Asian and African studies blog

10 posts from July 2014

31 July 2014

‘Tanabata (七夕) Star Festival’ - is it 7 July or 2 August 2014? (1)

It has long been a tradition for Japanese to celebrate the night sky and the romance between Orihime (織姫 meaning ‘The Weaver Princess’) and Kengyū (牽牛 meaning ‘The Cowherd’) on the night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month. Since the Gregorian (solar) calendar was implemented as the official calendar in 1873, the 7th day of the 7th lunar month became the 7th of July.

Although Tanabata on the 7th of July has become increasingly commercialised, and events which heavily promote it as an especially romantic night for couples have proliferated in recent years, major popular star festivals tend to be celebrated around 7  August, i.e. one month later than the 7th of July. This is a compromise to keep regular annual events on the same date every year but bring the date as close as possible to the traditional night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month.  Strictly speaking, in the solar calendar the equivalent of this lunar date would change each year – in 2014 it would fall on the 2nd August. In this first part of a two-part post, we are going to explore the cultural side of the story of Tanabata, while in the second part we will take a scientific approach to identify the reasons for celebrating the festival on the date based on the traditional lunar calendar.

The festival as we know it today has evolved from three different cultural strands. The first is the Japanese old tradition of Tanabatatsume (棚機津女meaning ‘Weaving girl’); the second is the star story from China; and the third is Kikkōden (乞巧奠 meaning the ‘Festival of Wishing for Skills’), which was also introduced from China to Japan.

First of all, Tanabatatsume were specially chosen shrine maidens who dedicated themselves to weaving a holy cloth for Shintō deities in ancient Japan. It was possible to identify their prototype in Japanese mythology as the legend of virgins who served the Sun Goddess by weaving for her.

Kimono patterns with zodiac symbols. Shinsen o-hinagata (新撰御ひいながた New selection of fashionable patterns) [1667]. British Library,  noc

Secondly, the original Chinese star story reached Japan sometime during the 7th century. According to the legend, there was a boy and a girl who fell in love so deeply that they became blind to everything else such as their weaving and herding work. Unfortunately, there was no happy-ever-after for them. When they became separated by the Milky Way as a punishment for their negligence, they were sorry for their careless attitude, but it was far too late. However, the separated couple could not stop longing for each other. Eventually, they were allowed to meet each other once a year, reunited by crossing a bridge over the Milky Way made for them by magpies. Although the Weaver-Girl and Cowherd-Boy story has many variations, the basic plot is ‘boy meets girl’ and the origin goes back to the 6th century in China. Their names in Chinese are Zhinü (織女 literally ‘The weaver girl’) and Niulang (牛郎, literally ‘The cowman’), and the Star Festival is Qi xi (七夕).

Map of the stars in the Eastern sky. Shi jing zhuan shuo (詩經傳說), detail from a Qing dynasty illustrated version of the Classic of Poetry, 1727. Woodblock printed. British Library, 15266.a.2, vol. 1.  noc

Finally, the Kikkōden was believed to have been introduced from China to Japan before the star story. On the night of the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, women prayed for improvement in their weaving and sewing abilities. Needlework and related skills were women’s work and accomplishments. After the legend of the stars was introduced into Japan, the two weaving girls, namely Tanabatatsume and Zhinü, were gradually merged together to become Orihime, and Kikkōden was transformed into the day for wishing on the Orihime star for better skills like hers.

In the next instalment of this blog post , we will examine why keeping the traditional (lunar) date for the festival makes more sense from the scientific point of view.

Star map © 2000-2005 Kym Thalassoudis. All rights reserved.

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator, Japanese collections


28 July 2014

Malay thoughts on the afterlife

Several posts on the Asian and African Studies blog have highlighted a variety of perceptions of worlds to come, from Zoroastrian visions of heaven and hell to Thai Buddhist depictions of future lives in manuscripts of the story of the monk Phra Malai. Reminders of the next world, dunia akhirat, are also found in Malay Islamic manuscripts, but painted with words rather than pigments, for there is no established tradition of illustration in Malay manuscripts.

Two Malay manuscripts in the British Library, Add. 12390 and Or. 6899, which have just been fully digitised, contain slightly variant versions of the Syair Makrifat, ‘Poem on Gnostic Knowledge’, concerning the need to strive in this life in order to reap rewards in the next. The Syair Makrifat is widely thought to be the work of the famous 17th-century Sufi writer and theologian Abdul Rauf from Singkil in north Sumatra, who studied in Mecca for many years before returning to Aceh to serve as Syaikh al-Islam to Sultanah Tajul Alam Safiatuddin Syah, the first queen of Aceh (r.1641-1675). However, Edwin Wieringa (2009: 19) has cautioned that Abdul Rauf never mentioned this poem as his own composition in his many other works of confirmed authorship, all of which are in prose.  

Syair Makrifat, a narrative poem on Islamic doctrine and the transience of worldly goods. The colophon shown above gives the date of copying as 24 Zulhijah, without specifying the year, and the name of the scribe and owner as Da’ut (wa-katibuhu Da'ut yang empunnya syair ini), with instructions to borrowers to take good care of the manuscript and to return it promptly. A scribbled note on f.1r has the date 1222 (AD 1807/8). British Library, Add. 12390, ff.22v-23r.  noc

The version of Syair Makrifat in Or. 6899 ends on f.24r, exhorting borrowers to take care of the book:
‘Mister Umar is the owner of this book / anyone may borrow it
please treat it gently / and don’t let the pages come loose from the stitching’
Encik Umar yang empunya / sekalian orang boleh meminjamnya /
baik-baik sedikit menaruhnya / jangan diberi bercerai akan jaitannya
This manuscript also contains a second poem, Syair Dagang, ‘Ballad of the Wanderer’, which uses the itinerant trader of this life as a metaphor for preparations for the next life.  As Wieringa points out, the two poems are good stablemates as both concern the need to eschew wordly goods and instead look towards the afterlife.  The copy of Syair Dagang in Or.6899, said to have been composed by a man of Melaka, is incomplete, ending abruptly on f.28r on a salutory note:
‘Gold is a formidable material / very dangerous to hoard
if we just relax our guard for just a minute / it can inflict pain worse than a poisonous snake’
Emas itu sangat berbangsa / menaruh dia sangatlah bisa
jikalau lengah kita semena / sakitnya terlebih ular yang bisa

Malay manuscript containing two poems, Syair Makrifat on ff.1v-24r, and Syair Dagang on ff.24r-28r. British Library, Or. 6899, ff.1v-2r.  noc

Although Malay manuscripts are not generally illustrated, manuscripts on Islamic mysticism and prayerbooks from Southeast Asia do sometimes have charts or drawings of the attributes of the next world.  A manuscript from Ambon in the Moluccas shown below, recently digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme, is in the form of a long scroll with detailed depictions of the stages of heaven, and similar Islamic manuscripts have been found in the southern Philippines. One manuscript from Mindanao annoted in Maranao portrays on one page the palatial mansion in heaven awaiting the woman patient enough to accept her husband’s taking another wife, while the facing page depicts the hovel in hell awaiting the woman who could not accept her husband’s second marriage  (Kawashima 2012: Fig.30).

Detail from a pictorial scroll depicting the heavens, from the collection of Said Manilet, Ambon.  Captions written vertically in the left margin give the name of each of seven gates (pintu), while a caption in the lower right margin describes these as the gates of heaven (ini pintu syurga). British Library, EAP276/9/17.

Further reading

Edwin Wieringa, ‘Syair berupa rintihan seorang penyalin tentang nasib malangnya: beberapa catatan mengenai BL Or. 6899 (Syair Makrifat dan Syair Dagang)’.  Kearifan lokal yang terkandung dalam manuskrip lama, penyunting Ding Choo Ming, Henri Chambert-Loir, Titik Pudjiastuti.  Bangi: Institut Alam dan Tamadun Melayu (ATMA), 2009; pp.15-30.

Kawashima Midori (ed.), The Qur'an and Islamic manuscripts of Mindanao.  Contributors Tirmizy E. Abdullah ... [et al].  Tokyo: Institute of Asian Cultures, Sophia University, 2012. (Monograph series; 10).

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


23 July 2014

Malay letters from Bengkulu

From the late 17th to the early 19th century, the most enduring British trading base in Southeast Asia was on the west coast of Sumatra at Bengkulu, referred to in contemporary English accounts as ‘Bencoolen’ and in Malay as ‘Bengkahulu’. After being ousted by the Dutch from Banten in west Java in 1682, the English East India Company established a ‘factory’ or trading post at Bengkulu in 1684, which lasted for nearly 150 years until it was exchanged for Melaka under the terms of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of London in 1824.  

The history of the British presence in Bengkulu is recorded in 162 thick red leather-bound volumes of ‘Sumatra Factory Records’, held today in the India Office Records in the British Library. The story is a desultory one, for the hoped-for fat profits from pepper never materialised and the factory suffered from poor crop yields and even worse administration. Events are almost entirely reported from the English point of view, but very occasionally original Malay sources have survived, which help to give us a local perspective.  

Fort Marlborough, Bengkulu, showing the Government House and Council House.  Coloured aquatint with etching; drawn by Andrews, ca.1794-98; engraved by Joseph Stadler; published by William Marsden, 1799. British Library, P 329.  noc

Among the Malay manuscripts in the British Library recently digitised is a letter (Add.4828*) sent to the commander of the 'Company' in Bengkulu, at the time Richard Farmer. Although the letter is undated and written in the name of Datuk Raja Kuasa, it is annotated in a contemporary English hand From Sultan Cutchell / No.213 / Janry 14. 1718, identifying the sender as Sultan Kecil Muhammad Syah of Anak Sungai (r.1716-1728) (Kathirithamby-Wells 1977: 37). The writer assures the English of his good will and acknowledges the glue of the relationship – a shared interest in trade – but also refers to the slanderous rumours swirling round on all sides. As the letter is quite short, it will be reproduced in full below, with the Malay text followed by an English translation. In line with Malay epistolographic conventions, the letter starts with a religious invocation or heading (kepala surat).  

Qawluhu al-haqq
Bahawa ini alamat surat tulus dan fu(ad) ikhlas serta putih hati sel(agi) ada peridar cakrawala bulan dan matahari akan menerangi malam dan siang {dan siang} tiada berubah kepada Kompeni, iaitu dari pada Datuk Raja Kuasa, barang sampailah kiranya kepada Orang Kaya Komandar Bengkahulu. Adapun seperti hal mengatakan surat Orang Kaya sudah sampai kepada hamba, mengeratilah hamba seperti dalam surat Orang Kaya Komandar itu kata pada hamba jangan mendangar feritnah [i.e. fitnah] itupun hamba tiada bercarai dangan Kompeni, bicara hamba dan setia hamba tiada berubah pada Kompeni, karena Kompeni dagang kami pun Melayu dagang sama2, kita malu juga jikalau dibuwang kita sama2 malu dagang kita itupun jikalau kerja raja2 tiada hamba tahu dan tiada hamba peduli pada bicara raja itu, jangan Komandar mendangar feritnah orang lain kata surat hamba yang di{a}dangar oleh Orang Kaya.  Lagi kata Komandar dahu(lu) kepada hamba berkirim surat pada hamba juru tulis hamba diberi belanja empat rial sebulan sekarang satu pun tiada malu hamba kepada kata itu yang menyurat itu dari Bengkahu(lu) juru tulis anak hamba Encik Beruruk.  Jikalau kan diberi belanja suruh hantar pada m.l.l.a.d.w k.a.t.a.h.n pada hamba ke Pangatang tamat, jikalau ada tiada suruh tamat.

His Word is The Truth
This is an honest letter from a sincere and pure heart, and as long as the moon and sun revolve and light up night and day never shall it waver towards the Company, from Datuk Raja Kuasa, may it be conveyed to the Noble Commander at Bengkahulu.  I have received your letter and understood its contents, whereby you advise me not to pay any attention to the slander, and I assure you I will never be parted from the Company, my word and my loyalty remains firmly pledged to the Company, for the Company is for trade and we Malays too are equally for trade, we would be ashamed to break off relations, for our trade would equally suffer; if that is the decision of the princes then I know nothing of it, and neither will I heed it, so I beg the Commander not to listen to the slander in the letter said to have been written by me which has come to your attention.  Furthermore the Commander had previously informed me in writing that my scribe would be paid four rial per month, and I find nothing to be ashamed of in that, the one who wrote the news from Bengkulu was my scribe Mister Beruruk.  If you are planning to send the payment please send it to …. to me at Pangatang; the end.  But if not, not; the end.

Malay letter from Datuk Raja Kuasa (Sultan Kecil of Anak Sungai) to Richard Farmer, Deputy Governor of Bengkulu, recd. 14 January 1718. British Library, Add. 4828*, f.2v.  noc

The letter was not placed in an envelope, but was folded with the address written on the outer side (Bahawa ini alamat surat dari pada Datuk Raja Kuasa barang sampailah kiranya kepada Orang Kaya Komandar Bengkahulu), and closed with a red wax seal. The letter was presented to the British Museum in 1767 by Mrs Rust, daughter of Governor Farmer. British Library, Add. 4828*, f.1r (detail)   noc

A number of early Malay letters from Bengkulu are known, scattered through the  Sumatra Factory Records or held in other institutions; none of the others  have yet been digitised, but all are listed below for reference.

Malay letters from Bengkulu to the East India Company (up to 1763)

1.     Letter from Tunku Baginda Raja Makota of Anak Sungai to the Orang Kaya Jenderal [Joseph Collett] in Bengkulu, [ca.1712-16]. Bury St. Edmonds, Suffolk Record Office, 613/841. (Gallop 1994: 121).
2.     Letter from Datuk Raja Kuasa [Sultan Kecil] to Orang Kaya Komandar [Richard Farmer] in Bengkulu, [recd. 14 Jan 1718]. British Library, Add.4828*
3.    Letter from Pangiran Mangku Raja and Pangiran Sungai Hitam to the East India Company in Bengkulu, 17 April 1724. British Library, IOR: G/35/8, f.568A. (Bastin 1965: 57).
4.    Letter from Sultan Gandam Syah of Muko-Muko to the East India Company, [Sept. 1733]. British Library, IOR: G/25/8, f.577. (Gallop 1994: 129).
5.     Letter from Pangiran Mangku Raja and Pangiran Khalifah Raja to the East India Company at Fort Marlborough, Bengkulu, Nov 1733. British Library, IOR: G/35/8, f.369. (Bastin 1965: 59-60).
6.     Letter from Raja Mengkuta and Raja Gelumat and the 59 perbatin (perbatin yang kurang esa enam puluh) to the Governor of Bengkulu, [early 18th c]. Cambridge University Library, Add.285, no. 63.
7.    Letter from Pangiran [Makota] Raja of Silebar to Governor Roger Carter, 6 June 1763. British Library, IOR: G/35/13, f.58

Further reading

John Bastin, The British in West Sumatra.  Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1965.
A.T. Gallop, The Legacy of the Malay Letter / Warisan Warkah Melayu.  London: British Library, 1994.
J. Kathirithamby-Wells, The British West Sumatran Presidency (1760-85): problems of early colonial enterprise.  Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit University Malaya, 1977.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


18 July 2014

Malay manuscripts on Javanese paper

I recently wrote on how to tell if a Malay manuscript is written on Chinese paper, instead of the more usual medium of European paper.  Another type of writing material sometimes used for Malay manuscripts, particularly those from Java, is Javanese paper called dluwang (or daluang), hand-made from the beaten bark of the paper mulberry tree, Broussonetia papyrifera, called pohon saeh in Indonesia.  In fact, dluwang is paper in all but name, as the technical definition of paper is a ‘matted or felted sheet, usually made of cellulose fibres, formed on a wire screen from water suspension’ (Encyclopaedia Brittanica), for dluwang is not made from fibres suspended in water and then dried in sheets.  Instead, a strip of the inner bark of the saeh tree is cut out, soaked in water, and then pounded repeatedly and polished until the surface is smooth enough to write on (Ekadjati and McGlynn 1996).


Hikayat Mesa Taman Sira Panji Jayeng Kusuma, written in Malay on dluwang, and hence almost certainly from Java. Add. 12387, ff.4v-5r.  noc

Dluwang is easy to recognize because of its highly distinctive brown, polished surface, with the woody fibres still very visible.  When well-made, the resulting paper provides a fine smooth writing surface which should last for centuries without degeneration.  However, poorly-made sheets of dluwang may be fibrous and of uneven thickness, sometimes with evident holes and knots, and can be very susceptible to insect damage. Dluwang has been used as a writing material in insular Southeast Asia for many centuries. The oldest known example is the Tanjung Tanah Code of Law, a manuscript from Kerinci in central Sumatra in Malay in a pre-Islamic Indic script, which is written on dluwang which has been carbon-dated to the 14th century.  The oldest dluwang manuscript in the British Library is a text on Islamic jurisprudence in Arabic and Javanese from the collections of Sir Hans Sloane (Sloane 2645) dated 1623/4, which is still in excellent condition today.

The Tanjung Tanah manuscript, written on dluwang in the 14th century. Reproduced courtesy of Uli Kozok.

More recently, certainly from the 18th century onwards, there is no evidence that dluwang as a writing material was produced outside the island of Java, and so the use of dluwang in a manuscript is a very strong indication of a Javanese origin. This allows us to track the travels of manuscripts such as a copy of a Panji story (Or. 11365) which is said to have been presented by Tengku Khalid, Bendahara of Kelantan, but which must have originated in Java as it is written on dluwang. It is perhaps hardly a coincidence that most of the Malay literary manuscripts in the British Library written on dluwang contain stories from the Javanese Panji romances, popular since the 14th century. In this cycle of stories Panji, also called Raden Inu Kertapati, prince of Kuripan or Janggala, is betrothed to Princess Candra Kirana of Daha, who disappears on the eve of their wedding. Panji undergoes many adventures on his journeys while seeking his beloved.

A Panji story, probably Hikayat Cekel Waneng Pati. British Library, Or.11365, f.26r (detail).  noc

Beginning of a Panji story, about the Maharaja of Jengolo, written in Malay in romanized script. British Library, Or.16446, f.1r (detail).  noc

Dluwang is made through the same process as tapa or bark cloth, traditionally the main source of clothing in the islands of the Pacific Ocean. Tapa was first described in European sources by Captain James Cook, who collected samples from Tahiti in 1769 during his first voyage of exploration.

‘A girl bringing presents to Captn Cook’, wearing a ‘dress’ consisting of a large quantity of tapa cloth bound about her waist, intended as a gift for Cook.  Drawn by John Webber and engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi, from Cook’s Third Voyage (1776-1780). British Library, Add.23921 f.48.  noc

Further reading

Edi S. Ekadjati and John H. McGlynn, ‘Daluang: traditional paper production’, in Illuminations: writing traditions of Indonesia, ed. Ann Kumar and John H. McGlynn. New York: Weatherhill; Jakarta: Lontar; 1996; pp.116-117.

Uli Kozok, Kitab undang-undang Tanjung Tanah: naskah Melayu yang tertua. Jakarta: Yayasan Naskah Nusantara, 2006.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


16 July 2014

A newly digitised unpublished catalogue of Persian manuscripts: postscript

As a supplement to the newly digitised draft catalogue of Persian manuscripts in the India Office Library, I have uploaded sheets of a fascicle which was originally intended to be the first in a series,  but which never got beyond proofs. These can be accessed by following the link below:

Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts vol III: Qurʼānic Literature

These proofs were returned from the University Press Oxford at various times during 1926 to Charles Storey who was then Assistant Librarian at the India Office Library and was actively engaged in cataloguing both Arabic and Persian manuscripts. As can be seen immediately from the number of mistakes, the proofs fully demonstrate the complexity of the material and the consequent difficulties involved in printing. Although he received the proofs in 1926 it took Storey, according to his dated notes, a full year to revise them. What happened next I have not yet discovered, but nothing ever came of Storey’s wish, recorded at the top of the first page: “We should rather like to get these sheets printed off by the middle of March”.

IO Isl 3840_f1-2_1000
The opening of al-Sūrābādī's commentary on the Qurʼān, one of the oldest Persian manuscripts preserved, copied in Rabīʻ II 523 (1129) by Maḥmūd ibn Gurgīn ibn Gurgsār al-Turkī (British Library IO Islamic 3840, ff. 1v-2r)

The fascicle is headed Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts Volume III and contains:

Qurʼānic literature:

A. Commentaries and translations (cols. 1-36)

B. Glossaries (cols. 36-7)

C. Asbāb al-nuzūl and al-Nāsikh wa’l-mansūkh (cols. 37-8)

D. The pronunciation of the Qurʼān and the variant readings (cols. 38-54)

E. Qurʼānic magic (cols. 54-60)

The titles of the works included in the catalogue, together with their correct manuscript numbers (some have been given new numbers since Storey catalogued them), can be downloaded from the following link:

Index to Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts Volume III: Qurʼānic Literature


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies


14 July 2014

A Khamsah with illustrations ascribed to the painter Bihzad (Add. 25900)

Today's guest post by the Islamic art historian Barbara Brend celebrates the completion of a project sponsored by the Barakat Trust to digitise two Timurid manuscripts in the British Library's collection, both thought to be, in part,  illustrated by perhaps the most celebrated of Persian painters, Bihzad. Both manuscripts are copies of the Khamsah by Nizami. The later of the two, Or.6810, dating from  the end of the 15th century, was digitised some time ago and is the subject of two earlier posts (ʻThe Khamsah of Nizami: a Timurid Masterpieceʼ and ʻA Jewel in the Crownʼ). Add.25900 is the earlier copy. Clicking on the hyperlinks will take you directly to the digital copy and further details including a list of all the miniatures with hyperlinks can be accessed from our Digital Persian Project page.

The Khamsah of Nizami Add. 25900

The Khamsah (Quintet) of Nizami Add. 25900 is an example of a manuscript produced over time. A volume of princely quality necessarily involved the work of a number of specialists: the scribe probably in overall control of the workshop, binders, illuminators, perhaps painters, possibly even paper-makers unless this essential were bought in.  But there might be a failure of patronage: the initiating patron might die, or a political upheaval might scatter the workshop.  In these cases a manuscript on which talent, time, and money had already been expended might be put aside and at some later date a new patron would order further work on it.

Shirin looks at the portrait of Khusrau watched by Shapur (British Library Add. 25900, f. 41r)

The Khamsah has a colophon dated 846/1442; its last private owner is named in a note on the fly-leaf, “James R. Ballantyne, Nov. 1837”.  Ballantyne (1774-1864) was a distinguished Scottish orientalist who worked in India from 1845 to 1861, subsequently becoming Librarian to the India Office.  One illustration in the Khamsah is usually considered, on stylistic grounds, to have been painted in Herat at the time of the colophon. It shows “Shirin contemplating the picture of Khusrau” (f. 41r).  For the third time Shapur, the friend of prince Khusrau, has hung his portrait on a tree in the mountain pastures where the princess Shirin disports herself with her ladies. The ladies have destroyed the first two pictures, but Shirin, already entranced by the first picture, herself moves to take possession of the third. The ladies, whose gestures indicate a degree of concern, have the pale and elegantly drawn faces characteristic of Herat painting on the 1440s; the face of Shirin, however, has been repainted with more emphatic features and an impression of volume in India in the time of Ballantyne. From the upper left Shapur observes the effect of his painting; he is concealed amongst rocks in which the painter of the 1440s has taken advantage of Chinese conventions of shading to introduce faces of grotesques, which also give an impression of volume, and thus the very opposite of the faces of the ladies.

Bahram Gur kills the dragon. Ascribed to Bihzad in the margin of the lower text panel (British Library Add. 25900, f. 161r)

Half a century later, in or around 1490, fourteen illustrations were added in Herat. “Bahram Gur slays a dragon” (f. 161r) is of this period.  The young prince Bahram Gur is a great hunter, particularly of the gur, the onager or wild ass. With a wealth of detail usually bestowed on the description of a beautiful young woman Nizami describes a female onager that catches Bahram’s attention. The prince follows her and she leads him to the cave of a dragon.  Bahram slays the dragon, slits it open and finds the onager’s foal inside. She then leads him on to a treasure that the dragon was guarding, and she vanishes.  The illustration bears an attribution to the great artist Bihzad, written vertically in the lower text panel.  It does not convey the sense of perfected design that we sometimes associate with the work of Bizhad, but it does demonstrate a keen imaginative sympathy.  The strongly coloured group of prince and horse are evidently dynamic, but the prince looks very young and his horse is tense and awkward: the prince could be anyone facing up to a challenge, for instance an artist undertaking the depiction of a subject. The mother onager is portrayed as something more than an ordinary animal: the painter seems aware of the poet’s description; he shows both the onager’s eyes, which slightly humanizes the face; and he places her just behind the horizon in the position traditionally used for observers.  The dragon, on the other hand, does not engage our sympathies; it remains entirely other.  There is, however, a strong sense of its movement as it creeps down from its high cave entrance, with the hint that there is a great deal more of its length to emerge, and perhaps even an impression that the part we already see is heavy with the foal it has eaten.

Mahan confronted by demons finds his horse transformed into a seven-headed dragon (British Library Add. 25900, f. 188r)

From the same book of the Khamsah, Haft Paykar (Seven fair Forms) is “Mahan confronted by demons” (f. 188r) from the story told to Bahram Gur in the Turquoise Pavilion. Already a rich young man, Mahan has been lured into seeking greater wealth and has found himself in a desert place confronted by demons with the heads of elephants and bulls, who carry flames. Further to this, the very horse that he was riding has sprouted wings and become a seven-headed dragon. The Herat painter—is this again Bihzad, working in a slightly different mode, or is it another?--gives the subject a slightly comic treatment that does not detract from its fundamental seriousness. With the clarity of late fifteenth-century Herat painting the demons, individualised as precise shapes, form a “road block” down the left-hand side. As in the previous picture, the rider-and-mount group is differentiated from the rest by strong colour; but here they do not press forward, instead the dragon heads turn on Mahan who strains backwards. The only element that moves forwards is the serpentine tail behind Mahan, while the dragon’s wings seem to hold Mahan like a vice.   

Nushabah recognises Iskandar from his portrait (British Library Add. 25900, f. 245v)

Evidently the manuscript was transported to Tabriz, when this was the centre of Safavid rule, as four illustrations were added in 1530s or early 1540s.  In this, the grandest of the four, Iskandar (Alexander the Great) has come to visit Nushabah, queen of Barda, in the guise of his own ambassador (f. 245v). Nushabah sees through his pretence and demonstrates the accuracy of her perception by showing Iskandar a picture of himself.  With its rocky foreground, this illustration still recalls Herat painting, but Iskandar’s turban, with its bold plumes and the elongated shape caused by its wrapping round a cap with a high central projection, proclaim the Safavid context—as do the turbans of various male attendants who, according to the text, should properly be female. Nushabah may not claim our attention at first, but gradually she does, wearing rather more red than Iskandar, enthroned and sitting in a royal pose, gesturing to the picture that shows she is not mistaken, the whole framed in a magical architecture.


Barbara Brend, Independent scholar

11 July 2014

A Malay account of Calcutta

In a previous blog post I wrote about a Malay manuscript of the Hikayat Hang Tuah belonging to a prominent Chulia (south Indian Muslim) merchant from Kedah, Bapu Kandu, who had settled in Penang in the late 18th century. Bapu Kandu, also known as Hakim Long Fakir Kandu, was the patriarch of a family of Malay scribes whose output is well represented in the British Library. One of Kandu’s younger sons, Ibrahim, was employed by Thomas Stamford Raffles and was responsible for much of Raffles’s diplomatic correspondence in Malay. Kandu’s older son, Ahmad Rijaluddin, is primarily known for his travel account of a visit to Calcutta, a journey made in late 1810 in the company of the Penang businessman Robert Scott.  

Ahmad Rijaluddin’s narrative, which he entitled Hikayat Perintah Negeri Benggala, ‘An account of the state of Bengal’, is dated Ramadan 1226 (September/October 1811).  The text is known today from a unique manuscript in the British Library, Add. 12386, probably the author’s autograph, which has now been digitised and can be read online. The manuscript has been edited by Cyril Skinner (1982), whose elegant translations are quoted in the extracts below.

Opening pages of the manuscript: ‘This is a narrative of the state of Bengal as it was at the time I, Ahmad Rijaluddin, son of Hakim Long Fakir Kandu, left my homeland to visit it.  I have composed this narrative for the benefit of posterity, commiting it to writing in the year 1226, in the year dal awal, in the month of Ramadan’. (Inilah hikayat diceterakan perintah negeri Benggala tatkala masa zaman senda Ahmad Rijaluddin ibn Hakim Long Fakir Kandu belayar / membuang diri ke Benggala.  Maka dikarang hikayat ini meninggal akan zaman diperbuat surat pada sanat 1226 tahun dal awal bulan Ramadan.)  British Library, Add. 12386, ff.1v-2r.  noc

As Skinner notes, although the content of Ahmad Rijaluddin’s account is something new in Malay writing – a descriptive eye-witness account of foreign lands – the literary conventions in which he was reared envelop and permeate the text. Just as traditional Malay narrative accounts of historical events were composed centripetally around the figure of the raja, the sovereign of the state, in Ahmad’s text the omnipresent focus of the work is the English raja in Calcutta: Lord Minto, Governor-General of Bengal (1807-1813). A great king must have a fitting abode, and Ahmad accords the already impressive three-storied Government House, Calcutta, four more levels as would befit a great palace in a Malay epic: ‘Now I shall tell you how splendid the residence of Lord Minto is. The surrounding wall, which looks most impressive, is of multicoloured stone … within which has been constructed a very handsome palace, as high as a mountain, built in seven tiers (Sebermula maka tersebutlah keelokan rumah baginda Raja Lord Minto itu. Maka diperbuatnya pagar dengan batu pancalogam terlalu amat indah2 rupanya … maka di dalam pagar itu diperbuatnya sebuah istana terlalulah indah2 rupanya dan lagi besarnya seperti sebuah gunung rupanya diperbuatnya tujuh tingkat) (Add. 12386, ff.8r-8v; Skinner, pp.40-43).

Government House in Calcutta, home of the Governor-General of Bengal, a watercolour by Edward Orme after James Moffat c. 1804. British Library, WD 476.  noc

Ahmad Rijaluddin describes in great detail the sights seen in Calcutta – the specialist bazaars for gold, pearls, beads, cloth, metalwork and even artificial flowers made from the pith of the sola plant (bunga-bungaan diperbuat dengan kayu lampung yang bernama sola seperti kertas yang amat putih); the street entertainers (orang bermain aneka bagai) with snakes, monkeys and bears, as well as acrobats – all with the conventionalised expressions of astonishment and delight appropriate for a traditional Malay hikayat. But one of the main calls on his attention, a subject to which he is drawn over and over again, is the sheer variety of courtesans on display in brothels, of all shapes and sizes. In one winding lane near the shipyards, ‘on the ground floor live the poor and ugly whores; on the second floor live the whores who are not bad-looking, and on the third floor live the very pick of the whores, really lovely creatures, like angels from heaven’ (pada tingkat yang di bawah itu adalah jalang yang miskin dan kurang rupanya, dan tingkat yang kedua adalah tempat jalang yang pertengahan rupanya duduk pada tempat itu, adalah pada tingkat yang ketiga di situlah tempat jalang asal nuri terlalulah indah2 rupanya seperti bidadari turun dari kayangan rupanya) (Add.12386, f.14r; Skinner, pp.56-57). A particularly elegant lane called Bhatiar Kana was occupied by high-class brothels filled with captivating occupants: ‘In the afternoon the women come out on to the top-floor balcony to take the air, wearing robes of white flecked with gold … they sit there singing songs in voices as sweet as aeolian harps … anyone catching sight of them at this time – even a scholar with a beard ten cubits long – would fall madly in love with them’ (Maka adalah pada masa tatkala hari waktu asar maka keluarlah ia duduk berangin pada atas tingkat tinggi itu ada yang memakai kain putih diseram dengan air mas … maka duduklah ia bernyanyi maka suaranya terlalulah amat merdu seperti buluh perindu … maka tatkala masa itu jika alim janggut panjang sepuluh hasta sekalipun jika terpandang menjadi gila berahi) (Add.12386, f.42r; Skinner, pp.130-131).

Ahmad Rijaluddin’s descriptions of the courtesans of Bhatiar Kana. British Library, Add. 12386, f.42r (detail).  noc

Ahmad Rijaluddin was soon torn away from the contemplation of such delights, for he appears to have joined the British expeditionary fleet which set off from Melaka in June 1811 to wrest Java out of Napoleanic hands.  Ahmad’s narrative - which may have been written up during the sea passage - ends neatly but abruptly on the brink of the attack on Batavia (which took place in August 1811).  A final pair of decorated frames in the manuscript has been left empty, and Skinner wonders if this signifies that the author did not survive the expedition.

Further reading

Ahmad Rijaluddin’s Hikayat Perintah Negeri Benggala. Edited and translated by C. Skinner.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982. (Bibliotheca Indonesica; 22).

Khoo Salma Nasution, The Chulia in Penang: patronage and place-making around the Kapitan Kling Mosque, 1786-1957. Penang: Areca Books, 2014.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


07 July 2014

A newly digitised unpublished catalogue of Persian manuscripts

The British Library has exciting news for researchers of Persian manuscripts. The previously unpublished descriptions for a projected third volume of the Catalogue of the India Office Library's Persian manuscript collection have been digitised and made available on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. The catalogue was already well under way in the 1930s but with the intervention of the 2nd World War, the project was never completed. It contains, however, descriptions of about 1,500 works and it is our sincere hope that by making them available, this part of the British Library’s collection will become more accessible to researchers interested in the literature, history and culture of the Persianate world. The digitisation of this important catalogue has been made possible by a grant from the Barakat Trust.

IO Isl 3682_f29r
The murder of Iraj by his brothers Tur and Salm in a 16th century Shahnamah partly illustrated by Muhammad Yusuf (see earlier post on this manuscript). One of the manuscripts included in the newly digitised catalogue (BL IO Islamic 3682, f. 29r)

Three giants of Persian scholarship

These draft descriptions, which were primarily written by hand, are the work of three towering figures in Oriental Studies in the UK.

The first scholar whose work is digitised here is Charles Ambrose Storey (1888-1968), who read Classics and Arabic at Cambridge.  He is famous for his monumental work, Persian Literature: A Bio-bibliographical Survey, which was intended as a response to Carl Brockelmann's Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur.  However, Storey's survey, though unfinished, is much more detailed and thorough, including the content of the works he discusses, information about the life of the author and others connected with the text, lists of known manuscripts with dates of their transcription, as well as a full bibliography of studies, modern editions, and translations. In 1919 Storey became Assistant Librarian and later Librarian at the India Office before being elected Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic at Cambridge in 1933, a great honour and distinction.  When Storey passed away, he left his worldly possessions to the Royal Asiatic Society, which has worked to publish posthumously the remainder of his survey.  In addition to his survey, Storey also generated a great deal of research on the Persian manuscripts in the India Office collections which he continued working on after 1933 and which was never published; it is this that has been digitised and made available on-line.  

The other authors are the equally well-known scholars, Reuben Levy (1891-1966) and Arthur John Arberry (1905-1969).  Levy read Persian, Turkish and Semitic languages at Oxford and taught Persian there until moving to Cambridge in the 1920s, where he was a lecturer of Persian before becoming full professor in 1950. Records show that he was still cataloguing manuscripts for the India Office Library as late as 1959. He translated a number of seminal texts from Persian into English, including the Qabusnamah of Kay Kawus b. Iskandar in 1951.  

The third scholar to contribute to the planned third volume of the Indian Office Persian manuscripts catalogue was A.J. Arberry.  Like Storey, Arberry was employed by the India Office Library between 1934 and 1939, before being appointed to the Chair of Persian at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and subsequently – again following in Storey’s footsteps – to the Sir Thomas Adams Professorship of Arabic at Cambridge University.  A profilic scholar, Arberry's many editions of texts and translations from Arabic and Persian, along with his books on a range of topics on the literature and culture of the Islamic world, number around 90 volumes.  Famous for introducing the poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi to the west, he also made elegant translations of the Qur'an and the poetry of Hafiz. Arberry also compiled catalogues of  the Arabic and Persian manuscript collections in the India Office Library, Cambridge University Library, and the Chester Beatty Library, all of which are indispensible tools for the researcher today.  

The opening of Qarabadin-i Qadiri, a medical pharmacopoeia by Muhammad Akbar Arzani, dated 1792 (BL Delhi Persian 843B)

How to use the catalogue

There are three manuscript sequences included in the catalogue: India Office (IO Islamic) Persian manuscripts acquired between 1903 and 1936, and Delhi Arabic and Delhi Persian — these last two formerly part of the Mughal Imperial Library, Delhi. The digitised catalogue consists of 3778 images grouped in 38 folders (Mss Eur E207/1-38) but arranged in a somewhat haphazard order, partly by subject and to some extent by author.

If readers wish to browse the catalogue, there are partial subject indexes to 33 of the 38 folders:

Folders 1-4:  Sufism, by Arberry:
Folders 5-9: History, by Storey
Folders 10-14 : mostly Sufism, by Levy
Folders 15-16: poetry, biography by Storey
Folders 17-24: miscellaneous, poetry, science by Levy
Folders 25-33: Delhi Persian 411-945, by Levy

Readers wishing to look up specific numbers quoted, for example, in Storey’s Persian Literature, or manuscripts listed in Fihrist (the online union catalogue of Arabic script manuscripts in the United Kingdom) should follow this link to the

Online index and concordance to vol 3 of the Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the India Office Library, Mss Eur E207 (unpublished)

This lists the contents of the catalogue in manuscript order. Each number is linked directly to its digital image on the web. If the description is several pages long, readers can move to the following or preceding page by using the forward and backward arrows at the top of the screen. A word of warning though: the numbers in the catalogue are largely unchecked and may sometimes be inaccurate!

To facilitate browsing the Delhi Persian collection, we have copied below a general classification of the collection according to a preliminary handlist (IO Islamic 4601-3) which was compiled in Calcutta under the supervision of H. Blochmann ca. 1869.

Delhi Persian 1-34: Qur'anic commentaries and treatises
Delhi Persian 35-72: Works on Hadith
Delhi Persian 73-122: Adʼiyah or devotional works
Delhi Persian 123-125: Principles of law
Delhi Persian 126-222: Law
Delhi Persian 226-253: ʻAqaʼid or doctrines
Delhi Persian 257-326: Kalam
Delhi Persian 329-417: Grammar
Delhi Persian 420-429: Rhetoric
Delhi Persian 431-507: Insha, or prose and letter-writers
Delhi Persian 508-567: Lexicography
Delhi Persian 569-783: History and biography
Delhi Persian 785-788: Physiognomy
Delhi Persian 789-797: Logic and dialectics
Delhi Persian 798-806: Natural philosophy
Delhi Persian 807-872: Medicine
Delhi Persian 873-899: Works on Mawaʻiz, homilies and khutbahs etc
Delhi Persian 902-953: Ethics
Delhi Persian 954-1198: Sufiism
Delhi Persian 1200-1202: Dreambooks
Delhi Persian 1302-1209: Anecdotes or comic writings
Delhi Persian 1210-1213: Riddles
Delhi Persian 1222-1420: Poetry
Delhi Persian 1424-1475: Mathematics and astronomy
Delhi Persian 1492-1499: Charms and geomancy
Delhi Persian 1500-1502: Music
Delhi Persian 1503-1550: Miscellaneous

Further Reading:
Storey, C.A., Persian Literature: A Bio-bibliographical Survey (London, 1972-ongoing). Section 1 is on line: Qur’anic Literature (1927)
Arberry, A.J., The Koran Interpreted: A Translation (Reprinted New York, 1996).
---------------,  Fifty Poems of Hafiz (Cambridge, 1962)
Levy, R., A Mirror for Princes: The Qābūs Nāma (London, 1951)

Nur Sobers-Khan, Curator for Turkey, Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar Museums Authority
Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies