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

01 May 2023

Manuscript Textiles in the Southeast Asian Collections: Project Update

A Chevening Fellowship that started in September 2022 with the aim to research and catalogue manuscript textiles in the Library’s Southeast Asian Collections has made good progress during the past six months: over fifty manuscript textiles have been identified and detailed object descriptions with photo documentations have been completed. Chevening Fellow Methaporn Singhanan explains how this project relates to her doctoral research: “My Ph.D. dissertation examines the social life of textiles and what ancient textiles can reveal about human history, beliefs and hierarchy, and especially trade. This project has exposed me to textiles and their trade routes, and I have seen more textiles than usual because most of these manuscripts' textiles were imported from other places than where the manuscripts originate from. These examples help me to explain my dissertation's main point, that textiles are more than just practical goods and can show relationships between communities and time periods”.

Burmese manuscript containing the Kathā vatthu
Burmese manuscript containing the Kathā vatthu with an over 4 m long sazigyo (ribbon) made in the tablet weaving technique on a backstrap loom with dedicatory inscription in Burmese language, 19th century. British Library, Or 3665 Noc

The focus so far has been on Burmese and ethnic Tai manuscript textiles, specifically sazigyo (handwoven ribbons) and custom-made manuscript wrappers with bamboo slats. More than twenty sazigyo have been assessed; most of them with a length of over two metres and beautifully woven-in geometric designs and inscriptions in Burmese language. These ribbons were traditionally made in the tablet-weaving technique on a backstrap loom. They were used to secure palm leaf manuscripts, and were often given to Buddhist monasteries as a meritorious offering by lay women. The majority of them are of special significance due to the extensive woven-in Burmese text with a dedicatory message and the donor's name. Others were woven solely with geometric or figural patterns.

The manuscript wrappers found with Burmese, Lao and northern Thai (Lanna) manuscripts were traditionally handcrafted by interlacing cotton yarns with bamboo slats. Sometimes pieces of colourful printed cotton fabrics were cut to size and woven in as well, and plain white or red cotton fabric was added as lining and to cover the edges of the wrappers. The bamboo slats were inserted instead of weft yarns to increase the stability of these wrappers. Occasionally, a combination of silk and cotton yarns is found.

Methaporn Singhanan emphasizes the great diversity of textiles she has assessed so far: “I discovered Southeast Asian tapestry and Ikat weaving, as well as rare, high-quality, and opulent imported fabrics. Two of my favourite items are a Japanese silk brocade with gilded paper thread used to wrap Burmese palm leaf manuscripts, and an attractive Indian textile ordered by the Thai royal court to encase Thai texts. To strengthen the textiles and protect the sacred manuscripts, velvet, felt, silk, fabrics with woodblock prints, and European printed fabrics were inter-woven with colourful yarns and bamboo slats. I adore the manuscripts with boards and ivory pegs decorated with gold and religious symbols just as much as the textiles. Their lavish decorations demonstrate the faith and dedication of the people who created and commissioned these precious objects”.

Methaporn Singhanan examining a manuscript wrapper made with bamboo slats and pieces of plain red and blue dyed cotton (Or 6453 B).
Methaporn Singhanan examining a manuscript wrapper made with bamboo slats and pieces of plain red and blue dyed cotton (Or 6453 B).

In addition to her work with the manuscript textiles in the Southeast Asian collections, the Chevening Fellow has visited various other areas and departments of the Library. Since Methaporn Singhanan has been running a voluntary conservation project for textiles in northern Thailand for several years, visits to the British Library’s Conservation Centre (BLCC) were of special interest to her. Textile conservator Liz Rose organised a half-day practical session on dyeing nylon net for textile conservation. On another occasion, she also showed a Shan scrolled paper manuscript (Or 15363) with a printed cotton cover that had recently undergone conservation treatment by Lois Glithero, Glasgow University MPhil Textile Conservation placement student 2022, and she explained in detail the steps taken to rescue and preserve the severely damaged textile.

Methaporn Singhanan during a conservational textile dyeing session
Methaporn Singhanan during a conservational textile dyeing session under supervision of textile conservator Liz Rose in British Library’s Conservation Centre (BLCC)

An opportunity to learn about the digitisation work at the Library arose during the digitisation of a large Burmese wall hanging (Or 16550). Together with textile conservator Liz Rose, conservation intern Storm Scott and curator for Burmese, Maria Kekki, Methaporn Singhanan assisted the Library’s photographers Tony Grant and Carl Norman with the digitisation process. Due to the large size of the item, many hands were needed to lay out the finely embroidered textile on the floor in order to digitise it with a special large format camera. The Sinar camera produces high-quality digital images using a multi-shot capture system, where each pixel is captured by every primary colour. This achieves an almost unimaginable level of colour accuracy, and prevents the moiré effect on images, which is ideal for textiles.

Methaporn Singhanan helped to set up an embroidered Burmese wall hanging (Or 16550) for digitisation at the Library’s Imaging Studio
Methaporn Singhanan helped to set up an embroidered Burmese wall hanging (Or 16550) for digitisation at the Library’s Imaging Studio.

Much of the textile research is based on comparative analysis, due to the lack of information within the manuscripts themselves (most do not contain a colophon with a creation date or related names) as well as gaps in the provenance documentation. Even if some information is found within the manuscripts, it cannot always be assumed that the textile shares the same history with the manuscript. Therefore, it is necessary to look at similar textile objects in other collections where more detailed provenance documentation may be available. A visit to the Royal Asiatic Society enabled Methaporn Singhanan to study two Burmese manuscript textiles, one of which is thought to be the oldest sazigyo, dated 1792, held in a British public collections. Conservation work had recently been completed to preserve this rare manuscript ribbon, and close examination of this item and discussion with British Library conservator Liz Rose were invaluable for Methaporn Singhanan’s research.

Liz Rose (right) and Methaporn Singhanan (left) visited the Royal Asiatic Society
The British Library’s textile conservator Liz Rose (right) and Methaporn Singhanan (left) visited the Royal Asiatic Society in London to study the oldest known Burmese sazigyo in a British public collection.

Two excellent learning opportunities for the Chevening Fellow were courses offered by other organisations in London. In November, Methaporn Singhanan attended a four-day course “Textile Arts of Asia” at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), convened by Dr Fiona Kerlogue of the Oriental Rug and Textile Society. The course gave insights into how Asian textiles and carpets can be explored, drawing on research carried out by scholars who have used literary sources, studied museum and other collections and undertaken studies in the field.

Methaporn Singhanan was also very excited about her attendance of a one-day course on 23 March 2023 at the Victoria and Albert Museum led by textile expert Dr Lesley Pullen. The day started with a talk on "Textiles tell a story: From India to Indonesia" which focused on the history of the textile trade between India and Indonesia and the wider context of Persian and European involvement. In a show-and-tell session after the talk, the participants had the opportunity to handle the exquisite textiles from Lesley Pullen’s private collection and to ask questions.

Methaporn Singhanan taking a close look at textiles from the private collection of Dr Lesley Pullen
Methaporn Singhanan taking a close look at textiles from the private collection of Dr Lesley Pullen during a course on "Textiles tell a story: From India to Indonesia" held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

A highlight was the visit of a group from the Royal Thai Embassy in London, including H.E. Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi, to the Library on 29 March 2023. Methaporn Singhanan helped to prepare a show-and-tell session for the esteemed visitors and selected an outstanding nineteenth-century manuscript textile (Or 5107) made from fine silk brocade to display on this occasion. She used this item - which had been imported from India to cover a large Thai palm leaf manuscript with gold decorations - to explain her research and work as a Chevening Fellow at the British Library.

a show-and-tell session for visitors from the Royal Thai Embassy
During a show-and-tell session for visitors from the Royal Thai Embassy, including H.E. Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi (2nd left), Chevening Fellow Methaporn Singhanan (2nd right) presented her research on a silk brocade wrapper imported from India to cover a precious Thai manuscript (Or 5107)

This fellowship is made possible through the Chevening scheme which is the UK government’s international awards scheme aimed at developing global leaders. Funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and partner organisations, Chevening offers fellowships to mid-career professionals to undertake a bespoke short course in the UK.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork
Methaporn Singhanan, Chevening Fellow at the British Library 2022-23 Ccownwork

24 April 2023

Animals: Art, Science and Sound

Animals amaze, fascinate and delight us!

In the British Library's new exhibition Animals: Art, Science and Sound (21 April - 29 August 2023)  you can see how documenting the animals world has resulted in some of humankind's most awe-inspiring art, science and sound recordings. It can take years of research to unlock the secrets of a single species. Did you know that the first photograph of a live giant squid was published in 2005? That bats were first described as birds, and sharks referred to as dogs.

From an Ancient Greek papyrus detailing the mating habits of dogs to the earliest photographs of Antarctic animals and the mournful song of the last living Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, recorded in 1983 and declared extinct in 2000, this is the first major exhibition to explore the different ways in which animals have been written about, visualised and recorded.

The exhibition is arranged into four distinctive environments and visitors will journey through darkness, water, land and air - to encounter striking artworks, handwritten manuscripts, sound recording and printed publications that speak to contemporary debates around discovery, knowledge, conservation, climate change and extinction. Each zone also includes a bespoke, atmospheric soundscape created using recordings from the Library's sound archive.

Some of the highlights includes: 
Painting of a bat
An illustration of a fruit bat, painted at Barrackpore, India. 1804-7, British Library, NHD3/517.

Pierre Belon De aquatilibus Of aquatic species Paris 1553 446a6
An image of a 'monkfish' from Pierre Belon's De aquatilibus (Of aquatic species), Paris, 1553. British Library, 446.a.6. 

Ab Muammad Amad ibn Atq alAzd Kitb albayarah Book on veterinary medicine 1223 Or 1523 ff 62v63r
Illustration of the defects of a horse from Kitab al-baytarah (Book on Veterinary Medicine) by Abu Muhammad Ahmad ibn Atiq al-Azdi, 13th century. British Library, Or 1523, ff. 62v-63r.

105cm record of The Hippopotamus by Talking Book Corporation
An education record for children: The Hip-po-pot-a-mus. Talking Book Corporation, 1918-29. British Library, 9CS0029512.

Animals  Art Science and Sound at the British Library 7
A section of the Chuju zui (Illustrations of Animals and Insects) showing dragonflies and moths, Japan, 1851. British Library, Or 1312. 

There is a season of in-person and online events inspired by the exhibition, such asa Late at the Library with musician, composer and producer Cosmo Sheldrake hosted by musician, author and broadcaster Cerys Matthews and Animal Magic: A Night of Wild Enchantment where five speakers, including wildlife cameraman, ornithologist and Strictly Come Dancing winner Hamza Yassin and birder, environmentalist and diversity activist, Mya-Rose Craig, each have 15 minutes to tell a story. A selection of these works are included in an outdoor exhibitionaround Kings Cross.

A richly illustrated publication written by exhibition curators Malini Roy, Cam Sharp Jones and Cheryl Tipp can be purchased through the British Library's shop. The publication is supplemented with interactive QR technology allows readers to listen to sound recordings.

The exhibition is made possible with support from Getty through The Paper Project initiative and PONANT. With thanks to The American Trust for the British Library and The B.H. Breslauer Fund of the American Trust for the British Library. Audio soundscapes created by Greg Green with support from the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Scientific advice provided by ZSL (the Zoological Society of London). 

03 April 2023

The Lotus Sutra Project: Conserving and Digitising 800 Manuscripts in the British Library

The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) is pleased to announce that after 5 years, the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Conservation and Digitisation Project successfully concluded in December 2022. Generously sponsored by the Bei Shan Tang Foundation, the Project aimed to publish online 793 manuscript copies of the Lotus Sutra from Dunhuang currently in the Stein collection at the British Library. This has resulted in over 374,000 cm of conserved material and nearly 17,000 new images for the IDP website.

Image of Or.8210/S.6791, conserved and digitised by the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Conservation and Digitisation Project
Image of Or.8210/S.6791, conserved and digitised by the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Conservation and Digitisation Project. Noc

The Lotus Sutra is one of the most influential scriptures in Mahayana Buddhism, and is thought to contain the Buddha’s final teaching, complete and sufficient for salvation. The Stein collection contains over 1000 copies of the Lotus Sutra in Chinese, which were acquired by Sir Marc Aurel Stein in 1907 and 1914, when he visited the so-called ‘Library Cave’ (Cave 17) at the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, in the present-day Gansu Province in China.

Before conservation photos of Lotus Sutra Scroll Or.8210/S.3796 after conservation photos of Lotus Sutra Scroll Or.8210/S.3796

Before and after conservation photos of Lotus Sutra Scroll Or.8210/S.3796, one of 793 manuscripts conserved through the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project. Noc

Only a small portion of these had been previously digitised, and the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project was organised to make images of the remaining manuscripts available online. Thanks to the sustained efforts of the Project team since 2017, 790 scrolls and 3 booklets have been stabilised and conserved to enable digitisation, and photographed to produce high-resolution images that are now freely available to the public on the IDP website

Or.8210/S.155, a Chinese Lotus Sutra scroll with Tibetan divination texts on the back
Image of Or.8210/S.155, a Chinese Lotus Sutra scroll with Tibetan divination texts on the back. Conserved and digitised as part of the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Conservation and Digitisation Project. Noc

Through the thousands of new images online, the Project has significantly increased global access to these important materials. In an effort to document the methodology of the Project, team members have published several articles, such as Digitisation Officer Francisco Perez-Garcia’s The Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project: the collaborative work between the Heritage Made Digital team and the International Dunhuang Project team (published in the Library's Digital Scholarship blog, 14 March 2022). More about the digitisation efforts of the project can be found in the article How to Digitise Scrolls: A Step-by-Step Guide from the Lotus Sutra Project by Senior Imaging Technician Jon Nicholls (published in the Library’s Asia and Africa blog, 2 August 2021).

Image of Or.8210/S.3579, featuring a custom-made core developed by conservators on the Project
Image of Or.8210/S.3579, featuring a custom-made core developed by conservators on the Project. Noc

Throughout the Project, the Conservation team also undertook critical research on preservation techniques and innovative storage solutions, shared via published articles like Conserving paper: reflections on cultures of conservation in Europe and East Asia by Paulina Kralka (published in The Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 24 May 2022) and Lotus Sutra Project: Storage Solutions by Paulina Kralka and Marya Muzart (published in the Library's Collection Care blog, 07 December 2020 and the IFLA Journal, 21 July 2021).

We wish to express our enormous gratitude for the efforts of the Project team, including Tan Wang-Ward, Marie Kaladgew, Marya Muzart, Paulina Kralka, Tania Estrada-Valadez, Vania Assis, Jon Nicholls, Ambrose Hickman, Isabelle Reynolds-Logue, Giancarlo Carozza, and countless others who have contributed throughout the lifetime of the Project.

Image of a panel discussion at the Lotus Sutra Conference in the Foyle Suite of the British Library
Image of a panel discussion at the Lotus Sutra Conference in the Foyle Suite of the British Library. (Left to right: Dr Eric Tzu-Yin CHUNG, Dr Paul Harrison, Dr Stephen F Teiser, Ven. Miao Duo, Roxanna Pang, Dr Luisa Elena Mengoni.)

To celebrate the close of the Project, the IDP hosted a conference at the British Library on 15 – 16 December 2022. The conference, titled ‘The Lotus Sutra: the Teachings, Transmission and Material Culture of a Sacred Buddhist Text’, included a keynote speech from Dr Stephen F Teiser and presentations from other experts, in addition to a panel of the Project team discussing their results and methodology.

The full programme of the conference is here:  Download IDP Lotus Sutra Conference Programme

The lectures were recorded and are now available on the IDP YouTube channel
Opening Ceremony of the Lotus Sutra Conference (15 – 16 December 2022) 

Panel 1: Teachings of the Lotus Sutra
Chaired by: Luisa Elena Mengoni
• Keynote presentation: ‘The Lotus Sutra: Creating Buddhist Scripture’ by Dr Stephen F Teiser (15 December 2022) 
• 'When Being Original No Longer Matters: Reflections on the Sanskrit Text of the Lotus Sutra and its Uses' by Dr Paul Harrison (15 December 2022) 
• 'Lotus Sutra: Applying the Teachings in an Everyday Life' by the Venerable Miao Duo 妙多法師 and Roxanna Pang (15 December 2022) 
• ‘Deciphering the Exhibition of The Arts of the Lotus Sutra at the National Palace Museum' by Dr Eric Tzu-yin Chung 鍾子寅 (15 December 2022) 
• Panel 1 Discussion: Teachings of the Lotus Sutra 

Panel 2: The Lotus Sutra at Dunhuang
Chaired by: Sam van Schaik
• ‘Universal Gate of Salvation: Guanyin at Dunhuang’ by Dr Roderick Whitfield (16 December 2022) 
• ‘Dividing and Structuring the Lotus Sutra in Manuscript Form’ by Dr Costantino Moretti (16 December 2022) 
• ‘At the Intersection of Image, Text and Ritual: The Lotus Sutra in Mogao Murals’ by Dr Neil Schmid (16 December 2022)
• ‘Pieces of a Puzzle: Fragments of Chinese Manuscript with the Lotus Sutra' by Dr Imre Galambos (16 December 2022) 
• ‘The Guanyin Sutra at Dunhuang as Seen Through the British Library Collection’ by Mélodie Doumy (16 December 2022) 
• Panel 2 Discussion: The Lotus Sutra at Dunhuang 

Panel 3: Preserving the Lotus Sutra at the British Library: From Physical to Digital
Chaired by: Mélodie Doumy
• ‘Locating the Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project’ by Tan Wang-Ward 王潭 (16 December 2022) 
• ‘The Lotus Sutra Project at the British Library 2017–2022: A Conservators’ Perspective’ by Marie Kaladgew, Paulina Kralka & Marya Muzart (16 December 2022) 
• ‘Conservation Case Studies from the Lotus Sutra Project at the British Library 2017–2022’ by Tania Estrada-Valadez, Marie Kaladgew, Paulina Kralka & Marya Muzart (16 December 2022) 
• ‘Seeing Things Differently: The Imaging of Lotus Sutra Scrolls’ by Isabelle Reynolds-Logue (16 December 2022) 
• Panel 3 Discussion: Preserving the Lotus Sutra at the British Library: From Physical to Digital 

Anastasia Pineschi, International Dunhuang Project, British Library Ccownwork

20 March 2023

The Diversity of Arabic scripts

We recently had the pleasure of hosting a visit from Dr Borna Izadpanah, Lecturer in Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading, together with his students, to look at some of the incredibly diverse materials in our collections. Here Borna highlights some of the items we looked at which not only provide a source of inspiration but also act as a brief history of the development of Arabic script typography.

1. Typology visit 9 March 2023
Borna Izadpanah, his students and Asian and African Collections staff. Photo credit Hidetaka Yamasaki
 ccownwork

My aim in this session was to highlight the stylistic and linguistic diversity in the Arabic script world through a selection of manuscripts and publications from different periods and regions. My notes below aim to summarise significant aspects of individual items contextualising them from a historical and stylistic perspective.

The handwritten script

2. Or.6573 Qur'an 11th-12th century
Qurʼān. Iran or Iraq, 11th or 12th century (Or.6573, ff. 3v-4r)
 noc

Starting with manuscripts, the earliest displayed item was Or.6573, an 11th or 12th century Qur’ān written on paper with a commentary in Persian. It demonstrates the effective use of two writing systems to create a dynamic and well-defined text hierarchy. The Qur’anic verses are highlighted in the Qarmatian style of eastern Kufic script, and the more compact Persian commentary is composed in a consistent and – even today a perfectly legible – naskh hand.

3. Beginning of Surat Maryam. Daghestan  19th century
The beginning of Surat Maryam, with the 'mysterious letters' framed on the left-hand page. Qur’ān, Daghistan, ca. 19th century (Or. 16058, ff. 274v-275r)
 noc

This 19th-century Daghistani Qur’ān in several different naskh styles represents a creative approach to manuscript production. It displays a remarkable level of artistic impressions using bold and intertwined text compositions and a particular use of colours and ornaments.

4. IO Islamic 383 Majnun Layla copied by Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi
The opening to Majnūn va Laylā by Amir Khusraw. Copied by Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi. Herat? 1506 (IO Islamic 383, ff.1v-2r)
 noc

This copy of the well-known romance of Layla and Majnun by the 13th-14th century poet Amir Khusraw contains exquisite illuminations and specimens of nastaʻlīq script by one of its greatest masters, the ‘King of Calligraphers’ (Sulṭān al-Khaṭṭātīn), Sultan ʻAli Mashhadi who worked in Herat and Mashhad in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. This is a luxurious rather than a reading copy which was designed to impress through uncompromising illuminations and outstanding penmanship.

5. Add MS 26139 Rasm al-khatt
A volume containing three works on calligraphy by the early 16th century poet Majnun ibn Mahmud al-Rafiqi. 17th century  (Add MS 26139, ff. 36v-37r)
 noc

In this treatise on the rules of the ‘six-pen’ calligraphic styles (aqlām-i shishgānah) and Persian penmanship, a more casual nastaʻlīq hand and minimal decorations produce a good reading copy. The marginal sketches illustrating the writing styles and letterform characteristics are of particular interest.

6. Or.11042 Sabab-i taqviyat
Sabab-i taqviyat al-taḥṣīlva najāt-i tasnīʻ al-vaqt, by Muhammad al-Bulghari. Kazan?, 19th century (Or. 11042)
 noc

This 19th-century Chagatai-Persian-Arabic glossary was intended to assist ‘Bulgarian,’ i.e. Tartar, students traveling to Bukhara to learn the arts of rhetoric and translation in Arabic and Persian. It displays a complex text arrangement in those languages composed in a regional flavour of the nastaʻlīq style and demonstrates the effective use of rubrication to distinguish terms in different languages. Also, note that the marginal commentaries are easily identifiable with their diagonal configuration.

7. Risalat hukum kanun  the Malay code of laws. Singapore  1821. Add MS 12397  f. 1v
Risālat hukum kanun, the Malay code of laws. Singapore, 1821 (Add MS 12397, f 1v)
 noc

This 19th-century Malay Risalat hukum kanun in the fluid and beautifully composed jawi script represents a fine example of one of Southeast Asia's regional flavours of modified Arabic script.   

Some examples of Arabic script printing

Kitab salat al-sawai title page
Kitāb ṣalāt al-sawā'ī. Fán 1514 (Or.70.aa.11)
 noc

We move from written forms of the Arabic script to early printed forms with movable metal type. Exploring exquisite examples of writing styles is helpful to better situate the printed forms in Arabic incunables, beginning with the earliest printed Arabic book with movable metal type Kitab salat al-sawaʼi with its crude and highly irregular characters.

9. T6547 Alphabeticum 1592
Alphabetum Arabicum. Rome, 1592 (T 6547)
 noc

A highpoint of 16th-century Arabic type-making is displayed in the publications of the Medici Oriental Press, where the renowned French punchcutter Robert Granjon produced various fonts of Arabic type based on the hand of the Director of the Medici Press, Giovanni Battista Raimondi. Alphabetum Arabic is a specimen of the Medici Press’s Arabic types and a testament to Granjon’s refined skills.

10. 306.46.A.18 Psalmi Davidis regis 1614
Liber psalmorum Davidis Regis. Rome, 1614 (306.46.A.18)
 noc

Another highlight of early Arabic type-making in Europe is the Liber psalmorum Davidis regis which uses the somewhat hybrid naskh/thuluth type of François Savary de Brèves. This type and the Arabic types of the Medici Press were later used to print Arabic text in Egypt when the first Arabic presses were established during Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign in 1798–1801.

11. 306.40.A.26. Fables de Loqman 1799
Fables de Loqman surnommé Le Sage. Cairo, 1799 (306.40.A.26)
 noc

Fables de Loqman is an example of the latter types used to print Arabic texts in Egypt.

12. Or.80.b.11 Tarih ül-Hind ül-Garbî
Flora and fauna of Hispaniola including mermen and their pearls. Tarih ül-Hind ül-Garbî ül-müsemma bi-Hadis-i Nev, by Mehmet İbn Hasan el-Su'udi. Istanbul, 1730 (Or.80.b.11)
 noc

The Tarih ül-Hind ül-Garbî (History of the Western Indies) is one of the most famous publications of the printing press of Ibrahim Müteferrika in Istanbul and contains several interesting woodblock illustrations. Credited as the first Muslim printer, Müteferrika produced an Ottoman naskh type, setting a new standard in Arabic script type-making.

13. 14999.h.2 Cedid atlas tercümesi – 1804
Cedid atlas tercümesi compiled by Mahmud Raif Efendi. Istanbul, 1804 (14999.h.2)
 noc

The Cedid atlas tercümesi is a benchmark of Ottoman printing and typography. It is printed with superbly engraved and detailed copperplate maps and the Ottoman naskh type of the Ottoman/Armenian punchcutter Bogos Arabyan. The latter was the most widely used type of the 19th-century Istanbul printing establishments and one of the most successful and well-executed Ottoman naskh types. 

14. ORB.30:445 Hikayat Abdullah SIngapore 1849
Hikayat Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi. Singapore, 1849 (ORB.30/445)
 noc

One of the most important chapters in the history of Arabic script printing was the introduction of lithography which allowed the faithful reproduction of written forms. Lithography became the preferred form of printing in several languages, including Malay language in jawi script, of which the Hikayat Abdullah with its chromolithograph illuminations is a fine specimen.

15. ORB.30:8207 Divan-i Mashrab
Divan-i Mashrab. Tashkent, 1900 (ORB.30/8207)
 noc

Another lithographic publication on view was the Divan-i Mashrab  in Chagatai, a fine specimen of printing from Central Asia in tightly composed nasta’liq style. Interestingly, the title page of this publication shows European motifs and ornaments resembling letterpress publications, giving a feel of the two printing techniques on the same page. 

16a. ITA.1986.a.1043 Birjan čal mynyn 16b. ITA.1986.a.1602 Qazaq maqaldary
Birjan čal mynyn aqin saraniñ aytusqani. Kazan', 1912 (ITA.1986.a.1043) and Qazaq maqaldary by Meyram Ersay Isqaq Balasy. Kazan', 1914 (ITA.1986.a.1062)
 noc

These early 20th-century Central Asian Kazakh and Kyrgyz/Kazakh publications in modified Arabic script with movable type were the most recent items on display. In contrast to the Divan-i Mashrab, these impressions clearly show the transformation of the highly developed written forms to abstracted and simplified formats of mechanical text compositions.  

 Borna Izadpanah, Lecturer in Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading
 ccownwork


Further reading

Nemeth, Titus (ed)., Arabic Typography: History and Practice. Salenstein: Niggli, 2022

13 March 2023

Talipot and ceremonial fans in Thai manuscript art (2)

Depictions of Talipot and ceremonial fans, like many other objects of everyday use, are very common in Thai manuscript paintings. In the first part of this blog, we looked at the origin and making of Talipot fans, called Talapat in the Thai language. In this part, we will be looking at how different types of fans were used historically and how they became symbols of honour and status in Thai social and religious life.

Talapat of Brahmins and sages
Brahmins are highly regarded as knowledge-seekers and members of the priestly social class in traditional Hindu society in India. However, in Thai art and literature they are sometimes represented with some degree of ambiguity, which is expressed through features of poor health, disfigurement, poverty, greed, and immorality. In the Jataka literature the figure of the Brahmin often plays the role of an antihero, who creates obstacles for the Bodhisatta, but by doing so, the Brahmin unwittingly helps to create a situation in which the Buddhist hero can prove his moral stature and accumulate merit. The depiction of Brahmins in manuscript paintings is in striking contrast to the appearance of real-life Thai court Brahmins, who are dressed in impressive gold-embroidered white robes during royal ceremonies.

The Brahmin Jujaka with Vessantara’s children, with a damaged Talipot fan in his shoulder bag
The Brahmin Jujaka with Vessantara’s children, with a damaged Talipot fan in his shoulder bag. Illustrated in a folding book containing Tipitaka extracts and the Mahabuddhaguna. Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 20  Noc

The image above from a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka is an example from the second half of the 18th century. It shows a popular scene from the Vessantara Jataka, in which the Brahmin Jujaka takes away the Bodhisatta’s children, Jali and Kanhajina. Jujaka’s hair appears unkempt, and he is dressed in a plain white loin cloth. In his shoulder bag is a damaged Talapat made from a single Talipot leaf.

Another depiction of a Brahmin appears in the illustration below from a Thai folding book containing the story of the monk Phra Malai and Tipitaka extracts, dated 1894. This scene from the Bhuridatta Jataka illustrates how the Brahmin and snake charmer Alambayana captured and humiliated the Buddha-to-be, who in this Birth Tale was reborn as a naga (serpent) prince named Bhuridatta. The Brahmin is dressed in a red-and-white chequered loin cloth, holding a Talipot fan in his right hand. On the fan is an ancient symbol that is well-known beyond Thailand and Southeast Asia: the Ring of Solomon. In this case, the symbol fulfils a protective purpose. This kind of fan can often be seen in Thai in manuscript illustrations as a utensil of Brahmins engaging in pre-Buddhist activities and magic.

Illustration of the Brahmin Alambayana capturing the naga Bhuridatta while holding a Talipot fan with a Ring of Solomon symbol
Illustration of the Brahmin Alambayana capturing the naga Bhuridatta while holding a Talipot fan with a Ring of Solomon symbol. Found in a folding book with Tipitaka extracts and the story of Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 1894. British Library, Or 16100, f. 5  Noc

Sages and hermits are also frequently depicted in illustrations of the Jataka tales. Usually, such paintings show the Bodhisatta who in a previous life was reborn with the wisdom of a sage, or who followed the path of a hermit.

The illustration below from an 18th-century folding book depicts the Buddha-to-be as the wise sage Mahosadha, on the right side, facing the evil-minded royal Brahmin Kevatta. Mahosadha is holding a jewel that he is about to drop, so that the greedy Kevatta will bow down to pick it up in front of Mahosadha, which is interpreted by everyone around them as a gesture of the Brahmin paying respect to the Bodhisatta. Quite extraordinarily, Kevatta is presented here lacking the usual attributes of a lowly character, probably because he is a royal Brahmin in this story. Both men are holding a Talipot fan, each with small floral decorations drawn on the front side in gold and red colour.

The Buddha-to-be Mahosadha and the Brahmin Kevatta, both with a Talapat in their hands
The Buddha-to-be Mahosadha and the Brahmin Kevatta, both with a Talapat in their hands. Illustrated in a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka, Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 6  Noc

Ceremonial fans in monastic life
Numerous Thai folding books contain paintings related to the lives and activities of Buddhist monks. Most frequently, such illustrations accompany the story of the monk Phra Malai. Among the most popular depictions of monastics are scenes from funeral wakes, where four monks are seen chanting passages from the Abhidhamma-pitaka and reciting the legend of Phra Malai to lay audiences.

The monk Phra Malai himself is often portrayed with a Talapat. Below is a painting from a Phra Malai manuscript dated 1837. Phra Malai is floating in the air while on his way to the hell-like realm of preta (hungry ghosts). He is shown with a red aura, dressed in a monk’s robes and a Talapat in his left hand. The fan has an oval shape and is made from Talipot leaves, with gold decorations at the center and on the edges. It has the long handle of a floor Talapat which is used by monks when chanting sacred texts.

Illustration of the monk Phra Malai holding a Talapat with intricate gold decorations
Illustration of the monk Phra Malai holding a Talapat with intricate gold decorations. From a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai and additional Pali texts. Central Thailand, 1837. British Library, Or 14710, f. 2  Noc

Scenes from the life of the Buddha are not frequently included in Thai illustrated manuscripts. However, there are few compilations of canonical texts and Buddhist cosmologies that contain rare paintings depicting the Buddha being surrounded by lavishly decorated fans of veneration, called Phatyot in Thai. In the painting below, from an 18th-century manuscript, the Buddha is represented in the earth-touching gesture which symbolises the moment of his Enlightenment. Behind the Buddha is a stylised Bodhi tree, and on each side one can see a heavily ornamented Phatyot fan, and a three-tiered umbrella, alongside deities paying their respects to the Enlightened One.

The Buddha at the moment of his Enlightenment, with Phatyot and umbrellas by his side
The Buddha at the moment of his Enlightenment, with Phatyot and umbrellas by his side. From a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka, Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 53  Noc

Highly ornamented Phatyot as symbols of veneration for the Buddha can also be found in illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi in Phra Malai manuscripts from the 19th century. In Theravada Buddhist belief, the Chulamani Chedi is a stupa situated in Tavatimsa heaven where hair and tooth relics of the Buddha are housed. Therefore, the stupa is directly related to the Life of the Buddha, and according to the legend of Phra Malai the story’s monk-hero travelled to the heavenly stupa to deposit a lotus flower offering on behalf of a poor man.

In the painting below from a 19th-century Phra Malai manuscript, the monk is depicted in front of the Chulamani Chedi in Tavatimsa heaven, conversing with the god Indra and another deity. Equipped with lavish gold-leaf decorations are four Phatyot left and right of the stupa. Two of these fans appear like lotus-shaped roundels, and the other pair are in the shape of lotus buds or Khao Bin rice offerings in lotus shapes.

Phra Malai at the heavenly Chulamani Chedi
Phra Malai at the heavenly Chulamani Chedi. On both sides of the stupa are embellished and gilded Phatyot. From a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai and Tipitaka extracts. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14664, f. 62  Noc

Fans as symbols of honour and status
Bodhisattas, kings, royals, and sometimes deities are portrayed with fans in Thai manuscript illustrations. In certain contexts, especially the Life of the Buddha, fans are used as an expression of veneration and respect. Manuscripts containing secular texts are also occasionally illustrated with images of kings or leaders surrounded by beautifully adorned fans to emphasise their royal or high social status. The painting below depicts two persons who are paying their respects to a king or royal personage wearing a large gold crown, with two decorated fans on each side of the pedestal he is sitting on. The fans are in the frequently found shapes of a lotus bud or Khao Bin offering, and a roundel. In this case, the roundel has eight spokes like a Dhamma Wheel. This image is part of a chart that is used to predict the fate and future of individuals. It is included in a Phrommachat divination manual, with text in Old Mon language and illustrations in the late Ayutthaya style.

Illustration of a royal figure with colourful Wanwichani fans on each side
Illustration of a royal figure with colourful Wanwichani fans on each side. From a Mon version of a Phrommachat divination manual. Ayutthaya or Burma, c. 1750-1820. British Library, Or 14532, f. 14  Noc

In Thai funeral or commemoration books that were commissioned to make merit, the first folios are often illustrated with the gods Brahma and Indra, mythical beings like Kinnari, Garuda or Yakkha, and deities called Thep Chumnum. The latter appear as eye-pleasing figures with golden crowns and royal attires. Thep Chumnum are often depicted in pairs with fans of honour, facing a passage of canonical Pali text like in the paired manuscript illustrations below. Two Thep Chumnum dressed in several layers of colourful loin cloths with floral designs, gold crowns and jewelery, are seated in a respectful pose, flanked by two fans with elongated floor handles. The fans with red and blue ornaments in plant shapes were included to emphasise the divine status and eminence of the Thep Chumnum.

Illustration of Thep Chumnum with exquisitely decorated fans on each side
Illustration of Thep Chumnum with exquisitely decorated fans on each side. From a folding book with Tipitaka extracts. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f. 1 Noc

Further reading
Khin Saw Oo: Culture Value of Myanmar Hand Fan (Talipot-palm Fan). Paper presented at the 2nd International Conference on Burma/Myanmar Studies, 16-18 February 2018, Mandalay
Phra Maha Min Thiritsaro: Phatyot samanasak phrasong Thai. Bangkok, 2016
Talapat. In: Traditional objects of everyday use. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (retrieved 28/12/2022)

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork

28 February 2023

A Panegyric from the Deccan’s Golden Age

This week’s post is by guest writer Namrata B. Kanchan, PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation examines the courtly Dakhni literary and manuscript culture between 1500 and 1700 CE.

One of the gems to emerge from the early modern Deccan manuscript corpus is a sumptuously illuminated Dakhni language qasida or panegyric poem (Or. 13533). Composed by Bijapur’s poet laureate Mullah Nusrati who was associated with the court of ‘Ali Adil Shah II’s (r. 1656-1672 CE), this work is dedicated to the Golconda Qutb Shahi, Sultan ‘Abdullah Qutb Shah (r. 1626-1672).

Qasidah opening f4r Qasidah opening f3v
The opening lines of Nusrati’s qasida, Bijapur ca. 1630s? (British Library Or. 13533 ff. 3v. and 4r).
 ccownwork

Although the text does not provide the reason for this poem’s creation, scholars surmise that it was a royal gift bestowed to the Golconda Sultan on the occasion of his sister Sultana Khadija’s wedding to Bijapur’s Sultan Muhammad ʻAdil Shah (r. 1626-1656) in 1633 (Ahmad, pp. 133-142). Continuing this Dakhni cultural legacy, the Sultana is one of the first known female patrons to commission the monumental illustrated Dakhni Khavarnamah (IO Islamic 834) completed in 1649.

Jamshid Shah with his consort and followers  IO Islamic 834  f. 70v
Jamshid Shah with his consort and followers, Khavarnamah, Bijapur, ca. 1649, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 70v)
 ccownwork

One of the premier genres of the Persianate literary cosmos (to which Bijapur and Golconda belonged), a qasida is, in essence, an encomium. Originating in Arabic literature, it was first cultivated in Persian by patrons under the Samanids (819-999) who were keen promoters of this new literary language. The genre soon became de rigeur in courts and flourished under the Ghaznavids (977-1186) during the eleventh century. One reason for its popularity in these two courts was that the poem was a paean to its patrons, predominantly newly minted rulers or nobles, who were eager to display their power and status. Additionally, this genre gained acclaim because it was beneficial for both the poet and the patron. A successful qasida sealed the poet’s relationship with a ruler and was important for social and financial success at the royal court. Furthermore, by extolling the virtues of an idealized ruler, the poem possessed a dual function. It sought to bestow immortality upon the patron and served a didactic role by guiding and encouraging the ruler to match the qualities expressed by the poet.

Apart from adulating patrons, poets composed these poems to memorialise marriages, victories, hunts, or annual feasts. The celebratory nature of the qasida meant that it was designed for performance and therefore recited in formal courtly gatherings. Not limited to Persian, this genre soon emerged in new languages across the Persianate sphere, which ultimately resulted in Nusrati’s composition of the Dakhni qasida.

In general, a single metre runs through a qasida and each hemistich terminates with the same rhyme. Yet rules for this genre, as opposed to the masnavi or the highly codified ghazal, were often not followed. In the Dakhni qasida,  Nusrati changes the rhyme scheme after a sequence of four to five couplets. 

A closer look at the manuscript reveals that no expense was spared in its creation. The gifted wordsmith Nusrati, who was a budding poet in the Bijapur court in the 1630s, was commissioned to compose the qasida. Similarly, the manuscript’s calligrapher ‘Ali ibn Naqi al-Husayni Damghani penned the encomium in elegant naskh. A Bijapuri native, ‘Ali Damghani emerged from a lineage of renowned calligraphers. His father Naqi al-Husayni was chief scribe of the calligraphic programme at Ibrahim Adil Shah II’s tomb, the Ibrahim Rauza, in Bijapur (Haider and Sarkar, p. 143).

Qasida f29r Qasida f.28v
The conclusion of Nusrati’s qasida, Bijapur ca. 1630s?  (British Library Or. 13533 f. 2v. and 3r)
 ccownwork

This beautifully crafted manuscript commences with two dazzling shamsas or sun-shaped designs radiating from the centre of the folio. A large number of Persianate manuscripts produced for royalty opened with a shamsa, which symbolized divine light. Resembling a circular garden brimming with multi-hued floral patterns against a cream-coloured background, the identically shaped Bijapur shamsas, with slightly different colour compositions, emanate golden rays to mimic brilliant noon-day suns. The second shamsa folio also possesses some discreet writing on the top left corner signaling that this manuscript is composed of 24 folios. A blotted stain above the shamsa on folio 3r is perhaps evidence of a royal seal.

Qasidah r 3r Qasidah f 2v
Shamsas
at the beginning of Nusrati’s qasida, Bijapur ca. 1630s?  (British Library Or. 13533 f. 2v. and 3r)
 ccownwork

Each subsequent folio (so delicate that they are currently preserved individually in glass-frames), painted in gold paint, possesses a border of vivid floral prints. Hemmed within is a rectangular box for the poetry. Although floral borders adorned deluxe Persian manuscripts, this is the first known Dakhni work where the borders of each open folio and its partner folio contain individual designs that resemble a series of golden flower strewn gardens punctuated with neat lines of exquisite calligraphy in a midnight black ink.

Qasidah f 6r Qasidah f 5v
Nusrati’s qasidah, Bijapur ca. 1630s? (British Library Or. 13533 f. 5v. and 6r)
 ccownwork

In many ways, this exquisitely illuminated manuscript signals the apogee of book arts and Dakhni literature in seventeenth-century Bijapur. Any reputed poet could have composed the qasida in Persian but the use of this local vernacular and the commissioning of Nusrati, a poet known for his mastery over Dakhni poetry, demonstrates the popularity of and pride in the indigenous language. Although slim in volume, the manuscript exudes grandeur in every bejeweled folio replete with beautiful poetry and refined penmanship. If indeed this manuscript was a wedding gift from the house of Bijapur to Golconda, it gestures towards the significance of these marital alliances. Weddings were not simply the union of couples or occasions to display a kingdom’s wealth and status. In the Deccan, such partnerships were crucial for political survival, especially in the face of looming Mughal annexation.

 

Namrata B. Kanchan,  University of Texas at Austin
 ccownwork

Further Reading

Ahmad, Nizamuddin. Hadiqat al-Salatin. Edited by Syed Ali Asgar Bilgrami. Hyderabad: Idarah-e Adabiyat-e Urdu, 1961.
Haidar, Navina Najat and Marika Sardar. Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015.
Husain, Ali Akbar. Scent in the Islamic Garden: A Study of Deccani Urdu Literary Sources. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Shackle, Christopher. “Settings of Panegyric: The Secular Qasida in Mughal and British India,” in Christopher Shackle and Stefan Sperl ed., Qasida Poetry in Islamic Asia and Africa, vol. 1 Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1996.

20 February 2023

Talipot and ceremonial fans in Thai manuscript art (1)

Depictions of ceremonial and Talipot fans, like many other objects of everyday use, are very common in Thai manuscript paintings. Ceremonial fans, or fans of honour and veneration, are called Phatyot (พัดยศ) in Thai, whereas Talipot fans are known as Talapat (ตาลปัตร), referring to the leaf of the Talipot palm. If used in royal ceremonies, Talipot fans are called Wanwichani (วาลวิชนี); however, this term is also used for royal fans made of different materials, including hairs from elephant tails or yak hair in the shape of a whisk. Images of fans can be found in manuscript illustrations accompanying a variety of texts, both of a Buddhist and secular nature: the Great Perfections of the Buddha (Mahabuddhaguna), the legend of the monk Phra Malai, Phrommachat divination manuals, or extracts from canonical scriptures selected for funeral and commemoration books.

Four monks with Talipot fans at a funeral wake
Four monks with Talipot fans at a funeral wake. Illustration in a folding book containing Tipitaka extracts from and the Mahabuddhaguna. Central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 64 Noc

Talipot fans were originally made from the leaves of the Talipot palm (Corypha umbraculifera). This tree, which can grow to over 75 years old, produces large palmate plaited leaves over 5 m wide. One fully grown leaf can have a weight of 40-50 kg. The palm puts up a magnificent inflorescence of up to 10 m in size, but only once before it dies. The leaves have an excellent durability, therefore they were used in South and Southeast Asia to make thatches, mats, hats, umbrellas, fans as well as palm leaf manuscripts.

Talipot palm with fully grown inflorescence, photographed in Sri Lanka in 1885
Talipot palm with fully grown inflorescence, photographed in Sri Lanka in 1885. British Library, Photo 430/5(3) Noc

There are several ways to make a traditional Talapat fan from a Talipot leaf. One popular method uses a young leaf or bud that has a stem of approximately 30 cm length. The bud is unfolded and dried in the sun for several days. It can also be soaked in water that is infused with insect-repelling herbs, and then dried and pressed before it is cut to a round or oval shape. Fans in the oval shape are called Pat Na Nang (fan in the shape of a lady’s face) in Thai. The size of the fan depends on the purpose and the person who is going to use it.

The folds are sewn together and a frame made from bamboo splints, rattan or metal wire is attached. Three types of specially-made wooden or bamboo handles can be attached to hold the fan: a handle in the shape of a 20-30 cm long hook or stick attached in a right angle at the bottom of the bud; a handle of 20-70 cm length attached straight at the bottom of the bud (the short size for hand-held fans, the longer size for floor fans to be placed on a stand); or a handle up to 70 cm long attached to the frame on the side of the leaf. Finally, the frame and handle can be decorated with lacquer and gold leaf. Sometimes the frame is covered with cloth that is sewn on.

Illustration of a woman holding a fan made from a Talipot leaf
Illustration of a woman holding a fan made from a Talipot leaf with a right-angled handle, in a Mon copy of a Thai divination manual (Phrommachat). Ayutthaya or Burma, c. 1750-1820. British Library, Or 14532, f. 15 Noc

Monk carrying a Talapat made from a Talipot leaf
Monk carrying a Talapat made from a Talipot leaf with an attached straight handle. Illustrated in a folding book containing Tipitaka extracts. Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, Or 14048, f. 3 Noc

Modelled on the fan made from a Talipot leaf are fans made in different ways and from different materials: woven palm leaves or other natural fibers, feathers, or textiles. The latter could be discarded monks’ robes, handwoven pieces of ikat or silk brocade, velvet, fabric embroidered with gold thread, sequins or glass beads, painted cloths etc. Occasionally, Talipot fans were also lacquered and decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay or mirror-glass inlay, and the handle could be made from ivory. Such fans were – and still are - used as ceremonial fans by monks and novices, or they can be presented as gifts of honour to commemorate an important monastic or royal event that is celebrated with a ceremony.

Prince Vessantara holding a fan made from peacock feathers
Prince Vessantara holding a fan made from peacock feathers. The old Brahmin Jujaka has a broken Talapat in his shoulder bag. Illustrated in a folding book containing Tipitaka extracts. Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 13 Noc

Talapat are not part of the obligatory requisites of monastics, but they are often used in Buddhist ceremonies by monks to hide their face while chanting canonical scriptures so that the words of the Buddha are not being identified with the face of the reciting monk. Another popular opinion about the origin of monastic fans refers to the tradition of meditations on the foul, saying that monks first used Talapat to help them cope with the stench of decaying corpses while meditating.

Fans are often included in Kathina offerings or gifts on occasion of the ordination of a new novice or monk, passing a monastic exam, anniversaries of monastic ordinations, and when a monk is bestowed a rank or an honorary title. Especially during the time of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) offerings of elaborately decorated Phatyot as fans of rank and honour became fashionable. Phatyot can be made in the round shape of a lotus flower, the elongated shape of a lotus bud, or a Khao Bin offering (sweet rice offering shaped like a lotus bud) with a flame-like edge. The name of the monk, his rank and/or an occasion can be embroidered on the front face of the fan. Thus, fans in the Thai cultural context can also be seen as symbols of authority for monks, or generally as status symbols.

Comical or pretend monks at a funeral wake; one holding a fan made with embroidered cloth
Comical or pretend monks at a funeral wake; one holding a fan made with embroidered cloth. Illustrated in a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka. Central Thailand, 1841. British Library, Or 15925, f. 21 Noc

Illustration of monks with a lavishly decorated Phatyot fan with a long floor handle
Illustration of monks with a lavishly decorated Phatyot fan with a long floor handle. Illustrated in a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai and Tipitaka extracts. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14664, f. 3  Noc

Little is known as to when the Talipot fan was first made: one can assume that it is an everyday object as old as humankind, primarily made for the purpose of air ventilation. However, there is a reference to a fan made from a palm leaf in the seventh chapter of the Story of the Novice Monk in the Arahanta-vagga, Dhammapada, which suggests that the Talipot fan was already in use by monastics during the lifetime of Gotama Buddha over 2500 years ago.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork

Further reading
Khin Saw Oo: Culture Value of Myanmar Hand Fan (Talipot-palm Fan). Paper presented at the 2nd International Conference on Burma/Myanmar Studies, 16-18 February 2018, Mandalay.
Igunma, Jana: Talipot and ceremonial fans in Thai manuscript art. SEALG Newsletter no. 54 (Dec. 2022), pp. 20-38
Phra Maha Min Thiritsaro: Phatyot samanasak phrasong Thai. Bangkok, 2016
Talapat. In: Traditional objects of everyday use. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (retrieved 28/12/2022)

19 February 2023

Akbar and Alexander the Great

With the British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The making of a Myth drawing to a close, I would like to highlight one of my special favourites: the Emperor Akbar’s personal copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Quintet) of which the fifth poem, the Iskandarnamah, is a two part account of the life of Alexander the Great or Iskandar as he is called in Persian.

Iskandar and the priestess. Or.2208 f.318rIskandar and the priestess. Or.2208 f.317v
The priestess pleads with Iskandar to spare the sanctuary idol from destruction. Artists La'l and Mukund. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, ff.317v-318r)
 noc

Commissioned by Akbar (r.1556–1605) in Lahore between 1593 and 1595, this manuscript represents what was without doubt an intensely personal project and combines the work of the best artists at his court. With 37 highly original paintings, luxurious illumination, marginal decorations and binding, this Khamsah  was one of a small group of deluxe Persian manuscripts which also include Jami’s  Baharistan (Bodleian MS. Elliott 254) and the Khamsah  of Amir Khusraw (Walters Ms. W. 624), all produced around the same time in Lahore. In his monumental survey of 1912, the collector and art historian F.R. Martin wrote of it: “Without exception it is the most wonderful Indian manuscript in Europe.” Originally the manuscript contained 44 illustrations, but at some point 39 folios including five illustrated leaves, were extracted and are now in the Walters Art Museum Baltimore Walters Ms. W.613. Two of the original paintings are now lost and an additional portrait of the calligrapher ʻAbd al-Raḥīm ʻAnbarīn Qalam and the artist Dawlat were added at the end in 1610 by order of Jahangir.

With 16 of the 44 illustrations devoted to the Iskandarnamah, it is easy to see Akbar's special affinity with Alexander the Great. Nizami in the early 12th century was the first to qualify Iskandar (Iqbalnamah 29:4) with the adjective Sahib-qiran (Lord of the Conjunction)[1]. Several rulers styled themselves this way, most notably Akbar’s honoured ancestor Timur, founder of the Timurid dynasty in 1370[2]. Like Alexander, Akbar was a successful conqueror, but more particularly Nizami’s portrayal of Alexander as a philosopher-king would have appealed to Akbar who promoted himself as a just and tolerant ruler.

In the opening we used for the exhibition (see above) the double-page illustration has a special significance. Here we see Iskandar at a Buddhist sanctuary at Kandahar receiving an impassioned plea from the priestess who asks for the golden statue, with precious jewels as its eyes, to be left unharmed. Iskandar had ordered it to be dismantled but moved by her passion and beauty, he agreed to spare it. Placed right at at the end of the Khamsah, this painting has a special significance, as pointed out by Barbara Brend (Akbar's Khamsa, p. 61). Iskandar is compared by implication with the Mughal emperor Akbar who had taken Kandahar from the Safavids of Iran without bloodshed in April 1595, while this manuscript was still in the process of completion. Akbar’s interest in other religions apart from Islam, exemplified by the establishment of his own syncretic faith, the Din-i ilahi (Divine Faith) in 1582, parallels here Iskandar’s own role as a tolerant philosopher-king.

Sadly, in the exhibition we could only display one opening from each manuscript, so to give a flavour of the whole volume, I have described some further examples here.

Iskandar and Nushabah  Or 12208  f.244b
Iskandar with Nushabah, queen of the women-only city of Barda, in today’s Azerbaijan. Iskandar had visited the queen in disguise, but she immediately exposed him as an imposter by presenting him with his own portrait which she had had painted earlier. Reprimanding him, she nevertheless forgave him and they feasted together before he went on his way.
Artist, Bhura. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f. 244v)
 noc

Iskandar receives the envoy of Kaid of Hind  Or.12208  f.254r
Not wishing to engage in war, King Kayd of Hind offered Iskandar four gifts as tribute: his daughter in marriage, his all-knowing philosopher, his personal physician and his never-emptying goblet. This scene shows his envoy's reception at Iskandar's camp. Iskandar accepted Kayd's gifts and so bloodshed was avoided.
Artist, Dharamdas. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f. 254r)
 noc

Mani paints a dead dog. Or.12208  f. 262v
The story of Mani the 3rd-century founder of Manichaeism who was also famous as an artist, is told as an interlude in a contest between the artists of Chin and Rum. Hearing that the prophet Mani was on his way to China, the Chinese, to discourage him, created a false reservoir out of crystal. When the thirsty Mani placed his earthenware drinking vessel on it, it broke. To prevent others from doing the same, Mani, pictured here with his tools, painted the decaying corpse of a dead dog on the surface. Through this action and his wisdom, Nizami tells us, Mani made many converts.
Artist, Sur Gujarati. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.262v)
 noc

Khizr washes his horse in the Water of Life. Or.12208  f.281r
As Iskandar’s power and dominions increased, so too did his preoccupation with dying. Searching for immortality, his journey led him into the Land of Darkness in an unsuccessful search for the Water of Life. Nizami gives three different accounts of the search for the Water of Life, which he refers to as Zoroastrian, Byzantine, and Arab versions. Pictured here is the so-called Zoroastrian version in which Iskandar gave the prophet Khizr his grey horse – a gift from the ruler of Chin – and sent him into the Darkness with a special stone which would light up and reveal the fountain. Khizr located it, drank and washed himself and his horse, but when they had finished, the fountain disappeared.
Artist, Kanak Singh Chela. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.281r)
 noc

Aflatun charms the wild animals to sleep with his music. Or.12208  f.298r
This illustration comes in the Iqbalnamah, the second of the two books of the Iskandarnamah, which describes Iskandar's prophetic mission. In this episode, after solitary reflection in a barrel (echoes of Diogenes), Aflatun (Plato) obtained full comprehension of the music of the spheres and created an instrument whereby he could make all animals sleep and then rouse them again to consciousness. The scene itself is reminiscent of hunting scenes in which Akbar surveys his catch, as for example on the doublure of the binding of this same volume.
Artist, Madhu. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.298r)
 noc

Iskandar and the 7 philosophers
Here Alexander is depicted as a philosopher-king and questions the origin of the universe from his seven philosophers: Valens, Apollonius, Socrates, Porphyry, Hermes and Plato. Having listened to each in turn, he declared that, in view of their contradictory opinions, the only certainty could be that there was no creation without a creator. By resorting to enlightenment rather than reason, Iskandar was acknowledged as supremely wise and thereby achieved prophethood.
Artist, Nanha. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.305r)
 noc

Iskandar rides through the desert of death. Or.12208  f. 312v
Despatched on a prophetic mission by the angel Srosh, Iskandar explored the Western regions and at the edge of the world encountered a shore where there were many coloured stones, blue, red, yellow and black, each weighing about five to ten pounds. If a person looked at one of these stones, he laughed so much that he died. Iskandar ordered the rocks to be covered with cloth and loaded onto 100 camels. Hastening along the shore he used them to build a fortress without doors and covered the exterior with clay to protect passers by. But whoever climbed over to see the interior, would be exposed to the bare rocks and die.
Artist, Bhem Gujarati. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.312v)
 noc

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.

Ursula Sims-Wiliams, Lead Curator Persian, British Library
 CC BY-NO

 

Other illustrations in Akbar's Iskandarnamah

  • The invention of the mirror in the presence of Alexander the Great. Artists, Nanha and Shivdas (Walters Ms. W.613, f.16b and f.17a)
  • The death of Darius. Artist, Dharamdas (Walters Ms. W613, f.26b)
  • Alexander the Great enthroned at Persepolis. Artist, Bem Gujarati (Walters Ms. W613, f.34a)
  • The women of Qipchak are persuaded to veil themselves on seeing a veiled talisman. Artist, Mukund (Or.12208, f.266v)
  • The Russian champion who tore off an elephant's trunk. Artist, Farrukh Chela (Or.12208, f.273r)
  • Maria, the Copt trained in the art of alchemy consulted by other alchemists. Artist, Sanwala. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.294r)

Further reading

Barbara Brend, The Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Niẓāmī. London: British Library, 1995.
J.P. Losty and Malini Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire. London: The British Library, 1912, pp. 48-55.
Haila Manteghi, Alexander the Great in the Persian Tradition: History, Myth and Legend in Medieval Iran. London: I.B. Tauris, 2018.

Related posts

-----------

[1] Owen Cornwall, Alexander and the Persian Cosmopolis, 1000-1500, PhD thesis Columbia Unversity, 2016, pp. 91-9.
[2] Naindeep Singh Chann, “Lord of the Auspicious Conjunction: Origins of the Ṣāḥib-QirānIran and the Caucasus 13 (2009) 93-110