Asian and African studies blog

3 posts from October 2019

18 October 2019

The Buddhist Kathina Festival

This is the sixth of a series of blog posts looking forward to the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020

This month, October, marks the end of vassa or the Buddhist Lent, the three months rainy season retreat observed by the Sangha or Buddhist monastic communities. The end of vassa is celebrated by Buddhists with Pavarana, the inviting ceremony, followed by Kathina, the robe offering ceremony, which take place on Uposatha (Observance) day. At the end of Buddhist Lent, Buddhist monks are free to travel again, but before parting they should maintain monastic discipline and punish offenders, in order to purify the Sangha. At the Pavarana ceremony, each monk invites the other monks to point out to him any faults he has committed during the vassa retreat period.

Kathina robe-offering ceremony
The word kathina denotes a cotton cloth offered by lay people to bhikkhus (monks) annually, after the end of the vassa rainy retreat, for the purpose of making robes. On the termination of vassa, the Kathina robe offering ceremony is usually held at the monastery. This practice started quite early in Buddhist society, with the approval of the Buddha himself. When the Buddha was staying at Jetavana monastery at Savatthi, he granted permission for the bhikkhus to accept kathina robes from the laity, as several bhikkhus only had old and torn robes. It is the Sangha as a whole which receives these gifts of robes or plain cloth from the laity: the cloth must be offered to the whole Sangha, and not to individuals, and the bhikkhus will then decide which of the monks should receive the gifts. If the kathina offered is plain cloth, selected monks will do the cutting, sewing, and dying of the cloth in a single day. The gifts are then distributed to the individual monastics who have properly observed the rainy retreat.

Jivaka, the Buddha’s physician, is described as the first layman to offer robes to Buddhist monks.
Jivaka, the Buddha’s physician, is described as the first layman to offer robes to Buddhist monks. Before that, Buddhist monks made their robes themselves from pieces of rag cloth. Jivaka also requested the Buddha to allow the monks to accept robes donated by lay people. The Buddha appreciated that it was very hard for the monks to make their robes themselves and he allowed his monks to accept kathina robes donated by the laity. British Library, Or. 14405, f. 32 Noc

The Buddha is sitting at the centre, surrounded by monks and lay people
When the Buddha granted his disciples permission to accept kathina robes, lay people from the city of Rajagaha brought the garments and other requisites to the monastery. The Buddha is sitting at the centre, surrounded by monks and lay people. Rows of monastic gifts, such as kathina robes and other requisites, are depicted in front of the Buddha. British Library, Or. 14405, ff. 36-37 Noc

Dana, or giving, is a practice essential to Buddhism, and the offering of kathina robes is considered to be one of the most meritorious deeds. Offering kathina robes to the Sangha is thus valued as a way of keeping alive the true spirit of offering, as taught by the Buddha, and at the Kathina ceremony monks will chant the Kammavaca for Kathina robes. Kammavaca is a Pali term and it refers to collections of passages from the Tipitaka concerning ordination, the bestowing of robes and other rituals of monastic life. A Kammavaca is a highly ornamental type of manuscript, usually commissioned by lay members of society as a work of merit.

A leaf of a Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, on lacquered cloth with gilded and lacquered boards. British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1r
A leaf of a Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, on lacquered cloth with gilded and lacquered boards. British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1r Noc

The manuscript shown above (Or. 12010A) contains the following Kammavaca texts: Upasampada (Official Act for the conferment of the Higher Ordination), Kathinadussadana (Official Act for the holding of the Kathina ceremony), Ticivarena-avippavasa (text for the investiture of a monk with the three robes), Sima-sammannita (Official Act for the Agreement of boundary limits), Thera-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon the seniority of theras), Nama-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon a name), Vihara-kappa-bhumi-sammuti (text of the dedication of a Vihara), Kuṭi-vatthu-sammuti (Official Act to search and agree upon a site for a hut), and Nissaya-muti-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon relaxation of the requisites).

The Festival of Light
This festival celebrates the anniversary of the Buddha’s return from the celestial abode where he had spent Lent, giving the sermon on Abhidhamma or the Higher Doctrines to celestial beings and his former mother, who had been reborn as a deva. It was on the full moon day of the month of October that the Buddha descended from the Tavatimsa heaven to the abode of humans. Humans on earth therefore illuminate their homes, and paper lanterns dazzle the streets, to welcome back the Buddha, and candles and lighted little bowls of oil are placed on the terraces of the pagodas. The event is celebrated with lights, which is why it is called the Festival of Light. People pay obeisance to their parents and elders, following the example of the Buddha who paid a visit to his former mother to repay his debt of gratitude.

On the full moon day at the end of vassa, the Buddha was ready to descend to the human world.
On the full moon day at the end of vassa, the Buddha was ready to descend to the human world. Sakka, the god who rules over Tavatimsa heaven, created a triple stairway of gold, silver and jewels. At the base of the stairway lay people from the city of Sankassa on earth wait to pay obeisance to the Buddha. British Library, Or. 14297, f. 44 Noc

The Kathina festival held at the conclusion of the rainy retreat originated 2,500 years ago and is still celebrated by Buddhists, with alms giving and offering of robes to the monks who observed the retreat. Buddhists believe that the offering of kathina robes is a great act, but in addition to giving robes, lay supporters also consider the bhikkhus’ other needs. The bhikkhus who receive the kathina robes deliver sermons to the lay supporters. The Festivals thus bring ordinary people together with the Buddhist orders, in a joyful spirit of shared devotion. In some places fire balloons rise up in the sky in order to pay homage to the Culamani Pagoda in Tavatimsa heaven, where the relic of the Buddha’s hair is believed to be enshrined. According to Theravada tradition, these offerings take place over a period of one month, from 19th October to 16 November.

Further reading:
H. Bechert and R. Gombrich, The world of Buddhism, London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.

San San May, Curator for Burmese  Ccownwork

07 October 2019

Arts of the South Asian Sultanates at the British Library

The British Library holds one of the richest and most diverse collections of fifteenth-century South Asian manuscripts belonging to the sultanates. In association with a recent symposium, Connected Courts: Art of the South Asian Sultanates hosted at Wolfson College, Oxford, from 20-21 September, the library held a study session for a group of scholars who work on manuscripts, literature, and architecture. This viewing session provided a rare occasion for researchers of varying disciplines to share ideas on these manuscripts and discuss the interplay of different traditions.

Frontispiece of Shāhnāmah (BL Or 1403)
Fig. 1. Frontispiece of Shāhnāmah of Firdawsī, Bidar or Shiraz, 1438, Folio: 27 x 16 cm (BL Or 1403)

An initial group of manuscripts invited us to consider how and where the Persian narrative tradition spread across South Asia. Persian literature was certainly known, copied and enjoyed in India since at least the late thirteenth century. However, the earliest surviving manuscripts date to the fifteenth century. A copy of the Shāhnāmah of Firdawsī (Or 1403, fig. 1), dated 1438, contains illustrations that do not fit with contemporary Persian painting traditions, and has no colophon providing a provenance. Certain scholars have concluded this manuscript must have been produced elsewhere. There are various factors that suggest a South Asian origin, perhaps the Deccan region under the Bahmani sultanate. An intervention in the preface recounts Firdawsī’s journey to India and his visit to the Delhi court, not usually found in Persian copies of the Shāhnāmah.

Sharafnāmāh of Niẓāmī, Bengal (Gaur?), 1531. Iskandar shares the throne with Queen Nushabah (BL Or 13836, f. 37v)
Fig. 2. Sharafnāmāh of Niẓāmī, Bengal (Gaur?), 1531. Iskandar shares the throne with Queen Nushabah. Folio: 31 x 20 cm (BL Or 13836, f. 37v)

Another manuscript viewed at the session was a copy of the Sharafnāmāh (Or 13836, fig. 2), dated 1531 and produced for Sulṭān Nuṣrat Shah, ruler of Bengal (r. 1519-38). The text is from Niẓāmī’s Khamsah (Quintet), and is the first half of the Iskandarnāmah that describes the conquests of the Alexander the Great, the last poem of the quintet. This slim volume contains nine vibrant paintings that show the assimilation of both Indic and Persian artistic traditions. Such adaptations were common to several fifteenth-century manuscripts from the Indian sultanates.

Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century (BL Or 4110); Qur’ān, India, ca. 1450-1500 (BL Add 5548-5); and Kalpasūtra and Kālakācāryakathā, dated 1427 (BL IO San 3177)
Fig. 3. Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century, Folio: 37 x 26 cm (BL Or 4110); Qur’ān, India, ca. 1450-1500, Folio: 26.5 x 18.4 cm (BL Add 5548-5); and Kalpasūtra and Kālakācāryakathā, dated 1427 (BL IO San 3177)

Within the second grouping of manuscripts a Qur’ān (Add 5549) was juxtaposed with an anthology of Persian poetry (Or 4110), and a Sanskrit work of Jain scriptures, all created in fifteenth-century India (IO San 3177) (fig. 3). Although each of these manuscripts is written in a different language they come into dialogue in their use of script and ornament. The Qur’ān’s interlinear Persian translations are inscribed in the naskhī-dīvānī script similar to the Persian anthology of poetry. The illumination and deep red and orange floral ornament used in the Jain Kalpasūtra and Kālakācāryakathā bear striking resemblances to illumination in the Persian anthology and Qur’ān. While we know such similarities exist in theory, viewing these manuscripts together highlights these connections and opens new paths for research.

Wild ass or tomb, definitions of ‘gūr,’ Miftāḥ al-Fuz̤alā ( Key of the Learned) by Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī, Mandu, India, ca. 1490
Fig. 4. Wild ass or tomb, definitions of ‘gūr’ in Miftā al-Fuz̤alā (Key of the Learned) by Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī, Mandu, India, ca. 1490, Folio: 33 x 25.4 cm (BL Or 3299, f. 248v)

A final grouping brought together three manuscripts from the court of Malwa. Beyond the Ni‘matnāmah (Book of Delights), the British Library holds a few other manuscripts associated with the court of Malwa, based primarily in the capital of Mandu, each of which is entirely unique. The multilingual intellectual Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī authored both of these manuscripts. The first is a multilingual Persian illustrated dictionary known as the Miftā al-Fuz̤alā (Key of the Learned, Or 3299, fig. 4) and the second is a Persian adaptation of al-Jazarī’s twelfth-century book of automata, the ‘Ajā’ib al-anā‘ī (Wonders of Crafts, Add 13718). This group of manuscripts from Malwa revealed how rich the libraries of fifteenth-century India were—long before the Mughals—and how we can place the Ni‘matnāmah within a larger context.

The opportunity to view these manuscripts with other specialists in the field allowed us to imagine more vividly the inter-connected world of the sultanates, and will no doubt inspire further research. We are grateful to Ursula Sims-Williams, Malini Roy, and Saqib Baburi for their help in organizing this session, and the support of the Barakat Trust, Khalili Research Centre, and Iran Heritage Foundation.

Further reading

On BL Or 1403:
Brend, Barbara, “The British Library’s Shahnama of 1438 as a Sultanate manuscript.” In Facets of Indian Art, eds. Robert Skelton et al (London: V&A, 1986), pp. 87-93.
Firouzeh, Peyvand. “Convention and Reinvention: The British Library Shahnama of 1438 (Or. 1403).” Iran (2019):1-22.

On BL Or 13836:
Skelton, Robert, “A Royal Sultanate manuscript dated 938 A.H./1531-2 A.D.” In Indian painting: Mughal and Rajput and Sultanate Manuscripts (London: Colnaghi, 1978), pp. 135-144.

On naskhī-dīvānī:
Brac de la Perrière, Éloïse, “Bihârî et naskhî-dîwânî: remarques sur deux calligraphies de l’Inde des sultanats.” In Ecriture, calligraphie et peinture, Studia Islamica, eds. A.L. Udovitch et H. Touati (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2003), pp. 81-93.

On the Ni‘matnāmah:
Skelton, Robert, “The Ni‘matnama: A Landmark in Malwa Painting.” Marg vol. 12 no. 3 (1959): 44-48.
Titley, Norah, The Ni‘matnama Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu: The Sultan’s Book of Delights (Oxford: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005).

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology; British Library PhD Research Placement
Dr Emily Shovelton, Research Associate, The Khalili Research Centre, University of Oxford

03 October 2019

Vietnamese manuscripts in the British Library

The Vietnamese collection at the British Library holds a small number of manuscripts, written in Chữ Nôm (Sino-Vietnamese) characters, and dating from 17th to early part of 20th centuries. One manuscript was present in the collection of Sir Hans Sloane at the founding of the British Museum and its library in 1753; another was acquired in the late 19th century; and the remainder came into the British Library in the late 20th century. There are six imperial scrolls and three manuscripts in bound codex form, one of which comprises a set of ten volumes, and all have been fully digitised with funding from the Henry Ginsburg Legacy.  The nine manuscripts are described below, with links to the catalogue entries and digitised versions, and to earlier blog posts.


A Trinh Lord’s letter to the English East India Company (Sloane 3460)
The oldest Vietnamese manuscript in our collection was probably written sometime in 1673 under the command of Trịnh Tac to William Gyfford, head of the English East India Company mission which came to establish commercial relations with Vietnam in 1672.

Sloane MS 3460
British Library, Sloane 3460, f. 1r  Noc

Two scrolls of Emperor Cảnh Thịnh (Or. 14817/A and Or. 14817/B)
These edicts were issued in May 1793 by the Tây Sơn ruler to welcome Lord Macartney, head of the diplomatic mission on its way to establish commercial relations between Britain and China. The ships were struck by a storm off the cost of Central Vietnam and needed to replenish provisions, leading Lord Macartney to seek help from the Vietnamese ruler.

Or_14817!a_f001r cropped
British Library, Or. 14817/A, f. 1r  Noc

Or 14817-B
British Library, Or. 14817/B, f. 1r  Noc

Three imperial edicts of Emperor Khải Định (Or. 14631, Or. 14632, Or. 14665)
Or. 14631 was issued on 18 March 1917 to celebrate the Emperor’s enthronement, while Or. 14632 and Or. 14665 were issued on 25 July 25 1924 to celebrate his 40th birthday. The contents of these three edicts involves the upgrading status of local gods, which was a common practice in traditional Vietnamese society.

Or 14631
British Library, Or. 14631, f. 1r  Noc

Or 14632
British Library, Or. 14632, f. 1r  Noc

Or 14665
British Library, Or. 14665, f. 1r  Noc

All these imperial scrolls are written on yellow paper and elaborately decorated on the front with patterns of dragons with five claws, both features being royal prerogatives. On the reverse, they are decorated with four mythical creatures, namely, the dragon, the phoenix, the turtle and the unicorn. The only exception is Or. 14631, which has different patterns on the reverse: it is adorned with two flower pots and symbols of longevity, instead of the usual four mythical creatures.

Bound volumes

Tale of Kiều (Or. 14844)
This copy of the Truyện Kiều manuscript was completed around 1894. Each page is beautifully illustrated with scenes from the story, and the book is bound in a fine yellow silk cover with dragon patterns. Nguyễn Quang Tuân, a Vietnamese scholar who inspected the manuscript, is of the opinion that this manuscript bears some royal significance because the dragon on the cover has the five claws, a characterisation normally reserved for imperial use only. Another significant feature of this manuscript is that it bears annotations by Paul Pelliot (1878−1945), the renowned French Sinologist, who bought the manuscript in 1929. By 2015 the manuscript was in poor condition; in particular its very thin paper had become very brittle and was torn in places due to acidity and wear and tear. Fortunately, the conservation team at the British Library was able to fully restore this invaluable manuscript to its former glory.

Or_14844_f02v cropped 2
British Library, Or. 14844, f. 2v Noc

A rare Vietnamese map of China (Or. 14907)
One of the most interesting Vietnamese manuscripts in the British Library is Bắc Sứ Thủy Lục Địa Đô or, in Chinese, Beishi shuilu ditu, ‘The northwards embassy by land and water from Hanoi to Beijing’. Written in the Vietnamese language in Chinese characters (chữ Hán) and dated 1880, the manuscript is a complete visual record of the route from Bắc Thành (the former name of Hanoi under the Nguyễn Dynasty) through China to Beijing, taken by envoys of the Vietnamese Emperor Tự Đức (r.1847-1883) on their tribute-bearing mission in 1880.

Or_14907_f069v cropped
British Library, Or. 14907, f. 69v Noc

This work was probably created as an archival record of the journey. Roads, mountains, waterways, bridges, buildings, cities and towns are all clearly depicted, as are the points of departure and arrival on the first and last pages. The title, written in Chinese characters (Beishi shuilu ditu), also includes the date (gengchen) of the journey, according to the Chinese 60-year cyclical system. The annotations on each page list place names and distances in Chinese miles (li or ly in Vietnamese) with occasional useful notes, such as ‘from here merchants used only Qianlong money’. Land routes are marked in red ink and water routes are recorded in blue ink.

Tuồng Việt Nam (Vietnamese Theatre) (Or. 8218/1-10)
This ten-volume set of tuồng plays attests to the popularity of this performing art form in the mid-19th century under the Nguyễn dynasty. Or. 8218 comprises a collection of forty six plays and legends, containing over 6,800 pages, possibly from Hue, the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyễn dynasty. Most do not include the author’s name, date and place except for one piece, Sự tích ra tuồng, which has a line which could be translated into modern Vietnamese as ‘làm vào ngày tháng tốt năm Tự Đức 3’. According to Trần Nghĩa – a Vietnamese specialist in Hán-Nôm who researched the manuscripts at the British Library back in 1995 – this note indicates that the play was written in 1850 during the reign of Emperor Tự Đức (1847-1883).

Or 8218-1-f.2r
British Library, Or. 8218/1, f. 2r Noc

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork

This is the last blog post by Dr Sud Chonchirdsin, who on 1 October 2019 retired after 14 years as Curator of Vietnamese in the British Library. Sud's blog posts on the Vietnamese collection in the British Library are some of the most-read on the Asian and African studies blog. Shown below is Sud, at his now-empty desk, with a print of a Thai manuscript presented by his colleagues.