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

12 November 2019

A testament to diversity: Kurdish manuscript collections at the British Library

In the exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, we explored the connections between power and the written word. The use of writing can be an exceptionally efficient means of expanding a state's sovereignty far beyond the reach of its armies. Similarly, when a particular community or government chooses to use a particular script or language, it bestows upon that means of expression a sheen of officialdom and prestige synonymous with state sponsorship.

Or 11996 ff1v-2r Mam u Zin
The opening pages of Mam û Zîn by Ehmed Xani, copied in 1221 AH/1806-7 CE (Or. 11996, ff. 1v-2r)
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What does this have to do with the British Library's holdings of Kurdish manuscripts? For starters, it helps us to understand the context within which they were created. Unlike Ottoman Turkish, Arabic or Persian, Kurdish was not the language of a widespread, long-lasting Imperial power. As a result, prior to the end of the 20th century, it was not employed over long periods of time as a vehicle for the creation of state documents, or a state-sponsored literary corpus. Moreover, Kurdish was not the liturgical language of a large religious community with a long tradition of written cultural production. Hebrew might not have been a state language for thousands of years before the creation of the State of Israel, but its use as a liturgical language by Jews around the world helped ensure the creation of a hefty corpus of both religious and secular material in it. The same can be said, to a lesser extent, for Syriac. Kurdish was thus doubly disadvantaged in finding patronage for the creation of a large written canon prior to the 20th century, and as a result, we are left with relatively fewer manuscripts in it than compared to Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Hebrew or Syriac.

Or 6444 f11r Gorani Anthology_1500 Or 6444 f55r Gorani Anthology_1500
Two pages of poetry in Gorani from the Gorani anthology in safina format. Copy dated 1197 AH/ 1782-4 CE (Or. 6444, f. 11r and f. 55r)
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Indeed, the British Library holds a total of 8 manuscript texts in Kurdish, compared to the estimated 4000 items in Turkic languages. Of these, only 6 are volumes composed entirely, or nearly entirely, of poetry written in Kurdish. The best known of these is Or. 6444, a codex of Gorani poetry, which was transliterated and translated by Mr. Anwar Soltani, and eventually published as a bilingual edition entitled Anthology of Gorani Kurdish Poetry (YC.1999.b.8850). Some of the poetry included in the volume was composed by well-known Kurdish authors. None of them, however, is as famous as Ehmed Xanî, the author of the Kurdish epic Mam û Zîn, which the Library holds in manuscript form under the shelfmark Or. 11996. This work is a meditation on forbidden love, but it also encapsulates some of the core themes of a nascent Kurdish national identity. Mam û Zîn has been copied and published numerous times, especially since the creation of a de-facto Kurdish entity in Northern Iraq following the first Gulf War, when the Kurdish publishing industry blossomed. Nonetheless, this manuscript recension brings to life a historical dimension of the development of Kurdish literacy in the Middle East, while also acting as a window onto Xanî's poetical genius.

Or 8208 Seyfu-l-mulûk f45v-46r
Two better-preserved pages of the Seyfu'l-mulûk showing a fully-vocalized rendering of the Kurmanji text. Copy dated 1286 AH / 1869-70 CE (Or. 8208, ff. 45v-46r)
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Among the other Kurmanji Kurdish manuscipts is Or. 8208, a poem known as Seyfu'l-Mulûk, or The Sword of Kings. The Library's copy is badly damaged, and although the text is largely legible, many of the pages have lost their edges, in some cases depriving readers of complete words of phrases. This story is set in Egypt, where the action revolves around the adventures of a particular prince, but the origins of the tale are Persian. Versions of the Seyfu'l-Mulûk can be found across the Islamic world, and this Kurdish version attests to the manner in which such texts were accepted and assimilated into broader Kurdish creative culture.

Add MS 7829 ff91v-92r. Gorani Poem
A section of the Gorani translation of Khvurshīd-i Khāvar, early 19th century (Add MS 7829, ff. 91v-92r)
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Add MS 23554 f37r Bahram u Gulandam
A folio of Bahrām va Gulandām translated into Gorani showing a later addition to the text, early 19th century (Add MS 23554, f. 37r)
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Other items within the Kurdish collections are translations of well-known Persian works into the Gorani dialect. Add MS 7829 presents us with two stories: that of Leyla and Mecnun; and another of Khvurshīd-i Khāvar. Add MS 7826, in contrast, is a Gorani translation of Khusraw va Shīrīn. Finally, Add MS 23554 is the story of Bahrām va Gulandām, yet another Persian epic of reasonable fame amongst Middle Eastern communities. The simple production of all three manuscripts, as well as the lack of information about the copyist or where they were created, lead us to believe that they were part of a broader reading culture among Kurdish speakers. They might not be remarkable items of art and luxury, but their construction and formatting provide us with valuable information about the manner in which Kurds read and shared literature in their native tongue, all while remaining part of a broader West Asian cultural space.

Or 5932 14v
The start of the earliest Kurdish-Arabic dictionary in verse, the Nûbihara Biçûkan, composed by Ehmed Xanî. 18th century (Or. 5932, f. 9v)
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Or. 5932 9r: The opening part of the Edîqeya Îmanî, a didactic poem composed by Ehmed Xanî
The opening part of the Edîqeya Îmanî, a didactic poem composed by Ehmed Xanî. 18th century (Or. 5932, f. 14v)
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The last item in the collections containing Kurdish poetry is Or. 5932. It contains two Kurmanji Kurdish poems among various other works in Arabic, Ottoman Turkish and Persian. The first Kurmanji Kurdish work is the Nûbihara Biçûkan, composed by Ehmed Xanî as a means of teaching the Arabic language to Kurdish students at madrasas. The second is known as the Edîqeya Îmanî, another didactic work originally composed by Ehmed Xanî. The Edîqeya was also traditionally used as a starter text by Kurdish students at madrasas. The inclusion of these two particular poems in the codex is apt, given that the final text is an Arabic didactic poem aimed at helping Persian-speaking students learn the Arabic language; a mandatory subject for anyone studying the Qur'an.

One of the most challenging aspects of creating a cohesive and cogent collection of Kurdish works is the dialectical differences that exist between Kurdish speech communities. Today, there are two main dialects, or languages (the distinction is far from hard and fast), spoken and written across the Middle East. Kurmanji is the dominant Kurdish language in North and West Kurdistan, primarily spoken by Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Armenia, as well as parts of northern Iraq and north-eastern Iran. Sorani, by contrast, is used primarily in Central and East Kurdistan, covering northern Iraq and western Iran. Today, Kurmanji in Turkey and Armenia is written in Latin script, while Sorani in Iraq and Iran is written in Arabic script (as is Kurmanji in Syria). Cyrillic script was used in Armenia prior to 1991, but Armenian Kurds and Yezidis have since switched to the Latin standard. Add to this a plethora of local dialects that differ, in various degrees, from the commonly used lects of Amed (Diyarbakır), Slêmanî and Hêwler, and the related but distinct Zazaki and Gorani languages, and you get the totality of the Kurdophone sphere. All of this leads to a situation of remarkable diversity within the written corpus, one not usually seen in that of a state language. All texts in the British Library's Kurdish manuscript collections are written in Arabic script, which bedevils the task of the cataloguer. They are faced with the exceptionally difficult task of properly identifying the dialect of the text, in addition to the other pertinent information relating to the manuscripts, without the handy tool of state-sponsored standardization usually employed when cataloguing published works.

Add MS 26319 ff2v-3r Laki
A page of the Persian-Laki dictionary featuring terms in both languages written in neat nasta'liq. Dated 1811 CE (Add MS 26319, ff. 2v-3r)
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Add MS 26319 ff9v-10r English Kurdish
A page of the English-Kurdish wordlist featuring terms of common usage. Early 19th century (Add MS 26319, ff. 9v-10r)
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Linguistic diversity, far from being a hindrance, enriches our collections. In addition to the variety of dialects reflected in the poetic works, the British Library also holds a number of handwritten wordlists of Kurdish dialects in Iraq and Iran. The first of these, found under the shelf mark Add MS 26319, round out the collections and help to bolster our corpus of scholarly material relating to the Kurdish linguistic space. The codex is one that was created by the last owner of the manuscripts - C. J. Erskine - prior to its purchase by the British Museum in 1865. It holds an English-Kurdish glossary, as well as Persian-Laki Kurdish and Persian-Ardalani Kurdish (possibly a reference to Gorani) wordlists. While far from serious linguistic treatises on Kurdish dialectology or grammar, they do nonetheless provide a look at some of the pre-standardization aspects of Kurdish speech communities. They point to the ways in which linguistic diversity among the Kurds was conceived, sometimes by Western Orientalists, and sometimes by Kurds themselves. Such glossaries were a common phenomenon among British military and colonial officials, and more official versions were often published by governmental agencies. One need only look at IOR/L/MIL/17/15/52, a mass-produced multilingual volume entitled "Vocabularies: English, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish, Syriac" (digitised as part of the Qatar Digital Library), to see their importance within the context of the late British Empire.

Together, this motley collection of holdings produced by Kurds and colonial administrators provides a unique entry point to pre-20th century Kurdish cultural life. A lack of state sponsorship deprived Kurdish communities of some of the resources needed to create a written canon on the scale of the Persian, Arabic or Ottoman Turkish ones. It did not, however, stops the Kurds from seeking to write down, share and disseminate texts, and to preserve their cultural production for future generations. The British Library is lucky to be custodian of a small snapshot of such dynamics, which it aims to make available to all those seeking to understand better the history of Kurdish cultural expression.

The author would like to thank Mr. Yakup Aykaç of Artuklu Mardin Üniversitesi for his great help in the identification and description of Kurmanji Kurdish works within the British Library's collections.

Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Collections Curator, British Library
Ccownwork

07 November 2019

British Library receives gift of the Pali Tipitaka

On the occasion of the opening of the Buddhism exhibition, the British Library received a gift from the World Tipitaka Foundation, Thailand, of the Buddhist canon in the Pali language. The recently published threefold edition consists of 120 volumes altogether. The official handover ceremony on 24 October 2019 was attended by representatives from the World Tipitaka Foundation, the Royal Thai Embassy in London and members of the Library’s senior leadership team who expressed their gratitude for this generous donation. All 120 volumes are currently on display in the Buddhism exhibition and will be added to the Library’s Buddhist collections after the exhibition closes on 23 February 2020.

RTE06311
Representatives from the World Tipitaka Foundation, the Royal Thai Embassy in London and British Library staff at the handover ceremony of the threefold edition of the Pali Tipitaka on 24 October 2019, led by Thanpuying Varaporn Pramoj, President of the World Tipitaka Foundation (centre).

The Buddha’s word was initially transmitted orally. After the Buddha’s physical passing and attainment of parinirvana, his disciples and later followers gathered in several councils to recite and preserve the Buddha’s teachings. It is thought that in the first century BCE, during the fourth Buddhist council held in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, an early version of the Buddhist canon was written down in the Pali language. The Pali canon, or Tipitaka, is regarded as the corpus of Buddhist scriptures closest to the original words of the Buddha. It consists of “three baskets” of teachings: the Sutta Pitaka (discourses of the Buddha), the Vinaya Pitaka (monastic discipline) and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (further teachings). Each of the major Buddhist traditions has their own body of scriptures that may differ from others in contents, number and order of texts. In Sanskrit, the corpus of canonical scriptures is known as Tripitaka. A complete set of scriptures of the Buddhist canon can include from around 40 volumes in the Theravada tradition to 108 in the Vajrayana tradition and over 200 volumes in the Mahayana tradition. Maunggan gold plates
Text fragments from the Tipitaka in Pali, written in Pyu script, on gold plates which were excavated at Maunggan, Burma. Pyu kingdoms, 5th century. British Library, Or.5340/A–B Noc

The oldest extant text fragments of the Pali Tipitaka in form of Pyu inscriptions on gold plates date back to around the 5th century CE. They were excavated at Maunggan, Burma, in 1897. The Pali Tipitaka was transcribed into Sinhalese, Burmese, Khmer, Thai and Northern Thai, Lao, Shan and other scripts of Southeast Asia. In the nineteenth century Western scholars together with monks from Sri Lanka began to Romanise and to translate scriptures of the Tipitaka into English and other European languages. The first Romanised publication of the Jataka tales from the Sutta Pitaka by V. Fausbøoll and R. C. Childers appeared in six volumes between 1875-1896.

Jatakas
Title page of the first volume of a Romanised version of the Jataka tales published in London in 1875. British Library, 14098.d.23

The world's first printed set of the Paḷi Tipiṭaka was the 39-volume Chulachomklao of Siam Paḷi Tipiṭaka Edition which was commissioned by King Chulalongkorn Chulachomklao of Siam (Rama V) in B.E.2463 (1893). After six years of preparation under the leadership of the Buddhist monk and scholar Vajiranana Varorasa, the king presented 500 sets of this historic edition to Buddhist monasteries all over the kingdom of Siam (now Thailand). More sets were presented later as royal gifts to 260 leading institutions all over the world. These royal gifts of Tipiṭaka in Pali language printed in Thai script have been discovered still held at libraries in 30 countries.

1893 edition
Front cover of a volume of the 1893 Chulachomklao of Siam Paḷi Tipiṭaka Edition with the royal coat of arms of Siam used by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) embossed in gold. Photo courtesy of the World Tipitaka Foundation

In 1956 an international Buddhist Council held in Burma brought 2500 erudite monks of the Theravada tradition together and resulted in the publication of the Chatthasangiti Council Edition containing the Pali Tipitaka in Burmese script. Based on this edition, a Romanised version was edited on the initiative of the Supreme Patriarch of the Sangha of Thailand, Venerable Vajirananasamvara, who himself had attended the Buddhist Council in 1956. The work was published by the World Tipitaka Foundation in 2002, comprising of forty volumes with the title Mahasangiti Tipitaka Buddhavasse 2500.

Pali notation
Front cover of a volume of the 2016 Queen Sirikit’s Sajjhaya Pali Notation edition with the emblem of Queen Sirikit, the Queen Mother of Thailand. Photograph courtesy of the World Tipitaka Foundation

Based on the Pali Tipitaka edition in Roman script that was completed in 2002, the World Tipitaka Foundation published two further 40-volume sets of the Tipitaka specifically for the correct pronunciation and recitation of the Pali text. The King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Sajjhaya Pali Phonetic and the Queen Sirikit’s Sajjhaya Pali Notation editions, published in 2016, are the culmination of half a century of international efforts to preserve the words of the Buddha. The use of sound technology made it possible to record the recitation of the Pali texts, amounting to 3,052 hours. A special feature of the digital Sajjhaya recitation is the sound technology reference, which electronically refers to any one of over nine million Pali syllables in the Tipitaka to the Kaccayana Pali grammar, the oldest grammar used in ancient Pali literature. Digital recitation samples are available online at www.sajjhaya.org/node/26.

The presentation of the Romanised version of the Tipitaka together with the Sajjhaya Pali Phonetic and the Sajjhaya Pali Notation editions to the British Library as a Dhamma gift from the World Tipitaka Foundation heralds a new era of sharing ancient Buddhist wisdom and making the Pali Buddhist canon available to a wider audience in the UK.

DSCF6589 (photo credit@D_Meng)
Display of the threefold edition of the Pali Tipitaka in the Buddhism exhibition, with (from left to right) Mrs Thipayasuda Suvanajata, Dr Lalivan Karnchanachari, Mr Phornsake Karnchanachari (Patron of the World Tipitaka Foundation) and H.E. Mr Pisanu Suvanajata (Ambassador of Thailand in the UK). Photograph courtesy of D. Meng.

Jana Igunma, Lead Curator, Buddhism exhibition Ccownwork

04 November 2019

Malay Seals from the Islamic World of Southeast Asia

The Malay world of maritime Southeast Asia has long been connected by political, economic, and cultural networks, the lingua franca of the Malay language, and the faith of Islam.  Malay seals – defined as seals from Southeast Asia or used by Southeast Asians, with  inscriptions in Arabic script –  constitute a treasure trove of data that can throw light on myriad aspects of the history of the Malay world, ranging from the nature of kingship to the form of Islamic thought embraced. As small but highly visible and symbolic emblems of their users, Malay seals were designed to portray the image of the self that the seal holder wished to project, but they were also no less strongly shaped by the prevailing cultural, religious, and artistic norms of their time. It is these multiple layers of identity, both consciously and subconsciously revealed in seals, that are recorded, explored, and interpreted in a new catalogue of Malay seals.

Malay seals from the Islamic world of Southeast Asia  (Singapore:  NUS Press, in association with the British Library, 2019)
Malay seals from the Islamic world of Southeast Asia  (Singapore:  NUS Press, in association with the British Library, 2019)

Malay seals from the Islamic world of Southeast Asia, published in Singapore by NUS Press in association with the British Library, and in Indonesia by the Lontar Foundation, comprises a catalogue of 2,168 seals sourced from more than 70 public institutions and 60 private collections worldwide. The seals are primarily recorded from impressions stamped in lampblack, ink or wax on manuscript letters, treaties and other documents, but around 300 seal matrices made of silver, brass or stone are also documented. These Malay seals originate from the present-day territories of Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia and the southern parts of Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines, and date from the second half of the 16th century to the early twentieth century.

the large silver seal of Sultan Abdul Samad of Selangor
A rare surviving example of a royal Malay seal matrix: the large silver seal of Sultan Abdul Samad of Selangor (r. 1857-1898). 98 mm in diameter, this is both the largest Malay seal known, and the only Malay seal matrix with the names of the seal makers engraved on the underside: Tukang Selat dengan Tukang Ma' Asan ('Craftsman Selat with Craftsman Ma' Asan). Galeri Diraja Sultan Abdul Aziz, Kelang, reproduced courtesy of HH Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah of Selangor. (Gallop 2019: 440, cat. 1293).

In the catalogue, elegantly designed by Paul Luna - Emeritus Professor of Typography at Reading University, and an expert in the design of ‘complex text’ – each seal is illustrated and the inscription presented in transcription, transliteration and English translation.  Also noted is biographical information on the seal holder (when available); the size, shape and medium of the seal; information on the manuscript on which the seal was found; and the locations of all other known impressions. A statistical overview hints at both the wealth of data encountered and the fragility of survival: over 10,000 impressions of Malay seals have been documented, but more than half the seals in the catalogue are only known from a single impression.

The catalogue began life two decades ago as a handlist of Malay seals in the British Library, and then evolved to include seals from other collections, mainly impressed on letters, treaties, edicts, and legal and commercial documents. In the Malay world, seals were a royal prerogative, their use restricted to the ruler and court officials, and most Malay seals known today are found on correspondence with European officials. In the British Library, the main sources of original Malay seals are letters from the collection of Thomas Stamford Raffles, and documents relating to the East India Company held in the India Office Records. The Endangered Archives Programme has also provided digital access to seal on manuscripts held in Indonesian collections.  Shown below are a few examples of manuscripts bearing Malay seals in the British Library, accompanied by the catalogue entry.

Aceh
Document recording the gift of a slave from Sultan Johar al-Alam Syah of Aceh to Captain Baumgarten, 30 Syawal 1225 (28 November 1810).  Melaka Records, British Library IOR R/9/22/45, f. 50r
Document recording the gift of a slave from Sultan Johar al-Alam Syah of Aceh to Captain Baumgarten, 30 Syawal 1225 (28 November 1810).  Melaka Records, British Library IOR R/9/22/45, f. 50r.  Like most Malay seals, the seal was stamped in lampblack, which has smudged when the paper was folded.  noc
Seal of Sultan Johar al-Alam Syah of Aceh

Kedah
Letter from Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Syah of Kedah (r. 1778-1797) to Francis Light, Governor of Penang, 2 Syawal 1206 (24 May 1792).
Letter from Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Syah of Kedah (r. 1778-1797) to Francis Light, Governor of Penang, 2 Syawal 1206 (24 May 1792). British Library, Add. 45271, f. 11; this volume of letters is from the Raffles collection.  noc Due to Siamese influence, Kedah seals were generally stamped in red ink and not the lampblack favoured in most Malay states. The seal on this letter is the sultan's small private seal, rather than his official seal of state. 150 examples of this seal have been documented, mostly from Sultan Abdullah's correspondence with Light, as noted in the catalogue entry below.
Seal of Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Syah of Ke

Johor
Illuminated letter from Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja of Johor to Emperor Napoleon III of France, 17 Syaaban 1273 (12 April 1857).
Illuminated letter from Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja of Johor to Emperor Napoleon III of France, 17 Syaaban 1273 (12 April 1857). British Library, Or. 16126.  noc It is often assumed that the most important Malay letters were illuminated, but in fact only a small number of courts ever produced illuminated letters, including Aceh, Johor, Pontianak, and Palembang. This finely decorated letter from Johor is the only Malay letter known written in gold ink. The seal, stamped in black ink, is catalogued below.
Seal of Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja of Johor

Jambi
Edict (surat piagam) from Pangiran Dipati Anum of Jambi, Sumatra, to Dipati Terbumi
Edict (surat piagam) from Pangiran Dipati Anum of Jambi, Sumatra, to Dipati Terbumi, dated Thursday in Jumadilakhir 10--.  This letter may date from the 17th century: although the date is incomplete as the paper is torn down the left side after the word seribu (one thousand), the next word appears to start with alif, and hence is most likely empat (four) or enam (six), and not seratus or dua ratus (one or two hundreds), giving a date in the first century of the second Hijrah millennium.  British Library, EAP117/51/1/10, Collection of Depati Atur Bumi, Hiang Tinggi, Kerinci, Jambi. The seal is catalogued below. Seal jambi

The majority of the over 2,000 seals in the new catalogue have been sourced from documents similar to those shown about.  Unlike in many other parts of the Islamic world, Malay seals are rarely encountered in manuscript books. However, perhaps two of the most unusual seals in the catalogue are those of Princess Ambung of Riau, attesting her ownership of prized items of silverware.

10-sided betel box (tepak sirih) with an inset tray lid, chased silver and partly gilded, Riau islands, 19th century.V&A IS.268&A-1950

10-sided betel box (tepak sirih) with an inset tray lid, chased silver and partly gilded, Riau islands, 19th century. Stamped on the base with the ownership seal of Tengku Ambung. V&A I.S. 268-1950.A.  One of Tengku Ambung's two seals is catalogued below:
seal of Tengku Ambung

The picture that emerges from a consideration of this wealth of data is of a Malay sealing tradition, involving the regular chancery use of locally manufactured seals with inscriptions in Arabic script, which probably evolved only in the 16th and early 17th centuries in the Muslim courts of the archipelago. Although seals had certainly been present in maritime Southeast Asia over the preceding millennium – the signet ring of the king of Srivijaya was reported in Song records of the 11th century, and Ibn Battuta noted the use of seals in Pasai during his visit in the 13th century – there does not appear to have been a consistent and coherent usage of seals in any part of the Malay world before the 17th century, except in Java. A possible impetus for the increasing use of Malay seals may have been the arrival on the scene of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) around 1600, and the emphasis the Dutch placed on the use of seals in treaties, in a way that the earlier wave of Portuguese and Spanish emissaries did not.  The well-established sealing culture in Islamic lands to the west provided the Malay world with the means of response to this sigillographic challenge, but Malay seals were nonetheless designed primarily to strike a chord within the region itself, while still clearly identifying their owners as full members of the international Islamic community.

Malay seals from the Islamic world of Southeast Asia, by Annabel Teh Gallop. 
Singapore: NUS Press in association with the British Library, 2019.
852 pp.  ISBN: 978-981-3250-86-4
Distributed in North and South America by Chicago University Press
Distributed in the UK by Bernard Quaritch Ltd

The catalogue is published in Indonesia by the Lontar Foundation, with a jacket design based on the illuminated Johor letter shown above.
 Lontar front cover

Annabel Teh Gallop, Southeast Asia section  ccownwork