Asian and African studies blog

5 posts from October 2022

31 October 2022

An Early Modern Khavarnamah from Bijapur

This week’s post is by guest writer Namrata B. Kanchan, PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation examines the courtly Dakhni literary and manuscript culture between 1500 CE and 1700 CE.

One of the most ambitious illustrated manuscript projects of the seventeenth-century ʻAdil Shahi court of Bijapur is the British Library manuscript IO Islamic 834, the Khavarnamah (Book of the East) written in the local vernacular of Dakhni in the nastaʻliq script. Originally composed in Persian by the poet Ibn Husam and completed in 1426 CE, this epic masnavi (narrative poetry), details the heroic exploits of the Shi‘a Imam ‘Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Like Firdausi’s epic Shahnamah (ca. 970-1010), various copies of the Persian Khavarnamah (usually called the Khavarannamah) were richly illustrated. In general, it was Shi‘a patrons who commissioned copies of this work across the Persianate world.

1. ‘Ali with Jamshed Shah
‘Ali with Jamshed Shah, Khavarnamah, Bijapur, ca. 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 75r).
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In Bijapur, Sultana Khadija (d. 1688), the wife of Sultan Muhammad ʻAdil Shah (r. 1626-1656) and the daughter of Golconda’s Qutb Shahi king Muhammad Qutb Shah (r. 1612-1626) commissioned the illustrated manuscript in the Deccan in the early half of the seventeenth century. She diverged, however, from the previous manuscript tradition by commissioning the poet Kamal Khan “Rustami” to compose the work in the regional vernacular language Dakhni, a regional form of Hindavi, instead of Persian.

The introductory page of the Dakhni masnavi  the Khavarnamah  Bijapur  1649 CE
The introductory page of the Dakhni masnavi, the Khavarnamah, Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 1v).
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Rustami emerges as an important poet with deep connections to the Bijapur court. In the Khavarnamah’s epilogue, the poet provides a brief biography in prose where he states that he had descended from a long line of  ʻAdil Shahi courtiers and his father, Ismaʻil Khattat Khan had also served the Bijapur rulers. After assuming the pen-name of Rustami, the poet composed several ghazals (odes) and qasidahs (panegyric) in Dakhni and Persian.

One reason for the choice of vernacular in this manuscript is that by the early seventeenth century, Dakhni had become a popular literary language especially in the narrative genre of the masnavi. Moreover, previous Dakhni poets, often multilingual ones like Rustami, attempted to elevate the status of this vernacular by translating or refashioning works from the translocal Indic and Persian literary spheres. The Dakhni Khavarnamah forms part of this effort. Thus, the translation of an illustrated Shi‘a epic, evinces an endeavour to showcase Dakhni as a serious literary language and Bijapur as a major Shi‘a domain.

‘Ali with Mir Siyaf
‘Ali with Mir Siyaf, Khavarnamah, Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 379v).
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Apart from the choice of language, this original source manuscript is unique for several reasons. Sultana Khadija, also known as Bari Sahib (grande dame), is the first known female patron of a Dakhni work. Apart from the commission of the Khavarnamah, two seals connected with her appear on a Kalila va Dimnah manuscript (Acc. no. 71.187), housed currently at the National Museum, New Delhi (Akhtar, p. 44 and following plate). While one is unquestionably Sultana Khadija’s seal and carries her name, the second, reading Allah Muhammad ʻAli is identical to that in the British Library Khavarnamah and is possibly another of her seals, an expression of her religious belief.

4. Khadija's seal
Possibly Khadija’s seal in the British Library Khavarnamah, reconstructed from a damaged impression on folio 2r and the reversed mirror image preserved on the facing page. Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834). Photo: Ursula Sims-Williams
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A vital player in Adil Shahi politics, Sultana Khadija was economically independent and one source of her income was the revenue she received from a coastal province, which also included a Dutch-operated factory in Vengurla (Kruijtzer, p. 231). In 1656, she assumed the position of regent for her son when her husband died. As regent, she controlled court politics and had dealings with the Dutch on India’s east coast as well as the Portuguese on the west coast. Once her regency ended in 1661, she wrote to the Dutch to undertake a trip to Mecca for Hajj and found place aboard a ship travelling west. She also embarked on a trip to visit holy Shi‘a pilgrimage sites and allegedly died in Yemen in 1688 (Kruijtzer, pp. 231-2).

A distinctive feature of this monumental manuscript (543 folios measuring 14 x 11 inches) is that it is richly illustrated with images on practically every page with some illustrations occupying the whole page. Depicted in rich and vibrant hues that are characteristic of the Deccan, these images illustrate the various adventures and heroic deeds of Hazrat ‘Ali and his companions Malik and Abu al-Mihjan.

4. ʻAli with Malik and others
 ‘Ali with Malik, Abu al-Mihjan (spelt as Maʻjan in the manuscript), Khavarnamah, Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 8r).
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An interesting observation is that ‘Ali’s face is veiled consistently throughout this manuscript although most other copies of the Khavarnamah chose not to conceal his face (f. 75 r.). This is evident from a near contemporary copy of the manuscript in Persian at the British Library (BL Add. 19766).

The Prophet with ‘Ali, Husain and Hasan in Paradise
The Prophet with ‘Ali, Husain and Hasan in Paradise. ‘Uthman, ‘Umar and Abu Bakr in the foreground. From the Persian Khavarannamah by Ibn Husam, Punjab, 1686 (British Library, Add MS 19766, f. 362v).
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Furthermore, just as the text emerges in the local Dakhni form, some of the images also carry a local flavour that depict encounters with yogis and Hindu kings.

7. Jamshed Shah with a Hindu Yogi
Jamshed Shah with a Hindu Yogi, Khavarnamah, Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 123r).
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The Bijapur Khavarnamah’s scale and illustration programme thus attest to the popularity of Dakhni literature in the seventeenth-century Deccan sultanate courts. Furthermore, the patronage of this manuscript perhaps could also be interpreted as an act of Shi‘a piety. It would be interesting to compare this manuscript to other copies of the Persian Ḳhavarnamah to see either similarities or points of divergence in the narrative structure and illustrative programme.

I would like to thank Ursula Sims-Williams for providing important insight into Khadija Sultana’s seals and for identifying the seal in the Khavarnamah with the one in the National Museum.

Namrata B. Kanchan,  University of Texas at Austin
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Further Reading

Primary Source
Rustamī Bījāpūrī, K̲h̲āvar nāmah / muṣannafah-yi Kamāl K̲h̲ān̲ Rustamī Bījāpūrī; murattabah-yi Shaik̲h̲ Cānd ibn Ḥusain Aḥmadnagrī. Karācī: Taraqqīyi Urdū Borḍ, 1968. Online edition at Rekhta Books

Secondary Sources
Akhtar, Nasim, and others “Kalila wa Dimna,” in Islamic art of India. Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 2002, p. 44 and following plate.
Kruijtzer, Gijs. “Baṛī Ṣāḥib bint Muḥammad Quṭb Shāh,” in Christian Muslim Relations: A Bibliographic History, eds. David Thomas and John Chesworth. Leiden: Brill, 2017, pp. 231-7.
Overton, Keelan (ed.). Iran and the Deccan: Persianate Art, Culture, and Talent in Circulation, 1400-1700. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020.
Overton, Keelan. “Book Culture, Royal Libraries, and Persianate Painting in Bijapur, Circa 1580­‒1630.” Muqarnas 33.1 (2016): pp. 91–154.

24 October 2022

Alexander the Great in Firdawsi's Book of Kings

The legendary life of Alexander the Great is the subject of the British Library’s new exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth which opened on Friday 21 October. A visual feast of stories spanning more than 2000 years, it centres on the Alexander Romance originally composed in Greek around the third century AD and shares narratives from East and West side by side in more than twenty languages.  One of the most richly illustrated sources is the Persian Shahnamah (Book of Kings) completed by the poet Firdawsi in 1010 AD. There are no less than fourteen copies of this national epic in the exhibition ranging from the beginning of the fourteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. A selection of these is shown below. While the details sometimes differ from the Alexander Romance, the Shahnamah tells the same stories in a common context.

The history of Alexander in the Shahnamah begins with a peace treaty between King Darab of Persia and Filqus (Philip) of Greece in which Filqus’ daughter Nahid is married to the Persian king. Though she outshone all others in her beauty, she proved to suffer from bad breath and the marriage broke down irretrievably. Nahid was sent home to her father, rejected, but unknowingly pregnant with Alexander (Iskandar or Sikandar in Persian) who was subsequently brought up as Philip’s son and heir. Meanwhile King Darab took another wife who gave birth to Dara (Darius) who would succeed his father before being ultimately defeated in battle by his half-brother Alexander.

1. Iskandar and the dying Dara  Bombay
The death of Dara, one of the most frequently illustrated subjects in the Shahnamah, in a hand-coloured lithograph edition published in Bombay in 1849.  British Library, 14807.h.4
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Three decisive battles took place in the last of which, at Gaugamela in northern Iraq in 331 BC, the Persian army was irrevocably defeated. Dara escaped but was mortally wounded by two of his own men. Iskandar, who had wanted Dara alive, was dismayed when he found him. Cradling Dara’s head on his knees, he promised to fulfil Dara’s dying wishes: to look after his family, to marry his daughter Roshanak (Roxana) and to safeguard the Zoroastrian religion.

Indeed Iskandar married Roshanak with much pomp and ceremony and then moved on to India where he conquered King Kayd of Hind by peaceful means. As part of their agreement he received four gifts: King Kayd’s daughter in marriage, his all-knowing seer to advise him, his physician who could cure any disease and his never-emptying goblet.

2. ISkandar and the daughter of King Kayd
Iskandar marries the daughter of King Kayd of Hind (India). Sultanate India, 1438. British Library, Or.1403, f. 318r
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Moving on, Iskandar challenged another Indian ruler, King Fur (Porus). On this occasion a fierce battle took place. Iskandar had been forewarned about Fur’s invincible army of elephants and to counter them, recruited more than 1200 blacksmiths who forged 1000 iron horses and riders on wheels. These were filled with oil and set alight at the head of the advancing army. The whole army was put to rout leaving Iskandar to kill Fur in single combat.

3. Battle with Fur of Hind
The battle between Iskandar and Fur. Artist: Kamal, Mughal India, about 1616. British Library, Add MS 5600, f. 361v
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From India Iskandar travelled in search of riches and new experiences. He went to Mecca, Egypt and Andalus — in this context most likely a city in western Asia representing  ‘the West’— where he encountered Queen Qaydafah (Candace in the Greek Alexander Romance). Iskandar approached her court disguised as a messenger, but she already had a portrait of him and so immediately recognised him. His deception exposed, Iskandar feared for his life, but instead was admonished and sent safely on his way. A similarly peaceful encounter took place with the Amazons, the virgin warriors of Harum, located in the Caucasus.

4. The women of Harum
Iskandar’s peaceful visit to the woman-only city of Harum. Iran, 1536. British Library Add MS 15531, f. 345r
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Travelling further Iskandar encountered the philosophical Brahmans, people with heads on their chests and without bones, dragons and all manner of mythical creatures. He fought battles in China and against the Russians, and constructed a wall to contain the barbarous peoples of Gog and Magog.

5. ISkandar kills a dragon
Iskandar kills a dragon by feeding it cow-hides stuffed with poison and oil. Isfahan, 1614. British Library, Add MS 16761, f. 190v
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Increasingly, however, Iskandar became pre-occupied with his own mortality. Would he ever see his native land again, when would he die? Seeking, but never finding, the waters of everlasting life he met the angel of death Israfil who told him his time would come. Then at the edge of the world he came to the talking tree which had two trunks, one male and one female. At midday the male trunk spoke, foretelling the end of his fourteen-year rule, and at nightfall its female counterpart announced: ‘Death will come soon.’

6. Iskandar and the talking tree
Iskandar and the talking tree. Shiraz, c. 1420-25. The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford MS Ouseley, Add. 176, f. 311v
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Now at the end of his journey, Iskandar returned to Babylon where he was greeted with more omens of death: a stillborn child with a lion’s head, a human chest and shoulders, and a cow’s tail and hooves.

7. Iskandar receives an omen of his death
Iskandar sees an omen of his imminent death in Babylon. Iran, c. 1300. Chester Beatty, Dublin, Per 104.49.  
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His fate sealed, Iskandar fell ill that very day. He ordered that he should be carried outside and in full view of his soldiers he advised them to live humbly and follow his example. As depicted below, a physician takes his pulse while another is making notes. In the background courtiers and soldiers wipe away their tears.

8. Death of Iskandar
The moment of Iskandar’s death. Qazvin, 1585-6. British Library, Add. MS 27302, f. 414r
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Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth runs until 19 February 2023. It is 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. Tickets are on sale and may be booked on our Events page, and more information can be found on our dedicated exhibition website.

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.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian, British Library
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Further Reading

Firdawsi, Shahnamah, trans. Dick Davis, Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, rev. edn. New York: Penguin, 2016.
The Sháhnáma of Firdausí, trans. Arthur George and Edmond Warner, vol 6. London: Routledge, 1912.
Manteghi, Haila, Alexander the Great in the Persian Tradition: History, Myth and Legend in Medieval Iran. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2018.

17 October 2022

Verhandelingen: a rare 1816 issue of a periodical printed in Java

The Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen, or Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences, was established in Batavia in 1778. Founded by the botanist Jacob Radermacher, the Bataviaasch Genootschap is the oldest learned society in Asia founded by Europeans. After a failed attempt to gain the patronage of Stadtholder Willem V (1748–1806; William V, Prince of Orange), the governors of the BG focussed their attentions on their publication Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap der Kunsten en Wetenschappen, ‘Transactions of the Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences’.  They envisaged Verhandelingen as a vehicle for building an academic reputation in Holland and more widely in Europe, modelling themselves on the Hollandsche Maatschappij der Wetenschappen (Dutch Society of Sciences) in Haarlem.

A view of Batavia
A view of Batavia, the capital of the Dutch Settlements in India, by John Wells, ca. 1800. British Library, P 494 Noc

The editors (governors) of Verhandelingen announced competitions to attract contributions, with limited success. Therefore, many of the articles were written by the editors themselves. Both Radermacher and Van Iperen wrote no fewer than three articles for Vol. 1 (printed in 1779 and 1781) and van Hogendorp wrote two, including one jointly with Radermacher. Perhaps due partly to a shortage of material, during the course of the 18th century only six volumes of Verhandelingen were published: Vol. 1 in the year after its founding, in 1779, Vol. 2 in 1780, Vol. 3 in 1787, Vol. 4 in 1786 (sic), Vol. 5 in 1790 and Vol. 6 in 1792.

These early volumes of Verhandelingen are not only extremely rare, but appear to have a complex publication history, with copies of the same volume bearing different dates of printing, and sometimes being reissued at a later date. The British Library holds an incomplete set of Verhandelingen under two main shelfmark series. The earliest volumes - all originating from the private collection of Sir Joseph Banks - are assigned individual shelfmarks in the range 438.k.10-29, which covers Vols 1-15, but in a range of different editions. The earliest are Vol. 1, which contains the ‘Constitution of the Society’, printed in Batavia in 1781 and held at 438.k.13, and two issues of Vol. 2 held at 438.k.15 and 438.k.14, while copies of a third edition of Vols 1 and 2, printed in Batavia in 1825 and 1826, are also held as 438.k.28 and 438.k.29.

Because of the Society’s academic ambitions, as mentioned above, the governors also looked for printers in the Dutch Republic to print Dutch/European editions of the volumes published in Batavia. They commissioned the book sellers Arrenberg in Rotterdam and the printer Allard from Amsterdam to do a reprint of the first volume as soon as it had appeared in Batavia. Thus, the first three volumes appeared in the Dutch Republic in 1781, 1784 and 1787 respectively, and are held in the British Library as 438.k.10, 438.k.11 and 438.k.12. These Dutch editions were more elaborate than the Batavian ones, with copper engraved foldout plates in them, although Vol.1 lacks the Constitution. The British Library’s copies of Vols. 4-15 held at the 438.k. shelfmark are all printed in Batavia.

Vol. 13 of Verhandelingen
Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap der Kunsten en Wetenschappen, Vol. 13, printed in Batavia in 1832. British Library, 438.k.25 Noc

By the beginning of the 19th century the Society was almost moribund, but major political changes were then afoot. At the time of the founding of the Bataviaasch Genootschap in 1778, Batavia was the seat of administration of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC), but in 1799 the VOC collapsed into bankruptcy and the governance was taken over by the Dutch state. In the early years of the 19th century, the Napoleonic wars in Europe spilled over into the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. A fleet assembled by the Governor-General of Bengal, Lord Minto, invaded Java in August 1811 and defeated the Franco-Dutch forces. For the next five years, Java was governed by a British administration, with Thomas Stamford Raffles as Lieutenant-Governor, and in 1812 Raffles took over the Presidency of the Batavian Society.

With Raffles’ encouragement, Vol. 7 of Verhandelingen was published in 1814, and was the first to appear mainly in English. It contained an address by Raffles as well as a number of articles by Thomas Horsfield and one each by Colin Mackenzie and John Leyden. The next issue, Vol. 8, published in 1816 – the final year of the British administration of Java – was also mainly in English.

After the departure of the British from Java in 1816, the Verhandelingen reverted to publication in Dutch, with some contributions in French or German. In 1857, on the occasion of the publication of Vol. 25, P. J. Veth wrote a short history of the Society drawing primarily on copies of the Verhandelingen. This appeared in vol. 21 of De Gids (‘The Guide’), the most distinguished literary journal in Holland, of which Veth was the editor (the British Library’s copy is held at 3535.930200 with another copy at P.P.4595). The British Library also holds an incomplete set of later issues of Verhandelingen, shelved at Ac.975/6, dating from 1860 to 1950, when the journal ceased publication. Following Indonesian independence in 1945, by 1962 the Society had essentially ceased activities, but was eventually transformed into the National Museum, with the books and manuscripts joining the newly-formed National Library in 1980.

The initial, English, title page, of the Transactions of the Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences, Vol. VIII, printed in Batavia in 1816
The initial, English, title page, of the Transactions of the Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences, Vol. VIII, printed in Batavia in 1816. This is followed by the Dutch title page, of the Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen. British Library, RB.23.a.39867 Noc

We were therefore delighted to be able to acquire recently for the British Library, from Voewood Rare Books, a copy of Vol. 8, printed in Batavia in 1816, which has been assigned the rare book shelfmark of RB.23.a.39867. Vol. 8 contains 10 articles, of which three are in Dutch and seven in English, all paginated separately, starting with an Address from the President, Raffles himself (95 pp). Raffles is also responsible for an account of the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 (25 pp), while John Crawfurd contributed the text and English summaries of two 'ancient Javanese' (actually Sanskrit) inscriptions (6 pp).

Contents pages of Vol. 8 of the Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen, Batavia, 1816 Continuation of contents pages of Vol. 8 of the Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen, Batavia, 1816
Contents pages of Vol. 8 of the Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen, Batavia, 1816. British Library, RB.23.a.39867 Noc

The largest number of pages in the volume are occupied by three lengthy articles by Thomas Horsfield, on Medical plants of Java (53 pp), the Mineralogy of Java (47 pp), and a long ‘Essay on the Geography, Mineralogy and Botany, of the Western portion of the territory of the native Princes of Java’ (183 pp), this last essay being the only portion of this volume which is presently widely available digitally. Thomas Horsfield (1773-1859) was an American doctor who first visited Java in 1800. Entranced by the riches of the natural environment, he returned in 1801 and entered the service of the Dutch authorities. His appointment enabled him to carry out intensive research into the geology and natural history of Java, as well as indulging his interest in antiquities. Following the British occupation of Java, he continued his work with Raffles’ encouragement. While on his extensive travels around Java by river, sea and on horseback, Horsfield was constantly sketching, and some of his pictures include in the corner what appears to be a self-portrait: a small drawing of a European man, invariably with a sketchbook. When Horsfield left Java in 1818, he retired to England, where he became the first Keeper of the East India Company’s Museum from 1820 to 1859. Many of his drawings of natural history and antiquities are held today in the British Library.

Pencil sketch of of the ruins of Candi Sari in Central Java, by Thomas Horsfield, with possibly a self-portrait in the bottom right foreground
Pencil sketch of of the ruins of Candi Sari in Central Java, by Thomas Horsfield, with possibly a self-portrait in the bottom right foreground, ca. 1800-1818. British Library, WD 957, f. 9 (99) Noc

References:
Hans Groot, Van Batavia naar Weltevreden; Het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappan, 1778-1867. Leiden: KITLV, 2009. 
Register op de artikelen voorkomende in het Tijdschrift voor Indische taal-land- en volkenkunde en de Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen, etc. ‘Index to the articles appearing in the Journal for Indian languages,- country and anthropological studies and the Transactions of the Batavian Society for Arts and Sciences’ by Hinloopen Labberton. Batavia, ‘s Hage, 1908. [An overview of the contents of the Verhandelingen from 1779 to 1907.]
Lian The and Paul W. van der Veur, The Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap: an Annotated Content Analysis. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, Southeast Asia Program, 1973.

Probably the best open access to Verhandelingen is provided by the digitised set available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library, which - albeit incomplete - ranges from an 1825 printing of Vol. 1 to Vol. 61 of 1915.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator for Southeast Asia, and Marja Kingma, Curator for Dutch collections Ccownwork

10 October 2022

‘Under The Mantle Of Plague’: A British Medical Mission To East Persia In 1897

On the morning of the 30 June 1897, in the Iranian province of Sistan, two men entered the camp of Lieutenant-Colonel George Washington Brazier-Creagh. They were kadkhodas, leaders from nearby villages, come to reassure the touring medical officer that they intended to ignore the Deputy Governor of Sistan’s orders not to provide his British party with supplies. Shortly afterwards, four Baluchi merchants arrived with similar assurances, their cooperation reciprocated warmly but with characteristic formality.

Brazier-Creagh
George Washington Brazier-Creagh, by Walter Stoneman (Negative, 1918, National Portrait Gallery x44582)
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Such pledges notwithstanding, Brazier-Creagh was angered by Mīr Ma‘ṣūm Khān’s attempts to hinder him and he wrote to the Deputy Governor a few days later, expressing his astonishment at being treated in such a way when it was the “combined orders of the Persian and Supreme [British Indian] Governments” that had brought them into the country “to protect it from plague” and demanding that the order be countermanded. Mīr Ma‘ṣūm’s reply, sent two days later, was brief and to the point. Explaining that he had no objection to supplying the British party if they had any further orders from their government, he thanked God “that there is no disease in the country” and advised that Brazier-Creagh now return to India, or his government “will object to…your remaining in the country and visiting towns.”

Report on the Mission to Seistan
Brazier-Creagh’s report on his mission to Sistan (IOR/L/PS/20/33, front)
Public domain

The Deputy Governor’s response speaks of the wider story underlying Brazier-Creagh’s presence in Sistan at that time. It is true that the Persian Government had requested that the British send a medical officer to investigate Russian claims of plague outbreaks in the region, and to take measures to contain the disease should the claims be true. However, Mīr Ma‘ṣūm will also have been aware that no cases of plague had been found in Sistan by the British party, and his orders not to supply them will have been driven by his suspicions about their continued presence in the province. While remaining cordial, he deftly leaves Brazier-Creagh the choice of either leaving the country or admitting to having ulterior reasons for being there.

In truth, the outbreak of plague in Mumbai in September 1896 provided a convenient excuse for both the Russians and the British to make political gains in east Persia. Described by Brazier-Creagh as a ‘complete blind’, the plague scare became the pretext for Russian agents and Cossacks to move into the province of Khorasan. Quarantine posts were established along the border with Afghanistan and the roads leading into Khorasan from Sistan. In addition, the Russians were successful in getting the Persian Government to close the border along the newly-revived trade route into Sistan from India, a move as much about damaging British prestige as it was about preventing the spread of disease.

Bombay plague camp
'Bombay plague observation camp: spraying detainee with disinfectant'. Photographed by Captain C. Moss, 1896-97. British Library, Photo 311/1(139)
Public domain

The British, too, made good use of the opportunity to gather intelligence and establish themselves more firmly in Sistan. The province had long been viewed as being of great strategic importance, both for its economic potential and its proximity to their Indian empire. Concern over Russian advances on India’s north-western frontier had been growing for half a century. Development of the ancient trade route from Quetta to Sistan was aimed at increasing British influence in the region. The plan to extend the rail network in the same direction was to help facilitate this, but also to allow for the rapid mobilisation of military resources should they be required to defend the Empire.

In the introductory letter to his report on the mission to Sistan, Brazier-Creagh makes clear his awareness of ‘other duties more important and intricate, and that my primary duty would be equalled, if not surpassed, by political ones in watching British interests’. What is striking about the report is its hypocrisy and contradictions. Brazier-Creagh complains throughout of Russian intrigue and duplicity, while at the same time documenting his own underhand activities. To both the Russians and the Persians he doggedly maintains the fiction that he was not there ‘for political purpose.’ It truly gives a sense of the confrontation being the ‘Great Game’ it was to be popularly referred to as.

Map of parts of Sistan produced during the 1897 mission
Map of parts of Sistan produced by Brazier-Creagh from his survey work carried out there during his 1897 mission (IOR/L/PS/20/33, f 61)
Public domain

So it was that Brazier-Creagh refused to leave the country at the Deputy Governor’s request, claiming that he had been ordered to stay ‘and take all precautions it seems desirable to me to protect the country from the possibility of plague getting into and decimating the country.’ This refusal, and his attitude towards the Persian authorities in general, caused offence in the country and complaints would later be made to the Government of India. He remained in Sistan several weeks more, however, allowing him to travel ‘every acre of the country’ and to ‘compile very complete statistics on resources, revenues, and other subjects of special interest, both political and strategical, as well as a thorough survey.’ It is a stark example of matters of health and epidemiology being hijacked and manipulated for political ends. An entanglement that remains pertinent today.

Primary Sources

London, British Library, ‘REPORT ON THE MISSION TO SEISTAN, 1897’, IOR/L/PS/20/3
London, British Library, 'Report of Khan Bahadur Maula Bakhsh, Attaché to the Agent to the Governor General of India and Her Britannic Majesty's Consul-General for Khurasan and Sistan, on His Journey from Meshed to Quetta via Turbat-i-Haidari, Kain, Sistan, Kuh-i-Malik Siah and Nushki (7th April to 28th July 1898)', Mss Eur F111/363

Secondary Sources

Greaves, Rose L., “Sīstān in British Indian Frontier Policy.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies  49, no. 1 (1986): 90–102.
Kazemzadeh, Firuz, Russia and Britain in Persia: Imperial Ambitions in Qajar Iran. London, 2013.

 

John Hayhurst, Content Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
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03 October 2022

Five Centuries of Copying, Illustrating and Reading Amir Khusraw’s Poetry

Today's post is by guest contributor and regular visitor to Asian and African Collections, Sunil Sharma, Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University.

The British Library has one of the largest collections of manuscripts of the Persian works of Amir Khusraw of Delhi (d. 1325). There are around fifty manuscripts, listed in the Ethé, Rieu, and Ross and Brown catalogues, as well as a few in the Delhi Persian Collection, dating from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, including some early compilations of his collected poetry (kulliyat), selections of ghazals, and long narrative poems (masnavis). An eclectic range of codices from sumptuous royal copies to pedestrian books can be found here, many with seals and inscriptions by owners, and colophons by various calligraphers, and illustrations from different schools of painting. This rich collection highlights, on the one hand, the enormous corpus of the poet’s works in many different forms and literary genres, and on the other hand, the daunting problem of compiling standard and complete editions of his poems.

Shirin visits the sculptor Farhad on Mt Bisitun
Shirin visits the sculptor Farhad on Mt Bisitun. From the masnavi Layla Majnun, 16th century but heavily overpainted in the 18th or 19th century (BL Add. 7751, f. 71v)
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Amir Khusraw, a medieval Persian poet who was much admired and read in Persianate societies, is sometimes written out of the classical canon in our times. A master of every existing poetic form, the poet particularly distinguished himself in his mastery of courtly and devotional panegyric and love lyrics. His output was prolific in these forms, and according to Dawlatshah writing in the late fifteenth-century in his biographical dictionary, Tazkirat al-shu‘ara, bibliophiles at the Timurid court gave up attempting to collect all his verses. This continues to be the fate of modern-day scholars who work on the Amir Khusraw’s poetry.

There are a number of manuscripts of Amir Khusraw’s works dating from the second half of the fifteenth century to the very beginning of the seventeenth in the form of Kulliyat, i.e. his entire corpus of poems that was available at specific places and moments of time. Some of the manuscripts in this group, along with others described below, share several codicological features and many of the copies were produced in Herat. The writing in them is small, metres of individual poems are identified in some cases, and the margins contain poems in order to maximize every bit of space. One of these (IO Islamic 338), which was copied in Delhi ca. 1603, was once part of the library of Tipu Sultan — who incidentally had at least six other copies of works by Amir Khusraw in his collection.

The opening to Baqiya-i naqiya  Amir Khusraw’s fourth Divan
The opening to Baqiyah-i naqiyah, Amir Khusraw’s fourth Divan in this copy of his collected works (BL IO Islamic 338, f. 337v)
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The earliest Kulliyat manuscripts also included his narrative poems, since Amir Khusraw was also celebrated for his quintet (Khamsah) modelled on Nizami’s own set of verse romances of the same title. No slavish imitator of his predecessor, Amir Khusraw modified the plots of well-known romances such as Layla and Majnun, Khusraw and Shirin, and Hasht Bihisht. The aforementioned Dawlatshah also mentions that the Timurd prince Baysunghur (1397 – 1433) used to prefer the Khamsah of Amir Khusraw to Nizami’s. In comparing Khusraw’s Khamsah comprising 18,000 verses to Nizami’s comprising 28,000, Dawlatshah writes, “It is amazing how in some expressions [Khusraw] is long-winded and in some concise; the conciseness, rhetoric, and eloquence are charming.” While Baysunghur's brother, the amir Ulugh Beg, preferred Nizami's Khamsah, the two would argue and compare individual verses in the two works. Dawlatshah adds, “The special meanings and subtleties of Amir Khusraw’s exciting poetry kindles a fire in people’s minds and shakes the foundation of the fortitude of lovers.” In this Timurid milieu, an unillustrated Khamsah (Add. 24983) was copied in Herat by the master calligrapher Muhammad ‘Ali Samarqandi for the library of Sultan Husayn Bahadur Khan Bayqara (d. 1506), which subsequently belonged to the Mughal Imperial Library.

Dedication to Sultan Husayn Bayqara in the centre with a list of the contents round the edge.
Dedication to Sultan Husayn Bayqara in the centre with a list of the contents round the edge. By the time the manuscript was completed in 1511, the Sultan had been dead for six years (BL Add. 24983, f. 2r)
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One of the Kulliyat manuscripts, dated 923/1517 (Add. 21104) is furnished with seventeen illustrations, some of which were added or touched up later. B.W. Robinson tentatively suggested that due to the not so “easily recognizable style” of the paintings, it was one of a group of illustrated quintets probably originating in Transoxiana or Khurasan.[1]

Lovers in a garden  from Amir Khusraw’s Divan Ghurrat al-kamal copy
Lovers in a garden, from Amir Khusraw’s Divan Ghurrat al-kamal (BL Add.21104, f.251r)
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The earliest manuscript of Amir Khusraw’s Khamsah dated 1421 (Or.13802)[2] was actually copied in the margins of Nizami’s quintet, indicating that the texts were often read together. It bears the Gujarati inscription of a later Parsi owner and is only partially preserved.

Khusraw and Shirin enthroned copy
Khusraw and Shirin enthroned. (BL Or. 13802, f. 119v)
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Another such illustrated manuscript (IO Islamic 387) where both quintets appear together is thought to date from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century and is in much better condition. In Amir Khusraw’s version of the Alexander romance, A’inah-ʼi Iskandari, Nizami’s philosopher-king is transformed into an intrepid explorer and scientist.

6. Iskandar crossing the sea in a ship of European type  from Aʼina-yi Iskandari copy
Iskandar crossing the sea in a ship of European type, from Aʼinah-ʼi Iskandari (BL IO Islamic 387, f.466r)
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This work also exists in a stand-alone copy (Add. 24,054) apparently dated 885/1479. Other poems from the quintet were also copied on their own without any paintings, such as two copies of Matla‘ al-anvar and four copies of Hasht Bihisht. Three of Amir Khusraw’s versified romances on contemporary themes, which are not part of his quintet, also had a readership. Along with an eighteenth-century copy of the Nuh Sipihr there are seven copies of the Qiran al-Sa‘dayn, one of which, dated 921/1515 at Herat (Add. 7753), was copied by the famous calligrapher Sultan Muhammad Khandan, while several others are eighteenth or nineteenth-century humbler manuscripts that were clearly read by non-elite readers.

The opening of Qiran al-saʻdayn copied by Muhammad Khandan at Herat in 1515
The opening of Amir Khusraw's Qiran al-saʻdayn, copied at Herat in 1515 by the famous calligrapher Sultan Muhammad Khandan (BL Add. 7753, f. 1v)
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Qiran al-saʻdayn. An unillustrated copy made in Ramnagar in the 18th century
Qiran al-saʻdayn
. An unillustrated copy made in Ramnagar in the 18th century (BL Egerton 1033)
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There are also three copies of the popular Indo-Persian romance, Khizr Khan va Duvalrani, also known as  ‘Ashiqah, one of which (Or.335) has some unusual illustrations, such as the rare depiction of the beheading of the prince at the end of the story.

Prince Khizr Khan murdered on order of the Delhi Sultan Qutb al-Din Mubarak
Prince Khizr Khan murdered on order of the Delhi Sultan Qutb al-Din Mubarak. From Khizr Khan va Duvalrani, dated 982/1574  (BL Or.335, f.142v)
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Attempts to collect and produce large copies of Amir Khusraw’s poetry ceased for the most part in the Safavid and Mughal periods when more copies of selections of his non-narrative poems were made, specifically of the five Divans that marked the different stages of his development as a poet. At this time the ghazal had become the privileged poetic form which only increased the popularity of Amir Khusraw’s love lyrics. Among the most popular of a dozen or so copies of poems from his Divans is the Ghurrat al-Kamal that includes a long partly autobiographical preface followed by copies of his Vasat-i Hayat. A particularly fine Timurid copy of his Divan (IO Islamic 512) also includes the poems of Hasan Sijzi and Jami in the margins.


10. The colophon of the Divan of Amir Khusraw in the centre  and poems of Jami in the margins
The colophon of the Divan of Amir Khusraw in the centre, and poems of Jami in the margins (BL IO Islamic 512, ff. 618v-619r)
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The wide range in this group of manuscripts is due to the fact that some were prepared for Mughal patrons such as Bayram Khan, others circulated among Ottoman Turkish readers. Another belonged to the library of a Qadiriya Sufi order in Bijapur, and at least one (IO Islamic 2470) was prepared for Robert Watherston, a British officer in India.

The final page and colophon of a selection from Amir Khusraw’s divans commissioned by Robert Watherston in 1790
The final page and colophon of a selection from Amir Khusraw’s divans commissioned by Robert Watherston in 1790 (BL IO Islamic 2470, f.91r)
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In addition to his poetry, an example of Amir Khusraw’s prose exists in a single voluminous collection of epistolographic writings, I’jaz-i Khusravi. The manuscript dated 1697-8 (IO Islamic 4714) was calligraphed by Anup Rai and has the seal of one Qutbuddin Bahadur Jang.

In lieu of a complete bibliography or database of the manuscripts of Amir Khusraw, the British Library collection is an excellent sampling that provides a rich history of the copying and readership of the poet’s collected and individual works across five centuries. The manuscripts were produced and circulated in the Persianate world, the inscriptions and seals showing their sojourn in important centres of artistic production such as Herat, Shiraz, Istanbul, and Delhi, as well as provincial Indian towns such as Ramnagar in UP and Rohinkhed in Maharashtra. At times, the archives also reveal an exciting history of use of some of these manuscripts in the early twentieth century by renowned scholars such as M. Wahid Mirza, whose pioneering scholarship on Amir Khusraw which was originally his PhD thesis at the University of London is still the authoritative book on the subject. Based on the borrowing slip pasted into the back of IO Islamic 51, which dates from 866-7/1462, the manuscript was even checked out and sent to Aligarh in 1935!

Borrowing slip pasted into the back of the Kulliyat of Amir Khusraw
Borrowing slip pasted into the back of the Kulliyat of Amir Khusraw recording a distinguished list of external loans (BL IO Islamic 51)
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Several other libraries in the UK have smaller collections of Amir Khusraw manuscripts that are listed in FIHRIST.[3] Some of the poet’s verses are also found in numerous anthologies of poetry by multiple poets that were compiled during the same centuries. It is also noteworthy that there is no evidence of his Hindavi poems in this collection, which belies the situation in contemporary South Asia where he is celebrated for those verses that were probably transmitted in an oral tradition or are apocryphal. With respect to his Persian body of work, the philological problem is not of lines or entire poems being added by later poets, as in the case with Firdawsi’s Shahnamah or Hafiz’s Divan, but it is that Amir Khusraw just composed a great deal of poetry.

 

With thanks to Ursula Sims-Williams and Shiva Mihan for their insights and help with making sense of the treasure trove described in this blog

Sunil Sharma, Boston University
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Further reading

Mohammad Wahid Mirza, The Life and Times of Amir Khusrau (Calcutta, 1935). The thesis was submitted in 1929 (SOAS Library, Thesis 47; online at Proquest).
Barbara Brend,  Perspectives of Persian Painting: Illustrations to Amir Khusrau’s Khamsah. London, 2003.

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[1] B.W. Robinson, “An Amir Khusraw Khamsa of 1581”, Iran 35 (1997), 36.
[2] Norah Titley, “A Khamsah of Nizami Dated Herat 1421”, British Library Journal 4/2 (1978): 161-86.
[3] Other lists of manuscripts of Amir Khusraw’s poetic works are described in: Amir Hasan ‘Abidi, “Amir Khusraw ki nadir tasnifat Turki men”, Ajkal 33/4 (1974): 39-44; Chander Shekhar, “Maghribi mamalik ke kitabkhanon men Amir Khusraw ke nadir qalami nuskhe.” In 1947 ke ba‘d Farsi zaban o adab o Professor Nazir Ahmad, ed. Sayyid Raza Haidar (New Delhi, 2016), pp, 53-78; John Seyller, Pearls of the Parrot of India: The Walters Art Museum Khamsa of Amīr Khusraw of Delhi (Baltimore, 2001), pp. 143-58.