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2 posts categorized "Philatelic"

14 February 2020

Buddhist-themed stamps: Religious didactic tool or postal ephemera?

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This is the twelfth of a series of blog posts celebrating the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020.

With over five hundred million practising Buddhists, Buddhism is the fourth largest faith in the world. Consequently, numerous countries produce stamps with Buddhist themes and imagery. Stamps may now largely be viewed as a superseded technology, and are certainly less commonly encountered than in the past, but they remain an intrinsic part of our global visual and material culture. This raises the question of whether such stamps depicting Buddhist themes have any inherent didactic religious purpose, or whether they are merely pieces of visual ephemera? The following selection of late 20th century Sri Lankan stamps issued for Vesak, celebrating the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, may provide some tentative answers.

Since Buddhists start their path to enlightenment seeking refuge in the Tiratana or three jewels, this subject will form the focus of the present discussion. The Tiratana comprise the life of the Gotama Buddha, his teachings known in Pali as Dhamma (Sanskrit: Dharma) and the community of his disciples known as the Sangha. A range of stamps narrating the Buddha have been issued focusing on his birth and life as Prince Siddhattha Gotama, his unhappiness and eventual rejection of this royal lifestyle in favour of an ascetic existence, as well as his obtaining enlightenment to become the Buddha.

Figure 1 and 2
Figures 1 and 2

The two stamps shown above come from a set of four released for sale on 13 May 1983, designed by George Keyt and A. Dharmasiri, illustrating scenes from the life of Prince Siddhattha, based on temple murals in the Gotami Vihara, Colombo. The 0.35 c stamp (Figure 1) shows Prince Siddhattha’s mother, Queen Mahamaya, dreaming that a white elephant entered her side, foretelling the birth of the prince destined to become a great earthly or spiritual ruler. The 5.00 r stamp (Figure 2) depicts Prince Siddhattha and the sleeping dancers recounting how he renounced the throne on his twenty-ninth birthday intending to leave the palace and embark on a spiritual life. That day the Prince’s wife, Yasodhara gave birth to his only son Rahula, and King Suddhodana hoped to distract his son from leaving by holding a celebratory banquet inviting the best dancers and musicians to perform. During the festivities Prince Siddhattha slept, and upon waking up left the palace whilst everybody was asleep, taking the first step of his journey towards enlightenment.

Numerous stamps also depict scenes from the Buddha’s previous lives based upon a body of literature known as Jataka tales. The next two examples come from a set of four stamps issued for sale on 23 April 1982 depicting scenes from the Vessantara Jataka, about a compassionate prince named Vessantara who gave away everything he owned including his own children, thereby displaying the virtue of perfect generosity. Designed by A. Dharmasiri, the stamps depict images from a cloth painting at the Arattana Rajamaha Vihara in the Hanguranketa District of Nuwara Eliya.

Figure 3 and 4
Figures 3 and 4

The 0.35 c stamp (Figure 3) illustrates Prince Vessantara giving away a magical rain-making white elephant to envoys from Kalinga, which was then facing a serious drought. The citizens - fearing the handover of the elephant would cause a drought in their own kingdom - were dismayed at Vessantara’s act of generosity and convinced King Sanjaya to banish his son. The 2.50 stamp (Figure 4) recalls the pivotal moment of the story when Prince Vessantara hands his two children over to the old Brahmin beggar Jujaka to be enslaved.

On his death, the Buddha’s cremated remains were enshrined and worshipped in Stupas in various localities. The third Emperor of India’s Mauryan Dynasty, Ashoka, exhumed the relics and redistributed them, in addition to sending out saplings from the original Bodhi tree that the Buddha meditated under and obtained enlightenment. These relics form a continuation of the Gotama Buddha story and are a theme represented on stamps. The two examples shown below come from a set of three postage stamps issued on 3 May 1979. A. Dharmasiri’s designs based upon the painting in the Kelaniya Temple recount how Sri Lanka acquired two of its most important Buddhist relics.
The 0.25c stamp (Figure 5) highlights how the Buddha’s Sacred Tooth was conveyed out of Kalinga to Sri Lanka by Prince Danta and Princess Hema Mala upon King Guhasiva’ orders. The 1.00 r stamp (Figure 6) narrates how the Emperor Ashoka’s eldest daughter and missionary, Sanghamitta, transported the right south branch of the Bodhi-tree, under which the Buddha had meditated, to the island.

Figure 5 and 6
Figures 5 and 6

The Buddha’s teachings or Dhamma are also illustrated on stamps. Designed by S. Silva and released for sale on 30 April 1993, the following four examples and mini-sheet are based upon specific verses from the Dhammapada (Sayings of the Buddha), one of the most widely read and best known of the Buddhist scriptures. The 0.75 c stamp (Figure 7) is based on a verse recounting the story of the Brahmin Magandiya, who unsuccessfully tried to offer his beautiful daughter as a wife for the Buddha. The 1.00 stamp (Figure 8) is based on a verse recounting the story of Kisa Gotami, a mother almost driven mad by the loss of her child. Advised that the Buddha could help bring the child back, she sought him out. The Buddha promised he would do so provided she obtained some white mustard seeds from a family where no one had died. Unsuccessful in her search Kisa Gotami soon realised that no home is ever free from death, and returned to the Buddha who comforted and preached to her, whereupon she became a devoted disciple.

Figure 7 and 8
Figures 7 and 8

The design of the 3.00 r stamp (Figure 9) comes from a verse about Patacara, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant, who fell pregnant and eloped with one of her father’s servants named Amarsh to live on a farm. Against her husband’s wishes, she tried to return to her parents to give birth to her first son, who was born on the way, enabling the couple to return home. Some time later she fell pregnant once more and again left to return to her family. Amarsh followed her and en route Patacara went into labour at the onset of a storm. Her husband was bitten by a snake and killed instantly whilst trying to build some shelter. Carrying on, she reached a swollen river compelling her to cross the river with one child at a time. Leaving her oldest child on the riverbank she carried her baby across the river. On her return to retrieve her oldest child, a vulture carried the baby off. When she screamed for the baby, the oldest child entered the water thinking she was calling for him, and drowned. Encountering the Buddha and telling him about the tragic loss of her family, he taught her about impermanence, whereupon she became a disciple.

The 10.00 stamp (Figure 10) is based upon the verse about the murderous brigand Angulimala, who killed nine hundred and ninety nine people, taking their fingers as trophies which he wore round his body. The Buddha’s intervention and teachings not only prevented Angulimala from making his own mother a victim, but enabled Angulimala to convert to Buddhism and cancel his bad Kamma with meditation.

Figure 9 and 10
Figures 9 and 10

Other stamp issues offer clear advice on how to set out on the path of enlightenment. On 29 April 1995, Sri Lanka released a set of four stamps and a mini-sheet detailing a selection of the Paramita, ten noble characteristics or qualities associated with enlightened beings. Designed by S. Silva, the 1 r stamp reveals a scene representing Viriya Paramitava, loosely defined as an attitude whereby an individual gladly engages in wholesome activities to accomplish wholesome or virtuous actions. The design of the 2 r stamp depicts a Boddhisatva catching a person falling from the sky representing Khanti Paramitava or the practice of patience, forbearance and forgiveness. The 10 r stamp reveals a figure teaching two students representing Sacca Paramitava or truth in reference to the Buddha’s four noble truths. The 16 r stamp depicts a scene with a Boddhisatva representing Adhitthana Paramitava or resolution, self-determination and will (Figure 11).

Figure 11
Figure 11

Turning to stamps about the Sangha or community of disciplines, the 22 May 1991 National Hero Issue designed by S. Silva includes a 1 r stamp commemorating the notable Buddhist Missionary, Narada Thero (Figure 12).

Figure 12
Figure 12

Another stamp issued on 1 January 1988 designed by W. Rohama marks the 30th Anniversary of the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy (Figure 13). The 18 June 1989 0.75 c stamp by the same designer notes the establishment of the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, a Sri Lankan state department overseeing the governance of Buddhism nationwide. Modern Buddhist Studies are also commemorated on stamps, including this one issued on 14 July 1981 designed by P. Jaratillake celebrating the centenary of the Pali Text Society (Figure 14).

Figure 13 and 14
Figures 13 and 14

The material discussed here represents merely a fraction of stamps depicting Buddhist subject matter and is far from unique, whether from Sri Lanka or across the wider Buddhist world. In Buddhist societies, it is believed that the reproduction and dissemination of manuscript or printed Buddhist texts can accrue good Kamma (Sanskrit: karma) for their creators and sponsors, if done conscientiously with the right motives. Would it be appropriate to interpret such carefully designed stamps on Buddhist themes as an extension of this existing Buddhist manuscript and print tradition? Could the same Kamma-generating qualities accrue to individuals involved producing and disseminating such stamps?

Finally, it is interesting to consider that stamps used to pre-pay mail are defaced when dispatched to the recipient, disposed of on a letter’s receipt, and finally destroyed in the rubbish or recycling plant. Such use renders them impermanent, temporary pieces of visual mnemonics similar to the tradition of Buddhist Mandalas.

Perhaps there is a theological aspect to philately after all?

Image sources
The stamps reproduced in this blog post come from Sri Lankan material within the Crown Agent’s Philatelic and Security Printing Archive housed in the British Library’s Philatelic Collections.

Richard Scott Morel, Curator, Philatelic Collections

21 February 2018

Endangered heritage: cultural sites at risk from conflict on postage stamps

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The appreciation of postage stamp designs transcends the mere aesthetic since their designs can be used to enhance our understanding on a range of contemporary concerns relating to heritage. This is best exemplified with the postage stamps of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen depicting heritage sites destroyed, or at risk of destruction from armed conflict.

Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
The Afghanistan 16 July, 1972 9 afghanis stamp (Fig. 1) depicts the Graeco-Bactrian Temple amongst the ancient ruins at Ai-Khanoum situated in present day Takhar Province, Northern Afghanistan. Initially believed to have been the Alexandria on the Oxus, established after Alexander the Great’s conquests in the region, it is now known to date to around 280 BCE during the rule of King Antiochus I. French and Russian Archaeologists worked on the site between 1964 and 1978 but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan forced the excavations to be abandoned. Tragically, Ai-Khanoum was heavily looted and much of it destroyed during the ensuing conflict.

Afghanistan 2b  Afghanistan 2b
Figs. 1 and 2

The 3 afghanis stamp from the same issue (Fig. 2) depicts the Buddhist Stupa at Hadda, close to the Khyber Pass in Kandahar Province. Over twenty thousand Buddhist sculptures fusing Buddhist and Hellenic artistic traditions from the second or first century BCE were excavated at the site. Much of this site was destroyed in the Afghan Civil Wars between 1989 and 1986 which followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Afghanistan 4a  Afghanistan 4a
Figs. 3 and 4

The Afghanistan 21 March, 1951 20 poul (Fig. 3) and 27 September, 1985 10 afghanis (Fig. 4) stamps both depict the largest of the Bamiyam Buddhas, situated in the Hazarajat region of Central Afghanistan. Part of the historic silk-road trade route linking India and China, Bamiyan was an important Buddhist holy site. Statues of the Buddha were carved out of the sandstone cliffs during the sixth century. The largest being 55 metres in height was once renowned as the tallest Buddhist statue in the world. In March 2001 the Taliban’s Military and Spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, ordered the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Their destruction immediately sparked outrage and condemnation within the international community. In an interview Mullah Mohammed Omar stated that he ordered the destruction of the Buddhas as an act of protest and outrage against the vast sums of money being offered to conserve such ancient sites whilst millions of Afghans faced real privation. Nevertheless the act of destruction was widely regarded by the United Nations, UNESCO and others to be an act of iconoclasm by the Taliban.

Syrian Arab Republic
Elsewhere, the Syrian Arab Republic 10 October, 1968 Ancient Monuments issue also includes a number of stamps depicting heritage sites destroyed or at risk from conflict. The 15p stamp (Fig. 5), depicts the Monastery of St. Simeon the Stylite, established during the fifth century northwest of Aleppo. The Monastery is one of the oldest surviving Byzantine Churches in the world and consequently the church and village were designated a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2011. Initial fears for the site’s safety were raised during the Syrian conflict whilst it was under the control of Islamic State forces who have garnered widespread notoriety for their practice of destroying Islamic, Christian and other historical sites. Although safely recaptured by Kurdish forces in 2015, the monastery was heavily damaged by a possible air strike on 12 May 2016.

Syria 4_20170427_13510956 Syria 4_20170427_13510956
Figs. 5 and 6

The 50p stamp from the same issue (Fig. 6) depicts the Roman Theatre at Bosra situated in the district of Dar’a in south-western Syria. Carved out of black basalt in the mid second century CE, the theatre has a seating capacity for 15,000 people making it one of the largest and best preserved ancient roman theatres in the world. In March 2015, video footage was released showing rebel and Syrian Government forces battling amongst the ruins which resulted in the destruction of statues and shattered the stone work.

The second series of the Syrian Arab Republic 20 January 1969 Ancient Monuments Issue are also significant. The 25p stamp (Fig. 7) depicts the Baal-Shamin Temple in Palmyra which was consecrated in 32AD for worshipers of the Mesopotamian God Baal. Under Byzantine rule the temple was converted into a Christian Church before being again converted into a Mosque in 1132. The Mosque remained active until the 1920s when Franco-Syrian archaeological missions removed the post-classical additions to the site as part of a restoration process. The ruins were amongst the best preserved in Palmyra until August 2015 when Islamic State forces searching for hidden gold used explosives to demolish the site.

The 16p stamp from the issue (Fig. 8) depicts the Shrine of St John the Baptist housed in the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. Built on the site of an old Christian Church in 634 CE, the Mosque is one of the oldest and largest in the world, widely regarded as Islam’s fourth holiest site. It houses the Shrine of St John the Baptist, a religious figure of importance to both Christian and Muslim believers. The tomb of the great Muslim leader, Saladin in also situated within an adjoining garden. For centuries the site has been a place where both Christians and Muslims have worshipped alongside one another peacefully. Although it remains undamaged, fears for the site's safety were raised in November 2013, after a mortar round landed perilously close to the mosque killing several people.

Syria 9_20170427_13540120 Syria 8_20170427_13533290Syria 9_20170427_13533290
Figs. 7, 8 and 9

Finally the 60p stamp (Fig. 9) depicts the Khaled ibn al-Walid Mosque in Homs, Syria. Although the current building was constructed in the twentieth century, the Mosque has been located at this site since 1265 CE. It is dedicated to and holds the mausoleum of Khalid ibn al-Walid, a military commander who led the Islamic conquest of Syria in the seventh century putting an end to Byzantine rule in the region. During the Syrian Conflict, the mosque was held by anti-government rebels and was consequently in 2013 shelled on a number of occasions causing significant damage to the building and tomb.

Republic of Iraq
A notable set of stamps depicting cultural sites impacted by the various conflicts in Iraq is the Republic of Iraq 1 December 1967 International Tourist Year Issue. The 15 fils stamp (Fig. 10) depicts the Minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul. Established in 1172, the mosque was named after Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi, a Turkic ruler of Mosul and Aleppo who ordered its construction. Having undergone significant development over the centuries, the mosque was made famous by its leaning cylindrical minaret nicknamed ‘al-Hadba’ (the hunchback) which was covered with elaborate Iranian style brickwork and surmounted with a white dome. In July 2014 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first appearance as IS leader at the mosque and announced the establishment of a Caliphate. Sadly in July 2017, IS forces used explosives to demolish the site during their retreat from Mosul.
Iraq 1_20170427_14143661Iraq 1_20170427_14143661
Figs. 10 and 11

The 80 fils stamp (Fig. 11) depicts the Minaret of Samarra, originally part of the Great Mosque of Samarra constructed between 848 and 851CE. Although the mosque itself was destroyed in 1278 during the Mongol Invasion of Iraq; its outer wall and iconic minaret known as the Malwiya Tower survived. Constructed of sandstone, the minaret is a spiralling cone fifty-two metres high and thirty three metres wide with a spiral ramp. During the Iraq War, US troops used the top of the minaret as a lookout position, making the site a military target. Consequently in April 2005 Insurgent activity resulted in the top of the minaret sustaining bomb damage.

Yemen People’s Democratic Republic
The Yemen People’s Democratic Republic 15 December, 1998 International Campaign for the Preservation of Old Sana’a Issue, 75 fils (Fig. 12) depicts the city’s skyline. Yemen’s largest city is recognised to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and contains many architectural wonders including the Great Mosque of Sana’a, the ancient clay walls and the Yemen Gate all of which are over a thousand years old. Declared a world heritage site by the United Nations in 1986, many of the city’s important historical sites including the ninth century mosque of the prophet Shuaibi are being destroyed or damaged by military action in the ongoing conflict in the country, largely a result of aerial bombardment by Saudi Arabia with the backing of other nations.

Yemen 5_20170427_14391657  Yemen 5_20170427_14391657
Figs. 12  and 13

The Yemen People’s Democratic Republic 28 August, 1985 UNSECO World Heritage Site, 50 fils issue (Fig. 13), depicts the iconic skyline of Shibam, another of Yemen’s cultural sites at risk from military conflict. The city is famous for possessing some of the oldest skyscrapers in the world, made from mud brick, many of which rise to between five and eleven storey’s high. Although the town has existed for almost two thousand years, many of these houses originated in the sixteenth century although they have been continuously rebuilt. These historic buildings have been at increasing risk from damage since 2009 when it was targeted in an Al-Qaeda attack- and remain so due to the ongoing conflict in the country. Sadly the destruction and damage sustained to many important heritage sites throughout these regions is set to continue for the foreseeable future. It is a sobering thought that many of the cultural heritage sites depicted upon postage stamps from these nations might not be with us for much longer.

Images have been taken from the British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Access to these collection items can be made by booking an appointment with the British Library’s Philatelic Collections on philatelic@bl.uk.

Richard Scott Morel, Curator, Philatelic Collections
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