Asian and African studies blog

52 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

04 August 2016

New display of Dara Shikoh Album in Treasures Gallery

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Regular visitors to the Treasures Gallery of the British Library will know that the wall case displaying Indian book arts has recently had a change of display. On exhibition are eight folios from the Dara Shikoh Album (Add.Or.3129), one of the great treasures of the Asian and African department, which are discussed in this blog. The album is known to have been compiled by Dara Shikoh (1615–59), the eldest son and heir of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, from the inscription in the prince’s hand on folio 2 dated 1056/1646–47. The inscription records the gift of the album to his wife Nadira Banu Begam, his cousin and the daughter of Sultan Parviz, whom he had married in 1633.

Dedicatory inscription written by Dara Shikoh, dated 1056/1646-7 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.2r)

The inscription reads: īn muraqqa‘-i nafīs ba-anīs-i khāṣṣ u hamdam u hamrāz ba-ikhtiṣāṣ Nādirah Bānū Bēgam dādah [shud az] Muḥammad Dārā Shikōh ibn Shāh Jahān pādshāh-i ghāzī sannah 1056 (‘This precious volume was given to his dearest intimate friend Nadira Banu Begam by Muhammad Dara Shikoh son of Shah Jahan emperor and victor, year 1056/1646–47’).

The previously accepted date of the inscription 1051/1641-2 has been revised by John Seyller, who has suggested a date of 1056/1646-7 on the basis of enhanced digital imagery (click here to see enhanced photo), and this revised date is accepted here. For a list of the contents of the album see Falk and Archer (Indian Miniatures, no. 68) who date it 1633–42 and Catalogue of India Office Select Materials. Only two dates are inscribed which can definitely be assigned to the period before Dara Shikoh's death, one on a painting by Muhammad Khan dated 1043/1633-34, the other in the previously mentioned dedicatory inscription.

After the fratricidal war precipitated by Shah Jahan’s illness in 1657, Dara Shikoh was executed by the victorious Aurangzeb in 1659, a few months after his wife had died while attempting to flee with her husband to Iran. The album came into the possession of Aurangzeb and attempts were made to blot out the memory of ‘the apostate’, as his rigidly orthodox brother regarded him. The inscription was obliterated with gold paint which has since worn away, allowing Dara Shikoh’s writing to reappear. After Dara’s death, the album was handed over to Pariwash, librarian to the Nawab ‘Aliyyah, on 21 Rajab, regnal year 3 (of Aurangzeb, i.e. 1661), according to the inscription on folio 1r. The title Nawab ‘Aliyyah, previously borne by Mumtaz Mahal herself, was awarded after the death of her mother to Shah Jahan’s eldest daughter and favourite Jahanara (1614-80), who became the Nawab ‘Aliyyah Padshah Begum Sahibah (Inayat Khan, Shah Jahan Nama, p. 3), as discussed in my forthcoming paper (Losty, ‘Dating the Dara Shikoh Album’).

The seventy-four folios with sixty-eight paintings interspersed with calligraphy and the gilt tooled leather covers represent the album almost in its entirety.  Five leaves are missing according to an early foliation, which may have included Dara Shikoh’s own calligraphy or other pages with inscriptions relating to him.

In the book accompanying the British Library’s 2012 exhibition Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, the present writer argued that the contents of the album, containing portraits of teenage princes and princesses, would most naturally fit into the time frame 1631-33 when Dara Shikoh was 16-18, between his engagement to his cousin, the postponement of the marriage owing to the death of his mother Mumtaz Mahal in 1631, and the eventual celebration of the nuptials in 1633 (Losty and Roy, Mughal India, pp. 124-37).  There is no need to argue, as almost all previous writers have done, that the contents of the album must be dated between the two inscribed dates of 1633 and 1642 (now 1647).

The paintings are arranged in facing pairs, as was normal in Mughal albums. The contents mostly consist of portraits of the aformentioned teenage princes and princesses, of holy men of various sorts, and studies of flowers and of birds. Ths inner album borders normally match, except where a folio is missing, and the outer borders all bear floral designs in gold. The paintings are all fairly simple and have sometimes been criticised for not matching the quality of the albums associated with the emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan, but then as a princely album it would have been inappropiate to do so, any more than do the Salim and Khurram albums, compiled by the future emperors when princes.

AddOr3129_f22r_1500 AddOr3129_f21v_1500
Right: A prince pouring wine, ascribed to Muhammad Khan and dated 1043/1633-4 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.21v)
Left: a prince holding a turban ornament, attributed to Muhammad Khan, c. 1633 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.22r)

The otherwise uknown artist Muhammad Khan signed and dated one painting in the album of a prince dressed in Persian costume and its facing pair of a similarly dressed prince with an attendant can safely be attributed to the same hand. They are linked by similar backgrounds and by a frieze of exquisitely detailed flowers across the bottoms of the paintings. Despite their Persianate appearance, these paintings are not Persian, but nothing is known of Muhammad Khan’s origin or his other work. He is possibly a Deccani artist employed by the prince 1630-32 when the court was in Burhanpur and who returned to Agra with him. Some of the flower studies in the album can also be attributed to his hand.

AddOr3129_f28r_1500 Add Or 3129 f.27v_1500
Right: Dara Shikoh with a jewel, attributed to Chitarman, c. 1630 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.27v)
Left: lady with a wine cup, attributed to Bichitr, 1630-33 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.28r)

It was argued in the 2012 book that most of the princely portraits in the album were in fact of the young Dara Shikoh between the ages of 15 and 18 and also that while the court was in Burhanpur the prince had access to his father’s artists. Certainly Chitarman was in Shah Jahan’s employ in 1628 (his portrait is in the Kevorkian Album in the Metropolitan Museum, New York) before becoming associated with Dara Shikoh throughout the 1630s. These two portraits obviously form a pair and the young prince is holding up a sumptous jewelled pendant, a heart-shaped ruby or spinel surrounded by pearls and with a large pendant pearl, for presentation to the lady opposite. She is unknown of course, but was important enough to be painted in the latest style that is associated with the artist Bichitr around 1630, with its receding European landscape in grisaille as a backdrop, as in Bichitr's portrait of Asaf Khan from 1631 in the V&A.

AddOr3129_f34r_1500 AddOr3129_f33v_1500
Right: Dara Shikoh with a tutor, attributed to Chitarman, c. 1630 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.33v)
Left: Lady with a narcissus, perhaps Mumtaz Mahal, attributed to Bishndas, 1631-33 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.34r)

This pair of paintings, although now facing each other, cannot have been originally intended to do so since the inner borders do not match, although there is no break in the early foliation. The young prince seems to be about 12 from his size although somewhat older judging by his features. He holds out his hand to his tutor who seems to be about to hand him the book. The lightly painted drawing is typical of Chitarman’s work for the prince. The lady opposite, somewhat more mature than the majority of the female portraits in the album, wears jewels of imperial quality and stands with one hand on a prunus tree and the other holding a narcissus. That and the white narcissus growing before her, white being associated with mourning, suggest that this could be Dara Shikoh’s mother Mumtaz Mahal (b. 1593), who died in Burhanpur in 1631 giving birth to her 14th child. The unrelated borders suggest a possible intervention by the prince, who rearranged the order of the folios in order for his mother to cast her benevolent gaze over his studies. The handling of her head and the prunus in the background suggest that this could be the work of Bishndas.

The Album is also famous for its exquisite studies of birds and flowers, and one of each category was selected for display, illustrated here within their original album mounts decorated with gold flowers.

Add Or 3129 f.9v_1500
The black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) with a lily. Mughal, 1630-33 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.9v)

The black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) is a medium-sized found throughout many parts of the world including South and South-east Asia. Such herons have a black crown and back, with the remainder of the body white or grey, their eyes are red, and legs yellow. Being relatively stocky, with shorter bills, legs, and necks than other heron species, they do not fit the typical body form of the heron family. Their resting posture is normally somewhat hunched, but when hunting they extend their necks and look more like other wading birds. These birds stand still at the water's edge and wait to ambush prey lurking in the water, mainly at night or early morning. All these characteristics are evident in our portrait of such a bird, hunched and stocky, its feet in the shallow water of a jhil.

Jahangir’s passion for natural history was not inherited by his son Shah Jahan and grandson Dara Shikoh. It was during the 1630s that flowers and floral arrangements with their decorative possibilities came to dominate Mughal textiles and the adornment of architecture and album pages. Hence the addition of an egregious lily has transformed the painting from a natural history study into a decorative album page.

Exotic flowers with butterflies. Mughal, 1630-33 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.64r)

The album contains several studies of flowers that could pass muster as natural history paintings, albeit derived ultimately from European herbals (see my earlier post Mughal flower studies and their European inspiration), but many more are in a more decorative vein as here. This exotic plant with its double flowers, protuberant stigma and folded over toothed leaves could be intended for a lily or a hibiscus, but the intention of the painting is decorative, not naturalistic. The flowers are regularly spaced radially in the Chinese manner throughout the field and are linked by spiralling stems in the arabesque patterns that are also seen in the tulips at the base of Muhammad Khan’s painting of a prince above, as well as elsewhere in the album. Such floral patterns, still less the paintings of different flowers all springing from a single stem (e.g. Losty and Roy, Mughal India, fig. 86), did not make it into Shahjahani decoration in general and are possibly examples of artists’ early experimenting with such ideas before settling on the more familiar sprays seen in album borders and pietra dura work.  These ideas will be explored in a forthcoming paper.

Further reading:
Falk, T., and Archer, M., Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, London, 1981
Inayat Khan, The Shah Jahan Nama of ‘Inayat Khan, trans. A.R. Fuller, ed. W.E. Begley and Z.A. Desai, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1990  
Losty, J.P., ‘Dating the Dara Shikoh Album: the Floral Evidence’, in Ebba Koch and Ali Anooshahr, eds., The Mughal Empire under Shah Jahan (1628-58) – New trends of research, forthcoming
Losty, J.P., and Roy, M., Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library, London, 2012

J.P. Losty, Curator of Visual Art, Emeritus


24 May 2016

Tang Xianzu, the great Ming dynasty playwright

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This year the Library celebrates one of the greatest literary figures of all time, William Shakespeare (1564–1616), with a major exhibition and a rich series of events and on-line resources. Coincidently, two other world-famous writers died in the same year: Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), and the Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu 湯顯祖(1550–1616). To commemorate these two writers, the Library recently presented in its permanent free exhibition space, the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, the display Imagining Don Quixote, and is currently showing a selection of woodblock printed editions from Tang Xiangzu’s work. For those who cannot visit the British Library to see the display on Tang in person, this blog post presents some information on the exhibits.

Tang Xianzu is one of the greatest Chinese playwrights. He was a native of Linchuan, Jiangxi province, and worked as an official during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1572–1620) of the Ming dynasty. Tang Xianzu’s masterpiece is called the ‘Peony Pavilion’ (牡丹亭 Mudan ting). The ‘Peony Pavilion’ was written and staged for the first time in 1598 and performed at the Pavilion of Prince Teng, one of the great Chinese towers in Southern China. It is still one of the most beloved and famous Chinese traditional operas today.

Tang blog 1 by Sara
Xu xiang mudan ting, 繡像牡丹亭, ‘Illustrated Peony Pavilion’ in 8 chapters, c. 1840, woodblock printed edition. In this illustration from a Qing dynasty edition of the text, we can see the opening scene, when the sixteen-year-old Du Liniang falls asleep in the garden and starts dreaming. British Library, 15327.b.15 Noc

The term ‘opera’ is often used in reference to Chinese theatre as it was common for dramatic performances to be highly choreographed and punctuated by singing and musical accompaniment. There are many forms of Chinese opera, but the ‘Peony Pavilion’ is traditionally performed as a kunqu or ‘Kun opera’, a style developed in the early Ming period, which combines spoken parts with singing and dance movements.

Tang blog 2 by Sara
The Peony Pavilion performed in Venice on 15th of June 2010 (photo by the author). The original version of the Peony Pavilion runs for 20 hours, and comprises a total of 55 scenes, but it is now usually performed in shorter adaptations.

The ‘Peony Pavilion’ is sometimes referred to as ‘A Ghost Story’, because part of it takes place in the underworld and the protagonist returns from the afterlife. It narrates the love story between a girl from a wealthy family, Du Liniang, and the scholar Liu Mengmei. After seeing Liu in a dream and falling in love with him, Du dies of sorrow. Her spirit keeps looking for the young scholar and the Judge of the Underworld promises to resurrect her so that she can see him again. After appearing in Liu’s dreams as a ghost, her body is exhumed by Liu and the couple live happily thereafter.

Tang blog 3 by Sara
Xu xiang mudan ting, 繡像牡丹亭, ‘Illustrated Peony Pavilion’ in 8 chapters, c. 1840, woodblock printed edition. British Library 15327.b.16, another copy of the same edition of the work as in 15327.b.15. Noc

The ‘Peony Pavilion’ is one of the so-called ‘Four Dreams’ (Lin chuan si meng), four of Tang’s most important plays in which dreams play a significant part in the story. They include also ‘The Purple Hairpin’, ‘The Dream of Handan’ and ‘The Dream of the Southern Bough’. The latter two in particular contain themes of rejection of traditional feudal values and the possibility of escape through love and compassion in order to achieve happiness.

Tang Blog 4 by Sara
The ‘Dream of Southern Bough’, in the collection Shi er zhong qu十二種曲, ‘Twelve operas’, by Li Yu, 1785, woodblock printed edition. British Library, 15327.a.3 Noc

The ‘Peony Pavilion’ has been translated into many languages and adapted several times for television and theatre productions such as contemporary opera, ballet and musical performances, both in China and abroad. The escape from the conventions of feudal society, the power of true love to conquer even death, and the cathartic role of dreams are central themes of the ‘Peony Pavilion’. Together they created a story that is universal and beloved by students, readers and audiences around the world.

Tang blog 5 by Sara
‘Die Rückkehr der Seele’ (The Return of the Soul), translated by Vincenz Hundhausen. Zürich/Leipzig, 1937. This edition of the ‘Peony Pavilion’, translated and edited by Vincenz Hundhausen, is accompanied by forty reproductions of Chinese woodcuts from the Ming period. British Library, 11101.f.28

Further reading:
Tan, Tian Yuan and Santangelo, Paolo 'Passion, Romance, and Qing: The World of Emotions and States of Mind in Peony Pavilion' (3 vols.),  in Emotions and States of Mind in East Asia, Vol. 4. Leiden: Brill, 2015.
Tan, Tian Yuan, Edmondson, Paul and Wang, Shih-pe, 1616: Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu's China. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2016.

Sara Chiesura, East Asian collections Ccownwork

24 April 2016

Razmnamah: the Persian Mahabharata

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One of our most important Mughal manuscripts is Or.12076, the Razmnāmah (ʻBook of Warʼ), copied in AH 1007 (1598/99) and containing the concluding part, sections 14-18, of the Persian translation of the Sanskrit epic the Mahābhārata. It is currently on display at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, in the exhibition Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts curated by Amy S. Landau of the Walters Art Museum Baltimore where it was originally exhibited. As a result of the Library's participation in the exhibition the whole volume has now been digitised and is available online for everyone to look at — whether they are lucky enough to be able to visit the exhibition or not!

While Arjuna and Tāmradhvaja fight against each other for seven days, the gods enjoy the spectacle (tamāshā), watching safely from the sky. Episode from the 14th book, the Aśvamedhikaparva (ʻhorse sacrificeʼ). Painting attributed to Paras (Or.12076, f.76r)  noc

Commissioned in 1582 by the Emperor Akbar, the Persian Razmnāmah is a prose translation of all 18 books of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata in addition to the Harivaṃśa appendix. It is not a literal translation though the content is relatively unchanged. For those interested in the storyline, a detailed summary of the Persian version is given by T.H. Henley in his preface to Memorials of the Jeypore Exhibition, 1883. vol. 4: The Razm Námah (London, 1885).

The reasons for its composition, as outlined in Abū ʼl-Faz̤l's preface of 1587, were primarily to make the stories and ideologies of the Mahābhārata more accessible. At the same time it invited both Muslims and Hindus to question some of their traditional beliefs while, of course, simultaneously glorifying Akbar's role as the perfect ruler (Cosmopolitan encounters, pp. 227-238).

The blind king Dhṛtarāṣṭra, led by Kuntī, leaves the city of Hastinapur and retires to the forest. His wife Gāndhārī, blindfolded, supports him following behind. From the 15th book, the Aśramavāsikaparva (ʻRetirement to the Hermitageʼ). Painting attributed to Dhanū (Or.12076, f.110v)  noc

The translation process

The logistics of how the Mahabhārata was translated are described in the contemporary author Badāʼūnī's Muntakhab al-tavārīkh who writes somewhat disparagingly (M. Athar Ali's translation, p. 40):

Collecting together the learned men of India, His Majesty directed that the book Mahabharat should be translated. For some nights His Majesty personally (had it) explained to Naqib Khan, who wrote out the resultant text in Persian. On the third night His Majesty summoned me and ordered me to translate it in collaboration with Naqib Khan. In three or four months out of the eighteen chapters (fan) of that stock of useless fables... I wrote out two chapters. ... Thereafter Mulla Shiri and Naqib Khan completed that section, and one section Sultan Haji Thanesari ʻMunfaridʼ brought to completion. Shaikh Faizi was then appointed to write it in verse and prose, but he too did not complete more than two Chapters (fan). Again, the said Haji wrote out two sections and rectified the errors which were committed in the first round, and fitting one part with another, compiled a hundred fasciculi. The direction was to establish exactitude in a minute manner so that nothing of the original should be lost. In the end upon some fault, His Majesty ordered him (Haji Thanesari) to be dismissed and sent away to Bhakkar, his native city, where he still is. Most of the interpreters and translators are in hell along with Korus and Pandavs, and as for the remaining ones, may God save them, and mercifully destine them to repent.... His Majesty named the work Razmnaama (Epic), and had it illustrated and transcribed in many copies, and the nobles too were ordered to have it transcribed by way of obtaining blessings. Shaikh Abul Fazl... wrote a preface of the length of two quires (juzv) for that work.[1]

Equally important are details preserved at the end of the translation itself. As can be seen below, our manuscript, Or.12076, is partially damaged but fortunately the crucial passage is preserved in several other copies (Truschke’s translation, Cosmopolitan encounters, p.187 - the names have been Sanskritised):

Naqīb Khān, son of ʻAbd al-Laṭīf Ḥusaynī, translated [this work] from Sanskrit into Persian in one and a half years. Several of the learned Brahmans, such as Deva Miśra, Śatāvadhāna, Madhusūdana Miśra, Caturbhuja and Shaykh Bhāvan…read this book and explained it in hindī  to me, a poor wretched man, who wrote it in Persian.

The conclusion to Naqīb Khān's translation of the Mahābhārata (Or.12076, f.138v)  noc

This process is also confirmed in an illustration (Lewis M18) preserved in the Free Library of Philadelphia (one of 25 leaves from the now dispersed earlier part of the same manuscript) which shows the two groups of linguists, Muslim and Hindu, translating and discussing together (Pearls on a String, p. 146).

The British Library manuscript

Or.12076 consists of 138 leaves which are numbered continuously in an earlier foliation which begins at 715. There are several leaves missing, but the last numbered leaf is folio 131 which is numbered 846 suggesting that our volume represents the last of a possible six volumes altogether. It was purchased by the British Museum on 11 December 1954 from the dealer A. Garabed who had himself bought it at Sotheby's a few weeks earlier (Lot 230, Sotheby's sale 8 Nov. 1954). It is not known who owned it immediately before that but we do know that it had previously been sold anonymously at Sotheby’s in London in 1921. The Library's annotated copy of the 1921 Sotheby sale catalogue (S.C.Sotheby(1), 24-25 Oct. 1921, lot 203) has not to my knowledge been studied before, but shows that it was purchased for £76 by the British collector and art historian Gerald Reitlinger (1900-1978).

 1921 Sotheby catalogue26
Lot 203 of Catalogue of Persian, Indo-Persian and Indian Miniatures, Manuscripts & Works of Art from various sources & private collections, Southeby, Wilkinson & Hodge, 24-25 October 1921 (S.C.Sotheby(1), 24-25 Oct. 1921)  noc

The original manuscript had already been divided up when it was sold in 1921. In addition to our volume, lots 204 to 278 included 125 separate paintings from the same work. These are now in museums and libraries all over the world. In an appendix to his article on three illustrated copies of the Razmnāmah (Model and Copy, pp. 56-62), John Seyller lists the locations of 161 identified illustrations. The attached descriptions with the buyers' names in our annotated copy may provide further details on some of them. Sadly, we'll probably never know what happened to lot 279  “the remaining portions of the work, loose leave, incomplete,” sold to Gazdar (presumably the art dealer  J. Gazdar) for £1. Several leaves were purchased by the Persian scholar C.A. Storey. These are now in the library of the Royal Asiatic Society, London. A further 8 individual leaves were acquired subsequently by the India Office Library from Maggs (British Library Add.Or. 2776-2783).

The artists of the 1598 Razmnāmah

Candrahāsa kneeling before the Raja of Kuntala on being presented to him by the minister Dhṛṣṭabuddhi after Candrahāsa’s victory over the king’s enemies. The elephants, horses and hawk are booty from the enemy. Episode from the 14th book, the Aśvamedhikaparva (ʻhorse sacrificeʼ). Painting attributed to Kanhar (Or.12076, f.83v)  noc

Our manuscript contains 24 illustrations which are all attributed beneath the paintings to individually named artists. The fact that several of them also contributed to known imperial manuscripts suggests that it was completed at court, no doubt one of the many copies transcribed by order of Akbar which Badāʼūnī mentions in the passage quoted above.

  Razmnāmah (Or.12076) Bāburnāmah (Or.3714) Dārābnāmah (Or.4615)
Aḥmad Kashmīrī 23v    
Ās son of Mahēsh 35v; 62v    
Banvārī Khvurd 26v; 95r 270v, 306r  
Bhagvān 17r 195r, 322r 19v, 23r, 23v, 52r, 52v, 62r, 91r, 91v, 119v
Bhavānī 13v 6v, 52r, 468v, 492r  
Būlāqī son of Ghulām ‘Alī 67r    
Da’ud, brother of Daulat 48r    
Dhanū 87v; 110v 173v, 386r, 389v, 393v 38r, 41r, 41v, 75r, 104v
Dharamdās Lunj 56r   45r, 45v, 114r, 114v (Dharamdās, a different artist?)[2]
Hājjī 106r    
Ibrāhīm Kahhār (Qahhār) 80v 137v, 405r, 405v 29r, 29v, 70v, 102r, 102v, 105r
Kanhar 83v    
Khēm 44r 504v  
Lōhankā 20r 395v (?)  
Mākar 51r 379r (Makrā)  
Mohan son of Banvārī 4v    
Narāyan 130v 385v 33v, 43v, 112v
Narāyan Khvurd 7v    
Paras 76r 54r, 299r, 347v 21r, 21v
Qābil son of Maqbūl 90v    
Sanghā 71v    

Table based on Meredith-Owens and R. H. Pinder-Wilson (“A Persian translation ...”, p. 65) giving a list of artists of the Razmnāmah showing which ones also worked on the Mughal Bāburnāmah and Dārābnāmah (follow the hyperlinks to go directly to the digitised images)

One of  Rama's servants overhears a washerman quarrelling with his wife. Episode from the 14th book, the Aśvamedhikaparva (ʻhorse sacrificeʼ). Painting attributed to Daʼūd, brother of Daulat (Or.12076, f.48r noc

Kusa and Lava defeating Bharata, Lakshmana and the monkey army. European-type Gothic spires are visible on the skyline. Episode from the 14th book, the Aśvamedhikaparva (ʻhorse sacrificeʼ). Painting attributed to Ās, son of Mahesh (Or.12076, f.62v)  noc

Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts is on view at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco until May 8th. A catalogue with the same title is available which includes details of all the exhibits in addition to several lengthy contributions by scholars in the field.

Further reading

Amy S. Landau,  Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts (Baltimore, 2015),  especially Adamjee and Truschke's chapter “Reimagining the ʻIdol Temple of Hindustanʼ,” pp. 141-65
Audrey  Truschke, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court (Columbia University Press, 2016). Unfortunately at the time of writing I haven't yet had access to this newly published work but have referred instead to her PhD thesis: Cosmopolitan Encounters: Sanskrit and Persian at the Mughal Court  (Columbia University Academic Commons, 2012)
Yael Rice, “A Persian Mahabharata: The 1598-1599 Razmnama,” Manoa 22/1 (2010): 125-131
John Seyller, “Model and Copy: The Illustration of Three Razmnāma Manuscripts,” Archives of Asian Art 38 (1985): 37-66
J. P.Losty and Malini Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire (British Library, 2012), pp. 55-8
G. Meredith-Owens and R. H. Pinder-Wilson,“A Persian translation of the ‘Mahabharata’, with a Note on the Miniatures,” The British Museum Quarterly, 20/3 (1956): 62-65
M. Athar Ali, “Translations of Sanskrit Works at Akbar's Court,Social Scientist 20, no 9/10 (1992): 38-45

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies


[1] ʻAbd al-Qādir Badāʼūnī, Muntakhab al-tavārīkh, ed. Mawlavī Aḥmad ʻAlī,  W. N. Lees (Calcutta, 1865-1869), vol 2, pp. 319-21.
[2] Dharamdās, if he is the same artist as Dharamdās Lunj, also illustrated the Khamsah Or.12208 (ff. 52r, 102r, 195r, 254r) and the Akbarnāmah Or 12988 (ff. 50r, 59v, 73r, 73v, 76r, 115r).

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').

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.

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.

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

Rustam frieze_Panjikent
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.

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


21 March 2016

Celebrating Noruz in Delhi with new 'Everlasting Flame'

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With a long-standing interest in ancient Iranian languages and culture, I was especially excited when the possibility was raised of bringing the SOAS 2013 exhibition 'The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination' to the National Museum, Delhi. After months of tireless preparation the big night came just in time to celebrate the New Year festival Noruz. For the British Library, this was a double first: we had never lent original items to India before and it was the first time we were collaborating with the National Museum, Delhi.

Dr. Najma Heptulla, Minister of Minority Affairs, speaks at the inaugural ceremony. Also on the platform: Baroness Blackstone, Chairman of the British Library Board and Baroness Amos, Director of SOAS.

Held originally at the Brunei Gallery SOAS, October 2013 – December 2013, 'The Everlasting Flame' at Delhi is curated jointly by 6 curators: Sarah Stewart in the lead with Firoza Punthakey Mistree, Almut Hintze, Pheroza Godrej, Shernaz Cama and myself.

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The Delhi team: KK Sharma, myself, Joyoti Roy, Ruchira Verma, Sarah Stewart and Firoza Mistry

The exhibition comprises over 300 objects with loans from the British Library, British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, State Hermitage, National Museum of Iran, National Museum of India and many smaller institutions and private lenders. While the exhibition is basically the same as in 2013, it also includes 77 new items. Some of these are substitutions for exhibits which were unavailable but others are completely new such as the Sasanian silverware from Iran, the 7th century wall paintings from Panjikent, Tajikistan, a gold plaque from the Oxus treasure (5th-4th century BC) and a beautiful 13th century enamelled reliquary casket from Limoges which depicts the three Magi, the biblical ‘wise men’ from the East.

In 2013 I wrote several posts featuring some of the British Library loans: The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination; New exhibition opens on Zoroastrianism; Ovum Zoroastræum: ‘Zoroaster’s egg’; and Zoroastrian visions of heaven and hell

The Zoroastrian prayer book, Khordeh Avesta (‘Small Avesta’), contains Avestan prayers, hymns and invocations recited by priests and lay people in daily worship. This copy belonged to the famous orientalist Thomas Hyde (1636–1703) whose History of the Persian Religion was the first comprehensive work to be written on Zoroastrianism (British Library Reg.16.B.6, folio 1r)  noc

New items from the British Library which were especially selected for Delhi include a copy of the Shahnameh which was illustrated by leading Mughal artists around 1616 in the workshop of ‘Abd al-Rahim Khankhanan and a copy of the Dasatir-i asmani by the charismatic 16th century theologian and philosopher Azar Kayvani whose neo-Zoroastrian interpretations sought to reconcile the pre-Islamic past with Islamic philosophy.

The execution of the 6th century Iranian heretic and social reformer Mazdak depicted in Firdawsi’s epic the Shahnamah (‘Book of Kings’). Mazdak’s followers are seen beneath the gallows, buried alive upside down. This copy of the Shahnamah probably originates from the 15th century but was refurbished around 1613 in the studio of the Mughal statesman Khankhanan ʻAbd al-Rahim. The artist of this painting was the well known Mughal painter Banwari (British Library Add.5600, folio 452v)  noc

An extra bonus is that all the exhibited manuscripts have now been digitized and if not already on our digitized manuscripts site they will be available in the near future. I'll be writing more about them and individual items in the exhibition over the next two months.

Noruz mubarak!

Ursula Sims-WIlliams, Asian and African Studies

15 February 2016

Nine myths about West Africa

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Today's guest blog is by Gus Casely-Hayford, a historian and adviser to the exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, which continues at the British Library until 16 February. 

Time and again, reporting from West Africa reinforces the same few time-worn stereotypes: conflict, corruption, underdevelopment, the spread of the latest epidemic. The British Library’s West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition (16 October 2015-16 February 2016) was conceived to bring to an audience in Britain histories that challenge these pervasive stereotypes, and confront the many falsehoods about West Africa and its heritage. Behind the headlines, much of the everyday reality for people across West Africa is about resilience, creativity and communication. The seventeen countries of the region are rich in culture and history. This more nuanced picture is what a focus on tragic and terrible headlines risks obscuring. Here are a handful of the most common myths that the British Library’s West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition confronts and then robustly takes apart.

Myth 1. West Africa lacks a pre-colonial tradition of writing
West Africa is one of the world’s most linguistically diverse regions, with more than 1,000 languages spoken. This is a written culture that dates back more than a thousand years, with ancient manuscript libraries stretching from Mauritania, across Mali, into Nigeria and beyond. The continuing vitality of this culture was made obvious through the great efforts that ordinary Malians made to save tens of thousands of manuscripts when Timbuktu fell to Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists in 2012. Although as many as 4,000 manuscripts were destroyed, thousands more were smuggled to safety by ordinary people determined to safeguard their heritage.

Image 1 Saddlebag Quran
Qur’an typical of the artistic tradition of northern Nigeria/southern Niger. The manuscript is late 18th/19th century and is divided into four by the large illuminations shown here. It is loose leaf and kept in a leather bag, as was usual for West African manuscripts. British Library, Or. 16751 Noc

Myth 2. West Africa has no history
Hegel famously wrote that Africa was somehow different to other continents, that it was somehow ‘shut up’ in a ‘dark mantle’ without formal history or culture. Yet, over the past millennium, West Africans have forged many kinds of societies: from cities to villages, carving out a living in semi-desert and forest, building kingdoms, empires and city states. The ancient city of Djenné-Djeno in present-day Mali dates back at least 2,000 years. The great medieval empires of the Sahel, Ghana, Mali and Songhai, were succeeded in turn by later kingdoms and empires, for example the 18th and 19th century Asante empire in what is now Ghana. This 1819 illustration from Thomas Bowdich’s Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee shows Adum Street, close to the royal palace in Kumasi. The open porches fronting onto the street were offices where the kingdom’s officials conducted their business and received members of the public.

Image 2 Adum street
‘Adum Street’. Illustration from Thomas Edward Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee (London: John Murray, 1819). British Library, G.7211 Noc

Myth 3. West Africa is and always has been ‘war-torn’
As with anywhere in the world, this region has had its share of conflict and civil strife, but equally there is a rich legacy of trade, prosperity and intellectual and cultural exchange. There were trade routes across the Sahara from a very early date, and Islam reached West Africa by this route in the 8th and 9th centuries. This exquisite brass forowa is a wheeled box for carrying valuable materials such as cowrie shells, gold dust or shea butter. It is richly decorated with symbolic designs including a sankofa bird and a spider, most probably a representation of the trickster god Ananse, and shows how cultural exchange flourished alongside trade.

Image 3 Forowa
Forowa or sheet-brass box from Ghana, before c. 1900. © Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. 1935.56.12

Myth 4. Drumming is the sound of West Africa
Traditional music encompasses a huge range of different sounds, which are open to change and development and in many cases are woven together with complex verbal literatures: poetry, story and narrative. The region is home to a vast array of genres, including gospel, highlife, rap, mbalax, gumbé, jùjú music and Afrobeat, all drawing on local traditions and fusing them with a range of musical traditions from around the world. In the 1970s and ‘80s Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti created music that combined social comment and protest with an electrifying sound that resonated globally, and which has influenced several generations of musicians and activists.

Image 4 Fela
Cover of Fela Kuti’s album Sorrow, Tears & Blood by Lemi Ghariokwu. Courtesy of and © Lemi Ghariokwu. 1LP0236386

Myth 5. West Africa has not demonstrated true innovation
Creativity is central to West African culture, whether in music, visual arts or literature. In the 1950s and ‘60s, as nations in the region were breaking free from colonialism, West African writers like Chinua Achebe and Amos Tutuola developed exciting literary forms that combined the storytelling traditions of the Igbo and Yoruba peoples with the English language and achieved huge international success. The modern art shown in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song also demonstrates this determination constantly to innovate. In ‘Feminine Power Series 2’ artists Nike Davies-Okundaye and Tola Wewe take a tradition of symbols used in textile production known as adire and reinvent them in a modern artistic context.

Myth 6. For much of its history, West Africa has been remote from the rest of the world
The great empires of the Middle Ages covered a huge amount of territory and there was much travelling and communication within the region, whether in the form of trade, diplomacy or imperial business. West Africa has been in close touch with the Islamic world since it first emerged and has played an important role in European history, particularly through the eras of enslavement and colonialism. The forced labour of West Africans went on to underpin the prosperity of Europe and the Americas. The influence of West Africa’s culture and music has been felt all round the world, whether in carnival – which brought influences from West Africa and Europe to the Americas and eventually beyond (such as to the UK) – or through musical instruments. Arguably the akonting, an instrument of the Jola people in The Gambia, is a forerunner of the modern banjo, the sound of which can be heard in genres ranging from jazz to bluegrass.

Image 6 Akonting
Akonting made for the British Library’s West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition by Daniel Jatta. Photo © Clare Kendall

Myth 7. West Africans were passive in the face of enslavement and colonialism
Enslavement and colonialism were always met with resistance in a variety of forms. In 18th and early 19th century England, a number of books were published by West Africans freed from enslavement, asserting the humanity of Black people and calling for an end to the Atlantic slave trade. Most famous among these was Olaudah Equiano, whose Interesting Narrative of his experiences became a bestseller. Even earlier, the letters of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo in the 1730s show him agitating for his eventual release, using all the enterprise and charm at his disposal to secure his freedom.

Image 7 Equiano
Oloudah Equiano, The interesting narrative of the life of O. Equiano, or G. Vassa, the African ... written by himself (London, 1789). British Library, 615.d.8 Noc

Myth 8. Women are marginal to the region’s intellectual and literary culture
In the 19th and 20th centuries, women played a prominent role both in the independence movements in West Africa and in the great generation of post-independence writers. Activists, educationalists and writers like Adelaide Casely-Hayford, Mabel Dove and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti have left a rich legacy of books, articles and pamphlets, in many cases arguing trenchantly both for national liberation and female emancipation. More recently, the latest wave of West African music and literary stars has included women such as Oumou Sangaré, Angelique Kidjo, Taiye Selasi, Aminatta Forna and, most spectacularly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Chimamanda image
Photograph of prize-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2008). Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Myth 9. West Africa’s influence on cultures beyond the continent is limited
The region’s music forms the root of all popular music, with musical styles and rhythms diffused across several continents through the forced migration of millions of West Africans during the course of the Atlantic slave trade. Spirituals and the blues developed out of the experience of enslaved peoples and went on to have a formative influence on later styles such as rock and roll, R&B and hip-hop. Carnival originated in West Africa and, via the Caribbean, travelled to destinations as diverse as Rio and Notting Hill.

Image 8 carnival costume
Carnival costume designed by Ray Mahabir (Sunshine Arts) in 2015 for the ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ exhibition. It is based on the tradition of Bele or Bel Air, a drum dance and song closely associated with Caribbean history, struggle, freedom and celebration. Photo © Tony Antoniou

See the British Library’s West Africa web pages for more on the region’s rich heritage and culture.

Gus Casely-Hayford  Ccownwork

29 January 2016

‘Spying’ on 100 Black Men of London: A Ceremony of Learning

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Spying? Not really. Let me explain. I am one of a team of educators at the British Library who deliver workshops for school and community groups. Shortly before Christmas, The 100 Black Men of London - a community-based charity - brought a large group of black youths to the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition. They had organised their own workshop and were using the British Library’s Learning Centre to feedback and share their learning.

This is what I suddenly glimpsed through the glass sections of the connecting doors between the learning rooms: boys taking turns to stand before their peers, to present and share their new knowledge gleaned from the exhibition.
100bmol at british library
The group from 100 Black Men of London in the British Library’s Learning Centre.

I was transfixed, for it seemed to me they were reclaiming ground, making the newly-acquired knowledge about their ancestral place of origin their own. They spoke with pride and developing confidence and were clapped each in turn. I was deeply moved.

Olu Alake, of 100 Black Men of London, writes about the visit: ‘Our group of almost 60 young people and some of their parents found the exhibition very enlightening and empowering. It was for instance very gratifying that by the end of that very day, one of our youth groups had changed their WhatsApp group image to one of the adinkra symbols for leadership which they had seen in the exhibition!’ This, for me, is essential use of a brilliant exhibition, and an opportunity for the British Library to build community.

Section of a hand-stamped textile on display in the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition, showing adinkra symbols from Ghana. Some panels show the King’s symbol (adinkrahene) composed of three concentric circles, signifying leadership and greatness. Ghana, 1960s. British Library.

The education workshops we have delivered to varying school groups, as part of the West Africa exhibition programme, have been well received. We engage students through creative research, critical thinking, art, discussion and even song-making. We offer a unique opportunity for students to learn from the wide range of artefacts, written material, textiles, films and music that relate to West Africa in ‘word, symbol and song’.

DSC01864 (Credit Tony Antoniou)
View of the first section of the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition, which illustrates the Mali empire, founded in the 13th century. © Tony Antoniou

West Africa historically, and today, plays an integral role in understanding the forces that shaped and continue to shape the world we live in, yet many of the students we have worked with appear to have little knowledge of the topic. At the start of one session recently, eight-year-old children came out with statements such as ‘All Africans are poor’ and ‘They were all slaves’. The exhibition workshops provide a really important platform for open and honest discussions to explore and challenge stereotypes.

The group lined up for a photo with the mega-exhibition poster behind them.

In my view, the importance of this inspiring exhibition as a source of learning for children and adults of all ages cannot be overstated. It is expansive as well as beautifully detailed, celebratory in history and culture, and a joy to work with. My thanks to the curators and all The 100 Black Men of London who gladdened my heart and brought tears to my eyes, even though they did not know I was watching them.

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song continues until 16 February 2016. For more information on the British Library’s learning programme and workshops accompanying the exhibition, visit

Visit to gain insights into West Africa’s fascinating heritage through unique collection items and teaching resources.

Jean Campbell
Workshop Leader, British Library Learning Team Ccownwork

11 January 2016

Last Chance to See: Records of a lunar eclipse from over 3,000 years ago

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FINAL WEEK: The exhibition ‘Beyond Paper: 3000 Years of Chinese Writing’, which features the oracle bone described here, is on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library until 17 January 2016.

Today’s post was written with the help of Dr Roberto Soria, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, Curtin University in Western Australia. We are grateful to him for his expertise and valuable contributions.

The significance of the inscribed oracle bones of the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-1050 BC) for the study of Chinese civilization cannot be overestimated. Not only do they bear the earliest known examples of the Chinese written language and are therefore of great significance to linguists, but they are also the earliest primary source of documentary evidence for a much-disputed period of Chinese history. Through deciphering these texts scholars gained unprecedented insight into the concerns of the time, sometimes with astonishing historical detail. An excellent example of this is Or.7694/1595 (Yingcang 886)[1], a bone from the Couling-Chalfant collection at the British Library, which records a lunar eclipse that can be precisely dated to the night of the 27 December 1192 BC.

Screen shot 2016-01-10 at 19.13.45Screen shot 2016-01-10 at 19.14.15
Shang dynasty oracle bone containing a reference to a lunar eclipse (British Library Or.7694/1595)
Oracle bones – primarily the shoulder bones (scapulae) of sheep or cattle and the flat under-shells (plastrons) of tortoises – were central to an ancient divination ritual during which questions were posed to the ancestors of the Shang royal house and the answers interpreted from the distinctive Ⱶ-shaped cracks that formed in the bones when heat was applied to pre-prepared hollows on the underside. Although this practice, known as ‘pyromancy’, can be traced back to Neolithic times, its heyday seems to have been during the last two centuries of the second millennium BC (i.e. the late Shang) when the Shang cult centre was at Yin 殷, near modern-day Anyang. Over 150,000 oracle bones are thought to have originated from there, approximately 50,000 of which bear inscribed records of the questions, answers and outcomes of the divination process.

Central to this divination ritual is the belief that the ancestors of the Shang ruling house had the power to predict and influence events on earth. The extent of their perceived influence is evident from the range of topics touched upon in the oracle bone inscriptions, including warfare, agriculture, hunting, dreams, illness, natural disasters and astronomy. The darkness caused by a solar or lunar eclipse was deemed a negative omen, indicating an ancestor spirit in need of mollification.

The text inscribed on Or.7694/1595 records one such lunar eclipse and even includes evidence of the date on which it occurred. In the introduction to Oracle Bone Collections in Great Britain (Allan, Li & Qi 1985) it is described as ‘a series of inscriptions proposing that there will be no misfortune during the coming ten-day week. Following the inscription made on the gui-chou day (50th of 60-day cycle), a verification inscription on verso confirms a lunar eclipse on the geng-shen (57th) day.’ This ‘verification inscription’ reads as follows: 

已未Screen shot 2016-01-10 at 20.04.32庚申月㞢[食]           
“[In the night between] jiwei (day 56) and gengshen (day 57) the moon was eclipsed”

Over the years, a number of studies have been carried out by astronomers and sinologists alike in order to calculate the precise date of this and other eclipses recorded on oracle bones according to Western dating conventions. The date for this particular lunar eclipse has been verified as having taken place between the 27th and 28th December 1192 BC. Dr Roberto Soria has confirmed that the total phase of the eclipse, viewed from Anyang, would have lasted from 21:48 to 23:30 (±17 minutes) local time.

This is shown in a diagram generated by NASA:

A diagram of this eclipse from NASA’s Five Millennium Canon of Lunar Eclipses (Espenak & Meeus 2009)

In case you were wondering (as we did) why this diagram has the date -1191 rather than -1192, Dr Soria explains: ‘the astronomical negative years in the “Canon” must be increased by one to secure historical years BC. The reason is that the Julian calendar[2] does not have a year 0, it went straight from 1 BC to AD 1. However, any automatic computer program that calculates the position of the earth and moon cannot handle this jump… So, NASA’s dates plotted in those tables are “fictitious” years that go…, -2, -1, 0, 1, …, but keeping in mind that 2=AD2, 1=AD1, 0=1BC, -1=2BC…-1191=1192BC…’.

According to Dr Soria, the historical dates and times of lunar eclipses are also important to geologists and astronomers because they allow them to measure how the earth rotation has been slowing down over the centuries. The average day has got longer by about five hundredths of a second since the Shang dynasty. This may seem like a small quantity, but a difference of a few 1/100 seconds each day, 365 days a year, over 3000 years, means a total delay of several hours accumulated from the Shang dynasty to today.

Interestingly, there is another bone which refers to the same lunar eclipse held in the Hopkins collection at Cambridge University Library (CUL 1, Yingcang 885), one of the nearly 900 oracle bones purchased by Lionel C. Hopkins (1854-1952) from the American Presbyterian missionary Frank H. Chalfant (1862-1914) who also helped to form the collection here at the British Library.

Emma Goodliffe, Curator, Chinese Collections

Further reading:

Sarah Allan (Ai Lan 艾蘭), Li Xueqin 李學勤, and Qi Wenxin齊文心, Oracle Bone Collections in Great Britain (Chinese title: Yingguo suocang jiagu ji 英國所藏甲骨集), Zhonghua shuju, Beijing, 1985 (Part I, 2 volumes) and 1991 (Part II, 2 volumes)
Chou Fa-kao, “On the dating of a lunar eclipse in the Shang period”, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 25 (1964-5): 243-247
Homer H. Dubs, “The date of the Shang period” T’oung Pao. 40 (1951): 322-335
Fred Espenak and Jean Meeus, Five millennium canon of lunar eclipses, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, 2009
Han Yanben and Qiao Qiyuan, “Records of solar eclipse observations in ancient China”, Science in China Series G: Physics, Mechanics & Astronomy, 52, 11 (2009): 1639-1645
David N. Keightley, Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978


[1] ‘Yingcang’ numbers are the reference numbers used in Yingguo suo cang jia gu ji (Allan, Li and Qi 1985-92).

[2] The Roman calendar introduced by Julius Caesar that was later superseded by the Gregorian calendar.