Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

5 posts from September 2022

28 September 2022

The Story of Inabe no Suminawa: Master Craftsman of Hida

Classic literature often brings us the most surprising storylines. We are fascinated by the things which people in the past imagined, and which gave rise to highly entertaining stories as a result. We have previously looked at a story which could be said to be the earliest example of Science Fiction - The Tale of Bamboo Cutter, in a 2014 blog post.

Today, we are going to talk about another story with a Science Fiction flavour, about an inventor who was a master craftsman and who produced some ingenious and astonishing devices.

Two-page spread of black and white drawing showing a bridge over a body of water, with a covered boat, and a building on the right in traditional Japanese architectural style, with wisp-like landscape in the top left background
An illustration showing some examples of the craftsman’s devices. The movable house, the portable bridge, and the automated boat.
(Ishikawa Masamochi (石川雅望) and Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎), Shinpan Hida no takumi monogatari (新板飛弾匠物語). Woodblock print, 衆星閣蔵版c. 1840s. 16055.a.7)
CC Public Domain Image

The first edition of the Story of a Hida Craftsman (飛騨匠物語, Hida no Takumi monogatari) was published in 1808, written by Ishikawa Masamochi (石川雅望 1754-1830) and illustrated by Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎 1760-1849). The very well-known names of these two creators most probably gave readers of the time considerable expectation of an enjoyable read.

There is no doubt that Hokusai was a master artist of Ukiyoe (浮世絵), who could capture anything from humorous moments to the wonders of nature. Ishikawa Masamochi was well-known under the name Yadoya no Meshimori (宿屋飯盛), literally ‘a person serving meals at inns’, as a professional composer of kyōka (狂歌), a form of short poem which contains a twisted sense of humour. His most famous kyōka was a pun on a line in the preface of the Kokin wakashū (古今和歌集), an early classic imperial anthology of waka (i.e. poetry written in Japanese rather than Chinese).

Two-page spread of Japanese text in black ink running vertically with a hint of gold at the right edge
Preface of Kokin wakashū (古今和歌集) by Ki no Tomonori (紀友則) et al. (Manuscript, c. 1600-1650. Or 892)
CC Public Domain Image

The preface was written by Ki no Turayuki (紀貫之, fl. 866-872), one of the most respected literary figures in Japanese history. He defined the quintessence of poems composed and written in the Japanese language. It opens with the line やまとうたは、人の心を種として、万の言の葉とぞなれりける ‘Japanese poetry has the human heart as seed and myriads of words as leaves’. The lines continue, 力をも入れずして天地を動かし ‘the sprits of Japanese poems could stir even Heaven and Earth’.

Ishikawa’s pun on this line is:


Poets here, Poets there,
When worst I love them most,
The least stirs Heaven and Earth I swear
The versifying host.

(Original English translation by Frederick Victor Dickins, 1838-1915)

Two-page spread of a black and white ink drawing of a man in traditional Japanese attire seated on the right with the tools of his craft before him and a large crane with open wings opposite him on the left; between the two are eight lines of Japanese text running vertically
Suminawa has just finished work on a wooden crane. His tools are placed on his right, and his toolbox is behind him.
(Ishikawa Masamochi (石川雅望) and Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎), Shinpan Hida no takumi monogatari (新板飛弾匠物語). wood block prints, 衆星閣蔵版c. 1840s. 16055.a.7)
CC Public Domain Image

The opening of the Story of a Hida Craftsman is a short poem dedicated to the hero Inabe no Suminawa (猪名部墨縄):

Precious scion of Inabé,
Rarest, daintiest craftsman wert thou,
Long descent thou didst not vaunt thou,
But the load of craftsmen wert thou,

(Translation by Frederick Victor Dickins, 1838-1915)

This is the story of a particularly skilled craftsman, Suminawa, already famous for his distinguished talent at the start of the book. His woodwork is very life-like: for example, a live rooster cannot stop challenging his carved one to a fight. He is also an inventor of fascinating devices.

Suminawa sets off on a journey to Mount Hōrai, believed to be the mystical mountain in East Asia where the immortal Daoist sages dwell. He receives tuition from them in the arcane art of crafting to further heighten his already considerable skills. After leaving Mount Hōrai, he gets to know a young man who is unable to win his love because, as a mere commoner, he cannot consort with a princess of high social rank. Suminawa successfully fosters true love between the young couple by the subtle use of his ingenious devices. Eventually the three of them become immortal sages of Mount Hōrai.

Now the question is, why does the hero need to be a craftsman from Hida and why is his name Suminawa?

Perhaps the author of the story, Ishikawa Masamochi based his homage on a poem in the Man’yōshū (万葉集 literally the ‘Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves’) the oldest anthology of Japanese waka poetry, believed to be have been compiled towards the end of the Nara Period (710-794 CE).

Man’yōshū book XI 2648

云々物者不念 斐太人乃 打墨縄之 直一道二 [in Manyōgana script]
かにかくに物は思はじ飛騨人の打つ墨縄のただ一道に [in modern Japanese script]

Unwandering, my thoughts, like the line-markers of the Hida craftsmen, run straight to you.

Hida province, nowadays, part of Gifu prefecture, is perhaps the most mountainous area in Japan with extremely limited flat spaces. Geographically, it is thickly covered with forest, not suitable for rice farming. Therefore, it was a traditional choice for people in Hida province to become woodworkers, such as carpenters, architects, etc. Hida craftsmen, and they were only men, have a long history and pride in their work, and it is likely that the author intended his hero to be one of these Hida craftsmen to convince readers he was already famous for his skills before his training on Mount Hōrai. The Hida craftsmen were exempted from taxes in the more conventional form of rice or textiles, and instead sent some of their number to the capital to build city buildings, temples, streets and the palace for the emperor.

Black and white print of large-font Japanese text running vertically, with a fish-scale patterned scroll at the bottom, and four lines of text in Latin script below that
Title page image (facsimile inserted into The Story of a Hida Craftsman), has an illustration of a sumitsubo, indicating the hero Suminawa’s name.
(Dickins, Frederick Victor, and Katsushika, Hokusai. The Story of a Hida Craftsman. Hida No Takumi Monogatari. Translated from the Original Japanese with Some Annotations by Frederick Victor Dickins. 1912. 11100.c.23)
CC Public Domain Image

The name of the hero, Suminawa (墨縄) appears in this particular waka from the Man’yōshū. A suminawa is an ink dipped cord attached to an ink pot called a sumitsubo (墨壺). The sumitsubo was an essential piece of equipment for craftspeople to mark a straight line. The sumitsubo had an ink pot with a reel attached through which a cord was threaded. A straight line was drawn by paying out the ink-soaked cord across a length of wood and snapping it to leave an inked line across the desired section.

Ishikawa Masamochi did not make it clear in the preface of the book whether he had drawn his inspiration from the waka in the Man’yōshū. However, we can note that, at the opening of the story, the short poem praising Suminawa was written in Manyōgana, the script that Japanese wrote in during the Nara period and which is used in the Man’yōshū.

The spirit and highly accomplished skills of Hida craftsmen continue throughout history, from ancient times when Nara was the Japanese capital, through the Edo Period, up to the present day, and will undoubtedly continue into the future.

The talents and living traditions of the craftspeople of Hida are highlighted in the exhibition The Carpenters’ Line: Woodworking Heritage in Hida Takayama being held at  Japan House London, 01-111 Kensington High Street, London, W8 5SA, 29 September 2022 – 29 January 2023.

With special thanks to Mr Stephen Cullis, Lecturer at Nagasaki University of Foreign Studies, for his English translation of Man’yōshū book XI 2648.

Yasuyo Ohtsuka
Curator, Japanese Collections
CCBY Image


Manyoshu [Book 11] Japanese Text Initiative, University of Virginia Library.

Ishikawa, Masamochi, and Inada, Atsunobu. Ishikawa Masamochi Shū 石川雅望集. 東京: 国書刊行会, 1993. Print. Sōsho Edo Bunko ; 28. (JPN.1994.a.26)

McCullough, Helen Craig. Kokin Wakashū : The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry : With Tosa Nikki and Shinsen Waka / Translated and Annotated by Helen Craig McCullough. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford U, 1985. (88/23844)

26 September 2022

Frederik Jacob Rothenbühler and his wife as collectors of Javanese manuscripts in the early 19th century

This guest blog is by Prof. Peter Carey, University of Indonesia, Jakarta.

As a collector of Javanese manuscripts, the name of Frederik Jacob Rothenbühler (1758-1836), has long been recognised. In 1977, when Merle Ricklefs and Peter Voorhoeve first published their benchmark catalogue of Indonesian Manuscripts in Great Britain, the German is mentioned in four entries for Javanese manuscripts from the collection of Col. Colin Mackenzie, Chief Engineer from 1811 to 1813 during the British administration in Java (1811-1816).

Two manuscripts, both Javanese histories or babad, may have derived from the five-day (20-25 June 1812) plunder of the Yogyakarta court library following the British attack on the Sultan’s palace or keraton. MSS Jav 7, Babad Pajajaran, which was dated by Donald E. Weatherbee (2018: 87) to AJ 1713 (1786), is almost certainly from the Yogyakarta keraton as it has a dated note at the back referring to the Swedish army surgeon, 'Dr Stutzer' (Johan Arnold Stutzer [1763-1821], spelt erroneously as “Studzee” in Ricklefs and Voorhoeve 1977: 58), who participated in the British attack. The date, 6 July 1812, is just a week prior to the departure of the last British troops, Mackenzie’s engineers, from the Sultan’s capital on 14 July (Carey 1992: 483 note 394).

Babad Pajajaran, 1786
Babad Pajajaran, 1786. British Library, MSS Jav 7, ff. 3v-4r  Noc

From Mr Rothenbühler
‘From Mr Rothenbühler', pencilled note at the beginning of the volume. British Library, MSS Jav 7, flyleaf. Noc

‘From Djocjokarta / From Dr Stutzer July 6 1812’
‘From Djocjokarta / From Dr Stutzer July 6 1812’, note at the end of the volume. British Library, MSS Jav 7, f. 141r  Noc

Another manuscript, MSS Jav 40, Babad Kartasura, is less obviously from the keraton library (it was not identified as such in the listing compiled by Ricklefs) but it is a finely decorated volume and the date of writing – AJ 1723 (31 August 1796) – would be consistent with a Yogya court manuscript taken in June 1812.

Babad Kartasura, 1796
Babad Kartasura, 1796. British Library, MSS Jav 40, ff. 4v-5r  Noc

Inscription at the begining of Babad Kartasura, 'received from Mr Rothenbuhler at Sourabaya
Inscription at the begining of Babad Kartasura, 'received from Mr Rothenbuhler at Sourabaya'. MSS Jav 40, f. 6r Noc

Rothenbühler's name is also linked with two of the most beautifully illustrated early Javanese manuscripts known held in the British Library, MSS Jav 28 and MSS Jav 68, both dated to AJ 1731 (1804/5). Both of these manuscripts are inscribed as belonging to Rothenbühler’s wife, referred to as Nyonyah Sakeber, ‘Mrs Gezaghebber’, her husband’s title as Chief Administrator of the Eastern Salient of Java (Oosthoek), in the decade 1799-1809. The Javanese text reads in both manuscripts: punika serat kagunganipun Nyonyah Sekaber, ‘this manuscript belongs to Mrs Gezaghebber', and in MSS Jav 68 continues, ing panegri Surapringga, 'in the town of Surabaya’ (see Ricklefs and Voorhoeve 1977: 61, 68).

MSS Jav 28, Serat Selarasa, which has the date 28 Sapar AJ 1731 (8 June 1804), recounts the tale of the Ni Rumsari, the daughter of a respected sage, who dreams of three handsome suitors, one of whom, Raden Sélarasa, eventually becomes her husband. This was one of the first Javanese manuscripts in the British Library to be digitised in 2012, and has since become well known all over the world, adorning numerous covers of books relating to Java.

Sailing ships in Serat Sela Rasa, 1804
Serat Sela Rasa, 1804. British Library, MSS Jav 28, ff. 105v-106r  Noc

Newly digitised this year through the Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project is MSS Jav 68, Panji Jaya Kusuma, erroneously dated within the text as 29 Besar AJ 1701 (20 February 1776), which Weatherbee (2018: 95) corrected to 29 Besar AJ 1731 (31 March 1805). Among the sumptuous coloured illustrations in both manuscripts are several depicting contemporary Dutch warships flying the Dutch tricolour from their mastheads and sterns. One wonders if Nyonyah Sakeber, possibly a native of Surabaya, chose these maritime themes herself given her proximity to Surabaya’s Tanjung Perak harbour and the crowded shipping lanes of Java’s foremost naval port?

Illustration of ships in the sea
Panji Jaya Kusuma, 1805. British Library, MSS Jav 68, ff. 34v-35r Noc

All four manuscripts were presented by Rothenbühler to his superior on the Mackenzie Land Tenure Commission (1812-13), Colonel Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821), on different dates: the two illustrated manuscripts being handed over in February 1812, when Mackenzie was passing through Surabaya on his first survey tour of East Java, and the two babad sometime after July 1812.  So, who was Frederik Jacob Rothenbühler, and, more pertinently, who was his wife, the eponymous “Nyonyah Gezaghebber”, and why might they both have been collectors of Javanese manuscripts?

Rothenbühler was born in Zweibrücken (Pfalz), a town in the Rhineland-Palatinate, on 9 November 1758. There are different accounts of under what circumstances he came out to Batavia. One account states states that he arrived in Batavia in 1769 with his parents. When his father, Frederik Hendrik, then serving as a senior surgeon (opperchirugijn) in the Dutch East India Company (VOC) died shortly thereafter (1770), the young Rothenbühler is also said to have joined the VOC. Other, perhaps more reliable, sources (Ketjen 1880-81:71; Encyclopaedia 1905, IV:638; De Haan 1935:634) hold that he joined the VOC as a cadet through the Amsterdam Kamer in the Netherlands on 11 January 1771, having just turned twelve, and sailed for Batavia on the ship Huis te Bijweg, arriving in the colonial capital on 10 August. He then worked his way up through the VOC bureaucracy, applying himself to the study of Javanese and becoming an official VOC translator (Gezworen Translateur) following his move to Semarang in 1780. After promotion as boekhouder (accountant) and secretary of police (secretaris van politie) in the North Coast city, he became Resident of Pekalongan (1794-99). Unlike many aspiring VOC officials who went to the Indies with recommendations from well-placed patrons and soon secured promotion to profitable positions, Rothenbühler was one of those who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. By dint of skill, diligence and linguistic talent he eventually achieved high office. The most important here was his ten-year incumbency of the Gezaghebber (Chief Administrator, 1799-1809) post in Surabaya. He was also more briefly a supernumerary member of Daendels’ Council of the Indies (Raad van Indië, 1809-11) and the Mackenzie land tenure commission (1812-13) established by Raffles’ British interim administration ( Encyclopaedie 1905:638; De Haan 1935:634).

The German was particularly renowned for his love of the Javanese and he appears to have married a local (pribumi), almost certainly a Javanese who most likely conversed with him in her mother tongue and shared his love of Javanese culture. We can surmise this from two sources: first, there is no trace in the very comprehensive Dutch Indies genealogical records of his wife’s name as one might expect if she was a totok or full-blooded Dutch woman or a scion of a prominent local Dutch-Javanese family (although his three childless daughters do make an appearance, one of whom, Frederika Jacoba, married a German from Stuttgart). Secondly, Frederik de Haan (1863-1938), the colonial state archivist (landsarchivaris, 1905-22), described Rothenbühler as “a very handsome man [...] with an exaggeratedly good idea of the natives [een zeer knap man […] met een overdreven goed idee van den Inlander]”, which indicates that he may have been seen, even in the richly diverse mestizo society of the late VOC Indies (1603-1799), as a man who had aligned himself closely with Java’s local inhabitants (pribumi) (De Haan 1935:634). Certainly, he was appreciated by the local inhabitants of Surabaya for his concern for public health and social welfare issues, including public sanitation, the eradication of smallpox (by the provision of vaccination) and the rehabilitation of beggars through the creation of a special community at Kali Pegirian where the urban poor were fed, clothed, housed and provided with pocket money and medical care. He was later credited by no less an authority than Cornelis van Vollenhoven (1874-1933) with writing the first ever description of Javanese customary law (adatrecht) (Van Vollenhoven 1928:47).

An insight into just how richly diverse this society was in late eighteenth-century Surabaya can be found in a document in the Royal Asiatic Society entitled “Miscellaneous memorandum on Surakarta” (circa November 1811) (Carey 2008:181 fn.71). This relates how Ratu Kencana, the mother of the future Pakubuwana VII (born 1796 - died, 1858; r. 1830-58; known as Pangeran Purbaya before 1830), who would later facilitate the copying of Dipanegara’s requested manuscripts in the Surakarta kraton library in the mid-1840s (Carey 2022), was sent to Surabaya for her education in the late 1770s. A daughter of the seventh Panembahan of Bangkalan (West Madura, r.1780-1815; after 21 July 1808 known as Sultan Cakradiningrat I), she was apparently lodged with the family of Ambrosina Wilhelmina van Rijck (1785-1864) who was the wife of Jacob Andries van Braam (1771-1820), no.2 in the Daendels’ administration (1808-11), and, according to some accounts, the Marshal’s secret lover. Born around 1770, Ratu Kencana seems to have spent the period 1778-84 in Surabaya so would not have overlapped directly with Rothenbühler (in post as Gezaghebber, 1799-1809), but her presence in Surabaya in a prominent mixed-blood 'Indo' family, who saw to her education, gives an insight into the relationship between members of the native and Dutch Indies elite in this great East Javanese port city in the waning years of the VOC. Rothenbühler’s wife could well have stemmed from this milieu.

Rothenbuhler’s grave in Surabaya
Rothenbuhler’s grave in Surabaya.

Seemingly agnostic in religious matters, and possibly a Free Mason (Jordaan 2019:56, 146), Rothenbühler elected to be buried at the ripe old age (at a time when life expectancy for European males in Java was around 45) of 77 on his Gunungsari estate in Surabaya rather than in consecrated ground. Post-February 1914, when the Surabaya, now Ahmad Yani, Golf Club was opened, his grave abutted on the northern boundary of 18-hole course. Revered to this day as the tomb of “Mbah Deler [Grandfather Edelheer/member of the Council of the Indies]”, memories of Rothenbühler’s deep concern for the cleanliness, health and welfare of Surabaya and its inhabitants remain vivid for contemporary Surabayans, where he is also known as the “Father of Public Sanitation [Bapak Sanitasi]”. These concerns were also expressed in his writings such as his voluminous “Rapport van den staat en gesteldheid van het landschap Soerabaja [Report on the state and condition of the Surabaya area]”, which he left for his successor. His direct contemporary and senior VOC colleague, Wouter Hendrik van IJsseldijk (1757-1817), wrote of him: “if one were to make a recommendation to the next Governor-General regarding the most effective way of managing Java’s domestic economy and containing corruption, Surabaya’s Gezaghebber, Rothenbühler, is, in my view, best placed to introduce the changes and improvements which will correspond most effectively with local conditions” (Ketjen 1880-81:72).

It is thus fitting that this German collector and lover of all things Javanese should live on in the memory of the inhabitants of the East Java city, which he made his home, and in the manuscripts which he presented to his boss, Colin Mackenzie, over two centuries ago.

Peter Carey Ccownwork

Peter Carey is Fellow Emeritus of Trinity College, Oxford and Adjunct (Visiting) Professor of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Indonesia (2013 to present). His latest books (with Farish Noor) are Racial Difference and the Colonial Wars of 19th Century Southeast Asia (AUP, 2021) and Ras, Kuasa dan Kekerasan Kolonial di Hindia Belanda, 1808-1830 (KPG, 2022).

Carey, Peter, 1992. The British in Java 1811-1816: A Javanese Account. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
_________ 2008. The Power of Prophecy: Prince Dipanagara and the end of an old order in Java, 1785-1855. Leiden: KITLV Press.
_________ 2022. Ratu Ageng Tegalreja, Prince Dipanagara, and the British Library’s Serat Menak manuscript. British Library, Asian and African studies blog, 18 July 2022.
Encyclopaedie, 1905. “Rothenbuhler (Frederik Jacob)”, entry in Encyclopaedie van Nederlandsch-Indië, 4: 638.
Haan, Frederik de, 1935. “Personalia der periode van het Engelsch bestuur over Java, 1811-1816”, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 92: 477-681.
Jordaan, Roy, 2019. De politieke betekenis van de vrijmetselarij op Java tijdens het Britse Tussenbestuur (1811-1816). ‘s-Gravenhage: Ritus en Tempelbouw. (Quatuor Coronati – Studieblad; 4).
Ketjen, E., 1880-81. “Levensbericht van E.J. Rothenbühler”, Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen 41: 71-73.
Ricklefs, M.C. and P. Voorhoeve, 1977. Indonesian Manuscripts in Great Britain: A Catalogue of Indonesian manuscripts in British public collections. London: Oxford University Press.
Vollenhoven, Cornelis van 1928. De Ontdekking van het Adatrecht. Leiden: EJ Brill.
Weatherbee, Donald E. '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.

23 September 2022

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth

Readers may have noticed the new placards and billboards at the British Library announcing Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth which opens exactly four weeks today. Son of Philip II of Macedon and his wife Olympias, the historical Alexander was born in Pella, capital of Macedon in July 356 BC. By July 330 BC he had defeated the Persian army, becoming, at the age of twenty-five, ruler of Asia Minor, pharaoh of Egypt and successor to Darius III, the ‘Great King’ of Persia. During the next seven years, Alexander created an empire that stretched from Greece in the west to beyond the Indus river in the east – before his early death in Babylon aged thirty-two.

Alexander billboard

This exhibition, however, is not about history, but the first of its kind to explore 2,000 years of  storytelling and mythmaking. With objects from 25 countries in 21 languages, it shows how one figure could serve so many purposes, creating shared narratives of universal appeal. The Alexander Romance, composed originally in Greek in the third century AD, was at the heart of this storytelling. But legends also found their way into epic poetry and drama, and more recently into novels, comics, films and video games. You will see examples of all of these in the exhibition.

Out of approximately 140 objects, some eighty-six are from the British Library's collections. To give a taste of what’s in store, I have chosen to highlight a few of the thirty-eight exhibits from our own Asian and African collections.

A Christian Alexander
A Christian Alexander described as ‘enemy of devils’ heads this amulet scroll in the Ethiopian Ge‘ez language. Ethiopia, 18th century? (British Library Or.12859)

The exhibition is arranged in six sections based around Alexander’s legendary life. After an introduction,  A Conqueror in the Making explores the different versions of Alexander’s origins, his education by the philosopher Aristotle and Bucephalus, his faithful warhorse.

Nahid is presented to Dara
Nahid, daughter of Philip of Macedon, is here married to the Persian emperor as part of a diplomatic alliance. Rejected on account of her bad breath, she was sent home, unknowingly pregnant, to Greece where she gave birth to a son, Alexander. This version of Alexander’s origins saw him, in Persian eyes, as the legitimate heir and successor to the throne. From the Darabnamah (Story of Darab), by Abu Tahir Muhammad Tarsusi, Mughal India, 1580–85 (British Library Or.4615, f. 129r)

Aristotle instructs a pupil
Aristotle instructs a pupil in the Kitab na‘t al-hayawan (On the Characteristics of Animals). Baghdad?, about 1225 (British Library Or.2784, f. 96r)

Section three, Building an Empire, describes Alexander’s victory over Darius III of Persia and his expeditions further east to India and China — by the way Alexander did reach India but he never went to China!

Alexander comforts the dying Dara
Alexander comforts the dying Darius and agrees to his final requests in Firdawsi’s Shahnamah (Book of Kings). According to one Persian tradition, Darius was in fact his half-brother. Isfahan?, Iran, 1604 (British Library IO Islamic 966, f. 335r)

In Kandahar, Alexander was persuaded by a beautiful priestess not to destroy the sacred statue. This copy of the twelfth-century poet Nizami’s Khamsah (Five Poems) was especially commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar who had conquered Kandahar in 1595 while this manuscript was still being copied. The painting would have deliberately invited comparison between Akbar, famous for his religious tolerance, and Alexander. Artists: Mukund and La‘l, Lahore, 1593–95 (British Library Or.12208, ff. 317v–318r)

In a section on Alexander’s relationships, we introduce the important people in his life: his wives, the powerful women he encountered, his general Hephaestion and the eunuch slave Bagoas.

Alexander's wedding to Roxana
The wedding of Alexander and Darius’ daughter, Roxana. From Firdawsi's Shahnamah (Book of Kings), Qazvin, Iran, about 1590–95 (British Library Add MS 27257, f. 326v)

The Mythical Quest is the most fantastical section. Here Alexander travels through strange lands inhabited by people with faces in their chests, sirens, griffins and dragons. His journey leads him to the ends of the earth, into the skies above and to the bottom of the ocean, always seeking new experiences and the key to immortality.

Coptic fragment of Alexander Romance
This Coptic fragment of the Alexander Romance describes Alexander setting off to explore the Land of Darkness. When a mysterious voice predicted his imminent death, he turned back bringing with him some objects he had gathered in the dark. These later turned out to be diamonds. Atripe, Upper Egypt, 14th century (British Library Or.3367/2)

The final section, Journey’s End, describes Alexander’s return to Babylon and the mystery of his subsequent death. His body was transported on a magnificent carriage to Egypt, where it was eventually placed in a mausoleum at Alexandria. The tomb is now lost, but his final resting place is still a subject of debate.

Iskandar's funeral procession
This popular prose version of Alexander’s life reflects a Persian tradition. In accordance with his final wishes Alexander’s coffin was carried through his dominions with his arm hanging loose to show that he travelled to the grave empty-handed. From the Iskandarnamah (Story of Alexander) by Manuchihr Khan Hakim, Tehran, 1857–58 (British Library 14787.k.8)

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth opens on 21 October. It will be accompanied by a book of the same title. Edited by Richard Stoneman, it includes nine essays by leading scholars together with images and descriptions of the exhibition items. During the next few months we’ll be writing blogs about several of the items in the exhibition, and also some which we were not able to include. Meanwhile tickets are already on sale and may be booked on our Events page.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

20 September 2022

Two Golden Commissions from the Shan States

This guest blog is by Dr Frances O’Morchoe, Yale University.

In 1882, King Thibaw, the last king of Burma (Myanmar), issued two royal sanads, or commissions, appointing an individual, Twek Nga Lu, as chief of the Shan states of Mong Nai (Mone) and Kengtawng. These golden commissions – thin strips of gold foil embossed with the royal seal – are currently on display in the British Library's GOLD exhibition, which runs until the 2nd of October 2022. With the seals is a hand-written note, likely written by Lady Scott, wife of the below-mentioned George. This note explains: ‘These two strips of gold foil are the sanads or commissions from Theebaw to Twek Nga Lu, the bandit chief who dispossessed Mone of that State and Kengtawng by force (no doubt Theebaw was bribed). George went up with a handful of men when Britain took over and restored the old chief. See “Scott of the Shan Hills”.’

The two golden commissions bear the ruling titles of the cities
The two golden commissions bear the ruling titles of the cities: ကမ္ပောစဝံသဇေယရာဇာ (Kampocavaṃsajeyarājā) (A) and မဟာသီဟရာဇထိုစံထွား (Mahāsīharāja thui caṃ thvāʺ) (B). British Library, Mss Burmese 211 A and B Noc

Looking deeper into the story behind these commissions gives us a snapshot of what was happening in Burma and the Shan states at a pivotal moment in their history.

The golden commissions tell us first about the complex internal politics of the Shan states in the nineteenth century, as well as the nature of the political relations between the Shan rulers and the Burmese kings. The Shan states in the nineteenth century were a mass of different statelets ruled by Sawbwas (chiefs), varying hugely in size and power. Unlike today’s conception of sovereignty with territorially-defined borders dividing states, chiefs had spheres of influence rather than territorial sovereignty, and sovereign power was exercised through relationships between people.

The Shan states had a complicated relationship with the Burmese kings at Ava. While the Shan are culturally and linguistically different from the Burmese, many of the Shan Sawbwas paid tribute to the Burmese kings. For some this involved hosting a Burmese deputy, or even a garrison of Burmese soldiers, while for others this tributary status was merely nominal. The Salween River, which runs through the middle of the Shan states, is an approximate marker of a cultural divide between the western Shan states, which tended to be influenced by Burmese culture, and the eastern Shan states, which tended to be influenced by China and Siam. Thus Mong Nai, which lay on the western side of the Salween, paid tribute to the Burmese kings in Mandalay, while so-called ‘trans-Salween’ Shan states like Kengtung paid tribute to China. Complicating this, many states paid tribute in multiple directions at the same time.

The Gateway of Mong Nai.
The Gateway of Mong Nai. Photograph by Sir James Scott George, 1890s. British Library, Photo 92/2(59)

The story of how these Burmese royal sealed commissions came to be held by the British Library also gives us a snapshot of how the British annexation of Upper Burma unfolded on the ground.

The British annexed Burma in three stages, with Arakan and Tenasserim in 1825, Lower Burma in 1852, and Upper Burma in 1885. The annexation of Upper Burma in 1885 and the exile of the last king of Burma, King Thibaw, was followed by a decade-long campaign of resistance to the British across Upper Burma and the Shan, Kachin and Chin hills. This guerrilla war was the longest campaign fought by the Victorian army, yet it has been all but forgotten in Britain today. The British overthrew Thibaw in a month, but it took several years to put down the diffuse rebellions which sprang up all over Upper Burma.

After deposing King Thibaw, the British immediately claimed as British territory all states which had been vassal states to the Burmese kings. This turned out to be more complicated than they had thought. They discovered that many states paid multiple allegiance, e.g. to both Burma and China, or to Burma and Siam. Some even paid triple allegiance. As a result, annexation triggered several years of trying to determine the new colony’s boundaries with China and Siam. Adding to these complications, at the time of the annexation of Upper Burma many of the Shan states were already in open revolt against the Burmese King.

In 1882, the Mong Nai Sawbwa, Hkun Kyi, rebelled against the Burmese King Thibaw. Resenting Thibaw's perceived slights against him, and feeling the burden of hosting the main Burmese garrison in the Shan States, the Sawbwa invited the Burmese resident sitke and soldiers to a feast in the palace, shut the gates and had them all killed. King Thibaw sent a punitive expedition in response, and the Sawbwa, Hkun Kyi, fled the town. This punitive expedition was when Thibaw issued Twek Nga Lu with the golden seals which are now on display in the British Library.

Twek Nga Lu was a ‘defrocked’ monk (Twek, in Burmese ထွက်, denotes someone who has left the monkhood) who had been in a feud with Hkun Kyi, the Mong Nai Sawbwa, for several years before this point. After failing to take Mong Nai by force, Twek Nga Lu worked to cultivate a relationship with King Thibaw, at one point visiting him in Mandalay. Thibaw’s punitive expedition installed Twek Nga Lu as ruler of Mong Nai in 1882, but when Mandalay fell in 1885 all the Burmese troops were recalled. Twek Nga Lu was left without support and in 1886 Hkun Kyi recaptured Mong Nai.

In May 1887 the British arrived in Mong Nai and persuaded Hkun Kyi, the newly-reinstated Sawbwa, to surrender. Hkun Kyi surrendered without resistance. Going further, he requested permission to fly the Union Jack in Mong Nai. On 12th May 1887, in the presence of the townspeople and fifty Sikh colonial soldiers, the British solemnly hoisted the Union Jack.

The timing of this declaration of allegiance turned out well for Hkun Kyi. A couple of months later, Twek Nga Lu visited Fort Stedman, the main British garrison in the southern Shan states. He showed the British the golden seals which Thibaw had given him in 1882 and claimed to be the rightful ruler of Mong Nai. He was rebuffed, however, and the British told him they had already recognised Hkun Kyi as Sawbwa.

Twek Nga Lu regrouped and launched another attack, managing to capture Mong Nai for the second time in May 1888. This time the British rather than the Sawbwa were the ones to turn him out. A week after Twek Nga Lu took the town, James George Scott (1851-1935, from 1901 Sir James George Scott) arrived from Fort Stedman. With nine men on horseback Scott galloped into the town in the early hours of 10th of May, and captured Twek Nga Lu while he was asleep in the Haw, or palace. It was most likely at this point that Scott took possession of the golden seals.

A view of Mong Nai
A view of Mong Nai. Photograph by Sir James George Scott, 1890s. British Library, Photo 92/2(68)

Scott was an important figure in the story of the extension of British rule into the Shan States. Formerly a journalist and school master in Rangoon, he made his name with the annexation of Upper Burma. He spent his career working in the British administration of the Shan hills, and became an expert on the country.

The British had had problems recruiting enough people to ‘pacify’ Upper Burma (with ‘pacification’ in practice meaning extracting allegiance at gunpoint and torching noncompliant villages). Finding it difficult to persuade Indian Civil Service (ICS) officers to come from India, the British recruited non-ICS Burma experts then living in Lower Burma. As a result, at the same time as he was marching around the Shan hills burning villages and accepting promises of allegiance from Shan rulers, Scott was studying for his ICS exams.

Scott arrested Twek Nga Lu and sent him to Fort Stedman. On the way to Fort Stedman, Twek Nga Lu tried to escape and a guard shot him dead. His body was buried in a shallow roadside grave. Scott, perhaps believing some of the myths surrounding Twek Nga Lu’s magical powers, decided he had better check that he was actually dead. He went to look but the body had already been exhumed, the head cut off and the rest of his body cooked and sold for its magical powers. Scott retold this Twek Nga Lu story several times in different talks and publications.

Military post at Mong Nai
Military post at Mong Nai. Photograph by Sir James George Scott, c. 1888. British Library, Photo 92/4(24)

As well as being a prolific writer and giver of talks to various learned societies, Scott was also a photographer, and the British Library has a large collection of his photographs of the Shan States. These photographs are a record of the British annexation of Upper Burma, and also show how Scott used photographs to demonstrate the military might of the British. An image of a gathering of Shan chiefs for the Mong Nai Durbar (shown below) demonstrates the number of chiefs who had submitted to British rule – although most did not look particularly happy to be there. His wife Lady Scott included many of his photographs in Scott of the Shan Hills, a book she published in 1936, a year after Scott’s death.

Shan Chiefs, Mong Nai Durbar, 1889
Shan Chiefs, Mong Nai Durbar, 1889. Photograph by Sir James George Scott, May 1889. British Library, Photo 92/11(75)

The photos, like the act of taking the sealed commissions, were part of the process of establishing dominance and suppressing resistance in the Shan states. The taking of photographs and the taking of the seals alike tell us about how Scott wanted to present the annexation of Upper Burma to a British audience. The gates and city walls feature prominently in both written and visual depictions of the scene of the British victory over Twek Nga Lu. The walls symbolise the strength, now subjugated, of the Burmese garrison, and the images of wide open gates are symbols of the British entrance into the city, at full gallop, a detail that was repeated in several accounts of the event. The photographs, like the seals, were taken and displayed in order to prove the symbolic and actual domination of the British over the Shans and Burmese. They also give us a chance to see a how a crucial moment in Shan and Burmese history played out on the ground.

Jane Ferguson, Repossessing Shanland: Myanmar, Thailand and a Nation-State Deferred. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2022.
Patricia Herbert, ‘The Making of a Collection: Burmese Manuscripts in the British Library’, The British Library Journal, 15:1 (1989), 59-70
Sao Saimong Mangrai, The Shan States and the British Annexation. Ithaca: Cornell University, 1965.
G.E. Mitton, Scott of the Shan Hills. London: John Murray, 1936.
James Scott, Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States. Rangoon, 1899.

Frances O’Morchoe Ccownwork

Dr Frances O’Morchoe is a Postdoctoral Associate in Myanmar Studies at the Macmillan Center, Yale University. She received her DPhil in History from the University of Oxford in 2019.

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.

05 September 2022

Glimpses from the ‘Golden Land’: Decorative manuscript art in Thailand and beyond

One of the most enchanting items in the 'Bound in Gold' section of the British Library's GOLD exhibition (20 May - 2 October 2022) is the gold and laquer front cover on a Thai manuscript (Or 15257) depicting animals and plants in the heavenly Himavanta forest of the Buddhist cosmos, a detail of which is shown below.  This blog will discuss the techniques that were used in Thailand and other parts of mainland Southeast Asia to create this book cover and other examples of gilded manuscript art.

The beauty of illustrated Buddhist manuscripts from mainland Southeast Asia is often further enhanced by lavish gold embellishments. The region, rich in natural gold deposits found in rocks and as “gold sand” in and along rivers, was once called Suvarnabhumi, ‘Golden Land’, by Indian merchants in the first millennium CE. A Thai inscription dated 1292 CE, attributed to King Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai, documents free trade in gold and silver. Gold was not only important in the commerce with the outside world, but also had and continues to have religious significance: gold images of the Buddha and gold-covered stupa monuments, texts written in gold ink, gold-leaf ornaments on Buddhist temple buildings and furniture can be found across the Southeast Asian mainland. In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, gold decorations were applied to increase the meritorious value of a manuscript, but also to reflect on the social status of the person who commissioned a manuscript or whom such a work was dedicated to. Gold-leaf applications in illustrations helped to give prominence to representations of the Buddha as well as Buddhist and Hindu deities. This blog explores the use of gold to decorate manuscripts in Thailand (formerly Siam) and techniques of applying gold on paper, palm leaves, wood and cloth.

Detail from the back cover of a Thai folding book decorated with gold on black lacquer
Detail from the back cover of a Thai folding book decorated with gold on black lacquer in lai rot nam technique. Central Thailand, second half of the 19th century. British Library, Or 15257  Noc

A popular method to apply gold leaf on the covers of Thai paper folding books, palm leaf manuscripts, furniture and musical instruments is called lai rot nam. This technique goes back at least to the late Ayutthaya period (17th-18th century CE).

The first step consists of applying on the chosen surface several coats of black lacquer, a resin from a tree in the sumac family. The design is traced on parchment paper, and small holes are punched along the lines with a needle. The artist then places the perforated paper on the dried lacquer and wipes it with white clay to copy the design on to the lacquered surface. With a yellow gummy paint made from gamboge and river tamarind rubber the parts which remain black are covered in all their smallest details.

Front cover of a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai, with gold decorations made in lai rot nam technique
Front cover of a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai, with gold decorations made in lai rot nam technique. Central Thailand, 1894. British Library, Or 16101  Noc

The next step in this process is to add a thin coat of lacquer glue over the surface, and when it is semi-dry, gold leaf is applied. After about twelve to twenty hours the work is “washed with water”: using a wet cotton ball or sponge the artist gently detaches the gummy paint to expose the lacquer while the remaining gold design, glued to the lacquered surface, appears. Hence this art is called lai rot nam, which is the Thai expression for ‘designs washed with water’. The beauty of the finished work depends first upon an exquisite design and afterwards a perfect execution which require artistic talent as well as excellent technological knowledge and skills.

Front cover of a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka, with gold decorations made in lai rot nam technique
Front cover of a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka, with gold decorations made in lai rot nam technique. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16009  Noc

The finest examples of Thai folding books have black lacquer covers with lavish gold decorations made in the lai rot nam technique. Often these were funeral or commemoration books commissioned by royals or wealthy members of the society and offered to the Buddhist order of monastics, Sangha. Made from several layers of sturdy mulberry paper, their covers provide more space to apply decorative designs in gold than the much narrower palm leaf manuscripts. Motifs of these decorations include scenes from the heavenly Himavanta forest, plants, mythical and real animals, deities and repetitive floral patterns.

Wooden covers of a palm leaf manuscript containing Buddhist tales with floral decorations in gold on black lacquer
Wooden covers of a palm leaf manuscript containing Buddhist tales with floral decorations in gold on black lacquer. Central Thailand, c. 1851-68. British Library, Or 12524  Noc

Despite the narrow format of palm leaf manuscripts, which offers only limited space for embellishment, the lai rot nam technique was also used to decorate the wooden covers of palm leaf manuscripts. Occasionally, the front and back leaves of palm leaf bundles were illuminated in this way, too, incorporating the title of the text contained in the manuscript.

Palm leaf bundles with cover decorations made in this technique are also found in the manuscript traditions of North Thailand (Lanna) and Laos. Here, the floral patterns are often less repetitive and reflect the artistic traditions of this cultural area.

Detail of the wooden front cover of a Kammavaca palm leaf manuscript with gold floral ornaments made in lai rot nam technique on black lacquer
Detail of the wooden front cover of a Kammavaca palm leaf manuscript with gold floral ornaments made in lai rot nam technique on black lacquer. North Thailand, 1903. British Library, Or 11799  Noc

Gilded pieces of Thai furniture show how manuscripts were traditionally kept in temple libraries. They are also outstanding examples of gold-and-lacquer art applied to larger surfaces. Unique designs were executed in the lai rot nam technique on wooden cabinets to house an entire set of the Buddhist canon (Tipitaka), depicting scenes from the Birth Tales of the Buddha or from the heavenly forest Himavanta. With numerous such cabinets, the libraries of royal temples truly looked like enormous treasure chests, in which the actual treasure were the teachings of the Buddha.

Side view of a wooden manuscript cabinet showing a scene from the Mahosadha Jataka in gold and lacquer
Side view of a wooden manuscript cabinet showing a scene from the Mahosadha Jataka in gold and lacquer, made in the lai rot nam technique. Central Thailand, 19th century. Gift from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. British Library, Foster 1057  Noc

Another method to apply gold on lacquer is the stencil technique, which was and continues to be popular in North Thailand and Laos, but it was also known in Cambodia and the Shan State of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Entire temple walls, pillars, ceilings, window panels, doors and furniture could be decorated with this technique. Buddhist temples well-known for their interiors adorned with exquisite gold stencil-designs are Vat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, and Wat Phra Sing in Chiang Mai, for example. Custom-made chests for single paper or palm-leaf manuscripts were frequently embellished with gold leaf on red or black lacquer, applied with the stencil technique.

Front view of a wooden chest for a single folding book with gold pattern made in stencil technique on red lacquer
Front view of a wooden chest for a single folding book with gold pattern made in stencil technique on red lacquer. Thailand, late 19th or early 20th century. British Library, Or 16840  Noc

To create the stencil ornaments the artist draws or copies the desired design on a thin sheet of paper. This is affixed to a piece of sturdy mulberry paper, which the artist places on a wooden plank. The parts that shall appear in gold are cut out, using straight and curved chisels of varying sizes. Once the entire pattern has been cut out, the artist attaches the stencil to the lacquered surface of the object to be decorated, then applies gold leaf or gold paint through the stencil openings with a soft sponge or brush. When the stencil is removed from the surface carefully, the design comes to light.

Manuscript covers containing Buddhist scriptures, especially Kammavaca ordination texts, were often decorated with gold in the stencil technique. The image below shows the wooden covers of a Kammavaca manuscript from North Thailand. This manuscript was made in the folding book format with text in gold script and illustrations on blackened cloth. The sturdy covers were added to give stability and protection to the textile. This example is interesting as it combines red and black lacquer on which the gold pattern of lotus flowers was applied in the stencil technique.

Wooden covers of a Kammavaca manuscript in folding book format made from cloth
Wooden covers of a Kammavaca manuscript in folding book format made from cloth. The floral ornaments were executed in stencil technique on black lacquer, with a red lacquer frame. North Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14025  Noc

Whereas the lai rot nam and stencil techniques are found across mainland Southeast Asia, a third method to apply gold embellishments on manuscripts was popular in Burma (now Myanmar). Here, the lacquered surface was covered entirely with gold leaf before the design was drawn on it with a pen in bright red paint made from lacquer and cinnabar. Decorative text portions in Burmese square script, especially in Kammavaca manuscripts, were executed in this technique as well, but afterwards filled in with a thick layer of black lacquer. The tradition to fill the spaces between the lines of text with delicate floral patterns lends these unique manuscripts an air of lightness and elegance.

Kammavaca manuscript with text in Burmese square script in black lacquer on a gilded surface
Kammavaca manuscript with text in Burmese square script in black lacquer on a gilded surface. On the sides and between the lines of text are decorations drawn in red colour. Myanmar, 19th century. British Library, Or 13896, f. 2r   Noc

Further reading
Aphiwan Adunyaphichet: Lai rot nam. Thai lacquer works. Bangkok: Muang Boran, 2012
Bennett, Anna T. N.: Gold in early Southeast Asia. Archeosciences 33 (2009), pp. 99-107  (viewed on 20/08/2022)
Chaichana Phojaroen: Sinlapa lai rot nam. Lairotnamart.  (viewed on 21/08/2022)
Lammerts, Christian: Notes on Burmese Manuscripts: Text and Images. Journal of Burma Studies 14 (2010), pp. 229-253  (viewed on 23/08/2022)
No. Na. Paknam: Tu Phra Traipidok sut yot haeng sinlapa lai rot nam. Bangkok: Muang Boran, 2000

Jana Igunma, Henry D. Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian 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.