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

09 March 2017

The Book of Esther and the Jewish Festival Purim

Purim is undoubtedly one of the most boisterous, cheerful and joyous festivals in the Jewish calendar. It takes place in early spring on 14th of Adar which this year starts at sundown on March 11th. Purim celebrates the salvation of the Jews of Persia during the reign of King Ahasuerus. The moving and dramatic story of Esther and her uncle Mordecai is told in the Book of Esther, known in Hebrew as Megilat Ester (Scroll of Esther).

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Exotic animals in an illustrated Esther Scroll. Holland, c. 1630 or 1640  (BL Or.1047)  noc

The Book of Esther belongs to Ketuvim (Writings), which is the third division of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). Haman, the conniving chief minister at Ahasuerus’ court, decreed to kill all the Jews in the King's vast empire that stretched from India to Ethiopia and included 127 provinces. Lots (in Hebrew purim) were cast to determine the date when the Jews would be exterminated, hence the festival’s appellation. Esther, the King's Jewish consort, was warned in time by Mordecai, and they both managed to thwart the annihilation of their people. The King punished Haman and rewarded Mordecai who sent letters throughout the kingdom, urging Jews to observe Purim every year with merrymaking and gift offerings.

The historic origin of the Book of Esther and its authenticity have been the subject of much debate and conjecture over the years. There have been chronological difficulties with King Ahasuerus, even though some researchers have claimed that he was in fact the Persian king Xerxes I, who ruled 485 - 465 BCE. The Septuagint (Greek version of the Hebrew Bible) and Josephus (Jewish scholar and historian who lived 37-100 CE), maintained that the king in the story was actually Artaxerxes I (465-424 BCE).

According to recent research the Book of Esther was written in the middle of the 4th century BCE during the reign of Artaxerxes III (359-338 BCE), however the absence in Persian sources of any references to a king that had a Jewish consort created a new problem. Some scholars have contended that given the striking resemblance between the names Esther and Mordecai to the Babylonian deities Marduk and Ishtar, the story was rooted in Babylonian worship practices, which the Jews would have adapted and transformed into the story of Esther. The well-known German Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891) for example, argued that the Book of Esther was written at the time of the Maccabean struggle (167-160 BCE) against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, in order to boost the spirit of the Jews at that critical time, and to show that God does not abandon its people.

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Esther Scroll with floral decorations. Europe, 16th century (BL Egerton MS 67A)  noc

As a matter of interest, the Book of Esther does not feature among the Dead Sea Scrolls (spanning 150 BCE – 70 CE) and references to Purim do not feature in the Jewish literature before the 1st century CE. What can be said with some certainty is that since the Talmudic period (c. 500 CE) the Book of Esther has been customarily written on parchment in the form of a scroll, and that the festival had long been established by the 2nd century CE as evidenced in the tractate Megilah of the Mishnah (corpus of the oral tradition of Jewish law). The tractate contains details on the festival’s observance and the rules governing the reading of the Scroll of Esther.

As God’s name is not explicitly mentioned in the Book of Esther, it was considered permissible to illustrate it. Scrolls of Esther read in the synagogue during the festival services had to be plain, however, scrolls intended for personal use could be illustrated with scenes from the narrative or ornamented with other motifs.

Esther Scroll decoration flourished particularly in the 17th, and especially in the 18th century, in Italy, Holland and to a lesser extent in Germany. The tradition of decorating and illustrating the Scroll of Esther continued in the centuries that followed, with fine specimens being produced in Europe as well as the Middle East and North Africa. In Italy, especially, Esther Scrolls were lavishly decorated. In fact, the earliest surviving embellished Esther Scrolls were created in the second half of 16th century Italy.

The Marelli Scroll held in the British Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection, is a beautiful and rare example of Esther Scroll ornamentation from that period. Its decoration consists of eight different types of copperplate engraved borders that frame the handwritten text of the Book of Esther. The borders bear no relation whatsoever to the story, featuring instead a lavish array of putti, grotesque telamons and pagan goddesses holding heraldic shields, and real and fabulous animals hand-coloured in bright hues. The creator of those impressive borders was Andrea Marelli, a book illustrator and printmaker who was active in Rome and Sienna around 1567-1572.

Or13208(1)
Segment of The Marelli Scroll, Italy c. 1573 (BL Or.13028)  noc

Finely engraved specimens from 17th and 18th century Holland have also survived. Some of these have grand arched portals encasing the text. The portals are supported by columns on high pedestals between which stand the principal characters of the Esther tale: Ahasuerus, Mordecai, Esther and Haman. Episodes of the Esther narrative are confined to the lower borders, whereas the upper borders are populated by female figures bearing palm leaves. These specific pictorial schemes typify scrolls created by Salom d’Italia (1619-1655). A native of Italy as suggested by his name, he most probably acquired his drawing and engraving skills from his uncle, the Mantuan printer Eliezer d’Italia. In 1641 Salom moved to Amsterdam and worked there until about 1648, creating some exquisite pieces among them portraits of prominent figures and Esther Scrolls.

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Esther Scroll with engraved borders by Salom d’Italia, Holland, 17th century (BL Or.4786)  noc

Often, embellished special cylindrical containers in silver, gold or ivory, were made to hold and protect the scrolls. We do not know exactly when special cases were first used, however, a brief mention to a case can be found in Bernard Picart’s Ceremonies and Religious Customs (Amsterdam, 1723). That might not be the earliest reference to a Scroll of Esther case, yet it is the only one I have managed to find.

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Esther Scroll enclosed in an ivory case with an ivory puller. Europe, 17th century (BL Add MS 11831)  noc

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Minute Esther Scroll (50 x 94 mm) written on a single strip of vellum wound on a silver-plated roller. Europe, 18th century (BL Or.4670)  noc

Throughout the generations, the story of Esther has been cherished by Jews everywhere for its message of bravery, resolve and faith. The eventful and theatrical narrative which is reminiscent of an Arabian Nights story, and the exuberance and merriment associated with the Purim celebrations, have lent themselves to an outburst of literary activity. The carnival spirit of the festival and the Book of Esther’s striking protagonists have been captured and immortalised in drama, poetry and prose, with virtually hundreds of surviving works in English, Hebrew, Yiddish and other Jewish languages, spanning many centuries. The British Library’s Hebrew collection abounds in printed material dedicated exclusively to the festival. This is just a small cluster of some noteworthy pieces:

7_Purim Pictures (6) copy_2000 Purim Pictures (1)
Left: Shir na’eh ba-hadurim. A Purim poem in Judeo-Italian. Mantua, 1619 (BL 1979.d.36)  noc
Right: Akta Ester mit Ahashverosh. A Purim play in Yiddish.  Prague, 1774. (BL 1980.c.39)  noc


9_Purim Pictures_2000 IMG_5712
Left: Pizmonim. Purim songs in Judeo-Greek according to the custom of the Jews of Yanina. Salonica, 1875 (BL 1977.bb.27(2))  nocRight: Cantares y elevasiyones  para alavar ah el Diyo en la festividad de Purim. Poems for Purim in Judeo-Spanish [Ladino].
[Leghorn?], 1850 (BL 1979.d.8)  noc


IMG_5695 11_Purim Pictures (8)_2000
Left: Esterace pustaka=Megilat Ester. The Scroll of Esther in Hebrew and Marathi. Mumbai, 1886. (BL 1946.d.45)  noc
Right: Esther (The story of Purim) in five acts, by Abraham Levinson. London, 1938. 11782.bb.75  noc

 

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies
 CC-BY-SA

03 March 2017

Vietnam and Dragons

In Vietnamese culture, as in many other East and South East Asian societies, the dragon plays a very prominent role. It is arguably the most sacred of the four mythical creatures - the dragon, the phoenix, the unicorn and the turtle - and its pre-eminence is closely related to the birth of the nation. Legend has it that Lạc Long Quân, king of the dragons who lived in the water, married Âu Cơ, a fairy from the bird kingdom. She gave birth to 100 sons and her first-born son became King Hùng Vương of Lạc Việt, the first dynasty of Vietnam. The word 'Long' in the name of the legendary Lạc Long Quân (Dragon Lord of the Lac) is a Hán-Việt word which also means 'dragon', or rồng in modern Vietnamese. Hence there is a proverb saying that the Vietnamese are con rồng cháu tiên or “children of the dragon and grandchildren of the fairy”.

Fig 1
Gilded dragon on the reverse of an Imperial edict of Emperor Khải Đinh, 1924. British Library, Or.14665 Noc

From the very birth of the country, the dragon has thus been closely associated with Vietnamese kings or rulers, but it is believed that in even earlier times the dragon was used as a symbol at clan level to represent talent, noble and beauty. There are proverbs which refer to the dragon in this context, such as chữ viết đẹp như rồng bay phượng múa, 'handwriting is as beautiful as a flying dragon and a dancing phoenix'. However the increasing use of the word 'dragon' and objects with dragon patterns by feudal lords led to this creature becoming a symbol of the authority of the imperial clan. In China, it is believed that an emperor of the Han dynasty (B.C.206-A.D.220) was the first ruler to use the dragon to represent his authority.

Vietnamese tales and legends also reinforce a close association between this creature and the country’s rulers. For example, when Lý Công Uẩn took power from the Early Lê dynasty in A.D. 1009, he is said to have seen a golden dragon descending from the sky over Đại La citadel. He therefore renamed Đại La as Thăng Long ('Rising Dragon'). Lý Công Uẩn  became Emperor Lý Thái Tổ, the founder of the Lý dynasty (A.D. 1009-1225) and Thăng Long, which later became Hà Nội, was chosen as the capital. It is believed that both the new emperor and the capital city were blessed by this mythical creature right from the very beginning. Lý Thái Tổ was not the only emperor who claimed to see a golden dragon during his reign, for Emperor Lý Nhân Tông (A.D. 1066-1127) and Emperor Lê Thanh Tông (A.D. 1442-1497) were also said to have seen golden dragons several times during their reigns (Zeng Zen 2000: 46).

Or_14844_ffront cover-red  Or_14844_fback cover-red
The Imperial dragon depicted on the yellow silk front and back covers of a manuscript of KimVăn Kiều, 19th c. British Library, Or.14844 Noc

The dragon is regarded as immortal and even though its appearance can seem frightening, it does not represent evil. On the contrary, in Vietnam the dragon was always regarded as a symbol of power and nobility, and thus became the chief attribute of the person highest in nobility and greatest in power: the emperor or king (Buttinger 1983: 20). The Vietnamese imperial throne is called bệ rồng or 'dragon throne', while the throne hall in the palace where the emperor granted public audiences or worked, such as that in the former imperial capital city of Huế, was also decorated with dragons. Imperial attire and accessories were also related to the dragon; for example, the imperial gown was called a long bào and his hat was called a long quân. The dragon with five claws was reserved for imperial use, while one with four claws was for the use of royal dignitaries and high ranking court officials. For commoners, their dragons could only have three claws.

From a geographical aspect, the shape of Vietnam, which resembles a letter S, also enhances the dragon myth. The Vietnamese consider the shape of their homeland to be similar to a winding dragon: the northern part is its tail, central Vietnam is its body with the Trường Sơn mountain range (the Annamite Range) as its back and spine, and the dragon’s head lies in the southern part, with its open mouth spraying water into the South China Sea. It should be noted that when the Mekong River reaches the south of Vietnam and branches into nine tributaries in the Mekong River Delta, it is called Sông Cửu Long or the 'Nine Dragon River'.

Fig 4
Gilt dragon on the Imperial edict of Emperor Khải Đinh,  25 July, 1917. British Library, Or.14631 Noc

Dragons also appear in many other aspects of Vietnamese life and culture. On auspicious occasions such as the Vietnamese New Year, a dragon dance will be organised. The Nguyễn court (A.D. 1802-1945) also declared the Dragon Boat Day, originating from Chinese traditions, as one of the 'three great holidays' in Vietnam along with the lunar New Year (Tết Nguyên Đán) and the emperor’s birthday. The boat race festival was celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month by peasants in South China and Vietnam, to ward off poisonous spirits (Woodside 1988: 36-37). Many Vietnamese proverbs and children's plays relate to dragons, and many place names in Vietnam also contain the word “Long”, or 'Dragon'.

DSCN0684
Dragon Boat Race, Thiếu nhi vẽ.  Hà Nội: Văn hóa, 1977, [21]. British Library, SEA.1986.a.4004

In Hồ Chí Minh City (formerly Sài Gòn), there is an historic building called Nhà Rồng, or the Dragon House, located at the old port of Saigon. The house was built by the French in 1862-1863 in a French colonial style, but on the roof top there were two symmetrical ceramic dragons facing each other and looking at the moon, hence the name Nhà Rồng. It was from here that the young Hồ Chí Minh embarked on a ship to sail to France in June 1911, on his search to find methods to fight French colonialism and seek independence for his motherland. Symbolically, dragons seem to appear in some critical junctures in Vietnamese history.

Further reading:
A.B. Woodside. Vietnam and the Chinese model. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University press, 1988.
Joseph Buttinger. A Dragon Defiant. Newton Abbot, Devon: David and Charles, 1983.
Phùng Hồng. ‘Rồng trong đời sống Việt Nam’  in  Hồn Việt vol.25, no.196/197, January-February 2000; pp. 63-66. (BL shelfmark: 16641.e.5)
Zeng Zen. ‘Năm thìn bàn chuyện rồng’ in Hồn Việt vol.25, no.196/197, January-February 2000; pp.45-48. (BL shelfmark: 16641.e.5)

Sud Chonchirdsin, curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork

27 February 2017

Armenian Diaspora Publications at the British Library

During my time at the British Library working on the Asian and African Collection backlog cataloguing project I have come across a number of thought-provoking printed works in the Armenian Collection. The following post describes three examples which for me highlight the fascinating adaptability and ever changing nature of diasporas. They describe Armenian communities which reached their zenith long ago, and are now seldom remembered, but at the same time they exemplify a willingness to embrace the host culture while remembering and respecting their own cultural roots.

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The title page and portrait of Doctor Sarkis Tateosian Avedumiants in Ardi Hndkahay Bzhiskner: Masn A. Vienna: Mkhit’arean Tparan, 1896 (BL 17033.d.23(7))

Ardi Hndkahay Bzhiskner ‘Modern Armenian Doctors’ by Doctor Vahram Y. Torgomian (BL 17033.d.23(7)) printed in 1896 by the Mkhitarian Press, Vienna, describes the lives of Armenian Indian doctors. One of the more interesting life stories in the book is that of Doctor Sarkis Avedumiants, who was born in 1854 in Calcutta and baptised in Saint Nazareth Armenian church of Calcutta. He attended the La Martinière School, Calcutta — where there were many Armenian students — and was awarded a gold medal for excellence. He subsequently graduated from St. Thomas’ Hospital in London in 1879 before training with the military in Britain and then returning to India as a British army doctor. contributing to campaigns in Afghanistan and Baluchistan. He achieved high ranks within the army becoming the Commander in Chief of the Bombay Army and Surgeon Major in addition to receiving many awards. He afterwards continued his medical studies, studying at Royal London Ophthalmic Hospital and publishing research on combatting dysentery in the British Medical Journal. Dr Avedumiants’ career is described in detail in the book but, published at a time of growing political consciousness, is interpreted from a nationalistic point of view in terms of an achievement of an Armenian in India that Armenians should be proud of.

Dr Avedumiants’ record can also be found in the India Office Records at the British Library under the name Sarkies Thaddeus Avetoom ( L/MIL/9/408 f.129).

Img_20170222_154958 (1)_2000
The coat of arms on the left is Diana Apcar’s rendition of a potential coat of arms for an independent Armenian nation. Notice the elements of Armenian culture she highlights in the drawing compared with the coat of arms of the modern Armenian Republic and the 1918 Armenian Republic. The Japanese text gives the publication details: printed 15 May in year 43 in the Meiji period (1910) by the Japan Gazette in Yokohama (BL 08028.ddd.24)

My second title is ‘Betrayed Armenia’, a pamphlet by Diana Apcar published in 1910 by the Japan Gazette in Yokohama (BL 08028.ddd.24). Having married into the famous Apcar trading dynasty the author lived in Yokohama, Japan and spent a lot of her time trying to raise awareness of the conditions of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Subsequently she did humanitarian work before becoming the Armenian ambassador to Japan in 1920 after Armenia’s independence. The author specifies that this second edition was intended for circulation in the United States in consequence of the massacre of Armenians in 1909 in Adana. Linking events closely to Armenia’s ancient Christian tradition, she writes, for example, ‘that Armenians may be led again “as sheep to the slaughter” and the work of extermination may be completed’, a prophecy which would become an unfortunate reality in 1915 and subsequent years. My fascination with this text, however, is less concerned with the content than the context. Publishing in Japan, Apcar demonstrated an ability to adapt to the local environment despite being so far from her homeland. The distance from Armenia did not deter her ‘diaspora nationalism’ and appreciation for her ancient culture.[1] It is the passion of this Japanese-Armenian author which makes this printed work so special.

Ethiopian school_2000
The Lise Teferi Magoneni School students and their Armenian teachers. The teacher on the left is Kevork Nalbandian, a prominent Armeno-Ethiopian musician who taught at the school and wrote the music for the Imperial Ethiopian National Anthem[2]. From Ardi Et’ovpian ew Hay Gaghut’ ě. Venice: S.Ghazar, 1930 (BL HEC.1994.a.509)

My final choice is Ardi Et’ovpian ew Hay Gaghut’ ě ‘Modern Ethiopia and the Armenian Community’ (BL HEC.1994.a.509). Like many works in the Armenian collection, it was printed in 1930 in Venice in the famous Saint Ghazar printing press. The first half of the book describes in detail Ethopia’s politics, society, economics, culture and religion. The second half explores the Armenian community in Ethiopia detailing the lives of prominent Ethiopian-Armenians in fields as diverse as religion, economics, government, education, the military, artists, musicians and commerce.

The book includes a brief Armenian-Ethiopian dictionary of 1300 words. Here the Armenian word is given on the left followed by the Ethiopian word in Ethiopian script in the middle, and a phonetic transcription of the Ethiopian word in Armenian script on the right.

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An Armenian-Ethiopian wordlist (BL HEC.1994.a.509)

Armenian emigration is much older than the exodus following the Armenian Genocide of 1915 as is shown by two of the examples above. In time the communities adapted to modern political-economic circumstances and either assimilated or emigrated once again. This has led to the near extinction of long established communities in India and Ethiopia and the Armenian presence in Japan is hardly remembered at all. Nonetheless, new diaspora communities have arisen in many more locations globally. Tragic as it is that many prestigious communities have been forgotten, their achievements and existence survive through their literary works preserved, for example, at the British Library and are available for anyone who wishes to remember them.

I am grateful to Momoko Sekido and Eyob Derillo for their assistance in translating Japanese and Amharic script respectively.


Vahe Boghosian, Curatorial Intern, Armenian Books
 ccownwork


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[1] For more on diaspora nationalism see Smith, Anthony et al., The Call Of The Homeland. Leiden: Brill, 2010 and Anderson, Benedict R. O'G., Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1991.

[2] For more on Kevork Nalbandian and the Royal Imperial Brass Band formed of Armenian orphans ‘Arba Lijoch’ see ‘In The Company of Emperors: The Story of Ethiopian Armenians’.

24 February 2017

Arabic manuscripts of al-Ghazālī

In a recent post I wrote about Malay translations of works of Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (450-505 AH/1058-1111 AD) by ‘Abd al-Samad al-Jawi al-Palimbani, a Malay scholar from Palembang in south Sumatra who spent most of his adult life writing and teaching in the Arabian peninsula in the 18th century. According to Azyumardi Azra (2004: 131), ‘the immense popularity of the Ghazalian taṣawwuf in the [Malay] archipelago can to a great extent be attributed to al-Palimbani’. The British Library holds manuscripts of two of al-Palimbani’s works transmitting Ghazalian thought to the Malay world: Hidāyat al-sālikīn fī sulūk maslak al-muttaqīn, ‘A guide for travellers on the path of those who fear God’ (Or. 16604), completed in 1778, based on al-Ghazālī’s Bidāyat al-hidāya, ‘Beginning of guidance’, and Sayr al-sālikīn ilā ‘ibādat rabb al-‘ālamīn (Or 15646), in four books, completed in 1789, based on Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, ‘The Revival of Religious Sciences’. This short post aims simply  to highlight a few manuscripts of these original sources in the Arabic collection in the British Library. 

Or 4268 (2), f. 20v
Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, title from a 13th c. manuscript. British Library, Or 4268, f. 20v (detail)  noc

The collection of Arabic manuscripts in the British Library numbers some 14,000 volumes containing around 15,000 works, dating from the early 8th to the 19th centuries. It unites two historic collections from the British Museum and the India Office Library, with many of the manuscripts in the latter originating from the Indian subcontinent. There are a number of detailed  catalogues but the only published listing covering the entire collection is the Subject-guide to the Arabic manuscripts in the British Library, compiled by Peter Stocks and published in 2001. According to the Subject-guide, the British Library holds over thirty titles by al-Ghazālī, some in multiple copies, including two manuscripts of Bidāyat al-hidāya and no fewer than 27 manuscripts of Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, listed below in chronological order (Stocks 2001: 62-63):

Manuscripts of Bidāyat al-hidāya in the British Library:
14th c: Add 9517/1 (AH 800/ AD 1397); 17th c: Add 9495/2

Manuscripts of Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn in the British Library:
13th c.: Or 4268, Or 8347; 13th-15th c.: Bij 381; 14th c.: Or 5937, Or 6431, Add 9486 (AH 763/ AD 1362); 15th c: Or 6430, Or 14889, Or 13003 A-E (AH 846/ AD 1442), Add 23479 (AH 890/ AD 1485); 16th c.: Or 4374, Or 14883, Add 16644 (AH 917/ AD 1511), IO Islamic 2021 (AH 952/AD 1545); 17th c.: Bij 377-80, Add 16641-43, Add 18402, IO Islamic 2145 (AH 1098/ AD 1687), IO Islamic 2046 (AH 1111/ AD 1698); 18th c.: IO Islamic 749, Delhi Arabic 1750, 1763, 1764, 1768, 1769, 1798; 19th c: Or 13003 F-G (AH 1296/ AD 1879)

Reproduced below is a selection of these manuscripts, dating from the 13th to the 18th centuries.

Add 9517  (1)
Bidāyat al-hidāya, dated AH 800 (AD 1397). British Library, Add 9517/1, ff. 1v-2r  noc

Or 8347
Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, 13th century.  British Library, Or 8347, ff. 67v-68r  noc

Or 4268 (1)
Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, Book 3, in a Persian hand, 13th century (Rieu 1894, no. 173). The name of the owner (and possibly scribe) is given on f. 89r as Ḍiyā al-Dīn Abu al-Fakhr ‘Abd al-Raḥīm b. Muḥammad al-Karsafi. British Library, Or 4268, ff. 20v-21r  noc

Add 18402  (1)
Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, dated AH 1098 (AD 1687), from the Fort William library. British Library, IO Islamic 2145  noc

Add 18402  (3)
Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, 17th century. This MS formerly belonged to William Yule and bears his bookplate dated 1805. British Library, Add. 18402, ff. 9v-10r  noc

Del Ar 1769  (1)
Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, in poor condition, 18th century. British Library, Delhi Arabic 1769  noc

Further reading:
Subject-guide to the Arabic manuscripts in the British Library, compiled by Peter Stocks, edited by Colin F. Baker. London: The British Library, 2001.
Azyumardi Azra, The origins of Islamic reformism in Southeast Asia: networks of Malay-Indonesian and Middle Eastern 'ulama in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2004.

Find Arabic manuscripts in the British Library

ghazali.org: a virtual online library

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

21 February 2017

Knowledge Exchange visit to the National Library of China

As part of “The British Library in China Project, the Library recently set up a series of Knowledge Exchange programmes with partners across mainland China and Hong Kong. Gemma Renshaw, Loans Coordinator at the Library, and Robert Davies, Editorial and Rights Manager of the Library’s Publishing team, were the two colleagues selected to visit the National Library of China (NLC) in Beijing in December. The aim of the trip was to learn from the host institution and to explore new terrain for future skills-sharing activities and collaboration.

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Robert Davies and Gemma Renshaw on the first day of their visit to the National Museum of Classical Books at the National Library of China. © British Library in China

The British Library in China Project is a UK government-funded, three-year project designed to strengthen cultural ties between the two countries. The first of a series of exhibitions will be held at the NLC from April 2017 and will feature 11 iconic items from the British Library collections, including an early edition of the works of Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle’s manuscripts. As part of this project, the Library is also developing a Chinese-language website based on the successful “Discovering Literature” platform, to introduce English literature authors and themes to the Chinese public.

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Ms Guo Ni from the NLC International Office welcomed the Library colleagues. From left to right: Robert Davies, Gemma Renshaw, Guo Ni and Tan Wang-Ward. © British Library in China

While working closely together to develop a large-scale, joint exhibition, the Library and the NLC are now collaborating in new and exciting ways. The preparation of the joint exhibition has involved several months of fruitful interactions, including video conference calls between teams in London and Beijing. These regular conversations have increased mutual understanding, which helps tremendously when two organisations have different working methods and operating languages.

For Gemma, one of the important objectives of this trip was directly related to the upcoming exhibition. She hoped to find out more details about the exhibition hall facilities and conditions, as well as to finally meet the colleagues in Beijing with whom she had remotely worked for so many months! Gemma writes:

(On the first day of visit) we arrived early at the NLC and were introduced to the Exhibitions and Property Management teams. They showed us around the gallery that we’ll be displaying our objects in and we talked about the display cases, the types of objects they usually show, how the exhibition hall can be laid out for our joint exhibition and how practical work is divided between the two teams. It was really helpful for me to talk to both teams because they split the work that is done by my department at the Library between them. Also, seeing for myself what the gallery and the store room were like allowed me to get answers to important questions regarding security and exhibition hall environment, which otherwise would require a lot of email exchanges and translation help from my Chinese-speaking colleagues at the Library.

Robert paid a visit to the National Library of China Press. This trip provided a valuable opportunity for Robert to build direct contact with the NLC Press. As Robert says:

The visit to the National Library of China Press was a fascinating glimpse into the very different context of museum and library publishing in China. Our counterparts at the NLC Press have a large staff (over 100!) and publish many deeply scholarly books, curating and preserving China’s traditional literary culture for a highly specialist audience. Compared to the BL press, the NLC press focuses much more strictly on its own collection and on Chinese books.

The British Library has longstanding relationships with NLC Press for key projects – works about the Diamond Sutra, for example – but we have never had direct publisher-to-publisher contact in the past. There are clear opportunities for strengthening our partnership in future years – for example, facsimiles of ancient Chinese books and manuscripts as well as the on-going project on the retro-conversion in electronic format of the catalogues of our exceptional holdings of Chinese material from the early republican period.

This visit gave me a unique chance to see these projects from the other side and to build direct contact with editors and publishers – who were generous with their time in showing me their neighbourhood near the beautiful lakes of Beihai Park in central Beijing and provided an extremely delicious Peking duck lunch….

In addition to the NLC press, Robert also visited one of the most popular local bookstores – San Lian Bookstore, which is open 24/7 and is so vast that it spreads over three floors in the central area of Beijing:

Visiting a flagship Chinese bookshop was a great opportunity to find out more about the market for books in China – how they are priced, what cover designs and binding styles are used, and how translated Western books are categorised and sold among Chinese original works. It was also surprising (and inspiring) to see a very traditional bookshop – no café, and no gift products – busy with customers, late into the evening.


03 NLC exhibition with Lei Qiang_2000
Gemma Renshaw and Robert Davies with Mr Lei Qiang from the Exhibition Department of the NLC. © British Library in China

04 audience participation corner_2000
A corner for audience participation at an NLC exhibition dedicated to the guqin, a traditional Chinese musical instrument that was often associated with scholarly life. © British Library in China

The exhibitions on display at the National Museum of Classical Books of the NLC were particularly interesting and informative: new media and interactive technologies have found their way into the NLC exhibition displays and narratives. For Robert, the highlight of visiting the exhibitions was a guided tour of the oracle bones gallery, which has an immersive set-up supported by multi-media projection and ambient sound effect. The way that the exhibition curator had made a complex and specialist subject into an accessible, interesting and hands-on gallery was very impressive.

Other activities of the Knowledge Exchange visit to the NLC included a tour of the book conservation studio and of the Ancient Rubbings and Epigraphy department. In the conservation studio, the traditional Chinese way of master-apprentice knowledge transmission is still very prominent, demonstrated by the way the room is arranged: the master conservators’ desks are positioned in the central area of the room while apprentices’ desks are on the right side of the room by the windows.

While we were there a conservator was working on her research on paper colouration. She was using Chinese brush and mineral paints and experimented combining the paint with a wide range of materials to see which combination would better match with that of an aged page from an old book. This type of approach to paper is rooted in the long history of bookbinding and book conservation in China.

The NLC conservation studio is equipped with very advanced technology machinery, including two labs for paper testing and analysis and a newly established Western Books conservation lab, which the studio manager very kindly introduced to us. This new lab is led by Xiao Yu, a young conservator who studied at the Camberwell College of Arts and has a remarkable knowledge base of both Chinese and Western book bindings and materials.

05 Visit to the conservation studio_2000
Visit to the conservation studio at the NLC. © British Library in China

At the Department of Ancient Rubbings and Epigraphy we were given a fascinating insight into the large collection of Chinese rubbings. Chinese rubbings are paper copies of the surface of engraved items or reliefs. As a technique, rubbings enjoy a long history of more than 1,500 years in China and East Asian countries. As objects, rubbings represent an invaluable medium for preserving the history and culture contained within important stone stele, bronze vessels and objects in other material such as brick and jade. We were shown how to make rubbings out of a beautiful ink-stone engraved with plum blossoms: a piece of traditional Chinese rice paper was laid flat on the ink-stone and carefully moistened with sprayed water. After the paper dried but remained stuck to the ink-stone, an inkpad with some ink was carefully and lightly pressed on the paper, leaving an ink impression of the plum blossoms image as the carved parts of the engravings were left white on the paper.

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An expert at the NLC showing how to make a rubbing out of the ink-stone engraved with a plum blossom pattern. © British Library in China

Creating a Chinese rubbing is a delicate task: it requires extensive experience to balance the level of the moisture in the paper, the quantity of ink and the correct pressure. The British Library’s Chinese collection hosts a collection of Chinese rubbings, and the Curators of the Chinese section hope to work together with the NLC in future to gain specialist knowledge on how to better conserve, catalogue, store and digitise them.

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Experts of the Department of Ancient Rubbings and Epigraphy at the NLC welcomed Library staff Gemma Renshaw and Tan Wang-Ward. © British Library in China

The Knowledge Exchange programme will continue alongside the three-year exhibitions project in China and will consist of a series of reciprocal visits between staff members of different areas and departments of the British Library and the Chinese partner institutions, including Shanghai Library and Mu Xin Art Museum in Wuzhen.


Tan Wang-Ward, Project Assistant to “British Library in China” Project, with thanks to Gemma Renshaw and Robert Davies for their contributions.
 CC-BY-SA

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. 

Add15289.1
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.

Or12010H.1
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.

Or12010E.1
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

Or13896.1
British Library, Or. 13896, f. 1r  noc
Or13896.2
British Library, Or. 13896, f. 16r  noc
Or13896
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.

Or12010A.1
British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1v, outer front board   noc
Or12010A.2
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.

BL Grenville_xli_f066v_detail
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.

BL Or_14139_f047r_detail
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).

BL Or_2265_f221v_detail
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.

BL IO_Islamic_843_f322r_detail
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.

Or1271_f11r_seal
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. 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.

IO Isl 1518_bookplate
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.

Add6574_f4r
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.

IMG_4445
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].

IMG_4448 IMG_4425
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.

Add27254_f3v.
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
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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.