Asian and African studies blog

10 posts from August 2013

29 August 2013

Ovum Zoroastræum: ‘Zoroaster’s egg’

This may seem a rather esoteric title for an Asian Studies blog, but it is hardly surprising in the context of the post-renaissance scholar Athanasius Kircher (1601/2–1680). Kircher, based in Rome from 1635, where he officially taught mathematics at the Jesuit Collegio Romano, was famous as an inventor of the most complex mechanical devices and wrote altogether more than 40 books on mechanics, optics, acoustics, geology, engineering and languages, in particular Coptic and the languages of ancient Egypt.
Vol 1 frontispiece_720
Oedipus/Kircher solves the sphynx’s riddle. The frontispiece of the first volume of Oedipus Ægyptiacus, Rome, 1652-54 [1655]  (British Library 581.l.21)

Encouraged by the Society of Jesus to search for a universal language which could be used for teaching the Gospel, Kircher turned to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs as a possible solution, and devoted the third volume of his three-volume encyclopedia Oedipus Ægyptiacus exclusively to the subject. Kircher believed that Egyptian hieroglyphic obelisks preserved the ancient wisdom of Hermes Trismegistus, and using an immense number of different sources, he thought he had cracked the code. In fact it was it was not until the early 19th century that it was fully deciphered by Jean-François Champollion through his study of the Rosetta stone.
The obelisk of Veranus, Rome. Engraving from Joannes Blaeu, Civitatum Et Admirandorvm Italiæ Pars Altera in qua Vrbis Romæ Admiranda Æevi veteris & hujus seculi continentur, Amsterdam, 1663, facing p. 201 (British Library 176.h.3)

Kircher had a high regard for Zoroaster, whom he equated with Noah’s son Ham. Zoroaster’s oracles ‘effata’ (a collection of Greek verses probably composed by Julian the Theurgist in the 2nd century AD) were, he wrote, very ancient and full of hieroglyphic explanations.

In the context of his interpretation of the Veranus or Barberinus obelisk (now in the Piazzale del Pincio, Rome) Kircher refers to the world as ‘ovum Zoroastræum,’ i.e., Zoroaster's egg. This idea, as Kircher acknowledged, was based on Plutarch’s account of the Zoroastrian creation myth given in chapters 46 and 47 of De Iside et Osiride, in which Orimazes (Ohrmazd/Ahura Mazda), born from the purest light, created 6 gods, and Arimanius (Ahriman/Angra Mainyu), born from darkness, an equal number of rivals. Ohrmazd then created 24 other gods and put them into an egg. Ahriman similarly created 24 opposing gods who pierced the egg, and so it came about that good and evil became mixed together.
Ovum zoroastraeum
Ovum Zoroastræum, i.e., Zoroaster's egg, from Oedipus Ægyptiacus, vol. 3, p 275 (British Library 581.l.21)

Plutarch's account of the Zoroastrian creation myth is unique in classical literature, listing Ohrmazd's six gods as good will, truth, good order, wisdom, wealth, and the creator of pleasures in recompense for virtues. They partly correspond to the six ‘Beneficent Immortals’ (Amesha Spentas) who play such an important role in the Avesta (the corpus of sacred Zoroastrian texts). The Avesta also includes a reference to the earth as an egg, in a passage in which the sky covers and surrounds it as a bird its egg.

‘Zoroaster’s egg’ and other similar items will be on display in the forthcoming exhibition ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’ at the Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies London. For more information see my recent post or follow these links to the exhibition website  and facebook page.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies


22 August 2013

A 'Golden letter' in Malay to Napoleon III

This beautiful royal Malay letter (Or.16126) from the ruler of Johor, Temenggung Daing Ibrahim, to the Emperor of France, written in Singapore in 1857, is a triumph of style over substance. Its thirteen golden lines pay effusive compliments to Napoleon III but little else, as can be seen from the translation (see link given below). The letter was accompanied by a handsome gift of Malay weaponry.
Illuminated letter in Malay from Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja (Daing Ibrahim) of Johor to the Emperor of France (Napoleon III), written in Singapore on Monday 17 Syaaban 1273 (12 April 1857). Or.16126.   View digital copy

It is hard to know what either side hoped to gain from the despatch of such a magnificent missive, for in the mid-19th century French interests in Southeast Asia were primarily focused on Indochina, while Johor’s allegiance was firmly with the British. In the letter the Temenggung makes no requests of the French, and adroitly expresses his greatest praise for Napoleon III in terms of the Emperor’s cordial relations with Queen Victoria, ‘both sides thereby gaining in such strength that no other nation can match them, as long as the sun and moon revolve’ (bertambahlah kakuatan antara kedua pihak tiadalah siapa bangsa yang boleh bandingannya selagi ada perkitaran bulan dan matahari). It is most likely that the French envoy named in the letter, M. Charles de Montigny, who was in 1857 based in Singapore, procured the letter for his own personal or professional advancement.

Politically, historically and diplomatically this letter could be regarded as something of a dead end, but as a work of art it is far more significant. Despite the frequent use of gold in Malay manuscript illumination, this is the earliest known example of chrysography – writing in gold ink – in a Malay letter. It is beautifully illuminated with a rectangular golden frame on all four sides of the textblock, surmounted with an elaborate arched headpiece in red, blue and gold.

In format and structure, this epistle an exemplar of the courtly Malay art of letterwriting. At the top is the kepala surat or letter heading in Arabic, Nur al-shams wa-al-qamr, ‘Light of the sun and the moon’; this phrase is very commonly encountered in Malay letters addressed to European officials. The letter opens conventionally with extensive opening compliments or puji-pujian, identifying the sender and addressee, and with fulsome praise for the Emperor on account of his renown. Strangely, we do not encounter the Arabic word wa-ba‘dahu or its equivalents such as the Malay kemudian daripada itu, traditionally used to terminate the compliments and mark the start of the contents proper, for the simple reason that there is no real content to this letter. The compliments meld seamlessly with a brief mention of the French envoy entrusted with the letter, before gliding into the final section with a statement of the accompanying gift and thence onto the termaktub, the closing line giving the place and date of writing.

BL Or.16126, Johor letter-seal 
Seal of the Temenggung of Johoor

At the top of the letter, in a conventional position with its midpoint precisely to the right of the first line, is stamped the round black ink seal of the Temenggung, inscribed in both Arabic and roman script: 

al-wāthiq billāh Datuk Temenggung Seri Maharaja ibn Temenggung Seri Maharaja sanat 1257 // AL WASEKCUPBILAH DATU TUMONGONG SREE MAHARAJAH BIN TUMONGONG
‘He who trusts in God, Datuk Temenggung Seri Maharaja, son of Temenggung Seri Maharaja, the year 1257 (AD 1841/2) // He who trusts in God, Datu Temongong Sree Maharajah, son of Tumongong’

The Temenggungs of Johor were amongst the political winners following the establishment of a British settlement at Singapore by Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1819, and the British-Dutch Treaty of London of 1824 which led to break-up of the historic kingdom of ‘Johor and Pahang and Riau and Lingga’. Daing Ibrahim’s son, Temenggung Abu Bakar, successfully negotiated with the British to assume the title ‘Sultan of Johor’, and founded the modern ruling house of Johor, now one of the states of Malaysia.

This letter has been digitised as part of the Malay manuscripts digitisation project (see my previous post ‘British Library's Malay manuscripts to be digitised’, and a full transcription of the Malay text together with an English translation can be downloaded from this link:  Download Or.16126 Malay text and translation

Further reading

A.T. Gallop (ed.) A cabinet of Oriental curiosities: an album for Graham Shaw from his colleagues. London: The British Library, 2006.
A.T. Gallop, ‘Golden words from Johor: a royal Malay letter from Temenggung Daing Ibrahim to Emperor Napoleon III of France’, Kumpulan kertas kerja seminar antarabangsa manuskrip Melayu: melestarikan manuskrip Melayu warisan agung bangsa. Kuala Lumpur: Arkib Negara Malaysia, 2006, pp.165-172.
Anthony Reid, ‘The French in Sumatra and the Malay world, 1760-1890’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1973, 129 (2-3): 195-238.
R.O. Winstedt, A history of Johore (1365-1941).  With a final chapter by Khoo Kay Kim. Kuala Lumpur: The Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1992 (MBRAS Reprints; 6).

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asian Studies

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19 August 2013

British Library's Malay manuscripts to be digitised

The complete collection of Malay manuscripts in the British Library is to be digitised thanks to a generous donation of £125,000 from Singapore-based American philanthropists William and Judith Bollinger. The five-year project, in collaboration with the National Library Board of Singapore, will fund the digitisation of materials of interest to Singapore held in the British Library. In addition to Malay manuscripts, early maps of Singapore and selected archival papers of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles – who founded a British settlement in Singapore in 1819 – will also be digitised and made freely accessible online. 

For centuries, the Malay language has played an important role as the lingua franca of trade, diplomacy and religion throughout maritime Southeast Asia.  It was the language through which Islam spread across the archipelago from the 13th century onwards; it was the language in which visiting merchants from the Middle East, India, China and Europe would barter for spices in the rich port cities of Melaka, Patani, Aceh, Banten and Makassar; and it was the language through which British and Dutch colonial officials communicated with local sultanates. Until the early 20th century Malay was generally written in a modified form of the Arabic script known as Jawi, and Malay manuscripts originate from the present-day nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the southern regions of Thailand and the Philippines.
68.c.12, Bowrey map, 1701_720
A map showing the area over which the Malay language was commonly spoken, from the first original Malay-English dictionary, by Thomas Bowrey, 1701  (British Library, 68.c.12)

The British Library holds over a hundred Malay manuscript texts and several hundred Malay letters and documents, dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries. These manuscripts derive mainly from the historic British Museum collections, including Malay books owned by John Crawfurd, who served under Raffles during the British administration of Java from 1811 to 1816, and then as Resident of Singapore from 1823 to 1826, and from the India Office Library (which became part of the British Library in 1983), which holds Malay manuscripts belonging to John Leyden, Raffles’s closest friend and advisor, who died of fever shortly after the British capture of Batavia in 1811; Col. Colin Mackenzie, Raffles’s Chief Engineer in Java; as well as a few manuscripts previously owned by Raffles himself. 

Although not large, the British Library collection of Malay manuscripts includes some very important works, including the oldest known manuscript of the earliest Malay history, ‘Chronicle of the kings of Pasai’, Hikayat Raja Pasai, (Or.14350), describing the coming of Islam to Sumatra; two copies of the most famous Malay historical text, the ‘Malay Annals’, Sejarah Melayu, (Or.14734 & Or.16214) recording the glories of the great kingdom of Melaka up to its capture by the Portuguese in 1511; literary works in both prose (hikayat) and verse (syair), some of which – such as the intriguingly-named ‘Story of the Pig King’, Hikayat Raja Babi (Add.12393), written by a merchant from Semarang during a voyage to Palembang in Sumatra – are unique copies; as well as texts on law and Islamic religious obligations.  A few of the manuscripts are exquisitely illuminated, including a fine copy of an ethical guide for rulers, ‘The Crown of Kings’, Taj al-Salatin, copied in Penang in 1824 (Or.13295). 
A sumptuously illuminated manuscript of an ethical guide for rulers, ‘The Crown of Kings’, Taj al-Salatin, copied in Penang in 1824  (British Library Or.13295, ff.190v-191r)

The Malay manuscripts are being digitised in the British Library and will be fully available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts online (search on keywords ‘Malay’ or ‘Jawi’), while the National Library Board of Singapore will also be mounting the images on their BookSG website. Thus through this project, manuscripts which previously could only be viewed by visiting the British Library’s reading rooms in London will soon be made freely accessible online worldwide to anyone with an interest in Malay heritage and culture.

Over the next few months, on this blog we will be exploring in more detail individual manuscripts as they are digitised and made available online. If you would like to keep in touch, subscribe by email (at the top of this page) and follow us on Twitter @BLAsia_Africa.

Further reading

Malay manuscripts in the British Library are catalogued in:
M.C. Ricklefs & P. Voorhoeve, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977)

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asian Studies

16 August 2013

Austere portraits of Aurangzeb

Earlier this week, my colleague Nur Sobers Khan (Iran Heritage Foundation Curator of Persian Manuscripts) wrote about the emperor Aurangzeb pondering the afterlife.  She discussed a little known manuscript commissioned by the emperor entitled 'The Book of Traditions on the Hereafter'.  This blog and a previous one on Islamic jurisprudence refers to Aurangzeb's religious orthodoxy. This period in history was a great challenge for local artists. In fact, his views on Islam is one of the contributing factors that led to a decline in the Mughal painting tradition. Today's blog will look at depictions of Aurangzeb painted during his lifetime from 1619-1707.

Illustrated histories of the Mughal emperors are a starting point to look for portraits of the princes and the ruling elite. The Padshahnama, the official account of Aurangzeb's father Shah Jahan's reign, was written by the historian Muhammad Lahori. Shah Jahan ruled from 1627-58. The illustrated version in the royal collection at Windsor is the only surviving contemporary version. The manuscript, however, only corresponds to Lahori’s first volume and the first ten years of Shah Jahan’s reign. From a cursory overview, the manuscript casts light on the nuances of Shah Jahan’s relationship with Aurangzeb. As compared to his siblings, Aurangzeb was less frequently painted.

Bichitr - Padshahnama plate 10 - Shah-Jahan receives his three eldest sons and Asaf Khan during his accession ... - Google Art Project
Shah Jahan receives his three eldest sons and Asaf Khan during his accession ceremonies on 8 March 1628. Painted by Bichitr, c. 1630-5. Royal Collection. Wikimedia Commons  noc

In the Padshahnama, artists document the milestones and personal achievements of the princes. In the above scene, Shah Jahan embraces his eldest and favourite son Dara Shikoh. His two younger sons, Shah Shuja (dressed in yellow) and Aurangzeb (dressed in green) appear on the left waiting for their turns. They are accompanied by their grandfather Asaf Khan. In this scene, Aurangzeb is only 9 years old. Other key events featuring Aurangzeb include the prince facing a maddening elephant named Sudhakar in June 1633 and his father Shah Jahan honouring him at his wedding on 19 May 1637.  Prince Aurangzeb reports to Shah Jahan in durbar at Lahore in 1649. Mughal, 1650-55. British Library, Add.Or.3853
Prince Aurangzeb reports to Shah Jahan in durbar at Lahore in 1649. Mughal, 1650-55. British Library, Add.Or.3853  noc

Another painting which related to the official history written by Muhammad Lahori, but prepared for a later (now dispersed) illustrated volume of the Padshahnama, features Aurangzeb reporting to Shah Jahan in 1649 (above). In this imperial durbar (official assembly) scene, Shah Jahan is seated in the jharoka (balcony for official ceremonies) inside the Divan-i 'Am or Hall of Public Audiences. This building is located in the Mughal fortress and complex in Lahore. Aurangzeb is picture standing on the left, next to other courtiers, though with his arm raised in salute to his father. Less than ten years after this event, Aurangzeb imprisoned his father in the Agra Fort, outmanoeuvred his brothers and arranged for their deaths in order to become emperor. Aurangzeb's eldest brother Dara Shikoh was the heir-apparent and favourite son. Aurangzeb claimed the throne in 1658. His father died in prison in 1666.

An exceptional military commander, Aurangzeb drastically expanded the geographic boundaries of the empire to include the Deccan plateau in central India. State revenues prospered, but constant wars to retain control of his territories gravely damaged the state finances. During his lifetime, Aurangzeb was often represented in one of two ways: either as a warrior for Islam or as a devout Muslim ruler reading a Qu'ran. As compared to the lavish paintings of Shah Jahan's period, the artistic style radically changed. Artists tended to paint simple individual portrait studies. The paintings were often painted in the nim-qalam (tinted drawing) technique with hints of and gold. Artists seemed to steer away from the developed backgrounds landscape settings. In fact, it was exceptionally rare for artists to paint historic scenes. Contemporary accounts do not offer a precise explanation for the decline in the painting traditions. Contributing factors may have included Aurangzeb’s curtailing of state expenditure, banning histories in praise of the emperor, forbidding music and dancing for pleasure at the court, and increased religiosity.

Equestrian portrait of Aurangzeb. Mughal, c. 1660-70. British Library, Johnson Album, 3.4.
Equestrian portrait of Aurangzeb. Mughal, c. 1660-70. British Library, Johnson Album, 3.4.  noc

In this equestrian portrait, Aurangzeb is depicted symbolically as an austere ghazi or warrior for Islam. He is dressed in full armour and holds a gold lance. His rearing horse is ready for battle and covered with chain-mail. From his belt hang a quiver of arrows and a push dagger called a katar.

Aurangzeb in his old age. Mughal, c.1700. British Library Johnson Album 2,2.
Aurangzeb in his old age. Mughal, c.1700. British Library Johnson Album 2,2.  noc

Aurangzeb left northern India for the Deccan in 1681, never to return. An increasingly orthodox Muslim, he re-instated the poll-tax levied on non-Muslims, revived the power of Muslim clerics, and fostered a political and social divide based on religion. The last portrait of Aurangzeb pictures the devout Muslim ruler in profile, with a downward gaze at a manuscript held in his hands, most likely to be the Qur’an. Dressed in stark white garments, his appearance is in sharp contrast to the golden radiance of the halo, the floral patterned bolster and the luxurious carpet hung on the window ledge. For Aurangzeb, there was no greater personal accomplishment than to memorise every verse and chapter of the Qur’an. Having committed to memory the entire text, he wrote two copies of the Qur’an in perfect calligraphy. This style of portraiture, featuring Aurangzeb in his old age and hunched over a manuscript, was commonly produced and suggests that artists felt that this was the most appropriate type of pictorial format to depict the elderly ruler.


Further reading:

M. Beach, E. Koch and W. Thackston, King of the World: The Padshahnama, Azimuth, London, 1997

Saqi Mustaʻidd Khan, Maāsir-i-ʿĀlamgiri: A history of the Emperor Aurangzib-ʿĀlamgir (reign 1658-1707 A.D.), translated into English and annotated by Sir Jadunath Sarkar. Calcutta: Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1947

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


Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator Creative Commons License

Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator Creative Commons License - See more at:
J.P. Losty and M. Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, British Library, 2012 - See more at:

13 August 2013

Elephants in all shapes and sizes

The elephant is one of our best loved and most revered animals. Since 12 August was the 2nd World Elephant Day, first launched in 2012 to bring attention to the urgent plight of Asian and African elephants,  we thought it would be an good excuse to publicise two of our digitised Thai manuscripts.

Or.14793. Folio 2 of an Elephant Treatise, Central Thailand, second half of 19th century. Click here for link to zoomable image to BL Digitised Manuscripts

The elephant has a special place in Thai and Burmese culture, symbolising royalty and good fortune through the ages. A “white elephant” in Western culture is usually something expensive or unwanted which is difficult to dispose of, but in South and South East Asia it is often considered sacred. The phrase “seeing pink elephants”, used to describe a delirious or intoxicated person,  also takes on a new meaning in a culture where elephants, apparently, come in all shapes, colours and sizes!

Or.13652 contains two treatises in Thai dating from ca. 1830-1850 on mythical and natural elephants, containing 37 illustrations, and Or.14793, in Thai and Pali, also dating from the 19th century, is an album containing 24 coloured drawings. Both manuscripts are in the format of tradional paper folding books. You can look at both of these following the links provided to our Digitised Manuscripts.

An electronic handlist of Thai, Lao and Cambodian manuscripts in the British Library is available on the Southeast Asia Library Group's website by Jana Igunma, the Henry Ginsburg Curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian. Over 50 Thai manuscripts that the BL has digitised can be viewed online at  (search for Thai Khmer).

Or.13652. Folio 7 of a 19th century Royal Elephant Treatise showing Erawan, the king of all elephants (Sanskr.: Airavata, a mythological multi-headed white elephant who carries the Hindu god Indra)

Or.13652. Folio 24, depicting various types of auspicious elephants at play.

OR_13652_f018rElephants come in all shapes and sizes! Or.13652, folio 36. Female deities (Pali : devata) in the shape of an elephant, possibly representing the souls (Thai: khwan) of an elephant.

Those  of you who would like to know more about elephants in Thai culture should look at the webpage of  The Thai Elephant Conservation Center.

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12 August 2013

Aurangzeb Ponders the Afterlife

Picking up the thread of previous blogs examining the patronage of legal compendia and mathematical translations at the Mughal court under Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707), today’s entry deals with a little-known manuscript commissioned by the emperor himself. The manuscript in question is Delhi Persian 44, entitled Kitāb Akhbār al-Ma‘ād (The Book of Traditions on the Hereafter), which consists of a compilation of ḥadīth dealing with the topic of death and the afterlife, from funerals to the end of the world and the day of judgment. The ḥadīth (traditions spoken by the Prophet Muhammad and recorded by his companions and followers) are in Arabic, with a careful Persian-language exegesis that offers not only a translation and explanation of the content but also the correct pronunciation of the Arabic wording.
Aurangzeb in his old age reading the Qur’an.  Mughal, c.1700 (Johnson Album 2, 2)

The author, Ghulām Muḥammad al-Satirkhī, names himself in the preface. He appears to have been a minor scholar who also contributed to the monumental Fatāwā ‘Alamgiriyyah (Nadvī, 98). The Kitāb Akhbār al-Ma‘ād seems to be a unique selection of ḥadīth made by the author, rather than a Persian translation of a previously existing Arabic-language compilation. In fact, several compilations of ḥadīth on the afterlife exist, but none seem to closely resemble the work at hand. For instance, the famous 15th-century scholar of Islamic law, Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī, compiled ḥadīth relating to the obligatory prayers and rituals surrounding death and the state of the body in the grave, in a work entitled Bushrā al-Ka’īb bi-Liqā’ al-Ḥabīb and in a further work, the Sharḥ al-Ṣudūr fī Sharḥ Ḥāl al-Mawtā fī al-Qubūr. Al-Suyūṭī authored a separate work that focused on eschatological concerns; however, these ḥadīth are gathered in a separate volume unconnected with the previous ones, called al-Budūr al-Sāfirah. We shall see that this approach to separating ḥadīth on funerary practice from ḥadīth on the apocalypse and day of judgement is entirely different to the approach taken by Ghulām Muḥammad al-Satirkhī in his work.
Part of the table of contents of the Kitāb Akhbār al-Ma‘ād by Ghulām Muḥammad al-Satirkhī (Delhi Persian 44, f 3r)

The Kitāb Akhbār al-Ma‘ād, in contrast to other ḥadīth compilations on similar topics, is much wider in scope. In addition to encompassing ḥadīth on rituals, funerary prayers, and the body in the grave, it also addresses questions on the apocalypse and last judgement. The author rarely cites the source of his ḥadīth, but when he does, it is typically one of the canonical Sunni ḥadīth collections (the six canonical ḥadīth collections and the musānid). While he gives the name of the first transmitter from among the companions of the prophet, he does not provide a full isnād (chain of tranmission). The work opens with the well-known ḥadīth that (among other things) it is obligatory for the Muslim to walk in the funeral procession of another Muslim, and continues to discuss how the body should be washed and wrapped in the shroud, along with similar issues of religious practice and legal requirement.

However, what is interesting about the Kitāb Akhbār al-Ma‘ād is that it expands into more esoteric topics in the second half of the work, attempting a universal scope when dealing with the hereafter. It addresses not just the obligatory actions and prayers of the Muslim surrounding death but also includes ḥadīth on barzakh, the liminal area between this world and the next, and numerous ḥadīth and tales associated with the apocalypse and end of days in the Islamic tradition. After the detailed description of the apocalypse - including the appearance of the anti-Christ (the Dajjāl) and Gog and Magog (Jūj and Mājūj) - the author presents several ḥadīth on how humans will be judged, and describes the characteristics of those who will dwell in heaven or hell.

Beyond its status as a manuscript of royal patronage that has previously not received scholarly attention, the work is of note for its wide selection of ḥadīth on all aspects of eschatology. It remains to be established whether the work represents a truly unique approach to the topic of the afterlife, or whether the author based his work in part on previous compilations. While it has been established that the author did not rely on al-Suyūṭī’s many compilations, a detailed study of the numerous ḥadīth collections on the afterlife would be required before drawing any firm conclusions (I am writing an article on this manuscript and its comparison with similar compilations – so watch this space for more information!). However, if we take the preface and conclusion of the manuscript at face value, in which the author claims that he was ordered by Aurangzeb to construct this compilation, we should ask why the emperor was interested in an all-embracing approach to everything dealing with death and the afterlife, from the wrapping of the corpse in the shroud until the final trumpet heralding the last judgement, and why, for that matter, he saw fit to order not only the compilation of this material, but also its translation and exegesis in Persian.
The Arabic introduction to Kitāb Akhbār al-Ma‘ād, mentioning the patronage of the Emperor Aurangzeb (Delhi Persian 44, f 2v)

The manuscript is dated 1089 AH/ 1678 AD, the same year that al-Satirkhī completed the work, so Aurangzeb (born in 1618 AD), would have been sixty years old when it was written. Based on pure speculation, could impending old age have spurred a greater interest in the afterlife, causing Aurangzeb to commission such a work? The author, in the preface, states that Aurangzeb's wish was to lead those who were negligent in their religion back to the staight path - so perhaps the extremely educated and pious emperor intended this work for a general audience rather than his own private reading.  Or perhaps he had a particular person in mind, a relative he viewed as 'straying from the path' and wanted to frighten back into line with a book about threats of torture in the afterlife. For the moment, it remains a mystery, but watch this blog for more akhbār of the ma‘ād.

Further reading
Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī. Bushrā al-Ka’īb bi-Liqā al-Ḥabīb ed. Mashhūr Ḥasan Maḥmūd Sulaymān (Jordan: Maktabat al-Manār, 1988)
Jane Idleman Smith and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad. The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)
Mujībullāh Nadvī. Fatāva-yi ʻĀlamgīrī ke muʾallifīn (Lāhaur: Markaz-i Taḥqīq-i Diyāl Singh Ṭrasṭ Lāʾibrerī, [1988])

Nur Sobers-Khan, Asian and African Studies

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08 August 2013

Natural History Drawings from South Asia

In the late 18th century British and Scottish botanists and surgeons led a movement to document the natural history of the subcontinent. The East India Company, initially established as the British trading company and eventually a major governing power over parts of the subcontinent, recognised the need for this scientific research. Its practice was therefore adopted as official policy and resulted in the collection of rare species of flora and fauna. The specimens were preserved in the newly established Royal Botanic Garden in Calcutta and the Barrackpore Menagerie.

As part of the documentation process, Indian artists were hired to illustrate the scientific specimens. Sets of the watercolours and drawings remained in archives in India, while duplicates were sent to the East India Company’s Library in London. Natural history enthusiasts including Marquis Wellesley, Governor-General of Bengal (1798-1805) and Lord Clive, Governor of Madras (1798-1803) also amassed personal collections of such works.

A selection of watercolours and drawings are currently on display in the British Library's Treasure's Gallery.  Every few months, the display will be rotated.  A few that are currently on view include:

Himalayan porcupine Unknown Indian artist Calcutta, c. 1798-1805 Watercolour on paper British Library, NHD 32/37

Himalayan porcupine  noc
Unknown Indian artist
Calcutta, c. 1798-1805
Watercolour on paper
British Library, NHD 32/37

This species of porcupine (Hystrix brachyura hodgsoni) is also known as Hodgson’s short tailed porcupine. These mammals live in forests and grasslands of northeastern India, eastern Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. Porcupine can grow up to 90 cm in length, they are predominantly nocturnal and survive on fruit and grains. This drawing is part of a series assembled by Marquis Wellesley, Governor-General of Bengal (1798-1805).


Indian flapshell turtle. Unknown Chinese artist, c. 1798-1803 Watercolour on paper British Library, NHD 44/15
Indian flapshell turtle  noc 
Unknown Chinese artist, c. 1798-1803
Watercolour on paper
British Library, NHD 44/15

This species of turtle (Lissemys punctata) is indigenous to the North Indian River Plain and parts of Burma and Thailand. They can be found in shallow and stagnant bodies of water, surviving on a diet of frogs, aquatic snails and fishes. The domed shell of the turtle can measure up to 37 cm. This drawing is by a Chinese painter working for the British in Malaysia and acquired by Lord Clive, later 1st Earl of Powis.


Rhododendron. Unknown Indian artist Calcutta, c. 1798 – 1805 British Library, NHD 16/24
Rhododendron  noc
Unknown Indian artist
Calcutta, c. 1798 – 1805
British Library, NHD 16/24

This woody tree (Rhododendron arboreum) is indigenous to north-central India and can grow up to 25 m in height. In full bloom, the scarlet flowers are a spectacular sight. This drawing was copied from an original in the collection of Major-General Thomas Hardwicke, who served in the Bengal Artillery and was a great collector of natural history drawings. Hardwicke’s discovery of this species in 1796 is the basis for the earliest description and identification of this species.

Several items from Hardwicke’s collection, including this drawing, were acquired by Marquis Wellesley, Governor-General of Bengal (1798-1805). The correct identification of this rhododendron was provided by Dr. Henry Noltie of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Edinburgh.


Further reading:

Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1962

H.J. Noltie, Indian Botanical Drawings, 1793-1868, from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 1999

H.J. Noltie, Raffles' Ark Redrawn: Natural History Drawings from the Collection of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. London & Edinburgh: The British Library & Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in association with Bernard Quaritch Ltd, 1999.

Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator Creative Commons License


Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator Creative Commons License - See more at:

07 August 2013

Japan400 – Hirado and the British in Japan

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the beginning of diplomatic and trade relations between Britain and Japan. Throughout 2013 a series of events is being organised around the UK under the banner Japan400.

Or 14755 Brothers for blog
The English ship Brothers and members of its crew depicted by a Japanese artist in 1818 (Or.14755)
 noc Images online

To commemorate the anniversary the British Library is mounting a display of material from its collections relating to Anglo-Japanese relations from the establishment of the English East India Company (EIC) trading post at Hirado in 1613 to the opening of Japan in the mid-19th century. The small exhibition includes a letter from King James I to the 'emperor' of Japan, the EIC’s official translation of the charter granted by the retired-Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and a letter of 1611 from William Adams, the first Englishman to set foot in Japan, describing his eventful life.

There are also historic maps which reflect the central role played by the island of Hirado in Japan’s external relations in those early years, as well as an illustrated manuscript made by Japanese officials showing a British ship which visited Japan in 1818 and a book published in 1853 with bizarrely antiquated depictions of foreigners.

IOR_B-2_f149 K James letter for blog
Letter from King James I of England to the ‘Emperor’ of Japan, 1611 (IOR/B/2 f.149)


In January 1611 the East India Company dispatched the Clove under the command of Captain John Saris to establish trading links with Japan. After an eventful voyage of over two years the Clove reached the island of Hirado in south-west Japan in June 1613.  Captain Saris brought letters and gifts from King James I for the Shogun including the first telescope to have left Europe. With the aid of fellow Englishman William Adams, who had lived in Japan since 1600, Saris was able to obtain audiences with the Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada and the retired Shogun Ieyasu and successfully negotiated permission to trade. He also received two suits of armour and painted screens as official gifts for King James and this exchange marks the beginning of formal relations between the two countries.

The East India Company set up a trading post or ‘factory’ in Hirado but the venture proved a failure. Advice from Adams over its location and the most profitable goods was ignored and the factory was abandoned in 1623 after only a decade.

Or 70 bbb 9 Hirado map for blog
Portion of a scroll map of the sea route from Nagasaki to Osaka. showing Firando [Hirado]
c.1680-90 (Or.70.bbb.9)

In response to the perceived threat of foreign influence, from the 1630s the Japanese government strictly limited contact with the outside world and the only Westerners permitted to trade were a small group of Dutch merchants confined to the island of Deshima in Nagasaki harbour. Nevertheless, over the next two centuries British ships occasionally visited Japan - for example the Brothers which arrived in 1818 – seeking to be allowed to trade. All such attempts were rebuffed and it was not until the ‘opening’ of Japan in 1853 that trade and diplomatic relations were re-established.

The display can be seen in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library from 1 August to 26 September. For information about Japan400 and its events see its official website.

Hamish Todd, Lead Curator, Japanese & Korean

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