Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

95 posts categorized "Malay"

26 February 2024

Restoring access to the British Library’s Asian and African Collections

Following the recent cyber-attack on the British Library, the Library has now implemented an interim service which will enable existing Registered Readers to access some of our printed books and serials and a significant portion of our manuscripts. This service will be expanded further in the coming weeks. 

We understand how frustrating this recent period has been for everyone wishing to access our Asian and African Collections and we would like to thank you for your patience. We are continuing to work to restore our services, and you can read more about these activities in our Chief Executive's post to the Knowledge Matters blog. 

The Using the Library page on our temporary website provides general information on current Library services, and advice for those without an existing Reader Pass. Please read on for information about the availability of specific Asian and African collections. 


Printed books and serials 

You can now search for printed items using a searchable online version of our main catalogue of books and other printed material. Online and advance ordering is unavailable, so Registered Readers will need to collect a paper order form from staff in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room and fill in the required details. Please write the shelfmark exactly as it appears in the online catalogue. 

Only a small portion of the printed books and serials in the Asian and African Collection will be available for consultation in the Reading Room. Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee availability of any printed items. Materials stored in Boston Spa are current unavailable, and items stored in our St. Pancras location might be in use by another Reader or restricted for other reasons. If you wish to gain greater assurance on the availability of a particular item before you visit us, please contact our Reference Services Team by emailing [email protected].


Manuscripts and archival documents 

Although the Library’s online catalogue of archives and manuscripts is not currently available, the Reference Services Team can assist with queries about these collections, checking paper catalogues and other sources. Please speak to the team in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room or email [email protected] Some of our older printed catalogues have been digitised and made available online without charge. For quick access to the digitised catalogues of manuscript and archival material, or to online repositories of images, please make use of the links below:




East Asia 


Digitised Content

Middle East and Central Asia 


Digitised Content

South Asia        


Digitised Content

South-East Asia


Digitised Content

Visual Arts (Print Room)


Digitised Content







East Asia 



  • CiNii Books - National Institute of Informatics (NII), a bibliographic database service for material in Japanese academic libraries including 43,000+ British Library books and periodicals. Please use FA012954 in the Library ID field 



Middle East and Central Asia 

  • FIHRIST (Largely Persian, but also includes some Kurdish, Pashto, and Turkic materials) 







Turkish and Turkic  


South Asia 

Early printed books:

South Asian language manuscript catalogues:

Bengali and Assamese 

Hindi, Panjabi and Hindustani

Marathi, Gujrati, Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Pushtu and Sindhi 



Sanskrit and Prakrit 




South-East Asia 





Access to some archival and manuscript material is still restricted, but the majority of special collections held at St Pancras are now once again available. Our specialist archive and manuscripts catalogue is not online at the moment so you will need to come on-site to our Reading Rooms, where Reading Room staff will be able to help you search for what you need, and advise on its availability.

To place a request to see a manuscript or archival document, Registered Readers need to collect a paper order form from staff in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room and fill in the required details, including the shelfmark (manuscript number). The Library has created an instructional video on finding shelfmarks.  


Visual Arts 

The Print Room, located in the Asian and African Reading Room, is open by appointment only on Monday and Friday between 10.00 am-12.30 pm. Prints, drawings, photographs and related visual material in the Visual Arts collection can be consulted by appointment. Please contact the Visual Arts team via email (apac[email protected]) to check the availability of required items and to book an appointment. Please note that advanced booking is required. Restricted items including the Kodak Historical Collection, Fay Godwin Collection, William Henry Fox Talbot Collection are not currently available to Readers. 



The Reference Services Team in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room has a list of microfilms of printed and manuscript materials. 


Digital resources 

A number of our early printed books are available on Google Books. 

We regret that our digitised manuscripts and electronic research resources are currently unavailable. Nevertheless, some of our digitised manuscripts are available on external platforms: 

East Asia 

Middle East 

  • Digital Edition of the Coptic Old Testament, including leaves of British Library Coptic papyri interwoven with images from other institutions  
  • Ktiv (Manuscript Database of the National Library of Israel), including all digitised Hebrew manuscripts from the British Library
  • Qatar Digital Library, including digitised Arabic manuscripts from the British Library

South Asia 

  • Jainpedia, including digitised Jain manuscripts from the British Library

South-East Asia 

  • South East Asia Digital Library, including a collection of digitised rare books from South East Asia held at the British Library 
  • National Library Board, Singapore, digitised Malay manuscripts and Qur'ans, papers of Sir Stamford Raffles, and the accounts by Colin Mackenzie on Java held at the British Library
  • Or 14844, Truyện Kiều (The tale of Kiều) by Nguyễn Du (1765-1820), the most significant poem in Vietnamese literature 
  • Or 15227, an illuminated Qurʼan,19th century, from the east coast of the Malay Peninsula
  • Or 16126, Letter from Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja (Daing Ibrahim), Ruler of Johor, to Napoleon III, Emperor of France, dated 1857
  • Mss Jav 89, Serat Damar Wulan with illustrations depicting Javanese society in the late 18th century
  • Or 14734, Sejarah Melayu (Malay annals), dated 1873
  • Or 13681, Burmese manuscript showing seven scenes of King Mindon's donations at various places during the first four years of his reign (1853-57) 
  • Or 14178, Burmese parabaik (folding book) from around 1870 with 16 painted scenes of the Ramayana story with captions in Burmese 
  • Or 13922, Thai massage treatise with illustrations, 19th century 
  • Or 16101, Buddhist Texts, including the Legend of Phra Malai, with Illustrations of The Ten Birth Tales, dated 1894 
  • Or 16797, Cat treatise from Thailand, with illustrations, 19th century 
  • Or 4736, Khmer alphabet, handwritten by Henri Mouhot, c.1860-1 

Visual Arts 


We thank you, once again, for your patience as we continue to work to restore our services. Please do check this blog and the temporary British Library website for further updates. 



11 September 2023

How Old is the Language of Young Malay Manuscripts?

This guest blog, by Prof. Edwin Wieringa of Cologne University, How Old is the Language of Young Malay Manuscripts? A note on the unusual Malay reflexive phrase bertunjukkan diri(nya), turns the spotlight on a phrase in of one of the oldest Malay texts, ‘Tales of the Wise Parrot’.

A drawing of a green parrot
A drawing of a green parrot, in a copy of the Arabic text, Kitāb ʿajāʾib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharāʾib al-mawjūdāt, 16th-century. British Library, Or 4701, f. 214r Noc

Some years ago, when two copies of the Hikayat Bayan Budiman or Tale(s) of the Wise Parrot just had been digitized, Annabel Teh Gallop posted helpful background information to this work and its textual witnesses on this blog, pointing out that it was probably composed in the 15th century or earlier, but that the two digitized manuscripts at the British Library dated from the early 19th century. This considerable time gap prompts the general and broader, though rarely raised or discussed, question as to whether such relatively young copies may still be regarded as faithful keepers of an older language layer. As the Dutch philologist Roelof Roolvink (1965: 311) warns us, “at any period a copyist, apart from making the usual copyist’s mistakes and embellishments of style etc., was inclined – as was only natural – to substitute new words and forms for those that had already become obsolete or otherwise unintelligible at the time the copy was made.”

Opening pages of Hikayat Bayan Budiman, copied in Penang in 180
Opening pages of Hikayat Bayan Budiman, copied in Penang in 1808. British Library, MSS Malay B.7, ff. 1v-2r  Noc

An intriguing example of a substitution of an unusual grammatical expression can be observed in the transmission of the Hikayat Bayan Budiman. Profiting from the availability of digitized images of MSS Malay B.7, which I recently used for a course in reading the Jawi script of Malay manuscripts, my attention was drawn to a reflexive phrase with an unconventional ber-…-kan verb, namely bertunjukkan dirinya (“to show itself/herself/himself/themselves”), which may very well represent the original wording of many centuries ago. This variant reading does not occur in the critical text edition made by Sir Richard Olaf Winstedt (1878-1966), which is based on two other principal manuscripts from the 19th century. In the Malay Concordance Project, a wonderful online research tool of the late Ian Proudfoot (1946-2011), the latter observed “a tendency to complex verbal morphology” in the Hikayat Bayan Budiman; Proudfoot’s list of words found in Winstedt’s edition facilitates research in this aspect of the text, but without – of course – reference to the morphological form ber-tunjuk-kan.

The opening of the frame story in MSS Malay B.7, which I had chosen for students as reading matter, telling about the plucking of the parrot by the merchant’s wife, is not too difficult to read, because the script is clear and easily legible, while the text runs parallel to Winstedt’s edition. However, in the episode in which the published text edition (Winstedt 1966: 14) has Maka bayan itupun keluarlah terbang menunjukkan dirinya kapada isteri saudagar itu seraya katanya (“Then the parrot came out flying, showing itself to the merchant’s wife, while saying …”), the British Library manuscript is considerably shorter, namely (f. 7v, line 12): Maka bayan itupun bertunjukkan dirinya kepada perempuan itu seraya katanya (“Then the parrot showed itself to the woman, while saying…”).

A line of Malay text from Hikayat Bayan Budiman
The line reading: Maka bayan itupun bertunjukkan dirinya kepada perempuan itu seraya katanya from Hikayat Bayan Budiman, 1808. British Library, MSS Malay B.7, f. 7v (line 12) Noc

The reflexive phrase consisting of a ber-...-kan verb with the reflexive pronoun diri (“self”) is not found in the dictionaries (including the online official monolingual dictionaries of Indonesia and Malaysia), whereas Roolvink (1965), in a rare case study of the historical grammar of the Malay language, could not muster any examples of bertunjukkan. Roolvink based his grammatical study on a corpus of fifteen text editions, including Winstedt’s Hikayat Bayan Budiman, which in my opinion is merely a random sample, though Roolvink (1965: 313) confidently thought that it gave “a good representative of the older language”.

Fortunately, over the last decades, many more text editions have become available, but the unusual reflexive phrase remains a peculiarity: a Malay Concordance Project search for bertunjukkan mentions only one example in the Hikayat Indraputra, in which the eponymous protagonist is “showing himself” (Indraputra … bertunjukkan dirinya…) and is subsequently seen by the nymphs (maka Indraputrapun dilihat oleh segala bidadari). The MCP also mentions three other examples of bertunjukkan (but without diri(nya)), namely two from the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain and one from a 17th century collection of Sufi tracts. An internet search brought to light another example in a copy of the Hikayat Amir Hamzah (Indonesian National Library, ML 23, p. 3), in which the two brothers Ghar Turki and Tar Turki, who want to attack Hamzah, “show themselves” (bertunjukkan dirinya), whereas the text edition by A. Samad Said has the common expression of menunjukkan dirinya.* As the Hikayat Indraputra and the Hikayat Amir Hamzah together with the Hikayat Bayan Budiman belong to the oldest works of traditional Malay literature, it seems likely that the reflexive phrase bertunjukkan diri(nya) reflects an older layer of Malay, which by the 19th century was considered by copyists as an archaism in need of revision.

All this goes to show that a reader of Malay manuscripts needs to be sensitive to the textual instability of the transmitted texts. Variant readings are invariably cause for ‘philological alarm’ and should draw us into closer reading.

* Retrieved from an unpublished paper by Prima Hariyanto, p. 27, uploaded on Scribd. The Romanised transliteration in this paper (which I could not check against the original) is: “Maka arikian Goraterka dan Taraterka pun bertunjukkan dirinya.” The corresponding sentence in A. Samad Ahmad’s text edition (1987: 323) reads: “Ketika itu Tarturki dan Gharturki pun menunjukkan dirinya.”

R. Roolvink, “The passive-active per-/ber- // per-/memper- correspondence in Malay” in Lingua 15 (1965), 310-337.
A. Samad Said, Hikayat Amir Hamzah. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1987.
R.O. Winstedt, Hikayat Bayan Budiman. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Edwin P. Wieringa, Professor of Indonesian Philology and Islamic Studies, University of Cologne, Germany Ccownwork

14 August 2023

Literary manuscripts from Southeast Asia on display

The British Library collections of manuscripts from Southeast Asia are especially rich in literary works, ranging from centuries-old epics deriving from Indian models, to innovative compositions in prose and poetry. In some regions literary manuscripts were designed to be read aloud to an audience, while in other places books were savoured in private. The written word aimed to enchant and soothe the soul, but usually also to instruct and improve the mind.

Literary works from Southeast Asia currently on display in the British Library.
Literary works from Southeast Asia currently on display in the British Library.

A selection of literary manuscripts from Southeast Asia is currently on display in the exhibitions case outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room on the third floor of the British Library building at St Pancras in London. On the bottom shelf are two illustrated folding books in Thai and Burmese, and on the top shelf are texts written in Vietnamese and Malay.

Thai konlabot กลบท. Thailand, 19th century
Thai konlabot กลบท. Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or. 16102, f. 9r  Noc

This folding book contains konlabot rhymes in the Thai language. Konlabot is a special form of Thai poetry going back to the classical work Chindamani (‘Jewel of Thought’), attributed to the Buddhist monk Horathibodi around 1670. Konlabot poetry is used in classical Thai literature to express emotions and the beauty of characters and scenes, but also to show the skill and intellect of the author. Rhymes are often presented in the shapes of animals, plants or natural settings, like the mythical golden hamsa bird in front of a cave.

Ramayana in Burmese. Myanmar (Burma), late 19th century
Ramayana in Burmese. Myanmar (Burma), late 19th century. British Library, Or. 14178, f. 8r  Noc

The great Indian epic Ramayana is known in Burmese as Yama Zatdaw. This beautiful illustrated folding book depicts the episode when Rama (with green face), his wife Sita and and his brother Lakshmana are living in exile. The demon king Ravana plots to abduct Sita by sending one of his demons in the form of a golden deer. Sita begs Rama to catch the golden deer for her (left), and so he leaves Sita under the protection of Lakshmana and goes off to shoot the golden deer with his bow and arrow (right).

Vietnamese tuông plays. Vietnam, mid-19th century
Vietnamese tuông plays. Vietnam, mid-19th century. British Library, Or. 8218, vol. 1, f. 2r Noc

‘Life story of Song Ciming zhuan’ is one of 46 tuông plays from a ten-volume set possibly written in Hue, the capital of Vietnam in the 19th century. Tuông, or classical Vietnamese theatre, is believed to have originated through Chinese influence in the 13th century. It became especially popular during the Nguyên dynasty (1802-1945), when emperors and high-ranking mandarins became patrons of troupes and had performances given in their private chambers.

Malay tale of Muhammad Hanafiah. Penang, 1805
Malay tale of Muhammad Hanafiah. Penang, 1805. British Library, MSS Malay B.6, ff. 1v-2r Noc

Translated from a Persian original probably in the 15th century, the Malay Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah tells of heroic battles waged in the name of Islam, and this story came to epitomise valour in battle. In a famous episode in the Sejarah Melayu, the chronicle of the great kingdom of Melaka, the night before Melaka was attacked by the Portuguese in 1511, the young knights sent a message to the sultan requesting the recitation of the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah to give them courage.

All the manuscripts shown here have been digitised, and can be read fully on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Southeast Asia section curators Ccownwork

17 July 2023

Edmund Edwards McKinnon: donor of rare books on north Sumatra

Edmund Edwards McKinnon (1936-2023) – known to all as Ed McKinnon – first came to Indonesia in the 1960s to work in the field of plantation agriculture in Sumatra. After discovering the mediaeval harbour site of Kota Cina near Belawan, Deli in 1972, he embarked on an MA and then a PhD in art history at Cornell University leading to his doctoral dissertation of 1984 on Kota Cina: its context and meaning in the trade of Southeast Asia in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries. Thereafter, alongside his professional consulting career, he never ceased to be deeply involved in archaeological and art historical research in Sumatra. Ed McKinnon published widely on subjects ranging from early inter-regional commerce between the Middle East, Southeast Asia and China; the trading activities of the Tamil guilds in west Sumatra; medieval trade ceramics in Sumatra; the location of the historic Sumatran ports of Lamuri and Fansur; and on Batak material imagery. In March 2023, over fifty years after his initial work at Kota Cina, he returned to North Sumatra and on this visit – much-feted in the Indonesian press – he urged the Governor to take measures to protect the many historical and archaeological sites of world importance. His sudden passing of a heart attack, on 23 June 2023, came as a great shock to his family, friends, colleagues and admirers.

Ed McKinnon in the museum store room at Muara Jambi, during the First International Conference on Jambi Studies, 2013
Ed McKinnon in the museum store room at Muara Jambi, during the First International Conference on Jambi Studies, 2013. Photograph by A.T. Gallop.

Over the past few years, Ed McKinnon generously donated to the British Library a number of rare books relating to the history of north Sumatra from his personal collection, some dating from the 1970s. These books were mostly printed in Medan, the capital of the province of North Sumatra and the second largest city in Indonesia, and an important centre of the Malay press since the 1920s. One such local publication is a history of the city of Medan, Sejarah Kota Medan (2012) which by coincidence shows on page 2 a photograph of Ed McKinnon in a very characteristic activity: sorting through ceramic sherds.

Sejarah Kota Medan Ed McKinnon inspecting ceramic sherds
Sejarah Kota Medan (2012). British Library, YP.2020.a.625

The oldest book donated by Ed McKinnon to the British Library was a work by the Sumatran writer and poet Dada Meuraxa published in 1974 on a cultural history of Sumatra, covering the whole island from Aceh in the north to Lampung in the south.

Front cover of Dada Meuraxa, Sejarah kebudayaan Sumatera (1974)
Front cover of: Dada Meuraxa, Sejarah kebudayaan Sumatera (1974). British Library, YP.2018.a.162

Also dating from the 1970s are three booklets by M.B. Purba, a retired army officer, all concerning the art and cultural heritage of the Simalungun Batak region to the north east of Lake Toba.

Three booklets by Let. Col. (Retired) M.B. Purba on aspects of Simalungun Batak culture
Three booklets by Let. Col. (Retired) M.B. Purba on aspects of Simalungun Batak culture: a history of the Simalungun Museum in Pematang Siantar (1978); a compendium of painted and carved design motifs (1979); and a treatise on the cultural traits of the Simalungun people (1977). British Library, YP.2018.a.165; YP.2018.a.163; YP.2018.a.164

A pictorial account of the growth of the Simalungun Museum in Pematang Siantar
A pictorial account of the growth of the Simalungun Museum in Pematang Siantar, from a single building in 1939 to a cluster of 11 traditional structures in the 1970s. M.B. Purba, Museum Simalungun (1978). British Library, YP.2018.a.165, p. 29

Another group of books given by Ed McKinnon relate to the renowned historian and cultural figurehead, Tengku Luckman Sinar (1933-2011), who published widely on all aspects of Sumatran Malay history and traditions. Tengku Luckman Sinar was the third son of Sultan Sulaiman Syariful Alam Syah (r. 1879-1946) of Serdang, on the northeast coast of Sumatra. Following the declaration of Indonesian indepencence in 1945 and the ensuing ‘Social Revolution’ in east Sumatra, which saw violent local uprisings against aristocratic families for perceived collaboration with the Dutch colonial forces, for most of the 20th century the royal courts of Sumatra lost all political power and functioned purely as guardians of traditional customs. However, after the fall of President Suharto in 1998 and subsequent state decentralisation, in many parts of Indonesia sultanates were revived and played an increasingly visible and influential role. Thus in 2001, after a long professional career as a writer and academic, and following the deaths of his two older brothers, Tengku Luckman Sinar was installed as Sultan Lukman Sinar Bashar Shah II of Serdang. The donations from Ed McKinnon include a biography of Tengku Luckman Sinar by his daughter Tengku Mira Sinar, accompanied by the programme of the launch event for that publication in Medan in 2016.

Publications relating to Tengku Luckman Sinar of north Sumatra
Publications relating to Tengku Luckman Sinar of north Sumatra donated by Ed McKinnon.

List of books donated to the British Library by Ed McKinnon, 2017-2022:
• Dada Meuraxa, Sejarah Kebudayaan Sumatera. Medan: Firma Hasmar, 1974. YP.2018.a.162
• Purba, M.D., Lingga Sitopu, S.A., Mengenal Lukis & Ukir Tradisional Simalungun (Painting and Ca[r]ving). Medan: M.D. Purba, 1979. YP.2018.a.163
• Purba, M.D., Mengenal Kepribadian Asli Rakyat Simalungun. Medan: M.D. Purba, 1977. YP.2018.a.164
• Purba, M.D., Obyek Wisata Museum Simalungun. Medan: M.D. Purba, 1978. YP.2018.a.165
Sejarah Kota Medan. Medan: Pemerintah Kota Medan, Badan Perencanaan Pembangunan Daerah, 2012. YP.2020.a.625
• Yayasan Kesultanan Serdang (Medan). Sumatera Utara tempo doeloe. Koleksi gambar: Tuanku Luckman Sinar Basarshah II S.H. Medan: Yayasan Kesultanan Serdang, 2009. YP.2020.a.665
• Tengku Luckman Sinar. Mengenang kewiraan pemuka adat dan masyarakat adatnya di Sumatera Utara menentang kolonialism Belanda, oleh Tuanku Luckman Sinar Basarshah. Medan: Forkala, 2017. YP.2020.b.124
• Tengku Mira Sinar. Tengku Luckman Sinar, Melayu Nusantara dan strategi kebudayaan, oleh Tengku Mira Sinar; editor dan kata pengantar, Heddy Shri Ahimsa-Putra. Yogyakarta: Kepel Press, 2016. YP.2018.a.3499
Peluncuran buku: ‘Tengku Luckman Sinar, Melayu Nusantara dan strategi kebudayaan’. Medan, 2016. YP.2020.a.664
Ragam Pusaka Warisan Leluhur Nusantara: Pekan Raya Sumatera Utara, 18-24 Maret 2016. [Medan]: Pusaka Semenda Deli, 2016. YP.2023.b.194
• Tengku Lah Husny, Lintasan Sejarah. Peradaban dan Budaya Penduduk Melayu-Pesisir Deli, Sumatera Timur 1612-1950. Medan: privately printed by T. Lah Husny. (n.d. (1975))?. [shelfmark pending]

Ed and Sinta McKinnon at the British Library, 2022
Ed and Sinta McKinnon at the British Library, June 2022. Photograph by A.T. Gallop.

Selamat jalan, Pak Ed.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

(Updated with correct date of birth, 1.8.2023)

15 May 2023

Animals in William Marsden’s The History of Sumatra

When first published in 1783, The History of Sumatra by William Marsden represented the first systematic account of the island of Sumatra published in English or any other European language. The History (henceforth) was highly praised by contemporary scholars and writers and secured Marsden’s reputation as an author, linguist and collector, a reputation that continues to the present day.

Born in 1754 in County Wicklow, Ireland, Marsden was raised in a moderately wealthy family and at the age of 16 joined his elder brother in the service of the English East India Company (EIC henceforth) at Fort Marlborough, now Benkulu, in western Sumatra, Indonesia, as a writer. Marsden remained in Sumatra for 8 years, rising to the rank of Principle Secretary to the EIC Government but resigned from his post aged 24 and returned to London in December 1780, where he pursued a career as an author scholar and later as the First Secretary to the Admiralty (1804-1807).

During his time in Sumatra however, Marsden not only fulfilled his role for the EIC but became an avid collector and documented of the island’s languages, fauna and flora – all of which came to underpin the contents of the History with its chapters of ‘beasts’, ‘vegetables’, ‘medicinal shrubs’, ‘gold, tin and other metals’ and ‘languages’ to name just a few.  

The success of the 1783 first edition was such that a second edition quickly followed in 1784, at the same time in which Marsden was firmly establishing himself in London’s networks of science and learning, following his appointment as a fellow of the Royal Society (1783) and the Society of Antiquaries (1785). Marsden continued to write and publish following the second edition of the History, including a Dictionary and Grammar of the Malayan Language (both 1812), a translation of The Travels of Marco Polo (1818) and Numismata Orientalia Illustrata (1823-5) one of the most influential early publications on Asian coinage produced in Britain and Europe. These works illustrated the broad range of subjects - from linguistics to coins to travel accounts that interested Marsden following his return from Sumatra. The History was also translated into German (1785) and French (1788) however Marsden was keen to prepare a new edition of the History, updated with new information and illustrations acquired from his friends and connections still in Sumatra. It would be this updated version, the third edition of 1811 with an additional 100 pages of text and 19 plates containing 27 engraved illustrations of the plants, animals, people, tools and landscapes of Sumatra. Of the 27 illustrations, twelve record different animals found in Sumatra that are described in the main text of the History. What is interesting is that all but one of the illustrations of animals in the History were based on watercolour paintings and pen and ink studies now held in the Visual Art collections of the British Library.

These original works include a study of a Sunda or Malayan pangolin, shown standing in profile on an outcrop of rock, with its coat of scales clearly delineated. This watercolour with pen and ink sketch was used as the basis for plate 10 of the History, and although the original painting is not signed, according to the engraving, the work was made by ‘W. Bell’ believed to have been Dr William Bell, a Company surgeon based in Sumatra in 1792.

Pangolin combined 1
Plate 10 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a Sunda pangolin and the original watercolour with pen and ink sketch, NHD1/16, 1784-1808

The original paintings for other works labelled as being the work of ‘W. Bell’ in the History are also found in the Library’s collection of natural history drawings, including pen and ink studies of the skull of a serow, a mammal similar to a goat or antelope and a muntjac skull, also known as barking deer.

Skulls combined 1
Plate 13 no.2 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing the skull of a ‘Kambin-utan and a Kijang’ alongside the original ink drawings; above NHD1/11; Below NHD1/10, 1784-1808

The details of bone, horns, fractures and teeth of both of these sketches has been carefully copied onto a single plate by the Flemish engraver Anthony Cardon (1772-1813) who engraved all of the animal illustrations in the History.

Whilst the work of ‘W. Bell’ is used for 6 of the animal illustrations in the History, a second artist’s work is also included. This artist is unnamed by Marsden in the History, their work simply signed ‘Sinensis del.’ indicating that the work was the creation of an artist from China. This includes a rather stunning double page engraving of a flying lemur hanging from the branch of a langsat tree, holding an infant on its body whilst two giant squirrels sit and climb on the other end of the branch eating the fruit of the tree.

The original painting for these engraving has at some point become divided into two pages – with the squirrels on one page and the lemur and young on another. However the tip of one of the squirrel’s tails continuing across onto the second page indicates that at one point these two separate pages were once joined or at least were meant to be viewed together as shown in the engraved illustration. The original painting is faithfully reproduced in reverse in the engraving, including the botanical details of the interior of the langsat fruit shown in the lower right of the page.

Lemur and Squirrels image 1
Plate 9 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a flying lemur hanging from a branch with two giant squirrels other the other end, alongside the original watercolour paintings; left NHD2/285; right NHD1/18, 1784-1808

Other works by a Chinese artist include a detailed study of a long tailed porcupine and a pair of greater mousedeer (also known as greater chevrotain) that are both painted without any background or surrounding details. Nonspecific landscapes have however been added to the engraved plates in a style similar to those included in the original works by ‘W. Bell’.

Porcupine combined 1
Plate 13 no.1 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a long tailed porcupine, alongside the original watercolour painting, NHD1/17, 1784-1808

Tiny deer combined 1
Plate 12 no.1 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a greater mouse deer, alongside the original watercolour painting, NHD1/18, 1784-1808

 A hand written pencil note on the painting of the greater mouse-deer indicates the small scale of these animals and states that they should not be shown too large on the resulting plate to ensure this diminutive nature is accurately reflected in the published work.

The majority of the animal illustrated in the History show mammals, however there is one image of a reptile – a study of a common flying dragon which is also stated to be the work of a Chinese artist in the History although no signature is found on the delicate watercolour on which this engraving was based. The original watercolour shows a dorsal and ventral view of the reptile, highlighting the different colouration on the top and bottom of the common flying dragon as well as the outspread skin that allows the lizard to glide through the air.

Flying Dragon combined 1
Plate 10 no.2 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing a ventral and dorsal view of a common flying dragon alongside the original watercolour painting, NHD1/26, 1784-1808

A third artist, Eudelin de Jonville, is also referenced in the History’s illustrative animal plates. Although little is known about de Jonville, EIC records show that he worked as a cinnamon surveyor in Ceylon, modern day Sri Lanka, between 1798 and 1800 when he travelled with Major-General MacDowall to the Court of Kandy, where he remained until around 1805. The one work by de Jonville in the History is a set of four studies of the beaks of different species of hornbill – two illustrating the great pied hornbill, one of a Malabar pied hornbill and finally one image of a rhinoceros hornbill. As with the previously mentioned engravings, the original pencil sketches of these studies is in the Visual Arts natural history collections,  each with a scale in inches added to illustration to provide the accurate measurement of each species.  Although also unsigned the original pencil sketches is accompanied by a letter written in French by de Jonville to Marsden describing the hornbill of Sri Lanka, strengthening the attribution of this work to the artistry of de Jonville.

Hornbills combined 1
Plate 15 from The History of Sumatra, 3rd edition, 1811, showing the skulls of three species of hornbill alongside the pencil sketches, NHD1/5, 1784-1808

The original paintings described above are all part of a larger collection of natural history studies collected by Marsden following his return from Sumatra in 1780. These include watercolour and pen and ink studies of fish, shells, a buffalo and several birds alongside the animals discussed above. In total 35 paintings acquired by Marsden are now in the Visual Art collections following their donation by Marsden’s widow to the EIC library after his death in 1836. The collections of the EIC library and that of the India Office Library have subsequently been transferred to the British Library, where they are now available to view in the Library’s reading rooms.

By Cam Sharp Jones, Visual Arts CuratorCcownwork


Further reading:

Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, 1962.

John Bastin, The British in West Sumatra (1685-1825): a selection of documents, mainly from the East India Company records preserved in the India Office Library, Commonwealth Relations Office, London., Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1965

Diana J. Carroll, "William Marsden, The Scholar Behind The History of Sumatra." Indonesia and the Malay World 47 (2019): 66-89.

William Marsden, The History of Sumatra: Containing an Account of the Government, Laws, Customs, and Manners of the Native Inhabitants, with a Description of the Natural Productions, and a Relation of the Ancient Political State of That Island. By William Marsden,... The Third Edition, with Corrections, Additions, and Plates. ed. 1811.

William Marsden, with introduction by John Bastin, The history of Sumatra, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986

Annabel Teh Gallop, Early Views of Indonesia: Drawings from the British Library, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995.

31 January 2023

Alexander/Iskandar: Ancestor of Malay Kings

Alexander the Great was born in Macedon in 356 BC, and by the age of twenty-five, he had defeated the Persian army. Over the next seven years, Alexander created an empire that stretched from Greece to Egypt and beyond the Indus river in the east, before his early death aged just 32 in Babylon in 323 BC. However, the focus of the current British Library exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth (21 October 2022-19 February 2023), is not on the historical Alexander, but on how the great hero was adopted by countless cultures, each of which remoulded him in their own image. Alexander appears in myths and legends in languages ranging from Greek to Hebrew, Syriac and Coptic, and notably in Arabic and Persian, where he is known as Iskandar Dhu al-Qarnayn, ‘the Two-Horned’. And it was from a Persian prototype that Alexander entered the Malay world as Iskandar Zulkarnain, legendary ancestor of Malay kings.

The Malay tale of Alexander the Great, Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, dated 30 September 1713
The Malay tale of Alexander the Great, Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, dated 30 September 1713. Leiden University Library, Cod. Or. 1970.

The Malay Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, the ‘Tale of Iskandar the Two-Horned’, was most probably translated into Malay in the early 15th century, from an Arab paraphrase of a Persian source, which can be traced back ultimately to the Greek ‘Alexander Romance’ attributed to the writer known as ‘Pseudo-Callisthene’. This literary adoption most likely took place in Pasai in north Sumatra, which had been the first Malay kingdom to embrace Islam in the 13th century. Two recensions of the Malay tale are known today, a shorter Sumatran version which ends with the marriage of Iskandar to the daughter of king Tibus of Damascus, and a longer one associated with the Malay Peninsula, which extends to the death of Iskandar.

In the eponymous hikayat, Iskandar Zulkarnain, accompanied by the Prophet Khidr and Greek wise men, leads expeditions to the West and the East, conquers Iran and Egypt, Andalusia and Ethiopia, Syria and India and finally reaches the edges of the earth. As noted by Vladimir Braginsky (2004: 176-177), the Islamic world of the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain ‘widened the limits of the inhabitable world for the Malays and disclosed the unity of humankind to them and their own place in it.’

The opening pages of a three-volume Malay manuscript of the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain
The opening pages of a three-volume Malay manuscript of the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, copied in Melaka by Encik Yahya bin Abdul Wahid for William Farquhar, dated 15 February 1817. Royal Asiatic Society, Farquhar 2, Volume 1.

The towering presence of Iskandar is not confined to the eponymous hikayat, for he also appears in other Malay literary works, including the earlier Hikayat Amir Hamzah, narrating the adventures of an uncle of the prophet, which was probably rendered into Malay in the 14th century. In this heroic tale Iskandar is renowned for converting many peoples to Islam (maka segala raja-raja di negeri Zamin Tauran itu semuanya diislamkan oleh Sultan Iskandar Zulkarnain; MCP: AHmz 607:34), and when Amir Hamzah sets out from Zamin Ambar on his way back to Rukham, he is guided on his way by landmarks erected by Iskandar Zulkarnain (berpedomankan menara-menara perbuatan Raja Iskandar Zulkarnain itu, MCP: AHmz 676:35). Iskandar Zulkarnain is hailed as a conqueror, statesman and paragon of sagacity in the Taj al-Salatin or ‘Crown of Kings’, a ‘mirror for princes’ composed in Aceh in 1603, and in the Bustan al-Salatin, the universal history compiled by Nuruddin al-Raniri in Aceh in the early 17th century.

The emblematic appearance of Iskandar in Malay literature is in the chronicle of the great sultanate of Melaka, the Sulalat al-Salatin, commonly referred to as the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals. Iskandar is the first actor on the scene in this text, from the manuscript below: ‘according to the teller of tales, one day Raja Iskandar, son of Raja Darab, of the race of Rum [Constantinople], from the country of Macedonia, entitled the ‘Two-Horned’, set out to see where the sun rose, and so journeyed until he reached the border of India.’ (kata yang empunya ceritera, pada suatu masa, bahwa Raja Iskandar, anak Raja Darab, Rum bangsanya, Maqaduniah nama negerinya, Dhu al-Qarnain gelarnya, sekali baginda berjalan hendak melihat matahari terbit. Maka baginda sampai pada [sarhad] negeri Hindi.)

After defeating the ruler of this country, Raja Kida Hindi, Iskandar is married to his daughter at a wedding officiated at by the prophet Nabi Khidir, and the story of their encounter and marriage is related at length in Firdawsi's 11th century Persian epic the Shahnamah. It is from this union that Malay kings trace their descent, for the Sulalat al-Salatin narrates how three princes, progeny of the line of Raja Iskandar Zulkarnain, suddenly appear on Mount Siguntang at Palembang in Sumatra. The eldest became ruler of Minangkabau, the second ruler of Tanjung Pura, and the youngest stayed at Palembang and founded the line of the sultans of Melaka. Ever since, Iskandar Zulkarnain has often been a favoured regnal name for Malay kings, and the greatest ruler of Aceh in the early 17th century was named Iskandar Muda, ‘the Young Iskandar’.

Opening passage of Sulalat al-Salatin
Opening passage of Sulalat al-Salatin, introducing Raja Iskandar Zulkarnain. Copied in Melaka in 1873. British Library, Or 14734, f. 3r. Noc

Space constraints mean that there are no Malay manuscripts featuring Iskandar Zulkarnain in the British Library exhibition, but the accompanying book (Stoneman 2022: 154) includes the royal Malay seal shown below. This is the seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Saifuddin of Ternate in the Moluccan islands, who reigned from 1714 to 1751, and it is impressed in lampblack on a letter in Malay addressed to Governor General M. de Haan of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Batavia, dated 27 Muharam 1140 (14 September 1727). The seal is inscribed: al-mu'min billah Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Raja Ternate sanat 1128, ‘the believer in God, Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain, Raja of Ternate, the year 1128’ (1715/6), and is decorated with scattered star motifs. Note the use of dots in the date to indicate 'place value': three dots next to the numeral 1 standing for 1000; two dots next to the next numeral 1 indicating hundreds; and one dot above the numeral 2 indicating tens.

Seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Saifuddin of Ternate
Seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Saifuddin of Ternate, dated 1715/6. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Mal.-pol. 210, f. 12.

Another sultan of Ternate who ruled later in the 18th century also adoped Iskandar Zulkarnain as part of his regnal name, as can be seen in his red wax seal below, which reads: Billah Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah Raja Ternate sanat 1188, ‘Through God, Paduka Seri Sultan Kaicili Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah, Raja of Ternate, the year 1188’ (1774). This seal is stamped on a contract between Ternate and the VOC, dated 16 August 1774.

Seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah of Ternate
Seal of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin Syah of Ternate, dated 1774. National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia, Ternate 131

A century later, a sultan of Maguindanao – on the island of Mindanao now in the Philippines, just north of Ternate – assumed a similar regnal name. His seal, with the characteristic ‘trefoil crown’ of Maguindanao royal seals, stamped on a letter of 1888, is inscribed: wa-tawakkal ‘ala Allah huwa Datu Seri Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain, ‘And trusting to God, he is Datu Seri Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain’.

Seal of Sultan Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain of Maguindanao
Seal of Sultan Muhammad Iskandar Zulkarnain of Maguindanao, ca. 1888. National Archives of the Philippines, Mindanao y Sulu, SDS 9241, f. 899

The seal of a sultan of Bacan – an island to the south of Ternate – is inscribed with his name of Sultan Amir Iskandar Zulkarnain Azimuddin, suggesting the strong appeal of Iskandar Zulkarnain as a regnal name in these north-eastern islands of the archipelago, a long way from the mountains of Palembang where the descendants of Iskandar are said to have first appeared in the Malay world. In view of the founding myth, it is however hardly surprising that the Malay region where the name of Iskandar Zulkarnain still resonates most strongly is in the Minangkabau highlands of west Sumatra. The letters of an 18th-century royal minister were impressed with a seal inscribed Sultan Iskandar Zulkarnain, while the 17th-century Minangkabau prince Sultan Ahmad Syah, who fomented rebellion against the Dutch, used a seal inscribed Paduka Seri Sultan Ahmad Syah ibn zuriat Iskandar Zulkarnain, ‘Paduka Seri Sultan Ahmad Syah, descended from the seed of Iskandar Zulkarnain’ (Gallop 2019: 183-185). Even in the late 19th century, a sultan of Inderapura on the west coast of Sumatra bore the seal shown below which laid claim to the whole panopoly of Minangkabau kingship in its grandiose inscription: bi-'inayat Allâh al-‘Azim Syah al-Sultan Maharaja Alif Sultan Maharaja Dipang Sultan Maharaja Diraja ibn Sultan Hidayat Allah ibn Sultan Iskandar Dhu al-Karnain khalifat Allah fi al-‘alam johan berdaulat bi-‘inayat Allah marhum Syah, ‘By the grace of God, the Most Supreme One, Syah, Sultan Maharaja Alif, Sultan Maharaja Dipang, Sultan Maharaja Diraja, sons of Sultan Hidayat Allah, son of Sultan Iskandar Zulkarnain, vicegerent of God on earth, the champion endowed with sovereign power, by the grace of God, the late Syah’ (Gallop 2019: 178).

Seal of Sultan Firman Syah of Inderapura
Seal of Sultan Firman Syah of Inderapura, on a decree of 1888. British Library, EAP117/11/1/5

And indeed, one of the latest acquisitions for the British Library, a new publication in Malay on the history of Minangkabau, is entitled Minangkabau: from the dynasty of Iskandar Zulkarnain to Tuanku Imam Bonjol.

Book on Minangkabau
Minangkabau: dari dinasti Iskandar Zulkarnain hingga Tuanku Imam Bonjol, ed. Amir Sjarifoedin. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 2020. British Library (shelfmark pending).


MCP: references to Iskandar Zulkarnain in the Hikayat Amir Hamzah were sourced through the Malay Concordance Project created by Ian Proudfoot.

V.I. Braginsky, The heritage of traditional Malay literature: a historical survey of genres, writings and literary views. Leiden: KITLV, 2004.
Annabel Teh Gallop, Malay seals from the Islamic world of Southeast Asia: content, form, context, catalogue. Singapore: NUS Press in association with the British Library, 2019.
Richard Stoneman (ed.), Alexander the Great: the making of a myth, co-editors Ursula Sims-Williams with Adrian S. Edwards and Peter Toth. London: British Library, 2022.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

Alexander the Great: the Making of a Myth is on at the British Library, 21 October 2022 - 19 February 2023

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.


05 December 2022

A book of Malay pantuns from Portugal

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to sail around the southern tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean to reach India and then Southeast Asia. In 1511 Portuguese forces captured Melaka, the greatest Malay kingdom in Southeast Asia, and held it until 1641. Throughout the 16th century armed Portuguese envoys-cum-merchants roamed across the Malay archipelago in search of spices, without competition from northern European traders, who only arrived on the scene at the turn of the 17th century. It is thus a source of consternation that almost no Malay or other vernacular Southeast Asian manuscripts can be found today in Portugal, compared with the many hundreds held in Britain, the Netherlands, France and Germany. Admittedly, the oldest surviving paper manuscript in Arabic script from Southeast Asia – a letter in Arabic of 1516 from the ruler of Pasai in Sumatra to the Portuguese governor of Goa in India – is held in the Torre do Tombo Archives in Lisbon, as are the two earliest known Malay manuscript letters, from Ternate in 1521 and 1522. But not a single Malay manuscript volume or ‘book’ is known to be held in Portugal.

Livro de Pantuns: um Manuscrito Asiático do Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, Lisboa

Ivo Castro, Hugo C. Cardoso, Alan Baxter, Alexander Adelaar, and Gijs Koster (eds), Livro de Pantuns: um Manuscrito Asiático do Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, Lisboa / Book of Pantuns: an Asian Manuscript of the National Museum of Archeology, Lisbon (Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional, 2022).  British Library (shelfmark forthcoming). 

Therefore, the news of the recent publication this year of Livro de Pantuns / Book of Pantuns, presenting a manuscript containing Malay pantun or quatrains, from the collection of the National Museum of Archaeology, Lisbon, was greeted with much interest all over the world. The manuscript was said to date probably to the late 17th/early 18th century, and contained a number of sequences of poems written in both Portuguese creole and Malay in romanised script, created and circulated in the mixed Mardijker communities of Tugu and Batavia around present-day Jakarta in Java. Would this discovery perhaps lead to the unearthing of other Malay manuscripts long hidden in repositories in Portugal?

We are most grateful to the publishers for kindly sending a copy to the British Library, and as soon as it arrived on my desk, I eagerly unwrapped the package to browse the volume. To my surprise, it transpired that the manuscript had not, as I had assumed, been resting undisturbed for several centuries in Portugal since making its way to Europe from Java (p. 97). Instead, it had first surfaced in London in around 1865, in the hands of the now venerable but then newly-established antiquarian bookseller, Bernard Quaritch (whose firm has just celebrated its 175th birthday). The purchaser, Ernst Reinhold Rost (1822-1896), was a polymath linguist who had close connections both with the British Library and Malay scholarship: from 1869 to 1893 he served as Librarian of the India Office, and he also contributed the articles on ‘Malay Language and Literature’, amongst others, to the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Rost was in contact with Hugo Schuchardt (1842-1927), a professor at Graz in Austria who had a lifelong interest in creoles or dialectal variants formed through contact between European and other languages. The Pantuns manuscript was of enormous interest to Schuchardt, to whom Rost sent the manuscript in 1885, initially on loan before formally gifting it in August 1895 (pp. 98-99). On his own death in 1927, Schuchardt in turn bequeathed the manuscript to a Portuguese scholar, José Leite de Vasconcelos (1858-1941), who had visited Graz especially to study the book. Leite was the founder of the National Museum of Archaeology in Lisbon, and on his death his papers and collections were all willed to the Museum. However, as Leite never mentioned that the Malay manuscript was in his possession, it was only ‘rediscovered’ in a box in the Museum in 2018 (p. 96) – which happy event led to the publication of the present book.

This fully bilingual book is a rich collaboration between a large number of scholars, with detailed contextual studies on the history of the manuscript by Ivo Castro and Hugo C. Cardoso; on the ‘Portuguese-lexified Creole’ verses by Alan Baxter and Cardoso; on the Malay poems by Gijs Koster; and on the spelling and language of the Malay used by Alexander Adelaar. As shown below, the manuscript itself is presented generously and impeccably, with a beautifully printed full facsimile accompanied on each page with a diplomatic transcription of the text. This is followed by the edition proper in which the Malay pantuns appear in turn in diplomatic transcription, modernised spelling, modern Malay rendering, Portuguese translation and English translation, with full bilingual annotations at the foot of each page for easy reference.

Facsimile of the manuscript
Facsimile of the manuscript, with the diplomatic transcription of the text in the margins of each page. Livro de Pantuns, pp. 224-225

Text edition of the manuscript, presented in five columns
Text edition of the manuscript, presented in five columns, with on the left hand page first the diplomatic transcription of the Malay, followed by the modernised spelling in the centre and then the modern Malay rendering. On the right hand page are the Portuguese and English translations of the Malay. Livro de Pantuns, pp. 332-333.

I chose the pages above because they contain the section entitled Panton Dari Sitie Lela maijan, ‘The poem about Siti Lela Mayang’, which, as Gijs Koster explains (p. 138), bears strong similarities in parts to a well-known narrative poem called Syair Sinyor Kosta, ‘Poem on Sinyor Kosta’. This poem is also known as Syair Silambari, and is found in the Malay manuscript shown below (MSS Malay B 3), from the collection of the India Office Library and now held in the British Library, copied in Penang in 1806 by the scribe Ibrahim.  The Penang version begins with this verse:

Penang, 1806:
Ada satu silam bari / bunga kembang dini hari
pari bijak si Peringgi / kita karang satu nyanyi

In a tale from long ago / A flower blossomed in the early morning
About the wisdom of that Portuguese / I have composed a song

While the Batavia 'Panton', written down perhaps a century and a quarter earlier, begins:
Ayo silam konon bari  / kembang bunga dini hari
kita karang satu nyanyi / akan bijak si Peranggi

Long ago, they say, in the distant past / A flower blossomed in the early morning
I have composed a song / About the wisdom of that Portuguese

And indeed, the next quatrain in the Penang manuscript - introducing Siti Lela Mayang - occurs on the following page of the Batavia manuscript too. Hearing exactly the same phrases and words in the Batavia panton and the opening of the Penang syair, even with the lines transposed, hints at just how familiar this repertory of verses would have been to the audiences of port cities throughout the Malay world in the 17th and 18th centuries. It furthermore illustrates the crucial importance of the Lisbon manuscript as an early chronological marker for the circulation of these poems.

It is tempting to wonder whether Reinhold Rost ever considered presenting his Malay manuscript of pantuns to the India Office Library, to join its 'sibling' Syair Silambari MSS Malay B.3.  However, if this had happened, it is unlikely that the Livro de Pantuns / Book of Pantuns would have benefitted from the combined attentions of such an impressive array of experts as has been assembled in Lisbon, resulting in this wonderful new publication.

Syair Silambari, copied by Ibrahim, Penang, 1806-MSS Malay B.3  ff.22v-23r
Syair Silambari, Malay narrative poem, copied by Ibrahim, Penang, 1806. MSS Malay B 3, ff. 22v-23r   

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


14 February 2022

The art of small things (5): Recitation markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

This is the final part of a series of blog posts which has firmly resisted the temptation to dwell on the impressive illuminated frames in Qur’an manuscripts, in order to focus on the smallest artistic elements found on the inner pages. The first post looked at verse markers, the second text frames, the third surah headings and the fourth juz’ markers, all features which are common to many Qur’an manuscripts from all over the Islamic world. This fifth post, on the recitation markers ruku‘ or maqra’, is rather different, as these are not found in Qur’ans in all regions, or even in all parts of Southeast Asia, and are rarely mentioned in the scholarly literature on Qur’an manuscripts.

Maqra’ inscribed twice in tiny red letters in the margin, at the start of Juz’ 2 (Q.1:142), in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century
Maqra’ inscribed twice in tiny red letters in the margin, at the start of Juz’ 2 (Q.2:142), in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 13v. Noc

The more widely-used term is ruku‘, which has two related meanings. The first is the ritual act of bowing from the waist while standing during the formal prayer (salat). The second meaning of ruku‘ is a section of the Qur’an, in principle forming a thematic unit, selected for recitation. According to a recent study by 'Abd al-Qayum al-Sindi (2012/3), the tradition of dividing the Qur'an into ruku‘ appears to have developed in Central Asia and India around the 3/4th (10/11th) centuries. The aim was to facilitate reciting the Qur’an in Ramadan, aiming for completion by the 27th day of the holy month, the Laylat al-Qadr, believed to be the day that the Qur’an was first revealed to the prophet Muhammad. As a section of the Qur’an would be recited during each of the 20 rakat (cycles) of the evening tarawih prayers during Ramadan, each concluding with the ordained bow or ruku‘, the Qur’an was therefore divided into 540 (20 x 27) ruku‘, although other authorities give the number of ruku‘ as 558.

The division of the Qur’anic text into ruku‘, indicated with the letter ‘ayn inscribed in the margin, is indeed strongly associated with South Asia and parts of Southeast Asia, both in manuscripts and in printed Qur’ans, but is not found in western Islamic lands or in the Ottoman realm. In Southeast Asia, the use of marginal ‘ayn to signify ruku‘,  often placed in illuminated ornaments, is prominent in the early wave of Qur’an manuscripts in the Sulawesi diaspora style dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as in Mindanao.

EAP1020-3-2 (4)-3.11-15-det
Ruku‘ indicated by the letter ‘ayn in an illuminated 8-pointed star-shaped medallion, with the actual point in the text marked by a composite roundel. Folios from a Qur’an in the Sulawesi diaspora geometric style now held in Kampar, Riau, part of a larger manuscript copied in 1740 now in the Sang Nila Utama Museum, Pekanbaru, Riau, Indonesia. EAP1020/3/2, p.4 

MRSR Mushaf A (9)-DET  MRSR Mushaf A (12) 'ayn-det  MRSR Mushaf A (32) 'ayn-det
Marginal ‘ayn ornaments in a Sulawesi-style Qur’an, copied in Kedah in 1753, held in Masjid Sultan Riau, Pulau Penyengat, Riau Archipelago.

SB-Quran-01 (7)-a   UVL MSS 13296  (23)-a  Bristol D.M.32  (18)a
Marginal ‘ayn ornaments in Qur'an manuscripts from Mindanao, 18th-19th century; (left) Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Ms or. fol. 4134; (middle) University of Virginia Library, MSS 13296; (right) University of Bristol Library, D.M. 32.

From the 19th century onwards, marginal ‘ayn markers indicating ruku‘ are most strongly associated with Qur’an manuscripts from Java, and are often executed with stylish calligraphic flourishes.  In two Qur’ans from Java in the British Library, Add 12312 and Add 12343, the ruku‘ adhere to the locations given in modern printed Qur'ans, but in Add 12343 - and in a number of other Javanese Qur'ans - each marginal ‘ayn is accompanied by a number that is hard to interpret, seeming not to bear any correlation to either the number of the ruku‘, or the number of the verse, or the number of verses in that ruku‘.  These numbers are given here in bold in this listing of the 16 ruku‘ in the first juz’ of the Qur’an (S. al-Baqarah Q.2:1-141): 1 (2:1), 2 (2:8), 3 (2:21) 3 (this is the first ruku‘ marking in Add 12343), 4 (2:30) 13, 5 (2:40) 7, 6 (2:47) 7, 7 (2:60) 3, 8 (2:62) 9, 9 (2:72) 19, 10 (2:83) 4, 11 (2:87) 1, 12 (2:97) 7, 13 (2:104) 9, 14 (2:113) 9, 15 (2:122) 8, 16 (2:130) 12, with the 17th ruku‘ starting with Juz' 2 at Q.2:142.

Add 12343 f.x
Marginal letter ‘ayn in red accompanied by the number '7', marking ruku‘ 5 (Q.2:40), in a Qur'an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add 12343, f. 3v. Noc

Add 12312 ayn
Marginal letter ‘ayn in red topped with an elaborate triangle of alternating red and black lines, but without a number, while a tiny ‘ayn above the verse marker indicates the exact start of ruku‘ 5 (Q.2:40), in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add 12312, f. 3v. Noc

Ruku‘ marked with the letter ‘ayn in red ink in the margin, with a small ‘ayn at the exact verse, in a Qur’an from East Java, 19th century. EAP061/2/35, p.87.

According al-Sindi's research (2012/3), it was the Sindhi scholar Muhammad al-Tattwi (d. 1174/1761) who replaced the term ruku‘ with maqra’, dividing each juz' into 16 maqra’. He was the author of the Tuhfah al-Qari bi-Jama‘ al-Maqari (‘A Gift to the Reader of a Collection of Maqra’), said to be based on the ‘opinions of scholars from Bukhara’. Maqra’ inscriptions in Qur'an manuscripts are most evident in Southeast Asia, mainly in the Malay peninsula and Java. Important evidence of the usage of this term in the Malay world to refer to sections of the Qur’an for recitation is found in the historical chronicle by Raja Ali Haji, ‘Genealogy of the Malays and Bugis’ (Salasilah Melayu dan Bugis) composed in 1868. In one episode, Gusti Jamril, son of the ruler of Mempawah on the west coast of Kalimantan (Borneo), pays a visit to Pangiran Dipati, the elderly ruler of Pinang Sikayuk. The young prince is quizzed on his religious learning:

His Highness asked him, ‘Has my grandson learned to recite the Qur’an?’ Gusti answered, ‘Yes’, and so His Highness instructed him to do so. So Gusti recited two makra before pausing, and His Highness listened to him with pleasure. (Dan baginda pun bertanya pula, "Apa cundaku tahu mengaji Quran?" Maka jawab Gusti, "Tahu". Maka disuruh baginda membaca Quran. Dan membacalah Gusti ada dua makra berhenti. Maka baginda pun suka mendengarnya.  Raja Ali Haji 2016: 212, identified via the Malay Concordance Project.)

Pakualaman Is.4 (2)-ed
Maqra’ marking in a Qur’an manuscript from Java, 19th century. Pura Pakulaman Library, Yogyakarta, Is. 4.

IAMM 1998.1.3501  maqra c-ed
Illuminated floral maqra’ marking in a Qur’an manuscript in the Patani style, 19th century. Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 1998.1.3494

IAMM 1998.1.3494  maqra' c-det  BQMI  (1)-a  BQMI  (3)-a
Illuminated maqra’ markers, from left to right: from a Patani-style Qur’an, 19th century, Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 1998.1.3501; and two from the royal La Lino Qur'an, early 19th century, probably made on the East Coast of the Malay Peninsula but long held in the Palace of Bima, Sumbawa, now in the Bayt al-Qur'an and Museum Istiqlal, Jakarta. Note the similar stylish calligraphic treatment of the letter alif.

Or 15227-maqra
Maqra’ inscription in red ink, in a Qur’an manuscript in the Patani style, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 24v Noc

Illuminated maqra’ ornaments are actually quite rare, as maqra’ markings in Qur’an manuscripts are usually just inscribed in the margin in red ink, as shown in Or 15227 above. In this manuscript each juz’ is divided into not 16 but eight maqra’, and those in the first juz’ are located at Q.2:26, 2:44, 2:61, 2:75, 2:91, 2:106 and 2:124. Thus maqra’ do not relate to ruku‘, but rather constitute an eighth of a juz’, thereby matching the divisions of a juz' notated in other manuscripts as thumn (eighth), rub‘ (quarter) or nisf or hizb (half). And indeed, in a recent official Malaysian government publication, the maqra’ is defined as a quarter of a hizb: ‘the Qur’an contains 323,671 letters, 77,437 words, 6236 verses, 114 surah, 30 juz’, 60 hizb and 240 maqra’ (Panduan Rasm Uthmani, 2012: 3, cited in Muhammad Azam 2021: 9).

In the manuscript cultures of Sumatra, notably in Aceh and Minangkabau, neither ruku‘ nor maqra’ markings are generally found in Qur'an manuscripts, which are more likely to indicate fractions of a juz' (although, as can now be recognized, these are in fact the same divisions as indicated by maqra’ markings). The illustration belows show a Qur'an manuscript from India, which was probably brought to Aceh and used and rebound there. The original manuscript has marginal 'ayn in red ink, but a local (Acehnese) hand has added in black ink the inscription rub', indicating a quarter of a juz'.

BL Or.16603 10 (23)-b
Qur'an from India, brought to Aceh, ca. 19th century. British Library, Or 16603, f. 73r.

The evidence so far from Southeast Asian manuscripts suggests that maqra’ are a simple quantitative division of the Qur’anic text, while ruku‘ are a qualitative division, aiming for thematic completeness within each section. However, in some manuscripts from Java, both inscriptions are found together (see illustrations below), and certain current Indonesian sources suggest that the terms ruku‘ and maqra’ are used interchangeably.  A recent study of the tradition in Lampung of reciting Surat al-Taubah over a woman in the seventh month of pregnancy describes how the Imam will read until he reaches the 'ayn: "the sign of 'ayn, also called ruku‘ and makra’, placed in the margin, is a sign of the completion of a story or discussion within the Qur'an. Thus it is advised that when you wish to stop reciting, this should be done when you encounter the 'ayn sign" (tanda ‘ain disebut juga ruku’ dan makra’ yang terletak di pinggir garis yaitu isyarat sempurnanya kisah atau suatu pembahasan di dalam Al-Qur'an. Sehingga dianjurkan ketika ingin mengakhiri bacaan al-Qur’an hendaknya ketika menemui simbol ‘ain, Musrochin 2021: 330).

IAMM 2004.2.4  text-ayn    IAMM 2004.2.3  text-maqra'  nisf-a
Two Qur'an manuscripts from Java, with marginal inscriptions in the same place of 'ayn for ruku‘ and maqra’.  Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, (left) 2004.2.4, (right) 2004.2.3.

The terms ruku‘ and maqra’ for Qur'anic divisions for recitation may thus defy firm categorisation, but have meanings which continue to evolve over place and time.

‘Abd al-Qayum b. ‘Abd a-Ghafur al-Sindi, Mustalah ar-ruku fi l-masahif, madlulahu, nashatuhu wa aqwal al-ulama’ fiha (‘The term ruku‘ in mushafs: its meaning, origin and opinions of scholars on it'), Majallah Tibyan li-d-Dirasat al-Qur'aniyah / Tbeian: for Qur’anic Studies, 1434 (2012/3), 24: 20-73.
Raja Ali Haji Raja Ahmad, Salasilah Melayu dan Bugis, diusahakan Mohd. Yusof Md. Nor. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 2016.
Masruchin, Pembacaan Surat At-Taubah dalam tradisi “Tobatan” pada usia kehamilan tujuh bulan di Dusun 2 Umbulkadu Desa Sendang Asri Lampung TengahAl-Dzikra: Jurnal Studi Ilmu al-Qur’an dan al-Hadits, 2021, 15(2): 317-336.
Muhammad Azam bin Adnan, The Malay Quran manuscripts in Muzium Negara. Malaysia Museums Journal, 2021, 38: 7-25.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

I would like to acknowledge the valuable help of Mykhaylo Yakubovych in sharing and interpreting the article by al-Sindi, and I am also grateful for comments from Johanna Pink and Ali Akbar.

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