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

07 October 2019

Arts of the South Asian Sultanates at the British Library

The British Library holds one of the richest and most diverse collections of fifteenth-century South Asian manuscripts belonging to the sultanates. In association with a recent symposium, Connected Courts: Art of the South Asian Sultanates hosted at Wolfson College, Oxford, from 20-21 September, the library held a study session for a group of scholars who work on manuscripts, literature, and architecture. This viewing session provided a rare occasion for researchers of varying disciplines to share ideas on these manuscripts and discuss the interplay of different traditions.

Frontispiece of Shāhnāmah (BL Or 1403)
Fig. 1. Frontispiece of Shāhnāmah of Firdawsī, Bidar or Shiraz, 1438, Folio: 27 x 16 cm (BL Or 1403)
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An initial group of manuscripts invited us to consider how and where the Persian narrative tradition spread across South Asia. Persian literature was certainly known, copied and enjoyed in India since at least the late thirteenth century. However, the earliest surviving manuscripts date to the fifteenth century. A copy of the Shāhnāmah of Firdawsī (Or 1403, fig. 1), dated 1438, contains illustrations that do not fit with contemporary Persian painting traditions, and has no colophon providing a provenance. Certain scholars have concluded this manuscript must have been produced elsewhere. There are various factors that suggest a South Asian origin, perhaps the Deccan region under the Bahmani sultanate. An intervention in the preface recounts Firdawsī’s journey to India and his visit to the Delhi court, not usually found in Persian copies of the Shāhnāmah.

Sharafnāmāh of Niẓāmī, Bengal (Gaur?), 1531. Iskandar shares the throne with Queen Nushabah (BL Or 13836, f. 37v)
Fig. 2. Sharafnāmāh of Niẓāmī, Bengal (Gaur?), 1531. Iskandar shares the throne with Queen Nushabah. Folio: 31 x 20 cm (BL Or 13836, f. 37v)
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Another manuscript viewed at the session was a copy of the Sharafnāmāh (Or 13836, fig. 2), dated 1531 and produced for Sulṭān Nuṣrat Shah, ruler of Bengal (r. 1519-38). The text is from Niẓāmī’s Khamsah (Quintet), and is the first half of the Iskandarnāmah that describes the conquests of the Alexander the Great, the last poem of the quintet. This slim volume contains nine vibrant paintings that show the assimilation of both Indic and Persian artistic traditions. Such adaptations were common to several fifteenth-century manuscripts from the Indian sultanates.

Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century (BL Or 4110); Qur’ān, India, ca. 1450-1500 (BL Add 5548-5); and Kalpasūtra and Kālakācāryakathā, dated 1427 (BL IO San 3177)
Fig. 3. Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century, Folio: 37 x 26 cm (BL Or 4110); Qur’ān, India, ca. 1450-1500, Folio: 26.5 x 18.4 cm (BL Add 5548-5); and Kalpasūtra and Kālakācāryakathā, dated 1427 (BL IO San 3177)
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Within the second grouping of manuscripts a Qur’ān (Add 5549) was juxtaposed with an anthology of Persian poetry (Or 4110), and a Sanskrit work of Jain scriptures, all created in fifteenth-century India (IO San 3177) (fig. 3). Although each of these manuscripts is written in a different language they come into dialogue in their use of script and ornament. The Qur’ān’s interlinear Persian translations are inscribed in the naskhī-dīvānī script similar to the Persian anthology of poetry. The illumination and deep red and orange floral ornament used in the Jain Kalpasūtra and Kālakācāryakathā bear striking resemblances to illumination in the Persian anthology and Qur’ān. While we know such similarities exist in theory, viewing these manuscripts together highlights these connections and opens new paths for research.

Wild ass or tomb, definitions of ‘gūr,’ Miftāḥ al-Fuz̤alā ( Key of the Learned) by Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī, Mandu, India, ca. 1490
Fig. 4. Wild ass or tomb, definitions of ‘gūr’ in Miftā al-Fuz̤alā (Key of the Learned) by Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī, Mandu, India, ca. 1490, Folio: 33 x 25.4 cm (BL Or 3299, f. 248v)
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A final grouping brought together three manuscripts from the court of Malwa. Beyond the Ni‘matnāmah (Book of Delights), the British Library holds a few other manuscripts associated with the court of Malwa, based primarily in the capital of Mandu, each of which is entirely unique. The multilingual intellectual Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī authored both of these manuscripts. The first is a multilingual Persian illustrated dictionary known as the Miftā al-Fuz̤alā (Key of the Learned, Or 3299, fig. 4) and the second is a Persian adaptation of al-Jazarī’s twelfth-century book of automata, the ‘Ajā’ib al-anā‘ī (Wonders of Crafts, Add 13718). This group of manuscripts from Malwa revealed how rich the libraries of fifteenth-century India were—long before the Mughals—and how we can place the Ni‘matnāmah within a larger context.

The opportunity to view these manuscripts with other specialists in the field allowed us to imagine more vividly the inter-connected world of the sultanates, and will no doubt inspire further research. We are grateful to Ursula Sims-Williams, Malini Roy, and Saqib Baburi for their help in organizing this session, and the support of the Barakat Trust, Khalili Research Centre, and Iran Heritage Foundation.

Further reading

On BL Or 1403:
Brend, Barbara, “The British Library’s Shahnama of 1438 as a Sultanate manuscript.” In Facets of Indian Art, eds. Robert Skelton et al (London: V&A, 1986), pp. 87-93.
Firouzeh, Peyvand. “Convention and Reinvention: The British Library Shahnama of 1438 (Or. 1403).” Iran (2019):1-22.

On BL Or 13836:
Skelton, Robert, “A Royal Sultanate manuscript dated 938 A.H./1531-2 A.D.” In Indian painting: Mughal and Rajput and Sultanate Manuscripts (London: Colnaghi, 1978), pp. 135-144.

On naskhī-dīvānī:
Brac de la Perrière, Éloïse, “Bihârî et naskhî-dîwânî: remarques sur deux calligraphies de l’Inde des sultanats.” In Ecriture, calligraphie et peinture, Studia Islamica, eds. A.L. Udovitch et H. Touati (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2003), pp. 81-93.

On the Ni‘matnāmah:
Skelton, Robert, “The Ni‘matnama: A Landmark in Malwa Painting.” Marg vol. 12 no. 3 (1959): 44-48.
Titley, Norah, The Ni‘matnama Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu: The Sultan’s Book of Delights (Oxford: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005).

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology; British Library PhD Research Placement
Dr Emily Shovelton, Research Associate, The Khalili Research Centre, University of Oxford
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03 October 2019

Vietnamese manuscripts in the British Library

The Vietnamese collection at the British Library holds a small number of manuscripts, written in Chữ Nôm (Sino-Vietnamese) characters, and dating from 17th to early part of 20th centuries. One manuscript was present in the collection of Sir Hans Sloane at the founding of the British Museum and its library in 1753; another was acquired in the late 19th century; and the remainder came into the British Library in the late 20th century. There are six imperial scrolls and three manuscripts in bound codex form, one of which comprises a set of ten volumes, and all have been fully digitised with funding from the Henry Ginsburg Legacy.  The nine manuscripts are described below, with links to the catalogue entries and digitised versions, and to earlier blog posts.

Scrolls

A Trinh Lord’s letter to the English East India Company (Sloane 3460)
The oldest Vietnamese manuscript in our collection was probably written sometime in 1673 under the command of Trịnh Tac to William Gyfford, head of the English East India Company mission which came to establish commercial relations with Vietnam in 1672.

Sloane MS 3460
British Library, Sloane 3460, f. 1r  Noc

Two scrolls of Emperor Cảnh Thịnh (Or. 14817/A and Or. 14817/B)
These edicts were issued in May 1793 by the Tây Sơn ruler to welcome Lord Macartney, head of the diplomatic mission on its way to establish commercial relations between Britain and China. The ships were struck by a storm off the cost of Central Vietnam and needed to replenish provisions, leading Lord Macartney to seek help from the Vietnamese ruler.

Or_14817!a_f001r cropped
British Library, Or. 14817/A, f. 1r  Noc

Or 14817-B
British Library, Or. 14817/B, f. 1r  Noc

Three imperial edicts of Emperor Khải Định (Or. 14631, Or. 14632, Or. 14665)
Or. 14631 was issued on 18 March 1917 to celebrate the Emperor’s enthronement, while Or. 14632 and Or. 14665 were issued on 25 July 25 1924 to celebrate his 40th birthday. The contents of these three edicts involves the upgrading status of local gods, which was a common practice in traditional Vietnamese society.

Or 14631
British Library, Or. 14631, f. 1r  Noc

Or 14632
British Library, Or. 14632, f. 1r  Noc

Or 14665
British Library, Or. 14665, f. 1r  Noc

All these imperial scrolls are written on yellow paper and elaborately decorated on the front with patterns of dragons with five claws, both features being royal prerogatives. On the reverse, they are decorated with four mythical creatures, namely, the dragon, the phoenix, the turtle and the unicorn. The only exception is Or. 14631, which has different patterns on the reverse: it is adorned with two flower pots and symbols of longevity, instead of the usual four mythical creatures.

Bound volumes

Tale of Kiều (Or. 14844)
This copy of the Truyện Kiều manuscript was completed around 1894. Each page is beautifully illustrated with scenes from the story, and the book is bound in a fine yellow silk cover with dragon patterns. Nguyễn Quang Tuân, a Vietnamese scholar who inspected the manuscript, is of the opinion that this manuscript bears some royal significance because the dragon on the cover has the five claws, a characterisation normally reserved for imperial use only. Another significant feature of this manuscript is that it bears annotations by Paul Pelliot (1878−1945), the renowned French Sinologist, who bought the manuscript in 1929. By 2015 the manuscript was in poor condition; in particular its very thin paper had become very brittle and was torn in places due to acidity and wear and tear. Fortunately, the conservation team at the British Library was able to fully restore this invaluable manuscript to its former glory.

Or_14844_f02v cropped 2
British Library, Or. 14844, f. 2v Noc

A rare Vietnamese map of China (Or. 14907)
One of the most interesting Vietnamese manuscripts in the British Library is Bắc Sứ Thủy Lục Địa Đô or, in Chinese, Beishi shuilu ditu, ‘The northwards embassy by land and water from Hanoi to Beijing’. Written in the Vietnamese language in Chinese characters (chữ Hán) and dated 1880, the manuscript is a complete visual record of the route from Bắc Thành (the former name of Hanoi under the Nguyễn Dynasty) through China to Beijing, taken by envoys of the Vietnamese Emperor Tự Đức (r.1847-1883) on their tribute-bearing mission in 1880.

Or_14907_f069v cropped
British Library, Or. 14907, f. 69v Noc

This work was probably created as an archival record of the journey. Roads, mountains, waterways, bridges, buildings, cities and towns are all clearly depicted, as are the points of departure and arrival on the first and last pages. The title, written in Chinese characters (Beishi shuilu ditu), also includes the date (gengchen) of the journey, according to the Chinese 60-year cyclical system. The annotations on each page list place names and distances in Chinese miles (li or ly in Vietnamese) with occasional useful notes, such as ‘from here merchants used only Qianlong money’. Land routes are marked in red ink and water routes are recorded in blue ink.

Tuồng Việt Nam (Vietnamese Theatre) (Or. 8218/1-10)
This ten-volume set of tuồng plays attests to the popularity of this performing art form in the mid-19th century under the Nguyễn dynasty. Or. 8218 comprises a collection of forty six plays and legends, containing over 6,800 pages, possibly from Hue, the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyễn dynasty. Most do not include the author’s name, date and place except for one piece, Sự tích ra tuồng, which has a line which could be translated into modern Vietnamese as ‘làm vào ngày tháng tốt năm Tự Đức 3’. According to Trần Nghĩa – a Vietnamese specialist in Hán-Nôm who researched the manuscripts at the British Library back in 1995 – this note indicates that the play was written in 1850 during the reign of Emperor Tự Đức (1847-1883).

Or 8218-1-f.2r
British Library, Or. 8218/1, f. 2r Noc

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork

This is the last blog post by Dr Sud Chonchirdsin, who on 1 October 2019 retired after 14 years as Curator of Vietnamese in the British Library. Sud's blog posts on the Vietnamese collection in the British Library are some of the most-read on the Asian and African studies blog. Shown below is Sud, at his now-empty desk, with a print of a Thai manuscript presented by his colleagues.

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30 September 2019

Buddhism in Practice: The Yogacara Food Offering Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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