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

05 February 2018

African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia

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

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

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

The Four Gospels

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


The Octateuch, the Four Gospels and other ecclesiastical works

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


Deggwa or Hymnbook

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


The Revelation of St. John

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


Carry case for a Psalter

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


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

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

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

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

The evolution of the Malay title page

My previous blog presented the exhibition Tales of the Malay World, now in its final month at the National Library of Singapore (18 August 2017 - 25 February 2018); today I examine two Malay manuscripts from the British Library currently on display in Singapore, Hikayat Parang Puting and Hikayat Perintah Negeri Benggala.

Hikayat Parang Puting, 'The tale of the (magic) sword', is a Malay fantastical adventure tale about a young hero, Budak Miskin, the ‘Poor Boy’, who goes through many trials to win the hand of the fairy princess. Accompanied by his magical pets - a snake, an eagle and a rat - and with the help of a sword that can cut by itself (the eponymous 'Parang Puting', parang meaning sword, and puting referring to the top part of a blade embedded in the hilt), Budak Miskin battles dragon-serpents (naga) as well as an army of 99 rival suitors before he can settle down to rule his kingdom with his hard-won wife Puteri Mengindera Sehari Bulan.

The British Library manuscript (MSS Malay D.3) appears to be the oldest of the several manuscripts known of this tale. According to the colophon it was copied in Penang for Thomas Stamford Raffles by his chief scribe Ibrahim, and was completed on 29 Syawal 1220 (20 January 1806). Ibrahim, who was born in Kedah in 1780, was the younger son of Hakim Long Fakir Kandu, a prominent merchant from the south Indian Chulia community. Ibrahim and his older brother Ahmad both worked in Penang as scribes for British employers – Ahmad for the merchant Robert Scott, while Ibrahim was employed by Raffles. Raffles must have given this copy to his close friend John Leyden, and following Leyden’s early death in Java in 1811 the manuscript was acquired by the East India Company, and is now held in the British Library.

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First page of Hikayat Parang Puting. British Library, MSS Malay D.3, f. 1r   noc

The first page of the book is decorated with attractive triple ornamental borders, filled with floral and foliate motifs picked out in orange-brown and black ink, but it is puzzling to find a single ornamental frame on a left-hand page of a Malay manuscript book. A fundamental principle of Islamic book culture, common to all manuscripts written in forms of the Arabic script, is the centrality of the aesthetic concept of the ‘double-page spread’. Unlike books and manuscripts written in Roman script, where the first page in invariably a right-hand page and the text thence continues overleaf, in Islamic manuscripts the text almost always starts at the top of a right-hand page, and continues onto the facing left-hand page. The most common decorative adornment to an Islamic manuscript is therefore a set of double decorated frames composed across two facing pages, symmetrical about the gutter of the book, and with the illumination concentrated on the three outer sides of each page. In some cultures there is a preference for double headpieces: illuminated frames across two facing pages, but with the decoration concentrated above the text on each page. In simpler books it is also common to find ornamental frames on one page only, in the form of a single headpiece, but almost invariably located on the right-hand page of a manuscript. Shown below are examples of Malay manuscripts displaying each of these three basic formats of decorative frames:

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Examples of standard formats of illuminated frames at the start of the text in Malay manuscripts, from left to right: a) Double decorated frames (Hikayat Isma Yatim, Add. 12379, ff. 1v-2r); b) Double headpiece (Syair surat kirim kepada perempuan, MSS Malay B.3, ff. 36v-27r); c) Single headpiece (Prayerbook, Or. 14194, ff. 44v-45r).  noc

Returning to Hikayat Parang Puting, we find that in fact the narrative proper does indeed commence not within the decorated frames shown above, but overleaf, at the top of a right hand page. Rubrication (red ink) is used to highlight the first words Al-kisah ini hikayat, a time-honoured formula for the start of Malay stories, and then continues with words and phrases familiar from so many other Malay tales: ‘This is a tale of long-ago folks in the heavens, a truly beautiful tale, full of wonders, recounted by the teller of tales. Once upon a time, there lived a heavenly being called Dewa Laksana Dewa …’ (Al-kisah ini hikayat orang dahulu kala duduk di kayangan terlalu indah2 ceteranya, lagi dengan kesaktian maka diceterakan oleh orang yang empunya cetera ini sekali persetua seorang dewa duduk di kayangan bernama Dewa Laksana Dewa …).

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Al-kisah ini hikayat, the rubricated first words of Hikayat Parang Puting. British Library, MSS Malay D.3, f. 1v (det.)  noc

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Start of the story of Hikayat Parang Puting. MSS Malay D.3, ff. 2v-3r   noc

So what is the point of the decorated frames on the first page of the book? They enclose the following 'stand-alone' text: ‘This is a tale of folks long ago, told by the teller of tales, the Tale of the Magic Sword, and of the (grand)son of Dewa Laksana Dewa from the heavens, it is a wonderful story, he had to battle the serpent in the sea to save the princess from being taken by the serpent, that is the story’ (Inilah cetera orang dahulu kala diceterakan oleh orang yang empunya cetera Hikayat Parang Puting anak Dewa Laksana Dewa dari kayangan terlalu indah perkataan maka ia berperang dengan naga di dalam laut dengan sabab tuan puteri hendak diambil naga itu inilah ceteranya). Thus what we have here is, in essence, the title of the story, and its contents. Very occasionally religious texts in Arabic and Malay might have a ‘title page’, comprising a few lines in a tapered triangular format giving the title and author of the work. But this is rare in literary works, and it is almost unknown for such information to be set within decorated frames. As this manuscript of Hikayat Parang Puting was copied for Raffles, it is possible that this ornamental embellishment, unusual in the Malay literary tradition, may have been created by Ibrahim to help serve as a gateway to the Malay text for his English patron.

The implication of European influence in the graphic interplay of text and image in this manuscript is reinforced by another manuscript, that of Hikayat perintah negeri Benggala, 'The tale of the state of Bengal', an account of a journey to Calcutta by Ibrahim’s brother, Ahmad Rijaluddin. Here too the main narrative, heralded with the bismillah, only starts at the top of the second double-page spread. The first two pages, with double decorated frames, serve a different purpose: they present the title of the work and an authorial statement, dated September/October 1811: ‘This is a narrative of the state of Bengal as it was at the time I, Ahmad Rijaluddin, son of Hakim Long Fakir Kandu, left my homeland to visit it.  I have composed this narrative for the benefit of posterity, commiting it to writing in the year 1226, in the year dal awal, in the month of Ramadan’, (Inilah hikayat diceterakan perintah negeri Benggala tatkala masa zaman senda Ahmad Rijaluddin ibn Hakim Long Fakir Kandu belayar / membuang diri ke Benggala.  Maka dikarang hikayat ini meninggal akan zaman diperbuat surat pada sanat 1226 tahun dal awal bulan Ramadan.) 

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'Title page' of Hikayat perintah negeri Benggala. British Library, Add. 12386, ff.1v-2r noc

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Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim, wa-bihi nasta'in: the first words of Hikayat perintah negeri Benggala. British Library, Add. 12386, f. 2v (det.)  noc

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Start of the story of Hikayat perintah negeri Benggala. British Library, Add. 12386, ff. 2v-3r  noc

It looks as if Ahmad Rijaluddin had further planned another innovative addition to the end of his manuscript, for after the final page of text he prepared decorative frames on two facing pages. What did he plan to write - a poem? a dedication? a prayer? We will never know, for the pages have been left blank.

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Hikayat perintah negeri Benggala, showing (left) empty decorated frames at the end of the book, and (right) the final page of the text. British Library, Add. 12386, ff. 50v-51r and ff. 49v-50r  noc

And so these two brothers, Ibrahim and Ahmad Rijaluddin, may be credited for their original and exploratory treatments of Malay title pages. Their efforts did not spark a bibliographic revolution; that had to await the imminent arrival of the printing press in Melaka and Singapore. Nonetheless, these two Malay manuscripts - Hikayat Parang Puting and Hikayat perintah negeri Benggala - can be regarded as being in the vanguard of the movement to expand the graphic frontiers of the Malay book.

Further reading

Jamilah Haji Ahmad, Hikayat Parang Puting. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1980.
Liaw Yock Fang, Sejarah kesusastraan Melayu klasik.  Jakarta: Obor, 2011. [Contains a summary of the story of Hikayat Parang Puting on pp. 188-192.]
Ahmad Rijaluddin’s Hikayat Perintah Negeri Benggala. Edited and translated by C. Skinner.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982.

Annabel Teh Gallop
Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

26 January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

 

 

22 January 2018

Tales of the Malay World

If you are in Singapore – or anywhere near – grab the opportunity to visit the exhibition Tales of the Malay World, at the National Library of Singapore, before it ends on 25 February 2018. The biggest international exhibition of Malay manuscripts ever held, the display of over a hundred Malay manuscripts and early printed books includes 16 manuscripts from the British Library, as well as 17 loans from the Royal Asiatic Society and 18 from Leiden University Library, which are being shown alongside treasures from the National Library of Singapore’s own collections.

Tales of the Malay World

This was not the only time that Malay books from the British Library have been exhibited in Southeast Asia. The first occasion was in Malaysia in 1990, when 22 early Malay printed books were loaned to the exhibition Early Printing in Malay (Pameran Percetakan Awal dalam Bahasa Melayu) held at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur, from 4-9 June 1990. The following year, 25 manuscript letters and books in Malay, Javanese, Balinese, Bugis and Batak travelled to Indonesia for the exhibition Golden Letters: Writing Traditions of Indonesia (Surat Emas: Budaya Tulis di Indonesia), held at the National Library of Indonesia in Jakarta and at the Palace (Kraton) of Yogyakarta in September 1991. In October 1995 five Malay manuscripts were loaned to the International Exhibition of Malay Manuscripts (Pameran Manuskrip Melayu Antarabangsa) at the National Library of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, including the beautifully illuminated Taj al-Salatin and the Hikayat Pelanduk Jenaka currently on display in Singapore. But apart from the two latter books, for the 14 other Malay manuscripts from the British Library featured in Tales of the Malay World, it is the first time that they have travelled back to the ‘lands below the winds’ since sailing westwards in the 19th century.

As suggested by the title, the exhibition celebrates the rich seam of Malay literature, and in the judicious hands of curator Tan Huism, deftly draws out some interesting threads. Accorded its own showcase at the very start of the exhibition is the British Library manuscript of the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah. This work occupies a seminal position in the Malay literary imagination, as it is cited in the Sejarah Melayu as the story for which the warriors of Melaka clamoured to be recited to give them strength and courage, the night before the fateful final attack by the Portuguese in 1511.

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Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, on display in the exhibition 'Tales of the Malay World'. British Library, MSS Malay B.6, ff. 3v-4r  noc

The exhibition includes many other Malay literary treasures from the British Library, including a tale of the Javanese culture-hero Prince Panji (Hikayat Carang Kulina) and the cycle of tales told by the wise parrot to detain his mistress from keeping her rendezvous with her lover (Hikayat Bayan Budiman). Yet some British Library manuscripts inevitably paled in comparison with other exhibits - our nicely-written copy of Sejarah Melayu, copied in Melaka in 1873, could not hope to attract as much attention as the Royal Asiatic Society's iconic manuscript Raffles Malay 18 of the same work, which though only copied in Java around 1814 preserves the text of the oldest known version of the work dated 1612.  Our copy of the Hikayat Hang Tuah, dating from ca. 1810, which I believe has particular value in that it is said to be copied from a manuscript belonging to the Sultan of Kedah, is much less well-known than the oldest known manuscript of the work, dated 1758, which had travelled from Leiden (Cod.Or.1762).

In some cases the exhibition enabled the material aspects of manuscripts to come to the fore. The British Library manuscript of episodes from the Mahabharata, Hikayat Perang Pandawa Jaya, copied by Muhammad Kasim in 1804 probably in Penang or Kedah, has attractive double decorated frames. However, arguably a much more important and rarer feature of this manuscript is its original binding (carefully conserved before travelling to Singapore), comprising a printed Indian cotton outer cover over an inner plaited palm lining, which was placed on display next to the book itself.

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Hikayat Perang Pandawa Jaya, 1804. British Library, MSS Malay B.12, ff. 1v-2r  noc

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Hikayat Perang Pandawa Jaya, Indian cloth cover (photograph taken before conservation). British Library, MSS Malay B.12, cloth cover.  noc

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Hikayat Perang Pandawa Jaya, inner lining made of plaited palm, to which the cloth cover has been stitched (photograph taken before conservation). British Library, MSS Malay B.12, inner palm cover  noc

As well as the manuscripts and early printed books on display, clips of old Malay films based on literary classics such as Tun Fatimah (1962) and Hang Jebat (1961) were shown during the exhibition, attracting a lot of nostalgic interest. There was also a programme of talks, and workshops on reading Jawi script. The atmospheric installation - expertly overseen by project manager Alvin Koh - with its attractive graphic panels and jewel-coloured walls, greatly enhanced the evocative beauty of the exhibits.

Given below is a full list of Malay manuscripts from the British Library loaned to the exhibition ‘Tales of the Malay World’, National Library of Singapore, 18 August 2017 – 25 February 2018. All the manuscripts have been fully digitised and can be read on the Digitised Manuscripts site by following the hyperlinks:
1. MSS Malay B.2, Hikayat Pelanduk Jenaka
2. MSS Malay B.6, Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah
3. MSS Malay B.7, Hikayat Bayan Budiman
4. MSS Malay B.12, Hikayat Perang Pandawa Jaya
5. MSS Malay D.3, Hikayat Parang Puting
6. MSS Malay D.4, Hikayat Nabi Yusuf
7. Add 12379, Hikayat Isma Yatim
8. Add 12383, Hikayat Carang Kulina
9. Add 12384, Hikayat Hang Tuah
10. Add 12386, Hikayat Perintah Negeri Benggala
11. Add 12393, Hikayat Raja Babi
12. Add 12394, Syair Sultan Maulana
13. Add 12397, Undang-Undang Melaka
14. Or 13295, Taj al-Salatin
15. Or 14734, Sejarah Melayu
16. Mss Eur.D.742/1, f 33a, Letter from Sultan Syarif Kasim of Pontianak to T.S. Raffles, 1811

Following the opening of the exhibition, on 18 August 2018 I gave a talk at the National Library of Singapore on 'Art and Artists in Malay manuscript books', excerpts of which can be watched here:

Annabel Teh Gallop
Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

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19 January 2018

“The Hero’s Rock”- When the Kurds Rebelled

Along the road from the oil-rich multi-ethnic Iraqi city of Kirkuk towards the modern cosmopolitan Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, there sits a rather large boulder. For the most part this boulder is unremarkable, probably shaken from the mountain above it by an earthquake in times past. Yet, to the inhabitants of Iraqi Kurdistan this boulder has become a symbol of the injustices they have faced in the 20th century and their on-going struggle for Kurdish self-governance and independence. The Kurds of Iraq have nicknamed the boulder “Barda Qaraman” or the “The Hero’s Rock”.

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Monument to the Barda Qaraman or “The Hero’s Rock” (back central) and Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji between Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah. Photo: General Board of Tourism of Kurdistan Iraq

It was behind this boulder, at the end of the First World War, that the leader of the first Kurdish nationalist uprising, Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, personally took on the British Empire in the name of Kurdish statehood. This is the untold story of the first Kurdish rebellion by the self-proclaimed ‘King of Kurdistan’ against British rule as preserved within the India Office Records at the British Library.

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Map: ‘Kurds and Kurdistan,’ 1919, showing the road from Kirkuk to Sulaymaniyah (IOR/L/MIL/17/15/22, p. 117 noc

As the grip of the Ottoman Empire eased at the end of the First World War the British found it difficult to establish control over the rugged and mountainous terrain of the Kurdish provinces of the old Empire that now became into their sphere of influence. The Kurdish people are often quoted saying they “have no friends but the mountains” and for the early years of engagement with the British the mountains served them well. The lack of a railway line into Kurdistan and the inhospitable terrain made communication and the movement of troops difficult. Moreover, mounting economic pressure on the British treasury to reduce spending on imperial projects meant the need for a railway in Kurdistan was never met. This allowed the Kurds a much needed political space to contemplate their post-war future.

At the end of the First World War, the Kurds had initially asked for British rule and protection on account of their impoverished state. Previous Turkish and Russian rule had left many villages desolate and in a state of famine. Needing to remedy their inability to hold Kurdistan the British agreed to Kurdish requests and installed a colonial system of indirect rule. They worked to reinforce Kurdistan’s feudal and tribal structures by giving tribal elders the ability to feed their people, and rebuild their villages.

To have some semblance of control the British also decided to appoint a local Kurdish notable Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji as governor of lower Kurdistan in 1918 to act as their regional representative. To support Sheikh Mahmud’s governance and in some part to pacify his known rebellious nature, British officials travelled to the west and north of Sulaymaniyah to garner support for the new system of British rule. They replaced Arab and Turkish officials with Kurdish ones, in effect giving the Kurds their first taste of self-rule.

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Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, 1920s  noc

At the end of 1918 doubts began to arise about the wisdom of allowing Sheikh Mahmud to increase his power in the region. This excerpt from a Military Report of 1919 titled ‘The Kurds and Kurdistan’ documents the changing British attitude towards him (p. 81):

Unfortunately, he is a mere child as regards intellect and breadth of view, but a child possessed by considerable cunning and undoubtedly inspired by an inordinate ambition. Moreover, he was surrounded by a class of sycophants who filled his head with extravagant and silly notions, leading him to style himself ruler of all Kurdistan and encouraging him to interfere in affairs far beyond the borders of the sphere allotted to him.

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ʻKurds and Kurdistanʼ, 1919 (IOR/L/MIL/17/15/22, p. 81)  noc

Realising that giving Sheikh Mahmud more power and broadening his rule could be dangerous the British decided to restrict his authority. They prevented the incorporation of the Iraqi towns of Kifri and Kirkuk into his jurisdiction and removed the powerful Jaff tribe from under his rule, deciding instead to deal with them directly. This influenced other tribes to seek direct contact with the British and thus support for Sheikh Mahmud quickly waned retracting his zone of influence to the immediate vicinity of Sulaymaniyah city. Responding to this challenge and in an attempt to force the creation of separate southern Kurdistan under his rule he rebelled against the British on 22nd May 1919.  

With the support of a tribal coalition of men and horses Sheikh Mahmud defeated a small group of Kurdish levies and imprisoned the British officers and their staff in their houses in the city of Sulaymaniyah. He then appointed his own mayor, seized the government archives and money from the treasury. He also cut the telegraph-line between Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk, essentially annexing southern Kurdistan from British rule. The next day a British aerial reconnaissance of the area in revolt noted that the city of Sulaymaniyah was filled with armed men. What is more, the imprisoned British officers made themselves known to the aviators by signalling to them from their houses.

After rounds of heavy RAF bombing and machine-gunning of Sulaymaniyah city and the surrounding villages, Sheikh Mahmud’s rebellion was forced out of the city towards the surrounding hills and valleys. According to accounts, it quickly became clear that Sheikh Mahmud’s Kurdish forces were by and large ill-prepared to face trained soldiers on the battlefield let alone a sustained RAF air bombardment that resulting in heavy casualties and the gutting of entire villages and neighbourhoods. With the Sheikh’s ammunition supplies running low many of his allies began to lose faith, some switching sides as the battle went on. The rebellion culminated in the standoff at the ‘Bazian Pass’.

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‘Bazian Pass. Road leading from Kirkuk to Sulaimani’, Edwin Newman Collection, 23 May 2012 (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive, Newman Collection, Album AL4-B, p 32, no. 1)  noc

The ‘Bazian Pass’ is a gap between the Sulaymaniyah valleys and the Garmian plains, that is hemmed in by mountains. In the hope of stopping the British advance Sheikh Mahmud’s forces constructed a stone wall across the pass. However, a British pilot spotted that the wall was not effectively constructed and on the 8th of June 1919 pilots bombed the pass and its surrounding areas weakening the defences and hitting Sheikh Mahmud’s troops hard. This was followed on the 18th of June by a further attack which brought down the wall. Sheikh Mahmud’s men were then easily routed. Some were killed, but the majority were wounded and imprisoned. Sheikh Mahmud himself was found injured taking cover behind the large boulder on the east of the pass. Once they had control of the pass the British quickly returned to Sulaymaniyah and disarmed the local population freeing the imprisoned British officers. Sheikh Mahmud himself was tried, and imprisoned in India only to be released a few years later.

Primary sources
‘Kurds and Kurdistan’, India Office Records and Private Papers’, 1919, IOR/L/MIL/17/15/22
‘Mesopotamia: British relations with Kurdistan’, India Office Records and Private Papers, 27 Aug 1919, IOR/L/PS/18/B332
‘Persia: operations against Sirdar Rashid and Sheikh Mahmoud’, India Office Records and Private Papers, 23 May 1923-2 Aug 1923, IOR/L/PS/11/235, P 2756/1923

Shkow Sharif, Asian and African Collections
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15 January 2018

Of unicorns and other oddities: an 18th century Persian medical manual

Visitors to our current exhibition Harry Potter: History of Magic will doubtless be familiar with the unicorn and will have noted the exhibit, illustrated below, from the Histoire Générale Des Drogues, Traitant Des Plantes, Des Animaux Et Des Mineraux…. (Paris, 1694), by Pierre Pomet (1658-1699), chief druggist of Louis XIV. However they might be surprised, as I was a few weeks ago, to learn that this engraving had been faithfully copied in a Persian translation commissioned by Tipu Sultan of Mysore (r.1782-1799).

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Above: Pomet’s engraving of five different kinds of unicorns including the camphur and the two-horned pirassoipi (more on this in our post “How many horns does a unicorn have?”).
Below: our copy followed by an explanation in Persian. The horn was apparently especially recommended as an antidote to poison.

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Part two, chapter two on unicorns (IO Islamic 1516, f. 99r)
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Our manuscript, Mufradāt dar ʻilm-i ṭibb, ‘A dictionary of medicine’ (IO Islamic 1516), is a translation, or rather selective paraphrase, of the complete Histoire and contains almost exact copies of all Pomet’s engravings with the exception of two scenes[1]. Without any details as to translator or source, it is described on the flyleaf simply as a translation ordered at the request of Tipu Sultan (farmūdah az ḥuz̤ūr) and in a damaged English label on the binding as “translated from European works - with good etchings.”

The Persian text, following Pomet, is divided into three parts, the first containing nine books (kitāb) on seeds, roots, trees, the properties of bark, leaves, flowers, fruits, gums and juices. Each book is further subdivided into illustrated chapters (ṣūrat). The second part consists of 54 chapters on creatures (ḥayvānāt) and the third part, unillustrated, contains five books on minerals, metals, bitumen (gil'hā), stones and on the use of different kinds of earth for medicinal purposes and dyes.

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Book seven, chapter 49, on pineapples (IO Islamic 1516, f. 66v)
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Each section begins with a transcription of the French and English term, followed by a paraphrase of Pomet’s description. The paraphrase is usually considerably shorter than the original, omitting technical terms and sources presumably deemed irrelevant, and the details are often slightly different. The illustrations are not unlike the plants and animals which feature in the many copies of the popular encyclopædia ʻAjāʼib al-makhlūqāt ‘Wonders of creation’ by the 13th century al-Qazwīnī (see also our post “The London Qazwini goes live”). These would therefore have resonated well with the reader who would have been familiar with the genre and would also have appreciated the more exotic elements of Pomet's descriptions for entertainment value.

There are several drawings, however, which have no equivalent in Arabo-Persic traditions. One of these is an illustration of the techniques of mummification. The drawing is accompanied by a detailed account of different methods of embalming and a discussion of the medicinal properties and uses of parts of the body, especially the skull.

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Part two, chapter one, illustrating the embalming process, mummified bodies and a pyramid (IO Islamic 1516, f. 97v)
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Perhaps most intriguing are the ‘action’ scenes which illustrate collection and manufacturing processes. In the drawing below, for example, we see a hive, bees swarming, and a man ‘calling’ the swarm to follow him. At the foot are the rotting corpses of a lion and an ox from which bees are spontaneously self-generating.

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Part two, chapter 23 on bees (IO Islamic 1516, f. 109r)
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The theory of spontaneous generation, put forward by Aristotle and other ancient philosophers, whereby some living organisms were created from non-living ones was prevalent in Europe until the 18th century. Certain insects, in particular, were thought to have originated from putrefying flesh though by Pomet’s time this theory was already becoming discredited through the work of scientists such as Francesco Redi. In his chapter on bees, Pomet makes no mention of the dead lion featured in his engraving (probably a biblical allusion), though he does refer by name to Virgil’s account (Georgics BkIV: 281-314) of the ‘autogenesis of bees’ from a dead bullock citing an apparently unsuccessful contemporary experiment in which a bullock was beaten to death, dismembered and its parts put in a box with ventilation holes to encourage the bees to develop. The Persian translation repeats all this — but without reference to Virgil!

Spontaneous generation also features in chapter 30 on silkworms:

Chapter 30: In French ‘Vers a soie’ (var ā swā) and in English ‘Silkworms’ (silk varms). Silkworms were and are in great demand in France. Someone who wants to cultivate silkworms should do the following: he should feed a female cow for a month before it is due to give birth on mulberry leaves and not give it anything else. When the calf is born the cow and calf should both feed on mulberry leaves for another month. After a month the calf is slaughtered and every bit of it from head to hoof, together with its bones and flesh, bit by bit should be put in a box. Holes should be drilled in the four corners and they should keep the box in a cold place. Then the worms will be produced…

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Part two, chapter 30 on silkworms, showing the moths hatching, the cocoons being unravelled, a cow eating mulberry leaves and, top right, the dismembered calf (IO Islamic 1516, f.113v)
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The cultivation of silkworms was one of Tipu Sultan’s great interests, though there is some evidence to suggest that a form of sericulture existed in Seringapatam prior to his father Hyder ʻAli’s death in 1783 (S. Charsley, “Tipu Sultan and sericulture for Mysore”). In 1785 and 1786 Tipu Sultan wrote to Mir Kazim, his agent at Muscat, with instructions to procure silkworms (Kirkpatrick, Select letters, pp. 188, 283). In another letter of 1786 to the Governor of the Fort at Seringapatam, he mentions that worms are being brought from Bengal and expresses a desire “to know, in what kind of place it is recommended to keep them, and what means are to be pursued for multiplying them.” According to Kirkpatrick a set of instructions issued to the Revenue Department in 1794 mentions 21 separate silkworm breeding stations throughout his kingdom.

However, it is doubtful whether Tipu Sultan ever experimented in sericulture along the lines recommended by Pomet. While testifying to the remarkably universal appeal of Pomet's pharmacopoeia, this translation should be seen rather as one of several undertaken by Tipu Sultan in an attempt to become familiar with European medicine. Further examples of translations of this kind in his library collection (unfortunately not illustrated) are IO Islamic 1649: Qānūn dar 'ilm-i ṭibb, a translation into Persian of A Compleat English Dispensatory by John Quincy (d. 1722), and IO Islamic 1452, Tarjumah-i firang, a translation of The Nature and Cures of Fluxes by William Cockburn (1669–1739).

Further reading
Pomet, Pierre. Histoire Générale Des Drogues, Traitant Des Plantes, Des Animaux Et Des Mineraux…. Paris, 1694.
English translation: A Compleat History of Druggs, Written in French by Monsieur Pomet, Chief Druggist to the Present French King; to Which Is Added What Is Further Observable on the Same Subject, from Messrs. Lemery, and Tournefort….  3rd edition. London, 1737.
Sherman, Sandra. “The exotic world of Pierre Pomet's A Compleat History of Druggs,” Endeavour
28/4 (December 2004): 156-160
Kirkpatrick, William. Select letters of Tippoo Sultan to various public functionaries… . London, 1811.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian
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[1] Illustrating the cultivation of indigo and tobacco.

08 January 2018

The script of the Naxi, their religious literature and early translation attempts

This week’s guest blog post is by Dr Duncan Poupard, Assistant Professor (Translation) at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Naxiologist. He sheds light on some of the most extraordinary, mysterious and visually interesting manuscripts we hold in the Chinese section of the Library: the Naxi dongba manuscripts, commenting also on some of their early translations in the Library

The British Library holds a modest but important collection of religious texts from a lesser-known people: the Naxi of the Himalayan foothills in southwest China. Among China's officially-recognised ethnic minorities, the Naxi are a relatively small group, especially when compared to their more populous neighbours to the north, the Tibetans. But the Naxi are nevertheless significant, not least for the unique way in which they record their religious literature: the dongba script.

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Example of Naxi script, from the British Library volume containing Or.11417A to Or.11426A
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This script can probably be dated to at least as early as the Mongol period (1253 -1382). The Naxi ritual texts, hand-written in books and read from left to right, form the basis for what we know about the culture and beliefs of the Naxi people. The dongba script is often touted as the world's last living pictographic script, although this classification is problematic as they are not really in active use, and are not strictly pictographic either.

The graphs can be seen in and around the city of Lijiang (centre of the Naxi population in Yunnan province), on shop fronts and road signs, but as the general populace cannot read or write the script, these signs are mostly for show.

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Starbucks Coffee shopfront, Lijiang old town. Intercultural globalisation in action
© the author

In this picture, the Naxi (top) and Chinese (bottom) names for 'Starbucks' can be seen on the board above the English lettering. In Naxi, 'Starbucks' is translated as 'gee bbaq kee'.

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The first character above means 'star' (gee, depicted as three stars), the second and third graphs being phonetic loans, the flower (bbaq) and the dog (kee) together approximating the sound of the English 'bucks'; it is a combination of literal and phonetic translation.

In fact, the script was historically reserved for the dongba religious practitioners and was primarily used for ritual, not secular (or Starbucks-related!) purposes. The books are recited by a dongba during the performance of religious ceremonies such as funerary rites, or when appeasing a vast pantheon of gods and spirits. Looking at the Naxi manuscripts themselves, which are written on specially made paper, and knowledge of which was historically only passed down the male family line, we would be forgiven for thinking they looked like comic strips: especially as they are separated into clearly marked rectangular sections. Of course, however, there's a lot more to this writing than meets the eye.
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Detail from the opening page of British Library Or.11417A
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The image above is from a manuscript titled Ssee zhul: El-miq Rherq Zhail (Increasing longevity: calling upon the power of great dongba El-miq), recited at a ceremony held after a funeral to prolong the life of the surviving members of the family. This particular book is a call to a powerful dongba from Naxi history, El-miq, entreating him to aid the dongba who is conducting the ritual by investing him with power. In the first section on the top left, after the page decoration on the left, there are a total of ten graphs.

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Here we have the character for the sky, beneath it three stars (just as in the Starbucks sign), beneath the middle star a piece of jade, to its right a svastika (a symbol of good luck in Naxi culture that was likely borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism), then an image that looks like a cross on a triangle that originally meant 'to hang (as an object hanging off a cross)', and below it the earth, sprouting tufts of luxuriant grass. To the right we have the more easily identifiable sun, above a person pointing to their left (but our right) and the moon above someone pointing to their right (our left). Lines emanating from the celestial bodies indicate light being cast (and for the sun, by extension, warmth).

This first section is an opening benediction, an incantation that is supposed to bring about good fortune for the ceremony to come, but also contains much of the cosmological wisdom of the Naxi people. These ten characters, when read out during a performance of this text (for all such ritual texts are to be orally performed, not read silently), will become 40 spoken Naxi words. How can this be so? Simply because the relationship between what is written and what is said follows no clearly defined rules. The characters are often called in to use more than once, and much of what is said is not actually written. Despite this, every dongba would be able to recite this section without any problems. An English translation might read,

The stars shine bright in the sky
And today they shine brightest
The grass grows green on the earth
And today it grows greenest
The sun comes from the left, giving off its warmth
The moon comes from the right, giving off its light

One may wonder why the sun is on the left and the moon is on the right. The Naxi have a creation myth that tells the story of how, after the heavens and the earth were separated, the people all came together to build the holy mountain Jjuqnalsheel’loq, which acted as an axis mundi, propping up the heavens. Once the mountain was completed, they used a giant iron chain to tie the sun to the left of the mountain and the moon to its right. Thus, in the Naxi cosmogony, the sun and moon rotate around the holy mountain, in between the sky and the earth, and these opening lines are a microcosm of the Naxi cosmogony.

Alongside 107 dongba manuscripts, the British Library holds a number of Chinese and English translations of several of the texts: these were in fact the first Chinese and English translations of Naxi manuscripts to be completed, making them especially important to the history of Naxi studies. The Library's translations were commissioned by the British Foreign Office after a recommendation by S Wyatt Smith (1887-1958). They were acquired by a Pentecostal missionary (probably James Andrews, a British missionary in Lijiang during the 1920s and 30s) on the consul's behalf, and translated into Chinese, with the help of a Naxi to read the manuscripts and a Chinese translator to translate them. Some of the manuscripts were subsequently translated into English at the consulate. As is the case in much of translation history, the translators remain invisible, as the identities of the Naxi, Chinese and English translators have, it seems, been lost to history. The translation work stopped in 1931 as it presumably became prohibitively expensive: three translators were required to get the final English translation, and prices of the original manuscripts in Lijiang were rising as Joseph Rock, the Austro-American explorer and Naxiologist, began to make bulk purchases in the region.

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First page of Or.11417C, containing an early Chinese translation of Or.11417A
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In 1934 the collection was given to the British Museum and the India Office. The 1930s were an exciting time for translations of Naxi manuscripts: many of the English versions that we have today were completed in this decade. There was a serious popular interest in the Naxi during this period, fostered by Joseph Rock's National Geographic articles on the region which highlighted this ‘strange tribe’. Joseph Rock began seriously translating and publishing his work on the Naxi in the 1930s, and he eventually went on to monopolise the field, with a somewhat unassailable combination of exhaustive (some may say pedantic) scholarship, a knack for self-promotion, and deep pockets.

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Provenance note on the first page of Or.11417C to 11426C, containing the Chinese translations of the correspondent “A” volumes in Naxi
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Rock is dismissive of the Library's translations, writing that they have ‘totally wrong titles and explanations in Chinese’. This is, I believe, an unfair assessment. Even a preliminary look at the translation of this first manuscript shows a quite accurate rendition, with the title, Si Chong, being the correct name of the ceremony in romanisation. Perhaps Rock was unhappy as to the nature of the Library collection's acquisition: some fifty Ssee Zhul texts were acquired by the missionary acting on behalf of the Foreign Office from the officiating dongba after the Ssee Zhul ceremony had been performed for Rock. This was a purchase that transpired without Rock's knowledge.

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Cover page of British Library manuscript Or.11417A
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The British Foreign Office's translations were pioneering, despite being somewhat unilluminating. They are presented without introduction and without any exegesis, which, combined with the large number of proper names present in the texts, makes for slow and mystifying reading for the uninitiated.

Anthony Jackson has suggested that a dictionary (as yet undiscovered) was compiled from this translation work, which would have been used to translate more of the texts without going through a Naxi intermediary. This was probably wishful thinking; to this day, Naxi dongba are required to give a reading of a book before it can be translated. This is because the texts are fluid: there is so much that is not written, there are graphs that are written and not read, and there are incantations that are recorded in a phonetic system separate to the picture-based graphs.

Translation of the Naxi texts is a practice that has all but died out in the modern era, as the remaining dongba grow fewer in number and their traditions become less relevant to modern life in Lijiang. This makes the library's collection all the more invaluable, for there will come a time when such translations will be all but impossible to carry out.

 

Further reading:
Jackson, Anthony. 1966. “Mo-So Magical Texts,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 48: 141-74.
Poupard, Duncan. 2015. “Beyond the pictogram: echoes of the Naxi in Ezra Pound’s Cantos”. Neohelicon 43 (1): 233–249.
Rock, Joseph F. 1963. A Na-Khi - English encyclopedic dictionary. Rome: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente.


Duncan Poupard, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
duncan@arts.cuhk.edu.hk
 CC-BY-SA

 

02 January 2018

A papyrus puzzle: an unidentified fragment from 4th century Oxyrhynchus

The Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project team has just started working on five papyrus fragments, which are some of the earliest Hebrew texts we have at the British Library. The fragments are a fascinating mystery, one that we hope you can help us solve.

In 1922, the almost 70-year old Egyptologist Flinders Petrie discovered some papyrus fragments written in Hebrew script during an excavation in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. These fragments were acquired by the British Museum that year, and are now held in the Oriental Collection of the British Library under the shelfmarks Or 9180A, B, C, D, and E.

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Five papyrus fragments, Oxyrhynchus, c. 4th Century CE (BL Or 9180A, Or 9180B, Or 9180C, Or 9180D, Or 9180E) 
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As you can see here, the papyrus fragments are housed all together in one glass frame. Papyrus documents have been traditionally housed in glass since the late 19th century, when people first started to think about how to study them without handling them directly. It is still considered the most suitable storage method for papyri as glass is inert - papyrus requires a highly stable chemical environment due to its high salt content. Static is also problematic as papyrus is very fibrous, and the rigid nature of glass frames means that they can be handled without disrupting the material. The imaging team at the British Library were able to produce incredibly high quality images of the fragments through the glass, which has enabled us to research them fully without risking damaging them.

We are not able to precisely date these fragments, but the current consensus is that they are from the fourth century CE. Three of them (A, B and E) are poems, all written in Hebrew language and script. Fragment D is a Greek contract, with Hebrew text in the margins, which is probably also of a legal nature. Fragment C is written in Hebrew characters however the language – except the last three lines –is yet unidentified. This is where our mystery lies – and perhaps it is about to be uncovered by one of you.

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Our ‘mystery’ as it appears in its current housing (BL Or 9180C)
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As you can see here fragment C actually contains two pieces: a small piece on the left and a larger one on the right. Photographs of the Or 9180 fragments have been published in various articles over the years, in 1923, 1971 and 1985, and we have been able to use these to ascertain that the position of the two pieces of C have changed over time. In all of these publications, the smaller piece was attached to the lower left side of the larger piece. Today however, the smaller piece is situated at the upper left side of the larger one.

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Photograph of Or 9180C from The Hebrew Scripts by S. A. Birnbaum (London: Palaeographia, 1954-1957), no. 152.
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If you have a closer look at the arrangement above,  you can see the matching strands of the fibres within the papyrus, and that the three lines of text on the smaller fragment are perfect continuation of the last three lines of text in the larger piece. This shows that the earlier arrangement of the fragment was correct, and that what might have happened is that the left part of the fragment had broken off from the larger piece when the fragment was rehoused at some point after 1985. Thanks to the digitisation project, we were able to prove this theory by virtually reconstructing fragment C without risking damaging the original fragment.

   
Virtual reconstruction of the original arrangement of the fragment
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In its reconstructed form, the last three lines of the papyrus, first deciphered by Hartwig Hirschfeld in 1923, become once again legible:

5_or_9180_c colophon
The so-called colophon - the last three lines of Or 9180C
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These lines were written in Aramaic and have been identified as a colophon[1]:

אנה שא[ול] בי לעזר כת[ב]ת אלין כת[בי]ן שלום על ישראל אמן ואמן סלה

I, Saul son of [E]leazar have written these wri[tings]. Peace be upon Israel. Amen and amen, selah

6_or_9180_c_f001r-photoshop-reconstruction for web
The reconstructed arrangement of Or 9180C
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The 14 lines above the colophon are a real mystery though, both in terms of language as well as content. It seems that this fragment was originally a list of words in two columns, but now only the right column has remained more or less intact, with just small traces of the left column visible. For us, the real challenge is to identify the content of this fragment. Over the years various suggestions have been made, such as: a kind of Latin and Greek vocabulary; a list of gnostic charms; magical incantations; an inventory of articles; and a list of Latin names.[2]

Although Fragment C contains Hebrew characters, unlike the other fragments in Or 9180, the language is not easily identifiable. It was not uncommon for Jews to use Hebrew script when writing in a language other than Hebrew. Among the most widely used are Judeo-languages are Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). Ancient Jewish Greek literature however was almost always written in Greek script.

Our initial approach to deciphering this fragment was by looking into what languages the Jews of Egypt spoke in the Late Antique period:

Four languages are of value: loaz (‘foreign language’, i.e. Greek) for song, romi (i.e. Latin) for war, sursi (Aramaic/Syriac) for dirges, and Hebrew for speaking
(Palestinian Talmud, Sotah 7)

We can see here in this quote from the Palestinian Talmud, compiled in the 4th century CE, that the Jews of the period were multilingual. Evidence shows that the Jewish population would have been exposed to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, although they may not have been equally fluent in all of them. Greek became one of the main languages if not the main language of Egyptian Jewish communities of the time. They used the Greek translation of the Pentateuch, the Septuagint, which was mostly compiled by Alexandrian Jewish scholars in the 3rd century BCE -2nd century CE.

The language of this fragment was discussed further at a workshop organized by Platinum (specialists researching Latin papyrus fragments) at the University of Naples Federico II in May 2017. The participants there concluded that the language could not be straightforwardly identified as Aramaic, Greek or Latin. There were some reservations though. Rabbinic literature of the Hellenistic period is rich in Latin and Greek loanwords, but they are often very different from their original forms. For example: a word may not have simply been transliterated, but would have gone through some phonetic and accentual changes. They can preserve lower register (colloquial or slang) words of spoken Greek or Latin that are unattested in literary sources, and were not recorded in dictionaries. Consequently, the fragment we are dealing with could contain such low register Greek or Latin words written in Hebrew script. On the same basis, it could also have been written, perhaps, in a local Aramaic dialect. A further possibility, which as far as we know has not yet been looked into is that the text of the fragment could be the local Egyptian language (Coptic) in Hebrew script.

As well as the mystery of the language, another question to consider is why this text would have a colophon with a blessing at the end? It would seem unnecessary at the end of a list of articles, or a list of names. This might be more plausible if the text was of a magical or mystical nature.

Such a small fragment and so many questions. Our aim with this blog post is to draw attention to this fascinating and mysterious text. Perhaps one of you can solve the puzzle? If you think you have a solution, or further questions, please get in touch with us on Twitter @BL_HebrewMSS. We look forward to hearing from you!


Zsofi Buda and Miriam Lewis, BL Hebrew Project

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[1] Colophon is a kind of inscription recording information relating to the circumstances of the production of a manuscript, which were usually placed at the end of a work.
[2] For studies discussing this fragment, see ‘Publications’ in the full catalogue record.