31 August is celebrated each year in Malaysia as Hari Merdeka, ‘Independence Day’. It marks the momentous occasion that took place on 31 August 1957, when at a great ceremony at the national stadium in Kuala Lumpur, Tunku Abdul Rahman proclaimed the independence of the Federation of Malaya, after a long period of British colonial rule. In 1963 the expanded nation of Malaysia was formed from the Federation of Malaya, the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah, and Singapore, although two years later in 1965 Singapore left Malaysia to become independent.
The only known copy of a rare publication on Malayan independence published in Colombo by Francis Cooray, a Sri Lankan journalist who had lived in Malaya for 29 years, for 21 years as Special Correspondent for the Financial Times. Francis Cooray, Merdeka for Malaya (Maharagama: Saman Press, 1957). British Library, 8025.c.96
In 1511, the Portuguese captured Melaka, the ‘Venice of the East’, the greatest Malay sultanate and port-city in Southeast Asia. Over the next three hundred years, Melaka was tossed about like a ping-pong ball by rival European powers: in 1641 it was wrestled from the Portuguese by the Dutch, and in the early 19th century passed into British hands. Entering the era of ‘high colonialism’, following the Pangkor Treaty of 1874 a British Resident was appointed to the state of Perak, and by the early 20th century, the whole of the Malay peninsula was under British control. The proclamation of Merdeka in 1957 thus marked the end of over four centuries of the presence of European power-bases in the Malay peninsula.
In 2007, to mark the 50th anniversary of Merdeka, the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur requested help from the British Library to compile an album of images from souvenir publications in its collection commemorating Malaysian independence, for presentation to the then Prime Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Some of the most interesting pictures are reproduced below to mark today, the 59th anniversary of Merdeka.
The first featured guide is Merdeka Celebrations Guide 31st August 1957 (10059.d.13), published in Penang just before Independence Day itself, to publicise the celebrations prepared for Merdeka.
Merdeka Celebrations Guide 31st August 1957: showing programmes of Penang, Province Wellesley & Kuala Lumpur. Penang: G.K.M. Dean, 1957. British Library, 10059.d.13
Timetable of Merdeka celebrations planned for Georgetown, Penang. Merdeka Celebrations Guide 31st August 1957: showing programmes of Penang, Province Wellesley & Kuala Lumpur. Penang: G.K.M. Dean, 1957. British Library, 10059.d.13
The other three souvenir booklets shown here were published after the event and include photographs of the Merdeka celebrations. The Merdeka Anniversary Souvenir 31st August 1958 (Cup.25.e.50) was published to mark the first anniversary of independence.
Merdeka Anniversary Souvenir 31st August 1958 / Sambutan Ulangtahun Merdeka yang pertama Persekutuan Tanah Melayu 31 August 1958. Kuala Lumpur: Lai Than Fong, 1958. British Library, Cup.25.e.50, front cover
Merdeka Anniversary Souvenir 31st August 1958 / Sambutan Ulangtahun Merdeka yang pertama Persekutuan Tanah Melayu 31 August 1958. Kuala Lumpur: Lai Than Fong, 1958. British Library, Cup.25.e.50, p. 41
Malaya Merdeka Souvenir (X.702/1766) was published in Ipoh, Perak by O.S. Pada, and includes a pictorial record of the process of political negotiations leading up to independence, as well as of the great day itself.
Malaya Merdeka Souvenir, 31st Aug., 1957. Ipoh: O.S. Pada, Pada Advertising Agency, 1957. British Library, X.702/1766
Malaya Merdeka Souvenir, 31st Aug., 1957. Ipoh: O.S. Pada, Pada Advertising Agency, 1957. British Library, X.702/1766, p.43
The fourth and final commemorative booklet, Kulim Merdeka Souvenir Magazine (X.700/13428) is particularly interesting in presenting a record of the Merdeka celebrations not in the federal capital, but in Kulim, a small town in Kedah. It features on its front cover the famous Kulim Merdeka Clock Tower, unveiled by Sultan Badlishah of Kedah on 15 September 1957 to mark the declaration of independence.
Kulim Merdeka Souvenir Magazine, 31st August 1957. Kulim: Chan Khuan Ooh, 1957. British Library, X.700/13428
A record of Merdeka celebrations in Kulim, including the unveiling of the Clock Tower, a parade of UMNO youths and Kaum Ibu, and a Boria performance. Kulim Merdeka Souvenir Magazine, 31st August 1957. Kulim: Chan Khuan Ooh, 1957. British Library, X.700/13428
The Merdeka arch in Baling, a small town in Kedah near the border with Thailand best known as the site of abortive negotiations in 1955 between Tunku Abdul Rahman and the Communist leader Chin Peng to end the Malayan Emergency. Kulim Merdeka Souvenir Magazine, 31st August 1957. Kulim: Chan Khuan Ooh, 1957. British Library, X.700/13428
The album of images from British Library publications presented by the British High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur to the Prime Minister of Malaysia, 2007.
In the digital era, accessing information of any kind from a library is just one click away on your computer keyboard, and almost makes you forget how difficult this activity could be in the past. Half a century ago, this luxury was unimaginable, thanks not only to the state of technology at that time but also to the scarcity of source materials. The problem became even more acute when you were dealing with materials from a country which had gone through difficult circumstances, such as Vietnam in the 1960s. In this two-part blog, I will discuss the great lengths to which the British Library went in order to acquire publications from this war-torn and politically-divided country, based on archives held in the department.
The drive to acquire materials from Vietnam was mainly due to G.H. Spinney, who from 1948 was Keeper of the State Paper Room (which subsequently became the Department of Official Publications in the British Library). During the early 1960s Spinney campaigned vigorously to increase the collection of official publications in the State Paper Room, largely by utilising the mechanism of international exchange (Harris 1998: 598, 654).
Publication from North Vietnam, 1961. British Library, 16684.a.1
The Vietnamese collection was originally held in the British Museum’s Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts. Unlike the large numbers of publications in Burmese and Malay from former British colonies in Southeast Asia, up to the 1950s the Vietnamese collection was very small. The Cold War and scarcity of information from remote communist-bloc countries compounded the difficulties in acquiring materials in both vernacular languages and English, and on 13 December 1960, H.A. Arnold from the State Paper Room wrote to Kubon & Sagner, a book supplier in Munich, Germany to see whether it would be able to supply materials from Mongolia, U.S.S.R., North Korea and North Vietnam for the Library.
1963 catalogue from XUNHASABA, the state-owned book supplier in North Vietnam, received via Kubon & Sagner, a supplier in Germany.
For sourcing materials from North Vietnam, the British Museum enlisted the help of Hanoi’s main ally, China, to find ways to contact relevant institutions. The National Library of China in Beijing eventually provided Spinney with contact details for North Vietnam and in May 1959, he wrote a long letter to the Director of the National Library in Hanoi to ascertain whether the latter would be interested in establishing book exchanges with the British Library. Parts of Spinney’s letter are worth quoting here: “… During a general review of our accessions from Asiatic countries, we were disturbed to find that we have so far received no official publications from the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam … and we need therefore urgently to acquire documentation from official sources in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to provide a basis for research …. You will readily appreciate that in acquiring such documentary material we have to think in terms of the requirements of posterity as well as of current research …” (G.H. Spinney to the Director of the National Central Library, Hanoi, 4 May, 1959) There is little evidence that Spinney’s request was well received by Hanoi, and further approaches were made in 1962 and 1963, as shown by copies of letters held in the archives from H.A. Arnold to the Cultural Attaché of the Embassy of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam in Moscow (dated 2 August 1961, 27 August 1962 and 15 July 1963).
Despite these setbacks the Library persevered in its attempts to build up the national collection in Vietnamese. In the 1960s, this task was split between two departments: the State Paper Room was in charge of acquiring official publications from Hanoi, while the Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts collected printed books on social sciences and humanities. They used book dealers in (West) Germany and Hong Kong, and occasionally bought directly from Xunhasaba, the North Vietnam state-owned book dealer. Requests were sometimes rejected by Hanoi, especially for official publications, with the reason being given that “the item is not for export”, a message which indicates the level of secrecy and control of information in this country. However, sporadic donations of materials were also received from North Vietnam’s diplomatic mission in New Delhi.
“No Export” notification on an item ordered from North Vietnam.
Towards the end of 1961, the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries in Hanoi started to send some publications to the British Museum. Subsequently, the task was transferred to the National Library of Vietnam and the Library of Social Sciences in Hanoi (source: letter from H.A. Arnold to Hoang Xuan Bui, Director for the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, 15 July 1963), and this arrangement continues to the present day with the British Library. In January 1968, the newly established Central Library for Science and Technology in Hanoi offered a publications exchange programme with the Library but the actual despatches only started in 1971 (source: letter from H.A. Arnold to Miss J.M. Fraser, Publications Division, H.M.S.O., 16 April 1971).
Deliveries of books during the war years were never easy, and sometimes despatches from London to Hanoi or vice versa did not arrive at their destination. Correspondence between Ngyuễn Minh Tăn, the Vice Director of the Central Library of Science and Technology in Hanoi, and H.A. Arnold, the Keeper of the State Paper Room, illustrates vividly the problems experienced by the libraries in London and Hanoi. On 10 March 1973 Ngyuễn Minh Tăn wrote to Arnold: “… We are happy to advise you that despite of the savage bombing of Hanoi by the US, our Library as well as the Library for Social Science and the National Library are very safe. We were evacuated for some time but we are now back in Hanoi, and working normally … We are currently experiencing some difficulties and cannot acquire some of your requested periodicals …” To which Arnold replied on 24 May 1973: “… It was good to hear from your Library again - Mr Tran Mai’s last letter to me …. was dated October 10th, 1971 – and I was very pleased to learn that not only was your own Library safe from the bombing, but also the Library for Social Science and the Bibliotheque Nationale as well … I can well appreciate that you are having many difficulties at the present time and that you are not in a position to send me some of the journals I have requested in the past. I am sure, however, that as conditions improve, … you will send me whatever you can find…” [“The savage bombing” referred to in the above correspondence was the Operation Linebacker or the Christmas Bombing (18-29 December 1972) in which the US launched serious bombings over Hanoi to force the latter to negotiate a peace deal and eventually the Paris Agreement was signed on 27 January 1973.]
Postcard to the Library of the British Museum from the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, Hanoi, October 1968.
Picture on the front of the postcard of 1968 shown above.
Despite all the difficulties during the Vietnam War, Vietnamese material from North Vietnam continued to arrive in London through various channels. When in 1973 the British Library was formed from the Library of the British Museum, the Vietnamese collection in the re-named Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books consisted of 3 manuscripts and about 800 printed books and some titles of periodicals (Goodacre and Pritchard 1977: 61).
No evidence of formal contracts for book exchanges with any institutions in North Vietnam have been found in our archives but we can deduce from various correspondence that the Library had exchange programmes with at least three libraries in Hanoi in order to acquire official Vietnamese publications on the economy, science and social sciences. It is interesting to note that the number of printed material, both official publications and monographs, which the British Library received from North Vietnam from 1973 underwent a noticeable increase. This might be related to the signing of the Paris agreement in January 1973 which eased tensions and hence allowed almost normal daily activities to resume. At the same time, the British Library still continued to acquire printed books from Vietnam on humanities, art and culture via book dealers in Germany and Hong Kong.
In the second part of this blog post, I will look at publications from South Vietnam.
P.R. Harris, A History of the British Museum Library 1753-1973. London: The British Library, 1998, H.J. Goodacre and A.P. Pritchard, Guide to the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books. London: British Museum Publications Limited, 1977.
Today marks the 71st anniversary of the Proclamation of Independence of the Republic of Indonesia. On the morning of 17 August 1945, the Indonesian nationalist leader Sukarno read out before a small audience gathered outside his own house at Jalan Pegangsaan Timur 56 in Jakarta a simple statement which was broadcast throughout the country: Proclamation: We the people of Indonesia hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters concerning the transfer of power, etc., will be carried out in a conscientious manner and as speedily as possible. Djakarta, 17 August 1945. In the name of the people of Indonesia, Soekarno - Hatta The red-and-white flag, ‘Sang Merah Putih’, was raised and the song ‘Indonesia Raya’ – now the national anthem – was sung.
The rare handbill shown below, in the shape and colours of the national flag and measuring 17 x 11 cm, bears the type-written text of the proclamation: PROKLAMASI Kami bangsa Indonesia dengan ini menjatakan KEMERDEKAANINDONESIA. Hal-hal jang mengenai pemindahan kekuasaan, dan lain-lain diselenggarakan dengan tjara saksama dan dalam tempo jang sesingkat-singkatnja. Djakarta 17 Agustus 1945. Atas nama bangsa Indonesia. Sukarno - Hatta Although it is not known on which occasion this handbill was produced, it probably dates from very shortly after the original event.
Typewritten handbill with the text of the Proclamation of Independence of Indonesia. British Library, RF.2005.a.465
Just two days earlier, on 15 August 1945, the Japanese occupying forces in Java had surrendered unconditionally to the Netherlands East Indies. Since no Allied forces had yet landed to reconquer Indonesia, the country was in a state of political turmoil, and the opportunity to proclaim independence was seized. But the armed struggle was only just beginning, and for the next four years Indonesian nationalists were forced to wage a revolution against returning Dutch forces attempting to reimpose colonial rule, and it was only in 1949 that the Dutch finally acknowledged the independence of Indonesia.
It is hardly surprising that the British Library has few publications or papers deriving from the chaotic earliest days of the new republic. But thanks to the personal interest of a former curator of Dutch collections in the British Library, Dr Jaap Harskamp, in the late 1980s and 1990s the British Library slowly began to build up an important collection of papers, documents, books, pamphlets and posters relating to the Indonesian struggle for independence, many deriving from the heirs of Dutch soldiers and officials fighting against the Indonesian forces. The Indonesia Merdeka Collection, which now numbers around 1,500 titles, is in size and scope second only to the holdings of the KITLV in Leiden. The collection has been fully catalogued in a published volume (Harskamp 2001), with all the individual items also accessible through the Library’s online catalogue Explore. The rare copy of the proclamation shown here is one of the highlights of the collection.
Reverse of the handbill containing the text of the Indonesian Proclamation of Independence. British Library, RF.2005.a.465
Jaap Harskamp, The Indonesian question: the Dutch/Western response to the struggle for independence in Indonesia 1945-1950: an annotated catalogue of primary materials held in the British Library. Introduction by Peter Carey. Boston Spa: British Library, 2001. Dorothée Buur, Persoonlijke documenten Nederland-Indië/Indonesië. Leiden, 1973. Dorothée Buur, Indische jeugdliteratuur. Geannoteerde bibliografie van jeugdboeken over Nederlands-Indië en Indonesië. Leiden, 1992.
Being invited to give a series of three lectures on this wide ranging topic at a seminar at the Universita di Ca’ Foscari in Venice in July 2016, it seemed a good opportunity to write a blog highlighting the interesting material in the British Library. Here are discussed such images in Mughal and Deccani painting.
Yogis and other types of ascetics are found in Mughal illustrated historical manuscripts showing encounters recorded in Mughal histories between the emperors Babur, Akbar and Jahangir; and also in indivdual album paintings. From the Mughal point of view more or less all Hindu ascetics were classed as yogis since they all practised bodily asceticisms of some kind or another. The Mughal concern with naturalism towards the end of the reign of Akbar to some degree accounts for what appears to be the accuracy of the early Mughal images of ascetics and yogis. Early Mughal pictorial representations of yogis have as Jim Mallinson points out (Mallinson, “Yogis in Mughal India”) enormous value as historical documents on account of the accuracy and consistency of their detail, overwriting in many instances what can be gleaned from the conflicting literary traditions. It is obvious, he writes, that a variety of traditions shared ascetic archetypes and freely exchanged doctrines and practices.
Ascetics being shaved at Gurkhattri in 1505. Detail from painting by Gobind from a copy of ʻAbd al-Rahim Khan’s Persian translation of the Baburnamah, 1590-92 (British Library Or.3714, f.197r)
In the account in his autobiography, the Baburnamah, of his first raid into Hindustan in 1505, Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in 1526 when he overthrew the Lodi Sultans of Delhi, mentions the well-known cave of Gurkhattri near Bigram (Peshawar) with its then-famous great banyan tree: ‘It was a holy place for yogis and Hindus, who came from faraway places to cut their hair and beards there’, but did not visit it at that time.
In 1519, in the course of another incursion, he managed to visit it.
... reaching Bigram, went to see Gurh Kattri. We entered a small, dark chamber like a monk’s cell and after passing through the door and down two or three steps, we had to lie down to get in. It was impossible to see without a candle. All around was an unending pile of hair and beard that had been clipped there. Many chambers like the ones in madrasas and caravansaries surround Gurh Kattri. The first year I came to Kabul ... I went to the great banyan tree in Bigram and was sorry not to have seen Gurh Kattri, but it turned out not to be much to be sorry for.
Ascetics at Gurkhattri in 1519. Detail from painting by Kesu Khurd from the Baburnamah, 1590-92 (British Library Or.3714, f.320v)
The sacred site at Gurkhattri was clearly in the hands of the Nath yogis, followers of Gorakhnath’s Hathayoga system. Nath yogis can be distinguished by the horn worn suspended round the neck, by the fillet worn round the top of the head and in their leaders by the necklace suspended from the shoulders to which are attached strips of cloth. They also wear cloaks often patched, but they do not have any sectarian marks, although they later became Shaivas. Note that at this stage Nath yogis wear hooped earrings through their earlobes and have not yet become the Kanphat or Split-ear yogis who split the actual cartilege of the ear. Other characteristics that mark them out is their long matted hair, piled up into jatas or loose, their nakedness or nearly such, and the smearing of their body with ashes. Note also the yogapattas or meditation bands and the fact that some seem still to wear the sacred thread.
A shepherd offers flowers to a holy man. Attributed to Basawan, c. 1585 (British Library J.22, 13)
Alongside these historical manuscripts individual album paintings were also being produced in the Mughal studio in Akbar’s reign. Some of them poke fun at the ascetic tradition as had long been traditional in Indian culture, as in Basavan’s study from around 1585 of a poor shepherd offering flowers to a grotesquely bloated ascetic as he stalks by unheeding; he is followed by an acolyte whose body is as thin as his master’s is the reverse.
By 1605 studies of yogis had become so commonplace that they could be added to the marginalia round illustrated manuscripts, as with this nearly naked Nath yogi tending his fire, complete with horn and earrings, from a manuscript of the Divan of Hafiz that was copied by Sultan ‘Ali of Mashhad but beautified with marginal studies at the beginning of Jahangir’s reign. Pictures of yogis were especially useful for Mughal artists since their nakedness could be used as an exercise in depicting the volumes of the human body or alternatively their voluminous robes for an exercise in modelling.
Although Akbar was interested in all religions and especially those of his Indian subjects and of course had numerous Sanskrit texts translated into Persian, it is his son Salim afterwards Jahangir who seems to have had a specific interest in yoga and ascetic practices, although the Library has no representations relevant to Jahangir here. Instead there are several studies of Nath yogis and other ascetics living in remote places (for example Falk and Archer, Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, nos. 25-27, 45-46). Two ascetics from the Album of Dara Shikoh. Attributed to Govardhan, c. 1610 (British Library Add.Or.3129, ff.11v, 12r)
It was Jahangir’s grandson, Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan, born in 1615, who was most famously involved with Hindu philosophy and ascetics. Here are two facing pages from Dara Shikoh’s Album, compiled in the early 1630s just before his marriage, showing two ascetics in yogic postures, attributed to the great artist Govardhan early in his career around 1610. Both wear long beards and have their uncut hair twisted up on to their head: the one of the right has a Vaishnava sect mark and holds up a manuscript page, the one on the left holds a rosary.
A group of Nath yogis. Ascribed to Mas’ud, Mughal, 1630-40 (British Library J.22, 15)
Govardhan’s famous study from the 1630s, formerly in the Cary Welch collection, of four nearly naked ascetics seated beside a fire seems to have served as inspiration for this study of Nath yogis by Mas’ud, which reproduces in mirror reverse Govardhan’s shrine on the hill and the tree with a group of ascetics seated before a fire. A young ascetic is bringing them food.
An imaginary meeting between Dara Shikoh and Kamal, the son of Kabir. Mughal, early 18th century (British Library J.19, 1)
Dara Shikoh is often represented in later paintings meeting ascetics, normally Muslim ones such as Mian Mir and Mulla Shah, but occasionally also Hindu as here. The accompanying inscription suggests that this is Dara Shikoh with La‘l Sahib, who was born in Malwa in the reign of Jahangir, among whose disciples was Dara Shikoh. The ascetic however in his white robe patched with pieces of variously coloured cloth, his sacred thread and his particular turban with a black fillet wound round a white kulah appears again in an important mid-17th century painting in the V&A Museum showing ten earlier Hindu mystics seated outside a Sufi shrine, where he is named as Kamal and seated beside his supposed father, the 15th century religious reformer Kabir. Both paintings are reproduced in Binyon and Arnold 1921, pls. XVII-XIX and XXII, who note that the two figures are the same but separate their identities according to the inscriptions. Kamal is mentioned in various hagiographical accounts of Kabir’s life and appears more of a spiritual than a biological son, but if he lived it was certainly earlier than Dara Shikoh. His presence here with Dara Shikoh adds weight to Elinor Gadon’s supposition (Facets of Indian Art, p. 157) that this prince was the patron of the V&A picture.
A royal ascetic. Deccani, Bijapur, c. 1660 (British Library, J.16, 2)
Artists in the Deccani studios were no less interested in portraying yogis than their Mughal counterparts, and they also developed the artistic idea of the female yogi or yogini. The Library’s only 17th century image of a Deccani yogi is this magnificent and engimatic study of a royal ascetic wearing the patchwork robe of a yogi, seated on a tiger skin beside a fire and with the crescent moon linking him with the great yogi Shiva himself. His sword, dagger, club and fakir’s crutch (no less useful as a weapon than a support for meditation) suggest he might be one of the warrior ascetics who roamed India in bands in the 17th and 18th centuries.
A female ascetic with devotees. Farrukhabad, c. 1770 (British Library J.66, 5)
Yogis and ascetics continued as the subjects of paintings in the late 18th century, but now from the schools of Bengal and Awadh. Images of female ascetics became increasingly common in the later 18th century. They normally wear long gowns and have their hair piled up on top of their head or wear a turban. They live out in the open with other yogis and attracted devotees just as did their male counterparts, as in this example from the variation of the Awadhi style from Farrukhabad in western UP. Here a group of women have brought fruit and flowers to such a one, watched by other ascetics. A small śivalingam beside her being perpetually lustrated indicates her orientation.
A noblewoman visiting a group of ascetics. Murshidabad, c. 1770 (British Library Add.Or.5607)
In another painting from Murshidabad, a noblewoman has brought her child to a hermitage where live two male ascetics, one old the other young, who sit there telling their beads, while a female ascetic, naked to the waist, supports herself on a swing and smokes from a nargila. The fire beside her suggests she is undergoing mortification, standing up supported by the swing while she exposes herself to the heat of the fire. Female ascetics leaning on swings are a feature of several other late 18th century paintings. The whole concept of Hindu female asceticism in India has only fairly recently become the focus of scholarly attention, specifically of anthropologists studying modern communities, but unless we are to believe that these pictorial studies are fantasies, then it clearly is a phenomenon known for several centuries.
Further reading: Binyon, L., and Arnold, T.W., The Court Painters of the Grand Moguls, Oxford, 1921 Diamond, D. ed., Yoga: the Art of Transformation, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC, 2013 Losty, J.P., Ascetics and Yogis in Indian painting: the Mughal and Deccani tradition, 2016 Mallinson, James, ‘Yogis in Mughal India’, in Diamond, D. ed., Yoga: the Art of Transformation, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC, 2013, pp. 68-83 ——— ‘Yogic Identities: Tradition and Transformation’, 2013 Skelton, R., et al. eds., Facets of Indian Art: a Symposium held at the Victoria and Albert Museum April-May 1982, London, 1986 Falk, T and Archer, M., Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, London, 1981
J.P. Losty, Curator of Visual Arts, Emeritus
 W. M. Thackston. The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor (Washington D.C., 1996), pp.186 and 285
While media attention has focussed on the thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, a similar crisis has been taking place in the Gulf of Aden. Almost 90,000 Yemeni refugees have crossed the Gulf to the Horn of Africa in the past eighteen months, after a Saudi-led coalition of Arab air forces began strikes against rebel forces in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s neighbour to the south. British-made cruise missiles and French-built Leclerc tanks have been deployed in the war effort, continuing a long history of involvement in the region for both countries.
A British political memorandum of 1897 (IOR/L/PS/18/B110), from the Political & Secret series of the India Office Records, documents British and French rivalry for influence over this part of the world over one hundred years ago.
A satellite image showing the Bab el Mandeb Strait, which separates the Gulf of Aden from the Red Sea. Source: NASA, through Wikimedia Commons
The Gulf of Aden first acquired global strategic significance in 1869, when the newly-opened Suez Canal created a fast shipping route that ran through the Gulf and connected Europe with the East. In anticipation of the Gulf’s new role, the European Powers took up strategic positions close to its narrowest point at the Bab el Mandeb Strait: in 1857 Great Britain occupied Perim Island, near the Arabian coast of the strait, and shortly afterwards France and Italy claimed territory on the African coast nearby.
IOR/L/PS/20/60, f. 25v (detail)
In 1868 the French also acquired land from a local ruler on the Arabian side of the strait at Sheikh Said, a promontory lying immediately behind Perim Island. The purchase was repudiated a year later by the Ottoman Government, who considered that the territory was theirs, but the matter was taken up again in 1893 when a French politician urged his government ‘to press their never abandoned claim to this position’.
The renewed French interest in the place prompted Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Vincent Stace, First Assistant to the Resident at Aden, to visit Sheikh Said later that year, and his report and sketch map are reproduced in the memorandum along with a summary history of subsequent events.
IOR/L/PS/18/B110, f. 6 (detail)
IOR/L/PS/18/B110, f. 7
Stace investigated a rumour that the French planned to dredge the lagoon that lay behind the tip of the promontory and dig a canal from there to the opposite side: ‘Thus a basin would be formed in which vessels of war could lie, having two entrances, one from the Red Sea and the other from the Gulf of Aden’. Stace confirmed that the works had not begun, but warned that, if completed, they would create ‘a very formidable position’.
IOR/L/PS/18/B110, f. 7 (detail)
The matter was taken seriously at the highest levels. Both the Secretary of State for India and the Director of Military Intelligence agreed that the French should be warned off, expressing concern for the security of coaling facilities on Perim Island, and fearing that once established, the French might supply ‘modern arms to the rebellious Arab tribes’, destabilising the region and gaining influence close to the British port and coaling station at Aden.
The British solution lay in confidentially alerting the Ottoman Government to this threat, and assurances were soon received that the French would not be allowed to take over any part of the Arabian coast.
However, the French continued to assert the ‘rights of France’, and refused to give formal recognition that Sheikh Said formed part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1885 they made an abortive attempt to land a gunboat on the promontory, and in 1897 they sought clarification on their side whether or not Sheikh Said, ‘the veritable Gibraltar of the Red Sea’, was occupied by the British – a rumour that Her Majesty’s Government was happy to deny, as it was to Britain’s advantage that the promontory remained in Ottoman hands.
Before closing, the memorandum reveals a new concern that Russia too might seek a foothold in the region, after a Russian gunboat was spotted on the African shores of the Red Sea, and the document ends with the suggestion to watch further movements there by both France and Russia.
IOR/L/PS/18/B110, f. 10 (detail)
Today around eight percent of global trade passes through the Bab el Mandeb Strait on its way to or from the Suez Canal, and the major powers continue to have a strong presence in the region. France maintains a large military base in Djibouti, on the African coast of the strait, in the company of the United States, Japan, and soon China, and Russia too has recently negotiated rights to deploy its navy there. After the recent outbreak of war in Yemen, Houthi rebels captured Sheikh Said and Perim Island, from where they commanded the Bab el Mandeb Strait with missiles and long-range cannon, but they were ousted by the British, French and US-backed Arab coalition six months later .
Regular visitors to the Treasures Gallery of the British Library will know that the wall case displaying Indian book arts has recently had a change of display. On exhibition are eight folios from the Dara Shikoh Album (Add.Or.3129), one of the great treasures of the Asian and African department, which are discussed in this blog. The album is known to have been compiled by Dara Shikoh (1615–59), the eldest son and heir of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, from the inscription in the prince’s hand on folio 2 dated 1056/1646–47. The inscription records the gift of the album to his wife Nadira Banu Begam, his cousin and the daughter of Sultan Parviz, whom he had married in 1633.
Dedicatory inscription written by Dara Shikoh, dated 1056/1646-7 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.2r)
The inscription reads: īn muraqqa‘-i nafīs ba-anīs-i khāṣṣ u hamdam u hamrāz ba-ikhtiṣāṣ Nādirah Bānū Bēgam dādah [shud az] Muḥammad Dārā Shikōh ibn Shāh Jahān pādshāh-i ghāzī sannah 1056 (‘This precious volume was given to his dearest intimate friend Nadira Banu Begam by Muhammad Dara Shikoh son of Shah Jahan emperor and victor, year 1056/1646–47’).
The previously accepted date of the inscription 1051/1641-2 has been revised by John Seyller, who has suggested a date of 1056/1646-7 on the basis of enhanced digital imagery (click here to see enhanced photo), and this revised date is accepted here. For a list of the contents of the album see Falk and Archer (Indian Miniatures, no. 68) who date it 1633–42 and Catalogue of India Office Select Materials. Only two dates are inscribed which can definitely be assigned to the period before Dara Shikoh's death, one on a painting by Muhammad Khan dated 1043/1633-34, the other in the previously mentioned dedicatory inscription.
After the fratricidal war precipitated by Shah Jahan’s illness in 1657, Dara Shikoh was executed by the victorious Aurangzeb in 1659, a few months after his wife had died while attempting to flee with her husband to Iran. The album came into the possession of Aurangzeb and attempts were made to blot out the memory of ‘the apostate’, as his rigidly orthodox brother regarded him. The inscription was obliterated with gold paint which has since worn away, allowing Dara Shikoh’s writing to reappear. After Dara’s death, the album was handed over to Pariwash, librarian to the Nawab ‘Aliyyah, on 21 Rajab, regnal year 3 (of Aurangzeb, i.e. 1661), according to the inscription on folio 1r. The title Nawab ‘Aliyyah, previously borne by Mumtaz Mahal herself, was awarded after the death of her mother to Shah Jahan’s eldest daughter and favourite Jahanara (1614-80), who became the Nawab ‘Aliyyah Padshah Begum Sahibah (Inayat Khan, Shah Jahan Nama, p. 3), as discussed in my forthcoming paper (Losty, ‘Dating the Dara Shikoh Album’).
The seventy-four folios with sixty-eight paintings interspersed with calligraphy and the gilt tooled leather covers represent the album almost in its entirety. Five leaves are missing according to an early foliation, which may have included Dara Shikoh’s own calligraphy or other pages with inscriptions relating to him.
In the book accompanying the British Library’s 2012 exhibition Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, the present writer argued that the contents of the album, containing portraits of teenage princes and princesses, would most naturally fit into the time frame 1631-33 when Dara Shikoh was 16-18, between his engagement to his cousin, the postponement of the marriage owing to the death of his mother Mumtaz Mahal in 1631, and the eventual celebration of the nuptials in 1633 (Losty and Roy, Mughal India, pp. 124-37). There is no need to argue, as almost all previous writers have done, that the contents of the album must be dated between the two inscribed dates of 1633 and 1642 (now 1647).
The paintings are arranged in facing pairs, as was normal in Mughal albums. The contents mostly consist of portraits of the aformentioned teenage princes and princesses, of holy men of various sorts, and studies of flowers and of birds. Ths inner album borders normally match, except where a folio is missing, and the outer borders all bear floral designs in gold. The paintings are all fairly simple and have sometimes been criticised for not matching the quality of the albums associated with the emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan, but then as a princely album it would have been inappropiate to do so, any more than do the Salim and Khurram albums, compiled by the future emperors when princes.
Right: A prince pouring wine, ascribed to Muhammad Khan and dated 1043/1633-4 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.21v) Left: a prince holding a turban ornament, attributed to Muhammad Khan, c. 1633 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.22r)
The otherwise uknown artist Muhammad Khan signed and dated one painting in the album of a prince dressed in Persian costume and its facing pair of a similarly dressed prince with an attendant can safely be attributed to the same hand. They are linked by similar backgrounds and by a frieze of exquisitely detailed flowers across the bottoms of the paintings. Despite their Persianate appearance, these paintings are not Persian, but nothing is known of Muhammad Khan’s origin or his other work. He is possibly a Deccani artist employed by the prince 1630-32 when the court was in Burhanpur and who returned to Agra with him. Some of the flower studies in the album can also be attributed to his hand.
Right: Dara Shikoh with a jewel, attributed to Chitarman, c. 1630 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.27v) Left: lady with a wine cup, attributed to Bichitr, 1630-33 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.28r)
It was argued in the 2012 book that most of the princely portraits in the album were in fact of the young Dara Shikoh between the ages of 15 and 18 and also that while the court was in Burhanpur the prince had access to his father’s artists. Certainly Chitarman was in Shah Jahan’s employ in 1628 (his portrait is in the Kevorkian Album in the Metropolitan Museum, New York) before becoming associated with Dara Shikoh throughout the 1630s. These two portraits obviously form a pair and the young prince is holding up a sumptous jewelled pendant, a heart-shaped ruby or spinel surrounded by pearls and with a large pendant pearl, for presentation to the lady opposite. She is unknown of course, but was important enough to be painted in the latest style that is associated with the artist Bichitr around 1630, with its receding European landscape in grisaille as a backdrop, as in Bichitr's portrait of Asaf Khan from 1631 in the V&A.
Right: Dara Shikoh with a tutor, attributed to Chitarman, c. 1630 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.33v) Left: Lady with a narcissus, perhaps Mumtaz Mahal, attributed to Bishndas, 1631-33 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.34r)
This pair of paintings, although now facing each other, cannot have been originally intended to do so since the inner borders do not match, although there is no break in the early foliation. The young prince seems to be about 12 from his size although somewhat older judging by his features. He holds out his hand to his tutor who seems to be about to hand him the book. The lightly painted drawing is typical of Chitarman’s work for the prince. The lady opposite, somewhat more mature than the majority of the female portraits in the album, wears jewels of imperial quality and stands with one hand on a prunus tree and the other holding a narcissus. That and the white narcissus growing before her, white being associated with mourning, suggest that this could be Dara Shikoh’s mother Mumtaz Mahal (b. 1593), who died in Burhanpur in 1631 giving birth to her 14th child. The unrelated borders suggest a possible intervention by the prince, who rearranged the order of the folios in order for his mother to cast her benevolent gaze over his studies. The handling of her head and the prunus in the background suggest that this could be the work of Bishndas.
The Album is also famous for its exquisite studies of birds and flowers, and one of each category was selected for display, illustrated here within their original album mounts decorated with gold flowers.
The black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) with a lily. Mughal, 1630-33 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.9v)
The black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) is a medium-sized found throughout many parts of the world including South and South-east Asia. Such herons have a black crown and back, with the remainder of the body white or grey, their eyes are red, and legs yellow. Being relatively stocky, with shorter bills, legs, and necks than other heron species, they do not fit the typical body form of the heron family. Their resting posture is normally somewhat hunched, but when hunting they extend their necks and look more like other wading birds. These birds stand still at the water's edge and wait to ambush prey lurking in the water, mainly at night or early morning. All these characteristics are evident in our portrait of such a bird, hunched and stocky, its feet in the shallow water of a jhil.
Jahangir’s passion for natural history was not inherited by his son Shah Jahan and grandson Dara Shikoh. It was during the 1630s that flowers and floral arrangements with their decorative possibilities came to dominate Mughal textiles and the adornment of architecture and album pages. Hence the addition of an egregious lily has transformed the painting from a natural history study into a decorative album page.
Exotic flowers with butterflies. Mughal, 1630-33 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.64r)
The album contains several studies of flowers that could pass muster as natural history paintings, albeit derived ultimately from European herbals (see my earlier post Mughal flower studies and their European inspiration), but many more are in a more decorative vein as here. This exotic plant with its double flowers, protuberant stigma and folded over toothed leaves could be intended for a lily or a hibiscus, but the intention of the painting is decorative, not naturalistic. The flowers are regularly spaced radially in the Chinese manner throughout the field and are linked by spiralling stems in the arabesque patterns that are also seen in the tulips at the base of Muhammad Khan’s painting of a prince above, as well as elsewhere in the album. Such floral patterns, still less the paintings of different flowers all springing from a single stem (e.g. Losty and Roy, Mughal India, fig. 86), did not make it into Shahjahani decoration in general and are possibly examples of artists’ early experimenting with such ideas before settling on the more familiar sprays seen in album borders and pietra dura work. These ideas will be explored in a forthcoming paper.
Further reading: Falk, T., and Archer, M., Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, London, 1981 Inayat Khan, The Shah Jahan Nama of ‘Inayat Khan, trans. A.R. Fuller, ed. W.E. Begley and Z.A. Desai, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1990 Losty, J.P., ‘Dating the Dara Shikoh Album: the Floral Evidence’, in Ebba Koch and Ali Anooshahr, eds., The Mughal Empire under Shah Jahan (1628-58) – New trends of research, forthcoming Losty, J.P., and Roy, M., Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library, London, 2012
In his previous blog, PhD student Paul Naylor introduced the BL’s collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa, on which he has been working. In part two of this blog series, and with the cataloguing of the collection almost complete, Paul looks at the collection in more depth, picking out some particularly interesting items.
Religious Works Most of the material in the collection is of a religious nature, reflecting the strong link between literacy in the Arabic language and Islamic learning in 19th century West Africa. There are five complete copies of the Qur’an – the holy book of Islam – and many more incomplete sections. (In a forthcoming blog I will reflect on some unique features of the BL’s collection of illuminated Qur’an copies produced in West Africa.)
Other religious works include copies of biographies and praise poems of the Prophet Muhammad, many of which are recited on the occasion of the Prophet’s Birthday (Mawlud). There are also many devotional and mystical works from the Qadiri and Tijani Sufi orders, founded in 12th century Baghdad and 18th century Aïn Madhi (present-day Algeria) respectively and popular in West Africa.
The collection also features spiritual works from West African religious movements. In 1804, the teacher and social reformer Usman dan Fodio embarked on a military campaign resulting in what we know today as the Sokoto Caliphate, in the area of present-day northern Nigeria. Usman’s movement had a profound effect on West African society and for many Muslims he is a figure of immense spiritual importance. The British Library’s collection includes a fine copy of the 'Meadows of Paradise' (Rawḍ al-Jinān). This is a work of 'miracle literature' about Usman written by Gidado dan Layma, one of his closest associates, and compiled sometime in the 1840s. Its presence in this material, which is almost certainly from a region beyond the Sokoto Caliphate, is testament to the extent of Usman’s influence throughout the West African region. A page from this work is shown below.
Page from the 'Meadows of Paradise' (Rawḍ al-Jinān), by Gidado dan Layma. Or 6953 f. 297v.
Educational Works For the British Library’s recent ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ exhibition, we showcased items from the collection demonstrating the breadth of the Islamic ‘core curriculum’ still being taught to students in centres of Islamic learning across the West African region (Hall & Stewart 2011: 109-74). These works include canons of Maliki law (the branch of Sunni Islam followed in West Africa) and texts on Islamic beliefs and practices, as well as classical works on Arabic grammar and syntax such as the Ājurrūmiyya.
Page from a West African copy of the Ājurrūmiyya, a work on Arabic grammar by the Moroccan scholar Ibn Ājurrūm al-Ṣanhājī (1273-1323). Or 6953, f. 255v.
There are also many works authored by West African scholars on subjects such as the preparation of halal meat and the eating of kola nut, as well as obituaries for local scholars who passed away. This page is from an obituary for one such scholar, al-Haj Salim al-Zaghawi al-Kasami, from a town called Touba, a common name for settlements of Muslim scholars in the Senegambian region. This personage is listed as the owner of several manuscripts in the collection, some of which may be written in his hand or the hand of his students. The author laments, ‘Knowledge has left Touba and Futa. The time of grammar, inflectional endings (iʿrāb) and conjugation is over’ and compares the death of this scholar to a disaster rivalling the Biblical flood.
Obituary for the Senegambian scholar al-Haj Salim al-Zaghawi al-Kasami. Or 6473, f. 105r.
Fawāʾid Most of the remaining material comes under the category of ‘Fawāʾid’. This term is an Arabic word meaning ‘benefits’ and constitutes a practice or ritual said to result in a supernatural effect. This practice could be something as simple as reciting a Muslim prayer or section of the Qur’an on a certain day, at a certain time or in a certain place. Other documents explain how to manufacture talismans (Ar. aḥrāz). In an Islamic context, a talisman is usually a small piece of paper with a passage of Arabic writing on it. Depending on the intended effect, the paper could be worn about the person as a protective amulet (Ar. khātim), buried in a special place or, most commonly, written out in ink on a slate and then washed off with water, milk or plant extracts. This mixture is either drunk or applied to the body. The image below shows a religious scholar writing an amulet for a widow.
A marabout or Muslim religious leader writing an amulet for a widow. P.D. Boilat, Esquisses sénégalaises, etc. (Paris, 1853). British Library, 10096.h.9.
Many fawāʾid are accompanied by number squares (Ar. awfāq) in which each row and column add up to the same number, not unlike a Sudoku. The squares, which are common throughout the Islamic world, are said to have come to the Middle East from China. They originally consisted of 3 lines of 3 small squares, before being enlarged and made more complex by medieval Arab mathematicians (Camman 1969). Later they were combined with the science of numerology, in which each letter of the Arabic alphabet is assigned a numerical value, so that the squares could also be used to express words. When filled with a name of God or a Prophet - in letters or in their numerical value - the square was thought to have very powerful spiritual properties. When filled in with a personal name, the square could be used to tell one’s fortune or to protect (or alternatively curse) that person. The earliest Europeans to visit West Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries commented on the ubiquitous nature of these devices, which were used by Muslim and non-Muslim alike and made by specialists called mallams (Ar. muʿallim, a learned person).
Examples of number squares. Or 6576, ff. 11v and 12r.
In the past, this material was deemed to be of little interest to scholars. However, in more recent times, the value of these documents is being recognised (Brenner 1985; Epelboin 2016). As well as being a fascinating record of West African trees and plants used in such preparations, what we must remember is that each talisman was made at the request of a ‘patient’ for a specific malady or problem.
Thus, these documents are perhaps the most personal of the collection. They reflect preoccupations we can all relate to: the relief of back pain, a guarantee of a happy marriage, the conception of a child, an aide for students to memorise their lessons, or even a husband’s appeal for his wife to come back to him. There are also many ‘love amulets’ with space left for the name of a man and a woman. A detailed study of these talismans will undoubtedly tell us much about the social history of the societies that produced them. The image below is a page from a fāʾida (singular of fawāʾid) to make all who see the bearer love them, ‘as a Muslim loves paradise, as a faithful person loves prayer, as a stomach loves food, as fields love the rain, as infidels and wolves love unclean meat’.
A love fāʾida or amulet. Or 6880, f. 334r.
In the next few months, detailed descriptions of every one of the Arabic manuscripts from West Africa held in the BL’s collection will be uploaded onto the British Library’s online catalogue of manuscripts. This will make it easy for readers to know what is in the collection and facilitate access and study.
Bruce S. Hall and Charles C. Stewart, ‘The Historic “Core Curriculum” and the Book Market in Islamic West Africa’, in Graziano Krätli and Ghislaine Lydon (eds), The Trans-Saharan Book Trade (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 109-74.
Schuyler Cammann, ‘Islamic and Indian Magic Squares. Part I’, History of Religions, 8, 3 (1969): 181-209
Schuyler Cammann, ‘Islamic and Indian Magic Squares. Part II’, History of Religions, 8, 4 (1969): 271-299.
Louis Brenner, ‘The Esoteric Sciences in West African Islam’ in Brian M. Du Toit and Ismail Hussein Abdalla (eds), African Healing Strategies (Buffalo: Trado-Medic Books, 1985), pp. 20-28.
Alan Epelboin, ‘Amulettes et objets magiques du Musée de l'Homme collectés dans les ordures du Sénégal Collection ALEP (1983-‐2016)’ (2016). The author spent many years collecting more modern devices from rubbish dumps in Senegal; this collection can be found online.