Asian and African studies blog

7 posts from November 2014

26 November 2014

Burmese scenes from the Life of the Buddha

Three richly illustrated Burmese manuscripts in the British Library on ‘The life of the Buddha’ have recently been digitised. In line with the conventions of Burmese illustrated parabaik or folding books, chronologically consecutive events are often presented side-by-side within the same frames.

The prince Siddhartha, son of King Suddhodana, was born in Lumbini Garden, which lay in the foot hills of the Himavanta, on Friday, the full moon day of the month Kason (May), around the year 563 BC. Eight of the king’s Brahmins (wise men) chose the name Siddhartha for the baby, which means ‘one whose purpose has been achieved’. Before the conception of the prince, his mother Queen Mahamaya dreamt that a white elephant holding a white lotus flower in its trunk entered her womb through her right side. This was interpreted by the Brahmins that the child would become the sovereign of the whole universe, or the Enlightened Buddha.

In the Palace: in the centre, Prince Siddhartha is depicted on the throne in his palace, being entertained by court musicians, with his wife Yasodharā on the smaller throne to the left.  On the right, Prince Siddhartha, who is riding in his gilded carriage, points to the figure of a saffron-robed monk – the last of the four signs encountered by the Prince. British Library, Or.14197, ff.1-3.  noc

King Suddhodana tried to prevent his son from coming into contact with any religious or spiritual path in order to steer him towards becoming the next king of the Shakyas. When Siddhartha reached the age of sixteen, he married his cousin Princess Yasodharā. In his late twenties, as he was setting out for the royal garden, Prince Siddhartha encountered the ‘four signs’: an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and an ascetic. Through them he realised that the vanity of youth, as well as one’s health, and even life, may end at any time, and the only way out of this suffering world of samsara was through finding and following the right spiritual path. At the age of twenty nine, Yasodharā gave birth to a son, Rahula. On hearing the news, Siddhartha began thinking that the little son would hinder his intentions. He ordered his minister Channa to saddle his horse Kanthaka, then, leaving all behind, he set out in search of Truth and Peace.

The Great Departure: shown above is the famous renunciation of Prince Siddhartha. On the left, he takes a last look at his sleeping wife and newborn son. Then he rides out of the palace, while the gods muffle the horse’s hooves with their hands so that the palace and city will not be awakened.  British Library, Or.4762, ff. 3-5.  noc

At the River Anomā: Prince Siddhartha reaches the River Anomā and cuts off his long topknot of hair and casts it into the air, where it is caught by Sakka, king of the gods, who enshrines it in Tavatimsa heaven. British Library, Or.4762, ff. 9-10.  noc

Prince Siddhartha becomes a monk, British Library, Or.4762, ff. 11-13.  noc

Prince Siddhartha instructs his charioteer to return to the palace with his horse Kanthaka, and give news of him to his family. But Kanthaka refuses to go back without his master, and dies of grief. The prince is presented by the gods with the requisites of a monk and, robed as a monk and carrying his alms bowl, begins his life as wandering ascetic. After the king of Magada heard of him wandering and accepting offerings of food from his people, he revered the Bodhisatta and offered him his Kingdom of Rajagaha.  Bodhisatta refused, saying that he had severed all ties because he sought deliverance and wanted to seek Enlightenment.

After six years of hardship, working to find the right spiritual path and practising on his own to seek enlightenment, Prince Siddhartha reached his goal of enlightenment when he was thirty five.

The mango tree miracle: the Buddha, on being presented with a ripe mango, instructs that its stone be planted and watered, whereupon a huge mango tree springs up covered in fruit and flowers. British Library, Or.5757, ff. 9-10.  noc

Preaching in Tavatimsa: in three strides, the Buddha reached Tavatimsa heaven where he preached to his mother and to the gods for three months, before descending to earth by a triple stairway of gold, silver and jewels, with gods and Brahmas in attendance. British Library, Or.5757, ff. 17-18.  noc

The Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching Dhamma (the path of righteousness).  His teaching was quite practical, as he never taught what he himself had not seen and known.  In his eightieth year when he was in Kusinara, he had a severe attack of dysentery. Buddha consoled Ananda who was weeping, and then called his disciples together and addressed them to work on their salvation with diligence. Then Buddha entered Paranirvana, from which there is no return.   

The three ‘Life of the Buddha’ parabaik which have recently been digitised are Or.14197, Or.4762 and Or.5757.  Shown above are scenes from Or.14197 of Prince Siddhartha seeing the last of the four signs, an ascetic; the announcement of the birth of his son Rahula; and Prince Siddhartha’s departure from the palace. From Or.4762 are scenes of the story of the Buddha’s life, from his departure from his royal position, and his life as a wandering ascetic before his enlightenment. Or.5757 is an illustrated account of the Buddha’s life containing twenty scenes including the performing of miracles and spending the rainy season or Buddhist Lent at various places.

Further reading:

Patricia M. Herbert. The life of Buddha. British Library, 1993. (The illustrations in this book are from two other Burmese manuscripts in the British Library,  Or.14297 and Or.14298, which have not yet been digitised.)

San San May, Curator for Burmese


20 November 2014

The beauty of palm leaf manuscripts (1): Central Thailand

Palm leaves have been a popular writing support in South and Southeast Asia for about two thousand years. In Thailand, palm leaf manuscripts were produced mostly for religious, literary and historical texts, but also for works relating to astronomy and astrology, law, history, and traditional and Buddhist medicine.

Palmleaf1 Or5107
A royal edition of the Samantapāsādika-atthakathā-yojanā, British Library, Or 5107.  noc

Both the palmyra and talipot palms were used for the production of manuscripts in Thailand. The palm leaves, which were first boiled and then dried and sometimes smoked or baked in a kiln before being written on, are robust and can last for as long as 600 years even in the humid, tropical climate of South and Southeast Asia. Each leaf contains between 3 to 5 lines of writing, but occasionally we also find miniature illustrations or gilt ornaments decorating the text. In central Thailand, the text was mostly written either in Thai or in Khom script, which is a variant of Khmer script used in Cambodia. The writing was usually incised with a hard wood or metal stylus, after which soot or lampblack mixed with oil was wiped onto the leaves and then wiped off again, leaving the black pigment only in the incisions. In rare cases, black ink was used to write the text on to the palm leaves with a bamboo pen or a brush.

A bundle of leaves, called phūk in Thai, was usually fastened together with two cotton cords, which were threaded through two holes pierced through the leaves of the entire manuscript. Title indicators made from wood, bamboo or ivory, with the title or a very brief description of the contents of the manuscript, were sometimes tied to a palm-leaf manuscript in order to identify the text(s) contained within.

Valuable manuscripts or important Buddhist works were protected from physical damage with wooden boards, which could be beautifully carved, gilded, lacquered, or decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay. Sometimes, palm leaf manuscripts were wrapped in cotton or silk cloth, or were kept in custom-made gilt and lacquered wooden cases to protect them from damage by rodents, insects or water.

Shown at the top of this page is a manuscript consisting of fifteen bundles of palm leaves that contains part of a commentary on the Vinaya-pitaka. The manuscript is in Pali language, but written in Khom (Khmer) script, and dates back to the nineteenth century, between 1824 and 1851 A.D. Each section of this important Buddhist work has magnificent title leaves with gilt and black lacquer decorations showing celestial figures (devata) and flowery patterns.

Palmleaf2 Or 5701 detail
Detail of the front leaf of the third bundle of British Library, Or 5107.  noc

The wooden covers of this manuscript are lacquered black, with patterns of leaves and flowers in mother-of-pearl inlay. The manuscript is stored in a red silk and cotton wrapper of Indian origin with a gold thread pattern, made to order for the Thai royal court. This manuscript is of the same high standard as manuscripts given to Wat Chetuphon in Bangkok by King Rama III.

Palmleaf3 Or_16753_f001r
Idyllic scenes from the heavenly Himavanta forest to accompany extracts from the Sutta-pitaka, painted on palm leaf. British Library, Or 16753.  noc

This fragmented manuscript shown above dates back to the early nineteenth century. The Pāli text is written with black ink in Khom (Khmer) script which was used in central Thailand mainly for Buddhist texts in Pali or in Thai language. Painted illustrations on palm leaves are very rare. Their production required special skills and experiences which only painters working for the royal court were able to acquire, hence the outstanding quality of these miniature-sized paintings.

Palmleaf4 coverOR_12524_fblefr
Covers belonging to a royal edition of the Paññāsa Jātaka, British Library, Or 12524. The wooden covers are decorated with black lacquer and gilt plant ornaments.  noc

Extra-canonical birth tales of the Buddha, known as Paññāsa Jātaka are popular all over mainland Southeast Asia.  This 19th century manuscript consists of 469 palm leaves with gilt edges, in ten bundles. The text is written in Khom (Khmer) script.

Palmleaf5 OR_12524_f001v
Detail of the second leaf of the first bundle of British Library, Or 12524, showing a royal seal of King Rama IV.  noc

The manuscript has gilded front and back leaves for every bundle. Each leaf following a front leaf has two oval illustrations; one on the left showing a heavenly vihāra, and one on the right showing the royal seal, depicting the crown between two parasols.

Palmleaf6 Rylands
An ivory title indicator with a hand-woven title band for a Buddhist palm leaf manuscript containing an extract from the Patimokkha, the basic code of monastic discipline. John Rylands Library (Manchester), Pali MS 82.

This title indicator from the mid-nineteenth century is inscribed in Khom (Khmer) script, giving the title and number of palm-leaf bundles contained in the manuscript. It has a carved flowery design and a hole at one end to attach it to a rope that is wrapped around the manuscript. To the manuscript also belongs a piece of silk and cotton cloth similar to the one shown above in British Library Or 5107. The title band contains the same information as the ivory indicator. It has some similarities with Burmese sazigyo or woven title bands, but it is much shorter and attached to the same rope as the title indicator.

Title indicators and bands were important means of identifying manuscripts when these were stored together in huge wooden cabinets, often lavishly decorated with black or red lacquer, gilt, mother-of-pearl inlay or mirror glass inlay.

A wooden case from the 19th century with gilt and lacquer relief decorations showing heavenly deva figures (see detail below) and floral designs. The case was custom-made for one Buddhist palm-leaf manuscript, British Library Or.16820/B.  noc

Detail from the wooden case above, showing a guardian figure or deva on a flowery background made from metal wire, lacquer and very thin gold leaf. The metal wire circles used to be decorated with mirror glass inlay which has been lost. British Library Or.16820/B.  noc

There are three types of traditional manuscript storage caskets in Central Thailand: the single manuscript case, the chest and the cabinet. All three are usually made from wood, often beautifully carved or decorated with lacquer and gilt, or sometimes with intricate mother-of-pearl inlay. Cases for single manuscripts were specially made for valuable Buddhist works, such as manuscripts sponsored by members of the royal family or manuscripts that were produced for a special occasion like a monk’s ordination.

Further reading

Guy, John. Palm-leaf and paper, illustrated manuscripts of India and Southeast Asia. With an essay by O.P. Agrawal. Melbourne : National Gallery of Victoria, 1982

Kō̜ngkǣo Wīrapračhak. Khamphī bai lān chabap lūang nai samai Rattanakōsin. Bangkok: Krom Sinlapākō'n, 2527 [1987]

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian


17 November 2014

Digital Hebrew treasures from the British Library collections

In an earlier communication we informed our readers about a far-reaching 3-year project funded by the Polonsky Foundation, which aims to digitise 1250 Hebrew manuscripts held at the British Library, making them available to a global audience (Opening up the Hebrew collection).
The first 45 Hebrew manuscripts that went live on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site last April (45 Hebrew manuscripts go digital) included chiefly Hebrew Bibles, such as the supremely significant London Codex dating from c. 9th century (Or 4445), and the elegant Golden Haggadah a medieval Passover liturgy sumptuously illuminated in Catalonia in the 14th century (Add MS 27210).

Detail of a miniature of the second plague, of frogs from the 'Golden Haggadah', Spain, 2nd quarter of the 14th century (British Library Add Ms 27210, f 12v)

Our devoted followers will be pleased to learn that our recent upload broadens the scope for discovery and research even further with over 300 Hebrew  manuscripts now online. The manuscripts included in the latest ingest present a wider diversity of subjects, thus, apart from Bibles and biblical commentaries, one will find liturgies, manuscripts of the Talmud (large corpus of Jewish law and tradition; includes the Mishnah and the Gemara), Talmudic commentaries, midrash (rabbinic commentary on the Hebrew scriptural text) and halakhah (the legal component of Talmudic literature).

There is additionally a greater variation of languages. Though a fair number were written in Hebrew, languages such as Aramaic, Arabic and Judeo-Arabic (Arabic in Hebrew characters) are well represented. A good example of a Judeo-Arabic manuscript is Or 2220, a commentary on the Mishnaic order Mo’ed (Festivals) by the illustrious Jewish sage Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) which was penned in the 15th century in Yemen. Noteworthy too are the handwriting styles employed in these handwritten books, with square, semi-cursive and cursive Hebrew scripts peculiar to the geographic areas the scribes originated from. Add MS 26992, Tikune ha-Ri”f, a legal work by Abraham ben Shabbatai Del Vechio (d. 1654) written apparently during his lifetime, provides a fine example of an Italian cursive type of Hebrew writing. A Sephardi semi-cursive Hebrew hand can be identified in Harley MS 5719, a 15th century manuscript copy of the Mishneh Torah (Repetition of the Law), the legal code Maimonides composed between 1068 and 1078 while living in Fustat (Old Cairo), Egypt. Or 2220 mentioned earlier provides a good specimen of a semi-cursive Yemenite hand.

Among the uploaded manuscripts there are significant Karaite biblical commentaries and Karaite works dealing with religious legal matters that will form the subject of a future blog. For a full list of the manuscripts that are now online, please follow this link (Hebrew digitised mss_November 2014). Note that if the hyperlinks don't appear to work, you should refresh your browser.

The present upload features a considerable number of decorated and illuminated pieces representing all the schools of Hebrew manuscript painting that thrived in Europe between the 13th and 15th centuries. A beautiful two-volume Bible with subtly coloured illuminations is a telling example of Hebrew manuscript art that developed in Italy in the last quarter of the 13th century.
Menorah (Temple Candelabrum) flanked by foliate scrolls inhabited by animals and hybrids. Italy (Rome or Bologna?)  (British Library Harley MS 5710, f.136r)

A splendid example of the art that developed particularly in Southern Germany in the Lake Constance area during the 14th century is found in the Tripartite Mahzor, a festival prayer book for Shavu’ot (Festival of Weeks) and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). This is in fact the second volume of a three-volume manuscript. Volumes one and three are kept respectively in the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest (Kaufmann Collection MS A384) and in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Michael 619).

Historiated word panel depicting Moses, at left, receiving the Tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai, with Aron and the Israelites standing in prayer. Trumpets and rams’ horns pierce through the clouds, marking the occasion. The gilded word Adon in the centre of the panel opens the liturgical poem ‘The Lord has taken care of me’ which is recited during Shavu’ot, a festival celebrating the giving of the Torah to the Israelites. Germany, c.1322 (British Library Add MS 22413, f. 3r)

Decorated word panel showing a man with a pitcher and a cup at the opening of a liturgical poem. Germany, c. 1322. (British Library Add MS 22413, f. 148r)

An additional specimen from the German school of Hebrew illumination is the beautifully executed Coburg Pentateuch which was produced c. 1396. Beside the Five Books of Moses (the Torah) it comprises the Five Scrolls, Haftarot (weekly readings from the Prophets) and grammatical treatises. The text of the Pentateuch was penned in an Ashkenazi square script by a master scribe named Simhah Levi, while the vocalization was done by Samuel bar Abraham of Molerstadt. The other textual parts in the codex were penned and vocalised by other scribes.

King Solomon, famed for his justice and wisdom is depicted seating on a throne shaped like the roof of a building. At his feet there are several animals, most likely hinting at his ability to converse with the animal kingdom. Coburg, Germany, c. 1396 (British Library Add MS 19776, f. 54v)

A magnificently illuminated codex crafted in France in the 13th century is the North French Hebrew Miscellany. It was written by Benjamin the Scribe, whose name appears four times in the manuscript. The absence of a colophon has led scholars to assume that the scribe wrote the manuscript for his personal use. This was common practice among medieval educated Jews who often copied important Hebrew texts for their own libraries. There are eighty-four different groups of texts in this codex including dozens of poems, the liturgy of the entire year, calendars, and the earliest complete Hebrew version of Tobit. According to scholarly research the 49 full-page miniatures depicting biblical characters and narratives were executed by Christian artists attached to three major contemporary Parisian ateliers.

David and Goliath. France, 1278-1298. (British Library Add MS 11639, f. 523v)

Aaron the Priest pouring oil in the Candelabrum. France, 1278-1298 (British Library Add MS 11639, f. 114r)

From the Portuguese school of Hebrew manuscript painting comes the Lisbon Bible, a three volume manuscript which was copied by Samuel ben Samuel Ibn Musa for Joseph ben Judah called Elhakim in 1482. The finely painted illuminations enhanced by gold leaf were executed by a team of skilled craftsmen in a Lisbon workshop which was active for the three decades preceding the expulsion of the Portuguese Jewry in 1497. The manuscript was sold to the British Museum in 1882, but nothing is known about its location and owners after 1482 until the year it was purchased by the British Museum.  
Beginning of the Book of Genesis with foliate motifs and Masoretic notation outlined in micrography. Lisbon, 1482 (British Library Or 2626, f. 23v)

The uploading process is on-going and by the end of this month users and researchers everywhere will be able to access digitally 400 out of the 1250 manuscripts included in the project. Please watch this space for details of the next batch of Hebrew handwritten books due to go live in the next few weeks!

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies 


14 November 2014

An early Malay letter from Brunei

In the sixteenth century the kingdom of Brunei was one of the most powerful Malay states in Southeast Asia, its influence extending along the whole of the north coast of the island of Borneo and as far northwards as Manila bay. In time its grip over neighbouring polities was greatly curtailed by its rival Sulu to the east, and by European colonial powers such as the Spanish in the Philippines and, in the nineteenth century, various British enterprises in Borneo: the Brooke dynasty of ‘White Rajahs’ in Sarawak, and the Chartered Company in Sabah.

The city of Brunei in c.1844, built on stilts over the river. Frank S. Marryat, Borneo and the Indian Archipelago (London: Longman, 1848). British Library, W7007.  noc

An early Malay letter from Brunei held in the British Library (Harley Ch 43 A 6) which has just been digitised attests to a period when Brunei’s fleets still sailed far beyond the shores of Borneo.  The letter was sent from the Raja Bendahara Paduka Seri Maharaja Permaisuara of Brunei to ‘Senyor Kapitan Inggeris’, the head of the English trading settlement at Jambi, on the east coast of Sumatra. The letter accompanied an embassy from the sultan of Brunei led by three senior officials – Seri Laila Diraja, Seri Setia Pahlawan and Seri Raja Khatib – to the court of Jambi, with a request to purchase sendawa, saltpetre (an essential component of gunpowder) and kain gabar, blankets.

Although damaged and torn, currently laminated with gauze and possibly missing part of the sheet of paper which may have contained a seal, the letter may be partially dated from its historical context. Lured by pepper, the English East India Company had arrived in Jambi and established a ‘factory’ or trading post in October 1615. This lasted until 1679, when the factory was burned and its captain killed in the attack on Jambi by Johor. The ruler of Jambi named in the letter as ‘Pangiran Adipati’ was probably Pangiran Dipati Anum, who reigned under that title from 1630 until 1661, when he took the title ‘Pangiran Ratu’ on the accession of his son as ‘junior ruler’. The letter was therefore most likely written some time in the mid-seventeenth century, between 1630 and 1661.  

Letter from the Bendahara of Brunei to the English captain at Jambi, mid-17th century. British Library, Harley Ch 43 A 6.  noc

The relative antiquity of this Malay letter has long been recognized, and in 1898 it was discussed, edited and translated by W.G. Shellabear in his important article ‘An account of some of the oldest Malay MSS. now extant’. Shellabear was hesitant to read the toponym in the letter spelt b-r-n-y as Brunei, so distant from Jambi, and suggested it might refer to ‘the neighbouring kingdom of Birni’. In fact, as first proposed by Amin Sweeney (1971), there is no reason to doubt that this letter is from Brunei (not least for the reason that no references at all can be found to any state in east Sumatra named ‘Birni’). Although the title Bendahara for the most senior court official after the sultan is found in many Malay states, it is usually qualified with honorifics that help to locate it precisely, and the form 'Bendahara Paduka Seri Maharaja Permaisuara' is unique to Brunei. Indeed, the typically Brunei use of medial alif in Permaisuara instead of the more commonly encountered Permaisura is another indication of Brunei origin, and even Shellabear himself acknowledged that the spelling membali (m.m.b.a.l.y) for the more usual membeli (‘to buy’) reflected Brunei pronounciation. Moreover, the three embassy officials named in the letter all bear recognizable Brunei titles.

negeri Brunei dan negeri Jambi’, detail from the letter showing the spelling b-r-n-y of 'Brunei'. British Library, Harley Ch 43 A 6 (detail).  noc

Shellabear also thought it strange that Brunei would venture so far to buy goods from the English more easily procurable from the Spanish. And yet for much of the 17th century Brunei's relations with the Spanish were hostile – in 1647 there was a joint Brunei-Dutch expedition against the Spaniards (Nicholl 1989: 189) – thus making trade with the Spaniards highly unlikely. Shellabear’s other main reservation, in view of the physical distance between Brunei and Jambi, was the description in the letter of the two states being ‘as if they were one country’ (upama sebuah negeri jua adanya). But such complimentary similes are not unusual in Malay letters, and more pertinently, a similar phrase is also used in a Brunei letter of 1821 from Sultan Muhammad Kanzul Alam to William Farquhar, British Resident of Singapore: kerana kepada pikiran beta akan kedua buldan itu esa tiada ada antaranya maka jadilah keduanya umpama satu hamparan, ‘For to my mind our two states are as one, with nothing to separate them, like a single mat’ (Gallop 1995: 224).

Like two other early Malay manuscripts in the British Library from the Sloane collection, this letter – from the Harley library of the first Earls of Oxford – was present at the foundation of the British Museum in 1753.  

Further reading

D.E. Brown, Brunei: the structure and history of a Bornean Malay sultanate. Brunei: Brunei Museum, 1970. (Monograph of the Brinei Museum Journal; II.2).
A.T. Gallop, Malay sources for the history of the sultanate of Brunei in the early nineteenth century: some letters from the reign of Sultan Muhammad Kanzul Alam.  From Buckfast to Borneo: essays presented to Father Robert Nicholl on the 85th anniversary of his birth, 27 March 1995, eds. Victor T. King & A.V.M.Horton.  Hull: University of Hull, 1995; pp.207-35.
Robert Nicholl, European sources for the history of the Sultanate of Brunei in the sixteenth century. Brunei: Muzium Brunei, 1975.
W.G. Shellabear, An account of some of the oldest Malay MSS. now extant. Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1898, (31):107-151.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


10 November 2014

A popular Chinese game: the Qi Qiao Tu, or Tangram

Tangram is a simple yet very entertaining dissection puzzle game which involves 7 flat shapes and the player’s imagination. The aim of the game is to create figures of given silhouettes and its rules are simple: the player must use all seven pieces, without overlapping them, and every piece must touch at least one other. Tangram is still one of the most popular puzzle games in the world. It comes from China, where it is called 七巧图 (qi qiao tu) or 七巧板 (qi qiao ban), meaning "seven tablets of ability" and where it has a long tradition. The English has thought to have been derived from Tang, with reference to the Tang Dynasty, and the Greek suffix –gramma (graph). However, both the origin and the etymology of the English name remain uncertain.

First page of the 七巧图解(Qi qiao tu jie), Tangram puzzle book solutions, China c. 1815 (British Library 15257.d.14)

Usually, the Chinese Tangram game books include, in two separate volumes, the silhouettes to be created and the solutions. In the picture below there is a pair of books published in China in 1815: the one on the top displays the silhouettes, the one below contains the corresponding solutions, which highlight the position of each of the seven pieces to produce the desired figure. Generally, the shapes are stylizations of common objects or animals.

Patterns from the 七巧图合璧 (Qi qiao tu he bi), Tangram puzzle book, China c. 1815 (British Library 15257.d.5) and below 七巧图解(Qi qiao tu jie), Tangram puzzle book solutions, China c. 1815 (British Library 15257.d.14)

The classic version of the Tangram comprises five triangles of different sizes, a square and a rhomboid which together form a square. Despite its simplicity (we can create a Tangram set to play with from a piece of paper, even though there are Tangram sets carved from precious jade or ivory), this game involves creativity and patience. Since its arrival in Europe it has been considered as an intellectual and challenging game both for children and adults. Much research has been conducted on the use of Tangram in the fields of mathematics[1], geometry, psychology and education[2].

The birth and development of Tangram and other visual games in China has been connected by some scholars to the 燕几圖 (Yan ji tu), commonly attributed to Huang Bo’en (1079 – 1118), which was transmitted during the Yuan and Ming dynasties in a collection called Xin shang Bian. The Yan ji tu is a monograph about the arrangements of tables for convivial gatherings. The text is very schematic and reduced to captions of a series of drawings showing seven geometrical table pieces in different arrangements.

Around the 1820s there was a craze for the Tangram in Europe, called at the time “Chinese enigma” or “Eastern Puzzle”. Its attraction lay in its exoticism and a fascination for everything coming from East Asia. The game was especially popular among the upper classes because, despite being a solitary game, it allowed players to compete with each other in solving the problems and could be used to entertain guests. Several manuals were published in England, France, Germany and Italy, with figures and solutions. The Eight Book of Tan by Sam Loyd, published in New York in 1903, made this traditional Chinese game popular in the Unites States and at the same time reinforced its popularity in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

3 4
Left: The Great Eastern Puzzle, London, 1817: English reproduction of the Chinese 七巧图合璧  Qi qiao tu he bi, with all the 316 original puzzles contained in the 1815 Chinese version. An English introduction was added (British Library 15257.d.13)
Right: First and second pages from the original Chinese version, 1815 (British Library 15257.d.5)

Another widespread guide, Le Véritable casse-tête, ou Énigmes chinoises, was published in Paris in 1820, and it testifies to the popularity of the game in France in that period. The fascination for Tangram included some famous personalities, among them, apparently, Napoleon and Edgar Allan Poe. Lewis Carroll, born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, writer and mathematician, recreated the main characters of his novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland using the seven pieces of Tangram.

5 left 6 7
Left: Introduction to the game and illustrations with figures from Le Véritable casse-tête, ou Énigmes chinoises, Paris, 1820 (British Library 1210.m.41)
Right, Tangram silhouettes from Lewis Carroll's Bedside Book - ‘Entertainments for the Wakeful Hours’, edited by Edgar Cuthwellis with illustrations by Lewis Carroll and Phuz (British Library X.529/34199)

Almost fifty years after the publication of the 七巧图合璧 (Qi qiao tu he bi) in 1815, Tong Xiegeng, a scholar from the city of Hangzhou, developed a new puzzle made of 15 pieces, six of which with curvilinear edges. This new version of the Tangram was called Yi zhi ban 益智板, or “Tablets for Enhancing Intelligence”. Tong Xiegeng published in 1862 a two volume book called Yi zhi tu 益智图, containing several puzzles to be solved with the fifteen pieces. These puzzles include scenes from classical Chinese poems or stories.

8   9
Illustrations from the Yi zhi tu 益智图 by Tong Xiegeng, 1878 copy (British Library 15257.d.300)

A fifteen pieces Tangram set, ca. 1920 (British Library Or.62.a)

More recently Donald Verry took some beautiful pictures in the British Library building in St. Pancras and named two of them “Tangram”. Can you guess from which spot they were taken?

11 12
Tangram (left) and Tangram II (right)
ⓒ Donald Verry


Further reading
Bussotti, Michela, “Jeux de tables: le Yanji tu, livre sans texte d'«images en action»?”, in Bulletin de l'Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient, n. 89, 2002
Loyd, Sam, Sam Loyd's Book of Tangram Puzzles (The 8th Book of Tan Part I). Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1968
Read, Ronald C., Tangrams: 330 Puzzles, New York: Dover Publications, 1968
Slocum, Jerry, et al., The Tangram Book: The Story of the Chinese Puzzle with Over 2000 Puzzles to Solve. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 2004

Sara Chiesura, Asian and African Studies

[1] See for example Fu, Traing Wang and Chuan-Chih, Hsiung, “A Theorem on the Tangram”, in The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 49, No. 9, 1942

[2 ] See for example Bohning, Gerry and Aithouse, Jody Kosack, “Using Tangram to Teach Geometry to Young Children”, in Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 24 Issue 4, 1997

06 November 2014

The Brutal End of Persia’s Zand Dynasty

In 1779, the ruler of Persia and founder of the Zand dynasty, Karim Khan Zand, died of natural causes without nominating a successor. Karim Khan had ruled Persia for the previous 30 years and his failure to appoint an heir created a dangerous power vacuum in the country. A number of rivals from within his own family quickly emerged. The most prominent contenders initially were Karim Khan’s half-brother Zaki Khan Zand (Zackey Caun) and his brother Sadiq Khan Zand (Sadoo Caun or Sadoo Khan).

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An early 19th century lacquer binding  showing Sadiq Khan surrounded by his family and courtiers. Jafar Khan is the second from the left (see Some Portraits of the Zand rulers of Iran). Add.24904

Zaki Khan and Sadiq Khan
Zaki Khan was a powerful and ruthless warrior who – as a general in the service of Karim Khan – had brutally suppressed Qajar tribal territories in the north of Persia in 1763-64. He had even attempted to form a personal fiefdom in central and southern Iran. Although he was the head of a faction that claimed to support the ascension of one of Karim Khan’s infant sons, Muhammad Ali Khan Zand (who was married to Zaki Khan’s daughter), it was clear that he harboured his own ambitions for power.

Sadiq Khan was another  prominent member of the Zand ruling elite and had led the Persian attack on Ottoman-controlled Basra in 1775-6. He was part of a faction that stood in opposition to Zaki Khan and supported another of Karim Khan’s infant sons, Abul Fath Khan Zand, to succeed his father.

Both of these rivals had military experience, armed followers and a desire to replace Karim Khan as ruler of Persia. Serious tension swiftly developed between them and the prospect of a major confrontation between their forces loomed.

The British Get Word of the Death of Zaki Khan
As John Beaumont, the East India Company’s (EIC) Political Resident in Bushire, observed in a letter dated 11 May 1779, this tension would not end ‘but with the death of one of them’.

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 The final part of Beaumont’s letter to his EIC colleagues in Basra. IOR/R/15/1/3, p. 24

Beaumont’s observation proved to be prescient as not long after he received news from Shiraz (referred to in the letter as Schyras) that Zaki Khan had been killed at the hands of his own men.

In a letter dated 23 June 1779 he described the event in detail to William Hornby, the Governor of the EIC’s Council in Bombay. Beaumont states that it has ‘pleased the almighty to save Persia and rid the world of such a cruel monster’. The letter describes in gruesome detail how, after Zaki Khan had ordered a massacre of villagers while on the move with his army, his generals were so outraged at his actions (and concerned for their own lives) that they conspired to kill him.

Beaumont’s account explains the death:

[the conspirators] proceeded to Zackey Caun’s tent who was at prayers, he asked them what they wanted, they boldly replied they came to take his life, upon which he snatched up a blunderbuss he always kept by him ready loaded with 5 or 6 balls, but before he could use it, Jaffer Caun cut off his right arm. Nasirulla Mirza observing that was not the proper way to use a sword, drew his and cut him right down the middle. His head was then cut off and immediately despatched to Sadiq Khan before his body was burnt.

Concluding his letter, Beaumont stated that soon as Sadoo Cahn returns to Schyras  the Persians have not a doubt but peace will be restored everywhere and affairs conducted quietly again in their usual channel.

John Beaumont’s letter describes the killing of Zaki Khan. IOR/R/15/1/3, p. 26

Beaumont Hopes for Renewed Stability
Five months after Zaki Khan’s death, Sadiq Khan appeared to be in the ascendancy and in a letter from 20 November 1779 Beaumont was able to report that ‘Sadoo Khan maintains his power at Schyras and seems at present to be firmly established in power’.

He was keen for political stability to be restored in the country so that the EIC could resume its activity in the silks and woollens trade. Unfortunately, Beaumont was to be disappointed and despite his optimistic interpretation of events, Zaki Khan’s brutal killing turned out to be the first of many others.

Rather than marking the start of a new period of calm under the rule of Sadiq Khan, it instead marked the beginning of a long and brutal internecine struggle from which the Zand Dynasty never recovered. Despite his dominant position in 1779, two years later, Beaumont learnt that Sadiq Khan had been defeated by another rival for power, Ali Murad Khan (here referred to as Ally Morad Khan), and blinded and that ‘in a fit of despair on the loss of his sight’ he had poisoned himself with opium and subsequently died.

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John Beaumont reports the blinding and subsequent suicide of Sadiq Khan. IOR/R/15/1/3, p. 88

Further Deaths and the Rise of the Qajars
Ali Murad Khan ruled from 1781 until 1785 when he, in turn, was defeated and killed by Sadiq Khan’s son, Jafar Khan. Throughout the 1780s and early 1790s, the Qajar tribe in the north of Persia grew in power and began to threaten the Zand dynasty’s rule, a rule that had come to be characterised by weakness and destructive internal conflicts.

By 1794, the Qajars were dominant and Lutf Ali Khan, son of Jafar Khan and the last Zand ruler of Persia was defeated and killed by Muhammad Khan Qajar, the Chief of the Qajar tribe. This event marked the beginning of the Qajar Dynasty’s rule over Persia, a period of domination that was to last until 1925.         

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Inside front and back of an early 19th century lacquer binding showing Lutf Ali Khan Zand (far left) with his minister Mirza Husayn, and Agha Muhammad Khan Qajar (far right) with Haji Ibrahim, the Governor of Shiraz who turned against Lutf Ali Khan ultimately bringing about his downfall. Add.24903


British Library, London, ‘File Vol 3 Letters Outward (from Bushire)’, IOR/15/1/3

John R. Perry, Karim Khan Zand (London: Oneworld, 2006)
Ursula Sims-Williams, Some portraits of the Zand rulers of Iran (1751-1794)


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

03 November 2014

Arabic scientific manuscripts go live in Qatar Digital Library

The British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership has launched the Qatar Digital Library, a new bilingual, online portal providing access to previously undigitised British Library materials on two major themes: Gulf history, and the history of the sciences in the Arabic-speaking world. The portal hosts content ranging from archives, maps and manuscripts to sound recordings, photographs and much more. All of the content will be complemented with explanatory essays in both Arabic and English.

An early 13th century illustration of the horse’s good points from Kitāb al-bayṭarah by Aḥmad ibn ‘Atīq al-Azdī (Or 1523, ff.22v-23r)

A key part of this project is the digitisation of a selection of Arabic manuscripts from the British Library Collections dealing with scientific subjects such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, engineering, chemistry and many others. It was by no means an easy task to prioritise the manuscripts for digitisation. With over 500 Arabic scientific manuscripts in the British Library, there were just too many to choose from!

Our rationale in the selection below was to digitise important seminal texts and authors within a continuous narrative that spans from the late 8th century to the 19th century and from Islamic Spain to the Indian subcontinent. To provide the groundwork for the scientific advancements made within the Islamic world, we have digitised representative manuscripts containing all the Arabic translations of Greek scientific texts. For particularly important texts, like the Almagest of Ptolemy (Add MS 7474 and Add MS 7475), we have digitised all our copies.

Beyond these early translations, we have digitised scientific treatises that reflect scholarly activity down to the 17th century, such as astronomical texts by Bahāʼ al-Dīn al-ʻĀmilī. We have also digitised scholars’ notebooks, which offer a glimpse into the research interests of individual Arabic-speaking scholars, while providing a snapshot of the texts they found most interesting or useful (see for example this notebook on physics and mathematics Add MS 23570, and this one on alchemy and chemistry Or 13006).

Other scientific manuscripts were chosen for digitisation not just because the texts they contain are so significant within the history of science, but because the manuscripts themselves are objects of beauty and masterpieces of Islamic book arts. The British Library collections boast such treasures as ʻAbd al-Raḥmān al-Ṣūfī’s Book of Constellations (Or 5323) and an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia Medica (Or 3366).

To help contextualise these manuscripts, short essays are also available on the portal. You can find articles (and even videos) on such diverse topics as early translations into Arabic, ‘Islamic’ bookmaking techniques, wonders of engineering, and manuscript collectors.

Below you will find a list of the first 40 manuscripts. Over the coming weeks we will be adding more fascinating manuscripts and treasures. Please keep an eye on the Qatar Digital Library.

Add MS 6903: Hippocrates, Aphorisms. 18th century.

Add MS 7474: Ptolemy, Kitāb al-Majisṭī, books 1-6 of the Almagest, heavily illustrated by diagrams and tables. 28 Jumādá I 686 (11 July 1287).Add7474_f11v
Astronomical diagram from the Almagest of Ptolemy (Add MS 7474, f.11v)

Add MS 7475: Ptolemy, Kitāb Baṭlamyūs fī al-ta‘līm al-ma‘rūf bi-l-Majisṭī naqala Isḥāq ibn Ḥunayn, books 7-13 of Ptolemy's Almagest. Dated 3 Sha‘bān 615 (25 October 1218).

Add MS 7480 : Sharḥ Mukhtaṣar fī maʿrifat al-taqāwīm. Dated 29 Dhū al-Qa‘dah 1174 (2 July 1761).
Diagram of the spheres (Add MS 7480, f. 39v)

Add MS 7481: Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī, Fa‘altu fa-lā talum. Dated 14 Jumādá I 826 (25 April 1423).

Add MS 7511: Aristotle, Kitāb fī ma‘rifat ṭabā’i‘ al-ḥayawān al-barrī wa-al-baḥrī, a compilation of translations of three treatises on zoology by Aristotle. 13th-14th century.

Add MS 9602: Ibn al-Naṭṭāḥ and Ibn al-Samḥ, two technical treatises on the use of the flat northern astrolabe. 14th century.
Beginning of a treatise on the use of the astrolabe by Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī ibn Yaḥyá ibn al-Naṭṭāḥ (Add MS 9602, f. 1v)

Add MS 14055: Ibn Mankalī, Kitāb al-ḥiyal fī al-ḥurūb wa-fatḥ al-madāʾin wa-ḥifẓ al-durūb, described as ‘the Book of War Machines found amongst the Treasures of Alexander Son of Dārāb the Byzantine (al-Rūmī), known as the Two-Horned (Dhū al-Qarnayn), translated from Greek into Arabicʼ. 16th-17th century.
Diagram of a mechanical device from a manual on the military arts supposedly discovered in the tomb of Alexander the Great at Alexandria and translated from Greek into Arabic. 16th-17th century (Add MS 14055, f.152r)

Add MS 23387: Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Taḥrīr kitāb uṣūl al-handasah wa-al-ḥisāb, an Arabic version of Euclid's fundamental introduction to geometry. Dated 15 Rabī‘ II 656 (21 April 1258).
Add MS 23387_f9v
Diagrams from Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī's work on Euclid's Elements, copied within his lifetime (Add MS 23387, f. 9v)

Add MS 23391 : Kitāb Arshimīdas fī al-binkāmāt, on the hydraulic and pneumatic machinery of water-clocks with thirteen diagrams, attributed to Archimedes and Ṣan‘at al-zāmir, on the design and construction of a hydraulic flute playing machine attributed to Apollonius the carpenter and geometer. 16th century.
Top section of water-clock, showing a man's head whose eyes change colour on the hour a bird's head that drops balls onto a cymbal, and the mechanisms that drive these devices (Add MS 23391, f2r)

Add MS 23393: Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī, al-Tuḥfah al-shāhīyah fī al-hayʾah, a commentary on Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī's Kitāb al-tadhkirah fī al-hay’ah. Dated 22 Ramaḍān 737 (18 September 1356).

Add MS 23406: Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, Kitab Jālīnūs fī ‘amal al-tashrīḥ, an Arabic version of Galen's major work on anatomy the De anatomicis administrationibus. Dated 887 (1482).

Add MS 23407: Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, Alexandrian summaries of eight medical treatises by Galen. 17th century.

Add MS 23409: Ibn al-Quff, Kitāb al-‘umdah fī ṣinā‘at al-jirāḥah, a general introduction to the art of surgery. Dated 1052 (1642/43).

Add MS 23416: Ibn Akhī Ḥizām, Kitāb al-furūsīyah wa-shiyāt al-khayl, a treatise on hippiatrics, one of the earliest Arabic texts on veterinary medicine. 14th century.

Add MS 23570: Mathematical compendium. Copied in Jumādá II 1014 (Oct/Nov. 1605) at Yazd and Dhū al-Qa‘dah 1018 (Jan./Feb. 1610) at Qom.

Arundel Or 17: Kitāb ikhtiṣār al-sittat ‘ashr li-Jālīnūs talkhīṣ Yahyá al-Naḥwī, epitome of the sixteen books of Galen. Dated 25 Jumādá II 615 (18 September 1218).

Delhi Arabic 1926: Theodosius of Bithynia, Kitāb al-ukar, an Arabic version of the De sphaericis. 18th century.

IO Islamic 1249: Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Arabic versions of seven Greek mathematical treatises. Copied in 1784.

IO Islamic 924: Kitāb Abulūnīyūs fī al-makhrūṭāt Apollonius of Perga. Dated Ramaḍān 1198 (July/August 1784).

Or 1523: Aḥmad ibn ‘Atīq al-Azdī, Kitāb al-bayṭarah, a treatise on hippiatrics, discussing their good and bad points, training, diseases and treatment. Dated 10? Rajab 620 (9? August 1223).

Or 15643: Sulaymān ibn Aḥmad al-Mahrī, Tuḥfat al-Fuḥūl fī tamhīd al-uṣūl fī ‘ilm al-biḥār, a manual on the principles of navigational theory. Dated at Ṣuḥār, 15 Jumādá II 1153 (7 September 1740).

Or 3366: Kitāb Dīsqūrīdis fī mawādd al-‘ilāj, an Arabic version of Dioscorides De materia medica. Dated at Baghdad, 10 Rabī‘ I 735 (8 November 1334).
Early 14th century botanical illustration from Dioscorides De materia medica (Or 3366, f. 35r)

Or 5323: al-Ṣūfī, Kitāb ṣuwar al-kawākib al-thābitah, an illustrated description of the 48 classical constellations discussed by Ptolemy in his Almagest. Dated, possibly at Maragha, between 1260 and 1279/80.
Ursa major (الدب الأكبر) as viewed on a celestial globe (upper) and as viewed in the sky (lower) (Or 5323, f.8v)

Or 5593: al-Bīrūni, Kitāb istī‘āb al-wujūh al-mumkinah fī ṣan‘at al-asṭurlāb, One of only three recorded copies of an influential treatise on the construction and use of astrolabes, containing 122 diagrams. 14th century.

Or 5596: Ibn al-Nafīs, Sharḥ Kitāb al-Qānūn lil-Qurashī. Dated Dhū al-Ḥijjah 902 (July/August 1497).

Or 6888: Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, Kitāb fī al-‘ayn mi’atān wa-sab‘ masā’il, a medical treatise on ophthalmology. Dated 2 Sha‘bān 891 (3 August 1486).

Or 7368: Avicenna, Sharḥ al-Majisṭī,  a commentary on Ptolemy's Almagest. Dated at Damascus, Ramaḍān 628 (July/August AD 1231).

Or 7499: Ibn Jazlah, Minhāj al-bayān fīmā yastaʿmiluhū al-insān, an alphabetically arranged handbook on pharmacology, copied during the author's lifetime. Dated Rajab 489 (June/July 1096).
Opening of Ibn Jazlah's work on pharmacology, copied during his lifetime in 1096 (Or 7499, f. 1v)

Or 8293: Ibn al-Tilmīdh, Aqrābādhīn madīnat al-salam, a collection of pharmaceutical texts. Dated, possibly at Baghdad, 625 (1227/28).

Or 8349: al-Bīrūnī, Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm, Comprehensive introduction to the principles of astrology. Includes numerous diagrams and tables. Dating from before 1436.

Or 9202: Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, Alexandrian Summaries of three medical treatises by Galen, the second volume of a set of the treatises of the Greco-Roman physician Galen of Pergamon. 12th century.

Or 9587: Ibn al-Raqqām, two treatises on the construction and use of sundials. Dating from before 1315.

Or 9649: Mūrisṭus, three technical treatises on the construction of musical organs. 19th century.

Or 11209: Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Kitāb al-tadhkirah fī al-hay’ah, a treatise on astronomy which summarises, rationalises and improves upon the system presented in the Almagest of Ptolemy. Copied at Ḥamāh, 11 Shawwāl 688 (28 October 1289).

Or 1198: Aḥmad ibn Yūsuf al-Tīfāshī, Kitāb manāfi‘ al-aḥjār wa-qīmatihā wa-usūlihā, a treatise on precious stones. Dated 15 Jumādá II 799 (16 March 1397).

Or 12802: Sahl ibn Bishr al-Isrā’īlī, Kitāb al-aḥkām ‘alá al-nisbah al-falakīyah, a treatise on interrogatory astrology. Dated 5 Dhū al-Ḥijjah 1093 (5 December 1682).

Or 13006: Compendium of alchemical treatises in Arabic, Persian and Ottoman. 16th and 18th centuries.

Or 13127: Aḥmad ibn Abī Sa‘d al-Harawī, Kitāb Mānālāwus fī al-ashkāl al-kurrīyah, a revised edition of the Arabic translation of Menelaus of Alexandria's (fl. ca AD 100) Greek treatise on spherical trigonometry. Dated at Damascus, 4 Rabī‘ II 548 (29 June 1153).

Sloane MS 3032: Ḥubaysh al-A‘sam, al-Maqālah al-thālithah min Kitāb Jālīnūs fī ḥīlat al-burū’ Jālīnūs, an Arabic version of Book three of Galen's De methodo medendi. 14th century.


Colin F. Baker, Lead Curator, Middle Eastern Studies
Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership