Asian and African studies blog

10 posts from March 2014

28 March 2014

The Miscellany of Iskandar Sultan (Add.27261)

Imagine being a position to commission a magnificent one-volume selection of the reading matter you would most like to carry around on your travels – a kind of miniature personal library. With no expense spared, you could order the most skilful calligraphers in the land to write it, the best painters to illustrate it, the best illuminators to decorate it, the best binders to bind it…

Such was the good fortune of Jalāl al-Dīn Iskandar Sultan ibn ‘Umar Shaykh, grandson of the famous Central Asian conqueror Tīmūr (Tamerlane). Iskandar ruled much of southern Iran for just five years (1409-1414) before meeting his death after rebelling against Shāh Rukh, his overlord. Iskandar was an enthusiastic and discerning patron of the arts and learning, and a number of the exquisite Persian manuscripts produced for him have survived. Amongst the most remarkable of these are his two Miscellanies, one of which is preserved at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon (MS. L.A. 161) and the other at the British Library (Add. 27261), now fully digitised as part of our Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts sponsored by the Iran Heritage Foundation and others. Thanks to a generous grant from the Andor Trust, selected folios from the London volume are now available to view and study, with notes and a number of translated extracts, as a ʻTurning the Pagesʼ presentation.

The opening of Timur’s grandson Iskandar Sultan’s pocket encyclopedia containing 23 works. Copied 813-4/1410-11 (BL Add.27261, ff 2v-3r) - See more at:

Add27261 ff2v-3r
The opening of Timur’s grandson Iskandar Sultan’s pocket miscellany containing 23 works. Copied 813-4/1410-11 (BL Add.27261, ff 2v-3r)

The Miscellanies of Iskandar Sultan, then, are illustrated compendia of texts. Those in the first half of our volume were copied by Muḥammad al-Ḥalvā’ī, and the remainder by Nāṣir al-Kātib; their work is dated 813-814/1410-1411. We do not know who was responsible for the illumination and paintings; but some of the latter are probably by Pīr Aḥmad Bāgh-shimālī, reputedly the greatest artist of his time. Notable features of the book include the small page size (182 x 129 mm.) and writing; exquisitely detailed and inventive illumination; and jewel-like miniature paintings. The manuscript has been skilfully restored by British Library conservators and rebound in traditional Islamic style to open as flat as possible. Because the new binding is undecorated, for ‘Turning the Pages’ the covers from a different manuscript were used instead.

The texts chosen by the royal patron and/or his advisers could hardly have been more miscellaneous. They include a wide-ranging selection of religious, narrative and lyrical poetry; in prose, there are treatises on astronomy and astrology, geometry, medicine, farriery, alchemy, history, and Islamic law. In this ʻTurning the Pagesʼ production we have tried to make a representative selection of the 1092 pages (i.e. 546 folios), in the hope of doing justice, as far as possible, to the quality and wide variety of texts, decorative designs, and images.

A detailed description of the contents is available here. For present purposes, therefore, it will suffice to mention some of their interesting features, with a brief discussion of a few pages by way of example.

The poetical texts in the first half of the Miscellany all consist of parts or the whole of well-known lengthy works in masnavī form (rhyming couplets).

In this miniature, an illustration to Niẓāmī’s Iskandar-nāmah (‘Epic of Alexander the Great’), Alexander and his servant witness the enchanting and innocent spectacle of young girls bathing together at night in a pool out in the wilds. The sophistication of this painting is to some extent disguised by the simplicity of the composition (BL Add.27261, f 286r)

The Miscellany also includes qaīdas, poems in monorhyme, in praise of the Prophet Muḥammad or the Imams of the Shī‘a. Others are technical tours de force, single poems incorporating as many different metres or rhetorical devices as possible. Next comes a selection of over two hundred poems in the shorter ghazal form. This is complemented by a more extensive anthology, occupying the outer text panels of almost three hundred pages. Categorised variously by subject, genre or metre, it contains ghazals and other poems by over three hundred authors. Famous contributors include Farrukhī, Manūchihrī, Nāṣir-i Khusraw, Salmān-i Sāvajī, Amīr Khusraw, Ḥāfiẓ (one of the earliest known textual sources), and ‘Imād-i Faqīh. These last two both feature in a previous blog posting: see Jahangir’s Hafiz and the Madrasa Jurist. Others are little known today; whether their verse was fashionable in 8th/14th century southern Iran, and what criteria were applied by the compilers of Iskandar Sultan’s two Miscellanies would be an intriguing topic for literary historians to investigate.

As for the prose contents of Add. 27261, their subject areas have been enumerated above. The inclusion of a summary of jurisprudence according to the Ja‘farī school (mazhab) followed by Imāmī (Ithnā-‘Asharī) Shī‘īs is another indication, coupled with the above-mentioned poems in praise of the Imams, of interest in Shī‘ism at a time when the great majority of Iran’s population was Sunnī. There is also a concise guide to sacred law pertaining to religious obligations attributed (even though it is in Persian) to Abū Ḥanīfa, main founder of the (Sunnī) Ḥanafī juristic school.

Ā’īnah-i Sikandarī, a treatise on alchemy named after Iskandar Sultan, was written expressly for him, as was Risālah-’i Kibrīt-i amar (‘Red Sulphur’), on the same subject. Mukhtaar dar ‘ilm-i Uqlīdis. ‘Elements of Geometry’, presents some theorems from the first book of Euclid’s work, complete with illuminated geometrical figures and adorned with illuminated margins incorporating verses in praise of a patron and here doubtless intended for Iskandar Sultan. Here is an example:

From a translation of Euclid's ‘Elements of Geometry’ (BL Add.27261, f 344r)

Finally, a large proportion of the second half of the Miscellany is devoted to astronomy and astrology. This fact, coupled with the magnificent illuminated ‘Horoscope of Iskandar Sultan’ (now preserved at the Wellcome Institute, just half a mile along Euston Road from the British Library) suggest that the Sultan had a strong interest in such matters. The computation of calendars and the use of the astrolabe are described in Ma‘rifat-i taqvīm va usurlāb. Lastly, some of the 340 pages devoted to Rawat al-munajjimīn, a comprehensive early treatise on astrology, are enlivened by colourful, imaginative and exotic drawings in the margins. At the end of the copying process some blank pages remained, and it appears that at least one artist was literally ‘given carte blanche’ to decorate them in any matter he wished. Add_ms_27261_f542v
Marginal illustrations (BL Add.27261, f 542v)

Who decided what to put into the Miscellany? Did Iskandar choose for himself, or did others help? The manuscript has sometimes been described as a kind of encyclopaedia, but even with the contents of the Lisbon volume added, one would not only have a few subject areas covered; there is an abundance of great imaginative poetry but little practical information. If asked to design a ‘Swiss knife’ book for a Sultan, I think I might include some of the following (besides the poetry and jurisprudence): a cookbook; guides to hunting and to edible plants; at least as much geography as history; a primer of navigation by land and sea; a concise multilingual phrasebook; and prayers, passages from Scripture, and other words of wisdom and consolation for hard times. (The British Library has a kind of miniature miscellany compiled by the novelist George Eliot.) In any case, as a great bibliophile Iskandar must have been a happy man when the Miscellany was first presented to him for inspection. We hope you too will enjoy exploring the ‘Turning the Pages’ version of the Miscellany of Iskandar Sultan – and, perhaps, choosing what you would put in your Miscellany.

For a detailed catalogue description with links to the individual works and paintings see Description of Add. 27261.

Further Reading

Basil Gray, Persian Painting (London, 1961 and reprinted).

Thomas W. Lentz and Glenn M. Lowry, Timur and the Princely Vision: Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century (Los Angeles; Washington, DC, 1989).

Priscilla Soucek, ‘The Manuscripts of Iskandar Sultan: Structure and Content’ in Timurid Art and Culture, ed. L. Golombek and M. Subtelny (Leiden and New York, 1992), pp. 116-131.


Muhammad Isa Waley, Asian and African Studies

26 March 2014

Performing Authority: the ‘Islamic’ Seals of British Colonial Officers

The function of seals as symbols of textual authority and ownership is deeply rooted in the Islamic world, especially in Arabic and Persian-speaking societies. Historically, seals were used for authorising various documents, including letters and legal contracts, and for marking the ownership of books and manuscripts. Edward William Lane attests to this in his record of 19th century Egyptian society: ‘Almost every person who can afford it has a seal-ring, even though he be a servant’ (Lane, p. 49).

It is interesting to learn that Arabic-script seals were also used by British colonial officers. This was a long-established practice in India where officials of the East India Company were theoretically acting as ‘servants’ of the Mughal emperor (Gallop and Porter, pp. 66-7). This custom set a lasting precedent and we find British colonial officers using Islamic-style seals well into the 19th and 20th centuries.

How might we understand the use of seals by non-Muslim Europeans in the context of Empire? A few examples from the Middle East and Persian Gulf are given here from the British Library’s manuscripts and the India Office Records.

Left: Seal of the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf from a letter dated 10 August 1909  inscribed in Persian:  باليوز دولت انكليس در خليج فارس  Bālyūz[1]-i dawlat-i ingilīs dar khalīj-i fārs ‘British Resident in the Persian Gulf’ (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/752, f. 53v)‎
Right: Seal of the First Assistant to the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf from a letter dated 7 July 1898 inscribed in Persian: باليوزكري دولت بهية قيصرة انكليس در خليج فارس  Bā[ly]ū[z]karī dawlat-i bahīyat-i qayṣarat-i ingilīs dar khalīj-i fārs ‘Deputy Resident of Her Britannic Majesty in the Persian Gulf’ (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/753, f. 34v)

Britain maintained its imperial hegemony over the Persian Gulf from its administrative headquarters, or Residency, at Bushire on the southern coast of modern-day Iran. In the latter half of the 19th century, both the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf and his deputy possessed seals with their positions rendered into Persian. Both seal impressions are rectangular and measure 22 x 20mm with inscriptions in a clear nasta‘liq script.

Another example is the seal of Edward Charles Ross who served as Political Resident in the Persian Gulf from 1872 to 1891 and was an avid collector of antiquities (his collections in the British Museum can be seen here). His seal is the same size, style and rectangular shape as that of the Resident’s seal, but also includes his name.

Seal of Edward Charles Ross from a letter dated 1 June 1887, inscribed in Persian:
‎ادورد چارلس راص باليوز دولت بهية انكليس در خليج فارس  Idward Chārls Rāṣ bālyūz-i dawlat-i bahīyat-i ingilīs dar khalīj-i fārs ‘Edward Charles Ross, British Resident in the Persian Gulf’ (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/752, f. 147v)

Not all seals were rectangular. Some appear as circles or ovals. One such example is that of Captain Robert Taylor who served as the British Resident in Baghdad and Basra from 1828 to 1843. As well as being a British colonial officer, Taylor amassed an extensive collection of Oriental manuscripts. Many of these were acquired by the British Museum and are now housed in the British Library (Add Ms. 23252-23606).  His seal appears in many of these manuscripts attesting to his ownership. It is a circle with a diameter of 18mm. It contains his name in naskh script with a tughra-like flourish: ‘abduhu Taylur, ‘his servant, Taylor’ (Cook, n. 20, p. 81). Again, Lane notes in respect of this usage (Lane, p. 48): ‘The name is accompanied by the words ‘his servant… signifying the servant, or worshipper of God’. According to Arabic codicology expert Adam Gacek, prefacing a name with ‘abduhu, ‘his servant’, that is the servant of Allāh, is a frequent feature of Arabic seals and expresses the possessor’s humility in relation to God (Gacek, p. 90).

Colophon of the Arabic version of De sphaericis (Kitāb al-Akar) by Theodosius of Bithynia, copied at Yazd in 1605 by Ibn ‘Abd al-Raḥīm Abū al-Qāsim Yaḥyā al-Astarābādī, containing the seal of Captain Robert Taylor inscribed in Arabic: عبده تيلر  ‘abduhu Taylur  ‘His Servant, Taylor’ (British Library, Add. MS. 23570, f. 62r)

Another example is the seal of John Calcott Gaskin who served as the assistant to the Political Resident at Bushire at the end of the 19th century, and later as the first Political Agent at Bahrain from 1900 to 1903. In comparison with the other seals presented here, his is oval and very small, measuring 19 x 9mm. The inscription consists of his name in nasta‘liq script and is decorated with a vine and floral motif.

Seal of John Calcott Gaskin’s from a letter dated 25 June 1899 inscribed in Arabic script: كاسكين Kāskīn (IOR/R/15/1/753, f 88v)

Outside the India Office, we find other Europeans employed in the Gulf using Arabic seals. One such example is Charles Dalrymple Belgrave who was employed as Adviser to the Bahrain Government from 1926 until 1957. His oval-shaped seal (below) is the same size as those of the ruling Al Khalifah family with his name, C D Belgrave [balkrayf sī dī] rendered into naskh script. There is also a decorative tughra design that does not appear to form part of the inscription.

Letter of the Regency Council (majlis al-wisāyah), dated 30 January 1938, bearing the seals of Shaikh ‘Abdullah bin ‘Isa Al Khalifah (top), Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifah (middle) and Charles Dalrymple Belgrave (bottom). Belgrave’s seal is inscribed: بلكريف سي دي Balkrayf Sī Dī  ‘C[harles] D[alrymple] Belgrave’ (British Library, IOR/R/15/2/181, f 39)

As documented in his diary, we find that Belgrave was well aware of the authority that seals carried. In an entry dated 30 May 1930, the elderly blind leader and legal authority of the Sunni community (qāḍī) of Bahrain had more or less insinuated to Belgrave that ‘his favourite wife had stolen [his seal] from him’ and had given it to another man to seal papers. Belgrave has a devastating realisation and notes: ‘If we admit the invalidity of his signature, all documents since he became blind are liable to be queried’.
Another incident a year later involved Belgrave’s own seal. In a diary entry dated 29 May 1932, he writes that a certain ‘Ali bin Husayn had recovered the seal out of his ring which had fallen out during an affray. He reflects: ‘I am lucky to have got it back as it is the one I seal all official papers with and it would be awkward if I lost it’.

The examples given demonstrate that the practice of British colonial officers using Arabic and Persian seals continued from the time of the Mughals well into the 20th century. As we have seen, seals could signify ownership, authorship and station, and British officials, such as Belgrave, understood their use and potential abuse. We can, therefore, understand the use of seals as a way of aesthetically and textually performing Empire, or as ‘Ornamentalism’, to borrow a term coined by David Cannadine. This was done by means of the cultural appropriation of a recognisable ‘Islamic’ symbol to make hierarchy, authority, legitimacy and power ‘visible, immanent and actual’ (Cannadine, p. 122).

Sources and Further Reading

‘Belgrave Diaries’, Papers of Charles Dalrymple Belgrave, 1926-1957, University of Exeter, Special Collections
David Cannadine, Ornamentalis: How the British Saw Their Empire (2001)
Michael Cook, ‘The Provenance of Kitāb Lam‘ al-Shihāb fī Sīrat Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Wahhāb’, Journal of Turkish Studies, 10 (1986), pp. 79-86
Adam Gacek, ‘Ownership statements and seals in Arabic manuscripts’, Manuscripts of the Middle East, 2 (1987), pp. 88-94
Annabel Teh Gallop and Venetia Porter, Lasting Impressions: Seals from the Islamic World (2012)
Edward William Lane, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1895 edition)


Daniel Lowe, Arabic Language and Gulf History Specialist,
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
Twitter: @dan_a_lowe

[1] The term bālyūz was used to refer to the Resident in both Arabic and Persian. Borrowed from Ottoman Turkish, it was derived from the Venetian Italian balio (ambassador), itself derived from the Latin bajulus (porter, carrier; administrator). The word has similar a origin to the word ‘bailiff’, which made its way into English through French.

24 March 2014

An Illuminated Qur’an manuscript from Aceh

The British Library has recently acquired a finely illuminated Qur’an manuscript from Aceh (Or. 16915).  The manuscript, which had been held for some time in a private collection in Germany, has just been fully digitised and can be read here.  Like most Qur’an manuscripts from the Malay world, it has no colophon or information on the scribe or place of production; the attribution to Aceh is based on codicological features such as handwriting, illumination and binding. Although undated the manuscript is written on English paper watermarked ‘J Whatman 1819’, suggesting that it might have been copied some time in the 1820s.

Situated on the northen tip of the island of Sumatra in present-day Indonesia, Aceh was the most powerful Islamic kingdom in Southeast Asia in the 17th century.  A renowned centre of Islamic learning, Aceh was also an important port of embarkation to the Middle East for pilgrims from all over the Malay world, earning it the epithet Serambi Mekah, ‘Mecca’s Verandah’. From the 18th century onwards, large numbers of illuminated Qur’ans and other Islamic manuscripts were produced in Aceh, and are today mainly held in libraries and museums in Indonesia (predominantly in Aceh itself), Malaysia and the Netherlands.  

Opening pages of the Qur’an, with Surat al-Fatihah on the right-hand page and the beginning of Surat al-Baqarah on the left. British Library, Or. 16915, ff. 2v-3r.  noc

The Acehnese style of illumination is highly distinctive in terms of the architecture of the decorated frames laid symmetrically across two facing pages. The vertical borders framing the text block are always extended upwards and downwards.  On the three outer sides of the decorative border are arches, that on the vertical side always being flanked by a pair of foliate ‘wings’.  The palette is centred on red, yellow and black, with the occasional addition of green or blue, but the most important ‘colour’, which always carries the main motifs, is ‘reserved white’ – not a pigment at all, but the background colour of the paper which shows through the design.

The Qur’an now in the British Library has a full complement of three double decorated frames, at the beginning, end and middle of the Holy Book.  Each pair of frames is different, and yet all conform to the general prescriptions of the Acehnese style outlined above.  The placement of the illuminated frames in the middle of a Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscript is an important indicator of its regional origin: in Qur’ans from the east coast of the Malay peninsula it is the beginning of Surat al-Isra’ that is highlighted; manuscripts from Java and Sulawesi mark the beginning of Surat al-Kahf; while in Aceh it is always the exact midpoint of the text, the beginning of the 16th juz’, Surat al-Kahf v. 75, which is illuminated.

The centre pages of the Acehnese Qur’an, marking the start of juz’ 16 (Q 18: 75). British Library, Or. 16915, ff.132v-133r.  noc

In addition to the illuminated double frames, Or. 16915 has an extensive set of marginal ornaments, which mark the divisions of the Qur’an into thirty equal parts or juz’ (plural: ajza), enabling the daily recitation of the complete Qur’an in one month.  Each juz’ is highlighted in manifold ways: the exact starting point in the text is marked with a composite roundel; the first line is written in red ink and set in red frames; and an elaborate ornament is placed in the centre of the vertical margin.  There are 28 such marginal juz’ markers in this manuscript (juz’ 1 and 16 begin with illuminated frames) and each is subtly different.

Beginning of juz’ 14, at the start of Surat al-Hijr, with the surah heading and the first line of the juz’ each given in red ink and set within ruled frames. British Library, Or. 16915, ff.117v-118r.  noc

In addition to the juz’ markers, portions of each juz’ (half, quarter and eighth) are also marked with smaller marginal ornaments, and here, too – as is generally the case in Southeast Asian Qur’ans – each is unique, reflecting the artist’s skill for endless improvisation on a single theme, in this case a base unit of concentric circles.

Or_16915_f025v Or_16915_f059v Or_16915_f062r Or_16915_f070v
Examples of marginal ornaments marking parts of a juz’. British Library, Or. 16915, details (left to right) from ff. 25v, 59v, 62r, 70v (to see the full page from which the ornaments come, click on the folio number).   noc

Traditionally, Qur’an manuscripts did not have page or verse numbers, and so graphic devices indicating divisions into juz’ and smaller units thereof played an important role in helping readers to find their place in the Book. A notable feature of this manuscript, which emphasizes the importance of division into thirty parts, is a poetical composition on the first page which appears to be a mnemonic made up of the first words of each juz’ (as identified by my colleague Muhammad Isa Waley).  

Mnemonic verse (naẓam) made up of the first words of each juz’, or thirtieth part of the Qur’an. British Library, Or. 16915, f.1v (detail).  noc

Final decorated frames at the end of the Qur’an, enclosing Surat al-Falaq on the right-hand page, and Surat al-Nas on the left. British Library, Or. 16915, ff. 254v-255r.  noc

Also of great interest are the outer covers of the manuscript.  Or. 16915 has an original cloth binding of coarse brown cotton, with an appliquéd repeating paper pattern.  This use of overlaid cut-out paper patterns on cloth manuscript bindings has so far only been noted in Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh, and can also be seen on another, less finely illuminated, Acehnese Qur’an in the British Library (Or. 16034) shown below.  But what is exceptional about Or.16915 is the calligraphic panel across the top, repeating the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith (La ilaha illa Allah, ‘There is no god but God’) on the front cover, and the word Allah on the back cover.  Finally, the whole book is enclosed within a loose full leather binding in the Islamic style, with an ‘envelope flap’ and stamped ornamental medallions and ruled frames.

Front cover of the manuscript of brown cloth with a cut-out paper pattern inscribed with the shahada. British Library, Or. 16915, front cover.  noc

Back cover of another Qur'an manuscript from Aceh (which has not yet been digitised), also with a cut-out paper pattern. British Library, Or. 16034.  noc

Loose brown leather outer cover of the Qur'an. British Library, Or. 16915, leather cover.  noc

Further reading

A.T. Gallop, ‘An Acehnese style of manuscript illumination’, Archipel, 2004, (68): 193-240. 

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


21 March 2014

Mewar Ramayana Digitally Reunited

The Mewar Ramayana is one of the most beautiful manuscripts in the world and has been digitally reunited after being split between organisations in the UK and India for over 150 years. The Indian epic Ramayana is one of the world's greatest and most enduring stories, telling the stirring tale of Prince Rama who was exiled for fourteen years through the plotting of his stepmother. In exile, his wife Sita is abducted by the ten-headed demon king Ravana; with the assistance of an army of monkeys and bears, Rama searches and rescues Sita.

Sahib Din, Rama is driven into exile as Dasaratha and the queens bid farewell, c. 1650. British Library, Add.15296(1), f. 56r
Sahib Din, Rama is driven into exile as Dasaratha and the queens bid farewell, c. 1650. British Library, Add.15296(1), f. 56r  noc

Through a major partnership between the British Library and CSMVS Museum in Mumbai, hundreds of folios, including 377 vividly illustrated paintings, of the Mewar Ramayana can now be viewed online. You can see the manuscript at

For the first time, people around the world will be able to digitally explore the pages of the Mewar Ramayana manuscript, which was commissioned by Rana Jagat Singh I of Mewar in 1649 and produced in his court studio at Udaipur. The project, which has been three years in the making, is sponsored by the Jamsetji Tata Trust, the World Collections Programme, and the Friends of the British Library.

The Ramayana – “Rama’s journey” is attributed to the sage Valmiki and was composed some two and a half thousand years ago. Through oral tradition 20,000 verses continued to circulate from generation to generation, in the various languages of India and beyond. The story embodies the Hindu idea of dharma – duty, behaving correctly according to one’s position and role in society.

The Mewar Ramayana manuscript is divided into seven books, the text prepared by a Jain scribe Mahatma Hirananda and the paintings by various artists including studio master Sahib Din. Production of the manuscript started in 1649 and was completed after Rana Jagat Singh's death in October 1652. This lavish manuscript features intricate paintings of Hindu gods and their battles and the paintings in the Mewar Ramayana are among the finest examples of Indian art.

Hanuman observes Ravana's interview with Sita, c. 1653. British Library, IO San 3621, f.3
Hanuman observes Ravana's interview with Sita,
c. 1653. British Library, IO San 3621, f.3  noc

After more than 150 years after production, four volumes from this series were presented by Jagat Singh's descendant Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar (1778-1828) to Lt. Col. James Tod (1782-1835), the first British Political Agent to the Western Rajput Courts in the early 19th century. In 1823, following his return to Britain, Tod presented the volumes to the royal bibliophile the Duke of Sussex (1773-1843) in 1823. Following the Duke's death, the content of his library went on sale in 1844, the four volumes were purchased by the British Museum, now the British Library. The remaining volumes became dispersed over time.

The digital Mewar Ramayana will enable users to ‘turn the pages' online in the unbound style reflecting the traditional Indian loose-leaf format, and interpretive text and audio will allow the broadest possible audience to study and enjoy this text in a whole new way. It will also transform access to the manuscript for researchers, who will have the text and paintings side by side in one place for the first time. The project has been led by British Library curator Marina Chellini with assistance from Leena Mitford, J.P. Losty and Pasquale Manzo.

Technical note:

This new version of 'Turning the Pages' is built in HTML5. It is not reliant on 'plugins' you need to install first, as with previous versions. It will work with the following browsers:

Internet Explorer 9 +
Google Chrome 14+
Firefox 11+

As it is a very large file, it may take a few minutes to download (depending on your broadband speed).

For the press release and additional images, please visit the British Library's Press and Policy page.

19 March 2014

BL Event: Korean Literature: Past and Present

In connection with the London Book Fair 2014 the British Library is holding an event entitled Korean Literature: Past and Present from 6.30-8 pm on Tuesday, 8th April.  One of Korea’s foremost novelists, Yi Mun-yol, will be in conversation with Dr Grace Koh, Lecturer in Korean Literature at SOAS, and Brother Anthony of Taizé, a noted translator of Korean literature.

15260.c.7 Cho Ung chǒn
Cho Ung chǒn
“The Tale of Cho Ung“, Korean novel in hangŭl script. c.1850 (British Library 15260.c.7 )

Korea has been chosen as The London Book Fair’s Market Focus for 2014 to reflect the country’s status as one of the top ten publishing markets in the world, and its expanding reputation within the international literary community.

The event will also include a brief intoduction to the British Library’s Korean collection which contains many historical and contemporary literary works, notably a collection of rare 19th century novels in hangŭl script.

For more details of the Event see the BL website:  What's on

For information on the BL’s Korean collections: Help for researchers: Korean collections


Hamish Todd, Asian and African Studies


17 March 2014

The road to Mandalay

The name of the British Library is in some ways a misnomer - we hold amazing collections from around the world, as the entries on this blog show. With a global collection that's important to so many people in so many places, comes a responsibility to work to enable people around the world to access the collections. Digitisation can be a wonderful way of enabling anyone, anywhere, to read manuscripts, books, or newspaper, and to see works of art, without having to come to London. Sometimes, library staff also travel, to tell people about our collections and encourage people to find out more about them.

Among the millions of items in the British Library are around 2,000 Burmese manuscripts – one of my favourites is Or.16761. There are also around 20,000 books from Myanmar, as well as photographs, newspapers, and the records of the Burma Office and India Office. We have long been in touch with colleagues in libraries in Myanmar, but last month we were able to do something that hasn't been possible for a number of years: to travel to Mandalay and Yangon, taking with us two displays about our collections.

The opening of a 19th century Burmese manuscript illustrating a variety of royal entertainments (Or.16761, ff 1-3r)

The displays featured two sets of material - photographs taken in Myanmar in the 19th century, and early books printed in, and about the languages of, Myanmar. Because we knew that one of the displays would be outdoors, the displays used images rather than including the original books and photographs, but the high-resolution scans and photographs used meant that the facsimiles could be extremely high-quality, and enabled people to get up close and examine the images in detail. We’ve done similar ‘facsimile’ exhibitions recently – as you can see on previous blog posts – in Kabul and Delhi.
LitFest visitors
Visitors at the displays at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival, Mandalay. © British Library

The first venue for the displays was the Irrawaddy Literary Festival, which this year took place in Mandalay. Despite a last-minute change of venue from the Kuthodaw Pagoda to a nearby hotel, thousands of people came to the literary festival. It was probably the first time we've done a display in a car park, but the response from the estimated 3,500 visitors who came to see the Library's displays made all the hard work (and the heat and dust outside) worth it. Many of the photographs and books in the pictures had not been seen in Myanmar before, or not for some years, and people often stopped to ask us questions, or to take photographs of the displays for future reference. Some visitors returned the next day with their friends and families, and at one point a group of tour guides came to see the old photographs of the places to which they regularly took tourists.
Two monks getting up close to see the details of the old photographs. © British Library
After a busy three days, we packed up the displays and drove to Yangon, to set up in our second venue: the Universities' Central Library on the main campus of the University of Yangon. The campus has been closed for years, and only recently reopened to students, but there's already significant investment in improving the facilities, and rejuvenating the campus and faculties. The Universities' Central Library has its own hugely important collection of books and manuscripts, and cases in the marble-clad lobby showing some of these. After we had been treated to a tour of the library and its collections, we installed the displays in lobby and welcomed friends old and new to the opening ceremony.

UCL staff
Staff of the Universities’ Central Library previewing the exhibition before the opening ceremony. © Universities’ Central Library

UCL visitors
Students and other visitors enjoyed the displays at the Universities’ Central Library. © Universities’ Central Library
Thousands of visitors came to see the displays in Yangon, and we’ve left the panels there, so it’s possible that they will be shown again in the future, perhaps in other venues. Meanwhile, we're starting to think about what's next - and looking forward to future projects in partnership with our colleagues in Myanmar, whether they involve digitisation, displays, or something else entirely. Watch this space!

Catherine Eagleton, Asian and African Studies


Supported by Prudential


14 March 2014

Mughal flower studies and their European inspiration

The Dara Shikoh Album (Add.Or.3129) is one of the most famous and important Mughal artefacts in the British Library’s collections.  Dara Shikoh (1615-58) was the eldest son and favourite of the Emperor Shah Jahan (reg. 1627-58).  He was married in 1633 to his cousin Nadira Banu Begum and in 1641 gave her the album which, it was argued recently (Losty and Roy 2012, pp. 124-37), the prince had assembled between 1631 and 1633 and not as normally assumed between his marriage in 1633 and the gift in 1641.  When I was researching the album, which is famous above all for its flower studies, I recognised a new European source of inspiration that had not previously been noticed.  Scholars of Mughal painting, following Robert Skelton’s seminal paper of 1972, have become increasingly aware of how Mughal artists used European prints to help both in their individual paintings of flowers and in the floral borders of the imperial albums of Jahangir (reg. 1605-27) and Shah Jahan.  Since it was possible to publish only the British Library’s Mughal paintings in our 2012 book, this note expands on some of the references made therein. 

The only signed and dated painting in the album is by the otherwise mysterious artist Muhammad Khan, who was possibly from the Deccan and engaged by Dara Shikoh when the Emperor’s court was in Burhanpur 1630-32.  My attention focussed on the vase which is filled with a bouquet of many different sorts of flowers and is very unlike contemporary Mughal depictions of vases of flowers in paintings.  
A prince in Persian costume pouring wine.  Inscribed on the bowl in Persian: ‘amal-i Muhammad Khan musavvir sanna 1043 (‘work of Muhammad Khan the artist, the year 1043/1633–4’).  Add.Or.3129, f. 21v
A prince in Persian costume pouring wine.  Inscribed on the bowl in Persian: ‘amal-i Muhammad Khan musavvir sanna 1043 (‘work of Muhammad Khan the artist, the year 1043/1633–4’).  Add.Or.3129, f. 21v. noc

While vases of flowers are occasionally seen in contemporary Mughal party scenes, they are normally slender and filled with a single type of flower arranged in two dimensions.  This extravagant bouquet in Muhammad Khan’s painting seems instead derived from a European exemplar, such as occur in several engraved florilegia of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  In one of them, the Florilegium series of prints made by Adriaen Collaert and published by Philips Galle in Antwerp, first in 1587 and again in 1590, the third plate is an elaborate bouquet of various flowers arranged in a vase much as in Muhammad Khan’s version. 

  Adriaen Collaert, Florilegium, published by Philips Galle, Antwerp, 1590.  555.d.23.(3.), pl. 3
Adriaen Collaert, Florilegium, published by Philips Galle, Antwerp, 1590.  555.d.23.(3.), pl. 3  noc

So far as I am aware this Florilegium has not been identified before as a source for Mughal flowers studies, yet it can be shown as we shall see in a moment to have been a comparatively early arrival at the Mughal court.  Muhammad Khan has modified the decoration on his vase:  the image of a lion bringing down a large deer, perhaps a nilgai, is obviously of Indian inspiration despite its blue and white colouring, but the shape is not Chinese but derived from the sort of classical vase with wide shoulders and comparatively narrow base seen in Collaert’s engraving, although in the Mughal version without a foot. 

  Vase of narcissi with covered cups, intarsia detail from the tomb of Itimad al-Daula, Agra, begun 1622. Photo by William Dalrymple, 2013, and reproduced with his kind permission
Vase of narcissi with covered cups, intarsia detail from the tomb of Itimad al-Daula, Agra, begun 1622. Photo by William Dalrymple, 2013, and reproduced with his kind permission

The aparently haphazard arrangement of flowers in a vase in the European manner would not have been thought suitable for execution in stone in a Mughal monument, so when bulbous vases containing a single variety of flowers make their appearance in Mughal art in the intarsia and painted decoration of the tomb of Itimad al-Daula in Agra begun in 1622, the floral arrangement has been beautifully regularized and flattened rather as in Mughal party scenes.

  Vase of flowers in marble relief on the dado of the Taj Mahal tomb chamber, begun 1631..  Agra artist, c. 1810-15.  Add.Or.1771.
Vase of flowers in marble relief on the dado of the Taj Mahal tomb chamber, begun 1631..  Agra artist, c. 1810-15.  Add.Or.1771.  noc

They appear most famously carved in marble in the dado of the tomb chamber of the Taj Mahal in the 1630s, where the vase again is clearly of European classical inspiration and with its swags and foot is almost certainly derived from Collaert’s vase.  Here, although the flowers are varied as in the exemplar, they form flattened sprays in mirror symmetry aroud the central iris.  Ebba Koch in her book on the Taj Mahal suggests C.J. Vischer’s engraving of a vase of flowers of 1635 as a possible source (Koch 2006, figs. 338 and 339), but Collaert’s vase of 1587-90 is much closer.

The Dara Shikoh album is celebrated for its exquisite and innovative flower paintings which, like the portraits, are arranged in matching pairs.  Some seem almost naturalistic, as if done directly from nature, although certain characteristics such as the hovering butterflies suggest that this is not the case but rather that European herbals served as the ultimate inspiration.

  Flower studies.  Attributed to Muhammad Khan, 1630-33. Add.Or.3129, f.67v 
Flower studies.  Attributed to Muhammad Khan, 1630-33. Add.Or.3129, f.67v  noc

One of the most beautiful studies of naturalistic flowers in the album is found in another page attributed to Muhammad Khan, where six different species of flowers are laid out as specimens on the page.  Such an arrangement seems to be derived from earlier paintings by Mansur, the foremost of Jahangir’s natural history painters, whose vanished album of the spring flowers of Kashmir painted in 1621 is one of the chief of our losses of Mughal paintings. 

Lilies, signed by Mansur Jahangirshahi, c. 1605-12. From the Gulshan Album, Golestan Palace Library, Tehran, Ms 1663, p. 103. With kind permission of the Golestan Palace Library. Lilies, from Adriaen Collaert’s Florilegium, Antwerp, 1590, 555.d.23.(3.), pl. 6.
Left: Lilies, signed by Mansur Jahangirshahi, c. 1605-12. From the Gulshan Album, Golestan Palace Library, Tehran, Ms 1663, p. 103. With kind permission of the Golestan Palace Library.  Right: Lilies, from Adriaen Collaert’s Florilegium, Antwerp, 1590, 555.d.23.(3.), pl. 6.  noc      

One of Mansur’s rare surviving flower studies is included in Jahangir’s great album in Tehran now known as the Gulshan Album.  Previous scholarship concurred that Mansur’s flower studies all date from 1620 or thereabouts, but Susan Stronge has pointed out that Mansur must have done this study before he was given the title of Nadir al-‘Asr, Wonder of Time, which he is how he signs himself on paintings that can be dated to 1612 and later (2008, pp. 95-96).  On the other hand, since he uses the soubriquet Jahangirshahi, this suggests that he was already regarded as a master artist.  Stronge proposed that in this study Mansur was influenced by two of the individual plants published in John Gerard’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plants, 1597, reversing the engravings, but suggesting that the ultimate source was a still undiscovered Florilegium.  The subjects of engraved florilegia were much copied from one publication to another.  Turning again to Collaert’s Florilegium of 1590, it can be seen that she was right.

Mansur’s painting of lilies has always struck me as a somewhat clumsy arrangement of flowers compared with the elegance of the Dara Shikoh page.  However, the arrangement of different kinds of flowers all from the same species, in this instance lilies, is of course derived from European florilegia, which are concerned with botany, not with aesthetics.  It can readily be seen that in this case Mansur reproduces the entirety of plate 6 from Collaert’s Florilegium the right way round and in an exact correspondence.  Clearly he was not familiar with lilies in nature since he has mistaken the trumpet part of the flower for green sepals.  So far from this being a masterpiece of Mansur’s maturity as is often proclaimed, it is in fact an immature study from early in Jahangir’s reign.  Just as Abu’l Hasan and other artists of the period painted over or copied European engravings of Christian religious imagery to help them develop a more naturalistic approach to the rendering of volume and space, so Mansur is using a European print to help him find his way into the naturalistic depiction of flowers.


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



Koch, E., The Complete Taj Mahal, London, 2006

Losty, J.P., and Roy, M., Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library, London, 2012

Semsar, M.H., and Ernami, K., Golestan Palace Library: a Portfolio of Miniature Paintings and Calligraphy, Tehran, 2000

Skelton, R., ‘A Decorative Motif in Mughal Art’ in Aspects of Indian Art, ed. P. Pal, Leiden, 1972, pp. 147-52

Stronge, S., ‘The Minto Album and its Decoration’ in Wright, Elaine, ed., Muraqqa':  Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library Dublin, Alexandria VA, 2008, pp. 82-105


11 March 2014

A Malay document from the Aru Islands

Last year was the centenary of the death of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), whose contribution to the theory of evolution was as significant as that of Charles Darwin.  For Southeast Asianists, Wallace is of course best known as author of The Malay Archipelago (1869), a record of his detailed scientific observations in the Malay world.  


Title page of the first edition of The Malay Archipelago, 1869.  British Library,  noc

As part of the Wallace Centenary activites, the Natural History Museum launched the Wallace Letters Online project, aiming to document all letters to and from Wallace.  It was thus that early in 2013 I received a query about a small sheet of blue paper with writing in Malay in Jawi (Arabic) script (Add. MS. 46442, f.93), held among Wallace’s correspondence in the British Library. According to the Australian naturalist J. T. Cockerell, the document was given to him in 1872 in the Aru Islands in eastern Indonesia, where Wallace had spent six months from January to June 1857, as described in chapters 30-33 of The Malay Archipelago. Cockerell explains that the letter was to be forwarded to Wallace from its author, who had piloted Wallace up the Wanumbai Creek in Aru in 1857.  

J.T. Cockerell was a professional naturalist from Australia, who was in Aru on an expedition to collect specimens from the field from 4 March to 15 December 1872.  In his journal for 3 May 1872, he recounts how he came into possession of the document: ‘The pilot now gave us to understand that he knew Mr. Wallace well, and had gone with him to Wannumbai: also that he had great respect for ‘the Englishman,’ in consequence of which he and his eldest son had taken the name of Wallace. He showed us a heavy silver-headed cane he had received from that gentleman, and which he seemed greatly to prize. When my son told him that he also knew Mr. Wallace, and had seen him lately, the pilot and his son kissed us all round three times on the forehead, and the old man said that he would write a letter in the Aru language stating the time of visit of Mr. Wallace, and where he went and what he did. The pilot performed his promise, and gave me one copy and asked me to forward the other to Mr. Wallace out of respect for ‘the Englishman’.”

Aru map0001
Wallace’s map of the Aru Islands, showing Wanumbai (Manumbai) in the centre of the island.  There are a number of inaccuracies in this map, as Cockerell noted. The Malay Archipelago, p. 338.  noc

The document is of interest as the only known written Malay source from Aru.  It was written with care, but is extremely hard to decipher and to interpret, as reflected in the comments of those charged with reading it. In 1909 C.O. Blagden, lecturer in Malay at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, wrote to W.W. Skeat that the letter was ‘an extreme specimen of bad writing in the Arabic character and bad spelling of Malay … I have read Malay MSS a many, & bad ones not a few, but as bad a one as this I never saw before, & I think it ought to be set at the next exam for the Malay bonus in the F.M.S.’, referring to the financial premium for Malay-language skills for civil servants in the Federated Malay States.  Skeat (author of Malay Magic, 1900), however, took a more nuanced view, and noted that it looked ‘as if the writer were trying unsuccessfully to reproduce some peculiarities in the local pronounciation, (‘p’ for ‘b’, for instance) because they are evidently not all accidental’. The problem is that although most of the individual words in this short document can be read, the overall meaning of the text can only be conjectured.  

Add.46442, f.93r
Malay account of Wallace’s visit to Aru, 1872.  British Library, Add. MS. 46442, f.93r.  noc

Given below is a modernised line-by-line transliteration of the letter, with proposed translation:
Bahwa alamat ini surat dari ingatan / dahulu kala daripada orang xxx Melayu / nenek moyang dapat tana Aru sampai tana Wasir / kompani Inggeris dapat / sama kita orang Melayu xxx Wallace / jadi tuan kompani Inggeris / kasi ka ruma sama nenek [se]mua xxx dia / punya anak cucu [se]mua xxx anak / cucu [se]mua xxx [symbol] wa kabungwalai / imama ajar marid adanya.
‘This is a record based on memories of the past, from the Malays whose forefathers have possessed the land of Aru up to the land of Wasir.  The English came here to meet us Malays. Wallace, who was the English chief, established a bond of friendship with all the elders of the house, and their children and grandchildren, their children and grandchildren.  Kampong Walai; the imam who teaches students, the end.’
The  document therefore is not a letter to Wallace, but rather a statement recording Wallace’s visit to the writer’s communal home, and the friendship he established with the elders, extending to their children and grandchildren, and thence to their children and grandchildren.

Cockerell’s impression of the author was of a man ‘of good education’ who frequently ‘took notes’ of all matters of interest, and who carried a ‘well-written and well-cared for manuscript book’, yet it is difficult to reconcile this image with the undeniably poor hand of the Jawi document.  Could it be that the pilot was perhaps more literate in Bugis/Makassar script, but chose to write in imperfect Jawi script as Malay was the language in which he had communicated with Wallace?  In any case, the Malay imam would doubtless have been gratified to know how much attention would be focussed on his words, so many years after they were inscribed.

[With thanks for comments and suggestions to George Beccaloni, Caroline Catchpole and Henri Chambert-Loir.]

Further reading

Cockerell, J.T.    
A visit to the Aru Islands. No. III. The Queenslander, 21 February 1874, p.6
A visit to the Aru Islands. No. IV. The Queenslander, 28 February 1874, p.6
Wallace, Alfred Russel.  The Malay Archipelago. London: Macmillan, 1869.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork