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

04 October 2021

Khadija Saye’s Art and the ‘Toothbrush Tree’

The British Library exhibition ‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ (3 Dec 2020–7 Oct 2021) shows nine self-portraits by this talented and innovative Gambian–British artist. In each, she displays a particular artefact associated with Gambian culture. In this blog, Kadija Sesay, the exhibition’s external curator, explores the cultural and scientific uses of one of these objects.

The multiple properties and uses of the Salvadora persica, commonly known as ‘the toothbrush tree’, can be sourced from every aspect of the tree - the seeds, bark, stem, leaves and flowers - for food, medication and scientific purposes. Wherever it is native to a region, which is most of the African continent, South Asia and the Middle East, it has claimed a significant position within society. Its many uses seem to bestow near-magical properties on it, and it is thought to provide solutions and remedies for everyday problems and ailments.

Sothiou (Chewing-sticks/toothbrush), Khadija Saye (2017)

The botanical description of the Salvadora persica is of a large, well-branched evergreen shrub or tree, from the Salvadora species. As well as the Salvadora persica (known as Khari Jaal in India), this species includes the Salvadora oleoides (known as Meethi Jaal in India).

Salvadora, from Lamarck’s 1823 collection of botanical illustrations
Salvadora, from Lamarck’s 1823 collection of botanical illustrations: Encyclopédie méthodique, ou par ordre de matières par une Société de Gens de Lettres, de Savans, et d'Artistes. Botanique. Recueil de planches. Vol. 1. (Paris, 1823).  British Library, J/12215.r.1/12a. Noc

Medical and other scientific elements feed into the tradition and culture of those societies where it is found, as the health benefits of using the miswak for oral hygiene are well known. They have been used for cleaning teeth for centuries. They are cheaper than imported toothbrushes and toothpaste, and scientific studies have shown them to have antibacterial properties that maintain and enhance oral hygiene, contributing to strong teeth and healthy breath. For these practical, economic and health reasons, they have been recommended for regular use by the World Health Organization within the communities in which they grow.

In The Gambia, the longer branches of the tree carry varying spiritual meanings within African indigenous faith: they may be used to make proclamations or promises to God, to invoke the spirits of the ancestors, or to claim protection from Satan.

The shorter branches, as well as being used for toothbrushes at home, have cultural attributes specifically for women as they also symbolise, when seen in public, that they are women who are due respect. As sothiou is known to have cleansing properties, the visual symbol of a woman using it reflects on her personal cleanliness, not only with respect to her mouth and body, but in the way that she leads her life. This in turn reflects on the raising of her daughters, showing that they maintain their personal cleanliness and virginity.

Khadija Saye working on silkscreen prints of ‘Sothiou’ with Matthew Rich, 2017
Khadija Saye working on silkscreen prints of ‘Sothiou’ with Matthew Rich, 2017.
Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye, London. © The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Clean teeth are a symbol of beauty, too. Therefore, older married women in The Gambia known as ‘Jegg’ (younger married women will be referred to as ‘small Jegg’) can be seen publicly with sothiou in their mouths when they attend high-end events and family ceremonies such as weddings. For these reasons, it is common to see women who use sothiou more than men.

The commonly known attributes of the Salvadora persica have led to further research and investigation of its properties, some of which are highlighted briefly here.

For culinary use, the fruit of the tree is an edible sweet berry which can be fermented into a drink. In East Africa, the leaves are cooked in a sauce as a vegetable dish and although bitter in taste, the shoots and leaves can be included as part of a salad.

The plant’s potential pharmaceutical and other scientific uses are many. The seeds, for example, are commonly used as a diuretic and the oil from the seeds is used to ease rheumatism. The bark and root, apart from producing antiplaque agents, are also being investigated by scientists for a number of other apparent qualities including analgesic, anticonvulsant and antibacterial properties. The stem bark, for example, is used for gastric problems.

The use of Salvadora persica has shown that reliance on natural organisms supports the communities in which they grow, where they simultaneously become woven into local cultures and traditions. In her artwork, Khadija Saye has captured culture, history, tradition and science simply by focusing on and drawing our attention to an object which simultaneously reinforces the importance of our natural environment locally and globally. As her work so powerfully testifies, the information and knowledge that local communities carry in their family, traditions and culture should be recorded so that more research can be undertaken.

Other objects in the work of Khadija Saye were discussed in the British Library event ‘Cowries, Incense and Amulets’ on 17 May 2021.

Further reading

Basil H. Aboul-Enein, ‘The miswak (Salvadora persica L.) chewing stick: cultural implications in oral health promotion’, The Saudi Journal for Dental Research, 5, 1, (2014), 9-13.
World Health Organization, Prevention of oral diseases. WHO offset publication No. 103. Geneva: World Health Organization; 1987), p. 61.
M. Khatak, S. Khatak,1 A. A. Siddqui, N. Vasudeva, A. Aggarwal, and P. Aggarwal, ‘Salvadora persica’, Pharmacognosy Reviews 4, 8 (2010), 209–214.

Kadija George Sesay, External Curator, 'Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe' Ccownwork

 

27 September 2021

The art of small things (4): Juz’ markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

The Qur’an is traditionally divided into thirty parts of equal length called juz', which are of great practical significance as they facilitate the planned reading or recitation of the Holy Book in its entirety over one month, particularly the blessed fasting month of Ramadan. Each juz’ can further be subdivided into half (nisf), quarters (rubu‘) and eighths (thumn). The start of a new juz,’ and often the subdivisions too, may be indicated in a Qur’an manuscript through a number of graphic devices. These range from a marginal inscription or ornament to a marker within the text itself, or by highlighting the first few words of the new juz’ in red ink or in bold; sometimes all these devices might be found together in a single manuscript. Preferred ways of signifying the start of a new juz’ often vary regionally, and will be illustrated in this post by Qur’an manuscripts from different traditions in Southeast Asia held in the British Library, starting with a Qur’an from Patani.

Marginal ornament signifying the start of the 28th juz’, at the start of Surat al-Mujadilah, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 273v-274r
Marginal ornament signifying the start of the 28th juz’, at the start of Surat al-Mujadilah, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 273v-274r  noc

The East Coast of the Malay peninsula is home to two distinct styles of manuscript illumination, one centred in Terengganu and the other further to the north in Patani, but all Qur’an manuscripts from this region adhere faithfully to the same principles of text layout. This follows an Ottoman model known as ayat ber-kenar, whereby each juz’ occupies exactly ten folios of paper and hence twenty pages, and each page ends with a complete verse. As well as streamlining the copying process, this uniform layout also aids the memorization of the complete Qur’an, as each verse occupies the same position on the page in any manuscript consulted. Thus a new juz’ always commences at the top of a right-hand page, and is signalled by a beautiful marginal ornament, as shown above. In this manuscript all the juz’ markers are constructed according to the same basic design of two concentric circles inscribed in the middle al-juz’, but each is slightly different in coloration and in the detail of the delicate floral and foliate ornaments extending upwards and downwards.

Marginal ornaments signifying the start of (left) juz’ 10 in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century  Marginal ornaments signifying the start of juz’ 11, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century-Or 15227 f.103v-j.11
Marginal ornaments signifying the start of (left) juz’ 10 and (right) juz’ 11, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. The small inscription in red ink, maqra’, indicates a section for recitation. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 93v and 103v  noc

The Ottoman system of page layout is occasionally also encountered in Qur’an manuscripts from Java, but in general there are no set prescriptions for fitting a juz’ into a precise number of pages. In two Javanese Qur’ans in the British Library we see a quintessentially and uniquely Javanese method of signifying the start of a new juz’, by the placement of two marginal ornaments – very often semicircular in shape – at the midpoints of the outer vertical borders of the double-page spread, while the exact point in the text is marked with a composite roundel in red ink.

AStart of juz’2, indicated in the margins with semicircular ornaments, and in the text with a stack of three red circles, in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 14v-15r
Start of juz’ 2, indicated in the margins with semicircular ornaments, and in the text with a stack of three red circles, in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 14v-15r  noc

Start of juz’ 3 in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an.Add_ms_12343_f013r-det  Start of juz’ 3 in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an.Add_ms_12343_f012v-det
Start of juz’ 3 in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an’. The stylized letter 'ayn in the margin indicates ruku' divisions for recitation. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 12v and f. 13r (details)  noc

In two other Qur’ans from Java, the start of a new juz’ is just marked with a calligraphic inscription in red ink in the margin, and an starburst roundel in red ink at the appropriate point in the text, as seen below in a manuscript from Madura, off the northeast coast of Java.

The beginning of juz’ 14, at the start of Surah al-Hjir (Q.15), in a Qur’an from Madura, 19th century. British Library, Or 15877, f. 130v
The beginning of juz’ 14, at the start of Surah al-Hjir (Q.15), in a Qur’an from Madura, 19th century. British Library, Or 15877, f. 130v  noc

In Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, there was no pre-ordained system for copying the Qur’an. The number of pages required for each juz’ therefore depended on the style of writing of each scribe, while a conventional set of graphic symbols signified the exact starting point of a juz’ within a page of text. In the most elaborate manuscripts – such as the fine Qur’an Or 16915 shown below – the precise point of the start of the 14th juz’ is marked with a composite roundel made up of six intersecting circles; the first line of the juz’ is written in red ink and set within ruled frames; and a magnificent ornament in the adjcaent margin serves to draw the eye to the page.

Start of juz’ 14 at the beginning of Surat al-Hijr (Q. 15) in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 117v-118rr
Start of juz’ 14 at the beginning of Surat al-Hijr (Q. 15) in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 117v-118r  noc

Or 16915 is exceptionally rich artistically in not only signifying the start of each juz’ with illuminated marginal ornaments, but also indicating each eighth part through coloured roundels in the text accompanied by smaller marginal medallions. All are composed of a series of concentric circles often embellished with a variety of rays, petals, and vegetal ornaments added on four-fold or eight-fold principles, in the same palette of red, yellow, black and reserved white, but every single ornament is different, reflecting the artist’s delight in creating countless variations on a limited theme. Shown below (not to scale) is the complete set of marginal ornaments for the constituent parts of juz’ 10.

Or_16915-f.80r-j.10  ornament marking part of juz’ 10-Or_16915_f081r  ornament marking part of juz’ 10-Or_16915_f082v
From left, large ornament marking the start of juz’ 10; small roundel marking 1/8th of the juz’; roundel with monochrome petals (possibly added later) marking 1/4 juz’. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 80r, 81r, 82v  noc

Or_16915_f083v  Or_16915_f085r
Left, star-shaped ornament marking 3/8th of the juz’; right, four-rayed medallion at 1/2 (nisf) of the juz’. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 83v and 85r  noc

Roundel marking part of juz' 10-Or_16915_f087r  Roundel marking part of juz' 10-Or_16915_f088v  Roundel marking part of juz' 10-Or_16915_f089v
From left, roundels marking 5/8, 3/4 and 7/8 of the 10th juz’. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 87v, 88v, 89v  noc

Despite such an abundant display of artistic virtuosity in this manuscript, it is hardly surprising that the artist’s creativty and stamina began to flag towards the end of the volume. Preparatory sketches are still in place for all the marginal ornaments, but many of the later ones have not been worked up and remain skeletal ink diagrams.

Unfinished marginal ornaments in a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s.-Or_16915_f114v  Unfinished marginal ornament, Or_16915_f240v  Unfinished marginal ornaments in a Qur’an from Aceh-Or_16915_f247r
Unfinished marginal ornaments indicating parts of a juz' in a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 114v, 240v, 247r  noc

There are two other Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh held in the British Library. Both of these highlight the first words of a new juz’ in red ink, and one also marks the precise point in the text with a composite illuminated roundel, but neither were created with marginal ornaments. However, Or 16034 bears testimony to additions by subsequent hands to highlight each new juz', with occasional inscriptions and pencilled ornaments added in the margins.

The start of juz’ 4 in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, indicated in the text by writing the first line in red ink, with later additions in the margin of the pencilled inscription al-juz’, a cross-shaped ornament, and the number ‘4’ in black ink. British Library, Or 16034, f. 20v
The start of juz’ 4 in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, indicated in the text by writing the first line in red ink, with later additions in the margin of the pencilled inscription al-juz’, a cross-shaped ornament, and the number ‘4’ in black ink. British Library, Or 16034, f. 20v  noc

As noted above, the standard division of the Qur’an is into thirty parts or juz’, but other principles of dividing the text are also known, for example into three, seven or ten parts. A division based on word-count identifies the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, in Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), as the precise mid-point in the Qur’an, and the significance of this word is often recognized in Qur’an manuscripts from the Malay world. Of the eight Southeast Asian Qur’ans in the British Library, three – two from Aceh and one from Java – highlight the word walyatalattaf either by rubricating in red ink or by elongating it and writing it in bold.

The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts-Walyatalataf-12312-95v

The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts-Walyatalataf-Or 15034 f.116v

The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts-Walyatalaf-16915-f.131v
The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts, one from Java (top) Add 12312, f.95v, and two from Aceh (middle) Or 16034, f. 116v and (bottom) Or 16915, f. 131v.  noc

Over the course of this study of minor decorative elements found in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, very often it was the less polished manuscripts, with scribal errors or omissions or unfinished sections, which were the most helpful in reconstructing the process of copying and decorating Qur’an manuscripts, which seems to have progressed in the same order across the Malay archipelago. First the scribe would write out the entire Qur’anic text in black ink, using red ink for the the first words of a juz’ as necessary, and indicating the ends of verses with small marks. Then, verse markers – usually in the form of red or black ink circles – were added, and coloured in if necessary. The text was then checked for accuracy and to make good any omissions. Only after this stage were frames added to each page of text, composed in accordance with regional preferences. Titles of chapters or surahs were then added in red ink, and ruled frames placed around the surah headings. After this, marginal ornaments would be added to indicate the juz’ and other textual divisions.

This article on Juz’ markers is the fourth installment of a five-part series of blog posts on ‘The art of small things’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The first post is on Verse markers, the second on Text frames, the third on Surah headings, the fifth and final part is on ruku' and maqra' Recitation indicators.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

20 September 2021

Kālāma Sutta and the premise of free thinking

Tipiṭaka or the ‘Three Baskets’ forms the canon of the teachings of the Buddha written in Pāli. The second ‘Basket’, Sutta Piṭaka, contains five Nikāyas or ‘collections’ of thousands of discourses attributed to the Buddha and his disciples. The Aṅguttara Nikāya, or ‘numerical discourses’ is divided further into eleven Nipāta or ‘books’, one of which includes the Kālāma Sutta (ကာလာမသုတ်) or the ‘Instruction of the Kalamas’ (Tika-Nipāta, Mahāvagga, Sutta no. 65, also known as the Kesamutti Sutta). The Kālāma Sutta is famous for encouraging free thinking and opposes dogmatism, fanaticism and any kind of intolerance. It expounds the idea that in order to gain clarity one has to also examine one’s mind and ideas.

Palm leaf manuscript with gilded edges, containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century. Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56
Palm leaf manuscript with gilded edges, containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56  noc

The British Library’s Myanmar (Burma) Collections hold several manuscripts of the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Man/Pali 56 and Man/Pali 61 both contain the Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, including the Kālāma Sutta. They are beautifully manufactured palm leaf manuscripts, entirely gilded from the outside and placed between bevelled gilded wooden binding boards. These manuscripts belong to the Mandalay Palace Collection from 1886 and therefore date from the 19th century. Both manuscripts contain over 170 precisely incised palm leaves.

The beginning of the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, in a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56
The beginning of the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, in a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56  noc

In the Kālāma Sutta the Buddha is wandering around Kosala accompanied by a large community of monks (bhikkhus) and comes to Kesaputta town, inhabited by the Kalamas. The Kalamas ask the Buddha for advice. There are many holy and wise men who visit the town, each expounding their own doctrines and demolishing opposing ones. This leaves the Kalamas uncertain: which of these men speaks the truth?

The Buddha responds with these famous words:

"It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them.”

Palm-leaf manuscript with gilded edges containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61
Palm-leaf manuscript with gilded edges containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61  noc

An excerpt from the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, from a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61
An excerpt from the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, from a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61  noc

The Buddha then goes on to explain that mental wellbeing can be acquired by overcoming greed, hate and delusion and goes through each of these in detail. The Kalamas agree that greed, hate and delusion can only cause harm and that the absence of these is thus beneficial. Following this the Buddha expounds that each person has the capacity to distinguish what causes harm and what causes happiness and therefore each person should follow their own judgement. Whatever one’s belief (or non-belief) in the hereafter, if one is free of hate and malice, that person will be able to find solace.

Distinguishing between what causes harm and what causes happiness is in the Kālāma Sutta not simply an act of reasoning or an intellectual exercise, it is the ability to distinguish what leads to the harm or benefit of not just oneself but of everybody.

The Kesariya stupa in Bihar is believed to be the place where the Kālāma Sutta was first taught. Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5.
The Kesariya stupa in Bihar is believed to be the place where the Kālāma Sutta was first taught. Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5.

Further reading:

"Kalama Sutta: The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry", translated from the Pali by Soma Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

"Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas" (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

Alfred Bloom, Critical Thinking in Buddhism: The Kalama Sutta. Shin Darma Net.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

13 September 2021

Epic Iran: Manuscripts from the Islamic era

Epic Iran display

In a recent blog I wrote about three of our Zoroastrian treasures which were part of the  Epic Iran exhibition organised by the V&A with the Iran Heritage Foundation in association with The Sarikhani Collection. Sadly the exhibition is now over, but this second blog on the Islamic period manuscripts which we loaned can serve as a reminder for those who were lucky enough to visit, or as a visual reference for those who weren't so fortunate.

The exhibition was organised into broad themes, the first four on Iran up to the advent of Islam, the fifth section, The Book of Kings, acted as an introduction to Islamic Iran primarily through the epic Shahnamah (Book of Kings) completed by the poet Firdawsi around AD 1010.

Bahram Gur hunting with Azadah
This detail from Firdawsiʼs Shahnamah shows the Sasanian ruler Bahram Gur (Bahram V, r. 420-38) hunting with the slave girl Azadah. Iran, 1486 (BL Add MS 18188, f. 353r). Public Domain

Tracing the history of the Iranian people from the beginning up until the defeat of the Sasanian ruler Yazdegird III in 651, the Shahnamah combines myth and tradition in what is perhaps the best known work of Persian literature. Many hundreds of illustrated copies survive today dating from the Mongol period onwards. The story depicted here, in a manucript dating from the Turkman/Timurid period shows Azadah, a slave-girl who was a fine harpist, riding behind Bahram on his camel on a hunting expedition. On this occasion Bahram performed the remarkable feat of shooting two arrows into one gazelle's head,  cutting off the antlers of another and hitting a third as it raised its foot towards its ear. When Azadah expressed sympathy for the gazelles instead of praise for Bahram’s skill, he took offense, flung her to the ground, and let his camel trample her.

The sixth section, Change of Faith explored Islam in Iranian culture, the transition from Arabic to Persian and the important Iranian contribution to Islamic science.

Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise
The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Pursued by a figure with a club, Adam and Eve are accompanied by the peacock and dragon who, at Satan’s instigation, had been responsible for their fall. From the Qisas al-anbiya (Stories of the Prophets) by al-Naysaburi. Shiraz, Iran, 16th century (BL Add MS 18576, f. 11r) Public Domain

There are several different collections in Arabic and Persian with the title Qisas al-anbiyaʼ, stories adapted from the Qur’an and other Islamic literature. One of the best-known and most illustrated is the collection composed in Persian by the 12th century writer Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Naysaburi. Add MS 18576 illustrated here is one of sixteen known illustrated copies of al-Naysaburi’s compilation, all produced in Safavid Iran between 1565 and 1585. The portrayal of Adam and Eve agrees with a passage in the Qurʼan (Surah 20, verses 120-21) ʻSo the two of them ate of it, and their shameful parts revealed to them, and they took to stitching upon themselves leaves of the Garden.ʼ Their fiery haloes, however, indicate that they still had some phrophetic status.

  The constellations Aquila and Delphinus
The constellations Aquila and Delphinus from the Kitab suwar al-kawakib (Book of the Images of the Fixed Stars) by al-Sufi. Iran, possibly Maragha, 1260-80 (BL Or 5323. f. 28v). Public Domain

The tenth-century Iranian astronomer ʻAbd al-Rahman al-Sufi (903–86) is the author of several important Arabic texts on the stars and is regarded as one of the greatest Islamic scientists. His most important text, represented here, is the Kitab suwar al-kawakib al-thabitah, based on Ptolemy's Almagest, in which he gives a full description of the classical system of constellations, observed both from the earth and from outside the celestial globe. The outlines of each constellation and the stars belonging to it are therefore drawn twice, their image mirrored in the second drawing.

Describing the rise of Persian poetry, the seventh section, Literary Excellence, was devoted to how Persian emerged as a literary language from the tenth century onwards. As a result of royal patronage poets flourished at court and workshops developed in which calligraphy, illumination and painting were practiced at the highest levels.

Collection of divans
Lyrical poems of Adib Sabir, the panegyrist of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar (r. 1118-57). Tabriz, 1314 (BL IO Islamic 132, f. 49r) Public Domain

This manuscript, an anthology of poetry by Muʻizzi, Akhsikati, Adib Sabir, Qamar, Shams Tabasi and Nasir Khusraw, was very likely copied in Tabriz in the scriptorium of the Ilkhanid historian and vizier Rashid al-Din. Copied by ʻAbd al-Muʼmin al-ʻAlavi al-Kashi between Dhuʼl-qaʻdah 713 and Dhuʼl-qaʻdah 714 (February 1314–February 1315), it closely resembles other secular manuscripts prepared for Rashid al-Din during the same period. The manuscript contains altogether 53 illustrations in a simplified Mongol style, mostly depicting, as here, the poet receiving a robe of honour from Sultan Sanjar.

The Divan of Hafiz (Add MS 7759)
Facing pages of the Divan of Hafiz on Chinese paper. Possibly Herat, Afghanistan, 1451 (BL Add MS 7759, ff. 60v-61r). Public Domain

This early copy of the Divan of Hafiz (d.c.1389) was copied by Sulayman al-Fushanji in Ramazan 855 (October 1451). Although no place is mentioned in the colophon, the name of the scribe may be connected to Fushanj in the province of Herat, Afghanistan, possibly suggesting Herat as a place of origin. The paper is unusually heavy and includes 31 pages decorated with Chinese ornamentation containing designs of bamboos, pomegranates and other plants while twelve show Chinese landscapes and buildings. The decorated Chinese paper had originally been in the form of large sheets which were painted on before being cut up. The paper is dyed various shades of orange, pink, blue, yellow/green, grey and purple.

Prince Humay reaches Princess Humayun's castle
Humay arrives at the gate of Humayun’s castle. From Humay u Humayun  (Humay and Humayun) of Khvaju Kirmani. Baghdad, Iraq, late 14th century (BL Add MS 18113, f. 18v). Public Domain

Add MS 18113 contains three poems from the Khamsah (Five Poems) by Khvaju Kirmani (1290-1349?). The first, the story of the lovers Humay and Humayun, was completed in 1331 in response to a request to enchant Muslim audiences with a supposed ʻMagianʼ theme. The poems were copied by the famous calligrapher Mir ʻAli ibn Ilyas al-Tabrizi al-Bavarchi in 798 (1396) at the Jalayirid capital Baghdad. The paintings most probably belonged to another copy and were added afterwards. The artist of one of them was Junayd, a pupil of Shams al-Din who worked under the Jalayirid sultan Uways I (r. 1356-74), who inscribed his name on an arch in an illustration on folio 45v. The manuscript stayed in royal hands at least until the Safavid era when it was refurbished for the Safavid prince Bahram Mirza (1517-49), the youngest of the four sons of Shah Ismaʻil (r. 1501-24).

The construction of the palace at Khavarnak
The building of the palace of Khavarnaq. From Nizami's Khamsah. Painting attributed to the master-painter Bihzad. Herat, late 15th century (BL Or.6810, f. 154v). Public Domain

This beautiful copy of the Khamsah (Five Poems) by the 12th century Persian poet Nizami entered the Mughal Imperial Library in Akbar's reign and was regarded as one of the most treasured possessions in his collection. Its importance lies chiefly in its decoration and illustrations which include paintings by the master-painter of Herat, Bihzad (flourished during the reign of the Timurid Husayn Bayqara, 1469-1506). ‘The building of the palace of Khavarnaq,’ ascribed to Bihzad in a note underneath, shows the structure of the pavilion: the scaffolding, a ladder, men chipping bricks, transporting them and actually positioning them on the building.

The opening of Shah Tahmasp's Khamsah
The opening of Nizami's Makhzan al-asrar, one of the five poems forming his Khamsah. Tabriz or Qazvin, (BL Or.2265, ff. 2v-3r). Public Domain

Khusraw listens to the minstrel Barbad; Khusraw sees Shirin bathing
Left: Khusraw listens to the minstrel Barbad. From Nizami's Khusraw Shirin, one of the five poems forming his Khamsah. Painting ascribed to Mirza ʻAli (BL Or.2265, f. 53v). Public Domain
Right: Prince Khusraw spies Shirin bathing. From Nizami's Khusraw Shirin. Painting ascribed to Sultan Muhammad (BL Or.2265, f.77v). Public Domain

Or.2265, a 16th century copy of Nizami's Khamsah (Five Poems), is perhaps the most spectacular of our manuscript loans. Originally copied between 1539 and 1543 for the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524-76), it was augmented by the addition of 14 full page illustrations by some of the most famous court artists of the mid-16th century. Further pages were inserted probably during the 17th century, and again at a later stage, perhaps when the manuscript was rebound in the early 19th century at the court of Fath ʻAli Shah Qajar (r. 1797-1834) who in 1243 (1827/28), according to a note inside, presented it to his forty-second wife Taj al-Dawlah.

The ninth section The Old and the New focussed on the Qajar dynasty (1789-1925), introducing an element of modernisation and developing new relationships with Europe.

The Iranian army defeats the Russians
Fath ʻAli Shah's heir ʻAbbas Mirza about to slay the Russian general Gazhadand with the Russian army in flight. From the Shahanshahnamah by Fath ʻAli Khan Saba. Iran, 1810 (BL IO Islamic 3442, f. 387v). Public Domain

With Firdawsi's Shahnamah as a model, Fath‘Ali Shah commissioned the Shahanshahnamah (Book of the King of Kings) by the court poet Fath ‘Ali Khan Saba. Presented to the East India Company, this was one of several equally sumptuous copies given as diplomatic gifts to various European dignitaries.

Portrait of Nasir al-Din Shah
Portrait of Nasir al-Din (r. 1848-1896), seated on a European style sofa, by Muhammad Isfahani. Iran, 1856 (BL Or.4938, f.4r). Public Domain

Although the exhibition has now closed, the published catalogue of Epic Iran is available by the three curators: John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Tim Stanley Epic Iran: 5000 years of culture

Ursula Sims-Williams, British Library, Lead Curator Persian
CCBY

Further reading 

Most of these manuscripts have been digitised and can be explored by following the hyperlinks given above or by going to our Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts page. The following blogs also give further information:

An illustrated 14th century Khamsah by Khvaju Kirmani
The archaeology of a manuscript: the Khamsah of Khvaju Kirmani
Two Persian ‘Ming’ manuscripts on view at the British Museum
A Jewel in the Crown: A 15th century illustrated copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Or.6810)
The Khamsah of Nizami: A Timurid Masterpiece

06 September 2021

Sisters from the shadows - Lady Akikonomu

This occasional series of blog posts will highlight the work of Japanese women artists, whose achievements have often been overshadowed by their male contemporaries. The previous post looked at the artist Katsushika Ōi, daughter of the celebrated Katsushika Hokusai.  This time we will look at a fictional character who was also an accomplished artist.

Another female artist emerges from history in the form of a talented noblewoman in the Heian period literary classic the Tale of Genji. This story is often described as the oldest novel in the world. The author was Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部), a lady-in- waiting at the court of the Empress Shōshi (藤原彰子) in 11th-century Japan. The hero is Prince Genji and the main story line describes his life and relationships with various court ladies of the time. 

Lady Akikonomu is not as widely known as other famous female characters in the Tale of Genji, such as her mother Lady Rokujō, but she is the only one who paints and draws illustrations in the story.

Lady Rokujō is well known throughout the story for her charisma and beauty, and her tragic love affair with Genji. Her loving devotion does not bring joy to her life, but she manages to keep her dignity supported by her sophisticated intelligence and the outstanding beauty of her calligraphy.

Genji bids an emotional farewell to Lady Rokujō at Nonomiya shrine, as she prepares to set off to Ise with her daughter who has been appointed Grand Custodian of the Great Shrine
Fig. 1. Genji bids an emotional farewell to Lady Rokujō at Nonomiya shrine, as she prepares to set off to Ise with her daughter who has been appointed Grand Custodian of the Great Shrine. Chapter 10 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (Genji monogatari ekotoba源氏物語繪詞,), Manuscript, ca. 1665. British Library, Or.1287, f.11   noc

Her daughter, Lady Akikonomu is a noble but does not have a strong enough supporter to elevate her position in Heian court society when she loses her mother and becomes an orphan. At the Heian court, writing beautifully is a must-have skill. She writes gracefully but lacks the elegance of her mother who  never had any equals in calligraphy. So how does she eventually become the Empress Akikonomu? The secret to her success lies in her own special talent for drawing. 

Genji, who is a distant relative of Akikonomu, takes her under his wing and arranges for her to marry the boy-emperor Reisei. This is partially Genji’s atonement for his sin of destroying Lady Rokujo’s love for him. At the same time Genji expects Akikonomu to protect the boy emperor, who is nine years younger than her, while he still has much to learn before becoming an adult and fulfilling his duty as emperor. In the end, she is educated by her outstandingly intellectual mother, with a superb noble bloodline; in this way she becomes an ideal governess figure to him. 

A scene at the Imperial Court where an intellectual contest was held to compare illustrated stories.
Fig. 2. A scene at the Imperial Court where an intellectual contest was held to compare illustrated stories. Chapter 17 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (Genji monogatari ekotoba源氏物語繪詞), Manuscript, ca. 1665. British Library, Or.1287, f.18   noc

It must have caused Genji some surprise when she caught the attention of this boy-emperor by her skills in drawing. The boy happens to be keen on drawing and he discovers that Akikonomu is so elegant when she produces her illustrations. Initially, he is attracted by her talent and intellectually stimulating conversation. As he spends time with her drawing, he discovers her gentle nature and her beauty. Gradually, a fondness between them matures and eventually he makes her his empress. 

Akikonomu successfully reveals her own identity to overcome the disadvantage of being a daughter of a legendary mother and Genji’s expectations to be an ideal figure to guide a young boy’s upbringing. She is a woman with own talent and grace, enhanced by her creative drawing and painting skills.

In these two blogs, we have looked at two women who were very different; one was a commoner who lived in the city of Edo who refused to meet expectations of a woman’s role, the other was a fictional Kyōto court lady who personified female elegance. The similarity is that both were daughters of highly charismatic people and probably they would never have questioned that the fame of their family members forced them to stay in the shadows. Nevertheless, they managed to move into the light by their own artistic talents and gained a place where they could shine as individuals, no longer just daughters of someone famous.

By Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator of Japanese Studies  ccownwork

02 September 2021

Lu Tianjiao: The First Female Stamp Designer of the People’s Republic of China, 1934-2021

Since the nineteenth century, women of all backgrounds have been involved in postage stamp production. Primarily issued by governments for the prepayment of mail, stamps also carry complex visual, textual, olfactory, tactile, and audio messages making them inherently cultural. They are consequently an important channel through which women’s sustained contributions within the applied arts, design and print capitalism can be meaningfully assessed. The life and work of China’s first female stamp designer Lu Tianjiao, who sadly passed away on 1 August 2021, make these points manifestly apparent.

A black and white photograph of a women from the waist up. She is wearing a ribbed sweater, has her hair in a ponytail and is wearing glasses.
A portrait of Lu Tianjiao. 
CC Public Domain Image

Born in Zhuhai, Guangdong in December 1934, she grew up in Shanghai, developing a love of art and painting from her father, a doctor and famous photographer named Lu Shifu. She enrolled at the Hangzhou State Arts School in 1950 before transferring to the Central Institute of Fine Arts, studying under prominent artists and stamp designers including Zhou Lingzhao, Zhang Ding and Zhang Guangyu. Graduating in 1954, she was assigned to work within the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications’ Stamp Designing and Issuing section then attached to the Directorate General of Posts.

A black and white photograph of a man in glasses, from the waist up. He is reading a newspaper while wearing a black suit and glasses.
A portrait of Liu Shuoren. 
CC Public Domain Image

At work, she regularly debated with colleagues about the best approaches to apply their technical skills on improving the quality of China’s stamp designs for miniature mechanical reproduction. She also met former schoolmate and fellow stamp designer Liu Shuoren, who sadly passed away on 11 August 2021. Outside work, the couple often visited stamp shops to purchase foreign stamps for research material. The couple married in 1960 and celebrated the birth of a son the following year, going on to support one another throughout their lives, being the first to review and analyse each other’s designs.

Lu Tianjiao’s career mirrors political changes within the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao and the early ‘Reform and Opening Up’ era. Producing regular work between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, her output rapidly declined during the Cultural Revolution, possibly spending time, like some of her colleagues in a ‘May 7 Cadre School.’ A second steady stream of work followed between 1976 and 1985, when reforms in the procedure and selection of stamp designs resulted in a permanent decline in her work.

She retired in 2001 and was diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards, which was successfully treated. In 2009, state media interviewed her, where reflecting upon her career, she concluded: ‘I have designed stamps for my country for fifty years and I have recorded the changes of our Republic in this small piece of paper. I am happy to witness and record our history. It has been an honour not all could have.’ As expected of officially state-sanctioned works of art, the designs cover various social, political, and economic themes. Holistically, they supply important insights into the heart, soul, and aspirations of the People’s Republic of China.

A postage stamp in blue ink with images of electricity pylons and lines, with Chinese script belowA postage stamp in light brown ink featuring an scene of a metalworker with a large vat of molten metal, below text in Chinese script
(Left) Lu Tianjiao's design celebrating overhead transmission of electricity. 
CC Public Domain Image

(Right) Lu, Sun and Dong's design celebrating the mid-point of the 5-year plan. 
CC Public Domain Image

Coming to power in 1949, the Communist Government set about transforming China’s feudal economy into an industrial one via the collectivisation of its agricultural sector whilst initiating successive Five-Year Plans for large-scale industrial development. Lu Tianjiao’s first commission for the 26 February 1955 ‘Development of Overhead Transmission of Electricity’ issue celebrated the successful completion of a key project during China’s first Five-Year Plan. Months later, she collaborated with colleagues Sun Chuanzhe and Dong Chunqi developing eighteen iconic designs for the 1 October 1955 issue commemorating the mid-way point the same five-year plan.

A postage stamp featuring a woman riding a tractor in close-up. The woman is in white with a pink handkerchief on her head, and the tractor and background are light greenA postage stamp in colour with a man holding a machete, a woman holding a stick and a small child peaking out between them. The man and woman are in black and the child in red. The stamp also features text in Chinese characters
Lu Tianjiao's designs celebrating women's communes (left) and encouraging solidarity with the South Vietnamese struggle (right).
CC Public Domain Image

Several of her designs also focused on the social impact arising from the development of the ‘People’s Communes.’ This work promoted the significant role Chinese women played in Socialist construction, such as the 8 March 1964 ‘Women of the People’s Commune’ issue. International relations are another recurring theme a notable example including the 20 December 1963 ‘Support South Vietnamese People’s Struggle for Liberation’ issue. The first design based upon a yet unidentified Vietnamese Propaganda Poster reveals the intertextual nature of stamp design.

A postage stamp in colour showing Vietnamese men and women in traditional clothing with bayonets charging beneath a Viet Cong flag
Another of Lu's designs supporting the South Vietnamese struggle. 
CC Public Domain Image

Her designs also did much to promote the diversity of China’s historic and contemporary cultural heritage globally, her six designs for the 10 June 1975 ‘Wushu’ issue promoting Chinese martial arts when they were becoming popular worldwide.

A colour postage stamp showing two young women in pink jumping above a stick brandished by a man in yellow, who is lunging at them.
Lu's design celebrating wushu, traditional Chinese martial arts.
CC Public Domain Image

Sticking to the theme of culture, her designs for the two separate stamp issues commemorating China’s ancient numismatic history in 1981 and 1982 received international acclaim and several awards. Her final commission prior to retirement was the 11 December 2001 ‘China’s Membership of the World Trade Organization’ issue marking the watershed event which initiated China’s current economic, political, and military pre-eminence.

A colour postage stamp with the logo of the World Trade Organization, a totem pole, and an office and park complex against a yellow backdrop, with cloud bands weaving through the items. The stamp also features Chinese script.A black and white photograph of a woman seated at a desk, looking into the camera. Her hair is in pig-tails and she is wearing a jumper and glasses.
(Left) Lu's final design, celebrating Chinese accession to the WTO. 
CC Public Domain Image

(Right) Lu Tianjiao at her desk. 
CC Public Domain Image

Lu Tianjiao excelled in rising to the pressures and challenges placed on stamp design occasioned from national advances within the security printing industry, her designs seamlessly transitioning between intaglio, lithographic and photogravure printing processes. Nevertheless, the examples just discussed are merely a fraction of her total output. She produced or collaborated in the development of seventy separate stamp issues, totalling over two hundred and sixty separate stamps designs, comprising around one-eighth of China’s total stamp design output during her time of employment. Clearly prolific, was she significant? Her work is of fundamental importance for anybody interested in design, printing, and public messaging within the People’s Republic of China. Her career also spans core phases in the nation’s history as well as developments in design, security printing and print culture.

Richard Scott Morel, Curator, British Library’s Philatelic Collections
CCBY Image

Sources

1. Xiao Miao. ‘My visit to stamp designers house’ in China Philately. Spring 1983, pp. 24-26.

2. Yu Xiaohui. ‘Zhou Lingzhao on stamp designing,’ in China Philately. November 1983, pp. 26-27.

3. Zhang Jingming. ‘Who designed China’s best stamps?’ in Postage Stamps of the People’s Republic of China 1977-1980 . (Great Wall Books, 1983) pp. 96-97. Song Licai. 50 Years Devotion to Stamp Design. http://www.womenofchina.cn/html/people/Crowd/102243-1.htm. Accessed 24 February 2020 .

4. The British Library’s Philatelic Collections, Henke Collection

5. The British Library’s Philatelic Collections, UPU Collection: China.

 

 

30 August 2021

Epic Iran: Some Zoroastrian Treasures

Epic Iran  general view

The British Library has an unrivalled collection of Zoroastrian manuscripts and therefore welcomed the opportunity to display three of its Zoroastrian treasures in the current exhibition Epic Iran organised by the V&A with the Iran Heritage Foundation in association with The Sarikhani Collection. The exhibition is open until 12 September 2021 by ticketed admission only. Tickets must be purchased in advance and are released on Tuesdays at 12.00. 

The exhibition covers approximately five millennia of Iranian history and is the first of its kind since the Royal Academy's International Exhibition of Persian Art of 1931. Arranged in nine sections it explores and brings together the whole range of Iranian material cultures from the earliest known writing to the 1979 Revolution and beyond. Out of around 300 exhibits, the British Library contributed fifteen manuscripts which will be the subject of two blogs. In this first post I will focus on the three Zoroastrian items.

Zoroastrianism, the religion of the ancient Iranians, owes its name to Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) whose hymns (Gathas) are thought to have been composed 1500-1000 BCE. It teaches the importance of good thoughts, words, and actions, in a dualistic cosmos where the forces of the All-knowing Lord, Ahura Mazda, are constantly opposed by those of the Evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu. Originating in Central Asia, Zoroastrianism spread east to China and south to Iran where it became the main religion from the sixth century BCE until the mid-seventh century CE. After the arrival of Islam, Zoroastrian refugees from Iran established settlements in Gujarat, India, where they were called Parsis (‘Persians’). Zoroastrian diaspora communities have since become established worldwide.

Zoroastrianism is essentially an oral religion. The oldest scriptures, referred to as the Avesta or Zend, are in an Old Iranian language, Avestan. They were not written down, however, until around the sixth century CE during the Sasanian period, many centuries after their composition. Even after that, the main liturgical texts were transmitted orally. This is partly the reason that, apart from the Ashem vohu fragment mentioned below, there are no manuscripts surviving from before the end of the thirteenth century.

The earliest extant Zoroastrian text, the Ashem Vohu prayer

The Ashem Vohu  Or.8212:84
The Ashem vohu prayer transcribed in Sogdian script, dating from around the ninth century CE (British Library, Or.8212/84). Public domain

This fragment dates from around the ninth century CE and comes, not from India or Iran, the lands associated today with the Zoroastrianism, but from Dunhuang in Central China, where it was discovered in the Mogao caves by Aurel Stein in 1907. It contains a short text in Sogdian (a middle-Iranian language) about the prophet Zarathushtra followed by a phonetic transcription into the Sogdian script of one of the holiest Zoroastrian prayers, the Ashem vohu, composed originally in Avestan. Remarkably, the language of the prayer is neither recognisable as Sogdian nor Avestan, but is likely to represent a much older Iranian dialect, perhaps an archaic form of Avestan. The prayer must have been preserved orally in this ancient form, which remained unaffected by the codification of the Avesta in the Sasanian period, when the sacred texts were first written down (N. Sims-Williams, The everlasting flame, p.94).

Zoroastrianism was carried eastwards to China from the early centuries of the first millennium CE by Sogdian traders, whose homeland was the area of Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan. This document provides written evidence for its continuation there up to the ninth century and, more importantly, it is the only example of its kind, dating from about four centuries earlier than any other surviving Zoroastrian text.

An illustrated law book

Videvdad sadeh  RSPA 230
The opening to chapter nine of the Videvdad Sadah (British Library, RSPA 230, ff. 151r-152v). Public domain

The Videvdad Sadah is a liturgical presentation in Avestan of the most important of Zoroastrian legal works, the Videvdad (‘Law repudiating the demons’). The text, described as sadah (‘clean’), i.e. unaccompanied by any commentary, is recited in a ritual context. This opening shows the beginning of chapter nine which concerns the nine-night purification ritual (barashnum nuh shab) for someone who has been defiled by contact with a dead body.

Most of our Zoroastrian manuscripts originate from India, copied by and for the Parsi community which traditionally emigrated from Iran from about the eighth century onwards. This beautifully written and decorated copy, however, was made in Yazd, Iran in 1647 by a Zoroastrian Mihrban Anushirvan Bahram Shah who copied it for a Zoroastrian of Kirman called Marzban Sandal Khusraw. Whereas Zoroastrian manuscripts are generally unillustrated except for small devices such as verse dividers and occasional diagrams, this one, exceptionally, contains seven coloured illustrations six of trees and one diagram. The heading here has been decorated very much in the style of contemporary illuminated Islamic manuscripts.

This copy was most likely brought to India from Iran by the Iranian poet and writer, Siyavakhsh Urmazdyar, himself a descendant of the original patron, in the mid-nineteenth century before being acquired by Burjorji Sorabji Ashburner (fl.1817-1895), a successful Bombay businessman who presented it the Royal Society, London in May 1864. Transferred to the India Office Library in 1876, it was incorporated into the British Library collection in 1982.

The Bundahishn (‘Primal Creation’) 

The book of creation  Mss Avestan 22  ff 82-83
Chapter 27 of the Bundahishn,‘On the nature of the plants’ (British Library, Mss Avestan 22, ff. 82v-83r). Public domain

The Bundahishn, or ‘Primal Creation,’ is perhaps the most important Zoroastrian work on cosmogony and cosmography. Composed in Pahlavi (Middle Persian) during the early Islamic period, it is conventionally dated to the ninth century. It presents the Zoroastrian world view beginning with a detailed account of the perfect creation of the All-knowing Lord, Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd in Middle Persian), which was attacked by the Evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), and contaminated with disease and death. The cosmic drama culminates in the resurrection of the dead and the defeat and removal of Evil from Ohrmazd’s world and its perfection at the end of time. The cosmographic parts of the text include descriptions of the world’s lands, rivers, lakes, mountains, plants animals, and human races.

The text of the Bundahishn is preserved in two distinct versions, an Indian and a more complete Iranian one. This manuscript gives the text of the Indian Bundahishn and is written in Pazand, a phonetic Avestan script. Copied in India in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, it was acquired by East India Company surgeon Samuel Guise (1751-1811) while working at the East India factory at Surat and was purchased by the East India Company Library after his death.

A published catalogue of Epic Iran is available by the three curators: John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Tim Stanley Epic Iran: 5000 years of culture.

Readers who can visit the British Library can also see a small display of Zoroastrian manuscripts in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library


Ursula Sims-Williams, British Library, Lead Curator Persian

CCBY 

 

Further Reading

Domenico Agostini and Samuel Thrope (tr), The Bundahišn: the Zoroastrian Book of Creation, New York, 2020
Almut Hintze, ‘An introduction to Zoroastrianism,’ in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts, September 2019
Jenny Rose, ‘Zoroastrianism from the early modern period,’ in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts, September 2019
Ursula Sims-Williams, ‘Zoroastrianism in late antiquity,’ in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts, September 2019
–––––, ‘Zoroastrian Manuscripts in the British Library, London’, in A. Cantera (ed.) The Transmission of the Avesta (Wiesbaden, 2012): 173-94
–––––, ‘Digital Zoroastrian at the British Library
Sarah Stewart with Firoza Punthakey Mistree, Ursula Sims-Williams, The everlasting flame: Zoroastrianism in history and imagination, London; New York, 2013

24 August 2021

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