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

21 September 2020

Curating Curation: Making Sense of the British Library’s Chagatai Collections

Full-page painting showing a man dressed in Central Asian clothing seated before his courtesans in similar dress
Chagatai Khan at in council with his courtesans. (Nusratnama, Central Asia, 970 AH/1563 CE. Or 3222, f 86r)
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In March of this year, when the necessity of lockdown became painfully apparently to those in positions of authority, the British Library closed its doors to the public. Curatorial staff were asked to work from home. We were lucky; unlike many of our peers in other cultural institutions across the country – not to mention millions of other workers throughout the United Kingdom – we were not furloughed. We were asked, however, to begin working on tasks that did not require access to the Library’s physical collections. I decided to use this time to create long-overdue digital records for our Chagatai holdings, among other things. In this blog post, I’m going to share a few insights that I gained from this work about the composition of the collection.

The British Library holds nearly 150 manuscripts containing text in Qipchaq and Qarluq Turkic lects. Within the Library’s structures, these are generally referred to as “Chagatai manuscripts,” despite the fact that such nomenclature is at best controversial, and at worst wrong. Chagatai is a literary language used from the 15th to early 20th centuries CE. Its lack of a documented standard meant that some degree of variation was tolerated, but not to the extent that it might include works in all regional lects spoken by communities from Tabriz to Ürümqi. The use of “Chagatai” was convenient as an analog to Ottoman, however, even if it wasn’t correct, and it stuck as a label for these items throughout the latter part of the 20th century. For this reason, I’ve decided to leave the term relatively unchallenged for now, and to reserve a discussion of the collection’s linguistic diversity for a later date.

A page featuring text in Uyghur script inside multicultural angular waves, and text in Arabic script in the margins
Two texts grace this page: one in a Turkic lect written in the Uyghur script; and one in Persian in Arabic script, written in the margins. (Yazd, 835 AH/1431 CE. Or 8193, f 16v)
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Of the 150 items held, only five have been digitized. I wrote about two of them in this blog post from early 2019. To these, we can add three other volumes: the Nusratnama, a history of the Shaybanids from Genghis Khan down to Shaybani Khan (Or 3222); an incomplete copy of Gharaib al-sighar, a collection of poetry by the great Chagatai poet Navoiy (Or 13069); and an exquisitely illustrated majmua of poetry, moral tracts and religious doctrine in a Turkic language written in Uyghur script and Persian (Or 8193). This means that the vast majority of the Chagatai works held by the British Library can only be consulted at our St. Pancras Asian and African Studies Reading Room, and thus remain heavily restricted to the public for the time being.

Black and white image of typed text on rectangular paper
A black and white image of the acquisition slip for Or. 9660, the Tazkirat ul-cinān. 
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A number of obstacles present themselves in the cataloguing of these items, only some of which are unique to the collection. To start, the metadata that exists for this collection is fragmentary at best. Items acquired by the British Museum prior to 1888 are included in Charles Rieu’s 1888 Catalogue of the Turkish Manuscripts in the British Museum. Given the early date of this catalogue, it only carries those items marked as Additional Manuscripts or with Oriental Manuscript references less than 3300. To this we may add a skeletal handlist compiled by my predecessor, Muhammad Isa Waley. The list provided me with bare-bones descriptions of the Chagatai works held by the Library. On occasion, I was able to add information gleaned from our blue slips, or acquisition slips, for some of the items given Oriental (Or.) shelfmarks. Such data was sparse, but it does provide further indications about content, script, materials, and, on occasion, source and date of acquisition. In sum, the quality and length of the records added to the online system is highly variable, but at least it marks a start to the process of making the items more visible.

One of the pieces of data that is often missing from many of these sources is provenance. This often-overlooked part of the manuscript’s story can contain incredible narratives of knowledge transfer and trade, as well as dispossession, theft, and alienation. As a literary language, Chagatai was used primarily in Central Asia, Iran, Siberia, East Turkestan, and Northern India. It is no surprise, then, that many of the volumes in the Library’s possession come from these regions, although a few others were copied as far afield as Istanbul. Our holdings, however, demonstrate a unique distribution of origins compared to many other collections, owing largely to the history of the British Empire. Over a quarter of the items held by the Library are in some way connected to India, either as their place of creation or as a transit route. Compare this to the Jarring Collection in Lund, where most manuscripts are from East Turkestan; or the Bibliothèque nationale de France, with most of its holdings from Dunhuang; or the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, rich in Central Asian manuscripts. This makes the BL’s collection a fascinating object revealing as much about British desire for Turkic cultural heritage as it does about the context in which such heritage was created.

Page of text in Arabic script with red inked title at top Page with Arabic-script text and seals in black ink
Left: The start of the Vaqiat-i Baburi, the Chagatai-language version of the Baburnama, or autobiography of Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. (Add MS 26324)
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Right: Ownership seals and inscriptions from the Vaqiat-i Baburi. (Add MS 26324, f 118v)
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British commercial and colonial actions in South Asia from the 17th through to the 20th centuries ensured a pronounced interest on the part of the British elite in the languages, history and cultures of the region. Sometimes directed towards scholarly pursuits, sometimes motived by political or military strategies, the sum of this fascination was the acquisition and transportation of South Asian physical heritage to the Imperial centre. Here, it was housed in museums and libraries, both public and private. These objects included Chagatai literary and scientific works penned by Mughal literati or copied by scribes for their influential patrons. The importance of the language for South Asian history is exemplified by two Chagatai versions of the Vaqiat-i Baburi (also known as the Baburnama), the autobiography of Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. One copy, Add MS 26324, was purchased by the Museum from William Erskine in 1865. Erskine, a well-known Scottish orientalist and first translator of the Baburnama into English, occupied several colonial posts in India in the first half of the 19th century. Another, more complete 16th-century copy exists at IO Islamic 2538 (formerly part of the India Office Library). The presence of English annotation leads us to believe that this copy might have been used extensively by Annette Beveridge. Beveridge, a member of the late 19th-century British colonial elite in India, translated the Baburnama and the Humayun-nama into English, relying on both Chagatai and Persian sources.

Page featuring Arabic-script text inside elaborate illumination in gold, blue and red inks with floral patternsPage featuring Arabic-script text inside elaborate illumination in gold, blue and red inks with floral patterns
The double-page seccade from the start of the Divan-i Navā'ī. (Iran. Or 1374, ff 1v-2r)
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India also appears to have been an important market for imported manuscripts before the advent of British colonization. Or 8193, for example, was originally created in Yazd, Iran in 835 AH (1431 CE). At some point, however, it was acquired and moved to India, where it later passed into the possession of a British official, A. Seton. Other Iranian items likely arrived in the UK directly from Persia. Many of the men charged with an Imperial mission were apparently avid collectors of manuscripts. These manuscripts were eventually sold or bequeathed to the British Museum and the India Office Library during financial difficulties or after the men's passing. Add MS 7910, Divan-i Nava’i, for example, was acquired from Claudius Rich. Rich was a former British consular and commercial agent who had worked in India, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Syria and Egypt. A similar story can be told for Or 1374, an exquisite copy of Navoiy’s Divan featuring lacquered hunting scenes on its binding and a double-paged seccade. The volume was bequeathed to the Museum by Sir Charles A. Murray, British Ambassador to Qajar Persia from 1854 to 1859 and, just possibly, one of the instigators of the Anglo-Persian war of 1856-57.

The remaining parts of the collection came from majority Turcophone regions, most of which were never subjected to long-term direct British occupation or colonial rule. The Abushqa (Add MS 7886), for example, was copied in the Ottoman Empire (which was occupied, at various times and in various locales, by British forces, but never in its entirety). This Ottoman-Chagatai dictionary based on the poetry of the great Chagatai poet Alisher Navoiy likely arrived in London through commercial routes, highlighting the lucrative business of selling historic manuscripts to European visitors and residents.

Arabic-script text in black ink on marbled paper
A page of text from the Qisas al-anbiya' demonstrating the peculiarities of the language employed. (Add MS 7851)
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The manuscripts from Central Asia tend to be the stickiest in terms of identifying provenance. Only minimal information is provided in the handlists and the acquisition slips, and the source of the item isn’t always recorded in the volume itself. The Library holds 40-odd items from the region, some of which are absolute treasures. The Nusratnama, mentioned above, is a case in point. Recently made available online, it features breathtaking illustrations of each of the rulers in the Shaybanid line. Rieu informs us that this was a gift to the British Museum by Mr. Joseph King, but goes no further in identifying its putative journey to these shores. A similar lack of provenance information bedevils Add MS 7851, a 15th-century copy of Rabghuzi’s Qisas al-anbiya’. Rieu tells us it was formerly in the collections of Claudius Rich, and that’s where we lose its tracks. The work is of exceptional linguistic value, charting an intermediary stage between Khwarezmi Turkic and Chagatai, and its voyages over time have great importance in understanding intellectual history in the Turkic world.

Chinese and Arabic-script text with the latter enclosed in a stamped blue border and covered with Chinese calligraphy in red ink
A laissez-passer in Chinese and an Eastern Turkic lect granting travel permission to Mehmet Ali Akhund so that he can accompany a Japanese expedition to Ürümqi. (Kashgar, 1903. Or 13151)
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Finally, the approximately 40 items that were produced in East Turkestan/Xinjiang (combining the regions of Dzungaria and Altishahr) is a motley crew in terms of both provenance and content. Some of these items were brought – licitly or illicitly – to the Museum by Europeans who sought out the physical heritage of the Silk Road’s eastern branches. Chief among these was Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-Jewish orientalist whose collections form a large part of the British Library’s International Dunhuang Project holdings. Only a small fraction of these items are in Turkic languages, including administrative or miscellaneous works that made their way back to the United Kingdom as packing materials (Or 12201). Other items speak to the social and political structures in place at the time of the expeditions. Or 13151 is a laissez-passer issued in 1903 in both Chinese and a local Turkic language to one Mehmet Ali Akhund so that he might accompany a Japanese expedition to Ürümqi. It is a rare window onto the life of one particular local participant in the global effort to understand the history of the region.

Unbound sheets with Arabic-script text inside a box
An unbound manuscript containing a Turkic translation of the Tārīkh-i Rashīdī. (East Turkestan. IO Islamic 4866)
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Another tranche of this subset likely came to the Library through the work of George Macartney, a British diplomat connected to the Chinese political elite through his mother. Macartney lived in Kashgar from 1890 to 1918 and was closely linked to various expeditions, including the Younghusband one. His wife, Catherine Macartney, worked with the Dunhuang Expedition regarding their acquisition of manuscripts. These might have included religious, literary or historical works such as IO Islamic 4846, 4848 and 4849, all of which relate the story of Ya’qub Beg, the leader of Yarkant who attained political independence for the region in the late 19th century.

From this overview of the British Library’s Chagatai collections alone, it’s clear that there is still so much more for us to learn about the origins and journeys of the individual pieces that make up the whole. What is obvious, however, is that collections reflect much more the proclivities and propensities of the personalities behind them than they do the total sum of a people’s creative output. The Chagatai holdings at the British Library provide us with insights into the linguistic, literary, religious, economic, political, social and intellectual histories of the Turkic peoples. But their selection and curation say much more about British officials’ and scholars’ engagement with this history, and the narratives they have woven about it, than they do about collectivities’ yearning to be seen and heard. In using this lens to understand and interpret a set of works, we can move beyond the idea of the archive as an objective monolith. In its place, we can reinvigorate our collections as one component in a broader effort towards an equal and mutually beneficial exchange of ideas and perspectives about the history of the Turkic world.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator
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16 September 2020

Unsōdō and the evolution of design book publishing in Japan

The Japanese Collection of the British Library includes around 50 Japanese pattern and design books.  Thanks to a grant from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, the Library is digitising many of these and making them available online.  This series of blog posts features some of the items in the collection, the artists who created them and the publishers who produced them.  In this post Teruko Hayamitsu, Curator at the fine art publisher Unsōdō, explains the company’s origins and its significance in the development of Japanese design.

Unsōdō is a Japanese publishing company, specialising in art books, which was founded in Kyoto in 1891 and is still in operation today.  Established in the late Meiji Period (1868-1912) when Japan was rapidly modernising, Unsōdō sought through its publication of art books to educate Japanese society on design in the new age, and to highlight the direction of art publishing and the modernisation of the textile industry.

Unsodo store front

Unsōdō’s premises in Teramachi, Kyoto c. 1929. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Unsōdō was able to develop against a backdrop of change in Japanese society.  Key contributory factors were the rise of the textile industry, modernisation of crafts, establishment of department stores, systematisation of the art world.  The emergence of a middle class with an interest in culture and a willingness to buy created a growing market for Unsōdō’s publications. In this article I would like to give a brief outline of the history of Unsōdō, the changes in Japanese society, arts and crafts in Kyoto, and the expansion of Unsōdō’s achievements.

First, let us look at the history of Unsōdō. The firm was founded in 1891 in the Teramachi Nijō district of Kyoto by Yamada Naosaburō 山田直三郎 (1866-1932). He gained his knowledge of the workings of the book trade from Tanaka Jihei 田中治兵衛, proprietor of the Kyoto bookshop Bunkyūdō 文求堂, before setting up his own independent store specialising in art books. He asked the literati painter Tomioka Tessai 富岡鐡斎 to create a name for the new enterprise. The name he chose, Unsōdō 芸艸堂, was inspired by ‘unsō’ 芸艸, a Japanese name for the herb rue (Latin: Ruta graveolens). This strong-smelling plant, traditionally believed to be an effective insect repellant, was used to make bookmarks and was thus a fitting name for a bookshop.


Usondo founder
Yamada Naosaburō (1866-1932), founder of Unsōdō. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

 

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Unsōdō’s store of over 10,000 original woodblocks, still used to produce reprints. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD.

Yamada Naosaburō was born into the Honda family, proprietors of a book-binding business. Alongside book-binding, the eldest son Honda Ichijirō 本田市次郎 (1863-1944) and third son Honda Kinnosuke 本田金之助 (1868-1930), began to publish kimono pattern books which were very much in vogue at the time. From around 1889 the company was known as Honda Unkindō本田雲錦堂. Large numbers of kimono-related books were being published in Kyoto at that time and there was intense competition between Unsōdō and Unkindō, a rivalry which stimulated the creation of a great many design books. However, as they were brothers first and foremost, Naosaburŏ, Ichijirō and Kinnosuke eventually merged the two companies in 1906 under the name Unsōdō. From then on, all three brothers worked together in the publishing business. They focussed on works for the kimono industry, producing lavish publications which used not only traditional colour woodblock printing but also cutting-edge technology of the day such as collotype-printed photographic plates and heliotype colour plates. These luxurious books were expensive but proved profitable and were published in rapid succession. This momentum continued and in 1918 Unsōdō opened a branch in Yushima in Tokyo. 

woodblock for printing Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902  Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902
Two woodblocks for printing Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902. Left: Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD. Right: equivalent page from the British Library copy of Kairo ORB.40/838

Unsōdō also managed to acquire woodblocks for art books from other publishers in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo and to republish the works as Unsōdō imprints.

Reprint of Hokusai manga from original blocks acquired by Unsōdō.
Reprint of Hokusai manga from original blocks acquired by Unsōdō. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Despite the occasional periods of economic depression, Japanese society continued to develop, thanks to official campaigns to encourage new industries and also to the special demands of times of war. The textile industry was one of the first to attract the attention of business entrepreneurs. Modern textile factories were set up across Japan, long-established kimono dealers became department stores, textile wholesalers and brokerage businesses were established and a skilled workforce developed. Traditional local textiles came to be distributed through kimono dealers and department stores. The successful, affluent classes became art collectors and ordinary people were able to see works of art in museums or the art galleries of department stores. 


Modern edition of Kairo from original woodblocks
Modern edition of Kairo from original woodblocks. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Kyoto’s replacement by Tokyo as the national capital in 1869 and the resultant departure of the Emperor, Imperial Family and upper aristocracy, led to a period of uncertainty for the city. Yet this sense of crisis acted as a catalyst to the modernisation of the arts and crafts industry, taking advantage of a local population with a deep connection to traditional culture and the existence of large numbers of artisans skilled in various crafts. Descendants of court painters set up painting academies, and art schools were founded to promote the modernisation of art education. Cooperative associations were established for many industries including lacquer manufacturing, ceramics, dyeing and weaving. These organisations worked to improve standards and modernise designs in their respective industries, to stabilise distribution networks throughout Japan and to use the high levels of expertise developed over centuries to produce art objects for export. This was an important means of acquiring foreign currency for Japan at that time and was actively supported by the government.

Key reasons for the expansion of Unsōdō’s business were the appearance of “art books born from social change” and the increase in the number of “people who need art books”. An example of the former would be catalogues for displays of new works that were held in kimono dealers and department stores, or for exhibitions in the painting academies. “People who need art books” included those involved in the creation of art and craft objects as well as those selling them – artists, designers, craftspeople and teachers, and also merchants. Painting manuals, pattern books and picture albums had existed in the Edo Period (1600-1868), but in the later 19th century new publications were needed that took into account new tastes and Western influences. Art schools and industrial technology institutes across Japan needed textbooks and reference works. Then, as now, art books tended to be large format and require elaborate binding and printing techniques, resulting in higher prices. The reason these books ‘flew off the shelves’ was that they were not only bought for personal interest and pleasure but were used for work and were provided in the work place.

Orb_40!1080_hollyhock_576pxls  Orb_40!1080_wistaria_576pxls
‘Yellow hollyhock’ and ‘Wisteria’ from Jakuchu gafu, a collection of designs by Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800), published by Unsōdō in 1908. British Library ORB.40/1080

In other words, art books were an inseparable part of industrial development. As a Kyoto publisher, Unsōdō, played its part in disseminating the essence of Japanese history – the aristocratic culture with the emperor at its summit, the millennium of craftsmanship that produced ‘guides to traditional customs’ (yūsoku kojitsu), patterns and designs, cultural properties, handicrafts, collectables, and even the foreign art works and designs that were incorporated over the centuries.

In recent years, woodblock-printed design books of the late Meiji Period have been attracting growing attention. It was a time when Kyoto, the centre of Japan’s publishing culture since the Middle Ages, was full of skilled craftspeople. Although in terms of cost, print run and finish, woodblock printing was the only practical method of colour printing available, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries woodblock printing technology developed markedly. It is characterised by what can be called ‘high quality art printing’ and its ‘human touch’. Moreover, we still marvel at the creativity of the designers of the time. As well as the professional designers, artists who specialised in Japanese and Western-style painting also created designs as a side-line to their main careers. Today we cannot easily tell how many people were involved in the world of design at the time. This is because the modernisation of Japanese art has brought a division into ‘artists’, who created fine art, and ‘craftspeople’, who created practical wares. Designers themselves have not yet been appraised, and often artists’ design work has not been considered in an assessment of their careers.

Teruko Hayamitsu, Curator, UNSODO CO., LTD

(translation: Hamish Todd, Head of East Asian Collection, British Library)

 

Further reading

Hillier, Jack, The Art of the Japanese Book. London: Sotheby’s, 1987.

Johnson, Scott, “New Colours, a New Profession & a New Idea: Zuan Enrich Kyoto Design”. Andon 97, 2014.

Johnson, Scott, “Zuan Pattern Books: The Glory Years”. Andon 100, 2015.

Yokoya, Ken’ichiro, Fischbach, Becky (ed.), Zuancho in Kyoto: Textile Design Books for the Kimono Trade. Stanford: Stanford University, 2007 (exhibition catalogue)

11 September 2020

eReading Karma in Snakes and Ladders: two South Asian game boards in the British Library collections

This guest blog post is by Souvik Mukherjee, an Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of English at Presidency University in Kolkata. His research looks at the narrative and the literary through the emerging discourse of videogames as storytelling media and at how these games inform and challenge our conceptions of narratives, identity and culture. 

Salman Rushdie, in his novel, Midnight’s Children, writes about the game of Snakes and Ladders that ‘all games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner; and for every snake, a ladder will compensate’ (Rushdie 2016, 160). Whether Rushdie is aware one does not know but Snakes and Ladders indeed has its beginnings as a game of morals, or even more than that – a game about life and karma. When Frederick Henry Ayres, the famous toymaker from Aldgate, London, patented the game in 1892, the squares of the game-board had lost their moral connotations. There were earlier examples in Victorian England and mainland Europe that had a very Christian morality encoded into the boards but the game actually originated in India as Gyan Chaupar (it had other local variations such as Moksha Pat, Paramapada Sopanam and other adaptations such as the Bengali Golok Dham and the Tibetan Sa nam lam sha). Victorian versions of the game include the Kismet boardgame (c.a. 1895) now in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection (fig. 1). There were other similar games such as Virtue Rewarded and Vice Punished (1818) and the New Game of Human Life (1790) although the latter did not contain snakes and ladders on its board.

http://media.vam.ac.uk/collections/img/2006/AU/2006AU4145_2500.jpg
Fig. 1. Kismet, c.1895. Chromolithograph on paper and card. Designed in England, manufactured in Bavaria. Victoria & Albert Museum, MISC.423-1981. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

    In the Indian versions, it was not a racing-game as it became in its Western adaptations. It was a game that did not end in square hundred but one that people could play over and over until they reached Vaikuntha (the sacred domain of Vishnu) after journeying though many rebirths and corresponding human experiences. Every square in the game signified a moral action, a celestial location or a state of being all of which were important in the Karmic journey. Here is the story of two game-boards in the British Library’s archives and how an Indian game designed to teach the workings of Karma and religion became the Snakes and Ladders that children play the world over, today.

    One of the oldest Gyan Chaupar boards that have been traced so far is now in the British Library (Topsfield 1985, 203-226), originally in the collection of the East India Company officer Richard Johnson (1753-1807) (fig. 2). There are claims that the game originated much earlier – in the Kridakaushalya section of his 1871 Sanskrit magnum opus Brihad Jyotish Arnava, Venkatarama Harikrishna of Aurangabad states that the game was invented by the Marathi saint Dnyaneshwar (1275 – 1296). Andrew Topsfield lists around forty-four game-boards in his two articles published two decades apart and these boards belong to multiple religious traditions, Hindu, Jain and Muslim (Sufi). Topsfield mentions older boards that date back to the late 15th century and also ones that have 128 squares, 84 squares or a 100 squares instead of the 72 squares as on the Johnson board. There is, however, another board in the British Library that has probably not been written about yet. Listed as the Paramapada Sopanam Pata (fig. 3), it is described in the catalogue as: ‘Lithograph in Blockwood printing. of the game Paramapada sōpānam, a traditional Indian indoor game: in a chart titled: Paramapada Sopanam, in which the highest ascent indicates reaching Heaven and anywhere else where the pawn lands indicate various worlds according to Hindu mythology. Language note: In Kannada and Devanagari’. These two boards tell the story of the transculturation of a game that started out as a pedagogical tool to teach the ways of karma and ended up as Hasbro Inc.’s Chutes and Ladders.

Snakes and Ladders board game on paper from Lucknow
Designs for a game of snakes and ladders, gyan chaupur, commissioned by Richard Johnson, Lucknow, 1780-82. Johnson Album 5,8.  CC Public Domain Image

Snakes and Ladders board game, printed on paper, from Karnataka, 19th century
Paramapada Sopanam Pata, board game printed in Karnataka, c. 1800-1850. British Library, ORB 40/1046. CC Public Domain Image

    Around 1832, a Captain Henry Dundas Robertson would present what he called the Shastree’s Game of Heaven and Hell to the Royal Asiatic Society in London where the 128-square Vaishnav Gyan Chaupar board can still be seen. Around 1895, when the game was being sold in England as a children’s game, the civil servant Gerald Robert Dampier was sending a detailed report on the game to North Indian Notes and Queries. Around a century before Dampier and fifty years before Robertson, Richard Johnson’s possession of a Gyan Chaupar board around 1780-2 is in itself a curious affair. This board is now part of the British Library’s collection. Johnson, the deputy resident at Lucknow, is among the lesser-known Orientalists despite his prodigious collection of Indian art and his close connection with orientalists of greater repute such as Sir William Jones. Johnson was supposedly a competent official but he made a fortune through corruption and was called ‘Rupee Johnson’; he was also involved in Warren Hastings’s infamous looting of the Begums of Oudh. In his two years in Oudh (1780-82) Johnson was, however, seems to have been popular and was given the title Mumtāz al-Dawlah Mufakhkhar al-Mulk Richārd Jānsan Bahādur Ḥusām Jang, 1194 or ʻRichard Johnson chosen of the dynasty, exalted of the kingdom, sharp blade in war’, 1780 together with a mansab and an insignia by the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam. Johnson was also an eclectic collector and commissioned work by many Indian artists and scholars  of which 64 albums of paintings (over 1,000 individual items) and an estimated 1000 manuscripts in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, Sanskrit, Bengali, Panjabi, Hindi and Assamese form the ‘backbone of the East India Company library’ (now at the British Library, see Sims-Williams 2014). While other orientalists such as Jones and Hiram Cox wrote on Chess, Johnson seems to have been interested in other games. Besides the Gyan Chaupar board, the Johnson collection contains the Persian game of Ganj (Treasure) and sketches for Ganjifa cards – the round playing cards that were common in India before the advent of European cards (British Library, Johnson Album 5).

    Johnson’s contribution to boardgame studies is no less important than that of the other orientalists although it has taken over two centuries to appreciate this. The Gyan Chaupar board was in his possession a good century before the game was imported to the West and transformed into a race-game. Johnson seems to have been interested in the original game and besides the Devanagari script, each square also contains a farsi transliteration. The words are not Persian but the script is.[i] It is difficult to identify the painter or the source – Malini Roy points out that ‘artists affiliated with Johnson’s studio include Mohan Singh, Ghulam Reza, Gobind Singh, Muhammad Ashiq, Udwat Singh, Sital Das, and Ram Sahai’ (Roy 2010, 181). Whether Johnson read the game-board is a moot question but he certainly cared to get the words transliterated into Persian. Beginning the game on utpatti or ‘origin’, the player can move to maya or ‘illusion’ (square 2), krodh or lobh – ‘anger’ and ‘greed’ respectively (squares 3 and 4) and ascend higher towards salvation via the ladders in the squares that represent daya or mercy (square 13) or Bhakti or devotion (square 54). Bhakti will take the player directly to Vaikuntha and salvation from the cycle of rebirths and the game ends here. For a game purportedly invented by a major figure of the Bhakti Movement, this is no surprise. If the throw of the dice takes the player beyond square 68, then the long snake on square 72 brings the player back to Earth and the cycle of rebirths continues. Johnson’s board is unique among the Gyan Chaupar boards that are known to scholars in that it contains two scorpions in addition to the snakes and the ladders also look somewhat serpentine.

    One more detail is not obvious from the board. None of these boards comes with playing pieces or dice but writing in 1895, Dampier claims that the game was played with cowrie shells as dice and he also adds that the game is ‘very contrary to our Western teachings […] it is not clear why Love of Violence (sq. 72) should lead to Darkness (sq. 51)’. Dampier notes that the game has been ‘lately introduced in England and with ordinary dice for cowries and [with] a somewhere revised set of rules been patented there as a children’s game’ (Dampier 1895, 25-27).

    Dampier’s short but detailed account of Gyan Chaupar provides a clearer entry point into how and why an ‘oriental’ game of karma needed to be Westernised as a children’s game. The transition from the karmic game to the game on Christian morality and then to a race-game for children embodying competition rather than soul-searching is evident from his pithy notes sent to the journal North Indian Notes and Queries. One might assume that the principles working here would have been very different from Johnson’s approach to the game. The story, nevertheless, does not end here. I was fortunate to discover another game-board in the British Library as I mention above. The Paramapada Sopanam or the Ladder to Heaven is similar to the Johnson board in most ways except that there are only snakes on the board. Some snakes help the player ascend and the others are for descent (I purposely eschew terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ here). Square 54 or Bhakti, a many-headed serpent leads the player to Vaikuntha (the board is damaged here) and one might assume that it is Ananta, the celestial snake on which Vishnu reclines. There are some differences with the Johnson board although both relate to the Vaishnav sect of Hinduism. While Gyan Chaupar is largely forgotten in Northern India (except in the Jain tradition where it is reportedly played by some during the Jain festival Paryushan), Paramapada Sopanam is regularly played on the festive day of Vaikuntha Ekadasi in the Indian states of Telengana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In fact, Carl Gustav Jung supposedly obtained a copy of the game when he visited Tamil Nadu in 1938 and took it back to Zurich; Sulagna Sengupta concludes that Jung read the matrix of the game as the play of opposites in the psyche (Sengupta 2017).

    From the karmic game to Jung’s model for the play of psychological opposites, Gyan Chaupar in its many forms is certainly much more than the race game that it has been changed into after its appropriation by the colonial apparatus. Recent research has been able to identify many of these game-boards and these two boards in the British Library are crucial for the ‘recovery research’ into Gyan Chaupar and its variants as well as the cultures in which they were conceived. Recent research on games talks of ‘gamification’ or the application of ludic principles to real-life activities – a closer look at the original Gyan Chaupar will show its merit as a gamified text, an instructional manual on the ways of life and on Indic soteriology.

 

Notes
[i] I am indebted to Ms Azadeh Mazlousaki Isaksen of the University of Tromso, Norway, for the translations. Ms Isaksen initially struggled to translate the words as she found them unfamiliar. The reason was that these were Hindi or Sanskrit words written in the Persian script.

 

Bibliography
Cannon, Garland, and Andrew Grout. “Notes and Communications.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 55, no. 2, 1992, pp. 316–318. 

Dampier, Gerald Roberts. “A Primitive Game.” North Indian Notes and Queries V (1895): p. 25-27.

Roy, Malini. “Origins of the Late Mughal Painting Tradition in Awadh.” India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow. Ed. Stephen Markel and Tushara Bindu Gude. Los Angeles: Prestel, 2010.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnights Children. London: Random House, 2016.

Sengupta, Sulagna. “Parama Pada Sopanam : The Divine Game of Rebirth and Renewal.” Jungian Perspectives on Rebirth and Renewal: Phoenix Rising. Ed. Elizabeth Brodersen and Michael Glock. London ; New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

Sims-Williams, Ursula. “‘White Mughal’ Richard Johnson and Mir Qamar al-Din Minnat.” British Library Asian and African Studies Blog, 1 May 2014.

Topsfield, Andrew. “The Indian Game of Snakes and Ladders.” Artibus Asiae, vol. 46, no. 3, 1985, pp. 203–226. 

 

By Dr. Souvik Mukherjee CCBY Image