Asian and African studies blog

8 posts from March 2016

30 March 2016

The British Library’s West African manuscripts collection

The British Library holds a small but significant collection of manuscripts from West Africa. As part of his PhD research, Paul Naylor is cataloguing the collection and identifying its contents for the first time. Here, he introduces the collection and gives his preliminary results.

The British Library’s West African manuscripts collection
The British Library’s collection consists of eight bound volumes of written material and five Qur’ans, numbering some 3,000 manuscript pages altogether. Most of these items date from the mid-19th century, and were acquired by the British Museum Library (the forerunner of the British Library) between 1895 and 1917. In addition, two of the Qur’ans were acquired in the 1970s, and two other manuscripts have been purchased since 2000.

The manuscripts were paginated and bound in leather, and have remained largely undisturbed ever since. That they were not seen as important is shown by the brief, vague and sometimes shockingly dismissive handwritten records of acquisition: an 1895 entry, for example, uses the phrase: ‘Muslim catechisms prayers and charms in a barbarous African style of writing’.

Thankfully, scholarship has moved on from this view, and manuscripts from West Africa, as from any other part of the world where manuscripts in the Arabic language are created and studied, are now seen as valuable in their own right and important for the study of the societies that produced them. One of the aims of my research project is to facilitate the study of these manuscripts by providing detailed catalogue records and search terms for the collection, so that it will be easily searchable through the British Library’s online catalogue.

Image 1 OR 16751Illuminated pages from a loose leaf Qur’an, kept in a leather bag, on display in the British Library’s exhibition ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ (16.10.15-16.2.16). Late 18th/19th century  (British Library Or.16,751)  noc

Work on the West African manuscripts to date suggests that these items can play a part in removing some of the myths and stereotypes about pre-colonial West Africa. They show that the region was very much connected with the rest of the world, and a place in which education and the written word had a high value. The collection shows a real desire to widen horizons and expand knowledge, and gives us a very personal glimpse of the individuals at the forefront of this movement, to which they dedicated their lives. It is for this reason that it is so satisfying to re-examine and bring to light this rich collection, which should now gain the recognition and scholarly attention it deserves.

Language and script in the manuscript culture of West Africa
Before the colonial period, ‘Arabic was the Latin of Africa’, in the words of the distinguished Africanist scholar John Hunwick[1]. Islam and Arabic learning first reached the West African region between the 9th and 13th centuries. Muslims must recite the Qur’an and the five daily prayers in Arabic, and therefore in West Africa, like anywhere else, to be a Muslim means at least learning to read Arabic script. Religious education in West Africa is and was in Arabic, although the teacher may in some cases explain the reading material in the local language. In 19th century West Africa, a place with more than a thousand regional languages but a remarkably uniform Arabic education system, Arabic was the means of written communication between educated people.

Almost all the West African material in the British Library’s collection is in Arabic. However, while the main body of text is always in Arabic, copyists and authors often include extensive notation in their own language transcribed in Arabic script (ajami) in the margins. In our collection we have established so far the presence of two West African languages, Soninke and Fulfulde.

Image 2 or6473_214r_a80145-19
Page from the ‘Middle Creed’ of Yusuf al-Sanusi, a text arguing for the existence of one God. The larger text is in Arabic, the smaller text a gloss in the Soninke language (British Library Or.6473, f.214r)  noc

The type of Arabic script used by West African copyists can broadly be classified as ‘Maghrebi’, that is, Arabic in the style written in historical Andalusia and North Africa. It was from these regions that Arabic learning first reached West Africa. Although the French ethnographer Octave Houdas first described Arabic calligraphy south of the Sahara as a unique category in 1886, it was not given much attention. In the 2000s, several Arabic scholars with an interest in West Africa begun to note the wide variety of regional West African calligraphic styles, tentatively classifying features unique to each centre of manuscript production such as Hausaland, Bornu and Masina (Mali)[2]. Much work remains to be done in this field however, and neither the number of distinct styles of West African calligraphy nor the terms to designate them have been fixed. Making the British Library collection more accessible may provide significant contributions to a field that is still in its infancy.

The book in West Africa
Historically, books in West Africa were rare and expensive items and were normally held in small private libraries and passed between scholars, who copied them by hand for their own use. These scholars were teachers and sometimes copyists and scribes as well; many travelled extensively in the West African region, taking their books with them. Manuscripts were generally unbound, and none of the West African works in the British Library collection were originally bound. A century ago, the practice of the British Museum was to bind them upon acquisition, which means that there can be up to 150 separate works in a single volume.

Paper in West Africa was expensive, imported from Europe via North Africa and later the Atlantic coast. As a result it is very rare to find a blank or sparsely covered sheet of paper in the collection. Every scrap of paper was utilised.

One of the really spectacular finds in this collection is a letter from a Muhammad al-Amin Suwaré in Touba (probably in the Senegambian region) to his son, living nearby. Muhammad complains that a scholar to whom he had lent one of his books to copy had not given it back, and had even demanded payment for its return. Muhammad al-Amin asks his son to get this book back to him ‘quickly, quickly, quickly’, angrily remarking ‘I would never agree to buy my own book!’

Image 3 or6473_190r_west_africa_a80145-20
Letter from Muhammad al-Amin to his son, with words underlined in red ink by the indignant scholar (British Library Or.6473, f. 190r)  noc

As well as capturing the importance of books and book ownership in 19th century West Africa, the letter is wonderfully personal. Muhammad fumes against the scholar in question, saying he is a man of no religion, before adding in a rather embarrassed note that this scholar could not really have stolen the book, ‘because he is a god-fearing man of faith and learning’. Muhammad also highlights some expressions in the letter as good examples of Arabic grammar for his son, giving their explanation with notes linked by arrows to the main text.

Identifying the collection
Before I started work on the collection, there was very little information about what kind of material it contained, where in ‘West Africa’ it may have come from and how old the works might be. The main task was to look at each work in detail and glean as much information about it as possible. What is the subject area? Does the work have a title? Do we know the identity of the author? Can we get any information about the person who copied it? Where might they have lived, and when?

In a pre-printing age, the only way to reproduce written texts was to copy them out by hand. As a result, almost all the works in this collection are copies of earlier, well-established works. It was not common practice to record the date a work was copied, although strangely the copyist often notes the day and time the copy was finished, ‘on Friday, after the midday prayer’, for example. The best way to estimate the earliest date the copy could have been made is therefore to find out the dates of the individual who created the original work.

The collection has copies of the works of many authors who were writing around the middle of the 19th century. Judging also by the paper – and in West Africa paper has an especially short lifespan - these manuscripts were probably written around the same time. However, many works in the collection were originally composed as long ago as the 12th or 13th centuries, so these manuscripts may well be older than the mid-19th century.

While it is sometimes possible to identify the authors of these works, more often than not the copyist is more elusive, providing no name or often ‘signing’ the copy only with pious epithets such as ‘I have completed it, may God forgive my sins’. However, many works in the collection have colophons, that is, statements at the end of a work giving the name of the copyist, the owner and sometimes additional information. The colophon was also the occasion for the copyist to show off his drawing skills and many colophons in the collection have colourful or geometric designs.

Image 4 Or. 6880 f236 K90132-69
Colophon marking the end of a series of commentaries on lines of poetry by Sheikh Abdullah ibn Ali, who also made this copy (British Library Or.6880, f. 236r)  noc

Most names given for the copyists are so common as to be untraceable, although one, the family name Suwaré, occurs ten times across two manuscripts in the collection. The Suwaré were a family based around the town of Toubacuta in present-day Guinea, founded in 1824[3].

Part 2 of this blog will take an in-depth look at some of the items in the British Library’s West African manuscript collection.

Further reading
Blair, S. S., ‘Arabic calligraphy in West Africa’ in Shamil Jeppie and Suleymane Bachir Diagne (eds), The meanings of Timbuktu (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2008), pp. 59-75.
Brigaglia, A., ‘Central Sudanic Arabic scripts (Part 1): The popularization of the Kanawī script’, Islamic Africa, 2.2 (2011), pp. 51-85.
Brigaglia, A., and M. Nobili, ‘Central Sudanic Arabic scripts (Part 2): Barnāwī’, Islamic Africa, 4.2 (2013), pp. 195-223.
Nobili, M., ‘Arabic scripts in West African manuscripts: a tentative classification from the de Gironcourt collection’, Islamic Africa, 2.1 (2011), pp. 105-133.

Paul Naylor, British Library Collaborative Doctoral Student, Asian and African Studies

[1] John Hunwick, West Africa, Islam, and the Arab World: Studies in Honor of Basil Davidson (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2006).
[2] See ‘Further reading’ below for more information on this subject.
[3] L. Sanneh, ‘Futa Jallon and the Jakhanke Clerical Tradition. Part II: Karamokho Ba of Touba in Guinea’, Journal of Religion in Africa 12, 2 (1981), 105-126.

25 March 2016

“A bar of pure gold”: Shan Buddhist manuscripts

The highlights among the Shan manuscripts held at the British Library are some Buddhist folding books whose beauty will catch anyone’s eye. At first sight, each of them actually looks like a bar of pure gold – and this was certainly the intention of the craftsmen who produced these books. However, the idea of pure gold rather refers in a figurative sense to the purity and the moral value of the sacred texts contained in these manuscripts. To followers of Theravada Buddhism, Buddha’s teachings (Dhamma) are worth much more than just gold.

Buddha’s Dhamma is not just regarded as a doctrine: it is the wisdom, moral philosophy, and truth as propounded by Gautama Buddha, the most recent Buddha, in his discourses; Buddha’s interpretation of the order of the world or immanent, eternal, uncreated law of the universe. The Buddha is the discoverer - by means of Enlightenment - of this universal law, in which rational and ethical elements are combined.  

Buddhadanadipani pathama tvai, Shan Buddhist manual on the perfection of generosity, volume 1 only, dated 1911. Gold on red lacquer covers and edges. Soren Egerod collection. British Library, Or.15350.  noc

Although the Tipitaka, the actual collection of primary texts in Pali language, forms the doctrinal foundation of Theravada Buddhism, the complete body of classical Theravada texts consists of the Tipitaka together with extra-canonical texts (commentaries, chronicles, sub-commentaries etc.) However, complete collections of the Tipitaka in manuscript form are very rare, and extra-canonical texts were often added only locally. Usually, Buddhist kings requested and commissioned the compilation of as complete as possible Tipitaka collections in order to donate them to newly established temples, or to give them as gifts to Buddhist communities even outside their kingdom.
A common practice in Shan Buddhist culture was that selected texts, short extracts or translations from the Tipitaka were combined in one folding book (pap tup) for the purpose of teaching, giving sermons or chanting. Such folding books could be commissioned by individuals or families as offerings to Buddhist temples, and often they were commemorative volumes in order to make merit on behalf of a deceased family member. For aesthetic reasons and to add value and prestige to these manuscripts, their covers could be embellished in various ways. Covers made from several layers of thick paper could be lacquered and gilded, with added lacquer high relief ornaments and coloured mirror-glass inlay. In rare cases of very prestigious royal manuscripts, jewels could be inlaid in relief-moulded and gilt lacquer. Ornaments frequently used for the decoration of such covers were flowers, plants and foliage, as well as flame-like and hourglass-like designs. Commemorative gilt folding books are known in Shan language as lik ho, i.e. recitation texts or the texts composed in a typical form of Shan poetry for reading out loud to members of audience at ceremonies.
Sangkhara bhajani kyam, Shan manuscript dated 1916. British Library, Or.16079, front cover   noc

Embossed gold covers studded with multi-coloured pieces of mirror glass and lavish floral decoration in high relief protect this paper folding book, which probably is a copy of an older manuscript, made in a Shan community in in the area of "Muang Lakon Pa Kham" in Northern Thailand. It contains a sermon on aspects of the Abhidhamma and meditation in Shan language, with some sections in Pali. This manuscript was bequeathed to the British Library from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.

Decorative ornaments drawn in the same black ink as with which the Shan text is written. British Library, Or.16079, f.259  noc

Small decorative elements drawn in ink are sometimes inserted to separate sections of text. Usually this is just a small floral or geometric shape, but in rare cases such decorative illustrations can take up to a quarter of a folio. The illustration above resembles flowery ornaments which can also be found carved on wooden elements of Shan and Northern Thai temples.

Buddhanussati, Shan manuscript dated 1885. British Library, Or.12040, front cover  noc

The folding book above with embossed gold covers with red, green, blue and silver coloured mirror glass inlay contains a text on recollections of the Buddha, explaining mindfulness with the Buddha’s virtues as objects. This is the first of ten kinds of recollection (anussati), which help to give faith and encouragement to practising Buddhists before taking up the more arduous task of vipassana meditation.

Nemi jat to kri vatthu, Shan manuscript dated 1913. Soren Egerod collection. British Library, Or.15353, cover and f. 1.  noc

A folding book containing the Nemi Jataka, one of the Last Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha, has red lacquered covers with added gold leaf which has worn off due to frequent handling. This less elaborate technique of cover decoration is certainly the most recurring method used for making lik ho. The front cover is followed by the first folio, which bears the title and the first section of the text. However, when folded up, a large book like the one shown above with 185 folds has the shape of an impressive huge gold bar.

Anagatavan arimitayya vatthu (Anagatavamsa), manuscript dated 1893 in Shan and Pali. British Library, Or.14572, front cover.  noc

The Anagatavamsa is an important extra-canonical text on the coming Buddha, Buddha Metteyya, which is said to date back to the 12th-13th centuries. To create a bar-like shape of a book, the paper which is relatively tough must be folded up very carefully in an absolutely even manner. The book must then be pressed evenly before the lacquer and eventually the gold and multi-coloured mirror glass inlay decorations can be added. The creation of such a stunning piece of art required great care and much time. Folding books like the one shown above, weighing over 2 kg, are the pride of every collection of Shan Buddhist manuscripts.

Further reading:

Jotika Khur-Yearn, Richness of Buddhist texts in Shan manuscripts. Seven Shan versions of Satipa hĀna Sutta. In: Contemporary Buddhism, vol. 10,1, pp. 85-90.
Jotika Khur-Yearn, Shan manuscripts collections outside the Shan State. Preservation and cataloguing. In: SEALG Newsletter, 40/2008, pp. 12-16
Rhys Davids, T. W. and William Stede (eds.), Pali-English dictionary. Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1999
Terwiel, Barend J. with the assistance of Chaichuen Khamdaengyodtai, Shan manuscripts part 1. VOHD vol. 39,1. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2003


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

21 March 2016

Celebrating Noruz in Delhi with new 'Everlasting Flame'

With a long-standing interest in ancient Iranian languages and culture, I was especially excited when the possibility was raised of bringing the SOAS 2013 exhibition 'The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination' to the National Museum, Delhi. After months of tireless preparation the big night came just in time to celebrate the New Year festival Noruz. For the British Library, this was a double first: we had never lent original items to India before and it was the first time we were collaborating with the National Museum, Delhi.

Dr. Najma Heptulla, Minister of Minority Affairs, speaks at the inaugural ceremony. Also on the platform: Baroness Blackstone, Chairman of the British Library Board and Baroness Amos, Director of SOAS.

Held originally at the Brunei Gallery SOAS, October 2013 – December 2013, 'The Everlasting Flame' at Delhi is curated jointly by 6 curators: Sarah Stewart in the lead with Firoza Punthakey Mistree, Almut Hintze, Pheroza Godrej, Shernaz Cama and myself.

Blog 1.jpeg_2000
The Delhi team: KK Sharma, myself, Joyoti Roy, Ruchira Verma, Sarah Stewart and Firoza Mistry

The exhibition comprises over 300 objects with loans from the British Library, British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, State Hermitage, National Museum of Iran, National Museum of India and many smaller institutions and private lenders. While the exhibition is basically the same as in 2013, it also includes 77 new items. Some of these are substitutions for exhibits which were unavailable but others are completely new such as the Sasanian silverware from Iran, the 7th century wall paintings from Panjikent, Tajikistan, a gold plaque from the Oxus treasure (5th-4th century BC) and a beautiful 13th century enamelled reliquary casket from Limoges which depicts the three Magi, the biblical ‘wise men’ from the East.

In 2013 I wrote several posts featuring some of the British Library loans: The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination; New exhibition opens on Zoroastrianism; Ovum Zoroastræum: ‘Zoroaster’s egg’; and Zoroastrian visions of heaven and hell

The Zoroastrian prayer book, Khordeh Avesta (‘Small Avesta’), contains Avestan prayers, hymns and invocations recited by priests and lay people in daily worship. This copy belonged to the famous orientalist Thomas Hyde (1636–1703) whose History of the Persian Religion was the first comprehensive work to be written on Zoroastrianism (British Library Reg.16.B.6, folio 1r)  noc

New items from the British Library which were especially selected for Delhi include a copy of the Shahnameh which was illustrated by leading Mughal artists around 1616 in the workshop of ‘Abd al-Rahim Khankhanan and a copy of the Dasatir-i asmani by the charismatic 16th century theologian and philosopher Azar Kayvani whose neo-Zoroastrian interpretations sought to reconcile the pre-Islamic past with Islamic philosophy.

The execution of the 6th century Iranian heretic and social reformer Mazdak depicted in Firdawsi’s epic the Shahnamah (‘Book of Kings’). Mazdak’s followers are seen beneath the gallows, buried alive upside down. This copy of the Shahnamah probably originates from the 15th century but was refurbished around 1613 in the studio of the Mughal statesman Khankhanan ʻAbd al-Rahim. The artist of this painting was the well known Mughal painter Banwari (British Library Add.5600, folio 452v)  noc

An extra bonus is that all the exhibited manuscripts have now been digitized and if not already on our digitized manuscripts site they will be available in the near future. I'll be writing more about them and individual items in the exhibition over the next two months.

Noruz mubarak!

Ursula Sims-WIlliams, Asian and African Studies

17 March 2016

Buddhist rebirth in different planes of existence

Kamma is a Pali word and it covers all kinds of intentional actions, whether mental (mano kamma), verbal (vaci kamma) or physical (kaya kamma). The Buddhist doctrine “Paticcasamuppada” is demonstrative of the process of kamma. It tells us that we all are responsible for our actions, and that most of our present conditions are the result of our actions in the past, and that present actions will determine our future condition. Every action produces an effect, and the effects of our actions come back to us. Our good kamma will come back to us as blessings and lead to a good next life, while bad kamma will lead to lower forms of rebirth. A person can be born again as a different person or animal or any kind of living being after death depending on his or her kamma. Each birth is based on the actions or kamma accumulated in previous lives. Therefore people seek to gain merit by doing deeds in order to improve their kamma. Three types of kamma can be defined: meritorious acts (kusala kamma) such as generosity, morality and meditation, which will help to attain Nirvana, the path of liberation; demeritorious acts (akusala kamma), such as greed, hatred and delusion, which cause rebirth in hell; and neutral acts (kusala-akusala kamma) which are devoid of ethical substance. Rebirth takes place within the three realms (lokas) of the universe - Arupaloka, Rupaloka and Kamaloka - depending upon a being’s kamma. This blog will elucidate the planes of Buddhist rebirth, with illustrations from two Burmese cosmological manuscripts held in the British Library, Or. 14004 and Or.14550, which have recently been fully digitised.

The four great islands, from a Burmese Buddhist cosmology manuscript. British Library, Or.14004, f.27 Noc

The universe contains the earth and other planets, and the sun and moon.  Mount Meru is in the centre and is encircled by seven concentric rings of mountain ranges, with seven great rivers in between. Beyond them lies the vast ocean with four great islands named after the huge trees that grow on them: circular Uttarakuru in the north, lozenge-shaped Zambudipa in the south, semi-circular Pubbavideha in the east and square Aparagoyana in the west. Uttarakuru has a wishing (padesa) tree which supplies its inhabitants with all their needs; these fortunate islanders have the most enviable existence: they never fall ill, and they live a thousand years.  The islanders of Pubbavideha and Aparagoyana are always born back to the same island.  The southern island, Zambudipa, is our earth and it is where twenty-eight Buddhas appeared, culminating with the Bodhisatta Prince Siddharta.

The Thirty-One Planes (bhuṃ) of Existence                                                                             Buddhists believe in reincarnation, namely that all beings go through many cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth. Death is followed by immediate rebirth in one of the 31 planes of existence as a result of each being’s previous kamma. These 31 planes of existence comprise 20 planes of supreme deities (brahmas); 6 planes of deities (devas); the human plane (Manussa); and lastly 4 planes of deprivation or unhappiness (Apaya). The 31 planes are divided into three separate levels or realms: Arupaloka, Rupaloka and Kamaloka.

The first level, the Realm of Formlessness (Arupaloka), consists of four planes of brahmas who have no physical body, consisting entirely of mind, but who may create a physical body if they want to be seen. They are not completely free from the fetters of suffering (dukkha), but the dukkha experienced here is much less intense than that suffered in the Rupaloka. These brahmas are unable to hear the teachings of the Buddha (dhamma) and they can never become enlightened.

31. Nevasaññānāsaññāyatana bhuṃ (Realm of neither perception nor non-perception)
30. Ākiñcaññāyatana  bhuṃ (Realm of nothingness)       
29. Viññānaññcāyatana bhuṃ (Realm of infinite consciousness)
28. Ākāsānaññcāyatana  bhuṃ (Realm of infinite space)

Nevasaññānāsaññāyatana bhuṃ, the highest of the four planes of the Arupaloka. The celestial pavilion is an elaborate structure with tiered roofs, with two white umbrellas on either side. British Library, Or. 14550, f.9. Noc

The second level, the Realm of Form (Rupaloka), is inhabited by brahmas who have a physical body but do not enjoy sensual pleasures, and it is a place of less intense dukkha. This realm consists of 16 planes inhabited by Rupa brahmas divided into four categories according to their status of meditative absorption (jhana).  These Rupa brahmas can become enlightened if they come to know the dhamma.  

Catuttha jhana bhuṃ (Fourth jhana realm): consisting of seven planes, of which the first five are called Suddhavasa or the heavens of purity, where only the enlightened ones at the anagami (non- returner) stage can reborn.
             27. Akaniṭṭha bhuṃ (Realm of peerless devas)
             26. Sudassī bhuṃ (Realm of clear-sighted devas)
             25. Sudassā bhuṃ (Realm of beautiful devas)
             24. Atappā bhuṃ (Realm of serene devas)
             23. Avihā bhuṃ (Realm of durable devas)
             22. Asaññasatta bhuṃ (Realm of mindless devas)
             21. Vehapphala bhuṃ (Realm of very fruitful devas)

Vehapphala bhuṃ (21) and Asaññasatta bhuṃ (22): the two heavens are depicted as twin pavilions with seated Brahmas. British Library, Or. 14004, f. 11. Noc

Tatiya jhana bhuṃ (Third jhana realm): these three planes harbour brahmas who have a body with an aura.
            20. Subhakiṇṇā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with radiant glory)
            19. Appamāṇasubhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with unbounded glory)
            18. Parittasubhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with limited glory)

Dutiya jhana bhuṃ (Second jhana realm): the brahmas of these three planes have a body with different degrees of lustre.
            17. Ābhassara bhuṃ (Realm of devas with streaming radiance)
            16. Appamāṇabhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with unbounded radiance)  
            15. Parittābhā bhuṃ (Realm of devas with limited glory)

Pathama jhana bhuṃ (First jhana realm): the planes of the lowest grade of Rupa brahmas.
            14. Mahābrahmā bhuṃ (Realm of the great Brahma)
            13. Brahmaparorita bhuṃ (Realm of the Brahma’s ministers)
            12. Brahmapārisajja bhuṃ (Realm of the Brahma’s retinue)

The third level, the Realm of Desire (Kamaloka), contains seven planes of happiness (six heavenly planes of devas and the human plane) and four planes of unhappiness.

The six heavenly planes

11. Paranimmitavassavatī bhuṃ (Realm of devas who enjoy sensory pleasures created by others for them)
10. Nimmānarati bhuṃ (Realm of devas who delight in creating)
9. Tusita bhuṃ (Realm of devas of  happiness and contentment)
8. Yāmā bhuṃ (Realm of blissful existence)
7. Tāvatimsa bhuṃ (Realm of the thirty-three gods)
6. Cātummahārājika bhuṃ (Heaven of four great kings)

On the right, Tusita bhuṃ (9), where a deva is entertained by a harpist and a dancer. All future Buddhas (bodhisatta) are born in this heaven before their penultimate human existence. Beside the Tusita bhuṃ to the left is the Sudhammā rest house, where a deva is surrounded by ten other devas paying reverence. Tusita bhum is the most beautiful of the celestial worlds. British Library, Or. 14004, f.17. Noc

Cātummahārājika bhuṃ (6), the lowest of the deva worlds, is a third of the way down the cosmic pillars. This is the heaven of the four great kings who watch over the quadrant of the cardinal directions. One of the four kings is seated on one side and Devadhita  (a female deity) is seated on the other side. Matali, Sakka’s charioteer takes King Nemi on a trip to see the heavens and hells. The other dwellers are celestial musicians and the yakkas, tree spirits. The sun is on the right and the moon is on the left. British Library, Or. 14550, f.28 Noc

The plane of humans

5. Manussa bhuṃ (human beings). Both dukkha (suffering) and sukha (happiness) are found here, but this plane is the most fortunate of all because it is the only sphere in which moral initiative occurs and the only one in which perfect Enlightenment can be achieved. The beings here are endowed with a measure of merit and can find protection on their own. They can listen to and learn all the teachings of the Buddha. Bodhisattvas prefer the human realm as it is the best plane in which to serve the world and perfect the requisites of Buddhahood.

Manussa bhuṃ. British Library, Or. 14004, f.36. Noc

The four planes of deprivation (Apāya)

These lowest four unhappy planes are infernal states, in which beings pay the price for akusala (demeritorious acts) committed in their previous life. Buddhists believe that beings are born as animals on account of evil kamma. Sprits and ghosts possess deformed physical forms of varying magnitude, generally invisible to the naked eye.

4. Asura loka (demon world): the inhabitants of this plane are powerful and are opposed  to devas.
3. Peta loka (world of spirits and hungry ghosts): this plane is known as the “state of woe.” People share their merits with these beings when they do good deeds.
2. Tiracchāna loka (animal world): this is not a pleasant plane as beings have to search for food and fight each other to stay alive.

World of animals. British Library, Or. 14004, f. 37. Noc

1. Niraya (world of hell): this plane is below the earth, in the deepest recesses of the Southern Island. There are eight different degrees of punishment: Sanjiva, Kalasutra, Sanghata, Roruva, Maharoruva, Tapana, Mahatapana and Avici. There is no happiness, only suffering, in this realm and it is the worst place to be reborn.

States of punishment, depicted in a Burmese manuscript.  The guard has tied up the denizens of hell with hot iron chains as they learn their fate from the inflictor of hell; many are being burned in a great cauldron of molten metal; one is having red molten metal poured down his throat; some are hacked to pieces along the markings made by the black thread; some are running on very hot ground; and one is climbing up a tree which is full of thorns while the dog of hell waits below to eat him alive if he falls down. British Library, Or. 14004, f. 47 Noc

Good or evil kamma will bring rebirth in the plane of happiness (sugati) or the plane of suffering (duggati). After many cycles, if people manage to sever their attachment to desire and the self, they can attain Nirvana, which is a state of liberation and freedom from suffering.

Further reading:
Ledī Cha rā toʿ. Paṭiccasamuppāda dīpanī. Ranʿ kunʿ: Haṃsāvatī, 1961.
Maing Kaing Sayadaw. Vithi puṃ, bhuṃ cañʿ, chanʿʺ puṃ, simʿ puṃ. Yangon: Yadanawadi, 1966.

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

14 March 2016

More than a Book: a new display of Southeast Asian manuscripts

Visitors to the British Library building at St Pancras will recently have noticed a new display in the Southeast Asian exhibition case by the entrance to the Asian and African Studies Reading Room on the third floor. ‘More than a Book’ presents examples of writing from Southeast Asia in a range of unusual formats and materials, with texts incised on bamboo and gold, painted on paper with a brush, written on gilded wood, printed on silk, and even woven into cotton binding tapes to be wound around a book of palm leaves.

Exhibition Case 2016 (6)
More than a Book: a new display of writing from Southeast Asia, at the British Library Noc

In pride of place is the Burmese 'Butterfly Book’ (Or. 16052), as we have named what is actually a printed petition presented to a colonial official.  No government officer could ever have received a more beautiful document than this formal address, created in around 1907 on the occasion of the first visit to Mergui of the British Governor of Burma. Mergui (Myeik) is a coastal town on the Tenasserim Coast (the present-day Taninthayi Division), the southernmost district of Lower Burma (Myanmar). Technically this is not a hand-written manuscript, for the Burmese words have been typeset and printed onto ‘wings’ of silk, and bound within a large oyster shell.  In the petition, local residents offer sincere thanks to the Government for the construction of roads, and express their belief that the expansion of transport networks will bring more benefit to the region. Included in their long ‘shopping list’ is a request for a marine ferry to ply between adjacent coastal towns, a telegraph office, and aid in building a new hospital.

Burmese 'Butterfly Book', printed petition of 1907 from the residents of Mergui presented to the visiting British Governor of Burma. British Library, Or. 16052 Noc

Also from Burma are two sazigyo, or woven binding tapes for winding around sacred texts.  Among the ways in which Burmese Buddhists believe that merit can be gained is by commissioning and donating a sazigyo to a Buddhist monastery. There are many types of sazigyo: some are purely decorative but others are woven with texts recording the names of the donors, their titles and distinctions, and their deeds of merit. The donors usually call on devas and humans to applaud their meritorious deeds.

The larger red sazigyo is from a manuscript of Pacitʿ Pāli, a canonical text of Theravāda Buddhist monastic rules (Or. 4846). The text on the sazigyo is in verse, and begins with the word Zeyatu which means ‘success’. The donors call upon the universe to hear the news of their donation of the scripture of the Buddha’s glorious teaching, and express their hope that by the merit of this donation they may swiftly and directly reach the cessation of afflictions (Nirvana).  The inscription on the smaller yellow sazigyo (Or.15949/2) suggests that both the manuscript and the binding tape were donated to the Sayadaw (Abbot) of Bangyi monastery.

Exhibition Case 2016 (11)
Two sazigyo, manuscript binding tapes woven with Burmese texts. British Library, Or. 4846 and Or. 15946/2 Noc

From northern Thailand come two wooden title indicators, written in Thai in Dhamma script, decorated with red lacquer and gold leaf. The titles of the palm leaf manuscripts to which the title indicators were attached with a cord are incised on the gold background, together with the names of donors and honoured persons. The small title indicator was made for a manuscript containing the Vessantara Jataka copied in 1925 (Or.14528), while the larger one belonged to a text from the Abhidhamma dated 1930 (Or.14529). These title indicators were used to help retrieve manuscripts when they were stored in large chests or cabinets at Buddhist temple libraries.

On the lower shelf is an imperial Vietnamese scroll (Or. 14817/A). In 1793 a British embassy to China led by Lord Macartney ran into a storm while off the coast of central Vietnam, and issued a plea for help. In response, the Tây Sơn ruler of Vietnam, Emperor Cảnh Thịnh (1792-1802), sent a welcoming party to the British delegation, with food supplies and this beautiful scroll.  The scroll is written in Han Nom characters on orange paper decorated with a large dragon, and bears the royal seal stamped in red ink.

Vietnamese imperial scroll, 1793. British Library, Or. 14817/A

At the back of the case is an example of Batak writing on bamboo (MSS Batak 1), from north-east Sumatra. In 1823, at the request of his British visitor John Anderson, the King of Bunto Pane wrote on this piece of bamboo the Batak numbers one to ten, and a reminder to Anderson to send him two dogs once he had returned to Penang. In the bamboo container are found a knife – which may have been used to inscribe the Batak letters – and four poison-tipped blow-pipe darts.

Lastly, but catching all eyes at the top of the display, is a letter written on a sheet of pure gold, from Bali (Egerton 765). This letter in Balinese was sent in 1768 from the princes of Badung and Mengwi to the Dutch Resident of Semarang, on the north coast of Java.  Inscribed in Balinese language and script with a sharp stylus on a piece of gold in the  shape of a palm leaf – the usual writing material in Bali – the princes affirm their friendship with the Dutch East India Company.

Annabel Gallop, San San May, Jana Igunma, Sud Chonchirdsin Ccownwork
Southeast Asia section

11 March 2016

Jain manuscripts in the British Library

The Jain manuscripts currently in the British Library collections have a long history and were formerly held by two distinct institutions, the British Museum and the India Office Library.

Built over a period of more than two and half centuries, from the earliest acquisitions of 1753 (in the British Museum’s Sloane and Harley collections), to the latest in 2005, the collection includes works in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Hindi, Gujarati and Rajasthani and in view of its size (over 1000 items), range of material and state of preservation, it is one of the most important outside India.

, ‘Two and a half continents’. Painting on cloth, 18th century (British Library Or 13937 noc

Most of the Jain manuscripts originally belonged in several individual collections acquired in India during the 19th century by Indologists and employees in the service of the East India Company (among them H.T. Colebrooke, G. Bühler, W. Erskine, H. Jacobi, C. Mackenzie, A.C. Burnell). The subject areas and literary traditions represented are numerous and diverse: canonical, ethics, ritualistic, narrative, astronomy, astrology, mathematics and music. 33 Jain manuscripts are now available online in Digitised Manuscripts.

Miniature of Gautamasvāmin seated, in the typical Śvetāmbara monastic dress and holding a rosary, 15th century (British Library Or 2126A noc

The selection includes rare and valuable palm leaf manuscripts such as Or 1385B, the oldest Jain manuscript in the British Library dated 1201 CE, several Kalpasūtra versions, some of them illuminated (i.e. Or 11921, Or 14262 and Or 13959),  and a 15th century manuscript of the Śrīpāla-kathā (Or 2126A) and IO San 3177, which contains the manuscript used by Hermann Jacobi for his edition, translation and glossary of the Kālakācārya-Kathānakam of 1880 (at that time the only known written version of the legend). Finely illustrated, it is also an amazing example of Jain calligraphy.

Folio from the Saṁgrahaṇīratna by Śrīcandra in Prakrit with interlinear Gujarati commentary. The miniature depicts the Pancaparameṣṭhins on Siddhaśilā, 17th century (British Library Or 2116C noc

Beside poetical compositions like the Ādityavāra-kathā (Or 14290),  there are cosmological treatises such as Śrīcandra’s Saṁgrahaṇīratna (Or 2116C) and three Aḍhāī-dvīpa (‘Two and a half continents’), illuminated diagrams representing the world inhabited by human beings according to Jain cosmology (Add Or 1812, Add Or 1814 and Or 13937).

More digitised Jain manuscripts from the British Library and other collections in the UK are available at Jainpedia: the Jain universe online.

Further reading

Nalini Balbir ... [et al.], Catalogue of the Jain manuscripts of the British Library: including the holdings of the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. London: British Library & Institute of Jainology, 2006.

Hermann Jacobi, "Das Kālakācāryakathānakam", Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 34 (1880), pp.247-318. 


Pasquale Manzo, Asian and African Studies

08 March 2016

A Digital Revolution - hundreds of Hebrew manuscripts go on-line

Our followers and readers will be delighted to learn that over 760 Hebrew manuscripts have now been uploaded to the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts. Generously funded by The Polonsky Foundation, the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project aims at digitising and providing free on-line access to well over 1250 Hebrew handwritten books from the Library’s collection. The project, which began in 2013 is due for completion in June 2016, when the full complement of manuscripts will be available to a global audience.

Festival prayer book,  Mahzor, according to the rite of Provence. Opening of the morning prayer (Shaharit). Sephardic (Provencal) vocalised square and semi-cursive script of the 17th century. (Or. 5466, f. 7r

The host of digitized surrogates released to-date, represents the vast geographical expanse of Hebrew manuscript production, and offers many interesting examples of handwriting styles. Hebrew and other Jewish languages such as Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Spanish, Yiddish and others, use an alphabet consisting of 22 consonantal letters, 5 of which are shaped differently when used at the end of words. These are known as otiyot sofiyot, literally, ‘final letters’. The Hebrew alphabet which lacks case letters and is written from right left, evolved from the Phoenician alphabet. Its ancient form (c. 10th to 6th century BCE)  was known as the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet or script.  Around the 6th century BCE, it was replaced by a square form of lettering known as ‘Ashuri’ (a stylized form of Aramaic script) that had allegedly originated in Assyria and has survived to this day. The vowels system (nikud in Hebrew) was developed between the 8th and 10th centuries CE in Tiberias (city located on the western shore of the Sea of  Galilee in the Holy Land), by scholars known as the Masoretes and has been used since then. Initially devised to facilitate the correct pronunciation and transmission of the Masoretic Bible, the Tiberian vocalization system was subsequently extended to other Hebrew texts and writings.

The main modes of Hebrew styles of script distinguishable in manuscripts are: square, semi-cursive and cursive. The semi-cursive mode is also known as rabbinic, a misleading term coined by Christian scholars in the 16th century. The principal difference between the three modes lies essentially in the number of strokes required to form the shape of a single letter. The amount of strokes needed to create square letters is higher than that required for semi-cursive characters, decreasing virtually to a single stroke when cursive letters are executed. The speed of writing can also very often determine how many strokes or serifs are needed to create a particular style of script.

Developed in the Orient, most probably before the 10th century CE, square lettering has been formally used for copying the text of the Hebrew Bible, for liturgical works, as well as for Torah scrolls, mezuzot (singular mezuzah - parchment scroll containing Deuteronomy 6: 4-9 & 11: 13-21, placed in a case and affixed to a door post) and tefilin (phylacteries). 

Add MS 15283
Page from the Duke of Sussex's Portuguese Pentateuch. Lisbon, Portugal, 1480-1490 CE (Add MS 15283, f. 42r)  noc

The three major modes of Hebrew script were used in most geo-cultural zones associated with medieval Hebrew book production, namely Ashkenazic (Franco-German lands), Byzantine, Italian, Oriental, and Sephardic (Iberian peninsula). Each zone had its own characteristic types and sub-types of scripts that were strongly influenced by trends prevalent in the host environment. For example, Jewish scribal practices that developed in Oriental and Sephardic territories under Muslim rule (i.e. Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Yemen, as well as Spain from 711 to 1491 CE, Provence), show great affinity with Arabic calligraphy. Likewise, types of Hebrew script that crystalized in the Ashkenazic geo-cultural entity where Christianity was the dominant religion (England, France, Germany, Italy, post-1492 Spain) display similarities with archetypes of Latin script that were prevalent in those areas. A very good example of how Gothic handwriting affected the Hebrew square script is found in this codex made in Germany:

Festival prayer book, Mahzor , according to the Askenazi rite. Askenazic 'Gothic' square script, Germany, 1st half of the 14th century (Add MS 26896, f. 337v)  noc

The influence of early Arabic cursive writing is clearly noticeable in this 14th century hand-copied book in which the text was penned in a Sephardic current cursive script. The shapes of the Hebrew letters, the order and direction of the strokes, and the general layout of the calligraphic text bear remarkable similarities with Arabic script. Half down the page, a word was written diagonally. This scribal practice intended to keep the left margins aligned, was most probably borrowed from Muslim copyists, and became a fashionable decorative device particularly in Hebrew manuscripts copied in the Yemen.

Moses Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed in the Hebrew translation of Samuel ibn Tibbun. Spain, c. 14th century (Royal MS 16 A XI, f. 187v)  noc

Local trends determined also the type of writing instruments medieval Jewish scribes adopted for plying their trade. Thus, the quill was the popular implement for copying books in Christian territories, while in Muslim lands the reed was the scribes’ preferred tool. The former tended to produce tapered serifs, the latter more homogenous strokes.

The Persian and Yemenite square and semi-cursive sub-types are exemplified in two 15th century biblical manuscripts, as seen in the images below. It is important to mention that the semi-cursive and cursive modes failed to properly develop in medieval Yemen.

The Pentateuch, Haftarot (reading from the Prophets) and Psalms in Persian vocalised semi-cursive script. Hebrew & Judeo-Persian. Qom, Persia, 1483 CE (Or. 2451, f. 204v)  noc

The Former Prophets penned in square, vocalised Yemenite script. Yemen, 1460 CE (Or. 2370, f. 53r)  noc

The Italian Hebrew writing, like its Latin counterpart, appears to have preserved the Caroline style (a Latin calligraphic script used in Europe in the early Middle Ages and during the Renaissance). The rounded shape of the Italian Latin scripts is equally noticeable in the Hebrew scripts from that area, particularly in the semi-cursive style of writing. Our first example comes from a sidur (daily prayer book) written by the well-known scribe, scholar and geographer, Abraham ben Mordechai Farissol (1451-1526). He penned the text in a fine square hand. The letters are vocalised and slightly tilted. Note the flourishes shaped as question marks which were added after the Divine name represented by two ‘yod’ letters.

Add MS 18692, f.37v
Decorated daily prayer book according to the Italian rite. Opening of the Shema, the central prayer in Judaism, declaring the faith in one God. Scribe: Abraham ben Mordechai Farissol.
Ferrara, Italy, 1478 (Add MS 18692, f.37v)  noc

The second example is taken from an autograph manuscript written by the Italian rabbi Mordechai ben Judah Dato (1527-1585), and shows Italian Hebrew cursive script at its best. The rotundity of the characters is particularly evident here.

Collection of liturgical poems with a commentary by Mordechai Dato. Scribe: Mordechai ben Judah Dato. Italy, 1575-1599 (Add MS 27096, f. 3v)  noc

Our next blog will cover further significant items from the Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection which have been digitised since 2013.

Further reading

Ada Yardeni. The Book of Hebrew script: history, palaeography, script styles, calligraphy and design. Newcastle: Oak Knoll Press, 2002

Malachi Beit-Arié. The Making of the Medieval Hebrew Book: Studies in Palaeography and Codicology. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1993.


Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator, Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies


04 March 2016

The seals of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih of Bone

Last year the British Library digitised the personal diary of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Shamsuddin, 22nd sultan of the kingdom of Bone in south Sulawesi, who reigned from 1775 until his death in July 1812. The diary (Add. 12354), written in the king’s own hand in Bugis language and script, is an extremely important historical source for Bone. Daily entries cover a wide range of subjects from political events and religious ceremonies to notable visitors, births, deaths and marriages in the royal family, and even unusual weather patterns, as revealed in the doctoral study of this diary by Rahilah Omar (2003). 

In his diary entry for 10 September 1791, Sultan Ahmad al-Salih makes an oblique comment about a seal: ‘Ijiq came at the request of the Tomaraja (Dutch Governor), to show me the seal made by the Sanggalea named Tukamajai. I told Ijiq, “That seal may represent me, but it’s not my seal”.’ (Reading by Rahilah Omar). British Library, Add. 12354, f. 123v (detail).  noc

There are frequent references in the diary to the use of seals in the administration of the state of Bone: at the investiture of officials such as the Arung (Lord) of Timurung and the Sulewatang (Regent) of Palakka, the sultan would grant them seals. Sultan Ahmad al-Salih’s own seal, an eight-petalled circle, is well-known from a number of manuscript letters, including two in the British Library.  It is inscribed in Arabic in the middle, ādāma Allāh Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin fī mulkihi wa-sulṭānihi Bone, ‘may God preserve Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin in his realm and dominion of Bone’, and around the border, ‘Allāh al-Dā’im bilā fanā’ Allāh al-Bāqī bilā zawāl, ‘God, the Eternal One, never ending; God, the Enduring One, never perishing’.

Add.12359, f.11r
Seal of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih, 58 mm diameter (#412), stamped in lampblack on a letter in Bugis. British Library, Add.12359, f.11r  noc

But tucked between the pages of Sultan Ahmad’s diary is one of the most intriguing seal-related documents known from Islamic Southeast Asia: a sheet of seal designs, most likely sketched by the sultan himself. Five octagonal seals are drawn, in varying degrees of completeness and orthographic correctness, all in the name of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih of Gowa, and dated 1201 (AD 1786/7). All bear essentially the same inscription, with the most complete manifestation being found in the seal in the centre of the page: al-sulṭān al-‘ārif billāh Ahmad al-Salih jāharat al-millah wa-al-dīn fī baldat Gowa wa-āhlahā // 1201 hijrat al-nabī ‘alayhi afḍal al-ṣalwat wa-azkā al-taslīm // Allāhumma ṭawwala ‘umrahu wa-saḥḥaḥa ajsādahu wa-nawwara qalbahu wa-thabbata a‘mālahu wa-awsa‘ ārzāqahu, ‘The sultan who is wise in God, Ahmad al-Salih, proclaimer of the nation and religion in the state of Gowa and its people // [the year] 1201 of the hijrah of the prophet, on him be pure benedictions and bounteous blessings // O God, lengthen his life, keep all his body healthy, enlighten his heart, strengthen his works, and increase his blessings’

Seal designs of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih of Bone describing himself as ruler of Gowa, found in his personal diary.  British Library Add.12354, f.160r  noc

This reference to Ahmad al-Salih as the ruler of the Makassarese kingdom of Gowa is quite surprising, as Ahmad does not feature on any acknowledged kinglists of Gowa. Yet intermarriage between royal families was just as rife in south Sulawesi as it was in Europe, and in fact Ahmad al-Salih was descended from the royal families of both Bone and Gowa: his maternal grandfather was Sultan Abdul Razak Jalaluddin of Bone (r.1749-1775), while his paternal grandfather was Sultan Shahabuddin Ismail of Gowa (r.1709-1711).  Sultan Jalaluddin had selected Ahmad as his heir as ruler of Bone partly because of his paternal royal Gowa blood, in the hope that he would one day unite the two thrones (Rahilah 2003: 50-51). However, in 1777 a former ruler of Gowa who had been exiled by the Dutch to Sri Lanka, I Sangkilang, captured Gowa and ruled it until his death in 1785.  After I Sangkilang’s death, the Dutch seized the regalia of Gowa and presented it to Ahmad al-Salih. With both regalia in his possession, Ahmad al-Salih planned to unite the two kingdoms, and it was evidently just around this time that he began designing his new seal as ruler of Gowa.  In the event, though, Sultan Ahmad’s plans were thwarted by the Dutch who belatedly feared that the joint kingdom of Bone-Gowa would be too formidable to control (Andaya 1996: 107).

There is no evidence that an octagonal seal was ever made up for Sultan Ahmad.  However, in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam we find a photograph of the original seal matrix of Ahmad’s Bone seal, together with an oval seal in his name as sultan of Gowa (KIT 915/2). The border inscription in the oval seal is the same as that in the octagonal sketches. But in the centre panel, rather than describing himself as 'wise', al-'ārif - a word with strong Sufi overtones implying esoteric knowledge of God, reflecting Ahmad al-Salih’s well-known mystical leanings - in the oval seal Ahmad has laid claim to the even more ambitious title al-sulṭān al-kāmil, ‘the Perfect Sultan’, unmistakeably evoking the Sufi doctrine of al-insān al-kāmil, ‘the Perfect Man’ (cf. Arberry 1979: 104).

Photographs of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih's seals as ruler of Bone (7a) and of Gowa (7b), with transcriptions by Dr Hoesein Djajadiningrat, at the time curator of manuscripts at the Bataviaasch Genootschap, ca. 1930. KIT 915/2 (detail), 'Vijf fotografische reproducties met Arabische transcripties van de rijkszegels van Bone', Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam. Source: Wikimedia Commons  noc

These photographs in the Tropenmuseum document a collection of 43 royal seals from Bone captured by the Dutch in 1905, and placed in the Museum of the Bataviaan Society (Bataviaasch Genootschap). In 1931, the seals were returned from Batavia to Bone for the installation of the last sultan, Karaeng Sigeri, and are today held in the Museum La Pawawoi, a former royal residence in Watampone, Bone, South Sulawesi. Needing to check some details for my forthcoming catalogue of Islamic seals from Southeast Asia, and with little prospect of visiting Watampone in person in the near future, I put up a plea on Facebook in October 2015 requesting help from 'FB friends' in South Sulawesi. I am immensely grateful to Dr Mukrimin, lecturer at IAIN Sultan Amai Gorontalo and an expert on Bugis migration, who, within a few days, went to the Museum and, with the assistance of Mr Irsafril, photographed for me the collection of royal seals. 

Collection of royal seals from Bone, dating from the 17th to 19th centuries, on display in the Museum La Pawawoi, Watampone. Photograph courtesy of Mukrimin.

And it was only from Mukrimin’s photographs that a final piece of the puzzle fell into place. I could not understand why the Tropenmuseum photographs of seals were all numbered from 1 to 43, except for the two seals of Sultan Ahmad which were numbered 7a and 7b. Mukrimin’s photograph below shows that this is actually a double seal matrix, with Ahmad al-Salih’s 8-petalled seal as sultan of Bone on one face, and his oval seal as sultan of Gowa on the other. But while the Bone seal has been found stamped on over 28 letters and treaties covering the period from at least 1791 to 1809, no documents bearing the Gowa seal have yet been traced, probably reflecting the fact that Ahmad's ambition to wield jurisdiction over both kingdoms was never fully realised.

The ‘double’ silver seal matrix of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih, showing the face of his 8-petalled seal as ruler of the Bugis kingdom of Bone, and the back of his oval seal as ruler of the Makassarese kingdom of Gowa. Museum La Pawawoi, Watampone. Photograph courtesy of Mukrimin.

Further reading:

Rahilah Omar, The history of Bone AD 1775-1795: the diary of Sultan Ahmad as-Salleh Syamsuddin. [Ph.D. thesis].  University of Hull, 2003.
Annabel Teh Gallop & Venetia Porter, Lasting impressions: seals from the Islamic world. Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 2012; pp. 90-93.
A.J. Arberry, Sufism: an account of the mystics of Islam. London: Mandala, 1979.

With thanks to Rahilah Omar for information on references to seals in the diary of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Shamsuddin, Bink Hallum for help with the Arabic transliterations and translations, Ingeborg Eggink and Koos van Brakel of the Tropenmuseum, Mukrimin and Irsafril for  photographs of the seal matrices, and the Director of the Museum La Pawawoi, Andi Baso Bone Mappasessu.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork