574, f.4r)
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James Grant (1750-1808) was from 1782 to 1784 the East India Company’s Resident at the Court of the Nizam at Hyderabad and while there had several important historical works transcribed for him from the library of Ṣamṣām al-Mulk Shāhnavāz Khān (d.1781), minister of the Nizam. After his return to Bengal, in 1785 he was appointed Chief Sarrishtahdār (‘Account Keeper’) of the Board of Revenue and continued his research into the system of land tenure publishing several important works on the subject. The post was abolished in 1789 and Grant returned to Scotland. Several of his manuscripts were acquired by the British Museum in 1825 as part of a bequest of the Rev. John Fowler Hull.

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Seal of Richard Whytell Rotton dated in the 32nd regnal year of Shah ʻAlam II (1790-91): Rawshan al-Dawlah Mubāriz al-Mulk Richārd Vial Rāin Asʻad Bahādur Sābit Jang, [year] 32. The seal is accompanied by Rotton's signature: ʻR.W. Rotton 14 April 1791ʼ (BL Egerton 1016, f.3v)

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Major Richard Rotton (b. 1770[3]) was an English mercenary who, unsuccessful in joining the East India Company in 1801, for economic reasons joined the Marathas. He became one of Richard Wellesley’s most highly prized spies before being discharged and transferring to the Company in 1803 at the beginning of the Second Anglo-Maratha War (Cooper, pp. 241; 264-6). Rotton had obviously been active in India for a long time before this to judge from the date of his seal which presumably corresponded with the date of his being awarded his titles. One of his sons with an Indian mother, Felix, was employed by successive nawabs of Awadh for twenty years or so, commanding part of their artillery, and reaching the rank of captain in 1856 [4].

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Seal of William Yule dated 1213 (1798/99), an example of musanná calligraphy in which the letters of his name are written on each side as mirror images. Yule subsequently developed this design to form a cat-shaped bookplate dated 1805 (BL Add.16802, f3r and flyleaf)
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William Yule  (1764-1839) went to India as a cadet in 1781, returning to Scotland in 1806. During the latter part of his career he was Assistant Resident in Lucknow under Lieut.-Col. William Scott, and afterwards in Delhi under Lieut.-Col. David Ochterlony. His collection of 267 Arabic, Persian, and Urdu manuscripts were given to the British Museum by his sons in 1847 and 1850. It includes many very important works partly derived from the libraries of the Safavid prince Abuʼl-Fath Mirza, the Dīwān of Awadh Maharaja Tikait Rai Bahadur (1760–1808), and of the French General Claude Martin (d.1800), all of whom were his contemporaries in Lucknow.

Or.1271, f2r,
Seal of William Price, dated 1811/12: Vilyam Prāʼīs, 1226. This seal occurs on the same manuscript, mentioned above, which was previously owned by James Browne (BL Or.1271, f.2r)
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Although there were several people with this name active in India at the time, this is likely to be William Price (1788-1888) who taught Sanskrit, Bengali and Hindi at the College of Fort William Calcutta between 1813 and 1831.

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Seal of James Skinner (1778–1841): Nāṣir al-Dawlah Karnīl Jams Iskinar Bahādur Ghālib Jang, 1830 (BL Add.27254, f.3v)
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James Skinner (for more on him see James Skinner's Tazkirat al-Umara now digitised) the son of a Scottish soldier father and Rajput mother, like William Rotton above was a mercenary working for the Marathas. When war broke out between the East India Company and the Marathas in 1803, he took advantage of the Company’s offer to come over to its side. He founded the famous regiment of irregular cavalry, Skinner’s Horse, known as the ‘Yellow Boys’. The manuscript in which this seal occurs was Skinner's own copy of his Tazkirat al-Umarāʼ (‘Biographies of Nobles’) which he presented to his friend Sir John Malcolm (1769-1833) who had just retired as Governor of Bombay. The titles Nāṣir al-Dawlah (‘Defender of the Stateʼ) and Ghālib Jang (ʻVictorious in War’) were  granted to him on 3 May 1830 by the Mughal Emperor Akbar II.

There are doubtless many more examples of similar seals waiting to be recorded. Apart from telling us more about the individual seal owners and their taste in reading matter, the dates and titles granted demonstrate the increasing assimilation and integration of the British into the Indo-Persian culture of pre-modern India.


Further reading:
Annabel Teh Gallop, Venetia Porter, and Heba Nayel Barakat, Lasting impressions: seals from the Islamic world. Kuala Lumpur  Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 2012.
S.A.I. Tirmizi, Index to titles (1798–1885). Delhi: National Archives of India, 1979.
Lucian Harris,
 “Archibald Swinton, A New Source for Albums of Indian Miniatures in William Beckford's Collection”, The Burlington Magazine 143, no. 1179 (June 2001): 360-366.
Sir Evan Cotton, “The Journals of Archibald Swinton”, Bengal Past and Present 31/1 (Jan-Mar 1926): 13-38.
Krishna Dayal Bhargava, Browne Correspondence. Delhi: National Archives of India, 1960.
Randolph G.S. Cooper, The Anglo-Maratha Campaigns and the Contest for India. Cambridge UP, 2003.


Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian Collections
 ccownwork

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[1] Richard Johnson, (1753-1807): nabob, collector and scholar…. London, 1973.
[2] BL IO Islamic 4749, f.13r-v.
[3] MyHeritage
[4] Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, The great uprising in India, 1857-58: untold stories, Indian and British. Woodbridge, 2007, p.60.