Asian and African studies blog

8 posts from September 2014

26 September 2014

Ernest Cromwell Peake in China

Among the papers of the Mervyn Peake Archive, which is held by the British Library, is a memoir by Mervyn’s father, Dr Ernest Cromwell Peake. Dr Peake was the first medical missionary to arrive in the region of Hankow, in Hunan province deep in inland China, where he spent the early years of the twentieth century.

The memoir has never before been published, but is now being brought into print by the British Library, making available a new eyewitness account of this crucial, revolutionary period in Chinese history. Dr Peake records his clear-eyed impressions of Chinese culture and politics – including the Boxer rebellion and the overthrow of the Imperial dynasty – while recording his experience of establishing a hospital to serve a people deeply hostile to Western medicine.

The memoir is introduced by Hilary Spurling, the renowned biographer, who explores the connections between Mervyn Peake’s childhood in China and his great Gormenghast novels.

This extract from Dr Peake’s memoir documents his experience of the 1911 Revolution in Hankow.

Leaving Kuling I took passage up-river to join the few doctors in Hankow who were organising aid to the wounded under the Red Cross. On our way we saw grim evidences of the struggle even before we reached our destination. As the steamer approached the city we passed the scene of a recent battle, the dead still lying on the river bank just as they had fallen. Fighting was going on at the time, the rat-tat-tat of the machine guns being plainly audible. Perhaps the most ominous thing of all was the dense column of smoke which ascended from the doomed city, showing that the Imperial troops had already succeeded in setting fire to its out-lying parts.

Hanow burning. Dr Peake’s photos of revolutionary violence, 1911. © 2014 the Estate of Ernest Cromwell Peake. Reproduced by permission.

The Concessions in Hankow were practically deserted by the foreigners; all the women and children, and many of the men, having escaped down river. But there were vast crowds of Chinese who had fled for refuge into the comparative safety of the foreign settlements. They looked dazed, and moved aimlessly along in an unending stream, carrying their babies and pathetic bundles, not knowing where to find shelter or safety.

In the narrow streets of the native city, which adjoined the British area, savage fighting was proceeding – shooting from the houses and around street corners. The situation in the Settlement was not a pleasant one; for although hostilities were not directed against us, bullets were flying freely all over, and anywhere in the open was dangerous.

I made my way through the stupefied crowds to the residence of a friend, and found that his place functioned as the hastily improvised Red Cross Headquarters. There were several doctors there, both British and American, and I received a warm welcome as an addition to the party. It’s wonderful what companionship will do in critical situations. I remember that we were a cheerful party, in spite of shells whistling over our heads and bursting in the streets. Many of the houses in the Concession were badly knocked about by shell-fire. Not that there was any intention to damage foreign property; but the opposing armies frequently fired at each other over our heads, and from bad marksmanship we were well peppered.

Hanow burning. Dr Peake’s photos of revolutionary violence, 1911. © 2014 the Estate of Ernest Cromwell Peake. Reproduced by permission.

That evening a large area of the native city was in flames. Viewed from the roof of the Post Office, one of the highest buildings in the Settlement, it was an appalling sight – one continuous line of fire, some three miles in length by about half a mile in width. On three successive nights we watched the conflagration spread, until it appeared that the whole city was aflame. The only hospitals in Hankow for Chinese patients were the Mission hospitals, and these being situated two on the outskirts of the native city and one in the Concession itself, were mercifully preserved. The furthest was three miles away. Anxiously each night we looked through our glasses, beyond the smoke and the flames, to see if the Red Cross flag was still flying from its roof. 

The hospital of the London Mission was only just beyond the Concession boundary. In an incredibly short time it was crowded with wounded. As the fire crept nearer, and the flames threatened the building, we became anxious about the patients lying helpless inside. It seemed only prudent to evacuate them while yet there was time.

There were 200 cases to be removed from the beds and floors of a building intended for 60. Having no place to which we could take them we were compelled to put them out in the road. So during the night, while doctors were still operating, stretcher-bearers carried them out and laid them on the pavement. Permission was then obtained from the American Episcopal Mission to use their large Church as a hospital ward. The wounded consequently were taken there. We made beds of the pews, turning them face to face and padding them with straw mattresses. They were safe from the fire there at any rate. But then our problems began. Feeding, nursing, sanitation, presented great difficulties. But the hospital staff, and voluntary helpers, rose to the occasion, and ways were found to carry on from day to day. Fortunately it was not for long. Soon after evacuation of the hospital a change in the wind had saved the building, the fire had stopped just short of it, and we were able to move our patients back.

 At this time, when the fighting was so fierce, the casualties were very heavy. They poured in faster than we could deal with them. Day and night the booming of the guns filled the air; and in the streets no man, woman, or child was safe from the rifle fire of the soldiers. Even going the short distance to the hospital was dangerous. I can recall now the ‘zip’ of a bullet as it whizzed past my ear and ricocheted off the brick wall at my side.

Peake in China is available now (hardback, £16.99, ISBN 978 0 7123 5741 8) through the British Library's online shop

Extract and photos copyright © 2014 the Estate of Ernest Cromwell Peake. Reproduced by permission.

25 September 2014

Two Persian ‘Ming’ manuscripts on view at the British Museum

Last week the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China opened at the British Museum. This exhibition documents the years 1400-1450, fifty years which saw the building of the Forbidden City and Beijing established as the capital city of China. It was also a time of intense diplomatic and cultural engagement with Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Some surprising exhibits on view resulting from cultural exchanges include the painting of a giraffe presented to the Yongle Emperor in 1414 as tribute by the Sultan of Bengal, Sayf al-Din Hamza Shah, and ‘The adoration of the Magi’, dating from c. 1495-1505, by the Italian artist Andrea Mantegna, depicting a Ming porcelain bowl. Equally exotic are two British Library 15th century Persian manuscripts, Add.16561 and Add.7759 copied in Shirvan and possibly in Herat on decorated paper exported from Ming China.

Prince entertained in a garden, the opening from an anthology of poetry produced in Shamakhi (Shirvan) in 873/1468, North Provincial Timurid style painting on Ming decorated paper (British Library Add.16561, ff. 1v-2r)

There were several missions exchanged between the Timurids and the Yongle Emperor (r. 1402-24). After Timur's death, the first Chinese embassy to Shahrukh arrived in Herat in 815/1412. A second embassy arrived in Rabiʻ I 820/April 1417 with three hundred horsemen and gifts and presents sent by the Emperor of China consisting of falcons, brocades, velvets, silks, porcelain vessels and Chinese paper, etc. A third embassy reached Herat in Ramadan 822/October 1419 (see Thackston, p.279, citing the Persian sources Mujmal-i faṣīhī by Fasih al-Din Khvafi, and Maṭlaʻ-i saʻdayn  by ʻAbd al-Razzaq Samarqandi). Return missions also took place with the artist Ghiyas al-Din Naqqash, Baysunghur’s representative, keeping a detailed diary of his journey between December 1419 and August 1422 (see Thackston’s translation below).

Chinese paper was much valued by the Timurids and gave rise to a fashion for using coloured dyes and decorating with gold. It was regarded as good to write on. Slightly tinted paper was considered restful to the eye while dark colours suited coloured inks[1]. Add.16561, pictured below, is a collection of poetry by 12 different authors of the 14th and 15th century. It was copied in 1468 in Shirvan in present day Azerbayjan by Sharaf al-Din Husayn, a royal scribe, possibly at the court of the Shirvanshah Farrukh Yasar (1462-1501). The manuscript contains one double-page and seven single miniatures. The paper is highly polished and dyed different shades of pink, mauve and yellow/green, decorated with large flecks of gold.

Opening to the Dīvān of the 14th century poet Kamal Khujandi on highly polished gold flecked dyed paper. Copied by Sharaf al-Din Husayn Sultani, dated Shamakhi (Shirvan) at the beginning of Rabiʻ II 873/ Oct.1468  (British Library Add.16561, ff 2-3)

The second of the two manuscripts on display is Add.7759, the Dīvān of Hafiz, copied by Sulayman al-Fushanji in Ramazan 855/October 1451. Although no place is mentioned in the colophon, the name of the scribe may be connected to Fushanj in the province of Herat, Afghanistan, possibly suggesting Herat as a place of origin. The paper is unusually heavy and includes 31 pages decorated with Chinese ornamentation of which seven can be identified as containing designs of bamboos, pomegranates and other plants while twelve show Chinese landscapes and buildings. The paper is coloured various shades of orange, pink, blue, yellow/green, grey and purple.

A Chinese palace set against a background of mountains and lakes, with pine trees in the foreground (British Library Add.7759, f. 3r)

Facing pages of the Dīvān of Hafiz. Copied by Sulayman al-Fushanji in Ramazan 855/October 1451 (British Library Add.7759, ff. 60v-61r)

In her study of the New York Public Library Makhzan al-asrār (Spencer Persian 41), dated 25 Jumada I 883/24 August 1478, Priscilla Soucek demonstrated, by reconstructing several examples, that the decorated Chinese paper had originally been in the form of sheets which were painted before being cut up. A further example of the same feature can be seen in folios 17r and 10v below where the outlines of the mountains on the two pages are almost contiguous. As in the New York manuscript, the designs in Add.7759 are at right angles to the text.

Add7759_ff17r and 10v
Folios 17r (left) and 10v (right), formed from the same sheet of paper (British Library Add.7759)

Both Add.7759 and Add.16561 have now been fully digitized and will be published on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts page during the next few months. This will hopefully allow a much needed detailed study to be made of the paper.

Ming: 50 years that changed China is open at the British Museum until 5 January 2015. An illustrated catalogue of the same title by the exhibition curators Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall is available from the British Museum shop.

Further reading

W. M. Thackston, “Report to Mirza Baysunghur on the Timurid Legation to the Ming Court at Peking” in A century of princes: sources on Timurid history and art. Cambridge, Mass, 1989, pp. 279-97

David J. Roxburgh,The Persian Album, 1400-1600: From Dispersal to Collection. Yale University, 2005, pp. 159-165

Priscilla Soucek, “The New York Public Library ‘Makhzan al-asrār’ and Its Importance, Ars Orientalis 18 (1988), pp. 1-37

Sheila S. Blair, “Color and Gold: The Decorated Papers used in Manuscripts in later Islamic Times,” Muqarnas 17 (2000), pp. 24-36

N. Titley, Persian Miniature Painting and Its Influence on the Art of Turkey and India: The British Library Collections. London, 1984, pp. 240-41


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

[1] Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi quoted by Qadi Ahmad, Calligraphers and Painters (tr. V. Minorsky), Washington, 1959, p. 113

18 September 2014

The Magic of Birds

Our guest blogger Celia Fisher is an art historian and plantswoman who has written extensively on the history of plants in art. Her new book Magic of Birds is based on the collections at the British Library (published September 2014). Celia writes:

The Magic of Birds – my new book published by the British Library this month – ranges across time and continents, exploring the ways in which artists, poets, storytellers and explorers have depicted birds. Although the book is not entirely about birds from the East, they appear throughout. One chapter is devoted to the Eastern fables – including the search for the legendary simurgh – which gave Persian and Mughal artists the opportunity to depict gatherings of curious and beautiful birds. In the West the concept of the simurgh developed into the phoenix, but it was originally believed to be an inhabitant of the Far East, where it was depicted as an enormous pheasant. The techniques and mysticism of Chinese and Japanese album paintings are described at this point, and also spill over into other chapters. For instance ‘Decorative Birds’, as well as peacocks, includes a crane flying against the sun from a Japanese album, and a keen-eyed cormorant juxtaposed to those which twist around the pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Page from Tennen hyakkaku, ‘Tennen’s one hundred cranes’ by Kaigai Tennen, Kyoto, 1900. Orb40/964 vol.3 f.17r.

The first chapter, entitled ‘Creation and Diversity’, begins with God creating the birds, travels through the discovery of new continents, and ends with Alfred Wallace’s descriptions of birds of paradise, which had been traded across Asia for centuries before they contributed to his theory of evolution. The chapter on ‘Freedom, Hunting and Captivity’ features the Mughal Emperor Babur with the bird-catchers of Kabul, as well as his ancestor Tamburlaine hunting peacocks; and contrasts two fierce-eyed hawks from a Japanese album, one flying free across the mountains, the other itself a tethered captive. When ‘The Symbolism of Birds’ is discussed, the use of cockerels for divination as well as food – and cockfighting – proves a world-wide phenomenon, but all domesticated poultry are descended from the red jungle fowl of central South East Asia. Their spread towards Europe and America happened surprisingly early, while China became the centre for developing rare breeds. Another widespread phenomenon is a fear of owls as birds of ill-omen, and in the chapter on that theme Dürer’s owl is set beside two horned owls perched on a ruined palace, discussing the fate of the Persian Emperor Anurshirvan’s troubled domains. On a lighter note, the section on ‘Winged Spirits and Messengers’ includes the hoopoe which acted as a messenger between Solomon and Sheba; the varied messenger pigeons bred by the Mughal Emperors; and the Hindu god Garuda flying to the rescue.

The crow deciding whether the owl should lead the assembly of birds. A miniature painting from Anvar-i Suhayli, a version of the Kalila va Dimna fables, India, 1610–11. Add. Or. 18579 f.210v.

Added to this sumptuously illustrated background of South Asian and Far Eastern beliefs relating to birds, there are many images and descriptions taken from the early European publications on the natural history of birds. These include the wonders of the East, hornbills and kingfishers, parrots and dodos, not to mention the birds of Australia, and they provide the balance of scientific bird illustration, alongside fascinating descriptions of bird behaviour and – once again – their relationship to humans, including humour.  

The Magic of Birds is available now (hardback, £20, ISBN 978 0 7123 5742 5) through the British Library's online shop.

16 September 2014

One-day Symposium: British Library Persian Manuscripts: Collections and Research

One day symposium: British Library Persian Manuscripts: Collections and Research
British Library Conference Centre, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
Friday, 31 October 2014, 9.30-17.30 (Programme details here)

Or_2265_f066v_1000Khusraw and Shirin listen to stories told by Shirin's handmaidens. From Nizami's Khamsah. Painting in Safavid Tabriz style c 1540s,  ascribed to Aqa Mirak (British Library Or.2265, f. 66v)

The British Library is holding a one-day symposium on the theme of digitisation and new research on its collection of Persian manuscripts, one of the most significant in the world in both size and importance. It is currently mid-way through a partnership project with the Iran Heritage Foundation and other supporters to convert catalogue records for Persian manuscripts into digital format as well as to digitise selected items from the Library’s vast collection with a view to making the data freely accessible online to readers worldwide. The main underlying objectives are to aid scholarship on the cultures and history of the Islamicate and Persianate world, and to help preserve this delicate material for posterity. Although only a small number of manuscripts have been digitised to date, the range is expected to grow over the coming years thanks to continued public and private funding.

Progress so far has already facilitated some exciting developments and discoveries. Join project members and scholars to explore the Library's Persian collections and find out more about recent research.


Booking will be available from Monday 22 September from British Library Events . Tickets include a light lunch and refreshments and are priced at £15, £12 (over 60s), £10 (concessions).


Dr Sâqib Bâburî, British Library (abstract)
Two new sources for the study of Muḥammad Vājid ʿAlī Shāh in the William Irvine Collection

Dr Bruno De Nicola, University of St Andrews (abstract)
Rashīd al-Dīn’s World History: manuscripts of Jāmi‘ al-tavārīkh in the British Library

Dr Walter N. Hakala, University at Buffalo, SUNY (USA) (abstract)
Minimum taxable knowledge: the niṣāb genre of multilingual vocabularies in verse

Jeremiah Losty, British Library (Emeritus) (abstract)
James Skinner's artists

Dr Stephan Popp, Institut für Iranistik, Vienna (abstract)
Horoscopes as propaganda under Akbar and Shāh Jahān

Dr Katherine Butler Schofield, King’s College, London (abstract)
The confluence of two oceans: Hindustani music in the British Library Persian collections

Dr Emily Shovelton, Independent Scholar (abstract)
Margins of the Divine: the Miscellany of Iskandar Sultan  (British Library Add. 27261)

Dr Eleanor Sims, Editor of Islamic Art and Independent Scholar (abstract)
More from Mashhad? A recently re-discovered illustrated Shahnama manuscript of the 17th century

Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, British Library (abstract)
Niẓāmī through digital eyes: observations on masterworks in the British Library


Further reading

Recent posts on some of our Persian manuscripts:

Indian Music in the Persian Collections: the Javahir al-Musiqat-i Muhammadi (Or.12857). Part 2
Indian Music in the Persian Collections: the Javahir al-Musiqat-i Muhammadi (Or.12857). Part 1
Two Persian ‘Ming’ manuscripts on view at the British Museum
Persian letters from the Nawabs of the Carnatic 1777-1816
James Skinner's Tazkirat al-Umara now digitised
A Khamsah with illustrations ascribed to the painter Bihzad (Add. 25900)
A newly digitised unpublished catalogue of Persian manuscripts and postscript
Some portraits of the Zand rulers of Iran (1751-1794)
The Khamsah of Nizami: A Timurid Masterpiece


For further information: contact Dr. Sâqib Bâburî (


Iran_heritage_logoBarakatsmallgrey2Friends-BL-logo-PMS220 Logo



11 September 2014

Fifty more Malay manuscripts to be digitised

Following the successful completion of the first year of our Malay manuscripts digitisation project – funded by William and Judith Bollinger, and undertaken in collaboration with the National Library of Singapore – we are pleased to announce that photography has commenced for the second year of the project. This year we will be digitising 53 manuscripts mainly from the collections of the India Office Library, as well as a few recent acquisitions. All these manuscripts are listed on our Digital Access to Malay Manuscripts project page.

Sumatra (in yellow) and part of the Malay peninsula (in green) and Java (in red). From a maritime atlas for navigating from the Cape of Good Hope to the Far East. Amsterdam, 1722. British Library, Maps.C.12. f.3, 27  noc

Among the highlights to be digitised this year are the Adat Aceh (MSS Malay B.11), the exceptionally important compendium of port regulations and court procedures from 17th-century Aceh, and a copy of the Undang-undang Aceh, a legal digest from Aceh (MSS Malay D.12). Scholars of indigenous healing techniques will be particularly interested in a work from the court of Pontianak in western Kalimantan, entitled Kitab obat-obat dan azimat, ‘Book of medicines and charms’ (MSS Malay B.15), described as ‘The Malay Materia Medica, from the practice of Tama, Physician to the royal household of His Majesty of Pontiana’, copied on 17 May 1813.

First page of the Kitab obat-obat dan azimat, containing a charm to stop children crying (azimat budak jangan menangis), Pontianak, 1813. MSS Malay B.15, f.1v.  noc

There is a rich corpus of literary works, both in prose (hikayat) and narrative verse (syair), mostly collected by John Leyden in Penang and Melaka. Many of these manuscripts are dated, and were written in Kedah, Penang or Melaka between 1804 and 1811 by scribes known to have worked for the British, including Muhammad Kasim, Ismail, Ibrahim, who was Raffles’s chief secretary, and his brother Ahmad Rijaluddin. In a few cases the manuscripts to be photographed this year contain the same texts as in those already digitised last year such as Hikayat Dewa Mandu (MSS Malay D.1), Hikayat Hang Tuah (MSS Malay B.1) and Hikayat Ular Nangkawang (MSS Malay A.1), allowing textual comparisons to be made. Some manuscripts bear finely illuminated frames around the opening pages.

Hikayat Inderaputera. The red and black decorative motifs suggest a Minangkabau origin for this manuscript, believed to date from around 1821. British Library, MSS Malay B.14, ff.1r, 2r [The MS has been mis-bound, and in the image above the two illuminated pages have been digitially reunited to show how they would originally have appeared across two facing pages.]  noc

The broad linguistic and epigraphic reach of the Malay world is reflected in three manuscripts from south Sumatra written in variants of the pre-Islamic incung script of Indic origin, also called ka-ga-nga script after its first three letters. A manuscript written on folded tree bark contains the Syair Perahu (MSS Malay A.2) in Malay in incung script, and possibly dates from the 18th century. Surat pantun cara Lampung (MSS Malay A.4) is a paper manuscript which contains parallel columns of Malay pantun and quatrains called wayak in Lampung language and script. A third manuscript in incung script is a tembai or myth of origin, written on strips of bamboo (MSS Malay D.11).

Syair Perahu, first few lines of a manuscript in Malay in incung script from south Sumatra, written on folded treebark. MSS Malay A.2, f.a 1 (detail).  noc

Also to be digitised this year are a number of Malay vocabulary lists, mostly collected by servants of the East India Company including Leyden and Raffles. Perhaps most interesting are the working materials of Thomas Bowrey, author of the first original Malay-English dictionary. Alongside his notebooks are also held page proofs for A dictionary English and Malayo, Malayo and English (London, 1701), together with hand-written annotations by Thomas Hyde, professor of Arabic at Oxford, who appears to have helped Bowrey with the Jawi script elements (MSS Eur A 33).

The first lines from a vocabulary of Malay, Javanese and Madurese, arranged not alphabetically but by subject, starting with the concept of God and creation (Tuhan, ketuhanan, kejadian) and other-worldly creatures (dewa, hantu, gergasi, raksasa). This manuscript bears the bookplate of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. MSS Malay A.3, f.3v (detail).  noc

Manuscripts which have already been digitised are highlighted above in blue. All the other manuscripts mentioned will be digitised in the course of the coming months.


M.C.Ricklefs & P.Voorhoeve, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


08 September 2014

The original Japanese Moon Princess

The Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month (中秋節Zhong qiu jie), has always been a very popular custom in China. People celebrate by going out at night to view the moon and eat moon cakes, and hence the festival is also known as the Moon Festival.

The ‘Fifteenth Night’ (十五夜Jūgoya) festival was introduced from China to Japan sometime during the eighth century. People served special sweets and enjoyed eating them while gazing at the moon, regarding the ‘mid-autumn moon’ (中秋の名月Chūshū no meigetsu) as the day that the Moon Princess returned to the moon. This Moon Princess should not be confused with the ‘Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon’(美少女戦士セーラームーン)or  Princess Serenity known from modern anime.  The original Japanese Moon Princess was in fact Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫), the heroine of  The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter(竹取物語Taketori monogatari).

Princess Kaguya and the mid-autumn moon. ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter’ (繪入竹とり物語, Eiri Taketori monogatari), printed book, prob. 18th century. British Library, 16055.c.31.  noc

It is unclear exactly when the story of Princess Kaguya came into existence. Researchers have identified several notable courtiers of the late seventh century upon whom the five suitors for the hand of Princess Kaguya were based. A picture-scroll version of Taketori monogatari was also famously mentioned in chapter 17 of  The Tale of  Genji 源氏物語 (Genji monogatari), in a scene at the Imperial Court where an intellectual contest was held to compare illustrated stories. The participants, divided into two teams, competed by comparing two stories and discussing which one possessed more literary merit and which composition harmonised better with the pictures. One of stories mentioned was Taketori monogatari.

Chapter 17 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba) , manuscript, mid-17th century. British Library, Or.1278, f.18.  noc

Genji monogatari is thought to have been written by Murasaki Shikibu(紫式部), who was a lady-in- waiting at the court of the Empress Shōshi (藤原彰子) in 11th-century Japan. Consequently, it can be assumed that the story line of Taketori monogatari had come into existence sometime between the eighth and 10th centuries, and that by the time of Genji monogatari, it was already one of the more widely known folktales.

Princess Kaguya was discovered as a new-born baby in a shining bamboo in a bamboo forest by an elderly bamboo cutter. He took the baby home and brought her up with his wife as their own child. The baby grew up very quickly and became an extremely beautiful woman just three months after her discovery. Although the elderly couple knew that she was not a normal child, they were so fond of her that they wanted her to marry a husband fitting to one of her beauty. However, she was actually the Princess of the Moon and was a visitor to the earth for only for a short while. In the end, she had to return to the moon and left the heart-broken couple and several suitors behind.

Princess Kaguya and one of her suitors. 'The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter' ( 繪入竹とり物語, Eiri Taketori monogatari) [18th-century edition], printed book, prob. 18th century. British Library, 16055.c.31.  noc

The story of Princess Kaguya can be interpreted in many ways. Some see the story as a fable, the failed proposals to Princess Kaguya of the five suitors being a veiled condemnation of political corruption at the court. The moon was represented as a pure land, from which Princess Kaguya had been exiled as a punishment. The earth is presented as a centre of political intrigues, thus representing the court.

However, the most popular interpretation sees the story as a prototype of a science fiction story about aliens from space. Princess Kaguya was actually the Moon Princess, and therefore an alien. She had done something wrong on the moon, and had to serve her term on earth as if serving an open prison sentence. When she had completed her time on earth, her people came from the moon in a spaceship and took her back home. It is fascinating to discover such an early depiction of alien visitors in the Japanese literary tradition.

Princess Kaguya returns to the moon. The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (繪入竹とり物語, Eiri Taketori monogatari), printed book, prob. 18th century. British Library, 16055.c.31.  noc

This year, the Mid-Autumn Festival falls on 8 September. Let’s enjoy our moon cakes, while thinking of the Moon Princess.

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator, Japanese section


04 September 2014

Charles D'Oyly's voyage to Patna

The British Library’s collections contain many drawings by the amateur artist Sir Charles D’Oyly of the Bengal Civil Service who was based in Calcutta, Dhaka and Patna from 1797 to 1838.  The artist George Chinnery spent much time staying with D’Oyly during the first part of his career and had a great influence on the development of his artistic style.  D’Oyly was a prolific artist and published many books with engravings and lithographs from his drawings.

This post focusses on some of the highlights of one his albums in the Hastings’ Collection acquired in 1995.  The album contains 28 water-colours by D’Oyly of views taken on a journey along the Hooghly, Bhagirathi and Ganges Rivers dated August-October 1820 (WD4404).  The voyage passed many monuments and views made famous by earlier artists such as William Hodges and the Daniells, but with the opening of the direct railway line from Calcutta to Benares, these sites were largely forgotten.  The drawings are of various sizes and are laid down on album pages (18 by 26.5 cm), with inscribed captions on the facing page.  All the drawings have been digitised and may be found on the BL’s website by entering WD 4404.

WD4404 fol 2 at temple at Kandi by D'Oyly
The Takht Sri Harmandir Patna Sahib.  Inscribed: ‘N2 Gunga Govind Sing’s Temple at the confluence of the Baugrutty and Jalangi Rivers.  Augt 1820.’  WD4404, f.2.  noc

At Kandi the Jalangi came in from the Ganges to the north-east.   This is meant to be a drawing of a temple built by Ganga Gobind Singh there.  Ganga Gobind Singh conducted Warren Hastings’s business affairs and retired with an immense fortune to his native place at Kandi where he erected temples to Krishna. 

Takht Sri Harmandir Patna Sahib

D’Oyly seems to have got his drawings into a muddle since the temples at Kandi are typically Bengali in style whereas the view here shows the Takht Sri Harmandir or Patna Sahib, the gurudwara recently erected by Maharaja Ranjit Singh over the birthplace in Patna in 1660 of the last of the Sikh Gurus, Guru Gobind Singh.  The similarity of their names may have caused D’Oyly’s confusion.
WD4404 fol 12 palace at Rajmahal by Sir C D'Oyly
A view looking south beneath the Sangi Dalan of Shah Shuja’s palace at Rajmahal.  Inscribed: ‘N12 Part of the Ruins of the Palace at Rajemahl.  Augt 1820.’  WD4404, f.12.  noc

Rajmahal was established as the Mughal capital of Bengal in 1592 by Raja Man Singh of Amber, the Subahdar of Bengal.  His successors moved the capital to Dhaka but Shah Shuja’ moved it back again in 1639 and the palace buildings on the river date from his period.

WD4404 fol 16 On the Ganga by moonlight
A steep promontory at Pirpainti with ruins by moonlight.  Inscribed: ‘N16 Pointee.  Augt 1820.’  WD4404, f.16.  noc

Pirpainti is a picturesque spot where the Ganges bends southwards round the Rajmahal Hills.  The tomb of an obscure Muslim saint known as Pir Painti is on the hill above the village.

WD4404 fol 17 Caves at Patharghata
Two of the caves at Patharghat.  Inscribed: ‘N17 Sacred Caves at Putteegotta.’  Augt 1820.  WD4404, f.17.  noc

At Patharghat just to the east of Bhagalpur a group of five excavated caves with early sculpted reliefs and with adjacent bas-reliefs of the fifth century formed some of the first examples of ancient Hindu sculpture that British travellers up-river would encounter.

WD4404 fol 19 Mosque at Bhagalpur D'Oyly
Mausoleum of Ibrahim Husain Khan at Bhagalpur.  Inscribed: ‘N19 Mosque at Bhaughulpoor.  Septr 1820.’  WD4404, f.19.  noc

This view is not of a mosque but of the mausoleum of Ibrahim Husain Khan, built in a late Mughal style in the 18th century on a bluff above the river.

WD4404 fol 20 Cleveland's native monument at Bhagalpur
The Clevland monument.  Inscribed: ‘N20 Monument erected by the natives of the Bhaughulpoor District to the memory of Augustus Clevland Esqr.  Sept 1820.’  WD4404, f.20.  noc

Augustus Clevland (1755-84) was the Collector and Judge at Bhagalpur who managed to tame the wild Paharia, or hill people, who used to swoop down on the people of the plains from their hilltop fastnesses on top of the Rajmahal Hills.  In 1780 he founded an irregular regiment from these men called the Bhagalpur Hill Rangers.  After his early death in 1784, two memorials were erected to him in Bhagalpur, one in stone sent by the Court of Directors from England (see next), the other, almost a shrine, built by the inhabitants of Bhagalpur. 

WD4404 fol 23 Hill house at Bhalpur from the south-east
Clevland’s monument and house at Bhagalpur.  Inscribed: ‘N23 The Hill House at Bhaughulpore from the South East.  Septr 1820.’  WD4404, f.23.  noc

This view shows behind a clump of trees the tasteful memorial to Clevland erected by the East India Company while in the distance is Clevland’s own Hill House.

WD4404 fol 25 Ancient puillars at Bhagalpur
The Digambara Jain temple at Champapur.  ‘Inscribed: N25 Ancient Pillars at Bhaughulpoor & modern Hindoo Temple erected by Juggut Sect.  Septr 1820.’  WD4404, f.25.  noc

The site at Champapur, the capital of the ancient province of Anga, just west of Bhagalpur, is associated with the 12th Jain Tirthankara, Basupujya.  The temple was in fact a Jain one apparently renovated in the 18th century by the great banking family of Jagat Seth.  The ancient pillars were a cause of much speculation at the time but are thought to be Kirtistambha or Pillars of Fame. 

Digambar Jain temple, Champapur
The Digambara Jain temple at Champapur.

Further reading

Losty, J.P., ‘A Career in Art: Sir Charles D’Oyly’, in Under the Indian Sun: British Landscape Artists, ed. P. Rohatgi and P. Godrej, Bombay, 1995, pp. 81-106

Rohatgi, P., and P. Godrej, Under the Indian Sun: British Landscape Artists, Bombay, 1995


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

01 September 2014

A new catalogue of Malay and Indonesian manuscripts in British collections

British libraries and museums hold some of the oldest and most important manuscripts in Malay and other Indonesian languages in the world. Although small by comparison with manuscript holdings in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Netherlands, British collections are especially notable for their antiquity and, in some cases, contain unique copies of important texts.  

Sampul Final
New Edition of Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain (Jakarta, 2014), the front cover design based on the wadana (illuminated frame) from the Javanese manuscript Serat Jayalengkara Wulang shown below.

Serat Jayalengkara Wulang, Javanese manuscript copied at the court of Yogyakarta in 1803. One of the many Indonesian manuscripts described in Ricklefs and Voorhoeve (1977: 61), and which has just been digitised. British Library, MSS Jav 24, ff.111v-112r.  noc

The publication in 1977 of Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections, by M.C. Ricklefs & P. Voorhoeve (Oxford University Press), was a landmark event. Merle Ricklefs, whose main interest was in Javanese, was at the time Lecturer in the History of Southeast Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Petrus Voorhoeve (1899-1995) was formerly Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts at Leiden University Library, and a great expert on the languages of Sumatra – ranging from Acehnese and the various Batak dialects in the north to Lampung and Rejang in the south – as well as on Malay and Arabic. The catalogue listed over 1,200 manuscripts in the indigenous languages of Indonesia (except Papua), Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and the Philippines, including those in Cham and Malagasy, found in British public collections. Catalogue entries included names of authors, scribes, owners and collectors, dates and places of writing, watermarks and paper. The 1977 volume was soon followed by an Addenda et corrigenda, published in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1982, listing a further 92 manuscripts.

When I joined the British Library in 1986, I very soon became aware of how difficult my task as Curator for Maritime Southeast Asia would have been without the helping hand of ‘Ricklefs & Voorhoeve’.  As the indispensible guide to the British Library’s own collection of nearly five hundred manuscripts in Malay, Javanese, Balinese, Batak, Bugis, Makasarese, Old Javanese, I found myself consulting the book on a daily basis in order to answer enquiries about the British Library collections, and to select and describe manuscripts for exhibition, and, more recently, for digitisation.

Front cover of Ricklefs & Voorhoeve (1977).

While ‘Ricklefs & Voorhoeve’ continued to be of enormous value to scholars of the languages, literatures, cultures and history of maritime Southeast Asia, it became increasingly difficult to find a copy in bookshops. And so in March 2013, Arlo Griffiths, director of the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient in Jakarta, agreed to republish the catalogue in the EFEO’s valuable series Naskah dan Dokumen Nusantara (Manuscripts and documents from maritime Southeast Asia). The New Edition, which was published in Jakarta last month by EFEO in collaboration with Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, and with the support of the National Library of the Republic of Indonesia and the British Library, presents facsimiles of the original 1977 catalogue and the Addenda et corrigenda of 1982, together with a new supplement of 2014 describing 155 manuscripts not included in the previous editions.

The 155 additional manuscripts cover the following languages: Balinese (15), Batak (11), Bugis (2), Cham (1), Javanese (31), Maguindanao (1), Malay (86), Minangkabau (2), Old Javanese (5) and Tausug (1).  Nearly three-quarters of the total (114) are held in the British Library, and include both long-held but newly-documented manuscripts in Austronesian languages - such as the treaties in Tausug and Malay signed with the sultanate of Sulu in the 1760s, and vocabulary lists in various Indonesian languages collected by servants of the East India Company - and recent acquisitions, such as two Malay manuscripts of Sejarah Melayu and Hikayat Hang Tuah transferred to the British Library from the University of Lampeter in Wales in 2003. Notable finds in other institutions include four Batak manuscripts acquired by the University of Hull from the estate of Dr Harry Parkin - author of Batak fruit of Hindu thought (1978) - and now held in the Hull History Centre; six Malay and one Balinese manuscript formerly belonging to Sir Harold Bailey and now in the Ancient India and Iran Trust in Cambridge; and a Malay manuscript of Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. Shown below are some of the newly-described manuscripts.

Or.16802, f.4r (RH)

Illustrated Balinese manuscript on palm leaf with scenes from Ādiparwa, with the (unusual) use of red pigment in addition to black ink. Acquired in Bali in late 1938 by George and Ethel Fasal and donated by their daughter Jenny Fasal in 2010. British Library, Or.16802, f.4r (detail).  noc

Or.15026, ff.188v-189r

Panji romance, Javanese manuscript with 39 coloured drawings, dated 7 May 1861. British Library, Or.15026, ff.188v-189r.  noc


Genealogical chart in the form of a tree of the rulers of Java, from Adam to Pakuwana IV (of Surakarta) and Mataram IV (Hamengkubuwana IV of Yogykarta), in a Javanese manuscript, Papakem Pawukon, said to have come from Kyai Suradimanggala, Bupati sepuh of Demak, 1814/5. Formerly from the India Office Library collection. British Library, Or.15932, f.72r.  noc

Or.14808, f.a 27

Pustaha, Batak manuscript of Simalungun provenance, written on folded treebark, containing Poda ni suman-suman ma inon, instructions on the art of controlling forces by invoking the supernatural. British Library, Or.14808, f.a 27.  noc

AIIT Malay 1 (4)

Malay manuscript of Sejarah Melayu, 'Malay Annals', with an ownership note of D.F.A. Hervey, 1 May 1876. Ancient India and Iran Trust, Malay 1.  noc


M.C.Ricklefs & P.Voorhoeve, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

M.C.Ricklefs & P.Voorhoeve, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: addenda et corrigenda.  Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 1982, Vol.XLV, Part 2, pp.300-322.

M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve† & Annabel Teh Gallop, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014.  (Naskah dan Dokumen Nusantara; XXXIII). ISBN France 978-2-85539-189-2.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia