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

15 July 2019

Asalha Puja or Dhamma Day: the start of the Buddhist Lent

This is the third of a series of blog posts looking forward to the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020

Buddhists celebrate Dhamma Day on the full moon day of July, signalling the beginning of the period of vassa (rainy season retreat or Buddhist Lent). Dhamma Day reminds Buddhists to express their gratitude to the Buddha and his teachings. It is one of the most important days in Buddhism as it marks the beginning of the Buddha’s teaching, for it was on the full moon day of July that the Buddha preached his first sermon in the deer park at Sarnath to the group of five ascetics who had previously been his companions. In the sermon, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, Discourse on Turning the Wheel of the Dhamma, the Buddha advocates a middle way between sensual indulgence and self-mortification. The essence of his teaching concerns: the truth of suffering; the truth of the cause of suffering; the truth of the cessation of suffering; and the truth of the way of life that is free of suffering. The original Teachings are found in the ‘Pali Canon’, the ancient scriptures of Theravada Buddhism written in the Pali language. While listening to his discourse, the ascetic Kondanna achieved the first level of sanctity (Sotapanna), and became the first disciple of the Buddha to take ordination as a monk. Soon afterwards, the other four ascetics followed him into the Buddhist order. Therefore, Asalha Puja or Dhamma Day – which falls this year on 16th July – is a very important day for Buddhists.

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The Buddha gives his first sermon Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta to five ascetics - Kondanna, Vappa, Bhaddiya, Mahanam and Assaji - in the deer park at Sarnath on the full moon day of July. This sermon contains the essential teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. After listening to his sermon, the five ascetics became the Buddha’s disciples. British Library, Or. 14823, f. 38 Noc

Vassa: the Buddhist Lent
Vassa is an annual monastic retreat practised especially in the Theravada Buddhist tradition, which lasts for three lunar months from July to October. In the early days of the Sangha – the Buddhist monkhood – the monks had no fixed abode, but wandered throughout the year and dwelt under the shade of the forest trees to meditate. After attaining Enlightenment and proclaiming the dhamma, the Buddha spent the first vassa at Sarnath. There are practical reasons for why the Buddha instructed his monks not to make long journeys for the three months of the rainy season. During the monsoon season it was extremely difficult for the monks to travel as the paths and lanes were covered with water and mud, and walking at this time along muddy paths could also damage the grass and kill or injure countless tiny creatures. Therefore the three months rainy retreat, from the full-moon day of July to the full-moon day of October, came to be observed by monks on the recommendation of the Buddha himself.

When the Bodhisatta Siddhattha Gautama had renounced the world, and in the course of walking around accepted offerings of food at Rajagaha, King Bimbisara, ruler of Magadha, requested that he visit him as soon as he achieved his goal. In accordance with this promise the Buddha visited Rajagara after attaining enlightenment. The king donated his bamboo grove and built the Veluvana monastery, or arama, for the Buddha and his monks. The term arama refers to a dwelling place for monks during the annual rains retreat. Veluvana was the first arama accepted by the Buddha, and a rule was passed allowing monks to accept such aramas. After the great donation, the king became the royal patron of the Buddha during his life time. The Buddha spent three rainy seasons in his first monastery of Veluvana, and numerous Jatakas, or birth stories of the Bodhisatta, were recited there. The Buddha’s disciples Sariputta and Moggallana joined the Order at this first monastery. During these three months monks remain inside monasteries, devoting their time to intensive meditation, proclaiming and learning the doctrines, and reciting the patimokkha or teaching dhamma to lay people who come to them to observe the uposatha sila (Eight precepts).

The Buddha ascended to Tavatimsa heaven. He spent three months there in retreat, teaching his mother, who was then reborn as a deva in Tusita heaven to fulfil a debt of gratitude. He expounded the Abhidhamma or higher teachings to his mother deva and other celestial beings at Tavatimsa heaven. He also repeated these teachings to his disciple Sariputta, and Sariputta then became a master of the Abhidhamma. Abhidhamma Pitaka (literally ‘the basket of the Buddha’s Higher Doctrine) is one of the principal sections of the Buddhist canon, or Tipitaka. It explores the profound philosophy of the teaching and is a most important work.

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The Buddha spends the seventh vassa at Tavatimsa heaven to preach the Abhidhamma (higher teaching) to his mother, who was reborn as a deva, and other celestial beings. British Library, Or. 14405, f. 81 Noc

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While the Buddha was spending the tenth vassa in the Parileyyaka Forest, an elephant and a monkey ministered to his needs. British Library, Or. 14823, f. 30  Noc

Ordination ceremonies
Ordination ceremonies can take place in any month of the year, but are especially important during the Buddhist Lent. The ordination ceremonies take place with all possible kinds of giving. Buddhists believe that the giving of one’s own son to join the Order is the most meritorious act possible. It is also a meritorious deed for the person who enters into the Buddhist monastic order (Sangha) themselves. The ceremony is not necessarily big or grand but the eight requisites are essential. There must be an assembly of five monks who sponsor the ordination. The Kammavaca – the Buddhist ordination text – is uttered at the ceremony by the presiding monk and the novice or candidate monk-to-be.

Soon after attaining enlightenment the Buddha founded the order of monks or Sangha. Yasa came from a wealthy background, but left his home as he was dissatisfied with his life. After hearing the teachings of the Buddha, Yasa became the sixth bhikkhu or monk. After the Buddha ordained Yasa, his closest friends Vimala, Subahu, Punnaji and Gavampati followed him into the Sangha. Within two months a further fifty of Yasa’s friends had joined the Sangha. The Buddha’s son the Venerable Rahula who was still a novice received his Higher Ordination (Upasampada) at the Jetavana Monastery.

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The ordination of Yasa, a son of a rich man who went to the deer park near Varanasi to become a bhikkhu (ordained male monk). Within two months a further fifty of Yasa’s friends had joined the Sangha. British Library, Or. 14297, f. 27  Noc

This Lenten season is the time for Buddhists to do meritorious deeds, and to fast and observe special precepts. Lay supporters offer robes to the monks which will be worn during Lent. They also look into the bhikkhus’ other needs. On the full moon day, the processing with offerings of robes and other gifts to the monasteries is another meritorious deed. Young people also join the procession with music troupes to celebrate the giving of offerings to the Sangha as a way of making merit. Lay communities of Buddhists come together at monasteries, and participate in the ceremony of chanting conducted by the monks.

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Procession of offerings for the Sangha: The wooden stands, upon which offerings for the monks are placed, are set within the processional boats carried by lay people. British Library, Or. 15021, ff. 13-14 Noc

Further reading:
Dickson, J. F. Ordination in Theravada Buddhism. Edited by Piyadassi Thera. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1963.

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

11 July 2019

Suanplu Chorus from Thailand performs at the British Library

This week the British Library welcomed the world-renowned Suanplu Chorus from Thailand, which performed traditional and contemporary songs that present the beauty of Thai culture expressed through vibrant vocal techniques. The special free lunchtime concert that took place at the British Library on 9 July 2019 was organized in collaboration with the Royal Thai Embassy in London. The 38 singers harmonised beautifully, and the stunning acoustics of the Library’s foyer brought out the best in their vocals. The Suanplu Chorus came to the British Library fresh from their triumph at the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod 2019 in Wales, where on 6 July 2019 they had won the First Award in the Open Choirs category.

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The Suanplu Chorus from Thailand in concert at the British Library on 9 July 2019, attracting enthusiastic applause from the many visitors in the Library’s foyer, and even enticing many readers out of the reading rooms and onto the surrounding balconies.

Formally established in 2000 by Thai National Artist Dusdi Banomyong, Suanplu Chorus has been a pioneer of combining the beauty of Thai music with Western choral traditions. Their repertoire ranges from classical, contemporary and traditional Thai songs to original compositions written for them. At the British Library, the eclectic programme started with a superb performance of the Gloria by Joshua Himes, sung in Latin, followed by popular musical hits and American gospel songs before moving on to a wide range of Thai classical and folk songs.

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Dr Luisa Mengoni, Head of Asian and African Collections, thanked HE Pisanu Suvanajata, Ambassador of Thailand to the UK, and National Artist Dusdi Banomyong, founder of Suanplu Chorus, for making this concert possible through their support and dedication.

The concert cemented yet further the long-standing good relationship that the Library has enjoyed with Thailand for over four decades. The British Library hosted visits by Her Royal Highness Princess Sirindhorn in 1991 and 2005, as well as visits by delegations from the Thai Library Association, the Office of the Ombudsman Thailand, SEAMEO SPAFA and from various Thai universities. In 1996, to mark the Golden Jubilee of His Majesty King Bhumiphol, and the state visit to Thailand of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, a British Library exhibition of Thai manuscripts and early printed works travelled to Bangkok under the auspices of the British Council, and was exhibited for two months at the Thailand Cultural Centre in Bangkok.

Rich collections relating to Thai music are held in the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image Archive. These encompass nearly 2000 recordings from Thailand including the John Moore music collection, classical music, folk and pop music, recordings of religious ceremonies and Tom Vater’s field recordings. There are also recordings of wildlife, documentary films and Thai feature films. These resources are accessible through the Sound Archive catalogue.

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‘Konlabot’, a paper folding book containing examples of Thai rhymes and poems with illustrations. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or. 16102   

The Library’s Thai collection consists of approximately 400 manuscripts in Thai, Northern Thai and Pali languages. Most of the manuscripts are paper folding books and palm leaf manuscripts, but there are also some textiles and wooden manuscript boxes and cabinets. The Library also holds more than 5000 printed books and periodicals in Thai language, dating from the mid-19th century onwards (mostly searchable in the Library’s online catalogue Explore). The earliest period of Thai printing, from ca.1840-1890, is well represented due to a gift by Christian missionaries of about 100 books and pamphlets, some of which are unique copies including the only known copy of the first Thai book ever printed in Thailand, a Christian text published in 1838 (ORB.30/894).


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Nirat of London, a Ballad Concerning the Tour of the Siamese Embassy to and from London in the Year of Our Lord 1857 and 1858’ by Mom K. Rajoday (in Thai). Published in Bangkok, Bradley’s Press, 1881. British Library, Siam.23

A selection of the finest and most important Buddhist manuscripts and printed Buddhist scriptures from Thailand will feature in the upcoming Buddhism exhibition at the British Library (25 October 2019-23 February 2020), which will be accompanied by a full programme of cultural events.

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A Thai folding book containing extracts from the Buddhist canon and the legend of Phra Malai. Depicted are devata, deities residing in the Buddhist heavens. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or. 14115

Further reading on the Thai collection in the British Library

Ginsburg, Henry: Thai manuscript painting. London: British Library, 1989 (OIJ 745.674)

Ginsburg, Henry: Thai art and culture. Historic manuscripts from Western Collections. London: British Library, 2000 (OIJ 745.674)

San San May and Jana Igunma: Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia. London: British Library, 2018

Farrington, Anthony and Dhiravat Na Pompejra (eds.): The English factory in Siam, 1612 – 1685. London: British Library, 2007 (YC.2007.a.16965, YC.2007.a.16966)

Jana Igunma
Lead Curator, Buddhism exhibition

08 July 2019

Rustam: The Hero with Red Hair

Today's post comes from Dr Peyvand Firouzeh, Postdoctoral Fellow, Getty Foundation & American Council of Learned Societies at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck- Institut. Peyvand has been a frequent visitor to our Reading Room during her research on the art and material culture of the Islamic world, especially early modern Iran and India. 

The Shahnama (Book of Kings), was completed ca. 1010 by the poet Ferdowsi in Persian. It is the most-popularly copied, illustrated, and circulated epic that has survived in Persianate societies. One of the most frequently depicted, key protagonists of the Shahnama is the hero Rustam, known for his remarkable physical strength and, as Ferdowsi put it, ‘elephant-bodied’ (pil-tan) stature.

In manuscript illustrations, Rustam is known for specific attributes that help distinguish him immediately from others: particularly, his tiger-skin surcoat and leopard headwear, and sometimes his ox-headed mace and leopard-skin saddle. But another feature of Rustam’s appearance has remained rather neglected: his red hair. This detail caught my eye while working on a fifteenth-century manuscript of the Shahnama, Or. 1403, at the British Library. A quick look through the manuscript proved that every depiction but one shows Rustam with red facial hair.

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Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam overthrows Puladvand. 1438 (BL Or. 1403, f. 183v)
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In my attempts to contextualise this feature of Rustam’s appearance, I could only find brief mentions in previous literature: observations that note Rustam’s red hair in a single manuscript (for example, Clinton and Simpson, 178), or associate it with a specific workshop (Goswamy, 25), or with certain periods – for instance the fifteenth-century (Robinson (1951), 83), or the Safavid period (Robinson (2005), 261). It has rarely been acknowledged as a widespread phenomenon (Swietochowski, 186).

Rustam’s red hair, however, crosses geographical and temporal boundaries. It is found in manuscripts attributed to Baghdad, Shiraz, Tabriz, Isfahan, Gilan, Mazandaran, and several workshops in India, starting from some of the earliest surviving illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnama in the fourteenth century. Indeed, the red hair is just as old as other iconographic features like the tiger-skin coat and leopard-skin headwear, which are thought to have emerged, respectively, in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscript paintings (Robinson (2005), 253, 256, and 258).

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Scene from the Shahnama: Garsivaz prostrating himself before Siyavush in the presence of Rustam. 14th century, Ilkhanid (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1940.12)

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Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam Kills the Turanian Hero Alkus with his Lance. ca. 1450, India (The David Collection, Copenhagen, Inv. no. 3/1988). © Pernille Klemp

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Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam leads an attack on the Turanians' allies. ca. 1590, Shiraz (BL IO Islamic 3540, f. 176r)
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Of course, to understand the full extent of Rustam’s image as a redhead, a complete survey would be necessary. Based on the material surveyed so far, it seems that in the earliest surviving Shahnama manuscripts from the fourteenth century, the hero is predominantly depicted with red hair, though not completely consistently: this is the case in all of the four surviving Shahnamas made under the Inju dynasty (see H. 1479 , Dorn 329), one of the so-called Small Shahnamas, as well as several other Ilkhanid Shahnama paintings. The red hair features quite regularly in illustrated Shahnamas of the fifteenth century, while the ratio of the hero’s image with red hair to his total surviving depictions seems to drop increasingly from the Safavid period forward.

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Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam slays Ashkbus and his horse. ca. 1350, Ilkhanid (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1944.56)

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Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam rescues Bijan from the well, detail showing the red pigment. 1341, Inju, Shiraz (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1945.7)

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Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam shoots Isfandiyar in the eyes with a double-pointed arrow, detail showing Rustam’s facial hair with a darker shade. 1486, Shiraz (BL Add. 18188, f. 292v)
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With some exceptions, there is usually a good degree of consistency throughout a single manuscript, and some of the inconsistencies could be due to later repairs and repainting. In general, there are also common scenes that eliminate the facial hair to show Rustam in his youth, or depict white hair to indicate old age.

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Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam slaying the white elephant, detail showing Rustam with red eyebrows and hair, but no facial hair, hinting at his young age. 14th century, Ilkhanid (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1929.35)

The emergence of red hair in paintings requires more in-depth study of medieval physiognomy. Christ, too, was commonly depicted with red hair, especially in the fourteenth century. Apart from the connection with blood and bloodshed, there also seems to have been a connection between physical strength and red hair, which Robinson and Swietochowski mention in passing (Robinson (2005), 261; Swietochowski, 186). That ideas about this connection were circulating in the medieval Islamic world can, for instance, be witnessed in descriptions of the Sufi writer Shaykh Ahmad-i Jam (d.1141), who is recorded to have red hair, wine-coloured beard, tall stature, and striking physical strength, which earned him the title Zhanda-pil (Moayyad and Lewis, 8), a term used commonly by Ferdowsi to describe things, animals, and people – including Rustam – that were awe-inspiring.

Unlike the tiger-skin coat (babr-i bayan), which is mentioned by Ferdowsi in the Shahnama, and similar to the leopard headwear, it has been noted in passing that there is no indication of Rustam’s red hair in the text of the Shahnama (Swietochowski, 186). This seems to be the case for most copies. However, in some versions of the epic, there are two lines that do note Rustam’s red hair, and raise interesting questions about the relationship between text and image. The lines occur in the section on the birth of Rustam where Rudaba, Rustam’s mother, had to have a caesarean to deliver the immense baby. The lines in question are among the first that describe Rustam at the moment of birth, bringing together metaphors of light, blood, and the colour red:

The hair on his head all red, his hair like blood,
he emerged like the shining Sun.
Both hands full of blood, he was born of his mother,
No one has ever known of a child like this.

همه موی سر سرخ و مویش چو خون
چو خورشید رخشنده آمد برون
دو دستش پر از خون ز مادر بزاد
ندارد کسی این چنین بچه یاد

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Scene from the Shahnama: birth of Rustam. 1616, Mughal, India (BL  Add. 5600, f. 54r)
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Interestingly, the authenticity of these two lines has been questioned. Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh leaves them out (Khaleghi-Motlagh, vol.I, 267-8), while Dabir Siyaqi includes them in the main text (Dabir Siyaqi, 136), and Ashtiani and others record them in footnotes (Khalifeh, vol.I, 213). I have not yet come across any illustrated manuscripts – even those depicting Rustam with red hair – which include these lines. Yet, the existence of these verses attests that at some or multiple points there was a written – and perhaps oral – dimension to such iconography.

Explaining this disparity between text and image requires more in-depth research into the iconography and textual variations of the Shahnama. Whether the text predates or was inspired by the image remains unclear for the time being, but two preliminary points can be mentioned here.

First, it is possible that earlier texts, images, and oral traditions that have not survived led to the choice of this iconography for Rustam. There is both textual and visual evidence for the transmission of the legends of Rustam dating back to the eighth and ninth centuries, before the completion of the Shahnama by Ferdowsi in the eleventh century (Eighth and ninth century versions of the Rustam cycle and Sims-Williams & Sims-Williams (2015), 252-254). Moreover, several depictions of Shahnama scenes on pre-1300 objects and architecture attest to the transmission of the hero’s visualisations prior to the earliest illustrated Shahnama manuscripts that have reached us.

But there is no reason to assume that images of the Shahnama were strictly dependant on texts, either of Ferdowsi’s Shahnama or related legends. Images of a hero like Rustam – like many other people and narratives in the Shahnama – were popular beyond the medium of the book and had a life of their own. Visual traditions of the Shahnama offer multiple examples of artists who took the liberty to depict extra-textual details. Another way to explain the text-image disparity in the case of Rustam is the possibility that his image as a redhead came first, and subsequently found its way into written traditions, either directly or by way of oral traditions. If so, this could be an interesting case where the pictorial, verbal and textual forms of the Shahnama converge on a single figure, and the former informs the latter.

My sincere thanks to Rachel Parikh and Charles Melville for their help with this blog post.

 

Further Reading
Clinton, Jerome W. and Marianna S. Simpson. “How Rustam Killed White Div: An Interdisciplinary Inquiry.” Iranian Studies, Vol. 39, No. 2 (2006): 171-197.

Ferdowsi, Abu’l-qasem. Shahnama, edited by Djalal Khaleqi-Motlaq. New York: Bibliotheca Persica, 1987.
Shahnama, edited by Muhammad Dabir Siyaqi. Tehran: Qatreh, 2007.
Shahnama, edited by ‘Abbas Iqbah Ashtiani and Bahman Khalifeh. Tehran: Talayeh, 2007.

Goswamy, B. N. A Jainesque Sultanate Shahnama and the Context of pre-Mughal Painting . Zürich: Museum Rietberg, 1988.

Moayyad, Heshmat and Franklin Lewis, eds. and transl. The Colossal Elephant and His Spiritual Feats: Shaykh Ahmad-e Jam, The Life and Legend of a Popular Sufi Saint of 12th-Century Iran . Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2004.

Robinson, B. W. “The National Hero in Persian Painting.” Journal of the Iran Society, Vol.1, No. 3 (1951): 80-85.
—  “The Vicissitudes of Rustam.” In The Iconography of Islamic Art: Studies in Honour of Robert Hillenbrand, edited by Bernard O’ Kane, 253-268. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Sims-Williams, Nicholas and Ursula. “Rustam and his zīn-i palang.” In: From Aṣl to Zāʼid: Essays in Honour of Éva M. Jeremiaś, edited by I. Szánto, 249-58. Piliscsaba: Avicenna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, 2015.

Catalogue entry (p.186) by Marie Lukens Swietochowski in: Ettinghausen, Richard. Islamische Kunst: Meisterwerke aus dem Metropolitan Museum of Art New York . Berlin [u.a.]: Rembrandt-Verlag [u.a.], 1982.

 

Peyvand Firouzeh, Postdoctoral Fellow, Getty Foundation & American Council of Learned Societies at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck- Institut.
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