Asian and African studies blog

9 posts from September 2013

29 September 2013

A Thai book of merit: Phra Malai’s journeys to heaven and hell

 The legend of Phra Malai, a Buddhist monk of the Theravada tradition said to have attained supernatural powers through his accumulated merit and meditation, is the main text in a nineteenth-century Thai folding book (samut khoi) held in the Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections (Or. 16101). Phra Malai figures prominently in Thai art, religious treatises, and rituals associated with the afterlife, and the story is one of the most popular subjects of nineteenth-century illustrated Thai manuscripts. The earliest  surviving examples of Phra Malai manuscripts date back to the late eighteenth century, although it is assumed that the story is much older, being based on a Pali text. The legend also has some parallels with the Ksitigarbha Sutra.

The Thai text in this manuscript is combined with extracts in Pali from the Abhidhammapitaka, Vinayapitaka, Suttantapitaka, Sahassanaya, and illustrations from the Last Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha (Thai thotsachat). Altogether, the manuscript has 95 folios with illustrations on 17 folios. It was very common to combine these or similar texts in one manuscript, with Phra Malai forming the main part. These texts are written in Khom script, a variant of Khmer script often used in Central Thai religious manuscripts. Although Khom script, which was regarded as sacred, was normally used for texts in Pali, in the Thai manuscript tradition, the story of Phra Malai is always presented in Thai. Because Khmer script was not designed for a tonal language like Thai, tone markers and certain vowels that do not exist in Khmer script have been adopted in Khom script to support the proper Thai pronunciation and intonation.

Phra Malai MS British Library jatakas_720
Vidura and Vessantara Jatakas (Or 16101, folio 6)

Most of the text is in black ink on paper made from the bark of the khoi tree (streblus asper). However, the text accompanying the illustrations of the Last Ten Birth Tales is written in gold ink on blackened khoi paper, emphasizing the importance of these Jatakas symbolising the ten virtues of the Buddha. Gold ink, as well lavish gilt and lacquered covers, added value and prestige to the manuscript, which was commissioned on occasion of a funeral service. The commission and production of funeral presentation volumes was regarded as a way of earning merit on behalf of the deceased. 

Other miniature paintings depict the Buddha in meditation, scenes from the life of Phra Malai, as well as genre scenes of lay people. According to a colophon in Thai script on the first folio, the manuscript is dated 2437 BE (AD 1894).

Phra Malai MS British Library hell_720
Phra Malai visiting hell (Or 16101, folio 8)

During his visits to hell (naraka), Phra Malai is said to bestow mercy on the creatures suffering there. They implore him to warn their relatives on earth of the horrors of hell and how they can escape it through making merit on behalf of the deceased, meditation and by following Buddhist precepts.

Although the subject of hell is mentioned in the Pali canon (for example, in the Nimi Jataka, the Lohakumbhi Jataka, the Samkicca Jataka, the Devaduta Sutta, the Balapanditta Sutta, the Peta-vatthu etc.) the legend of Phra Malai is thought to have contributed significantly to the idea of hell in Thai society.

Back in the human realm, the monk receives an offering of eight lotus flowers from a poor woodcutter, which he eventually offers at the Chulamani Chedi, a heavenly stupa believed to contain a relic of the Buddha. In Tavatimsa heaven, Phra Malai converses with the god Indra and the Buddha-to-come, Metteyya, who reveals to the monk insights about the future of mankind.

Phra Malai MS British Library lotus_720
Lotus offering scene, Or 16101, folio 28

Through recitations of Phra Malai the karmic effects of human actions were taught to the faithful at funerals and other merit-making occasions. Following Buddhist precepts, obtaining merit, and attending performances of the Vessantara Jataka all counted as virtues that increased the chances of a favourable rebirth, or Nirvana in the end.

Illustrated folding books were produced for a range of different purposes in Thai Buddhist monasteries and at royal and local courts. They served as handbooks and chanting manuals for Buddhist monks and novices. Producing folding books or sponsoring them was regarded as especially meritorious. They often, therefore, functioned as presentation volumes in honor of the deceased. It comes as no surprise that this manuscript contains an illustration of a lavishly decorated coffin attended by two Buddhist monks who are trying to fend off two ‘fake’ monks.

Phra Malai MS British Library funeral_720
Funeral scene (Or 16101, folio 92)

Traditionally, Thai monks reciting the legend of Phra Malai would embellish and dramatise their performances, contrary to their strict behavioural rules. By the end of the nineteenth century, monks were officially banned from such performances. As a result, retired or ‘fake’ monks often delivered the popular performances, unconstrained by the rules of the Sangha.

A full text digital copy of Or 16101 can be viewed online at British Library Digitised Manuscripts.

Phra Malai MS British Library cover_720
Lacquered front cover with gilt flower ornaments (Or 16101)

Further reading

There is an excellent translation from Thai into English of the entire legend of Phra Malai by Bonnie Pacala Brereton, which is included in her book Thai Tellings of Phra Malai – texts and rituals concerning a Buddhist Saint. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona State University, 1995

Chawalit, Maenmas (ed.): Samut khoi. Bangkok: Khrongkan suepsan moradok watthanatham Thai, 1999
Ginsburg, Henry: Thai art and culture: historic manuscripts from Western Collections. London: British Library, 2000
Ginsburg, Henry: Thai manuscript painting. London: British Library, 1989
Igunma, Jana: ʻAksoon Khoom - Khmer heritage in Thai and Lao manuscript cultures.ʼ In: Tai Culture Vol. 23. Berlin : SEACOM, 2013
Igunma, Jana: ʻPhra Malai - A Buddhist Saint’s Journeys to Heaven and Hell.ʼ 
Peltier, Anatole: ʻIconographie de la légende de Braḥ Mālay.ʼ BEFEO, Tome LXXI (1982), pp. 63-76
Wenk, Klaus: Thailändische Miniaturmalererien nach einer Handschrift der Indischen Kunstabteilung der Staatlichen Museen Berlin. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1965
Zwalf, W. (ed.): Buddhism: art and faith. London: British Museum Publications, 1985

Jana Igunma, Asian and African Studies

27 September 2013

International Dunhuang Project: 20th Anniversary

Cave 16 at the Mogao caves, Dunhuang. Photograph by M. Aurel Stein, c. 1905.

Little was known of the Silk Road until archaeologists uncovered ancient cities in the desert sands, revealing astonishing sculptures, murals and manuscripts. The Buddhist cave library near Dunhuang in western China was one such remarkable discovery. Sealed around AD 1000 and only re-discovered in 1900 it contained over forty thousand manuscripts and paintings. Other sites have yielded tens of thousands more artefacts. These unique items have fascinating stories to tell of life on this ancient trade route. Owing to international archaeological activity most, however, were dispersed in the early 1900s to institutions worldwide.

The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) was formed in 1994 by the major holding institutions with the vision of reuniting these artefacts through digital photography, using web technologies to make them freely accessible to all and ensuring international standards for their preservation and cataloguing. Directed by a curatorial and imaging team at the British Library, IDP UK went online in 1998 and multilingual websites hosted by IDP partners soon followed, starting with IDP China in 2002. The international teams have an immense task but their work in conserving, cataloguing and digitising the manuscripts, paintings and artefacts has started to give a voice to the people who once lived in the cities, worshipped in the temples and traded in the markets of the Silk Road.

Hundreds of thousands of images of manuscripts, paintings, textiles and artefacts along with catalogues, translations, historical and modern photographs, explorers’ archives and more are already freely available to all on IDP’s multilingual website and are widely used by scholars, schoolchildren and others.

As part of its 20th anniversary celebrations, IDP will be arranging a series of events over autumn 2013 to spring 2014. These will include an exhibition of photographs, a conservation show and tell, an afternoon of lectures and a reception, a selection of twenty favourite items from IDP’s patrons, partners, supporters and users, and a special edition of our newsletter, IDP News. Further details will be announced shortly and will also be publicised on the IDP home page, the IDP blog and our Facebook page.

Our launch event will be a lecture given by Tim Williams (UCL). ’Mapping the Silk Road’ will take place at the British Library Conference Centre (map) on November 1 2013 at 6.30pm. Entrance is free and all are welcome. For further details and online booking visit the British Library What's On pages.

Frontispiece of a printed dated copy of the Diamond Sutra.

IDP is dependent on external funding. Our work so far has been enabled by the generous and loyal support of individuals, foundations and funding bodies worldwide. Your help is essential. You can donate directly online, Sponsor a Sutra or if you wish to discuss support of a major project please visit the IDP website to contact us.

Vic Swift, International Dunhuang Project


25 September 2013

Hang Tuah: the Malay Rollo or Rustam

In my last post I wrote on the Sejarah Melayu, the chronicle of the great Malay kingdom of Melaka, which fell to the Portuguese in 1511.  A prominent role in the story is played by Hang Tuah, the Malay sultan’s most loyal servant and a model of Malay manhood, who rose from humble origins to the position of Laksamana or Admiral.  Hang Tuah’s devoted service to his king, and his string of dashing exploits, have made him the quintessential Malay hero – Sir Galahad to Sultan Mansur Syah’s King Arthur, at the glittering Malay Camelot of Melaka.  While the Sejarah Melayu foregrounds the sultans of Melaka, Hang Tuah is accorded his very own epic, the Hikayat Hang Tuah

The age of the hand-written manuscript is long gone, but Hang Tuah lives on in the popular imagination in the Malay world, ever-present in films, plays, comic books and children’s stories.  He is credited with the rallying-call ‘Malays will never die out in this world’ (Tak kan Melayu hilang di dunia) – even though these words never occur in the Hikayat Hang Tuah

‘From the heroic epoch of Hang Tuah … comes a love story steeped in tragedy!’ – detail of an advertisement for the Malay film Tun Mandan, directed by Salleh Ghani, 1964.  Majallah Filem, vol.4, no.48, March 1964.  British Library, 14632.f.2.

‘From the heroic epoch of Hang Tuah … comes a love story steeped in tragedy!’ – detail of an advertisement for the Malay film Tun Mandan, directed by Salleh Ghani, 1964.  Majallah Filem, vol.4, no.48, March 1964.  British Library, 14632.f.2.    noc

Hikayat Hang Tuah, ‘The story of Hang Tuah’, was probably composed in Johor – whence the Melakan court had found refuge – some time in the second half of the 17th century.  Over 20 manuscripts of Hikayat Hang Tuah can be found in libraries in Europe and Southeast Asia, with three held in the British Library, one of which (Add. 12384) has just been digitised.  Written on English paper watermarked ‘1805’, this manuscript was copied in the port of Kedah from a manuscript belonging to the Sultan of Kedah.  With the permission of the senior minister, the Bendahara, the book was brought to Penang in 1810.  It was owned by Bapu Kandu, who can be identified as the father of Ibrahim, a Malay scribe who worked for Thomas Stamford Raffles in Penang and Melaka.  Bapu Kandu hired this copy of the Hikayat Hang Tuah out to readers, urging them to take great care of it and not to keep it for too long, and also to correct any mistakes they might find in it.  The fee for borrowing this manuscript is expressed in terms of the ingredients needed for a satisfying chew of betel nut: ‘a bunch of paired betel leaves, a casket of Javanese tobacco, fifty measures of Siak gambir, and a bowl of Kedah lime’ (sirih rakit satu ikat dan tembakawa Jawa satu tepak dan gambir Siak lima puluh dan kapur Kedah satu cowek). 

The book did not circulate long in Malay circles, for very soon it passed into the hands of John Crawfurd, an official of the East India Company who served in Penang from 1808 to 1811 and later in Java and Singapore.  Crawfurd was well versed in Malay literature, and in his notes at the end of this book he compares Hang Tuah to the Franco-Viking hero Rollo or the Persian Rustam of Shahnama fame.

In 2007, this manuscript of Hikayat Hang Tuah travelled to Lisbon for display in an exhibition about Macau.  In the story, during an embassy to China Admiral Hang Tuah is confronted by the Portuguese fleet off the coast of Macau.  With the aid of a magic spell which silences the Portuguese cannons, the Malays win the battle and the Portuguese captain is forced to flee in a small sampan or rowing boat.  Mere wishful thinking, alas, but it was through such literary devices that the anonymous author of Hikayat Hang Tuah introduced the Portuguese onto the scene as an ominous presence in the Malay world, foreshadowing the cataclysmic defeat of Melaka in 1511. 

The opening lines of the Hikayat Hang Tuah: ‘This is the story of Hang Tuah, who was ever-loyal to his master’ (ini hikayat Hang Tuah yang amat setiawan pada tuannya).  British Library, Add. 12384, f.1v.
The opening lines of the Hikayat Hang Tuah: ‘This is the story of Hang Tuah, who was ever-loyal to his master’ (ini hikayat Hang Tuah yang amat setiawan pada tuannya).  British Library, Add. 12384, f.1v.   noc

Bapu Kandu’s admonitions to borrowers of the manuscript to take good care of it, for ‘it was such hard work to write this book, and even to find someone to copy it for a fee would be very difficult’ (kerana surat ini payah sangat manyurat dia payah sangat hendak upah orang pun payah sangat).  British Library, Add. 12384, f.237v.

Bapu Kandu’s admonitions to borrowers of the manuscript to take good care of it, for ‘it was such hard work to write this book, and even to find someone to copy it for a fee would be very difficult’ (kerana surat ini payah sangat manyurat dia payah sangat hendak upah orang pun payah sangat).  British Library, Add. 12384, f.237v.   noc

  John Crawfurd’s note on this manuscript: Hang Tuah.  The adventures of the Laksimana or Admiral of Malacca, the Rollo or Rustam of Malayan story; a work of great esteem with the Malays.  British Library, Add. 12384, f.238r.

John Crawfurd’s note on this manuscript: Hang Tuah.  The adventures of the Laksimana or Admiral of Malacca, the Rollo or Rustam of Malayan story; a work of great esteem with the Malays.  British Library, Add. 12384, f.238r.   noc

Further reading

Hikayat Hang Tuah, ed. Kassim Ahmad.  (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1995).

The epic of Hang Tuah, translated by Muhammad Haji Salleh, ed. Rosemary Robson-McKillop. (Kuala Lumpur: Institut Terjemahan Negara Malaysia, 2010).

I. Proudfoot & A.T. Gallop, ‘29. Hikayat Hang Tuah’. Macau: o primeiro século de um porto internacional / Macau: the first century of an international port, Jorge M. dos Santos Alves. (Lisbon: Centro Cientifico e Cultural de Macau, 2007), pp.135-137.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator for Southeast Asian studies


23 September 2013

Some Syriac Manichean Treasures in the British Library

Founded by Mani in Mesopotamia in the 3rd century AD, Manichaeism was for a time one of the most widespread religions in the world. Under the protection of the Sasanian emperor Shapur I (r.241–72), Mani preached a fundamental dualism based on light (good) and darkness (evil), the world being a contamination of the two (this idea is seen in the Zoroastrian creation myth, see my recent post ‘Zoroaster’s Egg’). God had given the same message to the Buddha, Zoroaster and Jesus, but it had become distorted over time through oral misrepresentation. Mani therefore stressed the importance of the written text and also the use of paintings to illustrate his teachings. His religion was strongly influenced by Christianity and Zoroastrianism but came to be regarded as heretical by both.

The British Library is lucky enough to have some of the most important Manichaean texts in its collections, and recently we hosted a special viewing to celebrate the 8th International Conference of the International Association of Manichaean Studies, held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). It was a momentous occasion, probably the first time that such important works had ever been looked at together, and certainly too good an opportunity to miss to write about them! 
IAMS visit
Manichaean scholars examining two Chinese scrolls: on the left the Manichaean Hymn Scroll (Or.8210/S.2659) and on the right the Compendium of the teachings of Mani, the Buddha of Light, dated AD 731 (Or.8210/S.3969)

Some of the oldest and most valuable sources on Manichaeism are in fact Christian anti-Manichaean writings, written only a century after Mani’s death (AD 274 or 277). The best-known are perhaps the Confessions, written in Latin in AD 397-8, of St. Augustine of Hippo who was himself a Manichaean before converting to Christianity.  One of the most important sources in the British Library is the Syriac manuscript Add.12150 which contains the treatise Against the Manicheans by Titus (d. 378) of Bostra (Bosra, now in Syria), translated from Greek. This codex is additionally important, being the oldest known dated Syriac manuscript, in near perfect condition, and copied in Edessa in the year 723 of the Seleucid era (AD 411).

The final page of Titus of Bostra’s treatise Against the Manicheans. Vellum, dated AD 411 (Add.12150, f.156r)

Equally important are Add.14574 and Add.14623, both parts of the only surviving copy of the Prose Refutations of Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan by Saint Ephrem (c. 306–373). This 6th century codex had at some point been broken up. 88 leaves (Add.14623) were washed and scrubbed to obliterate the original text, and then re-used in Egypt in 823 by a monk, Aaron, originally from Dara in Mesopotamia. Ironically, part of the original manuscript containing Ephrem’s Discourse on Virginity, apparently thought fit to preserve, was copied into the new manuscript before being erased. Fortunately the first 19 leaves (Add.14574) escaped the treatment and both parts are now in the Library's collection. Add. 14754 was acquired by the British Museum from a monastery in the Wadi Natrun in Egypt (as was Add.12150) by Archdeacon Tattam in the 19th century (for an account of how the Museum came to acquire them, see pp. xi-xiv of W. Wright’s Catalogue of the Syriac Manuscripts in the British Museum, vol. 3).
Folios 6v-7r of the 9th century palimpsest Add.14623

Upside down f7r
Detail of the bottom of folio 7r, turned upside down, showing Ephrem’s work underneath

It required the painstaking efforts of Charles Mitchell, a Canadian Syriac scholar teaching at Merchant Taylors’ School, London, to decipher the concealed text. From 1905 until the First World War he devoted his leisure time to reading what he could of the palimpsest which was extra problematic on account of the skin it was written on. “Worst of all” he wrote in the introduction to his edition (Mitchell 1912),  “only one side of the leaves could be read, except in two or three cases, though there was evidence that the writing was lurking in obscurity below.” Mitchell also complained that “Accurate deciphering is only possible under a good sunlight” and the London weather had held him back further.
CW Mitchell
The Rev. Charles Wand Mitchell, frontispiece to vol. 2 (Mitchell 1921)

Mitchell's patience and perseverance led, Dr. Barnett, then Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts at the Museum, in 1908 to apply a “re-agent” to the illegible part of the palimpsest. This had the effect of revealing the underwriting so clearly that it became possible to transcribe almost the entire contents. Mitchell was also able to reconstruct the original order of the leaves and quires. I’m not sure what this “re-agent” would have been, but judging from the present illegibilty of the palimpsest, I think this manuscript would be a good candidate for some form of investigative photography!

Unfortunately, Charles Mitchell was fatally wounded in action in France in 1917 during the First World War, while helping a doctor to bandage the wounded near the firing line. Volume 1 of his edition and translation had been published in 1912, and vol 2 was published posthumously in 1921.

We also have important Manichaean texts from Central Asia in Middle Persian, Sogdian, Turkish and Chinese. I’ll be writing about them on another occasion.

Further reading

Good articles on Mani and Manichaeism can be found in Encyclopædia Iranica online, especially Werner Sundermann’s “Mani”  and “Manicheism i: general survey
A good online introduction is also:
P.O. Skjærvø, An Introduction to Manicheism, 2006
An edition and translation of St. Ephrem’s Prose Refutations is also available online:
C.W. Mitchell, S. Ephraim’s Prose Refutations of Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan, vol.1 (1912) and vol. 2 (1921)
For an article about Titus of Bostra, see:
Nils Arne Pedersen, "Titus of Bostra in Syriac Literature" in Laval théologique et philosophique, vol. 62/2 (2006), pp. 359-367.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies


Postscript by Christina Duffy, British Library Imaging Scientist

USW:  Many of us have been wondering about the miraculous "re-agent" applied under Dr. Barnett's auspices to St. Ephrem's Prose Refutations of Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan in 1908. I asked Christina Duffy, Imaging Scientist at the British Library if she could say anything about the process and this is her reply. The good news is that the Library is planning to get new equipment later this year which may be able to read the undertext of the palimpsest and perhaps even improve on Mitchell's readings. We'll report on this in due course.   

She writes:

Sadly the result of chemicals used to make indecipherable script legible is seen in many of our manuscripts here at the BL. While the treatments initially enhanced the faded text greatly it was only a matter of time before the entire passage was left in a much worse state!

In 1969 Restaurator reprinted a report of the St Gallen Conference on the Conservation of Manuscripts from 1898 which listed gallic acid, thiocyanate, ammonium sulphide, sodium sulphide, potassium ferrocyanide and tannin solution as chemicals used to recover text. Essentially the reagents were attempting to balance the ink formulation. By "reagent" we mean a substance or compound used to bring about a chemical reaction.

There is mention of the use of chemical reinforcements as early as the 17th century but it wasn't until the 19th century when chemistry was more understood that lots of reactions were tried out. For iron-gall ink, a good stable black ink is formed by a black iron-gall ink complex. If the ink production for whatever reason is imperfect, ink can become illegible overtime i.e. fade. Imperfect ink is generally missing one of the essential compounds in the ink ingredient list (such as iron sulphide or gallic acid) so it makes sense that applying these missing chemicals will allow the reaction to take place and the text to become clear again! Which is what they did, but alas the aftermath was less pleasing! 

The oldest known recipe for text recovery uses gallic acid. One article suggests making an extract of gall-nuts in white wine and wetting the missing text with a sponge to recover the text. However it isn't mentioned that the gall-nut extract goes brown itself after a few years and wherever the liquid was applied turns dark brown so nothing is legible!

Other treatments include hepar suplhuris, toning letters blue by reacting iron ions with potassium hexacyanoferrates or placing the text briefly in hydrochloric acid. Some manuscripts treated in this way are now covered in blue dye and completely illegible...which is why using imaging techniques is a much better idea!

There is a good article explaining all this including the chemical formulas by Robert Fuchs, “The history of chemical reinforcement of texts in manuscripts – What should we do now?” in Care and Conservation of Manuscripts 7 (2003): 159–170.


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18 September 2013

Marianne North's Visions of India

The British Library holds one of the richest archives of prints, drawings and photographs from South Asia. As Visual Arts Curator, exploring the vast collections and learning about the history of the works of art is just part of my daily activities. Although my previous blog posts have focused on the Mughal empire and painting, I wanted to share a lesser known collection: Marianne North's views of India.

Marianne North (1830-90) was a Victorian artist who was influenced from an early age by artists including William Holden Hunt and Edward Lear. Although she had no formal training, she was given oil painting lessons by Valentine Bartholomew and Robert Dowling.  She was particularly obsessed with natural history and painted specimens of British fungi. As the daughter of Frederick North, Liberal MP for Hastings, she often travelled across Europe with members of her family. It was only after her father's death in 1870, that she began to travel further afield.  She visited America, Jamaica, Brazil, Singapore, Indonesia and even New Zealand.  In 1876, she travelled to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where she met the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

File:Marianne North in Mrs Cameron's house in Ceylon, by Julia Margaret Cameron.jpg

Marianne North in Mrs Cameron's house in Ceylon. Depicts Marianne North painting a Tamil boy. Julia Margaret Cameron. Albumen print, 277 x 236mm (10 7/8 x 9 1/4"). Wikimedia Commons.

On her journey back from Ceylon, Marianne stopped in San Remo, Italy to visit family and friends including the artist Edward Lear. Lear, who recently toured India between 1873-75, shared his experience and drawings of India with Marianne. Armed with a a copy of James Fergusson's recent publication of A History of Indian and Eastern Architecture (1876), Marianne embarked on her own journey across northern India. She visited Delhi, Lucknow, Varanasi, as well as Udaipur between 1877-79. In this period, she painted more than 200 topographical views, botanical studies, and street scenes. Her autobiography Recollections of a Happy Life (1892) is filled with annecdotes which relate to many of her scenes.

Returning to London, she arranged a private exhibition of her works which she self-financed since the 'perputal task of showing [her] Indian sketches was very wearisome'. The Pall Mall Gazette, in reviewing her exhibition, 'suggested that North find a permanent place to house her paintings'. Marianne turned to her friend Sir Joseph Hooker, the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and ultimately decided to donate her entire collection to Kew.  She commissioned architectural historian James Fergusson to design the gallery.  The project was entirely funded by Marianne. The Marianne North Gallery still remains today and is a feature at Kew.  In 1973, the Royal Botanic Gardens deposited 53 topographical views to the British Library. A selection is shown below:

 'Street of hunting Cheetahs and Lynx.  Ulwar.  India 1878'
'Street of hunting Cheetahs and Lynx. Ulwar. India 1878'. Marianne North. Oil on paper, 25 by 38.8 cm. British Library, WD 3244.  noc

In her autobiography, she wrote: "I saw a whole street full of hunting chetahs and lynxes...  The chetahs are taken out in carts blindfolded and let out when within sight of the deer, when they creep up and spring upon them, holding them till hunter comes up and kills them. They are so intent on their work that they are easily blindfolded and led away again. All those wild beasts are chained to trestle-beds in front of the houses down the street, their keepers sitting or sleeping behind them, and little children, peacocks, cocks and hens, wandering among them without the slightest fear."

The Great Mosque of Delhi, India. Novr. 1878
'The Great Mosque of Delhi, India. Novr. 1878.' Marianne North, Oil on paper, 30.5 by 47 cm. British Library, WD 3237.  noc

Duarah Nath - Kumaon, India. 23d August 1878
‘Duarah Nath - Kumaon.  India.  23d August 1878’. Marianne North. Oil on paper, 29.2 by 51 cm. British Library, WD 3226.  noc

Marianne North's views of India and Java are all digitized. To view more scenes, please visit the British Library's Online Gallery or on the BBC Your Paintings website.

These views and other prints, drawings and photographs 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:

Marianne North, Recollections of a Happy Life, 1892

Marianne North, Further Recollections of a Happy Life, 1899

Laura Ponsonby, Marianne North at Kew Gardens, 1990

Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator Creative Commons License

13 September 2013

Sejarah Melayu: a Malay masterpiece

Sometime around the year 1400, a prince from Sumatra named Parameswara founded a settlement at the mouth of the Melaka river on the west coast of the Malay peninsula.  Soon after one of his successors embraced Islam, and Melaka grew to become the greatest Islamic kingdom ever seen in Southeast Asia. Known as the ‘Venice of the East’, its spice trade attracted merchants from as far away as Arabia, India, China and Japan.  Such a honeypot proved irresistible to the Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to navigate around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean.  Not content simply to join in the bustling trade, the Portuguese instead attacked Melaka and captured it in 1511. 

Plan of Melaka after its capture by the Portuguese.  Livro do Estado da India Oriental, by Pedro Barreto de Resende, 1641.  British Library, Sloane MS 197, ff.381v-182r.

Plan of Melaka after its capture by the Portuguese.  Livro do Estado da India Oriental, by Pedro Barreto de Resende, 1641.  British Library, Sloane MS 197, ff.381v-182r.  noc

    The Malay sultan, Mahmud Shah, fled southwards to Johor. As the exiled court began to face up to the realization that their enforced sojourn in Johor would not be temporary, it became ever more urgent to record for posterity the still-vivid memories of Melaka’s magnificence.  A chronicle was envisaged that would testify that the sultan and his kin now settled on the upper reaches of the Johor river were descended from a glorious line of Malay kings, originating in south Sumatra from the site of the ancient empire of Srivijaya, who had gone on to found at Melaka the richest emporium in Southeast Asia.  It so happened that the court official charged with the task, Tun Seri Lanang, was the greatest Malay writer of that or perhaps any period, and he produced what is now regarded as a masterpiece of Malay literature.  

    Entitled in Arabic Sulalat al-Salatin, ‘Genealogy of Kings’, but popularly known as Sejarah Melayu or the ‘Malay Annals’, this work is not only a literary triumph but also a handbook of Malay statecraft, outlining the solemn covenant between the ruler, who promises never to shame his subjects, and his people, who undertake never to commit treason (durhaka).  More than thirty manuscripts of Sejarah Melayu are known, with numerous different versions of the text, some designed to bolster the credentials of other Malay kingdoms by claiming links with the illustrious royal line of Melaka. 

    The enduring popularity of the Sejarah Melayu also lies in the skill of its author in addressing key historical episodes and refashioning these invariably to the greater glory of Melaka.  In one celebrated anecdote, when a delegation from Melaka visited China, all had to bow low and were not allowed to look at the Emperor’s face. When the Emperor enquired as to what food they liked, the crafty Malays specified kangkung, spinach, not chopped up, but left long.  They then ate the kangkung by lifting each strand up high and lowering it into their upturned mouths – thus enabling them to lift their heads and gaze upon the Chinese emperor!

jarah Melayu: how the Malays ate kangkung (spinach) at the Chinese court, thereby managing to steal a glance at the face of the Emperor.  British Library, Or.14734, f.84r.

Sejarah Melayu: how the Malays ate kangkung (spinach) at the Chinese court, thereby managing to steal a glance at the face of the Emperor.  British Library, Or.14734, f.84r.  noc

    There are two manuscripts of the Sejarah Melayu in the British Library, Or.16214 and Or.14734, which has just been digitised.   This manuscript was copied in Melaka itself in 1873, by which time the site of the great Malay sultanate had passed through the hands of a whole series of European colonizers, from the Portuguese to the Dutch and then to the British.  It bears the name of E.E. Isemonger, who served as Resident Councillor of Melaka in 1891.

Detail of the colophon, giving the name of the scribe and the date of copying in Melaka as Monday 19 Zulhijah 1289 (17 February 1873):  Tamatlah Hikayat Melayu ini di dalam negeri Melaka sanatahun 1289 kepada 19 hari bulan Zulhijah hari yaum al-Isnin adanya, wa-katibuhu Muhammad Tajuddin Tambi Hitam bin Zainal Abidin Penghulu Dagang Melaka Kampung Telangkira adanya.  British Library, Or.14734, f.200v.

Detail of the colophon, giving the name of the scribe and the date of copying in Melaka as Monday 19 Zulhijah 1289 (17 February 1873):  Tamatlah Hikayat Melayu ini di dalam negeri Melaka sanatahun 1289 kepada 19 hari bulan Zulhijah hari yaum al-Isnin adanya, wa-katibuhu Muhammad Tajuddin Tambi Hitam bin Zainal Abidin Penghulu Dagang Melaka Kampung Telangkira adanya.  British Library, Or.14734, f.200v. noc


Further reading

C.C. Brown, Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals.  An annotated translation by C.C.Brown, with a new introduction by R.Roolvink.  Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1970.

A. Samad Ahmad (ed.), Sulalatus salatin (Sejarah Melayu).  Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka: 1986.

John Leyden's Malay Annals.  With an introductory essay by Virginia Matheson Hooker and M.B.
Hooker.  Selangor Darul Ehsan: MBRAS, 2001. (MBRAS reprint; 20).



Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator for Southeast Asian Studies
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11 September 2013

The Shah of Iran's Copy of ʻA Gift to Kingsʼ

An unusual and intriguing piece of history which the British Library was fortunate enough to acquire in recent years is this exquisite copy of the Tuhfat al-muluk, ‘A Gift to Kings’, purchased at a London auction attended by numerous Iranian expatriate congoscenti.

Or15599 Tuhfat al-muluk 1v-2r_720
Tuhfat al-muluk, ʻA Gift to Kingsʼ.  Iran, ca.1925-6. Fine nasta‘liq calligraphy, 8 lines, per page. Interlinear gilding throughout, with scroll ornamentation. Multiple ruled text frames in black, gold, and blue.  9 ff. of European cream wove paper, sized and polished. 214 x 136 mm;  text area 136 x 82 mm. Marbled endpapers. Binding in green leather binding with gilt border lines (Or.15599, ff 1v-2r)

This Persian tract on principles of ethics and government comprises forty brief sections (bāb), each containing four brief maxims, all ʻselected by sages from the books of the ancientsʼ. It is also known by the title Tuhfat al-vuzara, ʻA Gift to Viziersʼ. The author is unknown.

The present manuscript was written and illuminated by or for Sayyid Yusuf Majd al-Udaba, and illustrated by his son, for presentation to the heir apparent, Prince (later Shah) Muhammad Riza Pahlavi (reg. 1941-1979). This is evident from two inscriptions in illuminated panels at the foot of f. 8v (Taqdimi-i Sayyid Yusuf Majd al-Udaba, ‘Presented by Majd al-Udaba’) and at the head and foot of f. 9r (Dirakhshan shud az burj-i khvurshid mah / Muhammad Riza shud vali-‘ahd-i Shah, ‘The Moon shone radiant from the Sign of the Sun / Muhammad Riza became Heir Apparent to the Shah’), together with the presence of his portrait on f. 9r. The portrait, in pencil, is signed by Sayyid Husayn, son of Majd al-Udaba, and is dated 1304 shamsi/1925-6, which is probably the date of copying.  This manuscript was probably produced at or near Tehran.

Or15599 Tuhfat al-muluk 8v-9r_720Portrait of Prince (later Shah) Muhammad Riza Pahlavi (Or.15599, ff 8v-9r)

It may be of interest to quote a few of the maxims presented for the edification of the future sovereign: ‘Chapter Twenty-Eight: That four things are injurious to a sovereign: tyranny in a prince, negligence in a vizier, treachery in a secretary, humiliation of a prisoner, and oppression of the lowly’. (Here either the author’s arithmetic or his adherence to the quaternary formula has lapsed.)  ‘Chapter Twenty-Nine: That four things do not last: an unjust ruler; an old man without sense; unlawful property; and the passing days’.
Muhammad Isa Waley, Asian and African Studies

06 September 2013

The Crown of Kings: a deluxe Malay manuscript from Penang

One of the finest illuminated Malay manuscripts known is a copy of the Taj al-Salatin, ‘The Crown of Kings’ (Or.13295), which has just been digitised in full.  This ethical guide for rulers was composed in Aceh in north Sumatra in 1603 by Bukhari al-Johori, and contains advice on good governance.  This manuscript was copied in Penang by a scribe named Muhammad bin Umar Syaikh Farid on 4 Zulhijah 1239 AH (31 July 1824 AD).  It is in every sense a deluxe bibliographic production, with a red and gold leather binding.  There are two superb illuminated frames at the beginning and end of the book, while all other pages are set within multi-layered frames of black, red and gold ink.  The text is written in a very accomplished hand with a thin nib in black ink.  Rubrication – the highlighting of certain words in red – is used for a variety of purposes: for Qur’anic quotations, for words or phrases in Arabic, and for ‘paragraph words’ such as adapun or bermula, both meaning ‘then’, indicating a new section in the text. 

Throughout the Muslim world there is a highly distinctive manuscript culture of books written on paper in the Arabic script, with decorated frames spread across two open pages and symmetrical about the gutter of the book.  Within these broad design principles regional preferences are clearly apparent, and it is often possible to guess the geographic origin of a manuscript purely on the basis of the shape, ornamentation and colour scheme of the double decorated frames.

Initial pages of the Taj al-Salatin, ‘The Crown of Kings’, a Malay ‘mirror for princes’.  British Library, Or.13295, ff.1v-2r.
Initial pages of the Taj al-Salatin, ‘The Crown of Kings’, a Malay ‘mirror for princes’.  British Library, Or.13295, ff.1v-2r.   CC

The opening illuminated frames of the Penang ‘Crown of Kings’ manuscript (see above) are technically stunning but atypical for a Malay manuscript, with many features that draw more heavily on the artistic vocabulary of Indo-Persian and Ottoman manuscript art.  For example, the gently undulating yet basically rectangular composition of of the densely decorated frames is at variance with the Southeast Asian tradition of frames characterised by strongly arched outlines on the three outer sides.  On each of the two facing pages, the decorated frames are ‘hung’ from a vertical decorated border or ‘pivot’ along the spine of the book, recalling the supports for a door or window shutter; this too is a feature rarely seen in Malay manuscript art. The palette, dominated by two shades of blue and gold, is also more typical of Islamic manuscripts west of the Malay world, while in Southeast Asia the main colours found are red and yellow.  Another very unusual feature is the use of white pigment in the illumination; throughout Muslim regions of Southeast Asia the colour white in manuscripts is invariably represented by ‘reserved white’, where the uncoloured ground of the white paper is manipulated as a fundamental element of the artist’s palette.  Finally, the lines of text on the first two pages are set within cloudbands edged with black ink against a ground of gold.  This is a very common decorative device in Ottoman, Indian, Persian and even Chinese Islamic manuscripts, but is rarely encountered in Southeast Asia. 

Final pages of the Taj al-Salatin, dated 4 Zulhijah 1239 (31 July 1824).  British Library, Or.13295, ff.190v-191r.
Final pages of the Taj al-Salatin, dated 4 Zulhijah 1239 (31 July 1824).  British Library, Or.13295, ff.190v-191r.  CC

The final double frames (see above) are equally accomplished, but in a contrasting stylistic tenor.  The key difference is the arched outline of the gently graduated multi-lobed domes on the three outer sides, linking this manuscript to artistic traditions not only in the Malay world but also along Indian Ocean trading networks, notably in Oman and Yemen.  Gold is used more sparingly, and thus although the other components of the palette are the same, the overall effect is more variegated.  The colophon, with the name of the scribe and the date of copying – with, unusually, the Persian word for month – is presented in oval cartouches set within the frame above and below the textblock on each page.  The scribe was therefore familiar with Malay, Arabic and Persian, and was most likely of Indian descent. 

The history of the peregrinations of this book – from Penang to Bombay and thence on to Brighton and London – can be partially reconstructed.  A flyleaf bears the inscription:

To the Revd. J. M. Rice, Brighton, from his brother, Ralph Rice, Recorder of Prince of Wales Island A.D. 1824.  This M.S. is a Malay story & was made at Pinang in the above year – with a hope, that it wd receive admission, into the library, of so renowned a Bibliomanist, as is the said J. M. Rice.
Ralph Rice, now one of the Judges of the – Court at Bombay.  Bombay, May 19, 1825

Sir Ralph Rice (b. ca. 1781-1850), served as the third Recorder or government legal officer of Penang from 1817 to 1824, and was later Senior Puisne Judge of the Bombay Supreme Court. He thus appears to have commissioned this manuscript in his last year in Penang, and from his new post in Bombay presented it to his older brother, the Revd. John Morgan Rice (b. ca. 1774-1833) of Brighton.  The manuscript also bears the bookplate of ‘Percy M. Thornton’.  Percy Melville Thornton (1841-1918) was a Conservative politician whose mother was Emily Elizabeth Rice, daughter of John Morgan Rice.  The manuscript was offered for sale at Sotheby’s in London on 9 December 1970, when it was purchased by the British Museum.  In 1973, together with the other books and manuscripts in the British Museum, it passed into the collections of the newly-formed British Library, and has now been digitised along with other Malay manuscripts in the Library.

Further reading

A full facsimile of British Library Or.13295 has been published:
Taj al-salatin: mahkota raja-raja.  Pengenalan oleh Muhammad Haji Salleh.  Johor Baharu: Yayasan Warisan Johor, 2001.

 Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator for Southeast Asian Studies