Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues


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

21 May 2024

Burkhard Quessel, Curator for Tibetan, retires from the British Library

At the end of April 2024, Burkhard Quessel retired from the British Library, 27 years after his appointment as Curator for Tibetan collections in 1997. 

Burkhard Quessel (second from left) shows His Holiness the 17th Karmapa a Tibetan manuscript
During a visit to the British Library on 19 May 2017 by the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje (left), Burkhard Quessel (second from left) shows His Holiness a Tibetan manuscript. Second from the right is Kristian Jensen, Head of Collections, while on the right is Chime Rinpoche, a predecessor of Burkhard as Curator for Tibetan at the British Library. Photograph by the British Library (from Karmapa Facebook).  

As well as developing and improving access to the Tibetan collections, one of Burkhard’s major contributions was his work on the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), in order to create consistent standards and guidelines for the description of manuscripts and archival records. He spearheaded the introduction of TEI for the cataloguing of content in Tibetan and other Asian languages at the British Library, and supported colleagues and teams using TEI, most notably for the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project and the International Dunhuang Progamme, and enabled the Library to contribute metadata on Persian manuscripts to Fihrist. Burkhard’s contribution was critical in setting up access strategies for the Sanskrit collection and for Tibetan materials in the Stein and related collections, as well as for the cataloguing of Tibetan materials in the Endangered Archives Programme, such as the printed Sutra shown below. 

Sutra, in Tibetan, xylograph in red and black ink; before 1857
འཕགས་པ་ཏོག་གཟུངས་བཞུགས་སོ།. Sutra, in Tibetan, xylograph in red and black ink; before 1857. Collection of Noyon Hutuktu Danzan Ravjaa Museum, Mongolia. EAP031/1/14.  

Another example of Burkhard’s collegial and collaborative work was his involvement in the Jainpedia project led by the Institute of Jainology in the early 2000s, which resulted in the digitisation of a substantial number of the Library’s Jain manuscripts, the publication of the Catalogue of the Jain manuscripts of the British Library (3 vols., 2006), and a display in the Treasures Gallery. Burkhard also played a major role in the online publishing of A Descriptive Catalogue of the Hodgson Collection in the British Library, London, which was launched in 2011. Most recent achievements include Burkhard's contribution to the AHRC-funded project Transforming Technologies and Buddhist Book Culture, a multi-disciplinary collaboration with the Mongolian Inner Asia Studies Unit (MIASU) at Cambridge University, and the follow-up project Tibetan Book Evolution and Technology (2013-2015) funded by an Inter-European Marie Curie Fellowship.

Writing exercise in Tibetan
Writing exercise in Tibetan, ca. 17th-19th c. Acquired by Aurel Stein 1913-1916 from the Etsin-gol delta, south of Soko-Nor. British Library, IOL Tib M 223 Noc

Burkhard was one of the curators who helped to shape a major exhibition on Buddhism which took place at the British Library from 25 October 2019 to 23 February 2020. As the curator responsible for Tibetan materials, he selected over a dozen objects of Tibetan origin from the Library's collection, carried out research and compiled exhibition labels. With his expertise and in-depth knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism he contributed to the development of a storyline for the exhibition and ensured that objects were handled and displayed with due respect. Shown below is a photograph of one of the exhibition cases with a Tibetan Thangka painting of Padmasambhava, founder of Samye monastery, mounted on the wall, with the caption written for the exhibition by Burkhard.

Exhibition case with a Tibetan Thangka painting of Padmasambhava, founder of Samye monastery, mounted on the wall
'Padmasambhava, the ‘Lotus-Born’, is one of the most popular teacher figures in Tibet. He was a master famous for his occult powers. When local demonic forces obstructed the foundation of the first Tibetan monastery in Samye in the 8th century, the king invited him from India to put the demons and deities of Tibet into the service of Buddhism. He is seated on a lotus at the centre of this painting with his two principal consorts on the left and right. Samye is still an active monastery and pilgrimage site in Tibet today. 
Thangka painting, India, 1788–1805. British Library, Add.Or.3048, from the collection of Sir Gore Ousely.'
[Exhibition caption by Burkhard Quessel, Buddhism exhibition, British Library, 2019.]

Burkhard knew the Tibetan collections in the British Library intimately, including where to find Tibetan manuscript material hidden in many different parts of the library. Presented below is Burkhard’s description of one such treasure, an account of Tibet by the Panchen Lama of 1775:

‘In 1774 George Bogle (1746-1781) was sent on a diplomatic mission to Tibet by the British Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings. During the five months he spent in Tashilhunpo at the court of the 3rd Panchen dPal Idan ye shes (1738-1780), he formed a strong relationship with the Panchen Lama or ‘Tashi Lama’ as he was referred to by the British.

Bogle records that during an audience with the Panchen Lama in January 1775, the Lama ‘told me that he would order his people to write down ever particular regarding the laws and customs of the country that I wished to know. I thanked him and told him that I would first give him an account of Europe which from the great curiosity and novelty of the subject would be agreeable to him’ (Mss Eur 226/49). Bogle’s account of Europe for the Tashi Lama was translated into Tibetan and presented to the Panchen on a later occasion.

A copy of the English draft is contained in Mss Eur 226/65 and was published in A. Lamb, Bhutan and Tibet, The Travels of George Bogle and Alexander Hamilton 1774-1777 (Hertingfordbury, 2002). Bogle’s journal mentions that the Lama also kept his promise and provided him with a similar written account on Tibet which is illustrated here. The section shown deals with the early royal history of Tibet.’

[Burkhard Quessel, ‘Account of Tibet by the Panchen Lama’, in: A Cabinet of Oriental Curiosities: an album for Graham Shaw from his colleagues, ed. Annabel Teh Gallop. London: British Library, 2006; no. 19.]

The early royal history of Tibet, from an account of Tibet by the Panchen Lama, written in Tibetan cursive script, presented to George Bogle, 1775
The early royal history of Tibet, from an account of Tibet by the Panchen Lama, written in Tibetan cursive script, presented to George Bogle, 1775. British Library, MSS Eur 226/66. Noc
Burkhard Quessel, receiving a farewell gift from his colleagues on his retirement
Burkhard Quessel, receiving a farewell gift from his colleagues on his retirement, 26 April 2024.

Contributed by colleagues in Asian and African Collections and Endangered Archives Programme

15 April 2024

A Gastronomic Feast

During the past few months we have all been struggling to maintain some kind of service as a result of last year’s cyber-attack, but our Loans Department, especially, has been working overtime to fulfil our exhibition commitments. A major landmark for us in Asian and African Collections was the opening on December 17th of Dining with the Sultan: The Fine Art of Feasting at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Dining with the Sultan, gallery viewDining with the Sultan, room in a house
'Dining with the Sultan' at LACMA. Photo credit, Morgan Wadsworth-Boyle

Dining with the Sultan is the first exhibition to present Islamic art in the context of its associated culinary and gastronomic traditions and includes some 250 works of art related to the sourcing, preparation, serving, and consumption of food, from 30 public and private collections worldwide.

Asian and African Studies contributed altogether five manuscripts to the exhibition which date from the late 13th to the 16th centuries, representing culinary traditions from Ottoman Turkey across to Mughal India.

Ibn Butlan’s Almanac of Health

Title page of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥah (Almanac of Health)
Title page of Ibn Butlan’s Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥah (Almanac of Health). Syria or Iraq, dated Jumada II, 610 (Oct/Nov 1213). BL Or 1347, f. 1r. Public domain

Food and diet played an essential role in medieval Islam. Pharmacological treatises such as the Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥah by Ibn Butlan ( 1068), a Christian physician and theologian of Baghdad, listed foods and drinks essential for a healthy life in addition to prescribing exercise and leisure activities. This elaborately decorated manuscript was a presentation copy for Saladin’s son, al-Malik al-Zahir (d. 1216), King of Aleppo. The title page shown here gives the title and author in the upper frame and the dedication to the patron in the lower frame.

Assemblies of al-Hariri 

Revellers drinking. Syria, 13th–14th century. BL Add Ms 22114, f. 30r
Revellers drinking. Syria, 13th–14th century. BL Add Ms 22114, f. 30r. Public domain 

The Maqāmāt (Assemblies) of al-Hariri of Basra (1054-1122) are a collection of 50 tales describing the adventures of the fictional character Abu Zayd. This copy, from Syria, dates from the late 13th or early 14th century, and is illustrated with 84 vivid paintings depicting Abu Zayd on his travels. Here revellers are seen drinking in a tavern setting, entertained by musicians. In the background colourful ceramic storage jars are displayed alongside glass flasks, beakers and a bowl of fruit, giving some idea of how vessels such as these were used in 13th century Syria. 

A Baghdad Cookery Book 

Heading of Or 5099  f1v
The opening of Kitāb al-ṭabīkh (Book of Dishes) by Muhammad ibn al-Karim. Ottoman Turkey, 15th or 16th century. BL Or 5099, f. 2v. Public domain

The Kitāb al-ṭabīkh is a manual on cookery composed by Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Karīm, known as the Scribe of Baghdad (al-Kātib al-Baghdādī) in 623/1226. The text contains 160 recipes organised into ten chapters, each concerned with different gastronomic and culinary categories such as sour, plain, fried and dry dishes, oven-cooked dishes, fish, pickles, puddings, sweets, and dough-based sweet dishes. This copy was commissioned by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444-46; 1451-81) and the fine illumination and calligraphy testify to its importance as a status symbol rather than a day-to-day manual.

Nizami’s Khamsah (Five Poems)

Preparing for a feast. Add Ms 25900  f4r Khusraw and Shirin. Add Ms 25900  f4r
Two leaves repositioned as a frontispiece to Nizami’s Khamsah (Five poems) copied in Herat around 846/1442. BL Add Ms 25900, f. 4r (left) and Add Ms 25900, f. 3v (right). Public domain

The Khamsah of the 12th century poet Nizami remains one of the best-loved of Persian poetical works. These two paintings together form an illustrated frontispiece for a deluxe volume copied in Herat around 846/1442 but with paintings from several different sources added later. The left-hand side (f. 4r) shows preparations for a feast and probably dates from the 1490s. Cooking cauldrons are depicted alongside a gold pestle and mortar while above a sheep is being slaughtered. The right-hand illustration has been identified[1] as a misplaced folio from the story of Khusraw and Shirin showing an out of doors entertainment with wine served from Chinese porcelain and other flasks.

Courtly Feasting in the Sultanate of Malwa  

Sultan Ghiyas al-Din supervising female cooks. IO Islamic 149  f115v
Sultan Ghiyas al-Din supervising female cooks. From the Niʻmatnāmah (Book of Delicacies). India Mandu, ca. 1490s-1500. BL IO Islamic 149 f. 115v. Public domain

Following the sack of Delhi by Timur in 1398, the province of Malwa, in present-day Madhya Pradesh, became an independent state under the Ghurid ruler Dilawar Khan. He was succeeded in 1436 by Mahmud Shah I, founder of the Khalji dynasty, with its capital city Mandu, renamed Shadiyabad (City of Joy). It was here that the Niʻmatnāmah (Book of Delicacies)[2] and also the multilingual dictionary Miftāḥ al-Fuz̤alā (Key of the Learned) were composed under the patronage of the colourful Ghiyas al-Din Shah (r. 1469–1500) who was reputed to have established a court consisting of 15,000 women who included teachers, musicians, and persons of all professions and trades. The illustration above accompanies recipes for halva and paluda (often called faluda). 

Roasting on a spit from the multi-lingual illustrated dictionary Miftāḥ al-fuz̤alā. Or 3299  f218r
Roasting on a spit from the multi-lingual illustrated dictionary Miftāḥ al-fuz̤alā by Muhammad ibn Muhammad Daʼud Shadiyabadi. Mandu, ca. 1490. BL Or 3299, f. 218r. Public domain

Babur is entertained by his cousin Badiʻ al-Zaman at Herat 

A party at Badiʻ al-Zaman Mirza’s. Or 3714  f260v
A party at Badiʻ al-Zaman Mirza's. From the Persian translation of the Vaqiʻāt-i Bāburī, or Bāburnāmah, by the Mughal statesman Mirza ʻAbd al-Rahim Khan-i Khanan (1556-1627). Artist, Tiriya. Lahore, ca. 1590-93. BL Or 3714, f. 260v. Public domain

The Mughal emperor Babur’s autobiography was written originally in Chagatai but was translated into Persian at the request of his grandson Akbar by ʻAbd al-Rahim Khan-i Khanan. The British Library manuscript is one of four imperial copies. Completed between 1590 and 1594, it contains 143 illustrations, mostly by named artists, combining historical events with descriptions of the flora and fauna of India.  

The present scene describes a feast by invitation of Babur’s cousin Badiʻ al-Zaman. In agreement with the text, it illustrates the occasion when Babur was served up a whole roast goose and was at a complete loss as to what to do. When asked if he didn’t care for it, he explained that he had never carved such a creature before — so his host kindly did it for him! Although the painting describes a historical event which took place when Babur visited Herat in 1506-7, the details are set clearly in the time of Akbar almost 100 years later. 

Dining with the Sultan: The Fine Art of Feasting is open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) until August 4, 2024 before travelling to the Detroit Institute of Arts where it will be on view from September 22, 2024 until January 5, 2025. A catalogue of the same title is available, edited by the exhibition curator Linda Komaroff with contributions from 22 experts. 

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian, Asian and African Collections

Further reading

Linda Komarov, ed. Dining with the Sultan: The Fine Art of Feasting (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2023).
al-Katib al-Baghdadi, Kitāb al-ṭabīkh, translated by Charles Perry, A Baghdad Cookery Book (Blackawton: Prospect Books, 2005).
Barbara Brend, Treasures of Herat: Two Manuscripts of the Khamsah of Nizami in the British Library (London: Ginko, 2022).
Niʻmatnāmah, translated by Norah M. Titley, The Niʻmatnāma Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu: The Sultan’s Book of Delight (London and New York: Routledge, 2005)  
Vivek Gupta, “Images for Instruction: A Multilingual Illustrated Dictionary in Fifteenth-Century Sultanate India”, Muqarnas, 38 (2022), pp. 77-112.
Babur, Vaqiʻāt-i Baburī, translated, edited, and annotated by Wheeler M. Thackston, The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor (Washington, D.C.: Freer Gallery of Art; New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).


[1] Barbara Brend, Treasures of Herat, pp. 58-61.
[2] See also Ursula Sims-Williams, pp. 94-96 in the exhibition Catalogue.

08 April 2024

After three decades of pioneering research, the IDP launches a new and improved website

The International Dunhuang Programme (IDP) has launched a new website, where you can view over 150,000 Central and Eastern Asian collection items and explore the history and cultures of the Silk Roads through new and expanded learning resources. The launch also coincides with the 30th anniversary of the IDP.


What is the IDP?

The IDP partnership was established in 1994 as the International Dunhuang Project, with the aim of improving access to materials from the Central and Eastern Silk Roads and promoting a better understanding of one of the world’s most important trade networks of the ancient world. With the Secretariat based here at the Library, the IDP was the first of its kind in this area of research.

What you can access

Over its 30 years, this pioneering international collaboration has made the metadata and images of over 35 collaborating institutions around the world accessible on a digital platform and database.

The Programme also promotes a more in-depth understanding of the Silk Roads through learning resources that explore relevant themes such as Buddhism along the Silk Roads, Chinese astronomy, and ancient bookbinding techniques. Watch a lecture on Mapping the Sky in Ancient China, discover the process of conserving and digitising fragile items or read about collection highlights on the blog.

IDP partner institutions also organise projects to preserve and increase access to these materials, such as the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project and the ‘New Shelfmark’ Digitisation Project.

Cave 17 Mogao caves photographed by Stein in 1907
A composite photograph of Cave 16, with the entrance to Cave 17 in the right corner (image from Sir Aurel Stein’s Serindia). Photo 392/56(82). Public domain

The website’s newly improved image viewer, depicting the Diamond Sutra. Or.8210/P.2. Public domain

What’s new on the website 

Described as ‘big progress in the field of digital archiving’ (Digital Orientalist), the new IDP website has enhanced many features used by experienced researchers and the general public alike, making it a beacon for new standards in user access and interoperability.

We’re most excited about the new search engine which offers improved accuracy and relevance of keyword search results, as well as the choice between two image viewers, both with the ability to deep zoom into high quality images of collection items.

Read the IDPs latest blog post for a thorough overview of the key features that have been introduced.

But you don’t have to be an expert to learn about the Silk Roads. As well as the collection images themselves, anyone can explore and enjoy our new content, including recorded lectures, learning resources and articles on various topics, with more to be released in the months ahead.

What’s next?

Over the past two years, the IDP website team has worked closely with developers Surface Impression and Knowledge Integration, through the generous support of The Polonsky Foundation. We will continue to roll out new features and tools that support further research with these materials.

Please note that not all content is currently available online, and the IDP will continue to upload metadata, images, and learning modules in the coming months. You can follow the IDP’s account on X for updates as new resources become available.

Elspeth Williams and Anastasia Pineschi, International Dunhuang Programme