Asian and African studies blog

8 posts from April 2015

28 April 2015

Qur’an manuscripts from Java

The regional origin of an illuminated Qur’an manuscript from Southeast Asia may often be easily detected from the structure, motifs and palette of the decorated double frames that adorn the opening pages and other key locations of the text. Illuminated Qur’ans from Java, however, exhibit such an an extraordinary variety of colours, shapes, forms and patterns that it is not possible to talk about a single ‘Javanese style’ of Qur’anic art. Rather, there appear to be myriad ‘Javanese styles’, which on further investigation may point to links with specific localities within Java, or perhaps certain social, cultural or religious milieux.  

Opening pages of a Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 1v-2r  noc

It is therefore quite difficult to identify positively a Qur’an manuscript as originating from Java on the basis of illumination alone, although smaller ‘internal’ decorative features such as the shape and colour of verse markers and marginal ornaments may offer conclusive evidence. However, there is one material aspect indicative of a Javanese origin: the use of locally-manufactured Javanese paper or dluwang, made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree, Broussonetia papyrifera. As noted in an earlier blog post about Malay manuscripts written on Javanese paper, dluwang is technically classified as bark cloth or tapa rather than paper, as it is not made from the dried residue of a water-based solution. There are hints that in earlier periods, perhaps prior to the 18th century, dluwang may have been exported from Java throughout the archipelago or even made locally on other islands, for Qur’ans written on dluwang have been found as far afield as Ternate. But with the increased availability through trade of higher-quality European paper, usage of dluwang outside Java appears to have dwindled. Thus while it should be stressed that Qur’an manuscripts from Java – especially finely-illuminated examples – are also written on European paper, at least from the 18th century onwards the use of dluwang in a Qur’an can be regarded as a reliable indicator of Javanese origin.  

Opening pages of a Qur’an manuscript from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add. 12343, ff. 1v-2r  noc

The British Library holds two complete copies of the Qur’an and one manuscript containing a portion of the Qur’an, all from Java and written on dluwang, which have just been digitised.  The two Qur’an manuscripts (Add. 12312 and Add. 12343) are from the collection of John Crawfurd, who served in the British administration of Java as Resident of Yogyakarta from 1811 to 1816. As is usual in most Southeast Asian Qur’ans, both Qur’ans have double decorated frames located at the beginning of the Holy Book enclosing the Surat al-Fatihah on the right-hand page and the Surat al-Baqarah on the left.  In Add. 12312 these frames are quite elaborate, in a simple but striking palette of black and red ink. Add. 12343 is much plainer, but illustrates well a notable structural feature of some Javanese Qur’an manuscripts, namely a marked preference for straight lines, juxtaposing vertical, horizontal and diagonal elements.

One of the most distinctive internal features of some Qur’an manuscripts from Java – whether written on dluwang or European paper – is that each juz’ or thirtieth part of the Qur’anic text is indicated with semi-circular ornaments on the vertical borders of the two facing pages, with the first words of the juz’ highlighted in a variety of ways. In Add. 12312 the precise start of the new juz’ is marked with a vertical stack of three red circles (seen five lines up from the bottom on the right-hand page below), while in Add. 12343 the first word of the juz’ is written in red ink.  

Start of the 2nd juz’ of the Qur’an, indicated in the margins with semicircular ornaments, and in the text with a stack of three red circles, with elaborate marginal 'ayn indicating ruku' divisions. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 14v-15r  noc

Add_ms_12343_f013r-det  Add_ms_12343_f012v-det
Start of the 3rd juz’ of the Qur’an, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an’, with the stylized letter 'ayn  in the margin indicating ruku' divisions. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 12v and f. 13r (details)  noc

In Javanese manuscripts the ruled frames around the text generally comprise a simple arrangement of two, three or four black lines; in Add. 12312, the text frames are triple-ruled black lines, while in Add. 12343 the pages are framed by four lines arranged in two pairs. In both manuscripts the verse markers are red circles, while surah headings are in red ink, with characteristically Javanese decorative multiple knots on the final letters ta and ta marbuta. In the margins the letters ‘ayn indicate the logical breaks between thematically-linked verses in the text where the reader is expected to bow (ruku’).  This feature is common in Qur’an manuscripts from India, but in Southeast Asia is only associated with certain areas, particularly Java and Sulawesi; it is rare to encounter marginal ‘ayn marking ruku’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh or the Malay peninsula. In Add. 12312 the ruku’ positions are further indicated with a pyramidal construction of parallel lines alternately in red and black, surmounted by a finial in black, while in Add. 12343 the start of a ruku’ is indicated with the word awal.

Both manuscripts are undated, but must predate 1816 when Crawfurd left Java. Add.12312 bears a colophon in Arabic and Javanese stating that the manuscript was completed on a Saturday (Saptu) but without a year, while Add. 12343 has an inscription in Javanese identifying its writer as a court official.

Add.12343, own. note
Note identifying the scribe: Puniko seratanipun Abdi Dalem Pengulu Saila[n?], 'This was written by the Court Official Pengulu Saila[n?]' (with thanks to Ali Akbar for this reading). British Library, Add. 12343, f. 1r  noc

The penultimate chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Falaq: the scribe has stretched out the letters as much as possible in order to end precisely at the bottom of the page, so that the final chapter, Surat al-Nas, can be placed overleaf in a decorative frame, alongside the repeated first chapter, Surat al-Fatihah, on the facing page. Note the elaborately knotted final letters ta' and ta' marbuta in the surah heading written in red. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 189r (detail)  noc

The final manuscript, IO Islamic 3048, contains only juz’ 23 and 24 of the Qur’an. It is a very simple manuscript, with no verse markers or text frames, and with the surah headings written in black ink.  

Beginning of Surat al-Mu'min (Q.40). British Library, IO Islamic 3048, ff. 18v-19r  noc

Further reading

Colin Baker, Qur'an manuscripts: calligraphy, illumination, design. London: British Library, 2007, pp. 90-91.
A.T. Gallop, The art of the Qur’an in JavaSuhuf, 2012, 5 (2): 215-229.
A.T. Gallop, Islamic manuscript art of Southeast Asia. Crescent moon: Islamic art & civilisation in Southeast Asia, ed. James Bennett.  Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2005, pp.156-183.
Ali Akbar, Khazanah mushaf al-Qur’an Nusantara [Blog on Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia]

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

24 April 2015

‘White Mughal’ William Fullerton of Rosemount

Scottish surgeon William Fullerton (d.1805) from Rosemount enlisted with the East India Company and served in Bengal and Bihar from 1744-66. Developing close ties with locals, including the historian Ghulam Husain Khan, he remained in the region after retiring. Although his impressive linguistic abilities brought him attention, Fullerton’s prominence stems from the fact that he was the sole European survivor of the attack by Navab Mir Qasim of Bengal against the British at Patna in 1763!

Portrait of William Fullerton by Dip Chand, c. 1760-64. Victoria & Albert Museum. Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of William Fullerton by Dip Chand, c. 1760-64. Victoria & Albert Museum. Wikimedia Commons.  noc

Living in Patna, Fullerton not only socialised with local historians, he befriended the artist Dip Chand. The artist was commissioned to paint Fullerton’s portrait and those of his acquaintances and members of his household, as well as scenes on religious topics. The British Library’s collection includes four paintings, two of which are illustrated below, and an additional six paintings are in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Each painting is inscribed on the reverse ‘W. F. 1764’ indicating that they were collected by Fullerton.

Little information has been discovered about the identities of artists flourishing in Bengal in the mid-eighteenth century. In fact, Dip Chand is the only major artist to be documented and that is directly through the connection to Fullerton. It is possible to suggest, based on Dip Chand’s portraits of Mir Qasim, that the artist spent some time in Murshidabad before migrating to Patna. While working in Patna he adopted a style that emphasized the effects of lighting and tonality, aerial perspective and experimentation with the saturation of pigments. His delineation of the human form is exceptionally fine, with subtle modelling and visible shadowing. He applied pigments with such precision that he effectively created a remarkable smooth surface.

Ashraf 'Ali Khan. Attributed to Dip Chand, Patna, 1764. British Library, Add.Or.736
Ashraf 'Ali Khan. Attributed to Dip Chand, Patna, 1764. British Library, Add.Or.736  noc

Ashraf ‘Ali Khan (d. 1792), half-brother of the emperor Ahmad Shah, is here portrayed in an atypical manner. Traditional portraiture conventions illustrated the subject either seated on a carpet or standing on a terrace, but he is sitting on a European wooden chair that has been placed on a tidal flat along the banks of the River Ganges. His simple attire includes a white jama with a heavy brown shawl draped over his shoulders, and he sits informally, cross-legged on the chair, his golden slippers removed, while holding up the mouthpiece of the hookah pipe. At a slight distance the hookah is placed on a wooden teapoy (three-legged table); the space permits the artist to accentuate the loops of the extensively long pipe. In the far distance are boats and sandbanks as well as the opposite riverbank.

Mutuby, mistress of Ashraf 'Ali Khan. Attributed to Dip Chand, Patna, 1764. British Library, Add.Or.735.
Mutuby, mistress of Ashraf 'Ali Khan. Attributed to Dip Chand, Patna, 1764. British Library, Add.Or.735.  noc

A second portrait in the British Library by Dip Chand is that of a lady named Muttubby. Her identity is inscribed on the reverse and she is very likely to be a courtesan or a favourite mistress of a notable figure in Patna. As in the portrait of Ashraf ‘Ali Khan (fig. 113), she is seated in a European chair, though with her feet firmly on the ground, holding up a hookah pipe to her lips. Positioned in strict profile, with her upper body slightly twisted towards the viewer, her rather slender arms are visible. Although the landscapes in the two compositions are very similar they do not quite marry up, and it is possible that the artist intended these to be a pair, mounted in an album facing one another.

Dip Chand’s other portraits of local women in the Victoria & Albert Museum follow this convention, showing them perched or squatting on their chairs and smoking from a hookah. All of these were also commissioned by William Fullerton and bear his initials, dates and the abbreviated names of the women.

If you enjoyed looking at the paintings and wish to have a copy for yourself, you can order one through the British Library's Fine Art Prints website.


Further reading:
J.P. Losty, 'Towards a New Naturalism: Portraiture in Murshidabad and Avadh' in Schmitz (ed.) After the Great Mughals, Marg Publications, Mumbai, 2002.

J.P. Losty and M. Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, British Library, 2012.


Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator  ccownwork

21 April 2015

Foreign travellers to 19th-century Siam

By the 15th century the kingdom of Ayutthaya had developed into an important trading centre, and Europeans, led by the Portuguese, started to travel to the region to seek their commercial fortunes and to extend their influence. Accounts left by such travellers have become rich sources for the study of the region from the 16th century onwards.

In 1537, the German Mandelslohe visited Ayutthaya and called it the “Venice of the East”. In 1636 a Director of the Dutch East India Company, Joost Schorten, wrote an account of his residence in Ayutthaya, in which he noted the fierce competition between European powers, particularly Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands, to win the favour of local rulers (Francis Caron & Joost Schorten, 1771). France, too, established relations with the court of Ayutthaya during the reigns of King Narai and Louis XIV, and the two countries exchanged diplomatic missions in the 1680s. Simon de la Loubere, the leader of the French mission to Ayutthaya in 1687, wrote a memoir of his visit in 1688 entitled Du Royaume de Siam  (Paris, 1691), and this became an important source of information for western travellers to Siam in the 19th century.

Port of Chantaboun, Siam (Mouhot 1864: 1.136). British Library, 010056.F.8  noc

Foreign involvement in trade and politics in Siam declined after Ayutthaya collapsed in 1767 but in the 19th century, when competition among colonial powers to control Southeast Asia increased, more Westerners travelled to this region. Their journeys were either for individual scholastic purposes or were funded by colonial powers to further their political and economic ambitions.  The surgeon George Finlayson (1790–1823) accompanied the Crawfurd trade mission to Siam in 1821, and the account of his journey was published in 1826. His observations of Siamese culture and society provided, as Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles wrote in his introduction to Finlayson’s book, “much valuable information respecting countries and people, hitherto almost unknown to us … The author’s observation [is] as a spectator in common with others who were present on the occasion; its object is to throw light on the country, and on the character, institutions, and habits of the people generally” (Finlayson 1826: vii-viii).

In 1852, Frederick Arthur Neale, who served as a military officer to the Siamese court in 1840s, published an account of his residence in Siam. He often quoted details about the kingdom from previous travellers, such as La Loubere and Finlayson.  However, he also recorded his own observations and opinions, some of which may seem quite shocking to us today. For example, he wrote that “The Siamese ladies may without the smallest fear of competition proclaim themselves to be the ugliest race of females upon the face of the globe. With their hair worn in the same fashion as the men, the same features, same complexion, and same amount of clothing, a man must be a gay Lothario indeed who would be captivated by their leering glances” (Neale 1852: 238-241).
Siamese women (Mouhot 1864: 1.60).  British Library, 010056.F.8  noc

Neale further commented that “it has often been remarked of the natives of the East that they are almost unchangeable in their modes of government, habits of life, and ways of thinking, century after century passes away unmarked by progress and undistinguished by change … The Siamese certainly form no exception to this remark”  (Neale 1852: 242).

Neale’s concept of the East was typical of colonial thinking of the period. However, Sir John Bowring, who led a successful British mission to secure a free trade agreement with Siam in 1855, was more cautious in his judgements. He observed that “Generalizations as to national character are among the great defects of writers on foreign countries, and, when examined, will in most cases be discovered to be the result of impressions early and hastily formed, or of some solitary examples of individual experience, from which all-embracing deductions are drawn” (Bowring 1857: 1.102). 
Wat Chang, Bangkok (Bowring 1857: 1.292) British Library, T38881  noc

By the mid-19th century, Bangkok had opened its door to western powers for commercial activities, and the successful British trade agreement in 1855 was soon followed by similar agreements between other western countries and Siam. According to L’Annuaires des Deux Mondes, of 1858-1859, “The government of Siam is showing itself more and more favourable towards Europeans, who find at Bangkok not only protection, but sympathy and toleration for their religion. Bangkok has become one of the most considerable markets of Asia; and the kingdom of Siam is reaping the reward of the liberal politics which it has introduced into the extreme East, and which is warmly seconded by France, England and the United States”  (Mouhot 1864: 1.105).
Two years after Neale’s book was published, a French missionary and long-term resident of Siam during the 19th century, Jean Baptiste Pallegoix, published his account of Siam in Paris under the title Description du Royaume Thai ou Siam (1854).  His extensive knowledge of Siam proved valuable for Sir John Bowring when the latter came to write his own account of the kingdom, The Kingdom and People of Siam (1857).  

In 1858, Henri Mouhot, a French naturalist and explorer, travelled to Indochina after reading Bowring’s book.  Mouhout planned to conduct a series of botanical expeditions for the collection of new specimens, but his requests for grants and passage were rejected by French companies and the government of Napoleon III. However, the Royal Geographical Society and the Zoological Society of London lent him their support, and he set sail that year for Bangkok, which, like Mandelslohe three centuries before, he termed ‘the Venice of the East’ (Mouhout 1864: 1.56).  Henri Mouhot’s travel journal was edited by his brother, Charles Mouhot, and an English version was published in London in 1864. Here he introduced the Temple of Angkor to the western world, and this publication, with his exquisite detailed engravings, helped to popularise the now famous complex of ruined temples. These illustrations of a faraway and exotic land must have had an enormous impact on their western readers. Sadly, Mouhot was unable to complete his mission as he was struck down with malaria while travelling in Laos, where he died on November 10, 1861.

Angkor Wat (Mouhot 1864: 1.279) British Library, 010056.F.8  noc

These travellers’ accounts made a very significant contribution to the body of knowledge of Siam among westerners at the time. Their detailed descriptions and magnificent illustrations of the countries, peoples and cultures enabled readers in the West a unique chance to visualise these foreign lands and peoples. They were, in effect, the TV travel documentaries of their time.

Further reading:

Sir John Bowring, The Kingdom and People of Siam. London, 1857. British Library, T38881
Jean Baptiste Pallegoix. Description du Royaume Thai ou Siam. Paris, 1854. British Library, 10055.aa.17
George Finlayson, The Mission to Siam and Hue. London, 1826. British Library, 1046.c.21
Simon de la Loubere, Du Royaume de Siam, Paris, 1691. British Library 279.a.10
Henri Mouhot, Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos. London: John Murray, 1864.  British Library, 010056.F.8
Frederick Arthur Neale, Narrative of a Residence at the Capital of the Kingdom of Siam. London, 1852. British Library, 741.b.10
Jean Baptiste Pallegoix, Description du Royaume Thai ou Siam (Paris: 1854). British Library, 10055.aa.17
Francis Caron & Joost Schorten, A True Description of the Mighty Kingdoms of Japan and Siam.  London, 1671. British Library, 571.a.32

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese  ccownwork

16 April 2015

Malay manuscripts from south Sumatra

Think ‘Malay manuscript’, think ‘Jawi’ – the modified form of the Arabic script used in Southeast Asia – but this is not invariably the case. Manuscripts in the Malay language from the interior regions of south Sumatra are often written in local incung scripts of Indian origin, which read from left to right. Apart from the rare Kerinci script, the two main variants of incung script encountered in manuscripts from south Sumatra are Lampung and Rejang (or rencong). In addition to paper, manuscripts are written on pieces of bamboo and strips of tree bark folded in concertina form. Most such manuscripts probably date from the late 18th and 19th centuries, but a bark book in Lampung script was given to the Bodleian Library in Oxford by Jo. Trefusis in 1630, making it by far the earliest dateable south Sumatran manuscript known (reproduced in Gallop & Arps 1991: 71).

Syair perahu, ‘The poem of the boat’, Sufi poem in Malay in rencong script. British Library, MSS Malay A 2  noc

Among the Malay manuscripts in the British Library that have recently been digitised are four manuscripts from south Sumatra. Shown above is a folded tree bark manuscript of Syair perahu, ‘The poem of the boat’, written in Malay in rencong script (MSS Malay A 2). This Sufi poem comparing the mystical path to a voyage in a boat, based on the system of the ‘seven grades of being’ (wahdat al-wujud), was formerly attributed to the Sumatran mystic Hamzah Fansuri. However, Braginsky (2004: 676) has distinguished two distinct Syair perahu, neither of which is by Hamzah; the first - as in the present manuscript - which has only survived today in rencong script, and was probably composed in the second half of the 17th century by Syamsuddin of Pasai or one of his disciples; and a second, better-known, version, currently preserved in Jawi manuscripts.

A brief unidentified text, perhaps an incantation, with drawings, at the end of the manuscript of Syair perahu. MSS Malay A 2  noc

Two other manuscripts are both written on bamboo. One incomplete text in rencong script, comprising 31 strips of bamboo, contains a tembai (myth of origins) and teremba (genealogy), in the form of a metrical litany narrating the descent of the soul from its prenatal state in the land of the souls (MSS Malay D 11). According to the Dutch linguist and authority on Sumatran langauges, Petrus Voorhoeve, ‘It is a curious document of the syncretism of animistic and Muslim ideas that is characteristic for South Sumatra in the period of transition from the old religion to Islam. In such a composition one cannot expect a strick adherence to the rules of logic.’  Voorhoeve further notes that the last part of the text 'refers to the reluctance of the soul to be born, caused by the premonitions of death that it feels during the last nine days before birth. On each of these days it entreats its parents to avert this threatening danger. Reflection on its eternal origin, purification with citrus-juice, sacrificial meals and prayers are the means to reach this end. Their effect is that the soul feels "a little better", and though the text ends abruptly in the middle of the last day we may suppose that the soul is at last persuaded to take its abode in this world of "time" and "death". Perhaps this litany was recited during the ceremonies which were performed in the last days before the birth of a child.'

Tembai and teremba, Malay manuscript in rencong script on bamboo. The first lines of the text have been read by Voorhoeve: Anjut parahu dari ulu / pisang rukama kanan pari / tambai kutahu dari guru / taraba kapun barahi. British Library, MSS Malay D 11, f. 1r  noc

The second manuscript on bamboo is Seribu maksa (Or. 12986) concerning a conversation between the Prophet (Nebi Rasululah) and Sayih Wali Mahemat. The text is in south-Sumatran literary Malay in Lampung script, which can be distinguished from rencong script by the presence of a symbol for the vowel ĕ pĕpĕt (like the initial 'a' of 'alone'). Digitised together with the manuscript is a typed sheet containing Voorhoeve's revision of the order of the bamboo strips, based upon the same text as found in the National Library of Indonesia, Jakarta, MS E 86.

Seribu maksa, in Malay in Lampung script. British Library, Or. 12986  noc

The fourth manuscript (MSS Malay A 4), and the only one on paper, is a collection of pantun or quatrains entitled Surat pantun cara Lampung, written in parallel columns of the Lampung dialect in Lampung script and Malay in Jawi script. The manuscript, which is dated 1812, contains poems used by young people in courtship. It was probably written for a European, perhaps in Bengkulu, where the East India Company had a base.

Surat pantun cara Lampung, courtship poems, 1812. British Library, MSS Malay A 4, ff. 2v-3r  noc

To this small collection of four Malay manuscripts from South Sumatra in the British Library, we are very pleased to have added a fifth, thanks to the generosity of Christopher and Zissa Davidson. Chris worked in Lampung in the 1980s, and when he and Zissa left in 1988 they were given a bark book as a leaving present by very close Dutch friends. The book had earlier been acquired by these friends in a small tourist shop selling some local artefacts in a hotel beside Danau Ranau, a volcanic lake in the northwest of the province. Zissa first contacted the British Library in 2002 to find out some information about the manuscript. After some discussions, earlier this month she and Chris most kindly came up from their home in Hampshire to donate the manuscript to the British Library, where it has been given the shelfmark Or. 16936. The contents have not yet been identified (alas, Dr Voorhoeve passed away in 1996), but the ruled lines dividing the pages suggest that this may be a compendium of short texts. We hope to be able to digitise the manuscript soon so that it can be studied by the few people still able to read Lampung script.

Lampung manuscript on folded tree bark. British Library, Or. 16936

The Lampung manuscript (Or. 16936) donated to the British Library by Chris and Zissa Davidson, 1 April 2015

Further reading:

Vladimir Braginsky, The heritage of traditional Malay literature. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2004; on 'Sufi poems of the boat' see pp. 676-688.
Mark Durie, ‘Ancient links: the mystery of South Sumatra’ in: Illuminations: the writing traditions of Indonesia, ed. by Ann Kumar and John H. McGlynn. New York: Weatherhill; Jakarta: Lontar, 1996, pp. 247-52.
Annabel Teh Gallop with Bernard Arps, Golden Letters: writing traditions of Indonesia / Surat Emas: budaya tulis di Indonesia. London: British Library; Jakarta: Yayasan Lontar, 1991
P. Voorhoeve, Critical survey of studies on the languages of Sumatra. ‘s-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff, 1955.  

Download MSS.Eur.C.214 contains a synoptic romanized text of MSS Malay A.2 by P.Voorhoeve.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia   ccownwork

13 April 2015

Happy New Year – with a splash of cool water!

Between the 13th and 15th April the Water Festival, locally known as Songkran or New Year Festival, takes place in Thailand, and it is indeed one of the most colourful and merriest festivals in the entire region since it is observed in neighbouring Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia as well. Tai peoples living in the south of China and in Vietnam also celebrate the Water Festival. Songkran is derived from the Sanskrit word saṅkrānti meaning “progress” or “move forward”, describing the entry of the sun into any sign of the zodiac according to the solar calendar. The full traditional name of the April Songkran - when the sun leaves Pisces to enter Aries - was Maha-Songkran, meaning major Songkran, in order to distinguish it from the other monthly Songkran. Although Maha-Songkran takes place in the 5th month of the lunar year according to the traditional Tai calendar, it is regarded as the start of the New Year because it marks the beginning of the annual rice planting cycle, which usually starts in May as soon as the rains begin to fall.

Image 1 OR_14732_f037r
Ladies in festive outfits carrying offerings to the Buddhist temple. Illustration from a 19th century Thai Buddhist manuscript, British Library, Or. 14732, f. 73  noc

The origins of the festival are explained in a legend which is well known all over mainland Southeast Asia. There was once a young man, Dhammapala, who was highly prodigious in learning and could even understand the language of birds. The god Kabila Mahaphrom (Brahma) came down to earth to challenge Dhammapala with three riddles, with the wager that if the young man failed to give the right answers within seven days he would lose his head, but if he succeeded, Brahma himself would give up his head. Dhammapala had already prepared himself to die when, under a tree, he overheard an eagle mother telling her curious offspring the solution to the riddles. On the appointed day, the young man gave Brahma the three correct answers and the god immediately cut off his own head.

Image 2 IO_Pali_207_f014r
The god Brahma, characterised by his four faces. Illustration from an 18th century Thai manuscript containing a text on the Great Qualities of the Buddha, British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 27  noc

However, Brahma’s head was extremely hot, and if it touched the earth, there would be a universal firestorm destroying all life, while if it fell into the sea, all water would dry up. Therefore, the god’s daughters took care of his head and deposited it in a heavenly cave. Once every year during Maha-Songkran one of the daughters removes the head from the cave, bathes it and carries it in a procession together with all the other gods and heavenly beings circumambulating  Mount  Meru.  The procession is followed by a joyful feast of the gods and goddesses. The seven daughters represent the seven days of the week and all have their particular names and vehicles that they ride on, but the one who carries Brahma’s head on Songkran Day is called Nang Songkran, Miss Songkran.

Image 3 OR_14117_f029v
Illustration from a 19th century Thai manuscript depicting deities in the Buddhist heavens, British Library, Or. 14117, f. 58  noc

The heavenly procession and feast were traditionally re-enacted on earth, and this tradition is still followed today with some local amendments and additions. The exact date and time of the appearance of Miss Songkran with Brahma’s head is when the sun first enters the sign of Aries, a date and time to be established by astrologers and astronomers. The day before Songkran people clean their houses and compounds. Early on the first day of Songkran, people young and old visit their local Buddhist temples to offer food to the monks, to pray and to listen to sermons. Many communities organise temple fairs with music and other entertainments on this occasion. In the afternoon, there is an official bathing ceremony of the Buddha images and of the abbot of the local temple. After this purification ceremony begins the actual Water Festival, which traditionally involved people gently pouring water into the hands of elders and respected persons in order to pay tribute to them, and younger people helping the elderly take a scented bath and change into new clothes presented to them. During all three days of the Songkran Festival people amuse themselves by throwing water at each other or at strangers, and any passer-by can be sure to get soaking wet. Even monks are not exempted. In some places dry coloured powder is also thrown at people, an act that has parallels with the Holi Festival.

Image 4 OR_14956_f013r
A family offering food to a Buddhist monk. Illustration from a 19th century Phra Malai manuscript from central Thailand, British Library, Or. 14956, f. 25  noc

Other activities during the Songkran Festival include a religious service in memory of the deceased and offering ceremonies for local guardian spirits. The ashes of the royal ancestors are blessed by the supreme members of the Sangha. In northeast Thailand, like in Laos, families organise Su Khwan ceremonies in order to wish each other good health, peace, prosperity and longevity, and to receive blessings from their elders. Many people engage in special merit making acts by releasing birds, fish or tortoises from captivity, or by offering sand to their local Buddhist temple. The sand offering, which can be made even by the poorest people and carries the same merit as a contribution to the building of a real pagoda, is done in form of erecting a sand pagoda or stupa-like structure in which a coin or a leaf from the Bodhi tree is placed. On the outside, the pagoda or stupa is sprinkled with water and can be decorated with flags and banners while candles, incense sticks and flowers are placed at its base. It is said that the sand helps to raise the level of the temple ground which may be susceptible to flooding during the rainy season.

Image 5 OR_14027_f033v
Illustration from a collection of Buddhist texts and Sutras contained in a Thai folding book from the 18th century, British Library, Or. 14027, f. 66  noc

In many places, a beauty contest takes place during the Water Festival. The winner, who is not only the most beautiful and best dressed but also the most virtuous girl, is crowned Nang Songkran in memory of Brahma’s daughters who look after the god’s head eternally. She will take part in a colourful procession while being driven in a carriage that has the shape of the animal that is the vehicle of the daughter of Brahma whose turn it is to cleanse the god’s head at the beginning of this New Year.

Further reading

Phya Anuman Rajadhon, Loy Krathong and Songkran festival. (Thailand culture Series; No. 5). Bangkok: The National Culture Institute, 1956

Santosh N. Desai, Hinduism in Thai life. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1980

Suttinee Yavaprapas, Songkran festival. Bangkok: Ministry of Culture, 2004

Thai culture – Songran festival. Cultural kit no. 3 guide book. Bangkok: The Office of the National Culture Commission, 1989

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

10 April 2015

Royal genealogies from Indonesia and the Malay world

The prestige of a royal house in the Malay archipelago rested in no small part on claims of  descent from illustrious ancestors. At the most deep-rooted level, myths of origin in Malay texts drew on primordial Austronesian beliefs of unity between the earth and sky, symbolised by the marriage between a prince who descended from heaven and a princess from the earth or water, who emerged from a mass of foam or a clump of bamboo (cf. Ras 1970: 81-99). With the coming of Islam, into this chain of descent were introduced powerful figures from the Islamic pantheon, pre-eminently the great hero Iskandar Zulkarnain (Alexander the Great), as well as the first man, Adam, and the Raja of ‘Rum’, as the Ottoman lands were known in the east. These ahistorical genealogies are found in court chronicles such as the Hikayat Raja Pasai, Sulalat al-Salatin or Sejarah Melayu recounting the origins of the sultanate of Melaka, the Hikayat Banjar from southern Borneo, and Hikayat Jambi from east Sumatra, preceding the more factual elements of the texts.  

In the Sejarah Melayu, the sultans of Melaka are said to be descended from the union of Raja Iskandar (Zulkarnain) and the daughter of Raja Kidi Hindi. In this episode, Nabi Khidir marries the couple according to Islamic rites and asks Raja Iskandar if he agrees to the dowry of 300,000 gold dinars (‘Bahwa sudahlah hamba kahwinkan anak Raja Kidi Hindi yang bernama Syahral Bariah dengan Raja Iskandar, adapun isi kahwinnya tiga ratus ribu dinar emas 300,000, ridakah tuan hamba?’ Maka sahut Raja Iskandar, ‘Ridalah hamba’). British Library, Or. 14734, f.4v (detail)  noc

As well as depictions in prose, royal genealogies or silsilah are occasionally visualised as charts or diagrams, as found in three recently digitised Malay manuscripts depicting the ancestry of the royal houses of central Java (Or. 15932), of the kingdom of Pajajaran in west Java (MSS Malay F 1), and of Luwu’ in south Sulawesi (MSS Malay D 13). Artistically the most impressive is a genealogy in the form of a tree tracing the descent of the kings of Java, starting with Adam, placed in the roots of the tree, and ending in the outermost leaves with Sasunan Pakubuwana keempat (Pakubuwana IV of Surakarta) and Mataram keempat (Sultan Hamengkubuwana IV of Yogyakarta). The genealogy is found at the end of a volume containing the work Papakĕm Pawukon, containing an illustrated description of the 30 wuku of the Javanese calendrical tradition. The manuscript, in Javanese and in Malay in Jawi script, was written in Bogor in the Javanese year 1742 (AD 1814/5). It is said to be from Kyai Suradimanggala, Bupati sĕpuh of Dĕmak, who was one of Thomas Stamford Raffles’s closest friends and informants in Java.

Genealogy of the Javanese kingdoms, from Adam to Pakubuwana IV of Surakarta and Hambengkubuwana IV of Yogyakarta (Adapun ini suatu masyal pohon riwayat tahta kĕrajaan tanah Jawa). British Library, Or. 15932, f.72r  noc

Little is known of the early history of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Pajajaran in the Sundanese region of west Java, which was conquered by Muslim Banten in ca. 1579 (Ricklefs 1994: 38). A manuscript chart (MSS Malay F 1), just over a metre long, contains a genealogy written in romanised Malay starting with the legendary founder of Pajajaran, Prabu Siliwangi, and continuing through Suhunan Gunung Jati of Cirebon, one of the nine sages (wali) believed to have brought Islam to Java, to 'Pangeran Adipati Moehamad Djamoedin Aloeda' son of 'Pangeran Radja Nataningrat wakil Soeltan Sepoeh [of Cirebon] taoen 1880'. The list was probably written in the 1890s.  

First entries in the royal genealogy from west Java, starting with Prabu Siliwangi of Pajajaran, a MS chart in romanised Malay, ca. 1890s.  British Library, MSS Malay F 1 (detail, top)  noc

A third manuscript genealogy, like the west Javanese one above presented from top to bottom, but in this case written in Malay in Jawi script, is labelled 'Succession of the Datus of Luwu' (MSS Malay D 13) and contains the descent of the rulers of Luwu’, the oldest and most prestigious kingdom in south Sulawesi (see OXIS below). The genealogy starts with Orang Manurung and continues through 26 generations to Matinru ri Sabang Paru whose daughter married Sultan Nuh of Soppeng (r.1782-1820).

Genealogy of the rulers of Luwu' in South Sulawesi. British Library, MSS Malay D 13  noc

Perhaps the most grandiose narration of descent of a Malay royal house is depicted in a manuscript held not in the British Library, but in the Library of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). This is an early 20th century  genealogy of the ruling houses of pre-Islamic Persia, the Malay sultanates and Turkey, joined by their common ancestor Yapit, son of Nabi Nuh (Noah). The left-hand branch shows the descent of the sultans of Johor and Perak from Iskandar Zulkarnain and the kings of Persia and Melaka. The right-hand branch shows the Turkish line, through mythical rulers to the Seljuks and Ottomans, ending with Sultan Abdülhamid II (r.1876-1909). This genealogy was published in the photographic exhibition Islam, Trade and Politics across the Indian Ocean, exploring links between the Ottoman empire and Southeast Asia.

Genealogy of the sultans of Perak and Johor, early 20th c. Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, MS 40334

Further reading

J.J. Ras, Hikajat Bandjar: a study in Malay historiography.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968. (Bibliotheca Indonesica; 1).

M.C. Ricklefs, A history of modern Indonesia since c.1300. (2nd ed.)  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.

OXIS (Origins of Complex Society in Sulawesi) project: website with many links to publications concerning Luwu' and other early Sulawesi kingdoms

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork


07 April 2015

Propaganda and ideology in everyday life: Chinese collection posters

The Chinese collection at the British Library includes an interesting series of around 40 posters produced in the 1970s and 1980s in the People’s Republic of China which represent an extraordinary example of popular visual material created by official sources to promote a sense of shared history and national identity.

Detail from富裕童喜, Fu yu tong xi, Wealthy and Happy Baby, author: Zhang Guiying, 1982, 77.5 x 53cm (British Library ORB. 99/104)

The Chinese collection of posters from the 70s and 80s can be grouped by different subject areas and themes: New Year Prints, including the “chubby babies” series, theatre and film posters, educational posters, prints on the Mao cult, ethnic minorities and so on. While they use and combine a range of different visual language and signs, their intention is the same: to encourage a certain vision of the nation and its culture, to evoke selected values, to show examples of role models, to strengthen the sense of community and belonging among the citizens.

In some of the posters we find a repetition of colours or symbols that for the Chinese viewer have significant meanings and which are immediately recognizable. Most of the material, and in particular the “chubby babies” posters, show a predominance of the colour red, an auspicious colour in both traditional and modern Chinese culture, while other items display particular types of flowers (for example, the chrysanthemum, symbol of longevity) or animals.

The British Library Chinese collection also includes some examples of official posters for the so-called yang ban xi (样板戏). The term Yang ban xi literally means “model operas” and it refers to six operas and two ballets written during the first years of the Cultural Revolution, when the traditional themes of the Chinese opera were banned and replaced with stories aligned with Mao Zedong’s thoughts and personally approved by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. The protagonists of the stories were often soldiers of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) who stood out for their bravery, heroism and support to the rural people. 

Detail from the yang ban xi opera poster 沙家浜, Shajia bang, Shajia Creek, 1960s, 77.5 x 53cm (British Library ORB. 99/177)

The yang ban xi monopolised the artistic production of the years of the Cultural Revolution and were massively distributed: they were not only performed on stage, but also broadcasted on radio and reproduced as movies. Coloured posters depicting key scenes from the plays begun to circulate widely throughout the country. Despite the range and the variety of distribution, the content of the yang ban xi had to be the same and strict guidelines were issued in order to guarantee that all the productions and performances were identical and were not deviating from the approved version.

The two ballets listed as “model operas” are Hong se niang zi jun (红色娘子军, The Red Detachment of Women) and Bai mao nü (白毛女, The White-Haired Girl). The first premiered in 1964, while the second was performed as an opera in 1945 and was later produced as a movie in 1950. The White-Haired Girl is based on a traditional story which is centred on the misery suffered by the local peasantry, particularly the women, and depicts the Communist Party as their saviours and heroes. The songs are now classics of Chinese culture and, unlike other ballets, the music contains a lot of vocal solos and choruses.

Detail from the yang ban xi ballet poster白毛女, Bai mao nü, The White-Haired Girl, 77 x 53cm, 1972 (British Library ORB. 99/178)

A selection of posters from the Chinese collection produced in the 1970s and 1980s will be featured in the new free online course “Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life”, a ground-breaking project which allows students to interact with the British Library’s original collection items. The course is developed in cooperation with the Centre for the Study of Ideologies at the University of Nottingham and will start in May 2015, on the FutureLearn platform.

You can find a video trailer here and access the course registration at this page.

Mary Ginsberg, The Art of Influence: Asian Propaganda, British Museum, 2013.
Stefan R. Landsberger, "Contextualising (Propaganda) Posters", in Christian Henriot and Wen-hsin Yeh (eds.), Visualising China, 1845-1965. Moving and Still images in Historical Narratives, Brill, 2013, pp. 379-405.
Eberhard Wolfram, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.
Lu Xing, Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: The Impact on Chinese Thought, Culture, and Communication, University of South Carolina, 2004.

Sara Chiesura, Curator, Chinese collection

With thanks to Ian Cooke, Curator, Social Sciences 

03 April 2015

Early vocabularies of Malay

Among the Malay manuscripts in the British Library which have just been digitised are a number of vocabulary lists and dictionaries in Malay, compiled by visitors to the region as aids to learning the language. The study of Malay in Europe dates back to the very first voyages to Southeast Asia in the 16th century, for Malay functioned as the lingua franca for the whole of the archipelago, and was an essential business tool for both merchants in search of spices and missionaries in search of souls.  

68.c.12, Bowrey map, 1701
Map showing the lands where the Malay language was used, from Thomas Bowrey, A dictionary English and Malayo, Malayo and English (London, 1701). British Library, 68.c.12  noc

The earliest Malay book printed in Europe is a Malay-Dutch vocabulary by Frederick de Houtman, published in Amsterdam in 1603, and an English version of this Dutch work became the first Malay book printed in Britain in 1614. However it was only in 1701 that the first original Malay-English dictionary was printed in London, the work of Thomas Bowrey (ca. 1650-1713), an East India Company sea captain, who explained in the Preface the urgent need for such a publication: “… I finding so very few English Men that have attained any tollerable Knowledge of the Malayo Tongue, so absolutely necessary to trade in those Southern Seas, and that there is no Book of this kind published in English to help the attaining of that Language; These Considerations, I say, has imboldened me to Publish the insuing Dictionary …” (Bowrey 1701). A draft manuscript version of Bowrey’s dictionary (MSS Eur A33), in his own hand and probably dating from the late 17th century, has just been digitised. It is probably the very volume which Bowrey mentions in the dedication of his publication, “To the Honourable the Directors of the English East-India Company”: “The following Work was undertaken Chiefly for the Promotion of Trade in the many Countries where the Malayo Language is Spoke, which your Honours having perused in Manuscript, were pleased to approve of; and to Incourage the Publishing of it …”

Thomas Bowrey’s autograph draft of his Malay-English dictionary. British Library, MSS Eur A33, pp. 6-7  noc

After Bowrey’s pioneering work, it was not until the late 18th century that British studies of Malay developed in earnest, through the efforts of the ‘Enlightenment group’ of colonial scholar-administrators such as William Marsden, John Leyden, John Crawfurd and Thomas Stamford Raffles. The polyglot Leyden gathered together a vast array of linguistic materials, some compiled in his own hand (Or. 15936) and others acquired from different sources (MSS Malay F.2). Raffles too collected vocabularies from all over the archipelago, including a Malay wordlist (MSS Eur E110) which appears to be in the hand of his Penang scribe Ibrahim; this volume is especially valuable for also containing an early register of inhabitants of Penang, listed by street name, with details of origin, occupation, and family members. Raffles also obtained manuscripts as gifts, including a Malay-Javanese-Madurese vocabulary (MSS Malay A.3) from his good friend Pangeran Suta Adiningrat of Madura.  Finally, an English-Malay vocabulary (MSS Eur B37) is of unknown origin but includes at the end hospital lists of treatment with many Indian names such as 'Singh', suggesting the owner might have been a medical officer in the Indian army or of an Indian regiment in Southeast Asia.

A vocabulary of Dutch, English, Malay (Jawi script) and Malay (romanised script), provisionally dated to the 18th century on the basis of the Dutch and Romanised Malay handwriting. British Library, MSS Malay F 2, p. 4 (detail)  noc

Vocabulary of Thai and Malay, compiled by John Leyden, early 19th c. British Library, Or. 15936, f.69v (detail)  noc

Final page of a Malay-Javanese-Madurese vocabulary, early 19th c. British Library, MSS Malay A 3, f.113v (detail)  noc

Opening pages of a Malay-English vocabulary, with on the left-hand page the variant forms (isolated, initial, medial and final) of the Jawi alphabet, early 19th c., Raffles collection. British Library, MSS Eur E110, pp.2-3  noc

Early 19th-century register of the inhabitants in Love Lane, Penang, including a Portuguese fisherman and his family of ten from ‘Junk Ceylon’ (Ujung Salang, or Phuket), who ‘came to the island with Mr Light’, i.e. Francis Light, in 1786. British Library, MSS Eur E110, f.147r (detail)  noc

English-Malay vocabulary, 19th century. MSS Eur B37, f. 1v (detail)  noc

These manuscripts join three other Malay vocabularies digitised last year, and are listed below in approximate chronological order.  Many other Malay manuscript vocabulary lists are held in the British Library, often comprising only a few pages within larger volumes, but all are detailed in a recently-published catalogue (Ricklefs, Voorhoeve & Gallop 2014).

Digitised Malay manuscript vocabularies in the British Library:

Add. 7043, Malay grammar and vocabulary by William Mainstone, 1682, copied by John Hindley, early 19th c.

MSS Eur A33, Malay-English dictionary, by Thomas Bowrey, late 17th c.

Egerton 933, Two Malay vocabularies, 1731 and early 19th c.

MSS Malay F.2, Dutch-English-Malay vocabulary, ca. 18th c., Leyden collection.

Or. 15936, Various Malay vocabularies, early 19th c., Leyden collection.

MSS Eur E110, Malay-English vocabulary, early 19th c., Raffles collection.

MSS Malay A.3, Malay-Javanese-Madurese vocabulary, early 19th c., Raffles collection.

Or. 4575, French-Malay vocabulary, early 19th c. 

MSS Eur B37, English-Malay vocabulary, 19th c.

Further reading

Frederick de Houtman, Spraek ende Woord-boek in de Malaysche ende Madagaskarsche Talen (Amsterdam, 1603). British Library, C.71.a.32
Augustus Spalding, Dialogues in the English and Malaiane languages (London, 1614). British Library, C.33.b.41
Thomas Bowrey, A dictionary English and Malayo, Malayo and English (London, 1701). British Library, 68.c.12. Digitised version from the National Library of Singapore.
Annabel Teh Gallop, Early Malay printing 1603-1900. An exhibition in the British Library 20 January to 4 June 1989.
M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve† and 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.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork