Asian and African studies blog

10 posts from December 2013

30 December 2013

An overlooked 17th century illustrated Shahnamah

One of the most exciting aspects of working with the British Library’s Persian collections is ocasionally stumbling upon some temporarily forgotten treasure. By chance I noticed this entirely unknown illustrated copy of Firdawsi’s Shahnamah a few weeks ago while reviewing draft descriptions by C.A. Storey (Assistant Librarian (1919) and then Librarian (1927) of the India Office before becoming Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic at Cambridge) which he compiled as part of a project to catalogue the uncatalogued manuscripts in the India Office Library. This work was originally begun in the 1930s, but with the intervention of the 2nd World War, the project was never completed. Now thanks to sponsorship by the Barakat Trust (more on this later) Storey’s unrevised description is available on our Digitised Manuscripts site (Mss Eur E207/15, ff.3-6).

The Simurgh returns Zal to his father Sam
IO Isl 3682_f38r
The albino Zal, son of the hero Sam, abandoned at birth in the mountains, was rescued and brought up by the magical Simurgh bird. Subsequently regretting his actions, Sam set off to find his son. Mindful of Zal’s future destiny, the Simurgh reluctantly returned him to his father, leaving him with magical feathers by which he could summon the Simurgh’s help at a time of need. The margin of this unsigned miniature dating from ca. 1640 contains the signature of a previous owner Framjee Shapoorjee Dhunjeibhoy dated 1874.
IO Islamic 3682, f.38r   noc

According to Storey’s description, a one-time inserted memorandum (now unfortunately missing), signed by Sir George Birdwood explains that the manuscript was taken in by the Bombay Fort Post Office in a parcel addressed to him, but without any postage being paid, nor any clue as to the sender. Sir George Birdwood, who retired in 1868 from a successful career as an administrator in India, was at the time working as a special assistant in the revenue and statistical department of the India Office to whom he presented the copy on 30 April 1904. The anonymous donor may have been a Parsi whose signature ‘Framjee Shapoorjee Dhunjeibhoy’ is dated 1874 (f.443v) and [18]87 (f.38r). Unfortunately nothing more is known about him!

IO Isl 3682_f534v
The colophon, f.534v, which gives the scribe’s name as Dust Muhammad ibn Darvish Muhammad Karbalaʼi and the apparent date Rabiʻ al-Akhir 850.

The manuscript itself is as puzzling as its history! Though the first part of the scribe’s name is quite clear the word following Karbala’i remains a mystery. The year in the colophon at first glance appears to be 850 (1446) which is impossibly early, however traces of a zero before the five are clearly visible. Black and white images acquired with the help of RetroReveal (this amazing program, worth a blog of its own, helps to reveal lost content and is available freely at support this interpretation. The images also show that the second stroke of the number eight is possibly written in a different ink, suggesting that the original date might have been 1050 (1640).

The manuscript contains 48 images, six1 of which (ff.63v, 69v, 92r, 301v, 305v and 368r) are signed by Muhammad Yusuf, a prolific artist during the reigns of the Safavid rulers Shah Safi (r. 1629-42) and Shah ʻAbbas II (r. 1642-66). Muhammad Yusuf also contributed to the famous Windsor Castle Shahnamah, Holmes 51, together with the artists Malik Husayn Isfahani and Muhammad Qasim (see Robinson below). A list of Muhammad Yusuf's known signed paintings is given under lot 69 of Sotheby's sale 'Arts of the Islamic World', London, 24 Apr 2013. A complete list of the 48 miniatures in our manuscript can be downloaded from the following link IO3682_ills.

The third trial: Rustam slays the dragon
IO Isl 3682_f69v
Rustam son of the hero Zal, engaged in a quest to liberate king Kavus from the demons of Mazandaran, undertook seven trials. In the third, Rustam, asleep, was approached by a monstrous dragon. Twice woken by his horse Rakhsh, in the darkness of the night he failed to see any danger and went back to sleep. Woken a third time, however, Rustam finally saw the dragon and with Rakhsh’s help succeeded in killing him. The painting is signed by Muhammad Yusuf.
IO Islamic 3682, f.69v  noc 

The battle of Suhrab and Rustam
 IO Isl 3682_f92r
Unknown to Rustam, princess Tahminah of Samangan gave birth to his son Sohrab. Years later Suhrab and Rostam met on opposite sides in the battlefield, both unaware of their relationship. Rustam mortally wounded Suhrab with a dagger only to recognise, too late, the clasp that he had given Tahminah after their night of passion. Signed by Muhammad Yusuf.
IO Islamic 3682, f.92r   noc

Rustam rescues Bizhan from the pit
IO Isl 3682_f194r
The hero Bizhan, on a hunting trip, ended up joining in an outdoor feast with Manizhah, daughter of Afrasiyab, the arch enemy of Iran. When the festivities finished, Manizhah drugged Bizhan, took him home with her and hid him in the women's quarters. On discovery, he was spared death, but was instead imprisoned in a pit with only the disgraced Manizhah to minister to him. She enlisted Rustam’s help to move the giant rock and free Bizhan with his lassoo.
IO Islamic 3682, f.194r  noc

The death of Rustam
IO Isl 3682_f310v
In old age Rustam’s half brother Shaghad plotted his death. He had pits dug and filled them with spears and sharp swords before covering them over. Spurred on by Rustam, Rakhsh and his rider fell into the trap. Rustam’s dying wish to the treacherous Shaghad was to be handed his bow with two arrows. Granted, he strung it one final time, killing Shaghad who had taken refuge behind a tree.
IO Islamic 3682, f.310v  noc

Bahram Chubinah kills Bahram, son of Siyavash, while playing polo
IO Isl 3682_f483rv
Bahram, son of Siyavash, plotted to kill Bahram Chubinah while playing polo. However, his wicked wife, herself in love with Bahram Chubinah, betrayed her husband, warning Bahram Chubinah that he would be wearing mail under his clothes. Alerted, Bahram Chubinah tapped all the players as he approached them and when he discovered Bahram, he cut him in half with his scimitar.
IO Islamic 3682, f.483  noc

The romance of Khusraw Parviz and Shirin
IO Isl 3682_f510v
Khuraw Parviz had loved Shirin in his youth but gave her up when he became king. Meeting years later, he fell in love with her again and took her home and married her.
IO Islamic 3682, f.510v  noc

As yet this copy of the Shahnamah is completely unrecorded. Hopefully art historians will now be able to get to work on it and assign it to its rightful place in the history of Persian miniature painting.

For comparison with other illustrations, readers should consult the database of the Cambridge Shahnama Project

Further reading

Dick Davis, tr., Shahnameh: the Persian book of kings / Abolqasem Ferdowsi. London: Penguin, 2007.
B.W. Robinson, “Two manuscripts of the Shahnama in the Royal Library, Windsor Castle - II: MS Holmes 151 (A/6)”, Burlington Magazine 110, no. 780 (Mar., 1968), pp. 133-40.
B.W. Robinson, Eleanor Sims, and Manijeh Bayani, The Windsor Shahnama of 1648. London: Azimuth, 2007.
Marianna Shreve Simpson, ‘ŠĀH-NĀMA iv. Illustrations’  in Encyclopædia Iranica, revised 2013.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies


[1] Postscript: with thanks to Eleanor Sims for recently pointing out the sixth identification (f. 368r) which I had originally overlooked!

27 December 2013

How many people does it take to digitise a Malay manuscript?

In my final post for this year on the Malay manuscripts digitisation project, I thought I would give a glimpse of the 'food chain' for digitising a Malay manuscript.

To start with, none of this would have been possible without our generous patrons, William and Judith Bollinger, who, when they moved from London to Singapore, expressed their desire to support collaboration between the British Library and the National Library Board (NLB) of Singapore, by digitising material held in the British Library of interest to Singapore.  The evolution of the project was overseen by Sarah Frankland and colleagues in the Development Office, while three main collection areas in the BL – Malay manuscripts, early maps of Singapore, and papers relating to Sir Stamford Raffles – were identified by Noryati Abdul Samad and Ong Eng Chuan of the NLB during a research visit to London in January 2012.  

Once we had agreed to start by digitising all the Malay manuscripts in the British Library, Rossitza Atanassova, Digital Curator, kindly shepherded me through the complex technical and procedural framework of the process.  The selection of Malay manuscripts was made from the authoritative published catalogue by M.C. Ricklefs & P. Voorhoeve, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain (London, 1977), but one of my main tasks was to recatalogue all the manuscripts on the BL’s online catalogue using the Integrated Archives and Manuscripts System (IAMS).  All the manuscripts selected for digitisation had to be condition-checked by conservator Jane Pimlott, and at this important hurdle, a few items had to be dropped as being too fragile. Then, with the helpful advice of Anna Vernon, Andrew Tullis and Rachel Marshall, all the choices had to be considered carefully to ensure that digitisation would not cause breaches of copyright, necessitating the further omission of a couple of more recent items.  

The collection of treaties in Malay and Tausug signed between Alexander Dalrymple for the East India Company and the sultans of Sulu, 1761-1764, which can not currently be digitised due to the poor condition of the volume.  British Library, IOR: H/629.  noc

It was an exciting moment when photography started: Chris Lee allocated us space in the Imaging Studios in June 2013, and assigned photographer Neil Cowland to the task.  As Neil worked through the manuscripts, producing high-resolution TIFF images of nearly 100 MB per page, Sarah Biggs quality-checked all resulting images.  One of the most complicated elements of the process was filenaming: according to long-standing British Library conventions, blank pages and fly leaves of a manuscript are not numbered, but the resulting digital images needed to be numbered appropriately to ensure they appeared in correct sequence in the digitised version of the manuscript.  

Neil Cowland preparing to photograph a manuscript in the Imaging Studios of the British Library.  

Sarah Biggs checking the qualityof a digital image from a manuscript of Hikayat Dewa Mandu, Add. 12376.  Sarah is famed as the author of the ‘Knight v. Snail’ posting in Sept 2013 on the BL’s Medieval Manuscripts blog, which garnered 36,000 views worldwide in a single day!

Finally, all images were published online in the DIPS system, through the BL’s Digitised Manuscripts site, which was originally developed for a Greek manuscripts digitisation project funded by the Stavros Niarchos foundation.  The Malay project was the first time that manuscripts written in a right-to-left script had been uploaded, and the ‘open book’ viewer, showing two facing pages side-by-side, therefore needed adjustment.  The revised viewer, which has been developed by Paul Jones and Ken Tsang, will benefit not just Malay manuscripts but all other languages written in right-to-left scripts such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Hebrew.

Screen shot 1 copy

'Open book' view of a book in Arabic script, read from right to left, in the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts viewer.  Malay Qur'an, from Kelantan or Patani, 19th c., Or. 15227, ff. 3v-4r.

Screen shot 2 copy
'Open book' view for books in right-to-left scripts in the new prototype of the Digitised Manuscripts viewer, which will also offer a 'top to bottom' viewing option for palm leaf and other manuscripts.

So when the Memorandum of Understanding – drafted by Shanthi Thambapillai – was signed on 19 August 2013 in Singapore by Chief Executives Roly Keating for the BL and Elaine Ng for the NLB, and the first few digitised Malay manuscripts went live on both the BL and NLB websites, it represented the culmination of many months’ work.  Efforts to publicise the digitised manuscripts continue, through the Asian & African Studies Blog and Twitter account @BLAsia_Africa pioneered by Ursula Sims-Williams and Malini Roy, and the appreciative comments we receive from all over the world, particularly from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, are our greatest reward.  

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

23 December 2013

Mantiq al-tayr ('the Speech of Birds'), part 2

Among the treasures recently digitised thanks to the generous support of the Iran Heritage Foundation is a fine 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. A recent posting introduced the poem and discussed some textual and artistic features of the manuscript. This posting examines the first three illustrations (see Titley, p. 35) and the accompanying text, in relation to ‘Aṭṭār’s poem and some of its principal themes. The intention is to discuss the remaining six paintings in two future postings.

British Library Add.7753, f. 28v  noc

On folio 28v (cf. ed. Gawharīn, pp. 43-45), a beggar kneels before the princess he loves, who is accompanied by a dark-skinned woman. The latter (not mentioned in the poem) is either a maid or perhaps an adviser; the reason for suggesting the latter possibility is that her body language suggests that she is listening intently to the conversation – something servants are rarely portrayed as doing in Persian miniatures.

One day, long before, the princess had smiled at the poor man. That fatal smile had aroused false, but irrepressible, hopes in him. For years the beggar lives with the street dogs at the gates of her palace, hoping to win her love. Finally the princess sends for him and tells him that he must leave since it has been decided that otherwise he will be put to death. In reply, the beggar exclaims that he is happy to die for love of her, but asks the princess why she had smiled at him. She explains that she had simply been amused by his foolishness and naivety. The text on the page illustrated tells us that

The girl summoned the beggar secretly, and told him:
  ‘How could one like you be paired with one like me?
They’re out to get you. Run away! Be off!
  Don’t sit on my doorstep. Get up and be off!’
Said the beggar, ‘I washed my hands of life
  the day I fell madly in love with you.
May a myriad lives, like that of my restless soul,
  be scattered each moment before your face!
Since they’re going to kill me, though wrongfully,
  be kind and answer one question from me…’

British Library Add.7753, f. 30v  noc

Folio 30v (cf. ed. Gawharīn, p. 46) depicts the hoopoe, leader of the birds, and the peacock. Most of the birds produce reasons why they cannot – or will not – set out on the perilous quest for the wondrous Sīmurgh bird. The vain and splendid peacock, having been banished from the joys of Paradise because of his pride, explains that he is unable to join the group because he is too much obsessed by the desire to return to his former celestial abode. In ‘Aṭṭār’s words:

Said [the peacock], ‘Though I am Gabriel among birds,
  something far from good came upon me through fate.
[The above couplet is at the bottom of the preceding page.]
Somewhere a foul serpent became my companion,
  so I fell in humiliation from Paradise.
When the place of my solitary worship was changed,
  my legs were tied up to the place where I stood.
Yet I am resolved, with the help of a guide,
  to find my way to Heaven from this dark place.
I’m not the kind of man to reach the King;
  to be moving about would be enough for me.
Why should the Sīmurgh care about me at all?
  the Highest Paradise is enough for me.
I have no other things to do in this world,
   if only I can get to Heaven once more.’

The rejoinder (on the next page) comes from the Hoopoe. It is not enough, he argues, for God’s creatures to aspire to the delights of Paradise. They were created to know and worship when the Creator of all, Who is like a boundless ocean possessing beauties and perfections beyond all reckoning and imagining – compared to which Paradise itself is a mere droplet.

British Library Add.7753, f. 49r   noc

On folio 49r (ed. Gawharīn, p. 68), the venerable Shaykh Ṣan‘ān (or Sam‘ān) falls helplessly in love as he gazes at a Christian maiden on her balcony. In this famous tale the Shaykh abandons his Muslim faith, drinks wine, and becomes the girl’s swineherd; his disciples leave in despair. Eventually, however, the maiden sees a vision and embraces Islam, while the Shaykh too regains his former faith. The verses on this page recount the beginning of the tale.

So four hundred disciples, men of worth,
  set out on the journey together with him.
From the Ka‘ba they went to furthest Asia Minor,
  marching round Anatolia from head to foot.
By chance there was a high balcony
  upon which a Christian maiden was sitting –
a Christian girl like a heavenly angel,
  with hundredfold knowledge of Christ’s way,
her beauty’s sun in Perfection’s sign [of the zodiac].
  A sun she was – but one that never set!

Before telling this extraordinary story ‘Aṭṭār explains its significance. The seeker after God, in transcending the boundaries of his limited vision, must leave behind all his preconceptions, all that that he thinks he knows. In figurative poetic language this is termed ‘infidelity’ (kufr), or the renunciation of one’s former faith, although this does not signify literally abandoning all conventional religious beliefs and practices. The Hoopoe tells the birds:

Love will open the door of poverty to you;
  Poverty will guide you to Infidelity.
When you’ve neither this faith or this unbelief,
  this soul and this body of yours are no more.
After that you’ll be man enough for this task –
  and it takes a man to unveil such secrets!
Set out like a man and have no fear;
  Pass beyond unbelief and belief. Have no fear.
How much more of this dread? Leave childhood be!
  Be falcons, be lions of men, for this quest.
Should a hundred trials come up suddenly,
  still there’s naught to fear once you’re on this Path!

(Translations by M.I. Waley)

This manuscript is now available to read in entirety on the British Library's digitised manuscripts page. Follow us on Twitter to keep in touch with further developments at @BLAsia_Africa.

Further reading
‘Aṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm. Manṭiq al-ṭayr. 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.
Ritter, Helmut. The Ocean of the Soul: men, the world and God in the stories of Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār. Tr. J. O’Kane. Leiden, 2003.
Titley, N.M. Miniatures from Persian manuscripts. London, 1974.

Muhammad Isa Waley, Asian and African Studies



20 December 2013

Malay manuscripts digitisation project completes first year

As 2013 draws to a close, it is a pleasure to announce the successful completion of the first stage of the project to digitise all the Malay manuscripts in the British Library, in collaboration with the National Library of Singapore, generously funded by William and Judy Bollinger. 56 Malay manuscripts, mostly from the historic collections of the British Museum, have been fully digitised and are now accessible online through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site (search with keyword ‘Malay’), and copies of the images are also being made available via the National Library of Singapore’s BookSG website.  

As regular subscribers to this blog will know, each week we have been highlighting a different Malay manuscript, aiming to give each its ‘15 minutes of fame’. Some are already well-known, such as the earliest of only two manuscripts recorded of Hikayat Raja Pasai (Or. 14350) and the beautiful Taj al-Salatin from Penang (Or. 13295), but others less so, including a previously unknown copy of Hikayat Hang Tuah (Or. 16215) which had spent most of its life in Wales. In one case, an obscure manuscript was catapulted to fame: ‘The Malay story of the Pig King’, posted on 18 Nov 2013 featuring our unique Hikayat Raja Babi manuscript (Add. 12393), has received over 4,800 page views, far more than any other posting on this blog!

We have now launched a Digital Access to Malay Manuscripts project page, which lists all the Malay manuscripts digitised so far, and which will be updated in the course of 2014 as we begin to photograph manuscripts from the India Office collections for the second half of the project. Shown below are some of manuscripts which can now be read in full online, while highlights to look forward to next year include the important record of court regulations from 17th-century Aceh, Adat Aceh (MSS Malay B.11) and a fine illuminated copy of Hikayat Nabi Yusuf (MSS Malay D.10) copied in Perlis.  

Sulalat al-Salatin, more popularly known as Sejarah Melayu, 'Malay Annals', the chronicle of the Malay sultanate of Melaka, copied in Melaka, 1873.  British Library, Or. 14734, ff. 1v-2r.  noc


The zoom capabilities of the Digitised Manuscripts viewer allow close study of the scribe's pen strokes and even the texture of the paper, as in these opening words of the Sejarah Melayu.  British Library, Or. 14734, f. 1v (detail).  noc


Kitab mawlid, poems in praise of the Prophet, in Arabic with interlinear Malay translation.  A manuscript from Aceh with fine illuminated frames, 19th c.  British Library, Or. 16769, ff.6v-7r.  noc


Malay-English vocabulary, 1731. British Library, Egerton 933, ff. 1v-2r.  noc


The digitisation of the full manuscript allows the study of not only the text but also other notes, jottings and doodles in the manuscript, such as these end pages from Hikayat Dewa Mandu, copied in Semarang, late 18th c. British Library, Add. 12376, ff.220v-221r noc


Some of the digitised manuscripts contain material in languages other than Malay.  A volume of farewell letters to Thomas Stamford Raffles on his departure from Java in 1816  includes many letters in Javanese, including this one from Raden Adipati Prawiro Adinagoro, Regent of Bangkil.  British Library, Add. 45273, f. 91r noc

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


17 December 2013

Lakshman cuts off the nose of Shurpanakha

The Visual Arts department has recently added to its collection a folio from the dispersed ‘Impey’ Ramayana. The Ramayana manuscript is named for its patron Sir Elijah Impey, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Calcutta in the late 18th century. Sir Elijah and Lady Mary Impey were well-established patrons of art and often commissioned illustrations to manuscripts or sets of paintings by local artists in Bengal. The provenance of this folio, as well as the rest of the series, is authenticated by the seal of Sir Elijah Impey stamped on the verso. Impey's manuscript (or possibly even a portfolio), which consisted of 44 single sided folios with no text pages, was later acquired by Sir Thomas Phillipps Bt (1792-1872). In 1968, the 44 folios were dispersed at auction.

The British Library is currently the only national collection to have in its collection a folio from this dispersed series. The only other folio, showing Rama kills Vali, in a public collection is at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  

Lakshman cuts of the nose of Shurpanakha by a Murshidabad artist, c. 1780. Opaque watercolour on paper. British Library, Add.Or.5725
Lakshman cuts of the nose of Shurpanakha by a Murshidabad artist, c. 1780. Opaque watercolour on paper. British Library, Add.Or.5725  noc

The Ramayana is one of the great Sanskrit epics narrating the story of Rama, prince of Ayodhya, who lived in exile for 14 years. The story is attributed to the sage Valmiki, a contemporary of Rama.  Accompanied by his wife Sita and brother Lakshman, the Ramayama recounts their adventures and misfortunes including the kidnapping of Sita by the demon Ravana. The epic tale is composed of 24,000 verses that were divided into seven books. The episode depicted here, featuring Lakshman cutting off the nose of Shurpanakha, is reported in the Aranyakanda (‘Book of the Forest’).

Shurpanakha, the sister of Ravana (the 10-headed demon king of Lanka) encountered the handsome Rama at his hermitage. Awestruck by his beauty, she instantly transformed herself from a hideous demon with matted red hair into a vision of beauty. Initally rebuffed by Rama, she approached Lakshman and proclaimed: ‘My beauty renders me a worthy wife for thee; therefore come and we will range the Dandaka Forest and mountains happily together’ (Shastri 1952-59). Lakshman replied in jest: ‘how canst thou wish to become the wife of a slave, such as I? I am wholly dependent on my noble brother. Thou whose complexion resembles the lotus, who art pleasing to look upon and chaste? Lady of large eyes, though art a paragon, do thou become the consort of that matchless hero. Renouncing that ugly, evil and peevish old woman, whose limbs are deformed, he will certainly devote himself to thee! Lady of ravishing complexion and lovely limbs, what sensible man would sacrifice that unrivalled beauty of thine for an ordinary woman?’ (Shastri 1952-59).

Grasping the reality of his prose, Shurapanka unfurled her wrath on Rama’s beautiful wife Sita. Lakshman immediately pulled his sword and cut off the nose and ears of Shurpanakha!

Detail showing Lakshman mutilating Shurpanakha
Detail showing Lakshman mutilating Shurpanakha  noc

Shrieking in pain and her face streaming with blood, she fled to her brother Ravana. The 10-headed demon sent his army to retaliate. In the lower half of the page, Rama and Lakshman are featured in combat with the demon army.

Detail showing Rama fighting the demons
Detail showing Rama fighting the demons  noc

This folio from the Impey Ramayana provides art historians the opportunity to further explore the regional style of painting at Murshidabad in Bengal in the 18th century. Impey’s commissions, including a set of ragamala paintings (British Library, Add.Or.4-8 and Add.Or.27-31) and the illustrations to a Razmnama manuscript (British Library, Add.5638-5640), are typically painted in a more refined and imperial style of painting. The artist who depicted Lakshman brutally mutilating the demon appears to have rapidly executed his paintings with the figures modeled with thick outlines and stylised features. There is little attention to the fine details. With further research on the illustrations to the Impey Ramayana and other commissions, it might be possible to ascertain the extent of Sir Elijah’s personal influence on the artistic style of this manuscript and regional artists. Through additional research on the illustrations to this series, it might be possible to create a detailed timeline of the artistic practices in Murshidabad.

Material held in the Visual Arts department can be viewed by appointment in the Print Room. The Print Room located in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room and is open Monday-Friday afternoons. 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.

Further reading:

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

J.P. Losty, The Art of the Book in India, British Library, 1982

J.P. Losty, The Ramayana: Love and Valour in India's great epic, British Library, 2008

H.P. Shastri (trans.), The Ramayana of Valmiki, Shanti Shadan, 1952-59


Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator  ccownwork



12 December 2013

Reading Malay manuscripts with children

Many of the Malay manuscripts in the British Library came from the private libraries of British collectors. What did these collectors do with their Malay books: did they read them for pleasure, or for research, or did they just buy them as exotic curiosities? The two Malay manuscripts from  Sir Hans Sloane reflect his insatiable appetite for books written in all the languages of the world, while the Welsh surgeon Thomas Phillips bought his Malay manuscripts only to give them away again almost immediately, for his particular ‘obsession’ was endowing institutional libraries.  On the other hand, the Library’s superb Taj al-Salatin manuscript was specially selected in Penang by Ralph Rice as an exquisite gift for his bibliophile brother in Brighton, to be admired for its fine calligraphy, impressive illumination, de luxe red leather and gilt binding and recognisedly edifying contents, despite the fact that there was little chance that it would ever be read.

One collector who certainly did read his own Malay manuscripts was John Crawfurd (1783-1868).  Crawfurd served with the East India Company all over Southeast Asia, including periods as Resident of Yogyakarta (1811-16) and Singapore (1823-26), and he spoke and read Malay and Javanese. In 1840 Crawfurd offered his collection of 136 Malay, Bugis and Javanese manuscripts and books to the British Museum for the sum of £516. This offer was refused by Frederic Madden, Keeper of Manuscripts, for although he viewed it as the most complete collection in Europe of 'the lowest class of oriental literature', it was too expensive. A deal was finally struck in 1842, when Crawfurd’s collection was purchased for £250, and it is today held in the British Library (Harris 1998: 134).  

Hikayat Putera Gangga, from John Crawfurd’s collection, with the lines numbered in pencil, presumably for his future reference.  The manuscript has been fully digitised and can be read here. British Library, Add. 12385, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

In the intervening period, however, it appears that Crawfurd may have hawked his collection around and even sold one or two manuscripts, for the Staatsbibliothek (Preussischer Kulturbesitz) in Berlin owns a manuscript of Hikayat Dewa Mandu formerly belonging to Crawfurd, another copy of which is still found in the Crawfurd collection in the British Library (Add. 12376). Neither of the published catalogues of the Malay manuscripts in the Staatsbibliothek (Asma 1992: 124-6; Snouck Hurgronje 1989: 73-82) mentions the name of Crawfurd as a previous owner, but a clue is hidden within the pages of the book itself.  

SPB (124)
Hikayat Dewa Mandu, a fantastical Malay adventure narrative, from the collection of John Crawfurd.  MS. Or. Fol. 404, ff. 1v-2r. Reproduced with kind permission of the Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz).  

I visited the Staatsbibliothek in 2006 to see this manuscript - which has colourful decorated initial frames - as part of an ongoing study of illuminated manuscripts from the Malay world. But while looking through the pages, I was amazed to come across a small pencil sketch in the margin, of a family of ‘stick people’ – father, mother and child – labelled ‘J.C.’, ‘H.C.’ and ‘F.C.’, with the explanation written in pencil above: ‘John Crawfurd, Esq.’, ‘A. Horatia Crawfurd’ and ‘Flora Crawfurd’. An image immediately floated into my mind’s eye of how this manuscript must have been read nearly two centuries earlier. I could just picture John Crawfurd, sitting in a chair reading the Hikayat Dewa Mandu, with his young daughter Flora on his lap. As she got fidgety, he would have hushed her – perhaps by telling her of the adventures of Prince Dewa Mandu, and how he rescued the beautiful Princess Lela Ratna Kumala, who had been turned into an elephant by the wicked demon king Dewa Raksa Malik after she refused to marry his son – and then, as the fidgets continued, tried to amuse her by drawing on the page a picture of Daddy, Mummy, and little Flora.  John Crawfurd and his wife Anne Horatia (nee Perry) had two sons and three daughters, named Margaret, Horatia Charlotte and Eleanor, and so 'Flora' may have been the nickname of one of the girls. Crawfurd appears to have found reading Hikayat Dewa Mandu heavy going – perhaps little Flora just wouldn’t leave him in peace  In very faint pencil, towards the end of the manuscript (and not even the last page!) he has written, ‘Finis (Thank god)’.  

SPB (118)
Crawfurd’s pencil sketch of his family in the margin of Hikayat Dewa Mandu.  MS. Or. Fol. 404, p.77 (detail). Reproduced with kind permission of the Staatsbibliothek (Preussischer Kulturbesitz).

SPB (128)
Crawfurd’s faint pencilled comment, ‘Finis (Thank god)’, towards the end of Hikayat Dewa Mandu.  MS. Or. Fol. 404 (detail). Reproduced with kind permission of the Staatsbibliothek (Preussischer Kulturbesitz).

Further reading

Asma Ahmat, Katalog manuskrip Melayu di Jerman Barat.  Catalogue of Malay manuscripts in West Germany.  Kuala Lumpur: Perpustakaan Negara Malaysia, 1992. (Siri bibliografi manuskrip; 8)

P.R. Harris, A history of the British Museum Library 1753-1973.  London: British Library, 1998

Snouck Hurgronje, C., Katalog der Malaiischen Handschriften der Königlichen Bibliothek in Berlin.  Reproduction of the manuscript (Leiden Cod. Or. 8015), edited with an introduction by E.U. Kratz.  Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1989. (Verzeichnis der Orientalischen Handschriften in Deutschland; Supplementband 29)

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


09 December 2013

Disentangling the Robert Smiths

The artistic career of Colonel Robert Smith (1787-1873), of the Bengal Engineers, is one of the most interesting among the many soldier artists who were in India in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although his work is well known, there are certain confusions about his output which this note is designed to clarify. There were in fact two soldier artists Robert Smiths in India in the early 19th century.  Our Smith was in India from 1805 to 1830, in the Bengal Engineers. Eight of his watercolours (WD2087-94) and five sketchbooks packed with topographical drawings (WD309-13) are in the British Library’s collections, as well as two small oil paintings (F864-5, see: The sketchbooks all date from 1812-15, while the eight watercolours date from 1814. In her catalogue Mildred Archer (1969: 317-23) dated the watercolours to 1833 through confusing his work with that of another Robert Smith (1792-1882), a Captain in the British regiment of the line H.M. 44th (East Essex) Foot, which was in India 1825-33.  This Captain Smith prepared an illustrated diary of Indian views from 1828-33 and drew various panoramas of Indian cities, all now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Rohatgi and Parlett:  207-10).

Our Robert Smith joined the Bengal Engineers immediately after his arrival in Calcutta in 1805. His first post was as Assistant to Major Fleming in building at the Nawab's palace at Murshidabad a new Palladian banqueting hall for entertaining British visitors, a building which he was subsequently to paint.

Robert Smith, The Nawab’s Palace at Murshidabad, 1814.  Watercolour on paper.  19 by 35 cm. WD2094
Robert Smith, The Nawab’s Palace at Murshidabad, 1814.  Watercolour on paper.  19 by 35 cm. WD2094. noc

After completing a number of engineering works in Bengal in 1808-10, Smith went off on the Governor-General Lord Minto's expedition to capture Mauritius from the French in 1810.  On his return he was commended by the Surveyor General as ‘by far the best draughtsman I am acquainted with’, which may be one of the reasons he was selected to accompany as A.D.C. the Commander-in-Chief Sir George Nugent on his tour of the Upper Provinces, 1812-13. We learn more of his artistic talents from his art-loving admirer Lady Nugent in her Journal :  ‘Received a present of drawings from Mr. Smith, an engineer A.D.C.  He draws beautifully, and his sketches are all so correct, that I know every place immediately’ (v. I, 277). 

Robert Smith, The Ghats at Haridwar, January 1813.  Pencil on paper.  Size of folio: 27 by 44.5 cm.  WD309, ff.21v, 22.
Robert Smith, The Ghats at Haridwar, January 1813.  Pencil on paper.  Size of folio: 27 by 44.5 cm.  WD309, ff.21v, 22.  noc

WD309 covers Smith’s time with the Nugents December 1812 to January 1813 when they were travelling from Haryana up to Haridwar. On a later occasion Lady Nugent wrote: ‘I took the engineer officer, Mr. Smith, with me, and we projected a drawing of the line of march, which will be a treasure to me if he executes it according to my plan, and I have little doubt of its being quite perfect, by what I have seen of his drawings’ (v. I, 395).

Robert Smith, Sketches on the Line of March, 1814.  Pencil on paper.  27 by 44.5 cm.  WD312, f.25v.
Robert Smith, Sketches on the Line of March, 1814.  Pencil on paper.  27 by 44.5 cm.  WD312, f.25v.  noc

Of the many images in these five sketchbooks, I have selected two, one indicative of Smith’s remarkable draughtsmanship, the other illustrating Lady Nugent’s comments about her proposed line of march (although this drawing is actually from a later tour with Lord Moira, not with the Nugents).

He was next appointed as Inspecting Engineer to accompany Lord Moira (both Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief) on his tour to the Upper Provinces from May 1814, being ‘selected from his character for talents and abilities’. He was with Moira until the end of 1814 when he joined General Martindell's Division in the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814-15, when he was appointed Assistant Field Engineer.

Archer conflates the two Robert Smiths (1969: 317-18) and when discussing the eight fine watercolours by Robert Smith in the collection (ibid., 322-3), gives them the precise dates in 1833 when the other Robert Smith visited these places according to his journal in the V & A, forgetting that our Robert Smith had gone to England in 1830 and retired in 1832. Giles Tillotson (in Bayly 1990: no. 258), aware of this inconvenient fact, but still following Archer's precise datings, gives them to this second Robert Smith, with whose work they have nothing in common. In fact the entire group is earlier, some of them being painted on paper watermarked 1807. They form a series of views along the river Ganges, from Murshidabad to Allahabad, and can best be dated to Smith's journey upriver to join Lord Moira in 1814. 

Robert Smith, Distant View of the Ganges at Bhagalpur, with Augustus Cleveland’s House, 1814.  Watercolour on paper, 19 by 35 cm.  WD2092
Robert Smith, Distant View of the Ganges at Bhagalpur, with Augustus Cleveland’s House, 1814.  Watercolour on paper, 19 by 35 cm.  WD2092. noc

Robert Smith, Aurangzeb’s Mosque at Varanasi, 1814.  Watercolour on paper, 19 by 35 cm.  WD2089.
Robert Smith, Aurangzeb’s Mosque at Varanasi, 1814.  Watercolour on paper, 19 by 35 cm.  WD2089. noc

Robert Smith, Mosque and Fort at Allahabad, 1814.  Watercolour on paper, 19 by 35 cm.  WD2087
Robert Smith, Mosque and Fort at Allahabad, 1814.  Watercolour on paper, 19 by 35 cm.  WD2087. noc

Not only are these superb watercolours, they give us precious information about the past before the age of photography. Smith’s view of Allahabad, for instance, focuses on a strange looking hybrid of a building, which is referred to by Lord Moira in his journal entry for 27 September 1814: ‘A mosque of rather elegant structure stands on the esplanade beyond the glacis. When we obtained possession of Allahabad, the proprietary right in the mosque was considered as transferred by the former Government to ours; and from some temporary exigency, the building was filled with stores. These being subsequently removed, much injury, through wantonness or neglect, was suffered by the edifice; and upon some crude suggestion, our Government had directed it to be pulled down. ... The Moslems now implored that the building might be regarded as a monument of piety, and be spared. I have ordered that it shall be cleansed and repaired, and then delivered over to the petitioners’ (Hastings 1858: v. I, 161-2). Smith’s drawing shows us the mosque in question, but it is obvious that after the British got hold of Allahabad in 1801, they ‘classicised’ the mosque as they did the fort’s great gateway and the buildings within, with alterations to the dome and windows.

Thomas Daniell, Fort and Mosque at Allahabad from the River Jumna, 1789. Pencil and wash. 23 by 38 cm. WD196.
Thomas Daniell, Fort and Mosque at Allahabad from the River Jumna, 1789. Pencil and wash. 23 by 38 cm. WD196.  noc

A drawing by Thomas Daniell dating from 1789 shows what the original structure looked like complete with cupolas and minarets and pointed Mughal arches on the model of Akbar’s mosque at Fatehpur Sikri.  This mosque does not seem to have survived.

An alternative dating for Smith’s series of watercolours is 1822, when he was on his way to take up his post in Delhi (see below), but this seems unlikely in view of the watermarked date. One of the views, of the palace of the Nawab of Murshidabad seen above, is demonstrably the old palace with Major Fleming’s banqueting hall, not the new one built 1829-37 by Colonel McLeod.

William Prinsep, The New Palace at Murshidabad, c. 1835.  Watercolour on paper.  22.5 by 44cm. WD4032. The palace was built between 1829 and 1837, but Prinsep’s misplacing of the pediments suggests it was not yet complete when he sketched it.
William Prinsep, The New Palace at Murshidabad, c. 1835.  Watercolour on paper.  22.5 by 44cm. WD4032. The palace was built between 1829 and 1837, but Prinsep’s misplacing of the pediments suggests it was not yet complete when he sketched it. noc

Smith was next appointed as Superintending Engineer and Executive Officer at Prince of Wales Island (Penang), where he remained until 1819, when he took three years of leave (Smith 1821). He returned to India on 30 October 1822 and was appointed Garrison Engineer and Executive Officer at Delhi, where he remained for the rest of his Indian career, except for joining Lord Combermere's forces for the siege of Bharatpur in 1825-6. There he was wounded – ‘I fear that I shall be sometime deprived of the very efficient services of Captain Smith of the Engineers who has unfortunately received a severe contusion on the left shoulder from a spent shot from a jingal’ (Lord Combermere's Dispatch 26 December 1825). In addition to the usual garrison work in Delhi, Smith repaired the Jami’ Masjid ‘in an entirely satisfactory manner and at an expense considerably below the calculated charges. The fullest testimony borne to his exertions, skill, and economy’ (Revenue Letter from Bengal, 16 August 1827). His most famous enterprise in Delhi was the repair of the upper two storeys of the Qutb Minar, and his controversial addition of a cupola in a Mughal style.  

Anon. Delhi artist, The Qutb Minar with Robert Smith’s cupola, c. 1830.  Page 28 by 22 cm.  Add.Or.4034.
Anon. Delhi artist, The Qutb Minar with Robert Smith’s cupola, c. 1830.  Page 28 by 22 cm.  Add.Or.4034. noc

‘Government sanctioned the expense of a small estimate for the care of the Minar under the judicious rules framed by him’ (Political Letter, 9 October 1830, para. 40). ‘The zeal and ability with which he successfully conducted the important public undertaking [the maintenance of the Doab Canal] so long carried on under his superintendence was acknowledged by Government (Misc. Revenue Letter from Bengal, 6 September 1831, para 39).  

Smith’s later work in India consists of topographical views in oils and is relatively well known (see Head 1981, Tillotson 1992). Leave to Europe via Bombay was granted in November 1830, when he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, and he reported his arrival in England to the Court of Directors on 29 June 1831. His appointment as C.B. was announced in G.O. 3 May 1832. He formally retired in November 1832 at the relatively young age of 45. He continued to paint and numerous of his oil paintings have passed through the salerooms over the years.

Further Reading:

Bengal Army Service Records, IOR: L/MIL/10/21, 131-3, and no. 32

Archer, Mildred, British Drawings in the India Office Library (London, 1969): 317-23

Bayly, C.A. (ed.), The Raj:  India and the British 1600-1947 (London, 1991): 257-9

Hastings, 1st Marquess of, The Private Journal of the Marquess of Hastings, K.G., ed. by the Marchioness of Bute (London, 1858)

Head, Raymond, ‘Colonel Robert Smith: Artist., Architect and Engineer’, Country Life 169 (1981): 1432-4, 1524-8

Nugent, Maria, A Journal from the Year 1811 till the Year 1815 … (London, 1839)

Rohatgi, Pauline, and Parlett, Graham, Indian Life and Landscape by Western Artists:  Paintings and Drawings from the Victoria and Albert Museum (London and Mumbai, 2008): 207-10

Smith, Robert, Views of Prince of Wales Island, engraved and coloured by William Daniell …(London, 1821)

Tillotson, G., Robert Smith (1787-1873), Paintings of the Mosque at the Qutb Minar, Delhi, Indar Pasricha Fine Arts (London, 1992)


J.P. Losty, Curator of Visual Arts (retired)  ccownwork


07 December 2013

Malay manuscripts from Borneo

The two Malay manuscripts from Banjar presented here could not be more different in content and form: one a carefully-crafted court chronicle, presenting and perpetuating the public image of a Malay sultanate; the other a letter written hastily with no thought for posterity, and yet which nearly two centuries later vividly conveys some of the preoccupations of daily life in Kalimantan in the mid-19th century.  

The alun-alun or public square in Banjar.  Photograph by G.F.J. (Georg Friedrich Johannes) Bley, 1925-1933.  Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT).  noc

Hikayat Banjar is the dynastic chronicle of the most important kingdom on the south coast of the island of Borneo.  Its narrative, spanning the 15th to 17th centuries, relates the founding of the kingdom of Banjar, the rise of the ruling house, and its later conversion to Islam.  According to the text, the kingdom was founded by a merchant prince from India who comes to seek his fortune in Southeast Asia.  His newly-established court, modelled on the great Javanese kingdoms to the south across the Java sea, initially thrives on trade with China, but is eventually unsettled by the booming pepper market and its impact on the established social order in Banjar.

The first page of the Hikayat Banjar, which begins with the story of a rich merchant in India named Saudagar Mangkubumi, ancestor of the kings of Banjar.  British Library, Add.12392, f.2v.    noc

The text of Hikayat Banjar was completed in or soon after 1663, but all surviving manuscripts date from the nineteenth century.  The British Library’s manuscript, Add.12392, which has just been digitised and can be read online here, is the earliest copy known of this work.  It was copied in 1816 for Thomas Stamford Raffles while he was Lieutenant-Governor of Java (1811-1816), through the assistance of Sultan Syarif Kasim of Pontianak (r.1808-1819), on the west coast of Borneo.  According to a note at the beginning of this manuscript, Raffles had asked the Sultan - who had previously sent him a Malay legal text and a copy of the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain - to find him a manuscript of Hikayat Banjar.  Sultan Syarif Kasim had despatched a boat in search of the text, and a copy was finally located in the possession of the ruler of Kota Ringin in south Borneo, from which the present manuscript was copied.  But by the time the copy was completed Raffles had already left Java for Europe, and so Sultan Syarif Kasim writes that he is sending the manuscript to John Crawfurd, Resident of Yogyakarta in Java, in order that Crawfurd might convey it to Raffles in England.  Probably due to the scholarly rivalry between Crawfurd and Raffles – both were engaged in writing major works on the history of  the Malay archipelago – the manuscript was never delivered to Raffles, and in 1842 entered the British Museum along with Crawfurd’s other Malay manuscripts.

The note dated 1 Zulkaidah 1231 (23 September 1816) explaining that the manuscript was a gift from the sultan of Pontianak for Raffles: Ini surat hikayat Lambu Mangkurat Jenral Mister Raffles sudah minta kepada Sultan di negeri Pontianak tolong cari ini hikayat, maka Sultan Pontianak sudah suruh satu perahu cari ini hikayat, maka sudah dapat di dalam negeri Kota Ringin kepada raja Kota Ringin, maka Sultan Pontianak sudah dengar khabar Mister Raffles Lutenan Jeneral sudah pulang di Europa, maka Sultan Pontianak sudah kasih ini hikayat kepada sahabat kita Kapitan William Scott biar Kapitan William Scott kasih kepada Mister Crawfurd residen di dalam negeri Jogja, dan jika Mister Crawfurd pulang di negeri Europa bilang sultan Pontianak kasih tabik salam banyak2 kepada Mister Raffles.  Tertulis pada satu hari bulan Zulkaidah pada tarikh sanat 1231.  British Library, Add. 12392, f.1r (detail).  noc

The second manuscript is a very brief letter, Or. 14537, dated 8 Zulhijah 1259 (30 December 1843).  It is from Haji Abdul Rahman, penghulu or chief of Banjarmasin, to two Dutch officials, asking for the return of wooden beams for the mosque, urgently needed before of the feast of Id al-Adha on the following Monday.  The single sheet of paper was then simply folded and then sealed shut, and the address written on the outside.  Haji Abdul Rahman writes his signature in fluent roman letters, suggesting he was literate in both Arabic and Latin script.  Why or how this letter - never intended to outlast its aim of retrieving the mosque beams - survived is not known, but we are glad to have it, as a rare example of a concise Indonesian 'memo' written nearly two hundred years ago.

Text of the letter: Bahwa ini surat daripada saya Haji Abdul Rahman penghulu di Banjarmasin mendapatkan sahabat saya Tuan Hendrik postaur di Muara Pantuil atau Sennyur Karlus postaur di Muara Cerucuk. Ini kaum2 mesjid di Banjar saya sudah mencari batang mesjid larut kabar2 orang ada di Pantuil kepada sahabat kita, iaitu kalau betul ada kita minta kembali itu batang pakai batang mesjid boleh sahabat kita kasih saja itu batang kepada yang membawa surat kita ini mau dipakai lekas sebab hari isnin yang di muka ini ada hari besar bulan Haj demikian adanya. Maka tiada apa2 lain hanya dicintakan sahabat kita tetap di dalam segala selamat juga adanya. Hari Sabtu 8 bulan Haj sanat 1259. ‘This is a letter from me Haji Abdul Rahman, Penghulu of Banjarmasin, to my friend Tuan Hendrik, Posthouder of Muara Pantuil, or to Senor Carlos, Posthouder of Muara Cerucuk. My mosque congregation in Banjar has been searching for the beams from the old mosque, and some people say that these are in Pantuil with my friend; if this is true then we request that these be returned for use in the mosque, my friend may give the beams to the bearer of this letter, because we need them urgently as this coming Monday is the feastday of the month of Hajj. There is nothing more to add save my loving wishes that my friend may remain in all safety. Saturday 8th of the month of Hajj, the year 1259.’  British Library, Or. 14537 (detail).  noc

Further reading

I. Proudfoot and A.T. Gallop. ‘57. Hikayat Raja-Raja Banjar’.  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.160-162.

J.J. Ras, Hikajat Bandjar: a study in Malay historiography.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968. (Bibliotheca Indonesica; 1).

A.T. Gallop, Three Malay letters from Sumenep, Banjarmasin and Brunei. Malay-Indonesian studies: dedicated to the 80th birthday of Vilen Sikorsky, ed. Victor A. Pogadaev.  Moscow: Econ-inform, 2012; pp.117-127. (Malay-Indonesian Studies; XIX).

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia