Asian and African studies blog

10 posts from April 2014

28 April 2014

The Ramayana in Southeast Asia: (2) Thailand and Laos

Continuing our series of posts on the Ramayana in Southeast Asia, today we look at Thailand and Laos. The Thai version of the epic is known as the Ramakien. The Rama story is thought to have been known to the Thais since at least the 13th century. It was adopted from older Khmer sources, hence the similarity to the Khmer title Reamker. Various new versions of the story have been composed, often by royal authors, since the 16th and 17th centuries. However, large numbers of Thai manuscripts were lost with the destruction of Ayutthya in 1767, and the Ramakien known today was compiled only between 1785 and 1807 under the supervision of King Rama I (1785-1809).

The famous reliefs depicting about 150 scenes from the Ramakien at Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho) in Bangkok date back to the early 19th century. Manuscript and mural paintings showing scenes from the Ramakien are particularly famous for their illustrations of the monkey armies. Best known are the mural paintings at the royal temple Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok. In King Rama I’s version of the Ramakien all names, places, traditions, and flora and fauna were adapted to a Thai context. In this form, the Rama story has become an epic of national character in Thailand, and it is very popular not only as a literary work, but also as a mask dance (khon) and even TV drama. It has been re-published many times in the form of children’s and juvenile literature, and characters from the Ramayana have featured on series of postal stamps and trading cards. The title of Rama constantly re-occurs in the royal genealogies of Thailand.

Hanuman facing Ravana asleep in his palace. This drawing is from a 19th century album of ink drawings by an anonymous Thai artist of scenes from the Ramakien, with some text captions in Khom script (a variant of the Cambodian Khmer script used in Thailand). Hanuman can be seen with his sword, teasing Ravana who is fast asleep in his palace after having abducted Sita. The palace resembles 19th century architecture in Bangkok. British Library, Or.14859, pp. 58-59  noc

Phralak – the Thai and Lao name of Lakshmana, Rama’s brother – served Rama and Sita reverently and played an important role in the war with Ravana. In the Thai and Lao traditions, he is a symbol of brotherly love, loyalty and commitment. He gave his life in order to protect Rama’s integrity and Ayodhya from an evil curse. This illustration of Phralak is from a folding-book with Thai character drawings including figures from the Ramakien, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or.14229, f. 29  noc

The Lao version of the Ramayana is known as Phra Lak Phra Ram (or Pha Lak Pha Lam since in modern Lao R is often replaced by L), the title referring to both the brothers Lakshmana and Rama. Sometimes it is also called Phra Ram sadok (Rama Jataka) as it is widely believed that Rama was a former incarnation of a Buddha-to-be. The Rama story featured in many mural paintings and wood relief carvings on temple doors and windows. It was also one of the favourite themes in the repertoire of the Lao Royal Ballet until 1975, and this tradition has been revived since 2002 by the Royal Ballet Theatre of Luang Prabang.

Ramayana Laos
Introductory scene to thank and honour the Hindu gods during a Phra Lak Phra Ram performance by the Royal Ballet Theatre of Luang Prabang. Photo by Jana Igunma, 2002.

Numerous palm-leaf manuscripts from all regions of Laos containing shorter versions of the Lao Ramayana, Lam Pha Lam, show that the story was very popular all over the country in urban centres as much as in rural areas. These versions were created in order to be sung by a Mor Lam, a traditional expert singer who can melodically recite lengthy poems and epic literature while being accompanied by a Khaen (bamboo mouth organ).

In both Thai and Lao traditions, Hanuman was part of a favourite Yantra design used by soldiers and martial arts specialists. The leader of the monkey armies represents strength, stamina, agility, intelligence and devotion. Hanuman Yantras would either be drawn on protective shirts, headbands, battle standards of entire armies, or, most efficiently and durably, tattooed on a fighter’s body.

Hanuman yantra
Hanuman as part of a Yantra design for tattooing or to be drawn on protective clothes and battle flags. From a Yantra manual written in gamboge ink on blackened mulberry paper, central Thailand, 19th century.  British Library, Or.15596, f. 9  noc

Further reading

Angkhan Kanlayanaphong, Khon, Thai masked dance Sala Chalermkrung. Bangkok, 2006. (LP.31.a.679)

John Cadet, The Ramakien. The Thai epic illustrated with the bas-reliefs of Wat Phra Jetubon, Bangkok. Tokyo, Palo Alto, 1971. (Siam.742)

Sachchidanand Sahai, The Rama Jataka in Laos : a study in the Phra Lak Phra Lam. Delhi, 1996. (YD.2004.a.6415)

The Ramakian (Ramayana) mural paintings along the galleries of the temple of the Emerald Buddha. Bangkok, 1999. (SEA.2002.c.3)

Jana Igunma, Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian


24 April 2014

Romeo and Juliet in Thai

If you were in Bangkok about a century ago and you were going to a theatre performance, the last thing you would expect is a play by Shakespeare. But you might be surprised to find out that this was very much a possibility, and it was equally possible to recognise the Thai king as one of the actors on stage.

King Vajiravudh (Rama VI, 1910-25) was a true fan of Shakespeare and translated several of his works into Thai. He also made great efforts to ensure that Shakespeare’s plays found their way into Thai theatres and by doing so he introduced Western/modern forms of theatre into Thailand. He often stood on the stage himself as he had a passion for acting that he had developed as a young student in England. Immediate family members were encouraged to join him on stage.

The Cheltenham Chronicle and Glo’shire Graphic reported on 30 August 1902 about the young Crown Prince Vajiravudh that “the Prince has recently appeared in another role – that of amateur actor and playwright - at an ‘At Home’ at Westbury Court… The stage name of the heir to the Siamese Crown is ‘Carlton H. Terris’, and he actually performed in three plays – ‘In Honour Bound’, ‘Old Cronies’, and ‘The King’s Command’, the latter being from his pen.”      

King Vajiravudh during his coronation ceremony in 1910. Source: Chotmaihet Phraratchaphithi borommaratchaphisek Somdet Phraramathibodi Srisinthon Maha Vachiravut Phramongkutklao Chaoyuhua. Bangkok, 1923, p. 1 (Siam.183)
King Vajiravudh during his coronation ceremony in 1910. Source: Chotmaihet Phraratchaphithi borommaratchaphisek Somdet Phraramathibodi Srisinthon Maha Vachiravut Phramongkutklao Chaoyuhua. Bangkok, 1923, p. 1 (Siam.183)


King Vajiravudh was born on January 1, 1881 being the second son and successor of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). At the early age of 12, he was sent to Sandhurst Royal Military College and then moved to Oxford University to study history, administration and law. Altogether, he spent nine years in England. Following the death of his elder half-brother, Crown Prince Maha Vajirunhis in 1895, Prince Vajiravudh succeeded as Crown Prince and eventually ascended the throne after his father King Rama V deceased on 23 October 1910. He was the first Thai king to be educated abroad. The long time as a student in England had a considerable and lasting influence on his love of literary and performing arts. In many of his works, he emphasised the value of the press, and of reading in general.


Romeo and Juliet in Thai, translated by King Vajiravudh. The book was printed in 1922 and bound in a lavender coloured silk cover embossed with gilt (Siam.279)
Romeo and Juliet in Thai, translated by King Vajiravudh. The book was printed in 1922 and bound in a lavender coloured silk cover embossed with gilt (Siam.279)


His most important translations into Thai are Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” (Siam.279), “As you like it” (Siam.330/421), and “The Merchant of Venice” (Siam.275/7). His excellence in this field earned him the name “Maha thiraraja”, meaning “philosopher king”. Due to the fact that many of his contemporaries did not see the purpose in his activities as an author, playwright and actor – the latter being indeed very unusual for a Thai king - he decided to write and perform under different pseudonyms, like for example Si Ayutthaya, Asvabhahu, Tom Toby, or Carlton H. Terris. Altogether, King Vajiravudh used more than 40 pseudonyms (known to date).


Beginning of the first act of Romeo and Juliet in Thai, translated by King Vajiravudh (Siam.279, pp. 4-5)
Beginning of the first act of Romeo and Juliet in Thai, translated by King Vajiravudh (Siam.279, pp. 4-5) 

The publication of Thai literary works and translations of Western literature and theatre plays into Thai reached a first climax with King Vajiravudh as author and translator himself.  He stood out for his considerable contribution to Thai literature and the performing arts, and was the first one to classify Thai theatre into two types, the Khon and Lakhon.

In "A Descriptive Catalogue of the Siamese Section at the International Exhibition of Industry and Labour" (Turin, 1911) he wrote: “The theatre where the Khon and Lakon are performed ... possesses the beautiful simplicity of an ancient Greek theatre ... neither stage nor scenery is required ... Costumes and properties however, are very elaborate, and are made as accurately as possible. The costumes are made to resemble those worn in Siam in olden times, and have not changed during successive generations, because they have been found most picturesque and suitable. Queens or royal personages wear crowns or coronets; others have various kinds of headdresses suitable to their rank and station. Character parts, such as demons, monkeys, or yogis wear distinctive masks of different colours and designs. Each mask is a good example of Siamese decorative art, and is distinctive and characteristic, so that each character may at once be recognized by the mask worn by the actor.” 

In addition to these traditional theatre forms, he helped to popularise modern dance-drama, spoken drama (lakhon phut) and sung drama (lakhon rong) in Siam as a way to prepare the people of his country for the modern world.

The British Library has a collection of over 120 first editions and reprints of King Vajiravudh’s works, including the above mentioned three translations of Shakespeare’s plays into Thai.

Jana Igunma, Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian ccownwork


Further reading

Paradee Tungtang: Shakespeare in Thailand. PhD dissertation, University of Warwick, 2011 (SFX 537761) 

Walter F. Vella and Dorothy Vella:  Chaiyo! King Vajiravudh and the development of Thai nationalism. Honolulu, 1978 (X.800/32387)


21 April 2014

The Ramayana in Southeast Asia: (1) Cambodia

The recent digitisation of the Mewar Ramayana has enabled the ‘virtual’ reunification of this 17th-century masterpiece, bringing together paintings from the manuscript held across continents in different locations.  Originally composed in India in Sanskrit over two and half thousand years ago by Valmiki, the Ramayana is also one of the most popular masterworks throughout Southeast Asia.  This is reflected not only in the literary traditions, but also in the performing and fine arts, as well as in architecture and modern design.  The epic tells the story of Rama, his brother Lakshmana and Rama’s wife Sita, who was kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. The main part of the epic is about the fight between Ravana and Rama, who wants to get his wife back. In this battle, Rama is supported by his brother and a monkey chief, Hanuman, with his armies.

Knowledge of the Ramayana in Southeast Asia can be traced back to the 5th century in stone inscriptions from Funan, the first Hindu kingdom in mainland Southeast Asia. An outstanding series of reliefs of the Battle of Lanka from the 12th century still exists at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Ramayana sculptures from the same period can be found at Pagan in Myanmar. Thailand’s old capital Ayutthya founded in 1347 is said to have been modelled on Ayodhya, Rama’s birthplace and setting of the Ramayana.  New versions of the epic were written in poetry and prose and as dramas in Burmese, Thai, Khmer, Lao, Malay, Javanese and Balinese, and the story continues to be told in dance-dramas, music, puppet and shadow theatre throughout Southeast Asia. Most of these versions change parts of the story significantly to reflect the different natural environments, customs and cultures.

When mainland Southeast Asian societies embraced Theravada Buddhism, Rama began to be regarded as a Bodhisatta, or Buddha-to-be, in a former life. In this context, the early episodes of the story were emphasized, symbolising Rama’s Buddhist virtues of filial obedience and willing renunciation. Throughout the region, Hanuman enjoys a greatly expanded role; he becomes the king of the monkeys and the most popular character in the story, and is a reflection of all the freer aspects of life.  In a series of posts we will be exploring how the Ramayana epic has been rewritten and reimagined in the different parts of Southeast Asia, starting with the Khmer version, the Reamker.


Royal Reamker performance, accompanied by the royal orchestra, at the ancient site of Ta Prohm, one of the temples of Angkor.  Postcard from around 1915 published in Paris by the Anciens Etablissement Gillot, from a collector’s album of postcards from Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Siam.  British Library, ORB. 30/6309, p. [16]

The Ramayana very early reached the ancient Hindu kingdoms (Funan, Chenla, Champa) in the territory of present-day Cambodia, southern Vietnam and eastern Thailand through contact with the south Indian kingdoms, but the oldest extant literary version, the Reamker in the Khmer language, appears to date from the 16th century.  It preserves closer links to Valmiki’s original than do the other Southeast Asian versions. The Rama story became a favourite theme for frescoes on temple walls and was the exclusive subject of the traditional Cambodian shadow play. The popular masked dance drama, lkhon khol, was based on certain episodes from the Ramayana, and with Rama being regarded a former incarnation for the Buddha himself the story forms part of the repertoire of the Royal Ballet  to the present day.

Dancer of the Royal Ballet in the costume of Hanuman.  Postcard from around 1915 issued by the Comité Cambodgien de la Société des Amis d’Angkor, from a collector’s album of postcards from Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Siam.  British Library, ORB. 30/6309, p. [30]

The literary text Reamker has the form of a dramatic recitative that was intended to accompany a mimed dance performance. Live recitations of parts of the Reamker by one of the most famous Cambodian storytellers of the 20th century, Ta Krut, had been recorded in the 1960s and are available online from the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center.

Further reading:

Reamker (Ramakerti), the Cambodian version of the Ramayana. Translated by Judith Jacob with the assistance of Kuoch Haksrea. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1986 (ORW.1989.a.1223)

J. J. Boeles, The Ramayana relief from the Khmer sanctuary at Pimai in Northeast Thailand.
Sachchidanand Sahai (ed.), The Ramayana in South East Asia. Gaya 1981 (W 6784)

Jana Igunma, Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian

18 April 2014

An Album of Maratha and Deccani Paintings - part 1

An Indian album in Asian and African Collections of which hitherto little notice has been taken is a large but slim volume, numbered Add.21475 (Blumhardt 1899, no. 91).  The album contains eight paintings mostly from the Deccan, including five large paintings illustrating verses from Keshav Das’s classic text on poetics, the Rasikapriya.  It has to my knowledge been exhibited only once, in 1976, and only one of its paintings has ever been published, a portrait of Raja Sambhaji (Losty 1986, no. 56).  An inscription records that it was presented to the British Museum in 1856 by F.S. Haden Esq.  This is possibly Sir Francis Seymour Haden (1818-1910), an eminent surgeon and one of the great 19th century authorities on etching, both on its practice and on the works of eminent etchers.  The album was rebound in Europe and the paintings remounted on European paper so that any connection with its compiler in India has been lost.

The album begins with two important Maratha portraits.

  Inscribed above: Maharaja Sambhajiraje.  Maratha, late 17th century.  Opaque pigments and gold on paper, 146 by 220mm (including border).  BL Add.21475, f. 1
Inscribed above: Maharaja Sambhajiraje.  Maratha, late 17th century.  Opaque pigments and gold on paper, 146 by 220mm (including border).  BL Add.21475, f. 1  noc

Sambhaji (1657-89) was the eldest son of Sivaji, leader of the Hindu Deccani resistance to Aurangzeb’s assault on the kingdoms of the Deccan.  After Sivaji’s death in 1680, Sambhaji led his forces against not only the Mughals but the Siddis of Janjira, the Portuguese in Goa and the Wodeyars of Mysore.  He was captured in a minor skirmish with the Mughals at Sangameshwar in 1689 and executed at Aurangzeb’s command.  This rare portrait cannot be much removed in time from Sambhaji’s life.  The conventions of the portraiture, being seated on a terrace holding a flower, are standard throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but the tangled clouds at the top point particularly to an early date.  Its dark flat colours suggest a provenance far from the glitter of Hyderabad, the centre of Deccani painting at the time, and perhaps to a Maratha provenance, about whose artistic activities at this period little is known.  Portraits of Sambhaji are very rare, but two formerly in the royal Satara collection are now in the History Museum of Marathwada University, Aurangabad (Deshmukh 1992, pls. I. IIIA).  The former is a standard Golconda/Hyderabad sort of portrait, but the second showing him seated with his young son Sahu (pl. IIIA), painted probably in the early 18th century by a Maratha artist, seems based on our portrait or one similarly early.  Both show the same Vaisnava sect mark on his forehead and the four chains of pearls attached to the back of his turban. 

  The Maratha Peshwa, Madhavrao II.  Maratha, perhaps by Shivram Chitari, c. 1790.  Opaque pigments and gold on paper, 278 by 205 mm (including border).  BL Add.21475, f. 2.
The Maratha Peshwa, Madhavrao II.  Maratha, perhaps by Shivram Chitari, c. 1790.  Opaque pigments and gold on paper, 278 by 205 mm (including border).  BL Add.21475, f. 2.  noc

Next in the album comes an unattributed portrait which from the turban and clothing can only be one of the later Maratha Peshwas.  The Peshwas, all Chitpavan Brahmins, were the hereditary chief ministers of the Maratha kings, and after the descendants of Sivaji and Sambhaji had established themselves at Satara and Kolhapur, they ruled the empire in their name from their base at Pune.  The long shawl wound round the body is in the manner of the Bijapur and Golconda sultans of the 17th century.  The hairless face, long nose, protruding mouth, turban, clothing and Vaisnava sect mark all match those of the young Peshwa Madhavrao II Narayan (1774-1795), the posthumous son of the murdered Peshwa Madhavrao I, as seen for example in the portrait by James Wales dated 1792 in the collections of the Royal Asiatic Society (see the website 

The Maratha empire was governed by the famous statesman Nana Phadnavis during the Peshwa’s long minority.  Holly Shaffer who is currently researching Maratha paintings has kindly confirmed the identity of the sitter as the Peshwa Madhavrao II, based on an unpublished inscribed portrait of the same man in the Bharat Itihas Samshodak Mandal in Pune.  A portrait of his father, Madhavrao I with various attendants, ascribed to the Maratha artist Shivram Chitari, now in Aurangabad, is in a very similar style (Deshmukh 1992, pl. IX).  That portrait has a garden and palace background that suggests that the artist must have had some training in Hyderabad, which was the major artistic centre for the northern Deccan.  For painting in Hyderabad and its provinces in the later 18th century, see Zebrowski 1983, pp. 244-82.

These two portraits of Maratha interest are succeeded somewhat unexpectedly by a Jaipur painting of Radha and Krishna, portrayed as the hero and heroine of the month of Jyestha (May/June) from a Barahmasa set of paintings illustrating the twelve months of the Hindu calendar.

  The month of Jyestha (May/June), from a Barahmasa set.  Jaipur, c. 1780-90.  Opaque pigments and gold, 244 by 189 mm (including border).  BL Add.21475, f. 3.
The month of Jyestha (May/June), from a Barahmasa set.  Jaipur, c. 1780-90.  Opaque pigments and gold, 244 by 189 mm (including border).  BL Add.21475, f. 3.  noc

Krishna dressed as a young raja is embracing Radha, while being serenaded by two female musicians with tambura and drum.  Radha’s maid to the side holds the cord of a punkah hanging from the ceiling of the pavilion and Krishna with his hennaed hand held out seems to be encouraging her to work harder, to cool them down in the hottest month of the year.  Our artist’s attention to detail is exquisite – note particularly his foreground flowers and those round the balustrade, as well as the pairs of brilliantly coloured birds in the trees.  In a contemporary Barahmasa set of paintings from Jaipur in the History Museum, Aurangabad (fully published in Deshmukh n.d.), the month of Jyestha is a very similar composition to our painting (ibid., pl. 5), save that in place of the woodland surround there is a view of a distant landscape with tiny buildings and trees.  Krishna’s costume and appearance both in our painting and in the Aurangabad set leave little doubt that he is based on the portraits of the young Maharaja of Jaipur, Pratap Singh, as seen in a drawing in the BL when he is slightly older.

  Maharaja Pratap Singh of Jaipur (b. 1764, reg. 1778-1803).  Attributed to Sahib Ram, 1785-90.  Brush drawing with some colour on paper, 610 by 440 mm.  BL Add.Or.5579
Maharaja Pratap Singh of Jaipur (b. 1764, reg. 1778-1803).  Attributed to Sahib Ram, 1785-90.  Brush drawing with some colour on paper, 610 by 440 mm.  BL Add.Or.5579  noc

Another drawing formerly in the James Ivory collection shows Pratap Singh at a younger age without facial hair (Losty 2010, no. 46) and is even closer in appearance.  The enhanced curve of the eyebrow and the curl of hair at the back of the neck are similar in all these examples.  Shailka Misra, who is currently researching the Jaipur archives, advises that in a Ragamala set from Pratap Singh's reign, in the City Palace Museum, Pratap Singh also appears as the hero or nayaka of one of the Ragamala illustrations.  Jaipur paintings of this date are normally surrounded by broad red borders, but instead here there is a Mughal type of border of alternate large and small blue cartouches filled with arabesques against a yellow ground, suggesting influence from a late Mughal source.  Pratap Singh’s Ragamala in Jaipur also has the same kind of Mughal-influenced borders.

The angled hipped roof of the pavilion, normally seen in Avadhi paintings, and the attention paid to linear perspective suggest that our artist has been exposed to influence from Lucknow.  The connections between Avadhi and later Jaipur paintings are obvious but their means of transmission remain to be explored.  The Barahmasa set in Aurangabad also has similar angled hipped roofs as well as two other readily identifiable Avadhi characteristics:  distant tiny landscapes in the manner of the Faizabad and Lucknow artist Mihr Chand and a concern to show foreshortened buildings in linear perspective.

Given that the other paintings in the album are all associated with the Deccan, it would seem that this Jaipur painting would also have been collected there.  The many Jaipur religious and mythological paintings in the collection of Major Edward Moor, author of the Hindu Pantheon (London 1810), now in the British Museum, indicate that such paintings were readily available in Bombay and Poona where Moor served in the Bombay Army 1796-1805.  Jaipur seems to have been a centre for the dissemination of Hindu religious and genre paintings during this period, quite apart from the ones which were sent as gifts to other courts.  Our painting could easily have been part of a Barahmasa set sent as a gift to one of the Peshwas, perhaps Madhavrao II Narayan himself, and mounted up with other Maratha and Deccani material in this album. The Jaipur Barahmasa set now in Aurangabad came from the royal Satara collection and was possibly a gift from Pratap Singh to Maharaja Shahu II (reg. 1777-1810).

The remaining five paintings in the album are all from a large Hyderabad-influenced series of the Rasikapriya, the classic text by Keshav Das on Hindi poetics, and will be dealt with in a subsequent post.


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


Further reading:

Blumhardt, J.F., Catalogue of the Hindi, Punjabi and Hindustani Manuscripts in the British Museum, London, 1899

Deshmukh, S.B., Maratha Painting (Part 1), Marathwada University, Aurangabad, 1992

Deshmukh, S.B., Baramasa Paintings, Marathwada University, Aurangabad, n.d. [1992?]

Losty, J.P., Indian Book Painting, British Library, London, 1986

Losty, J.P., Indian Miniatures from the James Ivory Collection, Francesca Galloway, London, 2010

Zebrowski, M., Deccani Painting, Sotheby Publications, University of California Press, London and Los Angeles, 1983

14 April 2014

Sermons in the Malay world

I recently wrote about how the Indonesian and Malay manuscript collections digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme are changing our perceptions of the written landscape of maritime Southeast Asia.  Today I would like to focus on one genre of Islamic manuscripts from the Malay world previously all but unrepresented in any British collection. These are manuscripts containing khutbah, or sermons, written in Arabic with occasional elements in Malay, designed to be read at the Friday congregational prayer or on special occasions such as marriages or the two great feasts of Islam: Id al-Adha, the feast of the Sacrifice, and Id al-Fitr, at the end of the fasting month of Ramadhan. The British Library holds just one khutbah manuscript from Southeast Asia, acquired in 1990 (Or.15924).  It is written in scroll form, with rather garish illuminated frames and a cloth headpiece, and is stored in a bamboo container.  The presence of a very similar example in the Mataram Museum suggests a Lombok provenance. 

Or.15924, Lombok scroll
Sermon in scroll form, with illuminated frames, probably from Lombok, ca.19th c.  British Library, Or. 15924.  noc

In early Islamic states, the mention of a ruler’s name in the sermon was one of the two prerogatives of a Muslim sovereign (the other being the right to mint coins).  Elizabeth Lambourn (2008 & 2011) has recently highlighted how the offer to cite a ruler’s name in the Friday sermon could be used as a bargaining tool in negotiations between the great Islamic empires and the coastal communities that fringed the Indian Ocean: khutbah were traded for cannon.  The research project Islam, Trade and Politics across the Indian Ocean, investigating Ottoman links with Southeast Asia, has found evidence that the citation of the Ottoman sultan’s name in sermons was used by Malay rulers in the late 19th century to support claims to Ottoman overlordship and thence entitlement to protection against western colonial powers. 

The first Islamic sermons from Southeast Asia to be published originate from Sulu in the southern Philippines.  One is a Friday sermon and the other a sermon for the feast of Ramadan, copied in 1903 and citing the name of Sultan Muhammad ‘Pudhalun’ (Fadl) (r.1824-1862), son of the late Muhammad Jamalul Kiram (r.1823-1842), and asking for blessings on former sultans of Sulu. As seen from photographs published in 1905 by the Lebanese-American scholar Najib Saleeby (1973: 101-107, Plates XI-XVI), each sermon was written in book form with the first two pages set in beautiful decorative frames.

It was only with the arrival in the British Library of digitised collections of Indonesian manuscripts through the Endangered Archives Programme that large numbers of khutbah manuscripts from Southeast Asia are at last available for study.  Project EAP329: Digitising private collections of Acehnese manuscripts located in Pidie and Aceh Besar regencies, led by Dr Fakhriati M. Thahir, includes three volumes of khutbah from Aceh. 


Sermon for Ramadhan, from an illuminated compilation of khutbah texts. Unusually (but not unprecedentedly) for a MS from Aceh, this has some headings in Javanese. EAP329/1/62.

More significant, though, is project EAP276: Documentation and preservation of Ambon manuscripts, led by Prof. Titik Pudjiastuti of Universitas Indonesia, which digitised 12 private collections of 182 mostly Islamic manuscripts in Ambon and the neighbouring island of Haruku in the Moluccas, of which no fewer than 45 are sermons. Intriguingly, just like the Lombok sermon in the BL and in contrast to the Aceh sermons, all are scrolls, which is actually a very unusual format for manuscripts in the Malay world. Said to date from the 18th to the 20th centuries, many are relatively recent, with one sermon dated 2002.  Yet of the earlier sermons, it is notable that some cite the names of sultans of Ternate dating from the 17th back to the late 14th centuries, suggesting the preservation of a much older tradition, and one which will repay further study.  Reproduced below is a selection of khutbah manuscripts from Ambon.


Map of Ambon on the left-hand page, with the Banda islands on the right-hand page. Livro do Estado da India Oriental, by Pedro Barreto de Resende, 1646.  British Library, Sloane MS 197, ff.397v-398r.   noc


Sermon for Id al-Fitr, with pink headcloth and bamboo case, written by Rahman Ali Salampessy, late 20th c.  At the beginning, the writer has used small circles to indicate the number of times the takbir (the phrase Allah Akbar, ‘God is greatest’) should be repeated at the start of the sermon: seven times in the second line, and five times in the third line.  EAP276/8/5.

Friday sermon headed by the Indonesian state arms, also by Rahman Ali Salampessy, dated 28 August 1990. EAP276/8/4.

Colophon of a sermon on dogs written by Imam Alibi in 2002 (yang menulis ini khutba Imam Alibi Wa'ila 'alim bangsa Ripamuli pada tahun 2002 pada bulan Rabiulawal pada binatang anjing pelaku tiga naskah pada tahun jim akhir), from the Basri Ripamole Collection.  EAP276/4/1.

Sermon in Arabic with interlinear translation in Malay, 19th c., from the collection of Husain Hatuwe. EAP276/7/61.

Sermon from Ambon, citing the grandiose titles of the ruler and the names of his forebears, all sultans of Ternate (the reign dates are taken from The Royal Ark by Christopher Buyers):
ibn al-Sultan Ali Manzar Syah (this may refer to Sultan Muzafar, who ruled from 1607-1627, or to his son Sultan Mandar Syah, r.1648-1675)
ibn al-Sultan Saiduddin Syah (r.1583-1606)
ibn al-Sultan Babullah Zat Syah (r.1570-1583)
ibn al-Sultan Khair Jamil Syah (r.1535-1570)
ibn al-Sultan Bayan Sirrullah (r.1500-1522)
ibn Zainal Abidin Syah al-marhum (r.1486-1500)
ibn al-Sultan Amir al-Mu’minin Iskandar Zulkarnain Zat Syah
From the collection of Sarajudin Hatuina, Ambon.  EAP276/11/15

Sermon for Id al-Fitr on 1 Muharam, citing a similar chain of Ternate sultans, from the collection of Husain Hatuwe, Ambon. EAP276/7/38.

Further reading

Christopher Buyers, 'Ternate',  The Royal Ark.

Elizabeth Lambourn. ‘India from Aden – Khutba and Muslim Urban Networks in Late Thirteenth-Century India’, in Secondary Cities and Urban Networking in the Indian Ocean Realm c. 1000-1800, ed. Kenneth Hall. Lanham: Lexington, 2008, pp. 55-97.

Elizabeth Lambourn, 'Khutba and Muslim networks in the Indian Ocean (Part II) - Timurid and Ottoman engagements', in The growth of non-Western cities: primary and secondary urban networking, c. 900-1900, ed. Kenneth R. Hall.  Lanham: Lexington, 2011, pp. 127-154.

Najeeb M. Saleeby. Studies in Moro history, law and religion. Beirut: United Publishers, 1973. [Facsimile reprint of the 1905 ed.]

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

10 April 2014

45 Hebrew manuscripts go digital

We previously alerted our readers to a landmark digitisation project aimed at opening up the British Library’s invaluable repository of Hebrew manuscripts (Opening up the Hebrew Manuscript Collection). Over a three-year period 1250 objects from this outstanding collection, comprising well over 3000 manuscripts, would be made freely available online. 

The project has been made possible by a £1.2 million lead grant from the Polonsky Foundation. This significant award has provided a springboard for attracting additional funding for this ground-breaking initiative.

Dr Leonard Polonsky, Chairman of the Polonsky Foundation said,

I am delighted that these important and beautiful treasures have been made more widely available for the public to enjoy. I look forward to seeing the entire collection online and freely accessible in the future.

The Golden Haggadah. Miriam and her maidens rejoicing (top right); distribution of haroset ('sweet meats') by the master of the house (top left); preparations for Passover (lower right and left)
BL MS Add. 27210, f. 15r

We are very pleased to announce the launch of the first 45 Hebrew manuscripts on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.  The Hebrew Bible or Tanakh  features prominently within this small corpus of handwritten books.  Tanakh is an acronym based on the first letters of each of the sections that make up the Hebrew Bible, namely Torah (Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses), Neviyim (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).  The Torah is considered the most sacred part of the Hebrew Bible, because, according to tradition, Moses wrote it at divine dictation.

The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) with masoretic notation.
The London Codex BL MS Or. 4445, f. 57r

Among the released biblical treasures viewable on the Digitised manuscripts site is the London Codex (Or. 4445) one of the oldest surviving Hebrew Bibles.  This manuscript bears great similarities with the Aleppo Codex (930 AD) and the  Leningrad Codex (1008-1010 AD), held respectively in Jerusalem and St. Petersburg.

It  contains the masoretic notation compiled by Aaron Ben Asher, a tenth-century scholar from Tiberias, Palestine.  Ben Asher’s notation is considered to be the most authoritative masoretic version extant.  The Masorah is a body of rules of pronunciation, spelling, vocalization and intonation of the scriptural text, intended to preserve it and transmit it correctly.

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), one of the earliest codes of religious and moral precepts. The London Codex BL MS Or. 4445, f. 61v

The London Codex was probably copied in Egypt or Palestine around the 10th century. The more recent paper additions with Yemenite square script are from the 16th century. As its colophon is missing, the exact date and place of its creation are unknown. The scriptural text was penned in a neat oriental square script in three columns per page.  The masoretic notation was copied above, beneath and in between the textual columns.  The scribe’s name Nissi ben Daniel, who apparently was also the punctuator, is embedded in the masoretic rubrics on folios 40r, 113v, 139r.  The manuscript was acquired by the British Museum in 1891 from a private collector.

Page with masoretic notation containing Nissi ben Daniel’s  name. The London Codex BL MS Or. 4445, f. 113v

With the Jewish Passover approaching, we are also thrilled to launch digitally the Golden Haggadah (Add. 27210), one of the finest surviving Haggdah manuscripts from medieval Spain and the British Library’s most famous Hebraic treasure.   Haggadah, which literally means ‘telling’, is the service book for Passover Eve recounting the story of the Israelites’ miraculous  liberation from slavery in Egypt. Created in Catalonia, probably in or near Barcelona around 1320 AD, this elegant manuscript written and illuminated on vellum, consists of three distinct parts: a series of small illustrations (miniatures) depicting biblical scenes, the Haggadah text, and religious poems for the Passover festival.

Moses (holding a staff)  leads the Israelites out of Egypt (top left); Pharaoh’s army in pursuit (lower right);  crossing of the Red Sea (lower left). The Golden Haggadah, BL MS Add. 27210, f. 14v

The sumptuous illuminations found in the preliminary section of the manuscript (fourteen full pages of miniatures) are set against gold-tooled backgrounds, and have earned the manuscript its name.  They were executed by two unnamed artists in the Gothic style common in Europe at the time.  Gothic style decorations also embellish the Hebrew text in the second part of the manuscript and include foliage scrollwork, illuminated words, zoomorphic letters and text illustrations of significant Passover symbols.

Zoomorphic lettering with dogs and rabbits spelling ve-yotsiany (and we were taken out [of Egypt]…). The Golden Haggadah, BL MS Add. 27210, f. 36v

The manuscript's earliest known owner was Joav Gallico, Rabbi in Mantua in 1602 and formerly a judge in Governolo.  The Golden Haggadah was a wedding gift to Eliah Rava who married Gallico’s daughter, Rosa, in Carpi, on 25th October 1602, as recorded on the title page added on a blank page in the manuscript.

The Matsah (unleavened bread), one of the obligatory foods consumed during the Passover festival. The Golden Haggadah, BL MS Add. 27210, f. 44v

The last private owner of this gem was Joseph (Giuseppe) Almanzi (1801-1860), an Italian-Jewish poet, born in Padua, who was an avid collector of rare books and manuscripts.  We do not know when the Golden Haggadah entered  Almanzi’s manuscript collection, which was bought in 1864 by the British Museum, and now belongs to the British Library. 

The Maror (bitter herb) which symbolises the hard life endured by the Israelites while in Egyptian bondage. The Golden Haggadah, BL MS Add. 27210, f. 45v


Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies

08 April 2014

A conduit of shared values: CSMVS-BL collaboration

Regular followers of this blog will know through the Mewar Ramayana Digitally Reunited blog post that recently we were delighted to join with Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalay (CSMVS Musuem), Mumbai, in announcing the launch of the digitised Mewar Ramayana manuscript. The Ramayana is one of the great epic stories of the world, with a unique universal human appeal. This particular manuscript, commissioned by Maharana Jagat Singh of Mewar in the mid-17th century, is widely regarded as one of the finest, most lavishly-illustrated copies of the epic ever made.

As our first major collaborative project with partners in India, the launch of the digitised Mewar Ramayana marks a significant early milestone in our aim to make parts of our extensive collections relating to South Asia freely available online, for people all around the world to study, admire and enjoy.

It was both to celebrate the launch with CSMVS at a reception on 21 March, and to discuss future collaborations with CSMVS and other partners in India, that a small BL contingent set off for Mumbai: Baroness Tessa Blackstone (Chairman of the Board), Roly Keating (Chief Executive), Marina Chellini (project curator), Jerry Losty (project consultant, see Curator’s perspective: accessing the Mewar Ramayana), Kate Losty (a conservator by training, and as Jerry’s wife, as engaged with the Mewar Ramayana as he), and myself.

CSMVS, Mumbai
CSMVS, Mumbai

Our CSMVS colleagues and friends, in particular Sabyasachi Mukherjee (Director General), Vandana Prapanna (project curator), Roda Ahluwalia (project consultant), Manisha Nene (curator), and Koumudi Malladi (coordinator, DG’s office), had ensured a memorable evening’s programme for the launch! It began with refreshments for some 120 guests under the watchful eye of Jamsetji Tata, whose bust graced the lobby of Coomaraswamy Hall. This felt particularly apt, since it was partly due to the generous support of the Jamsetji Tata Trust that the project could happen.

The statue of Jamsetji Tata fittingly presides over the launch.
The statue of Jamsetji Tata fittingly presides over the launch.

Brief speeches by Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Baroness Blackstone, Kumar Iyer (British Deputy High Commissioner) and Roly Keating focussed on the deep historical ties between India and the UK, and the importance of international collaboration in building on these to ensure greater access to cultural treasures. These sentiments were beautifully encapsulated by honoured guest Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, the Maharana of Udaipur, whose ancestor Rana Bhim Singh first donated the part of the manuscript now held at the British Library to Lt. Col. James Tod, British Political Agent and noted historian, in the early 19th century. Speculating as to his ancestor’s motivations in presenting the folios to Tod, Shriji concluded that the gift was symptomatic of the strong, cultural link between India and Britain, a link further strengthened by the ‘conduit of shared values’ demonstrated by the CSMVS-BL collaboration.

Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, the Maharana of Udiapur, addresses a packed Coomaraswamy Hall
Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, the Maharana of Udiapur, addresses a packed Coomaraswamy Hall

The digital Mewar Ramayana was unveiled by Marina Chellini, who talked the audience through the special features of the resource, in the shaping and creating of which she had played such a leading role, whilst Vandana Prapanna provided fascinating insights into the project from the perspective of CSMVS. In the focal point of the evening, art historians Jerry Losty and Roda Ahluwalia delivered illustrated lectures, Jerry Losty concentrating on the immense artistic importance of the Mewar Ramayana, and Roda Ahluwalia exploring its significance in relation to other Ramayanas and to the Rajput manuscript tradition.

A lamp-lighting ceremony to inaugurate The Balakanda of the Mewar Ramayana in the Curator’s Gallery followed. Not to be missed by those fortunate enough to be in Mumbai, this exhibition displays original folios from the manuscript held at CSMVS, cleverly juxtaposing them with an animated digital folio projected on the wall, and the reunited digital resource on a kiosk to one side. Celebrations were brought to a close with a dinner at Bombay Gymkhana, very generously hosted by the Chairman and Director General of CSMVS.

BL Chairman of the Board, Baroness Tessa Blackstone, at the lamp-lighting ceremony
BL Chairman of the Board, Baroness Tessa Blackstone, at the lamp-lighting ceremony

After meetings with Sabyasachi Mukherjee the following morning to discuss exciting plans for the next CSMVS-BL joint endeavour and tours of the museum and conservation studio, the BL contingent went their separate ways. For Baroness Blackstone, Roly Keating and me, ‘work’ had just begun, with a further four days of meetings scheduled with partners in Mumbai and Kolkata. But that’s for another post.

BL Chief Executive Roly Keating and Baroness Tessa Blackstone visiting the CMSVS conservation studio
BL Chief Executive Roly Keating and Baroness Tessa Blackstone visiting the CMSVS conservation studio

In the meantime, our sincere thanks go to CSMVS, who in the course of this project have become friends as well as international colleagues. We look forward to many similar successes in the future!

We would also like to thank our funders, the Jamsetji Tata Trust, Sir Gulam Noon, the World Collections Programme, the Friends of the British Library and the British Library Board, without whom the project could not have been achieved.

And finally, we hope that you, our readers - whether via pc, tablet or phone, on the move or in the comfort of your own homes - will continue to study and enjoy this unique resource! You can explore the manuscript by going to or

Leena Mitford

Lead Curator, South Asian Studies

07 April 2014

Shaikh Ahmad goes to England: The Politics of Official State Visits

In October 1919, on the first night of his official visit to Britain, Shaikh Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, nephew of the ruler of Kuwait, Shaikh Salim Al Mubarak Al Sabah sat unhappily in a hotel room on the outskirts of London. An error in communication during the build-up to the visit meant that officials in London had only been informed of Ahmad’s arrival one day before he actually arrived. By this time, all of the luxury hotels in central London normally used to host foreign dignitaries like the Shaikh had been fully booked and after hours spent driving around London searching, the only accommodation that could be found was a small hotel in the South London suburb of Norwood.

أحمد الجابر الصباح
Shaikh Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah (1885-1950) later in life. Ahmad was the ruler of Kuwait from 1921 until his death    noc

At this time, Kuwait was a British-protected state that was of significant strategic importance to the British Empire and Ahmad – already one of the most important figures in the country –was widely considered to be the member of the Al Sabah family most likely to succeed his uncle as its ruler. Therefore, in an attempt to ensure that their dominant position in the country would continue unchallenged, the British were keen to develop a close relationship with Ahmad in advance of his succession.

It was for similar reasons that Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud of the Nejd, the thirteen year old son of Ibn Saud (and future king of Saudi Arabia, 1964-1975) had been invited to visit Britain at the same time. Inviting members of ruling families, such as Al Sabah and Al Saud, to make official visits to Britain was a common tactic employed in this period as a means to incorporate them into the British imperial system. The visits sought to generate a sense of personal allegiance to the British Empire and to display the grandeur, power and modernity of the metropolis at its heart, London.

Daniel Vincent McCallum, the British Political Agent in Kuwait, was back home in Britain on leave at the time of Ahmad’s visit and two weeks into the trip, he took charge of supervising the Shaikh and his small entourage for the remainder of their visit. An account of the trip written by McCallum is preserved in the India Office Records (IOR) held at the British Library.

According to his account, although Ahmad had been moved out of the hotel in Norwood to a town-house in Pimlico after one night, two weeks into his trip, he remained “very depressed”. Though he had visited the Houses of Parliament, Greenwich Observatory, Westminster Cathedral and several other attractions, he had a long list of complaints against the officials who had been charged with his care.

Another account of Ahmad’s visit, written by Dr Charles Stanley Mylrea, a medical doctor and missionary at the Arabian Mission of the American Reformed Church, is contained in the IOR files. Published under the title “Shaikh Ahmed goes to England” in Neglected Arabia, the Arabian Mission’s own journal, the article speculated that the weather in London may also have played a role in causing Ahmad’s depressed state of mind.

Mylrea discusses the impact of London’s weather on Shaikh Ahmad and some of his impressions of Britain. IOR/R/15/1/504 f.131    noc

McCallum took Ahmad and the Kuwaiti party to visit Hampton Court Palace, the theatre and London Zoo where, Mylrea comments, “it must have tickled his [Ahmad’s] Arab heart to see camels on view as curiosities”. The group also rode on the London Underground which, according to Mylrea, was a “source of real wonder” to Ahmad who had never previously left the Gulf region. In their accounts, both McCallum and Mylrea observe that Ahmad thoroughly enjoyed visiting the cinema and in the words of Mylrea, “patronised one of the picture-palaces almost every night”. McCallum’s letter also reveals that much of Ahmad’s final week in London was spent shopping.

McCallum discusses Shaikh Ahmad’s activities during his final week in London. IOR/R/15/1/504 f. 125    noc

According to Mylrea, Selfridge’s “that huge Anglo-American department store on Oxford Street” was a “popular haunt” of the Shaikh’s. He is said to have been particularly amused by “the sales-girls […] demurely dressed in black”.

Christmas Party For Trooper Devereux's Daughter- Christmas in Wartime, Pinner, Middlesex, December 1944 D23005
Selfridge’s Department Store in Oxford Street, London, that Shaikh Ahmad frequented in October 1919. It remains popular with visitors to London from the Gulf to this day. Imperial War Museum D 23005    noc

The most important component of Ahmad’s visit was his official appointment with King George V at Buckingham Palace. A précis of the speech that Ahmad gave to mark the occasion is contained in the IOR files as are details of the gifts that he offered to the King; a sword that formerly belonged to a Shah of Persia, a golden dagger and an Arabian stallion that Mylrea dryly observes “for obvious reasons was not personally tendered in the audience chamber”.

Précis of Shaikh Ahmad’s speech delivered to King George V, 30 October 1919. IOR/R/15/1/504 f. 129    noc

In return for his gifts, Ahmad received a signed and framed portrait of King George to deliver to his uncle, Shaikh Salim. McCallum observes that while Faisal and the Nejd delegation had spent eight minutes with the King, the Kuwaiti party were granted seventeen minutes and that the Kuwaitis – who had timed the events – considered this a “great score over the others” and were delighted.

King George V 1911
Coronation portrait of George V, oil on canvas by Luke Fildes (1843-1927). Royal Collection RCIN 402023    noc

Despite the visit’s inauspicious beginning, McCallum – who enjoyed a good relationship with Ahmad – managed to rectify the situation and in his account was able to conclude that he believed it had done Ahmad “a very great deal of good […] if we pay him sufficient attention in the future I have no doubt when his time comes we will have a really good friend”. McCallum’s effort was to prove worthwhile as in 1921, three years after Ahmad’s visit, he succeeded his uncle as ruler of Kuwait and was to remain in power for almost thirty years until his death in 1950.

Ahmad’s visit typifies the manner in which official state visits – combined with ritualistic gift-giving and ceremonial audiences with the ruling monarch – were used by the British as a means to impress, befriend and co-opt the ruling elites of their numerous client and vassal states from around their global empire.

Primary Source

British Library, ‘File 53/32 III (D 53) Miscellaneous Kuwait correspondence’, IOR/R/15/1/504

Louis Allday, Gulf History and Arabic Specialist,
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Twitter - @Louis_Allday