Asian and African studies blog

8 posts from January 2016

29 January 2016

‘Spying’ on 100 Black Men of London: A Ceremony of Learning

Spying? Not really. Let me explain. I am one of a team of educators at the British Library who deliver workshops for school and community groups. Shortly before Christmas, The 100 Black Men of London - a community-based charity - brought a large group of black youths to the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition. They had organised their own workshop and were using the British Library’s Learning Centre to feedback and share their learning.

This is what I suddenly glimpsed through the glass sections of the connecting doors between the learning rooms: boys taking turns to stand before their peers, to present and share their new knowledge gleaned from the exhibition.
100bmol at british library
The group from 100 Black Men of London in the British Library’s Learning Centre.

I was transfixed, for it seemed to me they were reclaiming ground, making the newly-acquired knowledge about their ancestral place of origin their own. They spoke with pride and developing confidence and were clapped each in turn. I was deeply moved.

Olu Alake, of 100 Black Men of London, writes about the visit: ‘Our group of almost 60 young people and some of their parents found the exhibition very enlightening and empowering. It was for instance very gratifying that by the end of that very day, one of our youth groups had changed their WhatsApp group image to one of the adinkra symbols for leadership which they had seen in the exhibition!’ This, for me, is essential use of a brilliant exhibition, and an opportunity for the British Library to build community.

Section of a hand-stamped textile on display in the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition, showing adinkra symbols from Ghana. Some panels show the King’s symbol (adinkrahene) composed of three concentric circles, signifying leadership and greatness. Ghana, 1960s. British Library.

The education workshops we have delivered to varying school groups, as part of the West Africa exhibition programme, have been well received. We engage students through creative research, critical thinking, art, discussion and even song-making. We offer a unique opportunity for students to learn from the wide range of artefacts, written material, textiles, films and music that relate to West Africa in ‘word, symbol and song’.

DSC01864 (Credit Tony Antoniou)
View of the first section of the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition, which illustrates the Mali empire, founded in the 13th century. © Tony Antoniou

West Africa historically, and today, plays an integral role in understanding the forces that shaped and continue to shape the world we live in, yet many of the students we have worked with appear to have little knowledge of the topic. At the start of one session recently, eight-year-old children came out with statements such as ‘All Africans are poor’ and ‘They were all slaves’. The exhibition workshops provide a really important platform for open and honest discussions to explore and challenge stereotypes.

The group lined up for a photo with the mega-exhibition poster behind them.

In my view, the importance of this inspiring exhibition as a source of learning for children and adults of all ages cannot be overstated. It is expansive as well as beautifully detailed, celebratory in history and culture, and a joy to work with. My thanks to the curators and all The 100 Black Men of London who gladdened my heart and brought tears to my eyes, even though they did not know I was watching them.

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song continues until 16 February 2016. For more information on the British Library’s learning programme and workshops accompanying the exhibition, visit

Visit to gain insights into West Africa’s fascinating heritage through unique collection items and teaching resources.

Jean Campbell
Workshop Leader, British Library Learning Team Ccownwork

25 January 2016

The British Library’s Collection of Chinese Propaganda Posters: An Overview

And so my three months are up and I have completed the project: to compile and research a catalogue of the British Library’s Chinese propaganda posters. So what have I found out? Well, in the collection there are 90 individual items, considerably more than we believed there would be at the outset. The posters date from between 1950 and 1982, with the vast majority having been published in the mid-1960s, just before the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), largely thanks to a couple of sets of what I have loosely described as ‘public information’ posters, dating from 1965. One set deals with what to do in the event of an enemy air raid, and the other with meteorological and agricultural observations.

IMG_0273 - Copy
A detail from Qiang jiu shou shang ren yuan (抢救受伤人员), ‘Rescuing injured personnel’, from a set of wall charts (Ren min fang kong chang shi gua tu, 人民防空常识挂图, ‘People's Air Defence General Knowledge Wall Charts’), compiled by Tianjin shi ren min fang kong wei yuan hui (天津市人民防空委员会), the Tianjin People's Air Defence Committee, and published by Tianjin mei shu chu ban she (天津美术出版社), the Tianjin Fine Art Publishing House, in July 1965. British Library, ORB.99/79 (14).

IMG_0707 - Copy
A detail from Qi xiang zhi shi (si). Yu qing he shang qing (气象知识 (四). 雨情和商情), ‘Meteorological knowledge 4. Rainfall and soil moisture content’, from a set of wall charts (Qi xiang zhi shi gua tu (gong xiao xing zhan lan), 氣象知識挂图 (供小型展览), Wall chart of meteorological knowledge (for small scale exhibitions)’, compiled and published by Tianjin shi ke xue pu ji xing xiang zi liao she (天津市科学普及形象资料社), ‘Tianjin popular science image resource group’, in February 1965. British Library, ORB.99/87 (4).

Overall the poster collection covers a range of genres, from new nian hua and revolutionary romanticism – a fusion of socialist realism and guo hua brush and ink painting – to photographic portraits. I have categorised them according to a number of different themes:

•    Posters related to the Mao cult, including colourised and heavily airbrushed photographic portraits of Mao Zedong dating from the late 1960s, and several examples of his calligraphy (and poetry).
•    A series of posters featuring chubby babies and children, dating to the late 1970s and early 1980s, several of which promote the one child policy.
•    Revolutionary nian hua prints, dating from the early years of the People’s Republic, and which I looked at in depth in my last blogpost.
•    A set of posters featuring the ubiquitous and (probably) semi-mythical soldier-hero Lei Feng (雷锋) and which eulogise the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
•    A fairly rare set of posters featuring satirical caricatures of the ‘Gang of Four’ (si ren bang, 四人邦), the group headed by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and which was blamed for the worse excesses of the Cultural Revolution in the wake of Mao’s death in 1976.
•    The aforementioned sets of public information posters dating from 1965.
•    Documentary and feature film posters - the Library’s collection seems fairly unique in this respect; these are not something I’ve seen in large quantities in other collections.
•    Posters featuring scenes taken from the revolutionary model works (yang ban xi, 样板戏), including ‘The White Haired Girl’ (Bai mao nü, 白毛女), ‘The Legend of the Red Lantern’ (Hong deng ji, 红灯记) and ‘The Red Detachment of Women’ (Hong se niang zi jun, 红色娘子军).

While copyright implications have stymied the original plan to digitise the collection and make it publically accessible online, the catalogue – minus images – will shortly be available to download as a PDF from the new Chinese collection webpages.

Over the last three months I have had an absolutely fantastic time. It’s been a great experience to work at the Library and I was made to feel very welcome. The project has provided me with plenty of research material for the future, and what a privilege it was to get hands-on with the collection!
All that remains is for me to thank Professor Robert Bickers and BICC for funding the project and Sara Chiesura and Emma Goodliffe, curators of the Chinese collection at the British Library for hosting me.

Amy Jane Barnes, BICC Post-doctoral researcher  Ccownwork

22 January 2016

Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye visits the British Library’s West Africa exhibition

Around two thirds of the way through the British Library's exhibition, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, visitors turn a corner to be greeted with a six foot burst of yellow: a spectacular artwork entitled ‘Feminine Power’, made up of dozens of intricate drawings depicting proverbs, symbols and meanings from West African culture.  

The artwork was created by two artists, Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye and Tola Wewe. Last month Chief Nike was in the UK for the opening of her new London show, and was kind enough to visit the Library and give us a short interview about the inspiration behind the artwork.

DSC02867 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye standing next to her artwork Feminine Power (photo by Tony Antoniou)

Tell us about the symbols in your artwork – what do they mean?

A lot of the faces in the piece represent the feminine which is why the piece is called ‘Feminine Power’. When you go to Nigeria the power of the woman is stronger, and every man who comes to the world comes through woman.

The wall gecko is a symbol of peace. If you have a lizard in your home, it means you have a peaceful home since at the slightest vibration they will run away. Many people are scared of them but you need to find space in your heart for a lizard too, because there is always love and peace in your home if a lizard is there.

The sunshine symbol is one I made up myself, it means ‘don’t let someone block out your sunshine’. Women's faces
Close up cropped image of faces in 'Feminine Power'

What does the subtitle of our exhibition, ‘Word, Symbol, Song’ mean to you in terms of your own work?

It means so much to me because this is like a memory come true. We are losing these symbols and you [the British Library] are bringing them back to life for us. These symbols represent our heritage, our roots, and our everyday culture.

What was your experience of walking through the exhibition?

I just feel like this is my roots. The first item that spoke to me was àrokò [messages made of symbolic objects such as cowrie shells and seeds which were sent between kings]. My father always said ‘send àrokò to the King’. It is always wrapped in a special bag and then they would send it, but they never opened it in the presence of people, and I never really knew what àrokò was. Today is my first day seeing àrokò and this is a good memory for me. And seeing our work here put here at the Library, I am very happy and honoured.

I will be telling people who are coming from Nigeria to come and see your roots, come to the British Library.

Symbolic+messages+mounted+1 for blog

An àrokò message of peace sent by the King of Ìjẹbú to the King of Lagos on the occasion of his restoration in 1851, on display in the West Africa exhibition. Each element in this string of cowries and seeds has meaning, for example the kernel in the middle indicates ‘what is good for me is good for you’. (On loan from Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford)

You can see more of Chief Nike Okundaye-Davies' work in a new exhibition,‘The Power of One Woman’ at the Gallery of African Art until 6 February.

'Feminine Power' is on display in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song at the British Library until 16 February.

Interview by Sophie McIvor.

20 January 2016

Scenes from Burmese popular dramas

Among the beautiful illustrated Burmese manuscripts held in the British Library is one containing painted scenes from Burmese dramas, including the tale of Inaung and other stories. Acquired from a collector in 1889, this manuscript, Or. 3676, is an album containing 19 folios of painted scenes in a delicate style on thick paper, with a European quarter-leather binding. Some of the scenes have short captions in Burmese and English, and many illustrate the romantic intrigues of Prince Inaung.

Prince Inaung's flower carriage. British Library, Or. 3676, f. 2 Noc

The early Burmese dramatists drew on the Jatakas or Birth stories of the Buddha, and popular dramas (pyazats) were produced for entertainment. In the eighteenth century, Burmese drama flourished at the royal court, and the earliest play, Maniket Pyazat, was written in 1733 by the court poet Padesaraja (1684-1752), based on his own poem Maniket Pyo. Burmese court drama really began to develop at the beginning of the reign of King Bodawpaya (1782-1819), and dramatic performances of the Ramayana emerged in the Konbaung Period (1752-1885). It was Myawaddy Mingyi U Sa (1766-1853), a Konbaung-era Burmese poet who served under four kings in various capacities, who dramatized the Ramayana. He also dramatized the story of Inaung (based on the Thai story of Inao, itself derived from the Javanese Panji cycle of stories about Prince Inu Kertapati), narrating the love story of Prince Inaung and Princess Putsapa. These two plays were exceedingly long and took several days to present in their entirety.

The harp contest of Prince Inaung. British Library, Or. 3676, f. 19 Noc

The 550 Jataka stories are popular stories of former lives of the Gautama Buddha, which are preserved in all branches of Buddhism, and have been translated into Burmese. Minbu Sayadaw U Awbatha, who was famous during the reign of Bodawpaya, wrote the ten principal ones, and his style of Burmese prose literature became a model for later writers. These stories of the former lives of Buddha are inspiring and invaluable for Burmese people, and most Burmese dramas are based on events from these former births of Gautama Buddha.

'Generosity in charity'. The above painting depicts Vessantara giving away his two children to a Brahmin who wants them as slaves for his young wife. At bottom right, Ma-di, Vessantara’s wife and mother of the children, who had gone to fetch fruits in the forest for her family, is confronted by the animals on her return home. At bottom left, two deities look after the children while the Brahmin sleeps on the tree. British Library, Or. 3676, f. 1 Noc

Court dramatists, such as U Ponnya (1807-66) and U Kyin U (1819-53), were often persuaded to produce dramatic works. U Kyin U was a composer and playwright during the reign of Bagyidaw and at the court of King Mindon. One of U Kyin U’s plays is Vessantara Jataka, on the previous life of Buddha. This story is about the great generosity of Prince Vessantara. The prince’s generosity is unrivalled, but when he gave away the white elephant which ensured adequate rainfall for his country to a neighbouring country which was facing a drought, his citizens became enraged, and forced his father the king to banish him. His wife chose to share his exile with their children. After giving away all his possessions, Vessantara and his family lived in the forest. While his wife went to fetch fruits in the forest, Vessantara gave his children, a son and daughter, to a Brahmin who wanted them as slaves. The king rescued his grandchildren from the Brahmin and his wife, and invited his son and daughter-in-law to return to the palace. Once the family was reunited, Vessantara became king and all lived happily ever after.

Temi Jataka. British Library, Or. 3676, f. 7 Noc
When Prince Temi heard his father’s judgement on and harsh punishment of a criminal he was terrified, and too frightened to become king. He pretended to be deaf and dumb on the advice of a goddess who had been his mother in a former life. His father, the King of Kasikarit, besought his son to speak. In the scene shown above Prime Temi is being tested by a loose elephant and snakes. Then he was tempted with beautiful maidens when he was sixteen years old. He remained silent although he was tested again and again in various ways. When he showed no fear and no interest in anything his father thought his son was unsuitable for the kingship and ordered the charioteer to kill his son. However when Prince Temi explained to the charioteer that he was about to commit a sin, the charioteer did not kill him, and the prince became an ascetic and lived in the forest. His father and mother heard about their son and eventually came and asked him to accept the kingship, but their son still refused to become a king.

Paduma zat. British Library, Or. 3676, f. 8 Noc

U Ponnya wrote morality tales such as that of Paduma, a banished prince, and his utterly unfaithful wife. Paduma and his six brothers and their wives were exiled when the king was warned by his ministers that the princes might rebel. The younger princes planned to kill and eat their wives when there was no food in the forest. Paduma carried his wife on his shoulder and ran away from his brothers. Then he struck his knee with his sword to get blood for her to drink when she got thirsty. When they reached a river Paduma rescued a robber who had been maimed and sent adrift for theft. While he searched for fruit for them, his wife became infatuated with the limbless criminal, and when Paduma returned she hurled him down a precipice and left him to die. Fortunately Paduma was rescued and brought back to his kingdom by an iguana. He became king when his father, the king died. His former wife carried the limbless man in a basket and arrived at Paduma’s kingdom. Paduma, the king, recognized them but he desired no revenge on them, and simply ordered his ministers to banish them.

The Taungbyone Nats. British Library, Or. 3676, f. 9 Noc

The other main subject of Burmese drama is the sacrificial stories of nats (spirits). Before the reintroduction of Buddhism in 1056 people worshipped various nats, and spirit dances are still performed on spirit feast days. In this scene a country girl, Ma Swe Oo, who was also a weaver, was killed by a tiger sent by the younger Taung-pyone brother (Min Galay) for spurning his advances. After her violent death, she became a spirit and the patroness of weavers.

Royal melodrama Vijayakārī zat, British Library, Or. 3676, f. 13 Noc

Hlaing Hteik Khaung Tin, the Crown Princess (1833-1875) in the reign of King Mindon, wrote court dramas such as Vijayakārī and Indavaṃsa. She earned her fame through her romantic dramas. In the scene shown above, there is a tree in a magical forest where lovely maidens grow and wait to be plucked. This drama is about Prince Vijayakarī, Sakanituṃ (a princess born from flower bud), and Adideva of Ogre Kingdom.

Kethathiri zat. British Library, Or. 3676, f. 16 Noc

Kethathiri zat (drama) was compiled by Thakin Min Mi, the granddaughter of King Hsinbyushin (1763-1776) of Burma. The scene depicts a tree with a big flower bud, which was created by the king of the gods (deva) through his supernatural power, in the garden of an old hermit. When a beautiful maiden was born from the flower bud, the hermit gave her the name Kethathiri and looked after her as his granddaughter. Then the King of Ogres came and asked for permission from the hermit to adopt her as his daughter and take her to his country.

The court dramatists wrote delightful romances which are marvels of literary art. Only a few of their works survive to the present day but these are still widely read and studied. This beautiful manuscript, Or. 3676,  has recently been fully digitised.

Further reading:

Dr Htin Aung. Burmese drama. London: Oxford University Press, 1957.
Dr Ba Han. 'The evolution of Burmese dramatic performances and festal occasions'. In The Cambridge guide to Asian theatre, ed. by James R. Brandon. Cambridge University Press, 1993. 

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

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14 January 2016

A Dictionary Packed with Stories from Eighteenth-Century Delhi

In a previous post (When Good Literary Taste Was Part of a Bureaucrat’s Job Description) I introduced readers to the high-ranking courtier, poet and writer Ānand Rām Mukhliṣ (1697?-1751). Here I focus on his idiosyncratic dictionary, the Mirʾāt al-iṣt̤ilāḥ (ʻMirror of Expressionsʼ) completed in 1158/1745, which provides us with a delightful hodgepodge of cultural and social information about eighteenth-century India

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Decorative shamsah followed by the opening page of Mirʾāt al-iṣt̤ilāḥ (British Library Or.1813, f. 11)  noc

The biographical note on a certain Rājah Harīsingh from Sialkot, for example, which describes him as peerless in archery and entertaining (ʿilm-i majlis), is a little unusual in its detail but unremarkable for this book:

On dark nights he shot by torchlight at a target made from knot of horsehair. He had a servant named Gopī… [Gopī] would place a piece of candle on the tip of his finger, set a lentil on it, place a grain of rice on top, and stand facing the Rajah, and the Rajah bent his bow. First he knocked the rice then the lentil then the candle from his finger. Neither did the Rajah make a mistake nor did the unjust [sic] servant frown. Now I come to his knowledge of entertaining...
(Mukhliṣ 2013: 238, my translation).

Biography of Rājah Harīsingh from Sialkot inserted into an explanation of the phrase tīr-būtah ʻarchery rangeʼ (British Library Or.1813, f. 90r)  noc

The account continues by explaining that the Rajah had not studied Persian but could make conversation so impressively in the language that Iranians praised him. He also recited poetry in Hindi and Persian. He was a musician himself, and kept qawwāls (Sufi singers) and dancing girls in his retinue. This was a man who clearly knew how to throw a good party.

Historians delight in such specific descriptions of particular people in history, but it is of course unusual to find them in a text that purports to be a dictionary. In this case, the account of the Rajah fits into an entry on tīr-būtah (meaning an archery range). An elegantly written copy of this remarkable dictionary—or perhaps it is better to see it as a miscellany cast in the form of a dictionary—is available at the British Library in manuscript (Or.1813) and has recently been printed in a critical edition (Mukhliṣ 2013). Besides providing us with details about life in eighteenth-century Delhi, even a cursory reading of the text demonstrates the richness of Persian scholarship and literary society in late Mughal India.

The historical importance of Persian in India has all but faded from modern cultural memory, but it was undeniably the key medium of expression among north Indian elites during the Mughal period. Though Persian is written in the same script as Arabic and therefore often pigeonholed as an Islamic language, Persian was a secular language in pre-modern India in the sense that all communities had access to it (though there was a class divide—it was mostly an elite language) and many Hindus like Mukhliṣ made their living by mastering it. The parallels between the Persian of pre-colonial times and the English of today as languages of personal advancement in South Asia are striking. (For more on this, see my new book Delhi: Pages from a Forgotten History (Dudney 2015), which addresses the history of Persian in India in far more detail than I can here.)

The composition of Mukhliṣ’s dictionary came at a time of great uncertainty for Delhi’s elite. Patronage for poets and indeed the whole political system was being renegotiated in the wake of Nādir Shāh’s conquest of Delhi in 1739. Nādir, ethnically a Turk, had conquered the whole of Iran and the region that became Afghanistan and turned next to India. It is undeniable that politics were by then quite different from how they were in the Empire’s glory days, but it is almost eerie to trace how literary culture not only carried on but arguably shone with greater brilliance in the aftermath of the worst bloodshed Mughal Delhi had ever seen.

Nadir Shah
Three-quarter length portrait of Nādir Shāh, Shah of Iran (r. 1736–1747), painted by an anonymous artist ca. 1740. Oil on canvas (British Library F44)  noc

Mirʾāt al-iṣt̤ilāḥ has a particular interest in administrative terminology as well as in words and expressions having to do with painting, clothing, handicrafts, animals, flowers, hot beverages (particularly coffee), games, and so on. It is different from other Persian dictionaries in that it contains a great number of  ʻproto-anthropologicalʼ observations as well as long digressions describing, for example, particular people that Mukhliṣ knew such as the poet and scholar Sirājuddīn ʿAlī Khān Ārzū (briefly defining the term ārzū as ʻhope and desireʼ in as many words serves an excuse to launch into several hundred words of praise for his friend and teacher) or objects like the Peacock Throne. Additionally, it ends each letter’s section with a series of adages (amsāl), some of which have Urdu equivalents provided.


In this passage the expression dar jang ḥalvā bakhsh nimīkunand  [During war they don't hand out sweets] is rendered in Hindi (written in a special calligraphic script) as laṛāʾī meṁ koʾī laḍḍū nahīṁ baṭte —Indian laddus have been substituted for halwa (British Library Or.1813, f. 141r)  noc

Despite these unusual features, Mirʾāt fits squarely into a remarkable tradition of Persian lexicography that began in Central Asia and continued in the Indian Subcontinent, with virtually no counterpart in Iran. In fact, there is a gap of nearly three centuries between Surūrī’s Majmaʿ al-furs (first ed. 1008/1599-1600, compiled in Isfahan) and the next major dictionary written in Iran, Riẓā Qulī Khān Hidāyat’s Farhang-i anjuman-ārā-yi nāṣirī (1288/1871, compiled in Tehran). (The fullest account of Persian lexicography in English remains Henry Blochmann’s 1868 article)

Like earlier dictionaries, Mirʾāt bridges different usages around the vast region where Persian was a language of high culture, a region that at its peak stretched from Anatolia (modern Turkey) in the west across Central and Southern Asia to the Chinese frontier in the east. Scholars debate the question of how different Indian Persian was from Iranian Persian—remarkably there has been little dispassionate analysis of this topic since the starting point is usually the misleading assumption that Indo-Persian, whatever it was, could not have been ʻauthenticʼ compared to Iranian usage. That is a discussion for another time but worth mentioning in the context of Mukhliṣ’s scholarship because he was so attuned to how different people used words and expressions.

There is an apocryphal story that Mukhliṣ chased after the Qizilbash soldiers of Nādir Shāh’s army to ask them about points of Persian usage. The logic is that they were native speakers, and he wanted to know how Persian was really spoken. One difficulty in this story is that these soldiers were not actually native speakers in our sense because in daily life they either spoke Turkish dialects (like Nādir Shāh himself) or local variants of Persian. The category of native speaker (usually translating the term ahl-i zabān) is a problem in this context because literary Persian was a learned language. Mirʾāt was part of this economy of teaching Persian. The entry in Encyclopaedia Iranica claims that Mukhliṣ’s dictionary was intended to “to improve the falling standard of Persian in India”—but its preface does not in fact say anything like that (and indeed though there is a reference to īrān-zamīn [the land of Iran] in the colophon, this was written in 1850, a full hundred years after Mukhliṣ, and therefore cannot be assumed to reflect his thinking). Even the editors of the 2013 critical edition claim that “It can be seen from a close reading of the text that after finishing the work, he got it authenticated from speakers of the language just arrived in India” (2013: 33, English introduction). While some of his material comes from such people, the implication is wrong: He was asking them not because he thought of them as ʻnative speakersʼ but because they knew administrative terminology current in the establishment of Nādir Shāh, who having just conquered Delhi had modified the administrative structure to suit his needs. To find positions under the new regime, Mukhliṣ and his colleagues needed to be savvy in the new terms and procedures. It was not that Indian elites were desperate for Iranian native speakers to sort out their degenerate Persian but rather that they sought insider knowledge about the new political dispensation.

Further reading
Anand Ram Mukhlis, Mirʾāt al-iṣt̤ilāḥ, edited by Chander Shekhar, Hamidreza Ghelichkani and Houman Yousefdahi. Delhi: National Mission for Manuscripts, 2013.
—,  Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Medieval India: Mirat-ul-Istilah, translated by Tasneem Ahmad. Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan, 1993.  A complete English translation of the text, this is a useful tool but too ambiguous and inaccurate to be used without consulting the Persian text.
Ahmad, B, “Ānand Rām Mokles: Chronicler, Lexicographer, and Poet of the Later Mughal Period”, Encyclopædia Iranica vol. 2.1, p. 1 (1985).
Blochmann, Henry, “Contributions to Persian Lexicography”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal 37 (1): 1-72 (1868).
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.
—, Delhi: Pages from a Forgotten History. New Delhi: Hay House India, 2015.

Arthur Dudney, University of Cambridge

11 January 2016

Last Chance to See: Records of a lunar eclipse from over 3,000 years ago

FINAL WEEK: The exhibition ‘Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing’, which features the oracle bone described here, is on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library until 17 January 2016.

Today’s post was written with the help of Dr Roberto Soria, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, Curtin University in Western Australia. We are grateful to him for his expertise and valuable contributions.

The significance of the inscribed oracle bones of the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1050 BC) for the study of Chinese civilization cannot be overestimated. Not only do they bear the earliest known examples of the Chinese written language and are therefore of great significance to linguists, but they are also the earliest primary source of documentary evidence for a much-disputed period of Chinese history. Through deciphering these texts scholars gained unprecedented insight into the concerns of the time, sometimes with astonishing historical detail. An excellent example of this is Or.7694/1595 (Yingcang 886)[1], a bone from the Couling-Chalfant collection at the British Library, which records a lunar eclipse that can be precisely dated to the night of the 27 December 1192 BC.

Screen shot 2016-01-10 at 19.13.45Screen shot 2016-01-10 at 19.14.15
Shang dynasty oracle bone containing a reference to a lunar eclipse (British Library Or.7694/1595)
Oracle bones – primarily the shoulder bones (scapulae) of sheep or cattle and the flat under-shells (plastrons) of tortoises – were central to an ancient divination ritual during which questions were posed to the ancestors of the Shang royal house and the answers interpreted from the distinctive Ⱶ-shaped cracks that formed in the bones when heat was applied to pre-prepared hollows on the underside. Although this practice, known as ‘pyromancy’, can be traced back to Neolithic times, its heyday seems to have been during the last two centuries of the second millennium BC (i.e. the late Shang) when the Shang cult centre was at Yin 殷, near modern-day Anyang. Over 150,000 oracle bones are thought to have originated from there, approximately 50,000 of which bear inscribed records of the questions, answers and outcomes of the divination process.

Central to this divination ritual is the belief that the ancestors of the Shang ruling house had the power to predict and influence events on earth. The extent of their perceived influence is evident from the range of topics touched upon in the oracle bone inscriptions, including warfare, agriculture, hunting, dreams, illness, natural disasters and astronomy. The darkness caused by a solar or lunar eclipse was deemed a negative omen, indicating an ancestor spirit in need of mollification.

The text inscribed on Or.7694/1595 records one such lunar eclipse and even includes evidence of the date on which it occurred. In the introduction to Oracle Bone Collections in Great Britain (Allan, Li & Qi 1985) it is described as ‘a series of inscriptions proposing that there will be no misfortune during the coming ten-day week. Following the inscription made on the gui-chou day (50th of 60-day cycle), a verification inscription on verso confirms a lunar eclipse on the geng-shen (57th) day.’ This ‘verification inscription’ reads as follows: 

已未Screen shot 2016-01-10 at 20.04.32庚申月㞢[食]           
“[In the night between] jiwei (day 56) and gengshen (day 57) the moon was eclipsed”

Over the years, a number of studies have been carried out by astronomers and sinologists alike in order to calculate the precise date of this and other eclipses recorded on oracle bones according to Western dating conventions. The date for this particular lunar eclipse has been verified as having taken place between the 27th and 28th December 1192 BC. Dr Roberto Soria has confirmed that the total phase of the eclipse, viewed from Anyang, would have lasted from 21:48 to 23:30 (±17 minutes) local time.

This is shown in a diagram generated by NASA:

A diagram of this eclipse from NASA’s Five Millennium Canon of Lunar Eclipses (Espenak & Meeus 2009)

In case you were wondering (as we did) why this diagram has the date -1191 rather than -1192, Dr Soria explains: ‘the astronomical negative years in the “Canon” must be increased by one to secure historical years BC. The reason is that the Julian calendar[2] does not have a year 0, it went straight from 1 BC to AD 1. However, any automatic computer program that calculates the position of the earth and moon cannot handle this jump… So, NASA’s dates plotted in those tables are “fictitious” years that go…, -2, -1, 0, 1, …, but keeping in mind that 2=AD2, 1=AD1, 0=1BC, -1=2BC…-1191=1192BC…’.

According to Dr Soria, the historical dates and times of lunar eclipses are also important to geologists and astronomers because they allow them to measure how the earth rotation has been slowing down over the centuries. The average day has got longer by about five hundredths of a second since the Shang dynasty. This may seem like a small quantity, but a difference of a few 1/100 seconds each day, 365 days a year, over 3000 years, means a total delay of several hours accumulated from the Shang dynasty to today.

Interestingly, there is another bone which refers to the same lunar eclipse held in the Hopkins collection at Cambridge University Library (CUL 1, Yingcang 885), one of the nearly 900 oracle bones purchased by Lionel C. Hopkins (1854-1952) from the American Presbyterian missionary Frank H. Chalfant (1862-1914) who also helped to form the collection here at the British Library.

Emma Goodliffe, Curator, Chinese Collections

Further reading:

Sarah Allan (Ai Lan 艾蘭), Li Xueqin 李學勤, and Qi Wenxin齊文心, Oracle Bone Collections in Great Britain (Chinese title: Yingguo suocang jiagu ji 英國所藏甲骨集), Zhonghua shuju, Beijing, 1985 (Part I, 2 volumes) and 1991 (Part II, 2 volumes)
Chou Fa-kao, “On the dating of a lunar eclipse in the Shang period”, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 25 (1964-5): 243-247
Homer H. Dubs, “The date of the Shang period” T’oung Pao. 40 (1951): 322-335
Fred Espenak and Jean Meeus, Five millennium canon of lunar eclipses, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, 2009
Han Yanben and Qiao Qiyuan, “Records of solar eclipse observations in ancient China”, Science in China Series G: Physics, Mechanics & Astronomy, 52, 11 (2009): 1639-1645
David N. Keightley, Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978


[1] ‘Yingcang’ numbers are the reference numbers used in Yingguo suo cang jia gu ji (Allan, Li and Qi 1985-92).

[2] The Roman calendar introduced by Julius Caesar that was later superseded by the Gregorian calendar.

07 January 2016

From Samarkand to Batavia: a popular Islamic catechism in Malay

On a recent visit to Indonesia, I was informed by Professor Oman Fathurahman of the State Islamic University of Syarif Hidayatullah, Jakarta, of plans to set up a ‘Museum Islam Betawi’, which would explore aspects of the practice of Islam in Batavia, the old Dutch name for Jakarta. We discussed what might be exhibited in such a museum, and the first thing that came to mind was Islamic manuscripts written in Batavia, representative of the texts that were taught and studied in the locality, and which shaped beliefs and daily life.

A warung, or small coffee-stall, in Gunung Sari, Batavia, very close to Salemba, where the manuscript discussed below was copied. Watercolour by John Newman, 1813. British Library, WD 953, f.82 (93).  noc

Among the Malay manuscripts in the British Library which have recently been digitised there is only one which was definitely written in Batavia, but it is probably an excellent example of the type of work used for Islamic instruction in the city. It is a copy of Bayān ‘Aqīdah al-Uṣūl, ‘Elucidation of the fundamentals of faith’, also known as Masa‘il, ‘Questions’, a simple catechism written in question-and-answer form by Abū al-Layth Muḥammad b. Abī Naṣr b. Ibrāhīm al-Samarqandī (d. 983), a jurist of the Hanafi school of law from the ancient city of Samarkand, located in present-day Uzbekistan. What was originally a single manuscript has now been separated into two parts, one consisting of the Arabic catechism of al-Samarqandī with interlinear translation into Malay (IO Islamic 2906), and a second volume (MSS Malay C.7) containing texts wholly in Malay.  The Malay volume starts with a catechism on prayer (sembahyang) also in question-and-answer form, and is followed by instructions on prayers for the dead (Ini niat sembahyangkan mayat laki-laki) and a text on marriage (Inilah kitab pada menyatakan hukum nikah), which is left incomplete as the manuscript ends abruptly.

Islamic catechism of al-Samarqandī, in Arabic with interlinear Malay translation, Batavia, early 19th c. IO Islamic 2096, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

Islamic catechism in Malay, Batavia, early 19th c. MSS Malay C 7, ff. 2v-3r.  noc

Both parts are written in the same hand, and a note on the cover, now housed with the Malay volume, identifies the scribe. The owner of the manuscript is named as Mister Alperes of Kampung Salemba in Batavia, and the scribe introduces himself as Duljabar, who had come to Batavia from Cirebon. With conventional modesty he apologises for his poor handwriting “like chickens’ scratchings” (cakar hayam); in fact, as can be seen, his hand is quite stylish, with sophisticated layerings of certain letters, such as in the initial word alamat. Although the manuscript is undated it was most likely acquired during the British administration of Java (1811-1816) and therefore probably dates from the early 19th century.

Note by the scribe of the manuscript: ‘This is the book of Samarqandi, belonging to Mister Alperes, who lives in Kampung Salembah. This book was written by Master Duljabar, from Cirebon, who came to Batavia when he was very young, and who learnt to write from Mister Alperes. I was set to write all sorts of things and I wrote them to the very best of my ability, fearful of being accused of refusing or being lazy; and so this is the result, but my humble apologies are offered to those gentlemen who will read it, because the writing is like chickens' scratchings’ (Alamat surat kitab Samarqandi Tuan Alperes yang empunya dia yang telah duduk dalam daerah Kampung Salembah adanya. Dan yang menyurat kitab ini Enci' Du al-Jabar anak Cerebon, kecil ia datang di Betawi baharu belajar menyurat daripada Tuan Alperes menyurat apakan dia dengan seboleh2 hamba suratkan takut hamba dikatakan tiada mau serta malas inilah akan rupanya melainkan maaf jua perbanyak2 kepada tuan2 yang membaca dia karena suratannya bagai cakar hayam demikian adanya.) British Library, MSS Malay C.7, f.1r  noc

Michael Laffan (2011: 33) has noted that by the mid-19th century the catechism of al-Samarqandī was one of the two most popular Islamic texts throughout Indonesia, the other being Sifat Dua Puluh, ‘Twenty Attributes’ of God, derived from the ‘Umm al-Barāhīn of al-Sanūsī (d.1490), which also featured in a recent blog. Al-Samarqandī ’s work seems to have been particularly well-regarded in Java, and the British Library holds three copies of parts of the text with Javanese translations (MSS Jav 43, MSS Jav 77 and Or. 16678). Another manuscript in Arabic with Javanese translation is found in Cambridge University Library (Or. 194) while the Royal Asiatic Society holds a full translation into Javanese (Raffles Java 22). In Leiden University Library, of the 14 Arabic manuscripts of Bayān ‘Aqīdah al-Uṣūl, 13 have an interlinear translation in Javanese, while one has a Makassarese translation (Voorhoeve 1980: 45). The Endangered Archives Programme has also documented four manuscripts of the work with Javanese translations, two held at an Islamic boarding school in East Java, the Pondok Pesantren Tegalsari in Jetis, Ponorogo, and two in Cirebon on the north coast of west Java: one in the royal collection of Sultan Abdul Gani Natadiningrat  and another held by Muhammad Hilman. It is thus interesting to note that Duljabar's manuscript copied in Batavia is relatively rare in presenting al-Samarqandī's Bayān ‘Aqīdah al-Uṣūl with a Malay translation.

The start of al-Samarqandī's catechism, in Arabic with small interlinear Javanese translation, and with the beginning of each question highlighted in red, late 18th century, from the collection of Colin Mackenzie. British Library, MSS Jav 43, f.89v  noc

Bayān ‘Aqīdah al-Uṣūl by al-Samarqandī, in Arabic with interlinear translation in Javanese. Collection of Muhammad Hilman, Cirebon. EAP211/1/4/1

Further reading:

J. van Ess, Abu'l-Layt Samarqandi, Encyclopædia Iranica, I/3, pp. 332-333.
Oman Fathurahman, Museum Islam Betawi. Republika, 24 Oktober 2015.
Michael Laffan, The makings of Indonesian Islam: Orientalism and the narration of a Sufi past. Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2011.
M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve† and Annabel Teh Gallop, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014.
P. Voorhoeve, Handlist of Arabic manuscripts in the library of the University of Leiden and other collections in the Netherlands. 2nd enlarged ed. Leiden: Leiden University Press, 1980.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

04 January 2016

The rediscovery of an unknown Indian artist: Sita Ram's work for the Marquess of Hastings

In 1974 the auction house Sotheby’s in London sold two albums of drawings by an otherwise unknown artist called Sita Ram. These albums were respectively entitled Views by Seeta Ram from Moorsheedabad to Patna. Vol. I and Views by Seeta Ram from Secundra to Agra. Vol. IX. Each album contained 23 large watercolours of topographical views of the scenery and monuments of the relevant part of India. Both were soon dispersed to collectors all over the world. Apart from the clear inference that the albums were part of a much larger set commissioned by a wealthy British traveller, there was no clue to their provenance, patronage or date.

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The famous cannon known as the Great Gun at Agra. Watercolour by Sita Ram, 1814-15 (British Library, Add.Or.4311)  noc

One painting from the dispersed vol. IX, 'the Great Gun of Agra', was acquired for the British Library in 1986 and I subsequently published it without knowing the real provenance (Losty 1989). Other drawings from these albums were acquired by many prominent collectors of Indian paintings, including Ed Binney III , S.C. Welch, Krishna Riboud and Paul Walter. Many have been published over the years in various exhibition catalogues.

These are large watercolours (averaging 40 by 60 cm) by an Indian artist trained in the contemporary Murshidabad school, but no doubt working in Calcutta round about 1810-15. Sita Ram has clearly absorbed considerable influence from the English watercolourists and engravers in aquatints such as William Hodges and Thomas and William Daniell, as well as somewhat later artists in India such as George Chinnery. Despite the influences, this artist is able to compose picturesque and beautiful compositions in his own right as in this case, concentrating rather like Chinnery on a minor antiquity and relegating the Taj Mahal to the distance along the River Jumna where it shimmers through the heat haze. Many of these paintings also promised to be of great interest in the discovery of India’s past before the advent of photography and the Archaeological Survey. In the case of the painting above, for instance, the area was totally destroyed by the blowing up of the cannon in 1833 and the later building of the railway bridge across the Jumna past the north wall of the Agra Fort.

Admirers of later Indian painting could only hope that the missing volumes would one day turn up. This duly happened in 1995, when the British Library was offered and was able to acquire the remaining albums by Sita Ram (numbered II-VIII and X). They formed part of the collection of albums of drawings formed in India by the Marquess of Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal 1813-23. The ten albums by Sita Ram illustrate Lord and Lady Hastings’ journey from Calcutta to Delhi and back in 1814-15. There were in all 25 albums of drawings in the collection, by Indian, Chinese and British artists. They had been for the last 150 years in the collection of the Marquis of Bute in Scotland, and indeed hitherto unknown and unsuspected. Hastings then turned out to be Sita Ram’s patron and the artist’s paintings of the voyage could be firmly dated 1814-15. This journey had been long known of through the publication in 1858 of Lord Hastings’ journal, edited by his daughter the Marchioness of Bute, who as a child had accompanied her parents on this grand voyage (Hastings 1858) and who had inherited all her father’s papers and albums.

The 10 albums each with 23 drawings form a grand diorama of north India, as if Hastings had set out to surpass the 144 aquatints of the Daniells’ Oriental Scenery. It is 20 years since the Library acquired these albums and finally it has been possible to publish them in a fitting manner with the enthusiastic cooperation of Pramod Kapoor of Roli Books in Delhi (Losty 2015). An introduction deals with the patron Lord Hastings and Sita Ram as an artist, but the meat of the book is the publication of 160 of the drawings taken on the voyage and of an abbreviated version of Hastings’ journal, which sheds so much light on the paintings. The two obviously go hand in hand, though Hastings refers only occasionally to the ‘Bengal draftsman’ who accompanied them.

In order to inspect the British possessions in India and to meet Indian rulers and notables, and in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief to keep a closer eye on the current war with Nepal, Hastings made a journey upcountry from Calcutta to the Punjab and back. The party embarked on 28 June 1814 at Barrackpore in a flotilla of no less than 220 boats. Hastings was accompanied by his wife and small children, by his secretaries and A.D.C.s, and no doubt by their wives and children, by 150 sepoys of the Governor-General’s Bodyguard, and by a battalion from the Bengal Army. They all would have needed boats for their luggage and equipment, for their horses, for their food and stores and floating kitchens. They needed to set off in the adverse conditions at the height of the monsoon, as only then was the water debouching from the Ganges into the Hooghly high enough for the boats to pass over the bar at Suti.

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The flotilla on the River Ganges. Watercolour by Sita Ram, 1814-15 (British Library, Add.Or.4711)  noc    

The flotilla conveyed them up the river Hooghly and into the main stream of the Ganges, past Patna, Benares and Allahabad as far as Cawnpore. Hastings provides graphic descriptions of the difficulties encountered on the river of fighting the adverse winds and the current, of the incessant necessity for ‘tracking’, i.e. the boatmen landing and pulling the boats upriver, and of the tedium when they had to wait for changes in the wind to get round promontories.

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Temples at Rajghat, Benares. Watercolour by Sita Ram, 1814-15 (British Library, Add.Or.4718)  noc

Some of the paintings illustrating the river journey are among the most tranquil and beautiful creations in Indian painting.

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Lord Hastings and Nawab Ghazi al-Din enter Lucknow in state. Watercolour by Sita Ram, 1814-15 (British Library, Add.Or.4749)  noc

At Cawnpore they disembarked from their boats and travelled overland to Lucknow. One of the principals purposes of the journey was for Hastings to meet the new Nawab Vizier Ghazi al-Din Haidar. Hastings tells us later that no less than 10,000 people were in the party at this time. The principal members of the party travelled by elephant, camel, horseback, palanquin and all the other means of transport employed in early nineteenth century India, whereas everyone else simply had to march. They moved at the rate of about ten miles a day (it took five days to cover the 50 miles between Cawnpore and Lucknow!), starting off before daybreak and reaching their next encampment before it became too hot. By having two complete sets of tents the second set was always available for the principal travellers when they arrived at the next encampment for breakfast. There they rested during the hear of the day, met the local people both British and Indian, and Hastings also could get on with the day-to-day tasks of governing India.

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The travellers marching past the mountains at Kashipur. Watercolour by Sita Ram, 1814-15. British Library (Add.Or.4775)  noc

From Lucknow, the party then marched north-westwards parallel to the Himalayas, passing to the north of Delhi up to Haridwar where the Ganges debouches onto the plains.

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The ghats at Haridwar. Watercolour by Sita Ram, 1814-15 (British Library, Add.Or.4783)  noc

They then turned south into the Punjab and approached Delhi from the west through Haryana. In the event, questions of protocol prevented Hastings from meeting the Mughal emperor Akbar II, or King of Delhi as the British referred to him at this time, although Lady Hastings went to Delhi as a sightseer, taking Sita Ram with her.

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Lady Hastings visiting the Kalan Masjid in Delhi. Watercolour by Sita Ram, 1815 (British Library, Add.Or.4817)  noc

Lord Hastings busied himself inspecting the garrison at Meerut before meeting up with his wife’s party again south of Delhi. The travellers turned south towards Agra, admiring the great Mughal monuments there and at Sikandra and Fatehpur Sikri, then marched to the British military station of Fatehgarh near Farrukhabad on the Ganges. There they passed the hot weather of 1815 waiting for the monsoon rains to swell the river so that they could pass over the bar at Suti and down the Hooghly to Calcutta. Sita Ram must have passed these months finishing off his watercolours and preparing them for pasting into the albums. The Hastings’ children became ill at this time and when the rains had swelled the river but the monsoon gales had abated, they embarked on their boats and sailed rapidly downstream to Calcutta where they arrived on 9 October 1815. The whole journey took seventeen months. Lady Hastings took the children home to England but later returned to be with her husband.

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The Firoz Shah Minar at Gaur and a Palash tree. Watercolour by Sita Ram, 1817 (British Library, Add.Or.4888)  noc

Sita Ram continued to work for Hastings.   Another two albums of drawings also by Sita Ram contain views in Bengal taken on subsequent tours, one during a sporting expedition to northern Bengal in 1817, and the other during a convalescent tour in the Rajmahal Hills in 1820-21. Sita Ram has matured even more as an artist by then and they contain some of his most beautiful works. With Hastings’ departure from India in 1823, however, Sita Ram disappears from the record and no further work is known from his hand.


Further reading:

Hastings, 1st Marquess of, The Private Journal of the Marquess of Hastings, K.G., ed. by the Marchioness of Bute, London, 1858
Losty, J.P., ‘The Great Gun at Agra’, British Library Journal, v.15, 1989, pp. 35-58
Losty, J.P., Sita Ram: Picturesque Views of India – Lord Hastings’s Journey from Calcutta to the Punjab, 1814-15, Roli Books, New Delhi, 2015 (also Sita Ram’s Painted Views of India, Thames & Hudson, London, 2015)


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