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

24 September 2018

The Queen’s poetry book: Hamidah Banu’s Divan-i Hijri

It is well established that the Mughal royal ladies were highly educated and could read and write in several languages. For example Babur’s daughter Gulbadan wrote her own autobiography (A Mughal princess's autobiography) and Princess Jahanara completed a life of the Sufi saint Muʻin al-Din Chishti (Princess Jahanara’s biography of a Sufi saint). We also know from contemporary sources and inscriptions that they were book collectors with their own libraries. Perhaps the best-known of these was Hamidah Banu Maryam Makani (d. 1604), wife of the Mughal emperor Humayun (r. 1530–40; 1555–56) and mother of the emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605).

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The baby Akbar and his mother Hamidah Banu Maryam Makani, from Abu'l-Fazl's Akbarnāmah. Artists: Sanvala and Narsingh (BL Or.12988, f. 22r )
 https://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef01b7c6f873df970b-pi

The British Library has one of thirteen known manuscripts which belonged to Hamidah Banu (Das, Books and pictures). This is the little-known Dīvān-i Hijrī, a collection of poems composed mostly in honour of Akbar. The author is likely to be one of Akbar’s court poets, Khvajah Hijri who was described by the contemporary historian Bada’uni (Muntakhab al-tavārīkh , vol 3). Hijri was descended from Shaykh Ahmad-i Jam Namaqi, as was Hamidah Banu herself – and this might explain why she had a copy. Bada’uni described him as “very pious, chaste, and pure, and had an angelic disposition.” His dīvān apparently consisted of 5000 couplets of which Bada’uni quotes several long extracts. The British Library copy, consisting of 80 pages each containing a maximum of 17 couplets, is much shorter, but to my knowledge, no other copy is known to compare it with.

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The decorated opening of the Dīvān of Khvajah Hijri, dating from between 1556 and 1560 (BL IO Islamic 791, f. 1v)
https://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef01b7c6f873df970b-pi

Our copy has no colophon but was completed after Humayun’s death in 963 (1556) – as is mentioned in a chronogram –, and presumably before 968 (1560/61), the date of the second of Hamidah’s two seals (see below). It is written in a good calligraphic nastaʻliq hand and many leaves have been dyed yellow, pink and pale blue.

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Preliminary leaf showing Hamidah Banu’s seal with the inscriptions and seals of subsequent librarians and owners (BL IO Islamic 791, f. IIIr)
https://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef01b7c6f873df970b-pi

Hamidah’s twelve-lobed petal-shaped seal is stamped at the front of the volume and reads Ḥamīdah Bānū bint ʻAlī Akbar, 957  ‘Hamidah Banu daughter of ʻAli Akbar, 957 (1550/51)’. It is known to occur on five other manuscripts and was also apparently used as an official seal on documents (Tirmizi, Edicts, pp. 2-10). In contrast, Hamidah’s second seal, dated 968 (1560/61) is square-shaped, inscribed with her name Hamidah Banu Begam and a legend which plays on the two words muhr ‘seal’ and mihr ‘ love’, loosely translated as ‘Let her seal be the love which signifies affection, let her seal be the mirror of the face of good fortune’.

خاتم مهر كه توقيع محبت باشد
مهر او آئینهٔ چهرهٔ دولت باشد

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Left: Hamidah Banu’s seal dated 957 (1550/51), stamped at the front of the Dīvān-i Hijrī (BL IO Islamic 791, f. IIIr)
Right: her later seal dated 968 (1560/61), from the Dīvān-i Shāhī (CBL Per 257, f.1r) © The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

This second seal occurs on two of the most valuable manuscripts of the imperial collection both graded as ‘First Class’ [1]: the Khamsah of Navaʼi (RCIN 1005032) and the anthology of Mir ʻAli (NMI 48.6/11). The Dīvān-i Shāhī shown above (CBL Per 257) although only graded as ‘Class two, grade one’ had belonged apparently to Shah ʻAbbas and included the personal inscription of the Emperor Jahangir.

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Inscription recording the transfer of the manuscript from the property of Nawab Maryam-Makani to Mulla ʻAli on the 12th of Mihr Ilahi year 49 (September 1604) (BL IO Islamic 791, f. 40v)
https://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef01b7c6f873df970b-pi

For a detailed history of these manuscripts as recorded by their seals and librarians’ inscriptions, see John Seyller’s “Inspection and Valuation” (below). It is sufficient here to note that the manuscripts with the earlier seal share many similar features. Three are graded ‘Class three’ and they were all transferred from Hamidah Banu’s library to the care of one Mulla ʻAli in 1604 within a few weeks of her death. In addition they have inspection dates and seals in common which suggest that they may have followed a separate trajectory from the other manuscripts Hamidah Banu is known to have owned.


Further reading
John Seyller, “ The Inspection and Valuation of Manuscripts in the Imperial Mughal Library”, Artibus Asiae 57, No. 3/4 (1997), pp. 243-349.
Asok Kumar Das, “Books and pictures from the Zenana Mahal: the collection of manuscripts of Hamida Banu Begam” in The diverse world of Indian painting: vichitra-viśva : essays in honour of Dr. Vishwa Chander Ohri , eds. Usha Bhatia, Amar Nath Khanna, and Vijay Sharma. New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 2009, pp. 20-28.
SAI Tirmizi, Edicts from the Mughal harem, Delhi: Idarah-i Adabiyat-i Delli, 1979.

 

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian
https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef022ad3ace627200b-pi


[1] The early Mughal emperors categorised their books as ‘Select’, ‘Class one grade one’, ‘Class two’ and ‘Class three’ etc.

21 September 2018

Panji in Javanese manuscripts

Today’s guest blog is by Java specialist Prof. Ann Kumar of the Australian National University.

The legend of the Javanese culture hero Panji has endured longer, spread more widely, and been represented in more genres than any other in Southeast Asia. From its origins in Java it spread across Indonesia to the Malay peninsula, and to mainland Southeast Asia (and, it has been argued, even to Japan). One has to look a long way west for a comparable phenomenon, the closest being the Arthurian legends. The popularity of these two legends from top to bottom of society, over such a large geographical area and over the better part of a millennium, is probably due to two main factors: the idealized picture they present of royal courts, and their focus on heroic battles and romance. As to whether Panji (or Arthur) was actually a historical figure we can only speculate.

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Serat Panji Angronagung Pakualaman, dated 1813. British Library, Add. 12281, ff. 1v-2r  noc

Illustrated in this blog are four Javanese manuscripts containing a range of Panji stories which are being digitised (hyperlinks will go live as each manuscript becomes accessible online). Panji stories have a daunting complexity, with many sub-plots, disguises, and deceptions. The Javanese scholar Poerbatjaraka analysed a large number of Panji texts, classifying them into seven main types, but despite this variety, there is a common structure of master narrative in most of them.

The story of Panji is set in the period following King Airlangga’s 1045 division of the east Javanese realm into two halves, Jenggala (also called Panjalu, with its capital Kuripan) and Kediri (also called Daha). A marriage is envisaged between Panji, Crown Prince of Jenggala, and his peerlessly beautiful and admirable beloved, Candrakirana (‘moonlight’), the daughter of the ruler of Kediri. Complications intervene: rival suitors, enemy attacks, and/or the disappearance of the princess. Panji, in disguise, solves the problem and then reveals himself. Like Panji, the princess too is often disguised, generally as a man. Eventually she reappears as her beautiful self, and she and Panji marry, returning peace and prosperity to the world. Other dramatis personae include the Klana, a ferocious barbarian from overseas who desires Candrakirana; Gunung Sari, Candrakirana’s brother; Ragil Kuning, Panji’s sister who marries Gunung Sari; and Wirun, Kertala and Andaga, young relatives of Panji. There are also panakawan (retainers) and servants.

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The story of Panji Kuda Waneng Pati, late 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add. 12319, ff. 3v-4r  noc

Panji stories written at the Javanese courts display a high level of poetic language. One of the oldest that has survived is the Middle Javanese Wangbang Wideya, where Panji amply lives up to his cognomina jayeng rana, ‘victorious on the battlefield’ and jayeng tilem, ‘victorious in the bedchamber’. But apart from his famous martial and amorous prowess, he also displays a surprising number of other qualities.

The poet depicts him dressed for audience in a cloth (kain) of light red ochre in a South Indian (keling) pattern, with a black pointed tumpal motif, indicating royalty, and wearing a green sash of gilded cloth. His dagger (kris) is inlaid with a design of maids and lovers on a green ground and set with gold and gems, and he wears ear-studs of ivory painted green and decorated in gold, and a red and yellow flower (puspanidra) behind his ear. He is perfumed with fragrant musk and wearing a scented salve.

Panji is not just a dandy – he has many accomplishments. He is depicted painting a picture from a wayang play on a kain for his beloved to embroider; she has never seen such fine workmanship, more like the work of a god than of a mortal. He is also depicted writing a poem, and carving an armband.
He is a skilled gamelan player, and a skilled puppet master or dalang who performs the story of Supraba duta, using the Sanskrit words faultlessly. He is an expert in the sacred books, reflecting the high level of Indian influence in the courts of the period.

Nor is Panji just a handsome, glamorous, accomplished aristocrat – he is also a person of virtues. He is discerning, knowledgeable in letters, unselfish in thought and policy, skilled in considering the innermost feelings of others, generous to the poor, giving shade to those affected by heat, earning the devotion of the leading brahmans. He is unassuming, and gentle. Candrakirana too is beautiful, virtuous and accomplished, and at the beginning of the story has disappeared, in order to practice asceticism in a secluded place. Even allowing for poetic hyperbole, all this suggests a society whose élite were expected to be not just warriors but people of virtue, and accomplished in various arts – not universally the case in the 14th century.

For most Javanese, the Panji stories were known from performances, rather than written texts. Apart from the Indic repertoire which has been most extensively described by Western scholars, there is a second subdivision of wayang kulit  or shadow puppet theatre dedicated to the Panji stories, called wayang gedog. Wayang gedog performances in mid-nineteenth century Gresik were noted by a visitor, Cornets de Groot, who lists a dozen Panji stories (‘Dandang Welis, Kudanarawangsa, angrene, angron akoong, magat-koong, prijembada, prowelas maroe, moerdaningkoong, Djaja koesoema, kalmendang dadang dewa and wahoe djaja’).

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Wayang gedog text, probably from Yogyakarta, late 18th-early 19th century. British Library, MSS Jav 34, ff. 5v-6r  noc

In former times, there was also a type of wayang called wayang beber that used cambric scrolls, painted with illustrations of the characters and scenes of the story to be told. The scroll was stretched between two columns, and its story told by a dalang. In Bali, Gambuh - the oldest dance drama developed in 15th century Gelgel - is almost entirely based on Panji stories. The audience of a Panji dance or drama performance would recognize the different characters from the particular mask - called topeng in Javanese and malat in Balinese - worn portraying them.

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Mask (topeng) of Raden Panji, acquired in Java by T.S. Raffles, before 1817. British Museum, As1859,1228.282

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Volume of fragments of Panji texts, inscribed on the frontispiece by Colin Mackenzie: Cheritra Toppeng, The History of Pandjee of Cooripan, containing an account of the civil wars & of the wars with the Rajahs of Tana Sabrang. British Library, MSS Jav 60, pp. 4-5  noc

Panji and his consort were present in society not only in theatrical performance. At all levels of Javanese society, major milestones in life are marked by prescribed ceremonies. In the ceremony for pregnant women, a ritual object is traditionally inscribed on one side with a drawing of Panji, and on the other one of Candrakirana, expressing the wish that a son might resemble the first, and a daughter the other. And finally, as if these myriad qualities were not enough, in addition to all his other feats and accomplishments Panji was traditionally believed to have invented Javanese theatre, the gamelan and the kris!

Ann Kumar  ccownwork

See Ann Kumar's JAVA WARRIOR WOMAN web page

All the Panji manuscripts illustrated above have been digitised through the Javanese manuscripts from Yogyakarta Digitisation Project, supported by Mr S P Lohia.

On Malay manuscripts containing Panji tales, see: Panji stories in Malay

 On 21 September 2018, a Symposium on Panji Stories in Manuscripts and Performance will be held at Leiden University Library in the Netherlands.

19 September 2018

‘South Asia Series’, Autumn/Winter 2018

Asia and African Collections at the British Library (BL) are pleased to announce an exciting line-up of talks in their new 'South Asia Series', October-December 2018, featuring a diverse array of subjects from 'Theosophy and Bengali spirituality' to 'Miyan Himmat Khan and the last Mughal emperors'! This is a series of talks based around the British Library’s project ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ and its South Asian collections. The speakers include scholars and academics from the UK and elsewhere who will share their original research followed by an open discussion. The presentations will take place on Mondays at the Foyle Learning Centre at the British Library, between 5.30-7.00pm.

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The Bhagavad Gita translated by Mohini Mohun Chatterji (1887) (BL 14065.e.25)
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On 1st October 2018, Mriganka Mukhpadhyay from the University of Amsterdam will talk on theosophy and Bengali spirituality, focusing on the works of Mohini Mohun Chatterji (1858-1936), a member of the Bengal Theosophical Society (from 1882) and a significant member of the Theosophical Movement. His talk 'Theosophy and Bengali Spirituality: Mohini Mohun Chatterji’s Works' will discuss how Chatterji’s translations of Sanskrit philosophical texts, original essays and his public lectures shaped the Western world’s understanding of oriental spirituality. More importantly, as a Bengali theosophist and philosopher, he became a major figure in the history of transcultural spirituality in the modern world. This talk will discuss how Chatterji’s publications created a distinctive identity for modern Hindu spirituality in the Western intellectual world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

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Indian Music and Rabindranath Tagore by Arnold Bake (1932?) (BL P/V 2339)
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Moushumi Bhowmik, a singer, writer and music researcher based in Kolkata who works in India, Bangladesh and the UK, will talk about the Bake-in-Bengal archives. In her talk 'The Bake-in-Bengal Archives, and Beyond' on 8th October 2018 she will focus on the works of Arnold Bake both in the British Library Sound archives as well as from her fieldwork experiences in Bengal in collaboration with audiographer Sukanta Majumdar. In this presentation Moushumi will talk about the fascinating sonic maps of Bengal, their process of map-making, tracing contour lines from listening and recording, to listening to recordings, and to recording the act of listening. The talk addresses several questions including what was at the source of the motion: the Bake-in Bengal archives scattered in many places, or what lies beyond?

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A European, probably Sir David Ochterlony, British Resident to the Mughal court 1803–06 and 1818–25, watching a nautch in his house in Delhi (c. 1820) (BL Add. Or. 2)
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On 22nd October 2018, Katherine Butler Schofield, a historian of music and listening in Mughal India and the colonial Indian Ocean based in King’s College London will take us through the financial accounts of the East India Company that are alive with details of music and dance in Jaipur state in nineteenth century India.  Her talk 'Mayalee Dancing Girl versus the East India Company' will focus on a particular musician who stands out in these accounts as an exceptional, Mayalee “dancing girl”, an important courtesan. Little exculpatory notes in the margins of successive accounts reveal that Mayalee successfully resisted the Company’s attempt to force her to give up her salt stipend in exchange for cash. This talk looks at what official British records yield about Indian musicians and especially courtesans.

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I Spy with My Little Eye by Humphry House, Calcutta 1937 (BL P/T 2530)

On 5th November 2018 we have Supriya Chaudhuri, Professor Emerita, Department of English, Jadavpur University, Calcutta, who will talk about a modernist community in 1930s Calcutta formed around the literary journal Parichay. The Parichay group included not only writers and artists, but also scientists, historians, politicians, philosophers, and spies. Its contacts extended to a number of disaffected colonialists in Calcutta: the geologist John Bicknell Auden, brother of the poet Wystan, the Dickens and Hopkins scholar Humphry House, the colonial official Michael Carritt, ICS, and Michael Scott, Chaplain to the Bishop of Calcutta, the last two being spies for the Communist Party of Great Britain. In this talk entitled 'Modernist Communities in 1930s Calcutta: Print, Politics and Surveillance', she will trace the network of connections through the Parichay archives, through other digitized records held at Jadavpur University, and through British Library holdings (for example Michael Carritt’s papers).

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(Secret) Government of Bengal: Home Department Political: District Officer’s Chronicle of Events of Disturbances, August 1942-March 1943 (BL IOR/R/3/1/358: 1943)
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Anwesha Roy, Marie Curie Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Department of History, King’s College London will focus on the years 1940-1942 before the Quit India Movement in Bengal in her talk 'Prelude to Quit India in Bengal: War Rumours and Revolutionary Parties, 1940-42' on 12th November 2018. She will discuss how war-time colonial state policies created annoying disruptions and intrusions in various ways in the day-to-day lives of the people of Bengal, building up mass discontent up to the edge, which, coupled with war rumours, reconfigured the image of the colonial state in Bengal. This talk taps into the psyche of the colonised mind, which was increasingly and collectively coming to see the hoax of British invincibility in the face of serious reverses in the Eastern Front and Japanese victories.

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Bodhan by Kazi Nazrul Islam in the periodical Moslem Bharat (1920) (BL 14133.k.2)
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On 20th November 2018, Ahona Panda, doctoral candidate, University of Chicago, will focus on the National Poet of Bangladesh, Kazi Nazrul Islam in her talk 'Kazi Nazrul Islam and the Partition of Bengal: A Language of Unity, a Language of Loss'. This talk will explore how Nazrul tried to create a new Bengali language single-handedly. Using a large number of periodicals from the British Library’s collection, and drawing from extensive research in Bangladesh, this talk reconstructs Nazrul’s early years in journalism in which as writer and editor, he forged a new literary register for the Bengali Muslim community and crafted a political language that was anti-separatist, socialist whilw referring to a philological landscape including centuries of Islamic and Hindu literary traditions. The talk will conclude with how Nazrul found new life in the language movement in East Pakistan in the 1950s, in the years leading up to the Liberation War of 1971.

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Miyan Himmat Khan kalāwant, chief hereditary musician to the last of the Mughal emperors Akbar Shah and Bahadur Shah Zafar. From James Skinner’s Tashrīh al-Aqwām, Hansi (near Delhi) (1825) (BL Add. 27,255, f. 134v)
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We end our autumn/winter talks for 2018 with Katherine Butler Schofield from King’s College London talking about musicians in the Mughal court in her talk 'Miyan Himmat Khan and the Last Mughal Emperors' on 3rd December 2018. This talk focusses on contemporary Indian writings on and a portrait of Miyan Himmat Khan kalāwant (d.c.1845), chief hereditary musician to the last Mughal emperors Akbar Shah (r. 1806–37) and Bahadur Shah Zafar (r. 1837–58). In this talk she will also make sense of the divergence of these competing lineages of musical knowledge in Persian, Urdu and English c. 1780–1850, by considering them side by side. It will show how viewing proto-ethnographic paintings and writings against a remarkable new wave of music treatises c. 1793–1853 reveal an incipient indigenous modernity running in parallel with colonial knowledge in the most authoritative centres of Hindustani music production, Delhi and Lucknow.

No advance booking is required, and the sessions are free to attend. Please do come along, listen and participate!

Priyanka Basu, Project Cataloguer of ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’
https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef022ad35bc1f1200c-pi

 

17 September 2018

15,000 images of Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta now online

The Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta Digitisation Project, generously supported by Mr S P Lohia, aims to digitise 75 manuscripts from Yogyakarta now held in the British Library, and provide free online access through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. Full sets of the digital images will also be presented to the Archives and Libraries Board of Yogyakarta (Badan Arsip dan Perpustakaan DIY) and to the National Library of Indonesia (Perpusnas) in Jakarta. Six months after the official launch of the project at the British Library on 20 March 2018 by Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono X, over 15,000 images from 35 manuscripts are now accessible digitally, with all 75 manuscripts scheduled for full online publication by March 2019.

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Opening pages of Bratayuda kawi miring, copied by Wongsadirana of Tanggung, probably before 1797. British Library, MSS Jav 4, ff. 2v-3r Noc

Shown above is one of the newly-digitised manuscripts, a copy of Bratayuda kawi miring (MSS Jav 4), the 18th-century retelling in modern Javanese of the Bratayuda, the Old Javanese version of the Mahabharata composed in the 11th century. Other manuscripts now accessible online, pictured below, are historical works such as Serat Sakondar (Add 12289) recounting the coming of the Dutch to Java; Serat Jaya Lengakara Wulang (Add 12310), containing ethical and mystical instruction interwoven with the story of the wanderings of Prince Jayalengkara; and a primbon, a personal compilation of texts on religious matters, often of an esoteric nature (Add 12311). The 75 manuscripts to be digitised were identified by Prof. Merle Ricklefs as originating from Yogyakarta, and include 61 manuscripts believed to have been taken from the library of the Kraton of Yogyakarta by the British in 1812. For a full list of the manuscripts to be digitised, click here.

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Serat Sakondar. British Library, Add 12289, ff. 2v-3r Noc

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Serat Jaya Lengakara Wulang. British Library, Add 12310, ff. 5v-6r Noc

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Punika sĕrat Primbon Palintangan Palindon Pakĕdutan. British Library, Add 12311, ff. 139v-140r Noc

Over the past few months, conservators, photographers, curators and digital technicians have been hard at work on the Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta Digitisation Project. Conservator Jessica Pollard has checked every single manuscript, ensuring the volumes can be opened for photography without causing any damage. Creased pages have been flattened, tears repaired and bindings secured, to enable the manuscript to be digitised safely. 

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Left: Jessica Pollard at work in the British Library Conservation Centre; Right: repairing a tear across a drawing of a wayang figure.

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Top image: severe insect damage in a manuscript of Javanese wayang texts; bottom image: the same manuscript, after repair by Jessica. British Library, MSS Jav 20

From the Conservation Centre the manuscripts go on to Carl Norman in the Imaging Studios for photography. Each page is arranged to lie as flat as possible, with the rest of the book secured by velcro-bands, and with the spine supported adequately. Due to the complications of mounting the manuscript, Carl first photographs all the left-hand pages, and then turns the volume round and photographs all the right-hand pages. When the whole volume has been photographed, the images are interfiled, so the pages can be read in sequence.

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Carl checking the focus on the camera, with a Javanese manuscript set up for photography.

Many Javanese manuscripts have scribal or editorial corrections or amendments, which are sometimes written on separate pieces of paper which are then sewn onto the page at the intended point of insertion. Such pages present a real challenge for Carl: in order to photograph the manuscript so that all the text is legible, the page has to be photographed several times, with the sewn-on inserts folded in different directions to reveal the lines underneath.

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Bratayuda kawi miring, 1797: f. 266v has an insert sewn onto the left hand page, and Carl has had to photograph this page three times in total, in order to show all the text. British Library, MSS Jav 4, f. 266v Noc

The images are then passed on to Project Assistant Kate Thomas for quality assurance. Kate checks each digital image, looking at consistency of colour and ensuring that the sequence of images displays correctly. Occasionally she may find that one page has been missed out, or a stray hair might have fallen across the page during photography, and so the manuscript will need to be retrieved and sent back to Carl for the required pages to be re-photographed. Finally, the images are linked up with the catalogue entry, and the manuscript is ‘published’ to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website, where it can be read in full, online, all over the world.

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Kate Thomas checking the quality of all the images of each Javanese manuscript, before publishing the manuscript online.

Once the manuscript is live, the project page is updated, and the news disseminated through social media, including the British Library Asian and African Studies Blog, Facebook (Annabel Gallop) and Twitter @BLMalay. So do subscribe to our blog, and follow us for the latest updates!

Annabel Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

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12 September 2018

A new display of Southeast Asian manuscripts from the Sloane collection

In 1753 the British Museum was founded through the bequest of the vast collections of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1673), including over four thousand manuscripts, which are now held in the British Library. Sloane's manuscripts originate from all over the world, and among them are 12 from Southeast Asia. Eight of these can now be seen in a new display in the exhibition case next to the Asian and African Studies Reading Room in the British Library at St. Pancras.

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Bust of Hans Sloane by Michael Rysbrack (1693-1770), on display in the British Library

At first glance the eight exhibited manuscripts appear to be a rather random selection linked by nothing other than their Southeast Asian origin and their ownership by Sloane. But viewed through another lens, these eight manuscripts evoke vividly the two main preoccupations of the age in which they were collected: the global mercantile thrust which led to the founding of the English and Dutch East India Companies at the beginning of the 17th century, as reflected in trading permits and financial accounts, and religious zeal, manifest in an interest in the canonical and liturgical works of the major world religions which had taken root in Southeast Asia: Buddhism and Hinduism which had travelled from India, Islam from its birthplace in Arabia, and most recently Christianity by way of Europe.

Despite their small number and in some cases fragmentary state, the manuscripts on display also encompass an astonishing array of scripts: Balinese, Javanese, Lampung, Burmese, Khmer, Arabic in its original form as well as extended versions for writing Persian and Javanese, the Vietnamese Han Nom characters derived from Chinese, and Roman script. The languages found in these eight manuscripts range from indigenous languages of Southeast Asia, namely Malay, Javanese, Old Javanese, Burmese and Vietnamese, to the foreign languages which served the spread of both faith and trade in the region: Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Pali and Dutch. Four different calendrical systems are utilised – Burmese, Gregorian, the Javanese Saka era, and the Chinese zodiac calendar – and writing supports range from palm leaf and bamboo to Javanese beaten tree-bark paper (dluwang) as well as European and Chinese paper.

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Sloane manuscripts from Southeast Asia on display outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room  noc

On the top shelf of the exhibition case are grouped manuscripts relating to faiths of Southeast Asia. The Hinduized court culture of early Java is represented by a fragment of the Arjunawijaya, a court poem (kakawin) composed by Mpu Tantular in the 14th century in the kingdom of Majapahit (Sloane 3480). The lines on this small fragment of palm leaf, representing part of the right-hand half of a single leaf, describe a confrontation between Śiva’s attendant Nandīśvara and the ten-faced demon Rāvaṇa. The manuscript is in Old Javanese – an early form of the Javanese language characterised by an exceptionally high proportion of Sanskrit words – written in Balinese script, and is undated.  Since its entry into the British Museum this Old Javanese fragment had remained unidentified until it was digitised and highlighted in a recent blog; within 24 hours the text had been read and identified by a group of scholars located in different parts of the globe, and their report can be read here.

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Fragment of the Arjunawijaya in Old Javanese in Balinese script, on palm leaf. British Library, Sloane 3480  noc

Also written on palm leaf is a manuscript of the Pātimokkha, the Buddhist code of monastic discipline, dating to around 1700 or earlier (Sloane 4099(4)). The single folio on display contains three main lines of text from the Pātimokkha in Pali, the canonical language of Theravada Buddhism, written in Cambodian (Khmer) script, accompanied by interlinear explanations.

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Section of one leaf of the Pātimokkha in Pali in Khmer script. British Library, Sloane 4099(4)

Islam is represented by an important Arabic text of the Shafi‘ī school of law, Masā’īl al-ta‘līm, ‘Questions for instruction’, by the 16th-century Yemeni scholar ‘Abd Allāh bin ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Bā Faḍl (Sloane 2645). This manuscript, copied by a scribe named ‘Abd al-Qadīm, has an interlinear translation in Javanese in Arabic (pegon) script, and is dated  1545 in the Javanese era, equivalent to 1623/4 AD. This complete copy. in excellent condition. is one of the earliest dated manuscripts written on dluwang, Javanese paper made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree.

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Masā’īl al-ta‘līm, in Arabic with Javanese translation and notes, 1623. British Library, Sloane 2645, ff. 6v-7r  noc

The most recent world religion to arrive in Southeast Asia was Christianity, brought by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and on display is a Christian Psalter written in Malay in Roman script (Sloane 3115). The owner of this book was Cornelius van der Sluijs, a clergyman who served in the Moluccas and died in Batavia in 1715. This collection of hymns, psalms and Christian services in Malay was probably compiled in Ambon around 1678, following Van der Sluijs’s ordination as a full minister of the Dutch Calvinist church.

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The first page of the Psalms of David in Malay, showing the distinctive octagonal British Museum stamp designed for use on Sloane's library. British Library, Sloane 3115, f. 2r  noc

On the bottom shelf are documents relating to trade. The largest and most impressive visually is a royal letter from the ruler of Tonkin in the form of an illuminated scroll written in the Vietnamese language in Chinese (Han Nom) characters, probably despatched in 1673 (Sloane 3460). In 1672 the first English East India Company ship arrived in Tonkin in north Vietnam, and in March 1673 the captain, William Gyfford, was permitted to meet the ruler Trịnh Tac (r. 1657-1682). While the Company sought the establishment of commercial relations with Tonkin, the Vietnamese were interested in accessing new technology, and in his letter, Trịnh Tac requests iron or bronze cast cannons.

Sloane_ms_3460_f001r Sloane
The complete illuminated Vietnamese letter with red ink seal of Lord Trịnh Tac, 1673, with a detail showing the fine silver illumination; only a small section of the scroll has been unrolled for display. British Library, Sloane 3460  noc

The Chinese mercantile presence in Southeast Asia is reflected in a small piece of bamboo, with two lines of Javanese incised on one side with further annotations in Javanese and Lampung script, and on the other side a note written in black ink in Chinese (Sloane 1403E). The Chinese text appears to be a record of an account, and is dated in the Chinese zodiacal cycle with a date most likely equivalent to 1708.

Sloane_ms_1403e_f001rSloane_ms_1403e_f001v-horiz
Front and reverse of a financial account, with text in Javanese, Lampung and Chinese, [1708]. British Library, Sloane 1403E  noc

Of particular interest are two trading permits issued by King Chandrawizaya (r. 1710-1731) of the kingdom of Mrauk U in Arakan in Burma (Myanmar). The permit written in Burmese, dated 1728, is the longest and the earliest dated palm leaf manuscript from Burma (Myanmar) in the British Library (Sloane 4098). Also found in the Sloane collection is a Persian edict (farmān) from the ruler of Arakan, dated 14 Sha‘bān 1090 (Sloane 3259). In his catalogue of Persian manuscripts in the British Museum, Charles Rieu assumed that the year inscribed was in the Hijra era, and thus dated the letter to 1679. Fortunately, just as we were preparing this exhibition, Arash Khazeni was preparing an edition of the Persian farmān, and noticed that the year was given as sanat 1090 Magi, referring to the Burmese era. The date was thus equivalent to 1728, revealing that the Persian document was in fact a counterpart to the Burmese permit! Both documents are addressed to the Armenian merchant Khwajeh Georgin (George) in Chennaipattana (Madras) across the Bay of Bengal, giving him permission to trade. Both bear the king’s round seal, inscribed in Pali, ‘Supreme Lord, Master of the Golden Palace’, which is blind-stamped on the palm leaf permit, stamped in black ink on the Persian letter, and in red wax on its cloth envelope and paper wrapper.

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The pointed end of the Burmese permit of the king of Arakan, with his round seal. Sloane 4098  noc

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The seal and date at the start of the trading permit in Persian from the king of Arakan, 1728. British Library, Sloane 3259  noc

Further reading:

Javanese manuscripts in the Sloane collection

Sir Hans Sloane's Old Javanese manuscript, Sloane 3480

Malay manuscripts in the Sloane collection

Arash Khazeni, ‘Merchants to the Golden City: the Persian Farmān of King Chandrawizaya Rājā and the elephant and ivory trade in the Indian Ocean, a view from 1728’, Iranian Studies, 2018, vol. 51 (forthcoming).

From books to bezoars: Sir Hans Sloane and his collections, ed. Alison Walker, Arthur MacGregor and Michael Hunter (London: The British Library, 2012)

Annabel Teh Gallop, San San May, Jana Igunma & Sud Chonchirdsin, Southeast Asia section

 

07 September 2018

Malay writing culture

The British Library holds a rich collection of Malay manuscripts originating from all corners of maritime Southeast Asia, covering subjects as diverse as literature, history, law and aspects of religious thought and life. But we still know relatively little about the practicalities of how manuscripts were prepared, written, stored and used in the Malay world. What did Malay pens look like? What inks were used, and how were they made? How were the sheets of paper prepared? While libraries are certainly treasure troves of books, the paraphernalia pertaining to writing cultures, which might help to answer these questions, are more likely to be found in museum collections.

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Part of Abdul Samad al-Palimbani’s work Sayr al-Salikin, a manuscript from Aceh, in two bound sections held within a loose leather wrapper.  British Library, Or 15646

Last week, after attending a workshop in Leiden at the Volkenkunde Museum on ‘Imagining Islamic Art of Indonesia’, I visited Bronbeek, a beautiful former royal estate in Arnhem which houses a home for invalid soldiers and the museum of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (Koninklijk Nederlands-Indisch Leger, KNIL), and thus holds important collections from Indonesia. More recently, Bronbeek Museum has also taken in Indonesian artefacts from other, now defunct, museums in the Netherlands, including from the Ethnographic Museum in Nijmegen, which closed down in 2005, and from the Nusantara Museum in Delft, which shut its doors in 2013. From Nijmegen Bronbeek acquired the collection of Jean Beijens (1835-1914), a soldier in the Dutch East Indies from 1850 to 1861, who served mainly in Borneo. Beijens probably started collecting in Indonesia, but his collection was mainly built up through purchase after his return to the Netherlands, and in 1912 was presented to the city of Nijmegen.

At Bronbeek Museum I was delighted to have the opportunity at last to meet the Director, Pauljac Verhoeven, with whom I have corresponded for nearly twenty years, and also curator John Klein Nagelvoort, whose deep interest in Aceh I share. Paul and John kindly gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum’s collections, bringing out the small number of Malay manuscripts held in the museum, including a copy of Mawa‘iẓ al-Badi, ‘Fine Advice’, an anonymous work attributed to the 17th-century Acehnese scholar ‘Abd al-Ra’uf bin ‘Ali al-Jawi, also known as Abdul Rauf of Singkil, other copies of which are known to be held in collections in Aceh, including the Yayasan Ali Hasjmy in Banda Aceh.

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Mawa‘iẓ al-Badi, translated [into Malay from Arabic] in the middle of Rabiulakhir 1220 (July 1805). Bronbeek Museum, 2010/12/02-42399

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Small Malay manuscript showing, on the right, the final page of Hikayat Nabi Bercukur, 'The story of the Prophet's shaving', dated 20 Rejab 1252 (31 October 1836), with talismanic drawings including the pentagram and the Sanggah Siti Fatimah; that on the left is labelled Ini kota raja rumah, 'this is the royal fort and residence'. Bronbeek Museum, 2004/00-130

As can be seen in the manuscripts above, rubrication – the use of red ink for highlighting certain words – was a common practice of Malay scribes. Red ink is used for a variety of textual purposes: to emphasise certain words, to indicate the start of a new section within the text, or to signal portions written in Arabic, while in manuscripts of the Qur’an, the surah headings are normally written in red ink. Thus metal pencases found in Southeast Asia usually follow the Ottoman model of including an ink well with two chambers, one for red and one for black ink. The Bronbeek Museum has a fine brass example shown below, from the Beijens collection, which is perhaps of Ottoman manufacture, for tiny stamped seals bearing the maker’s name are visible on the casing. Of particular interest in this pen case is that each ink chamber still contains remnants of what appear to be cotton threads, which John Klein Nagelvoort suggested may have helped to prevent the ink evaporating too quickly.

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Brass pen case, possibly Ottoman, 19th century, used in Indonesia, with details of the two ink chambers. Bronbeek Museum, Beijens Collection, 2010/12/02-41510

The Bronbeek Museum also contains a pen, said to be from Java, and from the Beijens collection and therefore dating from before 1912, and most likely from the 19th century. Although some museums in Southeast Asia occasionally display writing implements, these are usually modern replicas, and this is the first definitely 'old' pen I have seen from the Malay world.  Carved from a twig or stalk with a sharpened point, the stem of the pen is hollow and was filled with cotton threads, presumably to act as an ink chamber.

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Bronbeek 43048 (5)  Bronbeek 43048 (7)
Pen from Java, with details (left) of the gnarled end, and (right) of the hollow 'ink' chamber filled with threads. Bronbeek Museum, Beijens Collection, 2010/12/02-43048

Also from the Beijens Collection are two rehal, carved wooden Qur’an stands. One finely carved example can be identified as originating from Aceh on the basis of the interlocking scroll design, a characteristic motif of illuminated manuscripts from Aceh.

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Bronbeek 42332 (6)    PNM Aceh Quran-end DF-det.
Carved wooden Qur'an stand (rehal), from Aceh, with (below left) a detail of the 'interlocking scroll' motif, also found (below right) in a Qur'an manuscript now in the National Library of Malaysia. Bronbeek Museum, Beijens Collection, 42332.

The exhibit in the Bronbeek Museum which in fact I had been most looking forward to seeing was not a manuscript, but a cannon. When the Dutch invaded Aceh in 1873, sparking off a war which lasted over thirty years, they captured the royal palace of Aceh with its historic collection of cannon, many of which were then brought back to the Netherlands and presented to King William III, who placed them in Bronbeek. These included three large Ottoman cannon which were probably cast in Gujerat, and which had arrived in Aceh following direct contacts with Istanbul in the 16th century. But of particular interest to me was an English cannon, presented to great ruler of Aceh, Sultan Iskandar Muda, by King James I, following Iskandar Muda's request for 'a great gun wherein a man may sit upright’.  That ‘great peece’ was made in London in 1617 by Thomas and Richard Pit, and sent out to Aceh. But as Paul Verhoeven explained to me, this was purely a vanity piece, not designed for actual use: the metal shell is so thin that if it had ever been used to fire a cannon ball of the size commensurate with its bore, as shown alongside in the photograph below, the gun would actually have exploded. 

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Paul Verhoeven, with the great gun sent by James I to Sultan Iskandar Muda of Aceh in 1617, which was then captured by the Dutch in 1873 and brought to Bronbeek.

Bronbeek cannon English (19)
The crowned arms of James I, 'Jacobus Rex', on the cannon sent to Iskandar Muda.

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Inscription naming the makers of the great gun, 'this peece', Thomas and Richard Pit, 1617.

Further reading

Ruth Rhynas Brown & Jan Piet Puype,'A great gun wherein a man may sit upright': the king of Acheen's 'great peece', Journal of the Arms & Armour Society, March 1993, 14

Claude Guillot & Ludvik Kalus, 'Inscriptions islamiques sur des canons d'Insulinde du XVIe siècle', Archipel, 2006, 72, pp. 69-94.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

 

03 September 2018

Wonders 'Gone Viral' in the Sixteenth-Century Deccan

Today's guest blog is by Vivek Gupta, a historian of Islamic and South Asian art, currently working on his PhD thesis “Wonder Reoriented: Manuscripts and Experience in Islamicate Societies of South Asia (ca. 1450–1600),” at SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology.

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Fig. 1: The Dragon Fish, al-Tannīn, from the Wonders of Creation of Qazwini, 32.7 x 22.4 cm (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1954.70)

The Wonders of Creation and Oddities of Existence (‘Ajā’ib al-Makhlūqāt wa Gharā’ib al-Mawjūdāt) of Zakariyyā’ ibn Muḥammad al-Qazwīnī (1203-1283) had many lives after it was first written in thirteenth-century Baghdad (for an early fourteenth-century copy in the British Library collection see Colin Baker's post The London Qazwini goes live). In sixteenth-century India, Qazwini’s Arabic cosmography, or encyclopedia of the heavenly and earthly worlds, became a veritable hit. Numerous Arabic cosmographies and related Persian works and translations made in India attest to this. The British Library holds at least six such illustrated manuscripts made in the peninsular Deccan region of India. Notable among these manuscripts is an Arabic model created in Bijapur in the 1570s, three copies of which exist at the BL (IO Islamic 845, IO Islamic 1377, Or. 4701); several more are housed in collections including the Chester Beatty Library (CBL) and the Raza Rampur Library. Here, I introduce some art historical parameters of this model and consider the possible factors that led to its immense popularity—to go viral.

The Past and Present of the Deccan Qazwini Manuscripts
The ‘mother’ of the Deccan Qazwini manuscripts, dubbed the “Sarre” Qazwini because of its former owner, the German Orientalist Friedrich Sarre (1865-1945), is a subject of debate (fig. 1). In the past few decades, American and European scholars have attributed this manuscript everywhere from northern Iraq, or eastern Turkey around 1400, to mid-sixteenth century Bijapur. In light of these varying attributions, I raise two points about the Sarre Qazwini vis-à-vis its Indian offspring. First, the style of its illustrations precedes painting of the early-modern Deccan. Second, the Sarre Qazwini’s paintings derive from an idiom that did not develop in India and are in line with a style associated with fifteenth-century Iraq or eastern Turkey. The Deccan Qazwini manuscripts thus implicate the circulation, or knowledge of an earlier codex to India. Because they harken back to the Sarre Qazwini type, these manuscripts demonstrate an impulse to archaise in the sixteenth-century Deccan.

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Fig. 2: Left: Dhumrakali (Tantric Goddess, the Grey Kali); Right: Narasimha tearing open Hiranyakashipu and holding Vishnu’s chakra and conch, from the Stars of Sciences, Bijapur, 1570 (CBL In 02, ff. 255v-256r) © The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

If the British Library’s Deccan Qazwini manuscripts gesture to the past, other wonder compendia firmly rooted in sixteenth-century Bijapur express the artistic innovations of their present context. Qazwini’s Wonders of Creation contributed to a dynamic genre consisting of Persian texts and numerous other works that compiled both manmade creations and natural marvels. For instance, before IO Islamic 845 was copied on December 3, 1571, the Chester Beatty Library’s Stars of Sciences (Nujūm al-‘Ulūm) (fig. 2) was completed in Bijapur on August 16, 1570. The several Persian copies of the Stars of the Sciences illustrate both Indic and Islamicate cosmographical sciences and often draw equivalences between these knowledge systems as well as other traditions foreign to India. Beyond the cosmic wonders, the Stars of the Sciences devotes lengthy chapters to manmade creations ranging from perfumes to poetry. A broad corpus of wonder compendia marked by internal diversity thus rose in production in the sixteenth-century Deccan.

Variations on the Deccan Qazwini Manuscript Model
The Deccan Qazwini manuscripts are relatively sizeable and standardised books (fig. 3). Their written surface measures roughly 25.5 x 19 cm and contains 22 lines of black naskh script. A larger script often inscribed in red is used for section headings. The rulings, frontispieces, and illustrations are all executed in gold ink. The new bindings of IO Islamic 845 and Or. 4701 distort the original dimensions of these manuscripts, though the standard deviation for current measurements across this group is a mere .1 or .2 cm. The text of all these manuscripts is consistent, although it varies from Ferdinand Wüstenfeld’s 1849 published edition of Qazwini, which was based exclusively on works in German and Austrian collections. This may be because the manuscripts Wüstenfeld based his edition upon were not of Indian origin.

Although the dimensions of these manuscripts establish their homogeneity, their differences shed light on the processes of their copying. Among all the Deccan Qazwini manuscripts, there is not a single pristine copy. Each of them has lost some of its folios or suffered damage impeding our ability to reconstruct the contents of an original or complete codex. Examining the format of these pages reveals some critical differences.
IO Islamic 845. f73r 4. Per 128.70b
Fig. 3 Left: ‘The Sea of India’ and ‘The Chapter on the Islands of India,’ from the Wonders of Creation of Qazwini, Bijapur, 1571, written surface: 25.5 x 18.7 cm (BL IO Islamic 845, f. 73r); Fig. 4 Right: the same section in another copy, Bijapur, late 16th century, written surface: 25.4 x 19.9 cm (CBL Per 128, f.70r) © The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

While all the illustrations in the Deccan Qazwini manuscripts are virtually identical in size and colour, they diverge in some illuminating ways. Let us look at a section within the larger chapter concerning the sphere of the bodies of water. In the heading concerning the islands of the Indian sea, the formats of the corresponding folios in IO Islamic 845 (f. 73r) and Or. 4701 (f. 73r) are nearly identical (fig. 3). The headings are in red naskh centred on the page. The first heading, “the Sea of India / baḥr al-hind,” has the phrase, “it is the greatest and widest of seas,” interspersed between the main title words “baḥr” and “al-hind.” Then, the word faṣl or chapter in the second section heading, “The Chapter on the Islands of this Sea / faṣl fī jazā’ir hādhā al-baḥr” interrupts the space of the black text above it. Though differing from the corresponding folio (59v) of the Sarre Qazwini, these subtleties in page format recur within the Deccan Qazwini manuscript tradition. The corresponding folio from the Chester Beatty Library’s CBL Per 128 (fig. 4) varies on this model. At first glance CBL Per 128’s corresponding folio (70v) has roughly the same format as the BL manuscripts. However, instead of red ink for headings, CBL Per 128’s section titles are executed in blue and gold. The CBL page also bears a bird and ram-like animal adjacent to the second heading on the page foreshadowing other marvels of the Indian islands.

5. BL 4701 f. 88a 6. BL Loth 723 f. 88a
Figs. 5 and 6: The Dragon Fish, al-Tannīn, from the Wonders of Creation of Qazwini in two of the three Bijapur British Library manuscripts (BL Or. 4701, f. 88r and IO Islamic 845, f. 88r) https://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef01b8d0ab965b970c-pi?_ga=2.260404813.1714225709.1535706032-286112809.1510772067

Another distinction is visible in BL Or. 4701, f. 88r and IO Islamic 845, f. 88r’s illustrations of dragon fishes (al-tannīn) (figs. 5 and 6). On the left, BL Or. 4701 shows the monster facing right, and on the right IO Islamic 845 depicts it facing left. The length of both dragons is 16 cm. CBL Per 128’s depiction of a dragon fish (f. 85v) also faces left and measures only .2 cm more than the British Library groups’ corresponding images. Looking to the earlier model, the Sarre Qazwini’s dragon fish faces right (fig. 1). This was probably produced by a pounce of some kind, since whether the dragon fish is oriented right or left, they are mirror images of each other. All of this suggests that the Deccan Qazwini group was cohesive and requires close examination to apprehend how different artists and scribes rendered this text and preserved the tradition.

Why this Viral Production?
In a world where a meme can go viral, electronically, in seconds we might be inclined to believe that this is only possible in the 21st century. The case of the Deccan Qazwini manuscripts suggests the contrary: it could and did happen in past, albeit achieved by different means. Over the course of studying roughly 60 illustrated Persian, Arabic and other vernacular compendia of wonders I have probed the ways by which this manuscript tradition was transformed from its genesis in Arab and Persianate contexts, to South Asia. By the sixteenth century, I noticed a rise not only in the production but also in the diversity of these works. A fuller understanding of this surge in production awaits study, especially as the number of wonder books from this period is necessarily skewed by what survives. I speculate that anxieties about the end of the first Islamic millennium in 1591 may be one reason. One would want to hold tight to a book depicting all of God’s creations if the apocalypse were looming. The Safavid and Ottoman worlds witnessed a rise in the production of the fālnāmah, or book of omens, right around this time perhaps for similar tensions about the millennium as documented by the landmark Falnama exhibition organized by the Freer|Sackler Galleries in 2009.

The Deccan Qazwini manuscripts also prompt unanswered questions as to why so many of these same archaising books were desired. If they served as a stock handbook for intelligentsia, these multiple owners perhaps travelled far and wide with their books, and increased the circulation of the model. It is for this reason that they have come to the British Library following different itineraries. The lack of finish to some of these manuscripts and their subtle distinctions suggest that they were not made at the same time. Further research on Deccan manuscript production will surely turn up some answers. For now, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that the archaic form of the British Library group occurred in tandem with other innovations in the literature on the wonders of the universe.

Further reading
Badiee, Julie. An Islamic Cosmography: The Illustrations of the Sarre Qazwīnī. PhD Thesis, University of Michigan, 1978
Berlekamp, Persis, Wonder, Image, and Cosmos in Medieval Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011
Carboni, Stefano. “Constellations, Giants and Angels from al-Qazwini Manuscripts.” In Islamic Art in the Ashmolean Museum, ed. James Allan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995: 83-95
Flatt, Emma. “The Authorship and Significance of the Nujūm al-‘ulūm: A Sixteenth-Century Astrological Encyclopedia from Bijapur.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 131 no. 2 (2011): 223-44
Zadeh, Travis. “The Wiles of Creation: Philosophy, Fiction, and the ‘Ajā’ib Tradition.” Middle Eastern Literatures, vol 13. no. 1 (2010): 21-48

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology
 ccownwork

 

17 August 2018

The Star Lovers

The 7th day of the 7th lunar month has long been the date of the Star Festival 七夕 in East Asia, traditionally known as Tanabata in Japan, and as Qixi - or more recently as the ‘Chinese Valentine’s Day’ - in China. It has always been a very popular festival celebrating the summer evening, and evoking the romantic legend of the star lovers who meet each other once a year by crossing the Magpie Bridge over the Milky Way.

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Above left is the Dunhuang Star Atlas, the oldest known manuscript of a star chart dating to around AD 700. On the right-hand image the Magpie Bridge, which corresponds to the constellation of Cygnus (= Celestial Ford 天津), has been indicated by a green dotted line, and the Milky Way is indicated by two parallel dotted lines in blue (neither feature is marked on the original Star Atlas). The boy lover, known as Niulang (牛郎) in the Chinese folktale, was identified in his original position as Niu su yi (牛宿一), also known as β Capricorni or Dabih Major in Western astronomy. The girl, Zhinü (織女) has always been and still is associated with Vega since the creation of the Dunhuang Atlas. British Library, Stein Collection Or.8210/S.3326. International Dunhuang Project https://idp.bl.uk/

However, the Star Festival is not only for celebrating romance. We first explored the origins of this festival and related astronomical subjects in two previous blog posts in August 2014: ‘Tanabata (七夕) Star Festival’ - is it 7 July or 2 August 2014? (1) and (2). This year we concentrate on how the night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month has had a dramatic impact on both the Chinese and Japanese literary traditions.

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A young woman crossing the Magpie Bridge over the Milky Way. Grace James, Green Willow and other Japanese Fairy Tales (London: Macmillan, 1910). British Library, L.R.26.d.7

One of the most notable references to the night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month in Chinese classical poetry is probably ‘The Song of Everlasting Regret (長恨歌)’ by Bai Juyi (白居易 772–846). The inspiration for Bai Juyi’s poem was the doomed love between Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty (唐玄宗帝 685-762) and his imperial consort Yang Guifei (楊貴妃 719-756). On the night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, they vowed to be together forever. However, there was to be no happy ending, as Yang Guifei was assassinated.

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Front cover (left) and illustration (centre and right) of the Daoist master meeting with Yang Guifei in the afterworld (right). Chōgonka Zushō 長恨歌圖抄. Published in Japan, Enpō 5 [1677]. British Library, Or.74.cc.7

Despite the passage of many years, Emperor Xuanzong still pines for his dead lover, Yang Guifei. Although he cannot cross the border into the afterlife, he commissions his Daoist master to seek out Yang Guifei, for whom he is still longing but can no longer see, even in his dreams. Eventually the Daoist master manages to meet Yang Guifei in the afterlife, and she asks him to pass her message to Emperor Xuanzong, calling her Imperial lover to a romantic reunion in the stars. Even though there is no explicit mention of the star lovers in the lines below, the 7th day of the 7th lunar month indubitably references the love of the celestial couple.

“On the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, in the Hall of Longevity,
At midnight, when nobody is around, this is when we will make our secret pact.
In the heavens, we vow to be as two birds flying wingtip to wingtip,
On earth, we vow to be as two intertwined branches of a tree.”

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“On the seventh day of the seventh lunar month”. Chinese text with Japanese annotations. Chōgonka Zushō 長恨歌圖抄. Published in Japan for Japanese readers, Enpō 5 [1677]. British Library, Or.74.cc.7

‘The Song of Everlasting Regret’ was already very well known among the Japanese when Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部), who was a lady-in-waiting at the court of the Empress Shōshi in the 11th century, wrote ‘The Tale of Genji (源氏物語)’, and it is clear that she consciously included many direct or indirect references to Bai Juyi’s poetry.

At the opening of the story, the relationship of Genji's parents mirrors that of the Emperor Xuanzong and Yang Guifei, as Genji's father is the Emperor Kiritsubo and his mother is the most beloved one in his court. Genji’s mother dies young, leaving the Emperor in deep sorrow. While they were together, their favourite saying was “In the sky, as birds that share a wing. On earth, as trees that share a branch”, from the famous lines in ‘The Song of Everlasting Sorrow’. Day and night, he repeatedly bemoans the shortness of her life, making his own but an empty dream.

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Chapter 41 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Naraehon manuscript, mid-17th century. British Library, Or.1287, f.43

In Chapter 41, Genji is left alone as his wife Lady Murasaki dies. In this chapter, the episode of the night of the 7th day of the 7th month is described as Tanabata, the day of the blessing of the star lovers. Genji is not in the mood for celebrating romance, and he keeps on thinking of his late wife and composes this poem: “They meet, these stars, in a world beyond the clouds. My tears but join the dews of the garden of parting.” Although the symbolic lines “In the sky, as birds that share a wing. On earth, as trees that share a branch” were not quoted explicitly in his poem, they are evoked implicitly through the whole chapter.

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The celestial lovers - Kengyū (Niulang in Chinese) and Orihime (Zhinü in Chinese). Ikeda, Touri 池田東籬. Amanogawa sōshi 銀河草子. Tenpō 6 [1835.] British Library, ORB.30/3377

Konparu Zenchiku (金春善竹 1405-1470) composed a Noh play, ‘Yōkihi (楊貴妃)’, based on the latter part of ‘The Song of Everlasting Regret’. The key motifs in his Noh play were the tragic separations and broken promises as the lovers believed that nothing could force them to be parted. The lines about the 7th day of the 7th month, the star lovers, tree branches and birds are repeated at the close of the Noh play, leaving the audience filled with sorrow.

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Yōkihi (楊貴妃) from the collection of 200 illustrations of characters from Noh plays. Tsukioka, Kōgyo 月岡耕漁, and Sōfū Matsuno松野奏風. Nōga taikan : nōga nihyakuban ōzoroe 能畫大鑑 : 能畫貮百番大揃. Tōkyō: Seibi Shoin 東京 : 精美書院, 1936. Revised edition of the work originally published in 1934. British Library, ORB.45/153

Lovers in classical literature were aware that they could not thwart fate and that human life is full of uncertainty, but perhaps they admired the star lovers in the night sky as a symbol of eternal love, unobtainable in the real world.

References

Song of Everlasting Regret (Chinese & English translation)

The Tale of Genji (full English translation)

源氏物語と長恨歌

The Dunhuang Chinese sky: a comprehensive study of the oldest known star atlas

With special thanks to Professor Roberto Soria, University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, for identifying positions of the key constellations and the Milky Way on the Dunhuang Star Atlas.

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator, Japanese Collections