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

21 November 2018

Beautiful Burmese Barges and Boats

A recently digitised Burmese manuscript in the British Library (Or. 14005) contains images of different types of royal barges and boats, illuminated in red and gold. The barges are carved and decorated elaborately with figures of mythical creatures such as the garuda (bird), naga (serpent), and manuk siha (half-lion half-man), and some bear structures resembling palaces or pavilions. The paintings of the vessels are as finely excecuted as those of scenes found in other Burmese folding books but, unusually, this book has no captions at all. Nonetheless, each boat is so stylistically and symbolically distinctive that it can easily be identified. 

Or_14005_f001r
A Pyigyimon boat, which consists of two conjoined gilded boats, with a seven-tired roof (pyatthat). There are two separate dragon-headed hulls, while on the bow are figures of a garuda (mythical bird) and a naga (mythical dragon), with Sakka (a celestial king and the ruler of Tavatimsa heaven) standing between them. British Library, Or. 14005, f. 1  Noc

Or_14005_f007r
Shown above are the golden state barges Nawayupa and Nagadeva, for carrying ministers and royal officers. The Nawayupa golden barge (top) has the mane of a karaweik (mythical bird), the hump of bull, the tail of a nga gyin fish, two elephant tusks, the trunk of a makara (sea creature), two horns of a toe naya (mythological creature), two wings of parakeet, and a front and hind leg of a horse. The Nagadeva barge (bottom) is adorned with the figure of the snake king. British Library, Or. 14005, f. 7  Noc

Other state barges used for royal river journeys depicted in the manuscript include the Pyinsayupa golden barge, used by the chief queens, which has the mane of karaweik bird, the tusk and trunk of an elephant, the hump of bull, the tail of a nga gyin fish, two horns of a toe naya and two ears. The Eni barge is adorned with the figure of a deer, while the Hintha barge, which was used by princes, is adorned with the figure of a hamsa (mythical bird). The Udaung boat, also used by princes, was adorned with the figure of peacock.

Or_14005_f016r
Hlaw ka-daw (above) are the king’s dispatch boats. They are gilded all over, even including the paddles, and the stern rises high up in the air. These boats carried canons, drums and gongs. British Library, Or. 14005, f. 16 Noc

Or_14005_f036r
Shown above are the Nawaraja and Manuk siha boast. The Nawaraja boat (top) has figures of five Brahmas in the prow and four in the stern, in memory of the nine Brahmas who appeared on earth in the beginning of the world. The Manuk sika boat (bottom) is adorned with the figure of a mythical creature with a human face and hands, and the body and legs of a lion. British Library, Or. 14005, f. 36  Noc

The other kings’s boats are Thone lu pu saw and Thone lu tot pa. The Thone lu pu saw boat has figures of the king of Brahmas, the king of devas (deities), and the king of men affixed on the bow, and three umbrellas hoisted on the stern. Thone lu pu saw means three sentient beings (Thone lu), namely humans, devas, and Brahmas, who all pay homage to the Buddha. This boat was stationed in front of the royal barge when the king travelled in state. The Thone lu tot pa boat has the figure of a deva on the bow and figures of a human, a deva and a brahma on the stern.

Or_14005_f037r
Pyi kone (top) is the king’s boat, with figures of the moon and the sun adorning the bow and stern. Lokabihman boat (bottom) is also for the king's use and has two pavilions, one at the bow and one at the stern. Or. 14005, f. 37 Noc

Or_14005_f044r
The boat at the top is adorned with the figure of a Kinnera, a mythical half bird-half woman, and the Thuwa hle (bottom) is a boat with the figure of parrot. British Library, Or. 14005, f. 44 Noc

Among the variety of boats many were named from the places whence their models were taken, such as the Zimme, In-ma, Tha-byu, etc. Other notable boats were the Thingan-net and the Lin-zin boat, with a low bow and lofty stern. The Azalon or Azalompani boat had the figure of a goat with an aubergine in its mouth and its forefeet resting on the prow of the boat, and its two hind legs and tail at the stern.

Among the many festivals held throughout the year in Burma (Myanmar) is the Regatta festival which is held Burmese month of Tawthalin (late September) due to the favourable weather conditions. According to the Burmese chronicles, royal regatta festivals were held by eleven monarchs beginning with King Anaukphetlun (r.1605-28), and ending with King Thibaw (r.1878-1885), the last King of Konbaung dynasty (1752-1885). During the regatta, the king surrounded by his entourage would watch the event from his royal barge, which often headed the procession down the river. The king and his nobles and courtiers often raced each other in their boats, accompanied by the songs of the rowers. The very oars of the royal boats were gilded, and as the boats circled the spray flew from their blades, and the sun blazed upon their magnificence. High officials supervised preparations for boat races along the shore of rivers throughout the country, and these races were also regarded as good tests for improving the skills of the royal navy.

Or_6779_f009r
Racing boats in the river during the Regatta festival. In the foreground, the King and Queen watch from a grandstand on the bank. Or. 6779, ff. 9-12 Noc

Royal barge processions were held for the Coronation and other religious ceremonies on the Irrawaddy River or Ayeyarwady River. It is the main river of Burma, flowing from north to south through the centre of the country, and one of the great rivers of Asia. Burmese chronicles recorded that King Alaung Sithu (r.1112-1167) was a great traveller as he spent much of his time on water journeys.

Or_14031_f009r
This illustration depicts a royal water procession. The barge is tugged by golden Letpyi boats paddled by a full complement of oarsmen in the Irrawaddy River. People are gathered on the banks of the river to watch the royal barge and boats. British Library, Or. 14031, ff. 9-13  Noc

From 1975 to the present day, the Karaweik golden barge - based on the design of the Pyigyimon royal barge - has floated on the Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon. This barge is adorned with the figure of a karaweik  bird, and has a covered area with a pyatthat tiered roof.

Further reading:
Zayyathinkhaya, Minister of King Bodawpaya (1782-1819). Shwe bhon nidan. Yangon, Hkit lu, 1957

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

14 November 2018

Pawukon, Javanese calendrical manuscripts

Today’s guest blog on the Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta Digitisation Project is by Prof. Ann Kumar of the Australian National University

The highly complex Javanese calendar has evolved over many centuries. The year dating system used is the Indian Shaka era, which begins in 78 A.D., but in the 17th century the Islamic lunar months were substituted for the solar months of the Shaka era. This unorthodox and hard-to-operate hybrid was presumably due to the desire to observe the major events of the Muslim year, particularly the Hajj, at the same time as Muslims around the world.

However, apart from these external influences, there are distinctively Javanese systems of time-keeping, such as the use of cycles not tied to any year-date. The principal ones are a seven-year cycle, the eight-year windu cycle, and the one described in this article: the 30-week wuku cycle, which has been referenced in inscriptions dating from the 8th century (Damais 1955).

Mss_jav_36_f374v-375r
Early wuku illustrations, found at the end of a manuscript volume containing Babad ing Sangkala, dated 1738. British Library, MSS Jav 36B, ff. 374v-375r Noc

A wuku week lasts for 7 days, and there are 30 named weeks in the wuku year of 210 days, as follows:

1. Sinta
2. Landep
3. Wukir
4. Kurantil Go
5. Tolu
6. Gumbreg
7. Wariga alit
8. Wariga gung
9. ]ulung Wangi
10. Sungsang
11. Galungan
12. Kuningan
13. Langkir
14. Manḍasiya
15. Julung Pujud
16. Pahang
17. Kuru welut
18. Mrakeh
19. Tambir
20. Menđangkungan
21. Maktal
22. Wuye
23. Manail
24. Prang bakat
25. Bala
26. Wugeo [or Wuku, Wugu]
27. Wayang
28. Kulawu
29. Dukut
30. Watu Gunung

Much like a horoscope, a specific wuku gives a picture of the character and circumstances of a person born in that wuku which will determine their fortunes. Each wuku is assigned a god and a tree. It may also be assigned a bird; an icon depicting water, ie. forecasting rain; a house in different positions, referring to economic matters; and a pennant (umbul-umbul), an insignia of rank. The 30 wuku are depicted in illustrated manuscripts known as pawukon. The three pawukon manuscripts from the British Library collection illustrated here have all been fully digitised.

Add_ms_12338_f090v-91r
Wuku Wariga Alit, in a Pawukon from Yogyakarta, 1807. British Library, Add. 12338, ff. 90v-91r  Noc

Shown above is the seventh wuku, Wariga Alit, which has the following elements:
• The god is Yang Asmara, another name for Kama, the god of love (he holds an arrow à la Cupid). His name is written in Javanese characters on his left. This indicates that a child born in this wuku will be beautiful.
• The red-eyed bird is the solitary kapoḍang, or black-naped oriole, perching on a sulastri tree, well known for its fragrance.
• The structure in the left foreground is a canḍi, or funerary temple, indicating melancholy.
Interpreting these symbols, a child born in this wuku is beautiful, but fickle, and is solitary, shy, or melancholy. This wuku is also said to be bad for leaders of troops.

Or_15932_f017v-18r
The same wuku, Wariga Alit, depicted in Papakĕm Pawukon, with explanation in Javanese on the left hand page, and in Malay in roman script on the right hand page. The MS was acquired by Col. Colin Mackenzie from Kyai Suradimanggala, Bupati sĕpuh of Dĕmak, in ‘Bagor’ (Bogor) in [A.J.] 1742 [A.D. 1814-15].   British Library, Or 15932, ff. 17v-18r  Noc

Or 15932 f.17v
Unlike the stylized canḍi depicted in the Yogyakarta Pawukon of 1807, in Kyai Suradimanggala's Pawukon the canḍi recalls the profile of Borobudur, which in 1814 was only just being excavated. British Library, Or 15932, f. 17v (detail)  Noc

More elaborate versions of the wuku calendar are also known, where each wuku might have a particular danger inherent in it, such as being bitten by a snake or wounded with a weapon. Some wuku calendars also include information about the movements of a monster called Jabung Kala who watches over the wuku and rotates in a circle synchronically with the wuku weeks, changing position every seven days. His position is considered important for generals, who should orientate their battle lines so as not to get across him.

The American sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel describes the Javanese wuku calendar as the most remarkable and intricate week-calendar ever invented (1985: 68-9). Unrelated to the seasons and to solar and lunar phases, he points out it is a unique product of the rational human mind and of humans’ ability to live in accordance with entirely artificial rhythms which they create.

Add_ms_12338_f095r Add_ms_12338_f101r
On the left, the 9th wuku, Julung Wangi, and on the right, the 12th wuku, Kuningan, from a Pawukon from Yogyakarta, 1807. British Library, Add. 12338, f. 95r and f. 101r Noc

The wuku calendar is often said to be based on the Watu Gunung myth.In this, Watu Gunung is a powerful warrior who by defeating the incumbent king and his allies became ruler of Giling Wesi. He married two heavenly nymphs with whom he had thirteen sets of male twins, plus one single male birth. The parents and children gave their names to the thirty wuku, listed above. Watu Gunung was enterprising and undertook to build an iron city. A voice from heaven warned him to offer the proper prayers to Batara Guru, the supreme Hindu god, and to do asceticism, after which he built the iron city in less than seven years. He subsequently became more and more conceited and populated the city with 40 men resembling the gods and 40 maids like the Widadaris (heavenly nymphs), claiming that it was like the palace of Batara Guru, the chief god. This eventually led to war with the gods, in which Watu Gunung was killed. Thanks to his wives interceding with the gods he and all his family were admitted to heaven. However, it is difficult to see how the Watu Gunung myth, with its incredible story of thirteen sets of all-male twins plus a single son, could have been the founding myth on which the wuku calendar was subsequently based. It seems more likely that it was composed after the wuku calendar, to provide a mythic basis, or that a previous myth has been substantially modified. Thus the origin of the wuku remains unclear.

The thirty wuku are subdivided into five groups of six wuku each (wuku 1-6, 7-12, 13-18, 19-24, and 25-30); this system is called ringkel ing wuku. The ringkel ing wuku are classified as follows:
1. Humans (jalma: wuku 1, 7, 13, 19, 25)
2. Animals (sato: wuku 2, 8, 14, 20, 26)
3. Fish (iwak: wuku 3, 9, 15, 21, 27)
4. Birds (manuk, wuku 4, 10, 16, 22, 28)
5. Wuku (wuku 5, 11, 17, 23, 29)
6. Leaves (goḍong, wuku 6, 12, 18, 24, 30)

The wuku calendar is no longer used in Java, but its maximum complexity is fully preserved in Bali. In this, the 210 days of the wuku year are divided into weeks of differing lengths. They may be 10, 9, or 8 days long, or down to just one day long. Each week has a particular name and so does each day of each week, meaning that every day has a total of ten names! This is not just academic complexity, but has practical significance. For example, the three-day week determines the markets in Bali which shift from one village to another in a three-day cycle. The five-, six- and seven-day weeks are the most important, especially when they co-occur. Only once in 210 days does a day fall on all three cycles (5 x 6 x 7), and that day is Galungan, which is the main Balinese religious festival. Another important day, Kajeng-Keliwon, is when the third day of the three-day week, Kajeng, falls on the same day as the fifth day of the five-day week, Keliwon. This happens every 15 days, and many temple ceremonies are held on this day. Not surprisingly, to stay on top of all this a special calendar is needed, called a tika, of which there are some finely illustrated examples.

Or Bali crop
Illustrations from a Balinese calendar on palm leaf, ca. 1981. British Library, Or 16911, f. 7r

References:

For a full listing of the 30 wuku and their associated characteristics, see:
Ann Kumar, Java and modern Europe: ambiguous encounters. Richmond: Curzon, 1996; chapter 3.

Louis-Charles Damais, 'Ếtudes d’Ếpigraphie Indonésiennes’, Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient XLVII, 1955, pp. 7-290.
Roelof Goris, ‘Holidays and holy days in Bali', Studies in life, thought and ritual: selected studies on Indonesia by Dutch scholars, vol.5, ed. W.F. Wertheim et al., The Hague and Bandung: W. van Hoeve, 1960, pp.113-29.
M.C. Ricklefs, Modern Javanese historical tradition: a study of an original Kartasura chronicle and related materials, London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1978.
Eviatar Zerubavel, The seven day cycle: the history and meaning of the week, New York: The Free Press, 1985.

Ann Kumar Ccownwork
Australian National University, Canberra

 

09 November 2018

Buddhism Illuminated through Southeast Asian Manuscript Art (2)

Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia is a lavishly-illustrated book published  earlier this year by the British Library in collaboration with Washington University Press. The book aims to share many years of research on the British Library’s unique collection of Southeast Asian manuscripts on Buddhism, which illustrate not only the life and teachings of the historical Buddha, but also everyday Buddhist practice, life within the monastic order, festivals, cosmology, and ethical principles and values.

Blog2 01
Extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language, written in Khmer script. Folding book from Central Thailand, second half of the eighteenth century. British Library, Or 14027, f. 4 

The first two chapters, which introduce the outstanding art of Southeast Asian Buddhist manuscripts as well as the Life of the Buddha, were discussed in our previous blog. The third chapter of the book focuses on the teachings of the Buddha, or Dhamma, also known as the “righteous way”. Gotama Buddha spent more than half of his life walking around northern India over 2500 years ago, teaching his ever growing group of followers. Shortly after the Buddha’s parinibbana and physical death, the first Buddhist council was held at Rajagaha. Five hundred of the most senior Buddhist monks are said to have convened to recite and verify all the sermons they had heard during the Buddha’s forty-five years of teaching. They began to systematically arrange and compile the Buddha’s teachings called Tipitaka, or the 'Three Baskets', which include the Sutta Pitaka (the basket of discourses), the Vinaya Pitaka (the basket of discipline and monastic rules), and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (the basket of higher teachings of the Buddha). Five more councils were held over the centuries, with the most recent one taking place in Rangoon at Kaba Aye Pagoda from May 1954 to May 1956 to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s parinibbana.

Blog2 02
This manuscript, written in Pali - the canonical language of Theravada Buddhism - in yellow Burmese square characters, is inscribed on 49 palm leaves coated with lacquer. It contains fragments of Atthakathas, or commentaries on the Tipitaka. The manuscript is bound up with a green velvet wrapper and a ribbon, or sazigyo. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 3672

Buddhist texts that were compiled in addition to the Tipitaka are commentaries by important Buddhist scholars like for example Buddhaghosa, a fifth-century scholar who played a defining role in the development of Theravada Buddhism. Commentaries as well as translations were crucial for the spread of Buddhism to mainland Southeast Asia, where it is widely practised up till today.

Chapter four of the book provides information about the Sangha, the Buddhist monastic community. Themes in this chapter include aspects of monastic ordination in Theravada Buddhism, how the Buddha founded the Sangha, and the rules of monastic discipline and interaction between the Sangha and the lay community. Soon after attaining enlightenment the Buddha founded the order of monks, or Bhikkhu-sangha, which was later extended to the order of nuns, or Bhikkhuni-sangha.

Blog2 03
This image shows the Buddha’s ordination of Yasa, who went to the deer park near Varanasi
to become a Bhikkhu. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 14553, f. 2

After listening to Buddha’s first sermon, his five closest followers joined the Buddha and became his disciples, forming the first Sangha. Yasa, the son of a wealthy man, left his home as he was dissatisfied with his life. After hearing the teachings of the Buddha, Yasa became the sixth disciple to achieve the first stage of perfection. Yasa’s 54 friends followed his example. Later on, three brothers of the Kassapa family asked to be ordained into the Sangha after the Buddha tamed a naga (serpent).

The book’s fifth chapter deals with Kamma, or the principle of cause and effect that tells us that every action produces an effect, and the effects of all our actions will return to us in the future. Our accumulated positive Kamma will come back to us in the form of blessings and the opportunity to lead a good future life or to experience a better rebirth, while negative Kamma will result in deterioration and lower forms of rebirth. Burmese and Thai artistic expressions of Kamma often include scenes of the Buddhist heavens and hells and the sixteen sacred lands of Buddhism.

Blog2 04
Paper folding book featuring extracts from the Tipitaka and Phra Malai, written in Khmer script, with illustrations of Mahabrahma bhum (the Brahma heaven) and Tavatimsa bhum (heaven of the Four Kings). Thailand, 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 1

The illustrations portray the god Brahma with his four-faced head and a red aura (left) and the god Indra, or Sakka, also with a red aura (right). Both are seated on a marble pedestal before a red background decorated with delicate flower ornaments. Brahma and Indra are considered to have converted to Buddhism, therefore they are depicted in a respectful pose facing the Pali text passages from the Tipitaka that lie between them.

Blog2 05
Illustration of Tiracchana loka, the world of animals. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 14004, f. 37

The idyllic scene above shows the legendary region of Himavanta. Located in the animal realm of Tiracchana loka, it is covered in forests with great lakes and mountain ranges. It is inhabited by wild animals such as tigers, monkeys, deer, bears, birds, rabbits, cockerels and buffaloes who live together peacefully. Groves of mangoes, bananas and bamboo are featured in this illustration; all play a critical role as the animals’ survival depends almost entirely on these plants.

The final chapter in the book provides details around “making merit” in every-day Buddhist life, which include activities that aim to support the Sangha, like the Kathina robe-offering ceremony, Uposatha or observance ceremony, and royal donations, but also rituals related to death and after-life, as well as communal festivals around the year which are open to everyone.

Blog2 06
Scenes from the Uposatha observance ceremony. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 16761, ff. 25–6

This painting depicts the Uposatha ceremony, held on new and full moon days of every month. Lay people bring food and other offerings to the Buddhist monastery and observe five or eight precepts on these days. Three Buddhist monks, shown seated in a pavilion with their large fans, administer eight precepts to the lay community. These precepts are: not to kill, steal, engage in sexual activity, lie, become intoxicated, eat after noon, adorn their bodies or sleep on luxurious beds. Uposatha days provide time for people to listen to the teachings of the Dhamma and the chanting of special Suttas, as well as to practise meditation.

Blog2 07
Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a book containing drawings from the Ramayana and the Ten Birth Tales on European paper, with captions in Khmer script. Thailand or Cambodia, 1880. British Library, Or 14859, ff. 182–3

During the Bun Phawet festival in January the Vessantara Jataka is recited by monks or performed in puppet or shadow puppet theatres in the monasteries, mainly in Laos and northeast Thailand. In preparation for Bun Phawet lay people create long paper or cotton scrolls and banners decorated with paintings of scenes from the Vessantara Jataka. These scrolls, often tens of metres in length, are hung on the indoor walls of monasteries while recitations of the Vessantara Jataka are being performed. The illustration shown here depicts a scene from the Vessantara Jataka which typically features on scrolls made for the festival: the final grand scene in which Prince Vessantara and his wife Maddi are reunited with their children who had been taken away by the Brahmin Jujaka. This happy occasion is celebrated with music (right).

The book also contains a detailed bibliography, a glossary and three appendices providing a list of the 28 Buddhas of the past, explanations of symbols of the Buddha’s footprint, and an overview of the scriptures of the Tipitaka.

San San May and Jana Igunma, Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia, London: British Library, 2018. (ISBN 978 0 7123 5206 2)

The book is available from all major booksellers and online.

San San May, Curator for Burmese
Jana Igunma, Henry D. Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian