Asian and African studies blog

5 posts from February 2022

28 February 2022

Covers of Batak pustaha manuscripts

The most distinctive type of Batak manuscripts from north Sumatra are the pustaha, folded concertina-style books written on treebark, which mostly contain notes on divination and magical formulae. Pustaha can vary considerably in length and size – those in the British Library collection range from the relatively large, with pages each 28 x 20 cm (Add 19378) to the tiny, measuring only 4.5 x 3 cm (such as MSS Batak 9). Simpler manuscripts may not have any special covers, ending just with the final leaves of treebark, but quite a few Batak pustaha have covers of wood. Sometimes these are finely carved, particularly on the front cover, but occasionally also on the back. Manuscripts may also have a plaited band made of split rattan or bamboo, which can be placed around the covers of the manuscript to clasp the book closed. Additionally, there may be two holes drilled into the top wooden cover for a string of ijuk fronds to be attached so that the manuscript could be carried or hung easily. Presented below are images of all the original covers of Batak pustaha in the British Library collection.

A beautifully carved wooden front cover.
MSS Batak 6, which mostly contains texts on divination in war, especially by use of rambu siporhas, divination based on the position of a double string thrown on the ground. This pustaha has a beautifully carved wooden front cover, but a plain wooden back cover. Noc

Full view of the finely carved wooden front cover of MSS Batak 6
Full view of the finely carved wooden front cover of MSS Batak 6. Noc

Although now severely abraded, it is clear that the front cover of this pustaha was elaborately carved with the figure of a lizard set within geometrical borders  The back cover is finely polished but plain
Although now severely abraded, it is clear that the front cover of this pustaha was elaborately carved with the figure of a lizard set within geometrical borders. The back cover is finely polished but plain. The pustaha still has its plaited clasp band and original carrying string. Add 19381. Noc

Front finely carved wooden cover  Back finely carved wooden cover.Unusually, this beautiful small pustaha has finely carved wooden covers for both the front (left) and back (right). As can be seen, the front cover has slighlyt angled top and bottom edges, to accommodate the two holes for the carrying string, while the bottom cover is rectangular in shape. The pustaha contains a text in Simalungun Batak on protective formulae. Or 11761 Noc

The wooden front cover has a decorative ridged spine, through which holes have been drilled for a carrying string
This pustaha, which appears to contain texts on protective magic (pagar), is one of a number collected by Baron Oscar von Kessel who travelled in the Batak country from Tobing vis Sipirok to Sigompulon in 1844. The wooden front cover has a decorative ridged spine, through which holes have been drilled for a carrying string. Add 19380. Noc

This is the oldest dateable Batak pustaha, which entered the collections of the British Museum in 1764
This is the oldest dateable Batak pustaha, which entered the collections of the British Museum in 1764. The shape of the plain front cover, with its ridged form along the spine, and with two holes for carrying strings, is echoed in many of the other manuscripts illustrated here. Add 4726. Noc

Although the front wooden cover of this pustaha is without decoration, it is artfully ridged in the middle to accomdate the holes for a carrying string, now lost
Although the front wooden cover of this pustaha is without decoration, it is artfully ridged in the middle to accomdate the holes for a carrying string, now lost. Before 1817. MSS Batak 5 Noc

Although the original carrying string is now lost, the pustaha still has its two original plaited bamboo bands to keep it closed
A similar ridged central spine can be seen on the front wooden cover of this pustaha, also with two holes at top and bottom. Although the original carrying string is now lost, the pustaha still has its two original plaited rattan bands to keep it closed. Add 19378. Noc

Add 19379 has two wooden covers and two plaited bamboo clasps, and – most rarely – its original thickly-twisted carrying string
Add 19379 has two wooden covers and two plaited rattan clasps, and – most rarely – its original thickly-twisted carrying string. Noc

Mss_batak_2_fse005r-ed  Small pustaha with carrying string

These two small pustaha both have carrying strings and plaited rattan bands around their plain wooden covers. On the left, MSS Batak 2 dates from before 1811; on the right, Or 6898 is a Karo Batak manuscript. Noc

Batak pustaha with battered wooden covers
The rather battered appearance of the wooden covers of this pustaha is reflected in the poor condition of the contents, as the manuscript has been broken in several places and then repaired. However it still retains its original plaited rattan clasp band. Or 12587 Noc

pustaha with very plain wooden covers, Or 13957  Small but tall Batak pustaha with wooden covers
On the left, this pustaha with very plain wooden covers, Or 13957, contains a text devoted to the art of waging war, written by a datu from the western shores of Lake Toba. On the right, MSS Batak 10 is an unusual example of a pustaha which is taller than it is wide. Although the covers are simple they are finely polished. Noc

Batak pustaha with damaged side  Or 11762 has one angled front cover, and unevenly folded leaves
Both these pustaha have only has one wooden cover on the front. Although the manuscript on the left (MSS Batak 7) is elegantly angled in the middle around the string holes, the side is badly damaged. On the right, Or 11762 has one angled front cover, and unevenly folded leaves, yielding pages of different sizes. Noc

Or 16997 has a pair of completely plain wooden covers, with the holes visible in the top cover
Or 16997 has a pair of completely plain wooden covers, with the holes visible in the top cover. Noc

Pustaha with carrying handle is made of a piece of goatskin. MSS Batak 4
Like most of the manuscripts above, this pustaha has two wooden covers, with a ridge along the top cover with two holes, but in this case, uniquely, the carrying handle is made of a piece of goatskin. MSS Batak 4 Noc

Pustaha with goat skin cover
This is one of the most unusual covers of a pustaha, being made entirely of goat skin, with a wrap-around ‘envelope flap’ which recalls the Islamic tradition of leather book bindings. MSS Batak 3 Noc

Mss_batak_8_fse005r-ed  Small pustaha with price label
These two small pustaha do not have wooden covers, and their final leaves of treebark function as the outer covers. Although it is not known exactly when they were acquired by the India Office Library, the style of handwriting of the price tag suggests it was written around 1900; the sum of one pound and ten shillings charged for each manuscript then would be equivalent to £175 today. MSS Batak 8 and MSS Batak 9 Noc

Pustaha without wooden cover Pustaha with no cover
Add 11546 (left) and Add 15678 (right) also do not have additional covers, with the final leaves functioning as the outer covers for both manuscripts. Noc

Pustaha with no covers
While the pustaha shown above were evidently created without covers, others held in the British Library are now in a damaged condition and probably lost their covers – and perhaps also other pages – some time ago. Or 16998 Noc

Pustaha with modern leather cover Pustaha with modern wooden covers
All the manuscripts shown further above have original covers, but some pustaha in the British Library have had covers added more recently. These leather covers (left, Add 19385) and the wooden covers (right, Add 19384) were probably added in the British Museum following acquistion in 1853. Noc

As long as it can be ascertained that they are original products of Batak culture, even the relatively plain wooden covers of pustaha are of interest in contributing to our knowledge of Batak craftsmanship, especially because in many western institutions ‘improvements’ made in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the addition of new covers, have served to obliterate the look and ‘feel’ of the original manuscript. Rene Teygeler has reported, based on information gathered by Voorhoeve: ‘When the collection of Van der Tuuk entered Leiden University Library in 1896 all the pustaha that had no covers were provided with new ones. Today only two manuscripts of this collection still have the original boards. From the entire collection ’ And from the entire collection of Leiden University Library, only 23 of the 200 pustaha have one or both original covers’ (Teygeler 1993: 597). By comparison, of the 33 pustaha in the British Library, all save three are in original condition, with or without covers. Of these 30 in original condition, 18 have covers of wood or leather, and all of these have been illustrated above.

All the pustaha and other Batak manuscripts in the British Library have recently been digitised in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures of the University of Hamburg. A full list of the digitised Batak manuscripts can be found here.

Further reading:
Jan van der Putten and Roberta Zollo, The power of writing: the manuscript culture of the Toba Batak from North Sumatra / Die Macht der Schrift: die Manuskriptkultur der Toba-Batak aus Nord-Sumatra. Manuscript cultures, 2020, 14.
R. Teygeler, Pustaha: a study into the production process of the Batak book. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1993, 149(3): 593-611.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork
All photographs by Elizabeth Hunter, Senior Imaging Technician

22 February 2022

Technical challenges of digitising Batak manuscripts

The main aim of manuscript digitisation programmes in the British Library is to enable books and documents to be viewed and read online, freely and fully, from anywhere in the world, without the need to travel long distances to the Library’s reading rooms in London to consult the original objects. Photography for digitisation aims to capture the full object, from cover to cover, including blank pages, so that viewers can be confident that they are seeing every detail that would be visible if they were to consult the manuscript ‘in real life’. In many cases, the very high resolution images and zoom facilities of the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts portal enable aspects of the manuscript to be studied even more easily than through a personal inspection. What digitisation cannot capture though, of course, is the materiality of the manuscript: what it feels like to touch, what it weighs, what it smells like, and how it opens and closes. Such material features are particularly important in the case of Batak manuscripts, which are all written on organic materials which have not been highly processed.

Batak pustaha, written on a strip of tree bark folded concertina-style, with two wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string. British Library, Or 11761
Batak pustaha, written on a strip of tree bark folded concertina-style, with two wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string. British Library, Or 11761 Noc

The British Library’s collection of 37 Batak manuscripts has just been fully digitised in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg. The collection mostly comprises pustaha, manuscript books written on long strips of treebark that are folded concertina-style, and often provided with two wooden covers. Batak script is read from left to right, and the text is written in lines parallel to the folds of the book. In practice, the Batak scribes actually wrote the text – whether on treebark books, or pieces of bamboo – vertically from bottom to top (Kozok 2009: 35), and this probably explains why most illustrations in pustaha are oriented at 90 degrees to the direction of writing, as shown below. Therefore, reading an illustrated Batak manuscript ‘in real life’ involves rotating the book as necessary, an experience which is not possible to replicate in the current British Library Digitised Manuscripts portal.  However, over the next few years, all the digitised Batak manuscripts will be migrated to the British Library's more flexible Universal Viewer, which allows rotation of images and uses the IIIF (International Image Interoperability Format) standard.  This allows users to choose different viewers and tools to interact with cultural heritage content, and enables the comparison and annotation of digital content. 

Batak script is written and read from left to right, but the Batak scribe would have held the strip of bark widthways as shown above, and written the text from bottom to top, whilst drawing the illustrations from his current perspective. British Library, Add 19381, f. 119v
Batak script is written and read from left to right, but the Batak scribe would have held the strip of bark widthways as shown above, and written the text from bottom to top, whilst drawing the illustrations from his current perspective. British Library, Add 19381, f. 119v Noc

In the digital portal, Batak manuscripts are presented in the correct orientation for reading the script from left to right, but this means that the orientation of the illustrations is usually perpendicular to the direction of writing. British Library, Add 19382, f. 11r
In the digital portal, Batak manuscripts are presented in the correct orientation for reading the script from left to right, but this means that the orientation of the illustrations is usually perpendicular to the direction of writing. British Library, Add 19382, f. 11r Noc

Some older pustaha which have previously been damaged may have been repaired by being sewn together. Sometimes these older sections may be missing parts of the text, and even be orientated in the opposite direction (upside down) to the rest of the manuscript. When reading a Batak pustaha ‘in real life’, it is easy to work out what has happened. But when reading a digitised manuscript online, when a page with text in one direction is followed by a page with a different text, presented upside down – as in Or 12587, shown below – it is easy to assume that there has been a mistake in processing the digital images. Therefore in photographing the Batak manuscripts, care was taken to ensure that a few lines of the preceding or following page are always visible in each image, so that anyone reading the digital manuscripts can be reassured that they are really seeing the manuscript as it is.

Batak pustaha, with a text copied by Guru Morhabong Aji, with a few lines visible of the next page. British Library, Or 12587, f. 44r.
Batak pustaha, with a text copied by Guru Morhabong Aji, with a few lines visible of the next page. British Library, Or 12587, f. 44r. Noc

The next image of the same Batak pustaha has text upside down.
The next image of the same Batak pustaha has text upside down. However, checking carefully the two lines of text visible at the top from the preceding page, with a portion of the drawing of a square, confirms that this is indeed the following page. British Library, Or 12587, f. 45r. Noc

In published catalogues of Batak manuscripts, scholarly convention generally refers to the two sides of a pustaha as sides A and B, with the pages numbered from ‘1’ on each side (Putten and Zollo 2020: 90). However, in digitising Batak manuscripts at the British Library, we were severely constrained by the strict filenaming conventions associated with the Digitised Manuscripts portal. This portal had been originally developed about ten years ago for a Greek manuscripts project, and was therefore predicated upon the norm of manuscripts in codex form, with folios or leaves each consisting of two pages, the first (recto) and second (verso). While the portal had successfully been adapted for Malay manuscripts in Arabic script, reading from right to left, Batak pustaha in concertina form brought their own challenges, for we were not able to assign filenames of the form ‘A 1’ or ‘B 2’ for Batak manuscripts. As our priority was to ensure that the images were presented on the portal in the correct order, replicating the actual manuscript, we devised a system whereby all the pages of side A were assigned ‘recto’ image numbers, while side B images were numbered in the same consecutive sequence, but as ‘verso’ images. Thus a pustaha with 34 leaves would have images on side A numbered f001r to f034r to represent pages A 1 to A 34, while after turning the manuscript over onto side B, pages B 1 to 34 would be numbered f035v to f068v. This unconventional ‘manipulation’ of the existing filenaming system has allowed us to present the images in the correct order, but it means the filenames of each image are not easily correlated with the contents lists in catalogue information.

The beginning of a text on protective magic
The beginning of a text on protective magic, pagar balik hontas na bolon, described in Ricklefs and Voorhoeve (1977: 14) as beginning on page B 1, but with the image filename f033v. British Library, MSS Batak 5, f. 33v Noc

Some Batak bamboo manuscripts presented different problems. Or 5309 is a bamboo cylinder inscribed with a Batak syllabary and a few other writing exercises, which was given to the British Museum by Lord Crawford in 1897.  As Ludovic Crawfurd was an avid collector of Batak manuscripts, especially bamboo ones, this one was probably given away because it was already broken into two at the time. On both sides of the cylinder, the split has occurred across a line of text, but the two pieces of bamboo have warped so much over time that it was not easy to fit them back together for digitisation. Indeed, it took the combined efforts of the digitisation team (pictured below) to help to prop the two pieces together, and rotate them slowly, to allow the text to be read.

Bamboo inscribed with a Batak text, in two pieces and warped, carefully positioned together so that the text across the break could be read.
Bamboo inscribed with a Batak text, in two pieces and warped, carefully positioned together and held in place so that the letters along the break could be read. British Library, Or 5309 Noc

_L2C0668
The team effort to position the two parts of Batak manuscript Or 5309 together for photography: from left to right, conservator Samantha Cawson, curator Annabel Gallop, photographer Elizabeth Hunter, and digitisation officer Adelaida Ngowi. Photograph by Eugenio Falcioni, 20 January 2022.

This blog post has tried to give a behind-the-scenes glimpse of some the technical problems we had to wrestle with in the course of digitising the collection of Batak manuscripts in the British Library. Every single manuscript was checked before digitisation by Conservator Samantha Cawson, who cleaned the manuscripts and made some essential repairs. Next the manuscripts were all photographed by Senior Imaging Technician Elizabeth Hunter, who had to learn a little about Batak script so she could be sure to position the manuscripts correctly. The digital images were then all checked by Digitisation Officer Adelaida Ngowi, who looked at image quality, focus and orientation, and ensured that the filenames correlated with the intended sequencing of images. As curator, I was responsible for creating online catalogue records for all the manuscripts, based on the published catalogue (Ricklefs, Voorhoeve and Gallop 2014), and for checking all the manuscripts as they were published online. We are also very grateful to our colleagues at Hamburg University and elsewhere who enabled this project, in particular Michael Friedrich, Arlo Griffiths, Jan van der Putten, Roberta Zollo, Christina Kaminski and Karsten Helmholz. We hope you will enjoy browsing through the digitised manuscripts, which are all listed here.

References:
Uli Kozok, Surat Batak: sejarah perkembangan tulisan Batak. Jakarta: Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient; KPG, 2009. (Naskah dan dokumen Nusantara; Seri XVII).
Jan van der Putten and Roberta Zollo, ‘The power of writing: the manuscript culture of the Toba Batak from North Sumatra / Die Macht der Schrift: die Manuskriptkultur der Toba-Batak aus Nord-Sumatra.’ Manuscript cultures, 14, 2020.
M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop. Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient,Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014. [Includes a facsimile of the 1977 edition.]

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

18 February 2022

Batak manuscripts in the British Library digitised in collaboration with Hamburg University

The British Library holds the oldest dateable Batak manuscript (Add 4726), which entered the British Museum collections in 1764. Until recently, this was the only Batak manuscript in the Library accessible online. However, the complete collection of 37 Batak manuscripts in the British Library has now been fully digitised, thanks to a collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg. The digitization was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) under Germany´s Excellence Strategy – EXC 2176 ‘Understanding Written Artefacts: Material, Interaction and Transmission in Manuscript Cultures’, project no. 390893796. A full list of the digitised manuscripts is available on the Digital Access to Batak Manuscripts page.

Pustaha in Mandailing Batak script, with many drawings in red and black ink, before 1844. British Library, Add 19381
Pustaha in Mandailing Batak script, with many drawings in red and black ink, before 1844. British Library, Add 19381 Noc

The Batak peoples of north Sumatra live in the mountainous area around Lake Toba, and comprise a number of ethno-linguistic subgroups. The Angkola-Mandailing traditionally live in the area south of the lake; the Toba Batak, who are the largest groups, live in the central lake agrea; the Dairi-Pakpak are found to the west; the Karo to the north; and the Simalungun to the north-east. Originally animist but with Hindu influences evident in their religious practices, in the course of the 19th century nearly all the Batak peoples came under the sway of Muslim or Christian (Protestant) missionaries.

Map of Batak regions
The Batak regions of north Sumatra, showing how the different ethno-linguistic groupings are clustered around Lake Toba. [Map from Putten and Zollo 2020: 10.]

The Batak are associated with a distinctive writing culture, with manuscripts written on a range of organic materials, primarily tree bark, bamboo and bone, in a variety of Batak languages and forms of the script linked to the different ethnic groups. The Batak script (surat Batak) is derived from the Indian Brahmi script, and is written from left to right with evenly-spaced letters, without longer divisions between words or sentences.

Most characteristic of Batak manuscripts are the bark books known as pustaha, written on strips of bark of the alim (Aquilaria malaccensis) tree, folded concertina-fashion, some with beautifully carved wooden covers. These pustaha were the private notebooks of datu or shaman, and contain texts on divination and white and black magic, often with illustrations. The language used in the pustaha is an archaic form of the Batak language called hata poda, ‘the language of instruction’, invariably mixed with regional words and elements of Malay.

Pustaha in Toba Batak script with a text on purbuhitan, divination from the stars; before 1918. British Library, Or 8196
Pustaha in Toba Batak script with a text on pangarambui, divination based on the observation of signs in the sky; before 1918. British Library, Or 8196 Noc

Simalungun Batak pustaha with two finely carved wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string tied through two holes on the front cover. British Library, Or 11761
Simalungun Batak pustaha with two finely carved wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string tied through two holes on the front cover. British Library, Or 11761  Noc

Manuscripts on bamboo could take the form of whole pieces several joints or nodes in length, or splints made from split bamboo. Texts found on bamboo may also be on divinatory practices, such as calendars, or may comprise letters or notes.

Or_16736-ed
Divination text in Karo Batak script inscribed on a bamboo container, which has a wooden lid. British Library, Or 16736 Noc

Shoulder and rib bones of water buffaloes were also used as writing materials, and often contain magical or amuletic drawings alongside writing.

A piece of bone inscribed on one side with Batak text

A piece of bone inscribed with magical drawings
A piece of bone inscribed on one side with Batak text, and on the other with magical diagrams including the ‘Ring of Solomon’ in the centre. British Library, Or 13330 A Noc

Of the 37 Batak manuscripts in the British Library, there are 33 pustaha of folded treebark, three inscribed pieces of bamboo, and one manuscript comprising two bone amulets. The tradition of compiling pustaha and other manuscripts had already begun to die out from the mid-19th century onwards under pressure from initially Muslim, soon followed by German Protestant Christian, missionary efforts. However since the early 20th century there has also a been a thriving industry of creating ‘new’ Batak manuscripts for sale to tourists.

It has been estimated that around 2,000 Batak manuscripts are preserved today in public and private collections around the world. Perhaps the largest number in any one country are in Germany, home to about 580 Batak manuscripts, owing to the historically prominent role of German Protestant missionaries in Batak lands. The recent publication of a detailed and fully illustrated catalogue of 54 Batak manuscripts, together with state-of-the-art essays on Batak history and writing culture (Putten and Zollo 2020), is a major contribution to Batak studies, and highlights the important role of the the CSMC of Hamburg University in developing and supporting scholarship on Batak manuscripts.

HORAS!

Further reading
Uli Kozok, Bark, bones, and bamboo: Batak traditions of Sumatra. Illuminations: writing traditions of Indonesia, ed. Ann Kumar & John H. McGlynn. Jakarta: Lontar Foundation, 1996; pp.231-246.
Uli Kozok, Surat Batak: sejarah perkembangan tulisan Batak. Jakarta: Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient; KPG, 2009. (Naskah dan dokumen Nusantara; Seri XVII).
Jan van der Putten and Roberta Zollo, ‘The power of writing: the manuscript culture of the Toba Batak from North Sumatra / Die Macht der Schrift: die Manuskriptkultur der Toba-Batak aus Nord-Sumatra.’ Manuscript cultures, 14, 2020.
M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop. Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient,Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014.
R. Teygeler, Pustaha: a study into the production process of the Batak book. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1993, 149(3): 593-611.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

14 February 2022

The art of small things (5): Recitation markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

This is the final part of a series of blog posts which has firmly resisted the temptation to dwell on the impressive illuminated frames in Qur’an manuscripts, in order to focus on the smallest artistic elements found on the inner pages. The first post looked at verse markers, the second text frames, the third surah headings and the fourth juz’ markers, all features which are common to many Qur’an manuscripts from all over the Islamic world. This fifth post, on the recitation markers ruku‘ or maqra’, is rather different, as these are not found in Qur’ans in all regions, or even in all parts of Southeast Asia, and are rarely mentioned in the scholarly literature on Qur’an manuscripts.

Maqra’ inscribed twice in tiny red letters in the margin, at the start of Juz’ 2 (Q.1:142), in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century
Maqra’ inscribed twice in tiny red letters in the margin, at the start of Juz’ 2 (Q.2:142), in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 13v. Noc

The more widely-used term is ruku‘, which has two related meanings. The first is the ritual act of bowing from the waist while standing during the formal prayer (salat). The second meaning of ruku‘ is a section of the Qur’an, in principle forming a thematic unit, selected for recitation. According to a recent study by 'Abd al-Qayum al-Sindi (2012/3), the tradition of dividing the Qur'an into ruku‘ appears to have developed in Central Asia and India around the 3/4th (10/11th) centuries. The aim was to facilitate reciting the Qur’an in Ramadan, aiming for completion by the 27th day of the holy month, the Laylat al-Qadr, believed to be the day that the Qur’an was first revealed to the prophet Muhammad. As a section of the Qur’an would be recited during each of the 20 rakat (cycles) of the evening tarawih prayers during Ramadan, each concluding with the ordained bow or ruku‘, the Qur’an was therefore divided into 540 (20 x 27) ruku‘, although other authorities give the number of ruku‘ as 558.

The division of the Qur’anic text into ruku‘, indicated with the letter ‘ayn inscribed in the margin, is indeed strongly associated with South Asia and parts of Southeast Asia, both in manuscripts and in printed Qur’ans, but is not found in western Islamic lands or in the Ottoman realm. In Southeast Asia, the use of marginal ‘ayn to signify ruku‘,  often placed in illuminated ornaments, is prominent in the early wave of Qur’an manuscripts in the Sulawesi diaspora style dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as in Mindanao.

EAP1020-3-2 (4)-3.11-15-det
Ruku‘ indicated by the letter ‘ayn in an illuminated 8-pointed star-shaped medallion, with the actual point in the text marked by a composite roundel. Folios from a Qur’an in the Sulawesi diaspora geometric style now held in Kampar, Riau, part of a larger manuscript copied in 1740 now in the Sang Nila Utama Museum, Pekanbaru, Riau, Indonesia. EAP1020/3/2, p.4 

MRSR Mushaf A (9)-DET  MRSR Mushaf A (12) 'ayn-det  MRSR Mushaf A (32) 'ayn-det
Marginal ‘ayn ornaments in a Sulawesi-style Qur’an, copied in Kedah in 1753, held in Masjid Sultan Riau, Pulau Penyengat, Riau Archipelago.

SB-Quran-01 (7)-a   UVL MSS 13296  (23)-a  Bristol D.M.32  (18)a
Marginal ‘ayn ornaments in Qur'an manuscripts from Mindanao, 18th-19th century; (left) Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Ms or. fol. 4134; (middle) University of Virginia Library, MSS 13296; (right) University of Bristol Library, D.M. 32.

From the 19th century onwards, marginal ‘ayn markers indicating ruku‘ are most strongly associated with Qur’an manuscripts from Java, and are often executed with stylish calligraphic flourishes.  In two Qur’ans from Java in the British Library, Add 12312 and Add 12343, the ruku‘ adhere to the locations given in modern printed Qur'ans, but in Add 12343 - and in a number of other Javanese Qur'ans - each marginal ‘ayn is accompanied by a number that is hard to interpret, seeming not to bear any correlation to either the number of the ruku‘, or the number of the verse, or the number of verses in that ruku‘.  These numbers are given here in bold in this listing of the 16 ruku‘ in the first juz’ of the Qur’an (S. al-Baqarah Q.2:1-141): 1 (2:1), 2 (2:8), 3 (2:21) 3 (this is the first ruku‘ marking in Add 12343), 4 (2:30) 13, 5 (2:40) 7, 6 (2:47) 7, 7 (2:60) 3, 8 (2:62) 9, 9 (2:72) 19, 10 (2:83) 4, 11 (2:87) 1, 12 (2:97) 7, 13 (2:104) 9, 14 (2:113) 9, 15 (2:122) 8, 16 (2:130) 12, with the 17th ruku‘ starting with Juz' 2 at Q.2:142.

Add 12343 f.x
Marginal letter ‘ayn in red accompanied by the number '7', marking ruku‘ 5 (Q.2:40), in a Qur'an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add 12343, f. 3v. Noc

Add 12312 ayn
Marginal letter ‘ayn in red topped with an elaborate triangle of alternating red and black lines, but without a number, while a tiny ‘ayn above the verse marker indicates the exact start of ruku‘ 5 (Q.2:40), in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add 12312, f. 3v. Noc

EAP061-2-35-P.87
Ruku‘ marked with the letter ‘ayn in red ink in the margin, with a small ‘ayn at the exact verse, in a Qur’an from East Java, 19th century. EAP061/2/35, p.87.

According al-Sindi's research (2012/3), it was the Sindhi scholar Muhammad al-Tattwi (d. 1174/1761) who replaced the term ruku‘ with maqra’, dividing each juz' into 16 maqra’. He was the author of the Tuhfah al-Qari bi-Jama‘ al-Maqari (‘A Gift to the Reader of a Collection of Maqra’), said to be based on the ‘opinions of scholars from Bukhara’. Maqra’ inscriptions in Qur'an manuscripts are most evident in Southeast Asia, mainly in the Malay peninsula and Java. Important evidence of the usage of this term in the Malay world to refer to sections of the Qur’an for recitation is found in the historical chronicle by Raja Ali Haji, ‘Genealogy of the Malays and Bugis’ (Salasilah Melayu dan Bugis) composed in 1868. In one episode, Gusti Jamril, son of the ruler of Mempawah on the west coast of Kalimantan (Borneo), pays a visit to Pangiran Dipati, the elderly ruler of Pinang Sikayuk. The young prince is quizzed on his religious learning:

His Highness asked him, ‘Has my grandson learned to recite the Qur’an?’ Gusti answered, ‘Yes’, and so His Highness instructed him to do so. So Gusti recited two makra before pausing, and His Highness listened to him with pleasure. (Dan baginda pun bertanya pula, "Apa cundaku tahu mengaji Quran?" Maka jawab Gusti, "Tahu". Maka disuruh baginda membaca Quran. Dan membacalah Gusti ada dua makra berhenti. Maka baginda pun suka mendengarnya.  Raja Ali Haji 2016: 212, identified via the Malay Concordance Project.)

Pakualaman Is.4 (2)-ed
Maqra’ marking in a Qur’an manuscript from Java, 19th century. Pura Pakulaman Library, Yogyakarta, Is. 4.

IAMM 1998.1.3501  maqra c-ed
Illuminated floral maqra’ marking in a Qur’an manuscript in the Patani style, 19th century. Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 1998.1.3494

IAMM 1998.1.3494  maqra' c-det  BQMI  (1)-a  BQMI  (3)-a
Illuminated maqra’ markers, from left to right: from a Patani-style Qur’an, 19th century, Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 1998.1.3501; and two from the royal La Lino Qur'an, early 19th century, probably made on the East Coast of the Malay Peninsula but long held in the Palace of Bima, Sumbawa, now in the Bayt al-Qur'an and Museum Istiqlal, Jakarta. Note the similar stylish calligraphic treatment of the letter alif.

Or 15227-maqra
Maqra’ inscription in red ink, in a Qur’an manuscript in the Patani style, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 24v Noc

Illuminated maqra’ ornaments are actually quite rare, as maqra’ markings in Qur’an manuscripts are usually just inscribed in the margin in red ink, as shown in Or 15227 above. In this manuscript each juz’ is divided into not 16 but eight maqra’, and those in the first juz’ are located at Q.2:26, 2:44, 2:61, 2:75, 2:91, 2:106 and 2:124. Thus maqra’ do not relate to ruku‘, but rather constitute an eighth of a juz’, thereby matching the divisions of a juz' notated in other manuscripts as thumn (eighth), rub‘ (quarter) or nisf or hizb (half). And indeed, in a recent official Malaysian government publication, the maqra’ is defined as a quarter of a hizb: ‘the Qur’an contains 323,671 letters, 77,437 words, 6236 verses, 114 surah, 30 juz’, 60 hizb and 240 maqra’ (Panduan Rasm Uthmani, 2012: 3, cited in Muhammad Azam 2021: 9).

In the manuscript cultures of Sumatra, notably in Aceh and Minangkabau, neither ruku‘ nor maqra’ markings are generally found in Qur'an manuscripts, which are more likely to indicate fractions of a juz' (although, as can now be recognized, these are in fact the same divisions as indicated by maqra’ markings). The illustration belows show a Qur'an manuscript from India, which was probably brought to Aceh and used and rebound there. The original manuscript has marginal 'ayn in red ink, but a local (Acehnese) hand has added in black ink the inscription rub', indicating a quarter of a juz'.

BL Or.16603 10 (23)-b
Qur'an from India, brought to Aceh, ca. 19th century. British Library, Or 16603, f. 73r.

The evidence so far from Southeast Asian manuscripts suggests that maqra’ are a simple quantitative division of the Qur’anic text, while ruku‘ are a qualitative division, aiming for thematic completeness within each section. However, in some manuscripts from Java, both inscriptions are found together (see illustrations below), and certain current Indonesian sources suggest that the terms ruku‘ and maqra’ are used interchangeably.  A recent study of the tradition in Lampung of reciting Surat al-Taubah over a woman in the seventh month of pregnancy describes how the Imam will read until he reaches the 'ayn: "the sign of 'ayn, also called ruku‘ and makra’, placed in the margin, is a sign of the completion of a story or discussion within the Qur'an. Thus it is advised that when you wish to stop reciting, this should be done when you encounter the 'ayn sign" (tanda ‘ain disebut juga ruku’ dan makra’ yang terletak di pinggir garis yaitu isyarat sempurnanya kisah atau suatu pembahasan di dalam Al-Qur'an. Sehingga dianjurkan ketika ingin mengakhiri bacaan al-Qur’an hendaknya ketika menemui simbol ‘ain, Musrochin 2021: 330).

IAMM 2004.2.4  text-ayn    IAMM 2004.2.3  text-maqra'  nisf-a
Two Qur'an manuscripts from Java, with marginal inscriptions in the same place of 'ayn for ruku‘ and maqra’.  Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, (left) 2004.2.4, (right) 2004.2.3.

The terms ruku‘ and maqra’ for Qur'anic divisions for recitation may thus defy firm categorisation, but have meanings which continue to evolve over place and time.

References:
‘Abd al-Qayum b. ‘Abd a-Ghafur al-Sindi, Mustalah ar-ruku fi l-masahif, madlulahu, nashatuhu wa aqwal al-ulama’ fiha (‘The term ruku‘ in mushafs: its meaning, origin and opinions of scholars on it'), Majallah Tibyan li-d-Dirasat al-Qur'aniyah / Tbeian: for Qur’anic Studies, 1434 (2012/3), 24: 20-73.
Raja Ali Haji Raja Ahmad, Salasilah Melayu dan Bugis, diusahakan Mohd. Yusof Md. Nor. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 2016.
Masruchin, Pembacaan Surat At-Taubah dalam tradisi “Tobatan” pada usia kehamilan tujuh bulan di Dusun 2 Umbulkadu Desa Sendang Asri Lampung TengahAl-Dzikra: Jurnal Studi Ilmu al-Qur’an dan al-Hadits, 2021, 15(2): 317-336.
Muhammad Azam bin Adnan, The Malay Quran manuscripts in Muzium Negara. Malaysia Museums Journal, 2021, 38: 7-25.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

I would like to acknowledge the valuable help of Mykhaylo Yakubovych in sharing and interpreting the article by al-Sindi, and I am also grateful for comments from Johanna Pink and Ali Akbar.

07 February 2022

A puzzling fragment from a Thai meditation manual

Yogāvacara meditation practices, also known as borān kammathāna, were an integral part of Theravāda Buddhism in Southeast Asia until monastic reforms of the 19th and early 20th centuries discouraged esoteric meditation practices. Yogāvacara manuals incorporate teachings from canonical and post-canonical Buddhist literature: for example, meditations on the foul, kasiṇa meditation, contemplation of Ten Forms of Knowledge etc. This article introduces a manuscript fragment (Or 14447) from 18th-century Ayutthaya (Central Thailand), which has puzzled our Thai curators, past and present, because of its unusual illustrations, painting style and format.

Complete view of the illustrated (front) side of the Yogāvacara manual at the British Library, Or 14447
Complete view of the illustrated (front) side of the Yogāvacara manual at the British Library, Or 14447 Noc

The lavishly illustrated manuscript fragment consists of just three complete and two half folios with Pali and Thai text in Khmer and Khom scripts (a Thai adaptation of Khmer script) on the front side. Short passages written in black ink contain instructions for the person called Yogāvacara (spelled yogābacara in the manuscript). The back side contains only text in Thai language written in Thai script. It was purchased from Hentell Ltd Hong Kong in 1989.

The fragment is in the format of a paper folding book (samut khoi) in portrait orientation, which in the Thai manuscript tradition is mostly used for divination manuals (phrommachāt), medical treatises, yantra manuals or poetry books (konlabot).

The illustrations relate to Yogāvacara meditations on the Ten Forms of Knowledge which are briefly mentioned in the Abhidhammattha-saṅgaha, a Pali text attributed to Ācariya Anuruddha who is thought to have lived between the 8th to 12th century. In its essence the content is based on Buddhaghoṣa's Visuddhimagga, which mentions only Eight Forms of Knowledge, but elaborates in detail on graphic descriptions associated with them. The Ten Forms of Knowledge describe stages of insight that a meditator passes through on the path to nibbāna.

The illustrations are in the Ayutthaya painting style with a strong Mon influence. The minimal use of gold and liberal use of orange, the execution of mountains and rocky outcrops in the “Chinese” style with a light watery wash, the use of the Krajang Pattiyan pattern, and the depiction of a round halo around the monk’s head distinguish the painting style as Ayutthayan of the late 17th to early 18th century.

However, the style is not entirely Thai due to features often found in Mon/Shan/Burmese inspired paintings like the voluminous tail of the hamsa bird, the depiction of the monk in side view, the flow of the monk’s outer robe, and the monk’s umbrella (personal communication with Irving Chan Johnson, 11.6.2021). It is possible that the artist was Mon, or the manuscript was produced in a local Mon community in the Ayutthaya Kingdom.

If we assume that the order of the paintings illustrating the Ten Forms of Knowledge is consistent with the order of descriptions in the known Pali text sources, this manuscript must be viewed from right to left. The manuscript had previously been foliated with pencil starting with “1” in the top left corner, as one would usually read a Thai folding book in portrait orientation; however, this is incorrect.

Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 first folio [wrongly foliated “5”]
Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 first folio [wrongly foliated “5”] Noc

The illustrations on the first folio, of which only one half survives, relate to the first two Forms of Knowledge: Knowledge of calm and insight (sammathadassana-ñāṇa) and Knowledge of rise and fall (udayavyayādassana-ñāṇa).

Knowledge of calm and insight is represented in the bottom illustration by a monk with a red halo, holding a staff and pointing towards a man with a red halo, sitting on the floor. The Thai-Pali text on this folio is incomplete. At the top is an illustration related to Knowledge of rise and fall, represented by a monk with red halo holding a flame.

Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.2 [wrongly foliated “4”]
Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.2 [wrongly foliated “4”] Noc

The illustrations on the next folio represent the third and fourth Forms of Knowledge: Knowledge of disruption (bhangānudassana-ñāṇa) and Knowledge of what is to be feared (bhayatupaṭṭhāna-dassana-ñāṇa).

At the bottom, representing the Knowledge of disruption, is a monk with a red halo facing a corpse by the riverside. The monk is touching the corpse with his staff. The illustration at the top represents Knowledge of what is to be feared. A monk with a red halo crosses his hands in front of his chest while facing a corpse and a lion emerging from a cave. The Thai-Pali text above says: "The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the bhaiyavipasanāñāṇa sees saṃsāra as scary, just like a man who goes to rest in a cave where a rājasīha [mythical lion] resides. When the man leaves, he sees the rājasīha and is very scared and seeks to escape the rājasīha" (translation by Trent Walker).

Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 fol. 3
Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 fol. 3 Noc

In the middle of the manuscript (foliated “3”) two illustrations relate to the fifth and sixth Forms of Knowledge: Knowledge of of evil (ādīnavanudassana-ñāṇa) and Knowledge of disgust (nibbidānudassana-ñāṇa).

The image below is related to Knowledge of evil, depicting a monk with a red halo, who is pointing towards a burning house. The Thai-Pali text reads: “The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the ādinaviñāṇa sees saṃsāra and flees, just like [someone in] a burning house seeks to escape the house".

At the top is a monk with a red halo pointing towards a bird; behind him are an alms bowl, meditation umbrella of a forest monk and a water vessel. It represents the Knowledge of disgust, and the Thai-Pali caption says "The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the nibhidāyañāṇa sees saṃsāra and is very disgusted by it, just like a royal swan that was formerly in a clean forest but one day flies and ends up in a village of [evil-doers?]… like the royal swan who is disgusted and seeks to escape from there" (translation by Trent Walker).

Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.4 [wrongly foliated “2”]
Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.4 [wrongly foliated “2”] Noc

The illustrations on the fourth folio represent the seventh and eighth Forms of Knowledge: Knowledge of desire for freedom (muccitukamyatādassana-ñāṇa) and Knowledge of reflection (paṭisaṅkhānupassanā-ñāṇa).

Shown below is a monk with a red halo pointing towards Rāhu, the demon swallowing the moon, which relates to the Knowledge of desire for freedom. The Thai-Pali text reads: "The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the muñcitukāmāyañāṇa seeks to be freed from saṃsāra, just like the moon seeks to be freed from Rāhu" (translation by Trent Walker).

Above is a monk with red halo, sitting under his umbrella, pointing towards a man with a red halo, who has caught a snake and is putting it into a fishing basket. This relates to the Knowledge of reflection. The Thai-Pali caption of this illustration in the manuscript states: "The meditator [yogābacara] contemplating the paṭi[saṅ]khārañāṇa has the means of seeking to be freed from saṃsāra, just like a man... [illegible] …. a cobra and grasps its neck and seeks to be freed from that snake" (translation by Trent Walker).

Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.5 [wrongly foliated “1”]
Yogāvacara manual, British Library, Or 14447 f.5 [wrongly foliated “1”] Noc

Only half of the last folio survives, and the illustrations and captions are only partially visible and in very poor condition. The illustrations are related to the last two Forms of Knowledge: Knowledge of indifference towards all conditioned formations and Knowledge of contemplation of adaptation.

The Visuddhimagga mentions two scenes that are depicted in the illustrations on this folio: below showing a divorced wife finding a new lover while the former husband remains equanimous; and above there are traders on a ship using a land-finding crow when the ship has gone off course, comparing this scene with the meditator’s finding of nibbāna through rejecting the occurrence of all formations.

The paleography of the text in Khmer/Khom script accompanying the illustrations suggests that it was written towards the end of the 18th century, especially the less rounded shape of the letter ว, which in the early 18th century and before usually looks very much like modern Khmer វ (Trent Walker, personal communication 1.7.2021).

Yogāvacara manuals, mostly from the 19th century, survive in manuscript collections in Thailand, but in library catalogues and publications they are often called Pritsana Tham, meaning “Dhamma puzzle” (H. Woodward, 2021). The method of reading Yogāvacara manuals from right to left - which in the Thai tradition appear as if they were read from back to front - may have brought about the description “Dhamma puzzles”. However, the format and direction of reading Yogāvacara manuals is similar to folding books found in the East and Central Asian traditions, where manuscripts from earlier periods survive, like for example the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, a 9th-century folding book with text in Chinese and Tibetan, or a Tangut folding book dating back to between the 10th to 13th century containing the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra. Yogāvacara manuals may be a central piece in the puzzle that is trying to explain how paper folding books and esoteric meditation methods came to mainland Southeast Asia.

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

I would like to thank Trent Walker (Stanford University) and Irving Chan Johnson (National University of Singapore) for their invaluable advice and support with translations. This blog post is an extract of a full article published in the SEALG Newsletter 53.