Asian and African studies blog

9 posts from November 2015

30 November 2015

Laos and the Vietnam War

For a significant part of the twentieth century Laos was embroiled in armed conflict. The country had been a French protectorate from 1893, following more than a century of Siamese suzerainty. During World War II it was briefly occupied by the Japanese. After World War II, Laos became involved in the regional fight for independence, known as the French Indochina War, which officially ended in 1954. Although Laos gained independence from France in 1953, political instability saw the country descend into civil war, in which foreign parties played significant roles as a result of the regional and world-wide struggles for power during the Cold War era.

Declaration on the neutrality of Laos, signed by representatives of Burma, DR Vietnam, India, Cambodia, Canada, China, Poland, Republic of Vietnam, Soviet Union, Great Britain, USA, Thailand, and France on 23 July 1962. British Library, LP.31.b.467

Despite its neutral status after the French Indochina War, Laos became entangled in the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War (1964 to 1975). The ongoing civil war in Laos, essentially between Royalist, Neutralist and the Communist (Pathet Lao) forces, became part of the greater conflict. By the late 1950s, a large area of eastern Laos was controlled by the Pathet Lao, along with North Vietnamese forces who had crossed the border to lend support. For almost nine years Laos was a battlefield in the armed conflict between neighbouring North Vietnam and the United States.

Rains in the jungle, a collection of short stories by Lao authors translated into English and published in 1967 by the Neo Lao Haksat (Lao Patriotic Front), the political wing of the Pathet Lao, for external propaganda. British Library, YA.1996.a.2640

Les gars du 97, a novel by Phou Louang on the patriotism of the soldiers of a Pathet Lao military unit, translated from Lao into French and published by the Neo Lao Haksat in 1971. British Library, ORW.1986.a.3486

During the war, US forces flew over 500,000 aerial bombing raids over Laos, which were said to aim at gaining control of the Trường Sơn Strategic Supply Route (also known as Ho Chi Minh trail). This logistical system was of crucial relevance in the Vietnam War since it was the only connection between the People’s Army of Vietnam (North Vietnamese Army) and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam.  More than two million tons of explosive ordnance was dropped on the country, even in areas which were hundreds of kilometres away from the Ho Chi Minh trail. Altogether, more tonnage fell on Laos than was used during the whole of World War II. As a result of this war, Laos remains the most heavily bombed country in human history. Although the war in Laos officially ended in 1973, and subsequently the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was founded on 2 December 1975, the country is still affected by unexploded ordnance and the long-term effects of the use of chemical weapons.

Luksao khong phak (The daughter of the party), a post-war novel in two volumes by S. Bupphanuvong describing the efforts of rebuilding the country after the war. The book was published by the Lao State Publishing House, Vientiane, in 1982. British Library, YP.2006.a.6100

Further reading
Branfman, Fred. Voices from the Plain of Jars: life under an air war. Madison, Wisconsin : The University of Wisconsin Press, [2013]
Impact of the UXO problem. Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (retrieved 17.11.2015)
Stuart-Fox, Martin. A history of Laos. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997
Sutton, Sean and Thongloun Sisoulith et al. Laos, legacy of a secret. Stockport : Dewi Lewis, 2010

Bombing missions in Laos 1965-1973





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

26 November 2015

When Good Literary Taste Was Part of a Bureaucrat’s Job Description

Ānand Rām Mukhliṣ (1697?-1751) was a high-ranking courtier in Mughal Delhi in the first half of the eighteenth century. He came from a Punjabi Hindu family and followed his father into government service as had so many in the Khattri community, a sub-caste traditionally associated with record-keeping. He was wakīl (personal representative at court) for an imperial prime minister and for a governor of key provinces (see Ahmad), and had received the title ʻRajah of Rajahsʼ (rāʾī-yi rāyān) in recognition of his service. Befitting his stellar career as an administrator, he kept a wide social circle and was associated with the most important Persian poets in Delhi.

Portrait of the Mughal Emperor Muḥammad Shāh and the author's patron, the minister Iʻtimād al-Dawlah Qamar al-Dīn Khān. From Mukhliṣʼs presentation copy of his Kārnāmah-i ‘ishq ʻBook of Affairs of LoveʼArtist: Govardhan II, c.1735 (British Library Johnson Album 38, f. 7v)

Despite the increasing political difficulties of the Mughal crown over the course of the eighteenth century and the hardships endured by Delhi’s inhabitants during successive invasions and waves of unrest, the Indo-Persian literary culture in which Mukhliṣ participated was thriving. There were lavish poetic gatherings (mushāʿirahs) and a person’s literary comportment, namely his mastery of both poetry and prose, was still considered indispensable for political life. Meanwhile scholars were churning out dictionaries and critical tracts, and stretching the limits of Persian literature’s critical tradition, in some cases coming to strikingly modern conclusions about the nature of language and literary aesthetics.

The writing of history is obviously constrained by the sources available and in researching Indian history it is often difficult to find the right material to be able to zero in on particular individuals and their thought. Most Persian texts written in India remain unpublished and are only accessible in manuscript. The British Library’s manuscript holdings are probably unparalleled in the world for being able to provide information about Mukhliṣ and his contemporaries. Most excitingly, the Delhi Persian collection is full of mid-eighteenth-century Indo-Persian critical and educational texts. (Though the collection has always been available for consultation, it is only with the digitisation a few months ago of the notes for a never-published catalogue that many scholars knew of its holdings.)

Mukhliṣ was a prolific and varied writer. He was both a practicing poet and a professional bureaucrat, which at this time required mastery over a range of elegant prose composition styles including letter-writing. He was also a memoirist and wrote about his travels (see Alam and Subrahmanyam 1996).

IO Islamic 1612_ff1-2
Beginning of Aḥvāl-i sīzdah rūzah-i safar-i Garh Muktīsar, a diary, copied by the author, Ānand Rām Mukhliṣ, of his journey to the annual fair at Garmukhteshwar in 1747 and back (British Library IO Islamic 1612, ff.1v-2r)

As a scholar of literature, calligraphy, and painting he wrote works such as the dictionary Mirʾāt al-iṣt̤ilāḥ (which will be the subject of a later post). At least one of his works, the Kārnāmah-yi ʿIshq ʻBook of Affairs of Loveʼ was lavishly illustrated, as explored in a previous blog post by Malini Roy. In writing about his life, scholars have unfortunately not been as prolific as Mukhliṣ himself was. The only monograph on Mukhliṣ—in any language as far as I know—is the published version of a Delhi University PhD thesis from decades ago (James 2011).

Prince Gauhar and Khiradmand rescued by the simurgh noc
By Govardhan II, 1734-9
British Library, Johnson Album 38, f.51r - See more at:

From Kārnāmah-i ‘ishq, the love-story of Prince Gauhar and Princess Malikah-i Zamani composed in 1731. In this scene Prince Gauhar removes the coverlet from the sleeping princess as proof of his presence in her tent. Artist: Govardhan II, c.1735 (British Library Johnson Album 38, f. 81v)

Mukhliṣ’s house was a meeting place for the great writers of the day. He received his established literary friends as well as poets whom he supported as they tried to make a name for themselves in Delhi. One of his close friends, Ṭek Chand Bahār, not only had a similar career path in the Mughal bureaucracy but like Mukhliṣ wrote a dictionary, the mammoth Bahār-i ʿajam (see a previous post by Muhammad Isa Waley). Both Mukhliṣ and Bahār were friends and students of Sirāj al-Dīn ʿAlī Khān, known as Ārzū, a poet who might be the greatest philologist (that is, what we would call a literary critic and linguist) in the pre-modern Persian tradition (see Dudney 2013). Although Mukhliṣ considered Ārzū one of his teachers and Ārzū was about a decade older than Mukhliṣ, it was Mukhliṣ who facilitated Ārzū’s entrée into Delhi’s elite cultural scene when Ārzū first settled in the city.

DP 491_f11v
The final page and colophon of Mukhliṣʼs Parī khānah ʻFairy Houseʼ, a florid essay on the composition of ornate prose, composed in AH 1144 (1731/32). Copied by Jiyā Rām and dated 2 Rabīʻ I 1259 (2 April 1843) (British Library Delhi Persian 491, f. 11v)

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Extract from Mukhliṣ's dictionary, Mirʾāt al-iṣṭilāḥ, relating to the Peacock Throne (British Library Delhi Persian 491, f.72r)

Every poet had a network of loyalties to his teachers, students, and contemporaries. Mukhliṣ appears to have been associated with a wide network of Hindu Persian writers, as a rare miscellany in the British Library (Delhi Persian 491—for details, see below) suggests by presenting his works alongside those of contemporary Hindu writers. (On Hindu Persian poets in Delhi, see Pellò 2014) Contrary to the received wisdom that a failing political order produces a failed literary tradition, I see the eighteenth century as a time of great innovation in Indo-Persian poetry. Poets were debating the role of tradition as never before and literary criticism was incredibly vibrant. Urdu’s development as a literary language was part of this innovation.

At this time, the literary tradition that would come to be known as Urdu was part of Indian Persianate culture, not an alternative to it. Mukhliṣ lived in the time when the Persian-using and Urdu-using community of Delhi were one and the same—this fact tends to get lost in later accounts that want to emphasise the break between Persian and Urdu—and while he has no surviving Urdu compositions to his name, there is no sense that he is holding himself apart from Indian culture by being an expert in Persian.

Mukhliṣ is relevant in our time because he confounds expectations about India’s past. Some today seek to define Indian culture as static, monolithic, and synonymous with the modern understanding of Hinduism. However, the existence of historical figures like Mukhliṣ is at odds with the worldview of such revisionists. He was perfectly at ease with Persian, even using Islamic devotional formulae in his writing, while being in the eyes of those around him and in his own mind unproblematically a devout Hindu, whatever that meant at the time.

British Library manuscript copies of works by Mukhliṣ
(Follow the hyperlinks for catalogue details)

  • Muraqqaʻ, an album containing autograph letters, documents and poems collected by Mukhliṣ. Or 9236
  • Various short selections from works by Mukhliṣ and his contemporaries. Delhi Persian 491
  • Two texts by Mukhliṣ, (1) Aḥvāl-i sīzdah rūzah-i safar-i Garh Muktīsar, a description of a trip to a fair in Garmukhteshwar (in present-day Uttar Pradesh), and (2) a selection apparently from his autobiographical work Badāʾiʿ-i vaqāʾiʿ describing events in 1746-48. IO Islamic 1612 (Ethé 2724)
  • Dastūr al-ʿamal, a manual on bureaucratic notations, including siyāq numbers. IO Islamic 2932 (Ethé 2125) and Add.6641 (Rieu p. 804
  • Dīvān-i Mukhliṣ, the collected poems of Mukhliṣ. IO Islamic 2093 (Ethé 1707, dated 1744)
  • Intikhāb-i Tuḥfah-i Sāmī, a selection made by Mukhliṣ of the 16th-century Safavid prince Sām Mīrzā’s taz̤kirah. Although the taz̤kirah itself is widely available, this abridgement is apparently only extant in this copy. The copyist was Kripā Rām, and it is likely that this was Mukhliṣ’s son of the same name. Delhi Persian 718
  • Kārnāmah-i ʿishq, a lavishly illustrated poetical romance. Johnson Album 38 (previously discussed by Malini Roy here)
  • Mirʾāt al-Iṣṭilāḥ,  a dictionary. Or.1813 (Rieu p. 997)
  • Poems by Mukhliṣ appear in various compendia, e.g. IO Islamic 2674, (Ethé 2909, but there incorrectly cited as 2764) and in various taz̤kirahs

Further reading

Ahmad, B, “Ānand Rām Mokles: Chronicler, Lexicographer, and Poet of the Later Mughal Period”, Encyclopædia Iranica vol. 2.1, p. 1 (1985).
Alam, Muzaffar and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Discovering the Familiar: Notes on the Travel-Account of Anand Ram Mukhlis, 1745,” South Asia Research 16 (October 1996), pp. 131-154.
James, George McLeod, Anand Ram 'Mukhlis': His Life and Works 1695-1758. Delhi: Dilli Kitab Ghar, 2011.
Dudney, Arthur Dale, A Desire for Meaning: Ḳhān-i Ārzū's Philology and the Place of India in the Eighteenth-Century Persianate World. Columbia University Academic Commons, 2013.
Pellò, Stefano, “Persian as a Passe-Partout: The Case of Mīrzā ʿAbd al-Qādir Bīdil and his Hindu Disciples.” In Culture and Circulation: Literature in Motion in Early Modern India, edited by Allison Busch and Thomas de Bruijn. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

Arthur Dudney, University of Cambridge

23 November 2015

Royal Malay letters and seals from Pontianak

In December 1810, Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) arrived in Melaka. He bore the title ‘Agent of the Governor General to the Malay States’, having been entrusted with a confidential mission by Lord Minto, Governor-General of Bengal, to prepare for a British invasion of Java, at that time held by Franco-Dutch forces loyal to Napoleon. Raffles immediately began a flurry of diplomatic letter-writing to neighbouring Malay states, appealing for support, in both moral and practical terms, for the forthcoming British campaign. About 120 original Malay letters sent in reply to Raffles from this period have survived in the Raffles Family Collection (MSS Eur D 742/1). All these Malay letters have now been digitised, and have also been published with the full Malay texts accompanied by English translations by Ahmat Adam (2009).

2015 Pontianak  (140)
Entrance archway to the palace of Pontianak, Istana Kadriah, painted in yellow, the Malay colour of royalty. Photograph by A. Gallop, September 2015.

Naturally some Malay rulers were more disposed to help than others, responses being shaped by a variety of considerations, reflecting local political strategies and interests. A very cordial correspondence ensued between Raffles and Sultan Syarif Kasim (1766-1819), who in 1808 had succeeded as the second ruler of Pontianak (now in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan). As has been emphasized by the historian Mary Somers Heidhues, both Sultan Syarif Kasim and his father Sultan Syarif Abdul Rahman, the founder of Pontianak, ‘used, in a way few of their peers could, their personal relations with Westerners to both manipulate them and hold them at a distance’ (Heidhues 1998: 276). This adroitness is apparent in four original Malay letters from Kasim to Raffles, not least in their beautiful illumination. Three letters date from early 1811, when Raffles was based in Melaka, and one from 1814, by which time the British expedition had successfully taken place, and Raffles was ensconced as Lieutenant-Governor of Java. In the early letters Kasim seeks British support against his neighbour the sultan of Sambas, emphasizing the complicity of Sambas in the seizure of a British ship, the Commerce, and the murder of her crew, while in the letter of 1814 Kasim reports that all is now calm around Sambas and that the seas are safe from piracy. Kasim is also most solicitous to respond to any requests Raffles might have made for rarities, and with one letter he sends a pair of orangutans. In the long letter shown below he mentions that he is sending two Malay manuscripts requested by Raffles – a legal text, Undang-undang, and the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain – as well as a golden spear.

Letter from Sultan Syarif Kasim of Pontianak to Thomas Stamford Raffles in Melaka, 20 Muharam 1226 (14 February 1811). British Library, MSS Eur D 742/1, f. 33a.  noc

Letter from Sultan Syarif Kasim of Pontianak to T.S. Raffles in Batavia, Java, 15 Safar 1229 (6 February 1814). British Library, MSS Eur E 378/1.  noc

As can be seen from the two letters shown above, royal Malay letters from Pontianak were sometimes beautifully illuminated, with gold patterns stamped by hand on European-made watermarked paper. All four letters bear Sultan Syarif Kasim’s sovereign seal, with a lengthy inscription in Arabic: al-wāthiq billāh al-Khāliq al-Bārī wa-huwa ‘abduka al-Sulṭān al-Sayyid al-Sharīf Qāsim ibn al-marḥūm al-Sulṭān al-Sayyid al-Sharīf ‘Abd al-Raḥman ibn al- marḥūm al-Ḥabīb Husayn al-Qadrī // Yā Budūḥ Yā Maḥḍār Yā Ḥāfīẓ Y[ā] Ḥafīẓ Yā Kāfī Yā Muḥīt Ma‘rūf al-Karkhī, ‘He who trusts in God, the Creator, the Maker, and he is Your servant, the Sultan Sayid Syarif Kasim, son of the late Sultan Sayid Syarif Abdul Rahman, son of the late Habib Husain al-Kadri // O Buduh! O Presence! O Guardian! O All Preserving One! O Sufficient One! O Comprehending One! Ma'ruf al-Karkhi’.

Seal of Sultan Syarif Kasim, from a letter to Raffles, 16 Safar 1226 (12 March 1811). British Library, MSS Eur D 742/1, f.32 (detail)

In the middle of the seal is Sultan Syarif Kasim’s name and title together with those of his father and grandfather, while the border bears a religious inscription comprising appeals to God, addressed by a selection of His ‘Beautiful Names’ (al-āsmā' al-ḥusnā). The border inscription is not easy to decipher, for the words are written in ‘disconnected letters’, which is in fact an amuletic device often found in Islamic manuscripts believed to strengthen the power of the words so treated. Certain elements of the border inscription are more unambiguously talismanic in nature: Ma‘rūf al-Karkhī (d. 800) was a Sufi saint who lived in Baghdad, whose name is frequently invoked for protection in Malay letters and seals, while Budūḥ is an artificial amuletic word derived from a magic square. This border inscription and the iconic octagonal diamond shape of the seal were introduced by Kasim's father Abdul Rahman, who founded Pontianak in 1772, and all subsequent sovereign seals of sultans of Pontianak, up till the end of the 19th century, exhibit these characteristic features.

Sultan Syarif Kasim’s seal is also notable for its fine calligraphy, with certain letters (such as the yā’ of Bārī and the lām-sīn ligature of al-Sulṭān) dramatically extended to ‘support’ the lines of the inscription. These ‘extended letter lines’ are a characteristic feature of some seals from Pontianak and neighbouring Mempawah. In two of Kasim’s earlier seals, from his time as crown prince of Pontianak and ruler (Panembahan) of neighbouring Mempawah, the inscriptions appear to be placed on ruled lines. A close inspection reveals, however, that the straight lines are in fact stylized letters, which are indicated with asterisks in the reading of the inscriptions given below.

  #56 #54

(Left) Seal of Syarif Kasim as ruler of Mempawah, inscribed: al-wāthiq billāh al-Malik al-Bārī* Panembahan Sharīf Qāsim īm bin al-Sulṭān* Sharīf ‘Abd al-Raḥman al-Qadrī*, ‘He who trusts in God, the King, the Maker, Panembahan Syarif Kasim, son of the Sultan Abdul Rahman al-Kadri’. From a letter to the Dutch Governor-General in Batavia, 25 Zulkaidah 1207 (4 July 1793). Leiden University Library, Cod.Or.2239.I.14.

(Right) Seal of Syarif Kasim as ruler of Mempawah, inscribed al-wāthiq bi-‘ināyat Allāh al-Malik al-Bārī* Pangiran* Sharīf Qāsim bin al-Sulṭān* Sharīf ‘Abd al-Raḥman al-Qadrī*, ‘He who trusts in the favour of God, the King, the Maker, Pangiran Syarif Kasim, son of the Sultan Abdul Rahman al-Kadri’.  From a letter from the chiefs of Mempawah to the Dutch Governor-General in Batavia, 1 Rabiulawal 1204 (19 November 1789). Leiden University Library, Cod.Or.2239.I.4.

In compiling data on Islamic seals from west Kalimantan, I was greatly assisted by an eminent local historian of Pontianak, Dato' Drs Hei Abang Zahry Abdullah, after meeting at a conference at the Brunei History Centre in 2006. Although Bapak Zahry sadly passed away a few years ago, on a recent visit to Pontianak in September 2015 to attend the International Conference on Nusantara Manuscripts, I was glad to have the opportunity to meet his widow to express my appreciation of Bapak Zahry's invaluable work.

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With Ibu Zahry in Pontianak in September 2015, with on the wall a photograph with Bapak Zahry in Brunei in 2006.

Ahmat Adam, Letters of sincerity: the Raffles collection of Malay letters (1780-1824), a descriptive account with notes and translation. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2009. (Monograph; 43); see pp. 286-297 on Pontianak.
Annabel Teh Gallop,The legacy of the Malay letter.  Warisan warkah Melayu. With an essay by E. Ulrich Kratz.  London: published by the British Library for the National Archives of Malaysia, 1994.
Annabel Teh Gallop, The amuletic cult of Ma'ruf al-Karkhi in the Malay worldWritings and writing: investigations in Islamic text and script in honour of Dr Januarius Just Witkam, ed. by Robert M. Kerr & Thomas Milo; pp.167-196.  Cambridge: Archetype, 2013.
Mary Somers Heidhues, The first two sultans of Pontianak.  Archipel, 1998, 56: 273-94.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

19 November 2015

Japanese Nara ehon manuscripts digitised

Nineteen beautifully illustrated manuscripts from the British Library’s Japanese collections have now been made available on our Digitised Manuscripts webpage.

Detail from Aoba no fue no monogatari [The Tale of the Flute with Green Leaves]. Late 17th century (British Library Or 13131)

All but one of them [1] are what are often called Nara ehon 奈良絵本 or “Nara picture books”.  There is academic debate as to the validity of the term Nara ehon but it is generally applied to lavishly illustrated manuscripts, produced from the mid 16th to late 17th centuries, of popular tales known as otogizōshi 御伽草子.  Otogizōshi are a genre of short prose narratives written primarily from the late Kamakura Period (1185−1333) until the Muromachi period (1333−1568), covering a wide range of subjects from fairy tales to war epics, Shinto myths to Buddhist legends - nearly always with an uplifting moral message.

The term Nara Ehon has only been in use since the beginning of the 20th century and no one is certain who coined it or when.  Many scholars prefer the term Muromachi Monogatari 室町物語 or “Muromachi Period Tales” although this does not reflect the important pictorial component.  One widely quoted theory has it that the first examples of this style of illustrated manuscript were produced by artists attached to major Buddhist temples in and around Nara such as the Tōdaiji and Kōfukuji or the Kasuga Shrine.  The upheavals of the 16th century led to economic problems for these religious centres and their in-house artists may have switched from the production of Buddhist texts and images to these more secular and, presumably more commerical, works.  Whether this derivation is correct or not, the varied quality of the extant Nara ehon suggests that not all were the handiwork of skilled artists.  Moreover, given the numbers of manuscripts produced, other centres must also have been involved.

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Detail from Yuriwara daijin [Minister Yuriwaka]. Ca. 1640-1680 (British Library Or 13822, scroll 1)

Still, whatever its origins, the term is well established and has yet to be replaced by the more “correct” alternatives devised by modern scholars. To complicate matters further, Nara ehon is loosely used to refer to manuscripts in both book and scroll formats.  We should perhaps make a distinction between Nara ehon (Nara picture books) and Nara emaki (Nara picture scrolls) but even this is not straightforward as some manuscripts that started life as scrolls have subsequently been turned into orihon or concertina-style books (orihon), while some Nara ehon have been remounted as scrolls.

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‘Musashino’. Ise monogatari [Tales of Ise] Chapter 12. Ca. 1520-1560.(British Library Or 904)

The manuscripts were originally digitised in collaboration with the Humanities Interface (HUMI) Project of Keio University and can be viewed on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts webpages.  Users can search by shelfmark, title (omitting diacritics) or use the keywords ehon or emaki.  The works published are: Aoba no fue no monogatari  青葉の笛の物語 (Or 13131), Bunshō no sōshi  文正草子 (Or 13130), Genji monogatari kobota  源氏物語詞 (Or 1287), Hachikazuki  鉢かずき (Or 12885 and Or 12897), Hashidate no honji  橋立の本地 (Or 12174), Horikawa youchi monogatari  堀河夜討物語 (Or 12468), Ise monogatari zue  伊勢物語図会 (Or 904), Iwaya  いわや [岩屋] (Or 12570), Kachō fūgetsu  花鳥風月 (Or 12909), Karaito  からいと(Or 876, Or 877), Matsutake monogatari  松竹物語 (Or 13385), Shijūni no monoarasoi  四十二の物あらそい (Or 903), Taishokan  大織冠 (Or 12440, Or 12690, Or 13129), Tengu no dairi  天狗の内裏 (Or 13839) and Yuriwaka Daijin ゆりわか大臣 [由利若大臣] (Or 13822)


Hamish Todd, Head of East Asian Collections


[1] Or 1287 Genji monogatari kotoba is an album of paintings of scenes from the Tale of Genji accompanied by calligraphy by imperial princes and court nobility.


16 November 2015

Further Deccani and Mughal drawings of Christian Subjects

In a previous post, I looked at an important drawing of the Virgin of the Apocalypse that had been catalogued as Deccani c. 1640-60 by Falk and Archer (1981, no. 443) and argued that it was in fact Mughal from around 1600.  There are another nine drawings of Christian subjects from the Richard Johnson Collection described as mid-17th century Deccani in the Falk and Archer catalogue (pp. 238-39), but on further examination it seemed harder and harder to justify describing some of them as Deccani rather than Mughal.  This is a difficult area for absolute certainty of attribution, given that we are dealing in most cases with later versions of earlier drawings.   Johnson’s postings are of no help: he was in Lucknow 1780-82 and in Hyderabad 1784-85, but Deccani paintings were freely available in Lucknow as well.  This blog will look at some more of these drawings, trying to disentangle the genuine Deccani from those that are in fact Mughal.

One of Johnson’s specific interests was in Mughal or Deccani paintings and drawings of Christian subjects, which were normally based on European engravings.  These were brought to Mughal India by the Jesuits in particular, who aimed to use such images to help in the conversion of the peoples of Asia.  Akbar’s and Jahangir’s artists painted over and copied such prints as aids in their quest for command of recession and volume and enlarged upon them in various ways without a care for the original iconography.  Although there do not seem to have been any missions sent from Goa to the relatively near Ahmadnagar or Bijapur courts, Christian prints undoubtedly found their way into the hands of these Deccani artists, as evidenced by two drawings in the Freer Gallery (Zebrowski 1983, nos. 83 and 146).  They are clearly different from Mughal treatments of Christian subjects, having a certain angularity and awkwardness about them offset by their calligraphic line or sumptuous colour, which seems typical of what to expect from such material.

Virgin and Child.  Mughal, 1620-30.  Wash drawing with added colour.  136 x 70 mm.  British Library, J. 6, 3.
Virgin and Child.  Mughal, 1620-30.  Wash drawing with added colour.  136 x 70 mm.  British Library, J. 6, 3.  noc

A drawing of a full-length statuesque Virgin carrying the Christ Child is catalogued by Falk and Archer as Deccani 1640-60, but the artist’s interest in naturalistic modelling of the drapery would seem to rule this out. The image is based ultimately on an engraving of the icon in the basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, such as one by Giovanni Battista de’ Cavalieri.   

Madonna del Popolo.  Engraving by Giovanni Battista de’ Cavalieri, 1560-1600.  British Museum, Ii,5.104.  © Trustees of the British Museum 
Madonna del Popolo.  Engraving by Giovanni Battista de’ Cavalieri, 1560-1600.  British Museum, Ii,5.104.  © Trustees of the British Museum  noc

Since the icon like the engraving is only half length the artist has extended it down, perhaps basing his modelling of the draperies on a different image.  The Christ Child’s hand is raised more to touch his Mother’s face than in the print or the actual icon, where it is raised in benediction, but Mughal artists were not slavish copiers and were perfectly capable of adding extra pathos to the icon. The engraver’s modelling through the use of cross-hatching is replaced as usual in our version by a skillful use of wash.  The blue background and the green grass below were added to our drawing later in Lucknow where such additions to drawings or unfinished paintings were commonplace in order to cater to European collectors’ taste.

The Madonna del Popolo differs from the even more venerated icon called the Salus Populi Romani in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in that instead of the latter’s hieratic full face image, she had turned her face down towards the Child.  Several Mughal versions of the Salus Populi Romani as engraved by Wierix are known, including one in the St. Petersburg Album attributed to Manohar.   There seem to have been fewer versions made of our image, although another early 17th century full length Mughal version also with the Virgin interacting with her son as in our drawing appeared at Sotheby’s 26 April 1995, lot 128 (verso), but with the Christ Child’s hand not raised so far up. 

Angels bowing down before a saint.  Mughal, 1630-40.  Wash drawing with added colour.  119 x 99 mm.  British Library, J.6, 4.
Angels bowing down before a saint.  Mughal, 1630-40.  Wash drawing with added colour.  119 x 99 mm.  British Library, J.6, 4.  noc

A closely related image with simple wash modelling, again thought by Falk and Archer to be Deccani 1640-60, seems at first sight to be another image of Christian piety, but its origins are more complex.  Two angels are bowing down before a nimbate female figure carrying a book.  The kneeling angel has feathered limbs, the other hovers above the ground with bent legs.  This drawing does not seem to be based directly on an engraving, but rather on an allegorical drawing by the great Mughal artist Basawan from the 1580s.  In that drawing a winged angel bows down before a robed female figure carrying an ektara, a one-stringed musical instrument,and a bow (David and Soustiel 1986, pl. 1).  While one of his allegorical figures now in the Musée Guimet in Paris is based on the frontispiece to the Royal Polyglot Bible printed in Antwerp 1568-72, which was presented to Akbar in 1580 by the first Jesuit mission, Basawan freely adapted it, and also seems to have invented similar types of figures such as the originals of our figures and the next for which no European source has yet been found.  At some stage Basawan’s allegory was converted in the Mughal studio into a more conventional Christian subject.  The female figure has been given a halo and a book, and with her loose hair and in the absence of a veil, is presumably intended to be a saint such as St Catherine of Alexandria, one of whose symbols is a book.  As in the case of Madonna del Popolo above, background and landscape have been added in Lucknow.

An allegorical figure, perhaps intended for the penitent Magdalen.  Wash with colour.  Deccani , 1640-60.  135 by 93 mm.  British Library, J.14, 6. 
An allegorical figure, perhaps intended for the penitent Magdalen.  Wash with colour.  Deccani , 1640-60.  135 by 93 mm.  British Library, J.14, 6.  noc

Another drawing, although closely based on an earlier Mughal allegorical study, appears this time actually to be Deccani. A robed female figure stands fervently praying upwards to the heavens in a landscape, with an altar on which are vessels and a book in front of her and a tall ewer behind her.  A sloping hillside with protruding trees closes the scene.  A very similar earlier Mughal version of this composition appeared at Sotheby’s London 2 November 1988, lot 109, with a similar but more developed landscape, attributed to Basawan 1585-90.  That figure’s hair was tied up in a chignon and a jewelled fillet with an aigrette placed round her hair as was usual with Basawan’s allegorical figures.  In our version our artist has loosened her hair so that it tumbles round her shoulders and placed a red cap sporting an aigrette jauntily on the back of her head.  Her visible ear is absolutely covered with jewelled ornaments.  The wash modelling of the draperies is somewhat perfunctory.  A certain awkwardness in the rendition of her face, the exaggeration of her curly locks streaming down her back and the over-the-top ear adornments suggests that this may indeed very well be Deccani from the mid-century.

The Last Supper.  Mughal, 1640-60.  Wash drawing with colour.  167 by 97 mm. British Library, J.6, 6 
The Last Supper.  Mughal, 1640-60.  Wash drawing with colour.  167 by 97 mm. British Library, J.6, 6  noc

Another slightly damaged drawing is based on a combination of prints including one of the Last Supper.  Jesus has just handed the piece of bread dipped in the dish in front of him to Judas who is standing on the right, thereby identifying Judas as he who would betray him.  The drawing shows some interesting variations, including a combination of sitting and standing disciples, from whatever European sources lie behind it. The disciples, rather less than twelve, are clothed in a mixture of Biblical and contemporary Portuguese costume.  The youthful long-haired John, often depicted leaning on Christ’s chest or shoulder in this scene, has been interpreted as a woman who is now seated on Christ’s right.  The scene is set in a courtyard surrounded by Renaissance arches capped by Mughal chajjas. Two women are at the edges of the composition, one kneeling with a document, the other raising a curtain.The disciples lean forward keen to understand the significance of what is going on.  Another almost identical, contemporary drawing was in one of Warren Hastings’s albums from the collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps (Sotheby’s 27 November 1974, lot 812), there called Mughal mid-17th century, and again there seems little reason to dispute this attribution for our drawing.  No print of the Last Supper seems to include dogs, but Mughal artists often add them to any scenes with Europeans regardless of their source.

 In the Johnson collection there are two almost identical drawings showing the Christ Child lying on the ground being adored by a kneeling Virgin Mary in a moonlit landscape.  Two angels stand in adoration to the side while others hurtle down through billowing clouds from the sky above bearing musical instruments, a book and symbols.  The scene is set in the open outside a hut under a rocky outcrop, while Indian hump-backed cattle and sheep inhabit the foreground, the former standing in a stream. No European engraving appears to be directly behind this drawing, although other versions are known, suggesting that the iconography was put together in India.

The Virgin worshipping the Christ Child with angels.  Deccani , 1640-60.  Wash drawing with gold.  182 by 128 mm.  British Library, J.6, 2.fc 
The Virgin worshipping the Christ Child with angels.  Deccani , 1640-60.  Wash drawing with gold.  182 by 128 mm.  British Library, J.6, 2.fc  noc

The two standing angels wear short tunics as in J.6, 4 above and have feathered limbs in addition to their wings, while the flying ones have long robes.  In the second version (J.6, 1) one of the standing angels wears a leaf skirt, as if he were a Bhil.  The flying angels’ hurtling progress is found again in a somewhat later Deccani page in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, from Nusrati’s Dakhni Urdu romance Gulshan-i ‘Ishq, in which fairies descend by night to take the sleeping prince Manohar to his beloved (Haidar and Sardar 2015, no. 173).  As with the penitent Magdalen discussed above, a Mughal version lies behind this composition, such as one in the Binney collection in the San Diego Museum (Binney 1973, no. 65).  This seems to be from the early Jahangiri period, judging by the old fashioned piled up rocks in the landscape, which are echoed in the later versions.  It lacks the two adoring angels with feathered limbs, while the angels hover statically in the sky with only their heads and wings visible. Another much closer version of this subject with similarly plummeting angels is in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, this time with the standing angels of our versions, who both have leaf skirts as well as feathered limbs (Arnold and Wilkinson 1936, pl. 82).   Both our drawings and the Dublin version obviously are following the Mughal model but augmenting it, certainly with the angels and also with what appear to be large numbers of birds in the sky (or possibly bats since it is night).  What marks these drawings out as Deccani is the highly stylized tree on the right, far removed from the naturalistic tree of the Binney version, so that the original attribution sees correct.


Further Reading:

Bailey, G.A., Counter Reformation Symbolism and Allegory in Mughal Painting, Ph. D. thesis, Harvard University, 1996

Binney, E., 3rd, Indian Miniature Painting from the Collection of Edwin Binney, 3rd:  the Mughal and Deccani  Schools, Portland, 1973

David, M.-C., and Soustiel, J., Miniatures orientales de l’Inde 4, Paris, 1986

Falk, T., and Archer, M., Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, London, 1981, pp. 238-39

Haidar, N. and Sardar, M.,  Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2015

Zebrowski, M., Deccani Painting, Sotheby Publications, University of California Press, London and Los Angeles, 1983


J.P. Losty, Curator of Visual Arts (Emeritus)   ccownwork 

12 November 2015

BICC Cultural Engagement Partnership: Maoist posters at the British Library

Today's guest post is by Dr Amy Jane Barnes, a post-doctoral researcher who is carrying out a study on the British Library collection of Chinese propaganda posters, as part of a Cultural Engagement Partnership with BICC, the British Inter-University China Centre. During the course of this project, she will assist the curators in cataloguing the Library’s collection of Chinese propaganda posters, as well as investigate opportunities for its digitisation and display.

Dr Barnes has a background in Asian Art History and her doctoral research looked at the collection, interpretation and display of the visual culture of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in British museums. She is the author of Museum Representations of Maoist China (Ashgate, 2014).

(Sara Chiesura, East Asian Collections)

Dr Barnes working in the Chinese section of the Library

During my three months at the British Library I aim to catalogue the Library’s collection of Chinese propaganda posters from the 1950s to 1980s and research several academic papers, as well as investigate the possibilities for digitising and making the collection more accessible to a wider audience. The project also gives me the opportunity to develop my Chinese language skills, albeit a very specialist vocabulary relating to revolutionary ideology!

The first week of the project was predominantly taken up with induction-related activities, sorting out IT access, getting to grips with collections procedures, meeting my new colleagues and investigating the collection in the British Library stores with curator Emma Goodliffe – we found lots of things we were expecting, but a few we weren’t, including an exquisite set of revolutionary nian hua (年画, “New Year’s prints”) dating from 1950. From an initial estimate of around 40 posters, we eventually located over 70. And there are many plan chest drawers still to investigate, so we may yet turn up even more!

With the formalities out of the way, towards the end of the week I started to photograph, research and catalogue the collection. The posters may be organised thematically – there are examples of public information posters, posters relating to the Mao cult, nian hua ‘catalogue’ posters, so-called ‘chubby baby’ posters and a fair number of anti-Gang of Four cartoons and caricatures. But I have begun with a group of posters which depict scenes from feature films and model operas.

For example, one of the posters in the collection, which was published by the Shanghai Revolutionary Press (Shanghai fu chu ban ge ming zu chu ban, 上海巿出版革命组出版) in 1970, depicts, in dynamic pose, the ‘proletarian hero’ Li Yuhe from the revolutionary opera Hong deng ji (红灯记) (“Legend of the Red Lantern”), one of the eight “model works” (yang ban xi 样板戏) performed in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) (British Library ORB.99/174).

And in another, stills from the 1975 film Feng huo shao nian (烽火少年) (“Beacon of Youth”), produced by the Beijing Film Studio (Beijing dian ying zhi pian chang she zhi, 北京电影制片厂摄制), are accompanied by a synopsis of the plot (British Library ORB.99/171).

The brightly coloured and attractive poster below, for the romantic film Wu duo jin hua (五朵金花) (“Five Golden Flowers”) (1959), was quite tricky to identify at first, given its use of a highly stylised script that barely looks, but I am assured is, Chinese! This style reflects the emphasis on ethnic minority culture in the film’s plot, in which the hero tries to find a girl called Jinhua whom he had met at the same festival the previous year.In the course of the film he meets four other girls called Jinhua (See the plot summary here). Together, they are the “Five Golden Flowers” of the film’s title and are represented, on the poster, in the four roses and the flower held by the original Jinhua, who is seated on a rock at the centre of the scene. At first glance, it may not appear that film has overtly propagandist intent, but commenters have noted that the narrative supports the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) – a programme of industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation.
Poster for the 1959 film Wu duo jin hua (五朵金花) (“Five Golden Flowers”) produced by the Changchun Film Studio (Dian ying zhi pian chang she zhi, 长春电影制片厂摄制). Poster published by the China Film Corporation (Zhongguo dian ying gong si fa xing, 中国电影公司发行). (British Library ORB.99/172).

In order to catalogue the items, I am making a record of materials, measurements and content, as well as noting down the condition of each poster and highlighting those that might need the attention of a conservator. I have also been making rough translations of the text that appears on the posters – the types of information we need in order to determine the identity of potential copyright holders, such as publishing houses and distribution companies. My knowledge of Chinese (and set of Pleco flashcards) is expanding exponentially.

Over the next few weeks I intend to continue to photograph and catalogue each item in the collection. Then begins the exciting work of researching them in depth.

Amy Jane Barnes, BICC Post-doctoral Researcher


09 November 2015

A Scottish poet’s favourite Malay poem? Syair Jaran Tamasa

The Scottish orientalist John Leyden (1775-1811), ‘the Bard of Teviotdale’, was a close friend and collaborator of Sir Walter Scott who had won renown as a poet even before he sailed for India in 1803. A prodigious scholar of Indian languages, Leyden also had a deep interest in Malay, and built up an important collection of Malay literary manuscripts which is now held in the British Library. Leyden’s Malay manuscripts mostly originate from Penang, where from late 1805 to early 1806 he spent three months convalescing in the house of Thomas Stamford Raffles. Indeed, some of the 25 Malay manuscripts in Leyden’s collection are copies commissioned by Raffles, although older manuscripts are also found. The collection is rich in prose works (hikayat) and also contains a few syair, or long narrative poems composed of four-line stanzas with the same end rhyme, including Syair Silambari and Syair surat kirim kepada perempuan. But Leyden seems to have had a particular interest in a lesser-known Malay poem called Syair Jaran Tamasa, ‘The Lay of Jaran Tamasa’.

OP 220 Lembaga Melayu 001
A view of Penang from the sea. Anonymous watercolour, bound in to a copy of Norman Macalister, Historical memoir relative to Prince of Wales Island (London, 1803), presented by the author to Alexander Dalrymple. (With thanks to Nicholas Martland for first showing me this drawing.) British Library, 571.h.19.  noc

Two manuscripts of Syair Jaran Tamasa are found in the Leyden collection; both have now been digitised. MSS Malay B 9, which is in a brisk cursive hand, was copied by a scribe named Ismail on 10 May 1804. The second manuscript, MSS Malay D 6, is clearly a direct copy of MSS Malay B 9, and reproduces Ismail’s colophon word-for-word, while noting that this copy was made for Raffles by Muhammad Bakhar. Although this second copy of Syair Jaran Tamasa is not dated, it was probably copied in Penang in April or May 1806, for on 24 May 1806 Raffles wrote to Leyden in Calcutta, ‘I likewise send you herewith per favour of Mr Patton, the remaining sheets of the Jaran Tamassa’ (Bastin 2003: 40).   

Opening pages of Syair Jaran Tamasa, copied by Ismail, 1804. British Library, MSS Malay B 9, ff. 1v-2r  noc

Colophon of the original copy of Syair Jaran Tamasa: 'written on 29 Muharam 1219  (10 May 1804), in the year ba, on Monday, at noon; Ismail is the owner/writer of this poem' (pada sanat 1219 tahun-tahun ba pada sembilan likur hari bulan Muharam pada hari Ithnin pada waktu tengah hari akan surat ini Ismail empunya syair tamat). British Library, MSS Malay B 9, f. 103v  noc

Colophon of the second copy of Syair Jaran Tamasa, copied from MSS Malay B 9, which reproduces Ismail's original colophon, and then continues: ‘ordered by Mr Raffles to make a copy, I, Muhammad Bakhar, wrote this poem, and with the help of God the Exalted it has been completed in full, but if there are mistakes your forgiveness is begged for me, an old man with failing eyesight’ (disuruh Tuan Raffles salin senda Muhammad Bakhar menyurat syair ini ditulong Allah ta’ala sudahlah dengan sempurnanya di dalam ini jikalau ada salah pinta tuan2 maaf akan hamba tuan orang tuha lagi mata pun cedera tamat). British Library, MSS Malay D 6, f. 67r  noc

Syair Jaran Tamasa is one of a number of Malay literary works inspired by Javanese tales of Prince Panji, and in its first line introduces itself with the Javanese title Kakawin Jaran Tamasa. As the Indonesian scholar Poerbatjaraka noted, many of the names of characters in the Panji romances bore an animal title such as Bull, Buffalo or Horse, and the name of the eponymous hero of our story, Jaran Tamasa, means 'Horse Affected by the Darkness'. Set at the court of Majapahit in Java, our poem tells of the love between Jaran Tamasa, the youngest of three sons of the vizier Arya Senopati ('Noble Military Commander') who are adopted by the king after their parents’ death, and Ken Lamlam Arsa ('Admiration/Delight of Love/Desire'), who with pleasing symmetry is the youngest of three daughters of Temenggung Singa Angkawa ('Proud Lion'). [1]

Leyden’s papers suggest he spent some considerable time working on the Syair Jaran Tamasa. In his essay ‘On the languages and literature of the Indo-Chinese nations’ first published in 1808 in Asiatick Researches, Leyden discusses Malay works with ‘Javanese relations’, and alongside the Panji stories Hikaiat Chikkil Wunnungputti (i.e. Hikayat Cekel Waneng Pati, MSS Malay C 1 is Leyden's copy) and Kilana Perbujaya Cheritra he includes ‘Hikaiat Jarana Tamasa, or the love of adventures of a chieftain of Minjapahit, in Java, composed by Andika’ [2].  The British Library holds a number of Leyden’s manuscript notebooks, and in one (Or. 15936, f. 108v) we find a page headed ‘Jaran Tamasa’ containing explanations of phrases such as ‘Dikichip dunghin ecor mata [i.e. dikecip dengan ekor mata], glance with the tail of the eye’ , evoking the sultry atmosphere of the poem. And in the list of Leyden’s books and manuscripts, purchased after his death by the East India Company, included in item 25 is the ‘History of Tarana (sic) Tamasa, from the Malay’ [3], suggesting that somewhere – albeit presently still unidentified – amongst Leyden’s papers now in the British Library is an English translation of the Malay Syair Jaran Tamasa [4].

The heroine is introduced in Syair Jaran Tamasa: 'The youngest was named Ken Lamlam Arsa / she looked like a royal flower / planted among samandarasa flowers / fit to be worn in the hair of a god' (yang bungsu bernama Ken Lamlam Arsa / Rupanya laksana bunga rajasa / diselang dengan bunga samandarasa / patut disunting dewa angkasa). British Library, MSS Malay B 9, f. 4r  noc

Leyden’s jottings on Jaran Tamasa, including, at top and bottom, the flowers to which Ken Lamlam Arsa is likened: 'Boonga Rijasa - a yellow flower' and 'Boongga semandarasa - a flower of a tree'. British Library, Or. 15936, f. 108v  noc

As far as is known, the two manuscripts in the British Library are the only known copies of Syair Jaran Tamasa, which has never been published. A closer look shows that both Malay scribes appear to have struggled with unfamiliar Javanese names and words. Ken Lamlam Arsa is most likely an error for Ken Lam Arsa, heroine of another Malay Panji story, Hikayat Ratu Anom Mataram, a manuscript of which is held in the National Library of Indonesia (W 135) [5].  Muhammad Bakhar has further transformed the Javanese Arsa (spelled a.r.s) to the (more intuitive and melodious to Malay ears) Rasa (r.a.s). And while John Leyden identifies the author of the poem as Andika, this is actually the Javanese word for 'you' [6], which is written Idika by Ismail in 1804 and Indika in Muhammad Bakhar's copy in 1806.

Muhammad Bakhar was certainly a less accomplished scribe than Ismail; his hand is more stilted and shaky, and he seems to have left out three stanzas, for while in Ismail’s copy there are 1525 stanzas of four lines each, totalling 6100 lines, there are only 6088 lines in Muhammad Bakhar’s. At the end of the manuscript Muhammad Bakhar blames any ensuing mistakes on his age and his ‘failing eyesight’ (mata pun cedera). Poor eyesight must have been an occupational hazard for Malay scribes: on 15 December 1810, Raffles, newly arrived in Melaka, wrote to Leyden in Calcutta: ‘Pray send me a Dozen pair of good Spectacles that all my people may see their way clear – I have had at least half a Dozen broad hints for them’ (Bastin 2003: 51). Muhammad Bakhar's protestations fall well within the range of conventional self-deprecations of Malay scribes (see Braginsky 2002); nevertheless, Raffles should perhaps have sent to Calcutta for spectacles a bit earlier.


[1] With many thanks to Vladimir Braginsky for information on the animal form of names/titles in Panji stories.
[2]  See p.178; in fact, no prose hikayat of this name is known, only the verse form.
[3] The list of Leyden’s collections is published in the Transactions of the Hawick Archaeological Society (1911), pp. 55-6, and reproduced in Bastin (2003: 79-83).
[4] See, for example, the excitement generated by the recent 'rediscovery' in the British Library of Leyden's translations of Panjabi literary works.
[5] With many thanks to Gijs Koster for this identification.
[6] With thanks again to Vladimir Braginsky.


John Bastin, John Leyden and Thomas Stamford Raffles. Eastbourne: printed for the author, 2003.
V.I. Braginsky, Malay scribes and their craft and audience (with special reference to the description of the reading assembly by Safirin bin Usman Fadli).  Indonesia and the Malay world, 2002, 30(86): 37-62.
John Leyden, On the languages and literature of the Indo-Chinese nations. Asiatick Researches, 1808, 10: 158-289.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork 

  Related articles


The Mahabharata in Malay manuscripts
Panji stories in Malay
The Malay Tale of the Wise Parrot
The wily Malay mousedeer
Digital access to Malay manuscripts

05 November 2015

Exploring Thai art: Karl Siegfried Döhring

Various buildings in and around Bangkok, including four royal palaces, come from the hand of a German architect who was also a distinguished art historian and  passionate collector of Thai art. Karl Siegfried Döhring was born in 1879 in Cologne, Germany, into the family of a pastor. He passed his Abitur (German higher education entrance qualification) in 1899 in Neustettin - now Szczecinek in Poland - and went on to study architecture at the Royal Technical College in Berlin-Charlottenburg. At the same time he attended a course on art history, during which he developed a particular interest in the cultures and architectures of Southeast Asia. Döhring graduated in 1905 and in the same year applied for a post in the Siamese civil service.

Doehring shelfmark 7817.pp.8 band 2 plate 114
Photograph of Döhring standing by a gate at Wat Chetuphon, Bangkok. He admired the fact that the gate was made from granite in a style showing baroque architectural influences. From Döhring’s book Buddhistische Tempelanlagen in Siam, second volume of plates, plate 114. British Library, 7818.pp.8  noc

From 1906 to 1909 Döhring was an engineer in the Royal Siamese railway department where he helped to design administrative buildings for the department and rail stations for the Siamese provinces. Two of his rail stations still exist: Thonburi station in Bangkok that was built in 1900 in the style of the European expressionist brick architecture (the building, which was destroyed in WWII but then rebuilt, is now part of the Sirirat Hospital), and Phitsanulok Station, which is reminiscent of the southern German half-timbered building style.

King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) had a passion for European cultures and modernisation, and it was no surprise that Döhring soon became a superintendent, architect and engineer at the Siamese Ministry of Interior. In September 1909 King Chulalongkorn nominated him as his First Architect. Prince Dilok Nabarath, who had studied in England and Germany, commissioned Döhring to build a new palace in a simple, inexpensive European style, including decent quarters for servants. Other members of the royal family also commissioned buildings for various purposes. For Queen Sukhumala Mahasiri Döhring designed an elegant palace in the Art-Déco style, while at the request of King Chulalongkorn, he designed a palace in Phetchaburi, Phra Ram Rachaniwet, which was only finished in 1915, five years after the king’s death. With this palace, the Art Nouveau style was introduced in Siam. Other important designs by Döhring are Wang Varadis and Tamnak Somdej, both located in Bangkok.

Döhring returned to Germany when his first wife suddenly passed away in 1911. In the same year, he submitted his dissertation about the Phrachedi in Siam at the Royal Saxon Technical College in Dresden and obtained his first Ph.D. degree. In 1912 he returned to Siam, and his scope of responsibilities broadened. He was involved in the architectural planning of the first university in Siam, Chulalongkorn University.

Doehring shelfmark 7817.pp.8 band 2 plate 180
Photograph of a statue of the fasting Siddharta Gautama which was inspired by a similar statue in the Greco-Buddhist art style in the collections of the Lahore Museum. This statue is held at Wat Chetuphon in Bangkok. From Buddhistische Tempelanlagen in Siam, second volume of plates, plate 180. British Library, 7818.pp.8  noc

At the same time, Döhring was also supervisor for research on Thai antiquities, a task that took him on expeditions to ruined cities in northern Siam. Due to a severe illness he had to return to Germany again in 1913, but he used this time to obtain two more Ph.D. degrees (in archaeology and art history at the University Erlangen, and in law at the Royal University Greifswald). An updated and extended version of his dissertation on Buddhist temples in Siam was published in three volumes in 1920 by Asia Publishing House (Bangkok) and Vereinigung Wissenschaftlicher Verleger Walter de Gruyter et al.

Doehring shelfmark 7817.pp.8 band 1 plate 77
Photograph of a library (ho trai) at Wat Rakhang in Bangkok Noi. From Buddhistische Tempelanlagen in Siam, first volume of plates, plate 77. British Library, 7818.pp.8  noc

World War I and the subsequent economic crises prevented Döhring from ever returning to Siam again, but his passion for Thai art remained. In 1918 he gave up his work as an architect and dedicated his time mainly to research on Thai art and art history. His publications “Art and art industry in Siam” (ca. 1915), „Buddhistische Tempelanlagen in Siam" (1920), and „Siam" (1923) were among the first illustrated scholarly researches into areas of Thai art such as lacquer, mother-of-pearl and porcelain works, manuscript furniture, textile art, funeral art, and theatre costumes. Part one of his book Siam provides illustrated descriptions of the country and its people with topics like family, law, water ways, funerals, life at the royal court, music and theatre. Part two looks at fine art and examines art symbolism, the role of the Ramakien, architecture, painting, wood carving, ceramics, lacquer and mother-of-pearl works, mosaic art, and textile art.

Photograph of a wooden funeral carriage with the gilt and lacquered urn of Prince Urupong. From Döhring’s book Siam, part 1, p. 130. British Library, J/  noc

Döhring’s most impressive publication is perhaps his Art and art industry in Siam which was edited under the instructions of the Royal Siamese government and published by Asia Publishing House (Bangkok). The book - consisting of two large volumes (measuring 49 x 62 cm) - is a work of art itself: printed by letterpress, with unique handcrafted metal plates showing a scene from the Ramayana on both front covers. It contains high quality images and descriptions of Thai lacquer designs in black and gold, and was, at the time, the leading work on Thai lacquer art.

Doehring metal plate
Handcrafted metal plate on front cover of volume 2 of Döhring’s Art and art industry in Siam. British Library, X.946  noc

Doehring art industry vol 2 plate 39
Detail from a side panel of a manuscript cabinet in the National Library in Bangkok. Art and art industry in Siam, volume 2, plate 39. British Library, X.946  noc

Döhring was a passionate collector of Thai antiques and works of art and handicrafts. From his stays in Siam he brought back several Thai manuscripts, manuscript chests, lacquer works, porcelain and other items which are now held in the collections of the Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig and the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. Eleven manuscripts that are held in Leipzig, which mainly contain literary, medical and legal texts, were described by Klaus Wenk in 1968. Under the pseudonym 'Ravi Ravendro' Döhring wrote novels and translated books by Edgar Wallace into German. Döhring passed away in 1941 in Darmstadt.

Photograph of a wooden manuscript chest, outstandingly carved and decorated with gold on black lacquer, one of the items Döhring brought back from Siam and held at in the Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig. From Döhring’s book Siam, part 2, p. 69. British Library, J/  noc

Döhring, Karl: Art and art industry in Siam (2 volumes). Bangkok: Asia Publishing house, ca. 1915
Döhring, Karl: Buddhistische Tempelanlagen in Siam (3 volumes). Bangkok: Asia Publishing house et al., 1920
Döhring, Karl: Siam (2 volumes). Munich: Georg Müller Verlag, 1923 (published in  the series Der Indische Kulturkreis in Einzeldarstellungen, edited by Karl Döhring)
Krisana Daroonthanom: Das architektonische Werk des deutschen Architekten Karl Döhring in Thailand. Berlin: Logos Verlag, 1998
Somchat Chungsiri’arak: Rāingān kānwičhai sathāpatyakam khǭng Khārl Dư̄ring = The works of Karl Siegfried Döhring, architect. Nakhon Pathom: Silapakon University, 1997
Voss, Waltraud: Von Dresden in die Welt. Frühe Promovenden der TU Dresden in Wirtschaft, Wissenschaft und Gesellschaft. Dresden: TUD Press, 2010
Wenk, Klaus: Thai-Handschriften (2 volumes). Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1968

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