Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues


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

18 March 2019

Vietnamese collection milestone: retroconversion of card catalogue completed

In 2015 Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library, launched Living Knowledge,  a vision for the future of the British Library, aiming to make our intellectual heritage accessible to everyone for research, inspiration and enjoyment. Living Knowledge also sets out to make the British Library the most open, creative and innovative institution of its kind in the world. In order to achieve these targets, the Library announced a series of new values to guide its staff in this direction, one of the most important being ‘putting users at the heart of everything we do’.

Curators for different collection areas, along with all other members of staff, have taken this new mission seriously. We are aware that the extensive and rich source materials in our collections are of no use unless our users can access them, or at least become aware of their existence. In the Asian and African Collections, curators have been encouraged to clear backlogs and to make source material in their collections searchable online.

Drawer of Vietnamese catalogue cards, filed by name of author, in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room in the British Library at St Pancras in London

The Online Computer Library Centre (OCLC), the first online library catalogue, was launched at Ohio University in August 1971. Although this seminal event occurred almost half a century ago, it was a long time before online cataloguing was adopted by institutions worldwide. Even into the 1980s and 1990s, some collections were still being catalogued manually, often due to issues relating to the transliteration of non-Roman scripts and the use of diacritics. The cataloguing of the Vietnamese collection at the British Library fits into this category perfectly, due to problems with inputting the double diacritics needed for Vietnamese. When I took up my post as curator for Vietnamese at the British Library in 2005, most of the printed materials in our collection were still catalogued using old-fashioned catalogue cards, and hardly anything was searchable online. One of my major tasks has been to retroconvert the Vietnamese card catalogue onto the British Library’s online catalogue, and that task is now virtually complete.

Vietnamese book, previously only catalogued on cards (top right), which has now been recatalogued online (bottom right).

This mammoth project was conducted in two phases. Phase one started in around 2007, two years after I took up my post. I called up almost every single Vietnamese printed book to physically check that it was the correct one before I created an online record. This process was slow but was more likely to lead to fewer mistakes, such as mismatches between shelfmarks and items, or duplications of records. It took me a long while, until in October 2014, I was able report with some satisfaction that the retroconversion of the Vietnamese printed collection had been completed. However, the satisfaction of this achievement turned out to be rather short-lived as, not long afterwards, in June 2016, during office relocation moves one of my colleagues found four cardboard boxes brim-full of Vietnamese catalogue card in her area. When I randomly checked some cards to see whether they had been retro-converted in the first phase, none of them came up on an search on the British Library’s online catalogue Explore, meaning that all these cards also had to be recatalogued online.

One of the boxes of Vietnamese catalogue cards discovered in 2016

Hence my second phase of retroconversion began in August 2016. Judging from the amount of cards in those four boxes, which seemed to number well over 10,000, I couldn’t afford to use the same very thorough method for cataloguing as I had done in the previous phase. I therefore decided to rely on the bibliographic record appearing on each card as the major source for recataloguing, and only if there were serious doubts or queries would I call up the physical item in question to check. This method helped to speed up the cataloguing process. Fortunately, a large proportion of cards turned out to be duplicates and could be discarded; in the end, only just over 2,400 catalogue cards had to be retroconverted.  During this second phase of retroconversion, I found that issues certainly arose from not having physically seen all the items before creating new online records. There were sometimes mismatches between shelfmarks and items, or different items shared the same shelfmarks. These problems had to be resolved, for otherwise they would have caused confusion and frustration for users when calling up items for consultation.

An example of a cataloguing problem: the online catalogue gives a different title with the same shelfmark

Finally, I can now at last report that all our old Vietnamese catalogue cards, except for just a few problematic ones, have been retroconverted and are searchable online through Explore. Together with new acquisitions, there are now more than 10,900 titles in the Vietnamese collection ready for our readers.  I very much hope that the completion of this project will enable our readers to access more readily source material in Vietnamese in the British Library, either for research or enjoyment, as set in our Living Knowledge mission statement.

Dr Sud Chonchirdsin at work cataloguing Vietnamese printed books

Further reading:

Vietnam - British Library collection guide

Sud Chonchirdsin
Curator for Vietnamese

06 March 2019

The largest Javanese manuscript in the world? Menak Amir Hamza

The final manuscript to go online from the Javanese manuscripts from Yogyakarta digitisation project is probably the largest Javanese manuscript in the world, in terms of the number of folios in a single volume. This manuscript, Add. 12309, is a copy of the Menak Amir Hamza, the Javanese tale about the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. Written in Arabic (pegon) script in black ink on Javanese paper (dluwang), the book contains 1,520 folios within its original brown leather binding. The front and end binding boards are stamped with frame bands and ornamental corner pieces and a central medallion, and the binding would originally have had an Islamic-style envelope flap. The 3-D image below gives an impression of the physical size of this book.

Menak Amir Hamza is an epic cycle of tales centred on Amir Hamza, the uncle of the prophet Muhammad, and recounts his numerous warlike and amourous adventures. Based on an Arabic-Persian original, the Javanese version has been developed and localised, with further invented and appended tales concerning Amir Hamza’s sons and grandsons. This manuscript originated from the court of Yogyakarta, and was written for Ratu Ageng (ca. 1730-1803), a wife of the first sultan of Yogaykarta, Sultan Hamengku Buwono I, and mother of Sultan Hamengku Buwono II.  In the introduction she is called prabu wanodeya / kang jumeneng Ratu Agung / kang ngedhaton Tegalreja, 'the female monarch / who reigns as Ratu Agung / and has her palace in Tegalreja'. Ratu Ageng was a daughter of an Islamic scholar and was known as a devout Muslim.  The manuscript was copied some time after 1792 (and before 1812, when it was taken by British forces from the palace of Yogyakarta), but it is not known how long was needed for this enormous task.

Menak Amir Hamza,  British Library, Add. 12309, ff. 335v-336r   noc

Javanese paper, dluwang, is made from the beaten bark of the paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera).  This gives a highly polished surface, with paper of variable thickness, with the fibres of the wood still very evident on many pages. As shown above on the right-hand page, the scribe has made some corrections by applying a chalky white paint to cover up mistakes, which can then be written over if necessary. Javanese literary works are written in verse, and were composed in a sequence of cantos or sections, each to be sung according to a prescribed metre (pupuh). The coloured ornament on the left hand page is a pepadan, indicating the start of a new canto.

Another canto marker from Menak Amir Hamza. British Library, Add. 12309, f. 1494r  noc

Versions of Menak Amir Hamza can reach great lengths, especially when the long dialogue associated with night-long shadow-puppet performances is elaborated in full. A manuscript in Leiden University Library (Cod. Or. 1797) of the version composed by the Surakarta court scribe Raden Ngabehi Yasadipura (1729-1803) fills 12 volumes and nearly 5,200 pages. However, Add. 12309 remains probably the most voluminous single-volume Javanese manuscript known. There are two other copies of Menak Amir Hamza in the British Library, MSS Jav 45 and MSS Jav 72, both of which have also been digitised.

Photographing this enormous book proved a real challenge for British Library photographer Carl Norman, who had to plan and build a suitable support for the binding. Each page had to be made to lie as flat as possible, whilst ensuring that the spine of the open book was fully supported, through the use of firm back straps and foam supports.  It was only while Carl was photographing every page that he discovered that the 19th-century curator in the British Museum charged with numbering the folios made a mistake – the numbering jumps from 449 to 500 – hardly surprising in view of this enormous task. Moreover, although the final numbered folio is 1564, the numerals are written so faintly that this number was misread in the catalogue by Ricklefs and Voorhoeve (1977: 48) as 1504. Only after digitising the whole volume can we now confirm that there are 1520 folios of paper, hence 3040 pages, in this book.

Menak - Carl 11.5
British Library photographer Carl Norman photographing Add. 12309, Menak Amir Hamza.

Headband of binding of Menak Amir Hamza, sewn with red and white threads. British Library, Add. 12309, head.  noc

In the recent British Library exhibition on Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (19 Oct. 2018-19 Feb. 2019), amongst the very many superlative items on display, for many visitors the star of the show was the giant Codex Amiatinus. The oldest complete Latin Bible in the world, written at Jarrow in Northumbria in the early 8th century and taken to Italy in 716, this exceptional manuscript travelled back to Britain for the first time in over 1,300 years for the exhibition. While the Menak Amir Hamza cannot compete with Codex Amiatinus for physical size, great age, and beautiful illumination, it does contain many more folios!

Codex-amiatinus-biblioteca-medicea-laurenziana-64506a4 IMG_0093
(Left) Codex Amiatinus, 1030 folios of parchment, measuring 505 x 340 mm
(Right) Menak Amir Hamza, 1520 folios of Javanese paper, measuring 287 x 217 mm

Further reading:

Blog post: Menak Amir Hamza, the Javanese version of the Hamzanama

A.T. Gallop and B.Arps, Golden letters: writing traditions of Indonesia.  Surat emas: budaya tulis di Indonesia.  London: British Library, 1991; p. 101.
Theodore G. Th.Pigeaud, Literature of Java.  Catalogue raisonné of Javanese manuscripts in the Library of the University of Leiden and other public collections in the Netherlands.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968. 4 vols. Volume 1, pp. 212-215.
M.C. Ricklefs and P. Voorhoeve, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.
A. Sudewa, ‘Menak’. Sastra Jawa: suatu tinjauan umum, ed. Edi Sedyawati … [et al]. Jakarta: Balai Pustaka, 2001; pp. 317-323.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

28 February 2019

Primbon, Javanese compendia of religious knowledge

Primbon are Javanese manuscript notebooks which usually contain a personalised selection of texts relating to Islamic belief and practice, including prayers, selections from the Qur’an, instructions relating to ritual purity and performance of obligatory worship, texts on mysticism, formulae (rajah) or esoteric diagrams (da‘irah) focussed on Arabic letters or words, and notes on divination, as well as amulets for protection and other purposes. Popular texts included Kitab Sittin, the Javanese name for al-Sittūn mas’alah fī al-fiqh, ‘Sixty questions on jurisprudence’ by the Egyptian scholar Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Zahīd (d. 1416), and the catechism of al-Samarqandi, which has been translated into Malay as well as Javanese. Although some primbon may contain texts in Javanese script, most of the contents are in Arabic or in Javanese in Pegon (Arabic) script.

MSS Jav 42  fcc
Mystical diagram in a Javanese primbon. British Library, MSS Jav 42, ff. 87v-88r  noc

Among the 75 Javanese manuscripts from Yogyakarta now in the British Library, which were taken by British forces in 1812, are six volumes of primbon. Two (with Add. shelfmarks) were acquired by the British Museum from John Crawfurd, who served as Resident of Yogyakarta from 1811 to 1814. Those with MSS Jav shelfmarks came to the India Office Library from the estate of Col. Colin Mackenzie, who had been Chief  Engineer of the British army in Java, and comprise a large number of small separate manuscripts which were bound into larger volumes in Calcutta in around 1815. All these primbon volumes have now been digitised and are listed below; hyperlinks from the shelfmarks lead to the full record for each manuscript with further details on the contents from the catalogue by Ricklefs & Voorhoeve (1977), while hyperlinks from below the images link directly with the digitised manuscripts. It should be noted that due to the presence of different scripts and with some items bound in upside-down, many of the volumes have been foliated (page-numbered) erratically.

Add. 12311 is a manuscript entitled Primbon Palintangan Palindon Pakedutan containing texts on physiognomy and astrology, as well as other subjects. Shown below is a drawing of the rotating naga, commonly used for divinatory purposes throughout Southeast Asia, for example to determine the best time to travel, or the compatability of a couple (see Farouk 2016: 180).
Add 12311 f 101v naga
Drawing of the rotating naga in a primbon from Yogyakarta. British Library, Add 12311, f. 101v  noc

Add. 12315 is a primbon containing assorted texts on religious subjects, including legends of Muslim religious heroes and notes on physiognomy.
Add 12315  f. 208r
Javanese text in a primbon manuscript, with a mystical diagram above. British Library, Add. 12315, f. 208r  noc

MSS Jav 41 is a collection of six primbon bound together in a single volume.  Two of these bear Mackenzie's annotation, 'Manner of performing ablutions,' and contain a Javanese tract with Arabic texts of prayers and formulae to be recited in ṣalāt. Two others contain a copy of Ṣifat al-nabī, ‘The attributes of the Prophet’, in Arabic; one of them bears an ownership note on f. 46r of ‘Raden Temenggung’, but without naming the individual (punika kagungan primbon Raden Tumĕnggung). Another primbon in this collection contains a Javanese translation of Kitab Sittīn in Asmaradana metre.
MSS Jav 41  f. 150v-151r
Ṣifat al-nabī, in Javanese. British Library, MSS Jav 41, ff. 150v-151r  noc

MSS Jav 42 is a collection of eight primbon within one volume. A copyist’s name can be read: Kyahi Ngabehi Rĕsasĕntika of Yogyakarta. Contents include secret names of animals (aran ing macan, aran ing kidang) and the magic names of iron and steel The volume also includes a Malay fragment on prayer (sĕmbahyang) and fasting (puasa), and lists the types of actions which negate ritual purity. Shown below is the first part of a Shaṭṭārīyah silsilah - from Muhammad s.a.w. to Ali to Jainalabideen to Imam Jafar Sidiq (as read by Ronit Ricci) - in perpendicular Javanese script found at the end of one primbon.
MSS Jav 42  f. 69v
First part of a Shaṭṭārīyah silsilah in a primbon. British Library, MSS Jav 42, f. 69v noc

MSS Jav 43 contains six primbon in a single volume, containing various texts including Kitab Sittin in Arabic with a Javanese translation, and an incomplete copy of Samarqandi in Arabic with an interlinear Javanese translation. There are also certain sections of the Qur'an.
MSS Jav 43  f. 127bv-127cr
Mystical Javanese text on the shahadah. British Library, MSS Jav 43, ff. 127bv-127cr  noc

MSS Jav 84 is a primbon collection of various short religious texts concerning prescribed prayer and other matters.
MSS Jav 84  f. 55r
Number system linked to the Arabic alphabet, in a Javanese primbon from Yogyakarta. British Library, MSS Jav 84, f. 55r  noc

In addition to these six volumes of primbon, there are a number of other Javanese manuscripts from Yogyakarta which have been digitised with similar contents, all in Pegon script. MSS Jav 83 contains a number of tracts associated with the Shaṭṭārīyah Sufi brotherhood, including two silsilah, and other texts on prayer and dhikir. MSS Jav 85, which is called in a note at the beginning Layang sembayang lan tetamba, contains texts on prayer and healing. MSS Jav 87 has an ownership note of Kangjeng Pangeran Pakuningrat of Yogyakarta, and contains texts on religious subjects such as ngelmuIO Islamic 2617 contains an Arabic text on the qualities and use of stones and jewels, with an interlinear version in Javanese, as well as Javanese texts on ritual prayer, medicines and amulets, and two genealogies, one of which begins with Majapahit and ends with Kanjĕng [sic] Gusti Pangeran Dipati Yuja, probably the Crown Prince of Yogyakarta, later Sultan Hamĕngkubuwana II.

MSS Jav 87  f. 36v
Beginning of a text in dandanggula metre, in a manuscript from Yogyakarta. British Library, MSS Jav 87, f. 36v  noc

Farouk Yahya, Magic and divination in Malay illustrated manuscripts.  Leiden: Brill, 2016.
Ricklefs, M. C. and Voorhoeve, P., Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork