Visitors to the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library may have encountered our display of Indian paintings next to the entrance to the Magna Carta. As part of the conservation programme, the paintings are rotated every few months. If you missed the display on the portraits of rulers of Rajasthan, you can still view a selection on the Asian and African Studies Blog.
Selecting paintings to display is no easy task: the library’s collection holds a diverse range of Indian paintings that date mainly from the 16-19th centuries. Popular genres and themes for the display can be drawn from portrait studies, illustrations to literary themes, religious subjects and from the 19th century onwards on architecture. In consultation with exhibitions and conservation, the selection is placed into the gallery.
The theme for the current selection is ‘Art of the Book’ and includes elegant visualisations of the ever so popular Hindu deity Krishna with his beloved Radha, Prince Rama and his brother Lakshman pinned by serpentine arrows, and illustrations to the Indian classical music known as ragamala (garland of musical modes). Some of the highlights are featured below:
Rama and Laksmana are pinned by serpentine arrows. By a Pahari artist from Bahu or Kulu, from the Shangri Ramayana, Style III, circa 1700-10. 186 by 290 mm; page 215 x 316 mm. Add.Or.5696, acquired 2010. - See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2014/01/pahari-paintings-at-the-british-library.html#sthash.Kf5yXor6.dpuf
Vasanta Ragini, Murshidabad (Bengal, India), c. 1760. Johnson Album 36,8.
The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library hosts a permanent free display of the library's greatest treasures. It is usually open 7 days a week.
Additional material held in the Visual Arts department at the British Library can be viewed by appointment in the Print Room (Asian & African Studies Reading Room). Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for an appointment. The Print Room is generally open Monday-Friday, from 2-5pm.
The final installment of our survey of the Ramayana epic in Southeast looks at its dissemination in the island world. That the Ramayana was already well known in Java by the end of the ninth century is evident from the magnificent series of reliefs carved into the walls of the temples of Prambanan in central Java around 900 AD. However, the the first literary version in Old Javanese, the Ramayana Kakawin, appears to date from a century later. It is based not directly on Valmiki’s Ramayana but on a later Indian poetical version, the so-called Bhattikavya, a Sanskrit poem written by Bhatti (6/7th century), which both tells the story and illustrates the rules of Sanskrit grammar. The first five cantos are a fairly exact translation, while the remainder is a much freer version.
The abduction of Sita by Ravana, depicted in stone reliefs at Prambanan temple, central Java, ca. 900. Photograph by W.G.N. van der Sleen, 1929. Tropenmuseum.
With the spread of Islam across Java from the fifteenth century onwards, the strongly Indianised Old Javanese culture and traditions retreated eastwards to the island of Bali, which today remains the only majority Hindu region outside India. Nearly all Old Javanese literary compositions or kakawin survived only in Bali, although their stories continued to be known in Java through the shadow-puppet tradition. The late 18th-century renaissance of literature at the central Javanese courts of Surakarta and Yogyakarta saw the rewriting of the Ramayana Kakawin in modern Javanese. In Bali, the story of Rama still plays a central part in the religious and cultural life of the island, and in the twentieth century became a popular subject for illustrated palm-leaf manuscripts.
Serat Rama Keling, a modern Javanese version of the Ramayana, illuminated manuscript dated 1814. British Library, Add.12284, ff.1v-2r
Two scenes from a Balinese palm leaf manuscript of the Ramayana, written and illustrated by Ida Bagus Adnyana of Geriya Gunung Sari, Pliatan, Bali, c. 1975. (Top) Sita sees the golden deer and urges Rama to catch it; (bottom) Ravana in the guise of an old hermit lures Sita out of the safety of her magic circle. British Library, Or.14022
The tradition of shadow-puppet theatre seems to have been in existence in Java for at least a thousand years, and the stories which are used in the wayang kulit shadow puppet theatre are taken from the Indian epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. While the characters and the plots remain basically Indian, the way the stories have been developed over the past 1000 years in the oral dramatic tradition reflects Javanese culture rather than Indian. The iconography of the shadow puppet theatre – with heads in profile, angular shoulders, slim torsos and pivoted limbs – has strongly influenced Javanese manuscript illustration.
Hanuman (left) and Hanuman Tugangga, one of Hanuman’s sons by the Fish Princess (right). From an album of Javanese wayang characters, Java, 19th century. British Library, Or.9333, ff 8v-9r
In the Malay Muslim courts of the archipelago, literary traditions now transmitted using Arabic script continued to reflect deep-seated Hindu-Buddhist roots. The Malay version of the Ramayana, Hikayat Seri Rama, is believed to have been committed to writing between the 13th and 15th centuries. One of the oldest Malay manuscripts in this country – and probably the oldest known illuminated Malay manuscript – is a copy of the Hikayat Seri Rama now held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, which was in the possession of Archbishop Laud in 1635. The Malay version originated not from the classical Ramayana of Valmiki, but from popular oral versions widely spread over southern India.
As attested to in media ranging from the great 7th-century Ramayana stone pedestal in the Cham temple at Tra Kieu in Vietnam, to 20th-century performances of the Ceritera Seri Rama in the wayang Siam shadow puppet theatre of Kelantan and 21st-century Indonesian comics, the Ramayana has retained its position as a literary classic in Southeast Asia through the centuries.
On the Ramayana in Javanese and Old Javanese: P.J. Zoetmulder, Kalangwan: a survey of Old Javanese literature. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974; pp. 217-233. 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.
On the Ramayana in Malay: V.I. Braginsky, The heritage of traditional Malay literature: a historical survey of genres, writings and literary views. Leiden: KITLV, 2004; pp. 66-71. Achadiati Ikram, Hikayat Sri Rama: suntingan naskah disertai telaah amanat dan struktur. Jakarta: Penerbit Universitas Indonesia, 1980.
The oral tradition of the Ramayana story in Burma is believed to date as far back as the reign of King Anawrahta (1044-77), the founder of the first Burmese empire at Pagan. Documented in Ava by the end of the 13th century, the Rama story – known as Rama Zatdaw in Burmese – continued to be transmitted orally from generation to generation up till the 16th century. In the 18th century, the Ramayana had come to be regarded as a noble saga even among Buddhist monks. The story of Rama, based on the oral traditions of Old Pagan, may have been committed to writing between the 16th and the 18th centuries, in verse and prose as well as in dramatic form, but the first known written Burmese version of the Ramayana is Rama Thagyin (Songs from the Ramayana), compiled by U Aung Phyo in 1775.
Ravana (called Dathagiri in the Burmese tradition), the ten-headed demon king of Lanka (Thiho), sends Gambi in the form of a shwethamin (golden deer) to Sita (Thida) (top right). Sita persuades Rama to go and catch the golden deer for her (left), and so he leaves Sita under the protection of his brother Lakshmana (Letkhana), and goes after the golden deer (bottom right). British Library Or.14178, f.8
The popularity of the Ramayana in Burma reached its zenith in the first half of the 19th century, when the story of Rama was depicted in a continuous series of 347 stone relief sculptures at the pagoda of Maha Loka Marazein of Thakhuttanai built in 1849 during the reign of King Bagan (1846-1853), of the Konbaung Dynasty.
When Sita and Lakshmana hear Rama’s voice calling them in distress, Lakshmana makes a three-fold magic circle around their shelter to ward off evil, and warns Sita not to venture out of the circle (left). As soon as Lakshmana goes to look for Rama, Ravana changes himself into an old hermit and came to Sita and begs for alms of fruits. Sita forgets her brother-in-law’s warning and steps out of the magic circle to give Ravana food and water, believing him to be a real hermit (top right). British Library, Or.14178, f.9
Thakin Min Mi, the Chief Queen of Singu Min 1776-1781, was a poet and writer who encouraged the performance of the Ramayana. The Rama play was performed on the stage in full splendour in the royal palace beginning with the reign of King Bodawpaya (1782-1819). During the reign of Tharrawaddy Min (1837-1846) and his son Pagan Min (1847-1853) the Rama Zatdaw regained its popularity and became established as part of traditional court entertainment. In the 19th century stage performances and marionette performances of the drama of the Ramayana were presented in the palace by royal troupes of professional artists. During the reign of Mindon (1853-1878), the Rama Zatdaw was rarely performed in its entirety, with favourite episodes only usually being presented to please the court.
The king’s minister Myawady Mingyi U Sa converted the Ramayana Jataka into a typical Burmese classical drama, and he also composed theme music and songs for its performance. Ever since then, Ramayana performances have been very popular in Burmese culture, and Yama zat pwe (dramatic performances of the Rama story) marionette stage shows are often held. Scenes from the Ramayana can also be found as motifs or design elements in Burmese lacquerware and wood carvings. By the late 19th century, the Ramayana story was being printed in Burmese: an early example in the British Library is Pontaw Rama (Part 1) by Saya Ku, published in 1880 (14302.e.3/5).
Ravana returns to his own form of a horrible giant with ten fearful heads and twenty great arms and begs Sita to come with him to his kingdom. When she refuses, Ravana summons his magic chariot and sweeps Sita up and away, into the sky and over the forests (top). When Rama and Lakshmana finally find their way home Sita is gone (bottom). British Library, Or.14178, f.10
The images shown here are from a Burmese folding book manuscript or parabaik (Or. 14178) dating from around 1870, which has 16 pages with painted scenes of the Ramayana story with brief captions in Burmese. The paper covers are painted in red, yellow and green with floral borders and prancing lions. One cover has an inscription in black ink in Burmese, giving the title, Rama Zat, and a brief identification of the contents. The manuscript has been fully digitised and can be read here.
Further reading U Thein Han, The Ramayana in Burma. Rangoon: Burma Historical Commission, 1971.
Continuing our series of posts on the Ramayana in Southeast Asia, today we look at Thailand and Laos. The Thai version of the epic is known as the Ramakien. The Rama story is thought to have been known to the Thais since at least the 13th century. It was adopted from older Khmer sources, hence the similarity to the Khmer title Reamker. Various new versions of the story have been composed, often by royal authors, since the 16th and 17th centuries. However, large numbers of Thai manuscripts were lost with the destruction of Ayutthya in 1767, and the Ramakien known today was compiled only between 1785 and 1807 under the supervision of King Rama I (1785-1809).
The famous reliefs depicting about 150 scenes from the Ramakien at Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho) in Bangkok date back to the early 19th century. Manuscript and mural paintings showing scenes from the Ramakien are particularly famous for their illustrations of the monkey armies. Best known are the mural paintings at the royal temple Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok. In King Rama I’s version of the Ramakien all names, places, traditions, and flora and fauna were adapted to a Thai context. In this form, the Rama story has become an epic of national character in Thailand, and it is very popular not only as a literary work, but also as a mask dance (khon) and even TV drama. It has been re-published many times in the form of children’s and juvenile literature, and characters from the Ramayana have featured on series of postal stamps and trading cards. The title of Rama constantly re-occurs in the royal genealogies of Thailand.
Hanuman facing Ravana asleep in his palace. This drawing is from a 19th century album of ink drawings by an anonymous Thai artist of scenes from the Ramakien, with some text captions in Khom script (a variant of the Cambodian Khmer script used in Thailand). Hanuman can be seen with his sword, teasing Ravana who is fast asleep in his palace after having abducted Sita. The palace resembles 19th century architecture in Bangkok. British Library, Or.14859, pp. 58-59
Phralak – the Thai and Lao name of Lakshmana, Rama’s brother – served Rama and Sita reverently and played an important role in the war with Ravana. In the Thai and Lao traditions, he is a symbol of brotherly love, loyalty and commitment. He gave his life in order to protect Rama’s integrity and Ayodhya from an evil curse. This illustration of Phralak is from a folding-book with Thai character drawings including figures from the Ramakien, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or.14229, f. 29
The Lao version of the Ramayana is known as Phra Lak Phra Ram (or Pha Lak Pha Lam since in modern Lao R is often replaced by L), the title referring to both the brothers Lakshmana and Rama. Sometimes it is also called Phra Ram sadok (Rama Jataka) as it is widely believed that Rama was a former incarnation of a Buddha-to-be. The Rama story featured in many mural paintings and wood relief carvings on temple doors and windows. It was also one of the favourite themes in the repertoire of the Lao Royal Ballet until 1975, and this tradition has been revived since 2002 by the Royal Ballet Theatre of Luang Prabang.
Introductory scene to thank and honour the Hindu gods during a Phra Lak Phra Ram performance by the Royal Ballet Theatre of Luang Prabang. Photo by Jana Igunma, 2002.
Numerous palm-leaf manuscripts from all regions of Laos containing shorter versions of the Lao Ramayana, Lam Pha Lam, show that the story was very popular all over the country in urban centres as much as in rural areas. These versions were created in order to be sung by a Mor Lam, a traditional expert singer who can melodically recite lengthy poems and epic literature while being accompanied by a Khaen (bamboo mouth organ).
In both Thai and Lao traditions, Hanuman was part of a favourite Yantra design used by soldiers and martial arts specialists. The leader of the monkey armies represents strength, stamina, agility, intelligence and devotion. Hanuman Yantras would either be drawn on protective shirts, headbands, battle standards of entire armies, or, most efficiently and durably, tattooed on a fighter’s body.
Hanuman as part of a Yantra design for tattooing or to be drawn on protective clothes and battle flags. From a Yantra manual written in gamboge ink on blackened mulberry paper, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or.15596, f. 9
The recent digitisation of the Mewar Ramayana has enabled the ‘virtual’ reunification of this 17th-century masterpiece, bringing together paintings from the manuscript held across continents in different locations. Originally composed in India in Sanskrit over two and half thousand years ago by Valmiki, the Ramayana is also one of the most popular masterworks throughout Southeast Asia. This is reflected not only in the literary traditions, but also in the performing and fine arts, as well as in architecture and modern design. The epic tells the story of Rama, his brother Lakshmana and Rama’s wife Sita, who was kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. The main part of the epic is about the fight between Ravana and Rama, who wants to get his wife back. In this battle, Rama is supported by his brother and a monkey chief, Hanuman, with his armies.
Knowledge of the Ramayana in Southeast Asia can be traced back to the 5th century in stone inscriptions from Funan, the first Hindu kingdom in mainland Southeast Asia. An outstanding series of reliefs of the Battle of Lanka from the 12th century still exists at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Ramayana sculptures from the same period can be found at Pagan in Myanmar. Thailand’s old capital Ayutthya founded in 1347 is said to have been modelled on Ayodhya, Rama’s birthplace and setting of the Ramayana. New versions of the epic were written in poetry and prose and as dramas in Burmese, Thai, Khmer, Lao, Malay, Javanese and Balinese, and the story continues to be told in dance-dramas, music, puppet and shadow theatre throughout Southeast Asia. Most of these versions change parts of the story significantly to reflect the different natural environments, customs and cultures.
When mainland Southeast Asian societies embraced Theravada Buddhism, Rama began to be regarded as a Bodhisatta, or Buddha-to-be, in a former life. In this context, the early episodes of the story were emphasized, symbolising Rama’s Buddhist virtues of filial obedience and willing renunciation. Throughout the region, Hanuman enjoys a greatly expanded role; he becomes the king of the monkeys and the most popular character in the story, and is a reflection of all the freer aspects of life. In a series of posts we will be exploring how the Ramayana epic has been rewritten and reimagined in the different parts of Southeast Asia, starting with the Khmer version, the Reamker.
Royal Reamker performance, accompanied by the royal orchestra, at the ancient site of Ta Prohm, one of the temples of Angkor. Postcard from around 1915 published in Paris by the Anciens Etablissement Gillot, from a collector’s album of postcards from Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Siam. British Library, ORB. 30/6309, p. 
The Ramayana very early reached the ancient Hindu kingdoms (Funan, Chenla, Champa) in the territory of present-day Cambodia, southern Vietnam and eastern Thailand through contact with the south Indian kingdoms, but the oldest extant literary version, the Reamker in the Khmer language, appears to date from the 16th century. It preserves closer links to Valmiki’s original than do the other Southeast Asian versions. The Rama story became a favourite theme for frescoes on temple walls and was the exclusive subject of the traditional Cambodian shadow play. The popular masked dance drama, lkhon khol, was based on certain episodes from the Ramayana, and with Rama being regarded a former incarnation for the Buddha himself the story forms part of the repertoire of the Royal Ballet to the present day.
Dancer of the Royal Ballet in the costume of Hanuman. Postcard from around 1915 issued by the Comité Cambodgien de la Société des Amis d’Angkor, from a collector’s album of postcards from Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Siam. British Library, ORB. 30/6309, p. 
The literary text Reamker has the form of a dramatic recitative that was intended to accompany a mimed dance performance. Live recitations of parts of the Reamker by one of the most famous Cambodian storytellers of the 20th century, Ta Krut, had been recorded in the 1960s and are available online from the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center.
Reamker (Ramakerti), the Cambodian version of the Ramayana. Translated by Judith Jacob with the assistance of Kuoch Haksrea. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1986 (ORW.1989.a.1223)
Regular followers of this blog will know through the Mewar Ramayana Digitally Reunited blog post that recently we were delighted to join with Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalay (CSMVS Musuem), Mumbai, in announcing the launch of the digitised Mewar Ramayana manuscript. The Ramayana is one of the great epic stories of the world, with a unique universal human appeal. This particular manuscript, commissioned by Maharana Jagat Singh of Mewar in the mid-17th century, is widely regarded as one of the finest, most lavishly-illustrated copies of the epic ever made.
As our first major collaborative project with partners in India, the launch of the digitised Mewar Ramayana marks a significant early milestone in our aim to make parts of our extensive collections relating to South Asia freely available online, for people all around the world to study, admire and enjoy.
It was both to celebrate the launch with CSMVS at a reception on 21 March, and to discuss future collaborations with CSMVS and other partners in India, that a small BL contingent set off for Mumbai: Baroness Tessa Blackstone (Chairman of the Board), Roly Keating (Chief Executive), Marina Chellini (project curator), Jerry Losty (project consultant, see Curator’s perspective: accessing the Mewar Ramayana), Kate Losty (a conservator by training, and as Jerry’s wife, as engaged with the Mewar Ramayana as he), and myself.
Our CSMVS colleagues and friends, in particular Sabyasachi Mukherjee (Director General), Vandana Prapanna (project curator), Roda Ahluwalia (project consultant), Manisha Nene (curator), and Koumudi Malladi (coordinator, DG’s office), had ensured a memorable evening’s programme for the launch! It began with refreshments for some 120 guests under the watchful eye of Jamsetji Tata, whose bust graced the lobby of Coomaraswamy Hall. This felt particularly apt, since it was partly due to the generous support of the Jamsetji Tata Trust that the project could happen.
The statue of Jamsetji Tata fittingly presides over the launch.
Brief speeches by Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Baroness Blackstone, Kumar Iyer (British Deputy High Commissioner) and Roly Keating focussed on the deep historical ties between India and the UK, and the importance of international collaboration in building on these to ensure greater access to cultural treasures. These sentiments were beautifully encapsulated by honoured guest Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, the Maharana of Udaipur, whose ancestor Rana Bhim Singh first donated the part of the manuscript now held at the British Library to Lt. Col. James Tod, British Political Agent and noted historian, in the early 19th century. Speculating as to his ancestor’s motivations in presenting the folios to Tod, Shriji concluded that the gift was symptomatic of the strong, cultural link between India and Britain, a link further strengthened by the ‘conduit of shared values’ demonstrated by the CSMVS-BL collaboration.
Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, the Maharana of Udiapur, addresses a packed Coomaraswamy Hall
The digital Mewar Ramayana was unveiled by Marina Chellini, who talked the audience through the special features of the resource, in the shaping and creating of which she had played such a leading role, whilst Vandana Prapanna provided fascinating insights into the project from the perspective of CSMVS. In the focal point of the evening, art historians Jerry Losty and Roda Ahluwalia delivered illustrated lectures, Jerry Losty concentrating on the immense artistic importance of the Mewar Ramayana, and Roda Ahluwalia exploring its significance in relation to other Ramayanas and to the Rajput manuscript tradition.
A lamp-lighting ceremony to inaugurate The Balakanda of the Mewar Ramayana in the Curator’s Gallery followed. Not to be missed by those fortunate enough to be in Mumbai, this exhibition displays original folios from the manuscript held at CSMVS, cleverly juxtaposing them with an animated digital folio projected on the wall, and the reunited digital resource on a kiosk to one side. Celebrations were brought to a close with a dinner at Bombay Gymkhana, very generously hosted by the Chairman and Director General of CSMVS.
BL Chairman of the Board, Baroness Tessa Blackstone, at the lamp-lighting ceremony
After meetings with Sabyasachi Mukherjee the following morning to discuss exciting plans for the next CSMVS-BL joint endeavour and tours of the museum and conservation studio, the BL contingent went their separate ways. For Baroness Blackstone, Roly Keating and me, ‘work’ had just begun, with a further four days of meetings scheduled with partners in Mumbai and Kolkata. But that’s for another post.
BL Chief Executive Roly Keating and Baroness Tessa Blackstone visiting the CMSVS conservation studio
In the meantime, our sincere thanks go to CSMVS, who in the course of this project have become friends as well as international colleagues. We look forward to many similar successes in the future!
We would also like to thank our funders, the Jamsetji Tata Trust, Sir Gulam Noon, the World Collections Programme, the Friends of the British Library and the British Library Board, without whom the project could not have been achieved.
And finally, we hope that you, our readers - whether via pc, tablet or phone, on the move or in the comfort of your own homes - will continue to study and enjoy this unique resource! You can explore the manuscript by going to www.bl.uk/ramayana or http://csmvs.in/the-mewar-ramayana.html.
The digital version of the complete Valmiki Ramayana prepared for Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar in 1649-53 was launched on 21 March at the CSMVS, Mumbai, making freely available to the world one of the greatest achievements of Indian art. For the complete digital version of the manuscript together with descriptions of the paintings and essays on its various aspects, see www.bl.uk/ramayana. My own involvement with the manuscript goes back to 1971 when as a young Sanskritist straight from Oxford I first joined the British Museum, before the collections were transferred to the British Library in 1973. I spent a lot of time exploring the oriental select manuscripts lobby, pulling the manuscripts off the shelf one by one for a brief examination. The bound manuscripts were kept in so far as possible in strict numerical sequence in the main runs of Additional and Oriental manuscripts, so that Arabic, Persian, Hebrew or Sanskrit manuscripts could be found side by side, encouraging a serendipitous tendency to explore other cultures. I was vaguely aware of the great Mughal manuscripts in the collections, the subject of British Library exhibitions in 1982 and 2012, but was there I wondered anything comparable from the Hindu world?
Covers and doublure of a volume of the Ramayana as bound in the British Museum bindery in 1844. British Library, Add.15295.
I soon found three massive bound volumes which announced themselves on the spines as five volumes of the Ramayana, books 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7. On hauling them off the shelf and opening them I found them crammed with paintings. Each of the volumes had had all its folios, the unillustrated ones as well as the full page paintings, let into heavy guard papers which were then bound up in these elaborate bindings. The folios being in landscape format, the volumes had to be turned on their sides to be read. On further investigation, one of the volumes, the Bala Kanda or first book, with over 200 paintings, turned out to have been written in 1712 in Udaipur under Maharana Sangram Singh (Add.15295), but the other four books containing 286 full page paintings were prepared in Udaipur for Rana Jagat Singh between 1649 and 1652, as well as in the first year of his successor Rana Raj Singh in 1653 (Add.152396-7). They had, I found, never been exhibited, since the volumes were too large to fit into the department’s then exhibition cases; they had never been lent to be exhibited elsewhere, not even to the great exhibition of Indian art at Burlington House in 1947, since the British Museum did not then lend at all; and I could find only one brief reference to them in the art historical literature, in Douglas Barrett and Basil Gray’s Indian Painting of 1963. They were of course mentioned in Cecil Bendall’s Catalogue of Sanskrit Manuscripts in the British Museum (London, 1902), but he was concerned about the text and not the pictures: back then in 1902 no one in the west knew anything about Indian painting, while A.K. Coomaraswamy had yet to publish his book on Rajput painting. In 1971 when I told those of my colleagues who were interested in Persian and Indian painting about these great volumes, my excitement was greeted with some indifference: they knew of their existence of course, but Rajput painting and manuscripts did not conform to Mughal standards of painting, let alone Persian. The volumes turned out to be illustrated in three different styles of contemporary Mewar painting, involving the artists Sahib Din and Manohar and their studios and an unknown master working in a mixed Mewar-Deccani style.
Hanuman espies Rama and Laksmana as they approach Lake Pampa. Ramayana, Kiskindha Kanda. Mewar-Deccani style, Udaipur, 1653. British Library, Add.15297(1), f.2r.
Since that to me momentous discovery in 1971, I have been occupied with trying to publish these volumes and to place them within their artistic and cultural contexts. I had found only four volumes of Jagat Singh’s Ramayana – where were the other three? I soon found some of the original Bala Kanda of 1649 ascribed to the artist Manohar in the then Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay, and most of the rest of the paintings in the book in a private collection in that city. But when Dr Moti Chanda published some of its paintings in 1955, he was unaware of the four London volumes. It emerged that one volume, book 3, the Aranya Kanda or Forest book, was still in Udaipur. It had been transferred along with the rest of the royal Mewar library to the Udaipur branch of the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, and was subsequently moved to that institute’s headquarters in Jodhpur. In 1982 the four London volumes formed some of the highlights of my exhibition The Art of the Book in India in the British Library.
Hanuman is brought bound before Ravana and his tail set on fire. Ramayana, Sundara Kanda. Mewar-Deccani style, Udaipur, c. 1650. British Library, IO San 3621, f.9r.
While I was preparing that exhibition Mildred Archer and Toby Falk, who had been working on a catalogue of the Indian miniatures in the then separate India Office Library, brought to my attention a volume of 18 paintings of a Sundara Kanda that had been acquired in 1912. This it seems was what remained of the final volume to be unearthed and I included it in my exhibition. I also brought to London for the exhibition folios from the two volumes still in India, thereby uniting the entire manuscript for the first time since 1820. Since then I have published various articles on different aspects of them and other scholars including Vidya Dehejia and Andrew Topsfield have also worked on them, but the task is immense, since we are concerned here with over 400 paintings as well as a most interesting text, which is earlier than most of the manuscripts used for the critical edition of the Ramayana prepared in Baroda in 1960-75.
Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar (reg. 1778-1828) out hunting. Mewar, 1810-20. British Library, Add.Or.4662.
But how did these volumes get to London in the first place? Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar was the typical Rajput ruler of the time, more interested in hunting and grand festivals than in literary pursuits, but he did revive the royal painting studio. He was on very friendly terms with Captain James Tod, the future historian of the Rajputs, who was appointed in 1818 as the East India Company’s Agent to the western Rajput states. On Tod’s final departure from Udaipur in 1820 the Maharana presented to him four volumes of Jagat Singh’s Ramayana as well as the Bala Kanda of 1712 prepared under Sangram Singh. Tod on his return to London in 1823 presented the five volumes to the Duke of Sussex, one of the younger sons of King George III, who had accumulated a vast and important library, and it was at the sale of the Duke’s library in 1844 that the five volumes were purchased for the British Museum. They were still in bundles in their loose-leaf traditional format and it was then that they were bound up in their handsome bindings, the enormous Bala Kanda in one volume (Add.15295) and the remaining four books in two volumes (Add.15296 and Add.15297).
It emerged over the 40 years since 1971 that the bound volumes in London had kept the paintings in absolutely pristine condition, since up to that time scarcely anyone had looked at them, but as I and other scholars turned their pages in subsequent years it became increasingly obvious that the paintings were suffering, since the folios housed in their rigid bindings could not be turned without the paintings flexing and with that the ensuing risk of the pigments flaking. One of my first tasks was to organise the splitting of Add.15297 since the two heavily illustrated books within, including Sahib Din’s masterpiece the Yuddha Kanda (Book 6), were most at risk.
Hanuman disturbs the divine inhabitants of the Himalaya when fetching herbs to cure Laksmana who had been wounded by Ravana. Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda. By Sahib Din, Udaipur, 1652. British Library, Add.15297(1), f.150r.
In Valmiki’s hermitage Lava and Kusa recite the story of Rama before Satrughna. Ramayana, Uttara Kanda. Style of Manohar, Udaipur, 1653. British Library, Add.15297(2), f.88r.
Book 7 the Uttara Kanda was removed and a new binding matching the original was prepared for it, as well as a new spine for the Yuddha Kanda. In 1995, some 20 folios concerned with Rama’s quest for Sita were detached and mounted separately in an exhibition at the British Library, The Mythical Quest, and were later lent to several exhibitions in the UK as well as to the Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore.
It seemed to me many years ago that the best way to ensure the safety of the paintings was to dismantle the volumes entirely and mount the paintings separately, but this raised opposition within the Library as the volumes themselves were of great historic interest. However my view eventually prevailed. The volumes were dismantled and the paintings individually mounted and a large part of the London volumes were shown in a grand Ramayana exhibition in the British Library in 2008 with my accompanying book published both in London and in India. From them on it was but a step to conceive of reuniting the whole manuscript digitally, not just the paintings but the text as well, so that scholars could work in particular on the relationship between text and painting, and also so that everyone could have access to one of the greatest monuments of Indian art.
The Mewar Ramayana is one of the most beautiful manuscripts in the world and has been digitally reunited after being split between organisations in the UK and India for over 150 years. The Indian epic Ramayana is one of the world's greatest and most enduring stories, telling the stirring tale of Prince Rama who was exiled for fourteen years through the plotting of his stepmother. In exile, his wife Sita is abducted by the ten-headed demon king Ravana; with the assistance of an army of monkeys and bears, Rama searches and rescues Sita.
Sahib Din, Rama is driven into exile as Dasaratha and the queens bid farewell, c. 1650. British Library, Add.15296(1), f. 56r
For the first time, people around the world will be able to digitally explore the pages of the Mewar Ramayana manuscript, which was commissioned by Rana Jagat Singh I of Mewar in 1649 and produced in his court studio at Udaipur. The project, which has been three years in the making, is sponsored by the Jamsetji Tata Trust, the World Collections Programme, and the Friends of the British Library.
The Ramayana – “Rama’s journey” is attributed to the sage Valmiki and was composed some two and a half thousand years ago. Through oral tradition 20,000 verses continued to circulate from generation to generation, in the various languages of India and beyond. The story embodies the Hindu idea of dharma – duty, behaving correctly according to one’s position and role in society.
The Mewar Ramayana manuscript is divided into seven books, the text prepared by a Jain scribe Mahatma Hirananda and the paintings by various artists including studio master Sahib Din. Production of the manuscript started in 1649 and was completed after Rana Jagat Singh's death in October 1652. This lavish manuscript features intricate paintings of Hindu gods and their battles and the paintings in the Mewar Ramayana are among the finest examples of Indian art.
Hanuman observes Ravana's interview with Sita, c. 1653. British Library, IO San 3621, f.3
After more than 150 years after production, four volumes from this series were presented by Jagat Singh's descendant Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar (1778-1828) to Lt. Col. James Tod (1782-1835), the first British Political Agent to the Western Rajput Courts in the early 19th century. In 1823, following his return to Britain, Tod presented the volumes to the royal bibliophile the Duke of Sussex (1773-1843) in 1823. Following the Duke's death, the content of his library went on sale in 1844, the four volumes were purchased by the British Museum, now the British Library. The remaining volumes became dispersed over time.
The digital Mewar Ramayana will enable users to ‘turn the pages' online in the unbound style reflecting the traditional Indian loose-leaf format, and interpretive text and audio will allow the broadest possible audience to study and enjoy this text in a whole new way. It will also transform access to the manuscript for researchers, who will have the text and paintings side by side in one place for the first time. The project has been led by British Library curator Marina Chellini with assistance from Leena Mitford, J.P. Losty and Pasquale Manzo.
This new version of 'Turning the Pages' is built in HTML5. It is not reliant on 'plugins' you need to install first, as with previous versions. It will work with the following browsers:
Internet Explorer 9 + Google Chrome 14+ Firefox 11+ Safari
As it is a very large file, it may take a few minutes to download (depending on your broadband speed).
For the press release and additional images, please visit the British Library's Press and Policy page.