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149 posts categorized "South Asia"

26 February 2020

William Jones, al-Mutanabbī and Emotional Encounters

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In 1774, William Jones (1746 – 1794), then 27, a graduate from Oxford University, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a barrister with the Middle Temple, received a copy of al-Mutanabbī's Dīwān (poetry collection) as a gift from a certain ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg.

1. William Jones by Arthur William Devis Foster 840
Portrait of Sir William Jones aged 47 by Arthur William Devis (1762-1822). Oil on canvas, ca. 1793 (Foster 840). Public Domain

ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Beg, it would appear (although it is not certain), lived in the town of Hama (Ḥamā) in modern-day Syria and then an important administrative and trade centre in the Ottoman Empire. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg sent this gift (now known as MS RSPA 107), having never met Jones, along with the following inscription:

يصل الكتاب إلى بندر أقفرد ويتشرف بلثم أنامل الألحن الممجد حضرة وليام جونس
يَا رِياحَ العَاشِقينَ أَوْصِلْ مُحِبّينا السَلَامَ *** شابَهو الرَيحان وَالأزْهارَ شَماً فيِ الجِناَنْ
إِنْ وَصَلْتُمْ يَا نسِيم الحُبّ مِنَا قُلْ لَهُم *** يَا عَمِيدَ العِلْمِ كْن عَن كُلّ كَرْيِب في الأمانْ
فِي الفَصَاحَة كَالحَرِير في السَّخاوة حاتمٌ *** كَان هَذَا وِلِيام جُونس انَكليزان في العيان
من عند العبد الفقير عبد الرحمن بيك

This book is to arrive at the port of Oxford and is honoured to kiss the fingertips of the most intelligent and glorious Sir William Jones:

O winds of the lovers, send greetings to our beloveds
They are akin to the sweet smell of flowers in a garden
If you arrive, o fragrant breeze of love, say to them,
“You pillar of learning, be free of all worries!”
Judicious in his generosity, he is like silk in his elegance,
This man is William Jones, the Englishman

From your humble servant, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg.

2. RSPA 107 marbled and note JPG
ʻAbd al-Raḥmān's dedication and Jones note underneath. Jones' translation is just visible, attached to the marbled endpaper (RSPA 107). Public Domain

Below this inscription, Jones has written:

I received this valuable manuscript by the hands of Mr. Howard to whose care it was entrusted in June 1774 at Venice, by Mr. W Montague. It was a present from Abderrahman Beg, who wrote the Arabick verses in this page, which are so flattering to me, that I can hardly translate them without blushing, 3 Oct. 1774, W. Jones.

Jones comment on receiving this book
Jones' note (RSPA 107, flyleaf). Public Domain

Yet, translate them he did – or at least, it would appear, given that the opposite side has been ripped out, but you can still make out the beginning of the word Oxford at the start of the page. Jones was clearly troubled by the verse. In two letters, also dated to 1774, Jones tells of his receipt of the gift and his consequent embarrassment. In a letter to the Mr. Howard who presented him with the manuscript, he wrote (Jones, pp. 229-30):

I have just received your most obliging letter, with a fine Arabic manuscript, containing the works of a celebrated poet with whom I have been long acquainted: this testimony of Mr Montague’s regard is extremely pleasing to me and I have a most grateful sense of his kindness. I am conscious how little I have deserved the many honours I have lately received from the learned in Europe and Asia: I can ascribe their politeness to nothing but their candour and benevolence. I fear they will think me still less deserving when they know that I have deserted, or rather suspended, all literary pursuits whatever and am wholly engaged in the study of a profession for which I was always intended. As the law is a jealous science, and will not have any partnership with the Eastern Muses, I must absolutely renounce their acquaintance for ten or twelve years to come. This manuscript, however, is highly acceptable to me, and shall be preserved among my choicest treasures, till I have leisure to give it an attentive perusal. There is a compliment to me written in Arabic verse, in the first leaf of the book, and signed Abdurrahman Beg: the verses are very fine, but so full of Oriental panegyric, that I could not read them without blushing. The present seems to come from the learned Arabian: but as he has not inserted my name in his verses, and speaks of Oxford, he must have heard me mentioned by Mr. Montague, to whom therefore I am equally indebted for the present.

At the same time in October 1774, Jones wrote a very long letter to Hendrik Albert Schultens, the Dutch linguist, in which he said (Jones, pp. 227-8):

Whilst I am writing this letter, a person called upon me with a manuscript, which he had received at Venice from Mr. Montague, a man of family. I immediately perceived it to be a most beautiful and correct copy of Motanabbi with a letter addressed to myself in Arabic verse, from some person named Abdurrahman, whom Mr. Montague had probably seen in Asia. I owe great obligations to the politeness of the learned Arab but I by no means think myself worthy of his exaggerated encomiums – but you know the pompous style of the Orientals.

In both letters, as well as the note he appended to the verse inscription in the manuscript itself, Jones emphasises his embarrassment at receiving these “exaggerated encomiums”; his response encapsulates a particular form of the colonial encounter, this being the interaction of two emotional regimes, expressed in two very different literary styles. Why did Jones feel so awkward about this poem?

Diwan al-Mutanabbi RSPA107
The opening pages of the Dīwān of al-Mutanabbī (RSPA 107, ff. 1v-2r). Public Domain

The poetry is a fairly standard example of Arabic panegyric (madīḥ ), a genre in which al-Mutannabī was one of the most exemplary poets of the entire tradition; his panegyrics for the tenth century Amir of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawlah established his reputation and was, according to Margaret Larkin, the pinnacle of his career. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg’s poetic homage to Jones is, in many ways, a pastiche of the conventional symbols of poetic panegyric which al-Mutanabbī used – to much greater poetic effect and success – in his panegyrics of Sayf al-Dawlah. The winds of lovers (riyāḥa 'l-ʿāshiqīna), the south-winds of love ( nasīma 'l-ḥubbi) and the sweet floral smell of the odoriferous plants and flowers in the garden which the object of poetry is akin to ( shābahū 'l-rayḥāna wa-l-azhāra shamman fī-l-jināni): these are all very conventional tropes of Arabic love lyric (nasīb), cliché almost. The clichés used by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg may be conventional, but they also reveal an emotional regime which is expressed through the intermingling of the language of love and the language of admiration and an emotional regime in which this literary expression is completely normal, conventional and expected. Our concern here is: how did Jones read such poetry?

Jones was certainly well versed in Arabic poetry and would have been very familiar with the linguistic register of the nasīb and the panegyric which are both on show here. Having already read al-Mutanabbī, he would surely have known the idiomatic nature of the verse in front of him and the hackneyed terms of praise chosen by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Beg. Why the embarrassment, then?

William Reddy has proposed the ‘emotional regime’ as a useful framework for studying emotion history, this being what he terms the normative set of emotions in any one culture and the linguistic, ritualistic and practical structures of that culture which produce and embed them. Here, we see the interaction and conflict of two such emotional regimes: the “exaggerated encomiums” and “pompous panegyric” of the poetry mixed with Jones’s blushing, embarrassment and ‘English reserve’. Jones’s reading sees the poetry as awkward, over-the-top flattery. This he ascribes to the “pompous style of the Orientals”, rather brushing it aside as a local custom, a linguistic cliché that is, to his mind, in the context of the men never having met, a faintly ridiculous example of such poetry, of which Jones feels “wholly unworthy”. Yet, in the colonial politics of the moment, it would be easy to forget that Jones was subject to his own emotional regime, one which does not valorise such overt intermingling of personal feeling with professional compliment, hence Jones’s feeling ‘unworthy’ of such compliments and emphasising in each of the letters his detachment from the subject of praise (his knowledge of Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit literature) and instead his professional attachment to a new field: the law.

However, Jones did not just read the poem. Rather, he struggles to accept the compliments and to see the poetry as anything other than “pompous” because he translates them into his own idiom and sees them from within his own emotional regime, and it is at the English expression of emotions, which has become decontextualised from its linguistic formality, that he blushes. Translation can be a tricky business, displacing a constellation of poetic tropes and images from its historical and literary context and embedding them within a new language’s and a new emotional regime’s constraints of style. Whilst in Arabic the poem is a fairly conventional intermingling of nasīb and madīḥ linguistic registers and images, the English translation stands out as unusual within the broader English poetic tradition and imaginary, exemplifying the discord felt by the inter-linguistic politics of emotional translation, the difficulty of expressing oneself comfortably across languages and emotional regimes which have their own register of emotional expression. In his translation, Jones has transformed the poem: out of a standardised and conventional set of images spread over three short lines of poetry, Jones has created this awkward feeling for himself in his attempt to read the Arabic into English, in his use of Arabic emotional expressions outside of their context.

This single interaction speaks to the difficulty we face in traversing emotional regimes, in translating styles and ways of speaking which are so at home in their own context into a new and unfamiliar emotional background.

Further Reading
Bray, Julia, “Yaʿqūb b. al-Rabīʿ Read by al-Mutanabbī and al-Mubarrad: A Contribution to an Abbasid History of Emotions”, Journal of Abbasid Studies 4:1 (2017).
Jacobi, Renate “Qaṣīda (pl. Qaṣāʾid)” in Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey (eds.) Encyclopaedia of Arabic Literature, 2:630-33.
Jones, Sir William (ed. John Shore and S.C. Wilks), Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Correspondence of Sir William Jones, by Lord Teignmouth. With the Life of Lord Teignmouth, and Notes, by S.C. Wilks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1835).
Larkin, Margaret Al-Mutanabbi: Voice of the ʿAbbasid Poetic Ideal (Oxford: Oneworld, 2008).
Meisami, Julie Scott, Structure and Meaning in Medieval Arabic and Persian Lyric Poetry: Orient Pearls (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).
al-Mutanabbī, Abū al-Ṭayyib (tr. A. J. Arberry), Poems of al-Mutanabbī: a Selection with Introduction, Translation and Notes (London: Cambridge University Press, 1967).
Plamper, Jan et al, “The History of Emotions: an Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns" in History and Theory 49, no. 2 (2010): 237-65.
Reddy, William, The Making of Romantic: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia and Japan 900-1200 CE (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012).
–––––, The Navigation of Feeling: a Framework for the History of Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Sadan, Joseph, “Maiden’s Hair and Starry Skies – Image Systems and Maʿānī Guides” in Sasson Somekh (ed.), Studies in Medieval Arabic and Hebrew Poetics (Leiden: Brill, 1991).


Jonathan Lawrence, D Phil candidate at the University of Oxford, doctoral placement at British Library
© CCBY

14 February 2020

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

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

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

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

Figure 1 and 2
Figures 1 and 2

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

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

Figure 3 and 4
Figures 3 and 4

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

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

Figure 5 and 6
Figures 5 and 6

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

Figure 7 and 8
Figures 7 and 8

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

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

Figure 9 and 10
Figures 9 and 10

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

Figure 11
Figure 11

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

Figure 12
Figure 12

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

Figure 13 and 14
Figures 13 and 14

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

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

Perhaps there is a theological aspect to philately after all?

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

Richard Scott Morel, Curator, Philatelic Collections

07 February 2020

Moloch gibbons and sloth bears: the work of the Bengali artist Haludar

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The British Library has loaned twenty paintings and manuscripts to the Wallace Collection in London, for the ‘Forgotten Masters' exhibition, running through April 2020. Included are a selection of four works by the relatively unknown artist Haludar, whose natural history drawings are on display for the very first time. When the exhibition curator William Darymple started scoping paintings to be included in the exhibition, I brought to his attention the natural history drawings in the collection commissioned by the Scottish surgeon Dr. Francis Buchanan-Hamilton (1762–1829, hereafter referred to as Buchanan) at the turn of the 19th century. When I showed him the delicate paintings of a moloch gibbon, asloth bear, a long-tailed macaqu and the gerbils painted by the artist Haludar, Dalrymple was intrigued and we started considering the conservation aspects in displaying these works for the first time.

Illustration of a moloch gibbon in three ways
Moloch gibbon drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar, c. 1799-1806. British Library, NHD 3/499 Noc

Sloth bear NHD 3/489
Sloth bear drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar, c. 1799-1806. British Library, NHD 3/491 Noc

In researching the Buchanan collection at the British Library, which consists of several hundred natural history alongside countless volumes of his notes, I met with Dr Ralf Britz an ichthyologist (or fish scientist) at the Natural History Museum, who was working on Buchanan's volume on Fishes of the Ganges held in the British Library. When I mentioned my plans to work on the drawings of mammals in the Library's collection and researching the artist Haludar, he immediately sent me a scientific article by the French zoologist Henri de Blainville. In 1816, de Blainville  (1777–1850) wrote in the Bulletin des sciences, par la Société philomathique de Paris, that a new species of Cervus niger could be identified ‘after a very beautiful coloured drawing that was completed on site by Haludar, an Indian painter’. After reading this article I started to look at other early 19th century periodicals to see if any other zoologists were looking at de Blainville's work or by chance also mentioned Haludar.

NHD 3 (501) copy
Indian sambar deer, Cervus Niger, drawn for Francis Buchanan by Haludar, c. 1799-1806, Barrackpore. British Library, NHD 3/501 Noc

I discovered that in 1819,  the German naturalist Lorenz Oken’s periodical Isis also made reference to C. niger, stating it was ‘painted on the spot by the master painter Haludar’. Both references to Cervus niger, which is an Indian Sambar deer, provided only brief descriptions of the species, and omitted to give details regarding the source of the scientific information as well as the location of the artwork by Haludar. However, in cross-referencing C. niger with Haludar, we are directed to a single drawing in the British Library’s collection that was commissioned by Francis Buchanan inscribed with the artist’s name, that had been deposited at the Company’s library on Leadenhall Street, London in 1808. This painting of Cervus niger is one of 28 natural history drawings now held in the British Library that are inscribed Haludar Pinxt and that were prepared between 1795 and 1818, when Buchanan was working as a surgeon for the East India Company and actively documenting botanical and zoological specimens during his travels across the subcontinent.

Mildred Archer, art historian and author of Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, suggested that Haludar most likely was one of the artists retained by William Roxburgh, the superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Gardens. Roxburgh and Buchanan were in regular correspondence; Archer suggests that Roxburgh referred Haludar to Buchanan. Haludar was first employed by Buchanan from 1795-97, in Lakshmipur (in southeast Bangladesh), where the Scottish surgeon worked for the Company's factory until 1798 and spent his time studying the freshwater fishes in the Ganges River. During this time, we know that he 'hired a young Bengali artist to drawing various species he encountered'. According to Ralf Britz, Haludar was responsible for illustrating the freshwater specimens. While Buchanan-Hamilton examined and prepared written descriptions for each species, Haludar accurately depicted each fish with meticulous precision. He used pen-and-ink for the outlines, with pulversized silver to colour in the specimens (see BL IOR Mss Eur E72).

Following Buchanan’s posting at Lakshmipur, it is unclear whether Haludar accompanied Buchanan over the next few years when Buchanan was in Chittagong, Mysore and Nepal conducting surveys or sent on official visits on behalf of the Company from 1798-1803. Haludar may have returned to Calcutta in 1799 when Buchanan was temporarily placed in charge of the Botanic Gardens as Roxburgh was recovering in the Cape of Good Hope from ill health.

On returning from Nepal in 1803, Wellesley appointed Buchanan as his surgeon at Barrackpore, which had been converted as the residence for the Governor-General in 1801. On the grounds, Wellesley established the Barrackpore Menagerie which Buchanan would run as superintendent from 1803-05. Specimens from across the subcontinent were collected and brought to the menagerie. Based on archival evidence in the British Library, we know that Haludar was one of several artists to illustrate birds and mammals at Barrackpore. This information is documented in the series of illustrations that were sent in two batches from Barrackpore to London, first in 1807 and the second in 1818. A document titled ‘List of Drawings of E. Indian Quadrapeds and Birds made under the inspection severally of Mr Gibbon and of Dr Fleming and Buchanan – and deposited in the Library of the Honourable East India Company [Received on 24 August 1808]’,listed twenty-six mammals and twenty-eight birds. Of these works, Haludar was the artist of twenty-six drawings. In the second batch of a further 108 drawings sent under the authority of acting superintendent Nathanial Wallich in 1818, two additional works inscribed with Haludar’s name was sent to London. Among the wider collection of natural history drawings from Barrackpore in these two phases, the work of Haludar’s contemporaries Guru Dayal of Chittagong, Mahangu Lal and Bishnu Prasad are included.

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts Ccownwork

Further reading:

Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, H.M.S.O., 1962.

Ralf Britz (ed.) Hamilton’s Gangetic Fishes in Colour: A new edition of the 1822 monograph, with reproductions of unpublished coloured and illustrations, London: Natural History Museum and Ray Society, 2019

Malini Roy, 'The Bengali Artist Haludar', in W. Dalrymple, Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company, Wallace Collection, 2019.

Mark F. Watson and Henry J. Noltie, ‘Career, collections, reports and publications of Dr Francis Buchanan (later Hamilton) 1762-1829: natural history studies in Nepal, Burma (Myanmar), Bangladesh and India. Part 1,’ in Annals of Science, 2016.

Mark F. Watson and Henry J. Noltie. (2019). The Buchanan-Hamilton collection of botanical drawings at the Linnean Society of London. Marg 70(2): 81–84.

 

23 January 2020

Digital Zoroastrian at the British Library

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The British Library is fortunate in having an unparalled collection of over 100 Zoroastrian works ranging from the oldest, the ninth century Ashem Vohu prayer written in Sogdian script discovered by Aurel Stein in Central Asia in 1907, to, most recently, manuscripts collected especially for the Royal Society in London during the late-nineteenth century. Although Zoroastrianism is Iranian in origin, most of our manuscripts in fact come from India. They are written in Avestan (Old Iranian), Middle Persian, New Persian, and also in the Indian languages Sanskrit and Gujarati.

In the past few years several of our manuscripts have become familiar through exhibitions such as Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination held at SOAS (2013) and New Delhi (2016) and also through the Zoroastrian articles and collection items included in our recent website Discovering Sacred Texts. Building on this and thanks to the philanthropic support of Mrs Purviz Rusy Shroff, we have now been able to complete digitisation of the whole collection. This introductory post outlines the history of the collection and is intended as the first in a series highlighting the collection as the manuscripts go live during the next few months.

1 Zoroastrian prayer in Sogdian-Or MS 8212 84
One of the holiest Zoroastrian prayers, the Ashem vohu, discovered at Dunhuang by Aurel Stein in 1907. Transcribed into Sogdian (a medieval Iranian language) script, this fragment dates from around the ninth century AD, about four centuries earlier than any other surviving Zoroastrian text (BL Or.8212/84). Public domain

The collection is made up of three main collections described below, dating from the seventeenth, the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, in addition to individual items acquired by British travellers to India and employees of the East India Company. I’ll be writing more about these individual collections in future posts.


Thomas Hyde (1636–1703)

Our oldest collection, and the earliest to reach the West, was acquired for the seventeenth century polymath Thomas Hyde. Hyde became Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford in 1691 and Regius Professor of Hebrew in 1697 and also served as Royal Secretary and Translator of Oriental Languages for three successive monarchs: Charles II, James II and William III. While he had never travelled in the East himself, he built up a network of travellers and East India Company officials whom he asked to purchase books and manuscripts on his behalf. Several of these were chaplains whom Hyde had personally recommended to the Levant and the East India trading companies. After his death in 1703 part of his collection was purchased by Queen Anne for the Royal Library. It was subsequently given to the British Museum by King George III in 1757. 


2 Hydes Khordah Avesta-royal_ms_16_b_vi_f001r
A copy of the Khordah Avesta (‘Little Avesta’) which contains prayers, hymns and invocations. This manuscript begins with the Ashem vohu (featured also in Sogdian script above) and is dated 30 Ardibihisht 1042 in the era of Yazdagird (1673). It was copied at the request of the English Agent Kunvarji Nanabhai Modi probably on commission for Hyde. Hyde could read though never wholly understood Avestan, but he used this particular manuscript as a model for the special Avestan type he created for his well-known History of the Persian Religion published in 1700 (BL Royal Ms 16.B.vi, f. 1r). Public domain


Samuel Guise (1751-1811)

Samuel Guise began his career as a Surgeon on the Bombay Establishment of the East-India Company in 1775 and from 1788 until the end of 1795, he was Head Surgeon at the East-India Company’s Factory in Surat where his work brought him into close contact with the Parsi community. An avid collector, he acquired altogether more than 400 manuscripts while in India. At some point he was fortunate enough to be able to purchase from his widow, the collection of the famous Dastur Darab who had taught the first translator of the Avesta, Anquetil du Perron, between 1758 and 1760 (Guise, Catalogue, 1800, pp. 3-4):

This Collection was made at Surat, from the year 1788 till the End of 1795, with great Trouble and Expence. ... Of this Collection, however rich in Arabick and Persian works of Merit, the chief Value consists in the numerous Zend and Pehlavi MSS treating of the antient Religion and History of the Parsees, or Disciples of the celebrated Zoroaster, many of which were purchased, at a very considerable Expence, from the Widow of Darab, who had been, in the Study of those Languages, the Preceptor of M. Anquetil du Perron; and some of the Manuscripts are such as this inquisitive Frenchman found it impossible to procure

In 1796 he retired to Montrose, Angus, where he lived until his death in 1811. The story of his collection and what subsequently happened to it is told in my article “The strange story of Samuel Guise: an 18th-century collection of Zorostrian manuscripts,” but eventually in 1812, 26 Zoroastrian manuscripts were acquired at auction by the East India Company Library. They include one of the oldest surviving Avestan manuscripts, the Pahlavi Videvdad (‘Law to drive away the demons’), a legal work concerned with ritual and purity which was copied in 1323 AD (Mss Avestan 4). Other important manuscripts are a copy of the liturgical text, the Videvdad sādah (Mss Avestan 1), attributed to the fifteenth century, and one of the oldest copies of the Yasna sādah – the simple text of the Yasna ritual without any commentary– (Mss Avestan 17).

3 Yasna sadah-mss_avestan_17_f128r copy
Verses 6-7
 of Yasna 43 on the creation of the universe. The red floral decorations are verse dividers and are a feature of this manuscript. This copy was completed in India in 1556 (BL Mss Avestan 17, f. 128r). Public domain


Burjorji Sorabji Ashburner

Burjorji Ashburner was a successful Bombay merchant, a Freemason, and a member of the Bombay Asiatic Society. He was also a member of the Committee of Management for one of the most important Zoroastrian libraries in Bombay, the Mulla Firuz Library and made a special point of having copies made of some of the rarer items. In April 1864 Burjurji wrote offering some 70 to 80 volumes as a gift to the Royal Society, London, promising to add additional ones:

In the course of antiquarian researches...with special reference to the Parsee religion, I have had the good fortune to obtain some valuable ancient manuscripts in Zend, Pehlui, and Persian. I do not wish to keep to myself what may be useful in the literary world. [1]

His collection consisted of standard Arabic and Persian works in addition to nineteen specifically Zoroastrian manuscripts in Persian, Avestan and Pahlavi. A number of Bujorji’s manuscripts came originally from Iran. The oldest is an illustrated copy of the Videvdad sādah (RSPA 230) which was copied in Yazd, Iran, in 1647. Whereas Zoroastrian manuscripts are generally unillustrated except for small devices such as verse dividers and occasional diagrams, this one, exceptionally, contains seven coloured drawings of trees, used as chapter headings not unlike Islamic manuscripts of the same period.

4 An illustrated Videvdad Sadah-RSPA230_64R
The beginning of chapter 19 of the Videvdad sadah in which Zoroaster repels an attempt on his life by the demon Buiti, sent by the evil spirit Angra Mainyu. Note the elongated calligraphic script which is typical of the older manuscripts from Iran (BL RSPA 230, f. 227r). Public domain

Several of Bujorji’s manuscripts were copied or written by Siyavakhsh Urmazdyar an Iranian poet and writer living in Bombay in the mid-nineteenth century. His poetical name was Azari, but he was otherwise known as Sarfahkar Kirmani or Irani. These include works in Persian on the calendar (the subject of a major controversy at the time), a dictionary, treatises on divination and the interaction between Zoroastrians and Muslims, in addition to copies of Avestan texts.


Other sources

The remaining manuscripts were acquired in India, mostly by East India Company servants Jonathan Duncan Governor of Bombay (1756–1811), Sir John Malcolm (1769–1833), and the Scottish linguist and poet John Leyden (1775-1811). They range from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

5 Qissah Sanjan-io_islamic_2572_f001v copy
The beginning of the Qissah-i Sanjan, the traditional story in Persian verse of the settlement of the Parsis in India composed by Bahman ibn Kayqubād at Nausari in AD 1600. This copy is undated but was written, most probably for John Leyden, on paper watermarked 1799 (BL IO Islamic 2572, f. 1v). Public domain

Further reading

Samuel Guise, A Catalogue and Detailed Account of a Very Valuable and Curious Collection of Manuscripts, Collected in Hindostan. London, 1800.
Almut Hintze, An introduction to Zoroastrianism, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
Jenny Rose, Zoroastrianism from the early modern period, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
Ursula Sims-Williams, Zoroastrianism in late antiquity, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
----------------, “The strange story of Samuel Guise: an 18th-century collection of Zorostrian manuscripts,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 19, 2005 (2009), pp. 199-209.
----------------, “Zoroastrian Manuscripts in the British Library, London,” in The Transmission of the Avesta, ed. A. Cantera. Wiesbaden, 2012, pp. 173-94.


We are grateful to Mrs Purviz Rusy Shroff, Mr Neville Shroff and Mr Zarir Cama for their generous support towards this project.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian, British Library
© CCBY



[1] Royal Society Archives MC.7.53: Ashburner to the Foreign Secretary, 13 April 1864

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.

F.19v
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.

Hancheng-city-brown-glazed-jar-three-fish-yuan
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).

Buddha27sFootprint    Footprint harry smith
(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.

Three Fish
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.

BostonMFA-Krishna
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).

MSS Jav 50  f.6v
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.

02 water vessel Or.14915
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. Sharafnāmah 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 Sharafnāmah (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)
Noc

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
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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.