The British Library holds over a thousand Jain manuscripts, most of which were collected in the 19th Century, by Indologists and East India Company officials. In a recent blog, Pasquale Manzo, the British Library’s Sanskrit curator, gives an overview of these manuscripts, and news that 33 of them have been digitised.
One of the collectors mentioned in this previous blog is Colin Mackenzie, the first Surveyor General of India. There are 21 Jain manuscripts, 18 of which are palm leaf manuscripts from Karnataka’s Digambara tradition, in the British Library’s Mackenzie Collection.
The outer ‘patli’ wooden boards of this manuscript are decorated with a blue and gold border, and with pink flowers and green leaves. A red silk cord runs through a hole in the palm leaves, which holds the manuscript together. When closed, the manuscript was secured by the cord, which was wrapped around the patli boards. The label recording the manuscript's despatch to London in 1825 is attached. (BL Mackensie XII.14 cover and label)
Illustrated folios from the Navagrahakundalaksana, in an 18th Century palm leaf manuscript from the Digambara tradition, collected by Colin Mackenzie in Karnataka in the early 19th Century (BL Mackenzie XII.14, ff. 2-3)
Palm leaf Digambara manuscripts like this are extremely rare, but what makes the Mackenzie Collection’s Jain holdings even more amazing is the other materials, such as drawings and transcribed oral accounts, which were gathered in Karnataka at the same time, between 1799 and 1810, when Mackenzie was conducting the Survey of Mysore.
Armed with a team of military draftsmen and Indian translators, Mackenzie’s attempts to learn about Jainism went beyond the standard Orientalist practice of collecting manuscripts. The draftsmen made drawings of a broad range of subjects, and the translators interviewed important members of the Jain community. Below are some drawings that were collected contemporaneously to the manuscripts and oral accounts.
North view of Vindyagiri Hill, Sravana Belgola (Karnataka), 17 August, 1806 (BL WD576)
Sculptures at Sravana Belgola (Karnataka), 1801 (WD1065, folio 57)
A Jain from Tumkur (Karnataka), May 1800 (BL WD1069, f.24)
The drawings relating to Jainism in the British Library’s Mackenzie Collection are unique because they were gathered alongside such a wide variety of other materials at the same time and in the same region of India. Together, they provide a fascinating record of Jainism in Karnataka over 200 years ago.
One of our most important Mughal manuscripts is Or.12076, the Razmnāmah (ʻBook of Warʼ), copied in AH 1007 (1598/99) and containing the concluding part, sections 14-18, of the Persian translation of the Sanskrit epic the Mahābhārata. It is currently on display at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, in the exhibition Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts curated by Amy S. Landau of the Walters Art Museum Baltimore where it was originally exhibited. As a result of the Library's participation in the exhibition the whole volume has now been digitised and is available online for everyone to look at — whether they are lucky enough to be able to visit the exhibition or not!
While Arjuna and Tāmradhvaja fight against each other for seven days, the gods enjoy the spectacle (tamāshā), watching safely from the sky. Episode from the 14th book, the Aśvamedhikaparva (ʻhorse sacrificeʼ). Painting attributed to Paras (Or.12076, f.76r)
Commissioned in 1582 by the Emperor Akbar, the Persian Razmnāmah is a prose translation of all 18 books of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata in addition to the Harivaṃśa appendix. It is not a literal translation though the content is relatively unchanged. For those interested in the storyline, a detailed summary of the Persian version is given by T.H. Henley in his preface to Memorials of the Jeypore Exhibition, 1883. vol. 4: The Razm Námah (London, 1885).
The reasons for its composition, as outlined in Abū ʼl-Faz̤l's preface of 1587, were primarily to make the stories and ideologies of the Mahābhārata more accessible. At the same time it invited both Muslims and Hindus to question some of their traditional beliefs while, of course, simultaneously glorifying Akbar's role as the perfect ruler (Cosmopolitan encounters, pp. 227-238).
The blind king Dhṛtarāṣṭra, led by Kuntī, leaves the city of Hastinapur and retires to the forest. His wife Gāndhārī, blindfolded, supports him following behind. From the 15th book, the Aśramavāsikaparva (ʻRetirement to the Hermitageʼ). Painting attributed to Dhanū (Or.12076, f.110v)
The translation process
The logistics of how the Mahabhārata was translated are described in the contemporary author Badāʼūnī's Muntakhab al-tavārīkh who writes somewhat disparagingly (M. Athar Ali's translation, p. 40):
Collecting together the learned men of India, His Majesty directed that the book Mahabharat should be translated. For some nights His Majesty personally (had it) explained to Naqib Khan, who wrote out the resultant text in Persian. On the third night His Majesty summoned me and ordered me to translate it in collaboration with Naqib Khan. In three or four months out of the eighteen chapters (fan) of that stock of useless fables... I wrote out two chapters. ... Thereafter Mulla Shiri and Naqib Khan completed that section, and one section Sultan Haji Thanesari ʻMunfaridʼ brought to completion. Shaikh Faizi was then appointed to write it in verse and prose, but he too did not complete more than two Chapters (fan). Again, the said Haji wrote out two sections and rectified the errors which were committed in the first round, and fitting one part with another, compiled a hundred fasciculi. The direction was to establish exactitude in a minute manner so that nothing of the original should be lost. In the end upon some fault, His Majesty ordered him (Haji Thanesari) to be dismissed and sent away to Bhakkar, his native city, where he still is. Most of the interpreters and translators are in hell along with Korus and Pandavs, and as for the remaining ones, may God save them, and mercifully destine them to repent.... His Majesty named the work Razmnaama (Epic), and had it illustrated and transcribed in many copies, and the nobles too were ordered to have it transcribed by way of obtaining blessings. Shaikh Abul Fazl... wrote a preface of the length of two quires (juzv) for that work.
Equally important are details preserved at the end of the translation itself. As can be seen below, our manuscript, Or.12076, is partially damaged but fortunately the crucial passage is preserved in several other copies (Truschke’s translation, Cosmopolitan encounters, p.187 - the names have been Sanskritised):
Naqīb Khān, son of ʻAbd al-Laṭīf Ḥusaynī, translated [this work] from Sanskrit into Persian in one and a half years. Several of the learned Brahmans, such as Deva Miśra, Śatāvadhāna, Madhusūdana Miśra, Caturbhuja and Shaykh Bhāvan…read this book and explained it in hindī to me, a poor wretched man, who wrote it in Persian.
The conclusion to Naqīb Khān's translation of the Mahābhārata (Or.12076, f.138v)
Or.12076 consists of 138 leaves which are numbered continuously in an earlier foliation which begins at 715. There are several leaves missing, but the last numbered leaf is folio 131 which is numbered 846 suggesting that our volume represents the last of a possible six volumes altogether. It was purchased by the British Museum on 11 December 1954 from the dealer A. Garabed who had himself bought it at Sotheby's a few weeks earlier (Lot 230, Sotheby's sale 8 Nov. 1954). It is not known who owned it immediately before that but we do know that it had previously been sold anonymously at Sotheby’s in London in 1921. The Library's annotated copy of the 1921 Sotheby sale catalogue (S.C.Sotheby(1), 24-25 Oct. 1921, lot 203) has not to my knowledge been studied before, but shows that it was purchased for £76 by the British collector and art historian Gerald Reitlinger (1900-1978).
Lot 203 of Catalogue of Persian, Indo-Persian and Indian Miniatures, Manuscripts & Works of Art from various sources & private collections, Southeby, Wilkinson & Hodge, 24-25 October 1921 (S.C.Sotheby(1), 24-25 Oct. 1921)
The original manuscript had already been divided up when it was sold in 1921. In addition to our volume, lots 204 to 278 included 125 separate paintings from the same work. These are now in museums and libraries all over the world. In an appendix to his article on three illustrated copies of the Razmnāmah (Model and Copy, pp. 56-62), John Seyller lists the locations of 161 identified illustrations. The attached descriptions with the buyers' names in our annotated copy may provide further details on some of them. Sadly, we'll probably never know what happened to lot 279 “the remaining portions of the work, loose leave, incomplete,” sold to Gazdar (presumably the art dealer J. Gazdar) for £1. Several leaves were purchased by the Persian scholar C.A. Storey. These are now in the library of the Royal Asiatic Society, London. A further 8 individual leaves were acquired subsequently by the India Office Library from Maggs (British Library Add.Or. 2776-2783).
The artists of the 1598 Razmnāmah
Candrahāsa kneeling before the Raja of Kuntala on being presented to him by the minister Dhṛṣṭabuddhi after Candrahāsa’s victory over the king’s enemies. The elephants, horses and hawk are booty from the enemy. Episode from the 14th book, the Aśvamedhikaparva (ʻhorse sacrificeʼ). Painting attributed to Kanhar (Or.12076, f.83v)
Our manuscript contains 24 illustrations which are all attributed beneath the paintings to individually named artists. The fact that several of them also contributed to known imperial manuscripts suggests that it was completed at court, no doubt one of the many copies transcribed by order of Akbar which Badāʼūnī mentions in the passage quoted above.
Table based on Meredith-Owens and R. H. Pinder-Wilson (“A Persian translation ...”, p. 65) giving a list of artists of the Razmnāmah showing which ones also worked on the Mughal Bāburnāmah and Dārābnāmah (follow the hyperlinks to go directly to the digitised images)
One of Rama's servants overhears a washerman quarrelling with his wife. Episode from the 14th book, the Aśvamedhikaparva (ʻhorse sacrificeʼ). Painting attributed to Daʼūd, brother of Daulat (Or.12076, f.48r)
Kusa and Lava defeating Bharata, Lakshmana and the monkey army. European-type Gothic spires are visible on the skyline. Episode from the 14th book, the Aśvamedhikaparva (ʻhorse sacrificeʼ). Painting attributed to Ās, son of Mahesh (Or.12076, f.62v)
Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts is on view at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco until May 8th. A catalogue with the same title is available which includes details of all the exhibits in addition to several lengthy contributions by scholars in the field.
The Jain manuscripts currently in the British Library collections have a long history and were formerly held by two distinct institutions, the British Museum and the India Office Library.
Built over a period of more than two and half centuries, from the earliest acquisitions of 1753 (in the British Museum’s Sloane and Harley collections), to the latest in 2005, the collection includes works in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Hindi, Gujarati and Rajasthani and in view of its size (over 1000 items), range of material and state of preservation, it is one of the most important outside India.
Aḍhāī-dvīpa, ‘Two and a half continents’. Painting on cloth, 18th century (British Library Or 13937)
Most of the Jain manuscripts originally belonged in several individual collections acquired in India during the 19th century by Indologists and employees in the service of the East India Company (among them H.T. Colebrooke, G. Bühler, W. Erskine, H. Jacobi, C. Mackenzie, A.C. Burnell). The subject areas and literary traditions represented are numerous and diverse: canonical, ethics, ritualistic, narrative, astronomy, astrology, mathematics and music. 33 Jain manuscripts are now available online in Digitised Manuscripts.
Miniature of Gautamasvāmin seated, in the typical Śvetāmbara monastic dress and holding a rosary, 15th century (British Library Or 2126A)
The selection includes rare and valuable palm leaf manuscripts such as Or 1385B, the oldest Jain manuscript in the British Library dated 1201 CE, several Kalpasūtra versions, some of them illuminated (i.e. Or 11921, Or 14262 and Or 13959), and a 15th century manuscript of the Śrīpāla-kathā (Or 2126A) and IO San 3177, which contains the manuscript used by Hermann Jacobi for his edition, translation and glossary of the Kālakācārya-Kathānakam of 1880 (at that time the only known written version of the legend). Finely illustrated, it is also an amazing example of Jain calligraphy.
Folio from the Saṁgrahaṇīratna by Śrīcandra in Prakrit with interlinear Gujarati commentary. The miniature depicts the Pancaparameṣṭhins on Siddhaśilā, 17th century (British Library Or 2116C)
Beside poetical compositions like the Ādityavāra-kathā (Or 14290), there are cosmological treatises such as Śrīcandra’s Saṁgrahaṇīratna (Or 2116C) and three Aḍhāī-dvīpa (‘Two and a half continents’), illuminated diagrams representing the world inhabited by human beings according to Jain cosmology (Add Or 1812, Add Or 1814 and Or 13937).
Nalini Balbir ... [et al.], Catalogue of the Jain manuscripts of the British Library: including the holdings of the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. London: British Library & Institute of Jainology, 2006.
Hermann Jacobi, "Das Kālakācāryakathānakam", Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 34 (1880), pp.247-318.