Asian and African studies blog

8 posts from July 2013

29 July 2013

An Ottoman Turkish Mosque Library Register

This volume, which opens with an ornate rococo illuminated heading, is the original handwritten handlist of the manuscripts of Mustafa Paşa, preserved in the Mosque of Hasan Paşa. Neither the former owner nor the mosque is more specifically identified. According to an inscription, in 1230/1814-15 the library’s holdings were scrutinized under the supervision of Devletlü (His Excellency) Haccı ‘Ali Paşa. Of the 230 volumes, 135 were found to be present and 95 on loan to students. Many are common textbooks on the religious sciences.

Defter-i kütüb-i Mustafa Paşa fī Cami‘ Hasan Paşa, undated (late 18th-early 19th c.).  Original hand (f. 2v-5v, 11v-19v) is clear nesih; later additions in untidy rıkʼa. Text frames: black, gold, black, red. Thick off-white laid paper; watermarks: stylized coronet above letters BVC (C below); smaller coronet above letters CSC; stylized lion rampant. 22 folios, plus 79 blank but for ruling. 271 x 157 mm; ruled area 224 x 116 mm (British Library Or.14878)

This defter is unusually concise. Each page has a grid of 18 squares, each entry stating only the short title (or a generic description such as ‘Treatise on Sufism’) or author (but rarely both) and the number of volumes; this is often insufficient to identify the text unequivocally. In some squares, the word mevcud (‘present’) has been added in red ink. The compilers exhibit a lower level of linguistic knowledge than one might expect. The defter contains entries on folios 2v-7v; blank ruled squares on 8r-10v; then 69 folios that are blank apart from the ruled gilt text frames (not counted in foliation, following British Library practice); then further entries from f. 11v to the top row of 20r; then ten more folios with only text frames.

It is curious that the written contents comprise two sequences, both with later additions, separated by so many blank pages. The handwriting of the best-written folios – 2v-5v and 11v-19v – is all by the same individual, although the contents of the two sequences differ. The volume may have been ordered to a fixed size and format, to accommodate future acquisitions.  There is an explanation. Examination of the second sequence shows that it represents the original writer’s attempt to re-order the entries by subject, beginning with Qur’anic literature before proceeding to Ḥadīth (Prophetic traditions), Fiqh (jurisprudence), and so on. Thus the Defter of the Mustafa Paşa Library, for all its deficiencies, reflects the care taken to maintain records of the holdings of a modest Ottoman mosque library.

Muhammad Isa Waley, Asian and African Studies

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26 July 2013

The Treasures of the Asian & African Studies Reading Room

Researchers who make use of the Asian & African Studies Reading Room on the third floor of the Library will be aware that it contains a small but impressive display of works of art. Readers showing their passes to the security officer on duty at the entrance may not be aware that they are almost literally turning their backs on a portrait by Royal Academician Thomas Phillips of the early nineteenth century oriental scholar and bibliophile Claudius James Rich. 
Portrait of Claudius James Rich, ca. 1803, by Thomas Phillips R.A.
Donated in 1825 by his widow Mary Rich
Oil painting on loan from the Trustees of the British Museum (Foster 886) Images Online

However, walking past two of the three model ships in glass cases donated to the India Office by shipping companies in the Victorian period, they will discover most seats in the Room allow a view of nine portraits high on the east wall. These range  from Richard Greenbury’s 1626 painting of Naqd ‘Ali Beg, Persian envoy to the court of King Charles I (see our recent post ‘Stitched up in Silk’, but note that the painting has been temporarily removed for repair), through the full length portrait of one of the mid-nineteenth century Prime Ministers of Nepal by Bhaujuman Citrakar in its ornate gilt frame, to the pair of north Indian worthies painted by the German-born artist Johann Zoffany and shown in last year’s exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy.
H.E. General Sir Jang Bahadur Kunwar Rana (1817-77), Prime Minister and
Commander-in-Chief of Nepal.
Oil painting by Bhaujaman Citrakar, 1849 (Foster 36) Images Online

On the way out readers will no doubt notice the ca. 1730 painted and gilded East India Company coat-of-arms; there is also a specially-designed niche in the far corner where stands a handsome bust of Warren Hastings, the famous late eighteenth century Governor-General of Bengal who played a major role in the establishment of British power in India; and on top of the oriental language card catalogues two (empty) manuscript boxes from Southeast Asia. Two much larger examples from Burma and Thailand can be seen in glass cases out on the third floor landing; those with long memories will recall that this space was formerly occupied by three fine eighteenth century chairs from the Company’s Court Room.

EIC coat of arms_Foster887
The East India Company coat of arms, originally hung above the chairman's seat in the Directors Court Room at East India House, Leadenhall Street.
Wood. Originally published/produced in c.1730 (Foster 887) Images Online

Needless to say the Library possesses far more works of art than it can hope to display at any one time. They are described in detail in our India Office Select Materials, and some can be traced and admired in the Images Online database. High resolution digital images of all 286 of the Library's oil paintings can also be seen on the BBC's 'Your Paintings'. A list with details of the works of art on display in the Reading Room can be downloaded from the following link: Download Works of art in AAS Reading Room.

Looking at original prints and drawings can be arranged for registered readers via a weekday afternoon (14.00-17.00) appointments system by contacting Obtaining copies is the province of Imaging Services. Don’t forget too that the two Sunday tours include a look inside the Reading Room on the one day of the week it is closed to readers.

Hedley Sutton, Reference Team Leader

Keep in touch and follow us on Twitter @BLAsia_Africa

23 July 2013

West Africa’s little-known manuscripts

Preparing a talk recently for the 'Africa Writes' festival at the British Library, I wrestled with how to cover a big chunk of history in half an hour. How to communicate the fascination of the manuscript cultures of West Africa – and just how large these collections are? The story is about so much more than Timbuktu – though that city was indeed a big player in the cultures of learning and literacy that developed south of the Sahara over the second millennium CE.

Boilat cloth trader
Cloth trader. P.D. Boilat, Esquisses sénégalaises (Paris, 1853). 10096.h.9

In a way, though, the story tells itself. The manuscript cultures of West Africa aren’t well-known, and they reveal something perhaps rather unexpected about the continent. Trans-Saharan links brought both Islamic learning and a culture of books to great swathes of West Africa, from Mauritania in the north-west to Nigeria and Cameroon in the south-east. Across the region, many collections still survive: around 80 libraries have contributed to the West African Arabic Manuscript Project.

Religious poem OR 6473
Religious poem. (BL Or.6473)

This image, from the British Library’s small collection of West African manuscripts, is a religious poem. Islamic studies and religious literature were the top subjects of interest to West African scholars and students. The Arabic language and legal studies both also generated copious amounts of documents. Then there are manuscripts in other areas including history, astronomy and astrology, arithmetic and mathematics, numerology and amulets, politics, and health and medicine.

Work on grammar OR 6953
Work on grammar. (BL Or.6953)

Many West African manuscripts are not illuminated – the artistic interest lies in the calligraphy. But religious manuscripts, particularly Qur’ans, were often beautifully decorated. The image below is from a Qur’an in the British Library’s collections, in the artistic tradition of northern Nigeria / southern Niger.

Opening page of a Qur'an OR 13284
Opening page of a Qur’an. (BL Or.13284)

The manuscript heritage of West Africa – and of other parts of the continent, where there were also strong cultures of scholarship – demonstrates conclusively that Africa south of the Sahara was not a continent without writing. Herein lies, I think, much of the reason for the new focus on this heritage – of which Timbuktu is the leading symbol. And in that regard, the news is not all bad: the majority of the manuscripts, we hear, survived the recent troubles and are relatively safe, at least for now.

I’m focusing here on manuscripts from West Africa specifically because the British Library will be holding an exhibition on ‘West Africa: Cultures of the Word’ in 2015. Over the coming months, I’ll be blogging more about manuscripts, and the exhibition. Watch this space (and follow us on Twitter).

Marion Wallace, Africa Curator, Asian and African Studies

Further reading

Graziano Krätli and Ghislaine Lydon (eds), The trans-Saharan book trade: manuscript culture, Arabic literacy, and intellectual history in Muslim Africa (Leiden: Brill, 2011)
UNESCO expert mission evaluates damage to Mali’s cultural heritage

18 July 2013

Book of Affairs of Love

Karnama-i ‘Ishq (Book of affairs of love) by the Hindu poet Rai Anand Ram Mukhlis (d. 1751) is a romance in Persian on the afflictions of a young man’s heart and the challenges he faces for eternal love. The poetical narrative is derived from an existing Hindi literary work, the exact source for which Mukhlis omitted to mention. Mukhlis, a disciple of the eminent poet Mirza Bedil, was attached to the Mughal court in Delhi, acting as a vakil (representative) for governors including Vazir I’timad al-Daula Qamar al-Din Khan (d. 1748). Based in the capital, he was a key witness of the events that led to the eventual decline of the empire including the invasion of Nadir Shah in 1739.

This presentation copy of the Karnama-i ‘Ishq was copied by the scribe Harkulall and is dated 25 Safar 1148/17 July 1735. The text is accompanied by thirty-eight illustrations by the artist Govardhan II along with a note on the flyleaf dated 1151/1738–9, recording that it took Govardhan five years to complete these miniatures.

The story unfolds with King Shahryar praying for the birth of a son. He hears from fakirs news of a young woman whom he will marry and who will conceive a child, although he is warned that at a mature age the son will fall in love and consequentially become mentally unsound.

Prince Gauhar on a hunting expedition, by Govardhan II, 1734-9 British Library, Johnson Album 38, f.29v
Prince Gauhar on a hunting expedition  noc
By Govardhan II, 1734-9
British Library, Johnson Album 38, f.29v

At the age of 14 Prince Gauhar, the son of King Shahryar, takes a detour during a hunting expedition. In the distance he observes a graceful gazelle that has the head of a beautiful woman. He chases after her. Instead of catching up with the gazelle, he encounters a young man named Khiradmand.


Prince Gauhar and his companion Khiradmand surviving the storm, by Govardhan II, 1734-9 British Library, Johnson Album 38, f.42v
Prince Gauhar and his companion Khiradmand surviving the storm noc
By Govardhan II, 1734-9
British Library, Johnson Album 38, f.42v

The hand of the beautiful gazelle, who is really Princess Malika-i Zamani, can only be won by securing fruit from a mythical tree of emerald leaves and ruby flowers. Gauhar accompanied by Khiradmand embark on their journey faced by challenges including a storm at sea, imprisonment, and the island of the Fairy Queen Lal. In this illustration, adminst the chaos and a sea monster, Gauhar and Khiradmand appear calm as they drift on a plank of wood.

Prince Gauhar and Khiradmand rescued by the simurgh, by Govardhan II, 1734-9 British Library, Johnson Album 38, f.51r
Prince Gauhar and Khiradmand rescued by the simurgh noc
By Govardhan II, 1734-9
British Library, Johnson Album 38, f.51r


Marriage procession of Prince Gauhar, by Govardhan II, 1734-9 British Library, Johnson Album 38, f.105v
Marriage procession of Prince Gauhar noc
By Govardhan II, 1734-9
British Library, Johnson Album 38, f.105v

After finding the mythical tree and securing the fruit, Gauhar asks the neighbouring king for the hand of Malika-i Zamani. This scene features the elaborate marriage procession of Prince Gauhar, on horseback, on his way to his wedding. In the final scenes of this manuscript, Gauhar and Malika-i Zamani are married and of course live happily ever after!

Govardhan II, the sole artist of this manuscript, was one of the pre-eminent artists affiliated to Muhammad Shah’s atelier and predominantly painted scenes of princes and princesses languishing on terraces. His style is consistent and distinct from the work of his contemporaries. Female characters are always drawn as a specific type with heavy stippling, petal-shaped eyes (as characterized by Smart and Walker) and trim figures. The manner in which their transparent veils (odhani) are pictured displays his exceptional talent: these sheer pieces of cloth with gold trim fall in delicate waves over their heads. Of the eighteenth-century artists affiliated to emperor Muhammad Shah’s court, he is the only known artist to collaborate with a scribe to produce an imperial-quality manuscript. In addition to scenes of the romance, this manuscript also features a portrait of Muhammad Shah (ruled 1719-48) bestowing a turban jewel on Qamar al-Din Khan.

Karnama-i 'Ishq can be viewed by appointment in the British Library's Print Room, located in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room.

T. Falk and M. Archer, Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981 - See more at:


Further reading:

J.P. Losty and M. Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, British Library, 2012

E. Smart and D. Walker, Pride of the Princes: Indian Art of the Mughal era in the Cincinnati Art Museum, 1985

T. Falk and M. Archer, Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, Sotheby Parke Barnet, 1981

Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator Creative Commons License


T. Falk and M. Archer, Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981

Jahangir, Henry Beveridge, and Alexander Rogers. The Tuzuk-I-Jahangiri; Or, Memoirs of Jahangir. Translated by Alexander Rogers. Edited by Henry Beveridge. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1909. p.385

J.P. Losty, "The Great Gun at Agra", 'British Library Journal', v. 15, 1989, pp.35-58

J.P. Losty and M. Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, British Library, 2012

- See more at:

T. Falk and M. Archer, Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981

Jahangir, Henry Beveridge, and Alexander Rogers. The Tuzuk-I-Jahangiri; Or, Memoirs of Jahangir. Translated by Alexander Rogers. Edited by Henry Beveridge. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1909. p.385

J.P. Losty, "The Great Gun at Agra", 'British Library Journal', v. 15, 1989, pp.35-58

J.P. Losty and M. Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, British Library, 2012

- See more at:

T. Falk and M. Archer, Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981

Jahangir, Henry Beveridge, and Alexander Rogers. The Tuzuk-I-Jahangiri; Or, Memoirs of Jahangir. Translated by Alexander Rogers. Edited by Henry Beveridge. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1909. p.385

J.P. Losty, "The Great Gun at Agra", 'British Library Journal', v. 15, 1989, pp.35-58

J.P. Losty and M. Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, British Library, 2012

- See more at:

12 July 2013

Some paintings by the 17th century Safavid artist Muhammad Zaman

Perhaps the best known of all the British Library’s Persian manuscripts is Or. 2265, a copy of the Khamsah (‘Five Poems’) by the 12th century poet Nizami, copied and illustrated for the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp (ruled 1524-76). In a recent codicological study of this manuscript Priscilla Soucek and Muhammad Isa Waley (see Soucek and Waley below) have convincingly argued that the copy is in fact a composite volume: initially copied by the royal scribe Shah Mahmud al-Nishapuri in 1539-43, and subsequently augmented by the addition of 14 full page illustrations by some of the most famous court artists of the mid-16th century. Further pages were inserted probably during the 17th century, and again at a later stage, perhaps when the manuscript was rebound in the early 19th century at the court of Fath ʻAli Shah Qajar.

It was possibly during this last refurbishment that three paintings by the artist Muhammad Zaman were added to illustrate Nizami’s poem the Haft paykar (‘Seven Beauties’). Damage to the upper part of these folios suggests that that they were most probably removed from an album or from another copy of the same poem (Soucek and Waley, pp. 199-200; 208).

Painting by Muhammad Zaman dated Mazandaran, 1086 (1675/76). The servant girl Fitnah impresses Bahram Gur with her strength by carrying an ox on her shoulders (Or.2265, f. 213r)

Not much is known about the painter Muhammad Zaman ibn Hajji Yusuf Qummi (fl. 1649-1704), famous for his figures in European dress and use of night scenes and shadows. He has often been confused with Muhammad Paolo Zaman, a Persian Christian whom Niccolo Manucci met in India ca. 1660 (Storia do Mogor, pp. 17-18). This person had been sent to Rome by Shah ʻAbbas to study theology with a view to being able to counter Christian missionaries. Converting to Christianity, he fled, after his return, to the court of Shah Jahan. However, there is nothing in Manucci’s account to suggest that this Muhammad Zaman was an artist. Moreover, as demonstrated in a recent article (Landau, 2011), there is no need to place our painter Muhammad Zaman in Rome: his inspiration was clearly derived from European paintings and prints, of which there were plenty circulating in Iran at the time.

Episode from the Indian Princess’s story: King Turktazi’s visit to the magical garden of Turktaz, Queen of the Faeries. Signed by Muhammad Zaman at Ashraf (Mazandaran) and dated 1086 (1675/76) (Or. 2265, f. 221v)

This painting was previously thought to represent Bahram Gur with the Indian Princess. However, Amy Landau (see below) has convincingly identified it as depicting King Turktazi with the Queen of the Faeries, Turktaz. King Turktazi, she suggests, may represent the Safavid ruler Shah Sulayman (ruled 1666–94) while Queen Turktaz is modelled on a European queen or princess.
Queen turktaz_720
Detail: Turktaz Queen of the Faeries

Thanks to the Iran Heritage Foundation’s partnership in our Digital Persian Manuscripts Project this manuscript has recently been digitised and can be now be viewed on our Digital Manuscripts website. Another 48 manuscripts are to be digitised and put online in the coming months, so watch this space to find out more!

Painting by Muhammad Zaman dated 1086 (1675/76). Bahram Gur proves his worthiness by killing a dragon and recovering treasure from a cave. (Or.2265, f.203v)

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

Follow us on Twitter @BLAsia_Africa  

Further reading

Priscilla Soucek and Muhammad Isa Waley, “The Nizāmī manuscript of Shāh Tahmāsp: a reconstructed history.” In J.-C. Bürgel and C. van Ruymbeke (eds.), A Key to the Treasure of the Hakim: artistic and humanistic aspects of Nizāmī Ganjavī’s Khamsa (Leiden 2011), pp. 195-210.

Amy Landau, “From Poet to Painter: Allegory and Metaphor in a Seventeenth-Century Persian Painting by Muhammad Zaman, Master of Farangi-Sazi”, Muqarnas 28 (2011), pp. 101-131.

Eleanor Sims, “Muhammad Zaman [Muḥammad Zamān ibn Ḥājjī Yūsuf Qumī]”, in Oxford Art Online.

— “Toward a Monograph on the 17th-century Iranian Painter Muhammad Zamān ibn Ḥājī Yūsuf”, Islamic Art 5 (2001), pp. 183-194, plates vi-viii; with an appendix containing a provisional list of Muhammad Zaman's paintings.

A. A. Ivanov, “The Life of Muḥammed Zamān: a Reconsideration”, Iran 17 (1979), pp. 65-70.


08 July 2013

A rare example of Chinese calligraphy by Sir Ernest Satow

In 2004 the British Library acquired a hanging scroll (Or.16054) which is one of only two known examples of the Chinese calligraphy of the diplomat, scholar and bibliophile Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929).  The text is a Chinese poem in five-character quatrain form composed by the Tang Dynasty poet Wang Bo 王勃 (650-676) on the subject of a garden in spring and the feelings of nostalgia it evokes.  Although undated the scroll was probably written in the mid-1870s since Satow has signed it as Seizan 静山, the artist’s name bestowed on him in February 1873 by his calligraphy teacher.

Satow scroll Or_16054_720
Spring garden.  Poem by Wang Bo 王勃 in the calligraphy of
Sir E.M. Satow.  Japan, c. 1873.  (Or. 16054)

Satow was a diplomat who in the course of his 45-year’ career served in Japan, Siam, Uruguay, Morocco and China.  However, it was Japan that was closest to his heart, in more ways than one.  He spent a total of 25 years there from 1862-1884 and then, as Minister Plenipoentiary, from 1895-1900, immersing himself in many aspects of Japanese culture.  He also acquired a Japanese common-law wife, Takeda Kane 武田兼 (1853-1932) and had two sons and a daughter.

Satow arrived in Japan in 1862 at the age of 19 to take up a post as interpeter.  Having already received some instruction in the Chinese language during his time in Shanghai and Beijing, he immediately set about mastering spoken and written Japanese, becoming completely fluent within two years. He later took lessons in Tang-style calligraphy from Takasai (Kōsai) Tanzan 高斎単山 and this hanging scroll is the result of this study.

In his memoirs, A Diplomat in Japan, Satow wrote of his unfortunate early experiences with the art of Chinese calligraphy:

I also took writing lessons from an old writing-master, whom I engaged to come to me at fixed hours.  He was afflicted with a water eye, and nothing but a firm resolve to learn would ever have enabled me to endure the constant drip from the diseased orbit which fell now on the copy-book, now on the paper I was writing on, as he leant over it to correct a bad stroke, now on the table.

Satow as a young man in Paris, December 1869.
Source Wikimedia Commons. Original now in the
Yokohama Archives of History.

For over 30 years, Satow devoted much of his time to the wide-ranging study of Japanese history and culture, writing on subjects as diverse as Shinto mythology, the Japanese syllabary, Korean potters in Satsuma, the Ainu, the introduction of tobacco to Japan, the cultivation of bamboo and the use of the fire-drill.  He had a particular interest in bibliography and wrote pioneering works on the Jesuit Mission Press in Japan and the development of early movable-type printing in Japan and Korea.

At the same time Satow amassed a large collection of important examples of rare Japanese printing of which 325 works in 1,578 volumes were acquired by the British Museum in 1884 and 1885 and is now a key part of the British Library’s Japanese collections.  The Satow collection covers all the key phases in the development of printing in Japan from its earliest beginnings with the ‘Million Charms’ (Hyakumantō darani 百万塔陀羅尼) of 770 AD, through the era of the Buddhist monopoly of woodblock-printing from the 12th to 16th centuries, to the flourishing of printing with movable type between the 1590s and 1640s and the dawn of commercial publishing in the early Edo Period (1600-1868). The calibre of the collection is shown by the fact that of 637 works contained in Kenneth Gardner’s Descriptive Catalogue of Japanese Books in the British Library Printed before 1700, no fewer than 179 come from Satow including 47 works printed before 1600 and 72 early movable-type editions.

In his memoirs Satow was very modest about his skills with the brush but whatever the merits of the calligraphy itself it is testimony to his dedication to, and deep interest in, the languages of Japan and China, and as such it seems highly fitting that, after more than 120 years, it is now once again united with the books he so painstakingly collected.

Hamish Todd, Lead Curator, Japanese and Korean

Follow us on Twitter @BLAsia_Africa

Further reading
Kira Yoshie, Zusetsu Ānesuto Satō: Bakumatsu Ishin no Igirisu gaikōkan 図説アーネスト・サトウ : 幕末維新のイギリス外交官 (Yokohama: Yokohama City Archives of History, 2001)
Ruxton, Ian C., The Diaries and Letters of Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929): a Scholar Diplomat in East Asia (Lewiston, 1998)
Satow, Sir Ernest M., A Diplomat in Japan (London: Seeley & Co., 1921)
Todd, Hamish A., ‘The Satow Collection of Japanese Books in the British Library: its History and Significance’ in Daiei Toshokan shozō Chōsenbon oyobi Nihon kosho no bunkengakuteki gogakuteki kenkyū 大英圖書館所蔵朝鮮本及び日本古書の文獻學的・語學的研究.  Fujimoto Yukio and Kosukegawa Teiji (eds.). (Toyama University, 2007)

04 July 2013

Spectacular firework displays

As an American living in London, each year I feel a slight bit of nostalgia on the 4th of July for fireworks, enjoying a barbeque and of course having the day off. Instead of watching the fireworks, today I write about my favourite scenes relating to fireworks painted in South Asia from the Visual Arts collection. 

  The night of Shab-i-barāt. Style of Govardhan, Mughal (Delhi) c.1735-40.   Opaque watercolour and gold on paper. British Library, Johnson Album 20,2
The night of Shab-i-barāt. Style of Govardhan, Mughal (Delhi) c.1735-40.   noc
Opaque watercolour and gold on paper.
British Library, Johnson Album 20,2

The night of Shab-i-barāt, the fourteenth day of the month of Sha‘bān of the Islamic calendar, is an auspicious occasion. The evening is celebrated with fireworks, feasting and prayers in the names of ancestors. On this evening, the affairs of the living for the forthcoming year are arranged by God. In this scene, a Mughal lady standing on a terrace lets off a firework. In the background, the distant river bank is illuminated by burning fireworks. 

The Mughal Emperor Jahangir describes the celebration of Shab-i-barāt in August 1617:  'In the end of Thursday, the 26th, corresponding with the 14th Sha‘bān, which is the Shab-i-barāt, I held a meeting in one of the houses of the palace of Nūr-Jahān Begam, which was situated in the midst of large tanks, and summoning the Amirs and courtiers to the feast which had been prepared by the Begam, I ordered them to give the people cups and all kinds of intoxicating drinks according to the desire of each. Many asked for cups, and I ordered that whoever drank a cup should sit according to his mansab and condition. All sorts of roast meats, and fruits by way of relish, were ordered to be placed before everyone. It was a wonderful assembly. In the beginning of the evening they lighted lanterns and lamps all round the tanks and buildings, and a lighting up was carried out the like of which has perhaps never been arranged in any place. The lanterns and lamps cast their reflection on the water, and it appeared as if the whole surface of the tank was a plain of fire. A grand entertainment took place, and the drinkers of cups took more cups than they could carry.'


A drawing of a ‘Maker of Fireworks’ by an anonymous Calcutta artist, c.1794-1804  Watercolour on paper British Library, Add.Or.1115
A drawing of a ‘Maker of Fireworks’ by an anonymous Calcutta artist, c.1794-1804  noc
Watercolour on paper
British Library, Add.Or.1115

This scene of a firework maker is from a series depicting trades and occupations produced for the Marquis Wellesley when he was the Governor-General of India. The style of this painting and the rest of the series are painted in the Company style, referring to the hybrid style that emerged in India during the 18th and 19th centuries as a result of European influence and patronage. Wellesley, an active collector and patron of Indian art, also commissioned series of Natural History drawings as well. This watercolour is part of an album that was purchased by the India Office Library on 16 August 1866.


Illuminations and fireworks round the lake at Constantia by Sita Ram, 1814-15  Watercolour on paper, 37 x 48 cm British Library, Add.Or.4752
Illuminations and fireworks round the lake at Constantia by Sita Ram, 1814-15  noc
Watercolour on paper, 37 x 48 cm
British Library, Add.Or.4752

This watercolours and the following are from the Hastings Albums, a collection of ten albums of watercolours primarily painted by the Indian artist Sita Ram. The artist accompanied Lord Moira (afterwards Marquess Hastings), the Governor-General of Bengal and the Commander-in-Chief (1813-23) on a journey from Calcutta to Delhi in the period 1814-15. This series includes scenes of elaborate illuminations and firework displays lit on important occasions.

Constantia or La Martinière was built by Claude Martin in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, during the late 18th century. Martin, originally from Lyon, France enlisted with the British East India Company. In Lucknow, his services as an architect were in great demand and he designed several notable buildings including Constantia. Originally intended to be used as a private residence, it is now used as a school for boys. This scene features the ground with a column, a memorial to Claude Martin, which was still under construction when he died in 1800. Inscribed below: 'Illumination at Constantia on the receiving news of Peace in Europe' (2nd November 1814).

  The grounds of the palace of Farhat Baksh in Lucknow lit by innumerable coloured lamps by Sita Ram, 1814-15  Watercolour on paper, 38 x 50 cm British Library, Add.Or.4760
The grounds of the palace of Farhat Baksh in Lucknow lit by innumerable coloured lamps by Sita Ram, 1814-15  noc
Watercolour on paper, 38 x 50 cm
British Library, Add.Or.4760

Claude Martin’s villa, Farhat Baksh, also in Lucknow, was designed by the Frenchman in 1781. Martin applied a hybrid of classical, neo-Palladian and the Nawabi styles to create his villa.  After Martin's death, the local governor Nawab Saadat Ali Khan of Awadh (ruled 1798-1814) purchased the villa, renaming it Farhat Baksh and constructed several additions to transform it into a palace. This view shows the grounds of the palace of Farhat Bakhsh in Lucknow lit by innumerable coloured lamps, with transparencies of female figures attached to the pavilions and railings and illuminated behind, and with fireworks. On the terrace of the palace of Farhat Bakhsh, the Nawab and his guests stand admiring the illuminations, while crowds of onlookers stand in front. Inscribed below: 'View of the Illuminations at the palace of Furruh Bukhsh, 1814'. The rows of figures and the elephants facing away from the viewer adds to the drama of the sky lit up at night.


Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator 

Follow on Twitter @BL_VisualArts


Further reading:

T. Falk and M. Archer, Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1981

Jahangir, Henry Beveridge, and Alexander Rogers. The Tuzuk-I-Jahangiri; Or, Memoirs of Jahangir. Translated by Alexander Rogers. Edited by Henry Beveridge. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1909. p.385

J.P. Losty, "The Great Gun at Agra", 'British Library Journal', v. 15, 1989, pp.35-58

J.P. Losty and M. Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, British Library, 2012

02 July 2013

A rare, smoked Ahom manuscript from Assam

One of the manuscripts in the British Library’s Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections is unusual for its distinctive smoky smell, but its real significance lies in the fact that few such manuscripts survive following the Burmese occupation of the Ahom Kingdom in Assam (1817) and the First Anglo-Burmese war (1824-26).

Our manuscript (Or.2925) is the library’s only original manuscript in the Ahom language, a Tai dialect similar to Khamti and Shan that is believed to have been spoken by the founders of the Ahom Kingdom in the 13th century. By the 19th century, the Ahom language was regarded extinct, but it was possible to reconstruct it from surviving manuscripts and with the help of Ahom traditional priests (mo, or Deodhai). An Ahom-Assamese-English Dictionary was published in Calcutta in 1920.

Ahom manuscripts, often called “Ahom Puthi”—an Assamese term for religious books in the Ahom language—, usually contain legends and stories connected with the ancestry of Ahom kings. Hence these manuscripts were regarded as sacred and they were kept by the Ahom priests.

Strand Road in Gauhati (Guwahati), an administrative centre and seat of many Deodhai in the former Ahom Kingdom. Photo by Oscar Jean Baptiste Mallitte, 1860. (Photo 913/23)

The text is written in black ink known as mahi in Assamese. It is produced from the fruits of the Silikha tree (Terminalia citrina), sometimes mixed with extracts from false daisy leaves (Eclipta prostrata) and other natural substances. The writing material is made from thinly sliced pieces of wood of the Sanchi tree (Aquilaria agallocha), cut to a size of 24.5 x 7 cm. There are 36 folios altogether, with an additional front cover made from Sanchi bark that has no text on it. The front cover and the edges of all folios were rubbed with an unidentified substance which could be resin from a tree or yellow arsenic. The whole manuscript must have been stored for quite some time over a fire place to prevent it from being attacked by ants, mites and mould, hence the remarkably strong smoky smell which persists today.

The manuscript is undated, but considering the fact that such manuscripts would hardly have been produced during or after the First Anglo-Burmese war it can be assumed that it dates back to well before 1824.

Ahom Buranji
Folios 8 and 9 of the Ahom manuscript Or.2925 (British Museum foliation)

In a letter dated 6.9.1977, Dr J. N. Phukan, then teaching history at Guwahati University and author of various publications on Ahom language and history, wrote to Dr Henry Ginsburg, at the time Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian at the British Library, that the manuscript actually contains two fragmented texts. He was able to establish that the main part, folios 5-12 and 15-34 belong to a manuscript containing the legend of Leng-don, who in Ahom folklore is the Lord of Heaven who sent his grandsons Khunlung and Khunlai to rule on earth and to follow certain laws and rituals. Folios 2, 3, 4, 12 and 14 belong to another text dealing with Lak-ni, the Ahom method of year calculation. The remaining fragments were not identified.

Ahom dictionary3_LR
Ahom-Assamese-English Dictionary printed by the Baptist Mission Press in Calcutta, 1920.

Not much is known about the provenance of the manuscript. An inscription on the box made at the British Museum to store the manuscript in reads “MS in Chinese Shan. Brit. Mus. Oriental 2925”. A note written in black ink on folio 1 gives some more information: “B’t of M. Terrien de la Couperie through Cha’s Pembo 5 Oct. 1885”.

Terrien de Lacouperie (d. 1894) was a linguist and sinologist of French descent who started his career as a silk merchant in Hongkong. He later turned his attention entirely to the study and comparison of East and Southeast-Asian languages and scripts. In 1879 Lacouperie settled in London and was elected a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. Five years later he accepted a post as professor of Indo-Chinese philology at University College, London, and from 1886 on he also edited the Babylonian and Oriental Record. He worked temporarily for the British Museum, compiling the Catalogue of Chinese coins from the VIIth century BC to AD 621 (published 1892). His publications include The languages of China before the Chinese (1887), The oldest book of the Chinese, the Yh-king and its authors (1892), Beginnings of writing in Central and Eastern Asia (1894).

Lacouperie was particularly interested in languages of indigenous ethnic groups in China. He collected materials on their vocabulary and grammar, particularly of the Lolo language. The Lolo material, however, had originally been gathered by his close friend Edward Baber.

Edward Baber had gone to China as a student interpreter in 1866, followed by his appointment as Vice-Consul in Tamsui, Formosa in 1872. In 1879, he was promoted to the post of Chinese Secretary of Legation at Peking, and in 1885/6 he served as Consul-General in Chefoo (NE China) and Korea. He then became political resident in Bhamo, Burma, up to his death in 1890. Baber travelled extensively in  Central China and Upper Burma and built up a huge collection of documents, maps and indigenous language material.

It is possible that Lacouperie, who never himself travelled to Assam, Burma or South-Western China, might have received the Ahom manuscript from Edward Baber together with the Lolo material. However, in the absence of records this remains a matter of speculation. Only the initial catalogue record saying “Manuscript in Chinese Shan”, based on Lacouperie’s information, is a hint that Baber may have found the manuscript on one of his travels. 

The other person mentioned in the acquisition note, Cha’s Pembo, who apparently brought the manuscript to the British Museum, may be Charles Pembo who worked for the Old Bailey in London as an interpreter for French, Lacouperie’s mother tongue, around 1900.

The manuscript was kept in the library of the British Museum until 1973, when the Department of Oriental Manuscripts & Printed Books was integrated into the newly established British Library. An important question it raises is whether or not the scent should be part of an item’s catalogue record. If so, how can we make sure that it is described in an objective manner since the sense of smell is a very individual experience? An even bigger question is how to conserve the scent of an item for future generations?

The British Library's Endangered Archives Program is currently helping to digitise a further 500 Ahom manuscripts from Assam (EAP373).  So far they have received images of about half. You can read about their progress so far on their recent blog Digitised Ahom Manuscripts arrive at the British Library.

Jana Igunma, Asian and African Studies

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Further reading:
Baruah, S. L.: Last days of Ahom monarchy: A history of Assam from 1769 to 1826. New Delhi, 1993.
Carlyle, E. I., rev. Rev. Janette Ryan: "Terrien De Lacouperie, Albert Étienne Jean Baptiste (d. 1894)" in: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Goswami, Hemchandra: Descriptive catalogue of Assamese manuscripts. Calcutta, 1930.
Obituary: "Edward Colborne Baber". In: Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, New Monthly Series, Vol. 12, No. 8 (Aug., 1890), pp. 468-471.
Phukan, J. N.: An introductory Primer and Grammar of Ahom (Tai) language.