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

24 December 2022

A beloved in every port: Iskandar's encounters with women

The story and character of the Persianate Alexander the Great, known as Iskandar or Sikandar, underwent a great deal of transformation in poetic and prose texts over a millennium. What is most striking in the various works written for different audiences is the increasingly imaginative itinerary of the hero’s travels, especially with respect to his relationships with the women he encounters in each place.

The earliest known verse treatment of Alexander is Firdawsi’s Persian epic, the Shahnamah (Books of Kings), completed ca. 1010 CE, in which Iskandar is represented in the line of ancient Iranian kings. Although not a translation of the Greek romance, the main women of Iskandar’s life are the same with the addition of a few more.

Queen Qaydafah confronts Iskandar with his own ortrait
Queen Qaydafah confronts Iskandar with his own portrait. From Firdawsi's Shahnamah, copied at Shiraz, 967/1560 (IO Islamic 133, f.349v)
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The story of Qaydafah, ruler of Andalusia, is similar to Candace, ruler of Meroe, in the Greek romance. She at first refuses to submit to the conqueror, and when Iskandar appears before her disguised as his own messenger, she recognizes him because she had seen his portrait beforehand. In the end, she makes a pact with him. Qaydafah is not an Amazon and nor does she live in a city solely inhabited by women. The Amazon story is a brief interlude and comes a bit later when Iskandar is honoured by the women of Harum, a city inhabited solely by women.

Iskandar and the women of Harum
Iskandar's message is delivered to the women of Harum. From Firdawsi's Shahnamah, Rajaur, Northern India, 1131/1719 (Add. MS 18804, f.122r)
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It is in the India section, in a version which is unique to Firdawsi, that we learn about a physician who treats Iskandar’s over-sexed temperament that has led him to become weak and suffer from insomnia. When Iskandar started sleeping alone, he regained his health. This picture of him as a Lothario is in sharp contrast to the scholarly Iskandar of the later Persian poets.

The authors of the later courtly romances were doubtless familiar with Firdawsi’s work but took more artistic liberties in developing Iskandar’s character. Nizami’s Iskandarnamah  (1202 CE) is a mixture of epic and romance, and in this work Nushabah, an avatar of Qaydafah and Candace, is a composite character who is an Amazon queen. Nushabah’s name itself means water of life and is linked to Iskandar’s quest for immortality. The setting of this episode is changed from Andalusia to Barda‘, which falls in the poet’s native land, and which was the winter capital connected to two royal women, Mahin Banu and her niece Shirin, characters in Nizami’s earlier romance, Khusraw and Shirin.

Nizami describes Barda‘ as a virtual paradise on earth, which he links to Harum, the land of the Amazons in Firdawsi’s text. Iskandar hears about the hedonistic lifestyle of these women: the entire land appears as an idol temple (sanamkhanah) replete with beautiful and chaste women. Iskandar camps near the city from where Nushabah sends him gifts daily. This only piques his curiosity and he wants to discover the secret behind such a mythical woman and place. In the guise of a messenger sent by himself he enters her splendid court, but being a king cannot play the part appropriately. Nushabah has no difficulty recognizing him, not just by his behavior but also from a portrait her artist has made of Iskandar for a rogues’ gallery of the rulers of her time.

Nushabah shows Iskandar his own portrait
Queen Nushabah is not deceived by Alexander’s disguise. From Nizami's Iskandarnamah; artist Mirza ʻAli. Tabriz, Iran, mid-16th century (Or. 2265, f.48v)
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Iskandar persists in claiming to be a messenger and vehemently denies being the king. Nushabah shows him the portrait declaring: “I am a lioness, if you are a lion. / What is female and male among fighting lions?” This is a reminder to him of her position and ability, as well as a warning to disregard her sex since he is only conscious of her as a beautiful woman. Although Nushabah’s behavior threatens Iskandar’s masculinity, he is open to learning from her. She orders a feast for him, and her attendants arrange a repast that has precious gems instead of food on the plates. When Iskandar expresses perplexity at this, Nushabah laughs and asks him why he cannot eat what he spends his whole life pursuing! Iskandar experiences a major revelation and praises her, “A thousand blessings upon a wise woman / Who in a manly way becomes my guide.” She visits him with her magnificent entourage the next day and they spend the day and night in feasting—on real food. Such a sensual setting does not lead to any lovemaking and Nushabah remains one woman Iskandar does not conquer: “Iskandar son of Filqus was aroused, / But did not succumb to those beauties. // One, because he was abstentious, / Secondly, because one cannot hunt in a sanctuary.”

Later in the story, Nushabah makes another appearance. Kidnapped by the Rus, Iskandar vows to rescue her. On his way, Iskandar passes the Qipchaq Turkish tribes; his army is tired and has been away from women, but when they see beautiful unveiled Qipchaq women, they do not dare make any move out of fear of their king. He complains to the tribal elders about the unveiled state of their women: “A woman who shows her face to a stranger / Does not regard her pride and her husband’s dignity.” They respond that it is their custom and “Anyone who hides their eyes in a veil / Looks neither at the moon nor at the sun.”

The talisman and the Qipchak women
A black stone sculpture acts as a talisman which causes the women of Qipchaq to veil themselves. Nizami's Iskandarnamah; artist Mukund, Lahore 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.266v)
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Iskandar consults one of his wise counsellors and by a trick they manage to institute the custom of veiling among the Qipchaq women! As Farzaneh Milani explains, “Perhaps the veil, because of its symbolic potency, becomes a vessel in which to place both the anxieties and the exhilarations of love and creativity.”[1] Iskandar then launches into a major expedition against the Rus and finally rescues Nushabah and restores her kingdom to her. However, in a surprising move, he weds her to Davali, king of Abkhaz, and sends them off with his blessings. Thus, the Amazon queen is transformed into a respectably married woman.

In Amir Khusraw’s A’inah-yi Iskandari (1299 CE), Kanifu is first introduced disguised as a male warrior fighting on the Chinese side against Iskandar’s troops. When Iskandar engages in single combat with her, Kanifu is captured and her identity as a beautiful woman is revealed to him. Not only is Kanifu not an Amazon, there are no Amazons in Amir Khusraw's work. In fact, Kanifu is the only woman Iskandar has a dalliance with in this work—the marriage with Rawshanak is also not included by Amir Khusraw. Although Kanifu is ready to be his slave and they feast in his tent, their love is not consummated until later. It is when he returns from China that he takes her back as part of his booty.

Iskandar with Kanifu
Iskandar with Kanifu. From Ayinah-yi Iskandari (Iskandar's mirror) by Amir Khusraw, late 19th century (Add. Ms. 7751, f.167r)
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Tarsusi’s twelfth century Darabnamah is an epic in prose that includes some exploits of Iskandar, including his relationship with Burandukht (Rawshanak). Another work is the anonymous prose Iskandarnamah dating from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries that survives in a single manuscript in a private collection,[2] whose author picks up on the image of a concupiscent Iskandar. With seemingly inexhaustible sexual drive he boasts that “God has given me such prowess that in one night I have entered ninety chambers.”[3]  There are many episodes in which women, including his old aunt, plot to thwart or kill him, and the poet expounds on their wily and inherent evil nature. In the end, most either perish or are forced to marry the conqueror. Iskandar travels easily from Kashmir, where he marries the infidel king’s daughter, Mahafarin, to Ceylon, then onto Mecca, Yemen, Egypt, Andalusia, and China. In this text he is a holy warrior and love involves religious conversion. The second half of the work veers into the genre of dastan with even more fantastic adventures with mythical creatures and descriptions of marvels. A major part of the narrative is taken up by Iskandar’s clash with and subsequent marriage with Araqit, queen of the peris.

A later prose romance dates from the nineteenth century but is thought to have its origins in the Safavid period. The seven-volume work, Iskandarnamah-yi haft-jildi, is attributed to Manuchihr Khan Hakim and exists in several Qajar era illustrated lithographed editions, although the text varies in them quite a bit.[4] The narrative and geography are even more imaginative, freely mixing ancient Persian and Islamic characters along with historical and epic events involving demons and fairies. In the many places he and his companions visit, they encounter beautiful women and romantic dalliance usually ends with the hero being drugged or captured by inimical forces. This work belongs fully to the dastan  genre, but with its context updated. In one reconstructed modern text, Iskandar roams from Europe to India, even arriving in Calcutta![5]

Iskandar visits the city of the pharoahs
Iskandar visits the city of the Pharoahs,  from Manuchihr Khan Hakim's seven-volume Iskandarnamah. Tehran, 1284/1867 (14783.h.4)
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In the range of texts comprising verse and prose Iskandarnamahs, whether he is an over-sexed young man or a philosopher-scientist with only a passing interest in women, the Persianate Iskandar was not portrayed in a same-sex relationship, which is somewhat surprising since homoeroticism was a commonplace feature of classical Persian literature.

Sunil Sharma, Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University
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The British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is open at the British Library until 19 February 2023. Visit our dedicated website to find out more.

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

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[1] Farzaneh Milani, Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers  (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992), p. 7.
[2] Persian text edited by Iraj Afshar, Iskandarnāmah (Tihran: Bungāh-i Tarjumah va Nashr-i Kitāb, 1343/1964), and partially translated into English by Minoo S. Southgate, Iskandarnamah: a Persian medieval Alexander-romance (New York: Columbia UP, 1978) and Evangelos Venetis, The Persian Alexander: the first complete English translation of the Iskandarnāma (London: I.B. Tauris, 2018).
[3] Minoo S. Southgate, “Portrait of Alexander in Persian Alexander-Romances of the Islamic era”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 97 (1977), p. 282.
[4] Yuriko Yamanaka, “The Eskandarname of Manuchehr Khan Hakim: A 19th Century Persian Popular Romance on Alexander,” Cahiers de Studia Iranica, 26 (2002), pp. 181-9.
[5] Iskandarnamah, az Farang ta Hindustan, ed. A.R. Zakavati Qaraguzlu (Tehran: Sukhan, 1388/2009).

19 December 2022

A Baniya Letter from Surat

Today's blog post looks at a mischaracterized letter shedding light on the relationships between South Asian merchants and European powers in the 17th century.

Text in Arabic script written in black ink on a sheet of dark beige paper with repeated patterns of small and large green plants with three fronds
A full view of the petition included in Thomas Hyde's letters. (Allah-o-Akbar, India, January 1655. Royal MS 16.B.XII)
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The letter forms a part of the papers of the celebrated Thomas Hyde (1636-1703), Professor of Arabic and Hebrew at Oxford, and eastern interpreter at the court. Hyde misstates in his covering note that it is “A Persian Petition to the King of Cambaia”. It is in reality a petition (‘arzdasht) written by three baniya merchants of Surat to the rulers of England in January 1655.

A text in black ink in Latin script written on the top two-thirds of a blue sheet of paper
The contents of Royal MS 16 B, indicating the fifth item as "A Persian Petition to the King of Cambaia". (Royal MS 16.B.XXI)
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The petition is headed Allah-o-Akbar, which is somewhat unusual. It is written on behalf of Cauth, Tulsidas and Benidas, humble merchants of Surat, to the Padshah and other high authorities at the Foot of the Caliphate (pa-yi khilafat) in England. They state that the Padshah must be aware that for some years now, the humble petitioners have been living under the protection of the Company, as this is a fact well-known to everyone. The Padshah of Hindustan (as they term the Mughal emperor) too knows that they are the servants of the English (naukaran-i angrez).

There is a short section referring to some past disputes between the Dutch and the English, in which some people had been killed. There were negotiations, in which it was demanded that several brokers (dallals) be handed over. After much argument, it was agreed that some guarantees (qauls) should be produced by the two brokers, and that normal trading affairs (sauda) should be resumed. In the context of this agreement, the Dutch commander had given over a written document, which was to be transmitted to the Padshah in England.

Text in Arabic script written in black ink on a sheet of dark beige paper with repeated patterns of small and large green plants with three fronds
A detail of the text of the petition. (Allah-o-Akbar, India, January 1655. Royal MS 16.B.XII)
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This brings us to the main question addressed in the petition. An English ship (jahaz-i angrez) had been seized by the Dutch, and they had taken an amount of Rs 115,549 in cash and goods (naqd-o-jins) from it, some of which belonged to Surat merchants including the petitioners. But the Dutch and their commander in Surat were refusing to answer for their role in this. It was pointed out to them that the custom in Hindustan was that looted goods were returned to traders who were third parties in the conflict. But the Dutch were refusing to listen to reason. The Dutch commander had even told the Surat petitioners who had suffered losses that since they were clients of the English, they should weep and wail with their masters in England.

The petitioners had then taken the matter to the local authorities (mutasaddis) of Surat. But they too had refused to intervene in the matter and said that the matter should be taken to the English Padshah. On account of all this, the present ‘arzdasht is being sent, in the hope that the matter will be properly resolved. It is known that the English Padshah is just, and those unfortunate people who appeal to him will find favor.

The document ends with wishes for peace.

A text in both Latin and Gujarati scripts written in black ink on a dark beige piece of paper. The pattern of alternating green large and small plants found on the reverse of the sheet is partially visible.
Detail from the reverse of the petition. (Allah-o-Akbar, India, January 1655. Royal MS 16.B.XII)
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On the reverse, we find three Gujarati signatures with their rough English equivalents:

Thus: Coth Thakur [Gujarati] – Chout Tauker

Thus: Tulsidas Parekh [Gujarati] – Tulcidas Parrack

Thus: Venidas Visangji [Gujarati] – Benidas Bissuingee

Signed by them on Swally Marine

January 26th, 1655.

image from collections.rmg.co.uk
A portrait of a heavily-armed East India vessel painted by Isaac Sailmaker around 1685. (Royal Museums Greenwich BHC1676)
CC-BY-NC-ND provided graciously by the Royal Museums Greenwich.

This document refers to fallout of the Anglo-Dutch conflict in the Persian Gulf in the first half of 1653, in the course of which the Dutch seized several English ships off Bandar ‘Abbas (or Kamaran). References can be found to this episode in both the English and Dutch factory records. The Surat-based ship in question that was seized was the Supply, which the Dutch renamed Cabo de Jask. Unlike the Blessing from Coromandel, the Supply did not offer resistance and negotiated its surrender. Its goods, like those of the other seized ships, were rapidly sold by the Dutch on the Persian Gulf markets and amounted according to the Dutch records to 140,336 florins. The earlier episode of violence referred to may be one of several involving the Dutch at Surat in the late 1640s. The Dutch commander who dismissed the pleas of the Surat merchants was Gerard Pelgrom. All three merchants are known to us from references in the English factory records, which also contain at least one other letter (in English, with a Gujarati signature) written by Tulsidas to the Company. In the published edition of the factory records, the name of the third merchant is usually rendered as Chot or Chota, when it is clearly written as “Cauth” (in Persian) and “Coth” (in Gujarati). Finally, it may be noted that the Surat merchants were possibly unaware that there was no longer a king (or Padshah) in England at the time of the Commonwealth and Cromwell's regime.
 
Dr. Muzaffar Alam (University of Chicago) and Dr. Sanjay Subrahmanyam (UCLA)
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12 December 2022

Hampi: Photography and Archaeology of southern India

Currently on display at the British Library is the display Hampi: Photography and Archaeology in southern India. This exhibition features some of the earliest photographs of the site taken by W. H. Pigou in the 1850, modern photographs of the site by South Asian pre-eminent photographer Raghu Rai, alongside architectural drawings produced by the Vijayanagara Research Project under the guidance of John Fritz and George Michell between 1980-2001.

Hampi front entrance
Visitors at the British Library's Hampi display located in the Front Entrance Hall, October 2022. Photographed by Malini Roy.

The Hindu kingdom Vijayanagara (meaning ‘City of Victory’) established its capital at Hampi in southern India in about 1336. Located along the banks of the Tungabhadra River, temple complexes, palaces and administrative buildings were built amongst the rugged landscape of granite boulders. After flourishing for over 200 years, in 1565, Vijayanagara fell to a rival kingdom and Hampi was abandoned. Hampi’s ongoing religious significance and its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987 mean it continues to attract worshipers and tourists to this day. These photographs, taken between 1857 and 1970, capture the archaeological site of Hampi. The British Library’s archives provide a lens on the archaeological legacy and the research activities that have played a role in preserving the city’s cultural heritage.

The exhibition features a select number of photographs, that documents the extensive complex's architectural heritage. 

Virupakshah temple
Gopura of the Virupaksha temple, Vijayanagara. Photographed by William H. Pigou, 1857. British Library, Photo 1000/10(1096).

William H. Pigou (1818-56) was an amateur photographer appointed as the Government Photographer for the Bombay Presidency from 1856 to 1857. He was one of the earliest photographers to visit Vijayanagara and document the Virupaksha temple that is situated on the banks of the river.

With the arrival of photography by early the 1850s, Pigou relied on calotypes, a new printing process, to make multiple prints from a single waxed paper negative. He photographed the Virupaksha temple from various angles to document the entrance tower (gopura) and the high exterior walls. None of his photographs captured the entire length of the rectangular temple complex. 

Pigou's photograph of Narasimha
Photograph of Narasimha, by William H. Pigou in 1857. Modern digital image from the original waxed paper negative, 2022. British Library, Neg 1000/9(1005)

One of the more complicated sculptures to photograph at the site is that of Narasimha, the man-lion avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu This colossal sculpture was commissioned in 1528, by King Krishnadevaraya (ruled 1510-29).  Carved out of a single granite boulder, it measures 6.7 metres in height. Historic photographs including those by Pigou document the damage sustained to the sculpture when the kingdom fell in 1556. In the 1980s, the Archaeological Survey of India restored the figure by rebuilding Narasimha’s legs in the meditative lotus position. 

Neill_Lotus Mahal
Vijayanagara pavilion in the palace. Photographed by Andrew Charles Brisbane Neill, 1857. British Library, Photo 965/1(85)

The exhibition also features photographs by other early photographers to the site including Edmund David Lyon and Andrew Neill.  The site, which is over 25 square kilometers, consists of countless temples, shrines, pavilions and administrative buildings that was used and built by the Vijayanagara kings. The Lotus Mahal, a two storied pavilion, is part of the royal centre of Vijayanagara and is one of the best preserved buildings to date. The Lotus Mahal is a two-storied pavilion with large cusped archways; the architectural design allows air to flow and to regulate temperature. Vijayanara's royal centre also includes elephant stables, granaries and temples for the use of the royal family. Andrew Neill was a photographer and part of the Royal Artillery. He visited the site in 1856.

In the exhibition, historic 19th century photographs are featured alongside the modern works by Raghu Rai from the 1970s. Raghu (which are in copyright and can be viewed here). These include his iconic views of The way to Virupaksha temple through the Hampi bazaarBadavalinga - a monolithic linga, and Excavations and conservation being done by the Archaeological Survey of India

  VRP_drawing
Sculptural mouldings at the Raghunatha temple complex. Pen-and-ink on acetate, after Helen Wilson, 1984. Copyright held by the Vijayanagara Research Project. British Library, VRP 001/54/32/1.

Additionally, the exhibition draws from the Library's extensive archive of the Vijayanagara Research Project. Two architectural drawings supplement the photographic records, as these pen-and-ink drawings document the extensive research and dedicated work of architectural historians to systematically document every building or sculptural fragment. One example is this pen-and-ink drawing after the original pencil drawing by Helen Wilson, one of the many students working on the site during the 1980s. This work features the sculptural mouldings at the Raghunatha temple complex. This temple is associated with the Sanskrit epic Ramayana and features sculptural reliefs throughout showing Rama and Sita. The temple complex is located on Malyavanta Hill. The drawing demonstrates how architectural historians were in situ and illustrated the sculptural mouldings on the lower plinth of the south entrance gopura (tower gateway). Visible is an image of Rama holding a bow carved into a pillar.

For more on the exhibition and opening times, please consult: Hampi: Photography and Archaeology in southern India - The British Library (bl.uk)