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20 posts categorized "Hinduism"

01 April 2014

Curator's perspective: accessing the Mewar Ramayana

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The digital version of the complete Valmiki Ramayana prepared for  Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar in 1649-53 was launched on 21 March at the CSMVS, Mumbai, making freely available to the world one of the greatest achievements of Indian art.  For the complete digital version of the manuscript together with descriptions of the paintings and essays on its various aspects, see  My own involvement with the manuscript goes back to 1971 when as a young Sanskritist straight from Oxford I first joined the British Museum, before the collections were transferred to the British Library in 1973.  I spent a lot of time exploring the oriental select manuscripts lobby, pulling the manuscripts off the shelf one by one for a brief examination.  The bound manuscripts were kept in so far as possible in strict numerical sequence in the main runs of Additional and Oriental manuscripts, so that Arabic, Persian, Hebrew or Sanskrit manuscripts could be found side by side, encouraging a serendipitous tendency to explore other cultures.  I was vaguely aware of the great Mughal manuscripts in the collections, the subject of British Library exhibitions in 1982 and 2012, but was there I wondered anything comparable from the Hindu world? 

Add.15295 cover

Add.15295 doublure
Covers and doublure of a volume of the Ramayana as bound in the British Museum bindery in 1844.  British Library, Add.15295.  noc

I soon found three massive bound volumes which announced themselves on the spines as five volumes of the Ramayana, books 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7.  On hauling them off the shelf and opening them I found them crammed with paintings.  Each of the volumes had had all its folios, the unillustrated ones as well as the full page paintings, let into heavy guard papers which were then bound up in these elaborate bindings.  The folios being in landscape format, the volumes had to be turned on their sides to be read.  On further investigation, one of the volumes, the Bala Kanda or first book, with over 200 paintings, turned out to have been written in 1712 in Udaipur under Maharana Sangram Singh (Add.15295), but the other four books containing 286 full page paintings were prepared in Udaipur for Rana Jagat Singh between 1649 and 1652, as well as in the first year of his successor Rana Raj Singh in 1653 (Add.152396-7).  They had, I found, never been exhibited, since the volumes were too large to fit into the department’s then exhibition cases; they had never been lent to be exhibited elsewhere, not even to the great exhibition of Indian art at Burlington House in 1947, since the British Museum did not then lend at all; and I could find only one brief reference to them in the art historical literature, in Douglas Barrett and Basil Gray’s Indian Painting of 1963.  They were of course mentioned in Cecil Bendall’s Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts in the British Museum (London, 1902), but he was concerned about the text and not the pictures:  back then in 1902 no one in the west knew anything about Indian painting, while A.K. Coomaraswamy had yet to publish his book on Rajput painting.  In 1971 when I told those of my colleagues who were interested in Persian and Indian painting about these great volumes, my excitement was greeted with some indifference: they knew of their existence of course, but Rajput painting and manuscripts did not conform to Mughal standards of painting, let alone Persian.  The volumes turned out to be illustrated in three different styles of contemporary Mewar painting, involving the artists Sahib Din and Manohar and their studios and an unknown master working in a mixed Mewar-Deccani style. 

Hanuman espies Rama and Laksmana as they approach Lake Pampa.  Ramayana, Kiskindha Kanda.  Mewar-Deccani style, Udaipur, 1653.  British Library, Add.15297(1), f.2r.  noc

Since that to me momentous discovery in 1971, I have been occupied with trying to publish these volumes and to place them within their artistic and cultural contexts.  I had found only four volumes of Jagat Singh’s Ramayana – where were the other three?  I soon found some of the original Bala Kanda of 1649 ascribed to the artist Manohar in the then Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay, and most of the rest of the paintings in the book in a private collection in that city.  But when Dr Moti Chanda published some of its paintings in 1955, he was unaware of the four London volumes.  It emerged that one volume, book 3, the Aranya Kanda or Forest book, was still in Udaipur.  It had been transferred along with the rest of the royal Mewar library to the Udaipur branch of the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, and was subsequently moved to that institute’s headquarters in Jodhpur.  In 1982 the four London volumes formed some of the highlights of my exhibition The Art of the Book in India in the British Library.  

Hanuman is brought bound before Ravana and his tail set on fire.  Ramayana, Sundara Kanda.  Mewar-Deccani style, Udaipur, c. 1650.  British Library, IO San 3621, f.9r.  noc

While I was preparing that exhibition Mildred Archer and Toby Falk, who had been working on a catalogue of the Indian miniatures in the then separate India Office Library, brought to my attention a volume of 18 paintings of a Sundara Kanda that had been acquired in 1912.  This it seems was what remained of the final volume to be unearthed and I included it in my exhibition.  I also brought to London for the exhibition folios from the two volumes still in India, thereby uniting the entire manuscript for the first time since 1820.  Since then I have published various articles on different aspects of them and other scholars including Vidya Dehejia and Andrew Topsfield have also worked on them, but the task is immense, since we are concerned here with over 400 paintings as well as a most interesting text, which is earlier than most of the manuscripts used for the critical edition of the Ramayana prepared in Baroda in 1960-75.

Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar (reg. 1778-1828) out hunting.  Mewar, 1810-20.  British Library, Add.Or.4662.  noc

But how did these volumes get to London in the first place?  Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar was the typical Rajput ruler of the time, more interested in hunting and grand festivals than in literary pursuits, but he did revive the royal painting studio.  He was on very friendly terms with Captain James Tod, the future historian of the Rajputs, who was appointed in 1818 as the East India Company’s Agent to the western Rajput states.   On Tod’s final departure from Udaipur in 1820 the Maharana presented to him four volumes of Jagat Singh’s Ramayana as well as the Bala Kanda of 1712 prepared under Sangram Singh.   Tod on his return to London in 1823 presented the five volumes to the Duke of Sussex, one of the younger sons of King George III, who had accumulated a vast and important library, and it was at the sale of the Duke’s library in 1844 that the five volumes were purchased for the British Museum.  They were still in bundles in their loose-leaf traditional format and it was then that they were bound up in their handsome bindings, the enormous Bala Kanda in one volume (Add.15295) and the remaining four books in two volumes (Add.15296 and Add.15297).

It emerged over the 40 years since 1971 that the bound volumes in London had kept the paintings in absolutely pristine condition, since up to that time scarcely anyone had looked at them, but as I and other scholars turned their pages in subsequent years it became increasingly obvious that the paintings were suffering, since the folios housed in their rigid bindings could not be turned without the paintings flexing and with that the ensuing risk of the pigments flaking.  One of my first tasks was to organise the splitting of Add.15297 since the two heavily illustrated books within, including Sahib Din’s masterpiece the Yuddha Kanda (Book 6), were most at risk. 

Hanuman disturbs the divine inhabitants of the Himalaya when fetching herbs to cure Laksmana who had been wounded by Ravana.  Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda.  By Sahib Din, Udaipur, 1652.  British Library, Add.15297(1), f.150r.  noc

In Valmiki’s hermitage Lava and Kusa recite the story of Rama before Satrughna.  Ramayana, Uttara Kanda.  Style of Manohar, Udaipur, 1653.  British Library, Add.15297(2), f.88r.  noc

Book 7 the Uttara Kanda was removed and a new binding matching the original was prepared for it, as well as a new spine for the Yuddha Kanda.  In 1995, some 20 folios concerned with Rama’s quest for Sita were detached and mounted separately in an exhibition at the British Library, The Mythical Quest, and were later lent to several exhibitions in the UK as well as to the Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore. 

It seemed to me many years ago that the best way to ensure the safety of the paintings was to dismantle the volumes entirely and mount the paintings separately, but this raised opposition within the Library as the volumes themselves were of great historic interest.  However my view eventually prevailed.  The volumes were dismantled and the paintings individually mounted and a large part of the London volumes were shown in a grand Ramayana exhibition in the British Library in 2008 with my accompanying book published both in London and in India.  From them on it was but a step to conceive of reuniting the whole manuscript digitally, not just the paintings but the text as well, so that scholars could work in particular on the relationship between text and painting, and also so that everyone could have access to one of the greatest monuments of Indian art.

 J.P. Losty, Curator of Visual Arts (Emeritus)  ccownwork


Further Reading:

Chandra, M., ‘Paintings from an Illustrated Version of the Ramayana Painted at Udaipur in AD 1649’ in Bulletin of the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India Bombay, vol. 5, 1955-57, pp. 33-49

Losty, J.P., The Art of the Book in India, British Library, London, 1982

Losty, J.P., The Ramayana:  Love and Valour in India’s Great Epic – the Mewar Ramayana Manuscripts, British Library, London, 2008

Topsfield, A., Court Painting at Udaipur: Art under the Patronage of the Maharanas of Mewar, Artibus Asiae, Zurich, 2002



21 March 2014

Mewar Ramayana Digitally Reunited

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The Mewar Ramayana is one of the most beautiful manuscripts in the world and has been digitally reunited after being split between organisations in the UK and India for over 150 years. The Indian epic Ramayana is one of the world's greatest and most enduring stories, telling the stirring tale of Prince Rama who was exiled for fourteen years through the plotting of his stepmother. In exile, his wife Sita is abducted by the ten-headed demon king Ravana; with the assistance of an army of monkeys and bears, Rama searches and rescues Sita.

Book 2_f.056r
Sahib Din, Rama is driven into exile as Dasaratha and the queens bid farewell, c. 1650. British Library, Add.15296(1), f. 56r  noc

Through a major partnership between the British Library and CSMVS Museum in Mumbai, hundreds of folios, including 377 vividly illustrated paintings, of the Mewar Ramayana can now be viewed online. You can see the manuscript at

For the first time, people around the world will be able to digitally explore the pages of the Mewar Ramayana manuscript, which was commissioned by Rana Jagat Singh I of Mewar in 1649 and produced in his court studio at Udaipur. The project, which has been three years in the making, is sponsored by the Jamsetji Tata Trust, the World Collections Programme, and the Friends of the British Library.

The Ramayana – “Rama’s journey” is attributed to the sage Valmiki and was composed some two and a half thousand years ago. Through oral tradition 20,000 verses continued to circulate from generation to generation, in the various languages of India and beyond. The story embodies the Hindu idea of dharma – duty, behaving correctly according to one’s position and role in society.

The Mewar Ramayana manuscript is divided into seven books, the text prepared by a Jain scribe Mahatma Hirananda and the paintings by various artists including studio master Sahib Din. Production of the manuscript started in 1649 and was completed after Rana Jagat Singh's death in October 1652. This lavish manuscript features intricate paintings of Hindu gods and their battles and the paintings in the Mewar Ramayana are among the finest examples of Indian art.

Book 5_f.003r
Hanuman observes Ravana's interview with Sita,
c. 1653. British Library, IO San 3621, f.3  noc

After more than 150 years after production, four volumes from this series were presented by Jagat Singh's descendant Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar (1778-1828) to Lt. Col. James Tod (1782-1835), the first British Political Agent to the Western Rajput Courts in the early 19th century. In 1823, following his return to Britain, Tod presented the volumes to the royal bibliophile the Duke of Sussex (1773-1843) in 1823. Following the Duke's death, the content of his library went on sale in 1844, the four volumes were purchased by the British Museum, now the British Library. The remaining volumes became dispersed over time.

The digital Mewar Ramayana will enable users to ‘turn the pages' online in the unbound style reflecting the traditional Indian loose-leaf format, and interpretive text and audio will allow the broadest possible audience to study and enjoy this text in a whole new way. It will also transform access to the manuscript for researchers, who will have the text and paintings side by side in one place for the first time. The project has been led by British Library curator Marina Chellini with assistance from Leena Mitford, J.P. Losty and Pasquale Manzo.

Technical note:

This new version of 'Turning the Pages' is built in HTML5. It is not reliant on 'plugins' you need to install first, as with previous versions. It will work with the following browsers:

Internet Explorer 9 +
Google Chrome 14+
Firefox 11+

As it is a very large file, it may take a few minutes to download (depending on your broadband speed).

For the press release and additional images, please visit the British Library's Press and Policy page.

08 March 2014

Distinctive leg-of-mutton legs and fine jewels: a new display of Indian paintings in the Treasures of the British Library

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Regular visitors to the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library, may have encountered our recent display of Natural History drawings from India next to the entrance to the Magna Carta. From 8 March 2014, a new display of Indian paintings from the Visual Arts collection will be on view.

The British Library’s collection of Indian paintings date mainly from the 16 -19th centuries. The works include portraits and paintings from provinces such as Lucknow, Hyderabad,  Murshidabad, the Deccan, Central India, Rajasthan, the Punjab Hills and Plains. The core collection was formed by Richard Johnson, who was in the service of the East India Company from 1770-90. Johnson’s collection was later acquired by the East India Company for its Library in 1807 and afterwards incorporated into the British Library.

In this period Mughal emperors, kings of Rajasthan and even British officers were great patrons of art, establishing workshops and commissioning countless paintings. Popular topics for artists included lavish depictions of court life, portraiture and visualisations of romantic poetry. As works of art on paper, these illustrations were intended to be viewed by the patron alone or shared with a privileged audience. Rather than being displayed on walls, the works were either bound in a muraqqa (album) or stacked as sets of folios so that the viewer had every opportunity to marvel at the intricate details.

Highlights include one of our most recent acquisitions, a portrait of Rao Arjun Singh worshipping Sri Brijnathji in a rose garden, as well as a selection of Indian paintings that have been added to the collection in the last few decades. To understand the reference to the distinctive leg-of-mutton legs, you may need to get up close to our new display of paintings!

Rao Arjun Singh worshipping Sri Brijnathji in a rose garden, Kotah (India), 1720-25. British Library, Add.Or.5722. noc

Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar out hunting, Mewar (Rajasthan, India), c. 1800-10. British Library, Add.Or.4662.  noc

Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur atop an elephant, attributed to Shivalal, Udaipur (Rajasthan, India), c. 1888-89. British Library, Add.Or.5603  noc

The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library hosts a permanent free display of the library's greatest treasures. It is usually open 7 days a week.

Additional material held in the Visual Arts department at the British Library can be viewed by appointment in the Print Room (Asian & African Studies Reading Room). Please email for an appointment. The Print Room is generally open Monday-Friday, from 2-5pm.


Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator



Material held in the Visual Arts department at the British Library can be viewed by appointment in the Print Room. Please email for an appointment.


Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator  ccownwork
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20 January 2014

A prodigal Balinese manuscript leaf is reunited with its family

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In 1970 the British Museum purchased a small illustrated Balinese palm leaf manuscript from a vendor, who last week – nearly 44 years later! – contacted the British Library to say “As a matter of fact the MS was missing a page, because I had given it to my then girlfriend.  Recently I saw her again, and she returned the page, which I think ought to be reunited with the whole.”  And so last Wednesday I met Clive Sinclair, renowned author (his latest book, Death & Texas will be published in London next month by Peter Halban) and in fact no stranger to the British Library, where he was Penguin Writers Fellow in 1996.  In the course of sorting out his literary archive, which has been acquired by the Lilly Library at Indiana University, Clive had rediscovered the palm leaf folio and, very generously, resolved to bring it back into the fold of its family.  

Or.13277 (1)
Clive Sinclair with the Balinese palm leaf (lontar) manuscript of Sutasoma Kakawin (Or.13277), together with the framed fourth folio, now reunited with its siblings.  Photo by A.T. Gallop, 15.1.2014.

Clive Sinclair had bought the manuscript, at the time described as a ‘Chinese book’, in Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, California, in early 1970.  The manuscript originally consisted of eight numbered palm leaves with illustrations – incised with a sharp knife and then inked with black ink – on one side, and brief explanations in Balinese on the reverse, between two bamboo covers.  The fourth leaf was given to his girlfriend, who had it framed as an artwork in its own right.  It subsequently travelled with her to Australia and on to South Africa, before coming back to London only recently.  

The seven leaves acquired by the British Library in July 1970 were given the shelfmark Or.13277.  The manuscript – which was probably written within a few decades of its purchase – narrates an episode from the Balinese version of the Sutasoma Kakawin, an Old Javanese Buddhist court poem perhaps dating from the 14th century, remotely related to the Maha-sutasoma-jataka.  The illustrations depict the arrival of Prince Sutasoma on the island Gili Mas [Small Gold Isle] in a lake at Benares, to wed the Princess Candravati, sister of King Dasabahu.  Archived correspondence shows that the then Keeper of the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books of the British Museum, Dr G.E. Marrison, had enthusiastically set about getting the greatest experts in Balinese literature to work on the manuscript.  He first contacted Dr C. Hooykaas, Reader in Old Javanese at the School of Oriental and African Studies, who in 1968 had published a facsimile edition of the British Museum’s finest illustrated Balinese manuscript, Bagus Umbara (Or. 12579).  Hooykaas in turn had consulted Prof. Ensink of Groningen, an expert on the Sutasoma story, and eventually sent Marrison in August 1970 a full reading of the Balinese text found on each leaf, together with an English translation.  As these notes do not appear ever to have been published, they are presented here alongside a picture of each illustrated leaf, together with an image of the reverse of the first leaf to show the Balinese writing.

Or.13277, f.1r
Or.13277, f.1v

Or.13277, f.1r & f.1v. Puniki Gili Mas, sami kuri, umah, priyangan kayu-2, sami khmas, kahilehi tlagā, mmageṅ bvaya mahā yan, tan dadi kanak mrika. ‘This represents Gili Mas, gates, houses, chapels/temples, trees, all of them golden, encircled by a lake; great crocodiles, it is forbidden with the result that people do not go thither.’  noc

Or.13277, f.2r
Or.13277, f.2r. Sampun pada ravuh riṅ Gili Keñcana, Sraṅ Devi Pramésvari, Devi Candravati, taṅkil inṅ  i raka, Saṅ Prabhu Dasabahu, Saṅ Sutasoma. ‘All have arrived at Gili Mas; the two Devi pay homage to Sang Prabhu Dasabahu and Sang Sutasoma.’  noc

Or.13277, f.3r
Or.13277, f.3r. I bvaya, dadi raksasa, ṅuniṅayaṅ dévanya, pacaṅ dadi kreteg, sareṅ papat, riṅ Saṅ Sutasoma. ‘The crocodiles, having become monsters, inform their god that the four of them will become a bridge on behalf of Sutasoma.’  noc

Or.13277, f.4r
Or. 13277, f.4r.  This is the well-travelled leaf, now restored to its correct position in the manuscript.  Although the text on the reverse has not yet been read, the scene evidently shows the crocodiles of f.3 in their guise as monsters.  noc

Or.13277, f.5r
Or.13277, f.5r. I bvaya sampun dadi kṛteg ka Gili Keñcana. ‘The crocodiles have been transformed into a bridge leading to Gili Mas.’  noc

Or.13277, f.6r
Or.13277, f.6r. Vidyadhari kahutus, maṅda luṅa ka Gili Keñcana, dadi juru hyas, pavaraṅan, Saṅ Hyaṅ Buddha. ‘The heavenly nymph goes to Gili Mas to be a chamber maid; conversation; Lord God Buddha.’  noc

Or.13277, f.7r
Or.13277, f.7r. Vidyadhari bluṅa ka Gili Keñcana, dadi juru hyas. ‘The heavenly nymph goes to Gili Mas to be a chamber maid.’  noc

Or.13277, f.8r
Or.13277, f.8r. Devi Saci, vidyadhari, luṅha ka Gili Keñcana. 'Devi Saci and the heavenly nymph on their way to Gili Mas.’  noc

Further reading

C. Hooykaas, Bagus Umbarara, Prince of Koripan.  The story of a Prince of Bali and a Princess of Java, illustrated on palm leaves by a Balinese artist, with Balinese text and English translation.  [Or. 12579].  London: British Museum, 1968.

Raechelle Rubinstein, ‘Leaves of palm: Balinese lontar’ in: Illuminations: the writing traditions of Indonesia: featuring manuscripts from the National Library of Indonesia, ed. by Ann Kumar and John H. McGlynn.  New York: Weatherhill; Jakarta: Lontar Foundation, 1996, pp.129-154.

Annabel Teh Gallop
Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork