Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

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

15 January 2020

The Vessantara Jataka on the move

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

Stories about the Buddha and Buddhism are depicted not only in illustrated manuscripts, but also in other media such as wall paintings, vertical hangings and thousands of long, painted, narrative scrolls that are part of the Lao and Thai-Lao tradition. These scrolls, found in Laos and Northeast Thailand, usually depict the story of Prince Vessantara, the penultimate incarnation of Prince Siddhartha. Prince Vessantara’s life was dedicated to donating whatever was requested of him, most notably the gift to beseeching Brahmins of the white elephant that ensured the prosperity of his own kingdom. Later, while Vessantara was in exile due to this gift, the Brahmin Chuchok, who lived as a beggar, asked for his children, while the god Indra, disguised as Chuchok, asked for his wife.

01 Gift of white elephant Kalasin 2518
Vessantara’s gift of the white elephant, illustrated on a scroll from Kalasin, Thailand, 1975. At the lower left, Prince Vessantara pours water onto the eight Brahmins, sealing the gift of the white elephant. On the upper right, the eight Brahmins ride the elephant out of the city’s gate, threatened by a soldier disputing the gift’s authenticity. Photograph by Leedom Lefferts, courtesy of Ajaan Somroay Yencheuy.

02 OR_16552_f012v
Scene of Vessantara sealing the gift of the white elephant by pouring water onto the hands of the recipients. Illustrated in a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the Mahabuddhaguna. Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or. 16552, f. 24 Noc

Dr. Sandra Cate and I have termed these long painted scrolls – which are about a meter wide and can extend from 15 to 45 and more meters in length – “murals on the move”, because they translate the Vessantara story painted on the walls of Buddhist temples (wat) into a portable version, and parade it through the community to display it. We can also see these scrolls as “manuscripts on the move”, not only because most have captions and other details written on them to explain the story, but also because the painting itself allows people to “read” the story in its narrative totality.

03 scroll and mural Buriram 2016
A painted scroll of the Vessantara Jataka is shown hung below a mural painting of the Last Ten Jatakas. Photographed at a temple in Buriram, Thailand, 2016, by Leedom Lefferts

Illustrated manuscripts are rare outside major cities, and the usual medium for Buddhist sacred texts is narrow palm leaf manuscripts which are usually not illustrated. Older Northeast Thai-Lao and Lao wat were almost entirely constructed of easily available wood which is not amenable to murals. The oldest illustrated materials now found in Northeast Thai and Lao wat are colored lithographs produced by the S. Thammapakdi company, dating to the early 1900’s, and sets of these prints depicting the lives of the Buddha and of Prince Vessantara are often found mounted on the walls of wooden preaching halls. But the tradition of long portable painted scrolls is arguably earlier, and may have been brought to the Lao through long-standing connections with India.

04 OR_16101_f045r
Illustration of a monk giving a sermon in a Thai manuscript containing extracts from the Tipitaka, the legend of Phra Malai and illustrations of the Last Ten Birth Tales. Thailand, 1894. British Library, Or. 16101, f. 89 Noc

05 Khok Sanghaa 2005 tayok wat
Bundled palm leaf manuscripts kept in a wooden box are distributed to monks to recite their section. Roi-et, Thailand, 2005. Photograph by Leedom Lefferts.

The ingenuity of the Lao is that they have taken these scrolls, best seen “in motion”, and incorporated them into a two-day merit-making festival, the Bun Phra Wet (the Merit-making Festival for Prince Vessantara, Phra Wet). The first day, muu hom (Lao; Thai, wan ruam), the day of coming together, includes visits by friends and relatives from more distant villages to the celebrating community. More importantly, it culminates in welcoming the return to the community of Prince Vessantara and his family, the Prince embodied in the scroll which the people in procession carry aloft. In this way, the people re-enact the beginning of the story’s climax, when they recognize their belief in the justice of Prince Vessantara’s actions and invite him to return home.

06 OR_15925_f022r
Scene of Chuchok leading Vessantara’s children away through the forest. Illustration in a folding book containing the Mahabuddhaguna, Thailand, 1841. British Library, Or. 15925, f. 43 Noc

07 Chuchok procession 2008
Chuchok leading the children of Vessantara away, performed by lay people during a procession in Khon Kaen, Thailand, 2008. Photograph by Leedom Lefferts.

In the cooler late afternoon of muu hom the rolled-up long scroll is taken from its storage place in the wat to a nearby water source outside the village, monks are invited to attend, and villagers gather, sitting on the ground on mats. The water source replicates the surroundings of Vessantara and his family’s hermitage in their place of exile, on Mazeway Mountain. The villagers then begin the story’s celebratory end. The Prince’s children have returned to the palace, ransomed by their grandparents; Vessantara sits in meditation, accompanied by his wife, Matsi. An elderly man initiates the invocation to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha and the receipt of the five precepts, and then recites a special request, asking Phra Wet to return home. The elder’s recitation apologizes on behalf of the citizens who asked Vessantara’s father, the King, to exile his son. Sometimes a monk acting as Phra Wet, rejects the invitation two times, finally accepting it, reluctantly; sometimes a layman accepts it. A dish holding candles, incense, and leaves and flowers, meant as a token of the city, is offered. Phra Wet is reluctant to accept because he has found success and peace at the hermitage in this wild place “hidden in the mountains”; he finally agrees because it has been foretold that it is his duty to become king.

08 OR_16552_f038v
Vessantara is asked to return home and the family is reunited. Illustrated in a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the Mahabuddhaguna. Thailand, 19th century. Or. 16552, f. 78 Noc

09 V to come home KK 2014
Lay people and monks re-enact the scene in which Vessantara is asked to return to the Kingdom. Photograph taken in Khon Kaen, Thailand, 2014, by Leedom Lefferts.

At this point, the village’s celebration echoes the story. In the Jataka tale, the celebratory procession wends its way city-ward for thirty days. The village procession mimics this, walking from the water source outside the village with the long scroll unfurled and held high on sticks or by its upper edge, as participants proceed with laughter and jollity. Villagers say Phra Wet is in the scroll; “Vessantara comes home”, as the day’s name signifies. As the procession enters the community, more and more people join it, holding the scroll while dancing, singing, and generally exclaiming, bringing branches and flowers from the forest to the wat. The festive congregation enters the temple grounds and circles the preaching hall three times, placing the branches and flowers in baskets under waving flags. They carry scroll into the preaching hall and fasten it to pillars so that it surrounds the preaching and audience area, converting it into a transformative space.

10 procession NBLP 2011 Sandra Cate
Vessantara scroll procession, Nong Bua Lam Phu, Thailand, 2011. Photograph by Sandra Cate.  To download a short video of a scroll procession in Khon Kaen province, filmed by Leedom Lefferts in 2009, please click here.

That evening, the Phra Malai legend is read to the audience, ensuring that they know the importance of listening to the complete Vessantara Jataka. Phra Malai, a monk who had accumulated much merit, travels to the various Buddhist hells and to Tavatimsa heaven to worship the Culamani Cetiya, in which is enshrined the hair of Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, which he had cut off when he entered his seven years of exile. There Phra Malai meets Indra, King of the Gods, and Maitreya, the incarnation who will follow the Buddha of the present era. Maitreya enjoins Phra Malai to return to the human world and inform its citizens that, in order to be reborn when Maitreya comes, they must listen to the complete recitation of the Vessantara Jataka.

11 recitation KK 2006
Audience listening to the Phra Malai story, burning candles and incense over water in the transformative space created by the scroll and other meaningful objects. The sacralized water will be taken home to infuse bath water for children and older adults. Photograph taken by Leedom Lefferts, Khon Kaen Province, Thailand, 2006.

The next day, muu thet, the day of the sermon, monks recite the complete story from palm leaf manuscripts. This takes place in the transformative space created by the hanging scroll. Indeed, since he is present in the scroll, people say that Prince Vessantara hears the recitation of the story of his own life.

After the day-long recitation, villagers clean the preaching hall, and the scroll is taken down and rolled and stored for the ceremony the following year. A scroll endures considerable wear and tear in the course of the procession and while hanging. Most new scrolls are produced in just two villages in Northeast Thailand, but the fluorescence of scroll production by local artists appears to have occurred in the period following World War II to the mid-1980’s. The Buddhist year 2500 (1957CE) seems to have resulted in a peak of production, as Buddhists realized that the 2,500 years to follow have been predicted to witness a decline in the following of the Dharma. The continuing popularity of annual Bun Phra Wet festivals in the thousands of Northeast Thai and Lowland Lao temples indicates the vibrancy of this religious practice among these people.

12 Ban Khok Sanghaa 2005
An elderly monk reading from a palm leaf manuscript. Photograph taken in Roi-et Province, Thailand, 2005, by Leedom Lefferts.

References and further reading
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, and Somroay Yencheuy, Buddhist Murals of Northeast Thailand: Reflections of the Isan Heartland. Chiang Mai: Mekong Press, 2010

Kaiser, Thomas, with Leedom Lefferts and Martina Wernsdörfer, Devotion: Image, Recitation, and Celebration of the Vessantara Epic in Northeast Thailand. Zurich: Ethnographic Museum, University of Zurich and Arnoldsche Art Publishers. 2017

Lefferts, Leedom, and Sandra Cate, Buddhist Storytelling in Thailand and Laos: The Vessantara Scroll at the Asian Civilisations Museum. Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2012.

Leedom Lefferts Ccownwork

Leedom Lefferts is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey, and Visiting Scholar at the Carolina Asia Center, The University of North Carolina. His studies have focused on Northeast Thai Lao and Southeast Asian material culture, including indigenous pottery production, the Vessantara epic and its scrolls, and issues of rural development and political inclusion.

 

06 January 2020

The Royal Library of Bone: Bugis and Makassar manuscripts in the British Library

In March 2019, the digitisation was completed of 75 Javanese manuscripts from Yogyakarta now held in the British Library, which had been captured from the Kraton or Palace of Yogyakarta in June 1812 following a British assault.  What is much less widely known is that the British Library also holds the core of another royal library from Indonesia, also taken in armed conflict during the brief period of British administration in Java from 1811 to 1816 under the command of Thomas Stamford Raffles. All  the 34 manuscripts from south Sulawesi in the British Library can be identified as orginating from the palace of the Bugis kingdom of Bone, and were seized in a British attack on Bone in June 1814.

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Bugis diary of a senior court official of Bone, for May 1793. British Library, Add 12373, f. 7v   noc

At the time the ruler of Bone was Sultan Muhammad Ismail Muhtajuddin (r. 1812-1823), also known as La Mappatunruq and posthumously as Matinroe ri Lalebbata; he was the son of the redoubtable Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin (r. 1775-1812) who had died just two years previously. Following disagreements between the sultan and the British Resident of Makassar, an expedition was despatched from Java under the command of General Sir Miles Nightingale. On 8 June 1814, troops led by by Lt. Col. McLeod attacked and overran the palace of Bone, with a considerable loss of life on the Bugis side. Five cannon and a large quantity of armaments were captured - and also, evidently, many manuscripts from the royal library - after which the palace was set on fire by the British (Thorn 1815: 341).

An account by Captain David Macdonald ([1840?]: 222) confirms that present on the Makassar expedition in 1814 was the Resident of Semarang, John Crawfurd. In 1842 Crawfurd's collection of 136 Indonesian manuscripts was acquired by the British Museum, including thirty manuscripts in Bugis and Makassarese, all of which can now be identified as coming from the court of Bone.  The British Library also holds four further Bugis manuscripts which appear to originate from the same source. These include two royal Bone diaries from the India Office Library (MSS Bugis 1 and 2) which bear Raffles's bookplate, and were presumably presented to him after the military expedition.  Another court diary -  of the Maqdanrang, one of the most senior officials of Bone - was presented to the British Museum in 1916 by a Miss E. G. Wren (it is now shelved as Or. 8154, alongside a volume comprising letters and fragments of documents found within the diary shelved as Or. 8154*). It is possible that certain Bugis manuscripts held in other British institutions may also have been taken on this expedition, including a Bugis diary from Bone presented to the Royal Asiatic Society by a Professor Lee in 1828 (RAS Bugis 1) and Bugis manuscripts now at SOAS from the collection of William Marsden, including a court diary from Bone (SOAS MS 11398) and a volume received from a Captain Owen RN (SOAS MS 12159).

Add_ms_12346_f002v-3r
Collection of fourteen short Bugis poems in tolo' style. British Library, Add 12346, ff. 2v-3r   noc

The 34 manuscripts now in the British Library are mainly in Bugis, with two volumes in Makassarese, and the contents were described in detail by the Dutch scholar A.A. Cense for the catalogue by Ricklefs and Voorhoeve (1977, reissued in 2014). The manuscripts are primarily concerned with historical, literary and chancery matters, as well as some religious topics. There are 11 volumes of diaries or daily registers from the court, and 3 volumes of documents. Four volumes contain literary works translated from Malay, including the tales of the great Islamic heroes Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah in Bugis and Hikayat Amir Hamzah in Makassar, as well as Bugis versions of the ethical court romance Hikayat Isma Yatim and Hikayat Cekel Wanengpati, a Malay version of adventures of the Javanese hero Prince Panji.  There are five volumes of Bugis and Makassar poems, including two volumes which contain parts of the Bugis La Galigo, probably the longest epic poem in the world.  A further five volumes concern practical knowledge, with treatises on gunnery, medical, agricultural and astronomical matters.  These include Bugis translations of Makassarese translations made originally in the 17th century of Portuguese works on gunnery and armaments; these are the only known examples of scientific works translated from European languages into Southeast Asian vernaculars. The remaining five volumes deal with religious matters, including a manuscript in the original Arabic of the handbook on Islamic law, Minhaj al-Talibin, by al-Nawawi, with Bugis notes, as well as Bugis translations of Malay works including the Akhbar al-Arifin composed in Aceh in the 17th century by Nuruddin al-Raniri, and Bugis tracts on Sufism and mystical practices.

Add_ms_12365_f008v-9r
Treatise on gunnery in Bugis by  Fahalajun Ahmad and Ance' Lati'. Add 12365, ff. 8v-9r   noc

To what extent does this collection of manuscripts now in the British Library represent the contents of the royal library of Bone? The answer is probably: only partially.  From a comparison of Crawfurd’s collection of Javanese manuscripts taken from the court of Yogyakarta with those of Colin Mackenzie, it can be seen that Crawfurd focussed particularly on historical and literary works and chancery documents, and showed little interest in texts on dramatic performances (wayang), Islamic practice and divination (primbon), or works in Arabic.  Thus one notable absence in the British Library collection is al-Nur al-hadi, the mystical work composed by Sultan Ahmad al-Salih in 1787, and one of the few Southeast Asian compositions cited in Brocklemann's survey of Arabic literature. Futhermore, when the royal Bone library was ransacked for a second time a century later by the Dutch in 1905, the 33 manuscripts taken to Batavia, and now held in the National Library of Indonesia in Jakarta, included a diary for the period 1795-1807 (Tol 1993: 617), indicating that at least part of the library had survived the British onslaught in 1814.

With generous support from William and Judith Bollinger, the complete collection of 34 Bugis and Makassar manuscripts in the British Library has now been digitised, in collaboration with the National Library of Singapore. Singapore is home to a substantial community of Bugis descent, as reflected in a recent exhibition in 2018 at the Malay Heritage Centre, Sirri na pesse. The full list of digitised Bugis and Makassar manuscripts from the British Library can be accessed here.

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Collection of Sufi tracts, including notes on the five daily prayer times. British Library, Add 12363, ff. 63v-64r   noc

Public awareness of the fate of the Kraton library of Yogyakarta, and the identification of the individual volumes held in different British public collections, owes much to plentiful contemporary accounts and the work of historians such as Peter Carey and Merle Ricklefs, while in Java the memory of the Geger Sepehi, the 'Sepoy Calamity' (so-named for the Indian troops under British command in the attack on the palace), was kept alive at the court of Yogyakarta, the only traditional monarchy to retain a political role in the Republic of Indonesia. Fewer published reports of the Bone expedition, and a circumscribed public space for the descendants of the Bone kings, mean that there is far less known today about the royal library of Bone. It is hoped that the digitisation of these manuscripts will lead to many more studies, and a better appreciation of the writing traditions at the Muslim courts of south Sulawesi.

Further reading:

Brief accounts of the British expedition to Makassar in 1814 are found in:
William Thorn, Memoir of the conquest of Java, with the subsequent operations of the British forces in the Oriental Archipelago. London, 1815 (pp. 340-1).
David Macdonald, A narrative of the early Life and Services of Captⁿ D. Macdonald ... embracing an unbroken period of twenty-two years, extracted from his journal, and other official documents. 3rd ed. Weymouth, [1840?] (pp. 813, 822).

On Bugis manuscripts:
Roger Tol, A royal collection of Bugis manuscripts.  Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1993, 149 (3): 612-29.
Roger Tol, A separate empire: writings of south Sulawesi.  Illuminations: writing traditions of Indonesia, ed. Ann Kumar & John H. McGlynn; pp. 213-230.  Jakarta: Lontar Foundation, 1996.
M.C. Ricklefs and P. Voorhoeve, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. [With descriptions of Bugis and Makassar manuscripts by A.A. Cense.]

Annabel Teh Gallop, Head, Southeast Asia section   ccownwork

30 December 2019

African Literature through the Language Lens: The Yorùbá Example

As one of the two 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellows at the British Library, my work revolves around literature produced in Yorùbá.

Literature written by Africans in African languages existed before African literature in English (or other European languages). This fact, frequently overlooked, has coloured the discussion of what we talk about whenever we explore “African literature”. Some of the first writings we instinctively think or talk about when discussing African literature, for instance, are usually in English: Amos Tútùọlá’s Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana (1961), among others. But the history of writing and publishing literature by Africans in Africa started much earlier, and in other African languages.

Periodicals
You can find some earlier newspapers published in Yorùbá at the British Library.
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On November 23, 1859, the first newspaper in Nigeria was published in Abeokuta, titled Ìwé Ìròhìn Fún Àwọn Ará Ẹ̀gbá àti Yorùbá. It was printed by the printing press of Henry Townsend, established five years earlier as an arm of the missionary endeavour he was involved in, and as a way to keep the few literate people in “high society” engaged in the day-to-day of society. The newspaper was published in both Yorùbá and English. It was published every fifteen days and sold for 120 cowries (about a penny at the time). Its readership rose to around 3000 subscribers before it went belly-up after the printing press was burnt during one of the skirmishes between the British visitors and the Ẹ̀gbá residents.

In 1891, another iteration of the paper resurrected in Lagos, retaining a version of the original name. Now it was called Ìwé Ìròhìn Yorùbá àti Èkó — the newspaper of Yorùbá and Lagos. The word “Yorùbá” at this point had just begun to be adopted as the general name for all the people who speak associated languages and dialect, and who live in South-western Nigeria. Before then, the word had only referred to the Oyo people. Others retained their own ethnic names: Ẹ̀gbá, Ìjẹ̀bú, Èkìtì, Ìjẹ̀ṣà, Yàgbà, etc.

Masthead of Yoruba paper Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó. First page of Yoruba newspaper Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó 9 May 1891.
Ìwé Ìròhìn Èkó (1891) was one of the first newspapers published in both Yorùbá and English. (1866.c.5.(18.))
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Through these publications, many of which were printed in both Yorùbá and English, the educated elite found ways to learn about what was going on in other parts of the world. Through letters to the editor, they were also able to respond, and participate in ongoing civil and social debates. It was not surprising to read then, for instance, that many Africans had read, debated, and written rejoinders to the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884 which codified the demarcation of the continent. According to this Al Jazeera news opinion , “a week before it closed, the Lagos Observer declared that ‘the world had, perhaps, never witnessed a robbery on so large a scale.’" The Lagos Observer was another one of those newspapers at the time, established in 1882. (The British Library holds copies from 1882 to 1888 in microfilm).

In 1928, another one of those newspapers was founded, called Akéde Èkó (The Lagos Herald). It was edited by Isaac Babalọlá Thomas (1888-1963), journalist and writer. In 1929, he wrote what has been generally agreed upon as “the first Yorùbá novel.” The work, titled Ìtàn Ìgbésí Ayé Èmi Ṣẹ̀gílọlá Ẹlẹ́yinjú Ẹgẹ́ Ẹlẹ́gbẹ̀rún Ọkọ L’áíyé ( The story of my life; me, Segilola, one with delicate eyes and a thousand living husbands ), was published first as a serial, disguised as a letter to the editor by a dying old lady willing to spill the story of her exciting and sometimes tawdry adventures on the pages of the newspapers. When it was eventually published, with the author being credited merely as a custodian of the story by the “anonymous” lady, it caused some scandal in the new society not used to reading such open discussion of sexual relationships.

Cover of Print Culture and the first Yoruba Novel.
Print Culture and the First Yorùbá Novel” edited by Karin Barber. (Print culture and the first Yoruba novel : I.B. Thomas's 'Life story of me, Sẹgilọla' and other texts , edited by Karin Barber (Leiden: Brill, 2012). (YD.2012.a.5228)
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There had been many pamphlets, religious texts, poems, tracts, etc. published before this time, some of them unattributed to anyone but religious organisations. But over the next decades, scores of literary works — short stories, novelettes, novels, travelogues, poetry and other personal narratives were published to limited audiences literate in Yorùbá and in the culture of the changing times. By the time the first notable English language novel The Palm Wine Drinkard was published in 1952, it had a whole generation of Nigerian Yorùbá literary oeuvre to longingly gesture towards, and borrow from.

The fame of the English language genre would come to eventually supplant and stunt the growth of Nigerian-language creative output in the subsequent generations. By the mid-eighties, long after the departure or nationalization of the earlier British establishment firms that had published some of the earlier Nigerian writers, including D.O. Fágúnwà, J.F. Ọdúnjọ and Adébáyọ̀ Fálétí, the creative output in the local language also seemed to gradually disappear. Today, there is no reputable institution publishing Nigerian language fiction or drama or poetry. There are still publications, but they are mostly self-publications with no peer review or professional vetting and critical appraising mechanism.

As a 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow, my work over this next year will examine the Yorùbá language collections in the British Library — containing over two hundred years of documentation and preservation — to draw patterns, find gaps, identify trends and relevant research directions for future researchers who will come to use the Library, and generally provide expert analysis of the Library’s Yorùbá language material holdings. And sometimes, non-Yorùbá texts of relevance will also come my way, as one did a few weeks ago when I discovered that the original typescript of Wọlé Ṣóyínká’s Ìdànrè, eventually published in 1965, resides in the manuscript section at the Library, still bearing the marking, handwritings and musical directions of the then 31 year-old-author.

I also happen to be a linguist, interested in the growth, development, and sustenance of the Yorùbá language (and other Nigerian languages) in literature, education, governance and technology in the 21st century. And so, I will be looking to better understand the evolution of the orthography of the language, through the texts that have carried it in literature from its early beginnings until today. The work of forbearers like Samuel Ajayi Crowther to Ayo Bamgbose stand as guiding lights, as do the work of faceless and notable writers of the Yorùbá language whose texts provide the most visible account of the language and its journey from just a spoken language to a medium of transmitting generations of stories, both in fiction and history, in the many written patterns and styles.

My thought process on these discoveries will be shared on the British Library blog as the year unfolds.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
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