Asian and African studies blog

4 posts from December 2020

28 December 2020

The Burmese Harp: (2) Matters of the Heart

In my previous blog The Burmese Harp: (1) Seduction of the Senses I gave examples of how female harpists were depicted in Burmese manuscript illustrations. In this blog I will discuss stories of male harpists that appear in Jātakas, or tales of the Buddha's former lives, in the British Library's Burmese manuscripts collection. The theme of these stories revolves around longing and heartache.

The Sussondi Jātaka (Or 13538) recounts the story of Sagga, a harpist-minstrel. He is sent by the king of Benares to find the queen who has disappeared. Unbeknownst to the king the queen had in fact fallen in love with the Garuḍa king, who had taken her with him to Nāga Island.

The king sends Sagga, his harpist-minstrel, to search for Sussondi, his queen. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r
The king sends Sagga, his harpist-minstrel, to search for Sussondi, his queen. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r  noc

While looking for her Sagga crosses the sea with a ship of merchants who implore him to play his harp. He responds: “I would make music, but if I do, the fish will be so excited that your vessel will be wrecked.” The merchants disbelieve him and insist, and in the end he plays and sings with great beauty. The fish start splashing about and a sea monster who lives in the area leaps up, falls onto the ship and sinks it. Nevertheless, Sagga manages to reach the shore of the Nāga island clutching onto his (boat-shaped) harp.


Sagga is shipwrecked by jumping fish, but manages to swim to shore with his harp. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r
Sagga is shipwrecked by jumping fish, but manages to swim to shore with his harp. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r  noc

Queen Sussondi, who was strolling on the shore in the absence of the Garuḍa king, finds him. She recognises Sagga and welcomes him with open arms. They become lovers and Sussondi hides him from the Garuḍa king whenever he returns.

Queen Sussondi finds Sagga. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r
Queen Sussondi finds Sagga. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r  noc

The next time a group of merchants reach the shore, Sagga sails back with them to Benares (this time successfully), where he plays his harp and sings the song of Sussondi, replete with his own longing of her, to the king.

Sagga makes the return voyage by boat. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r
Sagga makes the return voyage by boat. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r  noc

Sagga returns to the palace and sings the story of Sussondi to the king. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r 
Sagga returns to the palace and sings the story of Sussondi to the king. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r   noc

The Burmese harp or Saung is a very old instrument that has a continuous history that spans over a thousand years. Many temple reliefs and wall frescoes from Bagan (9th-13th centuries) depict harps, although Judith Becker has suggested these harps may be different from the Sri Ksetra harp (see previous blog), which in turn resembles quite closely the modern Burmese harp. There probably were many different kinds of harps in use at the time. Although the terminology for the harp varies, the word Saung first appears at the Lokatheikpan temple in Bagan (c. 1125), where it describes “monks, who can play the harp”. Indeed, the Saung seems to have an inextricable connection with Buddhism and, according to Becker, the disappearance of the harp accompanied the decline of Buddhism in certain parts of South Asia.

The earliest known songs thought to have been composed for harp music date to the early 14th century (“Three Shield-Dance Songs attributed to the Lord of Myinzaing”). Although song-texts were inscribed on palm leaf there was no musical notation, and so the musical tradition was passed on orally with the music itself being impressed on memory when performed. The oldest harp music that still survives is the “Three Barge Songs”, attributed to Wungyi Padei-tha-yaza (1683-1754), a minister at the Toungoo court. These songs purportedly describe a river voyage from Lake Meiktila to Tagaung.

The Aṇḍabhūta Jātaka (Mss Burmese 202) makes use of the harp for a lighthearted slapstick humour scene. It recounts the story of a Brahmin who has gone to great effort to find and keep a wife who has never seen any other men. Here he plays the harp to her at home for her entertainment. Unbeknownst to him, however, she has taken a lover, and tricks him into being blindfolded through the pretense of her being too shy of him watching her dance. While he is blindfolded in this way, the lover, who is currently staying in the house, hits him on the head and hides.

A blindfolded Brahmin plays the harp to his wife, while her lover hits him from behind. Mss Burmese 202, f. 75v 
A blindfolded Brahmin plays the harp to his wife, while her lover hits him from behind. Mss Burmese 202, f. 75v   noc

The Dīghītikosala Jātaka (Or 13538) tells the heart-wrenching story of a prince (the Bodhisatta), whose parents are cruelly slain by a deceitful rival. He is devastated, but instead of seeking revenge he goes to stay with the keeper of the red elephant of the palace and leads a simple life. Slowly he recovers from his heartache and when the monsoon rains fall he sings and plays beautiful songs of acceptance and reconciliation with his harp.

The Bodhisatta goes to stay with the keeper of the red elephant, and recovers from his heartache by playing his harp. British Library, Or 13538, f. 65r
The Bodhisatta goes to stay with the keeper of the red elephant, and recovers from his heartache by playing his harp. British Library, Or 13538, f. 65r  noc

In the next installment of this series of blogs on the Burmese harp, I will talk about the Saung’s relationship with Gautama Buddha.

References:

Muriel C. Williamson, The Burmese Harp: Its Classical Music, Tunings, and Modes. Dekalb, Ill.: Southeast Asia Publications, 2000.

Judith Becker, “The Migration of the Arched Harp from India to Burma”, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 20 (Mar., 1967), pp. 17-23.

E.B. Cowell (ed.), The Jātaka or stories of the Buddha’s former births, Vols. I-VI. Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 2004-2005.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

 

21 December 2020

‘A cessation of plunder and piracy… for ever’: the General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the signing of the General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf of 1820. Though little-known today, this agreement between Britain and ten tribal rulers of the eastern Arabian coast was a decisive moment in the modern history of the Gulf, marking the beginning of 150 years of British hegemony over the region. Since 2014, the Qatar Digital Library has provided online access to a growing number of records from British Library collections that document this fascinating history. This anniversary year provides an opportune moment to consider the treaty that sits at the heart of this history, and has left a legacy that endures to the present day.

General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf
The opening to the treaty (British Library, IOR/L/PS/10/606, f. 131r)
 noc copy

Background to the treaty

The treaty was the culmination of several decades of conflict between Britain and the Qawasim (singular Qasimi), an Arab tribe based around the port of Ra’s al-Khaymah. The Qawasim were at the head of a large network of tribes with an expanding influence on both shores of the Gulf. However, their rise brought them into conflict with other local powers, particularly Oman.

This was of serious concern to Britain, which had formed an alliance in 1798 with Oman’s ruler, the Imam of Muscat (Sayyid Sultan bin Ahmad Al Bu Sa‘id, reigned 1792-1804). The purpose of this alliance for Britain was to guarantee access to the Gulf. This was sought partly for its commercial potential, but primarily because the Gulf lay on the main line of communication between Britain and its expanding Indian empire. Official communications from India were regularly taken by ship up the Gulf to Basra, from where they were transported to Europe. Secure access to the Gulf was therefore vital for the British administration in India.

The rise of the Qawasim threatened to upset this arrangement, a fear articulated by British officials in the Gulf. For example, in July 1816 William Bruce, the British Resident at Bushire, reported on the Imam of Muscat’s efforts to challenge Qawasim power in Bahrain. Bruce observed that ‘if His Highness fails in reducing this island to obedience the acquisition of force to the piratical states [the Qawasim and their allies] will be such as to enable them to reduce Muscat if they please, and effectually to cut off all intercourse with the Gulph till such time as we are compelled to destroy them by fitting out an expedition to this quarter.’ (British Library, IOR/F/4/574/14024, f. 9v, soon to be added to the Qatar Digital Library). To officials like Bruce it was vital for Britain to maintain access to the Gulf, and he advocated the use of force to stop the further expansion of Qawasim power.

British expansion in India brought them into conflict with the Qawasim in other ways. The India Office Records contain many reports from this period of raids carried out by the Qawasim on shipping in the Indian Ocean. There was a long history of tensions between Arab and Indian trading communities, and it is far from clear that the attacks being attributed to the Qawasim were all carried out by them. Nevertheless, many Indian merchants began to appeal to the British authorities for assistance. In one petition, received on 5 February 1817, Siv-ji Govind-ji, a merchant writing from Bombay, claimed that his ship had been captured by four vessels owned by the Qawasim (spelled ‘Joasmee’ in the document, below) near its intended destination at Lakhpat in Gujarat, with the loss of most of the crew and cargo. Describing himself as ‘a subject dwelling under the British protection and colours’ he appealed to the British authorities in India for aid.

 Petition sent by Siv-ji Govind-ji to the Government of Bombay  5 February 1817  Petition to the Government of Bombay  5 February 1817
A copy of a petition sent by Siv-ji Govind-ji to the Government of Bombay, 5 February 1817 (British Library, IOR/F/4/649, ff. 26r-26v - soon to be added to the QDL)
 noc copy

As the allegations against the Qawasim increased, officials in Bombay sensed an opportunity to finally bring their rivals in the Gulf to heel. In December 1819, with assistance from Oman, Britain sent a military expedition to the Gulf. The result was an overwhelming defeat for the Qawasim, leading to the capture of their fleet and the occupation of Ra’s al-Khaymah. It was in the aftermath of this crushing military campaign that the treaty was created. It was produced in English and Arabic and first signed on 8 January 1820, with more signatories added over the following weeks.

The contents of the treaty

What is striking in the treaty is how the defeated Arabs of the Gulf are addressed. The first article states: ‘There shall be a cessation of plunder and piracy by land and sea on the part of the Arabs, who are parties to this contract, for ever.’ In describing the actions of the Qawasim as ‘piracy’, the treaty echoed the comment of Bruce, who above referred to them as the ‘piratical states’. Such references abound in the India Office Records. In British eyes, the seafaring Arabs did not represent a political entity with whom relations could be conducted as equals. Rather, they were pirates, seeking only to destroy and disrupt the maritime trade of the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. If they continued in such behaviour, the treaty declared, they would be considered ‘an enemy of all mankind’.

The treaty went on to outline a new system of maritime conduct. From thenceforth, Arab ships were to carry a register and port clearance giving details of the vessel, its ownership and crew, and its ports of origin and destination. These ships were also to fly ‘the flag of the friendly Arabs’, a red rectangle in a white border, in order to signify their adherence to the terms of the treaty. Having complied with these demands, ‘the vessels of the friendly Arabs, bearing their flag above described, shall enter into all the British ports and into the ports of the allies of the British… and they shall buy and sell therein’. Through their adherence to the terms of the treaty, the Qawasim and their allies were to be weaned off their ‘piratical’ habits and integrated into the maritime trading system established by Britain in the Gulf and Indian Ocean.

Article 3 of the General Maritime Treaty
Article 3 of the treaty (British Library, IOR/L/PS/10/606, f. 131r)
 noc copy

The legacies of the treaty

The treaty was therefore intended to establish a new order in the Gulf, and it marked the beginning of a deepening British involvement in the region. A naval force remained to police the new arrangements, and a series of subsequent treaties saw Britain adopting a role as enforcer of an ongoing truce between the different coastal tribes. By the start of the twentieth century, Britain had assumed responsibility for the defence and foreign policy of these tribes, and was increasingly intervening in the administration and development of their territories. In short, the Arabian coast of the Gulf had effectively become a British protectorate.

This position was maintained until 1971 when, with the British departure from the region, the states of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain came into being. These states are therefore a direct legacy of the treaty of 1820, and remain governed by many of those same ruling families with whom Britain entered into treaty relations two hundred years ago. Furthermore, the red and white national flags adopted by many of these states provide a striking reminder of this treaty, having their roots in the ‘flag of the friendly Arabs’ first imposed on them in 1820.

The General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf is therefore central to understanding the modern history of the Gulf and Britain’s role within it. To explore this history in more depth, visit the Qatar Digital Library.

Further reading

Charles E. Davies, The Blood-Red Arab Flag: An Investigation into Qasimi Piracy 1797-1820 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997).

James Onley, “Britain and the Gulf Shaikhdoms, 1820-1971: The Politics of Protection”, CIRS Occasional Paper no. 4 (Doha, Qatar: Center for International and Regional Studies, 2009).

Sultan Muhammad al-Qasimi, The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf (London: Croom Helm, 1986).

David Woodbridge, Gulf History Cataloguer, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
 ccownwork copy

 

14 December 2020

Plugging the holes in history: banned political pamphlets in colonial India

This guest blog is by Pragya Dhital, a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Queen Mary University London. Her research concerns the British Library’s collection of publications proscribed in colonial India between 1907-1947, one of the largest archives of primary sources relating to any twentieth-century decolonization movement, a catalogue of which is now online. In this blog Pragya writes about her research on proscribed pamphlets, and a parallel collection of political pamphlets collected by the British author, George Orwell.

For plugging the holes in history the pamphlet is the ideal form
George Orwell, ‘Pamphlet Literature’, 9 January 1943

In a 1943 article for the New Statesman and Nation George Orwell regretted the surprising “badness of contemporary pamphlets”. From a survey of his own library he identified nine main trends, ranging from “Anti-Left and crypto-Fascist” to “Lunatic”, and described them as “practically all trash, interesting only to bibliographies”. This was surprising as “the pamphlet ought to be the literary form of an age like our own”, Orwell argued; a time “when political passions run high, channels of free expression are dwindling, and organized lying exists on a scale never before known”. Perhaps for this reason Orwell remained a keen collector of pamphlets, acquiring more than 2700 published from 1915-45. At his request this collection was donated to the British Museum Library in 1955 by his widow, Sonia Orwell, and is now held by the British Library.

Angāre, [Burning coals], nine Urdu short stories and a play satirizing religious conservatism and colonial rule, edited and published by Sajjad Zaheer, who was later to co-found the Progressive Writers’ Movement. The white letters of the title are arranged right-to-left between flickering red flames on a black background. (Lucknow, 1932). British Library, PIB 47/17Angāre, [Burning coals], nine Urdu short stories and a play satirizing religious conservatism and colonial rule, edited and published by Sajjad Zaheer, who was later to co-found the Progressive Writers’ Movement. The white letters of the title are arranged right-to-left between flickering red flames on a black background. (Lucknow, 1932). British Library, PIB 47/17

Around the same time that these texts were being published, the Government of India was acquiring its own collection of political literature. The British Library’s archive of publications proscribed in colonial India consists of more than 2800 items banned between 1907-1947. Details for 1607 of the items are listed in the catalogue by Graham Shaw and Mary Lloyd, Publications Proscribed by the Government of India (London: British Library, 1985), now accessible online. The catalogue includes brief summaries of contents and biographies of the authors of these texts. Shaw and Lloyd’s introduction provides useful information about how they came to be proscribed and collected, building upon earlier work done by Norman Gerald Barrier. The catalogue is a valuable resource for scholars of modern South Asian history, politics and literature, and anyone interested in understanding the period during which this material was banned.

The British Library collection of proscribed Indian publications is particularly rich in pamphlets. Newspapers and magazines were also censored, and one of the main instruments for proscribing literature was the 1910 Press Act. But periodicals were much harder to systematically collect and store. The same qualities that made pamphlets handy containers of seditious material – the ease with which they are carried and concealed – also made them easier for the state to archive.

Merī ātmakathā, [My life story] Irish revolutionary, Dan Breen’s My fight for Irish freedom translated into Hindi by revolutionary martyr Bhagat Singh. Fingers pointing to Dan Breen (left) and Bhagat Singh (right) distinguish the two be-hatted young men. (N.p.: n.pub, 1931). British Library, PIB 27/35
Merī ātmakathā,
[My life story] Irish revolutionary, Dan Breen’s My fight for Irish freedom translated into Hindi by revolutionary martyr Bhagat Singh. Fingers pointing to Dan Breen (left) and Bhagat Singh (right) distinguish the two be-hatted young men. (N.p.: n.pub, 1931). British Library, PIB 27/35

Orwell identified the “flexible” nature of the pamphlet form as uniquely suiting it to the urgent task of documenting “the events of our times”. This flexibility also makes it hard to identify its distinctive features, provoking the question, what exactly is a pamphlet? The UNESCO recommendation concerning international standardization of statistics relating to books and periodicals, defines the pamphlet as “a non-periodical printed publication of at least 5 but not more than 48 pages, exclusive of the cover pages, published in a particular country and made available to the public”. This excludes much of the literature in the proscribed publications collection, which is longer or shorter, sought to evade the attention of the censor, and circulated internationally.

Āzādī ke dīvāne [Freedom’s Ecstatics], biographies in Hindi of various freedom fighters from the 1857 Great Rebellion to the Independence struggle. On the cover a portrait of Kunwar Singh (centre left), a leader of the Rebellion, is juxtaposed with that of Ashfaqulla Khan (centre right), member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army. [Not in the catalogue.] British Library, PIB 22/6
Āzādī ke dīvāne [Freedom’s Ecstatics], biographies in Hindi of various freedom fighters from the 1857 Great Rebellion to the Independence struggle. On the cover a portrait of Kunwar Singh (centre left), a leader of the Rebellion, is juxtaposed with that of Ashfaqulla Khan (centre right), member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army. [Not in the catalogue.] British Library, PIB 22/6

Looking for a definition that better encompasses this material, I turned to etymologies and historical precedents. The Hindi-Urdu terms pustikā, patrikā and risālah describe the pamphlet as a diminutive form of the book (pustak), extension of the letter (patra) and as bearer of a ‘message’ (risālah, related to rasūl, ‘messenger’ in Hindi-Urdu). European language equivalents such as chapbook, bibliothèque bleue, pliegos de cordel and Volksbuch emphasise how pamphlets were produced, distributed and received: the peddlers who sold them, cheap blue paper in which they were wrapped, string from which they hung, and the popular audience to whom they were addressed. I incorporate these aspects to include under the term pamphlet a wider range of short-form non-periodical literature: speeches, poems, plays and various ‘calls’ addressed to specific audiences – soldiers, policemen, farmers, women and youth. As well as reading their contents I pay attention to their material qualities and the ways in which they were disseminated.

Many of these works were multimedia texts, meant to be sung, recited or spoken, and involved an interactive relationship between performer and audience. “Read and read out loud” is a message that often appears on the proscribed publications; a sign of the influence of missionary publishing on these proselytising texts, from the use of new print technology to adoption of practices such as street preaching and itinerating that accompanied distribution of Christian tracts. These modes of textual transmission were more like gift exchange than reading, and did not require literacy on the part of their recipients.

Aṅgrezoṃ kī-bolatī-banda [The English Shut Up], nationalistic songs in Hindi published by Babu Ram Dauneriya. Both cover and contents suggest a theatrical revue. (Jaitpur Kalan [Agra], 1930?) British Library, PIB 21/5A
Aṅgrezoṃ kī-bolatī-banda [The English Shut Up], nationalistic songs in Hindi published by Babu Ram Dauneriya. Both cover and contents suggest a theatrical revue. (Jaitpur Kalan [Agra], 1930?) British Library, PIB 21/5A

Much of this literature was also meant to be seen. In appealing to a mass audience, the creators of these texts drew upon a wide range of visual styles; India being a context in which multidenominational religious iconography and Anglo-European traditions of popular print are well known. [PIB 98]. The simple line drawings, chromolithographs and halftone photos in these texts often use Hindu imagery, and this has been the focus of previous studies of the proscribed publications collection. But these illustrations also appropriate the politically potent forms of the imperial portrait and police mugshot [PIB 22/6]. The use of Russian constructivist design principles in the red, white and black colour scheme and experimental use of typography in the proscribed publications is common to literature distributed in de-colonizing countries across the world. Some of this material was produced with Soviet funding – something prominently mentioned on the cover of the Urdu translation of the Communist Manifesto amongst the proscribed publications.

Kamyūniṣt mainīfesṭo; ishtimālī manshūr [Communist Manifesto. Soviet Published], Urdu translation of the Communist Manifesto. (Lahore: Maktabah-i Urdu, 1939). British Library, PIB 186
Kamyūniṣt mainīfesṭo; ishtimālī manshūr [Communist Manifesto. Soviet Published], Urdu translation of the Communist Manifesto. (Lahore: Maktabah-i Urdu, 1939). British Library, PIB 186

The audience for this literature may not have been literate, let alone “pamphlet-conscious” in the sense required by Orwell in his essay on the form. Their authors might well fit his description of “lonely lunatics who publish at their own expense”, or adherents of “crank religions” and political parties who lacked the necessary soundness and independence of mind needed to write a good pamphlet in his view. Writing under conditions of surveillance and censorship, they would have struggled to meet Orwell’s ideal: a pamphlet written by a “good writer with something he passionately wanted to say” read by as many people as possible. But precisely because of these limits the proscribed pamphlets reveal much about the anxieties of the colonial state, and the tactics deployed by nationalists to subvert restrictions on permissible speech.

Hama bhūkhe-naṅge kyoṃ haiṃ? [Why are we hungry and naked?], an account of the evils of British imperialism, the first of a planned series of political pamphlets to be written in simple Hindi for a readership of peasants and workers. (Kanpur: Mazdur-Kisan Pustak-Mala Karyalaya, 1935). British Library, PIB 98
Hama bhūkhe-naṅge kyoṃ haiṃ? [Why are we hungry and naked?], an account of the evils of British imperialism, the first of a planned series of political pamphlets to be written in simple Hindi for a readership of peasants and workers. (Kanpur: Mazdur-Kisan Pustak-Mala Karyalaya, 1935). British Library, PIB 98

Art is not the same as “cerebration” Orwell concludes in “Good Bad Books”, his essay on the appeal of a type of book with “no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished”. Orwell was aware that this was a quality ‘good bad books’ shared with propaganda and counterpropaganda; texts in the Orwell and proscribed publication collections also gain power from being pitched at a ‘non-cerebral’ level. One of the only pamphlets that he praises in his 1943 survey is H.V. Morton’s I, James Blunt, “a Good flesh-creeper” written in response to “the justified assumption that the mass of the English people haven’t yet heard of Fascism”. Morton’s account of Britain under German occupation was commissioned by the Ministry of Information, and resembles some of the more sensationalistic proscribed texts in both tone and fictional format. (Although the latter’s descriptions of foreign occupation refer to the past and present rather than speculate about a dystopian future.) Its conceit also looks forward to Orwell’s own Nineteen Eighty-Four, whose depiction of totalitarianism responded to Soviet Communism and National Socialism, and emerged from Orwell’s direct experience of “the dirty work of Empire” as a colonial police officer in Burma. Good or bad, read side-by-side and separately, pamphlets in the two collections continue to fill ‘holes’ in understandings of how global war and nationalist foment played out in colony and ‘metropole’.

Orwell’s copy of The Wisdom of Gandhi. This collection of Gandhi’s writings has been inscribed by its editor, Roy Walker, “To George Orwell – who seems to need it”. (London: Andrew Dakers Limited, 1943). British Library, 1899.ss.1-21Orwell’s copy of The Wisdom of Gandhi. This collection of Gandhi’s writings has been inscribed by its editor, Roy Walker, “To George Orwell – who seems to need it”. (London: Andrew Dakers Limited, 1943). British Library, 1899.ss.1-21

Pragya Dhital  ccownwork
I am grateful to the Bibliographic Society for a grant to acquire a scan of the Proscribed Publications catalogue, and to Catherine Eagleton and Hamish Todd for giving me access to the collection.

Pragya Dhital has written two previous blogs on this collection for the British Library - Inflammable material (2017) and  Insurgency in the archives (2018) - and edited a special section of History Workshop Journal (2020).

 

 

 

07 December 2020

Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage: Conference at the British Library 7-8 February 2020

In February 2020, to coincide with its major exhibition ‘Buddhism’, the British Library hosted a public conference entitled Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage organised in partnership with the School of Oriental and African Studies and supported by the Robert H N Ho Family Foundation. Over two days, speakers explored the idea of ‘collections’ – be they of manuscripts, texts, art works, or practices – and how they have shaped our understanding of, and indeed the very practice of, Buddhism across the world. In this blogpost, summaries of the event’s papers are given together with links to recordings and slideshows of the papers themselves. The conference provided a wide and rich array of reflections upon Buddhism and what we mean by the very nature of ‘collections’ – and the papers are articulate and entertaining scholarship well worth exploring for all audiences.

Conference participants
Conference participants (left to right from the back): Charles Manson; Stefano Zacchetti; Andrew Skilton; Matt Kimberley; Tim Barrett; Sam van Schaik; Melodié Doumy; Luisa Elena Mengoni; Marie Kaladgew; Camillo Formigatti; Lucia Dolce; Birgit Kellner; Mahinda Deegalle; Christian Luczanits; Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim; Jana Igunma; Jann Ronis. Photo: Serena Biondo

Following an introduction by Head of Asian and African Collections Dr Luisa Elena Mengoni, a keynote lecture was delivered by Prof. Dr Birgit Kellner of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. She began by outlining how Indian manuscripts first came into circulation in Tibet during the 8th to 14th centuries in large numbers. The nature of the texts contained in these manuscripts was highly heterogenous: doctrine, philosophy, ritual, narrative and devotional poetry, non-Buddhist Indian epic, grammar. However, unlike in other regions to which Buddhism spread, Sanskrit did not take on the status of a liturgical language, with effort instead poured into using these manuscripts for teaching and translation by a network of translators moving around between and within India and Tibet. Several thousand Indian Buddhist works came to be translated and form the Tibetan canon in this way, and after the 14th century a knowledge of Sanskrit became restricted to those who specialised in the grammatical tradition.


Birgit Kellner Indian manuscripts in the history of Tibetan Buddhism

Kellner went on to look at two case studies in order to better understand how Indian manuscripts were perceived, collected and categorized. She did this by examining accounts of their use in a number of contexts, including the trading of manuscripts as a kind of currency in exchange for teaching; the acquisition and preservation of manuscripts as part of the material legacy of significant personages of a particular lineage within Tibetan Buddhist culture; and, by the 19th and 20th centuries, no longer circulating but treated as sacred objects within monastic collections to be treated as sacred objects and specially stored in libraries and stupas. Through this, Kellner addressed some of the core themes that ran throughout the rest of the conference.

The late Professor Stefano Zacchetti
The late Professor Stefano Zacchetti Remnants of a textual shipwreck: manuscript fragments of Early Chinese Buddhist exegetical literature. Photo: Luisa Elena Mengoni

In the first panel – “Collections and Buddhist Practice: Texts and Translation” –  our speakers considered how particular textual collections and their translations shaped the understanding of Buddhism by its practitioners in the past, and how what survives of such collections colours our interpretation of Buddhist history today. In his paper on Early Chinese Buddhist exegetical literature, the late Prof. Stefano Zacchetti, University of Oxford, explored how the early Chinese Buddhist canon was conceived of and transmitted as a collection of translated texts, creating complexities in the production of commentaries so vital to interpreting these Indian doctrines upon their reception in China. Dr Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim of Goldsmiths College London gave a paper on the fascinating subject of Tibetan medicine and in particular the translation of the term rlung or ‘breath’. She looked at the history of translations of the term, and how intersection of different cultural influences from Greek to Indian have shaped interpretations of the concept and Tibetan medicine. Dr Camillo Formigatti, Clay Sanskrit Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries Oxford, examined the translations of Sanskrit texts by the Tibetan lo tsā ba Shong ston Rdo rje rgyal mtshan and Nepalese pandit Laksmīkara, and how their processes played a pivotal role in the formation of a new Tibetan literary language. The panel concluded with a Q&A session chaired by the conference organiser, Matt Kimberley Research Curator at the British Library.


Andrew Skilton Endangered texts in Thai Buddhism

The second panel – “Collections in Monastic Contexts” – explored how manuscript collections in Buddhist monasteries, temples and courts have influenced the development and interpretation of Buddhist practice. Ven. Prof. Mahinda Deegalle of Bath Spa University,  spoke about his research on Sri Lanka’s largest temple library palm-leaf manuscript collection at Hanguranketa Potgul Rajamahā Vihāra. This collection has never been the subject of published work nor its role in shaping the Theravāda tradition considered, so Deegalle presented some initial results of his survey. Following this, Dr Andrew Skilton, University of Oxford, gave a paper on recent efforts to catalogue and digitise Thai temple manuscript collections, and how conditions of preservation, textual canonical status and changes in Buddhist practice itself have pushed once significant texts to the margins where they now risk being lost forever. The final paper of the panel came from Prof. Kate Crosby, and Dr Amal Gunasena, both of of King's College London, which examined a particular group of related meditation practice texts originally composed for Sri Lankan royalty by high ranking members of the monastic community in nineteenth century, now kept in the Hugh Nevill collection at the British Library. She showed how this particular set of practices ceased to be recognised in the modern period, and how as a result this important tradition has been left absent in both Asian and Western scholarship on the subject. The panel ended with a Q&A session chaired by curator Jana Igunma.


Jana Igunma The Buddha and his natural environment in SE Asian manuscript art

The third panel – “Collections and Buddhist Practice: Art and Performance” – considered the way that visual arts and ritual performances in collections provide insight into Buddhist practice. Dr Christian Luczanits, SOAS, gave a talk on monastic collections of manuscripts and artworks in the Mustang region of Nepal. He highlighted the challenges that come with inventorising and documenting these collections and what doing so can do for understanding Buddhism’s development in Nepal. The British Library’s curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections, Jana Igunma, presented a paper on her work investigating the relationship between the historical Buddha and the natural environment. She looked at a range of eighteenth and nineteenth century illustrated manuscripts from South East Asia and how their realistic imagery of the natural world has its roots in much older Pali texts from Sri Lanka. Dr Lucia Dulce, SOAS, presented Tantric ritual practice in medieval Japanese Buddhism through an examination of writings from Japanese temple libraries. In particular, she focused on yugi kanjō, a type of ritual consecration that developed in the medieval period, drawing on unpublished material incorporating liturgy, certificates and visual representations of practitioners and performance spaces. The panel concluded with a Q&A chaired by Sam van Schaik.


Melodie Doumy and Marie Kaledgew Preservation and conservation of Buddhist scrolls

In the fourth and final panel – “Collections in the Heritage Context: Conservation, Preservation, Dissemination” – the speakers looked at different aspects of the lives of collections in cultural heritage institutions and how these contemporary settings influence the study and practice of Buddhism today. Dr Jann Ronis of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center presented the work of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center in building the world’s largest online collection of Buddhist literature in Asian languages. Ronis talked about the BDRC’s workflows, data structure and the ambitions for establishing shared standards for Linked Open Data in the field of Buddhist Studies. The British Library’s curator of Chinese collections, Melodié Doumy, and Scroll and Digitisation Conservator for the International Dunhuang Project, Marie Kaladgew, jointly presented on their work for the Lotus Sutra Digitisation Project. By focussing on one particular scroll from this collection, they demonstrated the collaborative decision-making processes that inform conservation practices and the implications these have for the longevity and interpretation of material held in the library. Finally, Dr Sam van Schaik, head of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), shared his research on the oft overlooked area of Buddhist ‘magic’ using material from both the Stein collections and more contemporary materials preserved by the EAP. Through endeavours like EAP, heritage institutions helped preserve and disseminate at-risk collections the world over by combining local knowledge and understanding of collections with the resources that are typically only available through large public bodies. The panel finished with a Q&A session chaired by Matt Kimberley.

Roundtable discussion
Roundtable discussion with (left to right) Lucia Dolce, Sam van Schaik, Mahinda Deegalle, Birgit Kellner and Tim Barrett (chair). Photo: Luisa Elena Mengoni

The conference drew to a close with a roundtable discussion on the issues explored throughout the two days, chaired by Prof. Tim Barrett of SOAS with the participation of Prof. Dr. Kellner, Prof. Deegalle, Dr Dolce and Dr van Schaik. This wide-ranging conversation looked at everything from what we mean by the very idea of collections through the challenges that come with the responsibilities of holding collections for the use of current and future generations. In all, Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage was an important and very successful event for bringing together Buddhism scholars and professionals, Buddhist practitioners and the public to reflect upon the history of this major religious tradition, and for considering the role that institutions like the British Library play in preserving and providing access to its wealth of cultural knowledge and understanding.

Matt Kimberley, Research Curator, Asian and African Collections
 ccownwork copy