Asian and African studies blog

11 posts from November 2013

27 November 2013

Mirza Abu’l Hasan Khan, the ‘Envoy Extraordinary’ from Persia

One of London’s most prominent celebrities in 1810 was Mirza Abu’l Hasan Khan, the ‘Envoy Extraordinary’ who was dispatched by Fath Ali Shah of Persia to the Court of King George III. He arrived in London in 1809, and the portrait shown here was commissioned by the East India Company soon after his arrival.

Portrait of Mirza Abu’l Hasan Khan, Envoy Extraordinary from the King of Persia to the Court of King George III, by William Beechey, 1809. British Library, F26.  noc
For a catalogue record of this painting, click here.

The purpose of Mirza Abul Hasan Khan’s trip to London was to generate British interest in the Persian silk trade. In the portrait, he is dressed in a full length gold brocade gown and a cape woven with flowers. On the table next to him, there are two bundles of fabric. These garments and effects were symbolic of Mirza Abul Hasan Khan’s mission in London. He was one of a long line of Persian ambassadors who travelled to London to secure the silk trade with the East India Company. But Mirza Abul Hasan Khan was more widely regarded by the British public as an exotic foreigner.

On 2 January 1810, Charles Lamb wrote the following about Mirza Abu’l Hasan Khan, to his friend, Thomas Manning. ‘The Persian Ambassador is the principal thing talked of now.  I sent some people to see him worship the sun on Primrose Hill at half past six in the morning, 28th November; but he did not come, which makes me think the old fire-worshippers are a sect almost extinct in Persia.  The Persian Ambassador’s name is Shaw Ali Mirza.  The common people call him Shaw Nonsense’.

Perhaps the Persian envoy didn’t show up that morning because he was tired of being stared at all the time! He must have been a man of strong character, because he came to London a second time, in 1819. On that occasion, he presented a solid gold dish to the East India Company’s Court of Directors. Today, it is part the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collections.

Of course, there was a lot more to Mirza Abu'l Hasan Khan than his celebrity status. He had many high ranking friends and acquaintances in England, became a freemason, and in Persia, he worked closely with the British Ambassador to the court of Fath ʻAli Shah. The British Library holds a manuscript copy of his Persian diary (Add.23,546: Khayratnamah-yi sufara) in which he recorded his day-to-day activities in London. The portrait of Mirza Abu’l Hasan Khan (pictured above) is on permanent display in the Asia & African Studies Reading Room, so all our readers are welcome to come in and have a really good look at him.

Further reading

Diba, Layla (ed.), 'Royal Persian Paintings, The Qajar Epoch 1785- 1925', Brooklyn Museum of Art, 1998, fig XVII, p. 197.
Howes, Jennifer. “British Library”. Pages 52-87 in Ellis, L. (editor) Oil Paintings in Public Ownership in Camden, Volume 2. London: The Public Catalogue Foundation, 2013. (Full page reproduction of the painting on page 169.)
H. Javadi, 'Abulʼl-Ḥasan Khan Īlčī: Persian diplomat, b. 1190/1776 in Šīrāz', in Encyclopædia Iranica (
Langer, Axel. The Fascination of Persia. Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2013.

Jennifer Howes, Curator of Visual Arts


25 November 2013

Two Malay manuscripts from Wales: Sejarah Melayu and Hikayat Hang Tuah

To many young Malays today, the most immediate fact that comes to mind about Wales is Malaysian ownership of the Cardiff City football team.  But there is another, much older, Welsh-Malay connection: for over 160 years, two important Malay manuscripts were housed in the small but historic town of Lampeter in southwest Wales.

Malay literary manuscripts are rare, and it is always a cause for some excitement when a previously unknown one surfaces. It is even more interesting when two manuscripts are found together, and they contain the two iconic Malay texts from the glory days of the great kingdom of Melaka: the Sejarah Melayu or Sulalat al-Salatin, ‘Descent of Kings’ (Or.16214), and the Hikayat Hang Tuah, ‘Epic of Hang Tuah’ (Or.16215).  These two manuscripts, which were acquired by the British Library in 2006 from the University of Wales in Lampeter, have just been digitised and can be read by clicking on the highlighted shelfmarks above.  
The story of the manuscripts revolves around the figure of Thomas Phillips (1760-1851), a London-born but Welsh-bred East India Company surgeon who for many years was based in India.  In 1796 he visited Penang on his way back to India from Australia, and in 1811 he accompanied the British expeditionary force under Lord Minto which invaded and captured Java (Morgan-Guy 2010).  In 1817 Thomas Phillips retired and returned to London a wealthy man, but a notably generous and charitable one.  In retirement in London, he developed 'what can only be termed an obsession for the purchase and distribution of books on a massive scale’ (Walters 1999: 37), presenting over 22,000 volumes to St. David’s College in Lampeter, including our two Malay manuscripts.

First page of the Sejarah Melayu manuscript.  British Library, Or.16214, f.1r.  noc
Colophon of the manuscript, called here Hikayat Melayu, and dated Saturday 16 Rejab in Singapore: Tamatlah kisah Hikayat Melayu ini kepada enam belas hari bulan Rejab dalam negeri Singapura yaum al-Sabtu jam pukul sebelas maka ada pun surat ini disalin daripada surat yang ada kepada orang Melaka yang menyuratnya Enci’ Husain bi[n] [I]smail yang ada terhenti di Tanah Merah itulah adanya.  British Library, Or.16214, f.301r (detail).  noc

The manuscript of Sejarah Melayu is a copy of the ‘long’ version, ending with the defeat of Johor by Jambi, which was copied in Singapore on 16 Rejab (no year given), by Husain bin Ismail – one of the most prolific Malay scribes known (Tol 2001) – from a manuscript belonging to a person of Melaka. At the top of the first page is a note: ‘Sa Jarha Malayu, or Code of Malay Law, copied from a Manuscript lent me by Count von Ranzow who had it from His Highness Abdoolrachman Shah, Sultan of Linga. F.J.D.’. Lodewijk Carel, Graaf von Ranzow, was the Dutch Resident in the Riau islands, to the south of Singapore, from 1822 to 1826, while Sultan Abdul Rahman Syah, sultan of Riau, reigned in Lingga from 1812 to 1832. However, the identity of F.J.D. is unknown.  This manuscript can be compared with another copy of the Sejarah Melayu in the British Library, Or.14734, which I wrote about in September, which was copied in Melaka in 1873.

A view of Singapore published in 1830, just before the manuscript of the Sejarah Melayu was copied in Tanah Merah.  British Library, P1681.  noc

The manuscript of Hikayat Hang Tuah contains some reading marks in pencil in English in the margin, dated 1835.  It joins another manuscript of this epic in the British Library, Add.12384, which was copied in Kedah, and which has also been digitised and can be read here.  

Opening page of the Hikayat Hang Tuah.  Or.16215, f.2v (detail).  noc

Although Phillips was in Southeast Asia on at least two separate occasions, he appears to have acquired the Malay manuscripts after his return to London in 1817, for they are both written on English paper, watermarked with the dates ‘1832’ in the case of the Sejarah Melayu, and ‘1828’ for the Hikayat Hang Tuah.  The two manuscripts were probably acquired by Phillips from the same source, for both bear pasted-on printed labels apparently cut out from a bookseller’s or auctioneer’s catalogue, that on the Hikayat Hang Tuah reflecting a complete lack of understanding of the role of rubrication (the use of red ink to highlight certain important words) in the Malay (or any other!) manuscript tradition: ‘Another copy of the Hang Tuah, of larger size, on European paper. / All the preceding Malay MSS, are fairly and elegantly transcribed in the Arabic Character, and on every occasion that a lacuna in the original MS is supplied in the copy, it is done in red ink; an evidence of the fidelity of the writer.’ The wording of the label suggests that this was just one of a number of Malay manuscripts offered for sale, presumably in London, probably between the years 1835 and 1842, the date of their donation to Lampeter.  I have not been able to identify the source of these printed labels; if anyone can, please contact me!

Cutting from a bookseller's catalogue, and old ownership label from St. David's Lampeter, on the Sejarah Melayu manuscript.  British Library, Or.16214, f.10v.  noc
Label from a bookseller's catalogue on the Hikayat Hang Tuah manuscript.  British Library, Or.16215, f.1r (detail).  noc

Further reading

John Morgan-Guy, ‘Biography of Thomas Phillips: A Cultivated and Well-Stored Mind, Thomas Phillips MRCS, Benefactor of St David's College Lampeter’,  2010.
Roger Tol, ‘Master scribes: Husin bin Ismail, Abdullah bin Abdulkadir, their handwritings and the Hikayat Abdullah’, Archipel, 2001, 61 (1):115-138.
Gwyn Walters, ‘Books from the ‘Nabob’: the benefactions of Thomas Phillips at Lampeter and Llandovery’, Trafodion Anrhydeddus Gymdeithas y Cymmrodorion 1998 / Transactions of the Honorouble Society of Cymmrodorion.  New series, Vol. 5, 1999, pp.36-61.

Annabel  Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


22 November 2013

‘The Speech of the Birds’: an illustrated Persian manuscript

Among the treasures recently digitised thanks to the generous support of the Iran Heritage Foundation is an illustrated copy (BL Add. 7735) of one of the most famous works in all classical Persian literature: Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār’s Manṭiq al-ṭayr (‘Speech of the Birds’), a Sufi allegory of the quest for God.

In Manṭiq al-ṭayr, ‘Aṭṭār describes how the hoopoe, leader of the birds, tries to persuade them to set out on a quest to find the Sīmurgh, the supreme and immortal Bird who here symbolises the Creator. Most of the birds produce reasons why they cannot – or will not – undertake the perilous journey. Finally the hoopoe sets out with a few companions. Traversing seven valleys, which represent stages of the mystical Path, the thirty birds (sī murgh) finally encounter the object of their search, the Sīmurgh. Losing their illusory separative identities in the beatific vision, they find everlasting fulfilment.

Such is the narrative framework; but as in his other didactic works in masnavī form (rhyming couplets), ‘Aṭṭār intersperses many moral and instructive tales touching on the main themes of the poem. These include spiritual and earthly love and passion; faith and disbelief; death and the transitory nature of life in this world; and the ways in which ‘worlds collide’ in encounters between people who because of their respective positions in life are divided by a gulf that at times appears – and is surely intended by the author to be – partially analogous to that between the Creator and His creation. For that is one of the predominant leitmotifs in the illustrations to our manuscript. A future posting will look at the subjects of the paintings and their relationship to ‘Aṭṭār’s didactic messages.

First page of Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār’s Manṭiq al-ṭayr.  British Library, Add.7735, f.1v.  noc

What is now Add. 7735 was acquired by the British Museum in 1825 by Act of Parliament from the estate of Claudius James Rich (1787-1821), British Resident at Baghdad and a discriminating collector of some 806 Islamic manuscripts, all now in the British Library. The previous history of this manuscript is almost completely unknown; firstly because it is now incomplete and has no colophon, and secondly because any other evidence has been lost through the removal of any folios at the beginning or end of the volume which did not contain text. Folio 1r has several ownership inscriptions; all, however, date from the 12th/18th century.

An interesting feature of this manuscript which has hitherto escaped attention is the omission of a number of the stories that occur near the end of the poem. As Dick Davis, whose translation omits the epilogue, has remarked, it is anticlimactic. Indeed, its omission from Add. 7735 would have been more understandable for the sake of literary effect. But comparison with pp. 253-8 of the critical edition by Sayyid Ṣādiq Gawharīn, to whose memory this posting is dedicated, shows that the manuscript, which has matching catchwords and no missing text folios, lacks six consecutive stories altogether, then resumes with the last three tales about the Seljuk vizier Niẓām al-Mulk (ed. Gawharīn, p. 258), the Prophet Solomon, and the famous Khurāsānian Sufi Abū Sa‘īd of Mihana. The epilogue text ends as in Gawharīn (p. 259), leaving about 40% of the text area free for the colophon that was never added.

Last page of Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār’s Manṭiq al-ṭayr.  British Library, Add.7735, f.208r.  noc

Further textual omissions appear to have been avoided by the calligrapher who copied the manuscript writing in a smaller hand to compensate for want of space. A total of 18 extra bayts (couplets) were fitted into the lengthy story of a king who killed his vizier’s son out of jealousy (cf. ed. Gawharīn p. 238-43): 3 bayts on 195v, 3 + 3 on 196r, 3 on 197r, 3 on 197v, and 3 on 198r. Further scrutiny may perhaps bring further actual omissions from Add. 7735 to light.

Manṭiq al-ṭayr, with six couplets added.  British Library, Add.7735, f.196r.  noc

The lack of documentary evidence for the date and region of origin of the manuscript is compensated for, to a limited extent, by the presence of miniature paintings in a style that displays a number of specific influences, and with which the fine nasta‘līq calligraphy and opening illuminated headpiece are consistent. Published descriptions of the paintings describe them as being in what is called the Later Herat style, associated with the patronage of Sultan Ḥusayn Bāyqarā who ruled from that city between 1469 and 1506, and with Kamāl al-Dīn Bihzād (d. 1536), the most famous of all Persian painters. Despite their similarities, however, the miniatures in Add. 7735 differ noticeably from those found, for example, in the British Library manuscripts Add. 25900 and Or. 6810, both copies of Niẓāmī’s Khamsa (‘Five Poems’), and in the superb copy of Sa‘dī’s poem Būstān (Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya, Cairo), all produced under Bihzād’s supervision and with his participation. Likewise, they differ from the four contemporary illustrations in the equally magnificent, and Bihzādian, manuscript of ‘Aṭṭār’s Manṭiq al-ṭayr (Fletcher Fund, 63.210) preserved at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The miniatures in Add. 7735 do possess some of the charm, compositional flair and atmosphere of the late 15th century masterpieces just referred to; but they are less conceptually ambitious, more restricted in palette, architectural detail and landscape, and lack the magisterial touch of Bihzād. It is known, however, that Bihzād, his star student Shaykhzāda, and a number of other Herat painters were ‘offered’ positions at the court of the Uzbek Shaybānids, based at Bukhara, who conquered the region in 1506. Others joined later, finding themselves no longer comfortable as Sunnīs in Iran under the militantly Shī‘ī Safavid dynasty. These developments ensured the partial continuation of the Later Herat tradition. Given their similarity, in certain respects, to some of the more Herat-influenced Bukhara painting of the first two or three decades of the 16th century, one is tempted to assign the Manṭiq al-ṭayr tentatively to that era.

So far as can be ascertained, our Manṭiq al-ṭayr manuscript has been ‘formally’ exhibited (apart from occasional appearances in the general display of manuscripts in the British Library, and before that in the British Museum) only twice, in 1967 and 1977; and most of the nine miniatures have never been published. Moreover, there are several inaccuracies in the descriptions of their subjects given in Miniatures from Persian Manuscripts, the late Norah Titley’s pioneering and invaluable catalogue and subject index of miniatures in the British Library and British Museum. It therefore seems a worthwhile project to reproduce and discuss them, with reference to ‘Aṭṭār’s text, in a future posting for this blog.

This manuscript is now available in our digitised manuscripts viewer. Follow us on twitter (@BLAsia_Africa) to keep in touch with further developments.

Further reading
‘Aṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn Muḥammad. Manṭiq al-ṭayr (Maqāmāt al-ṭuyūr). Ed. and comm. Sayyid Ṣādiq Gawharīn. Tehran, 1342/1963.
Attar, Farid ud-Din. The Conference of the Birds. Tr. Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis. London, 1984.
Bahari, Ebadollah. Bihzad, master of Persian painting. London and New York, 1997.
Lukens, Marie G. ‘The Fifteenth-Century miniatures’. Online: Metropolitan Museum of Art in collaboration with JSTOR (PDF downloadable here).
Titley, N.M. Miniatures from Persian Manuscripts. London, 1974.
Muhammad Isa Waley, Curator for Persian


21 November 2013

The Mughals: Life, Art and Culture in New Delhi

Since the closure of the British Library's exhibition Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire in April 2013, we have had the opportunity to launch facsimile versions of the show first in Kabul, Afghanistan this past summer and now in New Delhi, India this winter. 

The Mughals: Life, Art and Culture has been curated by the British Library and is brought to New Delhi by Roli Books in collaboration with the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. It will be open for public viewing from 22nd November - 31st December 2013.



The exhibition showcases the British Library's extensive collection of illustrated manuscripts and paintings that were commissioned by Mughal emperors and other officials and depict the splendour and vibrant colour of Mughal life. The artwork cover a variety of subject matter; from scenes of courtly life including lively hunting parties and formal portraits of emperor to illustrations of works of literature which manage to convey the complex storylines in a single image, and dramatic panoramas of Indian landscape.

The child Akbar recognizes his mother at Kabul in 1545. This scene, from the Akbarnāmah, takes place in the women’s quarters. Ascribed to Madhu with principal portraits painted by Narsigh, 1602-3. BL Or.12988, f. 114r.  noc

Many of these works have never been published until now. Some of the rare exhibits on display include Shah Jahan's recipe book, 'Notebook of Fragrance', an 18th century manuscript 'Book of Affairs of Love' by Rai Anand Ram Mukhlis, 'Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi by Metcalfe and illustrated by the studio of Mazhar Ali Khan, a route map from Delhi to Qandahar, the earliest Indian atlas, a map of Delhi, and some of the most extraordinary portraits of the Mughal emperors. Being in a library and not a museum, most of the objects are kept in storage and are rarely seen. This exhibition provides a unique opportunity for Indian viewers to be a part of their own history.

Akbar is re-united with his mother after an absence of two years. This scene, from the Akbarnāmah, takes place in the women’s quarters. One of the ladies is almost certainly Gulbadan (Or.12988, f. 114r)   
 noc - See more at:

The exhibition will be inaugurated on Thursday 21 November 2013 by the Honourable Vice President Shri Hamid Ansari as the Chief Guest, with Shri Salman Khurshid, Honourable Minister of External Affairs as the Guest of Honour. A new publication by British Library curators and printed by Roli Books will accompany the show. For the British Library publication, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire by J.P. Losty and Malini Roy, please click here.

Events accompanying the exhibition include:

22 November, 5.30pm     John Falconer, Lead Curator of Visual Arts (British Library)
India in Focus:  Photographs from South Asia

23 November, 5.30pm     William Dalrymple, Author
Painting in Late Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857

27 November, 5.30pm     Dr. Pushpesh Pant, Author, Historian
Food, Culture and the Mughals

29 November, 5.30pm     M.J. Akbar, Journalist, Author
Akbar: The Many Dimensions of Mughal India's Greatest Emperor


18 November 2013

The Malay Story of the Pig King

One Malay manuscript in the British Library never fails to attract the attention of visiting scholars from Malaysia and Indonesia.  The manuscript is not beautifully illuminated or especially old, nor does it contain a text of great historical or literary value.  But everyone is intrigued by its title, Hikayat Raja Babi, ‘The Story of the Pig King’ (Add. 12393), highly unusual in a Malay Muslim milieu, where pigs are regarded as unclean animals staunchly avoided and best ignored.  What’s more, this Pig King is described as a paragon of courage and nobility.

Hikayat Raja Babi tells of the adventures of a prince who came to the world in the form of a pig.  Most Malay works of fantastical literature are anonymous, and are only known today from manuscripts that are probably multi-generational copies of the original composition, and which have usually been embellished by each succeeding scribe.  The manuscript of Hikayat Raja Babi is quite exceptional in opening with a lengthy note by the author, explaining why, how and when he came to write the tale.  The story was written by Usup ibn Abdul Kadir, a merchant from Semarang of Indian descent from Cooch in west Bengal (peranakan Kuj), during a trading voyage to Palembang. Having no success, he anchored in Sungai Lawang and consoled himself by writing this story, and completed it in twenty days, on 10 Zulkaidah 1188 (12 January 1775).  He begs his readers not to mock or scorn his unruly letters or his handwiting which had run wild, mengamuk – familiar as the Malay word which has entered the English language as ‘amok’.

Palembang harbour, a pen-and-ink and wash drawing probably by one of Colin Mackenzie’s draftsmen, ca.1811-1814.  British Library, Add.Or.5003.  noc

The author’s note on completing the story (Hijrah al-nabi salla Allah ‘alayhi wa-salam seribu seratus delapan puluh delapan tahun sepuluh bulan kepada bulan Zulkaidah dan kepada tahun ha dan kepada hari Jumaat dan waktu pukul sebelas bahwa tamat hikayat caritera Raja Babi adapun yang punya Ayahan [or ayahnya?] Usup ibn Abdul Kadir peranakan Kuj anak di negeri Semarang di Kampung Melayu asalnya duduk kemudian maka pindah di Pakujan luar kota tatkala pergi berdagang ke negeri Palembang maka tiada punya dagang dan duduk berlabuh di Sungai Lawang maka hendak mengiburkan hati supaya jangan menjadi gundah maka duduk menyurat dua puluh hari lamanya maka tamat dan barang siapa suka membaca tetapi jangan ditertawakan dan disunguti daripada hal hurufnya karena kalamnya mengamuk urat kenakan tauladannya d.m.y.t.q tamat bi-al-khayr). British Library, Add. 12393, f.3r.  noc

The story was evidently well appreciated in Semarang, for it passed from the author’s possession to three generations of owners, who recorded their names on its pages: Muhammad Salih (f.105r); Ismail ibn Muhammad Salih (f.105r); and Encik Amaladin ibn Ismail Muhammad Salih (f.2r), who asks anyone who borrows the book to be sure to return it as soon as they have finished reading it.  The manuscript was subsequently acquired by John Crawfurd, who served in the British administration in Java from 1811 to 1816, and whose collection of Indonesian manuscripts was sold to the British Museum in 1842.  No other manusript of this story is known to be held in any other library. 

So what is Hikayat Raja Babi about?  The story starts by describing how this Pig King was so brave and strong that no other king could match him.  But what happened next?  The answer, alas, is unknown, for despite the flurry of interest always aroused by its title, Hikayat Raja Babi has never been studied or published.  If anyone would like to be the first to do so, just click here and start reading!


The story begins: ‘This is the tale of the Pig King, the greatest hero of his age, no other prince could match the Pig King’ (Al-kisah peri mengatakan cetera Raja Babi yang pahlawan lagi perkasa kepada zaman masa itu seorang pun tiada boleh segala raja2 sebagai Raja Babi).  British Library, Add. 12393, f.3v.   noc

Two owners of the manuscript have inscribed their names: Encik Muhammad Salih and - doubtless his son - Encik Ismail ibn Muhammad Salih of Semarang, Kampung Pakujan, Gang Tengah.  British Library, Add. 12393, f.105r (detail).  noc

Another owner, Encik Amaladin ibn Ismail Muhammad Salih is evidently the son and grandson of the first two owners mentioned above.  British Library, Add. 12393, f.2r (detail).  noc

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


15 November 2013

Henri Mouhot’s (almost forgotten) epigraphic notes

On 27 April 1858, Alexandre Henri Mouhot, aged 31, sailed from London to Bangkok with the aim of exploring the remote interior regions of mainland Southeast Asia. He was particularly interested in ornithology and conchology, but he also had a passion for philology, photography and foreign languages.

Born in 1826 in Montbeliard, France, he became a Greek scholar, and at the age of eighteen went to teach Greek and French at the Military Academy in St Petersburg, where he quickly picked up Russian and Polish. At the same time he learned about the new photographic process invented by Daguerre which he tried out as a new art form during extensive travels to Germany, Belgium and Italy from 1854 onwards. Two years later, Mouhot settled down in England and married Annette, a relative of the Scottish explorer Mungo Park. John Bowring’s newly published book The Kingdom and people of Siam (1857) is said to have inspired him to travel outside Europe, but the growing French presence in mainland Southeast Asia and the adventurous travels of Mungo Park may as well have played a role.     

Drawing after a sketch by Henry Mouhot (1864).  British Library, W70/2682, vol.2, p.112.

With the support of the Royal Geographical and Zoological Societies in London, Mouhot started his journeys into the Southeast Asian mainland in Bangkok, then traveling to Cambodia by fishing boats, elephants, oxen carts and horses, and often the only way to travel through the jungle was by foot. In 1860 he reached the ruins of Angkor Wat , which was still in use as a ceremonial place by the native Khmer people, though heavily overgrown with huge plants and trees. With numerous sketches, drawings, word lists and epigraphic notes in his pocket, he went on to travel to the Korat Plateau via Bangkok, then down the Loei River past Loei and Pak Lay until he reached the Mekong and finally Luang Prabang in July 1861. In and around Luang Prabang he built up a collection of numerous specimens of insects and shells that were not previously known to Western zoologists, including a magnificent black beetle that was later named Mouhotia gloriosa and an extraordinarily shaped spider now known as Cyphagogus Mouhotii.  

During his journeys, Mouhot corresponded with his wife Annette as well as his brother Charles and wife Jenny, and sent detailed reports of his encounters back to the Royal Geographical Society via Samuel Stevens. He also wrote in his diary very detailed descriptions of the land and people, flora and fauna, and expressed his thoughts and longings while spending long nights in the jungle. 
One entry written near Phetchabun reads: The profound stillness of this forest, and its luxuriant tropical vegetation, are indescribable, and at this midnight hour impress me deeply. The sky is serene, the air fresh, and the moon’s rays only penetrate here and there, through the foliage, in patches, which appear on the ground like pieces of white paper dispersed by the wind. Nothing breaks the silence but a few dead leaves rustling to the earth, the murmur of a brook which flows over its pebbly bed at my feet, and the frogs answering each other on either side, and whose croaking resembles the hoarse barking of a dog. Now and then I can distinguish the flapping of the bats, attracted by the flame of the torch which is fastened to a branch of the tree under which my tiger-skin is spread; or, at longer intervals, the cry of some panther calling its mate, and responded to from the tree-tops by the growling of the chimpanzees, whose rest the sound has disturbed.  (Mouhot 1864: 2. 99-100).

Drawing after a sketch by Henry Mouhot (1864).  British Library, W70/2682, vol.2, p.98.

Travelling through the jungle, Mouhot had to face various dangers, mainly wild animals posing a potential threat to his own life and those of his native companions and servants. Drawings that he produced by the light of a torch give an impression of his encounters. However, he finally fell victim not to a feral beast but to a fever, and passed away on 10 November 1861 near the Nam Khan River about 8 km north of Luang Prabang. His loyal servants buried him there and made sure that all his belongings were brought back to Bangkok and eventually forwarded to Mouhot’s wife and brother.  

Mouhot’s grave that had been set up in a hurry had nearly vanished a few years later when members of the French Mekong Exploration Commission arrived at the spot in April 1867. A durable tomb was only erected in 1887 on the recommendation of Auguste Pavie, the first French consul in Luang Prabang, and was refurbished in 1990 by the Society of Montbeliard.

Henri Mouhot’s tomb near the Nam Khan river, Luang Prabang province (photograph by Jana Igunma, 2001).

Mouhot’s natural history collections were given to the Royal Geographical Society, and his travel journals, letters and engravings from his drawings were published in two volumes in 1864. With one exception: a small collection of epigraphic notes and Mouhot’s visas issued by the Siamese authorities that permitted him to travel to Laos. These papers and documents only came to light when they were given to the British Museum in 1894 by Mrs Mouhot, over 30 years after her husband’s death, and are now held in the British Library as Or.4736. They are believed to have been brought back from Siam and handed over to Anne Mouhot by Henri Mouhot’s close friend, Dr. Campbell.  The originally loose-leaf papers were bound together in book form by the British Museum. Most of the papers are dated 1860-1861.

Text sample in sacred Khmer script.  British Library, Or.4736, f.3.

They contain a sacred Khmer alphabet for Pali texts together with a short text sample, an ordinary Khmer alphabet with two text samples, a copy of an ancient Khmer stone inscription, an ordinary Lao tham alphabet, a Lao tham (phung dam) alphabet for Western Lao with a text sample, a Lao tham (phung khao) alphabet for Eastern Lao, and an ordinary Lao buhan alphabet with a text sample.

Lao buhan alphabet.  British Library, Or.4736, f.11.

The facsimiles of inscriptions that Mouhot produced are particularly interesting as some of the original stones may not exist any more. They include a copy of an ancient Sanskrit inscription related to the Pathom Chedi, a copy of a Sanskrit inscription related to Nakhon Si Thammarat (formerly known as Ligor), a copy of the Ramkhamhaeng inscription (erroneously) saying that it dated back to 1193 C.E., a copy of a stone inscription at Angkor, three copies of stone inscriptions at Phanom Wan near Korat, one copy of a stone inscription found at a temple ruin near Phimai, a copy of a stone inscription from Prasat, a copy of a stone inscription from Khamphaeng Phet, a copy of a stone inscription found at Battambang, a copy of a stone inscription found at Chaiyaphum, and one copy of a Khmer stone inscription from Angkor Thom.

Copy of a stone inscription found at Chaiyaphum.  British Library, Or.4736, f.13.

Included are also three travel documents that were issued and stamped by the Siamese authorities in Bangkok. When Mouhot arrived in Chaiyaphum for the first time, he was not allowed to travel further by the local governor. He had to return to Bangkok to obtain the necessary travel documents before he was able to continue his journey into Laos, which came to such an unfortunate and untimely end.

Travel document with the seal of the Mahadthai (Ministry of foreign affairs).  British Library, Or.4736, f.17.
Mouhot’s epigraphic notes were digitised and are now accessible online on the Library’s Digital Manuscripts viewer.

Further reading

Bendall, Cecil. Catalogue of the Sanskrit Manuscripts in the British Museum. London 1902, p. 223.
Mouhot, Henri. Travels in the central parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos, during the years 1858, 1859, and 1860. London: John Murray, 1864 (W70/2682).  (E-book available here.)
Rooney, Dawn F.  In the footsteps of Henry Mouhot, a French explorer in 19th century Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
The French in Indo-China. With a narrative of Garnier’s explorations in Cochin-China, Annam, and Tonquin. London : T. Nelson and Sons, 1884
Soetermeer, Frank. 'Een reizend daguerreotypist van Europese allure. Het veelzijdig werk van Henri Mouhot', in: Nieuwsbrief Nederlands Fotogenootschap, nr. 46 (April 2005), pp. 16-21.

Jana Igunma, Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian

13 November 2013

Symposium: From Floor to Ceiling, South Asian floor drawings and murals

At the end of October, CREAM (University of Westminister), South Asian Arts Group (SAAG) and the South Asian Literature Festival (SALF) organised a symposium on the under-researched area of South Asian floor-drawing and mural traditions and their contemporary manifestations. 'From Floor to Ceiling' symposium was held at the University of Westminister with an external trip to view original wall paintings at the British Library.

Participants at the British Library, 25th October 2013

The Library's collection includes several hundred Indian popular or folk paintings produced in various regions across the subcontinent in the late 19th and 20th centuries. The collection includes Kalighat paintings from Calcutta, paintings from Orissa, Mali paintings made in Bihar, as well as Maithil or Madhubhani paintings from Bihar. The viewing session primarily focused on this last group of paintings. 

The Library is best placed to host a session on Maithil and Madhubhani paintings; the art historian who first documented this regional style of art was William G. Archer, the husband of Mildred Archer. Mildred was the Head of Prints and Drawings Section at the India Office Library from 1954-80.

William served in the Indian Civil Service and during their first year of marriage, in 1934, they were stationed in Bihar. Archer was the sub-divisional officer and responsible for documenting the damage caused by a major earthquake in the region. Visiting villages and private homes, Archer discovered murals on the walls of the homes. These drawings were produced by the women of the household to commemorate particular stages in life including the sacred thread ceremony for Brahim boys and marriage. The murals features symbols of fertility and marriage including fishes, turtles, parrots and lotus rings.  Other murals featured Hindu deities including the goddess Lakshmi and the incarnations of Vishnu.

Archer was invited into the homes and permitted to photograph the interiors. Aide-memoires produced using water-colours on multiple sheets of paper glued together were presented to Archer.  Gathering information during the next few years, Archer published his documentation and research on Maithil paintings in the arts magazine Marg in 1949. His research prompted Mrs. Pupul Jayakar of the All India Handicrafts Board to study the folk art traditions in the region in detail. In the late 1960s, when Bihar was struck by famine, Mrs. Jayakar suggested that the local women produce murals on paper that could be sold in New Delhi and provide a revenue stream. The All India Handicrafts Board presented a sets of the works from this project to the Library in 1975.

Participants at the British Library, 25th October 2013

During our viewing session, there were two specific groups of paintings that we examined, with the aim to encourage collaboration and exchange on the under-researched area of mural paintings. The first group included late 19th century drawings by Maithil Kayasth and Maithil Brahim women from the village of Darabhanga, Bihar that were presented to W.G. Archer in 1940. The second group of drawings were commissioned by the All India Handicrafts Board and made by women in Bihar between 1973-75.  All of our folk paintings are listed on our India Office Select Material Catalogue. Visual materials held in our collection can be viewed by appointment in the Asian & African Studies Print Room. Please email for an appointment.

Material held in the Visual Arts department at the British Library can be viewed by appointment in the Print Room. Please email for an appointment.

To read more about the symposium and learn about recent research on South Asian wall and floor paintings, visit the symposium website.



Mildred Archer, Indian Popular Painting in the India Office Library, 1977

W.G. Archer, "Maithil Paintings", Marg Vol. 3 Issue no. 3, pp. 24-33, 1949

Carolyne B. Heinz, "Deconstructing the Image in Mithila Art", Visual Anthropology Review, no. 2, 22, pp. 5-33, 2007

Jyotindra Jain, Ganga Devi: Tradition and Expression in Mithila Painting, Mapin, 1997


Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator     @BL_VisualArts



11 November 2013

Semarang: Javanese city of Malay scribes

Last month I wrote about one of our most important Malay manuscripts, the Hikayat Raja Pasai, ‘Chronicle of the kings of Pasai’, Or. 14350, which was copied in Semarang in 1797.  At least four other Malay manuscripts in the British Library’s collection can also be linked to Semarang, a bustling port city on the north coast of Java, which in the 18th and 19th centuries seems to have been a hive of Malay scribal activity, centred on the districts of Kampung Melayu, Kampung Tawang and Kampung Pakujan.  These manuscripts are all now fully accessible online through the ongoing project to digitise Malay manuscripts in the British Library.

The countryside around Semarang, on the north coast of Java, by Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn.  British Library, 1781.a.21, plate 1.   noc

First is a copy of the Hikayat Dewa Mandu, Add. 12376, which tells the story of Raja Kangsa Indra Pekerma Raja. This belongs to a very popular Malay genre of fantastic adventure narratives, mostly composed anonymously in the 16th or 17th centuries, drawing upon a great number of motifs and descriptive devices deriving from Indian, Javanese and Middle Eastern literatures, yet representing true Malay re-creations rather than mere translations.  According to Braginsky (2004: 319-321), all these stories follow the same pattern: a prince is born in a great kingdom, who through some misfortune is forced to leave his native land and undergo a long and arduous journey involving battles with monsters and other adversaries, during the course of which he marries – sometimes several times – before finally triumphantly returning and regaining his throne.  Although the text of the British Library’s Hikayat Dewa Mandu is incomplete, the manuscript contains some charming doodled sketches of faces drawn in accordance with the stylised iconographic conventions of wayang kulit, the Javanese shadow puppet theatre.  A note at the end is dated 1200 AH (1785/6 AD) and mentions that the owner was Encik Babah of Kampung Tawang, Semarang.  Kampung Tawang’s current claim to fame is as the site of Semarang’s Tawang Station, built in 1868 and one of the oldest railway stations in Indonesia.

Add_ms_12376_f221r-det a
Sketch of a figure in wayang style.  British Library, Add. 12376, f.221r (detail).  noc
Hikayat Dewa Mandu, beginning of an episode concerning Raja Belia Dewa and Dewa Raksa Malik.  British Library, Add. 12376, f.108r.  noc
A note dated 1200 AH (1785/6 AD) giving the name of the owner as Encik Babah and his residence as Kampung Tawang in Semarang.  British Library, Add. 12376, f.217v (detail).  noc

Also copied in Kampung Tawang is a manuscript of Hikayat Syahi Mardan, Add. 12388, one of the most popular and widespread of the fantastical adventure Malay hikayat, manuscripts of which have been found from Minangkabau to Mindanao.  A colophon in syair verse form at the end of the text states that the manuscript was completed on Sunday at 9 o'clock in the morning in the month of Muharam – frustratingly, as is often the case in Malay manuscripts, no year is given – by Encik Amat of Kampung Tawang, Semarang.  On the following page is a note with the date 1810 naming the next owner as Encik Abdullah;  Kampung Pakujan is mentioned below.  Could this be the same Encik Abdullah, the Kapitan Melayu of Semarang, who is named in Or.14350, f.45r, the British Library’s manuscript of Hikayat Raja Pasai and Hikayat Raja Handik, as the owner of the original copy of Hikayat Raja Handik from which Or.14350 was copied?

Colophon of Hikayat Syahi Mardan, in verse form:

tamatlah surat tamat hikayat / tamat di dalam hari ahad,
kepada waktu pukul sembilan /  pagi kepada bulan Muharam,
bukan hikayat bukan sindiran / akan pengibur hati yang dandam,
Enci' Amat akan namanya / di bandar Semarang kediamannya,
ialah terlalu amat daifnya / di Kampung Tawang akan rumahnya.

British Library, Add. 12388, f.79r.  noc

A third Malay manuscript from Semarang, Add. 12385*, Hikayat Dewa Indera Layangan, tells the story of a king Mengindera Cuwaca of Indera Percangga and his sons. This manuscript is dated clearly 1815, and was copied in Kampung Melayu in Semarang.

Opening page of Hikayat Dewa Indera Layangan, with a decorative headpiece.  British Library, Add.12385*, f.2v.   noc
Colophon stating that the manuscript was completed on 30 Safar 1230 (11 February 1815) on a Thursday, at 9 o’clock, in the Malay quarter of Semarang (tarikh seribu dua ratus tiga puluh tahun kepada tahun zai dan kepada tiga puluh hari bulan Safar kepada hari Khamis pukul sembilan dewasa itulah tamatnya Hikayat Indera Layangan dalam negeri Semarang Kampung Melayu adanya).  British Library, Add. 12385*, f.69r (detail).   noc

All these manuscripts can be accessed directly by clicking on the highlighted shelfmarks above, or through the Digitised Manuscripts website.  In the next post I will discuss another Malay manuscript from Semarang, the strangely-named Hikayat Raja Babi, ‘The Story of the Pig King’ (Add.12393). 

Further reading
Vladimir Braginsky, The heritage of traditional Malay literature: a historical survey of genres, writings and literary views.  Leiden: KITLV, 2004.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia