THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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22 posts categorized "Central Asia"

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
CCBY Image

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
 ccownwork

 

07 February 2019

Classical Central Asia in the Digital Age: Three Newly-Digitised Navoiy Manuscripts at the British Library

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Thanks to a partnership between the British Library and the Tashkent State University of Uzbek Language and Literature named Alisher Navoiy, three manuscripts including the poetical works of Alisher Navoiy are now available online. These three items are the first Chagatai-language texts to be uploaded to the Library’s digitised manuscript holdings, a sample of the more than 110 Chagatai and Central Asian Turkic manuscripts held by the British Library as part of its Turkish and Turkic collections.

A leaf from the Muntakhab-i Dīvān-i Navā'ī
A leaf from the Muntakhab-i Dīvān-i Navā'ī with richly decorated paper appliqués and gold-leaf. Despite the water damage, the manuscript has retained its luxurious beauty. Herat, 15th-16th century (BL Or. 3493, f. 4v)
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All three works contain Divans, or poetical compendia, of the work of Alisher Navoiy, also known as ‘Ali Shīr Navā’ī. Navoiy was born in 1441 CE in Herat, Afghanistan, at a time when it was part of the Timurid Empire, and died in the same city in 1501 CE. He is the national poet of Uzbekistan and is regarded as one of the great poets of the mediaeval Turkic world. His broad oeuvre is a testament to the cultural, intellectual and social flowering of Khorasan in the 15th century CE, and to the importance of Herat in the broad mosaic of Turkic cultural production. The works are also an introduction to classical Chagatai, the literary language of Turkic Central Asia and Siberia. Little known or studied today outside of specialist circles, Chagatai was also the language of the Mughals, who established their reign over parts of the Indian Subcontinent in 1526.

A rare sketch from inside the Muntakhab-i i Dīvān-i Navā'ī showing a Central Asian man in traditional dress. Herat, 15th-16th century
A rare sketch from inside the Muntakhab-i i Dīvān-i Navā'ī showing a Central Asian man in traditional dress. Herat, 15th-16th century (BL Or. 3493, f. 5v)
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Or.3493, the most delicate of our digitised Chagatai manuscripts, is a marvel to behold. Only 9 folios in length, this collection of poems from Navoiy’s divan dazzles with its creator’s penchant for brightly-coloured paper appliqués, gold illumination, and sweeping, bold nastaliq calligraphy. The presence of blue, yellow, green and pink blocks in between the stanzas gives the entire text an architectonic feel; a 3D illusion that draws in the reader. This pattern is broken only by the use of gold separators on later pages, and the appearance of a portly, kneeling Central Asian man on one of the manuscript’s middle folios. Despite occasional water damage – and the fact that the content is itself defective – this small volume remains a testament to the capacity of Herat’s manuscripts producers to create items of luxury and beauty as well as those of functional purpose.

The beginning of the Dīvān-i Fānī, including its sparsely decorated 'unvān. Central Asia, 916 AH
The beginning of the Dīvān-i Fānī, including its sparsely decorated 'unvān. Central Asia, 916 AH (BL Or. 11249, f. 1v)
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Or.11249, produced in 916 AH (1509-10 CE) in Central Asia, is the least studied of the Chagatai items added to our digital collections. Known as both the Dīvān-i Fānī and the Dīvān-i Navā’ī, it is the most comprehensive of the group with respect to Navoiy’s poetical oeuvre. The use of black ink and red catchwords is far from unusual, and the neatly laid-out nastaliq of the scribe’s hand leads us to believe that this was likely created within a workshop well-versed in the production of divans and other such works. Occasional marginalia speak to the usage of this volume – as does the water damage that stains some of its folios. With further in-depth research on its contents, and a comparison with other contemporaneous Central Asian manuscripts, we might come to know the importance of this particular item within the broader scope of Central Asian intellectual traditions.

The beginning of the text Tukhfat al-salāṭīn at koyuldu, demonstrating the use of different coloured inks to complement the elegant calligraphy. Mecmua. Herat, 914 AH
The beginning of the text Tukhfat al-salāṭīn at koyuldu, demonstrating the use of different coloured inks to complement the elegant calligraphy. Mecmua. Herat, 914 AH (BL Add MS 7914, f. 25v)
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Add MS 7914, the last of the three manuscripts, is not dedicated to Navoiy exclusively. A mecmua or codex of various works compiled in Herat in 914 AH (1507-08 CE), it contains a variety of different texts created by nine different authors in a myriad of styles. Its breadth of poetic and prose creation and intellectual inspiration speak volumes about the interplay of Turkic and Persian literary traditions across Eurasia. Within these is found Navoiy’s Tuḥfat al-salāṭin, a collection of poems copied out by the scribe ‘Abd al-Jamīl Kātib. The remaining poems are varied in content. Some are works in verse about love and longing, such as Amīrī’s Dah nāmah, which tells a romantic story through ten letters. Others poeticise the Central Asian martial arts, debate the merits of wine and hashish, or adapt circulating Persian forms into Chagatai poetry, as Ḥaydar Talba Khorazmī’s didactic poem based on a Persian version by Niẓāmi so aptly demonstrates. This diversity of content is reflected in the construction of the volume, where naskh and nastaliq, black and coloured inks, chaos and clarity make appearances depending on the demands of the individual patrons, and the skill of the particular scribes.

The British Library’s holdings of Ottoman and Chagatai manuscripts contain another 30-odd texts first penned by Alisher Navoiy. It is our hope that, in the coming years, many more of these will find their way onto Digitised Manuscripts, facilitating more intensive and complete study and enjoyment of Turkic Central Asia’s literary and cultural heritage.

Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
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07 March 2018

Introducing the Lotus Sutra Project

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Conserving and digitising the Stein Collection's Chinese copies of the Lotus Sutra at the British Library

The Lotus Sūtra, whose earliest known Sanskrit title is the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra and means “Sūtra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma,” was possibly composed between the first century BCE and the second century CE. It is thought to contain the Buddha’s final teaching, complete and sufficient for salvation. Through the medium of parables and short stories, it delivers the message that all sentient beings have the potential to attain Buddhahood. As such, it is one of the most influential scriptures of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, and it is highly regarded in a number of Asian countries, including China, Korea and Japan, where it has been traditionally practised.

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Frontispiece of Chapter 5 of the Lotus Sūtra, "The Parable of the Medicinal Herbs" (British Library Or.8210/S.1511)    noc

The most prevalent versions of this Sūtra in Chinese are the Zheng fahua jing (徵法華經 “Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Correct law”), translated by the monk Dharmarakṣa between 286 and 288, and the Miaofa lianhua jing, (妙法蓮華經 “Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law”), translated by Kumarajiva over a century later, in 406. There is also an alternative version called the Tianpin Miaofa lianhua jing (添品妙法蓮華經 “Supplemented Sūtra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law"), compiled in 601 by the masters Jñānagupta and Dharmagupta.

Images and scenes inspired by the Lotus Sūtra can be seen in the murals adorning the caves of the Mogao Buddhist complex, near the oasis-town of Dunhuang, Gansu. An estimated 4,000 copies of the Lotus Sūtra were also found in one of the caves, commonly called the Library Cave or Cave 17. They are now dispersed across various institutions in Beijing, Paris, St Petersburg and London. In the British Library's collection, the Lotus Sūtra outnumbers all the other Chinese Buddhist texts brought back by Sir Aurel Stein during his second expedition to Central Asia (1906-1908). There are over a thousand manuscripts, some of which are scrolls measuring up to 13 metres long.

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End piece of Or.8210/S.54, with wooden roller  (British Library Or.8210/S.54)    noc

If a few have already been digitised and are now accessible via the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) website, a large proportion has remained practically untouched since their discovery in 1907 and is currently unavailable online. Thanks to a generous grant from the Bei Shan Tang Foundation, in Hong Kong, work is now underway to address this issue. The aim of this four-year project is to conserve and digitise nearly 800 copies of the Lotus Sūtra in Chinese, with a view to make images and information about them freely accessible on the Internet.

For the past six months, I have been busy checking the condition of all these manuscripts in order to plan both the conservation and digitisation workflows for the years to come. I have been extremely lucky to be joined in this task by three colleagues from the British Library Conservation department, who have volunteered some of their precious time to assess the collection with me. Together, we have been writing up detailed condition status reports to facilitate future conservation treatment and handling during photography. Another important part of my curatorial role has also been to enhance information on each of the corresponding catalogue recor

Meanwhile, Vania Assis, full-time conservator for the project, has started conserving the scrolls. Although an initial estimate based on a sample of manuscripts had established that between 200 and 300 items would need to be conserved, the ongoing assessment of the scrolls has so far revealed that most of them require some level of intervention. They are extremely fragile: they present tears, missing areas, creases and other damage that make photographing them in their current state inadvisable. Vania has already completed treatment of more than 50 items and will tell you about her amazing work in a separate post.

The project's team should soon include two senior imaging technicians, who will be ensuring the digitisation of the Lotus Sūtra copies. We will let you know how the project progresses and will post updates as regularly as possible, so watch this space!

Mélodie Doumy, Curator, Chinese collections
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18 July 2016

The Wise Collection: Acquiring Knowledge on Tibet in the late 1850s

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The drawings in the British Library’s Wise Collection probably form the most comprehensive set of large-scale visual representations of mid-nineteenth century Tibet and the Western Himalayan kingdoms of Ladakh and Zangskar. These drawings were made in the late 1850s – at a time when the mapping of British India was largely complete, but before or around the time when Tibet began to be mapped for the first time by Indian Pundits.

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This map shows the border area between Tibet and today’s Arunachal Pradesh in Northeastern India and Bhutan. The right part of the map is oriented to the south (BL Add.Or.3017, f. 6)
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The acquisition of systematic knowledge of Tibetan landscapes and societies became an ambitious goal for the British Empire in the 19th century. Such knowledge was often dependent on the aid of local informants. As a result the region was occasionally culturally represented and visualized by local people – such as in case of the Wise Collection.

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This map shows the area around Mt. Kailash in Western Tibet. Several lakes are depicted as well as market places and trading centres. The mountains with the white peaks on the upper part of the map represent the Himalaya - the map is oriented to the south (BL Add.Or.3015, f. 4)
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Detail from the map above, showing Mt. Kailash and surroundings in great detail with the circumambulation path, monasteries, a lake, streams and a tall prayer flag pole

The story of the collection’s origin is a puzzle that has only become accessible piece by piece. The collection was named after Thomas Alexander Wise (1802-1889), a Scottish polymath and collector who served in the Indian Medical Service in Bengal in the first half of the 19th century. According to a typewritten note dating from the 1960s, the ‘drawings appear to be by a Tibetan artist, probably a lama, who had contact with Europeans and had developed a semi-European style of drawing.’I have recently uncovered one of the most important parts of the whole ‘Wise puzzle’ – the name of the Scotsman who commissioned the drawings. It was William Edmund Hay (1805-1879), former assistant commissioner of Kulu in today’s Northwest India. Charles Horne writes (Horne 1873: 28)

In the year 1857 one of the travelling Llamas [lamas] from Llassa [Lhasa] came to Lahoul, in the Kûlû country on the Himalêh [Himalaya], and hearing of the mutiny [this refers to the Indian rebellion in 1857] was afraid to proceed. Major Hay, who was at that place in political employ, engaged this man to draw and describe for him many very interesting ceremonies in use in Llassa, […].

William Howard Russell – former special correspondent of The Times – visited Simla in July 1858 and mentions in his diary that ‘Major Hay, formerly resident at Kulu, is here on his way home, with a very curious and valuable collection of Thibetan drawings’ (Russell 1860: 136). These statements most probably refer to the drawings that now form the British Library’s Wise Collection. At the current state of research no definitive statement can be made about the circumstances in which Wise acquired the drawings; most probably Hay sold them to him. The name of the lama who made the drawings also remains unknown, but I have started following the traces he left and hope to identify him one day.

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Map showing a part of the Indus Valley in Ladakh (BL Add.Or.3014, f. 4)
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Detail from the map above with explanatory notes:

36: Remains of a very old fort. There were said to have been 3 sisters; one built a fort, a second erected 108 chortens [stupas], and the third planted the place with trees: there is this place. 37: A hot spring only visible in winter, as in summer when the river has swollen it over flows it.

The collection comprises six large picture maps – drawn on 27 sheets in total – which add up to a panorama of the 1,800 km between Ladakh and Central Tibet. They are accompanied by 28 related drawings illustrating monastic rituals, ceremonies, etc. referring to places shown on the maps. Placed side by side, the maps present a continuous panorama measuring more than fifteen metres long. Places on the maps are consecutively numbered from Lhasa westwards. Taken together there are more than 900 numbered annotations on the drawings. Explanatory notes referring to the numbers on the drawings were written on separate sheets of paper. Full keys exist only for some maps and for most of the accompanying drawings; other drawings are mainly labelled by captions in Tibetan, while on others English captions dominate. Some drawings lack both captions and explanatory texts. Watermarks on the paper together with internal evidence from the explanatory notes and from the drawings themselves support the fact that the drawings were created in the late 1850s.

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The left side of this map shows an illustration of Gyantse in Southern Tibet. On the right side the Yamdroktso Lake and the confluence of Yarlung Tsangpo River and Kyichu River as well as the Chaksam ferry station are depicted. This map is oriented to the north. (BL Add.Or.3016, f. 3)
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Detail from the map above, showing amongst others the Yamdroktso Lake, the Yarlung Tsangpo River, several monasteries and mountain passes. The Chaksam ferry is depicted in great detail – showing the iron chain bridge, a horse head ferry and a hide boat

Compared to maps created by Westerners the picture maps in the Wise Collection are not primarily concerned with topographical accuracy, but provide a much wider range of visual information. They transmit valuable ideas about the artist’s perception and representation of the territory they illustrate. The panorama shown on the maps represents the area along the travel routes that were used by several groups of people in mid-19th century Tibet – such as traders, pilgrims and officials. The maps present information about topographical characteristics such as mountains, rivers, lakes, flora, fauna and settlements. Furthermore a large amount of detailed information on infrastructure such as bridges, ferries, travel routes, roads and mountain passes is depicted. Illustrations of monasteries, forts and military garrisons – the three main seats of power in mid-19th century Tibet – are highlighted. Thus the drawings supply information not only about strategic details but also about spheres of influence. The question of what purpose the maps served remains a matter for speculation at present. William Edmund Hay was experienced in surveying and mapmaking – he travelled not only in the areas around Kulu, but also in Ladakh and in the Tibetan borderlands. He was also a collector with varied cultural interests. He never had the chance to travel to Central Tibet himself, but his interest in acquiring knowledge about Tibet were characterised by an encyclopaedic approach: he wanted to gather as wide a range of information on the area as possible.

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This drawing shows different people and a selection of different types of tents – supplemented by English and Tibetan captions (BL Add.Or.3033)
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Illustration of a part of a wedding ceremony: the bride is picked up at her house. The whole ceremony is shown on several plates (BL Add.Or.3037)
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What makes the Wise Collection so fascinating is the fact that it can be studied from different disciplines. On the one hand the picture maps can be assigned to Tibetan cartography and topography; on the other they represent an illustrated ‘ethnographic atlas’. Supplemented by the accompanying drawings and explanatory notes, the Wise Collection represents a ‘compendium of knowledge’ on Tibet.

When I started doing research on the Wise Collection I thought I knew where I was going. But the longer I studied the material and the deeper understanding I gained of the collection as a whole, the more new questions emerged. I realized that the drawings require a wider frame of analysis in their understanding. Thus I focused not just on the stories in the drawings but also on the story of the drawings. The expected results of my research will expand our knowledge about the connection between the production of knowledge and cultural interactions. As the result of a collaborative project of at least two people with different cultural backgrounds, the Wise Collection reflects a complex interpretation of Tibet commissioned by a Scotsman and created by a Buddhist monk. The result of their collaboration represents a ‘visible history’ of the exploration of Tibet. The entire Wise Collection and my research results will be published in my forthcoming large-format monograph.

The whole collection was restored and digitised in 2009 and is available on British Library Images Online (search by shelfmark). The drawings are catalogued as the ‘Wise Albums’ under the shelfmark Add.Or.3013-43. Originally all the drawings were bound in three large red half-leather albums. The related drawings and the relevant explanatory notes are still bound in these albums. The large picture maps have been removed and window-mounted for conservation reasons. The Lhasa map was on display in the exhibition Tibet's Secret Temple held at the Wellcome earlier this year and several of the drawings will also be exhibited in  Monumental Lhasa: Fortress, Palace, Temple, opening in September 2016 at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York

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The Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse in Southern Tibet (Detail from BL Add.Or.3016,  f. 2)
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Illustration of a ceremony taken place in the courtyard of the Nechung Monastery in Lhasa, seat of the former Tibetan State Oracle (BL Add.Or.3043)
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Further reading:

Diana Lange, Journey of Discovery: An Atlas of the Himalayas by a Nineteenth-Century Tibetan Monk. The British Librarys Wise Collection (working title of forthcoming publication).
––– “A Dundee’s Doctor’s Collection(s) on Tibet: Thomas Alexander Wise (1802–1889).” In: Charles Ramble and Ulrike Rösler (eds) Tibetan and Himalayan Healing. An Anthology for Anthony Aris. Kathmandu, 2015: 433–52.
–––“Visual representation of Ladakh and Zangskar in the British Library’s Wise Collection.” In: Robert Linrothe and Heinrich Pöll (eds) Visible Heritage: Essays on the Art and Architecture of Greater Ladakh. New Delhi, 2016: 131-68.
William Edmund Hay, “Report on the Valley of Spiti; and facts collected with a view to a Future Revenue Settlement,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 19 (1850): 429–51.
Charles Horne, “Art. III.—On the Methods of Disposing of the Dead at Llassa, Thibet, etc.,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland 6 (1873): 28–35.
William Howard Russell, My Diary in India, in the Year 1858-59, vol. 2. London, 1860.

 

Diana Lange, Humboldt University Berlin
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04 April 2016

Eighth and ninth century versions of the Rustam cycle

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Stories of the hero Rustam and his trusty steed Rakhsh, immortalized by the tenth century poet Firdawsi in his epic poem the Shahnamah (ʻBook of kingsʼ), are among the best loved in the whole of Persian literature. Not so well-known, however, are unique versions of the same story dating from the eighth and ninth centuries which are currently on display in the international exhibition The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination at the National Museum, Delhi (More on this exhibition in my recent post Celebrating Noruz in Delhi with new 'Everlasting Flame').

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Introducing the Rustam story in the eighth century Panjikent wall paintings to Dr. Najma Heptulla, Minister of Minority Affairs, at the exhibition opening in Delhi. Photo: National Museum

Rustam's Rakhsh in Firdawsi’s Shahnamah
Rakhsh was no ordinary horse. The Shahnamah tells us how Rustam inspected the horses of Zabulistan and Kabul and finally selected a colt with the chest and shoulders of a lion, as strong as an elephant, and the colour of rose leaves scattered on a saffron background. This colt, already known as ‘Rustam’s Rakhsh’, was, it seems, pre-destined to carry the defender of the land of Iran.

Rakhsh was not only fast and strong, he was intelligent and an active protagonist. Perhaps his best-known exploit was the first of the seven ‘trials’ which Rustam underwent on the quest to liberate king Kavus from the demons of Mazandaran. Exhausted by his long journey, Rustam fell asleep. Nearby, however, hidden in the reeds was a fierce and hungry lion. The lion attacked but Rakhsh pounded the lion’s head with his hooves, bit his neck and tore the lion into pieces. When Rustam woke, the lion was dead.

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Rakhsh kills a lion. From Firdawsi’s Shahnamah. Copied in 891/1486, Turkman/Timurid style (British Library Add.18188, f. 90v)  noc

In future, Rustam ordered, Rakhsh was to wake him if an enemy drew near. However, during the third ‘trial’, Rustam, while asleep, was approached again, this time by a monstrous dragon. Twice woken by his horse Rakhsh, in the darkness of the night he failed to see any danger and went back to sleep. Woken a third time, however, Rustam finally saw the dragon and with Rakhsh’s help succeeded in killing him.

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Rustam and Rakhsh in the third ‘trial’ when together they defeat a dragon, Rakhsh biting the dragon while Rustam cuts off his head. Copied in 891/1486, Turkman/Timurid style (British Library Add.18188, f 91v)  noc

The Sogdian Rustam fragment
The Middle Persian Xwaday-namag ‘Book of kings’ (de Blois, “Epics”), one of the sources on which Firdawsi drew, was probably not a poem, but rather a prose compendium of legendary and historical traditions put together toward the end of the Sasanian empire. Although it is referred to frequently in Arabic sources, no extant copy survives as such. The name Rustam, however, began to be common at the very end of the Sasanian period, in the seventh century, no doubt reflecting the fact that by this time the Rustam legend had become widely popular in the Western Iranian lands, especially in Sogdiana (modern day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) the homeland of the Sogdians (Sims-Williams, 2015).

The British Library is fortunate in having in its collections part of a fragment of the story written in Sogdian (an eastern Iranian language spoken by the Sogdians), which probably dates from the ninth century. It was discovered in 1907 in cave 17 at Dunhuang, China, during Stein’s second expedition to Central Asia. The upper part of the same manuscript was subsequently acquired by Paul Pelliot the following year and is now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Together these two fragments form the only surviving textual evidence for an early Rustam cycle, copied some 200 years before Firdawsi completed his epic poem.

[Paris fragment] ... [The demons] immediately fled towards [the city]. Rustam went in pursuit right up to the city gates. Many demons died from being trampled; only a thousand managed to enter the city. They shut the gates. Rustam returned with great renown. He went to a good pasture, stopped, took off the saddle and let his horse loose on the grass. He himself rested, ate a meal, was satisfied, spread a rug, lay down and began to sleep.

The demons stood in malevolent consultation. They said to one another: It was a great evil, a great shame on us, that we should have taken refuge in the city from a single horseman. Why should we not go out? Either let us all die and be annihilated or let us exact vengeance for our lords! The demons, who were left a meagre remnant of their former strength, began to prepare great heavy equipment with strong armour and with great ...

They opened the city gates. Many archers, many charioteers, many riding elephants, many riding monsters, many riding pigs, many riding foxes, many riding dogs, many riding on snakes and on lizards, many on foot, many who went flying like vultures and ..., many upside-down, the head downwards and the feet upwards: they all bellowed out a roar, they raised a mighty storm, rain, snow, hail, [lightning] and thunder, they opened their evil mouths and spouted fire, flame and smoke. They departed in search of the valiant Rustam.

Then the observant Rakhsh came and woke Rustam. Rustam arose from his sleep, quickly donned his leopard-skin garment, tied on his bow-case, mounted Rakhsh and hastened towards the demons. When Rustam saw from afar the army of the demons, he said to Rakhsh [beginning of the London fragment]: Come, sir, run away little [by little]; let us perform [a trick] so that the demons [pursue us] to the flat [plain ...]. Rakhsh agreed. Immediately Rustam turned back. When the demons saw, at once both the cavalry and the infantry quickly hurled themselves forward. They said to one another: Now the chief’s hope has been crushed; no longer is he prepared to do battle with us. By no means let him escape! Do not kill him either, but take him alive so that we may show him evil punishment and harsh torture! The demons encouraged one another greatly; they all howled and departed in pursuit of Rustam. Then Rustam turned round and attacked the demons like a fierce lion attacking a deer or a hyena attacking a flock or herd, like a falcon attacking a [hare or] a porcupine attacking a snake, and he began [to destroy] them ...

(translation N. Sims-Williams)

The murals of Panjikent
Additional archaeological evidence for an early Rustam cycle is to be found in wall-paintings discovered by the archaeologist B. Stavisky in 1956-7 in a two storeyed house in the south east of medieval Panjikent, Tajikistan.

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The Rustam frieze from Panjikent, Room 41/VI now on display in the State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg. Photo: Ursula Sims-Williams

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Reconstruction of the Rustam frieze, made at the time of excavation by artists Gremyachinskaya and Nikitin, now in the Museum of History of Culture of Panjikent, Tajikistan. Photo: Ursula Sims-Williams

The friezes are attributed to the first half of the eighth century and depict a series of episodes in which Rustam and Rakhsh are engaged in battle with demons. While identifications with known episodes in the Shahnamah are difficult it is tempting to think that one of the scenes may correspond to that described in the Sogdian fragment discovered at Dunhuang.

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Currently on display in the National Museum Delhi: Rustam, mounted on Rakhsh, fights an adversary. Wall-painting on dry loess plaster from Panjikent, Tajikistan, c. 740 AD (The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, SA-16223). Photo: Ursula Sims-Williams


Further reading
Firdawsi, Shahnameh: the Persian book of kings; tr. Dick Davis. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
Nicholas Sims-Williams, “The Sogdian Fragments of the British Library,” Indo-Iranian Journal 18, 1976, pp. 43-82. Transcription and edition of Paris and BL fragments on pp. 54-61.
Nicholas and Ursula Sims-Williams, “Rustam and his zīn-i palang.” In: From Aṣl to Zāʼid: Essays in Honour of Éva M. Jeremiaś, ed. I. Szánto. Piliscsaba: Avicenna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, 2015, pp. 249-58.
Guitty Azarpay and others, Sogdian Painting: The Pictorial Epic in Oriental Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
Boris I. Marshak, and V. A. Livshits, Legends, Tales, and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana. New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2002, especially pp. 25-54.
Boris I. Marshak, “Panjikant”, Encyclopaedia Iranica online.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies
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16 February 2015

Happy Chinese New Year! The Year of the Goat

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This year the Chinese New Year will be celebrated on the night between the 18th and the 19th of February, when the year of the Horse will end and a new year of the Goat will begin.

The celebrations for the Chinese New Year (年节nian jie), also called Spring Festival (春节 chun jie), mark the beginning of a new year in the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar. Even though the traditional calendar is now not officially used in China, it is still essential to determine the Chinese festivities. The Chinese New Year Festival is the most important event of the year for the Chinese communities and its occurrence determines also the date of other important events related to the lunisolar calendar, such as the Lantern Festival (元宵节 yuan xiao jie), the Dragon Boat Festival (端午节 duan wu jie) or the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节zhong qiu jie). Furthermore, the traditional calendar is widely used to determine the best date for some special occasions in people’s life, such as marriages. The traditional Chinese calendar is called农历 nong li (in traditional characters 農曆, which can be translated as “rural calendar” as nong means agriculture) or 阴历 yin li (in traditional characters 陰曆, where yin represents the moon, as opposed to the official solar calendar which is called 阳历 yang li).

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Detail from a printed almanac from Dunhuang dating from AD 877. From right to left, the figures of a snake, a horse, a goat, a monkey and a cock are visible (BL Stein Collection Or.8210/P.6) International Dunhuang Project website
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Every year of the lunisolar calendar is traditionally associated with one of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, which are called 生肖 (sheng xiao). These animals are: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. Each of them is associated to a natural element (Wood, Fire, Metal or Water) and, as in Western astrology, it is believed that people born under a different zodiac sign have different personality characteristics. The year when a person is born is called in Chinese their 本命年 (ben ming nian), meaning “the year of destiny’s roots”. People born during the year of the Goat (so, for example, in 1955, 1967, 1979 and 1991) are said to be peaceful, polite, helpful and trustworthy.

Zodiac animals_1500Five of a set of the twelve zodiac animals dating from the Tang dynasty (618–907), depicting (left to right) dragon, snake, horse, goat, and monkey. Shaanxi History Museum, Xi'an © U. Sims-Williams
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Illustration from the album “Coloured Drawings of Chinese Flora and Fauna”, 18th century, China (BL Sloane collection Add. 15503, f.10)
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The Chinese New Year is celebrated not only in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, but in other countries where the Chinese population is significant, such as Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and the Chinatowns across the world. Furthermore, the traditional Chinese calendar and the related zodiac animals can be found in literature and art productions of countries which have been influenced by the Chinese traditional culture, such as Japan, Korea, Mongolia and Thailand.


Mongolia
In Mongolia, for example, the 12 animals of the zodiac are called Арван хоёр жил which means “12 years”. The Mongolian calendar is slightly different from the Chinese one and therefore sometimes New Year's day falls on a different date.

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Mongolian diagram showing the twelve animals of the zodiac. From B. Batzhargal, Ėrtniĭ Mongolyn Matematik (Эртний Монголын Матэматик, “Early Mongolian Mathematics”. Ulaanbaatar, 1976, p. 171 (British Library MON 596) ⓒ


Japan

In Japan, the Chinese calendar was introduced in the 6th century and it was officially used in some variations until 1873, when the Gregorian solar calendar was formally adopted. In the Japanese collections at the British Library, we find a variety of representations of the animals of the Chinese zodiac, sometimes depicted in form of Gods, warriors or spiritual entities. The first woodblock-printed item below, for example, shows the Twelve Heavenly Generals of the Buddhist tradition (called十二神将, pronounced Jūni Shinshō in Japanese and Shi er shen jiang in Chinese). Each of them is associated with one of the twelve animals of the zodiac.

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Left: “Great miscellany of calendrical and practical knowledge” (Eitai daizassho banreki taisei  永代大雑書萬暦大成), 1856 reprint. Woodblock printed. Right: the same image has been modified to highlight the position of every animal (BL 16000.a.8)
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Some illustrations (left) and cover page (right) of a practical design book (Ōyō manga 応用漫画), illustrated by Ogino, 1903. The goat’s stylised shape is visible on the bottom of the left page (BL ORB.30/6167)
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Detail from Ichiyūsai Kuniyoshi 一勇斎国芳 (1798-1861) “The comic transformation of actors into the twelve animals of the zodiac” (Dōke miburi jūnishi 道外見富利十二志).  Single sheet woodblock colour-printed [c.1844-1855] (BL ORB.99/102)
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Thailand

The British Library holds a magnificent manuscript from Thailand dated 1885 (Or.13650). It contains a series of drawings based on the Chinese Zodiac and its animals. A male or female avatar, a plant and a number are associated to every zodiacal sign. This manuscript has been fully digitised and can be seen here.

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Horoscope for the year of the goat. The four goats on the left represent four three-month periods within the year. On the right there is the female avatar for the year of the goat (BL Or.13650, f.8v)
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10 Illustrations of omens for events that could happen on a certain date within the year of the goat. In the upper left corner the female avatar for the year is riding a goat. Only a ritual specialist (หมอดู) would have been able to interpret these omens and to give advice on how to avoid unfortunate or dangerous events (BL Or.13650, f.20v)
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Central Asia

A unique 9th century document from Khotan, (present-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China) written in the middle-Iranian language Khotanese,  is called “The twelve year leaders and their influences”, and lists the animals in the 12 year cycle with predictions for people born in that year. A man born in the year of the Sheep (or Goat) “will be blessed, meritorious. He will be blessed in everything, in crop and money”. However, it is not all good news! The description continues: “He will be sickly and short-lived. There will be bad illnesses upon him. And a lot of itching will arise for him as well as a wound. If his wives [become] pregnant, they will die. And whatever sons they bear will be short-lived”[1].

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Predictions in Khotanese for the man born in the year of the Goat, dating from the early 9th century. Document from Khotan (present-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China) (BL Or.11252/1, lines 38-41)  International Dunhuang Project website
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It is worth mentioning that the character 羊 (yang) in Chinese is associated with various animals which belong to the Bovidae family and it therefore can be translated as goat, but also as sheep or even antelope. This is why in English, when referring to the Chinese zodiac sign 羊, “goat” and “sheep” are both widely used as translations.

We hope that the images in this article will be inspiring and auspicious to all our blog readers and we wish you a wonderful New Year of the  !

 新年快乐! 新年快樂!

 
Curators of the East Asia, South East Asia and Middle East collections
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[1] P.O. Skjærvø, Khotanese manuscripts from Chinese Turkestan in the British Library. London, 2002, p. 84