Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

5 posts from May 2022

30 May 2022

The Nomadic Chemist: Alfred Sercombe Griffin (1878-1943) and Burma

Griffin in the doorway of his Weston-super-Mare pharmacy after his return from Burma
Griffin in the doorway of his Weston-super-Mare pharmacy after his return from Burma. Griffin family archives.

The Burmese collection at the British Library has recently received two donations of fascinating memorabilia that belonged to Alfred Sercombe Griffin. He is known for his adventure novels for boys, but made his main living as a pharmacist. He described himself as a “nomadic chemist”, and was drawn to work as a locum pharmacist around England and in other parts of the world. In 1906 he accepted a post at the English pharmacy in Rangoon. As a result, many of his adventure novels are set in Burma. He also wrote extensively of his work as a pharmacist in Burma in the Chemist & Druggist and the Pharmaceutical Journal.

He writes in “Avoiding the humdrum”, Pharmaceutical Journal, 1925, under the pen name “Sasayah” (Burmese for writer): “My father spent the greater part of forty-five years within a small chemist’s shop, looking out on a dull grey wall. I was apprenticed to him, and early vowed that such an existence should not be mine, though I might be a chemist and I might be poor.”

Port of Henzada
Port of Henzada. Alfred Sercombe Griffin, 1906-08. British Library, Photo 1402(15)

Born in Bath and apprenticed by his father, Alfred Sercombe Griffin moved from Bournemouth to London and on to San Remo in 1904-05. After returning to England and working as a locum pharmacist in many parts of the country, he applied for posts in Uganda and China but was not successful. He then found an advertisement for a vacant position in the Supplement of the Pharmaceutical Journal, and was accepted for the post at the pharmacy of Mesrrs. E.M. de Souza & Co., Dalhousie Street, Rangoon, where he arrived in December 1906 after a long boat journey.

Travellers coming on board a boat at Martaban, 1906-08
Travellers coming on board a boat at Martaban, 1906-08. Alfred Sercombe Griffin. British Library, Photo 1402(28)

He writes in one of his novels, Burma Road Calling! (1943): “An intensely varied crowd surged along the road for the early morning shopping and promenade: Burmese women gay in pink silks with the daintiest replicas of themselves beside them; shaven-headed monks in yellow robes, bearing golden sunshades; sturdy Shans with enormous plantain-leaf hats from the hills; tall Paloungs with black robes and tight skull-caps who had brought tea from over the border; an English soldier or two from the barracks; Chinamen in blue pantaloons; Kachins of wild appearance, Karens of gentler aspect; and half a dozen races that even Mr Wrekin himself could not identify. ‘Just come from Babel?’ inquired Roger as he listened to the many languages being spoken all round him.”

In "Avoiding the humdrum" Griffin gives a similar description of his work place: “In the pharmacy in Rangoon fifty languages were spoken everyday; my dispensers and assistants were Burmese, Chinese, Goanese, Hindoos, Brahmins, and Eurasians…”  Griffin aimed to avoid the English circles with its bridge parties and English plays that he found rather boring, and much preferred a Burmese pwai instead, sitting leisurely on a mat and passing down a betel box to chew. He however also describes in the letters to his family Friday evenings and parties at the Rangoon YMCA. Griffin was also involved with the Boys’ Brigade (or new Scouts) and attended their camp at Kokine (Rangoon) in 1907. He was also part of the Boys’ Work Committee. Two of his adventure novels, The Scouts of Ching’s Island and Scouts in the Shan Jungle are about boy scouts based in Rangoon and lodging at the YMCA (“Ching’s Island” was located at Kokine Lake). Griffin clearly enjoyed similar literature himself, as he asked for the Boy’s Own Paper to be sent regularly to him from England. Later on he would write stories for the paper himself.

Alfred Sercombe Griffin
Alfred Sercombe Griffin (1878-1943). Griffin family archives.

Griffin was soon appointed the manager of the dispensing department, but like many British in Southeast Asia at this time soon fell gravely ill (with dysentery or malaria). In late 1907 he was sent to the branch in Maymyo, Shan States, to recuperate. With a more temperate climate than Rangoon, Maymyo was a favourite hill station for the British. Griffin used his own experiences in Burma to provide colour and detail to his adventure stories, and even the Maymyo pharmacy features in one of them: “Roger went up the steps and passed into a marble-floored pharmacy which had rows of medicine bottles, glass show-cases, and a smiling young Englishman behind the counter.” (Burma Road Calling!, 1943).

Griffin (with his Burmese name Maung Na Gyi) journeyed back to England in late 1908 due to his health, and was apparently banned from returning to the Tropics on medical grounds, which he greatly lamented. From his many writings it becomes clear that he sincerely loved his time in Burma and had a soft spot not just for the Burmese, but also for the variety of people who inhabited the country at this time. Despite staying in Burma for only  two years, one of them while very ill, the experience left a lasting impression on him, which he revisited via his writings in pharmaceutical journals, illustrated lectures, and adventure stories, published decades later.

After returning to Europe Griffin continued work as a locum pharmacist in Paris, but returned to Bath to take care of his father’s pharmacy in 1910. A few years later, he took over a bankrupt pharmacy in Weston-super-Mare, which he transformed into a thriving business, and then married and settled down there. In 1917 he built a bungalow in Sidcot, Winscombe, named Wingaba (according to Griffin Burmese for a beautiful view). He retired to Sidcot in 1925 early at 47 due to his poor health. He became a Quaker in the early 30s and subsequently travelled to Palestine, where one of his novels is set (Where the Master Lived, 1936).

Griffin writes in “Avoiding the humdrum” (1925): “In the duller days when I was to become a proprietor of a pharmacy of my very own I could jump out of the humdrum of income-tax returns and N.H.I. by picking up one of my books on Burma and fly instanter to a land of brilliant sunshine and kindly memories.”

Cover of Scouts in the Shan Jungle, 1937
Cover of Scouts in the Shan Jungle, 1937. Illustrator Richard B. Ogle. British Library, 20059.f.26

Griffin’s novels are light, entertaining stories of adventure replete with snakes and man-eating tigers, kidnappings, rides through waterfalls, lost cities, mystery and intrigue as well as a varied collection of personalities. The international group of Scouts that also includes Burmese, Shan, Indian and Chinese members nevertheless dress in khaki breeches and sun-helmets, and never miss their coffee and rolls in the morning, a tiffin and a siesta in the afternoon, and a wholesome dinner in the evening. Inevitably, the stories are written from an English perspective, and enjoy the stereotypes of the time, whether European or Asian. All of Griffin’s writings, however, relay an enjoyment of travel, wonder and humour in the small moments of life, as well as the joy of telling a story. The stress is firmly on the character of the individual.

Griffin’s interest in illnesses and their cure has also been included in the stories. Leprosy features in several novels, where a knee-jerk fear of contagion is dismissed with new medical knowledge. Snake bites can be dealt with the right treatment and some characters even catch malaria and recover.

A little girl infected with leprosy near temple steps walking towards Griffin
A little girl infected with leprosy near temple steps walking towards Griffin. Alfred Sercombe Griffin, 1906-08. British Library, Photo 1402(37)

The two donations that the British Library has received were given by Michael Bruce, the maternal grandson of Alfred Sercombe Griffin, and a traveller and an author himself (Malta: A Geographical Monograph, 1965). The donations include a box of 50 photographic glass slides that Griffin took and collected while in Burma. Once back in Europe, he would give illustrated 'lantern lectures' of his travels with these slides. This lecture is still included with the glass slides and the numerous times the lecture was given between 1910-1941 are recorded on the inside lid (33 times altogether). Some of these slides were used as a basis for illustrations in Griffin’s novels.

Medical prescription in Burmese inscribed for Alfred Sercombe Griffin in Maymyo in 1907
Medical prescription in Burmese inscribed for Alfred Sercombe Griffin in Maymyo in 1907. Photograph by Michael Bruce. British Library, Or 17020.

The second donation is a framed palm-leaf prescription with the cure for “tropical sprue”, custom-made for Griffin while he was recuperating in Maymyo. He received it from a young monk who resided in the temple across the road from Griffin’s pharmacy, which he visited, with the aid of his walking sticks, for Burmese lessons. The prescription was given to him in return for a picture of the Shwedagon Pagoda that Griffin had found at the back of a pharmaceutical catalogue. Griffin describes watching the inscription being made, and indeed one of his glass slides depicts the young monk in question. A description of the process can also be found in Burma Road Calling!: “Roger was particularly interested in the monastery scribe who was making the holy books – from start to finish.” “First there were dried strips of palm leaf, eighteen inches long by two and a half inches deep, stretched taut on a special sort of frame. On this dried leaf the words were slowly inscribed with an instrument like a knitting-needle; letter by letter in the round script of the Burmese alphabet the young monk cut into the outer tissue of the palm leaf.”

Shan scribe working on a palm leaf inscription
Shan scribe working on a palm leaf inscription. Alfred Sercombe Griffin, Maymyo, 1907. British Library, Photo 1402(31)

Griffin framed the prescription and wrote about it in the Druggist & Chemist and other medical papers, trying to find help in translating it. Apparently a portion reads: “Take the leaves of the Juju tree, plucked at midnight when Mars is in the ascendant. Pound them intimately with the dried tail of a rat and the sting of a cobra…” The inscription is undeciphered as of today and is still awaiting translation.

School boys saying their alphabet
School boys saying their alphabet. Alfred Sercombe Griffin. 1906-08. British Library, Photo 1402(35)

Bibliography of Alfred Sercombe Griffin’s monographs:
The Scouts of Ching’s Island, 1929. Set in Kokine (Rangoon), with the Kemendeen Scouts.
The Treasure of Gems, 1934. Set in 16th century Martaban and Pegu, where an English boy Roger ends up in King Tabinshweti’s court.
Fetters of Freedom, 1934
Within the Golden Globe, 1934
The Crimson Caterpillar, 1935
Where the Master Lived, 1936
Scouts in the Shan Jungle, 1937. Kemendeen Scouts’ adventures in the Shan States.
Burma Road Calling!, 1943. A journey from Rangoon to Chungking during the second Sino-Japanese War.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  Ccownwork

This blog was written courtesy of Michael Bruce and Christopher Griffin (both grandsons of Alfred Sercombe Griffin), who generously provided information, articles, letters and photographs from the family archives.

23 May 2022

More highlights from our GOLD exhibition

Gold is a new exhibition at the British Library in London which opened last week, presenting 50 spectacular manuscripts from around the world. The exhibits are drawn equally from the Western heritage and the Asian and African collections of the British Library, and feature both iconic manuscripts, familiar from publications and previous exhibitions, and a few treasures never previously displayed in public. A recent Medieval manuscripts blog presented some of the highlights of the Gold exhibition; here are more delights, from an exhibition in which every item is a star in its own right.

The Lotus Sutra

The exhibition opens with a selection of sacred texts from different world faiths written entirely in gold. This lavishly decorated scroll of the Lotus Sutra, copied in 1636 in gold and silver ink on indigo-dyed paper, was probably commissioned by the Japanese emperor Go-Mizunoo (1596–1680) for presentation to the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko where his grandfather-in-law, the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, was buried. The Lotus Sutra is one of the most influential scriptures of the Mahayana school of Buddhism in East Asia, and is seen by many as the summation of the Buddha’s teachings. At the start of the scroll is an exquisite illustration of the Buddha granting promises to his disciples that they may attain Buddhahood in their future lives, but in the exhibition we have chosen to focus attention on the sacred text itself, beautifully written in gold.

Lotus Sutra, Japan, 1636. British Library, Or 13926  Noc

Songs for Shah Jahan

The exhibition proceeds from sacred texts written in gold to secular documents where gold ink served to honour and elevate royal names. The Sahasras (Thousand Delights), a collection of 1004 songs written in Braj Bhasha, a dialect of Hindi, was compiled for the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628–58) by the master musician Nayak Bakhshu. This illuminated copy was probably made for the Emperor himself, and the names of the original patrons of the songs were replaced on every page by the royal name ‘Shah Jahan’ written in gold, as can be seen on the penultimate lines of the opening page below.

14. IO Islamic 1116 1v
Songs of Nayak Bakhshu, India, c. 1650. British Library, IO Islamic 1116, f. 1v Noc

Dedication to King Henry VIII

The use of gold for the sovereign name features in a work about the Holy Land by the French author Martin de Brion, two copies of which were produced as gifts to the rival kings, Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France. On display is Henry’s copy, which opens with his royal arms framed by a border, two fleurs-de-lis and two crowned ‘H’ initials in gold. Facing this is a dedication poem to Henry, splendidly written in gold ink on a red ground, alluding to the heraldic colours of England.

Royal MS 20 A IV 
Martin de Brion, Tresample description de toute la Terre Saincte, Paris, c. 1540. British Library, Royal MS 20 A IV, ff. 1v-2r Noc

Illuminated Hindu scroll

The exhibition also explores the use of gold in pictures to depict sacred figures and evoke divinity. The Bhagavata Purana, one of the most influential scriptures in the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism, contains stories of the various manifestations of the God Vishnu. Prominently positioned at the start of this scroll is the sacred mystic syllable Om, written in gold, followed by an image of the God Ganesh.

Bhagavata Purana, Rajasthan, India, late 18th century. British Library, Add MS 16624, f. 2r    Noc

Lives of the Buddha

Before gaining Enlightenment, the Bodhisatta (or Buddha-to-be) had hundreds of lives, in which he was born as man and animal in many different forms. In a Burmese manuscript, gold is used to identify the Bodhisatta in various Jatakas, or stories of his lives. In one story, the Bodhisatta is born as an elephant, whose herd is terrorised by a giant crab who lives in the nearby lake. The crab manages to seize him in his claws and a heart-stopping battle ensues. Only when the elephant's mate coaxes the crab with flattering words does it loosen its death-grip. This story praises the virtue of loyal partners.

Tikanipat, scenes from the Jatakas, Myanmar, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f. 111r  Noc

Thai lacquer book cover

A lacquered and gilded Thai book cover, which depicts animals and plants in the heavenly Himavanta forest of the Buddhist cosmos, was created using a Thai technique called lai rot nam (design washed with water). Thick mulberry paper was covered with layers of black lacquer, a pattern was traced, areas to remain black were painted with a natural gum, and gold leaf was applied to the whole surface. The next day the gum was removed with water to reveal the intricate gold design.

Or 15257-det
Buddhist texts and Phra Malai, Thailand, 1850–1900. British Library, Or 15257 (detail of front cover) Noc

Treasure binding

The most prestigious sacred Christian manuscripts were sometimes fitted with treasure bindings of precious metalwork, and displayed prominently in churches. Although the ornate binding of this Gospel-book is probably not contemporary with the manuscript, at least some of the components are medieval. The cover of copper-gilt (copper overlaid with a thin layer of gold leaf) is ornamented with a relief figure of Christ in the centre, surrounded by four enamel plaques and a border of crystals.

Add MS 21921 (b)
The Four Gospels, with a treasure binding. Northwest Germany, c. 1000 (manuscript); Germany or France, 12th–14th century (some binding components). British Library, Add MS 21921  Noc

Art Deco binding

The Art Déco style of the 1920s is exemplified by the lively style, fine craftsmanship and the rich materials of this binding, created by Pierre-Émile Legrain (1889– 1929). His innovative and creative designs incorporated geometric and abstract patterns, featuring semicircles of gold with overlapping blue and silver circular motifs on goatskin. This binding is the most recent item in the exhibition, which spans 1,500 years of writing traditions.

Legrain binding-crop
Pierre-Émile Legrain binding on Colette, La vagabonde Paris, 1927. British Library, C.108.w.8  Noc

Annabel Teh Gallop, Co-Curator, Gold  Ccownwork

The exhibition Gold: 50 spectacular manuscripts from around the world is on at the British Library until 2 October 2022. To visit, book your tickets here.

An accompanying book, Gold, presenting 21 highlights from the exhibition, is available from the British Library shop.

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

16 May 2022

Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project: 120 more Javanese manuscripts to be digitised

With the generous support of William and Judith Bollinger, 120 Javanese manuscripts in the British Library are being digitised. The manuscripts date from the 18th to the late 19th centuries, and cover a wide range of subjects, from Javanese literature, history and calendrical traditions to Islamic texts on theology, law and Sufism, and include some finely illuminated or illustrated volumes. A full list of the manuscripts to be digitised can be found here. On completion of this project by 2023, a great milestone will have been reached: all the Javanese manuscripts written on paper in the British Library will have been digitised, and will be freely and fully accessible online.

This project continues and complements the Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta Digitisation Project (2017-2019), supported by Mr S.P. Lohia, which digitised 75 manuscripts originating from the Palace (Kraton) of Yogyakarta, which had been seized by British forces in 1812 and are now held in the British Library. In the present Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project, the great majority of manuscripts to be digitised – over a hundred of the 120 – were also acquired during the British administration of Java from 1811 to 1816, and are thus substantially earlier than most other Javanese manuscripts held in libraries today.

Serat Angling Darma, undated but written on English paper watermarked 1808, with ‘temple’-style illuminated frames with brick pedestals, columns and domes
Serat Angling Darma, undated but written on English paper watermarked 1808, with ‘temple’-style illuminated frames with brick pedestals, columns and domes. British Library, Add 12285, ff. 1v-2r Noc

In this new digitisation project, 41 of the Javanese manuscripts are from the collection of John Crawfurd, who was Resident of Yogyakarta from 1811 to 1814. While these manuscripts are not from the Kraton library in Yogyakarta, many of them have royal connections through the Pakualaman, the minor court set up in Yogyakarta under British patronage in 1812 in return for support during the attack on the Sultan's palace. Crawfurd and Prince Paku Alam I enjoyed warm relations founded on a shared interest in Javanese literature and history. The Pakualaman court became renowned as an artistic centre, and many of the manuscripts presented to Crawfurd by Paku Alam are illuminated in the characteristic candi or ‘temple’ style, with decorated frames (wadana) in the form of distinctly architectural constructs, as shown above (Behrend 2005; Saktimulya 2016).

Another British official with an interest in Javanese history was Colin Mackenzie, Chief Engineer in Java from 1811 to 1813, and 43 manuscripts to be digitised in this project come from the Mackenzie collection. In contrast to the Crawfurd collection, which mostly comprises manuscripts from Yogyakarta, a considerable number of manuscripts owned by Mackenzie originate from other regions of Java including the pasisir, the northern coastal strip. Mackenzie received manuscripts from Kudus and Rembang (MSS Jav 90, 99), from the Adipati of Gresik (MSS Jav 12), and from the son of the Panembahan of Sumenep in Madura (MSS Jav 25, 31). Five of Mackenzie’s manuscripts came from Kyai Adipati Sura Adimanggala, the erudite Regent of Semarang (MSS Jav 1, 2, 3, 18, 67), including a divination almanac, Papakem Watugunung, dated 1812 (MSS Jav 67), written and illustrated by Sura Adimanggala himself.

Papakem Watugunung, with illustrations of attributes of each of the thirty wuku or weeks
Papakem Watugunung, with illustrations of attributes of each of the thirty wuku or weeks, written and illustrated by Kyai Adipati Sura Adimanggala of Semarang, 1812. British Library, MSS Jav 67, f. 38r Noc

From the Dutch official F.J. Rothenbuhler, former Governor (Gezaghebber) of the Eastern Coast of Java, based in Surabaya, Mackenzie received two of the finest early illustrated Javanese manuscripts known, which appear to have been commissioned by Rothenbuhler’s wife, named in the text as Nyonya Sakeber (i.e. Gezaghebber). Serat Sela Rasa (MSS Jav 28), copied in 1804, was one of the first Javanese manuscripts in the British Library to be digitised, since when its wayang-style drawings have attracted wide attention and adorned numerous book covers published internationally. Much less known is its equally lavishly illustrated sister manuscript, Panji Jaya Kusuma (MSS Jav 68), but its planned digitisation will bring this beautiful manuscript too into the limelight, and is certainly one of the highlights of the project.

Prince Dewakusuma (father of Panji) entering his wife's bed-chamber; her presence is only hinted at, tantalizingly, by her foot peeping out from under the bed-covers. Panji Jaya Kusuma, Surabaya, 1805. British Library, MSS Jav 68, f. 24v Noc

The Mackenzie collection is also rich in Islamic works, written in Javanese in both Javanese script (hanacaraka) and modified Arabic script (pegon). Manuscripts may include texts in Arabic, in some cases with interlinear translations in Javanese. Subjects range from stories of Islamic saints and heroes such as Anbiya (MSS Jav 51) and Carita satus (MSS Jav 73), texts on mysticism and prayer, and Sufi silsilah or chains of transmission of teachings, as well as compilations of prayers and vows. There are also a number of primbon, compendia of religious teachings combined with divination guides, mantras and protective prayers.

Mystical presentation of the name Allah, in a compendium of Islamic works, late 18th-early 19th century
Mystical presentation of the name Allah, in a compendium of Islamic works, late 18th-early 19th century. British Library, MSS Jav 69, f. 40v Noc

The manuscripts to be digitised also include 13 from the collection of Raffles, comprising fragments of literary works, copies of Old Javanese inscriptions, and notes on language. Raffles, Mackenzie and Crawfurd all collected manuscripts in order to support their researches. In their publications – such as Raffles’ History of Java (1817) and Crawfurd’s Grammar and Dictionary of the Malay language (1852) and his Descriptive Dictionary of the Indian Islands and Adjacent Countries (1856) – references to the manuscripts in their own collections can be traced, but many other ‘works in progress’ remained unpublished. Mackenzie never published anything of substance arising out of his Javanese collections, while among Crawfurd’s manuscripts to be digitised are three volumes of materials for a planned grammar and dictionary of Javanese which never fully materialised.

English-Javanese dictionary compiled by John Crawfurd
A glimpse of an English-Javanese dictionary compiled by John Crawfurd, before 1851. British Library, Add 18577, f. 123r Noc

Account of the family of the late regent of Tuban, in Javanese
Punika atur pratela kawula Adipati Sura Adinagara Bupati ing Lasem, ‘Account of the family of the late regent of Tuban’, collected by Raffles. British Library, MSS Jav 100, f. 3r Noc

The Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project will also digitise around 17 manuscripts mostly dating from the second half of the 19th century, comprising more recent acquisitions in the British Library. These include an illustrated volume of Panji stories, probably from the north coast of Java, a collection of drawings of wayang figures, and a number of Islamic texts copied on local treebark paper (dluwang), most likely from an educational (pesantren) milieu.

Illustration from a Panji romance, 1861
A foreign Balinese soldier confronting Urawan, who is actually Panji's wife in male disguise; an illustration from a Panji romance, 1861. British Library, Or 15026, f. 69r Noc

Over the coming year, the British Library will be working with partners in Indonesia, especially with the National Library of Indonesia (Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia or Perpusnas), the very active Indonesian Association of Manuscript Scholars MANASSA, and DREAMSEA (Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts in Southeast Asia), to broaden awareness and usage of these new resources, including through a conference to be held in Indonesia.  Selected newly-digitised Javanese manuscripts from the British Library will also be transliterated in cooperation with the Lestari Literary Foundation (Yayasan Sastra Lestari) and will be made accessible through the pioneering portal for Javanese literature, Sastra Jawa.

All the manuscripts to be digitised over the coming year through the Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project are listed on the Digital Access to Javanese Manuscripts page. As each manuscript becomes accessible, the shelfmark will be hyperlinked directly to the digitised images. This post has highlighted some of the most interesting and beautiful manuscripts which will soon be available online to be read in full – or even just to be gazed at and enjoyed as a visual feast.  


T.E. Behrend, Frontispiece architecture in Ngayogyakarta: notes on structure and sources. Archipel, 2005, (69): 39-60.
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.
Sri Ratna Saktimulya, Naskah-Naskah Skriptorium Pakualaman periode Paku Alam II (1830-1858). Jakarta: KPG (Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia), Ecole française d’Extrrême Orient, Perpustakaan Widyapustaka, Pura Pakualaman, 2016.
Donald E.Weatherbee. An inventory of the Javanese paper manuscripts in the Mackenzie Collection, India Office Library, London, with a note on some additional Raffles MSS. SEALG Newsletter, 2018, pp. 80-111.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork


09 May 2022

From Georgian Slave to Safavid Master: Some Possible Additions to the Corpus of Siyavush Beg Gurji

Today's guest blog is jointly written by Jaimee Comstock-Skipp (Leiden University PhD candidate) and Asim Saeed (Independent Researcher)

Siyavush Beg Gurji (c.1536–1616), a brilliant but elusive maestro from the Safavid era, has intrigued scholars for half a decade. Initiated by Anthony Welch in findings published nearly 50 years ago, some pages from a dispersed manuscript located in private German and Danish collections help widen our understanding of this individual, and the state of the arts in Iran at the turn of the sixteenth to the seventeenth century.

Fig 1 Garshasp and Zahhak. Or 12985  f74v Fig 2 Ardavan before Ardashir  IO Islamic 966  f.  360v
Fig. 1. Garshasp seated before Zahhak while the div, Minharas, is held prisoner (Or.12985, f. 74v). Public Domain
Fig. 2. Ardavan before Ardashir (IO Islamic 966, f. 360v). Public Domain

Born in Georgia, Siyavush Beg was brought to the first Safavid capital Tabriz where he trained to become a page. Upon the relocation of the Safavid court to Qazvin in 1548, Siyavush transferred there and continued his studies of calligraphy, illustration, painting, and poetry. He worked in the royal workshops to produce manuscripts for the shah and other courtiers and enjoyed royal support from subsequent Safavid monarchs up until 1590. He contributed three paintings to a copy of the Garshaspnamah of Asadi, which was an expansion of and complement to Firdawsi’s Shahnamah (dated 1573, fig. 1). Following these, Siyavush painted sumptuous illustrations for Shah Isma’il II's (r. 1576–1577) royal copy of the same work (dated 1576–77; dispersed), and afterward fulfilled non-courtly commissions.

During the lull in royal patronage of manuscript production in the late-1570s through the 1580s, Siyavush and his colleagues produced manuscripts for connoisseurs not related to the rulers. As a case in point, they worked on a copy of Khvandamir’s Habib al-Siyar (Friend of Biographies) that was produced in 1579 for Mirza Abu Talib ibn Mirza ʻAla al-Dawlat, a Tajik high official at the court in Qazvin (former Homberg collection, since dispersed). Elsewhere, a Khamsah of Nizami copied in 1549 for the Safavid financial secretary Ali Khan Beg Turkman (Morgan Library ms. M.836) has illustrations attributable to Siyavush c. 1579. Although not definitively associated with his hand, loose folios in his style are elsewhere scattered in collections (Pierpont Morgan Library ms. M.386.7r) and have appeared at auction (Christie’s, 10 October 2013, lot 29). It is believed that Siyavush Beg formally retired in the 1590s and headed to Shiraz where he is believed to have added to some projects prior to his death in around 1616.

In sum, up until now Siyavush Gurji’s official output has totalled fewer than thirty illustrations over a period of seven decades. However, it is hard to believe a richly gifted artist, passionately engaged with painting under four different Safavid monarchs (Tahmasp I, Isma’il II, Muhammad Khudabanda, and ʻAbbas I), and spending almost his entire life under royal aegis could produce work for only three manuscripts. To him we might also now credit illustrations in a second Khamsah of Nizami (Topkapi Palace Library ms. R.881, circa 1590–1610); and illustrations in two copies of Qazi Ahmad’s Gulistan-i Hunar, a treatise on calligraphers and painters (one in the Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow, and the other formerly in the collection of Clara C. Edwards). Furthermore, a group of Shahnamah manuscripts also reflect his artistic practices and stylistic details. Although they are unsigned, their illustrations repeating compositions and figures fit comfortably in his corpus, and suggest either his own participation or perhaps that of a colleague working closely alongside him.

These Shahnamah copies sharing common circumstances of production include the following:

  • British Library IO Islamic 966, with colophon dated 1604, page size 370 x 235 mm, figs. 2, 5, 9, 11
  • Kuwait’s al-Sabah Collection, Inv. No. LNS 233, no colophon, page size 350 x 235 mm
  • Yahuda Collection of the Israel Museum (ms. 120) dated 1617
  • Newly discovered illustrations, held in private collections, from a single dispersed Shahnamah manuscript (here labelled MS Exhibit 369 B) whose illustrations, compositions, and dimensions (averaging 355 x 240 mm) closely relate to the other Shahnamah works, as well as the above-mentioned Garshaspnamah  (Fig. 1, Or. 12985, page size 348 x 235 mm)

All these works have been attributed by scholars to be of Safavid origin and contain specific elements from the workshops of Qazvin on the cusp of artistic innovations originating in Isfahan. Although lacking an artist’s signature, they are apparently prepared in the late sixteenth century, and several folios across them have identical figures and compositional layouts.

Fig 3. Siyavashs fire ordeal. Exhibit 369 B Fig 4. Siyavash fire ordeal. LNS 233  f.42 r Fig 5 Siyavash fire ordeal  IO Islamic 966  f97r
The fire ordeal of Siyavush.
Fig. 3.  Exhibit 369 B, f. 114v © the owner
Fig. 4. LNS 233, f. 42r © The al- Sabah Collection, Dar al- Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait
Fig. 5. IO Islamic 966, f. 97r, Public Domain

Figs. 3–5 depict the famous fire ordeal of the character Siyavush, where he is asked to ride through the blazing fire in order to prove his innocence against accusations levied by his step mother. Siyavush rides through the flames with his head turned back in all three images. The galloping black horse with a yak tail hanging from the neck, the decorated saddle and the whip in rider's hand, the astonished solider with his raised hands are obvious similarities. One wonders if some pouncing or stencilling techniques were applied. The common painter of these is posited to be one individual who follows a composition from Shah Tahmasp's famous Shahnamah as a model (now held in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran). However, they are simpler versions, and could have been carried out by Siyavush Beg or his colleague.

Fig 6 Tus and Giv witht the maiden lady. Exhibit 369 B Fig 7. LNS 233  f.97r
Tus and Giv and the maiden lady.
Fig. 6. Exhibit 369 B, f. 109r © the owner
Fig. 7. LNS 233 MS, f. 97r © The al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait.

Other illustrations from ms. Exhibit 369 B, the British Library, and Kuwait collection have much in common. They share similar compositions, colour tones, heavily outlined backgrounds in which purple and pink towering masses of rocks at times overflow into the margins. Tadpole clouds populate golden and blue skies, dark green grounds are spotted with radiant flowers, above which short flame-like trees emerge (figs. 6-7). Old maple trees with bulky trunks brim with autumnal leaves (figs. 8-9).

Fig 8 Dying Rustam. Exhibit 369 B Fig 9 Death of Rustam  IO Islamic 966_f323v
The death of Rustam.
Fig. 8. Exhibit 369 B, f. 386v © the owner
Fig. 9. IO Islamic 966, f. 323v, Public Domain

In another famous episode of the Shahnamah, Tahmina is seen visiting Rustam's chamber in figs. 10 and 11 which again bear striking similarities. Upon close observation, the version in the private collection reveals some extraordinary features. A superbly sketched simurgh (the mythical bird of the Shahnamah) on Rustam's blanket (fig. 12) displays the artist’s genius and outstanding drawing skills (perhaps Siyavush’s), as he effectively connects the past with the present through a simple yet powerful image. In this folio as in the British Library’s copy, two towering cypress trees breach the upper margins above the richly decorated interiors with pink and lavender wall paintings. They both have elaborately detailed grounds covered in animal and foliate motifs. Cypress trees play an effective role in the images both visually and symbolically, for they are associated with the stature of heroes in classical poetry. The tree is also a symbol of immortality, eternity, grandeur, strength, and manliness. Tahmina's tryst with Rustam following her depicted arrival leads to the birth of their son Suhrab, one of the most known characters of the Shahnamah.

Fig 10. Daughter of the king of Samangan  Exhibit 369 B Fig 11. Rustam and Tahmina. IO Islamic 966_f79v
Tahmina visits Rustam.
Fig. 10. Exhibit 369 B, f. 93v © the owner
Fig. 11. IO Islamic 966, f. 79v, Public Domain

Fig 12. Close up of Simurgh
Fig. 11. Close up of Rustam's covering

There are many other parallels across these Shahnamah manuscripts that have been noted elsewhere, but it is worth exploring how their common illustrations came about. Regarding the style of Siyavush-like paintings in the British Library IO Islamic 966, Basil Robinson credits the unnamed artist as a “young Isfahani.” Isfahan became the site of the new Safavid capital in 1598 and an innovative artistic style popularized by Siyavush’s younger colleague, the artist Reza Abbasi, emerged there early on after the power shifted from Qazvin. The scholar Barbara Schmitz has since modified Robinson’s “young Isfahani” attribution to an “old Qazvini” artist working alone in a style that had by the early 1600s gone out of fashion. Whether or not it was Siyavush, this same individual executed the majority of the miniatures in this copy dated 1604. Robinson has also attributed three miniatures of the British Library’s Garshaspnamah to this same “young Isfahani” which Norah M. Titley has contested to be the work of Siyavush Beg. Aditionally, the scholars Adel T. Adamova and Manijeh Bayani have convincingly proposed Siyavush Beg as the possible illustrator of the Shahnamah copies in the British Library and Kuwait (see Ademova and Bayani, cat. 32, 459 - 486). They suggest that Siyavush set to work to illustrate the Kuwait version sometime prior to 1600, almost twenty years after he contributed to Shah Isma’il II’s Shahnamah. He would have next begun working on the British Library manuscript dated 1604. They stylistically justify their argument by noting how the artist followed conventions originating in the Qazvin school of painting. The hitherto never-before referenced paintings of MS Exhibit 369 B carry striking similarities to both the London and Kuwait manuscripts, and we can insert this new Shahnamah material and others into the trajectory delineated above.

Sometime between 1579 and 1604, the “young Isfahani”/ “old Qazvini” Siyavush Beg may have busied himself with yet another magnificent Shahnamah, that of MS Exhibit 369 B. Perhaps up until his final days, he might have contributed to the Shahnamah copy in the Israel Museum that was completed a year after his death. Though not much can be said with absolute certainty about the production of manuscript Exhibit 369 B, on stylistic grounds the illustrations appear to have been produced by Siyavush Beg or a painter working alongside him during the last quarter of the sixteenth century. Their sumptuousness vouches for an expensive production affordable to a prince or an aristocrat who could employ elite artists and cover the expenses of their studio.

Our conclusions are based on stylistic comparisons and the upsurge of sub-royal patrons who were commissioning richly illustrated manuscripts in parallel or in competition with princely ateliers during the second half of the sixteenth century. Economics impact arts, and one reason for the increase in such sub-royal productions was the lack of reliable royal patronage during the reign of the feeble and almost blind Safavid Shah Muhammad Khudabanda (r.1578–1587). Another possible owner of the manuscript in question could be that of the artist producing it himself; having made other copies to sell, perhaps he enjoyed his own compositions so much that he directly duplicated them.

Within these four manuscripts, the same figures frequent compositions, clad in rich garments with delicately sketched hands and rendered movements, bulky turbans and fur collars. Animals populate compositions, especially the meticulously drawn horses and foxes with fluffy tails. There are soldiers in helmets, kings in crowns, archers, and musicians. Stylistically, the most decisive element that links all of the paintings is the near perfect sense of weight and balance by the painter. Also common is the unbroken brush movement and the use of colour that is thoroughly typical of the Qazvin palette, and the painter’s penchant for transgressing the text frame and extending images into the margins. Although he did not physically sign these works with letters comprising his name, Siyavush’s hand and influence can be identified in these illustrations and bear his hallmarks.

With special thanks to Katja Preuss for her generous contributions & guidance, the Cambridge Shahnama Project and some wonderful friends.

Asim Saeed (Independent Researcher) and Jaimee K. Comstock-Skipp (Leiden University PhD candidate)
 ccownwork copy

Contact Asim: [email protected]
Contact Jaimee:

Further reading:

Adamova, Adel T., and Manijeh Bayani, Persian Painting: the Arts of the Book and Portraiture. Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah: The Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2015.
Babaie, Sussan, et al., Slaves of the Shah: New Elites of Safavid Iran. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004.
Qazi Ahmad,  Golestān-e honar, tr. Vladimir Minorsky as Calligraphers and Painters: A Treatise by Qāḍī Aḥmad, Son of Mīr-Munshī, Washington, D.C., 1959.

Robinson, B.W. “Shah Ismail II's Copy of the Shahnama.” Iran 14 (1976): 1-8.
———— “Shah Ismail II's Copy of the Shahnama: Additional Material.” Iran 43 (2005): 291-299.
Schmitz, Barbara. Islamic and Indian Manuscripts and paintings in The Pierpont Morgan Library. New York: The Pierpont Morgan Library, 1997.
Titley, Norah. “A Manuscript of the Garshāspnāmeh.” The British Museum Quarterly 31:1/2 (Autumn 1966): 27-32
————Persian Miniature Painting and its Influence on the Arts of Turkey and India. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.
Welch, Anthony. Artists for the Shah: Late Sixteenth Century Painting at the Imperial Court of Iran. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

02 May 2022

Three unusual illuminated Javanese manuscripts

This guest blog is by Dr Dick van der Meij, Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts in Southeast Asia (DREAMSEA), Hamburg University

How Javanese manuscripts were actually produced is still largely a puzzle, and therefore it is important to describe manuscripts in a way that can shed light on this issue. Comparing manuscripts is also crucial to discover whether manuscripts might be related through their scribes, or in terms of other codicological aspects such as their illustrations, illuminations and bindings.

The start of many manuscripts from Central Java from the royal palaces and from other affluent owners often comprises two facing pages with highly intricate illuminations around a text block that is much smaller than that found in the rest of the manuscript. These illuminations, usually called wadana renggan in Javanese, are hard to interpret for someone not truly versed in Javanese literature and culture. It is generally thought that these illuminated frames are unrelated to the content of the manuscript, but this supposition is often wrong, as may be seen from the work of Sri Ratna Saktimulya from Yogyakarta who has dealt with this issue in many of her publications, most notably in her book on the manuscripts made during the reign of Paku Alam II (1830-1858) of the Pakualaman court in Yogyakarta (Saktimulya 2016).

It appears to be the case that when illumination was planned, the text was usually written first, after which an artist provided the illuminations, with or without consulting the scribe of the manuscript (Van der Meij 2017: 81). In many cases, however, illuminated frames were not added, for whatever reason, and the wide space set aside for the illumination around the text was left blank, as can be seen in the manuscript of the Sĕrat Asmarasupi (MSS Jav 26), written in AJ 1695/AD 1769, shown below.

Two initial pages with blank borders which have not been illuminated in Sĕrat Asmarasupi, 1769
Two initial pages with blank borders which have not been illuminated in Sĕrat Asmarasupi, 1769. British Library, MSS Jav 26, ff. 6v-7r Noc

Often in Javanese manuscripts the text on the illuminated pages starts with a colophon, which states when the manuscript was made and by whom, or other information the scribe felt the need to tell, such as his emotional state of mind when he or she started writing. The poetic text often also starts on these pages, and then continues without any interruption on the reverse of the page that follows the illuminated one, in the same hand. A typical example is shown below, in a manuscript from the collection of John Crawfurd, British Resident of Yogyakarta, containing legendary tales, Add MS 12300 (Ricklefs, Voorhoeve and Gallop 2014: 47 ).

Illuminated frames (wadana renggan) at the start of a manuscript of legendary tales
Illuminated frames (wadana renggan) at the start of a manuscript of legendary tales, AJ 1743/AD 1815 (?). British Library, Add MS 12300, ff. 2v-3r Noc

the text on the first page following the illuminations continues seamlessly, without interruption or repetition
In this manuscript the text on the first page following the illuminations continues seamlessly, without interruption or repetition, from the text within the wadana. British Library, Add MS 12300, f. 3v Noc

Below we will have a look at three Javanese manuscripts from the early 19th century, which have all been recently digitised through the Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta digitisation project. They are Add MS 12281 of the Sĕrat Panji Angronang Pakualaman, also called Sĕrat Jaya Lĕngkara, written in AJ 1741 (AD 1813); Add MS 12288 of the Babad Sultanan utawi Mangkunĕgaran [Mangkubumen?] (undated); and Add MS 12302 of the Sĕrat Rĕjunawijaya, written in AJ 1729 (AD 1801) (Ricklefs, Voorhoeve and Gallop 2014: 45-47).

In these three manuscripts, something quite different has happened in the preparation of the illuminated pages. In all three, the same scribe wrote the text enclosed within the illuminated frames and, by the look of it, the same artist was at work on the three pairs of illuminated frames, but all three subsequent texts were written in different hands. Also, the texts do not immediately follow the illuminated pages on the verso, but one or more pages between the illuminated page and the start of the main text have been left blank.

Text in the illuminated frame from Sĕrat Rĕjunawijaya
Text in the illuminated frame from Sĕrat Rĕjunawijaya, AJ 1728-29/AD 1801-2. British Library, Add MS 12302, f. 2v  Noc

However, in all three manuscripts the illuminated frames contain the exact same text that starts on the subsequent pages. Add MS 12288 contains the first stanza of the first canto written in the long poetic meter Dhangdhanggula, while Add MS 12281 contains the first two stanzas of the first canto of the text in the short poetic meter Mijil. Because the poetic metre Mijil does not have many lines, Add MS 12281 needed two stanzas, as otherwise there would not have been enough text to fill the two illuminated frames. Add MS 12302 has two stanzas in another short metre, Pangkur, as otherwise both text blocks would not have been filled. However, in this manuscript the start of the text after the illuminated pages skips the first stanza that is included in the first illuminated page. In all three manuscripts the text blocks are completely filled with text, which means that the scribe knew exactly how large his letters should be in order to fill the space available precisely. It is also clear that the writing is by the same hand in all three manuscripts, but the scribe used a different pen for each.

Illuminated frames (wadana) at the start of Sĕrat Panji Angronang Pakualaman, 1813
Illuminated frames (wadana) at the start of Sĕrat Panji Angronang Pakualaman, 1813. British Library, Add MS 12281, ff. 1v-2r  Noc

The start of the actual text after the illuminated pages in Sĕrat Panji Angronang Pakualaman
The start of the actual text after the illuminated pages in Sĕrat Panji Angronang Pakualaman, in a cursive forward-sloping hand. British Library, Add MS 12281, f. 3r Noc

Opening illuminated frames of Babad Sultanan utawi Mangkunĕgaran
Opening illuminated frames of Babad Sultanan utawi Mangkunĕgaran [Mangkubumen?], (undated). British Library, Add MS 12288, ff. 2v-3r Noc

The start of the actual text after the illuminated pages in Babad Sultanan utawi Mangkunĕgaran
The start of the actual text after the illuminated pages in Babad Sultanan utawi Mangkunĕgaran. British Library, Add MS 12288, f. 4v Noc

Double illuminated frames at the start of Sĕrat Rĕjunawijaya
Double illuminated frames at the start of Sĕrat Rĕjunawijaya, 1801. British Library, Add MS 12302, ff. 2v-3r  Noc

The start of the actual text of Sĕrat Rĕjunawijaya after the illuminated pages.
The start of the actual text of Sĕrat Rĕjunawijaya after the illuminated pages. While the illuminated pages open with the indication of the poetic meter that starts the text, Pangkur, this page starts with the Javanese numerals '1 7 2 8' indicating the year 1728 (as stated in the first line: angkaning warsa sinurat, ‘number of the year of writing’) in the Javanese calendar which is equivalent to AD 1801, and omits the indication of the poetic meter. British Library, Add MS 12302, f. 5v  Noc

As can be seen in the illustrations above, in all three manuscripts, the illuminator has added one small golden leaf-shaped ornament on the stanza divider at the end of the text within the illuminated frames, and has marked the identical spot on the first subsequent page of text with a golden leaf on the stanza divider as well. This is possibly to denote to the reader/singer that after having read/sung the text from the illuminated pages, he/she should subsequently continue at the small golden ornament on the following page to avoid repetition of the text.

small illuminated gold leaf markings at the end of the poetic lines in Add 12281-ill   small illuminated gold leaf markings at the end of the poetic lines in Add 12281-text

small illuminated gold leaf markings at the end of the poetic lines in Add 12288-ill   Small illuminated leaf in Add 12288-text

Small golden leaf in Add 12302-ill   Small gold leaf in Add 12302-text
Details of the same small illuminated gold leaf markings at the end of the poetic lines within the illuminated frames, all written in the same scribal hand (left) and the equivalent locations on the first page of full text following the illuminated frames, all in different hands (right); from top to bottom: Add MS 12281, f. 2r and f. 3r, Add MS 12288, f. 3r and f. 4v, and Add MS 12302, f. 3r and f. 5v.  Noc

In the three manuscripts discussed above it is clear that, as happens frequently in Javanese paper manuscrips, pages were left empty at the start of the writing process. This is usually done to avoid text being lost because the opening pages are most prone to damage, and in this case probably also to allow illuminated pages to be executed later. Why this was done in this peculiar way in these manuscripts remains unclear, but the study of many more of these illuminations may shed further light on the writing and illuminating practices of manuscripts in Java.

Further reading:
Dick van der Meij, Indonesian Manuscripts from the Islands of Java, Madura, Bali and Lombok. Leiden: Brill, 2017.
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 and Corrigenda, Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Perpustakaan Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014.
Sri Ratna Saktimulya, Naskah-Naskah Skriptorium Pakualaman periode Paku Alam II (1830-1858). Jakarta: KPG (Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia), Ecole française d’Extrrême Orient, Perpustakaan Widyapustaka, Pura Pakualaman, 2016.

Dick van der Meij, Leiden  Ccownwork