Asian and African studies blog

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2 posts from March 2023

20 March 2023

The Diversity of Arabic scripts

We recently had the pleasure of hosting a visit from Dr Borna Izadpanah, Lecturer in Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading, together with his students, to look at some of the incredibly diverse materials in our collections. Here Borna highlights some of the items we looked at which not only provide a source of inspiration but also act as a brief history of the development of Arabic script typography.

1. Typology visit 9 March 2023
Borna Izadpanah, his students and Asian and African Collections staff. Photo credit Hidetaka Yamasaki

My aim in this session was to highlight the stylistic and linguistic diversity in the Arabic script world through a selection of manuscripts and publications from different periods and regions. My notes below aim to summarise significant aspects of individual items contextualising them from a historical and stylistic perspective.

The handwritten script

2. Or.6573 Qur'an 11th-12th century
Qurʼān. Iran or Iraq, 11th or 12th century (Or.6573, ff. 3v-4r)

Starting with manuscripts, the earliest displayed item was Or.6573, an 11th or 12th century Qur’ān written on paper with a commentary in Persian. It demonstrates the effective use of two writing systems to create a dynamic and well-defined text hierarchy. The Qur’anic verses are highlighted in the Qarmatian style of eastern Kufic script, and the more compact Persian commentary is composed in a consistent and – even today a perfectly legible – naskh hand.

3. Beginning of Surat Maryam. Daghestan  19th century
The beginning of Surat Maryam, with the 'mysterious letters' framed on the left-hand page. Qur’ān, Daghistan, ca. 19th century (Or. 16058, ff. 274v-275r)

This 19th-century Daghistani Qur’ān in several different naskh styles represents a creative approach to manuscript production. It displays a remarkable level of artistic impressions using bold and intertwined text compositions and a particular use of colours and ornaments.

4. IO Islamic 383 Majnun Layla copied by Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi
The opening to Majnūn va Laylā by Amir Khusraw. Copied by Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi. Herat? 1506 (IO Islamic 383, ff.1v-2r)

This copy of the well-known romance of Layla and Majnun by the 13th-14th century poet Amir Khusraw contains exquisite illuminations and specimens of nastaʻlīq script by one of its greatest masters, the ‘King of Calligraphers’ (Sulṭān al-Khaṭṭātīn), Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi who worked in Herat and Mashhad in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. This is a luxurious rather than a reading copy which was designed to impress through uncompromising illuminations and outstanding penmanship.

5. Add MS 26139 Rasm al-khatt
A volume containing three works on calligraphy by the early 16th century poet Majnun ibn Mahmud al-Rafiqi. 17th century  (Add MS 26139, ff. 36v-37r)

In this treatise on the rules of the ‘six-pen’ calligraphic styles (aqlām-i shishgānah) and Persian penmanship, a more casual nastaʻlīq hand and minimal decorations produce a good reading copy. The marginal sketches illustrating the writing styles and letterform characteristics are of particular interest.

6. Or.11042 Sabab-i taqviyat
Sabab-i taqviyat al-taḥṣīlva najāt-i tasnīʻ al-vaqt, by Muhammad al-Bulghari. Kazan?, 19th century (Or. 11042)

This 19th-century Chagatai-Persian-Arabic glossary was intended to assist ‘Bulgarian,’ i.e. Tartar, students traveling to Bukhara to learn the arts of rhetoric and translation in Arabic and Persian. It displays a complex text arrangement in those languages composed in a regional flavour of the nastaʻlīq style and demonstrates the effective use of rubrication to distinguish terms in different languages. Also, note that the marginal commentaries are easily identifiable with their diagonal configuration.

7. Risalat hukum kanun  the Malay code of laws. Singapore  1821. Add MS 12397  f. 1v
Risālat hukum kanun, the Malay code of laws. Singapore, 1821 (Add MS 12397, f 1v)

This 19th-century Malay Risalat hukum kanun in the fluid and beautifully composed jawi script represents a fine example of one of Southeast Asia's regional flavours of modified Arabic script.   

Some examples of Arabic script printing

Kitab salat al-sawai title page
Kitāb ṣalāt al-sawā'ī. Fán 1514 (Or.70.aa.11)

We move from written forms of the Arabic script to early printed forms with movable metal type. Exploring exquisite examples of writing styles is helpful to better situate the printed forms in Arabic incunables, beginning with the earliest printed Arabic book with movable metal type Kitab salat al-sawaʼi with its crude and highly irregular characters.

9. T6547 Alphabeticum 1592
Alphabetum Arabicum. Rome, 1592 (T 6547)

A highpoint of 16th-century Arabic type-making is displayed in the publications of the Medici Oriental Press, where the renowned French punchcutter Robert Granjon produced various fonts of Arabic type based on the hand of the Director of the Medici Press, Giovanni Battista Raimondi. Alphabetum Arabic is a specimen of the Medici Press’s Arabic types and a testament to Granjon’s refined skills.

10. 306.46.A.18 Psalmi Davidis regis 1614
Liber psalmorum Davidis Regis. Rome, 1614 (306.46.A.18)

Another highlight of early Arabic type-making in Europe is the Liber psalmorum Davidis regis which uses the somewhat hybrid naskh/thuluth type of François Savary de Brèves. This type and the Arabic types of the Medici Press were later used to print Arabic text in Egypt when the first Arabic presses were established during Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign in 1798–1801.

11. 306.40.A.26. Fables de Loqman 1799
Fables de Loqman surnommé Le Sage. Cairo, 1799 (306.40.A.26)

Fables de Loqman is an example of the latter types used to print Arabic texts in Egypt.

12. Or.80.b.11 Tarih ül-Hind ül-Garbî
Flora and fauna of Hispaniola including mermen and their pearls. Tarih ül-Hind ül-Garbî ül-müsemma bi-Hadis-i Nev, by Mehmet İbn Hasan el-Su'udi. Istanbul, 1730 (Or.80.b.11)

The Tarih ül-Hind ül-Garbî (History of the Western Indies) is one of the most famous publications of the printing press of Ibrahim Müteferrika in Istanbul and contains several interesting woodblock illustrations. Credited as the first Muslim printer, Müteferrika produced an Ottoman naskh type, setting a new standard in Arabic script type-making.

13. 14999.h.2 Cedid atlas tercümesi – 1804
Cedid atlas tercümesi compiled by Mahmud Raif Efendi. Istanbul, 1804 (14999.h.2)

The Cedid atlas tercümesi is a benchmark of Ottoman printing and typography. It is printed with superbly engraved and detailed copperplate maps and the Ottoman naskh type of the Ottoman/Armenian punchcutter Bogos Arabyan. The latter was the most widely used type of the 19th-century Istanbul printing establishments and one of the most successful and well-executed Ottoman naskh types. 

14. ORB.30:445 Hikayat Abdullah SIngapore 1849
Hikayat Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi. Singapore, 1849 (ORB.30/445)

One of the most important chapters in the history of Arabic script printing was the introduction of lithography which allowed the faithful reproduction of written forms. Lithography became the preferred form of printing in several languages, including Malay language in jawi script, of which the Hikayat Abdullah with its chromolithograph illuminations is a fine specimen.

15. ORB.30:8207 Divan-i Mashrab
Divan-i Mashrab. Tashkent, 1900 (ORB.30/8207)

Another lithographic publication on view was the Divan-i Mashrab  in Chagatai, a fine specimen of printing from Central Asia in tightly composed nasta’liq style. Interestingly, the title page of this publication shows European motifs and ornaments resembling letterpress publications, giving a feel of the two printing techniques on the same page. 

16a. ITA.1986.a.1043 Birjan čal mynyn 16b. ITA.1986.a.1602 Qazaq maqaldary
Birjan čal mynyn aqin saraniñ aytusqani. Kazan', 1912 (ITA.1986.a.1043) and Qazaq maqaldary by Meyram Ersay Isqaq Balasy. Kazan', 1914 (ITA.1986.a.1062)

These early 20th-century Central Asian Kazakh and Kyrgyz/Kazakh publications in modified Arabic script with movable type were the most recent items on display. In contrast to the Divan-i Mashrab, these impressions clearly show the transformation of the highly developed written forms to abstracted and simplified formats of mechanical text compositions.  

 Borna Izadpanah, Lecturer in Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading

Further reading

Nemeth, Titus (ed)., Arabic Typography: History and Practice. Salenstein: Niggli, 2022

13 March 2023

Talipot and ceremonial fans in Thai manuscript art (2)

Depictions of Talipot and ceremonial fans, like many other objects of everyday use, are very common in Thai manuscript paintings. In the first part of this blog, we looked at the origin and making of Talipot fans, called Talapat in the Thai language. In this part, we will be looking at how different types of fans were used historically and how they became symbols of honour and status in Thai social and religious life.

Talapat of Brahmins and sages
Brahmins are highly regarded as knowledge-seekers and members of the priestly social class in traditional Hindu society in India. However, in Thai art and literature they are sometimes represented with some degree of ambiguity, which is expressed through features of poor health, disfigurement, poverty, greed, and immorality. In the Jataka literature the figure of the Brahmin often plays the role of an antihero, who creates obstacles for the Bodhisatta, but by doing so, the Brahmin unwittingly helps to create a situation in which the Buddhist hero can prove his moral stature and accumulate merit. The depiction of Brahmins in manuscript paintings is in striking contrast to the appearance of real-life Thai court Brahmins, who are dressed in impressive gold-embroidered white robes during royal ceremonies.

The Brahmin Jujaka with Vessantara’s children, with a damaged Talipot fan in his shoulder bag
The Brahmin Jujaka with Vessantara’s children, with a damaged Talipot fan in his shoulder bag. Illustrated in a folding book containing Tipitaka extracts and the Mahabuddhaguna. Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 20  Noc

The image above from a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka is an example from the second half of the 18th century. It shows a popular scene from the Vessantara Jataka, in which the Brahmin Jujaka takes away the Bodhisatta’s children, Jali and Kanhajina. Jujaka’s hair appears unkempt, and he is dressed in a plain white loin cloth. In his shoulder bag is a damaged Talapat made from a single Talipot leaf.

Another depiction of a Brahmin appears in the illustration below from a Thai folding book containing the story of the monk Phra Malai and Tipitaka extracts, dated 1894. This scene from the Bhuridatta Jataka illustrates how the Brahmin and snake charmer Alambayana captured and humiliated the Buddha-to-be, who in this Birth Tale was reborn as a naga (serpent) prince named Bhuridatta. The Brahmin is dressed in a red-and-white chequered loin cloth, holding a Talipot fan in his right hand. On the fan is an ancient symbol that is well-known beyond Thailand and Southeast Asia: the Ring of Solomon. In this case, the symbol fulfils a protective purpose. This kind of fan can often be seen in Thai in manuscript illustrations as a utensil of Brahmins engaging in pre-Buddhist activities and magic.

Illustration of the Brahmin Alambayana capturing the naga Bhuridatta while holding a Talipot fan with a Ring of Solomon symbol
Illustration of the Brahmin Alambayana capturing the naga Bhuridatta while holding a Talipot fan with a Ring of Solomon symbol. Found in a folding book with Tipitaka extracts and the story of Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 1894. British Library, Or 16100, f. 5  Noc

Sages and hermits are also frequently depicted in illustrations of the Jataka tales. Usually, such paintings show the Bodhisatta who in a previous life was reborn with the wisdom of a sage, or who followed the path of a hermit.

The illustration below from an 18th-century folding book depicts the Buddha-to-be as the wise sage Mahosadha, on the right side, facing the evil-minded royal Brahmin Kevatta. Mahosadha is holding a jewel that he is about to drop, so that the greedy Kevatta will bow down to pick it up in front of Mahosadha, which is interpreted by everyone around them as a gesture of the Brahmin paying respect to the Bodhisatta. Quite extraordinarily, Kevatta is presented here lacking the usual attributes of a lowly character, probably because he is a royal Brahmin in this story. Both men are holding a Talipot fan, each with small floral decorations drawn on the front side in gold and red colour.

The Buddha-to-be Mahosadha and the Brahmin Kevatta, both with a Talapat in their hands
The Buddha-to-be Mahosadha and the Brahmin Kevatta, both with a Talapat in their hands. Illustrated in a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka, Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 6  Noc

Ceremonial fans in monastic life
Numerous Thai folding books contain paintings related to the lives and activities of Buddhist monks. Most frequently, such illustrations accompany the story of the monk Phra Malai. Among the most popular depictions of monastics are scenes from funeral wakes, where four monks are seen chanting passages from the Abhidhamma-pitaka and reciting the legend of Phra Malai to lay audiences.

The monk Phra Malai himself is often portrayed with a Talapat. Below is a painting from a Phra Malai manuscript dated 1837. Phra Malai is floating in the air while on his way to the hell-like realm of preta (hungry ghosts). He is shown with a red aura, dressed in a monk’s robes and a Talapat in his left hand. The fan has an oval shape and is made from Talipot leaves, with gold decorations at the center and on the edges. It has the long handle of a floor Talapat which is used by monks when chanting sacred texts.

Illustration of the monk Phra Malai holding a Talapat with intricate gold decorations
Illustration of the monk Phra Malai holding a Talapat with intricate gold decorations. From a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai and additional Pali texts. Central Thailand, 1837. British Library, Or 14710, f. 2  Noc

Scenes from the life of the Buddha are not frequently included in Thai illustrated manuscripts. However, there are few compilations of canonical texts and Buddhist cosmologies that contain rare paintings depicting the Buddha being surrounded by lavishly decorated fans of veneration, called Phatyot in Thai. In the painting below, from an 18th-century manuscript, the Buddha is represented in the earth-touching gesture which symbolises the moment of his Enlightenment. Behind the Buddha is a stylised Bodhi tree, and on each side one can see a heavily ornamented Phatyot fan, and a three-tiered umbrella, alongside deities paying their respects to the Enlightened One.

The Buddha at the moment of his Enlightenment, with Phatyot and umbrellas by his side
The Buddha at the moment of his Enlightenment, with Phatyot and umbrellas by his side. From a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka, Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 53  Noc

Highly ornamented Phatyot as symbols of veneration for the Buddha can also be found in illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi in Phra Malai manuscripts from the 19th century. In Theravada Buddhist belief, the Chulamani Chedi is a stupa situated in Tavatimsa heaven where hair and tooth relics of the Buddha are housed. Therefore, the stupa is directly related to the Life of the Buddha, and according to the legend of Phra Malai the story’s monk-hero travelled to the heavenly stupa to deposit a lotus flower offering on behalf of a poor man.

In the painting below from a 19th-century Phra Malai manuscript, the monk is depicted in front of the Chulamani Chedi in Tavatimsa heaven, conversing with the god Indra and another deity. Equipped with lavish gold-leaf decorations are four Phatyot left and right of the stupa. Two of these fans appear like lotus-shaped roundels, and the other pair are in the shape of lotus buds or Khao Bin rice offerings in lotus shapes.

Phra Malai at the heavenly Chulamani Chedi
Phra Malai at the heavenly Chulamani Chedi. On both sides of the stupa are embellished and gilded Phatyot. From a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai and Tipitaka extracts. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14664, f. 62  Noc

Fans as symbols of honour and status
Bodhisattas, kings, royals, and sometimes deities are portrayed with fans in Thai manuscript illustrations. In certain contexts, especially the Life of the Buddha, fans are used as an expression of veneration and respect. Manuscripts containing secular texts are also occasionally illustrated with images of kings or leaders surrounded by beautifully adorned fans to emphasise their royal or high social status. The painting below depicts two persons who are paying their respects to a king or royal personage wearing a large gold crown, with two decorated fans on each side of the pedestal he is sitting on. The fans are in the frequently found shapes of a lotus bud or Khao Bin offering, and a roundel. In this case, the roundel has eight spokes like a Dhamma Wheel. This image is part of a chart that is used to predict the fate and future of individuals. It is included in a Phrommachat divination manual, with text in Old Mon language and illustrations in the late Ayutthaya style.

Illustration of a royal figure with colourful Wanwichani fans on each side
Illustration of a royal figure with colourful Wanwichani fans on each side. From a Mon version of a Phrommachat divination manual. Ayutthaya or Burma, c. 1750-1820. British Library, Or 14532, f. 14  Noc

In Thai funeral or commemoration books that were commissioned to make merit, the first folios are often illustrated with the gods Brahma and Indra, mythical beings like Kinnari, Garuda or Yakkha, and deities called Thep Chumnum. The latter appear as eye-pleasing figures with golden crowns and royal attires. Thep Chumnum are often depicted in pairs with fans of honour, facing a passage of canonical Pali text like in the paired manuscript illustrations below. Two Thep Chumnum dressed in several layers of colourful loin cloths with floral designs, gold crowns and jewelery, are seated in a respectful pose, flanked by two fans with elongated floor handles. The fans with red and blue ornaments in plant shapes were included to emphasise the divine status and eminence of the Thep Chumnum.

Illustration of Thep Chumnum with exquisitely decorated fans on each side
Illustration of Thep Chumnum with exquisitely decorated fans on each side. From a folding book with Tipitaka extracts. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f. 1 Noc

Further reading
Khin Saw Oo: Culture Value of Myanmar Hand Fan (Talipot-palm Fan). Paper presented at the 2nd International Conference on Burma/Myanmar Studies, 16-18 February 2018, Mandalay
Phra Maha Min Thiritsaro: Phatyot samanasak phrasong Thai. Bangkok, 2016
Talapat. In: Traditional objects of everyday use. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (retrieved 28/12/2022)

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork