Asian and African studies blog

9 posts from July 2015

30 July 2015

On the road: some user guides to libraries and archives

Over the last couple of years I have been tweeting the many notifications that I have received on users' experiences of archives and libraries. Even if an institution has its own website, readers' impressions can be very helpful. Twitter, however, has limitations so far as archiving data is concerned so I thought it could be useful to publish a list of the references I have collected so far. If readers have more uptodate information or know of additional archives and libraries, please let me know and it can be added in.

A travelling scholar monk carrrying a load of Buddhist scrolls. From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China. 10th century AD (Stein collection Ch. 00380, BM 1919,0101,0.168) © Trustees of the British Museum

Most of these reviews were published during the last two years and came from the following sources:

For Middle Eastern studies, Evyn Kropf, University of Michigan Library, gives an excellent general overview and further references in her Manuscript Collection Research Guides and Online collections of digitized Islamic manuscripts.

For Chinese studies, Bick-har Yeung, Former East Asian Librarian, University of Melbourne, reported on visits in 2014 to major Chinese research collections in the UK, Paris and Singapore, in East Asian Library Resources Group of Australia Newsletter 65 (2015).

The following reviews are listed here by country:



Bosnia & Herzegovina      




















South Korea 








Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

27 July 2015

Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha (IO Pali 207)

In the Thai manuscript painting tradition, Gautama Buddha was widely represented in scenes of the events of his previous lives, known as the Jatakas. Special importance was often given to his last ten existences before he was re-born as Siddharta Gautama. This Thai manuscript (IO Pali 207) dates from the 18th century and is a fine example of how small collections of Buddhist texts were combined with illustrations from the last Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha in folding book form.

Given to the India Office in 1825, this is perhaps the earliest acquired Thai manuscript in a British collection. A note at the end of the manuscript states that it was “Presented by Ltt Coll Clifford by the hands of W Wigram Esqe, 9th Dec 1825”. Lt. Col. Miller Clifford served in the British Army during a long career beginning in the West Indies in 1794. In 1824 he was with the 89th Regiment of Foot in the first Burma war, which was where he must have acquired this fine Thai manuscript. Wigram was a director of the East India Company.

Ten birth talesIO_Pali_207_f6
Scenes from the Suvannasama Jataka, symbolising the virtue of loving kindness. It tells the story of Suvannasama who looked after his parents after a poisonous snake caused them to lose their sight. While fetching water for his parents, the king of Benares was hunting nearby and accidentally killed Suvannasama. His parents pleaded with the gods to restore his life, and due to his extraordinary merit he came indeed back to life and the king was forgiven. The parents also regained their eyesight. British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 6  noc

The illustrations in this manuscript are related to the main part of its text, the Mahabuddhaguna, which explains the ten Great Perfections of a Buddha. The Ten Birth Tales are symbolic representations of these Great Perfections. In addition to this text, which covers 37 folios, the book contains other selected short extracts from the Tipitaka.

Ten birth talesIO_Pali_207_f14
Scenes from the Candakumara birth tale, which stands for the perfection of forbearance, show a ritual plotted by evil court Brahmins to sacrifice Candakumara by burning him on a pyre, but Sakka (Indra) descends from heaven to interrupt the ritual and to destroy the evil Brahmins. British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 14  noc

The Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha are well-known as Thotsachat or Sipchat  in Thailand. The last of them, called the Great Birth Tale (Mahachat) is the most important and best known. Its proper name, Vessantara Jataka, is after the name of its hero, Prince Vessantara. Its narrative embodies the greatest of all Buddhist virtues, that of giving or charity. Re-telling and paying attention to recitations of the Great Birth Tale are regarded as acts of  merit-making, and its recitation by monks is usually the occasion for a great celebration that lasts a full day and night, or even several days.

Ten birth talesIO_Pali_207_f20
Detail from the Vessantara Jataka, which symbolises the great virtue of charity. The Brahmin Jujaka, who asked Prince Vessantara to give him his children as servants for his wife, drives the two children away violently. Remarkable in this painting is the defensive gesture of the child who is trying to protect the other sibling from being hit. In the end, through the intervention of the gods, the children are re-united with their parents and grandparents. British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 20  noc

The text in this book was written in Khom (Khmer) script, but in the Pali language. Altogether there are thirty paired illustrations in the late Ayutthaya painting style, which make this book a rare treasure of Thai manuscript painting. The paintings are simply composed, but the artist’s command of line and form, and composition and colour, are all exemplary. The first twenty pairs of paintings illustrate the last Ten Birth Tales, and the remaining ten paired paintings depict gods and heavenly beings, including Sakka (Indra) and Brahma, as well as scenes from a Buddhist funeral.

Ten birth talesIO_Pali_207_f27
Depictions of Brahma (left) and Sakka (right), both kneeling down in a respectful position. The gods repeatedly helped Gautama Buddha in his former incarnations that are retold in the Jatakas. British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 27  noc

The paper of this book was made from the bark of the Khoi tree (Streblus asper), a plant in the family of mulberry trees. It is of a dull cream colour, and the writing was done with black and red China ink and a bamboo pen. Thai manuscript painters at that time had only a limited range of colours made from locally available natural materials. Red and yellow ochre, as well as white were obtained from plants and minerals (gamboges, huntite, vermilion, red lead). Black was produced from carbon (soot) or crushed charcoal. Greens and blues were mostly produced from vegetable matter (for example Indigofera) or minerals (copper, emerald, kaolin). Malachite and ultramarine were imported to produce brighter green and blue shades. Gold paint, usually a mixture of gold with lead, mercury, copper, and other minerals, was used in this manuscript to enhance the appearance of the human and heavenly figures.  

This manuscript, IO Pali 207, has been fully digitised and can be viewed on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts page by clicking here.


Ginsburg, Henry: Thai art and culture. Historic manuscripts from Western Collections. London : British Library, 2000
Ginsburg, Henry: Thai manuscript painting. London : British Library, 1989
Jo-Fan Huang: A technical examination of 7 Thai Manuscripts in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

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


23 July 2015

Out of the margins: Arabic literature in English

The Shubbak Literature Festival at the British Library this weekend (25-26 July) will showcase some of the most exciting voices in contemporary literature from the Arab world. Reflecting the range and diversity of contemporary Arab literature, the festival features authors and poets who write in English, French and Dutch as well as those who write in Arabic. 

Arabic literature in English has a long history; one of the first novels written by an Arab was Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid (1911), and Khalil Gibran achieved a following as writer of poetry and prose, including The Prophet (1923). But Arab literary works in English remained relatively few and far between until the 1980s. In Britain, Egyptian author Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the snooker club (1964) quietly took on a cult status and is still appearing in reprints, whilst Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s Hunters in a narrow street (1960) was widely translated and was reprinted in 1990. A breakthrough in popularity came with Ahdaf Soueif’s novels In the eye of the sun (1992) and The map of love (1999) which was shortlisted for the Booker prize, as was Hisham Matar’s In the country of men in 2006.

Image 1
Ghali, Waguih. Beer in the Snooker Club: London: A. Deutsch, 1964. Soraya Antonius The Lord. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986. Hisham Matar In the country of men. London: Viking, 2006. Rabih Alameddine: The Storyteller. London: Picador, 2009

From the late 1960s Arabic literature became better known to English readers through translations into English, with Heinemann publishing translations of the most prominent authors, including Naguib Mahfouz, Yusuf Idris and Tayyeb Salih. Denys Johnson-Davies led the way in translating novels, plays, short stories and poetry over a period of more than 40 years; this work has been of key importance in establishing a readership for literature translated from Arabic. The American University in Cairo Press also played a vital role in supporting the translation of Arabic literature, later joined by a range of publishers in the UK, including Saqi Press, Quartet, the Women’s Press, Garnet, Riad El-Rayyes, and Bloomsbury, as well as Banipal magazine. The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz in 1988 raised the profile of Arabic literature in English translation, and a wider range of titles became available, alongside works written by Arab authors in French as well as in Arabic. The establishment of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2007 has also done much to raise the profile of Arabic writing from across the Arab world.

Image 2
Yusuf Idris: The cheapest nights. London; Heinemann, 1978. Nawal El Saadawi: Memoirs from the Women’s Prison. London: The Women’s Press, 1991. Andree Chedid: The return to Beirut. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1989. Bahaa Taher: Love in exile. London: Arabia, 2008

Image 3
Salwa Bakr: The Golden Chariot. London: Garnet, 1994. Hoda Barakat: The stone of laughter. London: Garnet, 1995. Hamida Na’na: The Homeland. London: Garnet, 1995

Although relatively few Arab novelists wrote in English before the 1990s, Arab writers used English to reach out to an international readership through works of history, literary criticism and biography, as well as journals and essays. Among them, Raja Shehadeh first published The Third Way in 1982. He has continued, steadfastly, to describe life in the occupied West Bank to the present day, gaining prominence and international recognition.

Image 4
Raja Shehadeh: The Third Way. London: Quartet, 1982. Strangers in the house. London: Profile, 2002. When the Bulbul stopped singing. London: Profile, 2003. A rift in time. London: Profile, 2010

Edward Said’s most important work, Orientalism, appeared in 1978. Said continued to write widely on literature, music, and the Palestinian experience until his death in 2003. Palestine occupied a central place in Arab writing in English, until 2003 when public opposition to the war on Iraq also brought greater attention to writing from Iraq. Notable was The Baghdad blog of Salam Pax (published in book form in 2003) which captured the imagination of a global audience as Baghdad’s people awaited the onslaught of bombs to bring an end to the regime of Saddam Hussein and the beginning of a new era of instability and violence. Ahdaf Soueif added works of political analysis to her literary output.

Image 5
Salam Pax: The Baghdad blog. Toronto: McArthur, 2003. Edward Said: Out of place. London: Granta, 1999. Ahdaf Soueif: Mezzaterra. London; Bloomsbury, 2004

The growing readership for Arabic poetry in translation was also linked not only to its intrinsic appeal and artistic expression, but also to its political context, including the Lebanese civil war and the 1982 Israeli war in Lebanon, and the continuing Palestinian experience of exile and occupation.

Image 6
Mahmoud Darwish: The butterfly’s burden. Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2007. Mahmoud Darwish: A river dies of thirst. London: Saqi, 2009. Mourid Barghouti: I saw Ramallah. London: Bloomsbury, 2004. Mourid Barghouti: I was born there. I was born here. London: Bloomsbury, 2011

Whilst relatively few Arabs used English as a means of expression until recently, many more Arab writers have written in French, partly because of the length and intensity of French colonial rule in North Africa. Algerian writers published novels in French from the 1920s onwards, but from the outbreak of the Algerian war of independence in 1954, the novel in French became important as a means to express Algerian rejection of French colonialism. This period marked the birth of a vibrant and enduring French-language literature in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria – and many of these works have become available in English translation. As well as Kateb Yacine and Mohamed Dib, Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, and Algerian feminist Assia Djebar, are among the authors best known to English readers. Since 11 September 2001, there has been a sharp increase in the number and range of North African novels translated into English, both from Arabic and from French. 

Image 7
Kateb Yacine: Nedjma. Charlottesville & London: University Press of Virginia, 1991 (c. 1961) Mohamed Dib: The savage night. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. Tahir Wattar: The earthquake. London: Saqi, 2000. Anouar Benmalek: The lovers of Algeria. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf, 2001. Yasmina Khadra: What the day owes the night. London: Vintage, 2011.  Ahlem Mosteghanemi: Memory in the flesh. London: Arabia, 2008

In the last decade numerous works by Arab authors have stood out on a world stage, and translations from Arabic or French have moved away from the margins. The Shubbak Festival will provide an opportunity to reflect on the changing reception of this literature in English. A key feature is the growing confidence and diversity of expression among younger writers of Arab origin in Britain, Europe and America, alongside those in the Arab world who are forging their own voice, and exploiting technological change, in ways that mark their difference from previous generations of writers.

Image 8
Ibrahim al-Koni: Gold Dust. London: Arabia Books, 2008. Alaa Al-Aswany: The Yacoubian Building. London: Harper, 2007. Elias Khoury: Gate of the sun. London: Vintage, 2006

Tickets for the Shubbak Festival of Literature (in association with the Shubbak Festival and Saqi Books) are still available from the British Library Box Office.

Further reading

Gana, Nouri (Ed.): The Edinburgh Companion to the Arab Novel in English.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013
Ghazoul, Ferial J. The Hybrid Literary Text: Arab Creative Authors Writing in Foreign Languages. Cairo: American University in Cairo, 2000
Nash, Geoffrey: The Anglo-Arab Encounter: Fiction and Autobiography by Arab Writers in English. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012
Arabic Literature (in English), a blog by M. Lynx Qualey

Debbie Cox
Lead Curator, Contemporary British Publications

20 July 2015

Indonesia calling! Crowdsourcing catalogue records for the British Library’s Indonesian collection

The British Library holds about 10,000 printed books in Indonesian, from early 19th century mission imprints through to contemporary research-level publications. Though not as comprehensive as the collections at the National Library of Indonesia or in Dutch, American and Australian libraries, the British Library nonetheless holds some rare and important Indonesian titles, ranging from educational publications in Malay printed in Batavia in the late 19th century to early works of modern Indonesian literature, with a particular strength in the social sciences – law, politics, economics – from the 1950s and 1960s.

Indonesian literary works from the 1960s and 1970s in the British Library.  noc

Since 1982 Indonesian publications have been catalogued by computer and can be searched on the British Library’s online catalogue ExploreBL. Before that date, books were catalogued on cards, hand-typed by curators, and this card catalogue of about 4,000 earlier Indonesian titles has only been accessible in London, in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room in the British Library.

Untitled-1 copy
An Indonesian catalogue card, with the British Library shelfmark, 14650.dd.11, in the top right corner.  noc

In order to widen access to this and other such valuable collections, the BL has developed LibCrowds, a platform for hosting experimental crowdsourcing projects. The first project series is Convert-a-Card, which contains projects for the retroconversion of the Indonesian and Chinese card catalogues into electronic records, in order to make them available to a worldwide audience via ExploreBL. LibCrowds was launched in June 2015, and since then, one of the three drawers of Indonesian cards has been successfully tackled by contributors from all over the world, with a 50% hit-rate in which the catalogue card has been successfully matched with an electronic catalogue record for the same Indonesian book sourced from another library. The British Library shelfmark, shown in the top-right corner of the card, is then added by the contributor to the electronic record.

For a Flickr video to see how Convert-a-Card works, click here.

The third drawer of Indonesian catalogue cards has just been released, and the site also contains a simple three-step tutorial to participating in Convert-a-Card. If you would like to help us to make the contents of our Indonesian collection electronically available, please click here!

Indonesian publications on law, politics and international relations from the 1960s.  noc

For more information, visit the LibCrowds Community, or email:

Annabel Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

With thanks to Alex Mendes and Nora McGregor for developing LibCrowds


16 July 2015

Shubbak Literature Festival at the British Library

On Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 July 2015, the British Library will host the Shubbak Literature Festival as part of Shubbak, London’s largest biennial festival showcasing the best in contemporary Arab culture.

As one of the leading collections of historical and contemporary Arabic texts in the United Kingdom, the British Library is delighted to partner with translator Alice Guthrie, Saqi Books and Shubbak to bring together some of the finest writers from across the Arab world, while also reflecting the diversity of current Arab writing in the UK and Europe.

An illustration from a 13th century manuscript of al-Ḥarīrī’s Maqāmāt showing the people in a garden making music with Abū Zayd approaching. From the 24th maqāmah (British Library Or.1200, folio 68r)  noc

Knowledge of Arabic literature – both classical and modern – has been largely confined to academia. However, over the past decade or so there has been a noticeable increase in awareness and accessibility of contemporary Arabic literature in English, largely due to the efforts of established publishers such as Saqi and Banipal. This is also the result of a new generation of translators, publishers, bloggers, journalists and critics responding to a greater desire to read a wider and more diverse array of voices coming from the Arabic-speaking world. ‘The Rise of Arabic Literature in English’ will be the subject of the opening panel of the festival chaired by Robin Yassin-Kassab, and featuring Marcia Lynx Qualey of the Arabic Literature (in English) blog, Iraqi author-translator Sinan Antoon, British-Palestinian novelist and playwright Selma Dabbagh, and scholar and translator Daniel Newman.

Mourid Barghouti, Raʾaytu Rām Allāh ʻI saw Ramallahʼ (Cairo: Dār al-Hilāl, 1997) and Qaṣāʼid al-raṣīf  ʻPoems of the Pavementʼ (Beirut: al-Muʼassasah al-ʿArabīyah lil-Dirāsāt wa-al-Nashr, 1980)

Poetry, although it is the oldest form of Arabic literature, continues to be a popular mode of expression for the beauty and complexity of the Arabic language, as well as for airing contemporary social and political concerns. Saturday evening’s event, ‘The Astonishing Form’, will celebrate poetry with a variety of radical and powerful voices. Compèred by Malika Booker, the event will feature readings by renowned Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, as well British-Egyptian performance poet Sabrina Mahfouz, Iraqi poet Ghareeb Iskander, whose work engages both ancient and modern Iraqi history, and Palestinian poet-activist Rafeef Ziadah, whose poems ‘We Teach Life, Sir’ and ‘Shades of Anger’ went viral.


As well as long-established literary forms, the Shubbak Literature Festival will also engage with emerging genres. ‘Science Fiction in the Arab world’, chaired by Sinbad Sci-Fi’s producer Yasmin Khan, will feature Egyptian and Iraqi authors, including IPAF-winning author of Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi. Comic books and graphic novels will be the focus of a panel entitled ‘Drawing Your Attention’, chaired by Paul Gravett, co-curator of British Library’s Comics Unmasked exhibition, that will feature Lena Merhej, co-founder of the Samandal collective in Lebanon, Andeel, co-founder of Egypt’s Arabic comic magazine Tok-Tok, and British-Libyan manga-influenced comic writer, Asia Alfasi.

Faïza Guène, Kiffe kiffe demain (Paris: Hachette littératures, 2004) and Tok-Tok

Histories of migration, transnational cultural exchange and exile have played a role in the development of modern Arabic literatures. While some Arab authors have made European cities their homes, others have been born here and write in languages other than Arabic. The panel ‘Arabic Europe’ will examine how the contemporary European political and cultural landscapes intersect with the Arabic roots of writers living across Europe today. Shubbak’s artistic director Eckhard Thiemann will discuss these issues with Moroccan-Dutch poet Mustafa Stitou, Algerian-French writer and director Faiza Guene, and British-Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela. Shubbak closes with renowned Lebanese novelist and public intellectual Elias Khoury in conversation with author and academic Marina Warner. Khoury will also read from his novels, which include the acclaimed novels Gate of the Sun and Yalo.

Elias Khoury, Abwāb al-madīnah ‘City Gates’, with illustrations by Kamal Boullata (Beirut: Dār al-Adāb, 1990)

The festival will also feature readings in Arabic and English by Man Booker International Prize finalist Hoda Barakat, as well as Syrian author Samar Yazbek and Atef Abu Saif from Gaza. In addition, there will be free events for both children and teenagers. A series of short films from PalFest and Highlight Arts will also show throughout the weekend, and there will be bookstall from Al Saqi Bookshop and free smartphone and tablet access to digital Banipal Magazine within the Library building from now until the end of the festival.

Read the full Shubbak Literature Festival programme for booking information. You can also follow Shubbak on Twitter @Shubbak or using the #Shubbak hashtag.

Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections

13 July 2015

The story of Sinbad or the seven sages

One of our most colourful manuscripts, now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition “Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700,” is IO Islamic 3214, the only known copy of the story of Sindbad and the seven sages to be written in Persian verse. The story - not to be confused with Sindbad the sailor of the Arabian Nights - occurs in both Western and Eastern literature, but is believed to be of Iranian origin (Perry 1960) with links to a very ancient Graeco-Oriental tradition.

The story of the King of Kashmir whose elephant bolted despite three years’ training. The keeper, condemned to be trodden underfoot, escaped death by demonstrating the elephant’s obedience and attributing the mishap to a bad horoscope (BL IO Islamic 3214, f. 23v)

This version was composed in AH 776 (1374/75) at the request of an unnamed king and was based on an earlier version written in Persian prose. It is illustrated with 72 miniatures characterised by the use of vivid colours and innovative architectural detail, opening with double page portraits of King Solomon and Queen Sheba on facing pages  - a feature of many manuscripts of Iranian origin, particularly from 16th century Shiraz to which this manuscript owes many stylistic features.

The concubine accuses the prince of treason (BL IO Islamic 3214, f. 29v)

Set in an Indian context, the poem takes the form of many tales told within the frame of a single story. Commanded to remain silent for seven days by his teacher, Sindibad, the young prince is accused by one of his father’s concubines of having attempted to seduce her. He is condemned to death, but the king’s seven viziers take turns to delay the execution by telling stories illustrating women’s deceit. Each evening, however, their work is undone by the guilty concubine telling a contradictory story. After a week’s silence, the prince, now free to speak again, is exonerated and set free. The tale ends with the king’s abdication in favour of his son. Unfortunately because of a gap in the text, it is not clear whether the wicked woman is pardoned or punished!

The executioner leads the prince to his death (BL IO Islamic 3214, f. 74v)

The history of our manuscript is a mystery in its own right! Almost certainly copied and illustrated in Golconda between 1575 and 1585 (Weinstein, p. 127), it unfortunately lacks a colophon, but folio 1r contains at least one abraded Qutbshahi seal impression. The popularity of the Sindbādnāmah is also attested, as Laura Weinstein notes (Haidar and Sardar, p. 203), by the existence of an especially commissioned copy (BL Or.255) of the better known Persian prose version by Muḥammad ibn ʻAlī al-Ẓahīrī al-Samarqandī, copied for Sulṭān Muḥammad Qutub Shāh (r. 1612-26) in Haidarabad in 1622. The illustrations as far as folio 23v also include captions in Kannada.  Presumably these were added afterwards since the first inscription occurs on what appears to be a later flyleaf at the beginning. At some point the volume was trimmed - some of the architectural details are missing from the illustrations - and numbered continuously in Arabic numerals - this despite several obviously missing leaves - on the verso of each folio.

The prince’s tale: a black div abducts the daughter of the king of furthest Kashmir while visiting a  garden outside the city (BL IO Islamic 3241, f. 120r)

The story of the pari, who teaches the ascetic three ‘Great Names’, each of which, when uttered in an emergency will grant the ascetic’s wish (BL IO Islamic 3241, f. 142r)

It is not known exactly how the manuscript was acquired by the East India Company, but in 1841 the Scottish Persianist Forbes Falconer (1805-53) published a partial translation in three instalments in the Asiatic Journal in which he described it (Falconer, p.170) as a unique manuscript “in the collection at East-India House.” At that time readers were allowed to take manuscripts home for study and perhaps Falconer forgot to return it because in June 1857 it was purchased, according to another note, by one Edwin Greenwood “at an Old Book Stall for £1-0-0”. A later note by the then librarian H H Wilson, dated March 1859, describes this as “a curious fiction”, but considering that the East India Company seal on folio 1r has been deliberately erased, it seems likely that Edwin Greenwood’s story was correct and we can be grateful for him returning it!

A happy ending: the prince assumes his father’s throne in the presence of viziers and courtiers (BL IO Islamic 3214, f. 165v)

The exhibition “Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700” is open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until July 26.

IO Islamic 3214 has been fully digitised and can be read on our Digital Manuscripts site (access via Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts).

Further reading

Clouston, W A, The book of Sindibād; or, the story of the king, his son, the damsel, and the seven vazīrs. [Glasgow], 1874
Falconer, F. “The Sindibād Nāmah,” The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British and Foreign India, China, and Australasia 35 (1841): 169-180; and 36 (1841): 4-18, 99-108
Haidar, Navina N  and Marika Sardar, Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700: opulence and fantasy. New York, 2015, no 97, pp. 203-4
Perry, B A, The origin of the Book of Sindbad. Berlin, 1960
Renda, Günsel, “Sindbādnāma: an early Ottoman illustrated manuscript unique in iconography and style,”  Muqarnas 21 (2004): 311-22
Weinstein, Laura S, “Variations on a Persian theme: adaptation and innovation in early manuscripts from Golconda.” PhD diss., Columbia University, New York, 2011

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies


09 July 2015

Haile Selassie and the United States of America

By the end of the Ethiopian and Italian war (1935-41), the Ethiopian economy was entirely exhausted and its natural resources plundered. Adding to the existing agony was the so-called “protected state” imposed on Ethiopia, by Winston Churchill. When it became apparent that the relationship between Ethiopia and Britain was leading to a deeper financial crisis, the Emperor Haile Selassie sought economic assistance from the new emerging global power, the USA.

ኢትዮጵያ ‘Ethiopia’, King Haile Selassie’s visit to USA and American and Ethiopian development corporations. Published by the United States information services 1954. (BL ORB 30/ 7909)  noc

The United States first provided economic and technical assistance to Ethiopia in 1944, however it was the signing of the September 1951 treaty of amity and economic relations that really strengthened the ties between them. The United States and Ethiopia became close allies right up to 1974, especially after the election of President John F. Kennedy.

Left: Kennedy: from Friday to Monday, a short biography of President J.F. Kennedy. Addis Ababa, 1966. (BL ORB 30/ 7255)
Right: The Guns and the Gunned, a pictorial pamphlet dedicated to the memory of J. F. Kennedy’s Brothers and Dr King, bastions of peace and liberty. Addis Ababa, 1968. (BL ORB 30/7907) noc

The American Peace Corps programme began working in critical areas such as agriculture, basic education, tourism, health, economic development and teaching English as a foreign language. Several schools and institutions were also established in 1963.

Several books and journals were published in Ethiopia to celebrating their cordial relations. The most notable was Point Four, a quarterly newsletter on USA and Ethiopia relations. In 1956, Highlights Haramaya University established an agricultural technical training campus in Ethiopia in collaboration with the U.S. government and with assistance from Oaklahoma State University. Formerly known as Alemaya College, the institution was officially inaugurated by Emperor Haile Selassie on January 16, 1958. The title of the newsletter borrows its name from President Harry Truman's 1949 inaugural address in which he announced a technical assistance program for developing countries that later became known as "The Point Four Program," so named because it was the fourth foreign policy objective outlined in the speech. The Point Four programme resulted a close partnership between the U.S. and Ethiopia in helping to establish some of the country's technical higher-education institutions.

የፖይንት ፎር ዜና Point four news, a quarterly magazine on USA and Ethiopia relation. Vol.II, no. 4, 1962? (BL ORB 30/ 7917)  noc


Another example is the Ethiopian  American Cook Book, a general introduction to Ethiopian and American cooking, which aimed at teaching Ethiopians to cook like Americans and vice versa. The book contains recipes for American cuisine dating from the 50s and 60s. Although it does not cover every popular dish, it does include recipes for ingredients that are common in USA.

Us and ethio
Afework Mengesha, የኢትዩጵያንና የአሜሪካን የምግብ አሠራር መጽሐፍ  Ethiopian American Cook Book. Asmara: National Literacy Campaign Organization, 196?. (BL  754. qq. 2) noc

Ethiopian cooking, however, is more an art than a science. There are traditionally no standard units of measure used for ingredients when cooking and instead rough or subjective guides to measurements are given. This must have seemed odd to Western cooks wanting to cook Ethiopian food. This book, on the other hand provides precise measures for all ingredients called for in the recipes. This made the book palatable to Americans, and also had the added benefit of recording traditional and historical Ethiopian recipes in a way that could be reproduced even by people unfamiliar with Ethiopian cuisine and cooking techniques.

The recipes are presented with clarity as a step-by-step guide aiming to convey the essence of Ethiopian cooking. There are, however, no instructions on baking or cooking times nor suggestions as to where one could find Ethiopian ingredients such as the African shrub Gesho (Rhamnus prinoides). I have reproduced several sample recipes below:

Recipe and preparation method for making Tej (honey mead)  noc

Recipe and preparation method for Teff Injera (Ethiopian bread)  noc

Pea flour fish
Recipe and preparation method for cooking Yeshimbra Asa (pea flour fish)  noc

Recipe and preparation method for Hamburgers  noc


Further reading

Agyeman-Duah, B. The United States and Ethiopia: Military assistance and the quest for security, 1953-1993. Lanham [Md. (USA)] ; London: University Press of America, 1994
Anglo-Ethiopian Parliamentary Group. Britain and Ethiopia. London: Anglo-Ethiopian Parliamentary Group, 1971
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Eyob Derillo, Asian and African Studies

06 July 2015

The Life of the Buddha in Thai manuscript art

In contrast to Thai mural painting and sculpture, depictions of Gautama Buddha are relatively rare in Thai manuscript art. Numerous Buddhist temples in Thailand are famous for their lavish mural paintings illustrating the milestones in the life of Gautama Buddha, often beginning with his former existence as a Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be) in Tusita heaven, or with the wedding of his parents, and ending with the distribution of his physical remains.

Although the majority of Thai manuscript paintings are dedicated to Buddhist topics, instead of Gautama Buddha’s life these illustrations often highlight his former incarnations, particularly the last Ten Birth Tales, and the legend of the monk Phra Malai, or other subjects like the Buddhist cosmology, funeral ceremonies and meditation practices. However, there are some remarkable representations of Gautama Buddha in rare Thai manuscripts, and sometimes these can be found in a rather unexpected context.

The most lavishly painted scene from the Life of the Buddha in the British Library’s Thai, Lao and Cambodian collection is this scene called The Great Departure, contained in a northern Thai (Lanna) Kammavaca manuscript from the 19th century. Prince Siddharta, after having learned about the worldly sufferings and the inevitability of death, decided to abandon his luxurious life and to become an ascetic as a result of his great compassion for human suffering. British Library, Or.14025, ff. 13-14  noc
While the manuscript shown above was created for use by Buddhist monks on the occasion of the ordination of novices and new monks, the following book containing a collection of drawings and paintings on European paper may have been copied from one or more older manuscripts to serve as an artist’s manual. It includes numerous drawings from the Ramakien (the Thai version of the Ramayana) as well as a set of 23 ink-and-colour paintings illustrating the Ten Birth Tales and the Life of the Buddha.

After leaving his family and home, Siddharta arrived at the Anoma river where he took off his clothes and gave them to his servant and charioteer Channa, who took them back to the palace with a message for Siddharta’s relatives. Then he cut off his hair which Sakka (Indra) collected and placed in Tavatimsa heaven. British Library, Or.14859, ff. 202-203  noc

Another rare manuscript of a smaller, almost square folding book format was used by fortune-tellers in southern Thailand. Some men specialising in fortune-telling and divination were former monks and had acquired a good knowledge of the Buddhist doctrine. It comes as no surprise that the small book combines Buddhist topics, like Jatakas and cosmology, with folk legends and indigenous beliefs. Using the text and picture on a randomly chosen page, the fortune-teller would be able to interpret the fate of a person and give advice on how to avoid bad luck. Very often the advice would point towards making merit or following the Buddhist precepts for lay people.

In the southern Thai dialect this fortune-telling book from the 19th century is called Satra. The illustrations are all rather simple, but highly expressive. The image above shows the scene where Mara, the personification of evil and death, threatens and attacks Siddharta while he was sitting in meditation, touching the ground with his right hand (bhumisparsa or earth-touching mudra). British Library, Or.16482, f. 3  noc

Another unexpected illustration of the same scene, Siddharta under attack from Mara and his army, can be found in a manuscript from central Thailand containing mantra and designs for protective diagrams (yantra). Mara cannot be seen in this drawing in yellow gamboge ink, but underneath the picture of the meditating Siddharta one can see the earth goddess Nang Thorani exercising her supernatural powers by wringing a great flood out of her long hair, thus sweeping away Mara and his army. British Library, Or.15596, f. 17  noc

Once Siddharta was free from all disturbances and distractions, he was able to attain Enlightenment on the full moon day of Visakha. By touching the earth he called upon the gods, here represented by Sakka and Brahma, to witness his enlightenment. British Library, Or.16101, fol. 2  noc

A book of Thai characters, which may have been produced on request of a Western traveller in 19th century Siam, contains ink coloured paintings of human figures representing various ethnic groups found in mainland Southeast Asia at the time, and of figures from Thai literature, particularly the Ramakien (Ramayana). Only on the first page there is a scene from the Life of the Buddha.   

The weeks after his enlightenment the Buddha spent in standing, walking and sitting meditation, thus recollecting his former births and the Four Noble Truths. During the fourth week in seated meditation, devas descended from the heavens to build a jewelled pavilion around him. British Library, Or.14229, f. 1  noc

This illustration is from a Thai folding book in Khom (Khmer) script from the 19th century that contains a collection of extracts from the Pali canon. The painting shows the Buddha in contemplation while two creatures from the heavenly Himavanta forest kneel by his side, showing their respect. British Library, Or.15246, f. 16  noc

Large illustrations covering one entire or more openings of a folding book like in the picture above are relatively rare. Most frequently we find a set of two smaller paintings touching the right and left edges of folding books with some text between them, as shown below.

This generously gilded set of paintings in a 19th century manuscript containing the legend of Phra Malai depict a scene of utmost rarity in Thai manuscript art - Gautama Buddha’s death that is mourned by his followers. On the right side we see Kassapa, one of Buddha’s closest disciples, who was travelling with a group of other monks. While resting under a tree, they encountered a man holding a gigantic flower over his head. They enquired about the meaning of this supernatural plant and the man informed them that he found it at the place where the Buddha had passed away and finally reached pari-nibbana. British Library, Or.14956, fol. 2  noc

Further reading

Appleton, Naomi and Sarah Shaw and Toshiya Unebe: Illuminating the Life of the Buddha. An illustrated chanting book from eighteenth-century Siam. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2013
Ginsburg, Henry: Thai art and culture. Historic manuscripts from Western collections. London: British Library, 2000
Tom Chuawiwat: The Life of the Lord Buddha from Thai mural painting. Bangkok: Asia Books (no year)

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