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4 posts from August 2022

28 August 2022

Translating Piracy: On the origin of the Arabic words qurṣān/qarṣanah

The terms pirate(s) and piracy feature heavily in India Office Records relating to the Persian Gulf during the nineteenth century. Many of these records have now been digitised through the British Library / Qatar Foundation partnership and can be accessed on the Qatar Digital Library accompanied by catalogue descriptions in English and Arabic. In these records, “piracy” was used to justify British naval presence in the Gulf, forming the basis of the early agreements signed with local tribal leaders. However, the Arabic versions of these agreements indicate that the Arab inhabitants of the region did not have an equivalent concept in their lexicon. So where did today’s Standard Arabic word for piracy come from? And why wasn’t it used in these agreements?

Text in Latin script followed by Arabic script in black ink on cream-coloured paper with a Latin-script title centred at the top of the image.
Article 1 of the English (IOR/L/PS/10/606, p. 131r) and Arabic (IOR/L/PS/10/606, p. 146v) versions of the 1820 treaty between Britain and the Arab tribes of the Persian Gulf. The word piracy is translated as ghārāt [raids].


Tracing the Etymology

Modern Arabic dictionaries list the terms qurṣān (pirate) and qarṣanah (piracy) under the trilateral root Q-R-Ṣ, giving the impression that this is a true Arabic word derived from this root (which generally means ‘to pinch/sting’). In fact, some Arabic sources devoted to the subject of piracy define qarṣanah as a derivative of that root (see for example, Hamid 2016: 22). However, this is a common misattribution.

The term is actually a relatively recent addition to the Arabic language, and is a cognate of the English term ‘corsair’ from the Latin cursarius. The earliest Arabic dictionary to include qurṣān to mean ‘sea thief’ is al-Bustānī’s Muḥīṭ al-Muḥīṭ (1870), where it is listed as a plural noun and marked as ‘foreign’ (إفرنجية). Further clues can be found in Reinhart Dozy’s Supplément aux dictionnaires arabes (1877-1881) which includes colloquialisms and foreign borrowings in Arabic. Dozy lists قرصل ( qurṣul), قرصال (qurṣāl) and كرسالي (kursālī) in addition to qurṣān to mean both ‘pirate’ and ‘warship’, and he links them to Spanish (corsario) and Italian (corsale). Also listed are the now common forms qarāṣinah (pirates) and qarṣanah (piracy).

Black text in Latin and Arabic scripts in spaced lines on cream-coloured paper
The entries for قرصل (qarṣala) and قرصن (qarṣana ) in Dozy’s Supplément aux dictionnaires arabes (1881, p. 329). Public Domain. Image taken by author.

As a Semitic language, Arabic has a root-and-pattern morphology. Words are formed by casting (typically 3-letter) roots into a variety of templates to produce different meanings. In the case of the borrowed word for piracy, it was a happy coincidence that it could be filed under the existing root Q-R-Ṣ.


Early Use

All this confirms that the words qurṣān and qarṣanah are of foreign origin, and that their meanings did not stabilise until modern times. One of the earliest attested uses of qurṣān in Arabic comes from a 1767 maritime treaty between the Sultan of Marrakesh, Muḥammad V (1710-1790) and the King of France, Louis XV (1710-1774).

Colour image of two manuscript pages with handwritten cramped text in Latin script on the top two thirds of the left page, and spaced Arabic script in Maghribi style on the right above and below a stylized floral seal
Image of the 1767 treaty signed between the Sultan of Marrakesh and the King of France. Public Domain.

Article 17 of the Arabic version begins:

إذا دخل قرصان من قراصين الفرنسيس لمرسى من مراسي الإيالة المولوية فإن القونصوا الحاضر في الوقت بالبلد يخبر حاكمها بذلك ليتحفظ على الأسارى الذين بالبلاد لئلا يهربوا للسفينة المذكورة...

Translation: If a qurṣān (of the qarāṣīn) of the French enters one of the harbours of the Mawlawī territory, the attending [French] Consul in the town must inform its governor so that he may take precautions over prisoners in the country to prevent them from fleeing to the aforementioned ship…

There is no doubt that qurṣān and qarāṣīn (pl.) refer to a type of ship in this context. Other parts of the treaty mention qarāṣīn flying the French flag and carrying French passports. While we can assume that qarāṣīn here means military rather than pirate ships, the line between piracy and naval warfare had been blurred in the Mediterranean for centuries. This is particularly clear in accounts of Ottoman Berber “pirates”, or the infamous “Barbary corsairs”.

Colour image of a painting of naval battle with a ship with many full sails topped by flags in the middle of a rough sea, and a smaller ship with sails in the left foreground.
‘A Sea Fight with Barbary Corsairs’ (after 1681) by Flemish painter Laureys a Castro. Public Domain.


Transmission and Popularisation

Given these encounters, it is not surprising that the term qurṣān entered the Arabic language through North Africa. The Arab tribes of the Persian Gulf lived on the other side of the Arabic-speaking world, so this neologism would have taken time to reach them. When they entered into maritime treaties with Britain in the nineteenth century, there was no distinct word in their vocabulary to denote ‘piracy’ as something that is exclusively perpetrated at sea.

The final step in the accession of the term into Arabic came with the language standardisation efforts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period known as the Arabic nahḍah. This period saw a flurry of production of dictionaries that standardised the term qurṣān as a singular form meaning ‘sea thief’. Advancements in education, media, and transport networks across the Arabic-speaking world ensured the establishment and transmission of the term.

Along with the term itself, a stereotypical Western image of the pirate also spread into modern Arab culture. Ironically, this Western image was influenced by contact with Ottoman and Arab “pirates”. For instance, the character of Redbeard is based on the Ottoman “corsair” Baba Oruç (Barbarossa), while the characteristic eye-patch is inspired by the Qāsimī “pirate” Raḥmah bin Jābir al-Jalhamī.

Black and white sketch of a man in Arabian-style robes with his face covered, and a brief textual description in Latin script at the bottom.
Sketch of Raḥmah bin Jābir al-Jalhamī from Ellms’ (1837) The Pirate’s own Book. Public Domain.

The British narrative of piracy has been challenged by writers from the region in recent years. Two notable examples are The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf by scholar and ruler of Sharjah, Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Qāsimī, and The Corsair by Qatari journalist and novelist Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud. The latter is a fictionalised account of the exploits of Raḥmah bin Jābir al-Jalhamī from an anti-imperial point of view. Its original Arabic title is al-Qurṣān. Even where the narrative is challenged, its language has stuck.


Modern Use

In the modern world, the term “piracy” has come to stand for so much more than aggression at sea, and the Arabic term qarṣanah has evolved in tandem. An example of this is the now commonly used expression ‘pirated films’ and its Arabic equivalent alflām muqarṣanah أفلام مُقَرْصَنَة.

White page with black text in two columns, with Latin script on the left and Arabic script on the right, and some words highlighted in yellow.
Screenshot of concordance results for the term piracy and its translation in memoQ, the translation management system used by BL/QFP translators.

As BL/QFP translators, wherever the English term piracy appears in catalogue descriptions, we translate it using the now established Modern Arabic word qarṣanah. However, this does not reflect historical usage and it is unlikely that the nineteenth-century Arab inhabitants of the Gulf would have heard this word, let alone used it.

Mariam Aboelezz, Arabic Translator
British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership
CCBY Image


al-Bustānī, Buṭrus (1870) Muḥīṭ al-Muḥīṭ: qāmūs muṭawwal li-l-lughah al-ʿArabīyah. Beirut (OIE 492.73)

Al-Mahmoud, Abdulaziz (2011) al-Qurṣān. Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing

Al-Mahmoud, Abdulaziz (2013) The Corsair. Noweira, Amira (trans.). Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (H.2015/.9446)

al-Qāsimī, Sulṭān Muḥammad (2016) The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf. London: Routledge (DRT ELD.DS.562531)

Majmaʿ al-Lughah al-ʿArabīyah (1961). al-Muʿjam al-Wasīṭ (1961). Cairo (14589.c.21)

Dozy, Reinhart P. A. (1881). Supplément aux dictionnaires arabes, Vol II. Leiden: Brill (X.985/73)

Ellms, Charles (2004[1837]) The Pirate’s own Book. Project Gutenberg [accessed 23 June 2022]

Ḥāmid, Ḥāmid S. M. (2016) al-Qarṣanah al-Baḥariyyah: bayn al-asbāb wa-l-tadā‘iyāt wa-l-ru’á al-istrātījiyyah . Cairo: al-Markaz al-Qawmī li-l-Iṣdārāt al-Qānūnīyah

London, British Library, 'File 2902/1916 ‘Treaties and Engagements between the British Government and the Chiefs of the Arabian Coast of the Persian Gulf’' IOR/L/PS/10/606. Qatar Digital Library [accessed 23 June 2022]

Riḍā, Muḥammad R. (1904) Kitāb al-Muṣālaḥah al-Muntaẓimah bayn Ṣulṭān Marākish wa Luwīz al-Khāmis ‘ashr Malik Faransá. Majallat al-Manār, 7, pp. 783-791. Al-Maktabah al-Shāmilah [accessed 23 June 2022]

Woodbridge, David, Aboelezz, Mariam and Abu Shaban, Tahani (2021) “Piracy” in the India Office Records: some historical context . Qatar Digital Library [accessed 23 June 2022]

15 August 2022

40 more Javanese manuscripts now accessible online

In May 2022 the Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project was launched, aiming to digitise a further 120 Javanese manuscripts from the British Library collection. We are delighted to announce that 40 of these Javanese manuscripts have now been published online, and can be accessed directly through the live hyperlinks on the Digital Access to Javanese Manuscripts page or via the Digitised Manuscripts portal. On completion of the project by 2023, all the Javanese and Old Javanese manuscripts written on paper in the British Library – numbering over 200 – will have been fully digitised. Highlighted in this blog are some of the newly digitised Javanese manuscripts.

Sĕrat Gada (Gonda) Kusuma, copied by Tiyangsĕpoh
Sĕrat Gada (Gonda) Kusuma, copied by Tiyangsĕpoh.  British Library, Add 12297, ff. 2v-3r  Noc

The Bollinger project will make accessible a large number of illuminated Javanese manuscripts from the collection of John Crawfurd, many of which may have been decorated in the scriptorium of the Pakualaman court in Yogykarta. The Pakualaman principality was founded in Yogyakarta in 1812 by the British to reward Prince Paku Alam for his support for the British military campaign against Sultan Hamengkubuwana II of Yogyakarta. Paku Alam I was on very cordial terms with John Crawfurd, British Resident of Yogyakarta from 1811 to 1814, a relationship cemented by their shared interests in Javanese literature and history. In addition to his portion of manuscripts seized from the royal library of Yogyakarta following the British attack in 1812 (and digitised in 2019 through the Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta Digitisation Project), John Crawfurd also commissioned many further copies of Javanese texts, and these may have been adorned with illuminated frontispieces or wadana by artists from the Pakaualaman. Two distinct styles of illumination can be distinguished in Javanese manuscripts in the Crawfurd collection.  One is a more classical style with essentially rectangular frames, on which has been superimposed a diamond-shaped outline, in many cases taking the form of ornamental arches on the three outer sides of the text on each page.  A fine example is shown above, on a manuscript of the Sĕrat Gada (Gonda) Kusuma, Add 12297.  These frontispieces derive from the broader Islamic tradition of decorated frames, symmetrical around the central spine of the book, which often adorn the initial double opening pages.

A rather different style of illuminated frontispiece associated only with Yogyakarta has been termed wadana gapura, 'gateway frontispieces', or wadana renggan candhi or ‘frontispieces decorated as temples’ (Behrend 2005: 49), alluding to the temple-like structures of the decorated frames surrounding the text block on each page, with a plinth-like base and architectural features such as columns, arches and windows, often with ‘brick’ detailing. These wadana gapura are identical on each of two facing pages, rather than being symmetrical about the gutter of the book as in the case of the more classical double-page wadana described above. Shown below is another manuscript of the same literary text, Sĕrat Gonda Kusuma, Add 12295, with a temple-style decorated frontispiece.

Sĕrat Gonda Kusuma
Sĕrat Gonda Kusuma. Dated jalma muni catur sirna, which must be read from left to right [A.J. 1740/A.D. 1813]. British Library, Add 12295, ff. 1v-2r Noc

In a recent blog, Dick van der Meij has noted that while in Javanese manuscripts in the British Library, the 'classical' wadana  tend to enclose the start of the text which then continues without any hiatus onto the following pages, in manuscripts with 'temple'-style wadana gapura, the illuminated frames are placed a few pages before the start of the text proper, and the text within the decorative frames is written by a different hand from that found in the body of the main text itself. Moreover, the opening lines of the text are usually repeated within the decorative frames, and a small floral marker is then placed at the appropriate place in the main text (probably indicating to a reciter the point where the text from the frontispiece rejoins the main text). These devices all suggest that these temple-style illuminated frames were added after the main text was copied, at a second distinct stage within the manuscript production process.  It could be hypthesized that the examples of 'temple' wadana in Javanese manuscripts in the British Library mark the very beginning of the development of this artistic genre at the newly-formed Pakualaman court in Yogyakarta. 

Sĕrat Gonda Kusuma, 1813, showing the start of the text, in a different hand from that on the illuminated pages, with a small floral marker indicating where the texts join up
Sĕrat Gonda Kusuma, 1813, showing the start of the text, in a different hand from that on the illuminated pages, with a small floral marker indicating where the texts join up. British Library, Add 12295, f. 3r (detail) Noc

In addition to the two illuminated manuscripts of Sĕrat Gonda Kusuma highlighted above, there is another copy in the British Library also now available online, Add 12294, and the digitisation of so many Javanese manuscripts greatly enhances the task of comparative literary analysis.  Many Old Javanese texts known today have survived through copies preserved in Bali, which are generally written on palm leaf (lontar). A few manuscripts in the British Library which contain Old Javanese texts on paper appear to be copies made for British patrons from palm leaf exemplars sourced from Bali. Among these is a copy from the Crawfurd collection of the Bhāratayuddha kakawin, the Old Javanese version of the Hindu epic Mahābhārata, which was composed in Java probably around the 10th century. The manuscript shown below, Add 12279, opens with the Old Javanese text, followed by a word-for-word explanation in modern Javanese, but half-way through the volume (from Canto 22 on f. 147r), the text continues in Old Javanese only.

Beginning of Bhāratayuddha in Old Javanese, accompanied by translation into Modern Javanese, 1814
Beginning of Bhāratayuddha in Old Javanese, accompanied by translation into Modern Javanese, 1814. British Library, Add 12279, f. 2v. Noc

Another copy of the Bhāratayuddha (MSS Jav 25), from the Mackenzie collection, gives the Old Javanese text in Balinese script written in black ink, accompanied by an interlinear Modern Javanese translation in red ink, and is dated 28 August 1812. According to the inscription on the first page, this manuscript was sent to Col. Colin Mackenzie by the son the of Panembahan of Sumenep in Madura. This manuscript is also due to digitised as part of the Bollinger project, and will soon be available online.

Opening page of Bhāratayuddha with inscription by Colin Mackenzie
Opening page of Bhāratayuddha with inscription by Colin Mackenzie. British Library, MSS Jav 25, f. 1r. Noc

Bhāratayuddha, in Old Javanese in Balinese script written in black ink, with interlinear translation into modern Javanese in red ink
Bhāratayuddha, in Old Javanese in Balinese script written in black ink, with interlinear translation into modern Javanese in red ink. British Library, MSS Jav 25, ff. 6v-7r. Noc

In the late eighteenth century the Old Javanese Bhāratayuddha kakawin inspired the composition of the Bratayuda kawi miring, probably the work of the Surakarta (Solo) court poet Yasadipura II (Tumenggung Sastronagoro, 1760-1844). The term kawi miring or ‘sloping/inclined Old Javanese’ is explained by Barbara McDonald in her Ph.D. thesis (1983: iii) as describing ‘a particular genre of literature which emerged in the Central Javanese courts of Surakarta in the late eighteenth century. As the term literally suggests, texts classified as kawi miring were considered to have been written in a poetic medium that ‘inclined’ towards the ‘kawi’ texts of the Old Javanese period.’ The British Library holds several copies or parts of the text of the Bratayuda kawi miring, including a newly digitised manuscript, MSS Jav 15.

Bratayuda kawi miring
Bratayuda kawi miring. Incomplete, ending at Canto XXI: 10. British Library, MSS Jav 15, f. 5v. Noc

Soon to be digitised is MSS Jav 23, which contains just six cantos of this work. Both these versions can now be compared with an earlier manuscript of the Bratayuda kawi miring, MSS Jav 4, dated 1797, originating from the kraton (palace) library, which was digitised during the earlier Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta Digitisation Project. The late eighteenth-century date of this beautiful manuscript suggests it may be amongst oldest known copies of this text.

Bratayuda kawi miring, 1797
Bratayuda kawi miring, 1797. British Library, MSS Jav 4, ff. 2v-3r. Noc

The Modern Javanese version of the Bhāratayuddha kakawin, the Sĕrat Bratayuda, is found in two manuscripts in the British Library, one of which, Add 12326, has just been digitised. According to a note by Crawfurd, this manuscript was copied for him ‘from a manuscript supplied by one of the princes at Djocjakarta (i.e. Yogyakarta)’. A fragment of Serat Bratayuda is also found in MSS Jav 9, which will soon be digitised too.

Serat Bratayuda, early 19th c
Serat Bratayuda, early 19th c.  British Library, Add 12326, ff. 3v-4r. Noc

While the Crawfurd collection primarily consists of historical and literary works, the Mackenzie collection is also strong in primbon, compendia of various texts on religious-mystical knowledge.  One such volume is MSS Jav 30, dating from the 18th century, which contains a range of texts including suluk, mystical songs, as well as a primbon with many magical drawings for protection and divination, as shown below.

Primbon, with various rajah or magical drawings, 18th century
Primbon, with various rajah or magical drawings, 18th century.  British Library, MSS Jav 30, ff. 136v-137r. Noc

Also newly digitised are a number of Islamic manuscripts, with texts in Javanese written in Arabic (pegon script), including IO Islamic 2448, which contains a work on the mi‘raj, the ascension of the prophet Muhammad.

Colophon to a Javanese text on the Risālah fī al-isrāʾ wa-al-miʿrāj
Colophon to a Javanese text on the Risālah fī al-isrāʾ wa-al-miʿrāj. IO Islamic 2448, f. 65v. Noc

Photography of all 120 manuscripts in the Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project has now been completed, and over the coming months, once all the images have passed the quality control stage, the manuscripts will be published online. Keep on eye on the Digital access to Javanese manuscripts page, where each shelfmark will be hyperlinked as it becomes available online.

Further reading:
T.E. Behrend, Frontispiece architecture in Ngayogyakarta: notes on structure and sources. Archipel, 2005, (69): 39-60.
Barbara McDonald, ‘Kawi and Kawi miring: Old Javanese literature in eighteenth century Java.’ 2 vols. PhD thesis, the Australian National University, 1983.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork



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 (Abel). 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 (Abel) (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.