Asian and African studies blog

9 posts from February 2014

28 February 2014

The Adviser (المستشار): Charles Belgrave and Modern Bahrain

At the time of his death on 28 February 1969, Charles Dalrymple Belgrave had not set foot in Bahrain for more than a decade. Yet for over 30 years – between 1926 and 1957 – when he served as Adviser to the rulers of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (reigned 1923-1942[1]) and Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa (1942-1961), Belgrave was an immensely powerful figure in the country and played an instrumental role in its development during this period.

Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and Charles Belgrave, Bahrain, 1945. (Dmitri Kessel—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Born in England on 9 December 1894, Belgrave was educated at Bedford School and Oxford University. After leaving Oxford he joined the British Army and during WWI he served in Egypt, Sudan and Palestine with the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade. After the war, he served as an administrator in the Siwa Oasis in Egypt before becoming an administrative officer in the British mandate of Tanganyika Territory (formerly German East Africa).

In the summer of 1925, while on leave in London from his posting in Tanganyika, Belgrave saw an advertisement for a vacancy in the personal column of The Times newspaper that was to transform his life.

Young Gentleman, aged 22/28, Public School and/or University education, required for service in an Eastern State. Good salary and prospects to suitable man, who must be physicially fit: highest references; proficiency in languages an advantage. Write with full details to Box S.501, The Times, London E.C.4.
(The Times, 10 August 1925)

Belgrave applied for the post and after a series of interviews with British Government officials (including the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Francis Prideaux) he was offered the position of Adviser to Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain. A letter Belgrave wrote to Prideaux in September 1925 reveals that he had conveniently forgotten his own age when he applied (he was 31 at the time and the upper age limit was 28).

First page of a letter sent from Belgrave to Prideaux, 11 September 1925 (IOR/R/15/1/362 f. 1E)

Before setting out for Bahrain, Belgrave completed a three-month Arabic course at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in order to refresh his Arabic and married his fiancée, Marjorie Lepel Barrett-Lennard. The newly-married couple arrived in Manama in March 1926 having combined their journey to Bahrain with their honeymoon.

Belgrave began his new role at a tense time in the country, Shaikh Hamad had been installed as ruler by the British only three years earlier when his father Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa had been forced to step down. This had led to lingering tensions between Shaikh Hamad and factions within Bahrain – including members of his own family – that supported his elderly father, Isa.

Fig 3
Belgrave was Adviser to Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain (pictured above) from 1926 until Hamad’s death in 1942. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Though Bahrain was nominally independent, Britain had dictated its foreign policy since the 19th century, before consolidating its power over the islands in 1900, with the creation of the post of British Political Agent in Bahrain. Although Belgrave was an employee of the Shaikh and not the British Government, as his hiring process clearly demonstrates, his position was closely tied to the colonial aims of the British in the region. Belgrave swiftly became a powerful figure in Bahrain and came to be known simply as ‘The Adviser’ (المستشار). He essentially ran Bahrain’s government, was the head of its police force and – in the absence of an organised legal code – personally operated its courts. Belgrave oversaw a programme of modernisation that saw the creation of an education system, a police force, a health service and an extensive series of public works (including roads, power stations, piers and airports). This transitional period also saw a centralisation of power and the consolidation of both the British and Al Khalifa family’s position in Bahrain. Belgrave was also instrumental in supporting oil exploration in the country, which was the first in the region to discover oil, in 1932.

A 1935 Indian postage stamp picturing King George V that is marked for use in Bahrain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Belgrave is an extremely visible presence in the records of the Political Agency, Bahrain, and elsewhere in the India Office Records held at the British Library, with a very large amount of correspondence and other papers bearing his name, paying testimony to the range of matters he covered and to his great attention to administrative detail. In fact, Belgrave’s fastidious attention to detail was something for which he was criticised. In May 1941, Charles Geoffrey Prior, the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf wrote to his superiors in India that Belgrave had a “tendency to waste time on trivialities”. In the same letter, Prior also claimed that Belgrave’s increasing aloofness had caused a drop in his popularity and that he “and the other Bahrain officials have had their way for so long without any supervision, inspection or control that they have become a society of self-satisfied Czars”.

Extract of letter from Charles Geoffrey Prior to O.K Caroe at the India Office in London, 25 May 1941. (IOR/R/15/1/344 f. 129)

Prior’s concern was prescient as by the 1950s Belgrave had become an unpopular figure in Bahrain; many Bahrainis had grown angry at the amount of power that was centralised in his hands. Belgrave had come to embody British Imperialism in the Middle East at a time of fervent Arab nationalist activity and when, after the Suez Crisis, Britain’s standing in the region had reached a nadir. Belgrave was viewed by many in Bahrain as an impediment to the country making the transition to a democracy and as shown in this BBC archival clip from 1956, calls for him to leave the country were at the forefront of the demands of protestors at the time. As one protestor stated to the BBC reporter, “Belgrave is not just an adviser – he is the judge, and when he goes to the court he is also the police commandant. He is everything in Bahrain, he is not an adviser.” Eventually, in April 1957, Belgrave was forced to leave and was never to set foot in Bahrain again.

Once back in the UK, Belgrave wrote an autobiography named Personal Column which offers a fascinating insight into his life and the development of Bahrain during this period. In the book’s conclusion, Belgrave states his belief that if a more liberal system of government is to be introduced in Bahrain, it should be done so gradually and that any attempt to “rush the process” would be “disastrous” - a clear expression of the attitude that eventually made his position in the country untenable and forced him to leave. Ultimately, Belgrave’s legacy in Bahrain remains a contentious issue, but it is one that anyone wishing to understand the modern history of Bahrain must seriously engage with.

More stories related to the modern history of the Gulf can be found on the British Library's Untold Lives blog.

Further reading:

BL IOR/R/15/1/362: 'File 19/204 I (C 55) Bahrain, Appointment of Financial Adviser, Belgrave and Assistant, Luard'.
BL IOR/R/15/1/344: 'File 19/169 III (C 80) Bahrain Reforms'.
Charles Belgrave, Personal Column (London, 1960).
Charles Belgrave, The Pirate Coast (London, 1966).
Mayy Muḥammad al-Khalīfah , Tshārlz Biljrīf : al-sīrah wa-al-mudhakkirāt (Beirut, 2000).
Photographs of Bahrain: Life Magazine, Life in the Middle East: Power and Petroleum in the Gulf in 1945.

Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
Twitter - @Louis_Allday

[1] Note: some do not recognise Hamad’s reign as formally beginning until the death of his father, Isa in 1932.

26 February 2014

Indonesian and Malay manuscripts in the Endangered Archives Programme

When I first joined the British Library in 1986 as Curator for Maritime Southeast Asia, my official remit was manuscripts and printed books and periodicals in the vernacular languages of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines. I also regarded myself as having a ‘watching brief’ on other materials in the British Library relating to the Malay world, ranging from East India Company archives to prints and drawings of the region. But in the present digital age, the wealth of collections in the British Library relating to Indonesia in particular has expanded exponentially through the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP).

The EAP, which was founded in 2004, is funded by Arcadia (previously known as the Lisbet Rausing Charitable Foundation) and administered by the British Library.  It aims to preserve in the form of (digital) reproductions archive material deemed to be in danger of survival.  The original material is retained by its owners, but digital copies are deposited both in the country of origin and at the British Library.  The EAP offers grants for both pilot projects, which usually yield a survey and images of a small sample of manuscripts, and major digitisation projects.  To date the EAP has funded 13 projects in Indonesia. (Strangely enough, there have been few applications for projects in Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei or Singapore).  There are also two projects in Timor Leste, and one on manuscripts from Vietnam in Cham, an Austronesian language.  

One of three Cham manuscripts digitised through the 2012 pilot project EAP531, Preserving the endangered manuscripts of the Cham people in Vietnam: an Islamic manuscript containing selections from the Qur'an and prayers, in Cham and Arabic, from Vietnam,19th c (with thanks to Ervan Nurtawab for this identification).  EAP531/1/2.
One of three Cham manuscripts digitised through the 2012 pilot project EAP531, Preserving the endangered manuscripts of the Cham people in Vietnam: an Islamic manuscript containing selections from the Qur'an and prayers, in Cham and Arabic, from Vietnam,19th c (with thanks to Ervan Nurtawab for this identification).  EAP531/1/2

Under the terms of the EAP, the digital copies sent to the British Library will be made freely available online for research purposes.  In practice it has taken some time to process the images and to solve technical issues, but six of the Indonesian projects are now fully catalogued and accessible online, while the other seven projects are in varying stages of completion.  And what surprises they bring!  It would not be an exaggeration to say that the manuscript collections now made accessible digitally through the EAP have begun to change our understanding of the landscape of the writing traditions of the Malay world.  

The first and most striking impression is the overwhelming predominance of Islamic texts, in the form of copies of the Qur’an, prayer books and sermons, and works on ritual obligations, theology, and Sufism.  This should be contrasted with the strong literary, historical and legal slant of collections of Malay and Indonesian manuscripts held in Europe, and those in Southeast Asia formed under colonial auspices.  

The second, and related, point is the very high proportion of manuscripts written in Arabic, rather than in vernacular Southeast Asian languages.  Such manuscripts have tended to fall under the radar of most academic programmes of Indonesian and Malay studies.  For example, the authoritative catalogue of Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain by M.C. Ricklefs and P. Voorhoeve (London, 1977) lists manuscripts in Austronesian languages ranging from Balinese, Batak and Bugis to Javanese, Makasarese, Malay, Old Javanese and Sundanese, but not in Arabic.  And yet a full appreciation of the totality of writings produced within a culture is an important context from which to appreciate better the composition of texts in indigenous languages such as Malay and Javanese.

A third consideration is the great codicological value of these newly-documented manuscripts, often still cared for within the community within which they were created. As such, they are rich sources of information on traditional binding materials and storage methods – aspects of book history nearly always lost when an Oriental manuscript entered a western library, and was rebound or rehoused in accordance with European conventions.

The large volume of fragile materials being digitised in difficult conditions in the field means that inevitably there are problems with metadata supplied by project teams: titles are not always accurate, languages are sometimes misidentified, and a few items described as 'manuscripts' are in fact printed.  However these caveats are more than compensated for by the richness of the material now being made accessible for the first time.  Listed below are the six EAP projects from Indonesia which are now fully accessible online.

EAP276, Documentation and preservation of Ambon manuscripts
Although the central Moluccas has a large Christian population, this project of 2009 documented 182 mainly Islamic manuscripts from 12 collections on Ambon and the smaller neighbouring island of Haruku. Calligraphic batik cloth binding of a finely illuminated Kitab mawlid manuscript containing songs in Arabic in praise of the Prophet, 19th c., from the collection of Husain Hatuwe, Ambon. EAP276/7/32.
Calligraphic batik cloth binding of a finely illuminated Kitab mawlid manuscript containing songs in Arabic in praise of the Prophet, 19th c., from the collection of Husain Hatuwe, Ambon. EAP276/7/32.

EAP229, Acehnese manuscripts in danger of extinction: identifying and preserving the private collections located in Pidie and Aceh Besar regencies
EAP329, Digitising private collections of Acehnese manuscripts located in Pidie and Aceh Besar Regencies
The pilot project (EAP229) of 2008 surveyed the region and digitised 10 manuscripts; this was followed by a major project (EAP329) in 2009 which digitised 483 manuscripts in Arabic, Malay and Acehnese.
Ma'rifat al-fatihah, one of 118 manuscripts owned by Teungku Mukhlis of Calue, Pidie Regency.  Shown here is Syair Kalimat, a Sufi explication in Malay verse of the confession of faith, the title set within a dramatically graphic rendering of the shahada (Ini syair kalimat baca oleh kamu, hai ya ikhwan, supaya kamu faham akan dia) .  EAP329/1/90.
Ma'rifat al-fatihah, one of 118 manuscripts owned by Teungku Mukhlis of Calue, Pidie Regency.  Shown here is Syair Kalimat, a Sufi explication in Malay verse of the confession of faith, the title set within a dramatically graphic rendering of the shahada (Ini syair kalimat baca oleh kamu, hai ya ikhwan, supaya kamu faham akan dia) .  EAP329/1/90.

EAP205, Endangered manuscripts of Western Sumatra: collections of Sufi brotherhoods
A pilot project in 2008 digitised 7 manuscripts held in surau (prayer houses) in West Sumatra.  
Undang-undang Minangkabau, a Minangkabau legal digest in Malay, from the collection of the Surau Gadang Ampalu in Kabupaten Padang Pariaman, West Sumatra.  EAP205/2/2.
Undang-undang Minangkabau, a Minangkabau legal digest in Malay, from the collection of the Surau Gadang Ampalu in Kabupaten Padang Pariaman, West Sumatra.  EAP205/2/2.

EAP280, Retrieving heritage: rare Old Javanese and Old Sundanese manuscripts from West Java (stage one)
This project of 2009 digitised 28 palm leaf manuscripts, comprising 27 from the sanctuary (kabuyutan) at Ciburuy in Garut Regency, West Java, and possibly dating from the 14th-16th centuries, and one manuscript from the private collection of Mr Kartani in Cirebon.
Nipah Kropak Ciburuy I (Buana Pitu?).  EAP280/1/2.

Nipah Kropak Ciburuy I (Buana Pitu?).  EAP280/1/2.

EAP365 Preservation of Makassarese lontara’ pilot project
This pilot project of 2010 was able to make representative images from seven 20th-century manuscripts written in Makassarese and Arabic held in Makassar, capital city of South Sulawesi, and in a number of villages in Kecamatan Galesong south of the city.   Kotika Boddia, divination manual, from the collection of Daeng Tiro, Desa Boddia, Galesong, South Sulawesi, Indonesia [1920s]. EAP365/3/2.
Kotika Boddia, divination manual, from the collection of Daeng Tiro, Desa Boddia, Galesong, South Sulawesi, Indonesia [1920s]. EAP365/3/2.

Projects mostly completed but not yet accessible online:
•    EAP061, The MIPES Indonesia: digitising Islamic manuscripts of Indonesian Pondok Pesantren
•    EAP117, Digitising ‘sacred heirloom’ in private collections in Kerinci, Sumatra, Indonesia
•    EAP144, The digitisation of Minangkabau’s manuscript collections in Suraus
•    EAP153, Riau manuscripts: the gateway to the Malay intellectual world
•    EAP211, Digitising Cirebon manuscripts
•    EAP212, Locating, documenting and digitising: preserving the endangered manuscripts of the legacy of the Sultanate of Buton, South-Eastern Sulawesi Province, Indonesia

•    EAP352, Endangered manuscripts of Western Sumatra and the province of Jambi: collections of Sufi brotherhoods

For further information about the Endangered Archives Programme, contact the Grants Administrator, Cathy Collins:, and subscribe to their blog.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


22 February 2014

Malay manuscripts on Chinese paper

Most Malay manuscripts are written on European paper, which is usually easily identifiable as such from the watermarks which are visible when the paper is held up to the light. But how can we tell if a manuscript is written on Chinese paper?  This question has long exercised Russell Jones, pioneer of and (indeed, the only) authority on the study of the paper of Malay manuscripts, who has addressed the question in several publications (Jones 1986, 1993).  

A man making paper, from a volume of Chinese drawings representing men and women from various classes and trades. China, ca.1800.  British Library, Or. 2262, no. 69.
A man making paper, from a volume of Chinese drawings representing men and women from various classes and trades. China, ca.1800.  British Library, Or. 2262, no. 69.  noc

I had often noticed that many of the Malay and Javanese manuscripts in the British Library, and also official documents in English and Dutch from Melaka in the 18th and 19th centuries, were written on thin cream or light brown paper with a very distinctive ‘striated’ surface.  Russell informed me that such these were in fact brush strokes typical of Chinese paper, and he directed me to a very useful article by Ian Wilson: ‘China paper was usually made from bamboo fibre or less commonly rice straw. After pressing to remove water, the damp sheets were brushed onto a smooth drying surface with a coarse fibre brush. The brush invariably left brush marks in the surface of the soft paper. The brush marks are the most easily recognized feature of Chinese paper’ (Wilson 2009: 2).  

Detail from an inventory of household goods, cited in a claim made by Fakir Husain bin Syaikh Ismail Lebai against his brother Muhammad Husain in a dispute over an inheritance, Melaka, 12 February 1822.  The list is written on Chinese paper with brush marks evident on the writing surface.  British Library, IOR: R/9/20/8, f.17.
Detail from an inventory of household goods, cited in a claim made by Fakir Husain bin Syaikh Ismail Lebai against his brother Muhammad Husain in a dispute over an inheritance, Melaka, 12 February 1822.  The list is written on Chinese paper with brush marks evident on the writing surface.  British Library, IOR: R/9/20/8, f.17.    noc

In addition to brush strokes, another indication (albeit not proof, as Russell is quick to caution) of Chinese-made paper is the presence of the seals of Chinese paper merchants. One of the oldest known Malay manuscripts, a copy of the Hikayat Seri Rama given to the Bodleian Library by Archbishop Laud in 1635 (MS Laud Or. 291), has on the bottom of two pages (ff. 84v and 91v) the red ink impression of a Chinese seal.  Russell invited David Helliwell, curator of Chinese collections at the Bodleian, to examine the seals.  Helliwell read the inscription as ‘the rather trite four-character motto fu kuei shuang pao (‘riches and honour, the two treasures’)’ and surmised that the seal most likely ‘related to either the maker or distributor of the paper on which the manuscript is written’, greatly strengthening the probability that the Hikayat Seri Rama was indeed written on Chinese paper.

Early in 2013 Midori Kawashima of Sophia University, Tokyo, drew my attention to two elaborate Chinese seals in an Islamic manuscript from Mindanao.  We showed the seals to Russell Jones and Frances Wood, then head of the Chinese section at the British Library, who identified them as belonging to a paper merchant.  By coincidence, soon after I came across two similar Chinese seals in a Javanese manuscript of Panji Angreni in the British Library (MSS Jav 17), which, as part of the Mackenzie collection, can probably be dated to the early 19th century.  According to Frances, the legible portions of the seal read ‘Guangdong … superior paper … city, Gate of Supreme Peace …’, evidently giving the address of a supplier of superior paper.  

Seals of a Chinese supplier of paper, in a Javanese manuscript of Panji Angreni.  British Library, MSS Jav 17, f.10v.
Seals of a Chinese supplier of paper, in a Javanese manuscript of Panji Angreni.  British Library, MSS Jav 17, f.10v.  noc

As I began recataloguing all the Malay manuscripts in the British Library in preparation for digitisation, it was only awareness of the examples discussed above that helped me to recognize the slight traces of red ink on the edge of the page in two Malay manuscripts as similar stamps of Chinese paper merchants.  Both manuscripts are from the John Crawfurd collection and have endpapers of Javanese treebark paper (dluwang), which may indicate an origin in Java, although the manuscripts may also have been acquired earlier in Penang, where Crawfurd had served previously.  Of the seal on the Hikayat Ular Nangkawang (Add. 12382, f. 29v), Frances Wood commented, ‘Three half characters: could be a name, either personal or of a business. The middle character could be 三 but equally could be 五,王 etc- it is difficult to know whether they have been evenly halved or we just have a third’ (F.Wood, 19.4.2013).  On the Syair Dang Sarat, only the smallest portion of the seal remains at the top of a page (Add. 12381, f.20r).

Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, with a partial impression of what may be a Chinese paper merchant’s red ink seal stamped on the edge of the right-hand page.  The MS has been digitised and can be read here.  British Library, Add. 12382, ff. 29v-30r.
Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, with a partial impression of what may be a Chinese paper merchant’s red ink seal stamped on the edge of the right-hand page.  The MS has been digitised and can be read here.  British Library, Add. 12382, ff. 29v-30r.  noc

Syair Dang Sarat, with slight red ink traces of a very similar Chinese seal stamped at the top of the left-hand page.  The MS has been digitised and can be read here. British Library, Add. 12381, ff. 19v-20r.
Syair Dang Sarat, with slight red ink traces of a very similar Chinese seal stamped at the top of the left-hand page.  The MS has been digitised and can be read here. British Library, Add. 12381, ff. 19v-20r.  noc

Helliwell stressed the rarity of such seals in the context of Chinese bibliographical studies. ‘Such seals were commonly used as paper marks of some sort, but as they were usually trimmed off, if indeed the paper which bore them was used at all, too few examples survive to have permitted even a perliminary study of them.  Only four of these marks have been discovered in the course of scanning several thousand volumes in the Bodleian’s Chinese collections’ (in Jones 1986: 52).  It is intriguing to think that more traces of Chinese paper merchants’ seals may survive in the less rarified Malay manuscript tradition than on Chinese books themselves.

Further reading

Russell Jones. European and Asian papers in Malay manuscripts.  A provisional assessment.  Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1993, 149 (3): 474-502.
Russell Jones.  One of the oldest Malay manuscripts extant: the Laud Or. 291 manuscript of the Hikayat Seri Rama.  Indonesia Circle, November 1986, (41): 49-53.
Ian Wilson.  China paper usage in early Van Diemen’s Land printing.  The Quarterly (The Journal of the British Association of Paper Historians), October 2009, (72): 1-7.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


19 February 2014

A Malay ballad from Kedah: the naval battle for Phuket

Some famous Malay texts have survived in numerous copies – over thirty manuscripts of the Sejarah Melayu are known, including two in the British Library – yet others are only represented by a single manuscript.  One such work is the Kedah poem Syair Sultan Maulana, ‘The Ballad of our Venerable Sultan’, known solely from Add. 12394 in the British Library, which has just been digitised and can be read here.  This epic in verse, set during the reign of Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Halim Syah of Kedah (r.1804-1843), records the heroic part played by a Kedah fleet in helping the Siamese expel the Burmese from the island of Phuket (known in Malay as Pulau Salang) in early 1810.  

The seal of Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Halim Syah of Kedah. British Library, MSS Eur.D.742/1, f.3.
The seal of Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Halim Syah of Kedah.  The Arabic inscription reads: al-‘azīz dhū al-mulk al-qadīr al-ghālib ghayr al-maghlūb al-sultān khalīfat Allāh ‘alā dā’īrah Kedah wa-huwa al-Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Halim Syah ibn al-Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Syah sanat 1219, ‘The mighty one, possessor of the kingdom, the powerful one, the conquering [yet] unconquered one, the sultan [who is the] vicegerent of God over the territory of Kedah, and he is Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Halim Syah, son of Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Syah, the year 1219 (1804/5)’.  The seal is stamped on a letter from the Sultan to the Governor-General of Bengal, [Lord Minto], 26 Rabiulakhir 1226 (20 May 1811), pleading for protection against the Siamese.  British Library, MSS Eur.D.742/1, f.3.  noc

Like many Malay literary and historical works, the Syair Sultan Maulana is anonymous, but the author’s vantage point at the centre of action led the scholar Cyril Skinner to conclude that the poem was probably written by the secretary to the Kedah Admiral, the Laksamana.  According to a note on the front cover, the manuscript was given by its author to John McInnes, who served as the government Malay translator in Penang from 1812.  In 1825 it was in the possession of John Crawfurd, Resident of Singapore, and as part of the Crawfurd collection was acquired by the British Museum in 1842.  The historical value of this work has long been recognized: the text was the subject of a Ph.D. thesis by Muhammad Yusoff Hashim (1980), and it was also published in transliteration and elegant English translation by Skinner (1985), from which the quotations below are taken.

The sultanate of Kedah is renowned as the oldest Malay kingdom in present-day Malaysia, its ruling line dating back to the 12th century.  For much of its existence, Kedah has been subservient to Siam, its powerful neighbour to the north.  When Burmese forces occupied Phuket in October 1809 Kedah was forced to support the Siamese war effort, and it is this five-month naval battle that is the subject of the syair.  

The opening lines of the Syair Sultan Maulana. British Library, Add. 12394, f.1v
The opening lines of the Syair Sultan Maulana, written in the Malay syair verse form of four-line stanzas, with each line ending with the same rhyme.
‘Listen, Sirs, to this composition / the story of His Majesty the Sultan of Kedah
many were his subjects, fair his realm / and prosperous were those who dwelt in it.
His Majesty was venerated as Sultan Maulana / his official title being Ahmad Tajuddin
the son of the noble Sultan Abdullah / of a dynasty born to occupy the golden throne’
Dengarkan tuan suatu madah / kisah baginda Sultan di Kedah
negerinya ramai terlalu indah / isi negeri semuanya mudah.
Ismu baginda Sultan Maulana / Ahmad Tajuddin gelar rencana
ibnu Sultan Abdullah yang ghana / bangsa di atas tahta kencana
British Library, Add. 12394, f.1v.   noc

The syair is a valuable source of information on Malay naval warfare in the early 19th century, with details of vessels and crews, armaments, and battle formations and tactics.  The departure of the fleet from Kedah must have been a glittering sight, each ship flying the pennant of its commander:
‘The Temenggung had been made operational commander / his cannon was called Raging Tiger / his pennant was bright red in colour / a truly daunting sight’
Jabatan Temenggung panglima perang / lotang bernama Harimau Garang
tetunggulnya merah cahaya berdarang / memberi gentar dipandang orang
But perhaps one of the main delights of this syair lies in the author’s pithy, no-punches-pulled, portrayal of individual Kedah warriors, his aim in writing made clear in the closing stanzas:
‘I merely wished His Majesty to know / how his subjects acted –
who did their duty and who was remiss - / all their deeds are clearly related here’
Sekadar maklum duli makota / perintah hamba sahaya semata
masing kerja baik dan leta / barang perintah di sinilah nyata
Among the proven heroes were Wan Akil son of Wan Alang (patutlah jadi menteri hulubalang), the loyal and true Raja Mahkota (lagi sangat teguh setiawan) and the brave Wan Hanafi (muda terpilih), while those publicly shamed in the syair included the weak-willed Tengku Alang Naga (bersifat udang), who used the excuse of being thirsty (katanya dahaga) to slope off; Lebai Lang Didik, who put on a great show – once he was sure the coast was clear (mereka berperang sangatlah cerdik / tampil pun hingga habis disidik); and Captain (Nakhoda) Dul, whose actions did not match his fine words (jika bercakap terlalu behena / sampai berperang tiada berguna).  

The whole range of human sensibilities is depicted, with shades of grey as well as black and white.  Raja Setia Jaya, the chief (penghulu) of Kerian, may not have led from the front but neither did he lag behind (tiada dahulu tiada kemudian). The pious Tengku Idris (sikap pahlawan ulama pun dia) viewed the battle between co-religionists Burma and Siam as one in which Kedah should not play a part (katanya agama mereka sebangsa / menyertai dia kita berdosa), even for the sake of Kedah’s security (sebab negeri hendak dipelihara), and after long debates with the Laksamana he eventually sailed back alone. At the end of the successful campaign the Laksamana is rewarded by the Sultan with the position of Bendahara, and the syair ends asking for God’s blessings.

Final pages of the Syair Sultan Maulana.  British Library, Add. 12394, ff. 47v-48r.
Final pages of the Syair Sultan Maulana.  British Library, Add. 12394, ff. 47v-48r.    noc

On a recent visit to Kedah to receive the award of Darjah Setia Diraja Kedah from the Regent of Kedah, I felt very honoured to meet the Regency Council comprising the four great ministers of state of Kedah – the present-day Bendahara, Temenggung, Laksamana and Panglima Besar – all descended from the 'Sultan Maulana' of the syair.

From left: Tunku Panglima Besar, Tunku Laksamana, Tunku Temenggung, the writer, the Menteri Besar of Kedah, the Regent of Kedah Tunku Bendahara, the royal consorts Toh Puan Bendahara, Toh Puan Temenggung and Toh Puan Laksamana, and the writer’s parents.  Istana Anak Bukit, Alor Setar, Kedah, 6 Feburary 2014.
From left: Tunku Panglima Besar, Tunku Laksamana, Tunku Temenggung, the writer, the Menteri Besar of Kedah, the Regent of Kedah Tunku Bendahara, the royal consorts Toh Puan Bendahara, Toh Puan Temenggung and Toh Puan Laksamana, and the writer’s parents.  Istana Anak Bukit, Alor Setar, Kedah, 6 Feburary 2014.

Further reading:

Muhammad Yusoff Hashim, Syair Sultan Maulana: suatu penelitian kritis tentang hasil pensejarahan Melayu tradisional.  Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Universiti Malaya, 1980.
Skinner, C., The battle for Junk Ceylon.  The Syair Sultan Maulana.  Text, translation and notes.  Dordrecht: Foris, 1985. (Bibliotheca Indonesica; 25).

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


17 February 2014

Fashion in 14th century Mosul: a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery

The British Library is loaning several key items to a new exhibition, ‘Court and Craft: a masterpiece from Northern Iraq’, which opens at the Courtauld Gallery on 20 February 2014.  The exhibition has at its centrepiece an exquisite bag probably manufactured at Mosul and dating from between 1300 and 1330. Made of brass and inlaid with gold, silver and a black material, it is decorated with intricate geometric patterns and scenes depicting musicians, hunters and revelers. Despite being metal, the bag is light and plaques with integral loops at each side suggest that it was probably worn as a handbag over the shoulders. Developing the themes illustrated on the bag, the exhibition includes metal-work, glass, jewellery and paintings from Northern Iraq, dating from the 14th century.

The Courtauld bag. Mosul, 1300-30 (possibly during the reign of the Il-Khanid Sultan Uljaytu, 1304-16). © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Unfortunately manuscripts from this early period are comparatively rare, but the British Library is fortunate in having some of the best examples which will be exhibited alongside the Courtauld bag. One of the most beautiful is the Khamsah (‘five poems’) by the Persian poet Khvaju Kirmani (1290-1349?) about which I wrote in an earlier post (‘An illustrated 14th century Khamsah by Khvaju Kirmani’). Copied by the calligrapher Mir ʻAli ibn Ilyas al-Tabrizi in 798 (1396) at the Jalayirid capital Baghdad, one of the paintings is ascribed to the artist Junayd, a pupil of Shams al-Din who worked under the Jalayirid Sultan Uways I (ruled 1356-74).

Humayun, daughter of the Emperor of China, and prince Humay feasting in a garden (Add 18113, f 40v)

In the scene above, Humay and Humayun are seated in a garden surrounded by courtiers and attendants and being entertained by musicians. On the left, one of Humayun’s personal attendants is shown carrying a bag which closely resembles the Courtauld bag. Two others carry a mirror and a bottle of perfume. Below the couple is an array of flasks, trays, gold candlesticks and incense burners, examples of which are included in the exhibition.

Details of folio 40v

The decoration of the Courtauld bag includes roundels and a panel on the lid showing hunting scenes and convivial celebrations.

Bag - detail
Court scene in the centre of the lid showing a man and woman sourrounded by figures and courtly paraphanalia. © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

These are also depicted in three leaves from the British Library's copy (Or.14140) of the Arabic treatise ʻAjāʼib al-makhlūqāt (‘the Wonders of Creation’) by al-Qazwini (c. 1203-83). Although our profusely illustrated copy contains no colophon, Stefano Carboni (see below) has attributed it to Mosul and dates it to the turn of the 14th century, most probably  between 1295 and 1302.

Musicians and a dancer perform during a drought at a dried-up spring to make the water flow again.  (Or.14140. f. 63v)

Writing about the first month of the year, Farvardin, Qazwini describes how a horse and falcon are presented to the king when he wakes on New Year's Day. Unfortunately the painting is damaged and only the king's bolster is visible on the left. (Or.14140, f. 20v)

The geometric designs which form such an integral part of the decoration of the Courtauld bag are also evident in the magnificent thirty-volume Qur’an commissioned by Sultan Uljaytu. This Qurʼan was completed, according to its colophon, in Mosul in the year 710 (1310) and was copied by ʻAli ibn Muhammad al-Husayni. It includes a commissioning certificate in the names of Uljaytu's viziers Saʻd al-Din and the famous historian Rashid al-Din (c. 1247-1318) whose history Jāmiʻ al-tavārīkh (‘Compendium of Chronicles’) is also illustrated in the exhibition by four early 14th century drawings.  6a017ee66ba427970d01a3fcb45ab1970b-580wi
Carpet page decorations forming the opening of volume 25 of Uljaytu's Qurʼan. Copied at Mosul in 710/1310. (Or.4945, ff. 1v-2r)

The exhibition, curated by Rachel Ward, runs from 20th February until 18th May 2014 at the Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, WCR ORN. It is  accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue (see below). I have just come back from installing the British Library loans, and was lucky enough to see almost everything in place! Although it is comparatively small (36 items altogether), the themed approach makes it a very exciting and successful exhibition.


Further reading

Rachel Ward, Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq. London, 2014.

Teresa Fitzherbert, “Khwājū Kirmānī (689-753/1290-1352): An Éminence Grise of Fourteenth Century Persian Painting”, Iran 29 (1991): pp. 137-51.

Stefano Carboni, “The London Qazwini: An Early 14th Century Copy of the ʿAjāʾib al-makhlūqāt,” Islamic Art: An Annual Dedicated to the Art and Culture of the Muslim World 3, 1988-89, pp. 15-31.

Stefano Carboni, “The Wonders of Creation and the Singularities of Ilkhanid Painting: A Study of the London Qazwini British Library Ms. Or. 14140,” Ph.D. diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1992. Download free from British Library Electronic Theses Online Services (ETHoS).

Colin F Baker, Qurʼan manuscripts: calligraphy, illumination, design, London, 2007, pp. 56-65.

Add.18113, containing three of the five poems from the Khamsah of Khvaju Kirmani (1290-1349?). - See more at:


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

14 February 2014

New display of Southeast Asian manuscripts

Regular users of the Asian and African Studies reading room in the British Library will certainly be aware of the display cases on the landing in front of the reading room. The two large cases by the lifts contain gilded manuscript chests from Thailand and Burma, while the exhibits in the smaller case are changed at least once a year. In the past we have covered themes like Thai illustrated manuscripts, rare printed material from Thailand, and Thai palm leaf manuscripts.

The latest display – by coincidence, installed just before Valentine’s Day – depicts love stories and relationships in Southeast Asian manuscript traditions. For the first time, we are presenting three manuscripts from different Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Thailand, and Burma.  

The Javanese story of Sela Rasa
This beautiful Javanese manuscript tells the story of Prince Sela Rasa, who with his two older brothers has been forced to leave their kingdom of Champa.  In the illustration shown in the display, the brothers pay their respects to a holy man.  The sage’s daughter, Ni Rumsari, had dreamt that three handsome men would come to visit.  The characters are drawn according to the stylised conventions of the Javanese shadow puppet theatre, wayang kulit.  The Serat Selarasa is perhaps the earliest finely-illustrated Javanese manuscript known. The manuscript is dated 1804, and according to a note in the text was once owned by the wife of a Dutch East India Company official in Surabaya, before it was presented to Col. Colin Mackenzie in 1812.

Serat Selarasa.  British Library, MSS Jav. 28, ff. 13v-14r.
Serat Selarasa.  British Library, MSS Jav. 28, ff. 13v-14r.  noc

A Thai divination manual
This divination manual (phrommachat) from central Thailand is on public display for the first time. It contains horoscopes based on the Chinese zodiac, relating each lunar month to the animals of the 12-year-cycle and their reputed attributes (earth, wood, fire, iron, water) as well as a male or female avatar (representing the Chinese concepts of yin and yang). This manuscript from the 19th century also includes beautifully illustrated descriptions of lucky and unlucky matches of couples. The paintings on the left side depict the female avatar of the year of the pig riding on a blue hog, and illustrations of possible fates for people born in the year of the pig. On the right side we see a couple of ogres (phi suea) who will stay happily married until old age, whereas the relationship between a male ogre and a female angel (deva) is an unlucky one.

Thai divination manual.  British Library, Or. 4830, ff. 25-26.
Thai divination manual.  British Library, Or. 4830, ff. 25-26.  noc

Scenes from the Burmese Ramayana
The highlight of the display is a manuscript book from Burma with large paintings stretching over several folios, illustrating the great epic of love and war Ramayana. It was created at the royal court, where a team of painters served.  The paper of this 19th century Burmese folding book of the Ramayana was handmade from mulberry bark. Shown here is the famous scene where Rama is lured away to shoot the golden deer.  Meanwhile, his wife Sita is captured by Ravana in the guise of an old hermit, after which he returns to his original form of a fearful ten-headed giant.
Dramatic performances of the Ramayana emerged in the Konbaung Period (1752-1885). The king’s minister Myawaddy Mingyi U Sa converted the Ramayana Jataka into a Burmese classical drama and he also composed accompanying music and songs. Ever since, Ramayana performances have been very popular in Burmese culture.  

Ramayana.  British Library, Or.14178, ff. 8-9.  noc

All three manuscripts in this new display have been fully digitised and can be viewed freely online through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.  Clicking on the highlighted links beneath each image will take you directly to the digitised manuscript.  Digitisation of these manuscripts was supported by the Henry Ginsburg Legacy, while the display cabinets were sponsored by the Royal Thai Government.

Further reading

Annabel Teh Gallop, Javanese art in the early 19th century: Serat Selarasa.  Southeast Asia Library Group blog, 4 March 2013

Jana Igunma, When an angel meets a demon: advice on love and relationships in a Thai divination manual. Asian & African studies blog, 7 January 2014.

San San May, Scenes from the Ramayana. Southeast Asia Library Group blog, 3 April 2013.

Jana Igunma, San San May and Annabel Teh Gallop, Southeast Asian studies


11 February 2014

Morbid meditations in Thai manuscript art

Meditation is an essential part of Buddhism. It aims to develop mental discipline and to cultivate a wholesome, alert state of mind which eventually results in the practice of Dhamma. Meditation, often combined with chanting methods, helps to reach a mental state of happiness (piti) which is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment (satta bojjhanga), which are: mindfulness, investigation, effort, happiness, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity.

Happiness in the Buddhist sense, however, should not be misinterpreted as a state of individual happiness or temporary contentment. It cannot be self-centered or selfish but is rather a state of mind that has overcome all desire (tanha) –the principal cause of suffering (dukkha). Dukkha is often described as suffering or pain, but it also refers to impermanence and change, as well as to conditioned states of mind, i.e. being dependent on or affected by something/someone. Meditation is a powerful tool which can overcome such states of mind by focusing in different ways on the body, on emotion, and on the conscious or unconscious mind. Common methods of contemplation can be by breath and body movements, by means of a meditational device (a candle flame, metal object, beads or a mandala drawing), and also through sounds and smells (senses and emotions).

Morbid OR_14447_f002v_720
Fragment of a manual of a Buddhist mystic (yogacavara) on meditation practices, including morbid meditations. Or.14447, f 4

Although it is no longer widely practiced, morbid meditation is possibly the most efficient of all meditation practices aiming to overcome conditioned states of the mind and emotion. It is described in the Buddha’s discourse on the practice of mindfulness (Maha Satipatthana Sutta), one of the earliest Buddhist teachings. According to Buddhaghosa, a fifth-century Buddhist scholar who compiled numerous commentaries on the Buddha’s teachings, morbid meditation is explained as follows:

As though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground – one, two, three days dead, bloated, livid, and oozing matter… being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, jackals, or worms… a skeleton with flesh and blood, held together with sinews… disconnected bones scattered in all directions bones bleached white, the colour of shells… bones, heaped up, more than a year old… bones rotten and crumbling to dust – a monk compares his own body, ‘this body too is of the same nature, it will end up like that, it is not exempt from that fate.’ In this way, he abides contemplating the body as body… and he abides independent, not clinging to anything in the world. (Skilling, p. 30)

Morbid or_13703_f018r_720
Or.13703, fol. 35

The highest state of meditation is reached when both attraction and repulsion cease to exist: ‘In the arahant, there is neither liking nor disliking: he regards all things with perfect equanimity, as did Thera Maha Moggallana when he accepted a handful of rice from a leper.’ (Francis Story).

Morbid meditations are very well documented in Thai manuscript painting. Many manuscripts about the famous monk Phra Malai (see my post ‘A Thai book of merit: Phra Malai’s journeys to heaven and hell’) include one or more scenes of morbid meditations. These manuscripts were often commissioned by families of deceased persons as funeral presentation volumes. The Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections of the British Library hold over 20 such manuscripts, all of them beautifully illustrated with scenes from the monk’s encounters and his teachings to the lay people.

Morbid OR_14838_f004r_720
Illustrations of the monk Phra Malai meditating over corpses. On the left side, he touches the burial cloth of the deceased which is believed to be a method to transfer merit to the dead. Or.14838, fol. 7

In most cases, the meditation scenes in these manuscript paintings depict one monk (in the context of the legend of Phra Malai this would be the monk Phra Malai himself) sitting or standing in meditation near one or more decaying corpses. The monk is usually shown with one or more of his paraphernalia such as a fan, an alms bowl, an umbrella or a walking stick. The walking stick fulfils various purposes: to scare away small animals when the monk is walking, or to provide support during seating or standing meditation, but sometimes the monk can be seen touching a corpse with his walking stick in order to transfer merit to the deceased while meditating.

Morbid or_13703_f005v_720
Illustrations showing two corpses, one being eaten by animals and the other wrapped in a sheet made from bamboo sticks, with the monk Phra Malai touching the wrapped body with his walking stick. Or.13703, f 9

The bodies of the dead are usually shown bloated and in a greyish colour, often with wounds discharging blood and pus, wide eyes, and in an obvious state of decay. Sometimes animals can be seen feeding on the corpses.

Morbid OR_14559_f037r_720
Lay people practising morbid meditation as shown in a Phra Malai manuscript. Or.14559, fol. 73

It is not only monks who are shown practising morbid meditation in Thai manuscript paintings. The story of Phra Malai includes a scene where the monk teaches lay people what he has heard from Metteya, the future Buddha, about what will happen to mankind. While violent humans kill each other, those who follow the Dhamma – lay people and monks alike - will hide in caves meditating, and in some cases meditating over corpses until the fighting is over.

Further Reading

Brereton, Bonnie Pacala. Thai Tellings of Phra Malai: Texts and Rituals concerning a Popular Buddhist Saint. Tempe, Ariz.: Arizona State University, 1995
Maha Satipatthana Sutta: the Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness, with notes by Michael Potter on a 14 tape commentary by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Skilling, Peter. “The aesthetics of devotion: Buddhist arts of Thailand”. In Enlightened ways: The many Streams of Buddhist Art in Thailand. Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2012, pp. 18-31
Soma Thera. The Way of Mindfulness: the Satipatthana Sutta and its Commentary, 1998
Story, Francis. Buddhist Meditation: the Anagarika Sugatananda, 1995

Jana Igunma, Asian and African Studies

07 February 2014

Mantiq al-tayr ('The Speech of Birds'), part 4

Among the Persian treasures recently digitised with the generous support of the Iran Heritage Foundation is a fine illustrated copy (BL Add. 7735) of Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār’s Maniq al-ayr (‘Speech of the Birds’), a Sufi allegory of the quest for God. Links to the three previous posts on this work are given below in this, the last in the series, which discusses the final three miniature paintings (see Titley, p. 35) and the accompanying text, in relation to ‘Aṭṭār’s poem and some of its principal themes.

As regards the date of Add. 7735 and the style of its miniatures, there are certain points of similarity with a copy of Manṭiq al-ṭayr completed in 860/1456, probably at Herat. This manuscript is preserved at the Staatsbibliothek, Berlin, and has been fully digitised (see Ms. or. oct. 268). In this Berlin Manṭiq al-ṭayr the shading and contours of the landscapes are occasionally comparable, though the sky is invariably gold rather than blue. The figures are drawn with less assurance and are much less animated. Again, there are contrasts as well as similarities between the respective treatments of, for example, Shaykh Ṣan‘ān espying the Christian maiden (Ms. or. oct. 268, f 49r, compare Add.7753, f 49r), and the prince with the beggar at the gallows (Ms. or. oct.268, f 174r, compare Add.7735, f 181v below). Finally, there is no imaginative use of the margins. On balance, therefore, one is still inclined to favour a considerably later date for Add. 7735 (see my first post).

The king is admonished by an ascetic (BL Add.7735, f 91r)

The inevitability of death is, as we have seen, one of ‘Aṭṭār’s main themes. This miniature, folio 91r (ed. Gawharīn, p. 120), shows a king, who has summoned all and sundry to admire his new palace, receiving a sharp admonition from an unimpressed ascetic. Despite its flawless appearance, there is an invisible fissure in one wall through which ‘Azrā’īl, the Angel of Death, will one day enter to collect the king’s soul.

Everybody was coming from every land
    to pay homage, bringing trays filled with largesse.
The king summoned the wise men and courtiers
    to his presence, and seated them on a dais.
‘Never shall this palace of mine,’ said he,
    ‘be matched in beauty or in perfection.’
All declared that on the face of the Earth
    none had seen its like, and none ever would.
An ascetic stood up, and said ‘Fortunate One,
     there is one fissure here, and it is a grave fault.
Had your palace no flaw in the shape of that chink,
    you could give Heaven’s castles away for it.’
Said the monarch, ‘No rift have I seen in it;
     you’re making trouble out of ignorance.’
‘You who are so proud to be king’ said the sage,
     ‘there’s a crack there, wide open for ‘Azrā’īl…’

Sultan Maḥmūd of Ghazna is waylaid by an importunate beggar (BL Add.7735, f 151r)

Another favourite theme is the fate of those who fall passionately in love with someone completely unattainable. For ‘Aṭṭār, the case of God's true lovers is similar. In the story illustrated on folio 151r (ed. Gawharīn, p. 191), Sultan Maḥmūd of Ghazna and his page Ayāz are waylaid by an importunate beggar who is infatuated with Ayāz. He announces to the Sultan that the two of them are alike, in that both are like polo balls struck this way and that by the mallet of passionate love for Ayāz – and if the Sultan were a truly devoted lover, he too would be happy to sacrifice his life for his beloved. Having spoken these words, the beggar collapses and dies at the feet of his beloved.

He said, ‘While I’m alive I’m not destitute yet:
    I’m a fake and not worthy of this assembly.
But if I fling my life away for love’s sake,
    flinging life away is the sign of the bankrupt.
Where, Maḥmūd, is the reality of love in you?
    Fling your life away – or drop your claim to love!’
Thus he spoke, and his spirit departed this world –
    gave his life in a trice for his loved one’s face.

A prince rescues a beggar from the gallows (BL Add.7735, f 181v)

The same theme recurs in the final illustrated excerpt, folio 181v (ed. Gawharīn, p. 227). A beggar  who has publicly declared that he is in love with a prince receives a visit from him. The king, his father, orders that the importunate man be executed; but once his vizier has described his wretched and helpless condition the king relents and sends the prince to go and sit with the poor man, comfort him, and bring him to the royal presence. The beautiful prince hastens to the rescue of his unintended victim, who lies prostrate at the gallows. ‘Aṭṭār tells us:

At this point, [readers,] let go for sheer joy.
    and dance about, waving your hands and feet.
That prince finally came to the foot of the gallows;
    a tumult like the Resurrection arose.
That beggar he saw in a state like death –
    saw him fallen headlong onto the dust…

But our happiness for the reprieved lover is short-lived. No sooner has the prince exchanged a few words with him than the beggar, overwhelmed with joy and rapture at having finally seen and spoken with his beloved, utters a loud cry and dies.

In concluding this series of postings, this question come to mind: what are we to make of the choice of episodes for illustration in this elegant copy of Manṭiq al-ṭayr, a work rarely illustrated?

Of the nine miniatures in Add. 7735, most accompany tales of death, passion apparently doomed to be thwarted, or a failure of will, the exceptions being those of Shaykh Ṣan‘ān, Sultan Mas‘ūd as a fisherman, and the man rescued from idolatry. Very probably the subjects were either chosen by the patron or by the artist(s), or else in consultation between them. The preoccupation with death may, then, reflect the mindset of one or both parties, or a concern that the wealthy patron be reminded of such matters; or it may be a matter of subconscious inclination. There is no point in speculating further; but it may be relevant to point to the discussions of ‘Aṭṭār and his treatment of the darker and lighter sides of death in Ritter’s major study and in an article by the present writer (see below, ‘Further reading’).

In ‘Aṭṭār’s eyes, all of humankind are beggars in need of the help and mercy of a king before whom we are nothing – unless we have love and adoration for Him, in which case divine compassion is bound to embrace us in the Hereafter. In the world’s quest literature, often the hero(ine) must descend into realms of darkness before reaching the light and fulfilling his or her quest. Where ‘Aṭṭār, in his allegories of self-transcendence, takes us with the soul-birds into darkness, he does so in order to bring us to back to the divine Sīmurgh and to a greater, and everlasting, light.

Translations by Muhammad Isa Waley

Further reading
‘Aṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm. 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. New illustrated edition: The Canticle of the Birds by Farîd-ud-Dîn‘Attâr: Illustrated through Persian and Eastern Islamic Art, Paris 2014.

Lukens, Marie G. ‘The Fifteenth-Century miniatures”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series 25, no. 9: The Language of the Birds (May, 1967), pp. 317-38.

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.

Stchoukine, I. et al., Illuminierte Handschriften (Verzeichnis der orientalischen Handschriften in Deutschland 16). Wiesbaden 1971.

Titley, N.M. Miniatures from Persian manuscripts. London, 1974.

Waley, M. I.  ‘Didactic style and self-criticism in ‘Aṭṭār.’ In: ‘Attar and the Persian Sufi Tradition: The Art of Spiritual Flight, ed. L. Lewisohn and C. Shackle. London, 2007.

Muhammad Isa Waley, Asian and African Studies