Asian and African studies blog

2 posts from August 2022

08 August 2022

Stories of the Prophets: an illustrated Persian manuscript by Nishapuri

Fig.1. Noah's ark
Fig. 1. Nuh (Noah) in the ark (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 19v)

Tales of the prophets (Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʼ) form a popular literary genre based on stories adapted from the Qur’an and other Islamic literature. Since accounts of the prophets’ lives were often very sketchy in the Qurʼan itself, stories about them drew heavily on Jewish, Christian and above all on oral literature for details. Famous collections in Arabic, are Kitāb arāʾis al-majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ by the 10th to 11th century writer al‐Thaʻlabi (the British Library has one of the oldest copies of this manuscript, Or 1494 dated Jumada I, AH 513/1119) and al-Kisaʼi (active c. 1100). Another well-known collection from Central Asia was composed in Eastern Turkish Chagatai at the beginning of the 14th century by Nasir ibn Burhan Rabghuzi (see BL Add MS 7851 for a 15th century copy).

In Persian, one of the best-known and most illustrated collections was written by the 12th century writer Ishaq ibn Ibrahim Nishapuri. The British Library copy, Add. MS 18576, is one of fourteen known illustrated copies, all produced in Safavid Iran towards the end of the sixteenth century. It contains thirteen illustrations and was probably made up from two different manuscripts – copied in at least two different hands. Consisting of only 165 folios out of an original 229, it lacks the introductory frontispiece, a double spread illustration which typically might have depicted Solomon and Sheba on facing pages. Luckily the double-page finispiece (Fig. 2) is preserved at the end showing the presentation of the manuscript and a young prince reading while a banquet is being prepared.

Fig.2a. Finispiece Fig.2b. Finispiece
Fig. 2. Finispiece showing books being read and presented while a banquet is being prepared (British Library, Add MS 18576, ff. 164v-165r)

Many of the stories are common to the Bible and the Qurʼan. The first to be illustrated is the expulsion of Adam and Hava (Eve) from Paradise (Fig. 3). In this version of the story, Iblis (Satan) colluded with a peacock and a serpent (here depicted as a dragon) to tempt Adam and Hava to eat the forbidden fruit. After they had eaten, they lost their clothes, all their possessions and they were driven out. Despite their banishment, they still kept their prophetic status, represented here by the fiery haloes around their heads.

The next illustration (Fig. 4) tells the story of Adams’s sons Qabil (Cain) and Habil (Able). In both the Bible and the Qurʼan, Cain murdered his brother out of jealousy when God rejected his sacrifice in favour of his brother’s. Not knowing what to do with a dead body — as this was the first time someone had died — he wandered around with his brother strapped to his back until God sent two crows, one of which killed the other and then demonstrated how to bury it in the ground.

Fig.3. Adam is expelled from Paradise Fig.4. The story of Cain and Able
Fig. 3. Left. Adam is expelled from Paradise (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 11r)
Fig. 4. Right. A crow is sent to demonstrate to Qabil (Cain) how to bury his murdered brother Habil (Able) (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 15v)

Another familiar story, equally well-known in both biblical and Qur’anic traditions, features Nuh (Noah) in his ark (Fig. 1). His ship is a simple flat-bottomed ship, guided by paddles at front and back, while in the foreground a drowning figure calls for help from the rooftops. Note Noah’s halo signifying his prophetic status and the ship’s flag quoting sura 61, verse 13 of the Qurʼan:‘Help from Allah and a victory near at hand. And give good news to the faithful.’

Fig.5. Flag detail
Fig. 5. Detail from Noah’s ark

The story of Ibrahim’s sacrifice (Fig. 6) is one of the most frequently illustrated Qurʼanic stories. In the Bible, it is Abraham’s son Isaac who is saved from sacrifice by God offering a ram to take his place. In Islamic tradition it was Ismaʻil who was the intended victim. When Ibrahim tried to cut his son’s throat, the knife turned upside down in his hand, folded in two, and would not cut. When Ibrahim tried again, he heard a voice from Heaven telling him to look up and he saw the archangel Jibra’il descending with a ram in his arms to act as a substitute.

Equally popular is the story of Yusuf (Joseph) who features in thirteen different episodes in the Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā’ (Fig. 7). Put on sale to the highest bidder at a slave-market in Egpyt, he was purchased by the Egyptian ʻAziz (Potiphar in the Bible), or in a more romantic version, by his wife Zulaykha. Here, however, we see an addition to the story in which an old woman, standing with a group of would-be buyers with their money-bags, offers in vain her only possession, a ball of yarn.

Fig.6. Ibrahim's sacrifice Fig.7. Yusuf at the slave market
Fig. 6. Jibra’il (Gabriel) brings a ram to Ibrahim (Abraham) about to sacrifice his son (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 33v)
Fig. 7. An old woman bids for Yusuf (Joseph) at the slave-market in Egypt (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 44r)

Two further stories, both well-known in Qurʼanic and biblical traditions are the tales of Yunus (Jonah) and the big fish (Fig. 8) and of the misfortunes of Ayyub (Job, Fig. 9). Yunus repented and prayed to Allah from inside the fish, while Ayyub remained faithful despite losing everything and suffering dreadful diseases.

Fig.8. Jonah and the whale Fig.9. Job's afflictions
Fig. 8. Yunus (Jonah) coming out of the belly of the fish (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 87r)
Fig. 9. Ayyub (Job) recovering from his afflictions, brought clothing and food by Jibra’il and his wife (British Library, Add MS 18576, f. 91r)

Other illustrations in this manuscript:

  • The people of ʻAd are punished by a whirlwind (f. 22v)
  • Dawud (David) fighting Jalut (Goliath) and his people (f. 95r)
  • Zu’l-Qarnayn (Alexander the Great) builds a wall to keep out the people of Yajuj and Majuj (Gog and Magog) (f. 118r)
  • Zakariya (Zacharias) is told about the future birth of Yahya (John the Baptist).[1] (f. 128v)
  • ʻAli, watched by the Prophet Muhammad, attacks the Jews at the fortress of Khaybar (f. 158r)

An additional striking feature of our manuscript is the beautifully preserved original Safavid binding (Fig. 10), typical of the period with its use of block-stamped gold and doublures with gilt fretwork over blue, red, green and black grounds.

Fig.10a. Outer binding Fig.10b. Doublure
Fig. 10. Left. Outer gilt block-stamped cover. Right. Doublure with filigree work over blue, red, green and black grounds (British Library, Add MS 18576)

Unfortunately little is known of the former history of this beautiful copy. It was acquired from Sothebey’s on 13 March 1851, described, according to the sale catalogue[2]  as “The property of a gentleman leaving England,” one of a collection of books “connected with the fine arts.”


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections


Further reading

Digital version of Add. MS 18576

Milstein, Rachel, Karin Rührdanz and Barbara Schmitz, Stories of the Prophets: Illustrated Manuscripts of Qiṣas al-Anbiyā. Costa Mesa, Calif: Mazda Publishers, 1999


[1] Or possibly ‘The destruction of Sodom’ (Milstein, p.197).
[2] British Library, Sothebys SC (1) 1851: sale 12-13 March 1851: Acquired for £3.16.- by the booksellers Thomas and William Boone.

01 August 2022

Disfigured Ghosts and Gory Tortures in Phra Malai Manuscripts and Thai Cosmological Parks

This guest blog is by Roni N. Wang, a Ph.D. candidate at SOAS, University of London, focusing on contemporary Thai Buddhism. Roni’s research looks at Buddhist Cosmological Parks in Thailand.

Within the Buddhist cosmic scheme, birth in the realm of hell is the lowest level possible and undeniably the most horrific outcome of negative karma. Illustrations of these gory dwellings - lit by the reddish glow of blazing fires and echoing with spine-tingling screams of tortured denizens - can be found in Phra Malai manuscripts at the British Library. The story of Phra Malai tells of the arahant (one who attained enlightenment) Malai who, through accumulated merit and meditation, manifested the ability to travel to different realms of existence, and witnessed the horrors of the hells.

Paired illustrations in a paper folding book depicting Phra Malai’s visit to hell
Fig. 1. Paired illustrations in a paper folding book depicting Phra Malai’s visit to hell. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 15257, f.4  Noc

Inspired partly by this imagery are sculptural depictions of these scenes which can be found in Thai cosmological parks. Housed within Buddhist temple precincts, these parks are spaces in which different cosmic realms, local scenes, historical figures and events, and anecdotes from the Buddha’s life story come to life via three-dimensional imagery. Most popular amongst park visitors are the hell sections, some depictions of which will be explored here in relation to the Phra Malai manuscripts.

Before delving into the imagery of the monk’s hellish visions, it is vital to distinguish between two life forms that appear in the hells: hells’ denizens and hungry ghosts (Pāli: peta). The first, the hell dwellers, are creatures who were born in one of the hells, and are afflicted with myriad torturous punishments. The second group are the hungry ghosts, who are born into a realm of their own, usually due to lighter offenses or after having served one or more life spans as hell dwellers. The physical dwellings of these ghosts are varied. Some may roam the hells, and these are indeed the creatures we encounter in the depictions discussed here. Others wander the human realm, and some populate a ghostly town said to be situated above the hells. These ghosts differ in physical appearance and characteristics, but share the same grim fate, leading futile lives of constant unattainable craving, which is often expressed by ceaseless hunger and thirst.

Phra Malai with hell dwellers illustrated in a Thai folding book, dated 1875
Fig. 2. Phra Malai with hell dwellers illustrated in a Thai folding book, dated 1875. British Library, Or 6630, f.10  Noc

Now let us begin our exploration of the manuscripts’ depictions and their counterparts in the parks. One notable scene that can be found in Or 6630 (fig. 2) portrays Phra Malai seated amongst hell dwellers who ask him for meritorious assistance. As the story goes, the monk gave a sermon, after which the inhabitants of hell asked him to pay a visit to their living relatives back in the human realm to request them to perform merit on their behalf. The narrative that this image conveys emphasises the importance of merit performed by relatives for their deceased ancestors, as well as the notion that salvation is dependent on an inter-realm relationship that is communicated by ascetics.

Phra Malai amongst hell dwellers at Wat Saen Suk, Chonburi
Fig. 3. Phra Malai amongst hell dwellers at Wat Saen Suk, Chonburi. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

This scene is replicated in Wat Saen Suk Park in the eastern province of Chonburi (fig. 3). As in the 1875 manuscript, the creatures that surround Phra Malai here include naked and emaciated hell denizens and ghosts. Also noticeable are those with human bodies and animal heads. These creatures are dwellers of a hell called Saṇghāta, birth into which is a result of killing or burning animals.

These creatures also appear in OR14664 (fig. 4), displaying different animal heads, with one impressive rooster being positioned in the centre.

Inhabitants of hell with animal heads
Fig. 4. Inhabitants of hell with animal heads, illustrated in a Phra Malai manuscript from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14664, f.26  Noc

Amongst these disfigured creatures, Or 15257 (fig. 1) displays ghosts with no head but with facial features on their abdomen. This ghostly existence is the fate of robbers or thieves who used violent methods to obtain property that belonged to others. This type of headless ghost makes an appearance in the park discussed above, Wat Saen Suk. Here, it is seen holding a spear in its hand (fig. 5). It is said that the spear was given to it by Yama, the king of death, to keep away the lurking crows that tended to prey on it.

The headless ghost at Wat Sean Suk
Fig. 5. The headless ghost at Wat Sean Suk. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

Another odd creature, portrayed in Or 14710, is a male ghost with extremely large testicles, which he carries on his shoulder (fig. 6). This horrific creature was born into this state after serving a life span in hell. When he was a human, he was an evil judge who took advantage of his powerful position.

A hell dweller carrying large testicles over his shoulder
Fig. 6. A hell dweller carrying large testicles over his shoulder in a Thai Phra Malai manuscript, dated 1837. British Library, Or 14710, f.2  Noc

This same being is represented in Wat Mae Keat Noi, a park located in the northern province of Chiang Mai. Here, this monstrous creature is seen with his testicles dangling below him, pulling him down as he struggles to carry them (fig. 7).

A male ghost with extremely large testicles at Wat Mae Keat Noi
Fig. 7. A male ghost with extremely large testicles at Wat Mae Keat Noi. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

While the manuscript illustrations and their counterparts in the parks introduce a wide array of grotesque hell dwellers, the hellish backdrops also contribute to the Dantesque atmosphere, and help to convey some of the punishments that are inflicted in this horrid realm. Notable in the background scenery, both in the manuscripts and in the parks, are two images that have become widely associated with hells in the Theravāda tradition: the flaming cauldron and the towering thorn trees.

Let us begin with the cauldron. This horrific punishment is represented in Phra Malai manuscripts in two forms, each associated with a different hell. Thus, the cauldron scene in Or 14710 (fig. 6) portrays the punishment in the Lohakumbhī hell, where the denizens of hell are held by their feet and cast into these flaming iron cauldrons, which are as huge as mountains. Birth in this hell is the result of hurting monks or ascetics.

Depiction of a cauldron with decapitated heads
Fig. 8. Depiction of a cauldron with decapitated heads in a Phra Malai manuscript from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16007, f.29  Noc

The cauldrons in Or 16007 (fig. 8) and Or 14664 (fig. 4) contain decapitated heads and represent yet another hell, the Lohakumbha. In this hell, the guardians chase the inhabitants of hell with flaming iron ropes, which they twist around their necks until their heads fall. They then insert the heads into the boiling cauldrons. Then, a new head appears on the hell dweller’s body and the torture is repeated again and again. This punishment is the result of killing living beings by slashing their throats.

In the parks, these cauldrons have also taken on a cautionary role relating to alcohol abuse. Similarly, in Wat Pal Lak Roi Park (fig. 9) in Nakhon Ratchasima, north-eastern Thailand, two cauldrons are situated amid the hell section of the park. One of these cauldrons depicts several hell dwellers being scorched within it. Next to the cauldron, there is an image of a female who is being forced to drink beer by a hell guardian. The second cauldron has an inscription on it that reads ‘Lost one’s way in liquor’. In reference to this imagery, the park’s booklet notes that “This is the fate of those who…drank alcohol, until they lose consciousness… he who drinks alcohol will be met by Yama’s squad… please stop! For your children, your wife, and for a good society.”

Hellish cauldron at Wat Pal Lak Roi
Fig. 9. Hellish cauldron at Wat Pal Lak Roi. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

Another cauldron representation can be found at Wat Po Chai Sri (fig. 10), in the north-eastern province of Udon Thani. Here this hell is referred to as Narok Mo Tong Deang – literally, copper cauldron hell, and is also described as the destination for those who indulged in intoxicants. In addition, some denizens are seen being force-fed fiery melted copper, a punishment that is said to be inflicted in the Thamaphkata hell, which is indeed the destination of those who indulged in intoxicating beverages.

Copper Cauldron Hell Wat Po Chai Sri
Fig. 10. Copper Cauldron Hell Wat Po Chai Sri. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

It is curious that the cauldron became recognized as a punishment for alcohol consumption. It is tempting to assume that this is a linkage constructed through the association with liquid; however, this is just a hypothesis.

Another famous image synonymous with the hells, can be found in Or 14838 (fig. 11), Or 14731 (fig. 12) and Or 16007 (fig. 8). In these daunting depictions, we are introduced to the hellish thorn trees, upon which the poor dwellers are forced to climb endlessly whilst being pierced by thorns, whilst being trapped between large dogs who bark at the stumps below and peckish crows who await at the tops.

Illustration of a hellish thorn tree
Fig. 11. Illustration of a hellish thorn tree in a Thai Phra Malai manuscript, dated 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f.8  Noc

These trees can be found in the Lohasimbalī hell which is composed of a forest with countless trees. Somewhat misogynistic, it is the punishment inflicted on female adulterers who betrayed their husbands, or those who have had an affair with another man’s wife.

Depiction of hell dwellers being chased up a thorn tree
Fig. 12. Depiction of hell dwellers being chased up a thorn tree in a Thai Phra Malai manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14731, f.4  Noc

These trees appear in Wat Santi Nikhom (fig. 13) in the northern province of Lampang. This park has a unique layout as it is situated vertically in a building that simulates the cosmos. The hell section is situated in the basement, creating the sense of descending into hell. Here the trees are scattered around the hellish area. Naked male and female inhabitants of hell are seen climbing them, while dogs wait for them at the bottom and crows at the top, as similarly seen in the manuscripts. Adding to all these visual effects, a sensory-operated recording of the dogs’ barks and the hell dwellers’ spine-tingling wails are played as visitors arrive in the area.

Hellish thorn trees at Wat Santi Nikhom
Fig. 13. Hellish thorn trees at Wat Santi Nikhom. Photo courtesy of Roni Wang.

Whilst this is only a small glimpse into the rich imagery of Phra Malai’s journey to the hells, and its manifestation within contemporary cosmological parks, this account will hopefully shed light on how these imageries of the hells not only provoke thoughts about morality and mortality, but also support the relevance of these issues today, crossing both space and time.

Roni N. Wang Ccownwork

Further reading
B.P., Brereton, Thai tellings of Phra Malai: texts and rituals concerning a popular Buddhist saint. Arizona: Arizona State University, 1995.
F.E. ,Reynolds, and M.B.,Reynolds. Three Worlds According to King Ruang: A Thai Buddhist Cosmology. Berkeley, California: University of California, 1982.
Unebe T. Two Popular Buddhist Images in Thailand. Buddhist Narrative in Asia and Beyond. 2012; 2:121-42.