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Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

15 August 2019

Daghistani Qur’an manuscripts in the British Library

‘Bold script of wildness and beauty’ is Jan Just Witkam's evocative description of the calligraphy of a manuscript from Daghistan in the collection of Leiden University Library (Cod.Or. 11964), a characterisation which seems supremely well suited for a product of this mountainous and fiercely proud region in the Caucasus mountains. Today, Dagestan is a republic located in the Russian Federation, bounded to the east by the Caspian sea and to the south by Azerbaijan and Georgia, and  home to a rich and distinctive manuscript culture.  The British Library holds a small collection of ten Qur’an manuscripts from Daghistan, and in this blog each manuscript will be pictured to illustrate some of the many distinctive features of this impressive but little-known manuscript tradition.

Surat al-Fatihah, the opening pages of a large Qur’an, Daghistan, 1777. British Library, Or. 16127, ff. 2v-3r
Surat al-Fatihah, the opening pages of a large Qur’an, Daghistan, 1777. British Library, Or. 16127, ff. 2v-3r  noc

The most immediately striking feature of Daghistani manuscript illumination is the vibrant palette of red, yellow, green, purple and brown, which contrasts strongly with the predominantly blue and gold nexus of the Ottoman and Indo-Persianate manuscript traditions to the south. There is considerable variation in the architecture of decorated frames, perhaps relating to sub-regional origin or some other underlying classificatory structure: in a significant proportion of manuscripts rectangular frames are extended horizontally into the outer margins (see above), while in other manuscripts, double headpieces predominate. Characteristic motifs include double/triple scrolls and concave diamond-shaped lozenges, and the presence of ‘eyelets’ within these motifs. 

Surat al-Fatihah, the opening pages of a Qur’an, Daghistan, ca. 19th century. British Library, Or. 15605, ff. 1v-2r
Surat al-Fatihah, the opening pages of a Qur’an, Daghistan, ca. 19th century. British Library, Or. 15605, ff. 1v-2r  noc

Detail of characteristically Daghistani decorative motifs with concave diamond-shaped lozenges studded with ‘eyelets’, from the initial double illuminated frames of a Qur'an shown below. British Library, Or 15955, f. 5r (detail)
Detail of characteristically Daghistani decorative motifs with concave diamond-shaped lozenges studded with ‘eyelets’, from the initial double illuminated frames of a Qur'an shown below. British Library, Or 15955, f. 5r (detail)  noc

When surah headings are set in decorated rectangular panels, these may also be extended horizontally into the outer margin with a palmette or other ornamental device.  An especially distinctive and rare feature of Daghistani manuscripts is that the petalled floral verse markers are often stamped in black ink, and then hand-coloured.

Heading for Surat al-Mulk extending vertically into the margin with a decorative finial, adjoining a marginal ornament for the start of the 29th juz'; note also the stamped verse markers in black ink, coloured in with red and yellow. Qur’an, Daghistan, ca. 1800.
Heading for Surat al-Mulk extending vertically into the margin with a decorative finial, adjoining a marginal ornament for the start of the 29th juz'; note also the stamped verse markers in black ink, coloured in with red and yellow. Qur’an, Daghistan, ca. 1800. British Library, Or. 15913, f. 258r  noc

Heading for Surah al-Mujadilah extended into the margin, with below it an ornamental marker for the start of the 28th juz’. Qur’an, Daghistan, 19th century. British Library, Or. 16771
Heading for Surah al-Mujadilah extended into the margin, with below it an ornamental marker for the start of the 28th juz’. Qur’an, Daghistan, 19th century. British Library, Or. 16771  noc

two different designs of stamped verse markers in a Qur'an, Or 15955  stamped and uncoloured marginal ornament, and a stamped coloured verse marker, in Qur'an, Or 16033
(Left) two different designs of stamped verse markers in a Qur'an, Or 15955; (Right) stamped and uncoloured marginal ornament, and a stamped coloured verse marker, in Qur'an, Or 16033.  noc

Confirming Witkam's characterisation of Daghistani calligraphy, the Qur’anic text is generally written in a large, bold, confident and widely-spaced hand, tending towards the monumental. In Daghistani Qur’ans, the index of artistry is clearly the calibre of the calligraphy rather than the decoration, but perhaps the most unusual feature is the sense of scribal bravado or even swagger.  Elements of the text of a Qur’an traditionally highlighted calligraphically, such as the marginal annotations, or the first few words of a juz’ or beginning of a surah, are often approached with gusto. The letter ta’ marbuta is often presented decoratively as a knot surmounted by a bud.   The calligraphic treatment applied to certain words, such as the exuberant ‘amma at the start of the final juz’ of the Qur’an, or the elan of the presentation of ‘mysterious letters’ like the ha-mim, bespeak an individualism not normally associated with Qur’an manuscripts, and to an extent not encountered in any other known Qur’anic tradition.  Contrasting with the big bold Qur’anic text, catchwords and other paratextual notes are generally written in a very distinctive small cursive hand with overlining, with a pronounced slope to the right, associated with Daghistani manuscripts in the Avar language as well as Arabic.

Large, bold, hand in a Qur’an, Daghistan, 19th century. Or. 16759
Large, bold, hand in a Qur’an, Daghistan, 19th century. Or. 16759  noc

Qur’an, on blue paper, Daghistan, 19th century. Note the catchwords written in a small sloping cursive hand with overlining at the bottom of the right-hand page. Or. 16760, ff. 1v-2r
Qur’an, on blue paper, Daghistan, 19th century. Note the catchwords written in a small sloping cursive hand with overlining at the bottom of the right-hand page. Or. 16760, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

In many schools of Qur’anic manuscript art, the layout and divisions of the Qur’anic text tend to adhere to longstanding regional preferences.  In Daghistani Qur’ans, especially those with illuminated frames, the Surat al-Fatihah usually occupies the whole of the first two facing pages. This is in striking contrast to many other traditions, including the Ottoman and Southeast Asian world, where Surat al-Fatihah usually occupies a right-hand page, with the beginning of Surat al-Baqarah on the left.  When decorated frames occur in the middle of a Daghistani Qur'an, they invariably mark the start  of Surat Maryam, and the several manuscripts in the British Library of Daghistani Qur’ans produced in two volumes are also divided at the start of Surat Maryam.

Decorated frames marking the start of Surat Maryam. Qur’an, Daghistan, 1777. Or. 16127, ff. 253v-254r
Decorated frames marking the start of Surat Maryam. Qur’an, Daghistan, 1777. Or. 16127, ff. 253v-254r  noc

The start of Surat Maryam, with exhuberant calligraphic treatment of the 'mysterious letters', at the beginning of the second volume of a two-volume Qur’an, Daghistan, 19th century. Or. 16595, ff. 1v-2r
The start of Surat Maryam, with exhuberant calligraphic treatment of the 'mysterious letters', at the beginning of the second volume of a two-volume Qur’an, Daghistan, 19th century. Or. 16595, ff. 1v-2r  noc

The start of Surat Maryam, with the 'mysterious letters' framed on the left-hand page. Qur’an, Daghistan, ca. 19th century. Or. 16058, ff. 274v-275r
The start of Surat Maryam, with the 'mysterious letters' framed on the left-hand page. Qur’an, Daghistan, ca. 19th century. Or. 16058, ff. 274v-275r  noc

Another highly characteristic feature of many Daghistani Qur’ans is the addition of a pious phrase at the end of the first surah, al-Fatihah, the word amin or a longer phrase such as amin ya rabb al-‘alamin may be inscribed, and especially after the final word of the Qur’anic text, al-nas, when the words of praise Allahu akbar are frequently added.  While it is not unknown to find the addition of amin at the end of Surat al-Fatihah in Qur'an manuscripts worldwide, the longer phrases are rarely encountered.

Surat al-Fatihah, followed by the words amin rabb al-'alamin. Daghistan, ca. 19th century. British Library, Or. 16033, ff. 1v-2r
Surat al-Fatihah, followed by the words amin rabb al-'alamin. Daghistan, ca. 19th century. British Library, Or. 16033, ff. 1v-2r  noc

Final lines of the Qur’anic text, followed by the words Allahu akbar, in the same Qur’an, Daghistan, ca. 19th century. British Library, Or. 16033, f. 500r
Final lines of the Qur’anic text, followed by the words Allahu akbar, in the same Qur’an, Daghistan, ca. 19th century. British Library, Or. 16033, f. 500r  noc

The divisions of the text into Qur’an into thirty parts of equal length (juz’, plural ajza’), and sub-divisions thereof, is an important navigational aid in Qur’an manuscripts all over the Islamic world, especially since manuscript Qur’ans generally did not bear page, surah or verse numbers.  Most Daghistani Qur’ans bear marginal ornaments marking each juz’, with further ornaments for half (nisf), quarter (rub‘) and eighths (thumn) of each juz’. Other marginal annotations, commonly found in many Qur’ans, are the letter ‘ayn to indicate ruku’ or places for genuflection, and the word sajdah, indicating places for prostration.  But so far unique to Daghistani Qur’ans appears to be the marginal annotation wird, which perhaps might be understood to mark specific portions of the Qur’an for devotional recitation associated with Sufism.

Beginning of Surat al-BaqarahBL Or.15955  f. (1)
Beginning of Surat al-Baqarah, annotated in the margin al-juz’ al-awwal, and with the ornamental surah heading extending horizontally in the margin. Note the strong, bold script of the Qur’anic text, contrasting with the characteristic small backward-sloping cursive hand of the note at the bottom of the left-hand page. The marginal annotation in red on the left-hand page reads wird. The illuminated panel at the top of each page includes typically Daghistani motifs with ‘eyelets’. Qur’an, Daghistan, ca. 19th century. British Library, Or. 15955, ff. 4v-5r  noc

Many of these Daghistani Qur’ans are large manuscripts, written on burnished paper of Russian manufacture, as evidenced in watermarks or embossed factory stamps. Bindings are usually plain and relatively ‘rustic’ in appearance, of dark brown leather without envelope flaps. Simple tooled frame lines are often joined by straight lines along the horizontal, vertical and diagonal axes, with stamped corner pieces and central medallions.  Particularly characteristic is the frequent use of small circular stamps along the ruled axes.

Two major programmes are currently digitising manuscripts in Dagestan: the Factum Foundation has been working with the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography (IHAE) in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, to digitise the manuscript collections held in the IHAE, while a British Library Endangered Archives Programme project 'Digitising Dagestan's Manuscript Heritage: Manuscripts from the Library of 'Alī al-Ghumūqī (1878-1943)' is currently underway (EAP957).

Daghistani Qur’an manuscripts in the British Library, 18th-19th centuries
(Fully digitised manuscripts have been hyperlinked)

Or. 15605, Qur’an
Or. 15913, Qur’an
Or. 15955, first volume of a two-volume Qur’an
Or. 16033, Qur’an
Or. 16058, Qur’an, 1821
Or. 16127, Qur’an, 1777
Or. 16595, second volume of a two-volume Qur’an
Or. 16759, selections from the Qur’an
Or. 16760, selections from the Qur’an
Or. 16771, second volume of a two-volume Qur’an

Further reading

Blog: From Caucasia, not from Southeast Asia: Daghistani Qur'ans with spurious colophons

A.T. Gallop, From Caucasia to Southeast Asia: Daghistani Qur’ans and the Islamic manuscript tradition in Brunei and the southern Philippines. I-II.  Manuscripta Orientalia, 14 (1), June 2008, pp. 32-56; 14 (2), December 2008, pp. 3-20.
A. Shikhsaidov, Muslim treasures of Russia.  II: Manuscript collections of Daghistan.  Part II,  Manuscripta Orientalia,  13.1 ( 2007), pp. 25-61.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

08 August 2019

Emanating light: Illumination in Islamic manuscripts

Without the ability to travel time it may forever be impossible to restage the medieval and early-modern viewing conditions of Islamic manuscripts. Whereas in paintings books are often shown being enjoyed outdoors, architecture can offer insights into the experience of manuscripts indoors.

image from britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk
Fig. 1: Mullah holding a book. Bijapur, c. 1610 (British Library, J.25, 14). Public domain

Consider the wholly illuminated central prayer niche (miḥrāb) at the Jāmi‘ Masjid of Bijapur in Deccan India (mosque: 1576; miḥrāb: 1636) (fig. 2). The entire niche is covered with calligraphy and micro-architectural details that are a mise en abyme within the mosque. Hanging lamps and manuscripts that likely represent the Qur’ān fill smaller niches at the dado level flanking both sides of the central niche. The books bear gilt bindings and the lamps have delicate golden tassels that accentuate their light-giving quality. The simple juxtaposition of lamps and books reminds us that the viewers of these manuscripts did not encounter them under the harsh lighting of today’s modern libraries. In an assessment of illumination, the problem of light is inescapable.

IMG_0325
Fig. 2: Detail of Miḥrāb of the Great Mosque of Bijapur, 1636. Photograph: Vivek Gupta

Generally, manuscript illumination is a practice where reflective substances have been applied to the surfaces of books. These surfaces include the binding, support (paper, parchment), and the edges of the support. While illumination is most commonly associated with gold, other metals including silver and tin are also used to create lustre. I refer here to gold as shorthand, but the material was in fact a liquid gold or alloy that was malleable to various surfaces and showed a variety of hues. This material can be flattened, painted, scattered, and pricked to create different effects on the surface of a support (fig. 3).

Fig2a

Figs. 3a and 3b: Shamsah (sunburst) and Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104). Public domain

Fig2b

Illumination occurs everywhere on the page: its edges, borders, line rulings (jadval), rosettes (shamsahs), frontispieces (sarlawḥs), headpieces (‘unvāns), headings, interlinear space, the writing itself, and even the edges (fig. 4). There is no authoritative handbook for these terms in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, etc., and this nomenclature has evolved with convention. For example, the term ‘unvān has caused some confusion. The word literally denotes ‘title,’ and therefore I have used it for headpiece. In the British Library’s Persian manuscript catalogue edited by Rieu, ‘unvān denotes anything from illuminated headpiece to frontispiece (single or double page) to heading. Beyond references to illuminators (mudhahhib), the practice of illumination (tadhhīb), other words formed with the Arabic root dh-h-b or the Persian word zar, the textual record offers remarkably little prescriptive terminology for illumination. Even less defined are the names for particular illuminated patterns. While some of these patterns have analogues in architectural ornament, they do not always seamlessly translate to book decoration. For this reason, one safe compromise is to use English words, yet this can often be dissatisfying.

Fig3
Fig. 4: Gilded edge of manuscript, Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104). Public domain

Regardless of the lack of an established technical vocabulary, illumination and light (nūr) are everywhere in Islamic art and architecture. This is best attested by the Qur’anic Light verse (24:35) that begins, "God is the light [nūr] of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His light is a niche [mishkāt] wherein is a lamp [miṣbāḥ]," which frequently graces miḥrābs. Widespread lamp imagery such as that found in Bijapur’s Jāmi‘ Masjid also alludes to it. When books like the Qur’an or poetry reflected light through their illumination, this took on a divine significance. Through technologies such as multi-spectral imaging it may be possible to recover how premodern manuscripts looked by candlelight and evaluate the effects of how different lighting changed the experience of these books. Collaborations between architectural historians and scientists have started to reveal how sites such as the Mosque of Córdoba looked when lit with early Islamic glass lamps (Kider, Fletcher, Yu, Holod, Chamlers, and Badler, 2009).

Fig4
Fig. 5: Ascension (mi‘rāj) of the Prophet forming the sarlawḥ (frontispiece) of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1571 (British Library Add. 22699). Public domain

In painting, illumination has been applied to nearly all forms. Fire, the sun, skies, and halos are popular gold elements. In her several articles and books on images of the Prophet Muhammad, Christiane Gruber has demonstrated how this tradition evolved. On the double-page frontispiece of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī dated 1571 from Safavid Qazvin (Fig. 5), gold is deployed profusely in a scene showing the Prophet’s ascension (mi‘rāj). In the flowering cartouches in the borders, the swirling clouds, and the fire they cast upon the Prophet and his steed Burāq, this page is fully illuminated. The dramatic interplay of these gold swirls and lapis blue surface would have created a startling effect especially if this page were viewed in low light. In experiencing the open book, the light of Muhammad (nūr Muḥammad) would have certainly shone onto the viewer.

Fig5
Figure 5: Shrine of Aḥmad Shāh (r. 1422–1436), Ashtur, Bidar. Photograph: Vivek Gupta

The study of book illumination should be placed in an expanded visual context that also includes architecture. In an early fifteenth-century Deccan shrine/tomb initially studied by Helen Philon (2000), I later drew comparisons between its domed apex and specific Indian maṇḍalas or yantras that Philon previously compared to Islamic talismanic bowls as well. Yet, the entirety of the shrine is covered in gold illumination. One of the clearest comparisons between the apex and a manuscript would be an illuminated shamsah or starburst. The completely calligraphed golden dome when lit with lamps would reflect light onto visitors below.

Illumination in Islamic manuscripts thus is no simple matter. Here, I have tried to make its obvious connection to light both practically and spiritually. While the majority of my research for the British Library has involved developing a method to catalogue illumination in Persian manuscripts (ca. 100 manuscripts completed), I do sometimes imagine the buildings and spaces in which they once were read, enjoyed, and seen. For, illumination allowed books to emanate light.

With thanks to Umberto Bongianino, Eleanor Sims and Ursula Sims-Williams.

Use #BL_IslamicIllum to share your favourite examples of illumination at the library and follow @_nainsukh for more!

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology; British Library PhD placement
 ccownwork


Further reading:

Akimushkin, Oleg F. and Anatol A. Ivanov. 1979. “The Art of Illumination.” In The Arts of the Book in Central Asia, 14th-16th Centuries, ed. Basil Gray, London: Serindia, 35-57.

Brend, Barbara. 2015. “The Management of Light in Persian Painting.” In God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth: Light in Islamic Art and Culture, eds. Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, New Haven: Yale University Press, 198-229.

Gruber, Christiane. 2019. The Praiseworthy One: the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic texts and images. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Waley, Muhammad Isa. 1997. “Illumination and its Function in Islamic Manuscripts.” In Scribes et manuscrits du Moyen-Orient, eds. François Déroche and Francis Richard, Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 87-112.

Wright, Elaine. 2018. Lapis and gold: exploring Chester Beatty’s Ruzbihan Qur’an. London: Chester Beatty Library in association with Ad Ilissvm.

05 August 2019

Charles Wilkins as a type designer: hand drawn Modi script

Today’s guest blogger is Komal Pande, who was the Charles Wallace Trust Fellow at the British Library from February to May 2019. Komal is also the Assistant Curator for Numismatics and Epigraphy at the National Museum in New Delhi.

As part of my research fellowship in the Visual Arts section, I had the opportunity to research and arrange as a set of hand-drawn Modi letters. Modi, is the vernacular script used to write the Marathi language spoken predominantly in Maharashtra, India. The Peshwas, the ruling class of the Maratha empire from the mid-17th to early 19th centuries, used Modi script for administrative purposes ‘as preserved in the many parcels (rumals) of official documents in the Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai’. Marathi merchants also used the script for their business transactions. In 1917, Modi was replaced with Devanagari. Since few people can read Modi, these hand-drawn letters are important to India’s vernacular cultural past. The orientalist Sir Charles Wilkins (1749-1836) prepared this set of Modi letters in the early 1800s.

Image showing four examples of Modi script on seperate cards
Cards with the Modi script for vowels, British Libary, Foster 5702

Wilkins, an employee of the East India Company, was assigned as the superintendent of the Company’s factories in Malda (western Bengal) from 1770. Wilkins studied a range of languages and became proficient in Sanskrit, Bengali and Persian. Based on his expertise and knowledge of Bengali, the Governor-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings commissioned Wilkins ‘to undertake a set of Bengal types’. Wilkins manufactured a set of metal printing founts or typefaces, that could be used to mechanical print the Bengali language as exemplified in Nathanial Halhed’s instructional volume, A Grammar of the Bengal Language (Hoogly, 1778). Wilkins returned to England in 1786.

The set of sixty-nine hand-drawn Modi letters was prepared after Wilkins returned to England. According to Graham Shaw (formerly, Head of Asian and African Collections, British Library), ‘they may well be associated with [Wilkins] connection to the East India Company’s Haileybury College from 1805, perhaps to be used in printing text-books for the Company’s new recruits to learn the Modi script’.

Each card features one Modi letter: its transliteration in English and Hindi written below it, making the cards bi or trilingual. A card may contain vowels or consonants, along with some variations of half, conjunct and compound consonants. While each card measures approximately 75 x 25mm,  slight variations can be noticed in width of these cards. While the vowels and consonants are of similar size, the half letter cards are written on narrower pieces of card. The cards for the compound consonants are broader to accommodate the form and clarity of the fount.

An example, showing the difference in the width of the cards, British Library, Foster 5702.
An example, showing the difference in the width of the cards, British Library, Foster 5702.

The letters are written in black ink. The calligraphy on these cards is particularly intriguing as its purpose is more utilitarian than ornamental. The stylization of these letters was created to understand the fount in three dimensions, as these cards were prepared as functional typeface that had the potential to be used for creating matrices and punches.

Interestingly, the set also includes some blank, unfinished and cancelled cards. These cards are as important as the complete cards, as they elucidate Wilkins’ method of scribing. On the card, the pencil rules were drawn in the upper centre creating a space for the Modi letter. Since the card was to be bi or trilingual, keeping Modi as the prime script, a Modi letter of 35x25 mm dimensions was drawn in pencil. Once the form of the letter was decided, the outline was made in ink and its transliterations was scribed under the letter. Finally, the outlines of the letter were filled in black ink giving it dimension and volume. Most of the complete cards show, voluminous Modi letter in the centre along with its transliteration in small Devanagari and Roman scripts for the purpose of identification of each letter.

Alongside the process of scribing, it is equally interesting to study the method of corrections carried out by Wilkins. A few of the cards in the set show the process of how the corrections were made on the inscribed Modi letters. These include correcting the form of the letters and reflect how the three dimensionality of the letter was rectified by adjusting angles and curves by scraping off all imperfections. The cancelled signs, the scalpel marks and the pencil ruled lines inform us of Wilkins’ efforts to achieve perfect typefaces.   

According to Graham Shaw, ‘as far as it is known, no work was ever printed using a Wilkins Modi fount. When James Robert Ballantyne published his A grammar of the Mahratta language’ in Edinburgh in 1839 (for use at Haileybury), he noted in the preface “The lithographic press has been employed because no fount of Mahratta [i.e. Modi] types was to be found in London”. The only other early Modi fount cast was at the Serampore Mission Press in Bengal, used in 1808 to print the second edition of the Baptist Missionary William Carey’s A grammar of the Mahratta language’ (after criticism for the use of the Devanagari script in the 1805 first edition.’

Further reading:

Ross, F. and Shaw, G. (2003) 'An unexpected legacy and its contribution to early Indian typography', in: Randle, J. and Berry, J. (eds.) Type and typography: highlights from Matrix. Mark Batty Publisher, New Jersey, pp. 169-181

With thanks to Graham Shaw for his invaluable comments for this blog post.