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145 posts categorized "South Asia"

12 December 2019

Three fish with one head (2): from the Buddha’s footprints to Beat poetry

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The first part of this blog post explored diagrams of three fish with one head in manuscripts association with the Shattariyah Sufi order in Java. In this second part the motif is traced through nearly four thousand years, from ancient Egypt to contemporary Buddhist Japan via the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

The earliest known manifestation of the three-fish-one-head symbol is in ancient Egypt, where it was a familar motif on ceramic dishes from the New Kingdom period between the 16th to 11th centuries BC. Representing the tilapia fish and found together with depictions of the lotus, it is associated with the Goddess Hathor.  

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Three fish with one head, on an Egyptian bowl, New Kingdom, 16th-11th centuries BC (Image source: G. Maspero, L'archeologie egyptienne. Paris: Maison Quantin, 1887; p. 255, fig. 228).

Two millenia later the motif appears well entrenched in Christian contexts in Europe: it is clearly portrayed in the famous album of Villard de Honnecourt, a French architect active between 1225 and 1250 who worked for the Cistercian Order of monks, and who left a sketchbook full of architectural drawings and geometrical diagrams now held in the. Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, MS 19093. In Christian circles the fish is a symbol of Christ, and the three fish were believed to represent the Trinity.

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Three fish with one head, together with other geometrical patterns in the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, ca. 1240.  Bibliotheque nationale, MS 19093, f. 19v

Around the same period the motif was also known in Yuan China, as attested by a brown-glazed stoneware jar excavated at Hancheng City, and now on display at the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an.

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Jar with motif of three fish, Yuan dynasty, on display in Shaanxi History Museum, Xi'an, 2011, photograph by John Hill.

Intriguingly, what may be an early Buddhist use of this motif seems to have been brought to attention by the American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), who adopted it as his logo.  According to Ginsberg, he first saw this symbol in 1962, engraved on a stone sculpture of the footprint of the Buddha at Bodh Gaya in India.  He describes the incident in a letter published in the Catholic Worker in May 1967, along with his sketch: ‘I saw the three fish one head, carved on insole of naked Buddha Footprint stone at Bodh-Gaya under the Bo-tree. Large – 6 or 10 foot size – feet or soles made of stone are a traditional form of votive marker. Mythologically the 32 signs – stigmata, like – of the Buddha include chakaras (magic wheels symbolic of energy) on hands and feet. This is a sort of a fish chakra.’ In 1982, Ginsberg’s sketch was reworked by Harry Smith and in this form appeared on the front cover of his books. [Source of quote and images below: The Allen Ginsburg Project: Buddha's Footprint, 1 April 2010).

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(Left) Allen Ginsberg’s sketch of three fish with one head, from in his Indian Journals (1982).  Reproduced by permission of the Ginsberg Estate.
(Right) Harry Smith’s design of three fish with one head, based on Ginsberg’s sketch, published on the front cover of Allen Ginsberg, Collected poems (1985). Reproduced by permission of the Ginsberg Estate.

In recent years, there has been an upsurge of interest in Buddhist circles in Japan in this particular manifestation of the Buddha’s footprint at Bodh Gaya – said to be dated to the 5th century AD – and some replicas have been created; one such Buddhapada was erected in 2010 at Nanshoin temple at Kasaoka City in Okayama Prefecture.

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Representation of the Buddha’s footprint (Buddhapada) with symbol of three fish with one head, 2010, Nanshoin temple, Japan. Photograph Midori Kawashima, October 2013.

There are many unanswered questions though, for while the fish by itself or in pairs is commonly encountered in Buddhist iconography, the three fish with one head is not a standard Buddhist symbol, and the footprint at Bodh Gaya does not appear to be firmly established in the scholarly literature. Nor is the ‘three fish’ symbol mentioned in a study of footprints of the Buddha by Anna Quagliotti, who found no early stone footprints of the Buddha in Indonesia. 

In fact, a different origin altogether for Allen Ginsberg’s logo is asserted by Malay Roy Chaudhury (b. 1939), one of the Bengali ‘Hungryalist’ poets of the 1960s who influenced Ginsberg during his Indian travels.  According to Roy Choudhury, it was he who pointed out to Ginsberg the design of three fishes with one head on the floor of the tomb of the Mughal emperor Akbar, and they later saw the same design in Patna Khudabaksh Library on the leather cover of a Persian book on Akbar's 'composite' faith, Din-i Ilahi, combining the major tenets of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam (Tridib & Alo Mitra, Hungryalist influence on Allen Ginsberg, 9 May 2008). However, these references to the motif on the floor of Akbar's mausoleum and on the book binding appear just as elusive as the Buddha footprint at Bodh Gaya, for no corroborative documentation can be found. 

The symbol of three fish with one head does, however, appear occasionally in a variety of later non-Buddhist contexts in India, notably in the southern region of Karnataka.  It is found on the 13th-century Hindu Harihareshwara temple in Harihar and in a flat schematic depiction on the wall of the  Bangalore Fort - fortified between the 16th and 18th centuries, latterly by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan - as well as in a few other visible architectural contexts linked to the Muslim ascendency in the south.

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Three fish with one head, low relief on the wall of Bangalore Fort.  Photograph of 2012, reproduced courtesy of Siddeshwar Prasad, from his evocative blog, ‘Journeys across Karnataka’

In two examples from Hindu contexts - carved in stone, in the Hanuman temple in Munvalli Fort, and in a 19th-century drawing from Oudh (Awadh) of Krishna with two Gopis, standing on a lotus - the fish are depicted with wavy tails, unlike all the other straight-tailed examples shown.

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Krishna with two Gopis, standing on a lotus, with a design of three fish on a triangle, watercolour on paper, Oudh, 19th century. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Ross-Coomaraswamy Collection, 17.2680

Returning to Southeast Asia, the question remains about how and when this motif of three fish with one head reached Sufi circles in Java.  If it was indeed familiar as an early Buddhist or Hindu symbol, we would expect to find manifestations in pre-Islamic antiquities from Java, but none are known so far.  Perhaps the image was introduced from southern India through mystical networks, but it is also equally possible that a chance encounter with this motif resonated so deeply with one individual in the Shaṭṭārīyah chain of transmission in Southeast Asia that it was incorporated into the guidance texts. Indeed, citing the 16th-century Malay mystical poet Hamzah Fansuri, the scholar Karel Steenbrink noted the profound attachment to fish imagery in the region: ‘The fishes, of course, remind us of the frequent use of the symbolism of the ocean, the waves and the fishes in the mystical poetry of the Southeast Asian divines. […] This is imagery far away from the sand of the Arabian Desert: it developed when the Indian Ocean became an Islamic Mediterranean and the Indonesian archipelago the most populous Islamic civilisation’ (Steenbrink 2009: 70).

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Three fish with one head, in a Javanese manuscript containing a spiritual genealogy of the Shattariya Sufi order from Batavia, Java, ca. late 18th c.  British Library, MSS Jav 50, f. 6v  noc

In short, just like the equally enigmatic 'three hares', the motif of ‘three fish with one head’, which may have originated in ancient Egypt, appears to have so been universally appreciated as such a perfect graphical manifestation of threefold unity that at certain times and in certain places it has been appropriated by almost every great world religion – Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam – yet without ever having evolved into a recognized essential component of the respective religious iconography.

Further reading:

This study of the motif of ‘three fish with one head’ was initiated as part of a research project on Mindanao manuscripts coordinated by Prof. Midori Kawashim, which resulted in the publication: A.T.Gallop, Cultural interactions in Islamic manuscript art: a scholar's library from MindanaoThe library of an Islamic scholar of Mindanao: the collection of Sheik Muhammad Said bin Imam sa Bayang at the Al-Imam As-Sadiq (A.S.) Library, Marawi City, Philippines:  an annotated catalogue with essays, edited by Oman Fathurahman, Kawashima Midori and Labi Sarip Riwarung.  Tokyo: Institute of Asian, African and Middle Eastern Studies, Sophia University; pp. 205-248.

Karel Steenbrink, Circling around an unknowable truth: on the flexibility of Islamic art.  Visual arts and religion, eds Hans Alma, Marcel Barnard & Volker Küster; pp. 65-78.  Berlin: LIT, 2009.

5 December 2019, Three fish with one head (1): Sufi sources from Southeast Asia

Following the publication of Part 1 of this blog post, through Twitter I was alerted to the images of the Yuan jar and the drawing of Krishna shown above, for which I would like to thank Alfan Firman @alfanfirmanto and Sanjeev Khandekaar @Chemburstudio.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Head, Southeast Asia section  ccownwork

25 October 2019

BUDDHISM at the British Library

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

Buddhism is a new British Library exhibition exploring the origins, philosophy and contemporary relevance of one of the world’s major religions, from its beginnings in north India over 2500 years ago, to having around 500 million followers across the world today. The show has just opened its doors to the public following an opening ceremony with blessings from two Buddhist temples, Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in Hemel Hempstead and London Fo Guang Shan Temple.

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Blessings from members of the London Fo Guang Shan temple, at the opening ceremony of the Buddhism exhibition on 24 October 2019 at the British Library. Photo courtesy of D Meng.

Displaying over 120 exhibits, this is the first major exhibition in the UK with Buddhist scriptures and manuscript art at its heart. Colourful scrolls containing Buddhist texts, embellished books, painted silk banners and rare artefacts invite the visitors to discover the story of the Buddha and his teachings, and to go on a meditative journey through 2000 years and twenty countries.

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Prince Siddhartha’s birth in a block-printed book illustrating the Life of the Buddha, China, 1808. British Library, Or. 13217 f. 5 Noc

Early texts like sutras written on tree bark in the first century CE in the ancient kingdom of Gandhara, or scriptures composed in multiple languages during the first millennium CE found in caves near Dunhuang in northwest China, tell how Buddhism spread from its heartland in north India across Asia and beyond.

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Water vessel with an offering inscription, that contained some of the oldest surviving Buddhist texts written on birch bark, Gandhara, 1st century. British Library, Or. 14915B (2) Noc

Represented in the exhibition are the three main schools of Buddhism, each of which have their own version of the Buddhist canon: Theravada mainly practised in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, Mahayana in East Asia, and Vajrayana in Central Asia. Illuminated manuscripts and fine works of art from all three schools show how Buddhism tolerated and integrated local art forms, ideas and practices. They reflect the great diversity of Buddhist art across Asia, and at the same time the continuity of the Buddha’s teachings.

Thangka painting of Padmasambhava, the ‘Lotus-Born’, who is one of the most popular teacher figures in Tibet. India 1788-1805. British Library, Add. Or. 3048, from the collection of Sir Gore Ousely
Thangka painting of Padmasambhava, the ‘Lotus-Born’, who is one of the most popular teacher figures in Tibet. India 1788-1805. British Library, Add. Or. 3048, from the collection of Sir Gore Ousely Noc

The first part of the exhibition highlights the Buddha narrative and the concept of being a Buddha or “Enlightened Person”, which play a major role in all Buddhist traditions. Although the Buddha was initially not depicted in human form but symbolically, throughout the first millennium CE a rich artistic tradition emerged of depicting not only the Buddha, but also Bodhisattvas (persons seeking enlightenment), and important monastics and Buddhist teachers. Painted wall hangings and illustrated books from Nepal, China, Thailand and Burma reveal events in the life of the historical Buddha and his previous incarnations.

Illustration in a Burmese folding book depicting a scene from the Life of the Buddha, Burma, 19th century. British Library, Or. 13534, ff. 23-24
Illustration in a Burmese folding book depicting a scene from the Life of the Buddha, Burma, 19th century. British Library, Or. 13534, ff. 23-24 Noc

Buddhist doctrine developed from philosophical and cosmological concepts of ancient India which are represented in cosmology treatises and paintings displayed in the second part of the exhibition. The Buddha’s teachings are based on the idea of Karma, the principle of cause and effect. Karma determines the cycle of birth, death and rebirth (Samsara), which is regarded as a continuation of worldly suffering. His teachings about the Four Noble Truths and the “Middle Way” that leads to liberation from suffering are laid down in the Buddhist canon, Tripitaka. Some of the most important texts are written in outstanding calligraphy on gilded scrolls and in elaborately decorated books from East Asia, others are incised on palm leaves, gold, silver or ivory from Nepal, Bengal, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

Painting of Guanyin (Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara) on a leaf from a Bodhi tree in a book containing the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, two of the most popular texts of Mahayana Buddhism. China, 18th or 19th century. British Library, Add. 11746, f. 2
Painting of Guanyin (Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara) on a leaf from a Bodhi tree in a book containing the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, two of the most popular texts of Mahayana Buddhism. China, 18th or 19th century. British Library, Add. 11746, f. 2 Noc

For 2000 years the creation of manuscripts and printed books has been an important religious activity to preserve and to disseminate the Buddha’s words. Buddhists continue to be keen adopters of new technologies, with monasteries being centres of research, translation and the production of scriptures. Early printed scrolls and books from China, Korea and Japan demonstrate the importance of the printing technology in the spread of Buddhism.

Illustration from the Japanese story Tengu no dairi depicting the tragic hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune while copying sutras. Japan, 1560-1600. British Library, Or. 13839 vol. 1
Illustration from the Japanese story Tengu no dairi depicting the tragic hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune while copying sutras. Japan, 1560-1600. British Library, Or. 13839 vol. 1 Noc

One of the many highlights of this exhibition is an arrangement of intricately gilded and lacquered manuscript furniture which gives an impression of a monastic library in Southeast Asia. Calm soundscapes from the Library’s Sound Archive and a light installation specially created for this show will take visitors on an immersive journey into the world of Buddhism. Contemporary art from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, as well as short films and interviews, illustrate why Buddhism is relevant in our time as many people are seeking alternative ways of life. The popularity of Buddhist art, and publications on Buddhist themes, has increased immensely in the past hundred years, and Buddhism is now part of the UK national curriculum. Mindfulness and meditation practices have become mainstream and are practised by many not only at home, but also in the workplace, in health care and in education.

Illustrations of Buddha Ratnasambhava (top) and Bodhisattva Mahamayuri (below) in a manuscript containing the Pancharaksha, a collection of Sanskrit texts relating to five protective goddesses, Nepal, 1677. British Library, Or. 13946, ff. 62r-62v
Illustrations of Buddha Ratnasambhava (top) and Bodhisattva Mahamayuri (below) in a manuscript containing the Pancharaksha, a collection of Sanskrit texts relating to five protective goddesses, Nepal, 1677. British Library, Or. 13946, ff. 62r-62v Noc

Thanks to digitisation and international cooperation, as for example in the International Dunhuang Project, the Lotus Sutra Manuscript Digitisation project, and the Endangered Archives Programme, numerous Buddhist scriptures have recently been identified and described in detail. Many have also been translated into Western languages and published. The exhibition is the outcome of the combined effort of scholars and Buddhist practitioners from across the world who have been working with the Library’s curators for many years.

Palm leaf manuscript with painted wooden covers containing a manual for learners of Pali, the lingua franca of Theravada Buddhism, Sri Lanka, 19th century. British Library, Or. 6608/43
Palm leaf manuscript with painted wooden covers containing a manual for learners of Pali, the lingua franca of Theravada Buddhism, Sri Lanka, 19th century. British Library, Or. 6608/43 Noc

The exhibition is accompanied by a wide range of events including performances, workshops on art and mindfulness, talks on the history of Buddhism and aspects of contemporary practice, as well as a family day, the creation of a sand mandala and an early morning meditation session followed by musical performance. The exhibition book, which is available from the British Library shop, provides deeper insights into the origins, traditions, material culture and contemporary practice of Buddhism in five main chapters and twelve short essays written by leading scholars, Buddhist practitioners and Library curators.

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Thai folding book containing selected suttas and other extracts from the Pali Tipitaka written in Khmer script, with illustrations of the gods Brahma and Indra (Sakka) who asked the Buddha to reveal his insights to all sentient beings. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or. 16009 f. 5 Noc

Jana Igunma, Lead Curator, Buddhism exhibition Ccownwork

07 October 2019

Arts of the South Asian Sultanates at the British Library

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The British Library holds one of the richest and most diverse collections of fifteenth-century South Asian manuscripts belonging to the sultanates. In association with a recent symposium, Connected Courts: Art of the South Asian Sultanates hosted at Wolfson College, Oxford, from 20-21 September, the library held a study session for a group of scholars who work on manuscripts, literature, and architecture. This viewing session provided a rare occasion for researchers of varying disciplines to share ideas on these manuscripts and discuss the interplay of different traditions.

Frontispiece of Shāhnāmah (BL Or 1403)
Fig. 1. Frontispiece of Shāhnāmah of Firdawsī, Bidar or Shiraz, 1438, Folio: 27 x 16 cm (BL Or 1403)
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An initial group of manuscripts invited us to consider how and where the Persian narrative tradition spread across South Asia. Persian literature was certainly known, copied and enjoyed in India since at least the late thirteenth century. However, the earliest surviving manuscripts date to the fifteenth century. A copy of the Shāhnāmah of Firdawsī (Or 1403, fig. 1), dated 1438, contains illustrations that do not fit with contemporary Persian painting traditions, and has no colophon providing a provenance. Certain scholars have concluded this manuscript must have been produced elsewhere. There are various factors that suggest a South Asian origin, perhaps the Deccan region under the Bahmani sultanate. An intervention in the preface recounts Firdawsī’s journey to India and his visit to the Delhi court, not usually found in Persian copies of the Shāhnāmah.

Sharafnāmāh of Niẓāmī, Bengal (Gaur?), 1531. Iskandar shares the throne with Queen Nushabah (BL Or 13836, f. 37v)
Fig. 2. Sharafnāmāh of Niẓāmī, Bengal (Gaur?), 1531. Iskandar shares the throne with Queen Nushabah. Folio: 31 x 20 cm (BL Or 13836, f. 37v)
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Another manuscript viewed at the session was a copy of the Sharafnāmāh (Or 13836, fig. 2), dated 1531 and produced for Sulṭān Nuṣrat Shah, ruler of Bengal (r. 1519-38). The text is from Niẓāmī’s Khamsah (Quintet), and is the first half of the Iskandarnāmah that describes the conquests of the Alexander the Great, the last poem of the quintet. This slim volume contains nine vibrant paintings that show the assimilation of both Indic and Persian artistic traditions. Such adaptations were common to several fifteenth-century manuscripts from the Indian sultanates.

Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century (BL Or 4110); Qur’ān, India, ca. 1450-1500 (BL Add 5548-5); and Kalpasūtra and Kālakācāryakathā, dated 1427 (BL IO San 3177)
Fig. 3. Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century, Folio: 37 x 26 cm (BL Or 4110); Qur’ān, India, ca. 1450-1500, Folio: 26.5 x 18.4 cm (BL Add 5548-5); and Kalpasūtra and Kālakācāryakathā, dated 1427 (BL IO San 3177)
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Within the second grouping of manuscripts a Qur’ān (Add 5549) was juxtaposed with an anthology of Persian poetry (Or 4110), and a Sanskrit work of Jain scriptures, all created in fifteenth-century India (IO San 3177) (fig. 3). Although each of these manuscripts is written in a different language they come into dialogue in their use of script and ornament. The Qur’ān’s interlinear Persian translations are inscribed in the naskhī-dīvānī script similar to the Persian anthology of poetry. The illumination and deep red and orange floral ornament used in the Jain Kalpasūtra and Kālakācāryakathā bear striking resemblances to illumination in the Persian anthology and Qur’ān. While we know such similarities exist in theory, viewing these manuscripts together highlights these connections and opens new paths for research.

Wild ass or tomb, definitions of ‘gūr,’ Miftāḥ al-Fuz̤alā ( Key of the Learned) by Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī, Mandu, India, ca. 1490
Fig. 4. Wild ass or tomb, definitions of ‘gūr’ in Miftā al-Fuz̤alā (Key of the Learned) by Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī, Mandu, India, ca. 1490, Folio: 33 x 25.4 cm (BL Or 3299, f. 248v)
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A final grouping brought together three manuscripts from the court of Malwa. Beyond the Ni‘matnāmah (Book of Delights), the British Library holds a few other manuscripts associated with the court of Malwa, based primarily in the capital of Mandu, each of which is entirely unique. The multilingual intellectual Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī authored both of these manuscripts. The first is a multilingual Persian illustrated dictionary known as the Miftā al-Fuz̤alā (Key of the Learned, Or 3299, fig. 4) and the second is a Persian adaptation of al-Jazarī’s twelfth-century book of automata, the ‘Ajā’ib al-anā‘ī (Wonders of Crafts, Add 13718). This group of manuscripts from Malwa revealed how rich the libraries of fifteenth-century India were—long before the Mughals—and how we can place the Ni‘matnāmah within a larger context.

The opportunity to view these manuscripts with other specialists in the field allowed us to imagine more vividly the inter-connected world of the sultanates, and will no doubt inspire further research. We are grateful to Ursula Sims-Williams, Malini Roy, and Saqib Baburi for their help in organizing this session, and the support of the Barakat Trust, Khalili Research Centre, and Iran Heritage Foundation.

Further reading

On BL Or 1403:
Brend, Barbara, “The British Library’s Shahnama of 1438 as a Sultanate manuscript.” In Facets of Indian Art, eds. Robert Skelton et al (London: V&A, 1986), pp. 87-93.
Firouzeh, Peyvand. “Convention and Reinvention: The British Library Shahnama of 1438 (Or. 1403).” Iran (2019):1-22.

On BL Or 13836:
Skelton, Robert, “A Royal Sultanate manuscript dated 938 A.H./1531-2 A.D.” In Indian painting: Mughal and Rajput and Sultanate Manuscripts (London: Colnaghi, 1978), pp. 135-144.

On naskhī-dīvānī:
Brac de la Perrière, Éloïse, “Bihârî et naskhî-dîwânî: remarques sur deux calligraphies de l’Inde des sultanats.” In Ecriture, calligraphie et peinture, Studia Islamica, eds. A.L. Udovitch et H. Touati (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2003), pp. 81-93.

On the Ni‘matnāmah:
Skelton, Robert, “The Ni‘matnama: A Landmark in Malwa Painting.” Marg vol. 12 no. 3 (1959): 44-48.
Titley, Norah, The Ni‘matnama Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu: The Sultan’s Book of Delights (Oxford: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005).

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology; British Library PhD Research Placement
Dr Emily Shovelton, Research Associate, The Khalili Research Centre, University of Oxford
 ccownwork

08 August 2019

Emanating light: Illumination in Islamic manuscripts

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Without the ability to travel time it may forever be impossible to restage the medieval and early-modern viewing conditions of Islamic manuscripts. Whereas in paintings books are often shown being enjoyed outdoors, architecture can offer insights into the experience of manuscripts indoors.

Mullah holding a book. Bijapur, c. 1610 (British Library, J.25, 14)
Fig. 1: Mullah holding a book. Bijapur, c. 1610 (British Library, J.25, 14). Public domain

Consider the wholly illuminated central prayer niche (miḥrāb) at the Jāmi‘ Masjid of Bijapur in Deccan India (mosque: 1576; miḥrāb: 1636) (fig. 2). The entire niche is covered with calligraphy and micro-architectural details that are a mise en abyme within the mosque. Hanging lamps and manuscripts that likely represent the Qur’ān fill smaller niches at the dado level flanking both sides of the central niche. The books bear gilt bindings and the lamps have delicate golden tassels that accentuate their light-giving quality. The simple juxtaposition of lamps and books reminds us that the viewers of these manuscripts did not encounter them under the harsh lighting of today’s modern libraries. In an assessment of illumination, the problem of light is inescapable.

Detail of Miḥrāb of the Great Mosque of Bijapur, 1636
Fig. 2: Detail of Miḥrāb of the Great Mosque of Bijapur, 1636. Photograph: Vivek Gupta

Generally, manuscript illumination is a practice where reflective substances have been applied to the surfaces of books. These surfaces include the binding, support (paper, parchment), and the edges of the support. While illumination is most commonly associated with gold, other metals including silver and tin are also used to create lustre. I refer here to gold as shorthand, but the material was in fact a liquid gold or alloy that was malleable to various surfaces and showed a variety of hues. This material can be flattened, painted, scattered, and pricked to create different effects on the surface of a support (fig. 3).

Shamsah (sunburst) and Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104)

Figs. 3a and 3b: Shamsah (sunburst) and Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104). Public domain

Heading of the Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104)

Illumination occurs everywhere on the page: its edges, borders, line rulings (jadval), rosettes (shamsahs), frontispieces (sarlawḥs), headpieces (‘unvāns), headings, interlinear space, the writing itself, and even the edges (fig. 4). There is no authoritative handbook for these terms in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, etc., and this nomenclature has evolved with convention. For example, the term ‘unvān has caused some confusion. The word literally denotes ‘title,’ and therefore I have used it for headpiece. In the British Library’s Persian manuscript catalogue edited by Rieu, ‘unvān denotes anything from illuminated headpiece to frontispiece (single or double page) to heading. Beyond references to illuminators (mudhahhib), the practice of illumination (tadhhīb), other words formed with the Arabic root dh-h-b or the Persian word zar, the textual record offers remarkably little prescriptive terminology for illumination. Even less defined are the names for particular illuminated patterns. While some of these patterns have analogues in architectural ornament, they do not always seamlessly translate to book decoration. For this reason, one safe compromise is to use English words, yet this can often be dissatisfying.

Gilded edge of manuscript, Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104)
Fig. 4: Gilded edge of manuscript, Kulliyāt-i Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1517 (British Library Add. 21104). Public domain

Regardless of the lack of an established technical vocabulary, illumination and light (nūr) are everywhere in Islamic art and architecture. This is best attested by the Qur’anic Light verse (24:35) that begins, "God is the light [nūr] of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His light is a niche [mishkāt] wherein is a lamp [miṣbāḥ]," which frequently graces miḥrābs. Widespread lamp imagery such as that found in Bijapur’s Jāmi‘ Masjid also alludes to it. When books like the Qur’an or poetry reflected light through their illumination, this took on a divine significance. Through technologies such as multi-spectral imaging it may be possible to recover how premodern manuscripts looked by candlelight and evaluate the effects of how different lighting changed the experience of these books. Collaborations between architectural historians and scientists have started to reveal how sites such as the Mosque of Córdoba looked when lit with early Islamic glass lamps (Kider, Fletcher, Yu, Holod, Chamlers, and Badler, 2009).

Ascension (mi‘rāj) of the Prophet forming the sarlawḥ (frontispiece) of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1571 (British Library Add. 22699
Fig. 5: Ascension (mi‘rāj) of the Prophet forming the sarlawḥ (frontispiece) of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 1571 (British Library Add. 22699). Public domain

In painting, illumination has been applied to nearly all forms. Fire, the sun, skies, and halos are popular gold elements. In her several articles and books on images of the Prophet Muhammad, Christiane Gruber has demonstrated how this tradition evolved. On the double-page frontispiece of the Khamsah (Quintet) of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī dated 1571 from Safavid Qazvin (Fig. 5), gold is deployed profusely in a scene showing the Prophet’s ascension (mi‘rāj). In the flowering cartouches in the borders, the swirling clouds, and the fire they cast upon the Prophet and his steed Burāq, this page is fully illuminated. The dramatic interplay of these gold swirls and lapis blue surface would have created a startling effect especially if this page were viewed in low light. In experiencing the open book, the light of Muhammad (nūr Muḥammad) would have certainly shone onto the viewer.

Shrine of Aḥmad Shāh (r. 1422–1436), Ashtur, Bidar
Figure 5: Shrine of Aḥmad Shāh (r. 1422–1436), Ashtur, Bidar. Photograph: Vivek Gupta

The study of book illumination should be placed in an expanded visual context that also includes architecture. In an early fifteenth-century Deccan shrine/tomb initially studied by Helen Philon (2000), I later drew comparisons between its domed apex and specific Indian maṇḍalas or yantras that Philon previously compared to Islamic talismanic bowls as well. Yet, the entirety of the shrine is covered in gold illumination. One of the clearest comparisons between the apex and a manuscript would be an illuminated shamsah or starburst. The completely calligraphed golden dome when lit with lamps would reflect light onto visitors below.

Illumination in Islamic manuscripts thus is no simple matter. Here, I have tried to make its obvious connection to light both practically and spiritually. While the majority of my research for the British Library has involved developing a method to catalogue illumination in Persian manuscripts (ca. 100 manuscripts completed), I do sometimes imagine the buildings and spaces in which they once were read, enjoyed, and seen. For, illumination allowed books to emanate light.

With thanks to Umberto Bongianino, Eleanor Sims and Ursula Sims-Williams.

Use #BL_IslamicIllum to share your favourite examples of illumination at the library and follow @_nainsukh for more!

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology; British Library PhD placement
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Further reading:

Akimushkin, Oleg F. and Anatol A. Ivanov. 1979. “The Art of Illumination.” In The Arts of the Book in Central Asia, 14th-16th Centuries, ed. Basil Gray, London: Serindia, 35-57.

Brend, Barbara. 2015. “The Management of Light in Persian Painting.” In God is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth: Light in Islamic Art and Culture, eds. Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, New Haven: Yale University Press, 198-229.

Gruber, Christiane. 2019. The Praiseworthy One: the Prophet Muhammad in Islamic texts and images. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Waley, Muhammad Isa. 1997. “Illumination and its Function in Islamic Manuscripts.” In Scribes et manuscrits du Moyen-Orient, eds. François Déroche and Francis Richard, Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 87-112.

Wright, Elaine. 2018. Lapis and gold: exploring Chester Beatty’s Ruzbihan Qur’an. London: Chester Beatty Library in association with Ad Ilissvm.

05 August 2019

Charles Wilkins as a type designer: hand drawn Modi script

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Today’s guest blogger is Komal Pande, who was the Charles Wallace Trust Fellow at the British Library from February to May 2019. Komal is also the Assistant Curator for Numismatics and Epigraphy at the National Museum in New Delhi.

As part of my research fellowship in the Visual Arts section, I had the opportunity to research and arrange as a set of hand-drawn Modi letters. Modi, is the vernacular script used to write the Marathi language spoken predominantly in Maharashtra, India. The Peshwas, the ruling class of the Maratha empire from the mid-17th to early 19th centuries, used Modi script for administrative purposes ‘as preserved in the many parcels (rumals) of official documents in the Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai’. Marathi merchants also used the script for their business transactions. In 1917, Modi was replaced with Devanagari. Since few people can read Modi, these hand-drawn letters are important to India’s vernacular cultural past. The orientalist Sir Charles Wilkins (1749-1836) prepared this set of Modi letters in the early 1800s.

Image showing four examples of Modi script on seperate cards
Cards with the Modi script for vowels, British Libary, Foster 5702

Wilkins, an employee of the East India Company, was assigned as the superintendent of the Company’s factories in Malda (western Bengal) from 1770. Wilkins studied a range of languages and became proficient in Sanskrit, Bengali and Persian. Based on his expertise and knowledge of Bengali, the Governor-General of Bengal, Warren Hastings commissioned Wilkins ‘to undertake a set of Bengal types’. Wilkins manufactured a set of metal printing founts or typefaces, that could be used to mechanical print the Bengali language as exemplified in Nathanial Halhed’s instructional volume, A Grammar of the Bengal Language (Hoogly, 1778). Wilkins returned to England in 1786.

The set of sixty-nine hand-drawn Modi letters was prepared after Wilkins returned to England. According to Graham Shaw (formerly, Head of Asian and African Collections, British Library), ‘they may well be associated with [Wilkins] connection to the East India Company’s Haileybury College from 1805, perhaps to be used in printing text-books for the Company’s new recruits to learn the Modi script’.

Each card features one Modi letter: its transliteration in English and Hindi written below it, making the cards bi or trilingual. A card may contain vowels or consonants, along with some variations of half, conjunct and compound consonants. While each card measures approximately 75 x 25mm,  slight variations can be noticed in width of these cards. While the vowels and consonants are of similar size, the half letter cards are written on narrower pieces of card. The cards for the compound consonants are broader to accommodate the form and clarity of the fount.

An example, showing the difference in the width of the cards, British Library, Foster 5702.
An example, showing the difference in the width of the cards, British Library, Foster 5702.

The letters are written in black ink. The calligraphy on these cards is particularly intriguing as its purpose is more utilitarian than ornamental. The stylization of these letters was created to understand the fount in three dimensions, as these cards were prepared as functional typeface that had the potential to be used for creating matrices and punches.

Interestingly, the set also includes some blank, unfinished and cancelled cards. These cards are as important as the complete cards, as they elucidate Wilkins’ method of scribing. On the card, the pencil rules were drawn in the upper centre creating a space for the Modi letter. Since the card was to be bi or trilingual, keeping Modi as the prime script, a Modi letter of 35x25 mm dimensions was drawn in pencil. Once the form of the letter was decided, the outline was made in ink and its transliterations was scribed under the letter. Finally, the outlines of the letter were filled in black ink giving it dimension and volume. Most of the complete cards show, voluminous Modi letter in the centre along with its transliteration in small Devanagari and Roman scripts for the purpose of identification of each letter.

Alongside the process of scribing, it is equally interesting to study the method of corrections carried out by Wilkins. A few of the cards in the set show the process of how the corrections were made on the inscribed Modi letters. These include correcting the form of the letters and reflect how the three dimensionality of the letter was rectified by adjusting angles and curves by scraping off all imperfections. The cancelled signs, the scalpel marks and the pencil ruled lines inform us of Wilkins’ efforts to achieve perfect typefaces.   

According to Graham Shaw, ‘as far as it is known, no work was ever printed using a Wilkins Modi fount. When James Robert Ballantyne published his A grammar of the Mahratta language’ in Edinburgh in 1839 (for use at Haileybury), he noted in the preface “The lithographic press has been employed because no fount of Mahratta [i.e. Modi] types was to be found in London”. The only other early Modi fount cast was at the Serampore Mission Press in Bengal, used in 1808 to print the second edition of the Baptist Missionary William Carey’s A grammar of the Mahratta language’ (after criticism for the use of the Devanagari script in the 1805 first edition.’

Further reading:

Ross, F. and Shaw, G. (2003) 'An unexpected legacy and its contribution to early Indian typography', in: Randle, J. and Berry, J. (eds.) Type and typography: highlights from Matrix. Mark Batty Publisher, New Jersey, pp. 169-181

With thanks to Graham Shaw for his invaluable comments for this blog post.

08 July 2019

Rustam: The Hero with Red Hair

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Today's post comes from Dr Peyvand Firouzeh, Postdoctoral Fellow, Getty Foundation & American Council of Learned Societies at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck- Institut. Peyvand has been a frequent visitor to our Reading Room during her research on the art and material culture of the Islamic world, especially early modern Iran and India. 

The Shahnama (Book of Kings), was completed ca. 1010 by the poet Ferdowsi in Persian. It is the most-popularly copied, illustrated, and circulated epic that has survived in Persianate societies. One of the most frequently depicted, key protagonists of the Shahnama is the hero Rustam, known for his remarkable physical strength and, as Ferdowsi put it, ‘elephant-bodied’ (pil-tan) stature.

In manuscript illustrations, Rustam is known for specific attributes that help distinguish him immediately from others: particularly, his tiger-skin surcoat and leopard headwear, and sometimes his ox-headed mace and leopard-skin saddle. But another feature of Rustam’s appearance has remained rather neglected: his red hair. This detail caught my eye while working on a fifteenth-century manuscript of the Shahnama, Or. 1403, at the British Library. A quick look through the manuscript proved that every depiction but one shows Rustam with red facial hair.

Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam overthrows Puladvand. 1438 (BL Or. 1403, f. 183v)
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam overthrows Puladvand. 1438 (BL Or. 1403, f. 183v)
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In my attempts to contextualise this feature of Rustam’s appearance, I could only find brief mentions in previous literature: observations that note Rustam’s red hair in a single manuscript (for example, Clinton and Simpson, 178), or associate it with a specific workshop (Goswamy, 25), or with certain periods – for instance the fifteenth-century (Robinson (1951), 83), or the Safavid period (Robinson (2005), 261). It has rarely been acknowledged as a widespread phenomenon (Swietochowski, 186).

Rustam’s red hair, however, crosses geographical and temporal boundaries. It is found in manuscripts attributed to Baghdad, Shiraz, Tabriz, Isfahan, Gilan, Mazandaran, and several workshops in India, starting from some of the earliest surviving illustrated manuscripts of the Shahnama in the fourteenth century. Indeed, the red hair is just as old as other iconographic features like the tiger-skin coat and leopard-skin headwear, which are thought to have emerged, respectively, in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscript paintings (Robinson (2005), 253, 256, and 258).

Garsivaz prostrating himself before Siyavush in the presence of Rustam. 14th century
Scene from the Shahnama: Garsivaz prostrating himself before Siyavush in the presence of Rustam. 14th century, Ilkhanid (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1940.12)

Rustam Kills the Turanian Hero Alkus with his Lance. ca. 1450, India
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam Kills the Turanian Hero Alkus with his Lance. ca. 1450, India (The David Collection, Copenhagen, Inv. no. 3/1988). © Pernille Klemp

Rustam leads an attack on the Turanians' allies. ca. 1590, Shiraz
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam leads an attack on the Turanians' allies. ca. 1590, Shiraz (BL IO Islamic 3540, f. 176r)
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Of course, to understand the full extent of Rustam’s image as a redhead, a complete survey would be necessary. Based on the material surveyed so far, it seems that in the earliest surviving Shahnama manuscripts from the fourteenth century, the hero is predominantly depicted with red hair, though not completely consistently: this is the case in all of the four surviving Shahnamas made under the Inju dynasty (see H. 1479 , Dorn 329), one of the so-called Small Shahnamas, as well as several other Ilkhanid Shahnama paintings. The red hair features quite regularly in illustrated Shahnamas of the fifteenth century, while the ratio of the hero’s image with red hair to his total surviving depictions seems to drop increasingly from the Safavid period forward.

Rustam slays Ashkbus and his horse. ca. 1350, Ilkhanid
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam slays Ashkbus and his horse. ca. 1350, Ilkhanid (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1944.56)

Rustam rescues Bijan from the well, detail showing the red pigment. 1341, Inju, Shiraz
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam rescues Bijan from the well, detail showing the red pigment. 1341, Inju, Shiraz (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1945.7)

Rustam shoots Isfandiyar in the eyes with a double-pointed arrow, detail showing Rustam’s facial hair with a darker shade. 1486, Shiraz
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam shoots Isfandiyar in the eyes with a double-pointed arrow, detail showing Rustam’s facial hair with a darker shade. 1486, Shiraz (BL Add. 18188, f. 292v)
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With some exceptions, there is usually a good degree of consistency throughout a single manuscript, and some of the inconsistencies could be due to later repairs and repainting. In general, there are also common scenes that eliminate the facial hair to show Rustam in his youth, or depict white hair to indicate old age.

Rustam slaying the white elephant
Scene from the Shahnama: Rustam slaying the white elephant, detail showing Rustam with red eyebrows and hair, but no facial hair, hinting at his young age. 14th century, Ilkhanid (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase — Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1929.35)

The emergence of red hair in paintings requires more in-depth study of medieval physiognomy. Christ, too, was commonly depicted with red hair, especially in the fourteenth century. Apart from the connection with blood and bloodshed, there also seems to have been a connection between physical strength and red hair, which Robinson and Swietochowski mention in passing (Robinson (2005), 261; Swietochowski, 186). That ideas about this connection were circulating in the medieval Islamic world can, for instance, be witnessed in descriptions of the Sufi writer Shaykh Ahmad-i Jam (d.1141), who is recorded to have red hair, wine-coloured beard, tall stature, and striking physical strength, which earned him the title Zhanda-pil (Moayyad and Lewis, 8), a term used commonly by Ferdowsi to describe things, animals, and people – including Rustam – that were awe-inspiring.

Unlike the tiger-skin coat (babr-i bayan), which is mentioned by Ferdowsi in the Shahnama, and similar to the leopard headwear, it has been noted in passing that there is no indication of Rustam’s red hair in the text of the Shahnama (Swietochowski, 186). This seems to be the case for most copies. However, in some versions of the epic, there are two lines that do note Rustam’s red hair, and raise interesting questions about the relationship between text and image. The lines occur in the section on the birth of Rustam where Rudaba, Rustam’s mother, had to have a caesarean to deliver the immense baby. The lines in question are among the first that describe Rustam at the moment of birth, bringing together metaphors of light, blood, and the colour red:

The hair on his head all red, his hair like blood,
he emerged like the shining Sun.
Both hands full of blood, he was born of his mother,
No one has ever known of a child like this.

همه موی سر سرخ و مویش چو خون
چو خورشید رخشنده آمد برون
دو دستش پر از خون ز مادر بزاد
ندارد کسی این چنین بچه یاد

birth of Rustam. 1616, Mughal, India
Scene from the Shahnama: birth of Rustam. 1616, Mughal, India (BL  Add. 5600, f. 54r)
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Interestingly, the authenticity of these two lines has been questioned. Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh leaves them out (Khaleghi-Motlagh, vol.I, 267-8), while Dabir Siyaqi includes them in the main text (Dabir Siyaqi, 136), and Ashtiani and others record them in footnotes (Khalifeh, vol.I, 213). I have not yet come across any illustrated manuscripts – even those depicting Rustam with red hair – which include these lines. Yet, the existence of these verses attests that at some or multiple points there was a written – and perhaps oral – dimension to such iconography.

Explaining this disparity between text and image requires more in-depth research into the iconography and textual variations of the Shahnama. Whether the text predates or was inspired by the image remains unclear for the time being, but two preliminary points can be mentioned here.

First, it is possible that earlier texts, images, and oral traditions that have not survived led to the choice of this iconography for Rustam. There is both textual and visual evidence for the transmission of the legends of Rustam dating back to the eighth and ninth centuries, before the completion of the Shahnama by Ferdowsi in the eleventh century (Eighth and ninth century versions of the Rustam cycle and Sims-Williams & Sims-Williams (2015), 252-254). Moreover, several depictions of Shahnama scenes on pre-1300 objects and architecture attest to the transmission of the hero’s visualisations prior to the earliest illustrated Shahnama manuscripts that have reached us.

But there is no reason to assume that images of the Shahnama were strictly dependant on texts, either of Ferdowsi’s Shahnama or related legends. Images of a hero like Rustam – like many other people and narratives in the Shahnama – were popular beyond the medium of the book and had a life of their own. Visual traditions of the Shahnama offer multiple examples of artists who took the liberty to depict extra-textual details. Another way to explain the text-image disparity in the case of Rustam is the possibility that his image as a redhead came first, and subsequently found its way into written traditions, either directly or by way of oral traditions. If so, this could be an interesting case where the pictorial, verbal and textual forms of the Shahnama converge on a single figure, and the former informs the latter.

My sincere thanks to Rachel Parikh and Charles Melville for their help with this blog post.

 

Further Reading
Clinton, Jerome W. and Marianna S. Simpson. “How Rustam Killed White Div: An Interdisciplinary Inquiry.” Iranian Studies, Vol. 39, No. 2 (2006): 171-197.

Ferdowsi, Abu’l-qasem. Shahnama, edited by Djalal Khaleqi-Motlaq. New York: Bibliotheca Persica, 1987.
Shahnama, edited by Muhammad Dabir Siyaqi. Tehran: Qatreh, 2007.
Shahnama, edited by ‘Abbas Iqbah Ashtiani and Bahman Khalifeh. Tehran: Talayeh, 2007.

Goswamy, B. N. A Jainesque Sultanate Shahnama and the Context of pre-Mughal Painting . Zürich: Museum Rietberg, 1988.

Moayyad, Heshmat and Franklin Lewis, eds. and transl. The Colossal Elephant and His Spiritual Feats: Shaykh Ahmad-e Jam, The Life and Legend of a Popular Sufi Saint of 12th-Century Iran . Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2004.

Robinson, B. W. “The National Hero in Persian Painting.” Journal of the Iran Society, Vol.1, No. 3 (1951): 80-85.
—  “The Vicissitudes of Rustam.” In The Iconography of Islamic Art: Studies in Honour of Robert Hillenbrand, edited by Bernard O’ Kane, 253-268. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Sims-Williams, Nicholas and Ursula. “Rustam and his zīn-i palang.” In: From Aṣl to Zāʼid: Essays in Honour of Éva M. Jeremiaś, edited by I. Szánto, 249-58. Piliscsaba: Avicenna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, 2015.

Catalogue entry (p.186) by Marie Lukens Swietochowski in: Ettinghausen, Richard. Islamische Kunst: Meisterwerke aus dem Metropolitan Museum of Art New York . Berlin [u.a.]: Rembrandt-Verlag [u.a.], 1982.

 

Peyvand Firouzeh, Postdoctoral Fellow, Getty Foundation & American Council of Learned Societies at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Max-Planck- Institut.
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04 July 2019

125 More Arabic Scientific Manuscripts in the Qatar Digital Library

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The second phase of the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership digitisation project has now come to a successful close. You can find lists of the 80 manuscripts digitised during the first phase of the project here and here, and as we enter the project’s third phase, we are delighted to present an overview and complete list of the 125 Arabic scientific manuscripts digitised during the second phase.

Diagram from al-Mawṣilī’s al-Durr al-naqī fī fann al-mūsīqī showing the interrelations between the musical modes, the letters of the alphabet, the four elements, the days of the week, the hours of the day, the celestial spheres and the signs of the zodiac (Add MS 23494, f. 6r)
Diagram from al-Mawṣilī’s al-Durr al-naqī fī fann al-mūsīqī showing the interrelations between the musical modes, the letters of the alphabet, the four elements, the days of the week, the hours of the day, the celestial spheres and the signs of the zodiac (Add MS 23494, f. 6r)
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In this phase of the project, we have continued to digitise such classics of Arabic scientific literature as Ibn Sīnā’s al-Qānūn fī al-ṭibb (i.e. Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine: Or 3343, Or 4946 and Or 6537), Ibn al-Haytham’s, Maqālah fī ṣūrat al-kusūf (e.g. Alhazen’s, Epistle on the Image of the Solar Eclipse: Or 5831), al-Rāzī’s, al-Ḥāwī fī al-ṭibb (i.e. Rhazes’ Liber continens or All-containing Book, Arundel Or 14), Bahāʾ al-Dīn al-ʿĀmilī’s Khulāṣat al-ḥisāb (Summa of Arithmetic: Delhi Arabic 1919) and Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī’s al-Tadhkirah fī al-hayʾah (Memoirs on Cosmology, Add MS 23394).

Magic square (wafq) of 28 x 28 cells from the Dīwān al-ʿadad al-wafq (Delhi Arabic 110, ff. 108v-109r)
Magic square (wafq) of 28 x 28 cells from the Dīwān al-ʿadad al-wafq (Delhi Arabic 110, ff. 108v-109r)
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We have also digitised manuscripts pertaining to the subsequent commentary traditions inspired by major texts such as those inspired by Ibn Sīnā’s al-Qānūn fī al-ṭibb (Or 5931, Or 3654, Or 14154, and IO Islamic 854), al-ʿĀmilī’s Khulāṣat al-ḥisāb (Delhi Arabic 1896 and IO Islamic 1362) and al-Ṭūsī’s al-Tadhkirah fī al-hayʾah (IO Islamic 1715, Or 13060, IO Islamic 1715, Delhi Arabic 1934, Add MS 7472, and Add MS 7477).

 Title page of al-Qaṣrānī’s Kitāb al-masāʾil dated 768/1367, with patron statement of the Mamluk amir Sayf al-Dīn Asandamur al-Nāṣirī (d. 769/1368) (Delhi Arabic 1916, vol. 1, f. 1r)
Title page of al-Qaṣrānī’s Kitāb al-masāʾil dated 768/1367, with patron statement of the Mamluk amir Sayf al-Dīn Asandamur al-Nāṣirī (d. 769/1368) (Delhi Arabic 1916, vol. 1, f. 1r)
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Arabic continued to be a language of fertile scientific discourse well beyond the time period and geographic range traditionally associated with the so-called ‘Golden Age of Islam’. In order to illustrate this, we have digitised Arabic scientific manuscripts preserving texts written from the 9th to the 18th centuries that showcase the scientific endeavours of Islamicate peoples from Islamic Spain, across North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Near East, Anatolia, Iran, Central Asia and India.

Title page of the Kitāb fī al-shaṭranj wa-manṣūbātihi wa-mulaḥih on which the seal of the Ottoman sultan Bāyezīd II (reg. 1481-1512) can be seen in the lower left corner (Add. MS 7515, f. 1r)
Title page of the Kitāb fī al-shaṭranj wa-manṣūbātihi wa-mulaḥih on which the seal of the Ottoman sultan Bāyezīd II (reg. 1481-1512) can be seen in the lower left corner (Add. MS 7515, f. 1r)
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You will find medical, astronomical and mathematical works produced in thirteenth-century Rasūlid Yemen (Or 3738, Or 9116, Delhi Arabic 1897); a commentary on Euclid’s Elements by al-Kūbanānī, court astronomer and mathematician to the Aq Qoyunlu sultan Abū al-Muẓaffar Ya‘qūb ibn Uzun Ḥasan (reg. 1478-90: Or 1514); Ottoman works such as, a medical text by Ibn Sallūm, personal physician to the Ottoman sultan Mehmet IV (reg. 1648-87), which responds to the ‘new (al)chemical medicine’ (al-ṭibb al-jadīd al-kīmāwī) of Paracelsus and his followers ( Or. 6905) and a book of astronomical tables for Cairo by the eighteenth-century astronomer Riḍwān Efendi al-Razzāz (Or 14273); and seventeen manuscripts from the British Library's Delhi collection , which cast light on the collection, copying and production of Arabic scientific literature in Mughal India.

Astrolabe quadrant produced in 1256/1840-1 and signed by its maker, Aḥmad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Sharbatlī (Or. 2411/2, Side A)
Astrolabe quadrant produced in 1256/1840-1 and signed by its maker, Aḥmad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Sharbatlī (Or. 2411/2, Side A)
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We have also expanded the boundaries of what we consider to be ‘scientific’ literature to include related subjects such as zoology, veterinary medicine and animal husbandry (Delhi Arabic 1949, Add MS 21102, Add MS 23417, Or 15639 and Or 8187) and two works on chess (Add MS 7515 and Or 9227). Hoping to go beyond what is expected from our digitisation project, we have even digitised a scientific instrument: a quadrant we discovered boxed with a earlier manuscript of a user’s manual for such a device (Or 2411/2 ).

Bio-bibliographical note in the rough draft of an Arabic translation of Gnomonices libri octo by Christophorus Clavius (d. 1537 or 38). The translation is by Rustam Beg al-Ḥārithī al-Badakhshī ibn Qubād Beg (d. 1705) and the note is by his son, Mīrzā Muḥammad – more on this in our earlier post East-West knowledge transfer in Mughal India (IO Islamic 1308, f.
Bio-bibliographical note in the rough draft of an Arabic translation of Gnomonices libri octo by Christophorus Clavius (d. 1537 or 38). The translation is by Rustam Beg al-Ḥārithī al-Badakhshī ibn Qubād Beg (d. 1705) and the note is by his son, Mīrzā Muḥammad – more on this in our earlier post East-West knowledge transfer in Mughal India (IO Islamic 1308, f. 1v)
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Colophon of a copy of Saʿīd ibn Hibat Allāh’s al-Mughnī fī tadbīr al-amrāḍ wa-maʿrifat al-ʿilal wa-al-aʿrāḍ produced at Baghdad 1172 (IO Islamic 3810, f. 105r)
Colophon of a copy of Saʿīd ibn Hibat Allāh’s al-Mughnī fī tadbīr al-amrāḍ wa-maʿrifat al-ʿilal wa-al-aʿrāḍ produced at Baghdad 1172 (IO Islamic 3810, f. 105r)
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We are currently finalising the scope of the third phase of the British Library and Qatar Foundation Partnership, which will include such highlights as early copies of the Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, a large and early manual of dream interpretation and the British Library’s second oldest Arabic scientific manuscript (click here to see the oldest). Keep your eye on the Qatar Digital Library to see the newest manuscripts as they are digitised and posted.

For a complete list of the 125 manuscripts together with hyperlinks to the images download Qatar-scientific-mss-phase-2

Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership
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24 June 2019

Naskhi-divani: a little-recognized sultanate script

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Today's guest blog is by Vivek Gupta, a historian of Islamic and South Asian art who is completing his PhD thesis “Wonder Reoriented: Manuscripts and Experience in Islamicate Societies of South Asia (ca. 1450–1600),” at SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology. Vivek is currently based at the British Library for a research placement on illumination in Persian Manuscripts.

The art of the book in sultanate India, particularly of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, is notable for its eclecticism. Because of the sultanates’ evolving political terrain, the search for a coherent narrative of manuscript patronage and production is a challenge. In comparison to painting, one relatively overlooked feature of sultanate books is calligraphy. Here, we examine a script found in sultanate manuscripts that scholars have started to call naskhī-dīvānī.

Qur’ān, Sūrat al-Falaq, India, ca. 1450-1500, 26.5 x 18.4 cm (BL Add. 5551, f. 189r)
Fig. 1. Qur’ān, Sūrat al-Falaq, India, ca. 1450-1500, 26.5 x 18.4 cm (BL Add. 5551, f. 189r). Public domain

Appearing in the late fourteenth century, two styles of writing seldom seen outside of India are bihārī and naskhī-dīvānī. Bihārī is characterized by thick horizontal strokes specifically in terminating letters and thin verticals; diacritical markers are horizontal, rather than at a slant. In the Indian Qur’an manuscript (ca. 1450-1500) shown in Fig. 1, bihārī is in black. Bihārī evidently associates the script with the northeastern Indian region of Bihar[1], but the name remains a mystery, especially as it appears far beyond Bihar in places such as Bengal and the Deccan; by early-modern times it also reached Ethiopia. The British Museum’s catalogue, published in 1879, describes the script in the example here as “large and angular Naskhi” and dates it to the fourteenth century[2]. The name for this script is also unresolved in the catalogue of Khuda Bakhsh Library, Patna. The first volume of 1918 describes the script of a bihārī Qur’an as thuluth-i kūfī. The third volume of 1965 calls the script baḥr, which means ‘sea,’ while the fourth volume of 1995 designates it as khaṭṭ-i bihār (bihārī calligraphy)[3].

Even less understood than bihārī is naskhī-dīvānī. Naskhī-dīvānī, as the name implies, is a combination of a standard naskh and a dīvānī script often used for chancellery documents. In her pioneering research coining naskhī-dīvānī as a calligraphic style, Éloïse Brac de la Perrière describes it as such:

The bar of the kāf often terminates with a small hook, as with the alif that features a lower tail curving left of its vertical line. Some letters like the kāf are almost angular, however the ḥā’ and khā’ in the initial position and the final ligature of the yā’ with letters preceding it have a rounded appearance with a loop; the dāl is large and open[4]

As seen here in red, naskhī-dīvānī is often used in interlinear Persian translations of Qur’ans in bihārī script. It often appears in marginal glosses of such Qur’ans as well. Since it is frequently diminutive or paratextual to the bihārī script, it has a special affinity with bihārī. In many cases, the scribes responsible for both the bihārī text and naskhī-dīvānī paratext would have been the same individual.

One manuscript copied in a naskh script closely resembling a naskhī-dīvānī is an anthology of Persian poetry (Or.4110) assembled during the reign of the Sharqi Sultan Mubarak Shah of Jaunpur (r. 1399-1402). The manuscript is datable to the beginning of the fifteenth century. In these diagrams for reading poetry the script possesses the angularity of the naskhī-dīvānī and distinctive terminating letters (fig. 2). In the spiraling diagrams shown on the right we see a thick black stroke akin to the bihārī script. The orange and red floral decoration and blue roundels also are typical of bihārī Qur’āns. The craftsmen responsible for this manuscript thus were certainly familiar with the calligraphy and decorative programme of a bihārī manuscript.

Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century
Fig. 2. Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century, folio: 37 x 26 cm (BL Or. 4110, ff. 153v-154r). Public domain

Beyond Arabic and Persian manuscripts, naskhī-dīvānī was also the leading script for the earliest Hindavi vernacular premākhyān, or story of love, the Chāndāyan (1379) of Mullāh Dā’ūd. This was a story told in a highly Sanskritized idiom that borrowed from Persian poetics. Although there has been no critical analysis of the paleography of the Chāndāyan manuscripts to date, it is clear that the script of the majority of these manuscripts is a naskhī-dīvānī adapted for the vernacular (fig. 3). Further, the layout of these texts borrows directly from Persian poetry collections (dīvāns). That these manuscripts were produced in a number of regions (Gujarat, Malwa, Delhi-Agra) over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries attests to the spread of this script. Here, it is worth questioning whether or not the scribes of these vernacular manuscripts were the scribes of bihārī Qur’ans. If this were the case, this offers evidence of a multilingual literate culture in which trained scribes could produce manuscripts in varying scripts.

The Breaking of Chāndā’s Pearl Necklace,” Chāndāyan of Maulānā Dā’ūd, Malwa, India, ca. 1520-40, folio: 24.4 x 14. cm (John Rylands Library Hindustani 1, ff. 132v-133r). Copyright University of Manchester The Breaking of Chāndā’s Pearl Necklace,” Chāndāyan of Maulānā Dā’ūd, Malwa, India, ca. 1520-40, folio: 24.4 x 14. cm (John Rylands Library Hindustani 1, ff. 132v-133r). Copyright University of Manchester
Fig. 3. “The Breaking of Chāndā’s Pearl Necklace,” Chāndāyan of Maulānā Dā’ūd, Malwa, India, ca. 1520-40, folio: 24.4 x 14. cm (John Rylands Library Hindustani 1, ff. 132v-133r). Copyright University of Manchester

In addition to manuscripts of deluxe quality, naskhī-dīvānī appears in unillustrated and unilluminated books from the sultanate world. For example, a copy of the Tarjumah-i kitāb-i Bārāhī, the fourteenth-century Persian translation of Varāhamihira’s sixth-century Sanskrit encyclopedia the Bṛhatsaṁhitā, is inscribed in naskhī-dīvānī (fig. 4)[5]. We know the manuscript passed through the Deccan sultanate of Golkonda because it bears a seal of Muhammad Qutb Shah (r.1612-26), so it must date from before the end of his reign.

Preface, Tarjumah-i kitāb-i Bārāhī of ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Shams-i Tahānisārī, 29.3 x 16.2 cm (BL IO Islamic 1262, f.1v)
Fig.4. Preface, Tarjumah-i kitāb-i Bārāhī of ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Shams-i Tahānisārī, 29.3 x 16.2 cm (BL IO Islamic 1262, f.1v). Public domain

With the substantial and intriguing evidence of naskhī-dīvānī in Qur’ans, Hindavi poetry, and secular works, this script was widespread in a number of languages and genres. This opens up possible lines of inquiry about the scribes’ level of literacy in these languages. For the moment such questions remain unanswered although while it is clear that there are very few cohesive threads in the manuscript culture of sultanate India, naskhī-dīvānī may well prove to be a primary one.

Further reading:
Brac de la Perrière, Éloïse. “Bihârî et naskhî-dîwânî: remarques sur deux calligraphies de l’Inde des sultanats.” In Ecriture, calligraphie et peinture, Studia Islamica, eds. A.L. Udovitch et H. Touati, Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2003, pp. 81-93.
— “Manuscripts in Bihari Calligraphy: Preliminary Remarks on a Little-Known Corpus.” Muqarnas 33 (2016): 63-90.
—, and Burési, Monique, eds. Le Coran de Gwalior: Polysémie d’un manuscrit à peintures. Paris: Éditions de Boccard, 2016.
Mirza, Sana. “The visual resonances of a Harari Qur’ān: An 18th century Ethiopian manuscript and its Indian connections.” Afriques 08 (2017): 1-25.
Siddiq, Mohammad Yusuf. “An Epigraphical Journey to an Eastern Land.” Muqarnas 7 (1990): 83-108.

With thanks to Emily Shovelton and Eleanor Sims

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology
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[1] Brac de la Perrière, “Manuscripts in Bihari Calligraphy,” p. 64.
[2] Rieu, Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the British Museum, vol. 1, p. 7.
[3] These catalogues were published from 1918-1995 and are collectively called Miftāḥ al-Kanūz al-Khafiyah.
[4] Brac de la Perrière, “Bihârî et naskhî-dîwânî,” 89. “La barre du kâf se termine souvent par un petit crochet, de même que l’alif est doté d’une queue inférieure placée à gauche du trait vertical de la lettre. Certaines lettres, comme le kâf sont presque anguleuses; a contrario, leâet le khâà l’intiale et la ligature du yâ final avec les lettres précédentes ont l’aspect arrondi d’une boucle; les dâl sont grands et ouverts.” I thank Hugo Partouche for checking my French translation.
[5] See Orthmann, "Tarjuma-yi kitāb-i Bārāhī (occult sciences),” for a description of this text.