Asian and African studies blog

7 posts from August 2015

27 August 2015

Early Malay trading permits from Borneo

In November 1714, three British merchants from the East India Company ship Borneo were granted permits to trade by the sultan of Banjar on the south coast of the island of Borneo, now known as Banjarmasin in present-day Indonesian Kalimantan. The issuing of trading permits was a common occurrence, but what was exceptional in this case was the form of the permit itself: a thin piece of gold stamped with the sultan’s seal, with a personalised inscription naming each of the three officers.

At this time the ruler of Banjar was Sultan Tahmidullah (r.1712-1747), and the presentation of the permits took place at his palace at Caytongee or Kayu Tangi, about a hundred miles upriver from the port of Banjarmasin. The occasion was described by Captain Daniel Beeckman in his travelogue, A voyage to the island of Borneo in the East-Indies, published in London in 1718:

He caus’d three Gold Plates to be made of the Form and Size here mark’d, of which he gave one to me, another to Mr. Swartz, and the third to Mr. Becher; and told us, that was a Token of the Friendship, and a Chop, or Grant of Trade, having the Stamp of his Great Seal on it; that on the producing it at our return, he would not only protect us, but grant us the liberty of Trade in any part of his Dominions; Then he wish’d us, in a hearty manner, a good Voyage, and a speedy Return. I have here inserted the Words that are on the Gold Chop, as also the English of them, as near as I can, viz. De ca Tawon Zeib, daen ca Boolon Dulcaidat, Eang Sultan Derre Negree Caytongee, dea Casse enee Chop pada anacooda Beeckman. That is, In the Year Zeib, and the Moon Dulcaidat, The Sultan of Caytongee gave this Chop to Captain Beeckman’ (Beeckman 1718: 110-111).

Daniel Beeckman, A voyage to and from the island of Borneo in the East-Indies (London, 1718). British Library, T 11938 4Daniel Beeckman, A voyage to and from the island of Borneo in the East-Indies (London, 1718). British Library, T 11938 4.  noc

Hardly surprisingly, none of the original gold tokens is known to have survived. But tucked inside a manuscript volume of miscellanea in the British Library’s department of western manuscripts is a document with a tracing of the token granted to Bartholomew Swartz, supercargo of the Borneo. As part of the Harleian collection, this manuscript dates from before 1753, and was therefore probably drawn up not long after the return of the ship Borneo from the East Indies. The piece of paper is inscribed: 'The Contract with the Emperor of Borneo (in the East Indies). Mr. ... Swartz's Agent from the East India Comp. London. This was an agreement to settle & Trade or Commerce with full liberty to the Subjects of England or great Britain'. In the middle of the sheet of paper is a drawing of the token, which is labelled, 'This is on a gold plate, impressd. by the Emperor, almost as thinn as this paper, whereby it is plainly seen on the other side'.

Traced copy of the gold trading permit bearing the seal of Sultan Tahmidullah of Banjar, with a presentation inscription in Malay to Bartholomew Swartz dated 1714. British Library, Harley MS 6824, f. 194r.Traced copy of the gold trading permit bearing the seal of Sultan Tahmidullah of Banjar, with a presentation inscription in Malay to Bartholomew Swartz dated 1714. British Library, Harley MS 6824, f. 194r.  noc

The outline of the original gold plate has been traced with a sharp implement, and the inscription on the seal and the token copied out in black ink. The scored outline shows that the gold plate was rectangular on the three lower sides but rounded at the top, and measured 87 mm high by 48 mm wide. Impressed at the top of the token was the round seal of the sultan, measuring 45 mm in diameter with a triple-ruled outline, with an inscription in the middle and in a border around the edge.

This drawing is doubly significant, not only as a record of a rare seal impressed in gold, but also because it depicts the oldest Islamic seal known from Borneo. In Malay seals, the main inscription giving the name of the seal owner is invariably located in the centre, while the border houses a secondary inscription, often religious in character. However, in this seal, the only logical way of reading the inscription is to proceed from the border inwards to the centre: Sultan Tahmidullah ibn Sultan Tahirullah ibn // al-Malik[?] Allah, ‘Sultan Tahmidullah, son of Sultan Tahidullah, son of // al-Malikullah’. [It is probably significant that the only other Malay seal known where the inscription should be read from the border inwards is also from Banjar.]

Detail of the drawing of the gold sealed trading permit. British Library, Harley MS 6824, f. 194r.Detail of the drawing of the gold sealed trading permit. British Library, Harley MS 6824, f. 194r.  noc

Underneath the seal impression, the gold plate was inscribed in Malay in Jawi script with the date and the name of the recipient: Pada tahun zai pada bulan Zulkaidah hijrat [a]l-nabi seribu seratus enam tahun, Sultan Banjar mengasih cap kepada Batalomu Suwas, ‘In the year Zai, the month Zulkaidah, the year of the migration of the Prophet one thousand one hundred and six, the Sultan of Banjar gave this seal to Bartholomew Swartz’. Although the date on this copy is given as Zulkaidah 1106 (June/July 1695) it should, without doubt, read Zulkaidah 11[2]6 (November/December 1714), which accords exactly with the dates of the Borneo’s visit to Banjar.

No other reference is known to trading permits from the Malay archipelago in the form of gold tokens, and another East India Company ship, Dragon, which visited Banjarmasin in 1746 during the reign of Sultan Tahmidullah's son, Tamjidullah (r.1746-1756), received more conventional trading permits, written on paper in Malay in very stylish Jawi calligraphy, and bearing the sultan's seal stamped in red wax.

Trading agreement for pepper issued by the Sultan of Banjar to the East India Company, received on 24 October 1746. British Library, IOR L/Mar/C/324, f. 65r.
Trading agreement for pepper issued by the Sultan of Banjar to the East India Company, received on 24 October 1746: 'This is our royal decree to Mr Butler, Mr Stewart and Captain Kent; as your trading vessels sail in and out we agree that they will not be searched; you must not allow any nobles or notables to board your ship, or anyone at night, and during daytime only two or three merchants may board (at any one time); and we promise the Company to supply six thousand pikul of pepper, this is not negotiable, and each year whether two or three ships come, it will be [only] six thousand' (Bahwa ini titah kami kepada Mister Butel dan Mister Asdut serta Kapitan Kin jikalau ada perahu masuk atau perahu keluar tiada kami berikan diperiksa yang jenis perahu dagang dan lagi pula kalau raja2 atau orang besar2 hendak bermain ke kapal jangan dinaikkan atau orang henda naik pada malam melainkan orang berdagang dua tiga orang beroleh naik pada hari siang dan akan perjanjian kita dengan Kompeni memuat lada enam ribu pikul tiada kita mengubahkan tiap2 tahun jikalau kapal datang dua atau tiga enam ribu jua). British Library, IOR L/Mar/C/324, f. 65r.  noc

Financial surety issued by the Sultan of Banjar, 1746: 'This is our surety issued to Mister Butler for the rials, valid only as far as Batavia; if Mister Butler does not return to Banjar our friendship with the East India Company will be revoked' (Bahwa ini surat kami akan Mister Butel mengganti rial itu sehingga ke Betawi saja, jikalau tiada kembali ke Banjar adalah Mister Butel menceraikan sahabat kami dengan Kompeni). British Library, IOR L/Mar/C/324, f. 64rFinancial surety issued by the Sultan of Banjar, 1746: 'This is our surety issued to Mister Butler for the rials, valid only as far as Batavia; if Mister Butler does not return to Banjar our friendship with the East India Company will be revoked' (Bahwa ini surat kami akan Mister Butel mengganti rial itu sehingga ke Betawi saja, jikalau tiada kembali ke Banjar adalah Mister Butel menceraikan sahabat kami dengan Kompeni). British Library, IOR L/Mar/C/324, f. 64r.  noc

Two red wax seals bearing the name Sultan Tamjidullah, both inscribed from the bottom up so that the word Allah is elevated to the position of honour at the top of the seal. British Library, IOR L/Mar/324, f. 64r (left) and f. 65r (right). Two red wax seals bearing the name Sultan Tamjidullah, both inscribed from the bottom up so that the word Allah is elevated to the position of honour at the top of the seal. British Library, IOR L/Mar/324, f. 64r (left) and f. 65r (right).
Two red wax seals bearing the name Sultan Tamjidullah, both inscribed from the bottom up so that the word Allah is elevated to the position of honour at the top of the seal. British Library, IOR L/Mar/324, f. 64r (left) and f. 65r (right).  noc

Further reading

A.T. Gallop & V. Porter, Lasting Impressions: Seals from the Islamic World. Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 2012.

A.T. Gallop, Elevatio in Malay diplomatics, Annales Islamologiques.  Dossier: Les conventions diplomatiques dans le monde musulman.  L’umma en partage (1258-1517), ed. Marie Favereau.  41 (2007), pp. 41-57.

Malay manuscripts from Borneo

With thanks to Richard Morel who discovered the two permits of 1746.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

21 August 2015

Forty more Arabic scientific manuscripts go live in Qatar Digital Library

In November 2014 we announced the first forty Arabic scientific manuscripts to go live in the Qatar Digital Library.  We are now pleased to let you know that a further forty Arabic manuscripts have been uploaded.

The thinking behind our selection can be found in our previous blog. Of particular note is the fact that all our copies of the Almagest of Ptolemy have now been digitised (Add MS 7474, Add MS 7475, Add MS 7476 and  Royal MS 16 A VIII), as well as other representative manuscripts containing Arabic translations of Greek scientific texts, for example, Galen's Ars medica (Arundel Or 52) and Hippocrates’ Aphorisms (Or 9452).
Or 1347_f3rOr 1347_f2v
Ibn Buṭlān's book on dietetic medicine copied for Saladin’s son, al-Malik al-Ẓāhir, King of Aleppo in AD 1213 (Or 1347, ff. 2v-3r)

Masterpieces of Islamic book arts in this second group of forty include Ibn Buṭlān’s book on dietetic medicine, Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥah (Or 1347); an anonymous bestiary compiled from the writings of Aristotle and Ibn Bakhtīshū‘, Kitāb na‘t al-ḥayawān (Or 2784); a richly illuminated copy of  Avicenna’s Canon (Or 5033); al-Qazwinī’s Wonders of creation (Or 14140 and see The London Qazwini goes live) and a fourteenth-century Mamluk Manuscript on Horsemanship (Add MS 18866).

Up to now we have focussed our efforts on digitising copies of the Arabic scientific classics. In the next phase, while continuing to expand the range of digitised scientific classics, we will also be moving on to trace the development of the sciences in the less well-charted territories of Ottoman- and Mughal-period scientific literature. We aim to provide valuable resources for understanding the long and varied history of the sciences in the Arabic-speaking world beyond the Classical Period.

Below you will find a list of the second group of forty manuscripts.

Add MS 7473: Compendium of mathematical, philosophical and historical texts, including a number of Graeco-Arabic texts. Copied in Dhū al-Qa‘dah 639 (May 1242).

The beginning of Kitāb al-sīrah al-falsafīyah, an autobiographical treatise by the physician and philosopher Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyā al-Rāzī (Add MS 7473, f. 1v)

Add MS 7476:  al-Nīsābūrī’s commentary on al-Ṭūsī's commentary on the Almagest.  Dated Sa‘bān 704 (4 March 1305).        

Add MS 7482: Quṭb al-Dīn Maḥmūd ibn Mas‘ūd al-Shīrāzī, Nihāyat al-idrāk fī dirāyat al-aflāk, a text on astronomy and the orbits of the heavenly bodies. Dated, at Cairo, 17 Rabī‘ II 872 (15 November 1467).

Add MS 12187:  Dā’ūd ibn ‘Umar al-Qaṣīr al-Anṭākī, Tadhkirat ūlī al-albāb wa-al-jāmi‘ lil-‘ajb al-‘ujāb, a medical encyclopaedia. Copied in 1838.

Add MS 14332: A collection of four mathematical treatises on conic sections. Dated 26 December 1834.

Add MS 18866: Muḥammad ibn ‘Īsá ibn Ismā‘īl al-Ḥanafī al-Aqṣarā’ī, Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah fī ta‘allum a‘māl al-furūsīyah, a Mamluk manual on horsemanship, military arts and technology. Dated 10 Muḥarram 773 (25 July 1371).

Add MS 23390: Two treatises. (1) Hero of Alexandria, Fī raf‘ al-ashyā’ al-thaqīlah, the Arabic version of the Mechanica; (2) an exhaustive treatise on the magical arts by Abū al-Qāsim Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad, known as al-‘Irāqī al-Khusrawshāhī. 17th century.

Add MS 23397: Collection of three astronomical commentaries from the 14th and 15th centuries.

Arundel Or 10: Medical compendium. Dated late Sha‘bān 711 (early January 1312).

Arundel Or 41: ʿAlī ibn Sahl ibn Rabban al-Ṭabarī, Firdaws al-ḥikmah, an encyclopaedia of medicine. 13th century.  

Arundel Or 52: A copy of Galen's Ars medica in the Arabic version thought to be by Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq. Dated Dhū al-Ḥijjah 448 (February-March 1057).
The colophon to Galen's Τέχνη ἰατρική ('Ars medica') in the Arabic version thought to be by Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, dated Dhū al-Ḥijjah 448 (February-March 1057). Note the absence of any dots in this 11th century hand (Arundel Or 52, f. 114v)

IO Islamic 824: Compendium of short texts, extracts and notes on scientific and philosophical subjects, compiled by Aḥmad ibn Sulaymān Ghūjārātī. Dated Dhū al-Ḥijjah 1134 (September-October 1722).

IO Islamic 923: Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Arabic (and one Persian) versions of six Greek mathematical treatises. Copied in Jumādá I-Sha‘bān 1198 (March-July 1784).

IO Islamic 1148: Three treatises on astronomy and geometry: Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Taḥrīr al-Majisṭī; Menelaus of Alexandria, Fī ashkāl al-kurīyah; Ulugh Beg, Zīj-i Ulugh Beg.

IO Islamic 1270: Compendium of texts on mathematics and optics mostly by Ibn Haytham (Alhazen). Late 10th century-Early 11th century.

Or 116: Isma‘īl ibn al-Razzāz al-Jazarī, Kitāb fī maʿrifat al-ḥiyal al-handasīyah, a treatise on practical mechanics. 18th century.

Or 1347: Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥah. An elaborate presentation copy of Ibn Buṭlān’s book on dietetic medicine produced for Saladin’s son, al-Malik al-Ẓāhir, (d. 1216), King of Aleppo. Dated Jumādá II 610 (1213).

Title page of Ibn Buṭlān’s Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥah containing the dedication to Saladin’s son, al-Malik al-Ẓāhir, King of Aleppo (Or.1347, f. 1r)

Or 1997: Abū al-Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī, The al-Qanūn al-Masʿūdī, an early and complete copy of the comprehensive astronomical work, or Canon.   Dated Rabī‘ I 570 (September-October 1174).

Or 2600: Abū Ja‘far Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Abī al-Ash‘ath, Kitāb al-ghādhī wa-al-mughtadhī, a treatise on dietetics and the nourishment of the parts of the body. Dated Dhū al-Qa‘dah 348 (January-February 960).

Or 2600_f5r
Beginning of chapter 2: on the nourishment of the natural soul and its organs, by Abū Ja‘far Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Abī al-Ash‘ath. Copied at Mosul in AD 960 from the author's autograph copy written in Barqī Castle in Armenia in AD 959 (Or 2600, f. 5r)

Or 2601: A composite volume, consisting of three manuscripts apparently from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The first two are medical texts, and the last is a tale also found in the Arabian Nights.

Or 2784: Kitāb na‘t al-ḥayawān, a bestiary describing the characteristics and medical uses of a large number of animals. 13th century.

Or2784_f2v Or2784_f96
The authors of the original sources used by the anonymous compiler. Left (Or.2784, f. 2v): Abū Sa‘īd ‘Ubayd Allāh ibn Jibrā’īl ibn ‘Ubayd Allāh ibn Bakhtīshū‘; right (Or.2784, f. 96r):  the philosopher Aristotle

Or2784_f10r Or2784_f35v
Left (Or.2784, f. 10r): a goose and a duck; right (Or.2784, f. 35v): an Egyptian vulture

Or 3129: Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Ibn Imām al-Naḥḥāsīyah, Tuḥfat al-ṭullāb fī sharḥ nuzhat al-ḥussāb,  a commentary on arithmetic and ḥisāb al-ghubār, or calculation by means of a dust covered board.  Dated 7 Dhū al-Ḥijjah 890 (15 December 1485). 

Or 3623: Zakarīyā ibn Muḥammad al-Qazwīnī, Āthār al-bilād wa-akhbār al-ʿibād, a gazetteer of world geography. Dated Friday 27 Dhū al-Qa‘dah 729 (22 September 1329).

Or 3645: Saʿīd ibn Hibat Allāh ibn al-Ḥusayn, al-Mughnī fī tadbīr al-amrāḍ wa-maʿrifat al-ʿilal wa-al-aʿrāḍ, a concise handbook of medicine. 12th century.

Or 5033: Avicenna, al-Qānūn fī al-ṭibb, The Canon of Medicine. A richly illuminated copy. Dated 4 Shawwāl 1069 (25 June 1659).

Or 5316: Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyā al-Rāzī, al-Kitāb al-Manṣūrī,  influential compendium of medicine written in 903 and dedicated to the Governor of Rayy, Abū Ṣāliḥ Manṣūr ibn Isḥāq. Dated 1 Ramaḍān 1000 (11 June 1592), at Mashhad.

Or 5659: ʻAlī ibn Abī al-Ḥazm, Ibn al-Nafīs, al-Mūjiz fī ʿilm al-ṭibb.  Ibn al-Nafīs' epitome of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine. Dated 6 Rabī‘a I 786 (28 April 1384).

Or 5725: Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, al-Masā’il fī al-ṭibb lil-muta‘allimīn, an introduction to medicine for students in the form of questions and answers. Dated 656 (1258).

Or 5786: A collection of texts on pharmacology and ophthalmology, including al-Kūhīn al-ʻAṭṭār’s Minhāj al-dukkān wa-dustūr al-a‘yān. Dated 715 (1315-16).

Or 5856: ‘Alī ibn ‘Īsá al-Kaḥḥāl, Tadhkirat al-kaḥḥālīn, a treatise on eye diseases. Dated 20 Ṣafar 690 (22 February 1291) at Baghdad.

Or 6492: Sadīd al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Mas‘ūd al-Kāzarūnī, Ḥāshiyat Sharḥ Kullīyāt al-Qānūn. Al-Kazaruni’s commentary on Ibn al-Nafīs' commentary on Book One of Avicenna’s Canon.  Dated 22 Ramaḍān 770 (13 April 1369).

Or 6591: ʻAlī ibn al-ʻAbbās al-Majūsī, Kāmil al-ṣināʿah al-ṭibbīyah, an encyclopaedia of the art of medicine. Dated Ṣafar 548-16 Jumādá II 548 (early May-8 September 1153).

Or 6670: Three medical treatises by Galen. Dated 9 Rabī‘ I 580 (20 June 1184) at Damascus.

Or 9452: Medical compendium containing Hippocrates’ al-Fuṣūl (Aphorisms), Ibn Jazlah’s Minhāj al-bayān and a collection of ten extracts from poets and medical authors. Dated Thursday 3 Ramaḍān 690 (Thursday 30 August 1291).

Or 11314: Handbook on health and medicine for use while travelling or at home by Raḍī al-Dīn Abū al-Qāsim ‘Alī ibn Mūsá ibn ibn Ja‘far ibn Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ṭāwūs al-‘Alawī al-Fāṭimī.  Dated 28 Dhū al-Ḥijjah 1092 (9 January 1682).

Or 14140: Zakarīyā ibn Muḥammad al-Qazwīnī, ‘Ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt, an encyclopaedic work on cosmology. 14th century.

Or 14270: Two technological treatises. (1) Kitāb Arshimīdas fī ‘amal al-binkamāt, a treatise on the hydraulic and pneumatic machinery of water-clocks, attributed to Archimedes. (2) Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad al-Farghānī, al-Kāmil fī ṣan‘at al-asṭurlāb al-shimālī wa-al-junūbī wa-‘ilalihuma bi-l-handasah wa-al-ḥisab, on the construction of the astrolabe. Dated  28 Shawwāl 691 (12 October 1292).

Automaton of an executioner on horseback, from Kitāb Arshimīdas, dated AD 1292 (Or 14270, f. 10r)

Mechanical snakes that emerge from holes at the foot of a mountain on the hour and the mechanism that drives them, from Kitāb Arshimīdas, dated AD 1292 (Or 14270, f. 12r)

Or 14791: Three treatises on the prediction of future events based on astronomical, meteorological and other natural phenomena.  Dated 19 Ṣafar 1295 (22 February 1878).

Royal MS 16 A VIII: Arabic version of the Almagest of Ptolemy in the annotated edition of Naṣīr al-Dīn Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ṭūsī. 15th-16th century.

Sloane MS 3034: Ibn Haytham (Alhazen), Maqālah fī istikhrāj irtifā‘ al-quṭb ‘alá ghāyat al-taḥqīq, a short treatise describing a geometrical method for precisely determining latitude. Dated 2 February 1646.


Colin F. Baker, Head, Middle Eastern and Central Asian Collections
Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership


18 August 2015

The travels of a manuscript: Rashid al-Din's Compendium of Chronicles (Add.7628)

The Jāmiʿ al-tavārīkh or ‘Compendium of Chronicles’ is a monumental universal history composed by Rashīd al-Dīn (d. 1317) in Persian at the beginning of the 14th century. It was originally written for the Mongol Ilkhan of Iran Ghazan Khan (d. 1304) but was finally presented to his brother and successor Oljaytu Khan (d. 1317) possibly in 1307. The work acquired enormous popularity both in medieval and modern times especially for its unique description of the rise of Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Empire. There are copies of this work in all the major libraries in Europe and the Middle East, including several masterpieces of 14th century manuscript illustration.

Heading in the hand of Shah Rukh’s third son Baysunghur (1397-1433). Sultan Muhammad's seal is stamped in the margin (British Library Add.7628, f. 410v)

The British Library has a number of interesting copies of this work. One of the earliest is the recently digitised Add.16688, copied possibly in the late 14th or early 15th century, but incomplete. It has an interesting re-arrangement of the contents and, as has been suggested recently (Kamola, p. 233), contains some unique insights into the composition of the work. Another remarkable copy is IO Islamic 3524, a 16th century copy, but one which contains the entire two volumes of the chronicle [1].

However perhaps the most valuable copy held at the British library is Add.7628. Although now fully accessible online, it is difficult to appreciate its immense size and magnificence. Comprising 728 folios, and measuring 45.72 x 27.94 cm (18 x 11 in), it is written in several different hands in a clear early 15th century naskh script, thus immediately indicating its royal origin. In addition to many other important features, the manuscript includes a number of seals and signatures which provide some interesting insights into the origin and history of the manuscript. It is these on which I shall focus in this post.

Although the colophon lacks a specific date, some of the references to historical figures that appear in the text allow us to approximate a relative date of copy. One of these is a short note mentioning the Timurid Sultan Shah Rukh (d. 1447), who ruled in Khorasan, Afghanistan and Central Asia after the death of his father Timur. This describes how the work was originally copied for the Ilkhan Ghazan Khan (letters in gold) and describes Shah Rukh, the shadow of God on Earth (ظلا الله فی الارضین) etc, as the owner (f. 403v). The royal connection is even more evident on folio 410v, illustrated above, where the words Khaṭ-i Bāysunghur (‘Baysunghur’s handwriting’) are written in golden letters. This name can be easily identified with Shah Rukh son’s Ghiyas al-Din Baysunghur (d. 1433), the well-known patron of the arts who was also a calligrapher himself. Since Baysunghur died in 1433, the manuscript must have been copied before then. The manuscript also includes empty spaces left perhaps for illustrations which were, however, never incorporated.

The manuscript contains a number of interesting seals that help to partially reconstruct its history. It is not surprising that some of these seals belong to members of the Timurid royal family, who had this copy in their personal libraries. A seal that appears four times belonged to the above-mentioned Sultan Shah Rukh. In addition, a seal belonging to his grandson Sultan Muhammad (d. 1452), who ruled after his grandfather until he was executed by a rival family member (Manz, p. 270), sometimes appears next to that of his grandfather.

Top: seal of Shah Rukh (d. 1447):  
من کتب خزانة السلطان الاعظم شاه رخ بهادر ‘From the library of the greatest Sulṭān Shāh Rukh Bahādur’
Bottom: seal of his grandson Muhammad Sultan (d. 1451-2):
حسبی الله ولی الاحسان واناالعبد محمد سلطان ‘Sufficient for me is God, the Source of all Goodness, and I am [his] slave Muḥammad Sulṭān’
(British Library Add.7628, f.623r)

This suggests that the manuscript remained in Herat at least until the middle of the 15th century. However, the fate of the book is less certain when trying to reconstruct what happened to it in the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries. A seal of possible Aq Quyunlu origin appears on folio 414r mentioning a certain ʻAbd al-Wahhāb bin Luṭf Allāh Sangalākhī (?)[2]. If this is the case, then the manuscript could have been taken as booty during one of several Aq Quyunlu raids in the area of Herat during Uzun Hasan’s reign (r. 1453-71) or be part of a diplomatic gift between the Timurids and the Aq Quyunlu confederation before that date (Woods, pp.112-3). In either case, the manuscript might have travelled west from Khurasan around the middle of the 15th century.

Late 15th or even early 16th century seal, most probably Aq Quyunlu:
 ﺍلمتوكل على الله اﺍلفقیر ﺍلر[ا]جي عبد اﺍلوﻫاﺏ بن لطف الله سنگلاخي؟
‘Confident in God, the needy one hoping [for God's help] ʻAbd al-Wahhāb bin Luṭf Allāh Sangalākhī (?)’
(British Library Add. 7628, f. 414r)

Another puzzling seal is one in kufic script which occurs on the first leaf of the manuscript. Kufic seals were sometimes used as personal seals, even without specifying any personal names [3], but in this case the seal is found next to an Ottoman seal containing the name of a certain Muṣṭafá Ṣidqī. The two seals could date from different periods but luckily for us, the same two seals are found together in another British Library manuscript (RSPA 59). This is an allegedly 14th century copy of the Javāmiʻ al-ḥikāyāt va lavāmiʻ al-rivāyāt, a work on ethics containing anecdotes and tales in Persian by Muḥammad ʻAwfī (fl. 1228). The identical seals appear on folio 7v, suggesting that the kufic seal actually belonged to the bibliophile Muṣṭafá Ṣidqī  (d. 1769/70) [4]. These two seals also occur together as a pair in British Library Or.13127, f. 1r and in a number of other manuscripts listed in the Chester Beatty Islamic Seals database (for example CBL Ar 3008 f1a).

British Library Add.7628, f. 3r

RSPA59_f7r copy_1500
British Library RSPA 59, f 7r
Small kufic seal: ما شا الله لاقوة ﺍلا بالله  'What God Wills. There is no Power except by God'
Larger oval Ottoman seal: من متملكات اﺍلفقیر اﺍلحاج مصطفى صدقي غفر له ۱۷۹  ‘[One] of properties of the needy al-Ḥājj Muṣṭafá Ṣidqī, may [God’s] mercy be upon him [1]179 (1765/66)

The Ottoman seals together with two ownership notes in Ottoman Turkish at the beginning of the manuscript on folio 3r suggest that the book travelled even further west in the 18th century. The first note mentions that the manuscript was bought by Ahmed Resmi, a Greek Ottoman diplomat, from a bookseller at the Imperial camp in Babadağı (present day Rumania) in AH 1185 (April 1771). It was subsequently acquired by a certain ʻĀrif, who signed the second note dated AH 1210 (1795/6). In 1818 Claudius James Rich purchased the manuscript in Baghdad (f. 1r). As was common among British colonial officials [5], Rich had his seal written in Arabic script, with his name in the central panel surrounded by an Arabic text in praise of the Prophet Muhammad taken from Saʻdī’s Gūlistān. Finally the manuscript was sold to the British Museum from Claudius Rich's estate in 1825.

Seal of Claudius James Rich (1786-1821), resident at Baghdad 1808-21, dated AH 1227 (1812/13). His name is in the centre, surrounded by a verse in Arabic quoted from Saʻdī’s Gulistān: 
بلغَ العلی بِکمالِه کشفَ الدُّجی بِجَمالِه        حَسنتْ جَمیعُ خِصالِه صلّوا علیه و آله  (British Library Add. 7628, f. 2r)

Despite the popularity of the Jāmiʿ al-tavārīkh and the amount of secondary literature that has been written about it, the study of individual manuscripts can reveal aspects of its history which are lost if we only consider published editions. In this case, by looking at the seals in Add.7628, we can trace the travels of this manuscript from the Timurid court in early 15th century Herat all the way to colonial Britain via the Ottoman Empire.


Further reading

Text editions:
Rashīd al-Dīn Ṭabīb, Jāmiʻ al-tavārīkh, ed. Bahman Karīmī, 2v. Tihrān: Iqbāl, 1959
Rashīd al-Dīn Ṭabīb, Jāmiʻ al-tavārīkh, eds. Muṣṭafá Mūsavī, and Muḥammad Rawshan, 4v. Tihrān: Nashr-i Alburz, 1994

Other works:
Stefan T. Kamola, “Rashīd al-Dīn and the making of history in Mongol Iran.” PhD. Diss., University of Washington, 2013
Beatrice Forbes Manz, Power, Politics and Religion in Timurid Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007
John Woods, The Aqquyunlu : clan, confederation, empire. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999

Bruno De Nicola, University of St. Andrews, European Research Council project: The Islamisation of Anatolia (ERC grant number 284076)

with thanks especially to Manijeh Bayani for her help with the inscriptions, and also to Daniel Lowe and Ursula Sims-Williams


[1] Other copies in the British Library Collection are IO Islamic 4710 (early 19th century) containing only the section on Ghazan Khan; Add.18878 (vol. 2 only, also 19th century, copied in India); IO Islamic 1784 (undated).
[2] Special thanks to Manijeh Bayani for this suggestion and the reading of the seal.
[3] Personal communication from Annabel Gallop.
[4] See François Déroche, Islamic codicology: an introduction to the study of manuscripts in Arabic script. London: al-Furqan, 2006, p. 341, fig. 133.
[5] See Daniel Lowe, “Performing Authority: the ‘Islamic’ Seals of British Colonial Officers.

14 August 2015

Paintings of birds from the collection of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles

The name of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781—1826) is best known today for his role in the founding of Singapore, and by a hotel there that bears only a nominal connection with him. By profession a colonial administrator, by inclination he was a passionate naturalist with broad interests in the humanities that first revealed themselves in his administration of Java (1811—15).

Portrait of Sir Stamford Raffles. British Library, Raffles MSS Eur D.742.14.6.8

Portrait of Sir Stamford Raffles. British Library, Raffles MSS Eur D.742.14.6.8  noc

In the East India Company he was a somewhat controversial figure, resulting in his being posted to the backwater of Fort Marlborough on the deeply unhealthy west coast of Sumatra (1818—24); here he indulged his hobbies, making substantial collections of naturalia and commissioning Chinese and French artists to illustrate the more spectacular of his finds. Tragically his huge collection was destroyed when packed up on the ship Fame, which in 1824 was to take him and his wife back to England to rejoin their single surviving daughter (in Sumatra Raffles had lost two naturalists and three of his children to fever!)

'Loss of the Fame, East Indiaman'. Engraved by T. Brown.  Published in Stationers Almanack for 1825. British Library, P411.
'Loss of the Fame, East Indiaman'. Engraved by T. Brown.  Published in Stationers Almanack for 1825. British Library, P411.  noc

In the eight weeks until the next ship sailed, he commissioned the artists to remake 44 bird drawings, seven of animals and 27 of plants. These drawings (along with some from his first Oriental period) were preserved by the Raffles family until his indirect descendants, the Drake family, deposited them on permanent loan to the British Library in 1969. In 2007  the collection was purchased for the nation, at which point a significant proportion of them was exhibited in the Central Library, Liverpool and at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. The opportunity has now arisen to present a changing selection of these spectacular works in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery, starting with three of the bird paintings – the work of a little-known French artist ‘J. Briois’, who was possibly recruited by Raffles in Calcutta. The following three studies are currently on view. 

Nicobar pigeon, Sumatra, Indonesia, around 1824. Attributed to J. Brios, c. 1824. Watercolour, bodycolour, pencil, gold and silver leaf and gum arabic on paper. British Library, NHD 47/38.
Nicobar pigeon, Sumatra, Indonesia, around 1824. Attributed to J. Brios, c. 1824. Watercolour, bodycolour, pencil, gold and silver leaf and gum arabic on paper. British Library, NHD 47/38.  noc

Female crested fireback,Sumatra, Indonesia, around 1824. Attributed to J. Brios, c. 1824. Watercolour, bodycolour, pencil, gold and silver leaf and gum arabic on paper. British Library, NHD 47/42.
Female crested fireback,Sumatra, Indonesia, around 1824. Attributed to J. Brios, c. 1824. Watercolour, bodycolour, pencil, gold and silver leaf and gum arabic on paper. British Library, NHD 47/42.  noc

Crested fireback, Sumatra, Indonesia, around 1824. Attributed to J. Brios, c. 1824. Watercolour, bodycolour, pencil, gold and silver leaf and gum arabic on paper. British Library, NHD 47/43.
Crested fireback, Sumatra, Indonesia, around 1824. Attributed to J. Brios, c. 1824. Watercolour, bodycolour, pencil, gold and silver leaf and gum arabic on paper. British Library, NHD 47/43.  noc

The  Raffles Family Collection was purchased through the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund, Friends of the British Library, Friends of the National Libraries, and John Koh of Singapore.  The BL Shop has a selection of fine art prints, postcards and publications on the Raffles Collection; you can have your own print of the Crested Fireback


Further reading:

Memoir of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles

H.J. Noltie, Raffles’ Ark Redrawn: Natural History Drawings from the Collection of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles.  London: the British Library and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, in association with Bernard Quaritch, 2009.


Henry Noltie, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh  ccownwork


12 August 2015

LibCrowds: How your contributions can help improve access to the collections of the British Library

It has been just over two months since the LibCrowds platform was launched. In that time, volunteers have made over 13,000 contributions and completed over 4000 tasks. The first batches of data are currently being sorted and provisional figures look promising, with approximately 50% of cards being successfully matched against an appropriate OCLC WorldCat record. What this means in practice is that in two months our volunteers have already helped to create somewhere in the region of 2000 new electronic catalogue records, which will soon be available via Explore. This number is likely to rise even further as the data is sorted and some of the more ambiguous matches are confirmed.

For those that have already participated, or those that might be about to, we thought you might like to know the end-to-end process involved in turning your contributions into electronic catalogue records.

The back-end process involved in turning your contributions into new online catalogue records.

The first stage is to ask three volunteers to attempt to match an image of a catalogue card against records retrieved from the WorldCat database. So far, a very high proportion of volunteers have successfully selected accurate records. However, by asking three people to complete the same task, and looking for cases where at least two volunteers have selected the same record, we can provide a level of risk mitigation and be confident that the records being retrieved are correct. In cases where volunteers choose different records more thorough checks will be needed to verify which (if any) are correct. It is also important to identify those cards that don’t match a current WorldCat record, so no contributions are wasted.

Once a project is complete, a quality control process is performed by British Library staff. This includes spot checks by the relevant curators, investigation of any volunteer comments, normalisation of shelf marks and various other automated checks against the WorldCat database. The end product of this process is a list of British Library shelf marks and associated OCLC control numbers.

This list provides the input to a batch process that creates copies of the identified WorldCat records, adds the associated British Library shelf mark and then ingests these new catalogue records into the British Library’s main catalogue database, making them available via Explore.

The LibCrowds statistics page provides a range of charts representing current contribution data.

Each contribution is important in helping to build the British Library’s searchable online database. The current focus is on improving access to our Chinese and Indonesian collections and other collections are already being considered. However, no specific language skills are required to take part as cards generally include Romanised transcriptions.

Contributions to Convert-a-Card projects can be made from any desktop or mobile device.

The platform is being active developed, with recent updates including improved mobile optimisation, improved forum integration and the implementation of some ideas suggested by our volunteers. So, alongside the significant contributions to be made by participating in a project, there are plenty of other things for you to discover and explore over at LibCrowds. We look forward to seeing you there!

To stay up-to-date with recent developments read the LibCrowds blog, follow LibCrowds on Twitter or subscribe to the LibCrowds Newsletter.

For further information visit the LibCrowds Community.

Alex Mendes, Asian and African Studies


08 August 2015

Cats in Persian manuscripts

Since August 8th is International Cat Day, it seemed a good excuse to publish some of the more picturesque felines from the manuscripts we have been working with during the last three years of our project ‘Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts’.

Double-page opening to the tales of the two jackals Kalilah and Dimnah, by Naṣr Allāh ibn Muḥammad, dated AH 707/1307-8. Here the king is enthroned on the left, surrounded by courtiers with two lions beneath and, on the right, hunting cheetahs, a horse and a hawk (Or.13506, ff 2v-3r)

The most frequently illustrated is probably the lion who features alternately as the noble king of the animals and a ferocious wild creature. In the context of animal tales, which abound in Persian literature, the lion is often accompanied by the leopard.  The snow leopard, especially, was prized for its coat which, like the famous tiger skin of the warrior Rustam, appears in paintings, worn by heroes and kings. Cheetahs were used as hunting animals, sometimes shown accompanying their masters on horseback. Tigers are less common in Persian manuscripts - except as clothing - , and domestic cats hardly feature at all.

The earliest examples (illustrated immediately above and below) are from Naṣr Allāh's translation of the Arabic version, Kalīlah wa Dimnah, of the tales of Bidpai. This manuscript is dated AH 707/1307-8 and originates from Southern Iran.

Hare and lion_Or13506_54 Or_13506_f041r
Left: The hare tricks the lion into attacking his own reflection in a well (Or.13506, f. 52v)
Right: The lion with its courtiers, leopard, wolf, gazelle and Dimnah the jackal (Or.13506, f. 41r)

Add.18579, a Mughal copy of Bidpai's tales, the Anvār-i Suḥaylī  by Ḥusayn Vāʻiz̤ Kāshifī, shows much more life-like felines. This copy was made especially for the emperor Jahangir between 1604 and 1611.

The lioness in conference with the leopard, the cheetah and other animals. Artist: Ustād Ḥusayn (Add.18579, f 146r)

A common theme at the beginning of manuscripts of Iranian origin is for King Solomon to be portrayed holding court, usually with Bilqis (Sheba) on a facing page, surrounded by animals, angels, divs (demons), and birds.

Solomon enthroned. Opening to a 16th century copy from Shiraz of Firdawsīʼs epic history of Iran the Shāhnāmah (IO Islamic 3540, f. 1v)

Here Guyumars, the first king of Iran and clad in the skin of a snow leopard, holds court in an idyllic age when all wild creatures were tamed (IO Islamic 3540, f. 17r)

An equally popular theme involving animal audiences is that of the lovelorn Majnun who, separated form his beloved Layla, wasted away in the desert with wild animals as his only friends.

Majnun in the wilderness, from Shah Tahmasp's imperial copy of the Khamsah by Niz̤āmī. Mid-16th century, painted by Mīrak (Or.2265, f. 166r)

In this copy of the same work, commissioned for the Mughal emperor Akbar and dated AH 1004/1595-6, Majnun affectionally strokes a tiger - you can almost see him purring. Beside him lies  a lion while pairs of cheetahs and leopards relax alongside animals who would normally be their prey. Artist: Sānvalah (Or.12208, f. 150v)

Another frequently illustrated 'lion' episode in Niz̤āmī's Khamsah occurs in the romance of Khusraw and Shirin.

In this scene the Sasanian king Khusraw Parviz and Shirin were feasting together when suddenly a lion approached the royal pavilion. Khusraw hit the lion with his fist and killed it instantly. From a Safavid manuscript dated AH 1076-7/1665-7 (Add.6613, f. 48v)

F031v_Khusraw kills a lion
This slightly unorthodox portrayal of the same scene - in which the lion looks more like a tame pet- comes from a recent acquisition originating from North or Western India from the Sultanate (i.e. pre-Mughal) period, dating from the end of the 15th century  (Or.16919, f. 31v)

Many other Persian manuscripts besides those already mentioned depict members of the cat family in incidental scenes of courtly life. An interesting example is this painting from the Sufi allegory Manṭiq al-ṭayr ‘Speech of the Birds’ by the poet Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār which shows a hunting cheetah carried on horseback.

The tale of two foxes from Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār's Manṭiq al-ṭayr. Late 15th or early 16th century from Herat (Add.7735, f. 84r)

Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār’s famous poem Manṭiq al-ṭayr (‘Speech of the Birds’), a Sufi allegory of the quest for God - See more at:

And finally an  example of the domestic cat:

Inside front cover from a Qajar binding depicting a woman with her attendant and pet cat. Late 18th century (Add. 7760)

Most of these manuscripts have been fully digitised. Follow the hyperlinks to explore them further.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

05 August 2015

Festivals in Burma (Myanmar)

There are many Burmese festivals throughout the year and most of them are related to Buddhism. The year begins with the month named Tagu (April), and ends with the month called Tabaung (March). The main festivals of Tagu are the Burmese New Year and the Thingyan water-throwing festival, which is held for four days in mid-April. The exact date and the precise time of the commencement and termination of Thingyan and New Year's Day are fixed through astrological calculations. Thingyan is a word derived from the Sanskrit sankranta meaning the end of the past year and the beginning of the new year. Many devout Buddhists initiate their sons and ordain them into the Buddhist order around the time of the water festival. Popular New Year activities include visiting monasteries with offerings for Buddhist monks to observe precepts, listening to dhamma talks and meditation. Another activity to usher in the New Year is the ceremonial bathing of Buddha images in scented water at homes or at pagodas.

Kason nyaung yei thun pwe (water pouring festival), British Library, Or.15021, ff. 4-6
Kason nyaung yei thun pwe (water pouring festival), British Library, Or.15021, ff. 4-6          

The water pouring festival (Kason nyaung yei thun pwe) is held in the second month of the Burmese calendar, Kason (May). The full moon day of Kason is very significant for Buddhist people, and is called ‘Buddha Day’, because four cardinal events happened on this day: Dipinkara Buddha foretold that the hermit Thumeda would be re-born as the Buddha, Gotama; the Buddha was born; Gotama Buddha attained Enlightenment at the foot of the Bodhi tree; and the Buddha passed into Nirvana. On the 14th waxing day of Kason, a day before the full moon, people carry water pots and go to the pagoda to pour water at the sacred Bodhi tree.

Sar pyan pwe, British Library, Or.15021, ff. 7-8
Sar pyan pwe, British Library, Or.15021, ff. 7-8                                                         

Nayun (June), the third month of the Burmese calendar, is when examinations are held for Buddhist monks in the recitation of Theravada Buddhist scriptures. Lay people bring various offerings including daily alms to the monks, who sit recitation tests on Buddha’s discourse. These examinations, in three levels, have been held since the days of the monarchy in Burma. On the full moon day of Nayun, the Buddha preached Mahasamaya sutta to human and celestial beings, and this day is therefore commemorated as ‘Mahasamaya Day’.

Waso festival, for the offering of sacred yellow robes, British Library, Or.15021, ff. 9-12.
Waso festival, for the offering of sacred yellow robes, British Library, Or.15021, ff. 9-12.

The Buddhist Lent, or Wa, takes place every year over three months from July to October. During this period Buddhist monks abstain from travelling, and devote themselves to religious duties in their own monasteries. People offer alms and Waso robes to gain meritorious deeds. As Waso (July) is a sacred month, ordination and novitiation ceremonies take place at the monasteries.  Novitiation is an important family custom and is considered a great privilege, and is also a meritorious deed for the person who gives himself into the Buddha’s Order. Once boys have reached the age of seven they are admitted as novices. When ordination ceremonies take place there must be an assembly of at least five senior monks agreeing to sponsor the ordination. The Waso full moon day is a very sacred day for Buddhist as it was the day on which the embryo Buddha Siddhatta was conceived, and also the day of the Great Renunciation and of the Great Delivering of the First Sermon, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. The full moon day of Waso is called Dhammacakya day.

Maha Dok festival, British Library, Or.15021, ff. 13-15
Maha Dok festival, British Library, Or.15021, ff. 13-15

Wagaung (August) is the month for the Mahā Dok festival (Alms-bowls festival), in which food is offered together with other requisites for monks. When the King of Kosala and all his people organised a ceremony for offering food to the Buddha and the Sanghas at the Jetavana Monastery, a man called Mahā Dok who was very poor and had never had a chance to do any deed of merit and his wife worked hard to save enough to offer food to a monk. Mahā Dok was very happy as the lot fell to him to offer alms to the Buddha.  He became a rich man, but spent his wealth in doing good deeds.  He was reborn in the celestial abode when his life ended.

Tawthalin (September) is the sixth month in Burmese calendar and the third month of the rainy season in Burma. The rain becomes less frequent, there is more sunshine and clearer skies, it becomes less windy and the surfaces of the rivers stay calm. Due to the favourable weather conditions, regatta festivals are traditionally held in this season. These regattas were not only occasions for royal pageantry but also for demonstrating the naval prowess of the armed forces. It remains one of the twelve monthly festivals in the Burmese calendar. The full moon day of Tawthalin is regarded as Kurudhamma or Pancasīla (five precepts) day.

The Bodhisatta, Dhanañjaya Korabya, king of Kururatha and his people observed the five precepts, Kurudhamma, and their country enjoyed good weather and good harvests, while the people lived peacefully and freed from diseases. British Library, Or. 4542B, ff. 147-152
The Bodhisatta, Dhanañjaya Korabya, king of Kururatha and his people observed the five precepts, Kurudhamma, and their country enjoyed good weather and good harvests, while the people lived peacefully and freed from diseases. King Kalinga of Dantapura's land, however, experienced drought and his people suffered from natural disasters. At Kalinga's request, King Dhanañjaya Korabya lent his state elephant, but the drought continued. Then King Kalinga found out about Kurudhamma which blessed the Bodhisatta and his people. After that he and his people practised the Kurudhamma, and the country of Dantapura became peace and prosperous too. British Library, Or. 4542B, ff. 147-152  

The Thadingyut festival takes place on the full moon day of Thadingyut (October) to mark the end of the Buddhist Lent, which begins in the middle of Waso and ends in the middle of Thadingyut. The Thadingyut festival is celebrated with lights to commemorate when the Buddha preached the Abhidhamma to his mother, who was reborn again in heaven and returned from Tavatimsa heaven to the earth on the full moon night of Thadingyut. To mark this Abhidhamma day, lavish offerings are made to monks, and people pay homage to express their gratitude to parents, teachers and elders.

Tazaungdaing festival, British Library, Or.15021, ff. 26-30
Tazaungdaing festival, British Library, Or.15021, ff. 26-30

Tazaungmon (November) is the eighth month of the Burmese calendar.  One of the most common religious practices among Buddhists is merit making. When the Buddhist Lent ends monks are allowed to travel, and around this time many monks are in need of new robes. It is thus a special period for Buddhist people to do meritorious deeds, and people organise special offerings, Kathina, which begin on the first waning day of Thadingyut, the seventh month, and last till the full-moon day of the eighth month Tazaungmon. All the offerings including cash are hung on Padetha trees which are brought to the monastery. An especially meritorious offering is the mahakathina robe, and a robe-weaving contest is held at Shwedagon Pagoda on the 14th waxing day of Tazaungmon. In this contest many groups of young women participate in competitions and each group must spin, weave and stich together a set of robes within a certain time scale: they must begin on the evening of the eve of the full moon day of Tazaungmon and must finish before dawn on the full moon day. The full moon day of Tazaungmon is called Samaññaphala Day, and on this day the Buddha delivered Samaññaphala sutta, the second sutta in the Dighanikaya, to King Ajatasatta. The sutta reveals a culture of respecting ascetics.

In ancient times, Nat worship was held in Nadaw (December).  In the present day, literary contests are held in this month, and people pay homage and offer gifts to elder writers and poets.

In olden days Burmese kings held military parades in Pyatho (January), as well as horse races, polo matches, elephant competitions and martial sports. British Library, Or14551, ff. 12-13

On the full moon day of Pyatho (January) the Buddha addressed a sermon, Adittapariyāya sutta, to Uruvela Kassapa, Nadi Kassapa, Gaya Kassapa and a thousand of their followers. At the end of the sermon they became arhats. Therefore the full moon day of Pyatho is called Shin ta thon day. On the full moon day of Tabodwe (February), the Buddha gave a sermon called Ovāda Pātimokkha to 1250 disciples, and village people offer the products of their farms for alms in this month at the harvest festival.  Tabaung (March), the twelfth month of the Burmese year is a month of Paya pwes (pagoda festivals), as the festivals are held at the pagodas all over the country.  Tabaung festival is marked by the building of sand stupas.  

Further reading

Khin Myo Chit. Flowers and festivals round the Myanmar year. Yangon: Sarpaylawka, 2002.

Khin Maung Nyunt. Myanmar traditional monthly festivals. Yangon: Inwa, 2005.
San San May, Curator for Burmese