THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

7 posts from February 2020

26 February 2020

William Jones, al-Mutanabbī and Emotional Encounters

In 1774, William Jones (1746 – 1794), then 27, a graduate from Oxford University, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a barrister with the Middle Temple, received a copy of al-Mutanabbī's Dīwān (poetry collection) as a gift from a certain ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg.

1. William Jones by Arthur William Devis Foster 840
Portrait of Sir William Jones aged 47 by Arthur William Devis (1762-1822). Oil on canvas, ca. 1793 (Foster 840). Public Domain

ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Beg, it would appear (although it is not certain), lived in the town of Hama (Ḥamā) in modern-day Syria and then an important administrative and trade centre in the Ottoman Empire. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg sent this gift (now known as MS RSPA 107), having never met Jones, along with the following inscription:

يصل الكتاب إلى بندر أقفرد ويتشرف بلثم أنامل الألحن الممجد حضرة وليام جونس
يَا رِياحَ العَاشِقينَ أَوْصِلْ مُحِبّينا السَلَامَ *** شابَهو الرَيحان وَالأزْهارَ شَماً فيِ الجِناَنْ
إِنْ وَصَلْتُمْ يَا نسِيم الحُبّ مِنَا قُلْ لَهُم *** يَا عَمِيدَ العِلْمِ كْن عَن كُلّ كَرْيِب في الأمانْ
فِي الفَصَاحَة كَالحَرِير في السَّخاوة حاتمٌ *** كَان هَذَا وِلِيام جُونس انَكليزان في العيان
من عند العبد الفقير عبد الرحمن بيك

This book is to arrive at the port of Oxford and is honoured to kiss the fingertips of the most intelligent and glorious Sir William Jones:

O winds of the lovers, send greetings to our beloveds
They are akin to the sweet smell of flowers in a garden
If you arrive, o fragrant breeze of love, say to them,
“You pillar of learning, be free of all worries!”
Judicious in matters of elegance, he is like silk in his generosity,
This man is William Jones, the Englishman

From your humble servant, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg.

2. RSPA 107 marbled and note JPG
ʻAbd al-Raḥmān's dedication and Jones note underneath. Jones' translation is just visible, attached to the marbled endpaper (RSPA 107). Public Domain

Below this inscription, Jones has written:

I received this valuable manuscript by the hands of Mr. Howard to whose care it was entrusted in June 1774 at Venice, by Mr. W Montague. It was a present from Abderrahman Beg, who wrote the Arabick verses in this page, which are so flattering to me, that I can hardly translate them without blushing, 3 Oct. 1774, W. Jones.

Jones comment on receiving this book
Jones' note (RSPA 107, flyleaf). Public Domain

Yet, translate them he did – or at least, it would appear, given that the opposite side has been ripped out, but you can still make out the beginning of the word Oxford at the start of the page. Jones was clearly troubled by the verse. In two letters, also dated to 1774, Jones tells of his receipt of the gift and his consequent embarrassment. In a letter to the Mr. Howard who presented him with the manuscript, he wrote (Jones, pp. 229-30):

I have just received your most obliging letter, with a fine Arabic manuscript, containing the works of a celebrated poet with whom I have been long acquainted: this testimony of Mr Montague’s regard is extremely pleasing to me and I have a most grateful sense of his kindness. I am conscious how little I have deserved the many honours I have lately received from the learned in Europe and Asia: I can ascribe their politeness to nothing but their candour and benevolence. I fear they will think me still less deserving when they know that I have deserted, or rather suspended, all literary pursuits whatever and am wholly engaged in the study of a profession for which I was always intended. As the law is a jealous science, and will not have any partnership with the Eastern Muses, I must absolutely renounce their acquaintance for ten or twelve years to come. This manuscript, however, is highly acceptable to me, and shall be preserved among my choicest treasures, till I have leisure to give it an attentive perusal. There is a compliment to me written in Arabic verse, in the first leaf of the book, and signed Abdurrahman Beg: the verses are very fine, but so full of Oriental panegyric, that I could not read them without blushing. The present seems to come from the learned Arabian: but as he has not inserted my name in his verses, and speaks of Oxford, he must have heard me mentioned by Mr. Montague, to whom therefore I am equally indebted for the present.

At the same time in October 1774, Jones wrote a very long letter to Hendrik Albert Schultens, the Dutch linguist, in which he said (Jones, pp. 227-8):

Whilst I am writing this letter, a person called upon me with a manuscript, which he had received at Venice from Mr. Montague, a man of family. I immediately perceived it to be a most beautiful and correct copy of Motanabbi with a letter addressed to myself in Arabic verse, from some person named Abdurrahman, whom Mr. Montague had probably seen in Asia. I owe great obligations to the politeness of the learned Arab but I by no means think myself worthy of his exaggerated encomiums – but you know the pompous style of the Orientals.

In both letters, as well as the note he appended to the verse inscription in the manuscript itself, Jones emphasises his embarrassment at receiving these “exaggerated encomiums”; his response encapsulates a particular form of the colonial encounter, this being the interaction of two emotional regimes, expressed in two very different literary styles. Why did Jones feel so awkward about this poem?

Diwan al-Mutanabbi RSPA107
The opening pages of the Dīwān of al-Mutanabbī (RSPA 107, ff. 1v-2r). Public Domain

The poetry is a fairly standard example of Arabic panegyric (madīḥ ), a genre in which al-Mutannabī was one of the most exemplary poets of the entire tradition; his panegyrics for the tenth century Amir of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawlah established his reputation and was, according to Margaret Larkin, the pinnacle of his career. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg’s poetic homage to Jones is, in many ways, a pastiche of the conventional symbols of poetic panegyric which al-Mutanabbī used – to much greater poetic effect and success – in his panegyrics of Sayf al-Dawlah. The winds of lovers (riyāḥa 'l-ʿāshiqīna), the south-winds of love ( nasīma 'l-ḥubbi) and the sweet floral smell of the odoriferous plants and flowers in the garden which the object of poetry is akin to ( shābahū 'l-rayḥāna wa-l-azhāra shamman fī-l-jināni): these are all very conventional tropes of Arabic love lyric (nasīb), cliché almost. The clichés used by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg may be conventional, but they also reveal an emotional regime which is expressed through the intermingling of the language of love and the language of admiration and an emotional regime in which this literary expression is completely normal, conventional and expected. Our concern here is: how did Jones read such poetry?

Jones was certainly well versed in Arabic poetry and would have been very familiar with the linguistic register of the nasīb and the panegyric which are both on show here. Having already read al-Mutanabbī, he would surely have known the idiomatic nature of the verse in front of him and the hackneyed terms of praise chosen by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg. Why the embarrassment, then?

William Reddy has proposed the ‘emotional regime’ as a useful framework for studying emotion history, this being what he terms the normative set of emotions in any one culture and the linguistic, ritualistic and practical structures of that culture which produce and embed them. Here, we see the interaction and conflict of two such emotional regimes: the “exaggerated encomiums” and “pompous panegyric” of the poetry mixed with Jones’s blushing, embarrassment and ‘English reserve’. Jones’s reading sees the poetry as awkward, over-the-top flattery. This he ascribes to the “pompous style of the Orientals”, rather brushing it aside as a local custom, a linguistic cliché that is, to his mind, in the context of the men never having met, a faintly ridiculous example of such poetry, of which Jones feels “wholly unworthy”. Yet, in the colonial politics of the moment, it would be easy to forget that Jones was subject to his own emotional regime, one which does not valorise such overt intermingling of personal feeling with professional compliment, hence Jones’s feeling ‘unworthy’ of such compliments and emphasising in each of the letters his detachment from the subject of praise (his knowledge of Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit literature) and instead his professional attachment to a new field: the law.

However, Jones did not just read the poem. Rather, he struggles to accept the compliments and to see the poetry as anything other than “pompous” because he translates them into his own idiom and sees them from within his own emotional regime, and it is at the English expression of emotions, which has become decontextualised from its linguistic formality, that he blushes. Translation can be a tricky business, displacing a constellation of poetic tropes and images from its historical and literary context and embedding them within a new language’s and a new emotional regime’s constraints of style. Whilst in Arabic the poem is a fairly conventional intermingling of nasīb and madīḥ linguistic registers and images, the English translation stands out as unusual within the broader English poetic tradition and imaginary, exemplifying the discord felt by the inter-linguistic politics of emotional translation, the difficulty of expressing oneself comfortably across languages and emotional regimes which have their own register of emotional expression. In his translation, Jones has transformed the poem: out of a standardised and conventional set of images spread over three short lines of poetry, Jones has created this awkward feeling for himself in his attempt to read the Arabic into English, in his use of Arabic emotional expressions outside of their context.

This single interaction speaks to the difficulty we face in traversing emotional regimes, in translating styles and ways of speaking which are so at home in their own context into a new and unfamiliar emotional background.

Further Reading
Bray, Julia, “Yaʿqūb b. al-Rabīʿ Read by al-Mutanabbī and al-Mubarrad: A Contribution to an Abbasid History of Emotions”, Journal of Abbasid Studies 4:1 (2017).
Jacobi, Renate “Qaṣīda (pl. Qaṣāʾid)” in Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey (eds.) Encyclopaedia of Arabic Literature, 2:630-33.
Jones, Sir William (ed. John Shore and S.C. Wilks), Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Correspondence of Sir William Jones, by Lord Teignmouth. With the Life of Lord Teignmouth, and Notes, by S.C. Wilks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1835).
Larkin, Margaret Al-Mutanabbi: Voice of the ʿAbbasid Poetic Ideal (Oxford: Oneworld, 2008).
Meisami, Julie Scott, Structure and Meaning in Medieval Arabic and Persian Lyric Poetry: Orient Pearls (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).
al-Mutanabbī, Abū al-Ṭayyib (tr. A. J. Arberry), Poems of al-Mutanabbī: a Selection with Introduction, Translation and Notes (London: Cambridge University Press, 1967).
Plamper, Jan et al, “The History of Emotions: an Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns" in History and Theory 49, no. 2 (2010): 237-65.
Reddy, William, The Making of Romantic: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia and Japan 900-1200 CE (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012).
–––––, The Navigation of Feeling: a Framework for the History of Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Sadan, Joseph, “Maiden’s Hair and Starry Skies – Image Systems and Maʿānī Guides” in Sasson Somekh (ed.), Studies in Medieval Arabic and Hebrew Poetics (Leiden: Brill, 1991).


Jonathan Lawrence, D Phil candidate at the University of Oxford, doctoral placement at British Library
© CCBY

21 February 2020

Guanyin: the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion

This is the thirteenth of a series of blog posts celebrating the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 - 23 Feb 2020. 

Bodhisattvas are sentient beings that seek enlightenment and embrace the principle of compassion to liberate others from suffering. In Buddhist practice, suffering is part of the cycle of rebirth and the level you are reborn is in a cause and effect relationship with your actions in previous lives. There are many levels that sentient beings need to attain before they achieve enlightenment and become a Buddha: the Bodhisattva level is the last step before Buddhahood. This blog post will introduce one of the most famous Boddhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism: Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, also known as Guanyin. It is important to highlight that Guanyin had actually become a Buddha known as 正法明如來 (“The Buddha who clearly understands the true law”) in the past. However, in order to make direct contact with sentient beings and lead them from suffering, this Buddha decided to step down and return as a Boddhisattva. This decision is known as 倒駕慈航 (Turning back the Ferry of Compassion). This blog will discuss the great compassion of this Bodhisattva from three perspectives: the name, the form, and the practice, all of which are centred around the needs of sentient beings.

The name: caring for all sentient beings

As Buddhism spread eastwards from its Indian heartland, Buddhist terminology in Sanskrit was adapted to other languages using either a sense-for-sense translation or a transliteration derived from the original pronunciation. For example, the name of Amitābha Buddha underwent transliteration to become ‘Amituo’ in Chinese. By contrast, Avalokiteśvara’s name was translated into Chinese based on its meaning and certain aspects of the Bodhisattva’s nature. This approach leaves more room for interpretation and, as a result, there are two common versions of the name, Guanshiyin and Guanzizai.

Guanshiyin, also known as Guanyin, is the name for this Boddhisattva that is seen in most sutras, such as the Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance. This translation comes from the Sanskrit: Avalokiteśvara is made up of “Avalokita”, which means to observe (觀[guan]), and “svara” which means sound (音[yin]). In other words, the Bodhisattva is “the sound-perceiver” or the one who hears the sounds (of sentient beings) of the world (世[shi]). This name is also referred to the Universal Gate Chapter of Lotus Sutra, which says: “Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva will instantly perceive the sound of their cries, and they (the suffering) will all be liberated”. One possible explanation for this name sometimes being abbreviated is that, in order to avoid the name of Emperor Taizong (598-649) of Tang: 李世民 (Li, Shimin), people took out the second character and shortened the name from Guanshiyin to Guanyin. Either way, this reflects the fact that Guanyin is conscious of the voices of the suffering calling for help and is committed to rescuing these beings in various ways.

Name of the Bodhisattva in the Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance
The name of the Bodhisattva: Guanshiyin (觀世音) appears in the Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance. (Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance, 1838, Add MS 16329)

The second name for this Boddhisattva, Guanzizai, is a translation based on the characteristics of the Bodhisattva and the path that practitioners need to follow. This name appears in the Heart Sutra which is the condensed, but nonetheless sacred, text of the Sutra of Great Wisdom. It reveals the concept of emptiness and the fundamental truth that nothing is permanent. This Bodhisattva is the one who perfectly understands (or perceives: 觀[guan]) this rule of emptiness, leaves aside their worldly attachments, and attains the great freedom (自在[zizai]) that comes with this realisation. In this way, this Bodhisattva can hold all sentient beings in his heart and rescue them without any obstacles. Therefore, when the Heart Sutra was translated by Master Xuanzang (c.602-664) in the Tang Dynasty, the Master decided to translate the name as Guanzizai in order to reveal this Boddhisattva’s nature and hopefully to encourage practitioners to follow the same path.

Detail of the name of Bodhisattva Guanzizai in the Heart Sutra
The name of the Bodhisattva: Guanzizai (觀自在) shows in the lower middle part of the stupa of Heart Sutra (Heart SutraOr.8210/S.4289).

The form: depictions of Guanyin

While there are a few different names to refer to this Bodhisattva, there are even more different forms that Guanyin can take when appearing to sentient beings in order to guide them away from suffering.

One interesting development of Guanyin’s form is the way in which gender is represented. In general, the gender of deities in Buddhism are neutral and rarely discussed. Early depictions show Guanyin with a more masculine appearance, creating the impression that the original gender of Guanyin was male. However, the female form becomes more popular later in Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in China. The reasons for this are linked to the historical context. Traditionally, China was a very patriarchal society; a system reinforced by Confucian principles which put pressure on women to obey their husbands and give birth to sons (instead of daughters). As a result, women were generally the ones asking for Guanyin’s help in order to achieve these goals. In addition, it was thought that a woman must commit to one man for her whole life (even after his death), therefore it seemed more appropriate for a woman to worship a deity in female form. In this way, Guanyin starts to take on more feminine qualities such as kindness and grace and, in female form, she is seen as more accessible to women.

Guanyin Bodhisattva in Female Form
Guanyin Bodhisattva appears in female form. (Vignettes Representing Manifestations of Buddhist Saints, before 1911, Add MS 10592)

So far we have discussed the work of Guanyin in isolation, but this Bodhisattva does not go it alone in the rescue business; Guanyin also works with Amitābha Buddha and Mahāsthāmaprāpta Bodhisattva to guide the dead to the Western Pure Land. This trio is known as the Three Noble Ones of the West. When pictured together, it would be easy to recognise the Amitābha Buddha as he is always in the middle but sometimes it can be a bit difficult to work out which attendant is Guanyin since the basic style of Bodhisattvas is the same. One clue would be the plant they hold in their hand; Mahāsthāmaprāpta holds a lotus and Guanyin holds a willow. The other indication is the item on their head; it is a vase containing his parents’ ashes on Mahāsthāmaprāpta’s head and a statue of seated Amitābha Buddha on Guanyin’s. In this case, when a person approaches death, they can call upon not only Amitābha, but also Guanyin to ask for guidance.

The Three Noble Ones of the West
The Three Noble Ones of the West (Photo credit: London Fo Guang Shan; posted with permission).

The practice: Guanyin as a guide

There are many different forms of Buddhist practice including meditation and chanting of texts such as dharanis or sutras. Certain dharanis and sutras can relate to a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva. The most notable ones featuring Guanyin are the Great Compassion Dharnai and the Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva.

Generally speaking, a dharani is a phrase or mantra, recited as sounds based on the original Sanskrit, which is believed to be powerful and protective. When someone chants the dharani, the related deity will come to provide their support. The Great Compassion Dharani, also known as Great Compassion Heart Dharani contains the power of Guanyin to rescue sentient beings. According to the Dharani of the Bodhisattva With a Thousand Hands and Eyes Who Regards the Worldʼs Sounds with Great Compassion , this dharani contains the power to remove all horror and suffering and achieve perfection. Furthermore, the dharani can also help followers listen to the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), enhance their wisdom, and guide the dead towards rebirth in a Pure Land.

Great Compassion Heart Dharani
Chinese manuscript of the Great Compassion Heart Dharani with annotation (Great Compassion Heart Dharani, 1700-1909, Or 6995).

A sutra is a canonical scripture recording the teachings from Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha). The Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara is the twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra. As the name suggests, in this text the Bodhisattva indicates many ‘gates’, or methods for a follower to practice, and Guanyin will manifest in different forms in order to guide them. No matter who you are, Guanyin will appear in the corresponding role to teach you. The Bodhisattva also has the power to improve a bad situation. No matter what difficulty you find yourself in, when you chant the Bodhisattva’s name, he always is able to release you from suffering. Moreover, the sutra also reveals the power of Guanyin to provide followers with wisdom and fearlessness on the path towards Buddhahood.

Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokitesvara Bodhisvatta
The Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva (Or.59.b.24).

The above perspectives all demonstrate the Great Compassion of this Bodhisattva since the name he goes by, the form he takes and the practices he upholds all have the needs of sentient beings at their heart, showing that he does his best to rescues them. However, it is also important to note that practitioners should not totally rely on the power of the Bodhisattva. The main objective is for the followers themselves to cultivate a heart as compassionate as Guanyin’s, and in doing so they will be following the path of the Bodhisattva in order to attain Buddhahood.

Han-Lin Hsieh, Curator, British Library Chinese Collections, with thanks to Emma Harrison.

CCBY Image

The accompanying volume to the Buddhism exhibition, "Buddhism: Origins, Traditions and Contemporary Life", is still available for purchase at the British Library Shop and online

Reference:

Conversion table of Buddha and Bodhisattvas’ name

Sanskrit

Chinese

Pinyin

Avalokiteśvara

觀自在

Guanzizai

觀世音

Guanshiyin

觀音

Guanyin

Amitābha

阿彌陀

Amito

Mahāsthāmaprāpta

大勢至

Dashizhi

Conversion table of Sutra names

English

Sanskrit

Chinese

Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance

 

大悲懺儀軌

Heart Sutra

Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya

般若波羅密多心經

Sutra of Great Wisdom

Mahāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra

大般若波羅蜜多經

Great Compassion Dharnai

Mahākaruṇādhāranī

大悲咒

Great Compassion Heart Dharani

Mahākaruṇā-cittadhāranī

大悲心陀羅尼

Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

Samanta-mukha-parivarto nāmâvalokiteśvara-vikurvaṇa-nirdeśaḥ

觀世音菩薩普門品

Dharani of the Bodhisattva With a Thousand Hands and Eyes Who Regards the Worldʼs Sounds with Great Compassion

 

千手千眼觀世音菩薩廣大圓滿無礙大悲心陀羅尼經

Lotus Sutra

Sad-dharma Puṇḍárīka Sūtra

妙法蓮華經

17 February 2020

Exquisite patterns: Japanese Textile Design Books

Exquisite patterns: Japanese Textile Design Books, a new exhibition of images from the British Library’s Japanese collection, runs from 14 February to 17 May 2020 in the Library’s Second Floor Gallery. In the first of a series of blog posts, curator Hamish Todd introduces the exhibition and some of the highlights.

Furuya Kōrin Orb_30!132_1_f010_写生草花
Furuya Kōrin 古谷紅麟, Shasei sōka moyō 写生草花模様. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1907. British Library, ORB.30/132

With the help of a grant from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, the British Library is digitising its collection of Japanese pattern books and making these available online. This exhibition of selected images has been created to display the variety and vibrancy of these works, from their origins in the mid-17th century until the early 20th century.

Textiles and in particular the kimono in its various forms, have been a focus for artistic creativity in Japan for centuries. Following decades of civil war, the Edo Period (1603-1868) saw the re-establishment of peace and stable government under the Tokugawa shogunate. As the economy prospered, large urban populations developed in Kyoto, Edo (Tokyo) and Osaka. Alongside the Imperial Court and aristocracy in Kyoto, the samurai and increasingly prosperous merchant classes of Edo formed a sophisticated, fashion-conscious audience and many aspects of Japanese culture, notably the arts and crafts, flourished.

The desire among the fashionable for variety and novelty led to the publication of the first pattern books, hinagata-bon 雛形本, in the 1660s. These early works were printed using traditional woodblock technology in black and white, but often included notes describing the intended colour and type of fabric. They were practical in nature, serving as manuals for textile designers and kimono merchants, or fashion magazines and catalogues for the discerning customer.

Or_74_cc_8_f006r_新撰御ひいながた_crop  The first kimono pattern book
The first kimono pattern book. Shinsen o-hiinagata 新撰御ひいながた by Asai Ryōi 浅井了意. British Library, Or.74.cc.8. On the left a pattern of chrysanthemums and on the right, printed in red, the characters representing the names of the animals of the Chinese zodiac.

Shinsen o-hiinagata 新撰御ひいながた’A New Selection of Patterns’, the first pattern book, was published in 1666. Initially printed solely in black and white, the following year another edition, shown here, appeared with some pages also printed in single colours of blue, green or red. Early pattern books normally depict the kosode (forerunner of the modern kimono) in a T-shape with the back and sleeves forming the focus of the striking designs.

This novel type of publication proved very popular and new titles appeared in quick succession as publishers sought to capitalise on the new trends. Textile designers and artists drew inspiration from a wide range of sources, notably, the natural world, folklore, history, signs of the zodiac, auspicious symbols and the written word.

For example, in this design, a carp fights its way up a powerful waterfall, a popular symbol of energy and determination drawn from a Chinese legend in which a carp crossed the Dragon Gate rapids on the Yellow River and turned into a dragon.

Dragon Gate Waterfall Orb_30!4449_vol_3_035_雛形萩の野
‘Dragon Gate Waterfall’ 龍門乃滝, from Tōsei somegumi hinagata hagi no 当世染組 雛形萩の野. Kyoto, 1741. British Library, ORB.30/4449.

In this design from Shin moyō yaegasumi 新模様八重霞, the artist Kōyōken Charanshi 紅葉軒茶藍子 has depicted a herd of lively horses. Published in 1784, this work brings an added level of sophistication to the pattern book by the addition of delicate hand-colouring and the inclusion of images of the whole design and of a detail.

Shin moyō yaegasumi _新模様八重霞  Shin moyō yaegasumi _新模様八重霞
Shin moyō yaegasumi 新模様八重霞. Kyoto, 1784. British Library, ORB.30/8579

Symbols of good fortune and longevity were, and remain, popular motifs for textiles. In Japanese folklore, the crane represents 1,000 years of life, the tortoise 10,000 years. In Tennen hyakkaku 天年百寉 (‘Tennen’s One Hundred Cranes’) Kaigai Tennen, explored the theme with depictions of these auspicious birds in a variety of styles, settings and combinations with other propitious symbols.

A crane from Kaigai Tennen
A crane from Kaigai Tennen 海外天年, Tennen hyakkaku 天年百寉. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1901. British Library, ORB.40./964 (vol.3 folio 1)

A crane with a mythological minogame (long-haired tortoise)_007
A crane with a mythological minogame (long-haired tortoise) from Kaigai Tennen 海外天年, Tennen hyakkaku 天年百寉. Unsōdō, Kyoto, 1901. British Library, ORB.40./964 (vol.3 folio 4)

Enterprising kimono merchants were quick to see the potential of pattern books as a means of attracting customers and promoting their wares to a wider clientele. An example is the lavish Kuretake 呉竹, produced in 1902 by Ichida Yaichirō 市田弥一郎, proprietor of the Kyoto kimono emporium Ichida Shoten. It includes 120 spectacular designs as well as 47 textile samples from which clients could choose their preferred colours and fabrics.

Orb_40!1208_f047v_呉竹
Design for a haori (short jacket) incorporating animals of the Chinese zodiac. From Kuretake 呉竹. Kyoto, 1902. British Library, ORB.40/1208

Orb_40!1208_f059r
Fabric samples from Kuretake 呉竹. Kyoto, 1902. British Library, ORB.40/1208

The British Library collection also contains a slightly more ‘homespun’ version of this sort of ‘catalogue’. It is in the form of a scrapbook into which paper cutouts of kimono designs have been pasted. Some of these are reminiscent of the clothes made for Japanese paper dolls (anesama ningyō 姉様人形 ‘big sister dolls’).

Or_16979_f019r_cropped
A design for a furisode (‘swinging sleeves’). From an untitled scrapbook, c. 1890-1900. British Library, Or.16979

As colour-printing became more sophisticated, so did pattern books. By the late 19th century publishers, led by Kyoto-based Unsōdō and Unkindō, were collaborating with talented artists, among them Kamisaka Sekka, Furuya Kōrin and Tsuda Seifū, to produce superb design albums or zuan-chō 図案帳. While some of these were meant as source books for artisans, others were conceived as beautiful objects to be enjoyed for their own sake. We will look at these later works in the following blog.

Further reading:
Hillier, Jack, The Art of the Japanese Book. London: Sotheby’s, 1987.
Jackson, Anna (ed.), Kimono: The Art and Evolution of Japanese Fashion. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015.
Johnson, Scott, Zuan Pattern Books: The Glory Years. Andon, 2015, 100.
Milhaupt, Terry Satsuki, Kimono: A Modern History. London: Reaktion Books, 2014.

Hamish Todd, Head of East Asian collections Ccownwork

14 February 2020

Buddhist-themed stamps: Religious didactic tool or postal ephemera?

This is the twelfth of a series of blog posts celebrating the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020.

With over five hundred million practising Buddhists, Buddhism is the fourth largest faith in the world. Consequently, numerous countries produce stamps with Buddhist themes and imagery. Stamps may now largely be viewed as a superseded technology, and are certainly less commonly encountered than in the past, but they remain an intrinsic part of our global visual and material culture. This raises the question of whether such stamps depicting Buddhist themes have any inherent didactic religious purpose, or whether they are merely pieces of visual ephemera? The following selection of late 20th century Sri Lankan stamps issued for Vesak, celebrating the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, may provide some tentative answers.

Since Buddhists start their path to enlightenment seeking refuge in the Tiratana or three jewels, this subject will form the focus of the present discussion. The Tiratana comprise the life of the Gotama Buddha, his teachings known in Pali as Dhamma (Sanskrit: Dharma) and the community of his disciples known as the Sangha. A range of stamps narrating the Buddha have been issued focusing on his birth and life as Prince Siddhattha Gotama, his unhappiness and eventual rejection of this royal lifestyle in favour of an ascetic existence, as well as his obtaining enlightenment to become the Buddha.

Figure 1 and 2
Figures 1 and 2

The two stamps shown above come from a set of four released for sale on 13 May 1983, designed by George Keyt and A. Dharmasiri, illustrating scenes from the life of Prince Siddhattha, based on temple murals in the Gotami Vihara, Colombo. The 0.35 c stamp (Figure 1) shows Prince Siddhattha’s mother, Queen Mahamaya, dreaming that a white elephant entered her side, foretelling the birth of the prince destined to become a great earthly or spiritual ruler. The 5.00 r stamp (Figure 2) depicts Prince Siddhattha and the sleeping dancers recounting how he renounced the throne on his twenty-ninth birthday intending to leave the palace and embark on a spiritual life. That day the Prince’s wife, Yasodhara gave birth to his only son Rahula, and King Suddhodana hoped to distract his son from leaving by holding a celebratory banquet inviting the best dancers and musicians to perform. During the festivities Prince Siddhattha slept, and upon waking up left the palace whilst everybody was asleep, taking the first step of his journey towards enlightenment.

Numerous stamps also depict scenes from the Buddha’s previous lives based upon a body of literature known as Jataka tales. The next two examples come from a set of four stamps issued for sale on 23 April 1982 depicting scenes from the Vessantara Jataka, about a compassionate prince named Vessantara who gave away everything he owned including his own children, thereby displaying the virtue of perfect generosity. Designed by A. Dharmasiri, the stamps depict images from a cloth painting at the Arattana Rajamaha Vihara in the Hanguranketa District of Nuwara Eliya.

Figure 3 and 4
Figures 3 and 4

The 0.35 c stamp (Figure 3) illustrates Prince Vessantara giving away a magical rain-making white elephant to envoys from Kalinga, which was then facing a serious drought. The citizens - fearing the handover of the elephant would cause a drought in their own kingdom - were dismayed at Vessantara’s act of generosity and convinced King Sanjaya to banish his son. The 2.50 stamp (Figure 4) recalls the pivotal moment of the story when Prince Vessantara hands his two children over to the old Brahmin beggar Jujaka to be enslaved.

On his death, the Buddha’s cremated remains were enshrined and worshipped in Stupas in various localities. The third Emperor of India’s Mauryan Dynasty, Ashoka, exhumed the relics and redistributed them, in addition to sending out saplings from the original Bodhi tree that the Buddha meditated under and obtained enlightenment. These relics form a continuation of the Gotama Buddha story and are a theme represented on stamps. The two examples shown below come from a set of three postage stamps issued on 3 May 1979. A. Dharmasiri’s designs based upon the painting in the Kelaniya Temple recount how Sri Lanka acquired two of its most important Buddhist relics.
The 0.25c stamp (Figure 5) highlights how the Buddha’s Sacred Tooth was conveyed out of Kalinga to Sri Lanka by Prince Danta and Princess Hema Mala upon King Guhasiva’ orders. The 1.00 r stamp (Figure 6) narrates how the Emperor Ashoka’s eldest daughter and missionary, Sanghamitta, transported the right south branch of the Bodhi-tree, under which the Buddha had meditated, to the island.

Figure 5 and 6
Figures 5 and 6

The Buddha’s teachings or Dhamma are also illustrated on stamps. Designed by S. Silva and released for sale on 30 April 1993, the following four examples and mini-sheet are based upon specific verses from the Dhammapada (Sayings of the Buddha), one of the most widely read and best known of the Buddhist scriptures. The 0.75 c stamp (Figure 7) is based on a verse recounting the story of the Brahmin Magandiya, who unsuccessfully tried to offer his beautiful daughter as a wife for the Buddha. The 1.00 stamp (Figure 8) is based on a verse recounting the story of Kisa Gotami, a mother almost driven mad by the loss of her child. Advised that the Buddha could help bring the child back, she sought him out. The Buddha promised he would do so provided she obtained some white mustard seeds from a family where no one had died. Unsuccessful in her search Kisa Gotami soon realised that no home is ever free from death, and returned to the Buddha who comforted and preached to her, whereupon she became a devoted disciple.

Figure 7 and 8
Figures 7 and 8

The design of the 3.00 r stamp (Figure 9) comes from a verse about Patacara, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant, who fell pregnant and eloped with one of her father’s servants named Amarsh to live on a farm. Against her husband’s wishes, she tried to return to her parents to give birth to her first son, who was born on the way, enabling the couple to return home. Some time later she fell pregnant once more and again left to return to her family. Amarsh followed her and en route Patacara went into labour at the onset of a storm. Her husband was bitten by a snake and killed instantly whilst trying to build some shelter. Carrying on, she reached a swollen river compelling her to cross the river with one child at a time. Leaving her oldest child on the riverbank she carried her baby across the river. On her return to retrieve her oldest child, a vulture carried the baby off. When she screamed for the baby, the oldest child entered the water thinking she was calling for him, and drowned. Encountering the Buddha and telling him about the tragic loss of her family, he taught her about impermanence, whereupon she became a disciple.

The 10.00 stamp (Figure 10) is based upon the verse about the murderous brigand Angulimala, who killed nine hundred and ninety nine people, taking their fingers as trophies which he wore round his body. The Buddha’s intervention and teachings not only prevented Angulimala from making his own mother a victim, but enabled Angulimala to convert to Buddhism and cancel his bad Kamma with meditation.

Figure 9 and 10
Figures 9 and 10

Other stamp issues offer clear advice on how to set out on the path of enlightenment. On 29 April 1995, Sri Lanka released a set of four stamps and a mini-sheet detailing a selection of the Paramita, ten noble characteristics or qualities associated with enlightened beings. Designed by S. Silva, the 1 r stamp reveals a scene representing Viriya Paramitava, loosely defined as an attitude whereby an individual gladly engages in wholesome activities to accomplish wholesome or virtuous actions. The design of the 2 r stamp depicts a Boddhisatva catching a person falling from the sky representing Khanti Paramitava or the practice of patience, forbearance and forgiveness. The 10 r stamp reveals a figure teaching two students representing Sacca Paramitava or truth in reference to the Buddha’s four noble truths. The 16 r stamp depicts a scene with a Boddhisatva representing Adhitthana Paramitava or resolution, self-determination and will (Figure 11).

Figure 11
Figure 11

Turning to stamps about the Sangha or community of disciplines, the 22 May 1991 National Hero Issue designed by S. Silva includes a 1 r stamp commemorating the notable Buddhist Missionary, Narada Thero (Figure 12).

Figure 12
Figure 12

Another stamp issued on 1 January 1988 designed by W. Rohama marks the 30th Anniversary of the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy (Figure 13). The 18 June 1989 0.75 c stamp by the same designer notes the establishment of the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, a Sri Lankan state department overseeing the governance of Buddhism nationwide. Modern Buddhist Studies are also commemorated on stamps, including this one issued on 14 July 1981 designed by P. Jaratillake celebrating the centenary of the Pali Text Society (Figure 14).

Figure 13 and 14
Figures 13 and 14

The material discussed here represents merely a fraction of stamps depicting Buddhist subject matter and is far from unique, whether from Sri Lanka or across the wider Buddhist world. In Buddhist societies, it is believed that the reproduction and dissemination of manuscript or printed Buddhist texts can accrue good Kamma (Sanskrit: karma) for their creators and sponsors, if done conscientiously with the right motives. Would it be appropriate to interpret such carefully designed stamps on Buddhist themes as an extension of this existing Buddhist manuscript and print tradition? Could the same Kamma-generating qualities accrue to individuals involved producing and disseminating such stamps?

Finally, it is interesting to consider that stamps used to pre-pay mail are defaced when dispatched to the recipient, disposed of on a letter’s receipt, and finally destroyed in the rubbish or recycling plant. Such use renders them impermanent, temporary pieces of visual mnemonics similar to the tradition of Buddhist Mandalas.

Perhaps there is a theological aspect to philately after all?

Image sources
The stamps reproduced in this blog post come from Sri Lankan material within the Crown Agent’s Philatelic and Security Printing Archive housed in the British Library’s Philatelic Collections.

Richard Scott Morel, Curator, Philatelic Collections

11 February 2020

Bugis flower power: a compendium of floral designs

The collection of Bugis and Makassar manuscripts in the British Library, which has now been fully digitised, covers a wide range of genres from court diaries to literature, treatises on a range of sciences, and religious works on Islamic law and Sufism.  Most of the manuscripts are sober textual documents, carefully and neatly written in Bugis/Makassar (lontaraq) or Arabic script, but - save for one compendium of poems - with few formal decorative elements.  On the other hand, many manuscripts also contain notes, calligraphic pen trials and doodles, which often include sketches, primarily of a floral nature.  This text-light but picture-heavy blog post has brought together all the floral drawings discovered in these manuscripts from south Sulawesi, presented here as a sourcebook for Bugis floral designs in the late 18th century.  In each case, the manuscript shelfmarks are hyperlinked to the full digitised manuscript page, so that the sketches can be seen in context; all the manuscripts originate from the royal library of Bone and were captured by the British in 1814.

Floral sketch in a Bugis court diary from Bone Add_ms_12373_f076v-crop
Floral sketch in a Bugis court diary from Bone, on an empty page prepared for September 1798. British Library, Add. 12373, f. 76v  noc

The one decorated manuscript in the collection is a collection of poems. The largest part of the manuscript comprises a series of fourteen short Bugis poems in tolo' style, concerning heroic episodes in the past: one poem tells of the death of the mid-sixteenth century king of Gowa, Tu-nibatta, whose head was cut off in battle. The volume also contains one Makassar poem (sinrili'), by Arung Palakka on his divorce from Arung Kaju, and it ends with a Bugis war-song (elong-oseng) by Daeng Manrupai.  The manuscript is neatly written and opens with a finely double frame drawn in black ink with faint red highlights, shown below.

Add_ms_12346_f002v-3r
Opening pages of a collection of Bugis poems, late 18th century. British Library, Add. 12346, ff. 2v-3r   noc
 
Within the volume new poems are heralded with a horizontal floral panel, all of which are presented below, together with hyperlinks to the folio of the manuscript on which they are found.

horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f007r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 7r  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f012r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 12r   noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f019v-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 19v  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f026r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 26r  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f030r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 30r  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f046v-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 46v  noc
Add_ms_12346_f050r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 50r  noc
Add_ms_12346_f052r-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 52r  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f056v-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 56v  noc
horizontal floral panel Add_ms_12346_f061v-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 61v  noc
Floral panel - Add_ms_12346_f064v-dec
British Library, Add. 12346, f. 64v  noc

At the start of the first six poems, a single flower is inserted at the end of the first line of text:

Flower-Add_ms_12346_f046v-flower  Add_ms_12346_f012r-flower  Add_ms_12346_f019v-flower  Add_ms_12346_f026r-flower  Add_ms_12346_f030r-flower  Add_ms_12346_f046v-flower
British Library, Add. 12346, ff. 7r, 12r, 19v, 26r, 30r, 46v  noc

The only other polished examples of artwork found in a few manuscripts in this collection are of divination diagrams (kutika) based on the compass rose, which were used to establish propitious days or times for certain actions. Some of these diagrams have at their heart an elaborate floral composition.

Floral pattern at the centre of a divinatory diagram in a collection of Bugis treatises on medicine and other matters Add_ms_12360_f062r-flower  Floral pattern at the centre of a divinatory diagram in a collection of Bugis treatises on medicine and other matters Add_ms_12372_f066r
(Left) Floral pattern at the centre of a divinatory diagram in a collection of Bugis treatises on medicine and other matters, British Library, Add. 12360, f. 62r; (right) a similar floral pattern on a divinatory diagram from a similar compendium on diseases and medicines, British Library, Add. 12372, f. 66r.  noc

 The other drawings presented below are all essentially doodles: sketches drawn in blank pages or spaces on a page at the beginning or end of a text. But all are remarkable for the skill and artistry of the artist’s pen, in black ink, sketching intricate floral and foliate compositions.

Doodle of flower with heart-shaped petals Add_ms_12346_back cover
Doodle of flower with heart-shaped petals, found on the inside back cover of the volume of poetry presented above. British Library, Add. 12346, inside back cover  noc

Floral sketches in a collection of Bugis poems Add_ms_12361_f017r-floral
Floral sketches in a collection of Bugis poems. British Library, Add. 12361, f. 17r  noc

Sketches in a collection of Bugis poems Add_ms_12361_f018r-floral
Floral sketches in a collection of Bugis poems. British Library, Add. 12361, f. 18r  noc

Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines
Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines. British Library, Add. 12372, f. 1v   noc

Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines Add_ms_12372_f049r-crop
Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines. British Library, Add. 12372, f. 49r  noc

Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines Add_ms_12372_f073v
Floral sketches in a volume of Bugis treatises on diseases and medicines. British Library, Add. 12372, f. 73v  noc

floral scrolls in a Bugis court diary from Bone  Add_ms_12373_f002r-flower

floral scrolls in a Bugis court diary from Bone  Add_ms_12373_f002r-flowers
Two floral scrolls in a Bugis court diary from Bone for the years 1793-1799. British Library, Add. 12373, f. 2r  noc

Related blog posts:

The Royal Library of Bone: Bugis and Makassar manuscripts in the British Library

Digital access to Bugis and Makassar manuscripts

Bugis manuscript art

Annabel Teh Gallop, Southeast Asia section  ccownwork

07 February 2020

Moloch gibbons and sloth bears: the work of the Bengali artist Haludar

The British Library has loaned twenty paintings and manuscripts to the Wallace Collection in London, for the ‘Forgotten Masters' exhibition, running through April 2020. Included are a selection of four works by the relatively unknown artist Haludar, whose natural history drawings are on display for the very first time. When the exhibition curator William Darymple started scoping paintings to be included in the exhibition, I brought to his attention the natural history drawings in the collection commissioned by the Scottish surgeon Dr. Francis Buchanan-Hamilton (1762–1829, hereafter referred to as Buchanan) at the turn of the 19th century. When I showed him the delicate paintings of a moloch gibbon, asloth bear, a long-tailed macaqu and the gerbils painted by the artist Haludar, Dalrymple was intrigued and we started considering the conservation aspects in displaying these works for the first time.

Illustration of a moloch gibbon in three ways
Moloch gibbon drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar, c. 1799-1806. British Library, NHD 3/499 Noc

Sloth bear NHD 3/489
Sloth bear drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar, c. 1799-1806. British Library, NHD 3/491 Noc

In researching the Buchanan collection at the British Library, which consists of several hundred natural history alongside countless volumes of his notes, I met with Dr Ralf Britz an ichthyologist (or fish scientist) at the Natural History Museum, who was working on Buchanan's volume on Fishes of the Ganges held in the British Library. When I mentioned my plans to work on the drawings of mammals in the Library's collection and researching the artist Haludar, he immediately sent me a scientific article by the French zoologist Henri de Blainville. In 1816, de Blainville  (1777–1850) wrote in the Bulletin des sciences, par la Société philomathique de Paris, that a new species of Cervus niger could be identified ‘after a very beautiful coloured drawing that was completed on site by Haludar, an Indian painter’. After reading this article I started to look at other early 19th century periodicals to see if any other zoologists were looking at de Blainville's work or by chance also mentioned Haludar.

NHD 3 (501) copy
Indian sambar deer, Cervus Niger, drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar, c. 1799-1806, Barrackpore. British Library, NHD 3/501 Noc

I discovered that in 1819,  the German naturalist Lorenz Oken’s periodical Isis also made reference to C. niger, stating it was ‘painted on the spot by the master painter Haludar’. Both references to Cervus niger, which is an Indian Sambar deer, provided only brief descriptions of the species, and omitted to give details regarding the source of the scientific information as well as the location of the artwork by Haludar. However, in cross-referencing C. niger with Haludar, we are directed to a single drawing in the British Library’s collection that was commissioned by Francis Buchanan inscribed with the artist’s name, that had been deposited at the Company’s library on Leadenhall Street, London in 1808. This painting of Cervus niger is one of 28 natural history drawings now held in the British Library that are inscribed Haludar Pinxt and that were prepared between 1795 and 1818, when Buchanan was working as a surgeon for the East India Company and actively documenting botanical and zoological specimens during his travels across the subcontinent.

Mildred Archer, art historian and author of Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, suggested that Haludar most likely was one of the artists retained by William Roxburgh, the superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Gardens. Roxburgh and Buchanan were in regular correspondence; Archer suggests that Roxburgh referred Haludar to Buchanan. Haludar was first employed by Buchanan from 1795-97, in Lakshmipur (in southeast Bangladesh), where the Scottish surgeon worked for the Company's factory until 1798 and spent his time studying the freshwater fishes in the Ganges River. During this time, we know that he 'hired a young Bengali artist to drawing various species he encountered'. According to Ralf Britz, Haludar was responsible for illustrating the freshwater specimens. While Buchanan-Hamilton examined and prepared written descriptions for each species, Haludar accurately depicted each fish with meticulous precision. He used pen-and-ink for the outlines, with pulversized silver to colour in the specimens (see BL IOR Mss Eur E72).

Following Buchanan’s posting at Lakshmipur, it is unclear whether Haludar accompanied Buchanan over the next few years when Buchanan was in Chittagong, Mysore and Nepal conducting surveys or sent on official visits on behalf of the Company from 1798-1803. Haludar may have returned to Calcutta in 1799 when Buchanan was temporarily placed in charge of the Botanic Gardens as Roxburgh was recovering in the Cape of Good Hope from ill health.

On returning from Nepal in 1803, Wellesley appointed Buchanan as his surgeon at Barrackpore, which had been converted as the residence for the Governor-General in 1801. On the grounds, Wellesley established the Barrackpore Menagerie which Buchanan would run as superintendent from 1803-05. Specimens from across the subcontinent were collected and brought to the menagerie. Based on archival evidence in the British Library, we know that Haludar was one of several artists to illustrate birds and mammals at Barrackpore. This information is documented in the series of illustrations that were sent in two batches from Barrackpore to London, first in 1807 and the second in 1818. A document titled ‘List of Drawings of E. Indian Quadrapeds and Birds made under the inspection severally of Mr Gibbon and of Dr Fleming and Buchanan – and deposited in the Library of the Honourable East India Company [Received on 24 August 1808]’,listed twenty-six mammals and twenty-eight birds. Of these works, Haludar was the artist of twenty-six drawings. In the second batch of a further 108 drawings sent under the authority of acting superintendent Nathanial Wallich in 1818, two additional works inscribed with Haludar’s name was sent to London. Among the wider collection of natural history drawings from Barrackpore in these two phases, the work of Haludar’s contemporaries Guru Dayal of Chittagong, Mahangu Lal and Bishnu Prasad are included.

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts Ccownwork

Further reading:

Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, H.M.S.O., 1962.

Ralf Britz (ed.) Hamilton’s Gangetic Fishes in Colour: A new edition of the 1822 monograph, with reproductions of unpublished coloured and illustrations, London: Natural History Museum and Ray Society, 2019

Malini Roy, 'The Bengali Artist Haludar', in W. Dalrymple, Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Wallace Collection, 2019.

Mark F. Watson and Henry J. Noltie, ‘Career, collections, reports and publications of Dr Francis Buchanan (later Hamilton) 1762-1829: natural history studies in Nepal, Burma (Myanmar), Bangladesh and India. Part 1,’ in Annals of Science, 2016.

Mark F. Watson and Henry J. Noltie. (2019). The Buchanan-Hamilton collection of botanical drawings at the Linnean Society of London. Marg 70(2): 81–84.

 

04 February 2020

The Light of Asia: Western encounters with Buddhism

This is the eleventh of a series of blog posts celebrating the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020.

Although there was widespread knowledge in medieval Europe of the legend of Barlaam and Josaphat, about an extraordinary prince in India who renounced the world, direct encounters of Europeans with Buddhism only took place from the thirteenth century onwards. Accounts of merchants, explorers and missionaries like those of the Franciscan friar Willem van Ruysbroeck (c. 1215-c. 1295) and Marco Polo (1254-1324) told of their contacts with Buddhist communities, perhaps with some exaggerations and misinterpretations, and early Western maps indicated important places of worship and Buddhist pilgrimage sites, which were often economic and trade centres at the same time. The travels of friars who were sent to central Asia, China and Sri Lanka aroused much interest in Europe, despite the fact that their knowledge was based mainly on observations and sometimes hearsay, and therefore very limited with regard to the Buddhist scriptures.

Map by the Portuguese mapmaker Ferdinão Vaz Dourado indicating major cities in East and Southeast Asia, many of which were centres of Buddhist worship and education, dated 1573
Map by the Portuguese mapmaker Ferdinão Vaz Dourado indicating major cities in East and Southeast Asia, many of which were centres of Buddhist worship and education, dated 1573. British Library, Add MS 31317, ff. 25–26 Noc

The German physician Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) travelled extensively in Asia, including in Persia, Siam (Thailand), Japan and Java between 1683 and 1695. His travel notes and drawings and a book on the history of Japan, published posthumously, may have revealed to the West for the first time aspects of the true nature of Buddhist cultures in Asia. His remarkable collection of seventeenth-century works of art includes a series of fifty paintings of excellent quality by an unnamed Japanese artist depicting famous sights and events in Japan, for example an archery contest at the Sanjūsangen-dō Buddhist temple and a horse racing event at the Kamigamo Shrine, both in Kyoto.

Painting of a horse racing contest at the Shinto Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto, Japan, seventeenth century
Painting of a horse racing contest at the Shinto Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto, Japan, seventeenth century. From Engelbert Kaempfer’s collection. British Library, Add MS 5252 Noc

The first Christian missionary known to have acquired a good knowledge of Tibetan was the Italian Capuchin Francesco Orazio della Penna (1680–1745), who lived in Lhasa for 16 years and compiled a Tibetan dictionary of about 35,000 words. From the second half of the eighteenth century on, the Indian sources of Buddhism in the Sanskrit and Pali languages began to be studied extensively, and translations of original Buddhist scriptures helped to expand knowledge of Buddhist theory and practice in the West. In 1691, a translation of the life of Devadatta, the Buddha’s enemy, was published by Simon de la Loubère in his Description du Royaume de Siam, and in 1776 a Kammavaca ordination text was translated from Pali into Italian by Padre Maria Percoto, a missionary active in Ava and Pegu.

The year 1817 saw the publication of the first comprehensive Western study of Buddhism, Recherches sur Buddou by Michel-Jean-François Ozeray. A Danish linguist, Rasmus Kristian Rask, visited Sri Lanka in 1821 and brought back a significant collection of Pali manuscripts, making Copenhagen one of the most important centres of Pali studies in Europe at the time. Among the eminent scholars and translators of Buddhist scriptures in nineteenth-century Europe were Léon Feer, Eugène Burnouf, Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat, Émile Senart, Viggo Fausbøll, Robert C. Childers, Isaak Jakob Schmidt, Hermann Oldenberg, Max Müller, Thomas W. Rhys Davids and his wife Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids. The Pali Text Society, the major publisher of Pali text translations in the UK and Europe, was founded in 1881 by Thomas W. Rhys Davids and was presided over by his wife for twenty years following Davids’ death in 1922.

Title page of Caroline Rhys Davids’ translation of the Theri-gatha
Title page of Caroline Rhys Davids’ translation of the Theri-gatha (Verses of the Elder Nuns) from Pali into English, published under the title Psalms of the Sisters. It is part of a two-volume book, Psalms of the Early Buddhists, published for the Pali Text Society, London, 1909-13. British Library, 14098.b.43

By the end of the nineteenth century various notable Europeans and Americans – the Theosophists Henry Steel Olcott and Helena P. Blavatsky, U Dhammaloka and Ananda Metteyya, to mention only a few – had embraced Buddhism. The first publication in the English language making the life of the Buddha and Buddhist ideas accessible to a wider audience was Sir Edwin Arnold’s narrative poem The Light of Asia: The Great Renunciation (1879), which in a relatively short time saw over sixty editions in the UK and around eighty in the US, in addition to reprints and translations into other European languages, making it one of the bestsellers of the nineteenth century.

Embossed decorated front cover of a special edition of Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia
Embossed decorated front cover of a special edition of Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia, published by Trübner & Co, London, 1889. British Library, C.188.a.211

Inspired by Arnold’s narrative poem, various other works were created across the world. The American composer Dudley Buck wrote a full-length, three-part oratorio for mixed voices based on the successful poem with the same title, The Light of Asia, which was first performed in Washington DC in 1887 and then in London in 1889. It was the first American cantata ever produced in Great Britain. Buck’s composition reflects the growing popularity not only of the oratorio, but also of ‘Orientalism’ and Orientalist exoticism in art and music in the West.

First page of part 2, ‘The Renunciation’, of the oratorio ‘The Light of Asia’ by Dudley Buck
First page of part 2, ‘The Renunciation’, of the oratorio ‘The Light of Asia’ by Dudley Buck, with words from the poem by Edwin Arnold, published by Novello, Ewer & Co., London and New York, 1886. British Library H04/2397, p. 73

Shortly after, the English composer and singer Isidore de Lara wrote another cantata based on the life story of the Buddha, which he then turned into an opera with the title La luce dell’Asia. This work premiered in 1892 at Covent Garden, London. Another interesting creation was a dramatized version of Arnold’s narrative poem with the title Buddha by S(arat) C(handra) Bose, published in London in 1912. Bose had moved from Calcutta to work as a barrister in England in 1911 and later became an independence activist after his return to India.

In 1921, Bijay Chand Mahtab, ruler of the Burdwan estate, Bengal (r. 1887-1941), published under the title Siddhartha a collection of fourteen paintings by the young artist Srijut Lala Remshwar Prasad Verma to illustrate a selection of verses from Arnold’s poem. Mahtab said about the paintings that they were 'true Indian' art by a young artist ‘who comes from a family of artists who can trace themselves back to the Moghul Court’, but in fact they certainly show some Western influence.

Front cover of the book Siddhartha
Front cover of the book Siddhartha by B. C. Mahtab with paintings illustrating verses from Arnold’s narrative poem, published by Thacker and Spink, Calcutta and Simla, 1921. British Library, 11643.dd.18

A German–Indian silent film adaptation of Arnold’s work with the title Prem Sanyas (German Die Leuchte Asiens meaning The Light of Asia) was released in 1925 by Himanshu Rai and Franz Osten. It was the first film produced in India with Indian actors to be distributed internationally. With the support of the Maharajah of Jaipur, authentic palace areas could be used for the filming, which made this production truly unique.

The growing interest in Buddhism and scholarly activities towards the end of the nineteenth century led to the organization of several expeditions to Buddhist countries in Asia from which large numbers of manuscripts in Sanskrit, Kuchean, Khotanese, Sogdian, Uighur, Tibetan, Chinese and other languages were brought back to Europe. These enabled the further investigation and translation of Buddhist scriptures. Among the most notable expeditions were the three led by Sir Aurel Stein between 1900 and 1913, during the first of which a large Buddhist cave library containing about 40,000 manuscripts and printed documents was discovered near the oasis town of Dunhuang in northwest China. Thousands more manuscripts were excavated at ruined and long-forgotten Buddhist sites along the Silk Road. Research on these important manuscript collections, which were dispersed to various institutions across the world, is ongoing in the International Dunhuang Project which at the same time also works with partners internationally to preserve these collections, to re-unite them digitally and to make them accessible online for research, learning and inspiration.

07 Stein Photo 392_27(587) Bundles of manuscript scrolls dating back to the ninth and tenth centuries found at the library cave at Dunhuang
Bundles of manuscript scrolls dating back to the ninth and tenth centuries found at the library cave at Dunhuang, and photographed by Sir Aurel Stein. British Library, Photo 392/27 (587)

Accompanying the Buddhism exhibition, a two-day conference Unlocking Written Buddhist Heritage on 7 and 8 February 2020 explores Buddhist manuscript collections and related practices. From the beautiful illuminated manuscripts of Thailand to the medical texts of the Silk Roads, the speakers examine how collection items give context to our understanding of Buddhism and its practices.

References
App, Urs, The Cult of Emptiness: The Western Discovery of Buddhist Thought and the Invention of Oriental Philosophy. Rorschach/Kyoto: University Media, 2012
Anold, Edwin, The Light of Asia. With a preface by Edwin Ariyadasa.  (retrieved 30.01.2020)
Igunma, Jana and San San May, Buddhism: Origins, Traditions and Contemporary life. London: British Library, 2019
Orr, N. Lee, Dudley Buck and the Secular Cantata. American Music 21, no. 4 (2003), pp. 412-45
Prem Sanyas (Die Leuchte Asiens). Silent movie by Himanshu Rai and Franz Osten, 1925. [Viewable on Youtube; retrieved 30.01.2020]

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