THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

27 posts categorized "Central Asia"

07 December 2020

Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage: Conference at the British Library 7-8 February 2020

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In February 2020, to coincide with its major exhibition ‘Buddhism’, the British Library hosted a public conference entitled Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage organised in partnership with the School of Oriental and African Studies and supported by the Robert H N Ho Family Foundation. Over two days, speakers explored the idea of ‘collections’ – be they of manuscripts, texts, art works, or practices – and how they have shaped our understanding of, and indeed the very practice of, Buddhism across the world. In this blogpost, summaries of the event’s papers are given together with links to recordings and slideshows of the papers themselves. The conference provided a wide and rich array of reflections upon Buddhism and what we mean by the very nature of ‘collections’ – and the papers are articulate and entertaining scholarship well worth exploring for all audiences.

Conference participants
Conference participants (left to right from the back): Charles Manson; Stefano Zacchetti; Andrew Skilton; Matt Kimberley; Tim Barrett; Sam van Schaik; Melodié Doumy; Luisa Elena Mengoni; Marie Kaladgew; Camillo Formigatti; Lucia Dolce; Birgit Kellner; Mahinda Deegalle; Christian Luczanits; Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim; Jana Igunma; Jann Ronis. Photo: Serena Biondo

Following an introduction by Head of Asian and African Collections Dr Luisa Elena Mengoni, a keynote lecture was delivered by Prof. Dr Birgit Kellner of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. She began by outlining how Indian manuscripts first came into circulation in Tibet during the 8th to 14th centuries in large numbers. The nature of the texts contained in these manuscripts was highly heterogenous: doctrine, philosophy, ritual, narrative and devotional poetry, non-Buddhist Indian epic, grammar. However, unlike in other regions to which Buddhism spread, Sanskrit did not take on the status of a liturgical language, with effort instead poured into using these manuscripts for teaching and translation by a network of translators moving around between and within India and Tibet. Several thousand Indian Buddhist works came to be translated and form the Tibetan canon in this way, and after the 14th century a knowledge of Sanskrit became restricted to those who specialised in the grammatical tradition.


Birgit Kellner Indian manuscripts in the history of Tibetan Buddhism

Kellner went on to look at two case studies in order to better understand how Indian manuscripts were perceived, collected and categorized. She did this by examining accounts of their use in a number of contexts, including the trading of manuscripts as a kind of currency in exchange for teaching; the acquisition and preservation of manuscripts as part of the material legacy of significant personages of a particular lineage within Tibetan Buddhist culture; and, by the 19th and 20th centuries, no longer circulating but treated as sacred objects within monastic collections to be treated as sacred objects and specially stored in libraries and stupas. Through this, Kellner addressed some of the core themes that ran throughout the rest of the conference.

The late Professor Stefano Zacchetti
The late Professor Stefano Zacchetti Remnants of a textual shipwreck: manuscript fragments of Early Chinese Buddhist exegetical literature. Photo: Luisa Elena Mengoni

In the first panel – “Collections and Buddhist Practice: Texts and Translation” –  our speakers considered how particular textual collections and their translations shaped the understanding of Buddhism by its practitioners in the past, and how what survives of such collections colours our interpretation of Buddhist history today. In his paper on Early Chinese Buddhist exegetical literature, the late Prof. Stefano Zacchetti, University of Oxford, explored how the early Chinese Buddhist canon was conceived of and transmitted as a collection of translated texts, creating complexities in the production of commentaries so vital to interpreting these Indian doctrines upon their reception in China. Dr Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim of Goldsmiths College London gave a paper on the fascinating subject of Tibetan medicine and in particular the translation of the term rlung or ‘breath’. She looked at the history of translations of the term, and how intersection of different cultural influences from Greek to Indian have shaped interpretations of the concept and Tibetan medicine. Dr Camillo Formigatti, Clay Sanskrit Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries Oxford, examined the translations of Sanskrit texts by the Tibetan lo tsā ba Shong ston Rdo rje rgyal mtshan and Nepalese pandit Laksmīkara, and how their processes played a pivotal role in the formation of a new Tibetan literary language. The panel concluded with a Q&A session chaired by the conference organiser, Matt Kimberley Research Curator at the British Library.


Andrew Skilton Endangered texts in Thai Buddhism

The second panel – “Collections in Monastic Contexts” – explored how manuscript collections in Buddhist monasteries, temples and courts have influenced the development and interpretation of Buddhist practice. Ven. Prof. Mahinda Deegalle of Bath Spa University,  spoke about his research on Sri Lanka’s largest temple library palm-leaf manuscript collection at Hanguranketa Potgul Rajamahā Vihāra. This collection has never been the subject of published work nor its role in shaping the Theravāda tradition considered, so Deegalle presented some initial results of his survey. Following this, Dr Andrew Skilton, University of Oxford, gave a paper on recent efforts to catalogue and digitise Thai temple manuscript collections, and how conditions of preservation, textual canonical status and changes in Buddhist practice itself have pushed once significant texts to the margins where they now risk being lost forever. The final paper of the panel came from Prof. Kate Crosby, and Dr Amal Gunasena, both of of King's College London, which examined a particular group of related meditation practice texts originally composed for Sri Lankan royalty by high ranking members of the monastic community in nineteenth century, now kept in the Hugh Nevill collection at the British Library. She showed how this particular set of practices ceased to be recognised in the modern period, and how as a result this important tradition has been left absent in both Asian and Western scholarship on the subject. The panel ended with a Q&A session chaired by curator Jana Igunma.


Jana Igunma The Buddha and his natural environment in SE Asian manuscript art

The third panel – “Collections and Buddhist Practice: Art and Performance” – considered the way that visual arts and ritual performances in collections provide insight into Buddhist practice. Dr Christian Luczanits, SOAS, gave a talk on monastic collections of manuscripts and artworks in the Mustang region of Nepal. He highlighted the challenges that come with inventorising and documenting these collections and what doing so can do for understanding Buddhism’s development in Nepal. The British Library’s curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections, Jana Igunma, presented a paper on her work investigating the relationship between the historical Buddha and the natural environment. She looked at a range of eighteenth and nineteenth century illustrated manuscripts from South East Asia and how their realistic imagery of the natural world has its roots in much older Pali texts from Sri Lanka. Dr Lucia Dulce, SOAS, presented Tantric ritual practice in medieval Japanese Buddhism through an examination of writings from Japanese temple libraries. In particular, she focused on yugi kanjō, a type of ritual consecration that developed in the medieval period, drawing on unpublished material incorporating liturgy, certificates and visual representations of practitioners and performance spaces. The panel concluded with a Q&A chaired by Sam van Schaik.


Melodie Doumy and Marie Kaledgew Preservation and conservation of Buddhist scrolls

In the fourth and final panel – “Collections in the Heritage Context: Conservation, Preservation, Dissemination” – the speakers looked at different aspects of the lives of collections in cultural heritage institutions and how these contemporary settings influence the study and practice of Buddhism today. Dr Jann Ronis of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center presented the work of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center in building the world’s largest online collection of Buddhist literature in Asian languages. Ronis talked about the BDRC’s workflows, data structure and the ambitions for establishing shared standards for Linked Open Data in the field of Buddhist Studies. The British Library’s curator of Chinese collections, Melodié Doumy, and Scroll and Digitisation Conservator for the International Dunhuang Project, Marie Kaladgew, jointly presented on their work for the Lotus Sutra Digitisation Project. By focussing on one particular scroll from this collection, they demonstrated the collaborative decision-making processes that inform conservation practices and the implications these have for the longevity and interpretation of material held in the library. Finally, Dr Sam van Schaik, head of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), shared his research on the oft overlooked area of Buddhist ‘magic’ using material from both the Stein collections and more contemporary materials preserved by the EAP. Through endeavours like EAP, heritage institutions helped preserve and disseminate at-risk collections the world over by combining local knowledge and understanding of collections with the resources that are typically only available through large public bodies. The panel finished with a Q&A session chaired by Matt Kimberley.

Roundtable discussion
Roundtable discussion with (left to right) Lucia Dolce, Sam van Schaik, Mahinda Deegalle, Birgit Kellner and Tim Barrett (chair). Photo: Luisa Elena Mengoni

The conference drew to a close with a roundtable discussion on the issues explored throughout the two days, chaired by Prof. Tim Barrett of SOAS with the participation of Prof. Dr. Kellner, Prof. Deegalle, Dr Dolce and Dr van Schaik. This wide-ranging conversation looked at everything from what we mean by the very idea of collections through the challenges that come with the responsibilities of holding collections for the use of current and future generations. In all, Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage was an important and very successful event for bringing together Buddhism scholars and professionals, Buddhist practitioners and the public to reflect upon the history of this major religious tradition, and for considering the role that institutions like the British Library play in preserving and providing access to its wealth of cultural knowledge and understanding.

Matt Kimberley, Research Curator, Asian and African Collections
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05 October 2020

Defining Dialects: Accounting for Turkic Languages in the British Library Collections

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Several weeks ago, I wrote about the provenance and curation of the 150-odd works in our Chagatai collections. In that blog, I promised that I would return with a related piece about the languages of our holdings. In this piece, I'll be looking at where the name "Chagatai" comes from, why we use it to describe our holdings, and why it isn't an ideal way to refer to what we have on hand. 

Double-page spread of text in Old Turkic script in black and red ink
Two pages from the 8th-century CE divination book Irq Bitigwritten in Old Turkic script. (Irq Bitig. Dunhuang. 8th century CE. Or 8212/171)
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The earliest written records in a Turkic language come to us in the form of the Orkhon inscriptions, which were produced some time in the 8th century CE. Turkic lects were obviously spoken long before this, but the inscriptions are among the first written records that we have by which to measure their spread and evolution over the following thirteen centuries. The inscriptions were written in the Old Turkic script, which I wrote about in this blog. It is replicated in Or 8212/76(1) and Or 8212/76(3), military inventories, as well as in Or 8212/161, the famous 9th-century CE Irq Bitig divination manual. These documents are part of the British Library’s Stein Collections and provide an exceptionally rare look at the early history and worldview of the Turkic languages and people. While there is remarkable uniformity between the language of the Orkhon inscriptions and the manuscripts in the Library’s collections, orthographic idiosyncrasies point to the great influence that individual writers exerted in defining early written Turkic expression. Such peculiarities would grow to reflect dialect divergences over the coming centuries.

During this time, the Turkic peoples underwent some pretty fundamental changes. In the 8th century CE, Islam began to take root among Central Asian communities, radically altering worldviews as well as linguistic patterns. It led to the introduction of new words, concepts and paradigms into Turkic lects and literatures. The 11th century CE saw two different milestones of importance for Turkic historical linguistics. In the 1070s, the Qarakhanid polymath Kaşgarlı Mahmud compiled his Divan-ı Luğati’t-Türk (YP.2007.a.173), a compendious dictionary of the Turkic dialects, and an invaluable window on linguistic diversity within the language family. In the same century, the Seljuqs, a clan from the Oğuz confederation, swept through Persia into West Asia. They brought with them the dialects that would eventually come to dominate Turkic communities throughout the Ottoman Empire and Azerbaijan.

A page of handwritten text in Arabic script in black ink surrounded by an intricate geometrical and floral border in blue, red, white and gold, with gold margins
The first page of the Nusratnama, greatly faded, with showing the intricacy of the illumination. (Nusratnama. Central Asia. 970 AH/1563 CE. Or 3222, f 1v)
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In the 13th century CE, a different invasion – that of the Golden Horde – brought another seismic shift. Genghis Khan and his Mongolian armies whipped across Eurasia, subjugating Turkic states caught in their path. While there is some Mongolian input into the development of many Turkic languages, its influence over Central Asian and western Turkic languages over subsequent centuries was not nearly as great as that of Persian. Language does not exist outside of a historical vacuum, however, and Genghis Khan’s invasions did effectively tip the scales of fortune in favour of certain dialect groups. The Chagatai Khanate, established under the sovereignty of Genghis Khan’s second son Chagatai Khan, is such an example. Originally Mongolian in language, the state was gradually Turkicized. As it reached the zenith of its political and military power under Timur, the Turkic dialects of the region gradually began to coalesce as a language of state power. Add MS 7851, Al-Rabghuzi’s Qisas al-anbiya, reflects this stage of transition and the emergence of Chagatai as a language of literature and statecraft. The Khanate’s military prowess waned over the next three centuries, but its cultural legacy only continued to grow. From the 14th century CE right up to the advent of Soviet power in Central Asia, Chagatai was a medium of literary creation and historical recording from Delhi to Siberia, and from Iran through to Bengal.

The problem, however, is that what was written in 15th-century CE Samarqand wasn’t necessarily the same dialect as that found in a 19th-century CE manuscript from Qazan or Qashgar. As a language, Chagatai never had a state-sponsored, institutionally-regulated standard in the way that Turkish, French, Filipino or Korean do. Moreover, there is no body of active, native speakers on whom to rely for intelligibility tests, as one would use for lects without global standards, such as English, Southern Quechua or Yoruba. As a result, the tag “Chagatai” is used by the Library – and many orientalists, but not linguists – to describe a body of works that exhibit a breathtaking amount of linguistic variation. The great poet Mir Alisher Navoiy, a giant in the canon of Chagatai literature, helped to set a benchmark for composition in the language. So too did Babur, the founder of the Mughal Dynasty. But without an active insistence on these examples being prescriptive, as well as admirable, there was little to discourage writers from including social or geographical variants as they sought fit. I’m not a linguist, and I am by no means competent in determining which alternative label might be better to affix to some of the works in our Chagatai collections. Nonetheless, with what follows, I hope to elucidate why we have grouped so many disparate works together, and why improved access to them might help me and future curators in understanding just how to describe them.

A page of text in Arabic script written in black and red inkDouble page of text in Arabic script with various words underlined in red
(Left) Words in the Kyrgyz dialect of Bukhara along with Arabic and Persian translations indicated in red. (Muhammad Karim al-Bulghari. Sabab-i Taqviat. Kazan. 19th century CE. Or 11042, f 57r)
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(Right) Explanations of various Turkic dialects in Persian with examples from the dialects themselves. (Sindh, Pakistan. 1253 AH [1837 CE]. Or 404, ff 17v-18r)
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The authors of some texts make this task relatively easy by stating overtly which lects they are using or discussing. Numerous manuscripts contain vocabularies of different dialects, as well as explanations of the divergences in pronunciation, morphology, syntax and semantics between the different Turkic communities. Or 11042, for example, gives us a glossary of the words used by Kyrgyz-speakers around Bukhara. Compiled by Muhammad Karim al-Bulghari of Qazan in the 19th century CE, it was intended to provide Tatar students in Bukhara with a key to the peculiarities of local speech patterns, translating these words into Persian and Arabic. Or 404 , by contrast, goes even deeper into the question of linguistic diversity, as Dr. Paolo Sartori has highlighted for me. A Persian and Turkic codex, the author of the first text, Ashur Beg, aimed to distinguish seven different dialect groups: Turani, Uzbeki, Irani, Qizilbashi, Rumi, Qashgari, and Nogay. While it is easy to guess how some of these map onto contemporary linguistic groups (Rumi is probably Ottoman; Qashgari is probably related to Uyghur; and Nogay might be Nogay and other Caucasian Qipchaq varieties), others are more difficult. Is “Irani” the Turkmen varieties of north-east Iran and Central Asia? And where does Turani fit in? Evidently, we still have quite long strides to make in order to understand how to reconcile the worldviews of the authors of these texts with those of the speakers of the languages discussed, both past and present.

Similarly, Or 1912, a Chagatai-Persian codex that contains numerous linguistic tracts, presents us with a few more issues of nomenclature. Copied in India in the mid-19th century CE, the work demonstrates Mughal scholars’ interest in various Turkic dialects. The first three texts present grammars and vocabularies of Chagatai, Azerbaijani, Nogay and Qashgari, none of which pose too many problems when it comes to identifying, roughly, contemporary linguistic communities. The fourth text, however, creates a bit of confusion. The author, who might have been Aghur bin Bayram Ali Bi, states that Turkic peoples are divided between two camps: the Aimaqs, who say things like qayda, qanday,qali and tash, and the Turkmen, who say hayda, handay, ghali and dash. These divisions do appear to mark some phonological differences that we know of today. Consider, for example, Kazakh (Qipchaq) qajet and Turkish (Oğuz) hacet (meaning “need”); or Kazakh taw and Turkish dağ (meaning “mountain”). But beyond this, the lines start to get fuzzy. Today, Aimaq primarily designates Dari-speaking communities in Afghanistan; some members do claim descent from Turkic-speakers of Central Asia. Are these the same people described in the text? Did Aghur bin Bayram Ali Bi retain a record of their ancestors’ speech patterns, or is he describing a completely different group of people? Only further research of this and related manuscripts might help us to get closer to the truth.

Chagatai, of course, isn’t just a language of manuscripts. For much of the 19th century CE, lithography was also used for the reproduction of texts. Lithography, unlike early movable type, helped replicate more faithfully the nastaliq style of calligraphy common in many Central Asian manuscripts. Movable type was also used, however, particularly within the context of Europeanisation programs imposed by various colonial empires. In the early 19th century CE, presses existed at Qazan (a history of it by R. I. Yakupov is available here ) as well as St. Petersburg, and were soon established in Tashkent, Orenburg, and Bukhara. The earliest example held in the British Library is the Makhzan al-asrar, published in Qazan in 1858 (ITA.1986.a.1077). It isn’t particularly beautiful, but it does embody some of the important history of Chagatai publishing. The monograph was published by Joseph Gottwaldt (there’s only a German-language biographical page for him), a professor of Arabic and Persian at Kazan University from 1849 until 1897. Gottwaldt became the University’s Oriental Librarian in 1850 and headed up its publishing house from 1857, showing, once again, the deep links between orientalist scholarship and the publishing of Chagatai literature.

Lithographed title page with text in Arabic script and many small illustrations of different outdoor settingsLithographed page of text in Arabic script in black ink
The title page (left) and a page of poetry (right) showing the heights of lithographed calligraphy and imager from a Central Asian publisher. (Mashrab, Divan-i Mashrab (Tashkent: Tipografiia Bratsei Portsevykh", 1900).) (ORB.30/8204)
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Not all printed editions of Chagatai literature were created within the Imperial academy. A copy of the Divan-i Mashrab (ORB.30/8204), the collected poetry of Boborahim Mullah Wali, a 16th-17th century CE Sufi intellectual also known as Mashrab, was likely produced for the enjoyment of a Central Asian readership. This beautiful edition was lithographed in Tashkent in 1900 and demonstrates the aesthetic heights attainable for late 19th-century CE Central Asian artisans. It also provides us with a clear contrast to contemporary works produced by Turkic speakers, putting into relief the growing chasm between literary and vernacular modes of expression.

Printed text in Arabic script with small illustrated header showing fields and a treePrinted text in Arabic script with small illustrated header
Articles from the magazine Shura about sex work (left) and original works of creative writing with more vernacular linguistic features (right). (Shura (Orenburg: Vakit Nashriyati, 1908-1917).) (14499.tt.18)
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Vernacularization was already a trend by the final years of the Tsarist Empire. Turkic intellectuals across the Romanov lands were publishing in dialects influenced more by how people spoke than by traditional literary convention. In some cases, the result was written language that aligned somewhat closely with languages used today. The early 20th -century CE periodical Shura (14499.tt.18), published in Orenburg by the Bashkir and Tatar Jadid Rizaeddin Fakhreddinov (Ризаитдин Фәхретдин), provides an example that shows Chagatai and Tatar features. Among them are the use of -ymyz instead of-ybyz for the first person plural (a feature of Chagatai), and the appearance of tügel for the negative copula (common in Tatar). It seems that Fakhreddinov operated on a sliding scale, with a more literary style preferred for social commentary, and, ironically, a more vernacular one for literary pieces.

Title page with a calligraphic title in Arabic scriptText in Arabic script in black ink
The title page (left) and introduction (right) to a book about the travels of Abdurreshit Ibragimov and their importance for Turkic national development. (Davr-i Alim (Kazan: Tipografiia gazety Bayan'ul-khak", 1909).) (14499.p.5)
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Contrast this to the book Davr-i Alim (14499.p.5), an account of Abdurreshit Ibragimov’s (Габдрәшит Ибраһимов) travels around the world and their impact on national development. It contains elements that are common in Oğuz dialects (olmak, ile) as well as features that can be found in Qarluq or Qipchaq ones (-gan past and -a tur constructions). It’s not Chagatai, but it’s also not proto-Uzbek or Turkmen or Tatar. What’s going on here?

Cover page of a magazine lithographed in Arabic script with a floral border and illustrations of flora and fauna
The cover page of the periodical Oyna (Mirror), published in Turki (called Uzbek in Russian), Persian and Russian by the Jadidist intellectual Mahmud Hoja Behbudi. (Oyna (Samarqand: Makhmud Khwaja Behbudi, 1913-1915).) (ITA.1986.a.1625)
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Perhaps what we’re seeing is something new – an emergent lingua franca for Muslim Turkic communities across Eurasia. Occasionally, it is referred to by the simple moniker of Turki, a name that was, incidentally, used to refer to Chagatai as well. We see on the cover of an issue of Oyna (ITA.1986.a.1625) from 1914. Other types of common Turkic systems had certainly been proposed – the most famous of which was pushed by İsmail Gaspiralı – but none seemed to gain unconditional support among intellectuals and the average Turkic-speaker alike. A scholar of Eastern Turkic texts, literary culture and multilingualism, Ahmet Hojam Pekiniy, alerted me to the widespread presence of an inter-dialect Turki in Eastern Turkestani documents too. There is still so much more for us to understand about this phenomenon, and how it relates to Chagatai linguistically, historically, socially and politically.

In the end, it wasn’t the printing press or mass communication that forced standardization, but rather the process of Sovietization. Soviet authorities, informed by Stalin’s Nationalities’ Policy, set about demarcating the languages of distinct Soviet peoples. Chagatai lost out to a host of semi-vernacular, heavily-managed languages – Uzbek, Tatar, Bashkir, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen, among others – which became the new literary norms. Chagatai, or maybe Turki, didn’t die out completely, but lived on for a while longer in exile. I’ve written about Yangi Yapon Mokhbire elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning once more as an example of the continued use of the language as a common denominator amongst exiles from various Turkic communities, at least until the late 1930s. Nonetheless, Chagatai’s quiet disappearance from the world stage has denied us the opportunity to understand truly what it was and was not, and to see its place within the rich tapestry of Turkic cultural production. And for the community of cataloguers and curators, it means a continued struggle to categorize these works in a way that makes them discoverable and useable by readers from around the globe. In time, we hope, a greater public interest in them and the language itself will help revive some of Chagatai's importance in understanding the history of Eurasia.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator, Turkish and Turkic Collections
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Further Reading

Eckmann, János, Chagatay Manual ([London?]: Taylor and Francis, [2017]). (DRT ELD.DS.166473)

Khalid, Adeeb, The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

Schluessel, Eric, An Introduction to Chagatai: A Graded Textbook for Reading Central Asian Sources (Michigan: University of Michigan Press Services, 2018). (YP.2019.b.567)

The Turkic Languages, edited by Lars Johanson and Éva Á. Csató (London: Routledge, 1998). (YC.1999.b.2111)

21 September 2020

Curating Curation: Making Sense of the British Library’s Chagatai Collections

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Full-page painting showing a man dressed in Central Asian clothing seated before his courtesans in similar dress
Chagatai Khan at in council with his courtesans. (Nusratnama, Central Asia, 970 AH/1563 CE. Or 3222, f 86r)
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In March of this year, when the necessity of lockdown became painfully apparently to those in positions of authority, the British Library closed its doors to the public. Curatorial staff were asked to work from home. We were lucky; unlike many of our peers in other cultural institutions across the country – not to mention millions of other workers throughout the United Kingdom – we were not furloughed. We were asked, however, to begin working on tasks that did not require access to the Library’s physical collections. I decided to use this time to create long-overdue digital records for our Chagatai holdings, among other things. In this blog post, I’m going to share a few insights that I gained from this work about the composition of the collection.

The British Library holds nearly 150 manuscripts containing text in Qipchaq and Qarluq Turkic lects. Within the Library’s structures, these are generally referred to as “Chagatai manuscripts,” despite the fact that such nomenclature is at best controversial, and at worst wrong. Chagatai is a literary language used from the 15th to early 20th centuries CE. Its lack of a documented standard meant that some degree of variation was tolerated, but not to the extent that it might include works in all regional lects spoken by communities from Tabriz to Ürümqi. The use of “Chagatai” was convenient as an analog to Ottoman, however, even if it wasn’t correct, and it stuck as a label for these items throughout the latter part of the 20th century. For this reason, I’ve decided to leave the term relatively unchallenged for now, and to reserve a discussion of the collection’s linguistic diversity for a later date.

A page featuring text in Uyghur script inside multicultural angular waves, and text in Arabic script in the margins
Two texts grace this page: one in a Turkic lect written in the Uyghur script; and one in Persian in Arabic script, written in the margins. (Yazd, 835 AH/1431 CE. Or 8193, f 16v)
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Of the 150 items held, only five have been digitized. I wrote about two of them in this blog post from early 2019. To these, we can add three other volumes: the Nusratnama, a history of the Shaybanids from Genghis Khan down to Shaybani Khan (Or 3222); an incomplete copy of Gharaib al-sighar, a collection of poetry by the great Chagatai poet Navoiy (Or 13069); and an exquisitely illustrated majmua of poetry, moral tracts and religious doctrine in a Turkic language written in Uyghur script and Persian (Or 8193). This means that the vast majority of the Chagatai works held by the British Library can only be consulted at our St. Pancras Asian and African Studies Reading Room, and thus remain heavily restricted to the public for the time being.

Black and white image of typed text on rectangular paper
A black and white image of the acquisition slip for Or. 9660, the Tazkirat ul-cinān. 
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A number of obstacles present themselves in the cataloguing of these items, only some of which are unique to the collection. To start, the metadata that exists for this collection is fragmentary at best. Items acquired by the British Museum prior to 1888 are included in Charles Rieu’s 1888 Catalogue of the Turkish Manuscripts in the British Museum. Given the early date of this catalogue, it only carries those items marked as Additional Manuscripts or with Oriental Manuscript references less than 3300. To this we may add a skeletal handlist compiled by my predecessor, Muhammad Isa Waley. The list provided me with bare-bones descriptions of the Chagatai works held by the Library. On occasion, I was able to add information gleaned from our blue slips, or acquisition slips, for some of the items given Oriental (Or.) shelfmarks. Such data was sparse, but it does provide further indications about content, script, materials, and, on occasion, source and date of acquisition. In sum, the quality and length of the records added to the online system is highly variable, but at least it marks a start to the process of making the items more visible.

One of the pieces of data that is often missing from many of these sources is provenance. This often-overlooked part of the manuscript’s story can contain incredible narratives of knowledge transfer and trade, as well as dispossession, theft, and alienation. As a literary language, Chagatai was used primarily in Central Asia, Iran, Siberia, East Turkestan, and Northern India. It is no surprise, then, that many of the volumes in the Library’s possession come from these regions, although a few others were copied as far afield as Istanbul. Our holdings, however, demonstrate a unique distribution of origins compared to many other collections, owing largely to the history of the British Empire. Over a quarter of the items held by the Library are in some way connected to India, either as their place of creation or as a transit route. Compare this to the Jarring Collection in Lund, where most manuscripts are from East Turkestan; or the Bibliothèque nationale de France, with most of its holdings from Dunhuang; or the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, rich in Central Asian manuscripts. This makes the BL’s collection a fascinating object revealing as much about British desire for Turkic cultural heritage as it does about the context in which such heritage was created.

Page of text in Arabic script with red inked title at top Page with Arabic-script text and seals in black ink
Left: The start of the Vaqiat-i Baburi, the Chagatai-language version of the Baburnama, or autobiography of Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. (Add MS 26324)
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Right: Ownership seals and inscriptions from the Vaqiat-i Baburi. (Add MS 26324, f 118v)
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British commercial and colonial actions in South Asia from the 17th through to the 20th centuries ensured a pronounced interest on the part of the British elite in the languages, history and cultures of the region. Sometimes directed towards scholarly pursuits, sometimes motived by political or military strategies, the sum of this fascination was the acquisition and transportation of South Asian physical heritage to the Imperial centre. Here, it was housed in museums and libraries, both public and private. These objects included Chagatai literary and scientific works penned by Mughal literati or copied by scribes for their influential patrons. The importance of the language for South Asian history is exemplified by two Chagatai versions of the Vaqiat-i Baburi (also known as the Baburnama), the autobiography of Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. One copy, Add MS 26324, was purchased by the Museum from William Erskine in 1865. Erskine, a well-known Scottish orientalist and first translator of the Baburnama into English, occupied several colonial posts in India in the first half of the 19th century. Another, more complete 16th-century copy exists at IO Islamic 2538 (formerly part of the India Office Library). The presence of English annotation leads us to believe that this copy might have been used extensively by Annette Beveridge. Beveridge, a member of the late 19th-century British colonial elite in India, translated the Baburnama and the Humayun-nama into English, relying on both Chagatai and Persian sources.

Page featuring Arabic-script text inside elaborate illumination in gold, blue and red inks with floral patternsPage featuring Arabic-script text inside elaborate illumination in gold, blue and red inks with floral patterns
The double-page seccade from the start of the Divan-i Navā'ī. (Iran. Or 1374, ff 1v-2r)
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India also appears to have been an important market for imported manuscripts before the advent of British colonization. Or 8193, for example, was originally created in Yazd, Iran in 835 AH (1431 CE). At some point, however, it was acquired and moved to India, where it later passed into the possession of a British official, A. Seton. Other Iranian items likely arrived in the UK directly from Persia. Many of the men charged with an Imperial mission were apparently avid collectors of manuscripts. These manuscripts were eventually sold or bequeathed to the British Museum and the India Office Library during financial difficulties or after the men's passing. Add MS 7910, Divan-i Nava’i, for example, was acquired from Claudius Rich. Rich was a former British consular and commercial agent who had worked in India, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Syria and Egypt. A similar story can be told for Or 1374, an exquisite copy of Navoiy’s Divan featuring lacquered hunting scenes on its binding and a double-paged seccade. The volume was bequeathed to the Museum by Sir Charles A. Murray, British Ambassador to Qajar Persia from 1854 to 1859 and, just possibly, one of the instigators of the Anglo-Persian war of 1856-57.

The remaining parts of the collection came from majority Turcophone regions, most of which were never subjected to long-term direct British occupation or colonial rule. The Abushqa (Add MS 7886), for example, was copied in the Ottoman Empire (which was occupied, at various times and in various locales, by British forces, but never in its entirety). This Ottoman-Chagatai dictionary based on the poetry of the great Chagatai poet Alisher Navoiy likely arrived in London through commercial routes, highlighting the lucrative business of selling historic manuscripts to European visitors and residents.

Arabic-script text in black ink on marbled paper
A page of text from the Qisas al-anbiya' demonstrating the peculiarities of the language employed. (Add MS 7851)
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The manuscripts from Central Asia tend to be the stickiest in terms of identifying provenance. Only minimal information is provided in the handlists and the acquisition slips, and the source of the item isn’t always recorded in the volume itself. The Library holds 40-odd items from the region, some of which are absolute treasures. The Nusratnama, mentioned above, is a case in point. Recently made available online, it features breathtaking illustrations of each of the rulers in the Shaybanid line. Rieu informs us that this was a gift to the British Museum by Mr. Joseph King, but goes no further in identifying its putative journey to these shores. A similar lack of provenance information bedevils Add MS 7851, a 15th-century copy of Rabghuzi’s Qisas al-anbiya’. Rieu tells us it was formerly in the collections of Claudius Rich, and that’s where we lose its tracks. The work is of exceptional linguistic value, charting an intermediary stage between Khwarezmi Turkic and Chagatai, and its voyages over time have great importance in understanding intellectual history in the Turkic world.

Chinese and Arabic-script text with the latter enclosed in a stamped blue border and covered with Chinese calligraphy in red ink
A laissez-passer in Chinese and an Eastern Turkic lect granting travel permission to Mehmet Ali Akhund so that he can accompany a Japanese expedition to Ürümqi. (Kashgar, 1903. Or 13151)
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Finally, the approximately 40 items that were produced in East Turkestan/Xinjiang (combining the regions of Dzungaria and Altishahr) is a motley crew in terms of both provenance and content. Some of these items were brought – licitly or illicitly – to the Museum by Europeans who sought out the physical heritage of the Silk Road’s eastern branches. Chief among these was Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-British orientalist whose collections form a large part of the British Library’s International Dunhuang Project holdings. Only a small fraction of these items are in Turkic languages, including administrative or miscellaneous works that made their way back to the United Kingdom as packing materials (Or 12201). Other items speak to the social and political structures in place at the time of the expeditions. Or 13151 is a laissez-passer issued in 1903 in both Chinese and a local Turkic language to one Mehmet Ali Akhund so that he might accompany a Japanese expedition to Ürümqi. It is a rare window onto the life of one particular local participant in the global effort to understand the history of the region.

Unbound sheets with Arabic-script text inside a box
An unbound manuscript containing a Turkic translation of the Tārīkh-i Rashīdī. (East Turkestan. IO Islamic 4866)
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Another tranche of this subset likely came to the Library through the work of George Macartney, a British diplomat connected to the Chinese political elite through his mother. Macartney lived in Kashgar from 1890 to 1918 and was closely linked to various expeditions, including the Younghusband one. His wife, Catherine Macartney, worked with the Dunhuang Expedition regarding their acquisition of manuscripts. These might have included religious, literary or historical works such as IO Islamic 4846, 4848 and 4849, all of which relate the story of Ya’qub Beg, the leader of Yarkant who attained political independence for the region in the late 19th century.

From this overview of the British Library’s Chagatai collections alone, it’s clear that there is still so much more for us to learn about the origins and journeys of the individual pieces that make up the whole. What is obvious, however, is that collections reflect much more the proclivities and propensities of the personalities behind them than they do the total sum of a people’s creative output. The Chagatai holdings at the British Library provide us with insights into the linguistic, literary, religious, economic, political, social and intellectual histories of the Turkic peoples. But their selection and curation say much more about British officials’ and scholars’ engagement with this history, and the narratives they have woven about it, than they do about collectivities’ yearning to be seen and heard. In using this lens to understand and interpret a set of works, we can move beyond the idea of the archive as an objective monolith. In its place, we can reinvigorate our collections as one component in a broader effort towards an equal and mutually beneficial exchange of ideas and perspectives about the history of the Turkic world.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator
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19 June 2020

An eighth century Judaeo-Persian letter from Dandan-Uiliq

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A recent post on the Kaifeng Torah Scroll, a seventeenth century Torah scroll from Kaifeng, Henan province, featured the British Library’s Judaeo-Persian letter Or.8212/166 dating from the end of the eighth century as one of the earliest records of the Jewish community in China. Our post today coincides with Silk Road Week 2020 to celebrate the anniversary of the Silk Road - from Chang'an to the Tianshan Corridor - becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site on June 22, 2014. It highlights the long-term collaboration between the British Library and the National Library of China as part of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) by focussing on our Judaeo-Persian document and a comparatively recent acquisition of the National Library of China BH1-19.

Judaeo-Persian letter discovered in 1901 by Sir Aurel Stein at Dandan-Uiliq in 1901 (British Library Or.8212/166)
The Judaeo-Persian document discovered in 1901 by Sir Aurel Stein at Dandan-Uiliq in 1901 (British Library Or.8212/166)
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The Judaeo-Persian letter acquired in 2004 by the National Library of China (National Library of China BH1-19)
The Judaeo-Persian letter acquired in 2004 by the National Library of China (BH1-19, image reproduced with the kind permission of the National Library of China)

The earliest of these two to be widely-known is the British Library document which was discovered early in 1901 during M.A. Stein’s first expedition to Central Asia. A group of his workmen were indulging in some independent ‘treasure-seeking’ after the completion of formal excavations at Dandan-Uiliq, the site of a former Buddhist monastery and Imperial garrison located to the northeast of Khotan between the Khotan and Keriya rivers in what is now the autonomous region of Xinjiang. While searching the debris left in the sand outside the broken east wall of an ancient dwelling-house (Stein’s D.XIII), they came across a document which Stein described (Margoliouth, p. 737):

as it then presented itself, was a lump of thin brownish paper, so closely crumpled up that in the absence of proper appliances I found it quite impossible to attempt its opening and unfolding. Only where one edge of the paper could be partially loosened was I able to make out some characters which manifestly looked like cursive Hebrew.

Map of Dandan-Uiliq, after Stein Sand-buried ruins of Khotan
Map of Dandan-Uiliq based on M. A. Stein's Map showing portions of Chinese Turkestan, Survey of India 1900-1901, scale 1 : 760,000 (Sand-buried ruins of Khotan, London, 1904)
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The document was provisionally dated to the end of the eighth century when the site was abandoned, and this dating was confirmed by an analysis of the paper by Professor J. Wiesner (Margoliouth, pp. 742-3) which found that the structure was indistinguishable from the paper of Chinese documents found at Dandan Uiliq, dating from between 781 and 790.

The letter proved to be written in Judaeo-Persian, i.e. Persian written in Hebrew script. However since the beginning and end of each line was missing, there was only a limited amount of contextual information to be deduced (for an edition and translation see Utas, 1968 below). Mention of sheep trading and cloth indicates the document’s commercial nature and a reference to the author having written “more than 20 letters[1]” attests perhaps to a thriving trade. There is also an intriguing request for a harp required for instructing a girl how to play (see Yoshida, pp. 389-90 for a possible explanation of this).

In 2004, however, an almost intact leaf (BH1-19) of a similar document was acquired by the National Library of China. Published in 2008 (Zhang Zhan and Shi Guang), it appears to be the initial page of possibly the same letter and gives a more detailed historical context by referring to the defeat of the Tibetans at Kashgar which happened around 790.

The letter (translated by Zhang Zhan in Hansen, pp. 381-2) is from a Persian speaking Jew of Khotan to the ‘lord master’ Nisi Chilag, Abu Sahak and others on the subject of sheep trading. It lists bribes to officials, arranged no doubt in order of sociological importance and headed by a local ruler (dihgān) who can perhaps be identified with the King of Khotan or someone of equal status (Yoshida, p. 392). The gifts include a vase, scent, silk cloth, raw silk, sugar and other items which are not yet fully understood. Perhaps the most important information was the news from Kashgar that “They killed and captured all the Tibetans”. The writer himself contributed “a sum worth 100 strings of coins, or 100,000 coins” for the war effort.

Montage showing the two letters Or.8212/166 and BH1-19 superimposed for comparison
Montage showing the two letters BH1-19 and Or.8212/166 superimposed for comparison

As demonstrated by the montage above, the two documents are almost certainly part of the same letter with the National Library fragment forming the opening page and the British Library fragment a subsequent folio. From a morphological, palaeographical, and content-wise point of view we can be fairly certain that both were written by the same Judaeo-Persian trader. The author is identified in the second letter as ‘Sogdian,’ and despite being written in Persian, Yutaka Yoshida has convincingly argued on the basis of various sogdianisms in the letter itself that he was most likely a Persian speaking Sogdian Jew (Yoshida, pp. 390-92).

Taking both parts together the Dandan-Uiliq letter is probably the oldest surviving document of substance to be written in early New Persian, marking the first phase of the Persian language after the Islamic conquest. As such it provides important evidence for the development of the Persian language in addition to documenting the history of eighth-century Khotan.

Ursula Sims-Williams
Lead Curator, Persian, Asian and African Collections

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Further reading

Margoliouth, D.S., “An early Judæo-Persian document from Khotan, in the Stein Collection, with other early Persian documents; with an introductory note by M.A. Stein and communications from W. Bacher, A.E. Cowley and J. Wiesner”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1903), pp. 735-60.
Utas, Bo, “The Jewish-Persian fragment from Dandān-Uiliq”, Orientalia suecana 17 (1968) pp. 123-136 (republished in From Old to New Persian: Collected essays, Wiesbaden 2013, pp. 25-38).
Zhang Zhan and Shi Guang, “Yijian xinfaxian Youtai-Bosiyu xinzha de duandai yu shidu [A newly-discovered Judeo-Persian letter]”, Dunhuang Tulufan Yanjiu 11 (2008), pp. 71-99.
Hansen, V. The Silk Road: a new history with documents. Oxford: OUP, 2017, pp. 357-9, with Zhang Zhan’s translation of BH1-19, pp. 381-2.
Yutaka Yoshida, “Some new interpretations of the two Judeo-Persian letters from Khotan”. In A thousand judgements: Festschrift for Maria Macuch, eds. A. Hintze, D. Durkin-Meisterernst and C. Neumann, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2019, pp. 385-94.

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[1] Literally “more than twenty and …[word missing]”

23 January 2020

Digital Zoroastrian at the British Library

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The British Library is fortunate in having an unparalled collection of over 100 Zoroastrian works ranging from the oldest, the ninth century Ashem Vohu prayer written in Sogdian script discovered by Aurel Stein in Central Asia in 1907, to, most recently, manuscripts collected especially for the Royal Society in London during the late-nineteenth century. Although Zoroastrianism is Iranian in origin, most of our manuscripts in fact come from India. They are written in Avestan (Old Iranian), Middle Persian, New Persian, and also in the Indian languages Sanskrit and Gujarati.

In the past few years several of our manuscripts have become familiar through exhibitions such as Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination held at SOAS (2013) and New Delhi (2016) and also through the Zoroastrian articles and collection items included in our recent website Discovering Sacred Texts. Building on this and thanks to the philanthropic support of Mrs Purviz Rusy Shroff, we have now been able to complete digitisation of the whole collection. This introductory post outlines the history of the collection and is intended as the first in a series highlighting the collection as the manuscripts go live during the next few months.

1 Zoroastrian prayer in Sogdian-Or MS 8212 84
One of the holiest Zoroastrian prayers, the Ashem vohu, discovered at Dunhuang by Aurel Stein in 1907. Transcribed into Sogdian (a medieval Iranian language) script, this fragment dates from around the ninth century AD, about four centuries earlier than any other surviving Zoroastrian text (BL Or.8212/84). Public domain

The collection is made up of three main collections described below, dating from the seventeenth, the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, in addition to individual items acquired by British travellers to India and employees of the East India Company. I’ll be writing more about these individual collections in future posts.


Thomas Hyde (1636–1703)

Our oldest collection, and the earliest to reach the West, was acquired for the seventeenth century polymath Thomas Hyde. Hyde became Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford in 1691 and Regius Professor of Hebrew in 1697 and also served as Royal Secretary and Translator of Oriental Languages for three successive monarchs: Charles II, James II and William III. While he had never travelled in the East himself, he built up a network of travellers and East India Company officials whom he asked to purchase books and manuscripts on his behalf. Several of these were chaplains whom Hyde had personally recommended to the Levant and the East India trading companies. After his death in 1703 part of his collection was purchased by Queen Anne for the Royal Library. It was subsequently given to the British Museum by King George III in 1757. 


2 Hydes Khordah Avesta-royal_ms_16_b_vi_f001r
A copy of the Khordah Avesta (‘Little Avesta’) which contains prayers, hymns and invocations. This manuscript begins with the Ashem vohu (featured also in Sogdian script above) and is dated 30 Ardibihisht 1042 in the era of Yazdagird (1673). It was copied at the request of the English Agent Kunvarji Nanabhai Modi probably on commission for Hyde. Hyde could read though never wholly understood Avestan, but he used this particular manuscript as a model for the special Avestan type he created for his well-known History of the Persian Religion published in 1700 (BL Royal Ms 16.B.vi, f. 1r). Public domain


Samuel Guise (1751-1811)

Samuel Guise began his career as a Surgeon on the Bombay Establishment of the East-India Company in 1775 and from 1788 until the end of 1795, he was Head Surgeon at the East-India Company’s Factory in Surat where his work brought him into close contact with the Parsi community. An avid collector, he acquired altogether more than 400 manuscripts while in India. At some point he was fortunate enough to be able to purchase from his widow, the collection of the famous Dastur Darab who had taught the first translator of the Avesta, Anquetil du Perron, between 1758 and 1760 (Guise, Catalogue, 1800, pp. 3-4):

This Collection was made at Surat, from the year 1788 till the End of 1795, with great Trouble and Expence. ... Of this Collection, however rich in Arabick and Persian works of Merit, the chief Value consists in the numerous Zend and Pehlavi MSS treating of the antient Religion and History of the Parsees, or Disciples of the celebrated Zoroaster, many of which were purchased, at a very considerable Expence, from the Widow of Darab, who had been, in the Study of those Languages, the Preceptor of M. Anquetil du Perron; and some of the Manuscripts are such as this inquisitive Frenchman found it impossible to procure

In 1796 he retired to Montrose, Angus, where he lived until his death in 1811. The story of his collection and what subsequently happened to it is told in my article “The strange story of Samuel Guise: an 18th-century collection of Zorostrian manuscripts,” but eventually in 1812, 26 Zoroastrian manuscripts were acquired at auction by the East India Company Library. They include one of the oldest surviving Avestan manuscripts, the Pahlavi Videvdad (‘Law to drive away the demons’), a legal work concerned with ritual and purity which was copied in 1323 AD (Mss Avestan 4). Other important manuscripts are a copy of the liturgical text, the Videvdad sādah (Mss Avestan 1), attributed to the fifteenth century, and one of the oldest copies of the Yasna sādah – the simple text of the Yasna ritual without any commentary– (Mss Avestan 17).

3 Yasna sadah-mss_avestan_17_f128r copy
Verses 6-7
 of Yasna 43 on the creation of the universe. The red floral decorations are verse dividers and are a feature of this manuscript. This copy was completed in India in 1556 (BL Mss Avestan 17, f. 128r). Public domain


Burjorji Sorabji Ashburner

Burjorji Ashburner was a successful Bombay merchant, a Freemason, and a member of the Bombay Asiatic Society. He was also a member of the Committee of Management for one of the most important Zoroastrian libraries in Bombay, the Mulla Firuz Library and made a special point of having copies made of some of the rarer items. In April 1864 Burjurji wrote offering some 70 to 80 volumes as a gift to the Royal Society, London, promising to add additional ones:

In the course of antiquarian researches...with special reference to the Parsee religion, I have had the good fortune to obtain some valuable ancient manuscripts in Zend, Pehlui, and Persian. I do not wish to keep to myself what may be useful in the literary world. [1]

His collection consisted of standard Arabic and Persian works in addition to nineteen specifically Zoroastrian manuscripts in Persian, Avestan and Pahlavi. A number of Bujorji’s manuscripts came originally from Iran. The oldest is an illustrated copy of the Videvdad sādah (RSPA 230) which was copied in Yazd, Iran, in 1647. Whereas Zoroastrian manuscripts are generally unillustrated except for small devices such as verse dividers and occasional diagrams, this one, exceptionally, contains seven coloured drawings of trees, used as chapter headings not unlike Islamic manuscripts of the same period.

4 An illustrated Videvdad Sadah-RSPA230_64R
The beginning of chapter 19 of the Videvdad sadah in which Zoroaster repels an attempt on his life by the demon Buiti, sent by the evil spirit Angra Mainyu. Note the elongated calligraphic script which is typical of the older manuscripts from Iran (BL RSPA 230, f. 227r). Public domain

Several of Bujorji’s manuscripts were copied or written by Siyavakhsh Urmazdyar an Iranian poet and writer living in Bombay in the mid-nineteenth century. His poetical name was Azari, but he was otherwise known as Sarfahkar Kirmani or Irani. These include works in Persian on the calendar (the subject of a major controversy at the time), a dictionary, treatises on divination and the interaction between Zoroastrians and Muslims, in addition to copies of Avestan texts.


Other sources

The remaining manuscripts were acquired in India, mostly by East India Company servants Jonathan Duncan Governor of Bombay (1756–1811), Sir John Malcolm (1769–1833), and the Scottish linguist and poet John Leyden (1775-1811). They range from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

5 Qissah Sanjan-io_islamic_2572_f001v copy
The beginning of the Qissah-i Sanjan, the traditional story in Persian verse of the settlement of the Parsis in India composed by Bahman ibn Kayqubād at Nausari in AD 1600. This copy is undated but was written, most probably for John Leyden, on paper watermarked 1799 (BL IO Islamic 2572, f. 1v). Public domain

Further reading

Samuel Guise, A Catalogue and Detailed Account of a Very Valuable and Curious Collection of Manuscripts, Collected in Hindostan. London, 1800.
Almut Hintze, An introduction to Zoroastrianism, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
Jenny Rose, Zoroastrianism from the early modern period, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
Ursula Sims-Williams, Zoroastrianism in late antiquity, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
----------------, “The strange story of Samuel Guise: an 18th-century collection of Zorostrian manuscripts,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 19, 2005 (2009), pp. 199-209.
----------------, “Zoroastrian Manuscripts in the British Library, London,” in The Transmission of the Avesta, ed. A. Cantera. Wiesbaden, 2012, pp. 173-94.


We are grateful to Mrs Purviz Rusy Shroff, Mr Neville Shroff and Mr Zarir Cama for their generous support towards this project.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian, British Library
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[1] Royal Society Archives MC.7.53: Ashburner to the Foreign Secretary, 13 April 1864

21 November 2019

Buddha From Kashgar to Istanbul

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This is the eighth of a series of blog posts accompanying the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020.

In 1911-12, Ahmet Refik (Altınay) published the Büyük Tarih-i Umumî, a compendious history of the world. Much of the material was far from ground-breaking. Similar to broader Ottoman historiography of this period, the sections on the ancient Mediterranean and the cultures and civilizations of Europe were taken, largely unchallenged, from French, English and German sources. What is noteworthy, however, is the self-assured manner in which the ancient history of the Turks as a nation is outlined in the Tarih. This was a continuation of a new trend in history-writing stemming from the mid-19th century. As Büşra Behar Ersanlı explains, it was based upon Western European sources – especially the work of Léon Cahun – but it was clearly repurposed for the growth in national consciousness among Turkic intellectuals in the Ottoman Empire.

Among these new perspectives was a fresh look at religion. Islam was a key component of Ottoman statehood, especially since Sultan Murad I declared himself Caliph in 1517. Ahmet Refik, however, problematized these links, highlighting the fact that, despite a clear overlap between Turkicness and Islamic identity, the two were far from identical. In addition to Islam, different Turkic peoples had embraced Animism (sometimes in the form of Tengrism), Zoroastrianism, Manichæism, various forms of Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism over the course of their recorded history. Indeed, Ahmet Refik remarks that:

“The Turks and the Mongols are not a religious people. The religious imagination, zeal and abundant inquiry that was so strong among the Arabs, Iranians and Slavs was unable to have an important influence on the thoughts of the Turks, Mongols or Manchus. The religion that was most appropriate to the nature of the Turks was the faith of the Buddha. In nature, thought and temperament, the Turks were Buddhist. The one encompassing [space] that would have kept the Turks living in complete comfort would have been the faith of the Buddha.” (Ahmet Refik, Büyük Tarih-i Umumi: IV Cilt, 277)

Contemporary understandings of the history of the Turkic peoples, and of religion across Eurasia, assign much of Ahmet Refik’s supposition and the assumptions upon which it is based to the realm of untruth. Nonetheless, it does highlight a fact that cannot be ignored: for a millennium and a half, Buddhism has and continues to be a core component of many Turkic communities across the Central Asia and Siberia.

Cover page of the Büyük tarih-i umumi, Ottoman history of the world. Passage on Buddhism the Büyük tarih-i umumi, Ottoman history of the world.
An early 20th-century view of Buddhism’s impact on the Turkic peoples, from an Ottoman perspective. (Ahmet Refik, Büyük Tarih-i Umumi: IV Cilt (Istanbul: Kitabhane-yi İslam ve Askeri, İbrahim Hilmi, 1328 [1912]), p. 277. ORB.30/8834) CC Public Domain Image

The Turkic peoples had likely encountered Buddhists and Buddhism by the middle of the first millennium CE. Chinese accounts from as early as the 6 th century speak of the translation of Buddhist texts into a language used by the Turks (although this was likely Sogdian). At least one inscription, as well as the construction of temples and statuary, testify to Buddhism’s importance during the Second Kök Turkic Khaganate (678-747 CE). It likely coexisted with Tengrism, the Turkic animistic belief system, during the early period, and later competed with Manicheanism for followers among the Uyghurs, Qarluqs and other Turkic peoples. It was eventually Buddhism that won out as the primarily religion of the Uyghurs in the 10th century, motivating the creation of numerous Buddhist religious manuscripts, some of which survive into the present.

The Uyghurs came to prominence after overthrowing the Qarluq and other Turkic polities in the 8th century CE and entering into an alliance with the Chinese monarchy. The earliest probable Turkic Buddhist texts, which come from Uyghur settlements in present-day Mongolia, made use of an archaic Turkic dialect also seen in the Runic texts of the Orkhon inscriptions . Such examples are exceptionally rare, leading some scholars to suppose that Buddhist production in Turkic languages during this period was minimal. This contrasts with later items from the Tarim Basin in present-day Xinjiang – including those found in the British Library’s collections – which demonstrate a much more contemporary dialect. This dialect is not directly related to today’s Uyghur language, part of the Karluk sub-family of languages. Rather, it is likely an earlier form of Western Yugur , a small language belonging to the Siberian sub-family, spoken today in Gansu Province, China. As can be seen from the images below, the British Library texts are far too fragmentary to provide a clear picture of Buddhist practice in Uyghur, but they do establish that it existed.

Turkic Buddhist fragment in Uyghur script. Turkic Buddhist fragment in Uyghur script.
Fragments of 9th-century Buddhist texts in Uyghur (Or. 13085A and Or. 13085C). CC Public Domain Image

The letters of the Uyghur alphabet with pronunciation.
A guide to the Uyghur script, used in many Turkic Buddhist texts. (Khoja Abduqayyam, Qădimqi Uyghur yazma yadikarliqliridin tallanma (Urumchi: Shinjang Khălq Năshriyati, 1983), p. 125). ITA.1990.a.20). CC Public Domain Image

In the late 10th and early 11th centuries CE, the Qarakhanids, a Turkic community to the west of the Uyghur state, converted to Islam. This placed them in opposition with the primarily Buddhist Uyghurs, adding a religious element to socio-political and economic conflict in Central Asia. The Qocho Kingdom – a successor state of the Uyghur Khanate – continued to be a stronghold of Buddhist practice even after the conversion of the Qarakhanids and the invasion of the Mongols – themselves Buddhists – in the 13th century. The ultimate blow was dealt by the Chagatai Khanate in the late 13 th and early 14th centuries. A successor state of the Golden Horde, the Chagatai state was a fierce defender of the Chinggisid legacy. Nonetheless, the ascension of Muslim Khan Tughluq Timur to the throne in the second half of the 14th century spelled the beginning of the end for widespread Buddhist practice among the region’s Turkic peoples. It also saw a linguistic shift in which the Siberian Turkic language of the original Uyghur populations was gradually supplanted by a Karluk one closely linked to Chagatai, the literary language of Turkic Central Asia .

A painting of Chagatai Khan seated with his counsellors.
Chagatai Khan, seated amongst counsellors, from the 16 th-century manuscript called the Nusratname, also known as the Qissa-yi Chingiz Khan (Or. 3222). CC Public Domain Image

The collapse of the Qocho Kingdom did not mean the end of Turkic peoples’ relationship to Buddhism. For one, the Western Yugurs, linguistic if not ethnic descendants of the first Uyghurs, continue to practice the faith. But they are not the most numerous Turkic-speaking adherents. Buddhism also thrives among the Tuvans, a Turkic people whose titular homeland – the Tyva Republic – is nestled between Russia, China and Mongolia. Approximately 62% of the population of Tyva Republic identifies as Buddhist, with the most widespread practice a form of Buddhism similar to the one found in Tibet. As ethnic Tuvans make up 82% of the Republic’s population, the proportion of Buddhists among the Tuvans is likely far higher than the percentage of the entire Republic’s population. Buddhism co-exists with Tengrism and other forms of animistic belief, highlighting the blending of religious traditions among the region’s Turkic inhabitants. Materials within the British Library’s Turkic collections point to the revival and flourishing of various aspects of these belief systems following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Appreciation of the art, poetry and philosophy of Tuvan Buddhism shows up in both popular publications and in scholarly ones, as seen below.

A painting of the Balden Lhama by a Tuvan artist.
A painting of the Balden or Palden Lhama by a Tuvan artist. ( Shagaanyn︠g︡ dȯzu̇ bolgash ëzu-chan︠g︡chyldary : Shagaa baĭyrlalynga turaskaatkan Tȯgerik shirėėnin︠g︡ materialdary; Kyzyl, khooraĭ 2015 ch. (Kyzyl: Tuvinskiĭ institut gumanitarnykh i prikladnykh sot︠s︡ialʹno-ėkonomicheskikh issledovaniĭ, 2015). YP.2019.a.4289). CC Public Domain Image

Cover page of conference materials dedicated to Tuvan Buddhism.
Materials from a conference on Buddhist and other indigenous faith practices in Kyzyl, Tyva ( Tȯȯgu̇ge Dai︠a︡myshaan - Kelir U̇ezhe : Bėėzi kozhuunun︠g︡ 260 bolgash Khemchik kozhuunnun︠g︡ 250 oi︠u︡ncha turaskaatkan ėrtem-praktiktik konferent︠s︡ii︠a︡lardary. 2014 chyldyn︠g︡ okti︠a︡brʹ 24, 2015 chyldyn︠g︡ aprelʹ 29. Chadaana khooraĭ (Kyzyl: OAO Tyvapoligraf, 2015). YP.2019.b.473). CC Public Domain Image

The Tuvans, together with the Western Yugurs, as the two majority-Buddhist communities in the Turkic World. There is, however, another part to the story regarding the interaction between the Turkic peoples and the Buddhist faith. In the 17th century, a Buddhist Mongolic-speaking group known as the Oirots migrated from present-day eastern Kazakhstan to the Volga Region, where they established the Kalmyk Khanate. In doing so, they entered into an alliance with Russia, and pushed out Muslim Turkic communities, particularly the Nogais and the Karakalpaks. They battled the Kazakhs and Bashkirs and assisted in Russian campaigns against the Safavids and Ottomans, but under Catherine the Great their autonomy was eventually abolished and their Khanate absorbed into the Russian Empire. The great 17 th-century Ottoman chronicler Evliya Çelebi provided Ottomans with considerable information about the Kalmyks in the seventh volume of his Seyahatname, but nowhere does he mention that they were Buddhist. He frequently refers to them as küffar, or infidels, pointing out both their animistic beliefs and another belief system, which he equates with the “hulûlî” heterodoxy, combining a belief that God is inside the individual with reincarnation. He also gives a fairly comprehensive description of a pilgrimage site linked to Kalmyk ancestor worship. It houses the statue of an “angel without wings” and is topped by a bronze dome. Neither the Buddha, nor connections between this system of religious belief and those found further east, are ever mentioned. Nevertheless, it does appear that 17th century Ottomans were still introduced to the particularities of Kalmyk Buddhist practice thanks to the writings of this intrepid traveler.

Today, Kalmykia, found just south of Volgograd, is Europe’s only Buddhist-plurality territory. Nearly 48% of Kalmykia’s population identifies as Buddhist. Kalmykia’s capital, Elista, provides a centre for the practice of Tibetan-derived Buddhism as well as the publication of a plethora of Buddhist material. Examples in the British Library collections point to the increased importance afforded the documentation of these traditions, and of the role that Buddhism plays in the expression and development of contemporary Kalmyk cultural and spiritual life.

Images of Kalmyk Buddhist practitioners and stupas. Images of Kalmyk Buddhist practitioner and scholar.
Portraits of Kalmyk practitioners of Buddhism, along with descriptions of local interpretations and practices of the faith. ("Khranitel'nit︠s︡a vechnosti - Bochkaeva Nogan Kornusovna", (Elitsa?: [publisher not identified], [2016?]). YP.2019.a.1453) CC Public Domain Image

Ahmet Refik might have waxed lyrical about the similarities between Buddhist and traditional Turkic worldviews, but he clearly failed to grasp the living, dynamic nature of that linkage. Buddhism has impressed its stamp on the social, linguistic, political, economic and cultural development of the Turkic peoples. The British Library’s collections related to such topics, in turn, demonstrate that this is an ongoing relationship, one that is certain to continue motivating cultural production across Eurasia.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Collections Curator, British Library
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Further Reading:

Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2010). YC.2015.a.4835
Johan Elverskog, Uygur Buddhist Literature, Silk Road Studies: I (Turnhout: BREPOLS, 1997). ORW.1998.a.251
Juten Oda, A Study of the Buddhist Sūtra called Säkiz Yükmäk Yaruq or Säkiz Törlügin Yarumïš Yaltrïmïš in Old Turkic, Berliner Turfantexte: XXXIII (Turnhout: BREPOLS, 2015). YD.2017.b.44
Margit Kőves, Buddhism Among the Turks of Central Asia (New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture and Aitya Prakashan, 2009). YP.2010.b.482
Xavier Tremblay, “The Spread of Buddhism in Serindia – Buddhism among Iranians, Tocharians and Turks before the 13th century,” in ed. Ann Heirmann & Stephan Peter Bumbacher, The Spread of Buddhism (Leiden: Brill, 2007), pp. 75-130.

30 September 2019

Buddhism in Practice: The Yogacara Food Offering Service

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This is the fifth of a series of blog posts looking forward to the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020

One of the distinctive features of the Mahayana (Eng: Great vehicle; Chi: 大乘) school of Buddhism is the emphasis on practising the compassion of bodhisattvas and acting for the benefit of not only individual but all sentient beings. One popular type of practice that embraces other sentient beings is that of offering food. The prime reason for offering food is to extend Dharma teachings to hungry beings while providing them with meals and releasing them from their suffering. As a result they can connect with the Dharma and be reborn in a better realm. This blog post will look at four items held in the British Library that are related to one of the most popular food offering services: the Yogacara Food Offering Service.

The Yogacara Offering Service or Yogacara Burning-Mouth Service (Chi: 瑜伽焰口法會) is a Dharma service that offers food to beings in the hungry ghost realm (Chi: 餓鬼). Yogacara (Skt: Yogācāra; Chi: 瑜伽) is the name of a school of Buddhism and was interpreted by Master Deji (Chi: 德基大師) in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) as “the forming of gestures (mudra), together with the chanting of dharanis and mantras, and the mind in contemplation. When the body, mouth and mind connect, it is the Yogacara.” Burning-Mouth describes the appearance of the hungry ghost. According to the book Faxiang by the Venerable Tzu Chuang, there are ten negative behaviours that lead a being to be reborn as a hungry ghost: minor acts of negative physical, verbal, and mental karma, having many desires, having an ill-intentioned desire, jealousy, holding wrong views, dying while still attached to the necessities of life, dying from hunger, and dying from thirst. Negative karma furthermore results in three ways that hungry ghosts becomes unable to take food: water transforms into blood which they cannot consume; their narrow throats and burning-mouths prevent swallowing; and anything they try to eat will turn into charcoal. Only by relying on the Dharma (or ending the cycle of suffering) can these beings be rescued and leave the realm.

The Sutra of Ten Kings showing different realms a sentient being can be reborn into, including the Hungry Ghost Realm
The Sutra of Ten Kings showing different realms a sentient being can be reborn into, including the Hungry Ghost Realm (5th path from the right) (BL Or.8210/S.3961) Noc

The origin of the offering can be traced back to the Dharani Sutra for Saving the Burning-Mouth Hungry Ghosts (Skt: Pretamukhāgnivālāyaśarakāra-dhāraṇī; Chi: 佛說救拔焰口餓鬼陀羅尼經). One day, Ananda, one of the Buddha’s ten great disciples, was studying until late at night. Suddenly, a horrifying ghost named burning mouth (Chi: 焰口) appeared and said to Ananda: “You will die in three days and will fall into the realm of hungry ghost.” The ghost was extremely hideous – his body was emaciated, in his mouth burned a hot and foul-smelling fire, his neck was thin as a needle, his hair was messy, and he had claws that were long and sharp. Ananda asked the ghost how he could escape from this suffering. The ghost said: “You need to offer food to all the hungry ghosts and make offerings to the Triple Gem for me, then you can earn more years to live.” After hearing from the ghost, Ananda immediately went to see the Buddha and asked for help. The Buddha consoled Ananda and taught him the Dharani which holds significant power and can fulfil the ghost's request. The origins of most food offering services can be traced back to this sutra.

Dharani Sutra for Saving the Burning-Mouth Hungry Ghosts
Dharani Sutra for Saving the Burning-Mouth Hungry Ghosts (BL Or.8210/S.4119) Noc

The fundamental content of the Yogacara food offering are the mantras from the Dharani Sutra for Saving the Burning-Mouth Hungry Ghosts and the Ambrosia Sutra (Skt: Amṛta-rāja; Chi: 甘露經), which was translated into Chinese by Master Shichanantuo (Skt: Śikṣānanda; Chi: 實叉難陀) (652-710) during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). However, due to various factors including turbulent social conditions and the rising of different schools of Buddhism, it was not until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that more standard procedures of the food offering service started to be documented with commentaries by some popular branches. One of the well-known versions of this text was compiled by Master Tianji (Chi: 天機禪師) and was commonly known as the Tianji Burning-Mouth Service (Chi: 天機焰口). Afterwards, Master Zhuhong (Chi: 袾宏大師) (1535-1615) added annotations and explanations to the Tianji version in the Altar Etiquette of Yogacara Food Offering (Chi: 修設瑜伽集要施食壇儀). In the Qing Dynasty, Master Deji (Chi: 德基大師) deleted some parts of Master Zhuhong’s version and made some changes based on his own school. This became commonly known as the Huashan Burning-Mouth Service (Chi: 華山焰口). Both the Tianji and Huashan versions are widespread, and are probably the main sources for the practice in circulation today.

Altar Etiquette of Yogacara Falming-Mouth FooAltar Etiquette of Yogacara Food Offering (BL 15101.c.24)
Altar Etiquette of Yogacara Food Offering (BL 15101.c.24) Noc

Although different schools might have different approaches to the food offering Dharma service, the central core of the content is mostly fixed. The principle components are as follows:

  • Purifying the altar (灑淨): Purifying the venue is necessary at the beginning of a big Dharma service. This section sometimes comes with restricting the area (結界) to set up the boundary for the service. Only those who are invited can come within this platform.
  • Inviting the Triple Gem (奉請三寶): The Triple Gem – consisting of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – is the main principle that Buddhists need to follow. The Buddha and Boddhisattvas are the teachers, the Dharma is the vehicle for delivering the principle doctrines to all sentient beings, and the Sangha is the medium for expressing the spirit of the Buddha and the Dharma. It is essential that all parts of the Triple Gem attend the service.
  • Opening the gates to hell (破地獄): There are eighteen hells, and beings endure different forms of suffering in each of them. Opening the gates to hell is not easy – only Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are powerful enough to approach the boundary.
  • Summoning (召請): In order to invite the hungry souls, permission from the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva and Ten Kings of hell is compulsory. After their agreement, the service can welcome the souls to the altar.
  • Opening the throat (開咽喉): It is crucial to open the ghosts’ throats. Otherwise, they cannot eat food.
  • Encouraging the Bodhi mind (勸發菩提心): After the meal comes the primary purpose. In this section, the Venerables will encourage the hungry ghosts to listen to the Dharma and hope that they can cultivate their Bodhi mind (the mind striving toward awakening and compassion) which will lead them to liberation.
  • Completion & Sending Off (圓滿奉送): This informs everyone that the service is approaching the end. Everyone should return to their original realms.
  • Taking refuge in the Triple Gem (皈依三寶): This is a reminder to take refuge in the Triple Gem: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Triple Gem is the light shining in the dark ocean of suffering which we need to follow, practice and remind ourselves not to lose our way on the path to liberation.
  • Dedication of merits (迴向): In Mahayana Buddhism, although the individual can earn merit from practicing, the Dharma also teaches practitioners to embrace all sentient beings in their mind. In this way, the participants dedicate the merit they have earned during the service to all beings, not just themselves.

Opening the throat section in the Altar Etiquette of Yogacara Offering Service demonstrating the hand gestures (mudra) and mantras
Opening the throat section in the Altar Etiquette of Yogacara Offering Service demonstrating the hand gestures (mudra) and mantras (BL Or.2179) Noc

It is evident that the purpose of this Dharma service is to feed the hungry ghosts. However, the deeper significance is giving those who are suffering a chance to listen to the Dharma, initiate their Bodhi mind and liberate themselves from the realm. In addition, the service also gives the opportunity for practitioners to cultivate their Bodhi mind. This is an embodiment of the great compassion from all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas that Buddhists need to learn about and practice as well.

Further reading:
Venerable Tzu Chuang & Robert Smitheram, Faxiang: A Buddhist Practitioner’s Encyclopedia. Los Angeles: Buddha’s Light Publishing, 2012.


Han-Lin Hsieh, Curator, British Library Chinese Collections, with thanks to Emma Harrison
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30 April 2019

Soviet Labour Unions in Uzbekistan in the 1920s: Views from the Magazine Mihnat

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As a Chevening British Library Fellow, I am currently working on the British Library’s Turkish and Turkic periodicals published from the 1920s to 1930s. Most of these magazines are written in the Arabic and Latin scripts. This is what unites these materials; what distinguishes them is their coverage of different themes. In particular, a magazine named Mīḥnat provides us with a view of labour unions in Soviet Turkic states. It is a periodical about work, workers, and labour unions in Uzbekistan in the early Soviet period. The magazine was a joint periodical of three organizations: the People’s Labour Commissariat, the Soviet Professional Union, and the Central Social Insurance of the Uzbek S. S. R. It was published in 1926 and 1927. Several volumes of this magazine are held at the British Library under the shelfmark 14499.tt.23. Mīḥnat was published in two languages: Old Uzbek (Chagatai) in Perso-Arabic script and Russian in Cyrillic script. In 1927, the magazine had 1500 subscribers and more than 30 permanent correspondents supplied it with materials. Today, this magazine Mīḥnat is important for us as a way to better understand Soviet labour unions and their activities.

Cover of the magazine Mīḥnat (in Chagatai). Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 7-8 (50-51). Tashkent, 1927 (BL 14499.tt.23)
Cover of the magazine Mīḥnat (in Chagatai). Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 7-8 (50-51). Tashkent, 1927 (BL 14499.tt.23)

When the Bolsheviks came to the power, they attempted to create a group of workers that would support their aims. As a consequence, labour unions began as a way to gather craftsmen and workers in one place under one purpose. To this end, Soviet authority needed a link to connect workers with labour unions. In the Uzbek S. S. R., a magazine named Mīḥnat took on this role. Soviet authorities used this magazine to share their views with local workers and to involve every individual possible in labour unions. Every profession had its labour union and these unions obeyed the Central Council of Labour Unions.

The early pages of the first issue of Mīḥnat each year begin with the publication of speeches of officials delivered at the annual congresses of the labour unions. These speeches cover the reports and future plans of the union, including how to increase the membership, the financial state of the union, the range of salaries, unemployment issues, the organisation of cultural events, and the publication of books about the labour union’s activities in the local language to attract local workers, and so on.

Cover of the magazine Mīḥnat (in Russian). Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 4 (47). Tashkent, 1927 (BL 14499.tt.23)
Cover of the magazine Mīḥnat (in Russian). Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 4 (47). Tashkent, 1927 (BL 14499.tt.23)

Early suggestions proposed by officials and employees on improving the activities of labour unions concerned administrative issues. In particular, Y. Gārbūnāv offers in his article to put pressure on members, workers and factories to induce them to follow the decisions of labour unions. Later on, a reorganisation of labour unions is proposed based on dividing them into zones to reduce expenses and improve control. Subsequent issues raised concerned the financial aspects of the union with the content mainly dominated by matters such as reducing expenses and increasing the revenue of labour unions. One author named Lāzāvskī writes that the main source of income came from membership fees and, for this reason, he suggested recruiting new members as fast as possible.

One task of the labour unions was to establish rest conditions for workers and to organize their summer holidays. Labour unions became engaged in “social insurance” which, in Soviet Uzbekistan in the 1920s, meant organizing excursions to famous places, establishing social clubs, as well as sending workers to sanatoriums and holiday-homes for recreation. An analysis of the articles in Mīḥnat, reveals the limitations and difficulties faced by the unions because of a lack of financial resources and unfinished administrative procedures. The magazine would offer solutions, for example, by suggesting that the regional branches could be responsible for the allocation of “social insurance” because they knew who most needed it.

Caricature of Lenin’s presence in workers’ dormitories, “Līnīn būrchakīda mīhmānkhāna.” Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 3 (46). Tashkent, 1927, p. 17 Woman running away from Soviet-style work, “Bāsh būkhgāltīrning marḥamatī bīlan.” Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 3 (46). Tashkent, 1927, p. 19 (BL 14499.tt.23)
Left: Caricature of Lenin’s presence in workers’ dormitories, “Līnīn būrchakīda mīhmānkhāna.Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 3 (46). Tashkent, 1927, p. 17 (BL 14499.tt.23)
Right: Woman running away from Soviet-style work, “Bāsh būkhgāltīrning marḥamatī bīlan.Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 3 (46). Tashkent, 1927, p. 19 (BL 14499.tt.23)

Special issues of the magazine dedicated to one specific topic of concern were also published. For example, volume 4 of 1927 was concerned with women members of the labour unions who in 1926 represented 15.7% of the total membership in the Uzbek S. S. R. This issue mentions that the union’s main task was to involve them in the activities of the Soviet labour unions. Soviet authorities believed that local women would only be liberated when economically independent and so, via the Mīḥnat, labour unions offered to fight for the “freedom of women” by creating special schools for them and involving them in manufacturing. Furthermore, planning cultural events for women was seen as one of the best ways to attract them to Soviet ideology. In addition, this magazine was one of the first periodicals in Soviet Uzbekistan to publish an article proposing allowances for women workers for pregnancy and child-birth.

The magazine Mīḥnat usually published letters from factory and plant workers in every volume in a section entitled Maḥallardan khātlār (“Letters from places”). These letters were not limited just to the achievements and problems of the working processes in factories, but also covered issues concerning the active or passive work of the labour unions in them. For example, while a sugar worker was boasting about social clubs and an in-factory bulletin posted on walls promoting socialism in his factory, his colleague in the food industry was complaining that the labour union was not organizing cultural events at his place of work. Some workers wrote letters asking for the opening of a canteen in a factory or the building of medical centres and schools around factories located in the countryside. There were also letters of complaint concerning workers’ economic and social conditions, describing bad working conditions in factories, low salaries, and a lack of housing for workers.

Workers playing cards while on the job, “Maḥallardan khātlār.” Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 2 (45). Tashkent, 1927, p. 17 (BL 14499.tt.23) Unsafe working practices, “Maḥallardan khātlār.” Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 2 (45). Tashkent, 1927, p. 17 (BL 14499.tt.23)
Left: Workers playing cards while on the job, “Maḥallardan khātlār.Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 2 (45). Tashkent, 1927, p. 17 (BL 14499.tt.23)
Right: Unsafe working practices, “Maḥallardan khātlār.” Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 2 (45). Tashkent, 1927, p. 17 (BL 14499.tt.23)

This is just a short description of one of the Turkic periodicals I have been working on. The main goal of my Chevening British Library Fellowship project is to explore and enhance the British Library’s Turkic-language collections. As a part of this project, I am creating a spreadsheet that covers every article in the Turkic periodicals held in the Library and am adding romanized and original script titles of articles and publications, published years, issues and subjects. This has made it possible to document the magazine Mīḥnat based on the data included in the spreadsheet. More than this, my aim is to show how classifying each article in these periodicals helps us to distinguish their different features at the same time contextualising them as part of a whole.

Further reading
Deutscher, Isaac., Soviet Trade Unions: Their Place in Soviet Labour Policy. Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1950
Gordon, Manya (1938), "Organized Labor under the Soviets", Foreign Affairs, 16 (3): 537–541

 

Akmal Bazarbaev, Chevening Fellow, British Library Asian and African Collections
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