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

22 November 2021

A Tale of Two Enigmas: A Magtymguly Pyragy Manuscript in the British Library Collections

Cream coloured paper with red lines outlining black text in Arabic script arranged in two columns
The opening of the Divan-i Makhtumquli, a late 18th-early 19th-century Turkmen manuscript. (Divan-i Makhtumquli, Central Asia?, late 18th century or early 19th century CE. Or 11414 f 3v)
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Of all the languages of state included within my curatorial bailiwick, Turkmen is undoubtedly the most neglected. It doesn’t help that the name is often applied to two divergent linguistic communities. For those interested in historical uses of the word, it often refers to Turkic or Turkophone communities between the Balkans and Central Asia practicing nomadic or semi-nomadic socio-economic organization. In this usage, it can sometimes be replaced by Turcoman or Turkoman, although the rule is far from hard and fast. Various dynasties that established polities in Anatolia, the Caucasus, and Iran are often described as Turkmen; think of the Aqqoyunlular, the Seljuks, and even the Qajars, to name a few. Today, the designation is still used by and for communities in some West Asian states. Many of these peoples still practice nomadic or semi-nomadic social and economic organization. In Turkey, a geographical determinant is often used to distinguish them from historic or Central Asian communities, especially with respect to those in Iraq. For those members of these groups resident in the Republic, other endonyms are now used for some communities previously referred to as Turkmen, such as the Yörük.

There is, of course, another use of the word Turkmen, applied to a Central Asian people linked by language, culture, and history to the Turkmen of West Asia and the Balkans. Independent since 1991, Turkmenistan is at the centre of a linguistic community numbering some 11 million from northern Iran to Uzbekistan and from Afghanistan to Russia. This Turkmen language, also a member of the Oghuz branch of the Turkic family, was standardized in the 1920s and 30s by Soviet specialists, and was made the official language of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924. Currently written in the Latin alphabet, the language boasts a well-documented, if understudied, literary corpus that extends back several centuries. This tradition is best exemplified by an 18th-century poet named Magtymguly Pyragy. He is the Turkmen equivalent of Alisher Navoiy or Shakespeare, both for the influence of his poetry on later Turkmen creatives, and for his position in state-driven literary historiography. While published and translated editions of Pyragy’s poetry are relatively common in Euro-Atlantic libraries (thanks, in part, to Turkmen state institutions’ drives to promote him), manuscripts are rare. We at the British Library, however, are exceedingly lucky to hold such a copy under the shelfmark Or 11414. And I was fortunate enough to have had it brought to my attention by Dr. Anton Ikhsanov, who completed his doctorate on Turkmen intellectual history at St. Petersburg State University.

Book cover with text in yellow on a black rectangle on a red background with traditional Turkmen designs in black and yellow, and a green spineBlack and white woodcut illustration reproduced in printing featuring a man in Turkmen traditional dress standing in the foreground and a seen of various other men at work in the background
(Left) The cover of a Soviet-era collection of Magtymguly Pyragy's poetry. (Magtymguly, Saĭlanan Goshghular (Ashgabat: Turkmenistan Neshriiaty, 1976. 14499.n.231)
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(Right) A woodcut illustration of the poet. (Magtymguly, Saĭlanan Goshghular (Ashgabat: Turkmenistan Neshriiaty, 1976. 14499.n.231)
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Magtymguly Pyragy was born around 1730 CE in Haji Qushan, Golestan province, contemporary Iran. He passed away in 1807 CE close to the current Iranian-Turkmenistani border, and was laid to rest in Aq Taqe-yi Qadim, Golestan Province, Iran. He received his education in Turkmen, Persian and Arabic at home and in the great centres of learning in the region, including Khiva and Bukhara, before traveling widely in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Iran, and West Asia. Pyragy’s peripatetic life and widespread impact exemplify the reach and diversity of Turkmen culture, and of the fluidity of boundaries among Oghuz-speaking peoples prior to the 20th century. It’s clear that this poet’s work was influential among speakers at the eastern fringe of the Oghuz linguistic space and beyond. But during the Soviet period, Magtymghuly Pyragy was elevated, along with a number of other pre-Revolutionary Turkic literati (including Navoiy, Abai, and Mirzǝ Fǝthǝli Axundzadǝ) to the rank of proto-Socialist visionaries. Their works were woven into the dominant (and state-sanctioned) socialist realist criticism, and libraries were written on the presence of anachronistic Marxist-Leninist dogma within their works.

Cream coloured paper with black text in Arabic script in the middle of the page with a red seal towards the bottomCream coloured paper with black text in Arabic script in the middle of the page
(Left) An incomplete (?) poem or prose text, possibly on prayer or repentance, preceding the main Divan
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(Right) A series of religious invocations in Arabic in nestalik script.
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In a way, this later trend is what makes Or 11414 so special. The manuscript is a relatively bare and simple one, with red pencil text boxes for some of the pages. The majority of the text is written in nestalik in black ink with a relatively thick-nibbed pen. It is arranged into two columns, and there are occasional dividers in red reading “vali ayzan (والى أيضاً)”. At the start and end of the work, we notice texts written in a different hand and using a different pen. The first of these, on f 2r, is an odd addition that is difficult to read because of both smearing of the ink and the irregular handwriting. I’m unsure whether this is intended as another poem, or if this an account of an individual’s attempt at prayer and repentance. On f 140v, in contrast, there are religious invocations in beautifully ornate and elaborate nestalik, all of them in Arabic. In between these two poles, we find mostly the work of Magtymguly Pyragy, but also poems by other Turkmen poets, including Döwletýar Beg, Seýitnazar Seýdi, Gurbandurdy Zelili, Bende Murad, and Abdulnazar Şahbende.

Cream coloured paper with black text in Arabic script arranged in two columns in the middle of the page
An unruled page of Magtumguly Pyragy's poetry. (Divan-i Makhtumquli, Central Asia?, late 18th century or early 19th century CE. Or 11414 f 63r)
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What makes this so important? We’re used to seeing manuscripts lauded and promoted because of their ornate illumination and illustrations. Sometimes, they’re publicized because of the high monetary value attributed to them through the commoditization of authors’ legacies and calligraphers’ pedigrees. But Or 11414’s worth lies in the fact that it most likely reflects the copying and circulation of Turkmen texts for the enjoyment and edification of as wide an audience as possible. It provides us with a rare view into the reading, writing, and copying cultures of Turkmen-speakers in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. And, more importantly, it creates a window onto their usage of the language and their estimation of Pyragy and his work before the heavy-handed intervention of Soviet authorities in the 1920s and 30s. The manuscript creates a counterpoint for the study and hypothesizing of a language and literary tradition that are both frequently overlooked by individuals and institutions outside of Central Asia.

There is, of course, another part to this story, one about provenance. How did this rare work make it into the British Library’s collections? A note in the back of the manuscript states that it was purchased from M. E. Denissoff on 10 February 1934. This likely refers to Elie Denissoff or Ilya Denisov, a Russian émigré who was the Secretary of the Russian Prime Minister in 1917. Denisov fled the Soviet Union to Paris and then Belgium, where he eventually engaged in scholarship on ecclesiastical history. Such biographical details would fit those of individuals who often sold manuscript material to the British Museum and similar institutions at the time. But it doesn’t explain how the volume came into Denisov’s possession in the first place. Thanks to Dr. Hugh Olmsted and his enlightening “Two Exiles: The Roots and Fortunes of Elie Denissoff, Rediscoverer of Mikhail Trivolis,” we have at least a glimpse into the possible origin of the manuscript.

Denisov was from an old Cossack family that had first come into the Imperial household’s good graces through its contributions to the Siege of Azov. When the October Revolution resulted in the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and the Imperial system, Ilia escaped from St. Petersburg south to his family’s ancestral lands near Kuban. This provided only temporary respite, but it did ensure that he did not suffer the same fate as the rest of his family in St. Petersburg, who succumbed to war and persecution. He gradually made his way out of Russia via Baku into Persia. From Tehran, he requested temporary permission to re-enter Russian territory, and did so on the eastern shore of the Caspian, making his way to Ashgabat before crossing by sea again to Baku, and thence out to Istanbul, Bulgaria, and eventually France. Given this brief sketch, it is entirely possible that Denisov acquired the Divan-I Makhtumquli in Turkmenistan proper, and that the manuscript originated from Central Asia. What’s more, from a description of Denisov’s memoirs in Olmsted’s work, we know that the former visited the British Museum in the mid-1930s as part of his doctoral research on Maximus the Greek. The pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fall into place, but only at the terminal end of the manuscript’s provenance.

Cream coloured paper with black text in Arabic script arranged in two columns in the middle of the page and a red seal at the bottom
The final page of the Divan, likely with a final poem added in a different hand. (Divan-i Makhtumquli, Central Asia?, late 18th century or early 19th century CE. Or 11414 f 140r)
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There is one last clue that is proving to be far more difficult to decipher. In addition to the note about Denissoff at the end of the manuscript, an annotation reads “Tina Negan”chik” (Тина Неганъчикъ)”. It’s not clear to me whether this is intended to be a name, and, if so, what role this person might have played in the item’s history. The use of the hard sign at the end of the word might point to a pre-Revolutionary orthography, or perhaps to nasalized and glottalized consonants, as in common in the current orthography of Crimean Tatar. Whatever the case, the all-powerful tool of Google searching has produced nothing of note, and it does appear that we might yet have to wait a bit longer before we’re able to know to what this refers.

Sometimes, big gifts come in small boxes. While Or 11414 doesn’t look like the type of manuscript that would leave us plenty of avenues for further study, that’s exactly what it has done. And at a time when increasing demands are made for the massaging and manipulation of cultural heritage to satisfy the demands of the social media machine, it bears remembering that there is value beyond being the perfect Instagram post. It just takes a bit of time and quietude to find it.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
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Further Reading:

Clement, V. (2018). Learning to Become Turkmen: Literacy, Language, and Power, 1914-2014, Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press. (YC.2019.a.1438)

Edgar, A. L. (2004), Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan, Princeton: Princeton University Press. (YC.2006.a.7110)

Frank, A. (2020), ‘Turkmen Literacy and Turkmen Identity before the Soviets: the Ravnaq al-Islām in Its Literary and Social Context,’ JESHO, 63 (3) : 286-315. (P.P.3779.hdd.)

Ikhsanov, A. (2016), 'Turkmenistan: Literatura', Bolshaia Rossiiskaia Entsiklopediia, 32, Moskva: Nauchnoe Izdatel'stvo Bolshaia Rossiiskaia Entsiklopedia, 548-549.

Ikhsanov, A. (2020), 'A Community of Linguists Does Not Create a Language, but a Society Does: Dichotomies in Central Asian History,' Bulletin of the International Institute for Central Asian Studies, 29, 124-136. 

Taylor, P. M. (2017), ‘Turkic poetic heritage as symbol and spectacle of identity: observations on Turkmenistan’s Year of Makhtymguly celebrations,’ Nationalities Papers, 45 (2) : 321-336. (ELD Digital Store Document Supply 6033.449000)

15 November 2021

Transcribed from the boundary wall of the universe: Early Dhammasattha manuscripts in the Burmese collection of the British Library

The British Library’s Burmese collection holds some of the earliest extant dhammasattha manuscripts in the world. The dhammasattha, or “treatise on the law” is a genre of Buddhist literature prevalent in mainland Southeast Asia, written in Pali and in a range of vernacular languages including Burmese, Arakanese, Mon, Shan, Thai, Lao and Khmer. Although it is an integral part of the Theravada tradition, it is also historically related to Brahmanical dharmaśāstra texts written in Sanskrit.

Gilded and embossed front cover of a dhammasattha manuscript
Gilded and embossed front cover of a dhammasattha manuscript. The title “Dhamasat’” is flanked by two dragons. Manu kyay dhammasat, 19th century. British Library, Phayre Collection, Or 3447 A Noc

The dhammasattha was the primary legal framework for society, and originally applied to every Buddhist, both secular and monastic. It dealt with all aspects of the law, covering property and land, debt, wages, inheritance, slavery, marriage (including rape and adultery), assault, murder, theft, slander and the breaking of oaths. The most extensive tradition of dhammasattha comes from Myanmar, where some laws derived from the genre are still in force in the legal system today. Knowledge of dhammasattha was part of the education of rulers and administrators, monks, as well as any “good men”, and could be put to practice by any of these (therefore being mainly a male activity). The exclusive profession of a judge came into being only during the colonial period.

This blog draws extensively on Christian Lammerts’ recent authoritative publication Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250–1850 (2018), as well as his article 'The Murray Manuscripts and Buddhist Dhammasattha Literature Transmitted in Chittagong and Arakan' (2015), in which he discusses at length the dhammasattha manuscripts found at the British Library.

The Origin of Law

A flying rishi
A flying rishi. Manu was one of the first rishis or men who had accomplished super-knowledge and super-powers, such as the capacity to fly. Scenes from Jataka stories, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 1r Noc

The story of how the dhammasattha text came into being has many versions. According to one standard narrative, it already existed at the beginning of the world. The very first king, Mahāsammata, had a renowned minister of great learning named Manu, whom he appointed to adjudicate disputes. Manu, however, soon found that it was difficult to rely only on witness testimony in passing judgment, and since he was fully accomplished in super-knowledge (abhiññā) and magical powers (iddhi), he used these to fly through the sky to the boundary wall of the universe. There the dhammasattha was written on the wall in Pali with letters each as big as a cow. Manu then proceeded to transcribe the law from the wall and presented the dhammasattha text to Mahāsammata.

The dhammasattha was therefore originally conceived of as cosmically derived, neither human nor divine. It had no author, but was intimately tied to writing. Although it was a natural part of the cosmos it was only accessible to those with magical power. It was also stated that the dhammasattha was so vast it could not be mastered by the average man. This is why, the tradition reports, scholars and wise men abridged it, sometimes translating it into vernacular languages. Although the dhammasattha had many textual variations its essential cosmic justification stayed the same until the 18th century when Burmese jurists began to question this theory of the origin of law.

Dhammavilāsa dhammasat

An early 18th century copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat, the oldest known dhammasattha version
An early 18th century copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat, the oldest known dhammasattha version. British Library, Or 11775. Noc

Textual references to dhammasattha begin to be found in 13th century Burmese inscriptions (although dhammasattha texts were likely in circulation earlier).  The Dhammavilāsa dhammasat (ဓမ္မသတ်, Burmese for dhammasattha) is understood to be the oldest known dhammasattha composition. Out of seven existing manuscript copies three are located at the British Library (Add MS 12248, Add MS 12249, Or 11775). Of these, Add MS 12249 is particularly significant, as it provides the only secure date for the composition of the text. Although the manuscript is dated 1825 the scribal colophon states that the text was copied from an old manuscript dated to 1637/38.

The oldest physical copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat is from 1758 and is located at the Universities’ Central Library in Yangon. One of the British Library copies (Or 11775), however, is dated only 11 years later, to 1769.

The Dhammavilāsa dhammasat was widely transmitted and produced many significantly different versions, both in prose and verse, not only in Burmese, but also in Arakanese, Mon and Shan.

An Arakanese dhammasat

The last folio of a rare Arakanese dhammasattha manuscript with a colophon dating it to 1749
The last folio of a rare Arakanese dhammasattha manuscript with a colophon dating it to 1749. British Library, Murray Collection, Add MS 12254, f. 73rNoc

The British Library holds a rare early Arakanese dhammasat manuscript (Add MS 12254) from 1749, which has been fully digitised. Although related to the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat this version represents a distinct Arakanese dhammasattha tradition, prevalent in the area of Sittwe and Chittagong in 18th-19th centuries. This is the oldest extant Arakanese version and the westernmost of all dhammasatthas; it is also nine years older than the oldest extant Burmese version of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat.

The text is written with black ink on individual strips of yellow paper (instead of palm leaf). The Murray Collection, of which it is a part, contains the oldest Arakanese paper manuscripts in the world (dated between 1721-1784).

The text is written in “mra mā”, which before the end of the 18th century designated both Arakanese and Burmese languages (that are closely related). Its scribal colophon identifies it as the work of “the excellent teacher and monk Rāmi Shyaṅ.” In Arakan personal names were used instead of monastic titles, which is still tradition in Chittagong today.

Manusāra dhammasat and Manu kyay dhammasat

The Manusāra dhammasat was written in Pali verse with a Burmese nissaya commentary
The Manusāra dhammasat was written in Pali verse with a Burmese commentary (nissaya). British Library, Add MS 12241. Noc

The Manusāra dhammasat was also an early tradition with the composition of the text attributed to 1651-52. It was written by Tipiṭakālaṅkāra (a monk and Vinaya scholar) and Kaingza Manurāja (a lay judge), and for the first time links the dhammasattha geographically to Myanmar and chronologically to Burmese and Mon kings. The origin story is slightly transformed, with a seer named “Manusāra” responsible for transcribing the dhammasattha from the boundary wall of the universe. Manusāra was written in Pali verse, for the benefit of durability and easier memorisation, but also included an elaborate nissaya or commentary in Burmese. Manusāra is noteworthy for the many reformulations of the dhammasattha tradition it introduced, including a more explicit separation of lay and monastic jurisdictional boundaries.

The British Library holds the earliest known manuscript of the 1651–2 Manusāra dhammathat (Add MS 12241), copied in 1773.

The Many kyay dhammasat was an abridged compendium of pre-existing versions
The Many kyay dhammasat was an abridged compendium of pre-existing versions. British Library, Mss Man/Bur 3429. Noc

The Manu kyay was a much later abridgement and differed considerably from the aforementioned treatises. It was an anonymous compendium of laws derived from the dhammasattha tradition and compiled sometime prior to 1782. The British Library holds the second oldest extant Manu kyay manuscript (Man/Bur 3429), dated to 1789. The Many kyay was translated in English by Richardson already in 1847, and henceforth made this version well known.

Impartial justice

The Dhammasattha was likened to the illuminating rays of the moon
The Dhammasattha was likened to the illuminating rays of the moon. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 63r. Noc

The dhammasattha advocated for universal justice and applied to all Buddhist beings, human and celestial. It was meant to be “impartial, like a pair of scales”.

The Dhammasat is like Sakka’s thunderbolt-weapon and the jewel-treasure of a cakkavatti king that grants all wishes. It is like the weapon of the lords and ministers who have been tasked with carrying out the duties of the country. It is like a carpenter’s ruler and a physician’s diagnostic manual. It is like an oil lamp that illuminates a dark room filled with precious gems. It is like an eye that can see whether an appearance is good or bad, and like an ear that can hear whether a sound is good or bad. It is like the rays of the moon that illuminate the four continents at night, and the rays of the sun that brighten them during the day. It is like the tusk of a powerful elephant. It is like mother’s milk.” (Add MS 12254, f. Ki v; trans. Lammerts 2018, 184–185)

Lammerts has noted that interestingly the Arakanese versions of the dhammasattha are much more tolerant than their Burmese counterparts by allowing the testimony of both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike (“those who take refuge [in the three jewels] and those who do not,” Lammerts 2015, 431), as well as local residents and foreigners (“people from places far away,” Lammerts 2015, 431), and of good and bad people regardless of their character and the scale of the dispute. The Burmese dhammasatthas, by contrast, specifically discriminate against non-Buddhists as untrustworthy witnesses.

Bad Judges

Being eaten by a tiger was one of the eight punishments for judges adjudicating incorrectly
Being eaten by a tiger was one of the eight punishments for judges adjudicating incorrectly. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 131r Noc

Punishment for faulty judgement was extremely harsh from the very beginning, and was the reason why Manu was prompted to look for a cosmic explication of the law in the first place. Judges were expected to be truthful, avoid bias, refrain from bribes, and to examine the evidence comprehensively. They were particularly advised to avoid the four “bad courses” (agati): desire (favouring a relative, a friend or someone who has given presents), hatred (disfavouring an enemy or someone who doesn’t pay one respect), fear (letting someone go without consequences because they know someone in power, or because they threaten one’s property or oneself), and ignorance (inability to understand or discern the law). Should a judge adjudicate incorrectly or unjustly the “eight dangers” and “ten punishments” would befall him.

The eight dangers, which in this formulation are unique to Myanmar, are the following: 1) being swallowed by earth, 2) being struck by lightning, 3) being eaten by ogres, 4) being eaten by a tiger, 5) death by crocodile, 6) capsizing in a boat, 7) bleeding to death, 8) madness.

The ten punishments are paralleled in the Dhammapada: 1) violent, unhappy suffering, 2) loss of property, 3) destruction of the body, 4) severe, torturing disease, 5) loss of mind, 6) oppressive punishment from the ruler, 7) harsh accusations, 8) extermination of the family, 9) eradication of wealth, 10) houses burnt by lightning.

When such a person died they fell into the four unhappy destinies (hell realm, demon realm, ghost realm and animal realm) suffering greatly as ghosts. The texts describe such hell-ghosts in detail: “His body would grow enormous… His eyes were a cubit in diameter, his mouth the size of a needle. His body was red like the colour of blossoming flowers. His toenails and fingernails were as sharp as nails, and with them he incessantly gouged his flesh and cannibalised himself. He lost all strength from consuming himself, and was eventually carried away by the wind.” (Add MS 12248, Add MS 12249; trans. Lammerts 2018, 81).

If the law was adjudicated correctly it would bring great prosperity to the country and foster the ability of humans to perform acts of merit. According to certain dhammasatthas, the benefit of such merit would be divided into six parts, one of which went to the ruler. In contrast, should the law be adjudicated incorrectly the country would be unable to achieve prosperity and happiness. The demerit produced would similarly be divided into six parts, with the ruler and the judge each personally receiving one.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

I would like to thank Christian Lammerts for his comments on this blog and for his expert opinion.

Further Reading:
Lammerts, D. Christian, Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250–1850 (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2018).
Lammerts, D. Christian. 'The Murray Manuscripts and Buddhist Dhammasattha Literature Transmitted in Chittagong in Arakan', Journal of Burma Studies, vol. 19, no. 2 (Dec. 2015), 407-444.
Mong, Sai Kham, ed., Shan Thammasat manuscripts (Tokyo: Mekong, 2012).
Huxley, Andrew. ‘The Importance of the Dhammathats in Burmese Law and Culture’, Journal of Burma Studies, vol. 1 (1997), 1-17.
Hla, Nai Pan, Eleven Mon Dhammasāt Texts (Tokyo: Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies for Unesco, 1992).
Richardson, D. (trans.) The Damathat, or the Laws of Menoo (Maulmain, 1847)

01 November 2021

Reunion of Krishna icons: A painting of the Festival of the Seven Svarups in the Johnson Album

This guest blog post is by Isabella Nardi (PhD, SOAS), an art historian specializing in Indian painting.

In the group of paintings acquired and personally commissioned by Richard Johnson (1753–1807) which are now in the British Library there is an unexpected depiction, a congregation of Krishna icons attended by priests in a palace setting (see Fig. 1). The work, originating from Faizabad or Lucknow, has been dated to c. 1770–1780, a period of artistic ferment in the Mughal province of Avadh thanks to local rulers and Europeans patrons living in the area. The collector, an East India Company servant who arrived in Calcutta in 1770, served as the Head Assistant to the British Resident of Lucknow between 1780 and 1782; this is probably the time in which he assembled a wide range of Avadhi paintings revealing his interest for the traditions and customs of India (Falk and Archer 1981, 135–136). 

Srinathji surrounded by svarups
Fig. 1. Krishna worshipped under the form of Shri Nathji. Mughal, Faizabad or Lucknow, 1770–80. British Library, Johnson Album 51, 4. 280 x 209 mm; page 287 x 216 mm. Noc

Titled Krishna worshipped under the form of Shri Nathji, the painting has been rightly identified as pertaining to the Vallabha Sampradaya’s cult (Losty and Roy, pp. 180–182). For anyone familiar with this devotional sect, this depiction is a surprising presence in the album for at least two reasons: first, it is a rare representation of a real event, the Festival of the Seven Svarups (Saptasvarūpotsava), which took place in 1739 in the Shri Nathji temple of Nathdwara in Rajasthan. Secondly, this Avadhi painting is found outside the geographical sphere of influence and patronage of the sampradaya which, at that time, covered the land of Braj, Rajasthan and Gujarat, and it was slowly expanding to the Deccan.

To better understand this painting, it is necessary to first introduce the Vallabha Sampradaya and its famous congregations of Krishna icons. This will be accomplished through a detailed iconographic analysis of a representative depiction of the Festival of the Seven Svarups in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). This digression will allow to acquire the necessary information to examine and contextualize the work in the Johnson Album. The Avadhi painting will also be put into conversation with two earlier depictions; whereas established scholarship in the field will locate it within the cosmopolitan culture of circulation and pictorial exchanges in northern India at the time.

The Vallabha Sampradaya is a krishnaite devotional sect – also known as the Puṣṭi Mārg (Path of Grace) – which was founded by Vallabhacharya (1479–1531) in northern India in the sixteenth century. This religious community, subsequently headed by Vallabhacharya’s son, Vitthalnath (1515–1585), had its headquarter in the land of Braj, around the area of Mathura, where it received support from the Mughal Emperors. The descendants of the two founding fathers decided to slowly shift to Rajasthan and Gujarat in search of new patronage hence forming a complex web of temples which map the region’s religious landscape to this day. This influential network is not only formed by hereditary priests – who claim descent from Vallabhacharya and Vitthalnath – but also by the treasured icons in their possession, the svarups (svarūp-s), which are traditionally nine. The nine svarups are considered self-manifested icons which miraculously appeared to Vallabhacharya or one of his disciples and they are therefore deemed to be different from a common man-made statue (murti). The first svarup to manifest itself to Vallabhacharya on Mount Govardhan is Shri Nathji which, in 1672, was installed in a newly built temple in Nathdwara which became the sect’s main headquarter. 

Among the peculiar characteristics of the Vallabha Sampradaya are its sumptuous temple rituals and visual culture. Well-known are the famous temple hangings or pichhwais (pichvāī-s), which are elaborate textiles, painted or embroidered, used as backdrops in opulent performances (see Skelton 1973; Ambalal 1995). One of their most important festivals is the reunion of the sect’s most sacred icons, the svarups, in the Shri Nathji temple. This congregation, known as the Festival of the Seven Svarups, appears in several Rajasthani paintings especially from the mid-1820s. Despite its numerous depictions, this festival has been celebrated only on rare occasions, that is in 1739 and 1822. This is because of the problems encountered in organizing such enormous undertakings, including the logistic problems involving the transportation of the svarups from one temple to another, the occasional tensions between high priests on matters of power and prestige, and the periodic political unrests that punctuated the area of Rajasthan and its neighboring regions. A celebration of the festival took place also in post-Independence India, in 1966, after a lengthy legal battle over the administration of the temple. Its video coverage can be accessed on YouTube.

Available visual evidence suggests that the imagery of the Festival of the Seven Svarups is indelibly associated to the celebration of 1822 which has an established and easily recognizable iconography as confirmed by a comparison of its numerous depictions that survive in private collections and museums (Nardi 2017, 223). Most of these works flourished from the mid-nineteenth century when the Nathdwara painting tradition was in full swing thanks to the patronage of temple priests and devotees. For a critical analysis of earlier depictions of the festival, such as the Avadhi painting in the Johnson Album, we first need to understand its traditional visual formula which originated in its sectarian milieu.

A notable example, which portrays the event in every single detail, is in the collection of LACMA (see Fig. 2). The work positions the viewer’s gaze directly in the sanctum of the Shri Nathji temple, offering an intimate glimpse of the svarups which wouldn’t be possible in real life. On either side of the icons are the temple priests who are involved in various ritual tasks, including the arrangement of a special food offering in front of the icons. This includes baskets of sweetmeats, vessels containing milk products and, in the foreground, a big mountain of rice (annakūṭa or mountain of food).

LAMCA ma-142207-WEB
Fig. 2. Commemorative portrait of Damodarji II (1797-1826) performing the ceremony of the offering of food to the seven images (Sapta Svarup ka Utsava) in 1822. Rajasthan, Nathdwara, circa 1822-1850. Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper. 304 x 247 mm; page 330 x 250 mm. LACMA, AC1999.127.41. Noc

The svarups are meticulously portrayed following their iconographic features, such as emblems (flute, ball of butter) and female companions, so that they can be precisely identified by devotees. The icons are depicted in two colours to indicate the materials in which they are made, that is blue for black stone or wood, and golden yellow for metal. This important and tacit rule indicates that their depiction is an actual likeness of the svarups

For the sake of completeness the icons are identified below (Fig. 3), starting from the top level, from left to right:

Detail 1
Fig. 3. Icons on the upper level of the altar. Detail of LACMA, AC1999.127.41.

  • Madanmohanji, a metal statue of Krishna playing the flute accompanied by two female attendants. Its present location is Kaman, Rajasthan.
  • Dvarkadhishji (also Dvarkanathji), a rectangular shaped stele in black marble representing Krishna with four arms. Its present location is Kankroli, Rajasthan.
  • Shri Nathji, a black marble statue of Krishna with the left arm raised to hold up Mount Govardhan. Its present location is Nathdwara, Rajasthan.
  • Mathureshji, a round-topped stele in black marble representing Krishna with four arms. Its present location is Kota, Rajasthan.
  • Gokulchandramaji, a wooden statue of Krishna playing the flute. Its present location is Kaman, Rajasthan.
  • A metal statue of Krishna playing the flute known as Madanmohan. This is not one of the sacred svarups, it replaces the absent Balkrishnaji (present location Surat, Gujarat), which did not participate to the festival due to a long-standing dispute (Peabody 2003, 75–78).

On the lower level, from left to right (Fig. 4):

Detail 2
Fig. 4. Icons on the lower level of the altar. Detail of LACMA, AC1999.127.41.

  • Gokulnathji, a metal statue of Krishna with four arms accompanied by two female attendants. Its present location is Gokul, Uttar Pradesh.
  • Navnitpriyaji, a metal statue of baby Krishna holding a ball of butter. Its present location is in the Shri Nathji temple premise, Nathdwara, Rajasthan.
  • Vitthalnathji, a metal statue of Krishna accompanied by Rukmini. Its present location is Nathdwara, Rajasthan.

A quick count of the sculptures will yield a total of nine, that is the nine svarups. This tally, however, may be confusing given the name of the festival. The Festival of the Seven Svarups takes this denomination from the seven icons that reside outside the main Shri Nathji temple, which houses both Shri Nathji and Navnitpriyaji. These seven deities are those that have to be carried to such location by their hereditary priests.  

Apart from the meticulous depiction of the icons, representations of the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1822 are distinguishable for other recurring elements, such as the presence of Dauji II (1797–1826) and of a specific pichhwai. Dauji II, or Damodarji II, is the only recognizable portrait on the upper left of the LACMA painting. He was the officiating priest and organizer of the imposing event of 1822 for which he commissioned a special pichhwai. This is the black textile hanging in the background, right behind the svarups, featuring on either side a tree-of-life design embroidered in gold and pearls (Fig. 5). As Amit Ambalal explains (p. 67), this particular pichhwai was commissioned by Dauji after his mother and other priests donated some of their jewels to the temple on the occasion of the festival. This magnificent ritual hanging, whose whereabouts are unknown, is part of the canonical iconography of the 1822 festival and its fame was such that it was also praised in poetic compositions of the time (Taylor 1997, 83). 

Detail 3
Fig. 5. Detail of the special pichhwai, or temple hanging, commissioned by Dauji for the celebrations of the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1822. Detail of LACMA, AC1999.127.41.

Unlike the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1822, depictions of the 1739 celebrations remain exceptional not only for their paucity but also for their variety of pictorial styles, diverging visual elements, and unexpected provenance. To date, there are very few known depictions of this event including drawings, paintings on paper, and murals dating from the eighteenth century onwards. For the scope of this analysis, we will consider the very few eighteenth century paintings on paper that have come down to us, which are only three. Interestingly, none of them was produced in the pilgrimage center of Nathdwara, denoting a circulation of visual information about the festival as well as an interest in documenting it beyond regional and devotional circles.

The first two depictions, published elsewhere, date from the time of the celebration itself: the first is a painting from Udaipur dated to c. 1739 in the collection of the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery (Doshi 1995, 78); the second, in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, is a work from Aurangabad dated to c. 1740 and inscribed to Muttam, formerly known as the Jaipur Painter (Seyller and Mittal 2018, cat. no. 44). Both works can be related to the network of the Vallabha Sampradaya devotees, which included kings and merchants. The painting from Udaipur was probably commissioned by Maharana Jagat Singh II (r. 1734–1751), a patron and follower of the sect whose haloed portrait appears with other members of the royal family standing next to the congregation of icons. The example from the Deccan, on the other hand, can be associated with the community of merchants and bankers that started to settled in the area from 1729 (Shah 2015, 43–44).

The third painting in chronological order is the one in the Johnson Album which – after this lengthy but necessary digression – can be examined from a more informed perspective. The first observation that can be made is that, unlike its two predecessors, this work cannot be related to an established religious network of the Vallabha Sampradaya. In fact, its assessment indicates that its anonymous painter and its commissioner were not familiar with the sect’s ritualistic formalities, liturgical textiles, and iconography of the svarups because the work displays a number of notable imprecisions which wouldn’t be welcomed by a follower of the sampradaya. For example, a missing iconographic element is the pichhwai which has been replaced by a palatial setting, a typical background of Faizabad and Lucknow painting at the time (see Fig. 6).

Detail 4
Fig. 6. Avadhi palace setting used – in lieu of a pichhwai – as the background the Johnson Album depiction of the Festival of the Seven Svarups of 1739. Detail of British Library, Johnson Album 51, 4.

As mentioned above, the pichhwai was an important liturgical element of the celebrations and it also appears in the other two paintings from Udaipur and Aurangabad. Other incongruities can be seen in the depiction of the icons: the stelae of Dvarkadhishji (rectangular) and Mathureshji (rounded) are omitted making their identification impossible. Also the colour of two metal icons on the lower level, Navnitpriyaji and Vitthalnathji, is inaccurate: they should be golden yellow but they are painted in blue (see Fig. 7).

Detail 5
Fig. 7. The metal icons of Navnitpriyaji and Vitthalnathji mistakenly painted in blue instead of golden yellow. Detail of British Library, Johnson Album 51, 4.

These observations unquestionably demonstrate that the sphere of patronage of the painting in the Johnson Album was outside the established circles of the sect and it opens to the possibility that, rather than an acquisition, this work was actually commissioned by Richard Johnson himself. It is well known that pictorial traditions in Avadh flourished thanks to the patronage of Europeans living in the region, such as Johnson and other East India Company officials, and that their commissions included not only portraits but expanded on other themes, such as Ragamalas and Hindu mythology (Losty and Roy 2012, 153). Given Johnson’s demonstrated interest for Indian traditions, he may have wanted a representation of this important event that took place in Rajasthan in 1739 and, considering that he was stationed in Lucknow, he may have hired a leading artist trained in a courtly atelier not specifically familiar with the ritualistic formalities of the sampradaya. Perhaps, the painter was someone who moved to Avadh in the wake of Nadir Shah’s sack of Delhi in 1739 whose incursion and subsequent period of chaos caused an exodus of artists, including writers, musicians, and painters, who in successive waves left the Mughal capital in search of new patronage (Pauwels 2015, 142; Losty and Roy 2012, 153).

A crucial question remains to be answered: how did an artist not familiar with the sampradaya paint a representation of the Festivals of the Seven Svarups? It is plausible that the anonymous artist may have used an unfinished or uncolored drawing of the festival which provided the basic organizational structure for his work. In fact, ateliers kept collections of paintings and drawings from other traditions from which they could reuse selected elements or take inspiration (Aitken 2015, 89). A possibility is that the artist of the Johnson Album may have used a Rajasthani painting depicting the svarups, a subject that was already popular in Kishangarh, a Rajput court known for its patronage of the Vallabha Sampradaya (Mathur 2000, 54).

A Kishangarh connection with Avadh has already been observed by Heidi Pauwels who has tracked a specific visual reference in a painting of Layla and Majnun from Lucknow (Pauwels, Plate 20). The work, dated to c. 1780, is attributed to Ghulam Reza, a master artist also known for his Ragamala paintings in the Johnson Album (Archer and Falk 1981, 170-173; Pauwels, 2015, 204). In particular, Pauwels (2015, 203-205) detects a stylistic reference in the portrayal of the haloed Layla which displays some peculiar visual characteristics from Kishangarh, such as her silhouette and her elongated eyes and nose. This visual connection is particularly relevant to further strengthen the assumption that Rajput painting was not only known but also one of the sources of inspiration for the artists working in Lucknow and Faizabad. As for the painting of the festival, rather than a stylistic citation we can detect a compositional reference in the display of the icons. Their arrangement – which follows an established formula even though some iconographic elements of the icons are not correct – is juxtaposed to a palace setting and range of colours typical of Lucknow and Faizabad in a combination of visual sources that was very frequent in Avadhi painting (Aitken 2015, 81).

Finally, it is also essential to appreciate the creative aspect of the work which denotes some artistic license. The painter added some interesting touches to the composition rejecting the hieratic and stiff postures of the svarups, a common feature of sectarian paintings. In doing so, he endowed the icons with a gentle smile and a human countenance and gave them a sinuous body slightly curved to one side. These innovations produced a graceful and lively compositional effect which remains a unique feature of this painting when compared to its two predecessors from Udaipur and Aurangabad.    

Bibliography:

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Shah, Anita B. “Devotion and Patronage: The Story of a Pushtimarg Family.” Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings, edited by Madhuvanti Ghose, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2015, pp. 42–53.

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Isabella Nardi, PhD  ccownwork