Asian and African studies blog

4 posts from October 2021

25 October 2021

The Georgetown-IDP Lecture Series: Following the Silk Roads to North America

In July and August 2021, the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) and Georgetown University hosted the ‘Georgetown-IDP Lecture Series: Following the Silk Roads to North America’. This virtual lecture series was generously supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and focused on the journey of Silk Road artefacts that are now in North American collections.

Xuanzang_returned_from_India._Dunhuang_mural _Cave_103._High_Tang_period_(712-765).
Xuanzang returned from India. Dunhuang mural, Cave 103. High Tang period (712-765). Public domain

The Georgetown-IDP Lecture Series was organised to celebrate the upcoming completion of the Georgetown-IDP project, which has worked to incorporate images of Silk Road items in North American collections into the IDP’s public database and to expand the IDP's partnership with North American institutions. Generously supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Dunhuang Foundation, the project began in 2016 and will virtually bring together manuscripts and various types of objects dispersed widely in North America through over 1000 images. Learn more about the project here: The Georgetown-IDP Project.

The lectures are now available to view on the International Dunhuang Project’s YouTube channel. We have also embedded them below for your convenience.

  • July 28: Dr Miki Morita and Dr Michelle Wang
    ‘The Georgetown-IDP Project: Prospects for Collaboration and Research’

  • August 4: Dr Amanda Goodman
    ‘The Many Lives of a Buddhist Devotional Print: A Dated Dunhuang Document in the Royal Ontario Museum Collection’

  • August 11: Dr Xin Wen
    ‘A Traveler’s History of the Silk Road: Revelations from Dunhuang Materials’

  • August 18: Dr Foong Ping
    ‘Dunhuang in Seattle’

  • August 25: Dr Fan Jeremy Zhang
    ‘Exploring Eastern Silk Roads: A Journey Through the Collection at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco’


Learn more about the IDP’s ongoing work and upcoming activities by visiting our website or following us on Twitter.

 

18 October 2021

Who reads digitised Malay manuscripts?

The British Library holds a small but important collection of about 120 manuscripts written in the Malay language and the Jawi (Arabic) script, originating from all over maritime Southeast Asia. These Malay manuscripts have always – in theory – been accessible publicly in the reading rooms initially of the British Museum and the India Office Library, and latterly in the British Library, but in practice access was restricted to those who could afford to travel the long distance to London. Microfilm was the standard reprographic medium at this time, which could at least enable manuscripts to be shared, but only the most dedicated philological scholars were prepared to tackle the cumbersome microfilm readers. In the 21st century, digitisation has been a game changer: now anyone, anywhere, can read a centuries-old Malay manuscript, on a computer at home, or on their smartphone while waiting for a bus.

Through the generous support of William and Judith Bollinger, over a two-year period from 2013 to 2015 the British Library was able to digitise its complete collection of about 120 Malay manuscripts in a collaborative project with the National Library Board of Singapore. The digitised manuscripts can now be accessed online, both through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts portal and on the National Library of Singapore’s BookSG site. A full list of the 120 digitised manuscripts can be found here.  Many of these Malay manuscripts were displayed in the National Library of Singapore’s exhibition Tales of the Malay World in 2017, and in the accompanying book edited by curator Tan Huism, which featured 14 manuscripts from the British Library.   

Hikayat Nabi Yusuf, ‘The Story of the Prophet Joseph’, copied in Perlis in 1802 by Muhammad Lebai-Mss_malay_d_4-ff.3v-4r
Hikayat Nabi Yusuf, ‘The Story of the Prophet Joseph’, copied in Perlis in 1802 by Muhammad Lebai. British Library, MSS Malay D.4, ff. 3v-4r

However, in the crowded digital universe, it was also important to find effective ways of bringing this valuable resource to the attention of the audiences who would most appreciate it, in the Malay world of Southeast Asia. Fuelled by a conviction that all manuscripts have a unique story to tell, each Malay manuscript was given its Warholian '15 minutes of fame' through posts on the British Library’s Asian and African blog. The blog posts, which were further promoted through social media such as Facebook, gained a faithful audience, and in 2020 Malaysia and Indonesia were the two top countries for readers of the BL Asian and African blog after the UK, US and India.

The impact of the project may be judged by some of the varied and creative uses to which the digitised Malay manuscripts in the British Library have been put over the past few years, some of which are outlined below. Or rather, these are the stories we know about, for the manuscripts are freely accessible online to all. Digitising a manuscript is like opening the door of a bird cage: once the bird flies off into the world, we do not know where it will alight.

Among the most traditional outcomes of the project are scholarly editions of Malay texts. The British Library collection is particularly rich in literary manuscripts, quite a few of which appear to be unique. Thus Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, 'The Story of the Serpent Nangkawang', only known from two British Library manuscripts – Add 12382 and MSS Malay A.1 – was published in 2019 by the Language and Literary Bureau of Malaysia (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka), edited by Fathenawan Wan Mohd. Noor.

A new romanised edition of the Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 2020  Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, first page of British Library manuscript MSS Malay A.1
(Left) A new romanised edition of the Hikayat Ular Nangkawang (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 2019), British Library, YP.2019.a.7399, based on (right) British Library manuscript MSS Malay A.1, f. 1v

The digitised manuscripts are regularly used all over the world for teaching and research.  At Goethe University, Frankfurt, Prof. Ulrich Kratz and his postgraduate class on Malay philology are currently working together to transliterate a unique manuscript of Hikayat Raja Dewa Maharupa, MSS Malay D.2.  Each year, Asep Yudha Wirajaya S.S., M.A., a lecturer at Universitas Sebelas Maret (UNS, University of the Eleventh of March) in Surakarta, Central Java, sets his philology students to work on a digitised Malay manuscript from the British Library, including those accessible through the Endangered Archives Programme. I frequently receive emails directly from Pak Asep’s students with queries: for example, in 2019, Muhammad Zulkham asked about watermarks, and Siti Nafi'ah Nur Halimah enquired how the shelfmark MSS Malay B.10 was assigned. It is rewarding to see lasting outcomes from these academic exercises, and the British Library manuscript, Hikayat Selindung Delima (MSS Malay C.6) – containing the rare prose (hikayat) version of a tale more commonly found in poetic (syair) form – was published in 2019 by the National Library of Indonesia, edited by Dita Eka Pratiwi with Asep Yudha Wirajaya.

FB-AsepYudha-18.12.19
Asep Yudha Wirajaya S.S., M.A. (centre) with his Malay philology class at Universitas Sebelas Maret, Surakarta, in December 2019.  Image source: Facebook page of Asep Yudha Wirajaya, 8.12.2019, reproduced with permission.

A new romanised edition of Hikayat Selindung Delima (Jakarta: National Library of Indonesia, 2019)  British Library manuscript MSS Malay C.6, showing the final page with the colophon and date
(Left) A new romanised edition of Hikayat Selindung Delima (Jakarta: National Library of Indonesia, 2019), based on the (right) British Library manuscript MSS Malay C.6, f. 65v , copied in Melaka in 1223 (1808), showing above the final page with the colophon and date.

Studies on British Library digitised Malay manuscripts are also recorded in academic journals.  In the National Library of Indonesia journal Jumantara, Nurhayati Primasari discusses a popular catechism by al-Samarqandi with Malay translation (MSS Malay C.7), copied in Batavia in the early 19th century (Jumantara 8(2), Aug. 2019), while in the same journal Hazmirullah published a farewell letter to Raffles from the Bupati of Cianjur in west Java (Add 45273, f. 36r), unusually written in romanised Malay (Jumantara 11(1), June 2020). 

Many of the Malay literary manuscripts in the British Library originate from the collection of John Leyden (1775-1811), who spent several months in Penang in 1806 in the house of Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826). The Malay poem, Syair Jaran Tamasa (MSS Malay B.9), appears to have particularly caught Leyden’s attention, for in a notebook he had begun an English translation. In a blog post in 2016 I noted that this Malay poem, of  which no other manuscript is known, to that day remained unpublished. This ‘challenge’ was picked up by Dr Mulaika Hijjas at SOAS, who devised the innovative Jawi Transcription Project to crowd-source the romanised transliteration of this manuscript.

The Jawi Transcription Project, initiated by Dr Mulaika Hijjas of SOAS to romanise the Malay poem Syair Jaran Tamasa, British Library, MSS Malay B.9
The Jawi Transcription Project, initiated by Dr Mulaika Hijjas of SOAS to romanise the Malay poem Syair Jaran Tamasa, British Library, MSS Malay B.9.

The involvement of the Malaysian ‘indie’ publisher Fixi is particularly gratifying in extending the reach of Malay manuscripts beyond a traditional scholarly audience, and bringing alive these centuries-old tales for a modern audience. Two British Library Malay manuscripts have been published by Fixi in innovative formats, both transliterated by Arsyad Mokhtar. With its many fight sequences, Hikayat Raja Babi, ‘The Story of the Pig King’ (2015) - based on a manuscript written in Palembang in 1775 by a writer from Semarang, Usup Abdul Kadir, Add 12393 - has been designed to appeal to silat or kung fu martial arts afficianados, with comicbook manga-style illustrations by Arif Rafhan Othman. The same artist opted for a different approach in the Hikayat Nabi Yusuf, ‘Story of the Prophet Joseph’ (2018) - an edition of a  manuscript copied in Perlis in 1802, MSS Malay D.4 - which is a deluxe hardcover production on glossy paper with a sumptuous palette evoking the setting of the story in Pharaonic Egypt. Recently, the Hikayat Raja Babi has been reborn as a children’s book in English, The Malay tale of the Pig King (2020), retold by Heidi Shamsuddin with dreamy illustrations by Evi Shelvia, published by Fixi with crowdsourced funding.

Romanised edition of Hikayat Raja Babi (Kuala Lumpur: Fixi Retro, 2015)  The_malay_tale_of_the_pig_king_front-1597541540
(Left) Romanised edition of Hikayat Raja Babi (Kuala Lumpur: Fixi Retro, 2015).  British Library, YP.2016.a.2565. (Right) A children’s version in English, The Malay tale of the Pig King (Kuala Lumpur: Matahari Books, an imprint of Fixi, 2020).  British Library (shelfmark pending).

Hk Nabi Yusuf stack
Hikayat Nabi Yusuf (Kuala Lumpur: Fixi Retro, 2018). British Library, YP.2019.a.2275.

It is a particular pleasure to see Malay manuscripts used as sources of artistic inspiration. One of the first artists to be inspired by the British Library corpus was Hafizan Halim, an acclaimed illuminator from Kedah, now with many royal Malaysian patrons. He was entranced by a beautiful golden letter from Temenggung Ibrahim of Johor to Emperor Napoleon III of France, written in Singapore in 1857 (Or 16126), the only known traditional Malay example of chrysography, writing in gold. Hafizan has copied and adapted the illuminated borders of this letter in many guises in his artworks, often as the setting for Surat Yasin of the Qur’an.

Malay letter from Temenggung Daing Ibrahim of Johor to Emperor Napoleon III of France, 1857, British Library Or 16126  golden frame around Surat Yasin drawn by Hafizan Halim of Kedah
(Left) Malay letter from Temenggung Daing Ibrahim of Johor to Emperor Napoleon III of France, 1857, British Library Or 16126, inspired the golden frame around Surat Yasin drawn by Hafizan Halim of Kedah (right).

Detail of Hafizan Halim’s drawing based on the illuminated headpiece from of the royal Johor letter of 1857, Or 16126.
Detail of Hafizan Halim’s drawing based on the illuminated headpiece from of the royal Johor letter of 1857, Or 16126

This same golden letter from Johor also provided the setting for the invitation to a illustrious  wedding held on the island of Pulau Penyengat in Riau on 6 September 2018, of Raja Sufriana - daughter of Raja Hamzah Yunus, an eminent aristocrat and cultural figure - and Aswandi Syahri, a local historian who was involved in the EAP153 project to digitise Riau manuscripts.  It was especially poignant to see how these beautiful royal Johor patterns and motifs, preserved in Or 16126, were revived to celebrate a marriage at the very centre of the historic Malay kingdom in which these art forms would have evolved.

FB-MalikHamzah-9.9.18#
Wedding invitation of Raja Sufriana and Aswandi Syahri, 6 September 2018.  Reproduced courtesy of Aswandi Syahri.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

Further information:

Why we need to digitise our history, talk by Annabel Gallop at TEDxUbud, September 2014

 

11 October 2021

Chulamani Chedi, a celestial stupa

A stupa (Sanskrit for “heap”) is an important form of Buddhist architecture as a place of burial or a receptacle for sacred religious objects, which has its origins in the pre-Buddhist burial mounds of ancient India. The earliest stupa contained portions of Gotama Buddha’s relics, and as a result, these monuments began to be associated with the body and energy of the historical Buddha. In Thailand the term chedi (from Pali: cetiya) is more commonly used to refer to stupa as objects and places that keep the memory of the Buddha and his teachings alive. According to the Thai Buddhist cosmology, Traiphum Phra Ruang, a celestial stupa with the name Chulamani Chedi (Pali: Cūḷāmaṇi Cetiya) is situated in the Tavatimsa heaven (image below, left) where the god Indra (Sakka) and 32 deities reside.

The Chulamani Chedi (left), the pāricchattaka tree, celestial umbrella and Sudhamma assembly hall (right) in the Tavatimsa heaven, illustrated in a Buddhist cosmology, Traiphum, from Thailand, 19th century
The Chulamani Chedi (left), the pāricchattaka tree, celestial umbrella and Sudhamma assembly hall (right) in the Tavatimsa heaven, illustrated in a Buddhist cosmology, Traiphum, from Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 15245, ff. 7-8  noc

The Chulamani Chedi is mentioned repeatedly in the story of the Life of the Buddha: when Prince Siddhattha renounced worldly life, he cut off his hair which the god Indra placed in the celestial stupa. Long after his enlightenment, the Buddha ascended to the Tavatimsa heaven - where his mother had been reborn as a deva (deity) - to deliver his wisdom, or Dhamma.  This occurred during one rainy retreat (the period of the Buddhist Lent), in the celestial Sudhamma assembly hall, next to the celestial pāricchattaka tree and the Chulamani Chedi. Finally, after the Buddha’s attainment of pari-nibbana and the cremation of his physical remains, Indra descended from Tavatimsa heaven to fetch a relic of the Buddha and deposit it inside the Chulamani Chedi.

An exquisite illustration of the Chulamani Chedi with the monk Phra Malai, the god Indra and his spouse, in a Thai folding book containing the story of Phra Malai, dated 1849
An exquisite illustration of the Chulamani Chedi with the monk Phra Malai, the god Indra and his spouse, in a Thai folding book containing the story of Phra Malai, dated 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 42  noc

Symbolising the Tavatimsa heaven, the Chulamani Chedi plays an important role in the popular story of the monk Phra Malai, who, as a result of his accumulated merit, was able to travel to the Buddhist hells and heavens. The creatures reborn in the hell realm asked him to urge their relatives in the human world to make merit. Phra Malai revealed his encounters to the laity and received eight flowers from a poor man as an offering, given with the hope of making merit and being reborn into a more fortunate existence. Phra Malai then traveled to the Tavatimsa heaven, where he met the god Indra to discuss ways to gain merit, including the accumulation of merit through listening to recitations of the Vessantara Jataka, the last Birth Tale of the Buddha. This scene is shown in the illustration above from a Thai folding book (Or 14838, dated 1849), in which Phra Malai is seen in front of Chulamani Chedi while conversing with the god Indra and his spouse, Indrani, both depicted with a red aura. Below is the same scene from another Thai folding book containing the story of Phra Malai (Or 6630, dated 1875), but here the monk is conversing with Indra and another male deity.

Phra Malai, Indra and a male deity in front of the Chulamani Chedi, illustrated in a folding book with extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, Central Thailand, 1875
Phra Malai, Indra and a male deity in front of the Chulamani Chedi, illustrated in a folding book with extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, Central Thailand, 1875. British Library, Or 6630, f. 43  noc

Although the composition of this prominent painted scene in Phra Malai manuscripts is quite standardised – always showing the monk and the god Indra with green skin in front of the celestial stupa – additional figures and objects can be included, like for example Indra’s spouse or, alternatively, a male deity, or several male and/or female deities. Chulamani Chedi is most frequently depicted as an emerald stupa with gold decorations on a white base. Sometimes the stupa is shown before a lavishly decorated background as in the example above. Often included are also the monk’s alms bowl, the poor man’s lotus offering, candles, incense, containers for pouring water for the transfer of merit to the deceased, as well as funeral banners. The latter can be either white or gold, with images of crocodiles or centipedes. In the Thai tradition, such banners are hung outside the home when someone has passed away, and they are carried in a procession to the Buddhist temple on occasion of the cremation of the deceased’s body. Occasionally, the banners can be in the shape of crocodiles and centipedes as in the manuscript below (Or 15207, dated 1882).

The Chulamani Chedi with a red aura to highlight the fact that it is housing relics of the Buddha. Illustration from a Phra Malai manuscript, Central Thailand, 1882
The Chulamani Chedi with a red aura to highlight the fact that it is housing relics of the Buddha. Illustration from a Phra Malai manuscript, Central Thailand, 1882. British Library, Or 15207, f. 38  noc

These elaborately decorated funeral and commemoration books with the story of Phra Malai were commissioned as an act of merit, sometimes on behalf of a dying or deceased relative, with the hope of rebirth in a heavenly realm. In the colophon of the manuscript above (Or 15207, fol. 91) it is mentioned that the patron’s wish was to be reborn in the heavenly realm of Phra Si An (Thai name for Buddha Metteyya) and to attain nibbana. It is believed that on each Buddhist holiday all celestial beings gather at the Chulamani Chedi, circumambulating it with lit candles to venerate the Buddha and his teachings.

The Chulamani Chedi depicted as a gold stupa in a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, dated 1837
The Chulamani Chedi depicted as a gold stupa in a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, dated 1837. British Library, Or 14710, f. 76   noc

The illustration above (Or 14710, dated 1837) shows the Chulamani Chedi in gold on a heavily decorated white base. It is situated in a walled compound with amber floor tiles. According to Pali Buddhist scriptures, Indra built walls around the Tavatimsa heaven so that mischievous or evil-minded asura, inferior deities, could not enter this realm. While Indra is shown kneeling in a respectful pose facing the Chulamani Chedi, Phra Malai is seated behind the stupa, pointing towards the entrance of the Tavatimsa realm through which Buddha Metteyya later joined the two of them to give predictions about the future of mankind. Above the entrance is a white banner with the crocodile image (Thai: makara) which in Thai Buddhist mythology functions as a guardian of gateways. Occasionally, one can see in these illustrations from the story of Phra Malai plain white banners and lanterns hanging from large poles with tiered umbrellas as in the example below (Or 14732, dated 1857). All these details reflect Thai funeral traditions.

Two illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi with white lanterns (left), white funeral banners (right), tiered umbrellas on top of poles, and worshippers in a Phra Malai manuscript from Central Thailand dated 1857
Two illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi with white lanterns (left), white funeral banners (right), tiered umbrellas on top of poles, and worshippers in a Phra Malai manuscript from Central Thailand dated 1857. British Library, Or 14732, f. 45   noc

Another feature that frequently appears in illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi are images of hong (from Mon language: hongsa, and Sanskrit: haṃsa), mythical swan-like birds that represent the release of the deceased from the cycle of life. These images, usually in gold, are also attached to the poles that hold the funerary banners and/or tiered umbrellas (below).
In the Thai Buddhist tradition, it is advised to reflect on the Buddha and to visualise the Chulamani Chedi when someone is approaching death, with a banana leaf envelope containing a white flower, incense and a beeswax candle in their hands. This is called "creating one's own image", with the aim of creating an atmosphere of tranquility and peace in the mind. When a person is going to complete their present existence all attachments, loves and hates must be cut in order to enable a fortunate rebirth in the future and, eventually, attainment of nibbana.

Emerald Chulamani Chedi with images of gold hong birds and tiered umbrellas before a background with flower decorations in a Phra Malai manuscript, Central Thailand, 19th century
Emerald Chulamani Chedi with images of gold hong birds and tiered umbrellas before a background with flower decorations in a Phra Malai manuscript, Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16007, f. 48   noc

Further reading
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Thai Tellings of Phra Malai: Texts and Rituals Concerning a Popular Buddhist Saint. Tempe: Arizona State University, Program for Southeast Asian Studies, 1995.
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Envisioning the Buddhist Cosmos through Paintings: The Traiphum in Central Thailand and Phra Malai in Isan. Social Science Asia, Volume 3 Number 4, pp. 111-120 
Ginsburg, Henry, Thai Art and Culture: Historic Manuscripts from Western Collections. London: British Library, 2000
Heijdra, Martin, The Legend of Phra Malai. Firestone Library, Princeton University (2018)
Igunma, Jana, A Buddhist monk’s journey to heaven and hell. Journal of International Association of Buddhist Universities 3 (2012), pp. 65-82
Peltier, Anatole, Iconographie de la légende de Braḥ Mālay. Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême Orient 76 (1982), pp. 63-76
Santi Leksukhum, Buddhism in Thai architecture: Stupa. Manusya Journal of Humanities vol. 4 no. 1 (2001), pp. 68-77
Traiphumikatha, Buddhist cosmology: The illustrated King Rama IX edition. Bangkok: Ministry of Culture, 2012

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

 

04 October 2021

Khadija Saye’s Art and the ‘Toothbrush Tree’

The British Library exhibition ‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ (3 Dec 2020–7 Oct 2021) shows nine self-portraits by this talented and innovative Gambian–British artist. In each, she displays a particular artefact associated with Gambian culture. In this blog, Kadija Sesay, the exhibition’s external curator, explores the cultural and scientific uses of one of these objects.

The multiple properties and uses of the Salvadora persica, commonly known as ‘the toothbrush tree’, can be sourced from every aspect of the tree - the seeds, bark, stem, leaves and flowers - for food, medication and scientific purposes. Wherever it is native to a region, which is most of the African continent, South Asia and the Middle East, it has claimed a significant position within society. Its many uses seem to bestow near-magical properties on it, and it is thought to provide solutions and remedies for everyday problems and ailments.

Sothiou (Chewing-sticks/toothbrush), Khadija Saye (2017)

The botanical description of the Salvadora persica is of a large, well-branched evergreen shrub or tree, from the Salvadora species. As well as the Salvadora persica (known as Khari Jaal in India), this species includes the Salvadora oleoides (known as Meethi Jaal in India).

Salvadora, from Lamarck’s 1823 collection of botanical illustrations
Salvadora, from Lamarck’s 1823 collection of botanical illustrations: Encyclopédie méthodique, ou par ordre de matières par une Société de Gens de Lettres, de Savans, et d'Artistes. Botanique. Recueil de planches. Vol. 1. (Paris, 1823).  British Library, J/12215.r.1/12a. Noc

Medical and other scientific elements feed into the tradition and culture of those societies where it is found, as the health benefits of using the miswak for oral hygiene are well known. They have been used for cleaning teeth for centuries. They are cheaper than imported toothbrushes and toothpaste, and scientific studies have shown them to have antibacterial properties that maintain and enhance oral hygiene, contributing to strong teeth and healthy breath. For these practical, economic and health reasons, they have been recommended for regular use by the World Health Organization within the communities in which they grow.

In The Gambia, the longer branches of the tree carry varying spiritual meanings within African indigenous faith: they may be used to make proclamations or promises to God, to invoke the spirits of the ancestors, or to claim protection from Satan.

The shorter branches, as well as being used for toothbrushes at home, have cultural attributes specifically for women as they also symbolise, when seen in public, that they are women who are due respect. As sothiou is known to have cleansing properties, the visual symbol of a woman using it reflects on her personal cleanliness, not only with respect to her mouth and body, but in the way that she leads her life. This in turn reflects on the raising of her daughters, showing that they maintain their personal cleanliness and virginity.

Khadija Saye working on silkscreen prints of ‘Sothiou’ with Matthew Rich, 2017
Khadija Saye working on silkscreen prints of ‘Sothiou’ with Matthew Rich, 2017.
Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye, London. © The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Clean teeth are a symbol of beauty, too. Therefore, older married women in The Gambia known as ‘Jegg’ (younger married women will be referred to as ‘small Jegg’) can be seen publicly with sothiou in their mouths when they attend high-end events and family ceremonies such as weddings. For these reasons, it is common to see women who use sothiou more than men.

The commonly known attributes of the Salvadora persica have led to further research and investigation of its properties, some of which are highlighted briefly here.

For culinary use, the fruit of the tree is an edible sweet berry which can be fermented into a drink. In East Africa, the leaves are cooked in a sauce as a vegetable dish and although bitter in taste, the shoots and leaves can be included as part of a salad.

The plant’s potential pharmaceutical and other scientific uses are many. The seeds, for example, are commonly used as a diuretic and the oil from the seeds is used to ease rheumatism. The bark and root, apart from producing antiplaque agents, are also being investigated by scientists for a number of other apparent qualities including analgesic, anticonvulsant and antibacterial properties. The stem bark, for example, is used for gastric problems.

The use of Salvadora persica has shown that reliance on natural organisms supports the communities in which they grow, where they simultaneously become woven into local cultures and traditions. In her artwork, Khadija Saye has captured culture, history, tradition and science simply by focusing on and drawing our attention to an object which simultaneously reinforces the importance of our natural environment locally and globally. As her work so powerfully testifies, the information and knowledge that local communities carry in their family, traditions and culture should be recorded so that more research can be undertaken.

Other objects in the work of Khadija Saye were discussed in the British Library event ‘Cowries, Incense and Amulets’ on 17 May 2021.

Further reading

Basil H. Aboul-Enein, ‘The miswak (Salvadora persica L.) chewing stick: cultural implications in oral health promotion’, The Saudi Journal for Dental Research, 5, 1, (2014), 9-13.
World Health Organization, Prevention of oral diseases. WHO offset publication No. 103. Geneva: World Health Organization; 1987), p. 61.
M. Khatak, S. Khatak,1 A. A. Siddqui, N. Vasudeva, A. Aggarwal, and P. Aggarwal, ‘Salvadora persica’, Pharmacognosy Reviews 4, 8 (2010), 209–214.

Kadija George Sesay, External Curator, 'Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe' Ccownwork