THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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

21 November 2018

Beautiful Burmese Barges and Boats

A recently digitised Burmese manuscript in the British Library (Or. 14005) contains images of different types of royal barges and boats, illuminated in red and gold. The barges are carved and decorated elaborately with figures of mythical creatures such as the garuda (bird), naga (serpent), and manuk siha (half-lion half-man), and some bear structures resembling palaces or pavilions. The paintings of the vessels are as finely excecuted as those of scenes found in other Burmese folding books but, unusually, this book has no captions at all. Nonetheless, each boat is so stylistically and symbolically distinctive that it can easily be identified. 

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A Pyigyimon boat, which consists of two conjoined gilded boats, with a seven-tired roof (pyatthat). There are two separate dragon-headed hulls, while on the bow are figures of a garuda (mythical bird) and a naga (mythical dragon), with Sakka (a celestial king and the ruler of Tavatimsa heaven) standing between them. British Library, Or. 14005, f. 1  Noc

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Shown above are the golden state barges Nawayupa and Nagadeva, for carrying ministers and royal officers. The Nawayupa golden barge (top) has the mane of a karaweik (mythical bird), the hump of bull, the tail of a nga gyin fish, two elephant tusks, the trunk of a makara (sea creature), two horns of a toe naya (mythological creature), two wings of parakeet, and a front and hind leg of a horse. The Nagadeva barge (bottom) is adorned with the figure of the snake king. British Library, Or. 14005, f. 7  Noc

Other state barges used for royal river journeys depicted in the manuscript include the Pyinsayupa golden barge, used by the chief queens, which has the mane of karaweik bird, the tusk and trunk of an elephant, the hump of bull, the tail of a nga gyin fish, two horns of a toe naya and two ears. The Eni barge is adorned with the figure of a deer, while the Hintha barge, which was used by princes, is adorned with the figure of a hamsa (mythical bird). The Udaung boat, also used by princes, was adorned with the figure of peacock.

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Hlaw ka-daw (above) are the king’s dispatch boats. They are gilded all over, even including the paddles, and the stern rises high up in the air. These boats carried canons, drums and gongs. British Library, Or. 14005, f. 16 Noc

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Shown above are the Nawaraja and Manuk siha boast. The Nawaraja boat (top) has figures of five Brahmas in the prow and four in the stern, in memory of the nine Brahmas who appeared on earth in the beginning of the world. The Manuk sika boat (bottom) is adorned with the figure of a mythical creature with a human face and hands, and the body and legs of a lion. British Library, Or. 14005, f. 36  Noc

The other kings’s boats are Thone lu pu saw and Thone lu tot pa. The Thone lu pu saw boat has figures of the king of Brahmas, the king of devas (deities), and the king of men affixed on the bow, and three umbrellas hoisted on the stern. Thone lu pu saw means three sentient beings (Thone lu), namely humans, devas, and Brahmas, who all pay homage to the Buddha. This boat was stationed in front of the royal barge when the king travelled in state. The Thone lu tot pa boat has the figure of a deva on the bow and figures of a human, a deva and a brahma on the stern.

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Pyi kone (top) is the king’s boat, with figures of the moon and the sun adorning the bow and stern. Lokabihman boat (bottom) is also for the king's use and has two pavilions, one at the bow and one at the stern. Or. 14005, f. 37 Noc

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The boat at the top is adorned with the figure of a Kinnera, a mythical half bird-half woman, and the Thuwa hle (bottom) is a boat with the figure of parrot. British Library, Or. 14005, f. 44 Noc

Among the variety of boats many were named from the places whence their models were taken, such as the Zimme, In-ma, Tha-byu, etc. Other notable boats were the Thingan-net and the Lin-zin boat, with a low bow and lofty stern. The Azalon or Azalompani boat had the figure of a goat with an aubergine in its mouth and its forefeet resting on the prow of the boat, and its two hind legs and tail at the stern.

Among the many festivals held throughout the year in Burma (Myanmar) is the Regatta festival which is held Burmese month of Tawthalin (late September) due to the favourable weather conditions. According to the Burmese chronicles, royal regatta festivals were held by eleven monarchs beginning with King Anaukphetlun (r.1605-28), and ending with King Thibaw (r.1878-1885), the last King of Konbaung dynasty (1752-1885). During the regatta, the king surrounded by his entourage would watch the event from his royal barge, which often headed the procession down the river. The king and his nobles and courtiers often raced each other in their boats, accompanied by the songs of the rowers. The very oars of the royal boats were gilded, and as the boats circled the spray flew from their blades, and the sun blazed upon their magnificence. High officials supervised preparations for boat races along the shore of rivers throughout the country, and these races were also regarded as good tests for improving the skills of the royal navy.

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Racing boats in the river during the Regatta festival. In the foreground, the King and Queen watch from a grandstand on the bank. Or. 6779, ff. 9-12 Noc

Royal barge processions were held for the Coronation and other religious ceremonies on the Irrawaddy River or Ayeyarwady River. It is the main river of Burma, flowing from north to south through the centre of the country, and one of the great rivers of Asia. Burmese chronicles recorded that King Alaung Sithu (r.1112-1167) was a great traveller as he spent much of his time on water journeys.

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This illustration depicts a royal water procession. The barge is tugged by golden Letpyi boats paddled by a full complement of oarsmen in the Irrawaddy River. People are gathered on the banks of the river to watch the royal barge and boats. British Library, Or. 14031, ff. 9-13  Noc

From 1975 to the present day, the Karaweik golden barge - based on the design of the Pyigyimon royal barge - has floated on the Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon. This barge is adorned with the figure of a karaweik  bird, and has a covered area with a pyatthat tiered roof.

Further reading:
Zayyathinkhaya, Minister of King Bodawpaya (1782-1819). Shwe bhon nidan. Yangon, Hkit lu, 1957

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

14 November 2018

Pawukon, Javanese calendrical manuscripts

Today’s guest blog on the Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta Digitisation Project is by Prof. Ann Kumar of the Australian National University

The highly complex Javanese calendar has evolved over many centuries. The year dating system used is the Indian Shaka era, which begins in 78 A.D., but in the 17th century the Islamic lunar months were substituted for the solar months of the Shaka era. This unorthodox and hard-to-operate hybrid was presumably due to the desire to observe the major events of the Muslim year, particularly the Hajj, at the same time as Muslims around the world.

However, apart from these external influences, there are distinctively Javanese systems of time-keeping, such as the use of cycles not tied to any year-date. The principal ones are a seven-year cycle, the eight-year windu cycle, and the one described in this article: the 30-week wuku cycle, which has been referenced in inscriptions dating from the 8th century (Damais 1955).

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Early wuku illustrations, found at the end of a manuscript volume containing Babad ing Sangkala, dated 1738. British Library, MSS Jav 36B, ff. 374v-375r Noc

A wuku week lasts for 7 days, and there are 30 named weeks in the wuku year of 210 days, as follows:

1. Sinta
2. Landep
3. Wukir
4. Kurantil Go
5. Tolu
6. Gumbreg
7. Wariga alit
8. Wariga gung
9. ]ulung Wangi
10. Sungsang
11. Galungan
12. Kuningan
13. Langkir
14. Manḍasiya
15. Julung Pujud
16. Pahang
17. Kuru welut
18. Mrakeh
19. Tambir
20. Menđangkungan
21. Maktal
22. Wuye
23. Manail
24. Prang bakat
25. Bala
26. Wugeo [or Wuku, Wugu]
27. Wayang
28. Kulawu
29. Dukut
30. Watu Gunung

Much like a horoscope, a specific wuku gives a picture of the character and circumstances of a person born in that wuku which will determine their fortunes. Each wuku is assigned a god and a tree. It may also be assigned a bird; an icon depicting water, ie. forecasting rain; a house in different positions, referring to economic matters; and a pennant (umbul-umbul), an insignia of rank. The 30 wuku are depicted in illustrated manuscripts known as pawukon. The three pawukon manuscripts from the British Library collection illustrated here have all been fully digitised.

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Wuku Wariga Alit, in a Pawukon from Yogyakarta, 1807. British Library, Add. 12338, ff. 90v-91r  Noc

Shown above is the seventh wuku, Wariga Alit, which has the following elements:
• The god is Yang Asmara, another name for Kama, the god of love (he holds an arrow à la Cupid). His name is written in Javanese characters on his left. This indicates that a child born in this wuku will be beautiful.
• The red-eyed bird is the solitary kapoḍang, or black-naped oriole, perching on a sulastri tree, well known for its fragrance.
• The structure in the left foreground is a canḍi, or funerary temple, indicating melancholy.
Interpreting these symbols, a child born in this wuku is beautiful, but fickle, and is solitary, shy, or melancholy. This wuku is also said to be bad for leaders of troops.

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The same wuku, Wariga Alit, depicted in Papakĕm Pawukon, with explanation in Javanese on the left hand page, and in Malay in roman script on the right hand page. The MS was acquired by Col. Colin Mackenzie from Kyai Suradimanggala, Bupati sĕpuh of Dĕmak, in ‘Bagor’ (Bogor) in [A.J.] 1742 [A.D. 1814-15].   British Library, Or 15932, ff. 17v-18r  Noc

Or 15932 f.17v
Unlike the stylized canḍi depicted in the Yogyakarta Pawukon of 1807, in Kyai Suradimanggala's Pawukon the canḍi recalls the profile of Borobudur, which in 1814 was only just being excavated. British Library, Or 15932, f. 17v (detail)  Noc

More elaborate versions of the wuku calendar are also known, where each wuku might have a particular danger inherent in it, such as being bitten by a snake or wounded with a weapon. Some wuku calendars also include information about the movements of a monster called Jabung Kala who watches over the wuku and rotates in a circle synchronically with the wuku weeks, changing position every seven days. His position is considered important for generals, who should orientate their battle lines so as not to get across him.

The American sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel describes the Javanese wuku calendar as the most remarkable and intricate week-calendar ever invented (1985: 68-9). Unrelated to the seasons and to solar and lunar phases, he points out it is a unique product of the rational human mind and of humans’ ability to live in accordance with entirely artificial rhythms which they create.

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On the left, the 9th wuku, Julung Wangi, and on the right, the 12th wuku, Kuningan, from a Pawukon from Yogyakarta, 1807. British Library, Add. 12338, f. 95r and f. 101r Noc

The wuku calendar is often said to be based on the Watu Gunung myth.In this, Watu Gunung is a powerful warrior who by defeating the incumbent king and his allies became ruler of Giling Wesi. He married two heavenly nymphs with whom he had thirteen sets of male twins, plus one single male birth. The parents and children gave their names to the thirty wuku, listed above. Watu Gunung was enterprising and undertook to build an iron city. A voice from heaven warned him to offer the proper prayers to Batara Guru, the supreme Hindu god, and to do asceticism, after which he built the iron city in less than seven years. He subsequently became more and more conceited and populated the city with 40 men resembling the gods and 40 maids like the Widadaris (heavenly nymphs), claiming that it was like the palace of Batara Guru, the chief god. This eventually led to war with the gods, in which Watu Gunung was killed. Thanks to his wives interceding with the gods he and all his family were admitted to heaven. However, it is difficult to see how the Watu Gunung myth, with its incredible story of thirteen sets of all-male twins plus a single son, could have been the founding myth on which the wuku calendar was subsequently based. It seems more likely that it was composed after the wuku calendar, to provide a mythic basis, or that a previous myth has been substantially modified. Thus the origin of the wuku remains unclear.

The thirty wuku are subdivided into five groups of six wuku each (wuku 1-6, 7-12, 13-18, 19-24, and 25-30); this system is called ringkel ing wuku. The ringkel ing wuku are classified as follows:
1. Humans (jalma: wuku 1, 7, 13, 19, 25)
2. Animals (sato: wuku 2, 8, 14, 20, 26)
3. Fish (iwak: wuku 3, 9, 15, 21, 27)
4. Birds (manuk, wuku 4, 10, 16, 22, 28)
5. Wuku (wuku 5, 11, 17, 23, 29)
6. Leaves (goḍong, wuku 6, 12, 18, 24, 30)

The wuku calendar is no longer used in Java, but its maximum complexity is fully preserved in Bali. In this, the 210 days of the wuku year are divided into weeks of differing lengths. They may be 10, 9, or 8 days long, or down to just one day long. Each week has a particular name and so does each day of each week, meaning that every day has a total of ten names! This is not just academic complexity, but has practical significance. For example, the three-day week determines the markets in Bali which shift from one village to another in a three-day cycle. The five-, six- and seven-day weeks are the most important, especially when they co-occur. Only once in 210 days does a day fall on all three cycles (5 x 6 x 7), and that day is Galungan, which is the main Balinese religious festival. Another important day, Kajeng-Keliwon, is when the third day of the three-day week, Kajeng, falls on the same day as the fifth day of the five-day week, Keliwon. This happens every 15 days, and many temple ceremonies are held on this day. Not surprisingly, to stay on top of all this a special calendar is needed, called a tika, of which there are some finely illustrated examples.

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Illustrations from a Balinese calendar on palm leaf, ca. 1981. British Library, Or 16911, f. 7r

References:

For a full listing of the 30 wuku and their associated characteristics, see:
Ann Kumar, Java and modern Europe: ambiguous encounters. Richmond: Curzon, 1996; chapter 3.

Louis-Charles Damais, 'Ếtudes d’Ếpigraphie Indonésiennes’, Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient XLVII, 1955, pp. 7-290.
Roelof Goris, ‘Holidays and holy days in Bali', Studies in life, thought and ritual: selected studies on Indonesia by Dutch scholars, vol.5, ed. W.F. Wertheim et al., The Hague and Bandung: W. van Hoeve, 1960, pp.113-29.
M.C. Ricklefs, Modern Javanese historical tradition: a study of an original Kartasura chronicle and related materials, London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1978.
Eviatar Zerubavel, The seven day cycle: the history and meaning of the week, New York: The Free Press, 1985.

Ann Kumar Ccownwork
Australian National University, Canberra

 

09 November 2018

Buddhism Illuminated through Southeast Asian Manuscript Art (2)

Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia is a lavishly-illustrated book published  earlier this year by the British Library in collaboration with Washington University Press. The book aims to share many years of research on the British Library’s unique collection of Southeast Asian manuscripts on Buddhism, which illustrate not only the life and teachings of the historical Buddha, but also everyday Buddhist practice, life within the monastic order, festivals, cosmology, and ethical principles and values.

Blog2 01
Extracts from the Tipitaka in Pali language, written in Khmer script. Folding book from Central Thailand, second half of the eighteenth century. British Library, Or 14027, f. 4 

The first two chapters, which introduce the outstanding art of Southeast Asian Buddhist manuscripts as well as the Life of the Buddha, were discussed in our previous blog. The third chapter of the book focuses on the teachings of the Buddha, or Dhamma, also known as the “righteous way”. Gotama Buddha spent more than half of his life walking around northern India over 2500 years ago, teaching his ever growing group of followers. Shortly after the Buddha’s parinibbana and physical death, the first Buddhist council was held at Rajagaha. Five hundred of the most senior Buddhist monks are said to have convened to recite and verify all the sermons they had heard during the Buddha’s forty-five years of teaching. They began to systematically arrange and compile the Buddha’s teachings called Tipitaka, or the 'Three Baskets', which include the Sutta Pitaka (the basket of discourses), the Vinaya Pitaka (the basket of discipline and monastic rules), and the Abhidhamma Pitaka (the basket of higher teachings of the Buddha). Five more councils were held over the centuries, with the most recent one taking place in Rangoon at Kaba Aye Pagoda from May 1954 to May 1956 to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s parinibbana.

Blog2 02
This manuscript, written in Pali - the canonical language of Theravada Buddhism - in yellow Burmese square characters, is inscribed on 49 palm leaves coated with lacquer. It contains fragments of Atthakathas, or commentaries on the Tipitaka. The manuscript is bound up with a green velvet wrapper and a ribbon, or sazigyo. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 3672

Buddhist texts that were compiled in addition to the Tipitaka are commentaries by important Buddhist scholars like for example Buddhaghosa, a fifth-century scholar who played a defining role in the development of Theravada Buddhism. Commentaries as well as translations were crucial for the spread of Buddhism to mainland Southeast Asia, where it is widely practised up till today.

Chapter four of the book provides information about the Sangha, the Buddhist monastic community. Themes in this chapter include aspects of monastic ordination in Theravada Buddhism, how the Buddha founded the Sangha, and the rules of monastic discipline and interaction between the Sangha and the lay community. Soon after attaining enlightenment the Buddha founded the order of monks, or Bhikkhu-sangha, which was later extended to the order of nuns, or Bhikkhuni-sangha.

Blog2 03
This image shows the Buddha’s ordination of Yasa, who went to the deer park near Varanasi
to become a Bhikkhu. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 14553, f. 2

After listening to Buddha’s first sermon, his five closest followers joined the Buddha and became his disciples, forming the first Sangha. Yasa, the son of a wealthy man, left his home as he was dissatisfied with his life. After hearing the teachings of the Buddha, Yasa became the sixth disciple to achieve the first stage of perfection. Yasa’s 54 friends followed his example. Later on, three brothers of the Kassapa family asked to be ordained into the Sangha after the Buddha tamed a naga (serpent).

The book’s fifth chapter deals with Kamma, or the principle of cause and effect that tells us that every action produces an effect, and the effects of all our actions will return to us in the future. Our accumulated positive Kamma will come back to us in the form of blessings and the opportunity to lead a good future life or to experience a better rebirth, while negative Kamma will result in deterioration and lower forms of rebirth. Burmese and Thai artistic expressions of Kamma often include scenes of the Buddhist heavens and hells and the sixteen sacred lands of Buddhism.

Blog2 04
Paper folding book featuring extracts from the Tipitaka and Phra Malai, written in Khmer script, with illustrations of Mahabrahma bhum (the Brahma heaven) and Tavatimsa bhum (heaven of the Four Kings). Thailand, 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 1

The illustrations portray the god Brahma with his four-faced head and a red aura (left) and the god Indra, or Sakka, also with a red aura (right). Both are seated on a marble pedestal before a red background decorated with delicate flower ornaments. Brahma and Indra are considered to have converted to Buddhism, therefore they are depicted in a respectful pose facing the Pali text passages from the Tipitaka that lie between them.

Blog2 05
Illustration of Tiracchana loka, the world of animals. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 14004, f. 37

The idyllic scene above shows the legendary region of Himavanta. Located in the animal realm of Tiracchana loka, it is covered in forests with great lakes and mountain ranges. It is inhabited by wild animals such as tigers, monkeys, deer, bears, birds, rabbits, cockerels and buffaloes who live together peacefully. Groves of mangoes, bananas and bamboo are featured in this illustration; all play a critical role as the animals’ survival depends almost entirely on these plants.

The final chapter in the book provides details around “making merit” in every-day Buddhist life, which include activities that aim to support the Sangha, like the Kathina robe-offering ceremony, Uposatha or observance ceremony, and royal donations, but also rituals related to death and after-life, as well as communal festivals around the year which are open to everyone.

Blog2 06
Scenes from the Uposatha observance ceremony. Burma, nineteenth century. British Library, Or 16761, ff. 25–6

This painting depicts the Uposatha ceremony, held on new and full moon days of every month. Lay people bring food and other offerings to the Buddhist monastery and observe five or eight precepts on these days. Three Buddhist monks, shown seated in a pavilion with their large fans, administer eight precepts to the lay community. These precepts are: not to kill, steal, engage in sexual activity, lie, become intoxicated, eat after noon, adorn their bodies or sleep on luxurious beds. Uposatha days provide time for people to listen to the teachings of the Dhamma and the chanting of special Suttas, as well as to practise meditation.

Blog2 07
Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a book containing drawings from the Ramayana and the Ten Birth Tales on European paper, with captions in Khmer script. Thailand or Cambodia, 1880. British Library, Or 14859, ff. 182–3

During the Bun Phawet festival in January the Vessantara Jataka is recited by monks or performed in puppet or shadow puppet theatres in the monasteries, mainly in Laos and northeast Thailand. In preparation for Bun Phawet lay people create long paper or cotton scrolls and banners decorated with paintings of scenes from the Vessantara Jataka. These scrolls, often tens of metres in length, are hung on the indoor walls of monasteries while recitations of the Vessantara Jataka are being performed. The illustration shown here depicts a scene from the Vessantara Jataka which typically features on scrolls made for the festival: the final grand scene in which Prince Vessantara and his wife Maddi are reunited with their children who had been taken away by the Brahmin Jujaka. This happy occasion is celebrated with music (right).

The book also contains a detailed bibliography, a glossary and three appendices providing a list of the 28 Buddhas of the past, explanations of symbols of the Buddha’s footprint, and an overview of the scriptures of the Tipitaka.

San San May and Jana Igunma, Buddhism Illuminated: Manuscript Art from Southeast Asia, London: British Library, 2018. (ISBN 978 0 7123 5206 2)

The book is available from all major booksellers and online.

San San May, Curator for Burmese
Jana Igunma, Henry D. Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian

05 November 2018

The Judeo-Persian manuscript collection in the British Library

The newly launched Judeo-Persian collection guide is an important and valuable addition to the British Library’s repertoire of Middle Eastern on-line resources, that have been made accessible to increasing numbers of researchers and users worldwide. Additionally, as part of our on-going Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, we have already digitised 34 Judeo-Persian manuscripts and will continue to do more in the months ahead.

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Judeo-Persian introduction to the commentary on Proverbs, 11th-2th century (BL Or 2459, f.64v)
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Introduction and brief historical note
Although quantitatively modest, the diversity and richness of its content, and the indisputable rarity and significance of some the items found in it, make the Judeo-Persian manuscript collection stand out. It moreover attests to the close, centuries-old cultural and historical ties that have existed between local Jewish and Persian communities.

These links can be traced back to pre-antiquity, more precisely to the period of the Babylonian captivity when, in 597 and 586 BCE, the entire Jewish population in the Kingdom of Judea was exiled by King Nabuchadnezzar II. In 539 BCE Babylon fell to the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great whose famous declaration, recounted in the Bible, and alluded to in the famous Cyrus Cylinder, allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland, rebuild their national life, and most importantly, the Jerusalem Temple which Nabuchadnezzar had sacked and raised to the ground.

Those exiles who decided to remain on Babylonian-Persian territory, formed the core of the permanent Jewish settlements, which little by little spread from the Babylonian centres, to the inner cities and regions of Persia. The tolerance showed by Persian rulers towards their Jewish subjects, especially during the early medieval period, enabled them to prosper and thrive. Biblical luminaries such as Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah for instance, emerged from the newly established colonies, and managed to play leading roles at the royal Persian court.

The history of Persian Jewry is an extensive and fascinating topic, which is far beyond the scope of this short blog. For a clear and concise historical account of the Jewish communities that lived in Persia, from antiquity to the modern era, I recommend Elias J. Bickerman and Walter Joseph Fischel's article "Persia" in Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., 2007, vol.15, pp.782-792.

The Manuscripts
The star item in our Judeo-Persian manuscript collection is undoubtedly the eighth-century trade letter found in 1901 in a Buddhist monastery at Dandan-Uiliq, present-day Xinjiang, China (Or 8212/166). Information recently received from a reliable researcher, who has studied in-depth a number of our Judeo-Persian manuscripts, has revealed that the biblical commentaries in Or 2459 and Or 2460, are in fact datable to the 11th to 12th century, i.e. some 400 years earlier than George Margoliouth let us believe (G. Margoliouth’s Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts in the British Museum, 1965, vol.1, pp.184-185). This discovery makes them the second earliest Judeo-Persian manuscripts in our keep.

The blog Important Judeo-Persian bibles in the British Library posted in 2014, provided descriptions of the rarest handwritten and printed Judeo-Persian biblical works the Library holds. These included the Pentateuch dated 6th March 1319 CE (Or 5446), regarded as the earliest dated Torah text in Judeo-Persian, and the beautifully crafted copy of Torat Adonai (God’s Law) issued in 1546 at Constantinople, by Eliezer ben Gershom Soncino. In this edition, the Judeo-Persian tafsir (translation) was printed alongside the original Hebrew text, the Aramaic translation, and the Judeo-Arabic rendition of the eminent rabbinic authority and scholar Sa’adia Gaon (882-942 CE). The Torat Adonai, moreover, was the first printed Persian text of any kind, and the first Judeo-Persian translation of the Pentateuch to become known in the Western world.

The number and quality of our illustrated Judeo-Persian manuscripts are comparatively few and unrefined, yet pleasing nevertheless. Apart from the better-known Or 13704, which was the subject of a special blog posted last year, A Judeo-Persian epic, the Fath Nama (Book of Conquest), there are two other specimens which exhibit stylistic traits common to both Persian and Judeo-Persian manuscript painting. Lack of a colophon (the inscription at the end of a manuscript providing details about its production), is an additional common characteristic defining the manuscripts discussed here. Consequently, data about the original commission, and most importantly the identities of the artists responsible for the illustrations, remain shrouded in mystery.

Or 4730 is an incomplete 18th-century paper manuscript of Nizami’s Persian medieval epic Haft Paykar (The Seven Beauties). The text has been copied in a neat Persian Hebrew semi-cursive script as can be seen here:

Or_4730_f049v Or_4730_f049v
Left (f.49v): a royal feast showing Bahram Gur in the upper register, offering a cup to the lady seated on his right. Below, musicians are seen playing on a lyre, flute and tambourine, while a female performer executes a balancing act with bottles; right (f.44v): an example of the neat Persian Hebrew script used throughout (BL Or 4730)
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Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209) is acknowledged as the greatest romantic epic poet in Persian literature, with the Haft Paykar perhaps regarded as his masterpiece. A polymath with a phenomenal intellect, Nizami was not only versed in Arabic and Persian literature, but was also intimately familiar with diverse fields of knowledge, ranging from astronomy, astrology, botany, mathematics, to medicine, Islamic law, history, philosophy and many other. In the Haft Paykar Nizami succeeded in illustrating masterfully the harmony of the universe, and the affinity between the sacred and the temporal. Nizami’s erudition and scholarship are perfectly reflected in his intensely lyrical and sensory poetical output, earning him the well-deserved appellation of Hakim (Sage).

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Left (f.73r): squatting on a decorated bench alongside one of the Seven Beauties, is Bahram Gur feasting in the Golden Pavilion; right (f.128r): Bahram Gur feasting in the White Pavilion. Two female musicians are seen playing the lyre and the tambourine (BL Or 4730)
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Completed in 1197, Haft Paykar was a romanticized biography of Bahram Gur (the Sassanian ruler Bahram V, ruled 420-438 CE). The Seven Beauties were princesses who became Bahram’s wives, and who received their own distinctly colored and themed pavilions in his palace. The princesses would entertain the king with compelling and captivating stories, whenever he visited them. In the story, Bahram’s royal prowess was tested, and he had to learn lessons on fairness, justice and responsibility. The 13 illustrations in our manuscript depict scenes closely related to the central narrative. Though crudely drafted, they are nonetheless likeable, owing chiefly to their colors, as attested by the examples included above.

Or_10194_f028v Or_10194_f028v Or_10194_f028v
Left (f.8v): a girl holding a bouquet of flowers; centre (f.28v): a warrior in Qajar attire carrying a sword and a bludgeon(?); right (f.46v): an old, bearded dervish carrying an axe and begging bowl (BL Or 10194)
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Written on thick paper between 1785 and 1825, the album Or 10194 is a poetical anthology by various poets. The poor calligraphy is mitigated by the five full-page vividly coloured paintings executed in opaque watercolors. These are effectively portraits of various characters, executed in traditional Qajar style.

The largest portion of our Judeo-Persian holdings, however, are unadorned textual manuscripts. Among them the following are worthy of attention:

  • Or 8659, contains a theological-apologetic section of Sefer ha-mitsvot (Book of Commandments). It largely consists of a religious discussion of various aspects of the commandment of circumcision. Despite its brevity (ten leaves only), the manuscript is significant as a very early specimen of Karaite apologetic literature written in Judeo-Persian.
  • Or 10576, is an important fragmentary example of a Sidur (Daily Prayer book) according to the Persian rite.
  • Or 4743, the only known complete manuscript of Daniyal Nameh (the story of biblical Daniel).
  • Or 2451, a Pentateuch copied at Qum, 1483-1484, that includes Josiah ben Mevorakh al-ʿAqūlī's calendar of the cycles with rules for fixing the Jewish festivals (ff. 363v-375v).
  • Or 10482, a miscellaneous compilation comprising ‘Amukot Shemu’el (Samuel’s depths), definitions of difficult words in the Book of Samuel, arranged in order of the biblical verses (ff.99r-114v). An early work of great lexical importance.

In this blog I have endeavored to discuss significant collection items written in Judeo-Persian, pinpointing at the same time some commonalities and differences between them and Persian manuscripts. Place of production, artistic and thematic elements, along with language and history, constitute principal areas of intersection, that offer ample scope for discovery, interpretation and research.

Watch out for my follow-up blog, when I will be focussing on the Judeo-Persian printed book collection the Library owns.

For a complete list of our Judeo-Persian manuscripts with brief metadata, and hyperlinks to those that are already online see our list of Digitised Judeo-Persian manuscripts.


Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies
 ccownwork

02 November 2018

The Javanese 'Chronicle of the Kingdoms': Babad Kraton

Today’s guest blog for the Javanese Manuscripts from Yogykarta Digitisation Project is by Prof. Merle Ricklefs of the Australian National University

Despite the simple opening frames, devoid of colours and gold, this Javanese manuscript of Babad Kraton, ‘Chronicle of the Kingdoms’ (British Library, Add 12320), is one of the most important documents shedding light on the intellectual and cultural framework of the court of the Yogyakarta Sultanate in the later 18th century. The work has received considerable attention: I’ve discussed it particularly in my books Jogjakarta under Sultan Mangkubumi 1749-1792 (1974), War, culture and economy in Java 1677-1726 (1993) and The seen and unseen worlds in Java 1726-1749 (1998), and the text has been published in transcription by I. W. Pantja Sunjata, Ignatius Supriyanto and J.J. Ras (eds and translits), Babad Kraton: Sejarah keraton Jawa sejak Nabi Adam sampai runtuhnya Mataram, menurut naskah tulisan tangan The British Library, London, Add 12320, 2 vols (1992).

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Opening pages of Babad Kraton, Yogyakarta, 1777-8. British Library, Add 12320, ff. 1v.-2r.  Noc

Babad Kraton was written in the court of Yogyakarta in 1777-8. The writer was a son-in-law of Sultan Hamengkubuwana I (r. 1749-92) named Jayengrat. The work begins with Adam, as do many Javanese chronicles (babad) aspiring to a sort of universal history, and continues to historical times. The writer seems essentially to have copied out – perhaps altering to some degree as he did so – pre-existing manuscript copies of such babads to make his new compilation. There are, however, some oddities in this manuscript, the most important of which relates to the date when it was ended. To understand the significance of this, we have to turn to Javanese ideas about cycles of dynastic change.

Javanese sources make clear that there was thought to be a regular cycle of dynastic succession. At each ’00 year of a century, a court (kraton) would fall, and its successor would be established in the ’03 year of the new century. In Java’s poorly institutionalised and frequently unstable states, the widespread expectation that events would unfold in such a sequence made it more likely that they would. If everyone expected a kraton to fall, why bother to defend it when enemies appeared at its walls?

The most prominent example – and the one most relevant to our discussion of Babad Kraton – was the fall of the court of Plered, capital of the Javanese kingdom of Mataram, to a rebel army in the Javanese (AJ) year 1600 (CE 1677). After a period of division and conflict, the new court of Kartasura was founded in the month Ruwah of AJ 1603 (September CE 1680). In this example, the theory and the events were at one.

The next major kraton to fall was Kartasura, but it fell to rebels in June 1742, equivalent to Mulud AJ 1667, 33 years before it should have fallen in AJ 1700, according to the dynastic theory. The successor court of Surakarta was occupied in February 1746, equivalent to Sura AJ 1671. Surakarta was clearly the successor to Kartasura but, as far as the century cycle of kratons was concerned, as Hamlet famously lamented, the times were ‘out of joint’. Who, in 18th-century Java, was going ‘to set it right’?

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Detail from a dynastic tree-diagram of the rulers of Java compiled in 1814, starting from Adam, showing the leaves numbered 53-4 and mentioning the rulers: (53) Amangkurat I (Tegalwangi), whose court fell to rebels in AJ  1600/1677 CE (he was buried at Tegalwangi); (53A) Amangkurat II (Kartasura), who founded the court of Kartasura in AJ 1603/1680 CE; (53B) Amangkurat III (Selong), who was exiled to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in 1708; and (54) Pakubuwana I (r. 1704-19). British Library, Or 15932, f. 72r. Noc

When Jayengrat sat down to write out Babad Kraton, the Javanese courts were facing another turn of the dynastic cycle. The Sultanate of Yogyakarta might have felt the more threatened by the supposed supernatural forces that drove this cycle. Surakarta had clear precedents going back to previous kratons, but Yogyakarta was where the rebel prince Mangkubumi was declared king in 1749 and his permanent court was established after the end of warfare in 1755. What were its immediate predecessors? How could the supernatural forces surrounding the century cycle be managed when there were two rival courts in existence? Would one fall in AJ 1700 (March 1774-March 1775 CE)? Would a new court arise in AJ 1703 (February 1777-January 1778)?

Several measures were taken by the two courts in the years leading up to AJ 1700 to stabilise the politics of Central Java. Land agreements and legal codes removed potential sources of conflict. Then, at least in Yogyakarta, it seems that supernatural forces were mobilised through literature to protect the court in the challenging period AJ 1700-03.

In the month Muharram, the first month, of AJ 1700 the Yogyakarta Crown Prince (later Sultan Hamengkubuwana II) composed a vast (and beautifully illuminated) pseudo-history and prophecy entitled Surya Raja. It was about a court – which clearly represented Yogyakarta – and how it would triumph in unifying a divided kingdom. In the end, this court would also oversee the conversion to Islam of infidel intruders – clearly representing the Dutch – and their reconciliation with the ruler of pseudo-Yogyakarta. How – or indeed whether – Yogyakarta court dignitaries actually expected this to happen in the world of Realpolitik is unclear. But it is reasonable to accept that this book (which is now regarded as one of the sacred, supernaturally powerful regalia of the Sultanate) was a step to neutralise the threat posed by the arrival of the year AJ 1700.

AJ 1700 passed without a new war breaking out or a court falling. Nevertheless, there was still the question of how to understand AJ 1703 when it arrived. Would a new court be founded?

This is where Babad Kraton appears to have played a role. Jayengrat began his writing in Ruwah AJ 1703 (September CE 1777) – the centenary of the founding of the court of Kartasura. The century cycle is part of the history retold in the pages of Babad Kraton and surely must have been in Jayengrat’s mind (and that of the rest of the Yogyakarta kraton elite) when he began to write his chronicle at this time.

In February 1778, Jayengrat brought his chronicle to an end – for the first time for, as we shall see, there was a second ending. He first drew the chronicle to a close just after the founding of Kartasura in Ruwah AJ 1603 (September CE 1680), which is described on f. 395r. On f. 398r. (transcribed in Pantja Sunjata et al., vol. ii, p. 52), he wrote a concluding passage, saying that the writing came to an end on 19 Muharram AJ 1704 (17 February CE 1778) and particularly admonishing readers and listeners to ponder that date. Ff. 398v. and 399r. are without text (except for the last words of a blessing which the writer invoked), but they have borders marked which are identical to the beginning and the end of the MS. This was clearly where this babad was supposed to end. F. 399v. is blank.

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Decorative frames marking the originally planned ending of Jayengrat's Babad Kraton. British Library, Add 12320, ff. 398v.-399r. Noc

We may deduce that this babad – written on the centenary of the founding of Kartasura and ending with the account of Kartasura’s foundation in AJ 1603/CE 1680 – probably was intended to say that the century cycle was intact and, crucially, that a divided kingdom was part of the cycle. In AJ 1704/CE 1778, just as a century before, the kingdom was divided between two courts. In the earlier century, one monarch was in Kartasura while his brother occupied the previous court in Mataram (where Yogyakarta was located). This was a historically correct depiction.

But someone – Jayengrat, the Sultan, whoever – must have quickly realised that the precedent for division in AJ 1704/CE 1778 was inauspicious. That division in AJ 1603/CE 1680 had ended in the victory of Kartasura over the rebel brother holding out in Mataram. It was, that is to say, a precedent for Surakarta (as Kartasura’s successor) to be victorious over Yogyakarta (Mataram’s successor).

So Jayengrat took up his pen again. On f. 400r., he began writing the text exactly as it was written on f. 398r. (Pantja Sunjata et al., omit the repetition). But this time around, the date of completion was omitted; instead, the text carries on with more cantos. If ff. 398r. to 399v. had been removed from the MS, the text would have carried on seamlessly without the ending originally written there, and there would have been no sign that an earlier ending had been planned but then abandoned. Fortunately for us, whoever was responsible for the final polishing of the MS, including removing ff. 398r. to 399v., failed to do her or his job. So we are left with evidence supporting our deductions about the ideas of court circles.

Jayengrat wrote on for another three months. He made a mistake in this part of his babad. Was he getting tired of the whole enterprise and becoming careless? At the end of each canto in Javanese verse texts, there is commonly word-play signalling what metre would be used in the following canto. This was to assist people performing the text orally, to know which of the fixed poetic metres to use when beginning to sing the next canto. On f. 631r., Jayengrat ended Canto 150 with a signal that the next canto would be in Asmaradana metre. And so it is. But he must have put down the exemplar he was working with and when he picked it up again, or when he picked up another to copy from, he started with an Asmaradana canto from a much later period. He thereby managed to omit events over the years 1719-41 CE.

Add 12320 f.631r
Jayengrat's missing years: note the change of handwriting style after the canto marker. British Library, Add 12320, f. 631r. Noc

Probably unaware of this error, Jayengrat wrote until May 1778. He again brought his copying to an end, but this time the last significant event was the fall – not the foundation – of Kartasura in Rabingulakir AJ 1667/CE 1742 (we ignore a scribal error in this date). This is described on ff. 714v.-715r. (trancribed in Pantja Sunjata et al., vol. ii, p. 430).

Given the clear evidence that trouble was being taken to get dates and precedents right, we may reasonably conclude the following from this new ending. Courtiers who knew of this account could accept – we may say, they could pretend – that the century cycle was working. Kartasura had been the last kraton to fall, as it should have been, having been founded in AJ 1603/CE 1680. By omitting all the history since that date, Babad Kraton seems to have implied that Yogyakarta could regard itself as the new court for the new century. That is not the way history had worked out – and all those Javanese aristocrats knew this was so – but in the world of literature and literary magic, it could be made to seem so.

The looming threats of the ’00-’03 cycle had been surmounted. Literature provided a transition which history had stubbornly refused to do. Yogyakarta could be considered as a legitimate court in the new century, representing no violation to the chronological cycle of kratons.

When the British sacked the court of Yogyakarta in 1812 and carried off the Babad Kraton manuscript (along with many others), they brought us this fascinating object for our literary detective work.

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Closing pages of Babad Kraton. British Library, Add 12320, ff. 715v.-716r. Noc

M. C. Ricklefs  Ccownwork
Melbourne, October 2018

21 October 2018

A Photographic Tour of the Persian Gulf and Iraq, 1906

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House of the dragoman [translator] of British Consulate Basra’, 1906 (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 27)
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In November 1906, Wilfrid Malleson, a British military intelligence officer, departed from Simla in British India on an intelligence-gathering tour of the Persian Gulf and what British officials then termed ‘Turkish Arabia’ (the south of modern Iraq, then part of the Ottoman Empire). Britain was already the dominant imperial power in the Gulf and was keen to ascertain the situation in those territories to its north that remained under the sway of the Ottomans. Malleson’s report of his journey – that included stops in Muscat, Kuwait, Basra, Baghdad and Mohammerah – provides a fascinating snapshot of the region at this time.

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‘Mosque and minaret of coloured tiles at Basra’. Malleson described it as: “a brick building with a minaret ornamented with some pretty blue tiles, but, on the whole, a squalid and sorry structure which in India one would hardly turn aside to look at” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 25)
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In addition to Malleson’s narrative, the report also contains a series of photographs of the places that he visited, foremost amongst them, Basra and Baghdad. Although Malleson apologised for their poor quality in the preface to his official report, over a hundred years later they provide an evocative glimpse of locations that have changed dramatically since and in some cases, came under British military occupation less than a decade after his visit. Indeed, Malleson made notes regarding the military defences (or lack thereof) of the places that he visited including Basra, of which he remarked, “[t]here are no defences and a landing could easily be covered from ships in the river”. Malleson also speculated that “judicious treatment [by Britain] could easily succeed in turning the local Arab against the much-hated Turk”. Eight years later – perhaps using intelligence supplied by Malleson – the British army invaded and conquered Basra as a part of the Mesopotamian Campaign of the First World War, events that eventually led to the establishment of the modern nation state of Iraq. In 2003, almost a hundred years after Malleson’s visit, the British Army invaded and occupied Basra again.

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‘The British Consulate and Messrs Lynch’s offices Basra; Showing 4,000 tons of merchandise awaiting shipment to Bagdad’. Malleson noted that Basra’s shops were “full of Manchester goods of a florid and ornate pattern suited to the local taste”. The workmen or “coolies” on Basra’s wharfs were said by Malleson to be “Arabs and Chaldeans” that “are of fine physique and can lift great weights. They work from sunrise to sunset, but refuse to work when it is wet and knock off when they feel inclined” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 25)
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In addition to military matters, the report discusses a wide range of other topics including trade, agriculture, history, transport infrastructure and religious communities, as well as the activities of rival powers, notably the German and Ottoman Empires. As Malleson noted apologetically in its preface, the report contains much “not of immediate military interest”.

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‘Bahreini pilgrims on board the Khalifa’. Malleson took the Khalifa upriver to Baghdad and commented “[m]ore interesting than the country passed through were the pilgrims we took along with us. They were of every type, coming from all parts of the Muhammadan world in order to make the pilgrimage to the sacred cities of Kerbela and Nejef” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 33)
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Malleson also recorded the various characters that he met during the course of his journey including a German trader on the boat to Muscat and a pair of hospitable “Cosmopolitan Jews” in Basra’s quarantine station. The two men, father and son, were merchants and the latter was re-locating his business to Manchester in the north of England. Malleson commented that the dominance of Manchester in Baghdad’s trade “became apparent to us later”. He also encountered an explorer who was willing to share his findings with British intelligence and believed that “a strong British policy in the Gulf would mean progress and the spread of civilisation, and would, therefore, further the interests of the world in general”.

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‘Cafe and mosque near the North Gate, Bagdad’. Malleson remarked that “[t]he cafes are largely frequented by the Turkish soldiery who, for the most part slouching and out-at-elbows, seem to have little enough to do” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 38)
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‘View in Baghdad’. Malleson was struck by Baghdad’s diversity stating that “[i]n addition to a large population of Arabs…and representatives of most of the peoples of Asia there are some 35,000 Jews, and a great number of queer Christian sects, such as Armenians, Nestorians, and Neo-Nestorians, Chaldeans, Sabaeans, Arians, Jacbobites and Manichaeans. Most of them wear some distinguishing garments and the varied hues and shapes of these make a very striking effect” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 35)
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The report, though engagingly written, is replete with the lamentable orientalist and misogynistic attitudes that characterised the stance of many British imperial officials in this period. In perhaps the most unpleasant instance of racist language in the report – and as testament to the ongoing existence of slavery in the region during this period – when discussing the women that he saw in Baghdad, Malleson wrote that they “of course go veiled when abroad, even those of the numerous Christian sects and the Jewesses. The latter wear extraordinarily gorgeous silken garments, and the really smart thing is to possess a white donkey tended by the blackest and ugliest of negro slaves”.

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‘Near the big mosque, Bagdad’ Medieval Baghdad, Malleson noted, had flourished while “the greater part of Europe had hardly emerged from the primitive barbarism it had sunk with the fall of the Roman Empire, or from which it had never emerged” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 37)
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‘A Street in Bagdad’. The reality of modern Baghdad was underwhelming however, Malleson believed “[t]he traveller who, attracted merely by the glamour of a name, expects to find in Bagdad the wondrous city of his dreams is doomed to disappointment”(IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 38)
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As well as visiting modern settlements while in Iraq, Malleson also visited historical ruins including the remains of ancient Babylon and Ctesiphon, the former capital of the Sassanian Empire.

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‘The arch of Ctesiphon’. Although Malleson reported that “[l]ocal experts are of opinion that this majestic ruin cannot much longer stand”, over a hundred years later, in spite of repeated invasions and wars, the arch still stands (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 48)
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‘Our conveyance across the desert to Babylon’. In Malleson’s words, “[i]t was a queer looking shandridan, half bathing-machine and half grocer’s cart, with very narrow and uncomfortable seats, and drawn by a team of four, and sometimes five, mules harnessed abreast and driven by a wild-looking son of the desert” (IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 43)
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‘The only arch so far discovered in Babylon’. Discussing his visit to Babylon, Malleson wrote “Here, too ‘midst the ashes of dead empires and the havoc wrought by man, the philosopher may muse on the mutability of mundane things, the fleeting character of fame, the mockery of riches and the vanity of power”(IOR/L/PS/20/C260, f 47)
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Concluding his report, Malleson wrote: “[a]nd so, with a heightened interest in the problems of the Middle East, and with, perhaps, some increase of knowledge; with friendships made with useful people, and numerous promises of help and correspondence, we turn our backs on Turkish Arabia and shape a course for Bushire and Karachi”. Just eight years later, Britain would return to Basra as an invading force and when the its flag was raised over the town, the Daily Mail proudly proclaimed “Another Red Patch on the Map”.


Further reading:
For details on the connection between Manchester and Middle Eastern trade see: Fred Halliday, “The millet of Manchester: Arab merchants and cotton trade”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies   19:2 (1992), pp. 159-176.

An illustrated account of a tour of the same region in 1886-87: Turkish Arabia: Being an Account of an Official Tour in Babylonia, Assyria, and Mesopotamia, 1886-87 (India Office Records and Private Papers, Mss Eur F112/384).

A photographic album of a tour of the same region in 1916-18: Album of tour of the Persian Gulf. Photographer: Rev. Edwin Aubrey Storrs-Fox (India Office Records and Private Papers, Photo 496/6).

An official account of Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign during the First World War: ‘HISTORY OF THE GREAT WAR BASED ON OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS. THE CAMPAIGN IN MESOPOTAMIA 1914-1918. VOLUME I’ (IOR/L/MIL/17/15/66/1).

For more on Britain’s invasion and occupation of Basra in the First World War see: Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, “1914: The Battle of Basra”, Hurst publishers Blog, 21 November 2014.

Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist
 ccownwork

15 October 2018

A Vietnamese Lord’s letter to the East India Company

During the Later Lê dynasty (1428-1788), Vietnam was effectively divided into two parts. For over two centuries – from the middle of the 16th to the middle of the 18th centuries – the Trịnh Lords ruled the northern part (referred to in Vietnamese history as Đàng Ngoài) and the Nguyễn Lords had power over the southern part (Đàng Trong) of Vietnam, while the Lê emperors had no real political power at all.

The oldest manuscript in the Vietnamese collection at the British Library, from the founding collection of Sir Hans Sloane of 1753, was probably written by the Trịnh ruler of Tonkin in the late 17th century (Sloane 3460). It is a long scroll of yellow paper, beautifully illuminated in silver, written in the Vietnamese language in Han Nom (adapted Chinese) characters, and bearing a large square red ink seal. Unfortunately, the first part of the scroll is missing, and some of the characters in the remaining part are illegible, and it is therefore impossible to establish the precise date of this manuscript.

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Vietnamese letter, probably from Trịnh Tac (r. 1657-1682) of Tonkin to the East India Company, ca. 1673. British Library, Sloane 3460  noc

At my request, Dr Li Tana, of the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, kindly examined images of the manuscript in April 2018. She has transcribed and translated its contents, and is of the opinion that it was probably written under the command of Trịnh Tac (r. 1657-1682) and was sent to the English East India Company (EIC) some time in 1673, following the arrival in Tonkin in 1672 of the first EIC ship. Foreign traders always sought assistance from local powers to facilitate their commercial missions, and in return the local lords also tried to benefit from these foreign visitors, especially their technical know-how on modern technology, as the content of the Trinh lord’s letter clearly demonstrates:

…[overseas merchants visiting us] have been many but only Holland has come … (three characters not legible). It has acted in both friendship and righteousness. [They] sometimes offer pearls and beautiful presents and sometimes send craftsmen who are specialised in cannon casting. This kindness is above all rulers.  Although your country has only just begun interactions with us, we treat all countries equally with compassion and good will. Recently your head trader brought one iron cannon and two bronze cannons. The bronze ones broke as soon as they were tested. [They] were definitely not of solid and excellent quality. [We therefore] have returned them to the ship captain but he has not yet taken them back. If you are arranging for ship[s] to come next year, [please] bring amber either in pieces or stringed together with real pearls for us. We will pay [you] accordingly right away. [This] will be of benefit to both sides. [Please] also send cannon casting craftsmen so that the craftsmen from Holland cannot monopolise this skill. This way our friendship will last forever. [We are sending] 560 catties of raw silk for the two iron cannons which we received last year. Please buy for us 50 hoc (= 50 kilogrammes) big sized amber, plus 5000 pieces of stringed amber. Written in the mid-winter.
(Translated by Dr Li Tana, edited by Dr Geoffrey Wade, April 2018)

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Detail of the text of the letter, with silver illumination on a yellow ground. British Library, Sloane 3460  noc

By the early 17th century, commercial competition among European mercantile states had expanded to Asia, and Southeast Asia was targeted for its rich resources. Vietnam was located in a commercially strategic maritime location and many European traders started to visit the kingdom to seek commercial opportunities. The East India Company (EIC) sent its first delegation from its Japanese base of Hirado to Vietnam in as early as 1613 (Le Thanh Thuy 2014: 62) amid vigorous competition with the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and other western European nations. Hirado had been an important port of call for ships between Japan and the Asian mainland since the Nara period, and both the EIC and the VOC had ‘factories’ (trading posts) there. 

In 1672, the East India Company sought to establish a factory in Tonkin, as a liaison base for the export and import of British traders’ goods to China, Japan and maritime Southeast Asia (Thuy 2014: 63). On 25th June 1672, the EIC ship The Zant was sent from Bantam, in Java, to Tonkin, with William Gyfford and five other EIC employees, to seek the establishment of commercial relations with Tonkin. However, it was not until 14th March 1673 that Gyfford had an opportunity to meet Trịnh Tac. After receiving the gifts and letter of the Bantam Council, the Trinh lord only allowed the EIC to set up their factory at Phô Hiến, but not at the capital of Tonkin as the EIC mission had hoped (Thuy 2014: 64).

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Seal on the Vietnamese letter to the East India Company, ca. 1673. Sloane 3460  noc

Even though we can’t be certain that this manuscript letter was sent by Trịnh Tac, it is still an important piece of historical evidence, as it reflects the fluidity and versatility of commercial and political affairs in the changing world of the mercantilism of the 17th century, and the arrival of colonialism in Asia.

The letter, Sloane 3460, has been fully digitised, and is currently on display in the Southeast Asia case outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room in the British Library, alongside other Southeast Asian manuscripts from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane.

With thanks to Li Tana and Geoffrey Wade.

Further reading:

Le Thanh Thuy. “Trade Relations between the United Kingdom and Vietnam in the 17th -19th Centuries,” in Vietnam Social Sciences, No. 3 (161), 2014, pp. 59-73.

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese  ccownwork

28 September 2018

Menak Amir Hamza, the Javanese version of the Hamzanama

Two copies of Menak Amir Hamza, the Javanese story of Amir Hamza, the uncle of the prophet Muhammad, are now available online through the Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta Digitisation Project.

The story of the warlike and amorous exploits of Amir Hamza, as he and his companions fight against the enemies of Islam, was popular throughout the Muslim world. Many fine illuminated copies of the Persian version, Hamzanama, are known, and shown below is a detail from a large multi-volume copy commissioned in 1562 by the great Mughal emperor Akbar, a task which took 15 years to complete.

Hamzanama V&A-crop
In this illustration, Hamza is deep in coversation with a demon called Hura, unaware that a dragon is approaching from behind rocks to the right. Hamza's close companion, 'Umar Umayya, gesticulates wildly to warn Hamza. Victoria & Albert Museum, IS. 1505-1883

The Hamzanama probably spread throughout Southeast Asia initially in a Malay garb before being translated into other regional languages, including Javanese, Bugis and Makasar. A famous episode in the Malay chronicle of the kingdom of Melaka, the Sulalat al-Salatin or Sejarah Melayu, recounts how the night before Melaka was attacked by the Portuguese in 1511, the nobles ask the Sultan Mahmud Shah for the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah - the bloodthirsty tale of the many battles of Muhammad Hanafiah, a half-brother of the Prophet's grandsons Hasan and Husayn, set in the early days of Islam - to be recited to give them courage. The sultan tested their resolve by suggesting that they did not merit the tale of this great warrior, and offered them instead the Hikayat Amir Hamza as a more appropriate measure of their courage. But the Malay nobles protested and persisted, and finally Sultan Mahmud Shah granted their request for the recital of Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah.

While the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah may have been associated with a higher level of valour in Malay tradition, it is the story of Amir Hamza that is far more popular in Javanese literature. In Java, the hero Amir Hamza was granted the ancient Javanese title Menak, and this title is now applied to the whole cycle of Islamic epic tales, which were soon localised according to Javanese literary conventions. Thus in the Menak cycle Amir Hamza is accorded two panakawan companions, Marmaya (based on Amir Hamza's lifelong friend 'Umar Umayya in the Hamzanama) and Marmadi, who are mentors and cunning servants of the hero such as are always found in wayang shadow puppet dramas.

The two Javanese manuscripts which have just been digitised both tell the story of Menak Amir Hamza in the Javanese language, but in two different scripts. MSS Jav 45 is written in Javanese script, derived from an Indian (late southern Brahmi) prototype, and is read from left to right. This manuscript was copied by Mas Ajĕng Wongsaleksana of Jipang, and is dated 9 Rabingulakir, with chronogram panca tri pandita jalma giving the year  in the Javanese era as 1735, equivalent to 4 June A.D. 1808. The text is written in verse and comprises 85 cantos.

Mss_jav_45_f003v-4r
Menak Amir Hamza, in Javanese language and script, dated 4 June 1808. British Library, MSS Jav 45, ff. 3v-4r   noc

The second manuscript of Menak Amir Hamza, MSS Jav 72, is written in pegon script, namely Arabic script with the addition of seven letters representing consonantal sounds needed for Javanese but not found in Arabic, and is thus read from right to left. The first two pages are set in decorative frames ruled in black ink, with a diamond superimposed on a rectangle. This is a quintessential Javanese preferred form for double frames, comprising an elegant assemblage of ruled vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines. Very similar frames are found in a Javanese Qur’an manuscript also held in the British Library, Add 12343.

Mss_jav_72_f004v-5r
Menak Amir Hamza, in Javanese in Arabic script, dated 4 June 1808. British Library, MSS Jav 72, ff. 4v-5r  noc

A third copy of the Menak Amir Hamza from Yogyakarta in the British Library collection, Add. 12309, is also being digitised as part of the current project. From the introduction it is clear that this book was written for Ratu Ageng (c. 1730-1803), a wife of Sultan Hamengku Buwana I and the mother of Hamengku Buwana II, some time after 1792. As this manuscript is perhaps the largest single volume Javanese manuscript known, consisting of over 3000 pages written in pegon script, there are some technical challenges to be overcome before this copy can be made available online, but we hope to publish it soon. Watch this space!

IMG_0093
Menak Amir Hamza with 1520 folios, copied between 1792 and 1812. British Library, Add. 12309

Further reading:

Theodore G. Th.Pigeaud, Literature of Java.  Catalogue raisonné of Javanese manuscripts in the Library of the University of Leiden and other public collections in the Netherlands.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968. 4 vols. Volume 1, pp. 212-215.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork