Asian and African studies blog

7 posts from September 2015

30 September 2015

An Artist’s Journey: Inspired by Persian Manuscripts

Today's guest post is by London-based Anita Chowdry, a visual artist, academic researcher and educator, with a long and varied practice that spans three decades. Her current sphere of interests includes an holistic approach to maths, geometry, mechanics and the history of philosophy and technology, and the impact of these disciplines on the development of our aesthetic sensibilities. 

A major area of Anita’s practical research is about painting and illumination in the book arts of the Middle East and India. As a highly skilled practitioner, Anita began her formative training in this genre in 1992 with an hereditary Rajput master in Rajasthan, India, and went on to continue her research at  some of London’s major museum collections. She lectures and runs specialist workshops on the subject at major institutions in Britain and abroad. Alongside her research interests Anita runs a successful creative practice, with disciplines ranging from manuscript illumination techniques to large scale sculptural installations.

Anita's work can be viewed on her website. She also posts regularly on her blog.

Looking at manuscripts in the British Library

My first experience of enjoying an elite manuscript close-up was in 1998, in the conservation studios of what were then the Oriental and India Office Collections at Orbit House Blackfriars, before the collection was moved to its current home at St. Pancras. A senior conservator, the late John Holmes, invited me to the studio to look at the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Nizami, Or.12208. I already owned and enjoyed Barbara Brend’s illustrated monograph on the manuscript, The Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Nizami (British Library, 1995), but nothing can prepare you for the sheer sensuous pleasure of experiencing such a manuscript at first hand. Such was my elation at the time that I wrote extensively about it in my sketchbook: “It is one of the most beautiful and inspiring things I have ever seen... my first reaction is to the quality of the paper... exquisitely fine and tinted brown, burnished till it shines like silk...and the perfect line rulings – lamp-black filled with the palest malachite or shining gold – that divide the columns of beautiful Nastaʻliq script...”.

An illuminated chapter-heading from the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Nizami, copied between 1593 and 1595, with two mythical birds (simorghs) (Or.12208, f. 285v)

The manuscript contains some of the finest examples of early Mughal illustration, dense and animated in the distinctive fusion style of Akbar’s workshops, but what caught my imagination most were the supplementary marginal designs, which along with passages of formal illumination have only recently begun to be the subject of serious academic study.

Another comparably sumptuous copy of Nizami's Khamsa, Or.2265, with visionary illustrations that express a vibrant literary heritage, was produced some years earlier in the workshops of the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp (ruled 1524-76). Both manuscripts are now freely available as high resolution digital manuscripts (click on the hyperlinks to get to the digitised images), a wonderfully useful resource for artists and researchers because you can zoom in to study their details at leisure.

Detail of “the Prophet’s ascent” attributable to Sultan Muhammad, part of Shah Tahmasp’s Khamsa of Nizami (Or.2265, f. 195r)

In the image above the detail of the exquisitely painted other-worldly entities (peris) amongst swirling clouds exemplifies the qualities that make these manuscripts such an enduring source of inspiration to me.  The illustration is like sublime music or mathematics, in which classic design elements like the Chinese strap-clouds are given free expression without ever compromising their formal structure of expanding and diminishing reciprocal curves. Passages of visionary illustration like this are closely linked to the masterful marginal decorations that enrich every page of both manuscripts.

Detail of marginal design with formalized clouds, simorghs and dragons from Shah Tahmasp’s Khamsa of Nizami  (Or.2265 f. 42r)

Most of the margins are of the Shekari or hunting genre, executed in 24 carat gold pigment, with some details picked out in a greenish-gold alloy, or in silver, which has long since patinated to black. They feature intertwining vignettes of real and fantastic beasts interacting in rocky and jungle landscapes: the Persian Phoenix or Simorgh, a fabulous oversized bird with streaming tail-fathers, engaged in having altercations with dragons; snow-leopards in every conceivable contortion stalking wild goats, flocks of cranes performing aerobatics amongst Chinese strap-clouds, and some rather carnivorous-looking bovines snarling at predators. These enchanted worlds, where myth merges with the real, seem to have been created loosely and spontaneously, with compositions that flow like poetry – later schools of illumination never quite achieved the same fluency, and look stilted by comparison. 

Following my formative years in the early ‘90s as a friend and pupil of a master painter in India, the late “Bannu”, who had generously shown me many of his hereditary secrets in miniature painting and the use and preparation of traditional mineral pigments, my experiences with these great manuscripts inspired me to refine my technique and to develop a light fluid hand and sense of movement in my work. A commission from a passionately creative collector provided me with an opportunity to explore illuminated and border elements as a detached, contemplative composition in the painting below.

Nautilus copy_1500
Nautilus commissioned by Lionel de Rothschild, 2008. ⓒ Anita Chowdry

Geometry is at the core of most illuminated design – and my reference to the Fibonacci spiral in the work is intentionally unequivocal. Taking the concept of natural geometry a step further, it struck me that in Sultan Muhammad’s visionary clouds and in his distinctive treatment of elements such as rocks, flames, and magical beasts, he worked with an intuitive sense of fractal geometry, some four hundred years before Benoit Mandelbrot’s ground-breaking realization of its existence as a mathematical entity. This inspired me to experiment with pure shapes digitally generated in the Mandelbrot and Julia Sets, in the context of classical Persian design. The images below are from a series of brush drawings exploring this concept.

Julia Dragons_1250
Illuminated Julia Dragons
– hand rendered elements from the Julia set masquerading as dragons and strap-clouds. Private collection of Najma Kazi. ⓒ Anita Chowdry

Can I take you there? (Demon on a rickshaw bound for the Mandelbrot set), brush drawing with pigment and gold. ⓒ Anita Chowdry

To my mind, there is an interesting correlation between the ambiguous imagery of fractals, and the many layers of meaning in the verses of Persian literature. Both hover somewhere beyond the realm of everyday experience, hinting at a partial existence in some other dimension. I am particularly drawn towards the mythical entities that punctuate the imagery in Persian manuscripts, because according to tradition, the dragons, demons and angels depicted as adjuncts to the texts exist on elemental planes unseen by humans. They were created by God out of “smokeless fire” (Qur'an, Sura 15:27) to exist in a hidden world parallel to ours. 

My current preoccupation is with another sublime manuscript in the British Library’s oriental collections, Or.11846, created in Shiraz in the fifteenth century for the Turcoman prince Pir Budaq. The opening carpet pages display virtuoso rigour in design and execution which paradoxically creates an overall impression of quirky other-worldliness. The Chinese strap-clouds that undulate around the inner border are fairly restrained, but they do display a certain eccentricity, as does the intricate web of arabesques that covers all available space against a rich lapis lazuli ground. The energy and tension of this work has haunted me since I first saw it.

CanvasDivan of Hafez Saʻd copied for Pir Budaq, 1459 (Or.11846, detail of f. 1v)

My initial approach is to try to understand the underlying structure of the design, and the distinctive “handwriting” with which the elements are drawn. Untitled-2
Sketchbook studies of design structure in opening pages of Or.11846. ⓒ Anita Chowdry

The next stage is to draft out the design, and to start blocking in the gold, followed by the other colours, in what I think is the same sequence as that used by the original master. This process is not about slavish copying, but about learning empirically from the source. Part of the journey is to try to analyse and prepare the mineral colours to a comparable quality, and to gain an intuitive sense of the original intention of the design.

Starting work on the Pir Budaqi illumination. ⓒ Anita Chowdry

I do not know how exactly this work will develop or where this journey will take me. I have a sense that it wants to expand into another dimension, breaking out of the confines of its rigid structure. For me, the whole point of being an artist is to be on a continuous voyage of discovery, and to let the things that inspire you carry you along on their own momentum. I believe that it is through connections such as this that masterpieces of manuscript art transcend their original context and continue to enrich our experience today.

Anita Chowdry, Artist


25 September 2015

The Chakrabongse collection of Thai royal letters (Or.15749)

The British Library received the Chakrabongse Collection of Thai Royal Letters as a donation from M.R. Narisa Chakrabongse, granddaughter of Prince Chakrabongse, in 2002. The letters were written by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and two of his sons, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) and Prince Chakrabongse, between 1896 and 1915. They cover a range of personal and political topics, including descriptions of several European and Asian countries during that period, unique eye-witness reports of certain political events in Europe, matters relating to Prince Chakrabongse’s education and the education of other Thai royals in European countries, as well as evidence of the close relationship between King Chulalongkorn and Prince Chakrabongse. The acquisition was managed by Henry Ginsburg, who was at that time Curator of the Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections at the British Library.

Chakrabongse or.15749!13.7_f001r
King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) reveals on 15.6.1910 details of a request from the French ambassador in Bangkok: "The French ambassador has written that a Yuan [Vietnamese], whom we expelled from Bangkok, has come back to Bangkok as the bearer of a letter from the rebels in Vietnam, and that he is planning to send weapons via Laos. He asks that we capture him and expel him... We have an obligation to help the French in this matter..." (translation by Henry Ginsburg). British Library, Or.15749/13.7, f. 1  noc

His Royal Highness Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanadh, Prince of Bisnulok, was born on 3 March 1883, as the 40th child of His Majesty King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and 4th child of Her Majesty Queen Sri Bajarindra.  He was initially educated in the Royal Palace in Bangkok, then sent to England for further study at the age of 13. During King Chulalongkorn's visit to Russia in 1897, Nicolas II, last Emperor of Russia and a close friend of King Rama V, invited the king to send a son to be educated in Russia, under the care of Nicolas II himself.  Prince Chakrabongse, who had been studying in England for almost two years, was chosen and moved on to St Petersburg to study military science (1898-1912?).  After finishing his studies, he became a Colonel in the Hussar Regiment of Nicholas II.

Chakrabongse or.15749!8.12_f003r
Prince Chakrabongse describes the situation in St Petersburg, dated 6.11.1905: "It can be called a revolution but of a new kind, not like the French revolution. As I wrote before, there is a new group of people, the ‘intellectuals’ asking for a parliament, asking for the workers’ rights and strikes, but the aristocracy do not want a parliament... The intellectuals are more determined, the government cannot suppress them because most people support the intellectuals. On 17 August the parliament was allowed but only to persons trusted by the government, i.e. rich people, professionals, but no students or workers... So they continue with disruptions, demanding elections and as in every city of Europe guarantees of personal freedom, freedom of speech, of conscience, of meeting, of press."(translation by Henry Ginsburg). British Library, Or.15749/8.12, f. 5  noc

After his return to Thailand, Prince Chakrabongse initiated the idea of establishing a flying unit in the Thai Army and set up the Aviation Section in the Directorate of Engineering in 1913. During World War I, he was the commander in charge of war planes and established the Volunteer Force that was sending Thai soldiers to help the European Allies under the royal command of King Rama VI. In 1919, aircraft were used for postal purposes for the first time in Thailand. Today, Prince Chakrabongse is still respected as the “Father of the Royal Thai Air Force”.

In 1906 in Constantinople, Prince Chakrabongse married Mom Catherine Chakrabongse Na Ayutthaya, a Russian of Ukrainian descent (maiden name Ekaterina Desnitskaya).  Their only child was H.R.H. Prince Chula Chakrabongse. Prince Chakrabongse died in 1920 at the age of 37.

Chakrabongse or.15749!14.12_f001r
Prince Chakrabongse writes to his brother, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI), about his impressions during a trip to Saigon on 21.4.1912: "The centre of the city is completely French, with large buildings, the shops lit up at night by electricity, it was very elegant. There are French cafes everywhere, the roads are lined with trees and as the trees are already large it is shady and cool to the eye, and there are lots of parks. Municipal water which is clean and clear flows everywhere. There are large ships and European packet boats moored only on one side of the water, then the native city around it, the Yuan live in huts and in Chinese row houses.... Around Saigon and in all Cochinchina there are paved roads going everywhere.  It is very easy to drive here, as quickly as in Europe, which is admirable and astonishing in Cochinchina. Believe me, the French have spent a lot of money here." (translation by Henry Ginsburg). British Library, Or.15749/14.12, f. 1  noc

At the time of his unexpected death in 2007, Henry Ginsburg had already begun to catalogue and describe the letters, and he left behind an electronic text document with a list of shelfmarks and more or less detailed descriptions of many of the letters. For some selected letters he also had prepared a romanised transcription and translations of parts of their contents.

Almost all the letters in the collection, written on European paper, are in good condition. In order to make a decision on an appropriate storage solution several aspects had to be taken into consideration, including the safety and security of the collection, convenient reader access, technical aspects of order and supply, aesthetic aspects, and cost. It was decided to store each letter in a custom-made case, which was the most costly option, but at the same time the safest option in terms of conservation and security.  

At the beginning of 2008, a decision was made that the Chakrabongse Collection should be digitised as part of the British Library’s Thai Manuscripts Digitisation Project, which was funded by the government of Thailand through the Royal Thai Embassy in London. In this project, the entire Chakrabongse Collection and over fifty Thai manuscripts from the Library’s collection were digitised and made available freely on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts webpage, enabling easy and comfortable access at any time to this rare archival material. This initiative is highly valued not only by historians and the wider research community but also by the Thai public, as the letters give insight into the relationship between King Chulalongkorn and his children as well as political issues at the time the letters were written. To access the digitised letters from the Chakrabongse Archive, the keyword “Chakrabongse” should be inserted in the Quick Search field on the Digitised Manuscripts webpage.     

Chakrabongse book cover
The book Katya and the Prince of Siam by Eileen Hunter and Narisa Chakrabongse  provides a detailed insight into the life of Prince Chakrabongse and his family.

Further reading

Chula Chakrabongse, Prince, Lords of life: a history of the kings of Thailand. Bangkok: DD Books, 1982 (3rd ed.)
Hunter, Eileen with Narisa Chakrabongse, Katya and the Prince of Siam. Bangkok: River Books, 1994
Narisa Chakrabongse and Paisarn Piamattawat, A pictorial record of the Fifth Reign. Bangkok: River Books, 1992

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

21 September 2015

Persian and Turkish manuscripts on view in the Treasures Gallery

The Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery includes altogether more than 200 items: hand-painted books, manuscripts, maps and views, early printed books, literary, historical, scientific and musical works from over the centuries and around the world. In a recent post, guest blogger Henry Noltie wrote about three Raffles bird paintings which are now on display. The gallery also includes the earliest dated printed book, the Diamond Sutra (more on this in the International Dunhuang Project's post "The Diamond Sutra on display") and various other Asian and African items. A section dedicated to the Arts of the Book includes four Persian and Turkish manuscripts, just a selection from our collection of more than 15,000 manuscripts. These are:

Collected anecdotes

The Javamiʻ al-hikayat is a compilation of tales and anecdotes dating from mythical times until the end of the rule of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mustansir. It was written in Persian by Muhammad Awfi who lived during the Delhi Sultanate in the reign of Shams al-Din Iltutmish (r. 1211–1236).

The manuscript on display was copied in southern Iran, or, possibly even, in Sultanate India in AH 842-3 (1438-39). Twelve of the illustrations are contemporary, painted in a provincial Shirazi/Timurid style. The serried rows of people and the somewhat strange representation of architecture have been thought however to indicate a Sultanate provenance [1]. Ten other illustrations were added in a Bukharan style in about 1550, and three more are Mughal, added in India in the late 18th century.

Zal and Rudabah entertained. Iran, southern provincial style, 1438-39  (Or.11676, f.46)

Majjaʻa ibn Murara, the supporter of the Prophet's rival Musaylimah , with women dressed as men on the roof of the fortress of Yamama. This was a ruse to deceive Khalid ibn Walid (shown below) into thinking that the fortress was well guarded. Iran, Southern Provincial style, 1438-39 (Or.11676, f.205)

Shah Tahmasb's manuscript of Nizami's Khamsah

This copy of the Khamsah ('Five Poems') by Nizami is one of the most famous Persian manuscripts. It was produced at Tabriz between 1539 and 1543 for the Safavid Shah Tahmasb I. Copied by Shah Mahmud Nishapuri, it contains masterpieces by leading artists, some of them introduced from a different manuscript. Further paintings and illuminations were added in the 17th century (see our earlier post: Some paintings by the 17th century Safavid artist Muhammad Zaman

Some paintings by the 17th century Safavid artist Muhammad Zaman - See more at:
Some paintings by the 17th century Safavid artist Muhammad Zaman - See more at: Also notable are the drawings in ink, gold and silver in the margins.

On display, the Iranian emperor Anushirvan and his vizier approach a deserted village where they overhear owls deploring the number of ruined villages. The artist's name is inscribed in the arch, underneath hanging snakes: "Painted by the artist Mirak, 946 [1539/40]" (Or. 2265, f. 15v)

The physiognomy of the Ottoman Sultans

The Kiyafet ül-insaniye by the court historian Seyyid Lokman is a study in Turkish of the physical appearance and character of the Sultans of the Ottoman dynasty, who for several centuries ruled much of the Middle East and southeastern Europe. The traditional science of physiognomy is based on a theory of correspondences between physical features and character. Lokman's treatise is illustrated with portraits of the Sultans and dates from the 16th century.

 006565 E50005-21
Left: a portrait of Sultan Murad III who ruled from 1574 until his death in 1595 (Add. 7880, f.63v); Right: Sultan Süleyman I the Magnificent who ruled from 1520 to 1566 (Add. 7880, f.53v). From Kiyafet ül-insaniye by Seyyid Lokman, dated 1588/89

2015-08-25 17.29.07
On display is a portrait of Sultan Bayezid II whose good character earned him the epithet Veli (the Saintly). He ruled from 1481 to 1512 and was an enthusiastic patron and student of religious learning and the arts (Add. 7880, ff.44v-45r)

Fables of Bidpai in Turkish

The Humayunname is a Turkish version of the 'Fables of Bidpai', translated from Persian for Sultan Suleyman I in AH 950/1543 by the scholar and calligrapher Mustafa ʻAli Çelebi of Filbe (now Plovdiv, Bulgaria). These fables, in which the protagonists are animals who sometimes act rather like humans, share a common ancestor with Aesop's fables and are ultimately derived from India. It contains 163 miniatures and was copied in Zu'l-Hijja AH 997 (October/November 1589).

An elephant which was lured by the crow, jackal and wolf to provide a meal for the lion which is shown biting its trunk. ca. 1589 (Add. 15153, f.114)


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

[1] Irma L. Fraad and Richard Ettinghausen “Sultanate painting in Persian style”, Chhavi - Golden Jubilee Volume, Bharat Kala Bhavan, 1920-1970. Banaras, 1979, pp. 48-66

16 September 2015

The Mahabharata in Malay manuscripts

The great Indian epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata were known throughout Southeast Asia, but it was the Ramayana that most profoundly influenced Malay literary tradition. One of the oldest Malay manuscripts in a British collection is a copy of the Hikayat Seri Rama in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, which bears the ownership inscription of Archbishop Laud dated 1633. The British Library holds a manuscript of Caritra Rama, 'The story of Rama', in romanised Malay, which was copied in Surabaya in 1812.


Caritra Rama, in romanised Malay with many Javanese elements, copied at Surabaya in February 1812. British Library, MSS Malay D 7, f. 5r (det.).  noc

There are however also Malay versions of the Mahabharata, some of which probably entered Malay as abbreviated prose renditions of the Old Javanese Bhratayuddha. The earliest, Hikayat Perang Pandawa Jaya, ‘The tale of the war of the victorious Pandawa’, was composed some time between the late 14th and early 16th century, and is mentioned in the Bustan al-salatin of Nuruddin al-Raniri composed in Aceh in 1638 (Braginsky 2003: 143).

Opening pages of Hikayat Perang Pandawa Jaya, with double decorated frames in red, pink, black ink and reserved white. British Library, MSS Malay B.12, ff. 1v-2r  noc

Simple finialed black ink outlines enclose the colophon of Hikayat Perang Pandawa Jaya giving the date of copying as 22 Syaaban 1219 (26 November 1804), in the year ba, on Monday, and the name of the scribe as Muhammad Kasim. British Library, MSS Malay B 12, f. 117r.  noc

An illuminated manuscript of Hikayat Perang Pandawa Jaya (MSS Malay B 12), with brightly decorated opening frames, was copied in 1804, probably in Penang, by Muhammad Kasim. In the following year, the same scribe is known to have copied an illuminated manuscript of Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah (MSS Malay B 6) which is also in the British Library. The epic tale revolves around the war between the Pandawas and the Korawas, brought about by a fateful game of dice which the Korawas win by deceit, and is presented in three parts.

The second part of the work, entitled Hikayat Pandawa Jaya, ‘The tale of the victorious Pandawas’, tells the story of the Pandawas' victory in the great war, and this part is also contained in another manuscript in the British Library, MSS Malay B 4.  According to the colophon on f.90r, this manuscript was copied on 10 Rabiulawal 1220 AH (8 June 1805 AD) in the reign of Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin in Kota Setar Dar al-Aman. It was conventional practice in a number of Malay states to accompany the toponym with an honorific epithet in Arabic, such as Palembang Dar al-Salam, 'Abode of Peace', and  Perak Dar al-Ridwan 'Abode of Grace', but no other Malay state is known to have had as close an association with its epithet as Kedah had with Dar al-Aman, ‘Abode of Security’, to the extent that the term Dar al-Aman alone is often used to refer to the state.

Opening lines of Hikayat Pandawa Jaya, copied in Kedah, 1805. The visible diagonal brushstrokes on the page suggest that this is Chinese paper. British Library, MSS Malay B 4, f. 2v (det.).  noc

A third Malay manuscript in the British Library related to the Mahabharata is Hikayat Maharaja Boma (MSS Malay C 8), a variant of the story better known as Hikayat Sang Boma or Hikayat Sang Samba. The five Pandawa brothers and their families feature in this tale (and indeed the monkey kings from the Ramayana also put in an appearance), but the main heroes are Kresna, the earthly incarnation of the god Bisnu (Sanskrit: Vishnu) and his father Basudewa (Sanskrit: Vasudeva), brother Baladewa and son Samba Prawira Jaya (Braginsky 2003: 152). Hikayat Sang Boma was probably composed in the 15th-16th centuries in one of the traditional centres of Javanese-Malay cultural contact.  At the start of this manuscript it is said that the story was originally in 'the Indian language' (bahasa Keling), and was then translated into Javanese, and finally rendered into Malay. According to the colophon and marginal notes, the manuscript was copied by Du'ad on 24 Zulkaidah 1219 (24 February 1805).

Opening pages of Hikayat Maharaja Boma, with the date of copying of 1219 (1804) inscribed vertically in the right-hand margin of the first page. British Library, MSS Malay C 8, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

Malay tales based on the Mahabharata and Ramayana remained popular long after the coming of Islam. Vladimir Braginsky (2003: 147) sugggests however that the Hindu philosophical ideas which permeate the Sanskrit epics are barely evident, and instead ‘the Malays saw primarily absorbing stories about exemplary heroes displaying military valour and courteous behaviour’, as well as relishing the exquisite descriptions of incomparable beauty.  Still, the dichotomy of attempting to rationalise the older literary inheritance with Muslim beliefs and practice is a recurrent theme over the centuries. One approach taken in a number of Malay manuscripts now in the British Library collection is to place clearly visible moral warnings that the texts should be read ‘with a pinch of salt’ and should not be taken to heart.  Thus the copy of Hikayat Pandawa Jaya ends with a brief unfinished syair (poem) of which the first stanza reads: 'This is the story of the victorious Pandawas / whoever reads it, don't believe a word of it / it's full of hopeless lies / of glorious imaginary worlds' (Inilah hikayat Pandawa Jaya / siapa membaca jangan percaya / bohongnya banyak tiada berdaya / dunia kayangan sangatlah mulia). Du’ad, the scribe of the manuscript of Hikayat Maharaja Boma, has added the stern admonition ‘don’t believe this’ (jangan beriman) to every folio, as can also be seen in the left-hand margin above, and at the end of the story he added a more explicit caution.  The same lip-serving religious censorship device can be seen in another manuscript in the British Library copied by the same scribe (although here he spells his name Da'ut), of a Malay Panji story, Hikayat Cekel Waneng Pati (MSS Malay C 2). 

Closing verse in Hikayat Pandawa Jaya exhorting readers not to believe in the tale. British Library, MSS Malay B 4, f. 90r (det.).  noc

The top right corner of each folio of Hikayat Maharaja Boma is labelled: 'don't believe this!' (jangan beriman). British Library, MSS Malay C 8, f. 10v (det.).  noc

The disclaimer placed by the scribe Du'ad at the end of Hikayat Maharaja Boma: 'This writing is packed full of untruths, because it has been embellished over and over again by all the writers who have copied and recopied the text; whoever takes this Javanese story to heart is believing a pack of lies more numerous than stars in the sky or grains of sand on a beach, and his sins will pile up and multiply, so don’t be unaware or forgetful of this while reading these [undoubtedly] beautiful words, this is my warning! (Adapun khabar ini terlalulah amat dusta oleh ditambah2 oleh orang yang menyurat oleh sampai pada orang yang menyurat akhirnya ditambah barangsiapa ada menaruh iman seperti tersebut di dalam surat Jawa ini maka terlalulah amat dustanya tiada terbilang sebilang bintang di  langit dan sebilang kerisik di pantai demikianlah dosanya kanda berkanda dosa diperolehannya jangan tuan2 sebagian tiada ketahui akan dan lupa lalaikan pada tatkala membaca surat dan tatkala perkataan yang indah2 kalau [berlikha?] di dalamnya itulah perintahnya).  MSS Malay C 8, f. 64r  noc

All the Malay manuscripts mentioned above how now been fully digitised and can be read on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site.

Further reading

V.I. Braginsky, The heritage of traditional Malay literature: a historical survey of genres, writings and literary views.  Leiden: KITLV, 2004, pp. 143-156.

A.T. Gallop, ‘Abode of peace’: the use of honorific epithets for place names in the Malay world. Cetusan minda sarjana: sastera dan budaya, penyelenggara Ampuan Haji Brahim bin Ampuan Haji Tengah. Bandar Seri Begawan: Dewan Bahasa dan Budaya Brunei, 2014; pp. 27-51.

R.O. Winstedt, A history of classical Malay literature.  Revised, edited and introduced by Y.A.Talib.  Kuala Lumpur: The Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1991; includes a lengthy summary of Hikayat Perang Pandawa Jaya and Hikayat Sang Boma on pp. 149-162.

Panji stories in Malay

A new edition of Hikayat Perang Pandawa Jaya, based on Royal Asiatic Society MS Raffles Malay 2, is currently in preparation by Liubov Goriaeva, to be published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork 

10 September 2015

Battle of Panipat 1761

Panipat, north of Delhi, is the location of three historic battles that shaped Mughal history. On the battlefield here in 1526, Babur defeated the Afghan Sultan of Delhi Ibrahim Lodi, which not only ended Lodi rule but gave the Mughals a stronger foothold on the subcontinent.

Battle of Panipat in 1526, from the Baburnama ('Memoirs of Babur') by Deo Gujarati, 1590-93. British Library, Or.3714, f.368r
Battle of Panipat in 1526, from the Baburnama ('Memoirs of Babur') by Deo Gujarati, 1590-93. British Library, Or.3714, f.368r  noc

The second battle took place in 1556, when the emperor Akbar (r.1556-1605) fought a victorious battle against the Hindu Hemu, the last minister of the Afghan kings who had regained control of Delhi and Agra after Humayun’s death. Our drawing documents the military alliances and battle tactics played out between the Afghans and Marathas at the third battle of Panipat of 1761.

In the years following Nadir Shah’s invasion in 1739, emperors Ahmad Shah (r.1748-54)  and ‘Alamgir II (r.1754-59) were both quite weak and could barely voice their opposition against the various political parties wishing to exert their own control over the capital. The lack of a coherent government left the capital susceptible to attacks: from the north came the Afghan Durrani ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali in the 1750s, who looted whatever remained in the aftermath of Nadir Shah’s earlier attack. On the other hand, the capital was dominated by Ghazi al-Din Khan ‘Imad al-Mulk, the Amir al-Umara (Commander-in-Chief of the imperial army), and his alliance with the Marathas from central India. After deposing ‘Imad al-Mulk, the Marathas and the Afghans vied for political control of the capital, which led to the Battle of Panipat in January 1761.

Battle of Panipat, 13  January 1761, Mughal, c.1761. British Library, Johnson Album 66,3.
Battle of Panipat, 13  January 1761, Mughal, c.1761. British Library, Johnson Album 66,3.  noc

This exceptionally large composition (510 x 660 mm) required careful organization and precision to illustrate the line-up of the two forces. This scene pictures part of the external walls of the city and fortress that had been occupied by the Maratha forces. Inside the buildings, Afghans assault women and leave a stream of decapitated bodies. Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Afghan ruler, riding on horseback on the right-hand side, is the clear hero of the battle. He is illustrated proportionally larger than the remaining identified officers, dressed in a pink jama, and wears a distinctive pointed headdress.

etail of Ahmad Shah Abdali, British Library, Johnson Album 66,3 
Detail of Ahmad Shah Abdali, British Library, Johnson Album 66,3   noc

Each of the major players can be identified through the accompanying inscriptions. Next to Ahmad Shah Abdali is his son Timur Shah on horseback. The Afghans were supported by Najib Khan, the leader of the Rohilla Afghans who lived in the Rohilkhand region between the Ganges and the Jumna rivers, and Navab Shuja’ al-Daula of Avadh, who was coerced into joining the Afghans. These two leaders and their troops are positioned in the lower right corner.

In this battle, the Maratha leader Sadashiv Rao and his army fought against Ahmad Shah Abdali. The Marathas wished to replace the current emperor Shah ‘Alam II with his son Prince Javan Bakht. Sadashiv Rao appears at the middle left edge of this painting, on horseback with bleeding wounds. At centre stage, the line of defence is marked by the double rows of cannons firing against each other. Soldiers prepare for combat, elephants with howdahs carry the military commanders, and billowing smoke as well as bodies fills the scene.

Detail of Sadashiv Rao, British Library, Johnson Album 66,3
Detail of Sadashiv Rao, British Library, Johnson Album 66,3   noc

The rapid style of execution in ink, with compressed figures drawn in rows and few touches of colour, aids the viewer through the frenzied battle scene. Compositionally, this style of execution has Mughal precedents, such as the well-known painting of the Battle of Samugarh, when Aurangzeb was victorious in the war of succession against his older brother Dara Shikoh. Within the wider remit of Indian painting, Amber artists Gopal, Jivan and Udai collaborated to illustrate Emperor Bahadur Shah I in battle in the Deccan.

However, although our drawing has been identified as the work of a Faizabad artist, the fact that Ahmad Shah Abdali is prominently drawn proportionately larger than the other figures leads us to question the source of patronage. No artist working in the region controlled by Navab Shuja ’al-Daula would be so bold as to picture the Navab as submissive to Ahmad Shah Abdali. It seems more appropriate to suggest that this is the work of a Mughal artist who worked for the Afghan ruler in the Durrani-controlled Punjab or even Kashmir.

Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator  ccownwork

03 September 2015

Yongle Dadian on display in our Treasures Gallery

Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing

An exhibit in Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery
8 September 2015 to 17 January 2016
Free Entry

The British Library display Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing, opening on 8th September, consists of four cases of material from China, showing different media used for Chinese writing and different forms of script. The cases show oracle bones, woodslips, silk manuscripts and paper books respectively. The descriptions below have been given in English followed by Chinese translation to make them more accessible.

Case 4: Paper

Paper was invented in China by the first century BC and largely replaced silk, wood and bamboo. Made from fibres — from the paper mulberry tree, hemp and other plants — it was light, strong and flexible.

The scroll remained the main format for books in China throughout the first millennium AD but then started to be replaced by the booklet. These developed into larger bound volumes, such as those which form the Great Canon of the Yongle Reign. These handwritten volumes, comprising 22,877 chapters, were the largest literary compilation in the world when they were imperially commissioned in 1402.

第四展柜: 纸张



Blog 7 (paper)_2000
Writing styles of the character ‘soldier’
Yongle dadian
, chapters 8628 and 8629
Ink on paper, silk on the cover
, Jiajing to Longqing period (1562-72)
Or.11273, f.1v

The content of the Great Canon of the Yongle Reign covers all aspects of traditional Confucian knowledge and contains the most prominent literature available at that time, ranging from history and drama to farming techniques. It comprises large sections of historical documents and other sources, transcribed character for character, with the name of the author or the source in red.  Here we see the character 兵 (bing), which means soldier, written in many different styles of calligraphy, ranging from seal script (which developed from characters found on oracle bones) on the right side, to cursive variants on the left.

Or.11273, f.1v


Blog 9 (paper)_2000Blog 8 (paper)_2000
Architectural Methods
Yongle dadian
Chapters 18244 and 18245.
Ink on paper, silk on the cover, Jiajing to Longqing period (1562-72)
Or.11274, ff.10v-11r

The Great Canon of the Yongle Reign is easily recognisable from its distinctive physical appearance – paper with dark red rulings, ‘wrapped-back’ binding, and a yellow silk cover.  The first edition (1408) was destroyed or dispersed and is no longer extant. Nowadays, fewer than 400 juan of the second manuscript edition remain, constituting just 3% of the original. The British Library holds 24 volumes, corresponding to 49 chapters, and is the largest collection in Europe. The volume shown contains excerpts from the Yingzao fashi, a Song dynasty technical treatise on architecture and craftsmanship.

Or.11274, ff. 10v-11r

人们可以通过其外貌轻易辨认出《永乐大典》—— 带有深红栏线的册页,‘包背装’的装帧,以及典型的黄色丝绸封面。第一版《永乐大典》(1408)已经损毁散佚。今天,不到400卷的第二版手抄本被保存下来,而这些只有原篇幅的3%。大英图书馆现藏有24卷,共49章《永乐大典》,是欧洲最大的收藏。这里展出的一卷含有《营造法式》中的摘录,这是一部宋代讲授建筑及手工技术的论著。


Related events

Michael Wood: The Story of China
Fri 23 Oct 2015, 18:30 - 20:00
British Library Conference Centre

Too big to print: the story of Yongle Dadian
Mon 23 Nov 2015, 18:45 - 20:15
British Library Conference Centre


Sara Chiesura and Emma Goodliffe, Curators, Chinese collections
in cooperation with Susan Whitfield, Director, International Dunhuang Project

With thanks to Gao Feichi for the Chinese translation


Oracle bones on display in our Treasures Gallery

Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing

An exhibit in Sir John Ritblat Treasures of the British Library Gallery
8 September 2015 to 17 January 2016
Free Entry

The British Library display Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing, opening on 8th September, consists of four cases of material from China, showing different media used for Chinese writing and different forms of script. The cases show oracle bones, woodslips, silk manuscripts and paper books respectively. The descriptions below have been given in English followed by Chinese translation to make them more accessible.

Case 1: Oracle bones

Oracle bones were used for divination over three thousand years ago in ancient China. Questions about crops, the weather, battles, and the ruling family were engraved on the bone and heat was then applied with metal sticks. The heat caused the bones to crack and the diviners interpreted the patterns of the fractures to determine the answer to the question posed.

Oracle bones such as these show the earliest extant Chinese writing and they are essential for understanding the origins and development of the Chinese script.

第一展柜: 甲骨



Blog 1_2000
Shang dynasty oracle bone, c.1600 to 1050 BC

The Chinese collection of the British Library includes a unique series of more than 450 oracle bones (jia gu 甲骨). They date from between 1600 and 1050 BC, making them the oldest items in the British Library. New technologies are being applied to the bones’ conservation and storage and a project to digitise them is currently underway.



Blog 2_2000  Blog 3_2000
Shang dynasty oracle bones, c. 1600 to 1050 BC
Or.7694/1559 and Or.7964/1560

The oracle bones are carved with the Shang Dynasty script, also called ‘oracle script’ (jia gu wen). It is the oldest known form of Chinese writing and the ancestor of the Chinese characters still used today. The jia gu script is angular and the shape of the characters is simplified as much as possible to make it easier to engrave on hard surfaces. Many jia gu wen characters are often defined as ‘pictographic’, because they are stylised depictions of the objects they represent.

Or.7694/1559, Or.7964/1560


Blog 4_2000
Divination cracks
Shang dynasty oracle bone, c. 1600 to 1050 BC

Oracle bones were an extraordinary discovery for sinologists and historians. Firstly they prove the existence of the Shang Dynasty, which some researchers questioned until the beginning of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, from a linguistic perspective, they offer primary materials for the interpretation of China’s earliest script. In the bone shown above, the fissures created by the heat of the fire during the divination process are clearly visible. Most of the cracks on the bones appeared on the front side with a distinctive shape ( ) from which the Chinese character for ‘divination’ (bu卜) is derived.



Blog 6_2000
An axe thrust into the Earth
Shang dynasty oracle bones, c. 1600 to 1050 BC
Or.7694/1592 and Or.7964/1554

The discovery of oracle bones in 1899 marked a turning point in Chinese paleography and etymology. The bones revealed a stage in the development of the Chinese script that had been absent from previous scholarship and, in some cases, overturned theories held for centuries.

For example, the character Untitled which is visible in inscriptions on both these bones, means ‘king’ and is now written 王. This character was considered to represent the role of the king (represented by a vertical line) as mediator between heaven, earth and man (three horizontal lines), but the earlier form found on the oracle bones seems to simply be a depiction of an axe thrust into the earth.

Or.7694/1592, Or.7964/1554


例如这两件甲骨上的铭文中都可见的  Untitled  字,是现代汉字中的“王”。这个字从前被认为代表“王”沟通天、地、人的角色(中间一竖代表王,三横代表天地人),但是甲骨文中的早期字形显示了这个字更为象形的起源,即一把劈进大地的斧头。

Lunar eclipse for blog (last image)
A lunar eclipse
Shang dynasty oracle bone, c. 1600 to 1050 BC

This scapula bears an inscription about the coming ten-day period, and records that there will be no bad luck.

The character for moon (月 now and Untitledin oracle bone script) is visible at the top centre. This particular oracle bone is very important for research on the ancient Chinese calendar and astronomy, as it carries on the reverse side the record of a lunar eclipse.



汉字‘月’(甲骨文作 Untitled )位于第一行正中。这块甲骨的背面记载了一次月食观测,它对于研究古代中国历法和天文具有重要意义 。


Related events

Michael Wood: The Story of China
Fri 23 Oct 2015, 18:30 - 20:00
British Library Conference Centre

Too big to print: the story of Yongle Dadian
Mon 23 Nov 2015, 18:45 - 20:15
British Library Conference Centre


Sara Chiesura and Emma Goodliffe, Curators, Chinese collections
in cooperation with Susan Whitfield, Director, International Dunhuang Project

With thanks to Gao Feichi for the Chinese translation